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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Extreme Provident Living

Last Friday, during "grocery store rush hour," another customer and I were in line at our local Publix behind a woman who was attempting to use several of those wonderful save-five-bucks-on-a-thirty-dollar-purchase coupons. To help her redeem these coupons, the cashier was allowing her to break her large purchase into several smaller ones.

The man in front of me was irritated enough to grumble aloud...several times. After a few minutes, my patience was tested enough for me to post a mobile Facebook update about it (I almost never do this since I use StraightTalk and the mobile web service is not the fastest). I understand trying to make coupons work. I've used those same coupons myself and worked the same kind of magic to somehow save ten or fifteen bucks on my grocery bill (not usually when others were in line behind me, though). And someone pointed out to me that maybe the store wasn't as busy when she started out, so she didn't realize she would be holding up so many people.

That gave me time to think about the coupon show I've never watched on TLC (we don't have cable any more, but even when we did I was only guilty of an occasional "Hoarding: Buried Alive" marathon or the old standby "What Not to Wear"). I look at web resources on stockpiling (her word, not mine) and wonder how that fits in to a normal, healthy life (it doesn't look anything like what the what the LDS Church recommends for what they call "provident living."). But when we stop to consider how many of our families (mine included) depend on convenience foods, it makes sense that we would wonder, "what would we need three months worth of flour/sugar/dried beans/other "old-fashioned" cooking staple for? What would we do with that much stuff?" Because though many of you out there are both practical and creative home cooks, plenty more of us are not making our own meals from scratch. So when we think of "stocking up" on basics, we're thinking frozen lasagnas and Hamburger Helper, not the raw ingredients required to make those same meals.

I wonder what people do with their ten tubes of toothpaste or fifty-eight bottles of mustard (it happens!). I wonder where the lines are drawn between being prepared and hoarding, between being frugal and being stingy. Families that are prepared for an emergency because they have a modest extra supply of basics like water, broth, and dried foods probably also know how to use those ingredients to survive. I'm not sure how having lots of extra condiments or toothpaste or fruit snacks is going to help anyone. Sure, you can live off fruit snacks for a while, but eventually your body will need other nourishment.

Where would you draw the line? Do you use coupons? Are you just a casual coupon user, or do you love to search for the very best deal all the time? Have you done the "crazy couponing" before? Also, what's in your pantry that would get you through a week or so in an emergency?



Friday, September 21, 2012

Coping Mechanisms

How do you deal with lots of little things going wrong at once? We have a kitchen plumbing issue right now along with a broken dryer, not to mention the stresses that come as a bonus with paycheck-to-paycheck life. Also, I still have moments where I'm keenly aware of my dad's absence and have to cope with those and not let them overtake whatever might be happening.
Tonight we decided to cook a deliciously simple supper, eat dessert, and watch a dark but funny movie. I have seen "What About Bob?" at least 20 times. Twenty-one if you count tonight. When the house explodes, I feel this great relief and it makes me laugh. With everything else that goes on around here, no crazy psychoanalyst has strapped explosives to us. It's all about perspective, right?
I hope you have a great weekend with no exploding houses!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Not Safe For Work

Last November, I was hired on as "holiday help" at a major retailer, and they kept me on after things slowed down post-Christmas. You would think that a single mother of three (I was unmarried at the time) would be beating down everyone's doors to get a full-time job, in a career field, with benefits.

Well, I was. And I'm acquainted with locally influential people on a friendly enough level that I would even ask on Twitter and Facebook, "do you know who's hiring someone like me?" Of course, the jobs I was interested in (nonprofit stuff, mostly) required experience, which I didn't have. (Number of people who have told me I'd be great at grant-writing: 2,369. Number of same who have given me an opportunity to do it: 0.)

What I had was a liberal arts degree and a job history that spanned...well, too many fields. The story of how I got there (and here) is long, but you might recognize some parts of it as your own -- or your friend's, or daughter's, or sister's.

I was identified in grammar school as gifted, but gifted education was not available to me once I changed schools (okay, not just schools, but geographic areas...I moved from Kentucky bluegrass to the foothills of the Sandia Mountains in New Mexico). So instead, I was just the Really Smart Kid. Eventually, as school bored me, I became the Really Smart Kid With Lackluster Grades. Also, I was bad at math (not just a little bad, but a lot bad). Teachers loved me despite my performance and classmates were intimidated by my vocabulary. A great little liberal arts college (that couldn't give me nearly enough scholarship money to even consider it) briefly courted me but I went another route.

I ended up at Auburn University Montgomery, which is a decent state school with its share of excellent faculty (especially in their business school and in their English department) and a lot of interesting staff. But then I couldn't settle on a major. I was living with my parents still, and gaga over my now-ex-husband, who was a few years older than me and had already graduated and was working. School was not my focus; a career was definitely not my focus (I was actually very interested in politics and public relations but my other half didn't have the stomach or the patience for those things so I avoided them to keep things sane). I didn't have any ambitions of being a stay-at-home-mom at the time, but I really had no idea what career I could have that would fit in with my fiancee's plans to...well, never leave Alabama.

I got married in April 1998, and that August I received my Bachelor of Liberal Arts. It meant that I had taken a lot of liberal arts classes (and I had, and I'd loved most of them). I had a job as a technical writer and editor for 14 months, then got a job as a caseworker for the county child support program. I was there six months before we ended up leaving Montgomery for Birmingham. There were no jobs in that field in my new county, and I ended up working for 17 months in online banking (which was a new field) before leaving to work as an administrative assistant at a nonprofit downtown. 

That last job lasted five months. I was pregnant with my second child, and constantly in the emergency room for unexpected bleeding. I was stressed about leaving my very young toddler son in daycare (I worked at a child care resource and referral agency and if that doesn't make you want to keep your kids out of day care, I don't know what will). We had to sacrifice a lot of extras but I was able to stay home with my children from February 2001 to March 2010, only working as a substitute teacher during the school day when they were all in class. 

By March 2010 the economy was drastically different and our family needed money. I got my insurance license and went to work in a friend's agency. within a few months, my marriage fell apart, my friend fired me, and I was unemployed for a few months before getting hired full-time at a department store. My employer was so inflexible with my schedule that I ended up leaving there and living off my divorce settlement for the summer after my divorce because summer care for three kids is costly (as in it was going to cost my whole paycheck plus some every week to pay for day care for my school-aged people).

Finding a job once school started seemed impossible. I went on so many interviews, driving all the gas out of my broken-down minivan in my sad attempts to find employment. My love interest (to whom I am now quite blissfully wed) encouraged me to try a particular store, and their flexible scheduling and long operating hours made it a perfect fit (the pay is terrible, it really is, but they work with the custody schedule I have with my kids' dad and few other places would). 

Did you notice that I haven't mentioned any new skills I gained outside the field of mothering during the nine years I was home? I did nothing but be a mother. My three children were born in just under three years. I was busy. And then when I wasn't busy being busy I wanted to sleep. It didn't occur to me that someday I would have to work. Reason even published a letter I wrote about "Mommy Wars." 

As a result, I am 36 and have a defaulted student loan and make just above minimum wage working between 15 and 25 hours a week. This is the only job I can find. I have interviewed for countless other jobs and have not been hired. Those who know me know I am intelligent, bright, personable, and capable. I'm not the only one like me out there. The one benefit of the job being part-time is that I am not spending two hundred dollars a month on after school care for my two youngest kids, and it's only seven miles away so it doesn't tax my car and gas tank like driving downtown would.

Before criticizing the unemployed and the underemployed, investigate their stories. And those of you who are undertaking the beautifully terrifying challenge of being a stay-at-home parent, be sure you invest in yourself a little during those years. As hard as it is to find work that's rewarding both spiritually and financially right now, I still don't regret the time I spent not working. I just wish I'd thought of student loans and my future a little more often.



I'm not always kind, but when I am, it's to total strangers

My father, a healthy and fit 57 year old man, died unexpectedly on August 20, 2012. My kids and I talked to him on the phone at 8 pm the night before and my brother called me at 6 am on the 20th to tell me he had passed away.

I walk myself through the events of that morning and it still feels like I'm watching someone else's movie. Maybe later I'll share the hairier details (there was flailing, and orange-juice-dropping, and cursing). Today I just want to share a story about my dad, one that defines his character in my eyes.

The summer of 1985 my family lived in Lexington, KY. We had just gotten rid of our blue Chevette (which, okay, I really loved, with its pierced vinyl seats and skin-melting metal seatbelts) and replaced it with another blue Chevrolet -- an Astro minivan with totally removable bench seats and enough room for our beloved English Springer Spaniel *and* a cooler for drinks and snacks! Money, as always, was scarce. My mom worked full time at the UK bookstore and so I spent my days bouncing between the bookstore and being at home or (sometimes) in class with my dad, who was an engineering student. I was nine. My brother stayed with the woman who had been our long-time caregiver in Lexington (and to whom I am still very close) but I got to play semi-adult during the day.

I remember sitting in the front seat while my dad and I were driving around running errands. Remember how the eighties had lots of hitchhikers? My father decided we would pick up a hitchhiker that day. I was sworn to secrecy because my mother would have had a fit (I know how I'd feel if my kids' dad let a stranger ride in the car with them!). Dad had me move to the very back seat of the van, "just in case." The guy got in and told my dad he needed a ride and would appreciate something to eat.

The whole incident was really uneventful. We drove to a KFC and the three of us got something to eat, then we dropped the hitcher off somewhere I don't remember. What's memorable about this is that I remember it at all.

My dad wasn't perfect, and we "had words" quite often. But I always knew his love was unconditional. It was based on his faith, and his belief that God loves us and there's nothing we have done to earn it, and nothing we can do to lose it.

When I was 19, I worked in my university library. My college utilized work-release prisoners for various projects and, as far as I know, never had any issues. The dean of the library called me into his office once and expressed concern that I was being "too kind" (his words exactly) to the work-release guys. Others had observed me being cordial and thought it put me in danger. I listened to what he had to say but already knew that I wasn't going to change my behavior. At dinner, I reported the meeting with the dean to my parents. My dad said to never stop being kind or cordial, especially to those who society deems less deserving of our kindness and cordiality.

And while now I am trying to avoid the trap of looking back on my dad and our relationship with the famed rose-colored glasses, I'm glad I remember these stories. My family can tell you I am not always kind or sweet. But my nature is to be that way, and when I'm not doing it, it's because I'm fighting who I am. My father treated everyone he encountered with kindness and dignity and respect, and I want to do the same, and I want, someday, for my kids to be scolded for being too kind or too friendly to people everyone else has given up on. That will be the best legacy.