"Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves."
- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
First of all, Kurt Vonnegut is wonderful.
I like how you can speak about famous authors in the present tense, even after they have passed away. This is because their words are still with us and that's an amazing thing.
Secondly, I've been thinking about this passage from Slaughterhouse Five for awhile. I've been thinking about this hatred of poor people that is a part of our culture. I've been thinking about how every discussion about politics or social safety nets devolves into nothing more than spitting out pejorative words.
I've been thinking about how you can always count on someone to use the word "loser."
Poor people are losers.
Unemployed people are losers.
Those going through health issues with inadequate or no health insurance? Losers.
Drug addicts? Losers.
The mentally ill? Losers.
People who are depressed? Losers.
On a daily basis, folks seem dead set on proving that we are nothing more than animals. Survival of the
It's fine. We aren't.
We're a bunch of assholes.
Sorry. It's been a rough week.
People who answer their phones are often rude or plain mean. I make 150 calls a day. I could write down the names of the people who are friendly and at the end of the day you would have two names to read.
I try to focus on those two nice people. Last night, a woman said, "Oh, honey, I understand! Of course I'll take your survey." When people say yes, I can't help saying, "Yea!" and they laugh. That's something.
In middle school world this week, there was a "mean girls" incident. The associate principal called me. I won't share too much of it since I want to respect Kate's privacy (except when she says things that are hilarious or deeply touching, of course). I'll just tell you that Kate got very upset last night and cried a bit and then said, "Friends fight, Mom!" She didn't want to tell me what happened because she was worried I would, out of loyalty, instantly hate the friend involved.
She said, "It's fine. It's no big deal."
Kate is my daughter, there's no doubt about that. "No big deal" is a thing around here. "No big deal" allows you to keep going when you know it actually is a big deal and that the deal is, in fact, so big that it will crush you under its weight if you acknowledge it.
At first Kate didn't want to tell me what had happened. It involved a word that no girl should use to describe another girl, no woman should use against another woman. I've heard of another incident of this word being used recently and it has no place among these girls who spend their time going to the mall and the skating rink and jumping on the trampoline. No one is doing anything even close to the definition of the term.
But sometimes girls are simply mean.
I told Kate she has to be able to tell me these things. I said "I don't want to scare you, but it's only going to get worse. Middle school is hard. High school is hard. It will be easier if you can talk to me about it and tell me what's going on."
Hell. Midlife is hard. And mean girls continue to be mean. Some people get their kicks by leaving out other people. While you sit around and wonder what you did to be left out, they are posting photos online so everyone will be sure to know they weren't invited. Toppers continue to top. ("What? You did something cool? Oh, I did something cooler. Top that.")
If you're lucky, you grow into a person who recognizes the people who are filled up with middle school energy and you can avoid them. I wish this for Kate every day. I hope that she can continue to build her inner strength so that she knows who she is, what she stands for, and what she deserves.
It's easier said than done, whether you are 12 or 20 or 35 or 80 and that bitch Esther left you out of the bridge game at Shady Oaks Retirement Home.
Fuck you, Esther.
So who are these people who deem others losers? They're never very amazing themselves. I mean, Rush Limbaugh certainly talks a good game about how others should behave perfectly (his idea of perfection) and yet he's overweight. He's struggled with drug addiction. He's been married four times. But to society at large, his bank account makes his human fallibility more acceptable than if he was poor and did these things.
Have you ever noticed that as a culture we seem to expect perfection from the poorest among us? We expect them to avoid every human urge. They should not have sex because they cannot afford children. They should not give in to addictions (who cares if addiction is a disease?), because they cannot afford those substances and they can't afford treatment. They should not be fat because how dare you be poor AND fat? You should be thin otherwise you are obviously not poor enough.
Awhile back I read a sanctimonious, misguided blog post from a young woman who worked at Walmart one summer during college. Her post was a conservative diatribe against people who use food stamps or benefits cards to purchase birthday cakes or steak.
Because you losers should not be celebrating birthdays or ever, ever having something to eat other than beans and rice.
I was unemployed in the spring when both my children had birthdays. I made Kate a cake from a box of lemon cake mix we already had in the cabinet. She wasn't happy about it. I should have gotten her a cookie cake like she wanted, but funds were particularly low. Kate had a small slumber party instead of a skate party. I fixed them popcorn and took them to the dollar store, where we bought soda and treats for late-night snacks. I let them take over my bedroom for the night and watch movies on Netflix.
I wish I could have done more. Saying no is difficult and it doesn't matter if you are poor. Having no money doesn't make it easier to resist the temptations of worldly things. It simply makes it more essential.
I don't resist every small treat because I'm making such low wages right now. I don't get manicures or pedicures anymore, but I do treat myself to a skinny vanilla latte on Fridays so I can fuel my Friday blog post. I'm certain that spending that $4 proves what a loser I am. I should put that $4 in a retirement fund or toward my never-ending student loan. I would do that if I was behaving as perfectly as my income range says I should be to prove my worthiness.
The whole thing makes me angry because I don't want to hate myself and I struggle with that. Sometimes I do hate myself because my children don't have college funds, because I can't afford to put Kate in tumbling or cheerleading. My situation dictates their lives.
I also don't, generally, feel like someone who isn't incredibly lucky. I am. I am richer than 99 percent of the world. I have a lovely house full of things that mean something to me. None of it is worth very much money, but it's special nonetheless. Give me a house full of books and comfortable pajama pants and I'm good.
But I live with kids who are making their way up and down the halls of middle and high schools. They are having to find their way in a world that says you should have these jeans and these shoes and this backpack. I am walking the tightrope of wanting to give them all the things that make walking those halls easier and wanting to teach them that they are - in absolutely every way - stronger, better, and more valuable than the fools who buy into that game.
I wanted Kate to be able to buy a new shirt for picture day so last weekend I gave her money that I probably should have saved. I want to take Jacob to see Argo when it comes out and I know that I should probably wait for it to come out on DVD instead.
I do not want to beat myself up for the choices I have made that have led me here. I don't want to call myself names like a mean girl in middle school.
I remember when I was Kate's age, I went to a church lock-in. A "prep" in a plaid shirt called a group of people I was with "scumbags." I remember thinking how mean it was and how the only difference between the two groups is that one group had parents with money and the other group didn't. One group had Guess jeans and Outback Red shirts. The other group had off-brand shoes that weren't Keds. Period.
That kid in the khaki pants and plaid shirt probably grew up to live in the same city in which he was raised, driving an SUV into the right neighborhood in the right part of town (deemed right by the snobs of the city), posting Facebook status updates about how he works so other people can sit on their asses. All the while thinking himself so very special for being who he is when he is actually only living exactly the life into which he was born.
But, hey, all you poor folks should really pull yourselves up by your boot straps and escape your situation. Losers.
Incidentally, let me just say that I do not actually believe in the devil or hell but, if I did, I could make a pretty good case for the idea that hell is a church lock-in and the devil is a preppy boy in khaki pants and a plaid shirt.
I'm not saying people shouldn't try their best to save money, work hard, and resist temptations. I'm simply saying that perhaps we could all try to respond less like asshole animals in the wild and more like human beings.
Stop using the world "loser" to describe people you know nothing about.
Try a little compassion.
Try a little understanding.
And if you're poor or failing at something or struggling with a difficult situation, try to offer those things to yourself, too.