The New American Experience

It’s taken me awhile to collect my thoughts since November 8. I have an acquaintance who reaches out to me now and then, for support and occasional big-sisterly guidance. She’s a lovely, caring and intelligent young black woman living in a metropolis far away from her family. The past few years have been difficult for her, as our country has seen escalating brutality (or is it simply increased coverage of the violence?)  against people of color, as well as a persistent systemic indifference to the loss of black lives. Even as she works hard to achieve her dreams and live a life of meaning, she is bombarded with imagery and messages that contradict what she knows to be true about the essential value and goodness of herself and her loved ones. Fear and oppression create a constant undercurrent to her daily activities.

She contacted me after the election. “Is this really happening?” she asked, “What do I do?

She asked me to write about it. I’ve taken that charge seriously, even as I marvel at the irony: How can I, a white woman in my 40’s, advise a young black woman about navigating the American experience post-election in 2016? I’ve heard many white people’s advice to black people about staying safe in police encounters: “Be respectful. Be polite. You won’t get hurt if you just follow instructions.” The trouble with that advice is that it doesn’t work for people of color. Philando Castile couldn’t have been more respectful and docile when asked for his identification, and he still ended up dead, murdered in front of a child. There isn’t a more submissive posture than kneeling with your head bowed, and still, Colin Kaepernick is getting death threats for exercising his 1st Amendment right to express his opinion. There is no amount of submission that guarantees a person of color safety in the presence of a white person’s fear. And our current political and social climate has intensified that reality by orders of magnitude.

As a woman, I’m frightened enough for myself. My husband is big and strong,  but he also has black hair and brown eyes, and skin the color of a perfect latte, and for the first time since I’ve known him, I’m genuinely afraid for his safety. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be black, or to be (or look, whatever that means) Muslim, or gay, or to be an immigrant to this country, documented or not. Because when riled-up white dudes go looking to smash someone, they don’t stop and ask for papers.

But afraid and overwhelmed of people never triumph. The people who navigate adversity successfully, even during the most terrifying of times, are those who are able to steady their nerves, clear their heads, and take action. And so that’s what I’ve spent the past couple of weeks considering. There are some clear and astute writings out there offering instruction on how to resist the oppression that threatens to accompany the incoming regime, so I won’t try and and re-invent those ideas, but here’s what I want to share with my young friend, and with anyone who cares to know my thoughts:

  1. Stay Safe and Healthy. It’s more important than ever for people who feel vulnerable or targeted to ensure our physical safety first. It’s unfair and oppressive, but we can’t change the world if we’re dead, so be extra careful about where you go, how you go, and with whom. Get off your phone and stay alert to your surroundings. Gas stations, parking lots and bus stops seem to be popular places for troublemakers to target individuals, so be extra mindful being alone in those places. And we all need to take action to maintain our physical and psychological health, including good nutrition, regular exercise and social engagement, staying hydrated and sleeping. If you’re currently insured, especially through the Affordable Care Act, get your check-ups and glasses and dental exams and whatever else you may have been putting off before December 31, because the healthcare landscape is facing some potentially drastic changes. Those probably won’t happen in 2017, but why take chances? Make the appointments now.
  2. Stop being Incredulous. Really. Right now, make a decision to never let the words “I can’t believe it” leave your lips again. It’s happening. It’s real. Accept this reality and position yourself accordingly.
  3. Boost Your Signal-to-Noise Ratio. Gather facts, not opinions. Mind your news sources, and check the source and the date of any article you see on social media before you read or share it. Edit your feed, and start to hide, unfollow, or block sources of misinformation or fear-mongering. We already know it’s bad. We need to know exactly what is happening, and what we can do about it. Also, stop arguing with people on social media. If anyone’s mind is to be changed at this point, that will happen through experience and example, not because someone in a comment thread told them to think differently. And subscribe to print media. The free press is already dying, and we need to support it.
  4. Determine Your Priorities. The Dakota pipeline, the rise of the white supremacy movement known as the alt-right, the 700+ (and growing) hate crimes that have been committed since the election, for-profit prisons, women’s health care, voter suppression, attacks on immigrants, climate change, for-profit prisons and the militarization of police…. the list goes on. Trying to address everything all at once could lead to doing nothing at all. Pick an issue, or your top 2 or three, and focus. Trust that other people will do the same for the issues that speak to them the most.
  5. Ask Before Helping. If you really care about something that you aren’t directly part of, inquire before jumping in to help, because they might need something other than what you assume. Or they might need it later, because everyone is trying to help right now, and they’re overrun.
  6. Take an Action (or Two) Daily. Once you have determined your priorities, and inquired as to what might be most helpful. Do one or two things every day to effect change or offer support. Call one legislator. Make a donation. Sign up for training to escort women to medical clinics. Offer to accompany your friend or neighbor  who feels vulnerable to the grocery store, or to pick up a few things for them while you are out. Do what you can, in small doses, as a daily practice.
  7. If You Feel Called to Protest, Learn How to Do it Safely. Don’t just show up with your pithy poster board and flip-flops. Read up on what you need to do to prepare for the physical and possibly legal discomfort you’re signing up for.
  8. Cultivate Joy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the Holocaust survivors I’ve had the privilege of meeting in person, it’s that happiness is a discipline that must be practiced daily, regardless of circumstance. Your misery will not alleviate the suffering of others, but your joy can serve as a beacon to attract others into your circle. You are alive, and younger than you will ever be again. Don’t waste it.

Lastly, my husband and I had a long talk this past weekend about the dangers of conflating “conservatives” with whatever we’re going to end up calling the phenomenon of hatred that is overtaking popular discourse at the moment. We agreed that it’s more important than ever to listen carefully and gather all the facts before taking action of any kind. Responding to headlines, stereotypes, or appearances is what got us into this mess. It certainly won’t be what gets us out of it.

Battening Down the Hatches, Y’all

We received a letter this week from Mr. Vega’s employer, regarding medical benefit options in light of their upcoming corporate merger. There is quite a bit of uncertainty regarding how coverage will be handled, and they’ve made it clear that there will be employment redundancies. The bottom of the letter contained this lovely tidbit:

* If you are terminated, you may have rights to continue your FSA through “COBRA” (which we’ll explain more about if that becomes necessary), but you’ll do that on an after-tax basis, which is not advantageous for most.

This is the point in our program where we prepare for the worst, while continuing to hope for the best. All expenses must be questioned, and all unnecessary spending gets put on “pause” until our financial skies are clear again. Waiting to make changes until after a job loss could be devastating for us, both financially and emotionally: we could weather a transition much more gracefully if we were already prepared for it, rather than trying to make drastic lifestyle changes while also dealing with the psychological trauma that can accompany the loss of a job.

Fortuitously, I spent some time the other day creating a menu plan for November. I took my inspiration from The Prudent Homemaker, a full-time wife and homeschooling mother of seven children, who used their food storage as the basis for keeping her family cared-for during her husband’s eight-month period of unemployment. Using her seasonal menu as a template, and making adjustments for our smaller household, dietary preferences, and busy schedules, I put together a month-long plan for eating delicious and healthy meals that are also lower-cost. An unexpected benefit of meal planning is that it gets us out of our ruts, and reminds us to eat a greater variety of food. Left to my own devices, I’d eat Trader Joe’s whole wheat cinnamon rolls and a latte every. single. morning. But there’s a whole world of breakfast food out there, and writing it all down helps me remember how much I also love fresh fruit and Greek yogurt, oatmeal pancakes, and eggs scrambled ever so slowly.

As timing would have it, Mr. Vega’s 1991 Honda CR-X has reached the point where the annual repair costs are more than the value of the car itself. After running the numbers and weighing the pros and cons, we’ve decided to purchase a newer used vehicle. Counterintuitive as it may seem, we have enough in savings, and we’d rather buy a reliable car now than continue to pay for unforeseen repairs during a potential period of unemployment. And let’s face it, job interviews are stressful enough without worrying about whether your car will start to get you there, or having your air conditioning give up the ghost when it’s 90 degrees out!

Ironically, we do most of our shopping in anticipation of lean times, as that’s when we feel the need to stock up, in case we won’t be able to later. I dislike shopping so much that I generally don’t replace my clothes until they are threadbare, but I may look to upgrade my wardrobe a bit in the light of this merger uncertainty. I currently have just one pair of shoes that I wear for work, and I’d prefer to shop the sales now, rather than scrambling to get something cheap-but-appropriate if these give out during a time of hardship. This is also as good a time as any to start planning our spring garden so that we’ll be ready to plant our balcony container garden when the time comes. Fresh, homegrown food is lovely whatever one’s circumstances, but it’s especially wonderful to be able to get food from your garden instead of the market when money’s tight.

Because the merger threatens to leave us with reduced benefits even if we do keep the job, we’ll be sure to attend to our medical needs before the end of the year. We want to have healthy bodies, strong teeth, and brand-new pairs of eyeglasses that have been covered by insurance. One of us could use a new set of orthotics, as well. These are the sorts of things we should be doing anyway, but this new sense of urgency will make sure that we do.

Mr. Vega will indeed be updating his resume and LinkedIn profile and seeing what his options are, sooner rather than later. If his company’s merger results in widespread layoffs, the market will be flooded with folks looking for work, and we want to get the jump on the rest of the talent pool.  And because our household functions as a cooperative whole, it’s job-search time for everybody around here. So, while I do enjoy my part-time and freelance work, I also have two interviews scheduled this month for full-time positions that come with the all-important Benefits Package. Landing one of those would allow my husband to widen his job search to include less traditional opportunities, without worrying that we’d be left without medical coverage.

We’ll also be making a greater effort to keep up with our still-forming social and professional networks. We view “networking” as a way to cultivate and deepen authentic relationships, rather than as strictly transactional contact, and so it’s important to us that we spend some time with folks now, and not wait until we’re in need. Whether those connections result in professional opportunities or not, a robust social life will go a long way toward easing the stress of unemployment, if it happens.

We are very lucky to have moved to a city with so much free and inexpensive fun. There’s almost never a cover charge for live music (and when there is, it is oh-so-worth-it), there are plenty of festivals and activities happening all the time everywhere around here, so it will be easy to keep our spirits up and hang out with our new friends at bargain basement prices. We’ve got a couple of social buying vouchers hanging around for inexpensive dinners and movie nights, and we’re looking forward to hosting some game nights at home, as well. It’s good to have a little fun once in a while, especially during periods of increased stress or uncertainty.

We were already planning on keeping things low-key this year, but we’re still going to need to rethink the holidays. We generally do home-made, consumable gifts for everyone in our fairly large family and closest circle of friends, but this year’s gift idea is a bit pricier than usual. Not crazy expensive, but when you’re giving to a couple dozen people, it adds up quickly! We’re going to have to reconsider our gifting, and perhaps just send cards to everyone but family. We do feel blessed to have people around us who aren’t likely to feel slighted, though… material things mean much less to our loved ones– and to us!– than the actual relationships. A card means as much to all of us as a gift… especially if the giver is on a budget!

Closer to home, our own first holiday season in Austin will be spent exploring the city’s decorations, giving some of our time to help people who are currently less fortunate than we are, enjoying homemade seasonal goodies and free holiday movies, and video chatting with our faraway loved ones.

Once the merger has come and gone, we’ll be able to breathe our sighs of relief, and return to business as usual around here. If the layoffs don’t come, we might find ourselves on the other side of this with more stable, higher-paying jobs, closer relationships within our community, in better health, and with some more money in the bank. Sacrificing just a little comfort and convenience now, when we can afford to, seems like a small price to pay in exchange for the security of knowing that we could take care of ourselves in the event of a job loss.

How have you “battened down the hatches” when faced with uncertainty in the workplace or periods of unemployment?