So far, my family has…

So far, my family has been relatively insulated from the recession. A few mandatory furlough days have taken $2500 out of our bank accounts, and I wouldn't be surprised if the university loses more staff and adjuncts in the months to come, leading to organizational chaos, heavier teaching loads, etc. But if it happens, it's not here yet. You could even argue that the recession has actually helped us, since the house we bought was a foreclosure -- it wouldn't have been available if some other family hadn't been hit hard. From what the neighbors say, it was a combination of bad medical bills leading them to take a second mortgage, and then one of the parents being laid off and unable to find work for long enough that they couldn't make the mortgage payments.

They tried hard to hang onto their house -- they took in renters, they tried to do a short sale. The house was on the market for three years before it was finally foreclosed on by the bank, at which point, we came along and bought it for a song. Our savings on the purchase are what's enable us to do all the renovations we're doing now, so that we end up with a dream house. Built on the backs of someone else's misfortune. I'm not really superstitious, and I think it would be silly to avoid buying the house for that reason -- after all, not buying it certainly wouldn't help that family any; they were long gone by the time we came along. But every once in a while, I get a twinge of guilt about that anyway.

This morning, I ran across this blog, The Boxcar Kids. A mom, four kids, two dogs, and a cat. Living in a trailer now (in a tent last summer), after a combination of events led to their losing their beautiful five bedroom house. Just a few entries so far, but smart, interesting. I like the way she lays out exactly why taking a $15/hr service job would actually lose her money when she factors in the cost of childcare. Ditto going back to school and retraining. The numbers help to make it real.

When I work at Eastgate Cafe, I can't help overhearing conversations. It's a small space. Our current neighborhood is at the southeast corner of Oak Park and part middle-class, part working-class, depending on which side of the street you live on. And listening to people in the cafe talk, you can hear how this neighborhood is getting hammered. So many people in the cafe in the middle of the day, nursing a single drink for hours. Talking about going back to school, or selling stuff out of their home, or trying to start up a small business, or wondering if it's hard to get teaching jobs at the university, or about how maybe, they could make it as a writer. Maybe now's the time to take their shot at writing the Great American Novel.

Our family's so lucky, to be where we are. To still be able to buy overpriced lamps at Pottery Barn, just because they're pretty. I give to charity, and when people ask for things they need on the local mom mail list, I try to help out. It doesn't seem like enough. I am so short on time right now, but I still feel like I need to do something for our local community. I wish I could make people soup. Or buy them diapers. Did you know that food stamps don't cover any hygiene products, including soap or diapers? I just learned that today, and it makes me so angry I could spit.

I sometimes teach writing classes -- I'm wondering whether I could offer a free writing class at one of the local cafes. Would it be too weird, to offer something that was specifically targeted to folks who are out of work, or otherwise affected by the current recession? And do you think it would be better to do a strictly creative sort of thing, encouraging people to express their emotions and thoughts in the framework of poetry or fiction? Or would folks find it more helpful to have something more practical, like a how to write nonfiction articles? (Not that I've done a lot of the latter, but I've done a bit, and I can certainly walk them through the basic process.) The thing is, I suspect it's particularly hard to break into article writing right now, since there are so many people looking for supplemental gigs. I don't want to give people the impression that they'll necessarily be able to sell something, especially when they're just getting started.

Would teaching creative writing be helpful, or just frivolous, in this current crisis? I don't know. But I feel like I ought to do something.

7:35 addendum: I've also been thinking about teaching a free basic crochet class. This seems more practical, since while yarn isn't free, if you buy inexpensive yarn, you can actually make reasonably-priced clothes and other household items. What do you think?

8 thoughts on “So far, my family has…”

  1. I would think it would help. It would give them another skill, give them a push to write, and give them something concrete to do.

  2. Catherine Shaffer

    Mary Anne–I understand your feelings. Here in Michigan, the recession is hitting harder than just about anywhere else. My community is somewhat insulated, but still I have quite a few friends and acquaintances suffering in one way or another. Meanwhile, my husband and I had our highest-earning year ever, financially, and have been able to add to our savings. While others houses are underwater, ours is holding value, so we even have the option of home equity loans if we get in trouble. I think the best thing we can do is continue supporting charity–heavily. Maintain or increase our support, and target charities that cover basic needs first: food, shelter, clothing, etc. I worry about you getting overcomitted with teaching a writing or crochet class. You are already working the equivalent of two full time jobs, and your family is the first priority. Caring for a toddler and an infant is incredibly exhausting and all-consuming work that doesn’t leave much energy for also taking care of friends and neighbors.

  3. Mary Anne,

    I haven’t given much thought yet to your question re: free writing course, but I wanted to comment on a few things herein:

    — I’m definitely going to look into that Boxcar Kids blog. So thanks for that!

    — Perhaps this is too idealistic, but I like to think that the former owners of your home could take a tiny bit of comfort knowing that someone is putting such lovely effort into it, and into raising a family in it.

    — You might check with some local food pantries to see if they collect and then offer diapers and other hygiene supplies. When I took a tour of the Houston Food Bank, I know they took donations of pet food to give out. (They don’t publicize it too much because they don’t want to be inundated with pet food, but I loved that they cared about whole families, including the furry members.)

    — OK, now I DO have a thought on the writing thing. I think both writing and crochet are useful skills, but I think for immediate assistance, a free resume writing class or course or even just single session would be most helpful, since earning $ from writing or even from crocheted goods would take some time to come to fruition. I have folks in my library all the time working on resumes, and when I catch glances, I can see huge spelling and grammar mistakes. (As librarians we are not supposed to intercede in any way unless we are asked for help.) Anyhow, you might be able to help someone improve his/her resume enough to make them a more attractive job candidate.

    Thanks again — great post!

  4. Why not take the money you would normally spend on that overpriced lamp and use it to buy diapers to donate to a local group?

  5. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Like I said, I do give money to charity as it is; it’s not the lamp in particular that I’m worried about.

    Just feels like I have some specialized skills that could be useful in the community — but I think Catherine is probably right that now is not the time. This semester I’ve got an overload due to the (minimal) maternity leave last semester, and it really is just insane. Our time is scheduled down to the last minute most days.

    It should be better once the semester ends; if the economy hasn’t recovered significantly by then, I can do some free classes at that point. I think that’s the plan.

    I think there are actually quite a few free resume workshops being offered in the area, by the way — I can spell check as well as most, but I haven’t had to deal with business-type resumes in over a decade; I don’t know that I really know much about what makes a good resume at this point.

  6. Mary Anne, you are so generous. I know I never leave your home with less than I came in with, and believe me, I’ve tried.

    I like the free writing course idea. I am hearing of more and more people out of work who are writing the Great American Novel. If not a writing course then certainly a critique/feedback session would benefit.

    I am appalled at the resumes I’ve seen. In my exec hiring days, I recall skipping through poorly done resumes – if you can’t do a decent job using basic Word functions, then what good are you to me? In the course of the last 20 years of providing resume assistance, it has been time consuming and tedious 1-on-1 to pull information out of the person so they sound worthy of hire. One guy actually told me he ‘doesn’t play well with others’ – at least give me something to work with, man!!

  7. I’ve been meaning to comment on this:

    I agree that right now seems like it might not be the best time to embark on something like this, given how overloaded you already are.

    If at some point you do end up doing it, I would say that focusing on basic writing skills could be hugely helpful, if you could stand to do it. Both in resumes and in interaction at a job, being able to express oneself in written English can be extremely valuable, and a lot of people are quite bad at it. A lot of the skills that go into that are not something that can be taught quickly and easily; but I wonder if something like an extremely basic one-hour intro-to-expressing-yourself-clearly-in-writing class would be feasible.

    Dunno, maybe not. And quite possibly not something you would enjoy or be interested in teaching. Just a thought.

  8. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    I think there are a lot of the basic writing classes offered through libraries and other community organizations, by people who are better trained that I am in teaching that sort of thing. Basic writing is really its own discipline, and one I don’t know a lot about.

    And as well, most of the people I’m seeing in my neighborhood are actually displaced professionals, who don’t need basic writing skills. They have that — what they need, I think, is something to give them something useful and interesting to work on, a break from the miserable grind of job-hunting in a market with no jobs.

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