Tag Archives: poverty

Money Ain’t Everything

One of my favourite songs from my teen years was Cyndi Lauper’s “Money isn’t Everything.”

It feels like life comes in with built-in looped lessons, themes that repeat constantly throughout our lives. For me, money and patience are two lessons I’m forever learning about.

Money, though, is the one that causes me most grief.

Drowning piggybank, from TheDoublethink.com: http://thedoublethink.com/2009/06/how-much-to-spend-in-a-recession/

This year has probably been the most learned year on the money front for me. I’ve fixed a few things, changed my quality of life by way of making small choices, but I’ve still run into a great deal of hardship twice this year. Once during the Olympics, because you don’t realize until they arrive what a wild ride and party it is to live within, or how expensive life gets then, and, well, right now.

Having done the bad-back thing right before getting pneumonia, it’s actually been 7 weeks of consistent drain on my wallet, with little to nothing coming in, and it’s been hairy a couple times. Thank god for freezers with food in them and well-stocked pantries and beans and oatmeal, man.

But there’s a lot one can learn from hard times, even poverty.

There’s a gift in poverty, for those who are able to escape it.

I was raised by parents who’d come through a lot financially. My mother, I think, had it harder than my father — hers having been the kind of family that feared eviction on Christmas eve but returned home from mass with a giant gift box of food and clothing from the community, who slept three kids  to a single bed.

I still remember her telling me of those times, but I never “got” it. Not until the last five years.

Years ago, I was cursed to be stupid enough to fall into the “why me?” crowd when it came to being broke. I’d be jealous as shit of my friends who always got nice gifts. I felt like a victim, as stupid as that is.

I still resent people who can, and do, have all the things they want but have zero appreciation of just how fortunate they are to have it.

Some of them, if reading this, would probably have the whole “But you can earn your way out of poverty” attitude, and they’re right, to an extent. But what if you’re like me, or unluckier, where you have one year after another of illness or injury, misfortune or bad luck?

When it’s a six-month patch, you get through it and you move on. When it’s six years, or longer, it’s just an accomplishment to make it through month after month. Retirement? What? Savings? What? Survival, man.

I’m lucky, I’ve almost had it constantly be tough and hard for the last decade, but I always get by, I always make it through the hard patches. And every time I do, I’ve learned some new trick about money, some new way of saving a few pennies, but more importantly, I’ve always been able to remember that life is so much bigger and more meaningful than a balance sheet.

For those who think “time is money”, so just buy your food and work more — how? How does one magically make this more expensive, prepared, convenient food just appear? How does one afford to live spitting distance from the best job they can get?

They don’t. Not in this town, man.

There’s a reason money’s the fastest way to kill a relationship.

There’s nothing in this world we value more than money, there’s nothing that defines your life more — and nothing is more omnipresent than the reminders of just how much YOUR value is determined by the money you have or don’t have.

Try it. Wear tattered, out-of-style clothes with a bad haircut and zero accessories, carrying lousy plastic bags or beaten knapsacks, and be sure tote your insecurities and financial worry along with you, then enter into any decent shop in any reasonable area of town, and tell me you don’t FEEL your value lowering when you enter those establishments.

Or go experience the thrill of being constantly broke and listening to even your average friends talking about their new jeans or the restaurant they went out to, or the vacation they’re saving for, and try to ignore that little pang of “I wish…” that creeps up inside every time you think of small items you’d love to have.

Reminders exist everywhere of just how much you don’t have when you’re living hand-to-mouth. No matter how much peace you’ve made with your status, the constant reminders beat you down a little, just like how a single repeating drop of water can erode the hardest of stone over time.

Despite all this, the older I get, the more I appreciate that I truly value the important things in life, and through all my adversity, I’ve learned to really experience gratitude for the little things that come my way.

I love a good meal, I’m passionate about great wine, I know a gorgeous sunset can’t be bought, I savour all the little moments life gives me, when I find the time to really absorb them.

Truth be told, I’m happy there’s a recession on some levels.

When it comes to the middle class and the wealthy, I’m glad they’ve had to wake up some. I’m glad we suddenly realize there’s more in life than the mighty currency markets.

I’m saddened by those who’ve lost everything, who’ve had lives crushed by fucking assholes in the economic world who just have no concept of debt or value.

It’s so ironic. The people who “create” finance in the economic world actually have zero concept of what a real dollar is worth, of just how far — or not — a normal living wage goes.

And they’re the ones who’ve helped bring everything, and every one, down.

Still, poverty has its gifts.

Gratitude is a gift you’ll never grow tired of. There’s nothing like actually really appreciating a thing. Anything. So many people I know just shrug off little moments of generosity. How could they? Don’t they understand?

No. Not yet.

But they will.

Not having disposable income makes problems harder to solve, time harder to find, health harder to manage, and a social life harder to have.

But, with the right perspective, it can really open your eyes.

Has the recession taught you to better appreciate life? Have you really learned what you need to learn from the last two years? Have you gained insights that will define your future and always keep you cognizant of what real “worth” is?

Have you used it to remember what life is really about — the world and people around us, moments in time, laughter, and creation? Have you learned to be kinder to others and generous in thought, action, and words, when finances fail you? Have you learned to be understanding of the trials others face and the compromises they need to make just to make it through their weeks?

It’s not too late to learn those lessons now.

A Sly Smile Kinda Morning

The sky is an iridescent grey, at once inspiring and eerie.

My day is stretched before me with a loose idea of all the things I have to do, mostly of the meetings-and-appointments sort. A murky mess sits at the bottom of a mug I wish was filled with fresh black coffee. I just shrug at its emptiness and type on.

Inside, calmness has settled in. A calmness I probably haven’t felt in a number of years.

It began yesterday morning with a kind of prescient feeling about how much I could or would get done during the day. I blew that out of the water and settled my to-do list with great authority, meeting and beating all aspirations for the day.

At the end, I decided I’d finally take a look at my finances. For the first month of my unemployment I’ve applied the Ostirich Approach to my situation — only after I’d taken a hard look at the bottom line of what I would need to live on each month, and had the vague notion I might be okay until June. Then, I buried my head, spent as little as possible, and just did my shit, with the assumption that Spending Almost Nothing was all I needed to do.

Much of what I did spend was covered by “found” money — gifts from a couple kind people. (You fucking rock.)

I knew when the month started it would be tight and was 95% sure I would either be deferring my loan payment or telling my landlord I needed an extra week to pay the rent. I mean, the reality is, the first month of unemployment is ALWAYS the hardest.

I was in the situation of having had a bad-spending winter, followed by the Olympics crushing my savings, and had NO idea that a complete lay-off loomed. I thought I’d lose a day of work a week — I was praying for it — as we’d applied for the Workshare program (spreading a lay-off throughout the company, with the government paying 55% of the one day a week each employee gives up).

I never thought I’d be laid off entirely this year. And after a year spent rehabbing a back injury and two years of having to replace entire wardrobes with every season due to weight-loss, and that I’ve been making lower-middle-class income in one of the world’s most expensive cities… well, yeah, no savings either.


But I managed to get enough ducks in a row as soon as the “OMG, lay-offs might be coming” fear that hit around March 24th, before finding out on the 25th that I would be entirely laid off, likely the next day, that I sort of had a fighting chance.

I was also insistent with my employer that the additional 3 days of work at the end of March would make the difference between me surviving until June at least.

And it did.

I finally scrounged up everything I had last night — not including a little emergency money I’ve set aside or what’s on my Visa — and know I can pay rent AND groceries until the middle of the month, without even receiving my government employment insurance benefit. AND I keep what little safety net I have intact.

That changes everything.

I feel like it’s the stamp of approval. “Go forth, Steff,” it says. “All will be well.”

I know, I’m supposed to be all embarrassed that my money’s this tight.

I’m supposed to be ashamed.

Wealth is a sign of success and position and talent and brains, isn’t it?

Fuck you.

Fuck ANYONE who thinks I need to be ashamed that things have been so close.

I’ve NEVER been irresponsible with money. All I’ve been guilty of is being average with money. At my income, spending an additional 10% every month cripples you in a hurry.

I am NOT my adversity. FUCK that.

Try losing 70 pounds and having to buy new wardrobes every three months, or getting so severely injured you spend a month laying on a floor and for months have to take cabs and pay 20% more in groceries  just for the convenience, because you’re in too much pain to bus from a further, cheaper store.

That I’m even paying rent tomorrow without any interceding forces makes me more proud than you’ll ever fucking know.

Fuck anyone who thinks money and whether someone gets through a jam financially is a reflection at all of that person’s intelligence, ability, talent, or resilience. Money is as much about luck and selective adversity as it is savings abilities.

Some people just have more things to overcome. In my life, money was always the villain. That line between getting by and barely surviving is thinner than most people might realize.

For once, money doesn’t feel like my villain anymore.

I’ve got rent, baby. And food. And I’m gonna buy me some wine and a steak tonight to celebrate.

[shaking head]

Yeah. I don’t know… I feel like I have to say more:

So many of you need to feel what kissing poverty is like. You need to feel how much it hurts inside when you’re terrified about paying the rent or you’re sure you’ve got to resort to drastic measures to get by. You need to know what it’s like to think hope is too expensive a luxury for your position. You need to imagine what that fear’s like when it’s not just you it affects.

You need to know how hard it is when money’s not within your grasp. Everyone needs to feel that.

I hope I never feel it again. And I hope I always remember that pain. I hope I always have the empathy I wish more people had shown me earlier — but so many are showing me, even showering me with, now.

Today is a day of gratitude, goodness, and calm. For me, at least. You? You can choose that, too.

Take a minute to think about what you really have, and pray you never come close to losing it.

Some fears aren’t fit for anyone. But gratitude is one-size-fits-all.

Beyond the talk of money? My future’s looking great. What a ride this summer will be. Stay tuned.

PS: Methinks unemployment might’ve been the best thing that ever happened to me. Wait’ll you get a load of me, baby.

Further Thoughts Against Olympics “Protesters”

19446_302753476915_580041915_3948176_8363620_nThe Games opened yesterday with the start of what I suspect will persist throughout the Games — agitators doing everything they could to dampen the party.

As the ceremonies occurred, protesters tried to push their way there, and the inevitable clash with authorities ensued. Two cops suffered minor injuries, but no protesters were harmed.

Here’s my thinking, okay?

Vancouver’s a leftist city. If you want to live here, you probably shouldn’t be a conservative-minded person. We don’t have a lot for you that way.

Greenpeace was born here. Charities and human rights organizations thrive here, volunteerism and activism are big. Lonely Planet claims our Commercial Drive is even Canada’s counterculture capital.

And I fucking love it. Continue reading

When Will It Change?

I work a couple blocks away from one of the nastiest parts of my beloved city, Vancouver, Canada. It’s like a whole other world when you stumble into the Downtown East Side, just two blocks east of my office, a place that held, in the early ’90s, the highest urban rate of AIDS and HIV infection on the globe.

People like me who’ve lived in this city our whole lives know more about the disenfranchised in that area, and I have my own speculations on how it’s gotten so out of hand, but I’ve never looked into it all that much.

Suffice to say that at that two-block point east of here, it’s like an invisible wall has gone up. People sleep on streets, heroin is shot in alleys, fights break out over drugs, and everything’s out of control.

This area houses most of the prostitution and all of the meth and heroin junkies in the city. The mentally ill who are deinstitutionalized run rampant in this hood, and I’m faced daily with heartbreak and hopelessness when I see how much work is left to be done to help all these impoverished, seemingly forgotten members of our city.

We’re beginning to get a reputation internationally for what’s largely gone unchecked in this city, and that saddens me, considering all else this city has to offer — the natural beauty, the unforgettable cuisine, the multicultural population, the sports, and more. What the world doesn’t see and doesn’t seem to understand is how stacked against success the odds really are in dealing with this travesty.

This city is a magnet for the nation’s homeless — even for America’s homeless. They all want to be here because the climate is so tolerable year-round and because the cops tend to empathize rather than penalize these impoverished people. After all, if you’re homeless, where would you rather be in the winter, the snows of Toronto and Montreal, where it can go far below freezing every winter, or in the temperate climes of Vancouver?

Add to that the fact that so many drugs land here in Vancouver, where an average of 150 million massive cargo freights pass through annually, where we barely have the staff to search them, and where drug laws are so much more relaxed than in America, and you have a ticking time bomb that no easy solutions will patch.

The world’s about to hear more regarding this harrowing part of Vancouver, though, with the release of a controversial new “fictional” horror film by Australian filmmakers that focuses on one of the most legendary bastards ever to live in this province. Robert “Willie” Pickton is facing trial for the brutal murders of 26 Vancouver-area prostitutes, but is suspected of killing more than 125 of these women over the course of 20 years. A pig farmer by trade, Pickton covered his ass well by having his pigs devour the corpses of these women. As a result, little DNA evidence was recovered by what was the largest criminal investigation in Canadian history.

I’m saddened by the news that the families of these missing and dead women will have to endure a film that will probably sensationalize these brutal murders. And while I’m further saddened by the continuing downward spiral of this incredible city’s reputation, perhaps international attention will finally convince both the British Columbian and Canadian governments that this absolutely is NOT a problem that can be solved by Vancouver’s government alone. Our cops are stretched as thin as cellophane and there’s no money to be had.

In less than four years, the world will be on our doorsteps when the 2010 Olympics unveil. And what will have happened to the disenfranchised and forgotten by then? God only knows, but many, including myself, suspect they’ll be shifted out of the downtown core, pushed off to the side just to become some other neighbourhood’s problem. Out of sight, out of mind, and, possibly, out of hope.

Every Day I Think About Money

I’ve been thinking a lot about money lately, for obvious reasons. My theme song is the Stereophonics’ live track, “Every Day I Think About Money.” A couple days back I was elated when I was able to pay for 95% of my groceries with the coin I extracted from my piggy bank. (And, yes, it really is a piggy bank. It’s an upscale pottery pig, a high-falutin’ pig, but it’s a clay porker-broker indeed.)

These days, any self-worth I have comes from me. I can’t pad things with purchases. I can’t buy a little somethin’ somethin’ to make myself feel better. Others keep trying to spend money on me, and every time they do, a little more of my pride whittles away, despite the fact that I know they’re just trying to enjoy some time with me and see me satisfied. And, yes, as Marcellus Wallace would say, that’s pride fuckin’ wit’ me.

I’ve always been a proud person. I learned it from my mother. She was broke in the three years before her death, and we didn’t have a lot of money in my teens, either, but through it all, my mother never looked destitute, and she sure as shit never acted it. I try to live up to that. Sure, I falter at times, but such is life.

It’s easy, though, when you have money to spend yourself to a supposedly better state of mind. It’s easier still to try and spend your way out of guilt towards a loved one when you’re not being the lover/parent/spouse/friend you think you ought to be. I think we’ve all done this in the past. It’s too easy to not have done it.

We like to confuse the issue and pretend it’s generosity we’re providing, but it’s really not that. It’s absolution.

Back in the day, the Catholic Church filled its coffers by selling salvation. For a lofty price, you could contact a bishop and acquire yourself a church-sanctioned piece of salvation; as if giving God money could cause him to avert his judgmental gaze from you.

Nothing’s changed. We’re still the same. We “give at the office” so we can justify all our transgressions elsewhere. We buy our lovers gifts because we don’t have the time or energy to be with them, or worse, because we’ve lied to them or betrayed them. Well, it ain’t workin’. It’s the financial equivalent of trying to pull off a Band-aid slowly. What the fuck you thinkin’, Willis?

Money may make the world go round, but it also keeps the shrinks at bay long enough to delude ourselves that things aren’t really what we know they are.

The good thing about being broke like this is that I’m forced to go inside myself more and see what it is I value about me, to try and remember the simple things in life that bring me pleasure. Lying on a sofa on a dark, warm summer night with some music playing and just the streetlight slipping in through cracks in the curtains. Finding a nice bunch of economical ingredients and creating something new and wonderful in the kitchen while still making budget. Taking the long ride home on the scooter while dangling my sandal-clad feet off the side to get a breeze through the toes. Singing to myself and switching up familiar melodies with new phrasing and note combinations. Reading a good book in the bath.

And few of those cost any money, and whatever does cost money is something I’d be spending anyhow, so I just spend it wiser, is all.

I’ve been trying to avoid going into stores for the past few months, because this money-being-tight thing isn’t a recent development — it’s just more intense now than it’s ever been. But stores are made to make us want all the things we don’t have. That’s their nature. What’s worse is there’s a science behind marketing that most people are ignorant of.

Next time you’re in a supermarket, look at how it’s laid out. The meats on one side, the veggies on the other, and to get to either, you must pass all the processed and packaged shit that comes with higher markups. The lighting’s dimmer over the processed aisles, too, by some 30%, so you have to focus more to see what you’re looking for, and in so doing, you’re more likely to purchase something you don’t need. The brightest lighting, though, is over the checkout counters so you’re hyper alert and pay the right money, plus you move and act quicker so they save time on every transaction.

I’m on hyper-vigilant stand-by mode every time I enter stores these days. I’m conscious of my knowledge of marketing and subliminal sales tricks so I can try with all my heart to not spend a dime more than necessary. And I’m also conscious in reminding myself that it’s how I live my life, not what I fill it with, that brings me joy. It’s hard. It’s really hard. I’d love to get new headphones. My toaster oven has a Mensa-issued turn-on switch that requires a secret handshake and multiple acts of finagling just to get the fucker to toast. I’ve lost so much weight that all my clothes hang on me, and my pride’s taking a hit (fuck you, Marcellus; it is what it is).

But in the recent months I’ve acquired something money could never bring me before: Resourcefulness. Self-knowledge. Strength of self. A kind of inner peace I didn’t know existed.

Yeah, I still hate the 28-year-olds driving cars worth 30 times what my scooter’s worth, but I also know the looks of envy I get from them when I pull up at a stopsign in shorts and a t-shirt on a sweltering day, tapping my feet and singing to myself under my helmet. I glance over and a grin spreads on their faces as they nod, wondering why they’ve bought into the myth of the fancy car and the big monthly payments.

We each find happiness in different ways, but I’ll tell you one thing: It ain’t on your Visa bill, baby, nor is it in the cracks of your couch.