Sunday, July 26, 2009

Surviving the Great Recession

My friend Faith told me recently that I must write.

“I’m telling yuh, Stace’, you’re one of the great American writers. Yuh got a book in you, I know it. Yuh gotta write that book….”

“Thanks, Faith.” I tried not laughing.

“I’m serious, Stace’, you gotta do it. I’ve been telling y-o-u-u for eight years now.” (She does that you thing, drawing out the vowels, as a way to show her love. Otherwise, in chatty mode, it’s just plain old “yuh,” or simple “you.”)

I’ve been out of work since January and, like many unemployed Americans, haven’t had much luck finding anything new. I’ve been a writer, editor and publisher. When times have been tough, I’ve picked up side jobs installing native landscapes, or working as a farmhand.

Lately, however, the terrain in these endeavors looks bleak. Print is going out of style, no one is spending money on new landscapes and farmers are getting shut off from water. The unemployment rate continues to climb.

“Maybe this is God’s way of telling you to start writing…or, get yourself a job as a teacher. You know you’re a good teacher.”

I tried not laughing again. “Thanks, Faith. You’re probably right….”

“I know I’m right…. So, how’s your mom?”

Mom’s doing fine, I told her. She has little red marks where they’ll begin radiating her torso. She’s in good spirits. The lumpectomy on her breast went well and the prognosis is good.

Today, mom’s driving in the ghastly humid air pollution of Orange County, accompanying a friend to the hospital. Her friend just had reconstructive surgery to replace a breast that was removed for cancer. The doctors want to re-dress the bandages.

It’s been quite an ordeal. We visited mom’s friend at her home yesterday. She looked exhausted, surrounded by family and friends, recovering from the first of three phases of reconstructing a new breast.

She won’t slow down because there’s work to be done. No rest for the wicked, they say. She runs a little business out of her garage. Though she needs a little down time from major surgery, she keeps pushing herself.

“At her age, I don’t understand why she’d want to put herself through all this,” mom said recently.

They’ve known each other for more than 40 years, and as they approach their 70s, it doesn’t make sense to mom why a woman their age would care about replacing a cancerous breast.

“I understand, mom. She doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror. Nobody likes to see themselves disfigured.”

Later, as mom packed her purse to drive with her friend to the hospital, she said: “I really dread going out today.”


She looked at me in disgust. “Bellflower?” she moaned. The undercurrent of her voice and expression were clear: Who wants to go to Bellflower on a day like this?

Not me.

We’re in the middle of a heat wave, temperatures rising to 90 degrees for nearly a week, humidity more than 50 percent. It’s really not a good day to be out. An occasional coastal breeze momentarily lifts the stifling air—a putrid heavy blanket of humidity—to cool things down. One second in the sun and it feels like boiling.

I admire mom, because I sure couldn’t go to Bellflower today; the oppressive Southern California heat feels like a wet metal clamp, working at the lungs, throat and nerves, bringing out a profuse film of sweat across my back and forehead.

The feeling is: I can’t breathe.

I try not to move but sit at the computer and think: What book am I going to write? I need to eat. I need an income. I need a job.

Poor mom, I think. I’d hate to be in a car right now, stuck in traffic, sticky, only to go sit in a hospital and wait. Mom went with her friend because she loves her and would do anything for her, no matter how oppressive the weather, or the economy.

Faith is like that too—a real friend.

I don’t know exactly which book Faith had in mind; mom’s said the same thing: “When are you going to write your book?” They might be right—at least about getting busy with…something. Nothing else seems to be working.

Like a lot of people in America, I’m figuring out how to survive the Great Recession.

“Get yourself an advance,” Faith offered, pressing home her point. “I’m sure somebody would pay you to write a book.”

I’ve tried those. They’re great in a pinch but don’t always work out so well, especially in an unstable economy, where every penny spent is on survival.

The upheaval in publishing has wracked more than its share of careers. The trend to push everything online has put a lot of writers and artists out of business.

Worse, news pros with the skills to track government malfeasance have largely disappeared from the information landscape. So-called “citizen journalists” without any formal training are filling the gap.

Dollar-conscious online news organizations are hiring a smattering of experienced journalists to edit and rewrite content from lesser-experienced contributors, who have little or no training, and who send their material free of charge.

Meanwhile, journalists, literary authors, poets, as well as talented cartoonists, illustrators and painters are going, like everyone else, to the Internet to find their place and fortune in the over-fat world of digital information.

They’re all becoming bloggers.

In the world of blog, there are riches. So that’s what people say. The operative word today, of course, is “search engine optimization.” All I need to do is figure out how to get my blog to rise to the top of everyone’s search.

The SEO pros say I’ve got to insert various keywords into my narrative. It’s like any other sales pitch. With these magic words, and the Internet voodoo of SEO, I can build a solid financial base and launch a career from my home.

It sounds great, and I look forward to that tipping-point moment when all of the sudden the floodgates open, readers arrive in droves and the money starts pouring in again.

Until then, the picture remains stark.

The only breath of fresh air in Orange County’s stifling humidity and the nation’s oppressive economy are people like mom and Faith, women with Old School values who would do anything for their friends. §

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