Greetings and Salutations!

Welcome to the longest-running* yet least-read** blog on the internet! Here you'll find me writing about all the things that I write about, which strikes me, just now, as somewhat recursive. In any case, enjoy :)

* not true
** probably true

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dear America: Your New Survival Handbook

What follows are a few tips I learned while suffering from extreme poverty in the US. This is personal experience, suited for a single person, but a little ingenuity can be applied to shape some of these ideas for families.

If you smoke, don't bother trying to quit. You're already in a position to be miserable, and your attitude is now your greatest asset. You should, however, buy the cheapest, foulest, most nauseating cigarettes you can find so that a) you rate of consumption will go down and b) instances of people bumming off you will go down, both saving you money. You'll only smoke when you really need one, and nobody will bum off you more than once.

Secure some form of reliable transportation. If you don't have a vehicle, your work options are severely restricted. Depending on your situation, public transportation may or may not be an option. At one point for me it wasn't, so I worked two jobs within walking distance. If this is you, walking distance now means at least two miles, better four. A reasonably fit person can walk four miles in an hour. But remember the vehicle doesn't have to be yours, it just has to be reliable. If you can really rely on family and friends, do so, but make sure you pay your fair share of the gas, and don't think of borrowing the car or bumming rides as your right. It's not. Be grateful someone is willing to help you out.

Sort out your housing situation. Boils down to four options really. Your own place, a semi-permanent place with someone else, couch-surfing with friends and relatives, or sleeping in your vehicle. No, sleeping under a bridge is not an option. You might as well go get yourself a shopping cart and start collecting cans. Once you're that far down you should be contemplating how you can get locked up while avoiding maximum security.

Which one is best for you boils down to how much you can afford. More on how to figure that out later. Suffice to say, if you're already in a place, renting or with a mortgage, you need to do everything you can to stay in that place. There are only two ways to come up with enough money to do so: Increase what you earn or decrease what you spend. Probably you'll need to do both.

If you can't stay where you are and have a semi-permanent place you can go (family, good friends), make sure of two things: That where you are going is not psychologically unhealthy (many families are toxic) and that it affords you good opportunities for work. Wherever you go, don't stay there for free. That's psychological poison. To the best of your ability, you need to stand on your own two feet for your own sake.

If you have nowhere to go but have a vehicle, you're still all right, relatively speaking. You can maintain your independence, and keep working. You have two main concerns: Safety while you're sleeping and keeping presentable. Getting killed is a piss-poor way of getting out of poverty, so you need to choose where you park to sleep carefully. It's better to get woken up and harassed by a rent-a-cop than park somewhere more private, but much less likely someone will hear you if you scream. Which reminds me; if your vehicle doesn't have an alarm, get one. They're cheap, especially if you can do it yourself. And Do It Yourself is what you're all about now. You should also have a mobile phone, both for 911 and because you need to stay as connected to everyone and everything as possible, for jobs, for family, for friends, for sanity.

How you stay presentable is quite straightforward: Laundromats and free showers. Laundromats are self-explanatory. Free showers are where you get creative. You might have friends who will lend you their bathroom. A YMCA membership is cost-effective, with the plus of getting you out of your car and doing something healthy during off-time. If worse comes to worst, soldiers have been bathing in staggeringly awful conditions for a long time. You can stand to do a quick sponge bath in a gas station sink upon occasion. Just make sure the door locks.

A word about living out of your vehicle: Keep everything organized and clean at all times. Your life is full of enough chaos and confusion as it is. Don't make it worse by finding your last pair of clean underwear wedged behind the gas pedal.

A word about pets: Make other arrangements for them. You have to take care of yourself now, so you can have the chance to take care of them later.

A final thought about living out of your vehicle: Spend as much time as you can in public settings. The price of a cup of coffee is a small price to pay to stave off the inevitable sense of isolation that comes with vehicular sleeping arrangements.

In any case, don't fall into the motel trap. It's a fool's game. If you've made enough enough for a motel room for a night or a week, odds are you're only two months away from having you're own apartment or rented room. Sure, it'll probably be a shithole, but at least the sheets won't have been splooged on by truckers.

Work. If you don't have a job, your job is now to find a job. If you have a job, guess what? You don't make enough there, or you wouldn't be in the situation you're in now. You need to be doing two things: Looking for a second job, and looking for a better job.

You'll probably need two jobs. Consider one in the food service industry, so that you'll know where at least one meal a day is coming from. Don't whine or complain, even to yourself if you work two jobs. What are you going to do with your off time? Endlessly admire the corinthian leather seats of your mobile abode? Watch Jerry Springer?

Final Thoughts:

Every dollar you earn is a rung on the ladder you will use to climb out of the hole you find yourself in. Every dollar you spend is a rung taken away. Make sure you spend for good reason: Health, safety, sanity, or as an investment in yourself (haircut, alarm clock, etc.)

Always be on the lookout for beauty. In a sense you are no longer part of the community; you've gone into the desert. Now is the time that real meaning is most likely to appear. Be ready for it.

Keep clear in your mind a series of concrete, achievable goals. "When I have $xxx I can put a deposit on an apartment." "I made it through the week with $xx to spare." Don't let your routine turn into an endless loop.

Pay back people, fuck corporations. People are real. Corporations are faceless money-eating machines. The guy that loaned you $20 for gas will likely suffer down the line if you don't repay him; the bank that ate your house is getting bailed out by Washington as we speak, and the CEO that ran the company into the ground is getting millions in severance pay. Now is not the time to worry about your credit score. Now is the time to worry about your dignity and humanity.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Endless marathons and the human heart

The Sept. 4 issue of the Straits Times ran an excerpt of an interview with Prime Minister Lee Hsien loong, entitled 'Running the endless marathon'. When asked what Singapore sees in its future, PM Lee replied:

"There is no end in sight. We have a saying - 'the endless marathon'. In ten years, we hope to see a different Singapore, We hope it will be a Singapore possessed of greater culture, with a transformed economy and a new generation of political leaders who understand the wants, needs and habits of a new generation of voters."

The truth is, I respect Prime Minister Lee greatly, and believe that as a whole, the comment quoted above is on the right track. Though I may disagree with the proposed pace of political reform that would lead to such a future, I m sensible enough to understand that too much change, at too fast a pace, carries with it a risk of political instability that Singapore simply cannot countenance. One need only look northward to Malaysia to see the effects that political instability can bring about in many areas, including race relations.

In a broader, more semantic way, however, PM Lee's choice of the metaphor 'endless marathon' left me feeling... grim. as a writer, I have a healthy respect for the power of metaphor, and that particular one is powerful indeed.

I don't wish to take PM Lee's remark out of context -- he was clearly referring to the challenges that Singapore's government faces when he referred to an 'endless marathon'. As the government goes, however, so goes the nation, and a nation is composed of flesh and blood individuals. If Singapore as a political entity is committed to the idea of an endless marathon, then Singaporeans as individuals will be affected by it, and expected to operate under it as well -- where they run to reach a goal that will be forever out of reach, and consequently have embarked on an unwinable race that will consume the entirety of their lives. A chilling thought.

Perhaps I am misinterpreting PM Lee's analogy. Likely so. He's down in the arena, and I'm up here in the cheap seats. The history of the marathon is thus: Pheidippides, a professional runner, carried the news to Athens of the Greek victory over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. On arrival, Pheidippides shouted, "Rejoice, we conquer!" and then keeled over of exhaustion.

Perhaps PM Lee views Singapore's endless marathon in that light; as the government will never see the day where they can shout 'rejoice, we conquer!' and then take a breather (or keel over) due to the endless nature of governance, then it can never allow itself to fail, to rest, to stop. And as government is an abstraction, without lungs to burst or a heart to fail, or legs to give out, he would be right. But surely government should have a wider aim, beyond gazing into the murky medium-term future, beyond picking the path fraught with the fewest perceivable perils. For without a clearly understood, deeply cherished destination, there is as much (or as little) reason to stand still as there is to keep running.

Human hearts do give out eventually, for reasons emotional as well as physical. An endless government should always recognize the frailty of those it serves, who, each and every one, have very definite ends in store for them. And for all the material wealth Singapore's government has brought to its people, there are considerable portions of the population who long to be able to say 'Rejoice, we conquer!' in areas far removed from the purchase of a car or a condo. In areas such as the dignity and inclusion for foreign workers and domestic helpers; in areas such as legal equality for homosexuals; in areas such as draconically Darwinian education and the chronically poor.

Some were not fashioned to run a single step, much less an endless marathon, but everyone should have the opportunity to rejoice, in their own fashion.

Sunday, September 21, 2008