Monday, July 30, 2012

Back, With Lessons In Hand

I’m back from eleven days at the coast, which I had planned as a time of concentration upon things of the spirit.  It turned out to be not that…not at all. 

Somehow I expected the same kind of perfect weather with which I had been gifted last August; in fact, I took for granted that the weather would be a non-worry.  Having lived in Oregon for 28 years now, I should have known better.  We had rain, fog, thunderstorms, wind and chill.  Weather issues absorbed a lot of our energies.  We battled the summer “breeze” in camp (it turns out we chose the two least sheltered sites in the entire campground…probably WHY they were empty when we got there!)  We fled inland for lunches and outdoor time that could be enjoyed without donning layers of hoodies and coats.  Nearly all the outdoor activities we had planned—from marathon croquet matches to nightly campfires—were scotched by the weather.

Conditions were perfect for huddling inside and getting in a lot of reading.  That proved to be an ill-fated endeavor as well, since the two books I brought with me turned out to be more sources of frustration than enlightenment.  The Steven Farmer book, from  which I had previously decided I would extract what nuggets of wisdom I could despite its problems, degraded in later chapters into a collection of obviously under researched and unscholarly rules and observations that the writer apparently pulled out of his own…head.  I’m all for charting one’s own spiritual path, but when I choose reading material on the subject, I’m more in mind of seeking a consensus of current followers or a history of a particular practice—NOT one man’s recounting of what worked for him packaged as a “how to” manual.  And a poorly edited and ungrammatical one at that.  I finally had to put the book aside, as it proved too much of an insult to my intelligence. 

The other book I brought along was Jimmy Carter’s 2005 offering: Our Endangered Values.   This is a decently researched treatise on the lamentable (in Carter’s view) shift to fundamentalism within mainstream Protestant sects, and their subsequent increasing political activism, brought to fruition by a distinctly unholy (and, in Carter’s view, also unconstitutional) alliance with the Republican Party.  Carter uses his own beloved Southern Baptist Convention as his chief example of what he believes to be an un-Christian shift toward absolutism, fundamentalism, biblical cherry-picking and, in the end, outright rejection of the policies and example of Christ himself, within American Christianity.   

This book was published smack-dab in the middle of the Bush Administration, seven years ago.  One would think that the exit of Bush and his cronies, plus nearly four years of a subsequent Democratic administration, would have rendered Mr. Carter’s observations at least somewhat dated and non-topical.  The sad fact is that the book deals with forces that have continued to rise, and cause strife and deadlock in our government today.  It is, if anything, even more relevant than when it was published seven years ago.  Reading it has made me feel alternately disgruntled, outraged, and helpless.  Not the kinds of emotions in which I had thought to dwell during my period of planned spiritual refreshment. 

Which just goes to prove that not all teaching is welcome or easily received.  Another lesson from the Universe, no doubt…presented at a time when I am more able to deal with the challenge than I was a year ago.  For which I am thankful, if, at the same time, a tad depressed.       

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Learning to Recieve

The excerpt I quoted from Animal Speak in my previous post was part of a chapter on exploring the predatory nature of animal totems.  Andrews claims that a person needs to become familiar with the natural habits of her totem animal(s) in order to more clearly understand her own nature and motivations.  He explains that predation is a dominant concept of the natural world, and rather than be squeamish about it--"that evil lion is chasing down those beautiful gazelle!"--we need to study it and take to heart the valuable lessons contained in this most natural of behaviors.

Later in the same chapter, Andrews brought forth another nugget drawn from the behavior of predators that I found invaluable to my own current situation.  Studying the behavior of predators, he says, teaches us how to receive--a behavior that we control-freak human beings have not only thrown by the wayside, but very often denounce as bordering on the sinful. 

"Unfortunately, in our present society, we hold strong to an unbalanced view of martyrdom.  We are taught that if we do not suffer we cannot grow.  We are programmed not to be selfish.  We are drilled in our religions and our society to give and give.  We are never taught that there are times to receive as well as to give."

He goes on to postulate that if we don't recieve the little things like compliments, offers of assistance--the kinds of small gifts we are offered every day and have been taught to deprecate or politely refuse--the Universe will not send us the big things.  This is so eerily parallel to a concept put forth by Jesus in the Gospel of  Luke--"Whoever can be trusted with little, can also be trusted with much..."-- that I began to wonder if we hadn't been misinterpreting Jesus' meaning all along. 

Andrews offers that predators clearly demonstrate the behavior of freely receiving from the Universe.  "When the Earth presents a prey opportunity, [the predator] goes after it.  If it doesn't, it will not eat."  He puts forth the challenge that one should learn how to receive joyfully and freely, trusting that the Universe will also show you opportunities to give back in appropriate ways later. 

This is SO something I need to incorporate into my own life.  The guilt I have attached to my current state of idleness has sabotaged my enjoyment of it, and my ability to use this gift of "free time" to its greatest potential.  It seems like all I can think is I'm not contributing, I'm being a burden, I'm a slug, I'm a slacker, I'm taking advantage.

The problem is, I'm NOT actually taking advantage, am I?  I'm doing everything but.  I honestly feel that the Almighty wants me to be happy where I am, and when I get to that point, I will be offered new options. 

I mentioned earlier that I felt that I was being told to "Wait!" and that I was not happy about it.  I think Ted Andrews' book is offering me some reinforcement of what the Almighty is asking of me. 

Yet another two-by-four upside the head...   

Saturday, July 14, 2012

On "Being" Who I Am

A few days ago, I decided it might be a good idea to read one of my shamanic "reference books" cover to cover, instead of using it like an encyclopedia and only referring to it when I have a question or need a definition.  The book is Animal Speak by Ted AndrewsAs I read, I am somewhat annoyed by grammatical errors and some theories that I find simplistic or far-fetched.  But I've decided to subscribe to the belief that not everyone is a gifted analytical thinker/writer (and not everyone has a great editor, apparently) and pick between the flaws to find the nuggets of wisdom.  And there are many.
Today, I found this one:

"Once you 'be' who you are (reflected in part by your totem [the animal spirits who speak to you and/or guide you]), then you must do what is necessary to be you.  As long as you persist, you will succeed in manifesting what you need or desire.  A hawk is a hawk.  It behaves like a hawk and not like a duck.  Because of what it is, it is able to recognize opportunities essential for, and unique to, its life.  If it fails to catch its prey, it does not worry about being unable to eat.  It persists.  It does not change.  It works to become a more effective predator, for that is where its success lies."

It occurred to me that I have suckered myself into believeing that I need to change myself to have success in life.  Like, obviously the person I AM is not able to if I become something else, the results will be different.

Well, a hawk is a hawk.  And though the hawk is not my totem, I AM my Self.   

It is not my Self which needs to change.  I may need to alter my methods (maybe hunt in a different field) or my goals (perhaps go after a mouse instead of a jackrabbit), but if I remain true to myself, I should get what I need.

Something to think about; and, I think, a valuable lesson indeed.      

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Election Year Blues

This time around, I am not able to participate in the election-year political tug of war on any meaningful level. That would assume there WAS a meaningful level upon which to relate to this entire mess.

Congress remains aggressively ineffective, Obama chides Congress for its idleness, and Romney points at the president and says, “Look! He hasn’t done anything in four years!” The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shocks the hell out of the entire world by deciding that a provision of the Health Care Act is constitutional based on Congress’ constitutional right to levy taxes—so now the conservatives can add “It’s a TAX!!!” to their arsenal of war cries against “Obamacare.”

Congress has become nothing more than a stage for political grandstanding, no longer a legislative body concerned with the business of running the country. I almost wrote “concerned with doing the business of the American people,” but I’m afraid that is exactly what they ARE doing. Because somewhere along the line, finger-pointing, side-taking and refusal to compromise became the business of the people. I am right, you are wrong, and the world will come to an apocalyptic end if we make any attempt to meet in the middle.

Meanwhile, the rich are getting richer, the poor and indigent are standing on the edge of genocide through hatred, greed and neglect, and the Middle Class is sliding down into the ranks of the New Working Poor. What is wrong with us, Mr. and Mrs. America? Why are we not only allowing this to go on, but standing on the sidelines pumping our fists and cheering?

Human history repeats and repeats itself, does it not? At least among “civilized” nations, anyway. The rich WILL have the power. And there is never enough—power or money—to satisfy them. They WILL have it all, at the expense of the rest of the populace. Then the common people revolt, and wrest their sustenance away from the rich. If chaos does not ensue, there might follow a period of prosperity for the Everyman… while the rich connive and scheme to once again hold all the marbles. Which they eventually do. And the cycle begins again.

How can we count the ways that the rich and powerful have historically schemed to hold and enhance their own status while keeping others safely without resources and firmly in their place? Religions, class/caste systems, monarchies—societal models which bestow the right to govern upon the rich simply by virtue of the fact that they ARE rich. And they mean to remain so.

In America, the rich have had to deal with the inconvenient concepts of “freedom” and “the American Dream.” It’s taken them a couple of centuries, but they’ve begun to get the hang of it. Here in the 21st century, they’ve enjoyed great success with the strategy of setting us—the “UN-privileged”—at each other’s throats. First, they tied up and absorbed enough of the nation’s resources to make the Not-Rich feel the pinch. Then, using the wonders of modern instantaneous communication—could there BE a better propaganda-spreading tool?—they’ve contrived to broadcast a poisonous brew of lies, half-truths, fire and brimstone, and irreverent “comedy” that got everyone covering their backs and eying their neighbors suspiciously. Throw on a heavy dose of aggressive nationalism (go abroad and start a couple of wars!) and that keeps the Great Unwashed occupied squabbling among themselves while the rich rob them blind.

And we fall for this…why?

People are just…gullible. Take away some of their comforts, make their lives a little harder, their struggles a little more fruitless, and they become even MORE gullible. They are looking for someone to blame; itching for someone to hate. All you have to do is show up in their living rooms and feed them your version of who’s to blame and whom they should hate and voila! you’ve got them right where you want them. You might even get them to swallow that the richer YOU get, the more excess riches will dribble off and fall on them. (Someone who is a better judge of human nature than I am figured that one out –I never would have believed anyone would be dense enough to buy it—and it seems to be working. Who knew?)

It occurs to me that this is not a new or original strategy.  A version of it, using the same understanding of the baser tendencies of human nature, has been in practice for a while in the Middle East.  A little more than a decade ago, it exploded in our faces.  After 9/11, Americans tried to comprehend why Muslims would conspire to come all the way to our shores and kill thousands of innocent people. Mystified, horrified, shell-shocked, we wailed:

“Why do they hate us so much?!”

The theory: A group of (rich) religious zealots spied an opportunity to become global players by conscripting an army that would march to whatever orders they gave it. All they had to do was appeal to an economically disenfranchised people, point a finger in our direction, and say, “They are the ones responsible for all your problems!”

Poor, broken, desperate people will follow anyone.

Think about this the next time a politician who makes or has inherited more money than you and your hundred best friends will see in a lifetime, or one who is on the payroll of such a person one way or another, points to an immigrant, or a welfare mom, or your unemployed neighbor and says, “They are responsible for all your problems.”

Here is the question we now need to be asking:

“Why do we hate each other so much?”

And when we figure it out, when the light finally dawns, we need to DO something about it.  Because “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good [wo]men to do nothing.” 

Participation beckons, after all...

Monday, July 9, 2012

The New Definitions of American Society

Respect—(transitive verb)
1.) Esteem somebody or something. To feel or show admiration and deference toward somebody or something.
2.) Not go against or violate something; to pay due attention to and refrain from violating something
• respect the law
• respect another’s privacy
3.) Be considerate toward somebody or something; to show consideration or thoughtfulness in relation to somebody or something

I don’t particularly enjoy the extent to which my current opinions resemble those of my parents thirty years ago. They were pretty sure American society was going to hell in a handbasket. I thought they were full of crap, then. These days, I’m convinced they were positively prophetic.

I’ve mentioned before that I believe one of the major ills that has infected our society is the extinction of the concept of “respect.” Respect is no longer a social obligation. In fact, it has fallen so out of fashion that when someone publicly demonstrates it, they themselves are generally disrespected by others—neighbors, colleagues, classmates, the Press—to the point of utter humiliation.

The traditional concept of respect has become so archaic that most Americans under the age of thirty have no idea what the word actually means. They have conjured up their own definition of “respect,” mostly having to do with YOU letting ME do anything I feel like doing and not having the nerve to get in my face about it.

I had the opportunity to witness this definition in action yesterday, when the posse of twenty-something gangsta wannabes next door decided their party would not be complete without contemporary dance music blaring from a four-foot-tall stereo amplifier they had dragged onto their back deck. Their deck which is separated from mine by about fifty feet and a six-foot cedar fence notorious for its inability to block noise. Twice in a matter of ninety minutes, my hubs popped his head over the fence and politely asked them to turn their music down. Each time, they complied, minimally; but within minutes, the volume had made its way back up to annoying level and beyond.

Finally, we moved to a different part of our yard, where the sound was less audible. Seeing that we had vacated our own back deck, the young gangstas did what any normal, considerate, neighborly types would have done. They turned the stereo UP.

It was this action that prompted the hubs to pop his head over the fence for a third time, which then inspired the young neighbor to declare that we were “disrespecting” him by asking him to control the volume of his stereo. Thereby demonstrating the contemporary definition of the concept of “respect.”

They did indeed turn down the volume of their music, but not until the young neighbor had accused us of everything from waking them up with our screaming fights at 1:00 in the morning (ummm….we don’t have screaming fights and we are almost never awake at 1:00 in the morning) or sitting outside on our deck late at night disturbing them with our loud conversations (my husband and my sister are in bed by 9:00 every night, and I don’t sit outside alone…and if I did, I would certainly not be having a loud conversation with myself.) I’m sure he pulled these accusations out of his ass…uh, I mean, his imagination…for the benefit of his audience. (Demonstrating another contemporary concept—that “truth” is anything I happen to have the balls enough to write or say out loud and does not have to be based on actual fact.)

The confrontation was ugly and didn’t need to be. Our young neighbors and their massive sense of entitlement would probably have won the day, had they not been hampered by another manifestation of their re-write of their parents’ and grandparents’ moral code: a pack of offspring produced by their lack of sexual temperance.

Husband and I retreated to our yard, certain that our peace would only last until a favorite track rolled around and the volume would once again be cranked, the better to savor it. But, inexplicably, the noise grew less and less, until it silenced altogether, well before 7 pm. Certainly the party was not over so early!

I was mystified; until the absence of “boom-chunka-chunka-chunka-boom-chunka-chunka” allowed me to detect the distinctive plaintive wailing of a colicky infant emanating from deep inside the manse next door.

It went on for hours.

Karma IS a bitch.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Lesson on Pursiung One's Own American Dream

The tale of the woes of the Little PDX Pillow Factory, and our personal woes by association, makes me fightin’ mad.  Still, I can hear readers grumbling out there:  “What is she whining about?  He didn’t lose his job like so many other Americans have.  They didn’t lose their house, or even their credit rating.  There’s still a roof over their heads and food on the table.  She should be thanking the Universe for what they have rather than complaining about what they don’t have.”

This is all true, to a point.  Most Americans who find themselves in the same position we are in right now—not starving but unable to get ahead;  going backwards, even—are of my generation or slightly younger.  We were brought up with a somewhat more inclusive world view than subsequent “It’s-all-about-me” generations.  We were taught to be grateful for our blessings, and consider those who are less fortunate than we are.  And if the  predicament in which the hubs and I find ourselves were the result of some act of god—like the flooding of New Orleans, for example—I would be prostrate with gratitude that we have what we have.

The problem is, it is not the Almighty which has its hand planted firmly on my forehead pushing me backward with all its strength.  It is people.  People who have way more than I could ever hope to have, but who will not be happy until they get ALL of it.  People who themselves cannot be content with the whole, steaming, savory pie on the plate in front of them, as long as they can see the saucer of three rancid crumbs in front of ME, and know it isn’t theirs.  And who count on my compassion for the person who has no crumbs at all to keep me silently, guiltily content with whatever crumbs I can contrive to keep.  So, really, I believe anger is an appropriate response.  It is righteous anger aimed at unmitigated greed and avaricious power.

The past ten years presented other lessons besides the one I recounted in my last post.  Yes, we learned that hard work, loyalty and dedication to a job/company/industry were not the keys to lasting success because there were larger more sinister forces powerful enough to make collateral damage out of us and our life in their never-ending quest for All The Money.  But we also learned that those forces not only covet our plate of crumbs, but are going to see to it that we don’t get uppity and go off and try to make our OWN pie.   

Even though hubs had retained his job at Little Pillow Factory for a decade, we never expected that he would stay there for the rest of his working life, then go off into the sunset and live out his days on a great pension supplemented by the Social Security benefits he had been paying for since he was eighteen years old.   We were wary enough not to rely too heavily on THAT “happily ever after” (in your dreams) scenario.  When Social Security and Little Pillow Factory both looked to be heading for a dirt nap at the same time, we didn’t stand around, wring our hands and wail, “Who’s going to take care of us now?” We regrouped.  We made alternative plans.  We scraped together our resources and lined up The Next Thing.  The thing that we hoped would keep a roof over our heads and provide a retirement nest egg at the same time.  We bought our own business.

Our plan made sense, or we thought it did at the time.   At our ages, we knew we were approaching unemployability (actually, that boat had done sailed for me several years earlier…) With nearly half a century of restaurant experience between us, it wasn’t  like we were a couple of wet behind the ears kids deciding that we could make a killing serving up grandma’s old meatloaf recipe.   A killing is the last thing we expected to make.  We hoped for a living…nothing more.  Not even a rich living.  Just enough to keep the wolves from the door.  We would buy the restaurant; I would hold down the fort until the husband’s job went away—which we anticipated would take no more than a year or two.  And if the Universe smiled upon us and did not let us fail in the initial stage, we’d keep the place for ten or fifteen years, until we were ready to retire, and then sell it.  If we got back only what we had paid for it to begin with, that would be $90k in our pockets to jump-start our retirement.   

A neat plan.  A do-able plan.  A not-too-risky plan.  And we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

We struggled and bled and sweated for five years.  And in the end, we failed.  And though I knew many of my problems were self-inflicted, it was demonstrated to me almost on a daily basis that the economic deck is stacked against small businesses.  There was no supplier—not ONE—with whom we dealt or tried to deal that was interested in courting our tiny account, nor in going out of their way to provide us with more than the most meager sham of service if they DID condescend to do business with us.  Time after time we suffered the indignity of being summarily dropped by suppliers—not because we didn’t or couldn’t pay our bills, but because our account was too small to bother with. 

The only suppliers who would do business with us did so because their pricing system was such that small accounts paid more for the goods than large accounts did.  Buy less, pay more.  Buy more, pay less.  This was insanely frustrating.  It was obvious to me that there was an intentional plan in the works to put the little guys out of business, against which I was helpless.   (On top of this, my small-town customers subscribed to the seriously delusional line of thinking that I had no right to charge “Portland prices” because we were not in Portland.  Sigh!)  Paying usury prices for supplies, and then not being allowed to set our menu prices high enough to create any income was not a recipe for success.  When it came time to renew our lease, we just said "no." 

As a final fillip, the economy conveniently tanked in the middle of our tenure, so that when the time came (slightly prematurely) to implement our "exit strategy,"  we couldn't GIVE the business away.  We had invested something north of $100k, and five years of sweat equity.  In return, we got to walk out alive.  Period.  And had we been less experienced, cautious and just plain stubborn, we would have walked away with less, I have no doubt.   

Now that the dust has settled, I can look back on the hurdles we had to confront as a small business, and see them as part of a bigger picture of big fish swallowing up little fish in just about every aspect of American business.  For all that the President would like us to believe that the US economy rides on the backs of small businesses, that is just not the case.  Or maybe it is...  After all, we provide a constant source of nourishment for Big Business, because they WILL consume us.  With restaurants, the big players just need to hog all the supplies, services and workers, and the little guys croak before they become much more than plankton.  In manufacturing, it seems that a business can only attain a certain size before it attracts the attention of the Big Guy that “owns” that particular market.  And then…small business, look out!

Case in point:  Ever heard of Steinfeld’s pickles?  Those pickles used to be made in a plant right here in Scappoose.  Like many small manufacturers, the company was bought out by a Big Guy several years back…with the promise that business would go on as usual and no jobs would be lost.  The plant is empty, now.  Jobs at the pickle plant are but a fond memory.  And I read that, recently, the new owner has decided to relocate ALL its pickle manufacturing plants out of the Pacific Northwest…leaving Northwest cucumber farmers up s**t creek.  Seems the company can get cucumbers cheaper from…wait for it…


This is the new American Dream—though for us in the disappearing Middle Class, it is the American Nightmare.  The Big Guy buys out the little guy, then shuts it down.  Not one crumb of concern is wasted on what will happen to the workers and the farmers and the economies of these small towns when the jobs go away.  Top priority is to control the competition.  And the marketplace.  And the economy.  And the world.

Oh…and then there is this other little trick the Big Guys have come up with.  It’s called “Commodity Roulette.”  At any given moment, with the flick of a press release (The US Pumpkin crop has failed!  There is freezing weather in Florida!  Coffee fungus has depleted the Andean harvest!) the price of some food staple jumps erratically.  Coffee.  Sugar.  Flour.  Cheese.  Rice.  Chocolate.  Pork.  Poultry.  Beef!  The cafĂ© struggled through episode after episode of spiking costs for the things we needed for our menu every day.  Just so that some rich asshat, or group of asshats, could throw a couple billion into the vault before consumers got wise and forsook  the commodity altogether.  Then the price would miraculously drop like a rock and everything would go back to the way it was…almost.  There were always that ten- or twenty-cents-a-pound (gallon?) that stuck to a product after one of these episodes. 

Except for beef.  Beef prices soared and have continued to soar.  Looks as if the Food Barons have declared that beef will be the Meat of the Rich.  How about it, my fellow used-to-be-Middle-Class Americans?  Have you noticed how much restaurants like Applebees and Olive Garden are doing with pork and chicken these days?  How much beef do YOU buy at the grocery store to feed your family? At $8 or $9 or $15 a pound, I’m not throwing too many steaks on the barbie this summer, are you? It didn’t take long for the Food Barons to learn all the neat tricks of the Oil Barons, did it? 

So, yeah…  We made our contingency plan; we stuck our necks out, we took the risk.  And due to circumstances outside our control, we couldn’t make it happen.  We ended up right back where we started:  me with my tiny concession business, and husband clinging by his fingernails to his job at the Little Pillow Factory. 

And both of us staring down at our little saucer of rancid crumbs, and noticing that now there are only two left... 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The American Dream in Full Reverse

Now that I have set myself the task of using my own story to demonstrate the abuses suffered by middle class Americans, I find that I have an entire notebook full of experiences at hand to illustrate my point. To avoid overwhelming my intrepid readers, this has sorted itself into a series of posts. Let’s call this first installment “The Erosion/Disappearance of Middle Class Employment;” as illustrated by the saga of the Little PDX Pillow Factory, at which my husband has worked since 1994.

Eighteen years ago, the hubs and I made an ill-advised move from Eugene to the Portland area, based on promises made by the company for which I had worked for eight years. As I was the principal wage earner at the time, the move seemed to make sense. It was, as it turned out, the beginning of the end of my “dream job.” A year later, I slunk away in disgrace from a job in which I had prospered and grown until a change of ownership wiped its shoes on us “overpaid” long-term managers (surprise!) and we were thrown out like old newspaper from the bottom of a birdcage.

But as my star fell, the husband’s rose. At the age of 38, he landed his first real “grown-up” white collar job, safely removed from the overwork/underpay world of retail and restaurant in which he had toiled the first twenty years of his working life. He was hired to head the purchasing department of a factory engaged in the production of decorative pillows, bedding and tabletop soft goods—the “Little PDX Pillow Factory.” Not so little, actually. They have a showroom on 5th Avenue in New York and sales/design staff headquartered in cities across the country. Quite a player in its industry, is the Little PDX Pillow Factory.

My nose-to-the-grindstone, allergic-to-drama life partner was readily accepted into the fold at the Pillow Factory. He worked hard and created no waves. Cleaned up other people’s messes and bowed to the somewhat inflated creative egos. Within five years, his salary doubled. We were far from rich, but we were no longer sweating from paycheck to paycheck. Every January, he would prepare his request for a pay increase, using carefully researched figures pursuant to the industry standard of compensation for his position, and laying out in detail his personal accomplishments of the previous twelve months. He would present this packet to plant ownership/management and be rewarded with a handsome raise. Things went on this way until he had been with the company for a decade. His annual pay increased to more than 3 times his original wage. He was happy, the Pillow Factory was happy; I was enjoying not being broke.

Finally we had arrived at our American Dream. This was how life was supposed to be, wasn’t it? If you worked hard and kept your nose clean, your salary increased and your life got “better.” You paid your bills and had money left over. You bought a nicer home, a new car, a trailer, a boat. You took vacations, ate at nice restaurants, bought clothes at Macy’s instead of Goodwill.

And then the bottom fell out.

The powers-that-be would have us believe that the economic ills by which we are now beset all came about as a result of the crash and burn at the end of the Bush Administration in 2008. But I am here to tell you that the troubles for some industries started significantly prior to that event. I truly wish I was better educated as to WHY and HOW this came to pass, but the first years of Bush’s reign saw business owners forsaking American workers and shipping jobs overseas at an amazing rate.

The Little PDX Pillow Factory took it in the shorts. Fabric, trims and embellishments could all be got more cheaply from Asian companies. By the early 2000’s, most of the stateside mills which had produced these things—and which were the backbones of entire communities in the Southeastern United States—had been shuttered; the workers were jobless and the equipment had been sold off to India and China where non-unionized labor could churn out the goods for a fraction of the cost (and the quality) of American products. Little Pillow Factory scrambled to adjust its buying practices. The husband struggled to master the language and nuances of international purchasing. And master them he did. Which was a good thing, because his troubles—and those of the Little Pillow Factory—were just beginning.

The advance of the Walmart retail manifesto—that the American consumer makes buying decisions based solely upon price, doesn’t demand quality, and doesn’t pay any attention to where the goods are made as long as they’re cheap—caused entire industries to be shipped to the Far East, never to return. The demand for cheaper and cheaper goods first caused American factories to overhaul their purchasing practices. Which, in the end, was a vain endeavor—because it was only a matter of time before American retailers completely sold out American workers and began to order the finished goods themselves from manufacturers in the Far East.

Orders at the Little PDX Pillow Factory fell to near zero. With no “business killing” tariffs to compensate, an item which could be made in America and bought for $6 wholesale, could be made in China or India and shipped across the Pacific, and still carry a price tag of less than half that of the domestic-made product. It didn’t matter that the foreign-made goods were of disastrously poor quality.

The booming manufacturing industries in China and India don’t have to deal with government safety or quality regulations, and they certainly don’t see the need to implement their own quality control standards. When American retailers continue to insist that the goods be made more and more cheaply, the manufacturers are given carte blanche to cut corners and compromise quality any way they can. The result is that American workers lose their living wage jobs, cannot afford to pay more for better quality, and stand in line at Walmart to throw money into the coffers of the very entity which destroyed their decent middle class living in the first place. What choice do they have? Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.  Norma Rae may have been victorious back in the 70's, but if she has grandchildren, they are most likely running a cash register at Walmart or dropping fries at McDonald's, if they can find work at all. 

All this international business intrigue has, of course, reached its icy fingers into my family’s little corner of the world and changed our lives significantly. When business dried up at the Little PDX Pillow Factory, husband did not lose his job immediately (as did almost half of the crew of nearly 300 sewers, cutters and packers) but his status changed from “I Have A Job” to “I’m Lucky to Have a Job.” Hard to know, sometimes, which is worse…losing your job or being “lucky” enough to keep it.

People Who Have Jobs are treated with respect—even cherished, perhaps—because their employers would not want them to take their experience to another business, possibly a competitor. These fortunate folks receive pay increases, benefits, praise and titles. While People Who Are Lucky to Have Jobs are treated like crap by cranky management , never see another pay raise or bonus and have benefits taken away. Most likely they’ll have their hours, salary and staff cut—but not their workload—because, after all, they’re Lucky to Have a Job.

While fat cats lined their pockets with obscene oil company profits, forcing the prices of everything from groceries to utilities to march ever higher, husband went seven years without a raise. Because he was so Lucky to Have a Job, he was afraid to take a vacation, and we couldn’t afford to go anywhere if he had. After enduring the first couple of years of being Lucky to Have a Job, and foreseeing a time fast-approaching when his luck would run out, we devised a post-Pillow-Factory strategy for keeping a roof over our heads: We bought a restaurant.

And we all know how that turned out.

Because something quite unpredictable happened. Little PDX Pillow Factory has held on by the skin of its teeth. It somehow managed to morph itself from a manufacturing plant into an import company. Husband, who has been instrumental in this metamorphosis, did not lose his job, and the business venture into which at least one of us had poured 90% of her life force became redundant. We have once again thrown our lot 100% in the direction of the Pillow Factory. As it sinks or sails, so go we.

Husband did indeed receive a raise—his first in seven years—in 2011. Plant ownership managed to part with a 3% COLA for the faithful few office staff who still remained. Yes…that’s right. Three percent. This year, 2012, they were kept in suspense about raises until well into June. When the employees were advised that ownership would generously absorb the health insurance premium increase, rather than pass it on to employees in the form of higher payroll deductions. In lieu of pay raises. So, in the past 8 years, as reward for his heroic contributions toward keeping a foundering factory from going down for the third time, the husband has received a pay raise of  approximately $1.23 per hour. Even assuming the cost of living has only risen by the "3% annually" government benchmark (which we all know comes out of the brain of someone smoking some serious crack), husband now grosses $20,000 per year less than he would have to in order to merely maintain our 2004 lifestyle. Which was not extravagant, by any stretch of the imagination.

And this does not take into account the meteoric rise in health insurance costs, which have shrunk our disposable income and eroded our lifestyle even further.

In simple terms, through no fault or action of our own, our American Dream stalled, then started going in reverse. We have been forced backward as a result of avaricious economic policies put into play by those in whose best interests it is to direct the flow of all money into their own pockets. All money. They want it all. They never have enough.

The rich. The powerful. Big business, and the government that has pandered to it.

Take a look at your own financial situations, my fellow (formerly) Middle Class Americans. I’d be willing to bet that your stories of the past ten years do not look a whole lot different from mine.

Are you angry yet?

Owning the Plight of the American Middle Class

It doesn’t escape my notice that after nearly nine years of blogging (and despite the fact that “Coming to Terms…” was once nominated for AOL J-land’s “Best Political Blog”), my political posts seem to fly like cement elephants flapping lead wings. I understand that there are other things about which I write—my spiritual odyssey, my marital problems, my crash and burn with the restaurant—to which people can relate more comfortably than they can to my politics. But, to my mind, there is nothing more important than getting the word out there about what we, as a nation, are suffering, and what we might possibly do about it. I’m too old, too poor and too ignorant to run for office (though there are those to whom the “ignorant” part would be no hindrance…) All I can do is try to talk sense to whoever is listening, and hope it has some effect. Like a street-corner evangelist.

There is a lot of talk about a “Class War” being waged in America today. This talk mostly comes out of the mouths of conservatives attempting to turn public opinion against movements like “Occupy Wall Street” or “The 99%.” Anyone endeavoring to make the (wo)man on the street take note of the growing inequity in the distribution of American wealth is accused of trying to start a Class War.

The unfortunate fact is, there IS no Class War going on here. But there sure as hell SHOULD BE. What are we, the beleaguered American Middle Class, waiting for?

Have so many financial pundits analyzed the depressing facts and predicted gloom and doom that we have begun to tune them out? Have our Facebook friends posted so many shocking graphics depicting the rising disparity in income between the rich and the poor that we have lost our ability to BE shocked? Why aren’t we rioting in the streets when we discover that average American families lost 40% of their wealth between 2007 and 2010? Why are we not screaming bloody murder when an unreformed JP Morgan cops to losing $2 billion—in truth, closer to $9 billion—on risky trading, the like of which nearly brought down the entire American economy a mere 48 months ago?

Are these stories not engaging or inspiring enough? Or are the concepts so large and so global that we find it ever so much easier to focus on our own little crumb of the pie crust, which isn’t so tiny and rancid after all… Is it?

The fact is, I don’t have to swallow or reject media stories about the increasingly dismal lot of the American middle class. Being a card-carrying member of that particular demographic, all I have to do is look at my own personal experience of the past dozen years to gather all the information I need to form an opinion on the subject. And to get really, really angry. Follow me, if you will, into my next few posts. But first, you must promise to get really, really angry, too.