It’s About Money

It is 2015. I’m 35 years old. I have a college education. I don’t have children. I don’t have student loan debt. I am employed. I have a partner who is employed and we share in the household income. We rent an apartment. We have one car. We do not go out a lot. We do not have credit card payments. With the exception of shoes, a few items of clothing, a few gifts for friends and family, and food, we have not bought anything new in over two years. We struggle with money every single day.

My entire generation is struggling with money. All of us struggle with money. We are struggling in significant and incredible ways. If my generation is being honest, we will probably struggle with money for the rest of our lives. And, if I’m being honest, everyone I know is struggling with money, regardless of generation.

house2015

In 2005, back when I was married to a different person, I bought a house with my husband. We were both college graduates from parents of college graduates. We both earned reasonable and steady incomes. Our mortgage payment was about 30% of our income. It was something that we could reasonably afford. We did what every other person our age had done at the time. We got a mortgage that was an 80-20 split. 80% of our mortgage was a part of one loan with one set of terms and 20% of our mortgage qualified as our down payment and came with a completely different set of terms, something shady and delectable to the financial industry. By 2007, our mortgage payments ballooned to over 60% of our income, partly because the payments went up, and partly because our income went down. By 2008, our home had been foreclosed on. It was quick and dirty. For reasons mostly unrelated, my husband and I divorced the same year.

By 2010, I was renting an apartment and beginning a new relationship with the person I now know is the person that I will spend my life with. When we met, I was working at the same job that I worked at in 2005, when I had bought my house. By 2010, my income hadn’t changed much from the day I had started with the agency. It had gone up in 2008 but then there were lay-offs and cut backs and my income had fallen back down to its 2005 level. It was still reasonable but healthcare costs had gone up significantly, along with insurance costs, and food costs, and utilities. I was struggling to make ends meet when they told us that our agency would be cut by about 50% and that there would be significant layoffs.

My partner and I decided to move closer to her work. The commute was significant and gas prices were still at record-breaking levels. I would take the layoff and receive unemployment benefits while I looked for a job in our new location. We moved 50 miles to the north and tried to make a new life.

My unemployment benefits ran out in 2012, a full two years before I found a job.

 

There were two years between my unemployment benefits running out and finding a job and those two years were the worst two years of my life.

It’s hard to admit defeat.

It’s hard for middle class people to address poverty because we think that we are too good for poverty. I thought that I was too good for poverty.

My partner and I lived below the poverty level for two years and we pretended to everyone that all was well. We never let on. We didn’t tell our friends and family. We didn’t tell anyone that we had to go to the food bank to pick up food. We didn’t tell anyone that I had to work for our landlord in order make rent. We didn’t tell anyone that the garden in our back yard was actually a significant food source. We didn’t use our heater for an entire winter because we couldn’t afford the bill for propane. These just aren’t the things you want to share.

We are better off these days. But not by much. We pay our bills most of the time. Sometimes we can even put a few dollars into savings.

 

A friend of mine went into her bank today. She is 40-something and one of the most interesting and brilliant people I know. She is a writer and someone I constantly admire. She is paid to write articles that I wish I could write. When I think about my life in five years, I think of her.

She has been struggling with money. Today, she told her friends, “The teller at the bank could tell that I am a lady who lives by my wits and she was not amused.” A friend asked, “Did you cross the funny/outgoing–rude/crazy line?” My friend replied, “No. I was just being poor in public.”

 

My car died today. It’s a good car but it is ten years old and has been acting up. Today, after finishing a cup of tea and getting ready for work, I went to start my car. The engine wouldn’t turn over. The engine made a rraerrr-irrrr sound and then nothing. I tried to have my neighbor jump start my car but it didn’t help. Ultimately, I had to have the car towed from my driveway to the mechanic.

I don’t have the money to fix the car. Well, more accurately, I have the money to fix the car but it was money that my partner and I had been saving to go on a long-awaited camping trip this weekend, a trip that we booked in May and is likely no longer a possibility. I also don’t have money for a new car. I don’t have money saved for a down payment and my partner and I do not have the credit scores to buy a car and make payments at a reasonable rate. The car is our single, shared family vehicle.

My partner and I have been squirrelling away money these past few months because the non-profit organization that I work for is about to lose a significant grant that helps to fund the organization. I know that my salary will have to be cut in order to maintain the financial health of the organization. I love non-profit work and I know the drill. I have been trying to prepare in the interim.

My partner and I have been trying to save at least three months of expenses so that we can have time to prepare for the next step. We know what it’s like to have no money and it sucks. We are hoping to avoid that.

 

I am sick and tired of being poor. Everyone I know is sick and tired of being poor.

According to articles published by The Atlantic and Business Insider, “Millions of America’s young people are really struggling financially. Around 30 percent are living with their parents, and many others are coping with stagnant wages, underemployment, and sky-high rent.” This article addresses the struggles that people of my generation face but it fails to make note of how many financial sacrifices the parents of my generation have had to make in order to accommodate the failed promises of American Society that their children were afforded. Our economic instability is not simply affecting our recent college graduates. Our failed economic structure is equally effecting the parents and grandparents who are trying to help generations X, Y, and beyond.

 

According to every American myth I know, according to the dogma laid out by the American dream, me, and people like me, should be financially well-off. I went to college before getting married. I got married before buying a house. I bought a house before considering children. I did all the right things.

But all of that dissolved in the financial crisis of 2008, a financial crisis that was orchestrated and intentional with no apologies and no criminal indictments from America’s financial or legal community. I didn’t have children and I lost the house. I lost the house and I lost the marriage. My college degree can’t get me a job.

Isn’t it time to just say it? Can’t we just say it? Shouldn’t we just be honest with each other?

I’ll say it.

The American Dream is dead. The American Middle Class is nothing but a fallacy. We no longer have an American Middle Class.

 

The American Dream is dead but not in the way that people who engage in politics would like to use the phrase. It’s not about State’s Rights, or Gun Rights, or Libertarianism. It’s not about taxes or representation. The American Dream is dead because the American middle class no longer exists.

The American middle class can’t make their mortgage payments. The American middle class can’t put their kids through college without borrowing large sums of money from financial institutions. The American middle class cannot provide for their families without going through the door of American finance. The American middle class has been captured by the finance industry and it is suffering in unprecedented ways.

The entire world is suffering from American finance.

At least the people in countries like Greece and Iceland know what happened to them. They know that they have been screwed. They know that they were completely and totally fucked by the worldwide financial industry. The people of United States of America still have no idea.

The people of America are suffering. I am suffering. It’s about money. It’s money. The people of America are suffering because there is an incredible difference between the people that have money and the people who are struggling to make ends meet.

I have credentials. I should be able to get a job that pays well. I should be able to own a home. I should have reasonable health insurance costs.

I have a degree from UC Davis.

I have no money. I have a car that needs repair. I have a job that can’t pay me. I’m the American Middle class.

It’s about money.

Why You Should Care About California’s Drought, Even If You Don’t Live In California

No one can overstate the incredible seriousness of California’s drought. There have been signs dotting the I-5 freeway, a freeway that traverses the central corridor of California, for a few years now blaming congress for California’s “dust bowl.”

The California drought is incredibly serious. California’s dust bowl isn’t the result of decisions made by congress but it is an issue that warrants political and community discussion. Water is scarce in California and it should make more than a few ears perk up.

dustbowl

The Central Valley, which has the reputation of being California’s most “fertile” farmland is actually a desert that has been irrigated by delta water and aqueducts in order to force food to grow. It is a terribly inefficient use of water. For more than a century, we have cultivated the hottest and dryest part of California in order to feed California and the rest of the United States. For many, many years, this technique has been working.

This year may very well mark the year that growing food in the desert of the Central Valley is no longer an option. California is running out of water. And soon, the United States may be running out of food.

According to California’s government agriculture website, “California’s agricultural abundance includes more than 400 commodities. The state produces nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Across the nation, US consumers regularly purchase several crops produced solely in California.” In other words, one out of two of every fresh fruit, nut, or vegetable that you put into your mouth came from California. Much of your favorite produce, like an artichoke or a basket of grapes, are grown primarily or solely in California. They’re delicious and they may soon be gone. If we can’t grow it, you can’t eat it.

As a resident Californian, I’m doing my part. If it’s yellow, I let it mellow. My household and I have cut our water usage by at least 40% this year and we were not big water users to begin with.  I was impressed to see that almost every Californian has let their lawn go brown. But, for many urban and suburban people, the loss of their lawn has also meant the loss of household gardens and the death of urban fruit trees.  Water is in short supply and California’s abundant food supply is shrinking in unthinkable ways.

Lake Oroville  (credit: California Department of Water Resources)

Lake Oroville (credit: California Department of Water Resources)

Unfortunately, for food production in the US, it’s not enough for Californians to simply stop flushing their toilets for number one. It’s not enough to stop watering lawns or take shorter showers. Nearly 80% of water usage in California goes towards growing food. Nearly 80% of water usage in California is agricultural. The dispersement of water usage in California needs a creative makeover.

But water conservation also needs the help of the people. We need the rest of the United States to get involved. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Stop buying bottled water, especially from Nestle. Bottled water comes from clean, natural resources, usually at the expense of the taxpayer and almost always at the expense of the greater good. Nestle has a water packaging plant on the Sacramento Delta River, one of the most important watering holes for California Agriculture. There have been protests staged at Nestle water plants but there are no signs of them discontinuing their water grab. If consumers stopped buying Nestle water, it could help.
  1. Advocate for farmers and big-ag to use more water-efficient mechanisms when watering crops. Be a champion for farmers and help them to use new technology. Help farmers access new technology by advocating for tax breaks and grants when farmers switch to water-saving mechanisms.
  1. Support small farmers and eat local. Eat what your local farmers grow. Avocados are amazing. I won’t lie to you. Avocados are one of California’s greatest and most delightful exports. But they are usually grown in large, industrial settings, like almonds and many other crops. And they aren’t grown in most of the rest of the United States. Small farms and farmers use less water than industrial farms and large-scale farmers. Many small farmers use their own wells and water and have technology in place to conserve. Talk to the farmers in your neighborhood and eat what they grow.

The California Drought is something that every American should be worried about and it is something that every American can do something about.  Please help us.

Taking Stock of What Matters

We have a shed in our backyard.  Over the years I have tried really hard to downsize and get rid of the stuff that isn’t useful or helpful.  My partner and I have gotten rid of a lot of unnecessary clutter and we have downsized quite a bit.  My partner is far better at getting rid of things than I am.  I’m very sentimental.

I have boxes and boxes of pictures, letters, scrapbooks, and memorabilia.  My mother kept nearly every drawing I had ever made for her from the time that I could hold a crayon.  When she retired and moved, she dropped off all of her boxes at my house, as if I didn’t have boxes of my own.  Recently, I have tried to narrow down the boxes.

In early 2014, I went through every single box in the shed.  I organized the memorabilia. I put stuff in specific boxes.  I didn’t get rid of much. I have tried to make sense of the boxes.  I have a hard time throwing away anything sentimental. But I moved stuff and organized it.

Our shed is full of stuff. We have canning supplies and tools.  We have large dishes for family gatherings.  We have camping gear and seasonal items like space heaters and sleds for the winter and pool-noodles and house fans for the summer.  We have boxes of seasonal decorations. I like to decorate the house for the holidays.  It’s a lot of stuff.

On New Year’s Day of this year, I threw all of the holiday decorations back into boxes and threw the boxes into the shed.  Since then, I have had a post-it note on the fridge that reads, “Clean out shed!!!”  If I have needed anything from the shed in the past seven months, I have crawled over boxes and miscellany, moving things around and shuffling boxes to the back, only having consideration for things I needed at the time.  It has gotten worse and worse.

11781739_10155833508500313_7084548635158634910_n

Yesterday afternoon, a fire broke out in Nevada County about ten miles from our house in geodesic distance, or, “as the crow flies.”  We were about thirty minutes from home when we saw the smoke in the distance.  It was big.  I could tell it was bad and I could tell that it was close enough that we should worry, if not for ourselves, then for our friends.

The fire is being called the Lowell Fire and it is serious.  It’s in a canyon and it is hard to contain.  Fire lines are being held for the most part but some fire lines have been broken and firefighters have gotten hurt.  California is dry and there are winds preventing the fire from being contained.  It is serious.

Many of our friends have been evacuated and some are still on alert and ready to evacuate.  According to the CalFire website, the fire is only 5% contained.  We are not in the clear and things are very, very scary for a lot of people right now.

My friend Michelle had to evacuate with her husband and family and is staying with friends.  Her house is very much in harm’s way.  She posted, “Imagine that you have 2 hours to boil down 21 years. What do you value? High school yearbooks? Nope -well not mine, but certainly my kids kindergarten art and pictures pre-dating grey hair. But the lovely leather couch and the cherrywood table and all the other crap I collect did not mean a thing to me. I left it easily. I have what is important. My boys and my hairy annoying dogs!!”

Let me be clear:  I am not saying that losing a home isn’t devastating.  Losing a home and belongings to a fire is a million shades of devastating and something unimaginably horrific.  Many of the people in my community are facing tragedy right now.  It is undeniably scary.

So many people in our community are facing devastation and so many people in our community have stepped up.  There are evacuation efforts.  Local Veterinary Clinics have offered boarding. Local horse clubs and livestock owners have offered to haul and home goats, sheep, horses, and cows in order to get them to safety.  Many people have offered guest bedrooms.  Many local businesses have offered services.  We are all trying to do our part.

 

I cleaned out the shed today.  After worrying about friends and the Lowell Fire, we got more bad news.  Just after 11am today, a grass fire broke out three miles south of us.  Based on the wind direction, we were suddenly in the middle of two fires.  The fire south of us was extinguished and mopped up quickly but it put a lot of things in perspective.

For all the prepping and preparedness that I would like to think that I’m a part of, I wasn’t prepared for a real evacuation. Truthfully, no one is really prepared for an evacuation.

I spent most of my morning going through my shed and prioritizing boxes.

 

Today, my wife and I picked out the things from our house and shed that we would save if we had to save them.  Our list was fairly short. Our list was made in order of importance. I put it under a magnet on the fridge.

It read:

Pets, 3 cats (cat carriers, pack cat food, see about litter and boxes later.)

Important papers (IDs, passports, bank stuff, birth certificates etc.)

Family pictures (9 boxes labeled in the shed)

Computers (for pictures and writing)

Clothes (what we can carry)

Books (Signed copies and what we can’t replace)

Memorabilia (wedding and vintage)

Camping gear (just in case this might be long term)

 

That was it.  Nothing else.  Nothing else mattered.

And it has made me think a lot about my life.

I have taken stock.

Terrorism, Racism, and the Bullshit We Tell Ourselves

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”        -Desmond Tutu

In March of 2003 I remember staring at my television in disbelief. I kept flipping through the major news channels in hopes that something would change. One of the major news stations had a countdown clock ticking off the seconds of George W. Bush’s ultimatum to Saddam Hussein; Saddam and his sons were to leave their country by a certain time or the United States would invade Iraq. 57, 56, 55, 54… The clock counted down.

When the clock got to zero I turned white and collapsed to the floor. I felt frantic. I laid on the wooden floor of my Sacramento apartment and sobbed. I cried like a child who couldn’t find her blanket. I wailed and gulped between gasps for breath. Looking back, it seems a reasonable reaction. We were at war.

The protests lasted for months. The coverage of the protests lasted for a few days. I still have the sign that I carried as a testament to the anti-war effort.

In the months that followed, our country pretended that we weren’t at war. Less than two months after the countdown, on May 1st, 2003, George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, and declared “Mission Accomplished.” It was an incredible lie and a ridiculous sham. There are still American soldiers in Iraq today, more than a decade later.

confederate flag

“There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true.”      -Soren Kierkegaard

We tell ourselves a lot of stories. We are great at telling stories. America is famous for its stories. We invented the Hollywood picture, the Animated Feature, and the Broadway Musical. Our stories may be what make us quintessentially American.

Many of our stories make us great. In many ways, stories can make us feel human. They bind us with universal narratives and colorful language. Stories can give us give us comfort in our skin and validation to our souls.

But stories can also painfully mislead us.

For too long in this country we have made our stories a reality.  We have pretended so many things in order to get by.

We have pretended that our elected officials have had our best interests in mind. We have pretended that our mainstream media is a reasonable source of unbiased information. We have pretended that processed foods aren’t making us sick. We have pretended that the Star Wars prequels didn’t totally suck.

Some of the lies we have continued to tell ourselves are harmless. Many of the lies we tell ourselves in this country are killing innocent people.

We have to stop lying. We have to stop lying to ourselves and others. We have to stop pretending that the “War on Terrorism” isn’t racist. And we have to stop pretending that the long history of racism in this country is something of the past.

“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”         –Proverbs 12:18

I watched a lot of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show during the early years of the Iraq War. It was the only thing that kept me sane. I know that there is a line to be drawn between the unnamed war that we are fighting in this country against people of color and the many wars we think that we understand abroad. I haven’t been able to form a sentence with regard to what happened in South Carolina. So, instead, I’ll share with you some of Jon Stewart’s observations:

“What blows my mind is the disparity of response between when we think that people who are foreign are going to kill us and us killing ourselves. If this had been what we thought was Islamic Terrorism, it would have fit into our… We invaded two countries and spent trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives and now fly unmanned death machines over five or six different countries…all to keep Americans safe. We’ve got to do whatever we can. We’ll torture people. We’ve got to do whatever we can to keep Americans safe. Nine people shot in a church? What about that?

“This is a terrorist attack. This is a violent attack on the Emmanuel Church of South Carolina, which is a symbol for the black community. It has stood in that part of Charleston for 100+ years. It has been attacked viciously many times as many black churches have, and to pretend…I heard someone on the news saying, “Tragedy has visited this church.” This wasn’t a tornado. This was racist. This [incident] was black and white. There is no nuance here…

“Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, all those guys, ISIS, they’re not shit compared to the damage that we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.”

We have to stop. We have to stop lying. We have to stop lying to ourselves about the reality of this country. We have to be honest with ourselves. We have to be honest with each other. We have to be honest so that we can start doing something. We have to start doing something.

We have to start doing something.

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”  –Howard Zinn

What do you say at a moment like this? There are no words.

So don’t use words. Use actions. Use acts of kindness. Use acts of kindness that are so significant they change the status quo.

Another Story About the Bay Area Housing Crisis

My brother-in-law, John, lives in Santa Clara and has a daughter in the inaugural class of the 49ers’ S.T.E.M. Program, the school program that the 49ers football team agreed to implement as a part of supporting the Santa Clara community when they moved to their new stadium. His other daughter is finishing her freshman year at Santa Clara High School. John is a single father of two teenage daughters, whom he has primary custody of. He has a job in the customer service department at Google. He lives with his two daughters in a small 2-bedroom apartment in a crowded and run-down neighborhood in Santa Clara.

This month his rent increased by 16%. As of May 1st, it costs him $1,800/month to stay in Santa Clara, in a run-down apartment on a crowded street. It’s a price that John cannot afford.

John has a good job. He is a hard worker. He is fluent in two languages. He is a good father. He is an accomplished artist and a talented musician. He has a family that loves him and supports him. He has been blessed with two strong and brilliant daughters.

John and the girls

John wants more than anything to be able to offer his two daughters a good life, a life with stability, promise, and choices. He wants to be able to keep his eldest daughter at Santa Clara High School for all four years. He wants his youngest daughter to be able to finish the 6-year S.T.E.M. Program through the Santa Clara School district, a program that offers his youngest girl an educational opportunity befitting her inquisitive and expansive mind. The schools in Santa Clara are working for his two girls and he wants both of them to finish school in the Santa Clara School District.

Most people are aware that the housing prices in the Bay Area are blooming like pond scum in a drought. Many people don’t realize the incredible impact that the housing issue is having on struggling and middle-class people. Decent people with decent jobs are no longer able to house and feed their families.

The housing crisis isn’t just affecting people in entry-level jobs. My brother doesn’t work for McDonalds, a company demonized nationally for poor pay and benefits. My brother has a full time job with Google, a company often ridiculed and blamed for the Bay Area’s housing crisis and neighborhood gentrification.

If we are to believe common Bay Area lore, John, being a Google employee, should be the villain in this story and not the victim. That just isn’t the case here. John’s job at Google is the best job he has ever had. It has helped him provide for his family. His girls have health care and dental. His oldest was able to get glasses this year, after a long time of complaining about headaches. John has full time hours and he is able to get home to make dinner. He is able to take one daughter to play practice and attend the other daughter’s science fair. He has been able to provide for his children. But now, he just isn’t able to afford to stay in the city that he and his family lives in. And he may not be able to keep his daughters in the same schools.

There must be more than a handful of families in the Bay Area fighting for their homes, their children, and fighting for a chance to complete the dream that they have set course on. John’s situation probably doesn’t deserve special highlight, except that it happens to involve two of the most powerful economic forces in the Bay Area. John works for Google. And his youngest daughter is supposed to be the lucrative beneficiary of the 49ers’ prestigious education program in the Santa Clara School District.

But no one seems to be benefitting. On paper, John and his daughters should be the poster children for the economic benefits beholden to the large corporations that vowed to uphold the local economy. John’s family has benefitted from Google and the 49ers combined. But it is not enough for large corporations like Google and the 49ers to offer financial support to local organizations and institutions. The people who should be benefitting from those economic kickbacks can’t afford to live in the places where those benefits are offered.

John and his girls are likely to be forced out. They are probably going to have to move from Santa Clara and John’s daughter is likely to lose her place in the 49ers S.T.E.M. program. His loved ones are trying to send money to support him but it can only last so long. John is facing the brink of financial ruin in order to keep his daughters in school and stay in the apartment in Santa Clara. And, sadly, John is not alone.

Why Starbucks Can’t Fix Racism

Why did Starbucks think the #racetogether campaign was a good idea?

If we are going to understand the Starbucks attempt at creating a conversation about race relations in America, we really have to understand the Starbucks reality. On Tuesday, while waiting for my tea at 8:15am at a Starbucks in San Leandro, California, I heard a young, black woman talk about a fist fight between two girls at the high school the day before. I heard a 40-something white man in a suit and tie on his cell phone talking to his business partner about marketing. I heard a young, queer boy, dressed head to toe in green, talking to a giddy three-girl entourage about choir practice. At one point, a young black man started doing Tai Chi while he waited for his Latte. When I finally got my tea and walked back to my car, there was an older, black man in the parking lot who complemented my shapely booty and asked me if I could spare any food.

I thanked him for his compliment and I gave him an Odwalla Blueberry Bar that I had packed for the car ride but didn’t eat. He thanked me generously and promptly opened the wrapper and took a bite with a smile.

racetogether

I can completely understand why the Starbucks Company feels like it has the space and the need to facilitate a forum about race and discrimination. Where we gather should be a gathering place. And where we gather as Americans should be a place to talk about America and the many things that make us American. We should be able to talk about the many terrible downfalls that have hurt us as a society of Americans- racism, sexism, ableism, genderism, beautism- you name it. Unfortunately, the local Starbucks Coffee House probably isn’t that place.

But it isn’t Starbucks’ fault.

Many of us understand racism.  Many of us have friends, loved ones, coworkers, teammates etc that cross racial divides.  I think that most people want to be inclusive and respectful of others.  But our intentions are impeded by an incredible history of racism in this country.

Why was the #racetogether campaign received so poorly?

The current American thread work is probably one of the most complicated patterns of logic for rectifying a history and storyline that negotiates our society’s ideals and morals. In other words, our present-day narrative is a contradiction, at best.

We call ourselves an equal society but we have one of the starkest divides in the world between the rich and the poor. We love art but we don’t support it. We love literature but our libraries are underfunded and many are closing. We love learning but only the privileged have access to a decent education and only a very select few can go to college. We pride ourselves on equality but our people of color and are disenfranchised in a way that rivals the history of the slave trade in America. We say that women and men should have equal opportunities but a white woman makes 77 cents to every white man’s dollar and that divide becomes greater for women of color.  We give to starving mothers overseas but our government is a constant threat to food stamps at home, a.k.a. SNAP, a program that barely keeps people alive with underfunded nourishment. We value privacy but we are under constant surveillance. We pledge free-speech but most people can’t say a word against the government without being investigated. We have people on American soil who have been detained but not charged or tried or even given a level of basic contract afforded to them by our own constitution. We are a nation of promises that has a history of contradicting those promises.

It is no wonder that the Starbucks endeavor is failing.

You can’t expect the people on the ground to speak to a subject that is continually undermined by the people in power.

The conversation about race needs to be a bigger conversation. The conversation about race can’t happen at a local Starbucks. We already “love our neighbors.” We’ve done that already. All of us can stand about in a Starbucks and wait for a coffee. We know we can all drink from the same water fountain. Big deal.  That’s basic.

We aren’t looking for that kind change. We want real change. We want REAL change.

Real change isn’t happening. The people of Ferguson can tell you that with no equivocation. And starting a conversation at a coffee shop isn’t going to create real change.

The people of America want the kind of change that will ensure that young black men aren’t shot by cops or the neighborhood watch.  We want the kind of of change where the justice system is accountable for the disproportionate number of people of color in our jails.  The people of America want the kind of change where children get the same education and tools no matter what neighborhood they come from.  We want the kind of change that brings about true equality.

Change needs to be as systemic and calculating as discrimination has been systemic and calculating. Change needs to happen nationally and globally. It needs to be cutting and drastic. It needs to pertinent and poignant and potent.

The people that need to have the conversations need to have them on a national and global level. They can’t have them at Starbucks or any other coffee shop.

On Tuesday morning, in a Starbucks parking lot, it doesn’t matter that I gave a black man a granola bar. It matters that he is displaced. It matters that he is hungry. And it matters why.

Real Jobs

Three months ago I applied to be a Production Assistant for a television pilot. A local acquaintance of mine, who is something of a celebrity, posted an announcement on a local online community forum that she was hiring for the job and that the show would be filming locally. I sent in my application and waited.

And waited.

I ran into my friend Zoe a week later who told me that she was working on the production but feeling like she might have to quit because it was just too much and she was working two other jobs. I told her not to quit because I had applied to be the Production Assistant and “we could totally work together!” I think I actually said that.

“What are you doing with the production?” I asked her enthusiastically.

Zoe shifted her weight uncomfortably and looked away from me.

“Oh god,” I said. “You’re the Production Assistant, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.” She said shyly.

“I think that’s super awesome.” I really meant it. Zoe was a film major in college and probably knew a lot more than I did about what a Production Assistant actually did. (Before I applied, I had to google it.)

“I really think I have to quit though.” Zoe said. “I’m already completely stressed out.”

Before talking to Zoe that morning I had emailed to follow up about the job. I professed how hard working and intelligent I was. Shortly after Zoe quit, the director and the producer called me, did a phone interview, and hired me.

I probably should have paid more attention to Zoe’s stress.

—-

This past week has been one of the most difficult and hectic weeks of my life. If it hadn’t have been for the incredible and amazing people working on the television pilot, this week could have easily been one of the worst weeks of my life. If I have learned anything it’s that I have no desire to have a career in show business.

Three months ago, just after I had been hired for the Production Assistant job, the non-profit that I had been volunteering for, and whose board of directors I was the president of, named me their Executive Director. In the span of a few days I had gone from having no job to having two very demanding jobs.

I love being the Executive Director of Sierra Commons. Sierra Commons is a non-profit business education center and coworking facility in Nevada City. It is a professional work space with a philanthropic attitude and a sustainable mission and business plan. At Sierra Commons, I love the people I work with and I love the people I work for.

IMAG8582

My duties at Sierra Commons include everything from large-scale fund-raising and program management to taking out the garbage and cleaning out the fridge. It is my personal philosophy that any Executive Director should be intelligent, commanding, charismatic, organized, and humble. There is nothing within the organization that is beneath me and there is no job within my skill set that I would refuse to do. Every little bit is important. And I’m willing to step in anywhere that I can. Needless to say, I keep busy at Sierra Commons.

After a few weeks trying to tackle both my role as a Production Assistant and my role as an Executive Director, I probably should have examined my threshold for stress.

My role as a Production Assistant was varied and covered a vast landscape of responsibilities. Some days I put together spread sheets listing camera equipment. One day I sent letters to colleges soliciting interns. I faxed and copied things. I filed receipts and invoices. When the cast and crew met for a table reading, I cooked and served all the food.

FullSizeRender (16)

Early on it became clear to me that term “Production Assistant,” or “PA,” refers to the person who does the tasks for the producers. My job was to say yes to whatever they asked me to do and to find a way to get it done. Even when it was unreasonable or impossible.

—-

We wrapped up filming on the TV pilot last week. It was seven days in a row of 12+ hour days.  My role as the PA morphed from clerical to caterer. I was waking up an hour before the rest of the cast and crew so that I could pick up breakfast and have coffee made for everyone when they got there. I was in charge of setting out snacks and replenishing them throughout the day. I was also running errands throughout the day, running across town picking up things like extra trash bags and duct tape. On most days I was among the last to leave because I had to collect the days dishes and get them back to the catering company.

On Tuesday night, after filming, I was on my way home from one of the locations, a residence about 30 minutes out of town, and noticed my car making a really strange sound. I had a flat tire. I had a spare but I couldn’t change the tire because the spare had a wheel-locking device on one of the lug nuts and I didn’t have the key to open it. A couple of people stopped to help. Most people stopped to ask if I was okay. When the last car passed by, I called the tow truck and burst into tears. It felt cathartic to just sit on the roadside sobbing.

—-

Back in October I had vented that I wanted a “real job” but I had resigned myself to finding any job that could pay me money so that I could pay my bills. It doesn’t matter that I’m smart, capable, vastly skilled, and have a college degree. There just aren’t enough jobs and there definitely aren’t enough meaningful jobs that pay a living wage. Sometimes one has to take what one can get and make the best of it.

A Real Job

I wrote the following blog on October 1st, less than four months ago.

I just want a real job. A real job. The kind with an actual paycheck on a regular payday from a place that pays payroll taxes and maybe even has an HR department and benefits. But I would be willing to forgo the HR department if I had to. And benefits aren’t really that important. Really, just a regular, steady paycheck would be fine. I’m not even asking for a living wage anymore.

cubicles

My partner and I have downsized so many times and have given up so many luxuries that a “living wage” now looks like a lot less money than it used to. We gave up the second car, a second cell phone line, internet service, Netflix, going out and, last year, all birthday and holiday gifts. At this point, we don’t need much to just get by. I’m hoping to do work that is somewhat-stimulating and mildly-meaningful and pays just a little bit of money. I’ve really lowered the bar. I have very low expectations at this point.

I’m asking for just enough to pay the bills and to save a smidgen so I don’t have to keep asking my parents every time we have an emergency.

I’m 34 years old, very bright, very employable, college-educated with a great smile and a can-do attitude. I would be an asset to any company or organization.

I keep hearing reports that the recession is over and that unemployment is going down but I’m just not seeing any evidence of that in my every day life. In other words, I’m calling bullshit.

My partner and I moved to a rural county in small-town Northern California three and a half years ago when my big-city social services job was being cut by new state policies. My partner had a job and was commuting three hours every day. We figured that it would make more financial sense for us to move closer to her work, cut the commute, and that I would find a job before my unemployment benefits ran out. My unemployment benefits ran out more than two years ago.

I don’t know anyone my age who has a job that they love at a wage they deserve. To put it mildly, my generation is struggling to make ends meet.

My mom and many people her age say that the way to get a job in this economy is to start by volunteering. Today, I am technically “working” three jobs: one pays me in vegetables, one pays me in beer, and one pays me in warm feelings. (I’m serious about the beer. I’m the quiz master at our local pub on Wednesdays and I get a free IPA for my time.) I have been regularly volunteering for seven different organizations in the past year. I put in about 60 volunteer hours each week. No one pays me. No one has money. No one is hiring. Vegetables, beer and warm feelings are wonderful things but I want someone to show me the money. Show me the money!!

I don’t know that I have much hope any longer for finding a real job. I don’t know that anyone from Generation X or Y has any hope. Some of us have moved back home. Some of us have found room mates or co-habitation situations to help with bills. Many of us are working two or three minimum wage jobs just to pay rent and afford car insurance.

barista

If the recession is “over,” it isn’t because the economy is healthy and the American Dream is attainable. It is because most people have really lowered their standards.

I am thankful every day that my partner and I have each other and that we are able to support each other. I’m thankful that she makes a decent living and that she has been supportive through our long-term financial crunch.

But really…I just want a real job.

All I Want for Christmas is Balance

Christmas is less than one week away. (Sorry if you are suddenly filled with panic from this reality check.)

Last year, at this time, my partner and I were pretty depressed. We had been ignoring the Christmas tree my mother had bought us while she had visited for Thanksgiving. It wasn’t that we didn’t want the tree. We asked my mother to buy us the tree as a gift. It was just that the tree didn’t really fit with the rest of our Christmas season.

We had put the tree in the hallway and kept watering it. There were no presents. My mom had sent us slippers sometime in December and we left them in the package that they were mailed in; They were the closest things we had to Christmas gifts.

To paint an even more pathetic picture, our heater went out last year and didn’t get fixed for weeks so we had to stay huddled around a space heater to stay warm. (True story.)

We never bothered to decorate the tree. We left it naked for all of December, just sitting in the hallway. On New Year’s Eve, we finally took it outside, cut off all the branches and shoved it, piece by piece, into the Green Waste bin.

It is amazing how much can change in a year.

Yesterday, I worked a 15-hour day. When I got to the office, the sun hadn’t risen. And when I left, the sun had already set. I’m working two jobs now—three, if you count my gig as the quiz-master at Wednesday night trivia at our local pub.

This Christmas season has been a whirlwind. I haven’t watched a single holiday film.

I was so excited that we could actually afford to give gifts this year. I ordered a few things from online stores back in early November. I started shopping locally when most of the stores still had their Halloween decorations up. I had my Christmas shopping done by December 3rd.

This year, I bought presents for my family and ten different packs of holiday cards the week before Thanksgiving. We bought a tree and decorated it. We had the house all decked out by November 28th. I laid an adorable lumberjack-plaid table cloth on our kitchen table.

IMAG8725

Since then, I’ve written about seven holiday cards and I’ve wrapped zero gifts.

And when I say I’ve written about seven holiday cards, what I really mean is that I’ve written three. And when I say that I’ve wrapped zero gifts, what I actually mean is that there is at least one entire bag of gifts hidden somewhere in my house and I can’t remember what I did with it.

I’ve had friends call me who are visiting for the holidays from the East Coast to ask if we could get together for dinner. My responses have ranged from “no” to “would you be willing to drink eggnog in my kitchen while I wrap gifts”?

I put out tape and paper on Saturday last weekend and got called into the office. I have left my supplies on the kitchen table all week. I can’t remember the last time that I cooked a meal at home. I can’t remember the last time I checked the mail. I can’t remember the last time I took a bath. I’m just glad that my washer and dryer are willing to work nights.

I can’t wait for Christmas day. I can’t wait to give presents. I can’t wait to hang out with my friends and family. I can’t wait for time.

Last year, I had time but no money. This year I have money but no time.

Next year, I’m hoping to have balance.

Quit Your Yelping

In March of this year, the Sacramento News and Review published an article called “The Yelp Factor” by Nick Miller. Its subheading read, “After 10 years of crowd-sourced criticism, one-star missives and exclusive Elite parties, many Sacramento shop and restaurant owners pretty much hate Yelp.” As a regular Yelp user, Nick Miller’s subheading immediately pissed me off. Yelp is fairly straight forward. Good businesses get good reviews. Bad businesses get bad reviews. Businesses and restaurant owners need to quit whining and face the facts. If a business has several poor reviews on Yelp, it’s time for that business to review its policies. If a restaurant has 67 reviews on Yelp and a two-star rating, it is most likely because that restaurant is a two-star restaurant. The crowds don’t lie.

yelp

For those who are not familiar with Yelp.com, or simply “Yelp,” it is a website and app that is open to the public and allows regular people to rate and review stores, services and restaurants- everything from pet food suppliers to auto-parts manufacturers to sushi bars and beyond. Yelp users can give a business a 1-5 star rating and can additionally write quick tips or lengthy reviews. It is a crowd-sourced website and anyone can join. People using the Yelp app on their cell phone can check local listings for reviews, search for businesses near their phone using GPS, and can additionally “check in” to a location to get discounts. It is especially helpful when traveling to a new town or when looking for something new to do near home.

The Yelp website is supervised for fraud and trolls. It is maintained for business information accuracy. While anyone can post a review, the reviews are monitored. If a review seems fake, made-up, retaliatory, or insincere, the employees at Yelp will take the review down. For example, if a person opens a restaurant and suddenly there are fifteen reviews from new users, all with the same last name as the owner, it’s probably a safe bet that the owner’s family is trying to boost the Yelp rating and some or all of the reviews may be taken down. Additionally, if the reviews contain personal attacks or inappropriate language, the reviews can be flagged for removal. Businesses can pay for ads on the website to get listed at the top of the page but the ads are marked and do not change the ratings for the business. It’s not an entirely perfect system but it is a very useful tool for basic information and when looking for specific businesses or services.

My partner and I were in Truckee, California yesterday for the first time and we used Yelp to choose our lunch destination. We went to a place called Moody’s. It didn’t have a perfect Yelp rating but it had good reviews and the reviews mentioned French Fries tossed in truffle oil. We couldn’t resist. The food was great. The restaurant was in a great location. We ate lunch, wrote postcards, and had a fantastic afternoon.

IMAG1337

There is a lot of information on Yelp and it’s good to know how to sort through it. When looking at Yelp reviews for guidance, be sure to note how many reviews have been submitted. If a business has less than ten reviews, the rating probably isn’t very accurate because the sampling is too small. It’s also a good idea to look at the reviews by date and to take note of the more recent reviews and any obvious changes. If, for example, a restaurant has a four-star rating but five out of the last six reviews gave the restaurant a one-star rating, it might be going though a management change or a staffing update that should be avoided. It’s always best to read some of the more extensive commentary and decide if a specific business or restaurant might suit your tastes. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Still, if a business has one-star and two-star ratings over and over and over, don’t be surprised if you have a one-star or two-star experience. Sometimes a place just sucks.

While more and more consumers and patrons are turning to Yelp for advice, it seems that the media is siding with whiney store owners and adopting a Yelp-hating attitude. There have been several recent articles about restaurant owners feeling oppressed by their poor Yelp ratings. In September, USA Today highlighted a story about Botto Bistro, an Italian Restaurant in Richmond, California. USA Today reported that the restaurant “launched a deliberate attempt to show the world that the restaurant doesn’t care what the world thinks of its Italian cuisine.” The restaurant is championing their bad attitude by asking that restaurant goers give the restaurant a one-star review on Yelp. I’m not Stephen Covey but I’m pretty sure that not giving a shit about what your customers think is a bad business strategy.

I can understand why print media, news outlets, TV journalism and radio stations might have a hard time swallowing the “Yelp factor.” It wasn’t that long ago that these institutions were the keepers of the keys to culture. These organizations would review businesses, cafes, bars, and restaurants. They would send snooty food critics out into the world to review a dining experience and judge it using a refined pallet, exquisite manners, and superfluous sentences strung together with overly-large words that signified nothing. Restaurants and businesses used to be reviewed by “experts.” Now they are reviewed by the public.

A business owner or restauranteur can rail against Yelp all day long but it won’t fix their business.

Yelp gives a voice and a platform to the consumer class and to the community. Yelp isn’t produced by a bunch of highfalutin entrepreneurs or restaurant snobs, sommeliers and graduates of the Cordon Bleu. Yelp is the ultimate Shark Tank and Top Chef and regular people are the judges. The website and app are free to access. Reviews are written 365 days out of the year. The Yelp community includes a diverse population. Each reviewer comes from a different background and has different standards, values, and tastes. The reviews are plenty and enough of them are honest enough to be accurate.

If you are a business owner or restaurant manager and have a bad review on Yelp, it’s not the fault of Yelp. It’s not the fault of the reviewers. It’s not the fault of the community. It’s your fault. Stop blaming others. Take ownership. Stop whining. Make changes. Get better. Get better reviews. The crowds don’t lie.