It’s approaching a year since I’ve started looking for a means to financial security. This is a project I set out to documenting last July. The first few posts in the series concerned my initial forays into the labor market – a structure I had never encountered before – and certain setbacks. Recently, I’ve taken brief semi-detours to defend Ron Paul, bloviate on Hobbes (or is it the other way around?), and to address some core structural problems underlying inequality in this nation. Nevertheless, the arch of my stint at the League has proceeded ever towards the ultimate goal that has been the ultimate goal from the start: to understand the situation at the bottom.
When I started applying for full-time jobs, I told myself that after I sent in 100 carefully-crafted cover letters and 100 carefully-crafted resumes (no spamming allowed. I wasn’t going to contribute to any perverse incentive problems), I’d stop applying in the traditional way, and I stopped towards the end of August. Now, I click indifferently through the careerbuilder.com email updates and job fair announcements that clog my inbox; but I remember not so fondly slogging through job fair after job fair over the summer, traveling to far away cities to be ignored. At more than one such fair, I noticed I was spending an inordinate amount of time shooting the shit with the Peace Corps representative, struggling to work up the nerve to tackle the shiny happy corporate displays like a kid about to swallow his broccoli. Once, I talked to a representative of a large bank who told me he was there specifically to recruit individuals with five to seven years experience in equities trading and three to five years experience in European markets. His task was to return to Chicago with three such people, and he was under strict instructions to focus on only the task at hand – to ignore any other applicants to his company. “So… if Warren Buffett walked in here and handed you his resume and asked for an entry level position you’d just trash it and tell him to go away?” I asked. “I’m really not qualified to answer that question,” he replied, obviously annoyed. Jesus. It’s like the fate of the expanding universe: we’ll continue to fly apart from each other – to atomize – until all that surrounds us is darkness and the whole vibrant system ceases to exist.
August was a chaotic and formative month for me on my quest to provide for my family. If my life were a screenplay, August would have been this chapter’s climax. I had no idea where my future was headed. I thought I’d have to put off my postbacc course for at least another year, until – two weeks into the semester – my father told me he’d pay my tuition, and I gratefully accepted more of his charity. (At last, a chance to do well at something, I thought.) It was also around this time I received my first new freelance translation contract, after haphazardly pursuing such work only as a hedge against possible failure to procure full-time employment: I’d be going to medical school in two or three years, I told myself; it’d take that long just to build a sufficient practice. At first, translation contracts were few and far between, but there was the faintest promise of regular work. Also in August, I was offered part-time employment at a restaurant complex in the town I grew up in. The establishment was large and expanding even in a down economy, and it had a seemingly-rapid employee turnover. I started as a bus boy – a bus man really, worked three weddings a week for a couple months (A local urban legend among the wedding staff is that apparently one worker put a pedometer in his shoe a few years ago and discovered that workers walk an average of fifteen miles in one eight-hour wedding shift for a total of forty-five miles on a typical summer weekend.), and settled in as a regular waiter after the college kids went back to school and the foolish twentysomethings quit in disgust at the slow season.
If August was the climax, what has happened since has been a long and uneventful yet peculiar and dreadful denouement, like the entire happenings of some Kafka novella. Not to say my life now isn’t more-than-somewhat schizophrenic, but, since August, my quotidian life has taken on a new shape. Now, instead of looking for work and finding none, I am swamped with work (and school): Monday night – school; Tuesday night – school; Wednesday night – restaurant; Thursday – school all day; Friday night – restaurant; Saturday night – restaurant; Sunday – all day in the restaurant. On top of this, I am accepting all translation projects I have time to do as part of the “yes-man” philosophy that helped me build my last business in Japan and gave me such broad experience; circumstance has forced me to pursue the longer, more arduous path towards self-sufficiency: building my own business. The end result of all of this at present is that I still live with my parents, my family is still enrolled in public health care, and we manage to stay a few hundred dollars ahead of weekly expenses in a good week. Ergo, it seems – looking back – that what the climax of August represented was a progression from the ranks of the unemployed poor to the ranks of the working poor.
I hesistate to say I am on the edge of a new transformation now, in February 2012, but it just feels that way, even though rationality points to my situation continuing like this for the foreseeable future. Some of the optimism I lost over the summer has come back: my translation workload is increasing, I’m doing well at what I can do well at, and tonight, right before my grateful eyes, my wife and children sleep peacefully. Psychology is important in these things, and my psychological state has moved from a need for present security to a need for future security. Time stands still now; every week is the same. My children become more-and-more enraptured with American culture and more-and-more obsessed with our ubiquitous and inescapable kid’s entertainment culture. There is no backyard for them to play in here, but there are Backyardigans. My older daughter speaks no more Japanese in the house. My stepson wants an earring. I grow fatter by the week. During the summer, when I was unemployed, I managed to find outlets for limited exercise. Since August, I’ve gained fifteen to twenty pounds – despite my best efforts to eat healthy, I have no time for exercise. I seem powerless to stop the creep of apple fat around my midsection that reduces my life expectancy by the minute, but my weight gain still remains pretty far down my list of problems to solve. Exercise is just one of those luxuries that gives way when the threat of an endless and inescapable cycle of late fees and penalties dangles like a tantalizing, decadent bizarro carrot in front of me. One of the few medium-term “dreams” I have is to be able to afford a kayak, so I can paddle around the Boston Harbor Islands each morning.
What else gives besides physical activity? Blogging gives, of course: I imagine the diverse voices of the blogosphere are remarkably homogeneous. (It is only because I’ve had norovirus over the past few days – and that it’s 1:00 in the morning – that I’m housebound and free to write this post right now.) With few exceptions, my comments here have been half-assed and glib since August, and probably clouded with desperation before that; though they have been honest attempts to retain a once constructive and even-handed presence at the League. Travel gives: I missed my friend’s Vegas bachelor party last month, and I’m hoping to be able to attend his wedding when the time comes. I’ll miss my ten-year high school reunion next month. Leaguefest 2K12 is a definite no. Friendship also gives, for now at least. Reading gives: I had a reading list for 2012 consisting of eleven books that I crafted at the beginning of this year. I’ve read two, mostly on the subway when I had no problem set at hand.
I think it’s important here to reiterate that I seek no pity, nor should the previous paragraph be read in any sort of depressing tone. I’m a scientist analyzing my situation, closely examining one specific case to learn about the world outside myself. There may be an error associated with generalizing from my own specific story; but I am attempting to see and correct for such errors as faithfully as possible in my analysis, and I really do think my story is an illustrative example of what happens when our bubble pops. There is one common theme to all the spheres of my life I have sacrificed to join the working poor, and that is that they are all luxuries. The public and moral implications of fitness as a luxury should be quite staggering, the implications of reading for pleasure as a luxury slightly less staggering. Travel and friendship occupy the next level, arguably. Blogging as a luxury just means we’re not having as broad-reaching a conversation as we think we are.
What’s not on this list for me thankfully are: (1) time with my family, for the most part – one of the great benefits of being a freelance translator is that I can work at home on a laptop; (2) shelter, necessary transportation, occasional childcare, and tuition – provided by my parents for the time being; (3) healthy food and necessary clothing, Christmas and birthday presents, transportation expenses – paid for by the tips I earn as a waiter, freelance translation contracts, donations from the church I grew up in but have since abandoned; formerly paid for by my parents plus onymous and anonymous donors overwhelmingly from religious institutions affiliated with my family to whom I am forever and deeply thankful; (4) healthcare for my entire family – supplied by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. That the things my family most need have been provided by extended family (clan), church, and government has caused me to reexamine the roles of these institutions in the modern world in a way I feel remarkably unprepared to expound upon now, except to say that if it weren’t for those institutions or their equivalents I’d be deep in the state of nature.
The things that have given – exercise, blogging, travel, friendship, reading – are pleasures I once had in abundance, even when I was unemployed, but it was only a matter of time before I would no longer be able to enjoy them. Like other front-pagers at the League, I am fond of statistics and believe in their power. Up until the great August shift, I compiled statistics about my job search: I categorized different types of job advertisements and methods of application, modeled “productivity”, calculated how many hours I spent on each task compared to the overall numbers of applications I sent in over a particular time period; I made graphs and various regressions, trying to spot trends and weed out inefficiencies. This effort was all confounded by the fact that there were no successes, and I abandoned it to throw myself into the free-flowing sea as my mother had so often advised since I returned with my family after the Japan earthquake and tsunami last March.
Besides the ability to meet my present survival needs in exchange for the above, there is something else I acquired in August, another luxury that I possess, that the vast majority of the working poor do not, and that is The Future. Thanks to the combined leverage provided by my parents, the Church, the Commonwealth, and other benefactors, I can now pursue a barbell strategy. That is to say, I can divide investments of my time between meeting the artificially-reduced demands of the immediate present and investing in my own future and that of my family. I can work part time and take courses for medical school, because my housing, food, clothing, transportation, tuition, childcare, and healthcare expenses are being paid by others, and that is just awesome in a society that values individualism and freedom. I can only hope their investment in me sees a massive return some day and that someday I have the freedom to give back.