The Soapbox Papers

The Soapbox Papers is my two-cents worth.

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Location: Beloit, Wisconsin, United States

I am a cross between Tinkerbell and Calamity Jane.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Economics 101

We are in trouble. We are watching the news on television and the Internet, and we are reading the papers, trying to be one jump ahead of tomorrow's news, trying to save ourselves from the fate of the numbers: unemployment has reached levels it hasn't reached in years; foreclosures are rampant, prices are up and optimism is down. If your car isn't in the driveway in the morning, it is more likely repossessed than stolen. Times are hard.

With a tendency to anxiety, I feel it, too, burrowing into the center of myself, but I am probably in better shape financially than most. I don't have a lot, but then, I don't need a lot. Years ago when Simplicity was all the rage in bookstores, I actually read The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs, who also publishes Simple Living Journal. I wasn't an immediate convert to all Luhr's ideas, but I did digest the principles, and they have been serving me well. In many ways, I am better off than many people I know in this time of crisis.

But for a student loan, I owe no one. I am disabled, living on Social Security Disability (a fixed income if there ever was one) and if I can get one part of the US government to listen to another part, the student loan will be 'forgiven' due to my disability. I would feel bad about that, but for the fact that the student loan has more than doubled on fees and interest during the time I have been disabled - which is outrageous - and the number of telephone calls I get from the party handling the loan, harassing and threatening to have payments taken out of my Social Security Disability check every month. I've offered an amount that I can afford out of my monthly budget and been refused. I have no doubt that it will be resolved in my favor, so when I think of owing money, I do not consider my student loan. The paperwork is pending.

I live in a building filled with people much like myself. I've come to understand there are some things I will never understand. I live with no pretenses. I am in no way trying to impress anyone or keep up with the Joneses, Jacksons, or the lady on the fourth floor. I could probably qualify for an electric wheel chair or scooter, as many of my neighbors have, but at this point I do not want one, and hope to hold off on that particular item as long as possible.

I have a car (such as it is) while many of my neighbors do not. That means I also have gas and upkeep and auto insurance payments per month. The gas prices haven't really hurt me. I still put a budgeted amount of money into the gas tank each month. I just go fewer places in my car, and when the gas runs out, I stay home. My car (such as it is) is paid for and requires only regular maintenance. It will not survive my trip to Wisconsin, though. It has no back window (I cover it with tarp and bungee cords when rain in forecast) and looks like it has psoriasis, but it gets me where I need to go and no one is going to steal it.

I don't spend what I don't have. It's called "living within your means" and I have done it for as long as I can remember. I do not get manicures or have fake nails applied because I don't have money to spend on such things. I won't spend large amounts of money on shoes as some do because I am hard on shoes, due to unfortunate degenerative factors, and I am certainly not a clothes horse. I suppose I could get my hair cut more often, but as I've gotten older my hair is doing amazing things - it's curling! - and at this point I want to see how long I can grow it and still hold a curl. It will have to be shaped, though, and I have a coupon a friend gave me that will get that done for me free at the very good local stylist school. I prefer the look of well buffed fingernails to suffocating nail polish that chips and demands closer attention, and I think I can splurge the small amount at that location to get a proper manicure.
I do enjoy nice things, and I've been known to save to get them. Fortunately, my taste runs to the charming, and "pretties" that are charming can be had for a song at certain thrift stores. Please call me frugal, the polite word for 'cheap.' My grandmother used the word 'mingy.' Last week's great find was a chamber pot. (For you young folks, a chamber pot was used at night instead of the outhouse, back before there was indoor plumbing. ) It's perfect. If it had two handles, it could be a soup tureen, but it has one. It's a chamber pot. I plan to plant oats in it for my cat. Oats are a soft grass with nutrients and flavor enough that just may keep Liberty away from my houseplants. Oat seeds are not expensive. Houseplants can be. But preparing for my move to Wisconsin, I am taking cuttings and seeds from many Florida plants to be houseplants in my new home. If the oats work and Liberty doesn't eat them, that is.

What I am is creative, and you may find things (like my chamber pot) in odd places in my home that are serving purposes for which they were never intended. When a friend offered me her old computer desk, which has a drawer and nicer shelves than I had in my current one, I took hers for my computer and moved the old one into the kitchen where it houses my microwave. The pull out keyboard drawer is perfect storage for plastic wrap, waxed paper and aluminum foil. Removing the CD holder from the top of the computer stand, I have a place to store upright the many trays I use. I will be going off to get a nice enamel (low scent) paint soon, and a good sealant, and top coat of polyurethane to keep it pretty. I am thinking a dark rust color. I've discovered the cheap furniture that you put together can be made more useful and longer lasting with a light sanding and a good finish. In the old days, I think this was called "making do."
The main thing is, I think, to decide just what is important in one's own private world and what really isn't. It's too soon for making resolutions, but not too soon to decide how one wants to live. It should be a lot easier to decide now what one can do without than to have circumstance take it away - and in the times in which we live, circumstance has a broad definition. Income, outgo - too little of one, too much of the other, and the ship can sink, seemingly overnight. The lighter the cargo, the more likely it will fit in the lifeboat...


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Middle Class and Beyond

Of late, I remember an episode or M*A*S*H from years ago. In this episode, B.J. Hunnicutt was wallowing around the camp, feeling low, grumbling about how his wife had to do menial things at home while he was away. When the guys had heard enough of it, Hawkeye sat B.J. down and told him that those who had the most stood to lose the most. B.J., with his wife and home and such, clearly had more that most of the men in camp. That was why he had more at risk.

I've been thinking of this lately because it applies now, right here and now, in the US, and probably in some other countries as well. There is such turmoil in our land today - such stress and anxiety - there are reports of people taking drastic measures, even familial murders and suicide, to resolve their financial problems.

Someone in some high-up place has decided that those Americans who earn less than 250,000 USD are (ta-da!) "Middle Class." That's an awfully wide brush with which to be painted. I have less than 250,000 USD per year to live on - much less - and I am betting you do, too. The things we have in common with those who earn over even 100,000 USD are evident, with those differences increasing expotentially as incomes rise to $250,000 that designates us and them to the same "Middle Class."

Credit card debt plays a big factor in a "Middle Class" person's or family's financial health, as well as lenders who financed mortgages far too expensive for the homebuyer's actual budget. People who "qualified" for large mortgages but had no downpayment were asking for trouble. When all the papers were signed and the keys given, the new homeowner has two liens against his property - the mortgage and the loan he had to take out for the down payment. It's scary if you step back, let the flush of new ownership fade a minute, and look at it. Worse, after a year or two the new owner may decide to take out an equity loan against the house for whatever reason. It snowballs. That's how a lot of people got themselves into their financial discomfort and how many forclosures have come about.

But - at what dollar point do we fall from "Middle Class" to "Lower Class?" No presidential candidate has mentioned that. No one has mentioned the "Lower Class" - also known as the "Working Poor" These are like the majority of B.J. Hunnicutt's co-workers on M*A*S*H, people who work every bit as hard as B.J., but who have no wife, no love-nest waiting at home. The working poor do the jobs nobody likes to do, but which are necessary to businesses who pay them as little as possible with few if any benefits. A dissatisfied worker? The waiting list of those ready to take that position is long, the competition evident. The unemployed jostle for these jobs, as low paying as they are, when the unemployment runs out because something is better than nothing when it comes to putting food on the table, a roof over the head of their families. How do they get by?

Some people take on second and third jobs. Those who can't, those who are getting on in years, and/or who are disabled find themselves grasping for these jobs, too - hence the greeters at Walmart, independent taxi drivers, the men and women who demonstrate products in the grocery store. These folks often fall below the poverty level. Their incomes consist of Social Security or Social Security Disability and sometimes food stamps. Many are on the charitable lists of various organizations at holiday time. Many of the men are veterans from WWII, Korea and Viet Nam. To most folks these people do not exist - they just escape their peripheral vision. Often they are condemned as "takers" or those seeking "entitlements," and treated as lepers from those who are but a payday or two away from joining the ranks of those below the poverty level.

So here we are with the middle class, the poor, poorer and poorest, and from the yeas and nays among us, we will select a new leader for the next four years.

I say all this because I am an independent voter, one of those both candidates want to impress with his expertise and skill and leadership and good ideas. Every four years I end up dragging out this poem from 1996 and sometimes with a change or two, serve it up again:

Apolitica 2008

And so begins the circus,
three rings, a clown and a caucus,
playing dirty, playing on fear
accusations flying through the air
in spite of third party rebuttals,
shrouded hate,
none of the dignity of
our founding fathers
who thought elections
were a wonderful idea.

Spare me the rhetoric.
My politics are a plaid blanket
lain across stiffening knees
your kind has brought me to,
threads of red, white and blue
woven closely, the warp sturdy
and twisted, and the woof patterned
after traditional speeches that
cannot stand alone;
town-hall meetings with
filtered audiences.

You seem to agree on what
is important, but cannot agree
on why, or when or how
problems should be remedied,
wars should be fought,
people made whole again
after tragedies, and who
should say how the money is spent,
on what and why, how much
to butcher that sloppy fat pig -
and who should be
served at the banquet.
There is always a banquet.

Politicking for politics sake,
not for the sake of the Union,
you've let balloons fall
in conventions of the times we live in,
scrutinized the preacher, the teacher
and the soldier who would be king.
I grew up in the 60s - I remember
hate and the murdering of good men.
I feel that fear again. The division is
that deep, the hate is that intense.
I try not to listen. I pull
my plaid blanket close to my skin,
let it breathe my scent, become me
and realize it is me
you want top convince
-an everyday person -
and millions like me
who bring out the worst in you
while we try to decide
the best for us

and I study the weave
in the only cover I have.
I tug at the edges.
It does not keep me warm.

(c) 1996-2008, Smokey Combs
All Rights Reserved

To be continued ...