1540438_10151980970316512_7186835111739154299_oMaude is dead. I’m 36 today.

I’m 36 today, my best friend is dead, I am underemployed, broke, living paycheck to paycheck, borrowing money from family to make ends meet.

Sunday at a wedding I was sitting with two other friends of mine. One friend was describing her recent good fortune. “Good things seem to keep happening to me. I just wonder when it’s all going to stop.”

The other friend said, “Oh, come on. You’re a good person, and you deserve to be happy! You’ve got good karma. Good for you.”

I sat in silence, thinking, so I’m a bad person who doesn’t deserve to be happy? That’s why bad things keep happening to me?

Most of my friends are doing pretty well financially. They own houses and cars and have children and go on vacations both here and abroad. They buy things. I’m happy for them; they are, to borrow a phrase, good people who deserve to be happy. But sometimes I feel like if I hear another one of them say that something “only” costs $500, “only” costs $100, “only” costs $20, I will scream and throw something.

They do things together that cost too much money for me to be able to do. I am torn: do I want them to invite me so I can feel included and have the opportunity to say no? Or do I want them to not mention it at all so I don’t feel bad? Sometimes I still hear about it later.

I have my own jewelry business, but until I can make ends meet I can’t afford to market it properly, so there it sits, semi-dormant for now. I am mostly okay with this. I have other things to worry about, like paying as much of the electricity bill as it takes to keep the lights on.

I apply for jobs. I hear from interviewers, I dress in my job interview pants and blouse and go get interviewed. I send my usual “thank you for the interview” email, to which I never get a response.

To apply for jobs is to live a thousand different lives in one’s head. I interview for a job at a financial company in Northwest Austin, and I picture myself driving there, parking, working at one of the desks in their cubicle farm. I interview for a job downtown and imagine myself taking the bus so I don’t have to park. I interview for a job at the University of Texas, and picture myself working in one of the red-roofed stucco buildings near the tower. But those lives never happen.

I am broke; I have no savings or assets or prospects, but I am not poor. Poverty is not what this is. Poverty means not having family support. It means not having a college education or marketable job skills. It means not having friends who would intervene if I were unable to get food, or if I were to become homeless. It means not being able to apply for jobs or dress in job interview pants or go to interviews or send thank-you emails. It means having my depression go untreated, which luckily it doesn’t. And I know I am lucky to have the skills and support and tools I need to get by, however marginal my “getting by” is.

But if this isn’t poverty, what is it? I think I’m a victim of the eroding middle class, of income inequality, of job scarcity, of the trimming away of workers’ rights, of living in a growing tech city with low unemployment, high competition for jobs, and skyrocketing costs. I could move, but that would be much more complicated than it sounds.

So I am your anecdote. When you are with your friends or family and the economy comes up, you can say, “I have a friend who can’t find a job…” You can explain my situation and make your point that the economy still has a long way to go. You can make your point that sometimes even a college education and 15 years of work experience isn’t enough. Or you can joke about how an English degree isn’t good for anything. It’s up to you.

Maude died on April 15, nearly ten years to the day since I brought her home for the first time. It was recent enough that when it’s time to give Moki a treat, I still grab two treats from the canister without thinking. I can still remember what the fur felt like under Maude’s chin. I can still feel her wiggle her little head back and forth as she buried her face in my hair to sleep at night. I can still hear the little barks she made in her sleep sometimes. I can still picture the way she bounced around the room whenever I came home, so happy to see me.

I wrote those last four sentences in the present tense, and I had to go back and correct them.

So I’m 36 today, but you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I don’t feel like celebrating.

15 thoughts on “36

  1. As time passes, success (read: income) disparity is one of the most significant sources of discomfort among friends, and for changes in people’s social circles. One thing I’ve found that’s important: keep doing whatever it is you do that you like saying when someone asks, “What do you do?”

  2. Happy Birthday Alison. Whether you are aware or not, you are loved and valued by a lot of us here in Digiland. Sending great karma your way.

  3. 3 years on & I can still remember everything about Sophie. It is easier, but not EASY, you know?

    Happy Birthday. This was a very powerful piece & gave me lots to think about.

  4. What Ryan said. Happy birthday, Alison – the world is a better place with you in it

  5. Happy Birthday, anyway. There’s nothing to say-the-hurt-away, and I’m sure you don’t need our affirmation. Just the same, you are loved and respected. If I hear of anyone looking for a content specialist (or content usability specialist) I’ll pass the word. By the way, Alyssa loves her necklace :)

  6. I’m so sorry to hear about Maude. I wish I had things to say that would make you feel better or would fix your problems, but I have nothing. I can’t imagine the difficulty you’re having, but I hope you understand you are not a bad person with bad karma.

    I hope your next year improves on this one.

  7. Happy Birthday anyway!
    I have a 5-yr old Beagle and had tears in my eyes reading this. I truly am sorry for your loss. Big hugs to you!

  8. Happy birthday, and I’m so very sorry about Maude. I’m sorry that things are being generally frustrating, but I know for myself that there’s nothing rougher than grief… and so while I’m wishing you well on everything, I’m especially sorry about Maude. She inspired me to get Sassafras, so she’ll always be the first chihuahua who made me get it.

    Love to you.

  9. I’m sorry about all of it too, and especially sorry about Maude. I remember when you first got her… it probably doesn’t help at all, but I hope you know you gave her a wonderful life full of love, and it gave a bunch of random Internet strangers a bit of happiness over the years too.

  10. So sorry to hear about Maude. I haven’t read your blog for ages but when I checked in I read this post and was saddened. I enjoyed your stories about her. I recall reading about the day you bought her home and read on as her timidity turned into being at ease in your home. I’m sorry. Pets are the best friends we can ever have.

  11. Hi. I’m a total stranger. I hope this isn’t weird. I’m violating my policy of not commenting on things on the internet. I’m hoping by commenting to send you some good energy or some kind of support even if I can’t really help you in any practical way.

    I discovered bluishorange a few years ago and found a resonance in your words and in many of the parts of your life that you chose to share with the internet. I check in every once in a while to see how things are going. I enjoy your writing, and, honestly, your stories bring me a sense of peace. When I read what you write, it helps me feel like I’m not alone, and that makes life a little better.

    I’ll be 36 in a few months, too. I’m not very happy about it. Not because I really mind getting older, but because I’ve been in limbo for years, and I know that even if everything starts going right, right now, it will still take years and may even be impossible for me to recover from what’s happened.

    I’ve been where you are with unemployment, in some strange state of quasi-poverty. I would agree, it’s not so much like being really truly poor—I have vestiges of my middle-class upbringing that are still advantages, I think. Education, work experience, and family that can provide some support. As a result, better potential for better work and resources to buy time to hunt for jobs. Of course there’s the flip side of owing student loans, having other debts taken on in better times, and drawing on relatives’ finite resources. Being unemployed is not a vacation, a thing a lot of people don’t seem to understand. It’s daily wracking stress, nightmares (when you can actually sleep), depression, and grueling job hunting topped with heaps of rejection. In the end it doesn’t matter how good of a person you are, you can’t get out of it until someone with a job to fill gives you a chance. Temp jobs and part-time work help you survive, and fill resume gaps, but they also prolong the torture. You can’t plan for a future when work is inconsistent and when the jobs you can find don’t pay enough to cover the basics.

    How do you explain what it’s like to friends who grew up during the same time, with the same opportunities and the same expectations, but who haven’t experienced these setbacks? How can people our age that are now moving into management positions understand that you can’t even get hired for entry-level work? What do you say to friends who seem to think nothing of buying expensive gadgets, or taking vacations when you can’t even afford to meet them for drinks? Or that you’re moving in with your parents again while they’re buying houses? How do you explain to people who are progressing and living their lives what it’s like to be knocked back into some sort of stress-filled adolescence, depending on family for support, and waiting for some hiring manager somewhere to see through the stress and depression and anger that you are indeed a person of value and worth hiring?

    My bad times started almost five years ago. After six months of looking for work, while I still had money from the good old days, I moved to Austin to try to find opportunity. While I was there my marriage finally fell apart, the money dwindled as I limped from temp job to temp job, and after nine months I loaded up my car with the few things I still owned and hoped I could afford the gas to get home.

    Home was better—at least I had friends and family there. I was a shell of a person after Austin. I was lucky to have a friend who was in a similar situation to me, and to live with a parent who had struggled through divorce and poverty in raising me and my siblings. With their help, I started rebuilding myself as a person. I did odd jobs for people, found some temp work here and there, got a summer job relevant to my field. Still, in a 24 month period I had a job for less than 6 months.

    Friends, good people for whom good things had happened, could not comprehend my situation, and I could not possibly explain it to them. None of them had been divorced. That new facet of me made most of them uncomfortable. The ones who had been unemployed at times in our 20’s had had trust funds or well off parents—they never had to worry about paying rent or buying food. They had been unemployed by choice. My unemployment baffled them. I did not begrudge them their good fortune, but I also couldn’t stand to be around them anymore. The “helpful” suggestions to take expensive self help courses or spiritual retreats or to pay a head hunter to find me a job just drove home how incomprehensible my life had become to them. They couldn’t understand that I never had more than a couple hundred dollars in my bank account at any time, or that my family couldn’t just hand me thousands of dollars at will. I couldn’t stand the pity, the discomfort in their eyes. I couldn’t bridge the gap by caring about the interests we used to share. I started avoiding them. I avoid them still. Our lives no longer bear much similarity.

    As time went by, I felt more like I was invisible than anything else. I never would have shown up on any statistics as unemployed, since I never qualified for unemployment. I didn’t look like a stereotypical unemployed person, wearing rags and pushing a shopping cart or something. A lot of my clothes were starting to fall apart, sure, but I just looked like an over age college student maybe. I’d pack lunches and go to coffee shops and buy bottomless cups of coffee for a dollar so that I could stay and use the wifi all day. I applied to hundreds of jobs, most of which never acknowledged the fact in any way. I resurrected old hobbies and learned some new crafts to fill time. I’d go walking for hours to have something to do, to think, to get out of the house. I’d see people going about their lives, oblivious, like so many of my friends, to the job crisis, seemingly unaffected by the Great Recession. I missed being able to afford to go on a date, or to go out and talk to people about anything other than looking for a job, or, really just to go out somewhere and not feel sick about spending money. I’d walk by restaurants and bars at night in my wanderings of the city, a shadow, a ghost; no one noticed me and I didn’t belong in those places anymore anyway.

    I went to Occupy rallies. I was worried about somehow getting a record and screwing my chances of getting a job in the future so I didn’t get very involved. I read about politics, about economics, trying to figure out why no one in power actually seemed to care about doing anything to address the situation. The news talked about recovery, but I could find no evidence of it. I kept getting turned down for jobs at home. I was offered a job with a year contract in another state, but I couldn’t afford to move to take it. I’d already sold almost everything of value that I had just to keep going, and I would’ve needed my car for the job. Finally, here was an opportunity and the sorry state of my resources kept me from taking it. I was angry.

    Somewhere in there the anger…changed. I don’t know how else to say it. It’s still there—I believe that if our system isn’t fundamentally flawed, it’s at least become so skewed that it no longer represents the best interests of the majority of people. It’s wrong, the extreme inequity is wrong. I recognized that I wasn’t really part of the middle class anymore. I think you’re right, that the middle class dream is gone for many of us. I think that there’s a new class that is forming, but what it is, and whether it’s permanent, I don’t know. But there seem to be a lot of educated, experienced, driven people who now find themselves living below the poverty line with little hope of change.

    My unemployed friend became an activist, writing, marching, and promoting political change, but that wasn’t the path for me. I realized that maybe this experience of losing most of my stakes in society, of becoming untethered from the typical expectations of an American middle class person was actually an opportunity in a way. The doors had been opened for me to do things I never could have done as a married guy trying to work to support an eventual family and all the stuff to go with it. Without assets or savings, I also didn’t have any obligations to look after those sorts of things. I no longer had any semblance of a career. I didn’t have to pretend that I wanted to play the game anymore, and after two years of job hunting, I didn’t. What do you have to lose if you have nothing left? I decided I could use my anger to do something productive, use the advantages I’ve had to help other people who hadn’t ever had a taste of that kind of opportunity in their lives. And, I figured, if I was looking at being broke for the long-term anyway, with temp jobs and such to string me along, I might as well do something interesting instead.

    So I decided to pursue some of the things that I’d wanted to do for years, but that would never have made financial or career sense under my old circumstances. I decided to help other people live better lives. Whether our leadership or anyone in the rest of our country cared about these issues didn’t matter—at least I could take action to make the world a little bit better myself. After my taste of semi-poverty, this seemed a worthwhile way to spend my time. I applied to the Peace Corps, used money from my summer job, the only job I’d had in years that allowed me to accumulate any sort of savings, to pay off everything but my student loans (by now, with all my unemployed time, those will follow me to my grave), and sold my car to pay for Peace Corps medical exams. I served in AmeriCorps while I waited, working with people living in poverty to improve their financial situations (ah, the irony). I’ve been in the Peace Corps now for nearly two years. I’ve seen poverty I never imagined. I’ve had opportunities I’d never have gotten back home. I’ve helped people take at least small steps toward better lives. I’ve rebuilt the sense of self worth I’d lost during unemployment. I see the glimmer of a path to some kind of future for myself. It’s nothing I’d ever imagined my life would look like, but overall it doesn’t look too bad.

    I’m not saying that you should go do what I did or anything like that. I thought I’d share my experiences with you in the hope that maybe they would resonate with you in some way and you’d feel a bit better. These days I feel like I’ve been lucky how things turned out. I wouldn’t want to go through the really bad times again, but I also wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t. I think I’ve become more open-minded, more patient, more accepting of others as a result of my experiences of loss and failure. I feel like I’ve woken up. My solutions to my problems have cost me—I have more opportunity now, but I think I might also be stuck out here for good. I ended up jobless in the first place because I went to work overseas and when I came home, no one seemed to know what to make of me and my experience. Now I’ve got gaps in my resume as well as more time over seas. I miss my family and my unemployed friend who helped me so much, but I dread becoming an unemployed ghost again more deeply than I can readily express. I think I’ve made myself an expat, traded my homeland for opportunity. But it’s okay, it’s life.

    I guess the point I’m trying to make is this: You’re not alone. Even if people in your immediate circles don’t really understand what you’re going through, there are others out there who do. It is virtually impossible to explain what it’s like to people who haven’t experienced something like it. It’d be nice if there were support groups or something for the invisible poor, the lost middle class, the privileged poor, or whatever you’d call us. You’re in an unusual position in that you have a public identity—you’re not quite so invisible. Maybe there’s opportunity there. I don’t know. I’ve never met you, I probably wouldn’t recognize you on the street, but I value your writing and observations, and I care about your struggles. I want to thank you for the writing you’ve done. I hope things come together for you, I hope you do write your book (I think it’s a neat idea and would have gladly contributed to your trip, but I couldn’t at the time), and I hope all the bad stuff in life doesn’t break your spirit or diminish the good things. So, for what it’s worth, at least one stranger in the universe is sending positive energy your way.

    Lots of people say everything in life happens for a reason. I don’t think life really works like that. Some guy once said, “Life is just one damn thing after another,” which, in my experience, seems more accurate. I think instead of there being a reason for things happening, we humans have the ability to look back and evaluate our lives, to pull reason from the chaos of life. I think our ability to find reason in randomness helps us to cope with all the failed plans, abandoned dreams, and lost friends we accumulate over the years. We can use those losses as a source of strength, a way to create some kind of meaning and lasting direction in our existences. It keeps us from losing hope.

    I’m probably getting overly philosophical, and I’ve probably written one of the longest comments to a blog post ever. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last five years thinking about this sort of stuff. Maybe it can be useful for once.

    I’m sorry to hear about Maude—she sounds like she was a great friend. I had a dog that was my best friend. He kept me sane through grad school and a lousy marriage. The friendship of a dog is almost certainly the truest friendship a person could ever hope to have.

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