Tuesday, December 31, 2013

real life

We just borrowed . . . during a desperate time.  We had no way of knowing that all the times would be desperate.

-- "The Jump," The Middle, November 13, 2013

There is one thing that should not be scarce, that should in fact increase, and that is good and pleasurable and decent work.

-- Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling*

I once heard the chairman of one of those academic theatre departments where I spent much of my life say to his students and the professors, that he had been here more than twenty years and he was still waiting for a regular year. By which he meant a year that was not deformed by some unexpected emergency, so that everybody forgot what the purpose, the real life, of the department was. He was waiting for real life to begin.

It's a different tree in my parlor every December, but the same objects adorn it.  The same lights, the same museum-store stars and snowflakes, the same lustrous paper globes made in China and acquired I know not how or when. Some people make the Christmas tree anew each year, but that is not our way. The tree is supposed to take us back in time. To what?

Whenever I die, I would have lived ten years longer if I hadn't been a homeowner. It's been hard to stay in the middle class.

Ehrenreich pegged us: we belong to the managerial middle-class. Those misérables of vast accountability and scant power, those villeins who hold the title of "manager," are our brothers and sisters.

But I'm not a manager, I say. I'm a do-gooder. I'm not charged with quotas for the production of widgets. I don't feed my children by inducing others to do things, always faster, that they nor I would otherwise do.

No no. We are creatures of a different sort, and our own masters. We make the world better. We serve our hearts' intuition of paradise; and we plan to come home in the evening proud, nourished by our good deeds. We are teachers, academics, pastors, social workers, artists, journalists, tellers of truth, doctors to the poor, comforters of the afflicted. We are professionals. For the greater good of course. Ad maiorem dei gloriam.

The right to choose our rewards, to prosper either financially or morally, is our middle-class pretension. Some endure their work for the sake of its compensation, but we are the ones who endure their compensation for the sake of the work. We feel entitled to a secure if modest place in the middle class. We don't expect to be rich, but at least god help us we shall not be poor. We have our degrees and our diplomas and our certificates, those prizes that can never be taken away, and we expect by diligence, education and purity, to succeed as breadwinners.

But staying in the middle class has been a brutal ordeal. Nobody told us how hard this would be.

I've owned four houses, and sold each of them for more than we paid. But the surplus from each house went to pay the debts we had contracted to live there. We never got ahead. This is how it works.

You had to buy a house because if you didn't you weren't middle-class. And because you would be passing up a tax deduction. And because your kids had to go to good schools. So you had two options: you could pay private school tuition, or you could buy the cheapest house in the expensive neighborhood where the schools were good. To buy that cheapest house you forked over every penny you had, would have or could imagine ever having; then you paid forty-percent of your monthly paycheck to live in it. You were amazed the bank would let you do this, but the bank didn't care, they would sell your mortgage six months later to a hedge fund in Hong Kong. You had nothing left over to start a college fund, or (lol) to save for retirement, or to buy a summer home, or to take vacations on the Riviera or at Disney World, or to set aside a fund for future home repairs and maintenance. You didn't own a boat. Your cars (and no, you couldn't survive with less than two) were so old and disgusting that the private police would throw you out of neighborhoods you were invited to visit.  You were not having fun. Your credit cards ballooned. Sometimes the kids got winter coats and you did not.

Then came the day when the boiler died, or the roof leaked, or the plumbing went rotten; you learned why that cheapest house had come to you so cheap. Since you had no slush fund to meet such expense, you took out another loan, because the community would punish you if you didn't take care of your house, would expose you as a deadbeat who didn't deserve to live in a middle-class neighborhood: the next time your infrastructure failed, you wouldn't be able to get that loan.

Meanwhile you and your children were running with people and their children who lived in a different world, people who took ski vacations in Colorado or Switzerland, people whose take-home pay leaped upward when their "year-to-date" exceeded the maximum payments to Social Security and Medicare. I have never in my life experienced that upward leap.

And you had to keep up. If you looked poor they would kick you out of the caravan and leave you by the roadside. I once received a letter from my agent, saying that there was nothing wrong with my talent but that my wardrobe was unbelievably shabby, and that I needed immediately to acquire several thousand dollars worth of new clothes: this many suits of such colors and fabrics, sweaters and dress shirts and ties, shoes and socks of such colors and qualities, where to buy them and in what combinations. As I read that letter the plastic in my wallet began to hiss and pop.

I felt one step ahead of the bailiff, five minutes from the jailhouse. What is this jail you're afraid of? asked a therapist.  Debtors' prison, I said, don't let anybody tell you it doesn't exist any more. Like Tennessee Ernie Ford, I was another year older and deeper in debt. And having no fun. Every year, like James Stewart in Vertigo, we hung from the gutter by our fingertips, waiting for the whole assembly to detach and fling us into some shameful void. And o come o come Emmanuel we longed for a regular year.  We wondered if real life would ever begin for us, the life our neighbors seemed to be living, the life where you paid your mortgage and fed and clothed yourself and set aside some other money for a rainy day and prepared for the future that you and your kids might inhabit as a citizen rather than a sojourner. And it wouldn't have to be a miracle.

Each December we looked at the tree and, with the help of a few beers, gave cautious thanks that we weren't in jail yet. It was, despite incremental changes in the cast of ornaments, the same tree; it carried us back to those past years which, though they had teemed with their own horrors, seemed safe in memory because we had survived them.

The past, in one sense, is always disappointing; but in another sense it is always safe, which is why we feel such liberty to condemn it. However horrible the annus horribilis, we knew that we had survived. I had not gone to jail that year, which meant it had been a mild year after all, unlike the beastly year that hissed and roared before me, the year to come in which for sure . . . .

Well, never mind.

So now I do not own a home. I do not own a car. I pay my rent and take a subway to work. I'm still paying off the debts I took out to get the kids through college, but no more of those unpayable bills are coming in.  I live in the New Jerusalem, a city of God with twelve gates where the nations come to visit, or to make a new life. The savings I did not know how to tap and deplete on houses, my 401K and my SSI and my pensions, are now available; it's my money now, and if the balance of the month is a bit in the red I can go find a bit of that cash. I look at the same old red and white lights, the same snowflakes and stars and angels, the same lustrous Chinese paper globes, and am reasonably sure that I will not be in jail next year. If by some chance I die this year, I won't die in jail.

Maybe this was a regular year.

Maybe my real life has begun.

There are others who are still waiting.

*Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), p, 260