Thursday, February 02, 2006

Black, White, and Gray, Gray, Gray

Got an interesting e-mail from my brother yesterday. "Interesting" here means "yet another bit of forwarded right-wing myopic drivel," of course. It was prefaced with "this is for all you LIBERALS out there!" Never a good sign. A little background: Bro is an Army Ranger who put in eight months in Afghanistan and five in Baghdad. Yes, he had to totally buy into the Bush plan and believe it in order to survive over there. I'll give him that much. But he's been back for about a year and a half now, he's intelligent, and dammit, he's young. So I'm calling him on his bullshit now, as gently and non-emotionally as possible. He forwards "you might be a true American if..." and I respond with a Wikipedia link to "true Scotsman fallacy."


Yesterday's missive was a parable about a young woman in college who chose to have no social life and worked her ass off to maintain a 4.0 GPA. She told her dad she was worried about one of her friends, who was lazy, partied all the time, was very popular, and only had a 2.0 and was probably ruining her future job prospects and life as well. Dad replied that the girl should call the registrar and donate one of her GPA points to her friend so they'd both have 3.0s, because that would be fair, wouldn't it? When the girl indignantly replied that she'd worked for her GPA and wasn't about to give any of it to someone who didn't want to work, her dad triumphantly responded, "Welcome to the Republican Party."

::pause to collect myself::

Bro thinks this is brilliant because he really likes the idea of hard work and perseverance paying off. Well, channeling Sally Struthers, sure, we all do! The problem here, the major issue this story and its healthy life-via-forwarding points out to me, in big flashing letters, is that there are different kinds of successful people in the world--those who use their own personal experience as the absolute standard of success against which everyone else may rightfully be judged, and those who see their own personal experience as proof of not only human potential but also the complexities of the human experience. Sure, hard work and perseverance are big determinants of success--but they are not the only ones. Not all rich people worked their asses off to get where they are. Not all poor people are lazy bastards who'd rather wait in line at the welfare office than get a job at McDonald's.

The up-by-your-bootstraps crowd tends to conveniently ignore the role played by good timing, good connections, and good luck. For every inspiring story of the kid who started as a dishwasher and ended up owning the restaurant, how many more kids had the bad luck to take their first job at a place where the boss wasn't interested at promoting from within? How many couldn't get hired in the first place because they didn't have reliable transportation, or a phone, or the right skin color? I'm not trying to be an according-to-O'Reilly-typical handwringing, cringing "liberal" who wants handouts for everyone across the board. I'm saying that there are infinite shades of gray between the black and white being portrayed as absolutes. For every single welfare mother, there's a trust-fund kid partying his way from Dubai to New York via Amsterdam. For every millionaire who's self-made (what are the numbers on that, again? something in the neighborhood of one percent?) there are ten guys in South Tucson working two jobs and still barely scraping enough together for rent and the electric bill.

It's so easy to pontificate, so easy to say, well, if I could make it, then anyone can make it who WANTS to. Got news for you. Nobody enjoys living in poverty. Nobody enjoys living above the federally determined poverty line but still going paycheck to paycheck. All the determination and drive in the world won't help when you're in a minimum-wage job and your car breaks down, or you have a major medical crisis, or the small company that hired you goes belly-up and you don't have the safety net of a big savings account, or wealthy parents, or a well-connected uncle.

I'm middle class by every definition out there. My parents had reasonably good jobs when I was a kid, so they sent me to a private, academically rigorous grade school. When they couldn't pay tuition, my mother's parents helped out. The preparation that place provided me meant that when I hit the Catholic high school, I had
enough proficiency in the basic skills to devote more time to advanced learning and extracurriculars. That in turn won me a scholarship to Northwestern University. I initially majored in communications, but wasn't thrilled with it, so one night while I was leafing through the course catalog, looking for a new major, my then-boyfriend suggested trying an archaeology class he had taken with this really cool prof who worked in Peru and acted like Indiana Jones. I took the class, loved it, and adopted anthropology as a double major and the really cool prof as my undergrad advisor. It turned out that he had connections with a guy at the U of Illinois-Chicago who was the world's leading expert in his field, so I segued smoothly into grad school over there (not without substantial GPA help from said advisor, who tended to give me As in his classes even when I probably didn't deserve them). My best friend from grad school ended up moving to Tucson to continue his doctorate at the U of A, and a year later, when my job prospects in Chicago stalled, he mentioned that he wasn't going to be able to devote enough time to the job he had gotten (through one of his university contacts) with a contract archaeology firm, and suggested I put my name in for it. The guy who was hiring did not like my friend at all, and in fact told me later he had tried mightily to find someone, anyone else, because he figured he wouldn't like me either, but luckily for me, no one with a better resume applied. So here I am, eleven years later, still riding the wake of having been born into a family that valued and could afford good education, and all the resulting random suggestions and good connections I stumbled into along the way.

Even with all that good luck and good timing and good connections, and hard, intellectually rigorous work, I'm still living paycheck to paycheck, carrying massive debt, no savings account, and a minimal 401(k) that I cannot make any contributions to because I need the entire paycheck for mortgage, utilities, groceries. Health insurance premiums keep going up. Price of gas keeps going up. Property taxes go up, kid's tuition goes up. There are still weeks when it's macaroni and cheese or stretching the box of Bisquik to make it to payday. Being outside and staying in shape are perks to the refereeing gig, but I took it for the money, to get a little breathing room. Money is a constant stress. But even then, at the back of my mind, I know that if I suffered a bona fide disaster, my family would be there to bail me out. I can't begin to conceive of what it's like to live day to day without a steady job, without a reliable ride to work, juggling bills to decide which utility is really the most important, not getting medical care for my kids unless it's a dire emergency, being one car wreck or serious illness or employer's caprice away from ruin, and knowing that people are sitting out there in relative comfort, shaking their heads, just KNOWING that I deserve whatever ills befall me because, if I really wanted to, I could just work a little harder and have all the money I need.

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