Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Ten Things: Lessons of 2014

Life is a classroom that never closes. 

I remember our Geography textbooks in grade school (yes…they actually used to teach a subject called, “Geography,” where we learned, at the very least, that there WAS a wider world beyond American shores…)  At the end of every chapter was a review section, titled in bold script, “What Have You Learned?”  No doubt designed to get us to reflect upon and internalize the material covered in the chapter just completed.

As Chapter 2014 comes to an end, I feel the urge to review and reflect upon it. 

So.  What Have I Learned?  Let’s do this as a “Ten Things,” shall we? Just off the top of my head and in no particular order:

 1.)Marriage is a v-e-r-y long-term arrangement that grows and shrinks, flourishes and stagnates, sickens and recovers multiple times over the course of its lifetime.  And when it is sick, you don’t walk away. You just have to hang on to it until it quits convulsing. 

 2.)A faithful faith is not always a transcendent faith.  The Almighty hears and answers when we don’t think It is listening, perhaps when we don’t even know we are asking.  And the answer is NEVER to throw some hardship in our way in order to “teach” us something.    

 3.)When you give, know that you are giving.  Out of the goodness of your heart, as a conduit of the generosity of the Almighty.  If you expect any kind of reward, or even acknowledgment of your “sacrifice,” you will be disappointed. 

4.)I can live quite nicely without alcohol.  Since last February, I have consumed approximately one half glass of wine, and that at a luncheon honoring family from out of town.  I honestly can’t say I’ve missed it that much, though the resultant sugar cravings have added about ten pounds to my waist and hips…

5.)I am full of ideas, always, especially when it comes to the business.  And 75% of those ideas either never come to fruition or go down in major flames upon implementation.  Now I just need to learn to keep coming up with ideas despite that realization.  Check your failure ratio.  If you haven’t failed, you aren’t trying anything new.

6.)Cynicism is healthy.  And will save you money.  Time after time, while trying to renovate our building, I trusted the guy who talked the talk but never had any intention of walking the walk.  Threw or almost threw several thousand dollars (I did not have) down the toilet trusting people to be who they said they were or do what they said they would do.  Expensive lesson, but I think I’ve got it down, now…      

7.) The federal government of the United States is woefully broken.  And only promises to become more so in the next two years. One wonders how low it has to go before the pendulum will swing the other way, which I believe with all my heart will happen eventually.  It’s just so tough to watch the continued downward spiral.

8.)After saying a tearful and costly farewell to a beloved non-human family member, it has become apparent that choosing to share life with companion animals might at last come at too great a cost.  How could we bring another puppy into our home when, ten years from now, when it will be old and perhaps in need of expensive care, we ourselves will be too old and broke to provide it?  I’ll continue to house and protect any animal the Almighty chooses to bring into our lives.  But I cannot justify purposely going out and adopting an animal that we mightn’t be able to afford to keep well and comfortable in its old age.  And that is probably the saddest lesson I learned this year.

9.) The last decade of our non-retired lives is going to be lived under the dark cloud of never knowing what will happen, never being able to depend upon a job or an income, never knowing when the gravy train might jump the tracks, never to be restored.  Not a happy realization to have, but a necessary one, nonetheless.

10.)Twenty years ago, I didn’t think much about retirement, but I had a pretty clear idea of what it would look like.  Now that we are staring it in the face, I realize it looks nothing like I had imagined or hoped.  It is not looking like the “golden years” of rest and contentment, reward for a job well done.  It’s frightening and menacing, and smacks more of challenge than rest.  Perhaps the “challenge” aspect will ultimately be a blessing, keeping us vital and engaged.  Let us hope.

There they are.  Ten things, lessons of 2014. 

May 2015 bring us some a little less gloomy, a little more promising.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Definitely In The Crosshairs

I have written a few posts this year about the problems of the shrinking middle class.  About how one feels when one realizes that one is an endangered species.  I gotta tell you, it doesn’t feel great.

And I know there are folks out there who think, “What a whiner!  She’s got food on the table, a roof over her head…the wolves are in no way at the door.  Maybe she should save her complaining for when she has REAL problems.”

Why shouldn’t I get a jump on the complaining?  Why should I wait until the REAL problems arrive, which I see happening within the next five years?  Like, when we SHOULD be retiring, but will be unable to do so, because our retirement income will not be adequate to KEEP that roof over our heads or that food on the table, much less provide for the growing health care needs we’re likely to experience as time goes on.  Relaxation?  Travel?  Entertainment?  We’ll be lucky if we can continue to afford cable tv so that we can live vicariously watching others do those things.

We have been having a hard time making ends meet over the past few months.  Husband brings home a pretty decent income, we haven’t bought a car or taken any vacations…  So what is the problem?  Could it be the $800-$900 monthly tab for gasoline that we were paying during the summer months, with the travel we had to do for our business?  Could it be that the husband had to take out yet another small loan from his 401k so that we could pre-emptively replace our nearly shot roof before it failed?  Could it be that in April we shelled out $5000 for veterinary surgery that produced a $300/month payment for, roughly, -ever, along with an “unhappy outcome?”

Could it be the $12000 in bonuses that the husband brought home last year—which we thought were to make up for the absence of raises since 2005—shrank to less than $4k this year? I set up a spreadsheet a couple of years ago, and if husband had merely been receiving 3% COLA’s for the past nine years, his base salary would have been up over $113k in 2014. Instead, his base salary is just over $88k—less than it would have been had he received a 3% COLA  in 2006—which he did not.

We did an intensive grocery shop the other day, which we have not been able to do since October.  This means going to Costco and stocking up on things that you have to buy mass quantities of, but you save enough money on the “per each” cost that it makes it worth tripping over 30 rolls of toilet paper or a dozen rolls of paper towels for a while.  Or stocking the freezer with a large quantity meat…whatever meat you can afford, even at Costco prices.

I swear to god, as I walked around that store, I gasped and shook my head so much that I wonder why somebody didn’t walk up to me and ask me if they needed to dial 911.  Sliced cheese--$5/lb.   Bacon--$5/lb.  A 24-ounce bag of precooked “organic” chicken meatballs--$12.  The vegetarian “sausage” patties that used to go for $8 for a 3# box are now $13.  The “giant” box of laundry detergent that once cost $17.99 is now a third smaller and prices out at $30.  

The exact cut of rib eye roast that we bought for Christmas dinner five years ago for around $7/lb now goes for $14/lb.  That chunk of meat sitting there in the case was tagged at over $100.  One hundred dollars for one piece of beef that might serve a family Christmas party.

Oh…and you say you’re interested in throwing a party?  Just by-the-by, we checked out the price of fresh Dungeness crab at Pike Place market last week, and it was a mere $180 for four “large” whole crabs.  I don’t know how much that figures out to per pound for the crab meat.  I don’t want to know.  Not that I was intending to buy it anyway; but now I have a great reply for customers who ask us if we put fresh local crab into our crab cakes.  How does “Hell f*#king NO!” sound…?

Do you know what kind of meat came home in our Costco box?  Ground turkey.  It was on sale for under $3/lb.  So, y’know…just talking about FOOD, the price of some stuff we use all the time has doubled or nearly doubled in just the past 60 months. 

Tell me again why I shouldn’t be upset about the husband NOT getting crappy 3% annual cost-of-living adjustments for the past ten years.

But…oh, yeah, I forgot.  He’s “lucky to have a job.”

So, a couple of days ago, husband emails me, all excited.  Fourth quarter rolled around, and the company finally coughed up a bonus.  $3500—a little over $2800 after taxes.  Which will go right into the bank to cover property taxes, because we’ve been eating away at our property tax account to cover monthly shortfalls on the bills, or stuff like another $400 vet bill, or car repairs that would be too dangerous to file away under the heading of “deferred maintenance.”  Forty years in the workplace, over twenty years with the same company, a salary that would have put my parents on easy street…and we are living virtually paycheck to paycheck.  And sliding backwards a little more each month. 

I don’t know about any of my other middle class friends and acquaintances of “a certain age,” but this is not what we signed up for.

But what really frosted me, and was in fact the catalyst for this post, was when I overheard the husband explaining to my niece the reasoning behind the bonus structure at the company where my husband works.

It seems that if, after employing every accounting trick in the book to hide, re-arrange, and obfuscate sales to make it appear that the company has not made a profit, there is danger that a profit might actually appear—upon which the company would have to pay taxes—they throw the “profit” into the employee compensation pool and divide it out into bonuses.  Basically, they throw the money at the employees rather than pay taxes on it.  Oh, but Uncle Sam still gets a share—in the form of the income taxes the employees have to pay on the money.

So you don’t get a bonus for doing a good job.  You don’t get a bonus in lieu of the raises you should have been getting for the past ten years.  You don’t get a bonus for sticking with a company that has basically treated you like crap for the past twenty years.

You get a bonus because the company has money left over upon which it does not want to pay taxes.  I kid you not, the company line is, “Might as well give it to the employees if all you would be doing is handing it over to the government, otherwise.”  Nothing like a little creative (and perfectly legal) tax dodging to make your staff feel all warm and fuzzy, valued and appreciated.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I think that just…sucks.

Monday, December 1, 2014

On Ferguson

Don’t worry.  I do indeed have something to say about last week’s Grand Jury decision not to indict Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson for killing eighteen-year-old Michael Brown.  The internet reaction to the news was…illuminating.  And so I have found myself inspired to elucidate my personal opinion.

This post began as an online comment exchange with someone whose sympathies lay with Wilson.  She bade me to look at it from the officer’s side:  He puts his life on the line every day to “protect” people.  Why shouldn’t he just want to return home to his wife and kids every night?  To which I replied that I actually have a lot of empathy for police...more than most people. Here in Oregon, there have been incidents of officers being randomly shot at or killed during traffic stops. I wouldn't want that job, and I'm grateful there are those that do. That said, closer scrutiny of the combined St. Louis County police forces involved in this incident and its aftermath has shown a shockingly high incidence of racism, KKK membership and just downright abuse of power among their ranks.  It's evident something is very wrong with the police culture in that jurisdiction, and it needs to be dug up and fixed.

My debate opponent then encouraged me to read the Grand Jury testimony before making my decision.  And so I did.  Which convinced me, in the end, that even if Michael Brown’s murder wasn’t an intentional act of violent race-hatred, a rookie’s level of decent policing would have prevented Brown’s death.

The problem with the Grand Jury is that much of their decision was based on the testimony of Officer Wilson. Unfortunately, when two guys are involved in an altercation, and one ends up dead, you only have that one, by-definition biased report of events to go on. Same thing happened in the Zimmerman trial. The surviving (white) guy has the luxury of hours spent with legal counsel in the interests of framing the account in the light most favorable to him; he has the opportunity to emote all over the place for the media, for the Grand Jury, for a trial jury, if the case makes it that far, in justification of his actions.

The dead (black) guy, not so much.

There were so many points at which Wilson could have halted the confrontation instead of escalating it. The kid slammed his car door and wouldn't let him out of his cruiser. Ok. Roll up your window, stay in your vehicle and call for back up. He could have done the same after the altercation inside the vehicle--which would not have escalated to the level of violence it did if the officer had not chosen to draw his weapon rather than fend off the attack with his club or mace.

After he was shot by Wilson at the car, the boy broke off the attack and ran away--again, Wilson could have stayed with his vehicle and waited until help arrived. But no, Wilson gets out of the vehicle and starts to chase the kid--still unassisted, with no back-up present--gun drawn. Reports of what led to the fatal shooting are conflicting.  Many witnesses reported that it appeared Brown had turned around, hands up in the ages old posture of surrender.  Wilson emotes that this unstoppable angry kid (who had one hand inside his shirt holding up his pants in order to run, by the way) kept coming at him even after being shot at least three times, until Wilson finally stops Brown for good by shooting him in the head. The kid was coming at him..."of course" he had to shoot him. But if Wilson had not made the incredibly stupid, if not criminal, decision to chase after the kid unassisted, with his weapon drawn, that would not have happened.

Perhaps the Grand Jury formed their judgment based upon the broad powers conferred upon law enforcement when it comes to “deadly force.”  But if there are laws on the books that allow white police officers to chase down unarmed black offenders and shoot them dead, then those laws need to change.  Sure, there are “Stand Your Ground” laws in many states that allow private (white) citizens to commit homicide at the slightest hint of “fear for their lives.” But, if anything, police should be held to a HIGHER standard of behavior than average citizens.  Their charge to “protect and serve” must apply to the members of the community they patrol, NOT to themselves.  They must be taught that deadly force is an absolute last resort; they must be trained in alternative tactics, tactics that will keep officers and the unarmed suspects OUT of situations where deadly forced might be used.   At the very least, Darren Wilson made a string of terrible decisions, which put his own life in danger and cost a young man his life, and he should be held accountable.

Is Wilson poorly trained and just plain stupid, or is he truly a racist individual recruited by and acting according to the policies of a corrupt agency?  Does it matter?  Either way, an unarmed 18-year-old—who made some bad decisions of his own—lay dead in the street, his body baking in the hot August sun for four hours after the incident.  (As an example?  As a threat?  We’ll perhaps never know.)  But the legal system ultimately chose not to hold the shooter accountable for the homicide.

Darren Wilson claimed he feared for his life, and the Grand Jury swallowed the story.  Even though Brown was unarmed, and was several yards away from the officer when the officer kept shooting until the boy was dead.  Even though many actual eye-witnesses stuck to their stories that the boy had turned and raised his hands in surrender.  Even though the cop had intentionally put himself in a position where he could have been overpowered and had his weapon taken away from him.   I’m sorry.  To me, it appears there was more of white-hot, judgment-impairing anger than fear in this murder.

White policemen "protecting and serving" a black community must be MUCH better trained on how to defuse a potentially violent situation.  They must be taught how NOT to escalate the potential violence of a confrontation.  Isn’t that why cops are (supposedly) issued mace and tasers?    And I have to ask...if the black folks in this community are such thugs and so potentially violent, why was this officer patrolling the neighborhood without a partner, without back-up? Why would his department put him in a position where he could so quickly and easily feel that unloading his weapon into an unarmed kid was the only way he could protect himself?

As I mentioned earlier, the internet response to the Grand Jury decision was intense.  Okay…it’s not like I have 400 Facebook friends with diverse political viewpoints.  But even the conservative friends I DO have—the ones who rarely comment on political stuff, felt compelled to weigh in on the aftermath.  “What is wrong with ‘these people?’”  “Don’t they know that their rioting and violence only hurt themselves?” “Things didn’t go their way, so now they’re having a tantrum.”  “Why was it so hard for those kids to not steal?  If he hadn’t stolen those cigars, he’d still be alive.” 

Obviously, the riots were acts of thuggery, (predictable) manifestations of the culture of violence and criminal behavior in black communities. 

The cop was only doing his job, why is everybody so mad?

The legal system has made its fair and unbiased decision.  Live with it.

If only the kid had not acted like a (not particularly dangerous—he didn’t have a gun) kid raised in a poor black neighborhood, he’d still be alive.

Would you just listen to yourselves?

To a man, every one of those comments came from a white person…a person who has limited contact with actual black people, has no idea what it is like to live in a black community, and whose understanding of black culture comes at him/her from terminally biased American media.  I myself am one of those very white people.  I could make those same misinformed judgments about the rioting in Ferguson, except for my steadfast belief in this one fact:  Since I have never walked in the shoes of members of that community, and am not likely to, I am not entitled to an opinion. 

It is not my place to judge what reactions black people—ANY black people—should or should not have to institutional approval of the obvious devaluation, by the white majority, of the lives of young black men. 

As a member of the white majority, I can only judge what WE do.  How WE behave.

And so I have.  And I find us sorely lacking.  In compassion.  In insight.  In the will to promote justice for all people—black, white, red, yellow, Christian, Muslim, atheist…  In the knowledge that our precious freedom and rights belong to ALL Americans, not just the ones who look like me and act like me.  In the will to fix our broken system so that it benefits ALL the people…not just individuals who already have more than they will ever need.

I have absolutely no business telling a people whose skin color I will never share, whose burdens I will never experience firsthand, whose battles I have never fought, only to have to gird my loins and fight them all over again, to “get over it” and move on.

I can only shine a light on the actions of people of my own race, the privileged” race.   And when the political climate allows us to go backwards, to re-embrace suspicions and racism that had once been on their way to extinction (or so some of us thought, and some of us would still like to believe), to exploit our privilege into giving us a leg-up on others less fortunate…

I will call us on it.