Saturday, September 17, 2011

Not Very Normal

I had a very normal childhood, up to a point. I was raised by very nice crunchy liberal Christians who practiced the eighties version of attachment parenting. I went to good schools and on nice family vacations. No one in my family ever did anything scandalous, like drink too much or get divorced. My family was so normal, like the families you used to see on TV, that it took me many years to realize how abnormal it was to have such a normal family.

I don't know how my life got so strange. I think it might have been a lot of little things. I did move around a lot. I was really smart. I think my brain is weird. I was deeply religious until, as a teenager, I stopped being religious at all. I was a geek, and a girl, and a very serious tomboy, and I really didn't get how to do fashion at all. I do remember that I never woke up one morning and thought, "when I grow up, I want to do very strange things."

As it turns out, though, I have done a lot of weird stuff in my life. I think maybe the most surreal period was when our first baby was six months old and we had to move out of the first house we had bought together. It was an ok house, but it was not in a great place. We bought it because we were young and it was cheap and we could afford to live there and not work. It was in a "bad" neighborhood, but living there was probably a pretty good experience for a while. There were some nice people on the street, just like everywhere.

J made friends with some of the local kids, and once a bullet was shot into our house when one of them ran up on our porch to dodge it. That was scary, but it didn't exactly happen all the time. Something clicked, though, when we were living there with a baby and then a man was shot to death on the street a few doors down. We were broke then, too, and didn't feel like we had a lot of options, but I kind of started to freak out. We talked about all sorts of possibilities, from living with our parents to moving to a commune. In the end, though, none of that made sense, because it just so happened that we also owned a commercial building several blocks away on a major street...populous enough that it felt safer, and plus, we could turn the third floor into an apartment, with a locking steel door and windows high enough to be out of the way of stray bullets. So.

The thing about this building was that I'd been given quite a lot of money a few years previously. We didn't want to do anything as bourgeois as invest the money in a capital sense, so we'd used most of it to buy a building we could barely manage the upkeep of in the hopes that it could one day be made into a radical community center. (That did happen eventually - and that's another surreal story - but not until years later.) At the time we started living there, it was in lousy shape, and not particularly habitable. We had gotten as far as demolishing the internal walls, so that each floor was one big room. Also, it was January.

The first floor was minimally heated, so we curtained off a portion of the room about eight feet square, and it was tolerably warm in there. We moved our bed in and set up a computer with internet access, and that was that. J started spending nearly all his waking hours making the third floor into a habitable studio apartment, and the baby and I spent most of our time in the tent. Every day while he napped, I would put on my coat and hat and go into the kitchenette to make some kind of food and hand-wash dishes and diapers in ice-cold water. I know. That sounds insane. And it was. But we didn't have a car, or even a stroller. Once a week, we would bundle up, put the baby in a sling, and walk a mile to Whole Foods with our internal frame backpacks to buy groceries. I know. I think I was washing the diapers myself because I couldn't handle the thought of doing that walk two or three more times per week, alone, to get to the laundromat.

When I think back on the three months or so that it took before it got warm and we moved upstairs, there are layers upon layers of weirdness. Why didn't we sell the building and rent an apartment? For that matter, why didn't we get jobs and rent an apartment? Strangest of all, why were we shopping at Whole Foods but not buying a $25 stroller? I don't know. Or, rather, I know a lot of little reasons. Everything we were doing, every single decision, made sense at the time based on certain values - organic food, not driving, baby wearing, cloth diapering, staying out of the capitalist system (haha), etc. We were trying very hard not to have any privilege, or to make up for it somehow, and mostly I think we were just trying not to make things worse.

I still sometimes feel like I don't really know how to make decisions.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Plan

I like to read blogs about people who have inspiring success stories. Mostly they live really unconventionally. They are self-employed, and spend their time doing work they love and/or very little time doing work at all. They have flexible schedules and strange lives, but they also have enough money and resources to do all kinds of crazy fun stuff. Travel, mostly, and have cool hobbies. I don't know if there is a name for this kind of blog, but there are a lot of them out there. When it comes right down to it, many of them seem to earn awesome livings off of the fact that they have cool lifestyles so that people are willing to pay them for some sort of coaching or advice. This is a very strange infinite loop, and a pretty amazing racket. I wonder, how did they get started? Is it a fake it 'til you make it sort of thing?

I think that it must be a little like the psychic scam where you start out predicting, say, the outcome of football games. Tell half your customers one answer, and the other half the other. Repeat this over the course of, say, five games, and for every 30 people you started out with, about one should end up convinced that you have pierced the vale of time and space.

What I mean is that a lot of people must start off trying to achieve an awesome, flexible lifestyle like that, but for the most part, you only end up reading about the ones who are successful in every sense of the word. I thought it would be interesting to try that process backwards - beginning at a point when, sure, some foundation has been laid, but I'm broke and unemployed and mostly uninformed about how to be a successful freelancer (which for blogging purposes should be close enough to point zero). Then we will see where I end up and, retroactively, how I got there.

I also want to take a close look at success, and how I'm willing to define that. Sure, I'd love to make enough money to feel more stable, to allow J to quit his current job, and to enjoy certain luxuries like travel. But nothing is ever perfect. If we could retire at age thirty-five I know I'd still have problems, and if we never make it above the poverty line I think I'll still feel pretty lucky. I want to define success in a way that allows for the human condition (specifically, the unique condition of this particular human) and lets me be happy right now, instead of maybe never.

A lot of success, I think, is figuring out the best ways to work through our problems. It's easy to write about that once it's done, and much harder when you're still not sure how well you're going to solve them. Since I'm going to write about this stuff, though, I'm going to try to do it honestly.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Work Sucks

There's this backhanded compliment in art school: "That looks like an illustration." Or, "Wow, you would be a great illustrator" (i.e. not a great artist). I went to art school, so maybe that's why I didn't figure out that I really want to be an illustrator until I was about 30 years old.

More likely, it's because I was too busy being a professional activist. I'd previously been into the punk scene and toyed with revolutionary ideas, but I really got radicalized in my early twenties when I discovered anarchism. By definition, anarchism is very simple: it means no government.

In practice, there's a lot more to it. You spend a lot of time fighting the powers that be, but you do other things, too. The heart of it is the same stuff that revolutions have been fought for since time began - the idea that we all deserve the good things in life, and now. Friends, lovers, bonfires and summer stars, parties, adventure, creativity and the freedom to be who we are. These things are free, for the bold, and the rest is nothing.

So, you cut your expenses. Squat, or pool a few thousand dollars to buy a house and fill it with housemates, or rent the cheapest apartment you can find. Dumpster dive, garden, and DIY. There's not too much you really need to buy, and of course you don't need car payments or gas. Luckily, it's hip to wear the same old clothes day after day, especially in the winter when you may be wearing most of them anyway to stay warm. Health insurance? What's that? There are plenty of ways to get a little bit of money if you really need it, and when all else fails you can lie, cheat and steal, because surplus wealth should belong to everyone.

It's very hard for me to write about this. I think it's because I loved it so much, and even now there's so much there that I love. I felt honest, and accepted, and very, very free. It was intoxicating, and right, and wonderful.  The old world, where you had to worry about things like social status and grades and not ever saying the wrong true thing to the wrong powerful person felt so very false and irrelevant. And there's one more important thing about being a professional anarchist: You Do Not Work.

After I had graduated from college, I tried to get a job. I didn't have the least idea about how to get a "good" job, and I had a general liberal arts degree. Museum work? Sure, but about three percent of us can get those jobs, and I hadn't exactly excelled in school. So I walked up and down the streets filling out applications. At Eat and Park I had to fill out a standardized test, in which I admitted that there might be such a thing as a valid reason to be late for work. I never heard back. I did eventually get an interview at Panera, where I dressed appropriately and told them that I wanted to work there forever. They told me that I was overqualified. After a couple of months of this, I moved in with J. Also, I sold a painting, and discovered anarchism. We bought a cheap house and filled it with housemates, and started volunteering a lot and going to meetings. And Did Not Work.

The thing about work and the anarchist community is that, although creativity and passion are encouraged, so is equality. It's not fair and equal to think you should be able to make a living doing something that you love, because most people can't. It's also not fair to value your time more highly, and suggest that you'd like to maybe be paid $20 an hour just because you're privileged enough to have specialized skills. Of course, It's fine to be a working artist - actually, it's great, as long as you sell your work at a price poor people can afford, which is pretty much impossible. Professional careers? Well, working for a nonprofit might be ok, or becoming a doctor or lawyer, as long as you intend to focus solely on social justice.

I'm struggling again to express myself, and I think this is important. This strange sadness comes from realizing, just now, that it's right for me to write this stuff as an outsider. I still feel the truth and power of it. Why should I get paid to make beautiful things and turn the heat on in the winter when children in China are forced to work for pennies, processing toxic garbage? That's so wrong that it hurts. (Ha ha, because yes, it does hurt them, but it doesn't actually hurt me, and that's wrong. Or is it?) I guess the truth that I'm coming to is that my suffering doesn't help anyone. And while my art might not help anyone much, I like to think that it helps a little more than eating bagels out of the trash does.

I'm still an anarchist, but deep within that community (as it is just now, and here) is really not a place to be raising kids, and the feeling is mutual - there's a fair amount of resentment toward parents, too. Now when I think about the powers that be, they strike me sort of like modern wolves. If you're smart, you keep an eye on the wolves and try to stay away from them. When they come for your friends, you fight them. If you have any honor at all, you fight them when they come for that guy from the next village who is always talking bad about you, too. But you don't waste your life railing against the existence of wolves, because that is just sad. Couldn't you be making something beautiful?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Message is Unclear

When I was falling in love with J, I was also becoming an anarchist. It was a heady combination. I felt that life as I knew it was breaking apart, exposing something infinitely more wonderful.

One of the first things we did together was travel to Washington D.C. to protest the IMF. This was one of those protests that you hear about in the news and the reporters are always saying, "the protesters' message was unclear." To anarchists, this media cliche is both a conspiracy and a big joke. The joke is that to us the message is clear, obvious, and constant: stop being such fuckers. Another world is possible.

But which world?

At this event we were arrested and held without charge for over twenty-four hours, along with hundreds of other peaceful protesters. A funny thing about this is that now, almost nine years later, a class-action lawsuit has gone through against the D.C. police. The officers who arrested us on one of our first dates us have now helped to pay for the home we needed to close on so we could move in in time for our second child to be born in the kitchen, anarchist style. At the time, though, it wasn't nearly so funny.

Besides being wrongfully arrested, we also met a Mormon punk named Kermit who followed us home and started living in our house. He was crazy and a huge mooch, but also kind of charming in a classic punk-with-a-fake-British-accent way. He was always playing the guitar and singing an improvisational song called "My Father is a Colonial Imperialist (and Here Are the Reasons Why)."

Kermit was always chasing various women, and at one point he actually got a high-school punk girlfriend who came over to our house with her friend, who was a film-making student. She was fascinated by all of us. She told us that she would like to make a film about our lifestyle. "What lifestyle?" we asked. "You know, the dumpster diving and...everything. The whole lifestyle," she said.

I'm not sure how to tie this together, but I think it has to do with some of the disenfranchisement that I often feel. To me we live the normal way (or at least a normal way). I don't really get why other people are the way they are. And yet, for some reason, we are the ones who have a "lifestyle", and our message is perpetually unclear.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gimme Sugar

Today I'm making brownies for breakfast.

I know, this isn't supposed to be a food blog. Food is a sort of shorthand for prosperity for me, though. When I'm eating well, I feel like I'm doing well. In my mind this looks like someone making delicious, healthy, balanced meals for me. Second best is making sure I get the time to do it myself.

Today, though, is not going to be that kind of day.

Look, I wasn't being entirely forthcoming when I said our refrigerator is full of food. Technically that's true, but besides special stuff for the kids, it's mostly things like raw chicken and vegetables - perfect for those delicious meals. This morning, though, a toddler woke me at 5:00, wanting to nurse for an hour or so and then leap out of bed. I think I got about five hours of sleep, total. And so...

The thing is, when I get stressed, I get really cranky and act about three years old about food. If there's nothing I actually want to eat, I whine. If I whine for a while and no one hands me something I want to eat, I feel like no one loves me and I pretty much stop functioning. In less prosperous times, when good food has been hard to come by, I've actually been known to burst into tears if J went out to eat and failed to bring me something. That kind of shit is not very good when I'm the parent on call.

This morning I am stressed. It's actually not primarily about the money. J came home with $50 yesterday, and today he's out cleaning gutters. We should be able to buy groceries by tomorrow. It's about the fact that yesterday was a long, long day I wasn't planning on, that we didn't get around to cleaning or taking any breaks, that last night was a short, short night, that the kids have been tired and cranky and the little one has been on a nursing spree, which really makes me feel depleted and even a little extra homicidal. Normal mom stuff, I think.

But it is bad, the state that I'm in, so I do what I can, which is eat junk food. In general, feeling like I'm being healthy and setting a healthy example for my kids makes me happy. Today, eating brownies for breakfast is helping me cope. My baby is covered with chocolate, and doesn't seem to be suffering much, either. And now I am about 300% more ready to face another day.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Point Zero

Yesterday we bought a frozen Pizza.

It was hard to do the math because the kids were sick of shopping and starting to scream like crazed monkies, but we also bought some bagels and other things and tried to spend our last thirty dollars in a reasonably sane way. We ended up with $11 dollars in change, which is not bad. Technically we owe this money to our son for his allowance. He is four and won't notice, but we try to be reliable anyway, because some day he will.

That was it, though. We have two bank accounts, and now both of them are empty.

We are kind of used to this because we've never really had steady jobs, but it can still be scary at times, especially because we haven't dipped this low since before we had kids. I spent a lot of the morning doing deep breathing exercises, and the rest thinking about what our worst-case scenario options might be. Sometimes, this is freelancing.

Even at times like this, we have a lot to be thankful for. We own our home outright, the utilities have all been paid, and we have a fridge full of food. James has two days of wages owed, and one day of maintenance work lined up for later this week. There are also a few recent purchases (some construction materials, mostly) that we can return if we really, really need some cash. This is the list, at least, that I found myself going through over and over as I tried to stay positive.

Things had been getting tight for a while, though, so we felt like splurging a little before we were out of money entirely. We baked the pizza and the frozen cookies that came with it, and made ourselves drinks. suddenly, while we were waiting to eat, J got a phone call from a last-minute client who wants him to DJ a wedding in two weeks. This kind of timing is almost unheard of and extremely fortuitous, and the pay is good. We can hold out until then! Crisis averted! (This is also freelancing.)

Today, J is helping a friend move some things, and I'm trying to clean the house while I keep the kids alive. When I counted the change that I found on all the floors, I had $1.07. I put it in the change jar. We are moving up in the world!