Saturday, November 27, 2004

Yuppie Like Me

It's always darkest... either "before the dawn" or "before it goes completely black" - I'm not sure just yet. Either way, here's some of the things I've been thinking about that I made mention of in my previous posts - things which give me hope, sometimes.

I've made certain choices in my life that, for the longest time, I felt certain lead me to where I am today. And when I say "where I am today," I mean struggling financially, falling behind, and confused as to how the world has turned out the way that it has (among, um, other more positive traits that I have).

But by "certain choices" - well, you can stop recoiling in horror. I'm not about to suddenly confess to being a crack addict who sells her body on the streets, nor am I about to admit to having given birth to a slew of illicit children, or anything else seedy and terribly interesting. No, the choices that I'm referring to are actually quite dull, but they're probably familiar to the people who read this blog.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I have long suspected that if punk rock had never caught my ear as a teenager, I never would have dyed my hair funny colors which seemed to (in that weird way that considering your past sort of compresses things) lead me to major in art, which then led to me-of-today being broke and wondering how on earth I fell so out of step with good All-American types like I encountered in Fresno.

That's oversimplifying to the extreme, but it is true that at a certain point in my life I chose to be outside of the mainstream, to take another path. And while on one hand I'm quite pleased with this decision in many ways, it does leave me worried about what the future holds.

I found myself thinking about all of this about a week ago while sitting in the passenger seat of my mother-in-law's car, which was parked in a lot in front of a drug store in Fresno. I was waiting for my husband to come out with her prescription and just sort of spacing out, when another car pulled into the spot next to mine. It was a beaten up car driven by a kid about 17; he had some music blaring and had the unmistakeable non-haircut of a skater kid and was (I shudder to admit) cute as hell. I just sat there, probably staring at the kid and as he passed by our car, he gave me a polite nod that said, Hello, Ma'am.

I felt a sting at that nod - he greeted me as an older woman. What's more, he essentially dismissed me as an unattractive older woman, to the point where I nearly sprang out of the car and explained to the kid, Listen, I know I look like a soccer mom now, but I used to be cool too, so you really shouldn't dismiss me so easily - you know, you're going to get old some day too, so it would be nice if you held back on the "ma'am" and maybe swapped it out for "miss" but as I sat there, feeling like I was losing my mind, I realized I ought to be conveying a much more appropriate and mature message to the kid.

Maybe it was because he'd treated me like someone's mom, but I really got this strong maternal instinct to go over to him (oh, he was long gone at this point, don't worry) and say Look: get a haircut, go out for the football team. Your life will be so much easier. Please. Buy some Britney Spears albums, go to church, whatever you have to do. Sell out now, while it's easier. You'll thank me in ten years when you have a normal life.

It's so easy to blame your very big problems on little insignificant things like how you were in high school, especially when your problems - like feeling alienated and being broke - are the sorts of things we don't go around talking about. Have you ever turned to your neighbor down the hall and asked them if they feel completely alone in the world, or if they're struggling to pay their bills as well? If you're like me, you probably assume they've got it all figured out - that you're the only one who feels this way. Or that maybe you and your friends - people who made the same sorts of choices you did - are the only ones like this. But, funny enough, I had this exact conversation with one of my neighbors right before we left for Fresno.

My neighbor is a bright, well put together young woman about my age. She's very nice, but we rarely bump into each other, so we haven't talked much. She's the sort of person I really admire - from a working class family, she put herself through college and has a real, 9-to-5 job, in finance.

Almost spontaneously, she and I started talking about how we're barely keeping our heads above water financially and how we feel totally screwed as a result. Now, this may sound like two yuppie women complaining about making $70k when they really want to make $100(believe me, that's not the case - I can't speak for her, but I make about half that first number), but it's more serious than that - I got the distinct impression that she's really not making much money at all. She works like a dog, but only the people at the top of her company make a lot; what's more, while she didn't specifically say this, I suspect that she has family to look out for. And so, here's a woman who's always played by the rules and done everything you're supposed to... and yet she's still having the same problems that I have. (Oh, and just as I had assumed she was doing really quite well financially, she assumed the same about me - so it was especially interesting to exchange notes on that front.)

I won't dwell too much on my conversation with her, since I don't know her too well and I don't know how much I can spill here as a result. But I had another conversation with a friend of my husband's, which I feel more comfortable talking about.

R. is a software programmer, "the steelworkers of our time" is how he described it. He's watching all the jobs around him get shipped overseas and he's getting worried. He makes really good money and lives in a beautiful home, but he's got a wife and two kids to support, and so now - despite having a full-time job and a masters degree in computer science - he's considering going back to school to get a teaching certificate as an emergency back-up career.

And so now he feels completely fucked and alienated and confused by the world - did our parents ever need emergency back-up careers? I know Jay has shared this blog with a group of college students, so let me just toss this in in case they think I'm whining for no good reason: Being broke when you're in your thirties is radically different than being broke when you're in your early twenties. Being young and broke is noble and good and it forces you to be creative; being broke and somewhat older is like being screwed by the world constantly. It truly sucks. All that stuff you're supposed to do as you get older - like, just to start, plan for a family of your own or take care of your existing family - you can't do, and it hurts like hell. It does all sorts of things to your head - I can't imagine how R. feels, with three people depending on him - that you don't really want done to you. It's a constant pressure that never goes away. And remember - R. and my neighbor have real jobs - they're not artists who have taken some unspoken vow of poverty. They're people who went to school to get real, specific skills to help them in the marketplace. They're not piecing it all together, bit by bit between painting sales; they're putting on nice office clothes and going to work every day for a boss and a big corporation. And they're still getting fucked.

But here's the good news (sort of): I'm not the only one who feels this way. In two random conversations - with R. and my neighbor - I spoke to two different people who made completely different choices in their lives than I did and are still screwed... ok, it doesn't sound like good news, but bear with me. As R. talked with a fair amount of anger about the "red" parts of this country and my neighbor kept shaking her head, marvelling at her inability to get ahead, it occurred to me that this feeling that's in the air is quite a bit larger than just a few artists and slackers pissed off about the election. There just might be the seeds of some real change out there - but I think it's going to have to start with us all talking, one on one, to each other.

These problems are generational - the slow and steady rollback of government funding for programs to help people like us (ie, education assistance, help with medical costs, etc.), the ever widening gap between rich and poor, the consolidation of wealth in a few hands taken to the extreme. These are issues that effected our parents and grandparents, but not to the extent that they effect us. I believe so much in the power of collective action that this revelation really gave me hope - I'm not the only one; we're all screwed. So maybe we can work together to figure out a solution.

(Oh, ok, just to finish up some old business: So my husband's still off at the pharmacy when skater boy comes back to his car, and I'm now tempted to make up some story along the lines of Oh yeah, so I'm just waiting for my boyfriend to finish ripping off this store and then we're off to Mexico where we're... gonna... live... um, like kings? but I couldn't even pull it off in my own head, so I just sat there shooting the kid hateful daggers and finally he sort of turned around and glanced at me as he got in his car, kinda like Freak! and this made me crack up and then he drove away.)


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