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.

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.

Belle Curve

This is a true  story and it seems so stupid now. I’m an adult and I have found a way to stay perpetually jaded. There are so many matters of consequence. And I don’t even remember her name. But I will never forget her.

I will call her Belle. She was kind and soft and beautiful. And she was so much smarter than me.  She was so much smarter than the rest of us. She became our hero because she saved our asses. It was more than ten years ago.

I took a biology class in Junior College. I had slacked off for a few years and it was the equivalent of my third (maybe fourth?) sophomore year of college. I had finally gotten my shit together and had applied to transfer to a few “real” colleges. I had stopped sleeping with my teachers and had started getting good grades. I had been accepted to a few universities on contingency. If all went well, I would be a literature major at a university in the fall. But I had to keep my grades up.

 049

There were several of us in the same situation and we all had to keep our grades up. We were young and this was what mattered then. For me, it was all that mattered then. It was my way out. I would go to college. It was what my parents wanted for me. It was my way of growing up. It was my ticket.

The biology class was a mandatory prerequisite requirement. I had to pass. It was the second science class of my adult life and the only class that I ever took that was graded on a curve. The teacher set the curve, not by the standard bell structure, but at the highest level achieved for the class. If a test was out of 100 and the highest grade was a 98, then the test was out of 98 and the grades followed accordingly.

The curve would have been a fair and flawless structure if it weren’t for Belle. She always got the top grade and it was always at least ten points more than second place. We knew because the grades were posted on a list outside the classroom, by top grade and last name. Belle got an A every time. The rest of us got Bs or worse.

We studied as a group for more than a week before the final test. It was worth 20 percent of our grade and we were taking it very seriously. Belle showed up after the third or fourth session to a collective sigh. It was an open study group. She meant well and she really wanted to help.

After a few sessions with Belle, we all knew we were fucked. Most of the rest of us were planning to go on with our lives studying art, theater or literature. She was going into forensics. We just didn’t get it. We didn’t speak the language. She spoke the language.

It was the night before the test and it was past midnight. I don’t remember who spoke first. We had all had too much coffee. Some of us had had too much to drink. Someone finally said what we had all been thinking. “Look Belle, if you just got five or six questions wrong, all of us would get better grades.” A discussion followed. Belle looked like she had been shot. We called it a night and went home.

A week later I got an email that I had gotten an A on the test. I immediately felt sick; I knew that I had gotten several questions wrong. It was my last test of the semester but I went back to the campus because I had to know.

The list was on the door. Belle got a 90 out of 100. She was the top score. I got an 88 and so did most of the study group. As I stared at the numbers, as a took in the list, I knew that Belle threw it. There was not a question on the test that she would have struggled with. She tried to help us with every possible question. She knew the material. She knew all of it.

As I stood gaping at the numbers, staring into absolute abyss, the class assistant came up behind me. He said, “She left the last ten questions blank. She didn’t even answer them.”

Belle didn’t do it to make friends. We were all going to different colleges in the fall. She knew we wouldn’t see each other again.

It was the spring of 2002, the first spring after the towers fell, and, as far as we knew, the world was on its knees. The spring sun, and the smell of flowers, had barely started to permeate after a cold, dark winter. We were young people in a world that had gone off the rails. Young men from my fall’s philosophy class, only the semester before, had already been sent to basic. We just didn’t have the stomach for failed systems any longer. We were growing up.

I was reminded of Belle as I was reading about the protests in Istanbul. There is an uprising in the country of Turkey. Parents and their children showed up at Gezi Park, a city park in Istanbul, like Julia Butterfly Hill’s apostles, they ate  sandwiches and held their ground as developers tried to destroy the trees in favor of a strip mall. They stayed there. They stayed and waited until the police came.

 uprising

And the police came.

I read a blog written by a Turkish yoga teacher who was in the park when the Turkish police got there. As some of the police were launching tear gas and brutalizing mothers, fathers and small children, a few of the uniformed men quit their jobs on the spot, handed in their badges, and joined the protesters.

As I read the article, I was reminded of Occupy Oakland; I was reminded of UC Davis, my alma mater, the university that I eventually graduated from. I was reminded of heroes.  I was reminded of Belle.

Belle could have finished her test. She could have answered every question and she would have gotten every answer right. She was better than us. She had the upper hand. She had the power. And she owed us nothing.

But sometimes, even though we aren’t obligated, or won’t benefit, or don’t have any responsibility to make a sacrifice, sometimes, even then, we decide that the “we” is bigger than the “me”.

Belle sacrificed her upper-hand because she knew that it was the right thing to do. She knew that the system was rigged. She knew that her forfeiture would mean nothing to her, she knew that there would be no consequence for her, but, she knew that it would mean a lot to those around her.  Belle gave us the gift of mercy.

That’s what it was: mercy.

A decade ago, throwing a test was valor. For me, at the time, it was heroism. Today is different. What people are facing today was not what my parents prepared me for. They didn’t expect this. I didn’t expect this.

We all expected mercy.

I’m struggling with the words to end this blog. We live in a different world. Sometimes there are no words.  Sometimes there is no mercy.

But sometimes there is.

Reno

Reno

 

Yesterday was the worst blizzard in the Sierras so far this year and my friends, Debbie and Erich, decided to choose yesterday to elope.  So off to Reno in the snow we went.  Snow was blowing sideways over Donner Pass, and, after watching several cars crash at various intervals, we all made it to “The Biggest Little City in the World” in one piece.  My friends and I met up to celebrate the occasion.

 

Debbie and Erich have been engaged for several years, waiting for the money to have the wedding of their dreams—nothing elaborate, just a ceremony where all their loved ones could gather to witness and take part in a celebration of their love and commitment.  Well, as we all know, money isn’t exactly abundant for most people these days.  Pair an excruciatingly long engagement with a new job lacking health benefits for one member of a pair and you have a pretty good recipe for eloping.  Nevada’s lackadaisical marriage laws and Reno’s proximity made the city a perfect candidate for the occasion.

 

Reno is a victim of my own stereotypes and of its own circumstance.  It is a city birthed in the legacy of silver-mining in the middle of desert terrain, where hardly a plant could grow without very intensive soil improvements and abundant water-redirection.  After the mines went dry, the place grew on a consumer-based economy and sustained that way until it could no longer maintain the increase it needed to perpetuate the growth fallacy of the American economy.  Reno could easily serve as a case study for what happens when a Laissez fair economy based on an infinite-growth paradigm takes a turn towards reality.

 

I’ve only been to Reno once before but the city has always struck me as a place of sordid vices and sad depression, both in the emotional sense and in the economic sense.  I’m sure people born or raised in the community are left with other memories but this trip only deepened my impressions.

 

My last visit to Reno was in 2003, before George W. Bush’s second term in office, before the Iraq war and before what we now call the “housing crisis.”  Even then, it was a world of pawnshops, bright lights and questionable store-fronts surrounded by suburban sprawl.  Today, much of that sprawl is punctuated with empty dwellings and boarded windows.  Much of the bright lights have gone out.  Much of the pawnshops, on the other hand, seem to have made their way to this new economy and are flourishing under a sagging America.

 

The main strip through Reno’s “midtown,” is a long stretch of street connecting the area of the Circus Circus and Silver Legacy Hotels to the area of the Peppermill and Atlantis Hotels.  In between the two main sections of casino entertainment lie abandoned shopping malls and empty store-fronts, a testament to what was once possibly something that resembled hope.

 

Outside the casinos, a bar called “Filthy McNasties” sits next door to the “Boy Scouts of America Building” surrounded by liquor stores and the aforementioned pawnshops.  Inside the casinos, there is still a bitterness of loss fortune that such venues have always possessed: nicotine-laden grandparents pulling levers for a last-ditch effort towards riches, young co-eds behaving badly on spring break, gaggles of bachelors forcing a last hurrah on a young man about to enter fidelity.  The whole scene reeks of the very real possibility that the American Dream is turning into a nightmare.

 

Yet summing up America in a place where the local-economy is almost completely consumer-based, and where the consumption is generally aimed at frivolity, (at a time when 99% of the population has had to curb spending in order to make ends meet), might not yield a fair conclusion.  Still, if our nation is only as strong as its weakest link, my visit to Reno has left me with cause to worry.

 

But even so, every cloud has a silver lining.  While it wasn’t their ideal wedding, The Antique Angel Chapel in downtown Reno handled Debbie and Erich’s ceremony professionally and tenderly.  It was beautifully poetic and held gravity in a way that all wedding ceremonies should.

 

The joy of the moment propelled us into an equally beautiful night.  We shared drinks and dinner downtown, frugally saving our leftovers for a late snack and sharing what we had with those that didn’t.  We each played $5 at the penny slots, adhering to the whimsy of the moment and the town.  Debbie and Erich won $187 on a Ghostbusters slot machine.  The rest of us laughed at our $5 loss over a piece of carrot cake and four forks.  My partner and I shared a hotel room (and subsequently a bed) with my best friend, the three of us falling asleep just after midnight after too much giggling.  We kept it easy and sensible.  And we had a great time.

 

None of us were really financially prepared to attend a destination wedding on the fly.  I dug a dress out of my closet and was thankfully in charge of “something old” for the bride.  Except for the drive there, the event was simple and it was very fun.

 

Money doesn’t make the memories.

 

I will still think of Reno as a place of broken dreams.  But, perhaps, a place of broken dreams is the best place to start new ones.  And in that, there is still hope.

On the Bus, Off the Wagon

We spent the weekend in the city, in San Francisco.  We had the pleasure of visiting my partner’s best friend, a bartender, and his boyfriend, also a bartender.  Like all bartenders, they are aspiring to other titles but find the trade very lucrative.  It was a weekend of indulgence.

As a writer in the city, I couldn’t help but see the romance of the Beat Generation all around me.  As I watched Muni buses and cable cars pass, I thought about the honorary-Beatnik Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-aid Acid Test” and considered his observations about what it means to be “on the bus,” a kind of commentary about living a purposed and held existence.  (As a San Francisco aside, the book is also the defining reference for the band-name “Furthur,” the Grateful Dead continuation band.)

Our friends live in an apartment with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge that most people only get to see in movies.  They live on the top floor and have roof access.  Getting to stay there was like being royalty, or, at the very least, like having a ton of money on prom night.

It was a stark contrast to my day to day.  My life aspires to a zero carbon footprint, or even higher.  My partner and I reuse almost everything we can, recycle what we can’t and have the wisdom to know the difference.  Like so many like us, we think about where our purchases come from, how many petroleum miles it took to get to us, and we forego a number of things due to its costly impact on the environment and future generations.  Coffee and chocolate always present a moral dilemma.

My partner and I adhered to almost none of it this weekend.  For one thing, we drove to the city.  We ate Thai food, with its off-season vegetables and imported delicacies.  We shopped, deciding on Spanish wine, even though we have some of the most esteemed wines nearby in the Sonoma and Napa Valleys, many of them organic and/or biodynamic.  We did, however, buy local cheese because the Cowgirl Creamery kicks ass, but we cancelled that out with a chunk of Spanish Manchego as well.  We had coffee and chocolate.  Our hosts spoiled us, insisting on paying for things we in no way could afford.  We obliged at every opportunity.

We did touristy things, even though our proximate upbringing didn’t warrant the need for it.  We had fallen completely off the conservation wagon.  We visited the Walt Disney Family Museum, a tribute to the life and art of Walt Disney—an amazingly beautiful tribute to both.  Every art aficionado should witness its splendor.   For me, the treasure of the museum is a letter from Diego Rivera to Walt Disney about the art and craft of cartoon drawings.  Not known to most people, Walt Disney was highly esteemed by his artist colleagues.  There is even a picture of him and Salvador Dali out boating together.  But whether for high-brow art experience or just for a day of childish fun, it is a museum not to be missed.  We also visited the Japanese Tea Gardens, which has one of the most amazing catalogues of bonsai and ornamental tree-crafting anywhere in the world.  The care and attention to detail that has gone into the maintenance of such wonder is without a single lack of detail.  The grounds make me want to aspire to a more meticulous gardener in my own doings.  I can’t say enough good things about both locations.  We took pictures in Golden Gate Park and sang in a tunnel near the Academy of Sciences.  We even found ourselves at a few bars, a couple of times at the Pilsner Inn.  What fun!  It was pure guilty-pleasure.

As a sustainability writer, I feel I should find a way to make an excuse for myself.  The liberal guilt should kick in at any second.  But I will be honest: I have no excuse and it was really, really fun.

I recently started reading “The Dirty Life” by Kristin Kimball.  At one point, the author, a New Yorker and self-proclaimed “city girl,” laments to her almost-husband about their state of “poverty.”  He aptly replies that, “We’re smart and capable people. We [Americans] live in the richest country in the world. There is food and shelter and kindness to spare. What in the world is there to be afraid of?”  If I ever needed a reminder of that, this weekend was it.

Due to unforeseen circumstance, my partner and I have lived on $16 for the past 3 weeks.  We dipped into our “apocalypse food supply,” eating canned food and dried beans and rice.  We recently moved so, having no vegetables planted in our own garden, have had to settle for the already-planted Swiss Chard for nearly every green vegetable at any meal.  High in iron though it may be, chard gets boring.  We recently branched out and foraged for Miner’s Lettuce for a green salad. Unforeseen poverty begs necessity.  Still, was a very nice salad.  And it was a good test of our foraging ability and food-storage choices.  We got bored but we didn’t go hungry.  We are truly blessed to live in the country of one of the greatest experiments of man and womankind.

This weekend’s adventure was the polar opposite to our sense of scarcity.  Our dear friends aren’t exactly the San Francisco Nuevo Riche.  They aren’t programmers or financiers.  The glorious apartment that they inhabit comes from a number of years working as the building manager, and a few moves as different apartments became available.  Our dear friends are very much “working class.”  But they are working class in a different sense of the term than I have recently come to know it.  What I understand now, that I maybe didn’t understand before, is that the working class in urban American, is much, much different than their counterparts in rural America.  Again from the book, “The Dirty Life,” Kristin Kimball notes that people in cities, even internationally, have more in common with each other than they do with their own rural countrymen.  I have to agree.

I worry about whether or not my just-planted lettuce made it through last week’s snow; our city friends worry about whether or not their cab driver is charging them a fair fare.

If I could file a single complaint about the view from their balcony, it would be the serious lack of foliage.  Aside from the trees along the sidewalks and a few parks in the distance, the color green was all but lost.  There were empty roof tops as far as the eye could see.

On Sunday, when we were reluctantly ending our stay with them, we had a lot to discuss.  I told them about the New York City transit that has started to maintain bus-top gardens, a project of New York City designer Marco Antonio Castro Cosio’s graduate thesis at the NYU.  The project and its foresight is, indeed, “on the bus” and (just for the fun of another literary cliché), pushing the envelope furthur.

For a city that is consistently ahead of the curve when it comes to progressive issues, I was very surprised to see the significant lack of edible or roof-top gardens, especially because the surrounding areas are so gung-ho about food security.  There was a glaring amount of unused space that could easily be put to productive food-growing, or, at the very least, made out to be a wonderful space for flowering plants and ferns.  Organizations like the Friends of The Urban Forest are working to bring San Francisco up to speed on the part of the “green revolution” that actually includes things that are green, but efforts towards growing have to involve the entire community and cannot fall on one organization or another.  We all have to take stock in “greening” our communities.

I will be glad to return to my rural home, a place of community involvement in all senses of the term, a place where so many things grow green that it has to be a part of everyday life.

By the end of our trip, I think I had convinced our hosts to work out a plan for a roof-top vegetable garden.  We had already pointed out several edible plants at the park where they held soft ball practice.  It may take some effort, but I have visions of sugar plums dancing in my head…or at least a few tomatoes.  For all the art that the city of San Francisco has to offer, there is a host of empty canvases on the roof tops of many buildings.  The possibilities for gardens are endless.

Big Enough To Take Over The World?

The newspaper in Nevada County, CA, “The Union,” recently reported that Lou Conter, a WWII hero, lost his house to foreclosure. He was 91 years old.

I lost my house to foreclosure. It was sad. But, for me, it wasn’t as devastating as it could have been. My husband-at-the-time and I were going through a divorce. We were going to have to sell the house anyway. In a way, we were lucky. The loss of our home was inevitable in our circumstances. Yet, when we bought the home, we never would have saw coming the way in which it unfolded.

For those who haven’t experienced the foreclosure crisis firsthand, I think there are a lot of misnomers about what happens. Let me share with you my experience.

My ex-husband and I were young professionals. We both had had the good fortune of college degrees and relatively well-paying jobs, for our age. We were about to be married. I was 25. He was 27. A month before our wedding, we became the proud owners of a modest two-bedroom-one-bath home in an affordable area. It was what real estate agents call a “starter home”. It was very much like what our parents had bought when they were our age.

The place was a mess. It was over 30 years old and belonged to an older couple. The wife had died and the husband was moving to an assisted care facility. The adult children regrettably had to sell. The entire place was covered in wall to wall faux-wood panelling. The whole house, including the kitchen and bathroom, had badly-stained, orange and lime shag carpeting. The back yard was full of weeds and black widows. We sunk $40,000 in credit card debt to make it our home. We spent our honeymoon, and the months after, refurbishing what we thought would be our long-time residence. We did the work ourselves.

When we bought the house, which was completely reasonable for our income, we were told “not to worry” about the adjustable rate mortgage, that we would be able to refinance in a few years and it would all be water under the bridge. We weren’t buying a house we couldn’t afford. We were duped.

The original mortgage payment on our Sacramento home was barely above the rent we were paying for a downtown apartment. Three years later, the mortgage payment jumped from $1,800 per month to $2,400 per month and then, three months after that, to $3,200 per month. We made every attempt to rectify our situation with the mortgage company, attempting a refinance and contacting every 800 number we could find.

It was a joke. Our original mortgage company, Countrywide Homeloans, had sold to Bank of America. When we tried to go into any tangible location, we found it closed. All offices were empty. Door locked. Lights off. The locations looked abandoned. When we tried to call, no one could give us any information. It went on for months, with attempts every day. Finally, we decided to walk away. We were months behind and there was no one who could help us.

But we had our whole lives ahead of us. We would figure it out.

Lou Conter has a different story. As The Union quoted, “[He is] one of the 18 remaining survivors aboard the USS Arizona in the Pearl Harbor attack.”. The Union goes on to say that “As a young man, Conter saved himself and his compatriots from the inferno of the USS Arizona on Dec 7, 1941, before going onto pilot numerous dangerous missions over hostile territories in the Pacific Theater and lead his breathen into fierce battles that ultimately decided the destiny of an entire nation,” Conter was unquestionably an American hero. And yet, at 91, he had his American house taken away from him.

Doesn’t it beg the question: who is really in charge here?

I had my house taken away. But I am not important. I didn’t fight in a war. I didn’t fight for American sovereignty. I am just me, part of the generation trying to make sense of things, trying to get by. Right now.

Lou Conter is a part of American history. As The Union states, “Lou Conter is a member of what some call the ‘Greatest Generation”. And now, sadly, he has his place in history in more ways than as an American hero. Lou Conter is a part of this generation’s current crisis, in addition to his own generation’s crisis. As The Union states, (and I whole heatedly agree,) “Conter…has earned the right to rest on his laurels and relay his experiences to younger generations…”

In a recent article by the Huffingtonpost.com, actor Matt Damon was criticized for criticizing our president. They noted that he told The Independent, “I think [Obama has] rolled over to Wall Street completely. The economy has huge problems. We still have all these banks that are too big to fail. They’re bigger and making more money than ever…”

I appreciate Damon’s criticism. For me it points back to my question above: who is really in charge here?

I’m a minor historian, in the academic sense…but too big too fail? Like what? Like the railroads? Like “The Beatles”? Like Paris Hilton? Like the The Third Reich? What does that mean? “Too big to fail?”

I think it’s a fair question. And it needs some academic aptitude. We live on a finite planet. So there is no such thing as “too big to fail”. But the fact that there are those who believe such a notion leads me to evaluation.

We are a nation of debt. But, almost more importantly, we are a world of debt. The European crisis is about debt. The Japanese crisis is about debt. The less-publicized Chinese crisis is about debt. Nations all over the world, both East and West, are in debt. According to scholar Charles Eisenstein, because of compound debt, “The powers that be recognize that the pyramid can’t be maintained…things are unraveling fast.”

Are we in debt to each other? Sort of. But not really. At the heart, at the heart of all of this, without going too much into the tricky and sordid mathematics of what we are facing, we are all in debt to a greater monetary entity known as “banks”. Just for America, we are trillions of dollars in debt. The fact that there are organizations who can change and determine the terms of our nation, the term of its debt, companies like S&P, should be an alarming reality to our people. On the C-Realm podcast, Charles Eisenstein further makes the point that the entire world’s GDP, the resources of the entire world at hand, exceeds the resources of the world we have within the debt of the world we owe. We can never truly pay what we owe. Never. Not monetarily.

My analysis is somewhat watered down, but it is on purpose. We have to see this in the plainest terms. We cannot continue trying to justify our debt. We have to bring this argument home; we have to see it for what it is: We are not a sovereign nation. We owe.

If the people most responsible for preserving the promises of this nation, those like Lou Conter, are not benefiting from the promises of this nation, then who is?

We are being held hostage. The people, our laws, and our politicians (our elected officials, those who are supposed to speak for us) are being held accountable to an entity that is not our nation. It is real. It is extreme. And it is dire.

We cannot take truth in those who should defend us. We cannot hold those accountable because they have not been there for us. Our electeds are bought. And we must make way for a new place in society.

People and houses are real things. They are tangible. Money is not. We have real resources we must attend to. Money is a pretend construct. Our money, is no longer backed by the gold standard. Money only holds the value of the faith we put into it.

Why then, especially when we have real, tangible resources we should attend to, like human beings, are our policy makers still focusing on the management of money?

I am suggesting that it is not only possible, but probable, that those in charge of running the world, no longer see the people of the world as a viable resource or as a priority. And that it very, very scary.

If You Are Receiving Unemployment Benefits– READ THIS!!

“Give me back my money!”  We can all see little Michael Banks shouting these words in Dawes-Tomes-Mousley-Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank in the classic film, “Mary Poppins.”  (For those who haven’t seen the film, the scene I’m referencing depicts a little boy who wants to spend his toppins buying bird seed from a sweet old lady trying to feed the pigeons.  The bank president tries to convince the young lad to place the money in a savings to watch it multiply.  Seeing the boy’s hesitation, the bank president snatches the coinage out of his hands, causing the boy to scream, alerting the patrons of the bank and causing a run on the financial institution.  Go borrow the film; it’s great.)

When I moved to this small town in the foothills, I made a decision.  I decided to bank locally.  I opened an account with First Credit Union, a small institution with only six branches and superior customer service.  I have not regretted that decision.  I no longer wanted to carry on with a national banking corporation.  I decided to end my 23-year-old relationship with Bank of America.

Imagine my dismay when I received a letter from the Employment Development Department (EDD) notifying me that they were no longer issuing checks.  I was briefed of the following: “In one to three business days from receipt of this letter, you will receive an EDD Debit Card in the mail from Bank of America.  Your first electronic benefit payment is immediately available to you when you activate this card…Future benefit payments for which you are eligible will be issued directly to the card.”  I’m furious.

Like many people now receiving unemployment benefits, I used work in social services.  I worked for an agency that worked closely with the welfare department.  I remember speaking to a welfare worker to inquire about a client’s possible address change.  I was informed that the client was under investigation for possible fraud, that the client hadn’t used her EBT card near her address for months.

“How do you know where the client uses her card?”  I asked.

“We track all purchases.”

I understand that welfare is a very touchy subject, that many honest tax payers, including myself, have a vested interest in knowing that programs which tax dollars fund are as effective as a possible, and that the money isn’t going towards things that contribute to the further demise of a society.  I also believe that people have a right to privacy and that if welfare recipients are buying groceries at Traders Joes or at Safeway or at the local gluten-free health food store, it’s nobody’s business.

As I read my notice from EED, the conversation that I had had with that welfare worker echoed in my ears.  “We track all purchases.”  I wasn’t notified by EDD that my purchases would be tracked.  But what’s to stop EDD from tracking my purchases?  The constitution?  We threw that out the window years ago when the American people acquiesced to The Patriot Act.  And our silence has been our consent ever since.  Several unconstitutional laws and policies have been enacted since and nobody seems to bat an eye.  As the current state of things would have it, there isn’t anything to stop EDD from tracking a recipient’s purchases.  Or investigating a person for what might be seen as a “discrepancy.”

A friend of mine, who was laid off from the same agency, was as wary as I was.  She has an adult son who just started community college.  Cautious about the new EDD “benefit”, she was sure to use her husband’s account to purchase books and pay for the units at her child’s school.  Could she have been investigated for starting a “training program” without checking the box on the EDD questionnaire?  What if I make several purchases from a hardware store in a week because our john backs up?  Will I be investigated for starting a landscaping business?  Perhaps the underwire on my bra just broke and I spend money at a lingerie store.  Or maybe it’s my anniversary and I’m feeling frisky.  The reason for my purchase is obsolete.  Will I be looked into as a possible stripper?  Or just maybe life is a little depressing and I choose to spend a weekend at Mateo’s Pub sampling the many beers on tap.  (Which are excellent by the way and worth a trip to Nevada City.)  How will that reflect on my record?  Regardless of the situation, it is none of EDD’s goddamn business.

At this point, almost all of us knows of someone receiving unemployment benefits.  Each person’s situation is different.  The benefits are distributed based on a whether or not a recipient is looking for work.  We are all looking for work.  There are no jobs.  But if the state and federal government can pin it on the fault of the lazy, no-good American people, then they can wash their hands of the whole operation.  Right?

Maybe 20 years ago we could call me a conspiracy theorist and write me off as just another kook.  But we are living with a congress that is seriously looking for a way to do away with social security and kick little old ladies out on their asses.  So what?  So that private investment firms can level the homes that they used to live in and build vacation condos for the many CEOs still receiving million dollar bonuses while the American people are paying taxes to fund the bailouts that they were provided?  It’s messed up.

Meanwhile, in the world of unemployment benefits, cash, which we’ve been told is king, stays out of circulation and in control of Big Money.  The bank gets to hold onto the money for three or four days while the EDD recipient uses the money that is supposed to last two weeks to pay as many of the bills that he or she can afford to pay and wait for the next check.  The government and banks know that if people are cashing out the benefits going to their EDD card, then corporate banking and state institutions can’t hold onto it for that extra amount of time.  The state knew what they were doing when they stopped issuing checks and, as far as I can tell, it has less to do with saving the state money than it has to do with turning the money’s control over to the hands of big banking.

And you know what the bitch of it is?  I held my nose and walked into my ex-bank to ask for my money.  The guy at the counter didn’t know how to help me.  He told me that, while the account was through Bank of America, the ins and outs are handled by EDD so he didn’t know how to ensure that I had a pin for the card or had any ability to withdraw the money.  How convenient.  Fortunately for me, I procrastinate.  Though my old account had a zero balance, I never closed it.  I was able to transfer the money for one account to the other and withdraw it that way.  It makes a person wonder how many new Bank of America accounts have been opened this week.

My advice to the class of people receiving unemployment benefits?  Get cash.  Get it immediately.  Don’t let Bank of America use your benefit money to benefit itself.  Don’t disclose to some state organization whether or not you take your family out to dinner this week.  Keep your private affairs private.  Keep cash.