Wednesday, February 26, 2014

More About Money

This is further reflections on money from facebook:

I read economics blogs on a regular basis. I know what is happening in the US and the UK and Europe. But I am still amazed that ordinary people can't find enough money for food and are going hungry. My mind is stuck somewhere in the past -- the roaring wartime economy of the 1960s, maybe, when you could always find a job, and minimum wage was enough to live on. When Patrick and I moved to Minneapolis in 1974, our rent for single bedroom apartment was less than $200 a month. I was making $600 a month, and Patrick must have been making the same. So our rent was 17% of our gross income. We could buy two bags of groceries for $20, and that was enough to get us through a week. (We must have eaten out a lot, though I don't remember this.)

Minimum wage was $2.00. Take home would be around $300 a month. Assume two people at minimum wage, and we made more, the net income would be $600. Rent = $200. Food = $86. Health insurance was covered by the job. Utilities were a few bucks. Let's say $20. That left $294 -- about half of net income -- for clothing, transportation and eating out. The big issue for us was transportation. Car repair expenses terrified us.

The average cost of a one bedroom apartment in Minneapolis is $954 now. Federal minimum wage is 7.25 an hour. (Minnesota's minimum wage -- God help us -- is $6.15.) Assuming a 40 hour work week, which is a lot to assume, and no taxes except for FICA, take home will be $1151 at the federal rate. That leaves $197 a month for food, clothing, health care and transportation. And your rent is 76% of your gross income.

I figure I have been sliding through life, due to luck and beginning my work career in the Golden Years of Capitalism. I ended my work career after the crash 2008, so have not had to deal with the Great Recession, as Paul Krugman calls it. I think it's more like a depression, maybe like the Long Depression of the late 19th century.

The thing that's important to realize about my work career is -- I mostly worked clerical jobs, along with a few light warehousing jobs, and then "professional" jobs for nonprofits, which don't exactly pay professional wages. My work experience -- and my income -- was typical of many Americans. It is not typical any longer.

Note: Back when Patrick was working with homeless people, he used to say it always possible to find food. There were food shelves and free meals and dumpsters. The real problem was finding housing. Now, after the Crash of 2008 and the Great Recession and cuts to the federal food stamp program, food shelves in New York says they can't keep up. They have to turn people away without food. (This is per the New York Times.) I assume the same is true in the Twin Cities.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Writing and Money 2

Nora Jemisin commented on the same essay as I did. Her comment reminds me that my experience, coming of age in 1960s and 70s, is very different from the experience of younger writers. I came out of graduate school with no student debt. The economy was in the middle of a wartime boom. Unions were still strong enough to push up wages for almost everyone. It was possible to live on minimum wage. I was able to scrape by because times were not so bad. The way I managed as a writer -- by working full time, then taking time off to write, or by working part time -- is much harder to pull off now.

This is the second time recently I have been reminded that my ideas are stuck in the past. I read an essay about a woman who had taken her kids to Ikea to eat, but couldn't afford to eat herself. (Ikea apparently offers free meals for kids.) She ended weeping from hunger and frustration. The essay is about getting worn down by poverty. The woman's story was ordinary. Her husband lost his good job and was now working two jobs, which did not -- together -- add up to a living wage. They went through their savings and were struggling to survive, though they had always been careful with money and had no debt when the husband lost his job.

Patrick read it and was not surprised. He worked with homeless people for many years. I kept thinking, "Surely there is some way out." But I am thinking in terms of my own experience in the 1960s and 70s.

This is another reason, by the way, why the young author should have banked her money and kept her day job. This economy is simply too hard.

Writing and Money

What follows is my response to an essay titled, "How Much My Novel Cost Me," by a young woman who got a good-sized advance for a book that did not sell well. She spent the advance money and went into debt, assuming that she could sell another book for good money. It's excerpted from MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. I need to add that there are more than two cultures in American fiction.

I'm not sure what I am supposed to feel. This may work as a warning against unrealistic expectations. I keep thinking -- she wasted $200,000. Granted, it was less after the agent's fee and taxes. Mostly, I guess, she was too young to know that she ought to bank what was left and keep her day job, unless she had a contract for the next book. Writing books is not a reliable source of income for most people. It is good to have a backup plan: a day job, a spouse with a day job. And an exit strategy. If you write full time, how long do you do it? When do you decide it isn't paying off? And what do you do to earn a living instead?

I don't feel bad for her. It sounds as if she is getting her life straightened out, and she's sold another book, though for a lot less. She's young enough to recover fully. I am irritated by someone who gets a gift -- a big chunk of money -- and then wastes it by buying clothes and living on the Internet. Maybe I lucked out. I never made enough money writing to think even briefly of being a full-time writer. I knew in my 20s that I was always going to need a day job and need to live in an affordable city. I am not a very organized person, but I had -- I think -- a coldly realistic sense of how commercial my work was, and a determination to have a life that (a) was reasonably comfortable, as I counted comfort, and (b) gave me time and energy to write. I never wanted to rely on publishers for living money. I wanted to be able to walk away, if I didn't like a deal. I did walk away from a two book contract once, because I could afford to. I probably would have walked away in any case, but it would have been hard times.

My attitude is a combination of prudence and a need for independence. I don't want to be in debt. I don't want to be unnecessarily poor. And I don't want to be controlled by publishers or the fiction market. This is art, goddammit.

Note: I went back over some earlier posts and notice that I said much of what's here in a post on being a writer in January. Well, some of this is different, so I'll keep it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Storm 1

We had several days of above freezing temperatures and then a winter storm. It began as rain, which froze, then turned to wet snow, ten inches or more in many places. The combination of freezing rain and ten inches of snow made travel very dangerous. The governor has declared a state of emergency and ordered out the National Guard to help stranded travelers. The Department of Transportation advises no travel in the state.

I've been putting photos up on facebook. (Two examples are below.) People have reacted with "My god," and "This is a nightmare." As Minnesotans say, "It could be worse." Chances are the state will recover quickly. The plows will clear the highways and streets. Salt trucks will take care of the ice -- if the temperatures are high enough. When it's seriously cold, the salt can't melt the ice.

Where I am, in the center of the Metro Area, everything looks fine. The streets are plowed. The sidewalks are shoveled. Traffic is moving, maybe a little more slowly than usual, since the plowing has exposed the underlying ice. The trees are coated with a mixture of snow and ice, which sparkles in the sunlight.

Young people have no experience with this kind of weather. The last really big winter storm was in 1991. For me, this is a reversion to the Minnesota I remember from childhood. For them, it is a disturbing surprise. This winter's storms have been caused by polar winds dipping far south of their usual location. It's possible that global warming -- and the dramatic warming of the north polar regions -- will cause this kind of far-south wobble of the Polar Vortex in the future. In that case, we will see more winters like this one.

I like this weather. But I need to remember that it's dangerous in rural areas and makes life very difficult for people with mobility problems. It's hard to climb over banks of snow or cross deeply rutted streets, if you use a cane or walker or wheelchair.

But the snow is so pretty -- falling or shining in the sunlight, under a blue sky.

Storm 2

This is State Highway 56 north of Kenyon, a small city in southeastern Minnesota. We are looking down Highway 56. That semi is stranded on the highway. Notice the lovely blue sky and the fields of fresh new snow... Photo courtesy of the Kenyon Police Department.

Storm 3

This is I-35 south of Owatonna. I-35 is the main route going south from the Twin Cities to Iowa. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Glory Days

Because I am in a thoughtful mood this morning and have some time to kill before heading off to a Weight Watchers meeting and errand running, I will reflect on memory. We all know about bad memories that can't be escaped. That is post traumatic stress disorder. Is there an equivalant kind of good memory, that keeps the past from being in the past? This is probably a bullshit question, but let's go on with it. Think of the Bruce Springsteen song "Glory Days," about the kids who hit their peak in high school, then descended into ordinary, working class lives. The song is not sad, because the characters in it can laugh over their glory days and their present lives.

I think this emotion would be nostalgia or regret. It could be pathological, I suppose. How often is it?

I have a firm rule that I will not regret the past. One learns from it, if possible, and moves on. There are memories I enjoy -- mostly trips and places, though I have fond memories of favorite people. I can still remember the first time I saw Patrick. It was at a poetry writing group in the Highland Park Library in Detroit. Patrick came in, pulled a can of beer from one jacket pocket and a second can of beer from the other pocket, set them both down on the table and said, "Let's make poetry." That caught my attention.

My most recent story draws on my memories of Afghanistan and Kabul, which are very old memories now.

More recent memories are trips to Duluth and down the Mississippi River or to the Black Hills. We've driven east a couple of times, going across southern Ontario and back into the US at Buffalo, a town with fabulous architecture. Twice we stopped at Niagara Falls, both times in November. They are well worth seeing, especially in the cold and ice, with very few tourists.

I can't say that I want to be back in those times, though I would like to revisit many places. And I would like an extended life span. The only thing I really regret is the 85 or 90 years we get (on an average) in Minnesota. I'd like to see more of the future. I guess I suffer from future regret.

College Reunion

I have a college reunion coming up, one of the big ones. I'm not planning to go. SF conventions take all my available money and energy. I am fairly introverted, which means large groups of people pull energy from me, rather than energizing me. SF conventions provide me with people I know and want to see, also the chance to talk about subjects that interest me: gender issues in SF, race issues in SF, politics and economics in SF, global warming, what new books are worth reading... You know. The usual. This gives me some energy back and makes going to cons worthwhile.

Going to a gathering of people I have not seen for decades sounds baffling. Why would I do it? What do we share, except distant memories of our early 20s? My brother, who has been to many reunions, says they are mostly a way for the school to fundraise.

In any case, I wrote a long post yesterday on why I had not liked my undergrad college. I told Patrick this, and he said, "Eleanor, that was decades and decades ago." He was right. It doesn't matter why I disliked the school. The entire episode is long, long over. I am no longer the person who had those experiences. The school has doubtless changed, I hope for the better. I deleted the post.

One should pay attention to the passage of time...

Monday, February 03, 2014

Northanger Abbey

Patrick and I have developed a thing for Jane Austen movies. Our current favorite is the 2007 BBC production of Northanger Abbey. The novel is parody of the vogue for gothic novels, full of huge mansions, mad monks, dark secrets and so on. At the same time, NA is a defense of the novel as a valid art form. Austen is comparing the gothic with real life and realistic fiction, which has its own secrets, dishonesties and betrayals. An interesting early novel, with a charming hero, who is close to his sister, likes novels, and knows a lot about female fashions. He is very sound on muslin. The heroine is a former tomboy, who is learning to be a young lady. In comparison to them we have the awful Thorpes. John Thorpe is a parody of a manly man, and his sister Isabella is a flirt. Both are fortune hunters.

It's minor Austen, but still Austen, and the TV movie is lovely. Because the novel is minor, it's easier to cram into a movie. The guy playing General Tilney is wonderful. What a creep!


I went to the Minnesota Opera yesterday. It was Verdi's Macbeth, and it was fabulous. Good libretto, good music, good production, good singing.

I had a huge coughing fit in the third act, after my anti-cough medication wore off. I thought about leaving, but I was in the middle of a row. Getting past my neighbors would have been almost as disruptive as the coughing. It stopped finally, thanks to cough drops. The act ended well, though not for the Macbeths...

The sets were gray, and the costumes mostly gray or black. In the act where Macbeth and his lady decide to murder Macduff and his family, the lighting created streaks of red that ran down the walls like blood, until the entire set was red. Very impressive.

I have notes on writing from a talk Jack McDevitt gave, and I glanced over them before the opera. He said the important, dramatic stuff has to happen on stage. In this production of the opera all the murders happen off stage. The closest to onstage was Banquo's. The murderers close in on him, and the curtain falls. We hear a thud, but do not see him drop. I liked it.

I often write poems about the operas I've seen. In most cases, there is something about the opera I don't like or find unsatisfying, and I write a poem to fix the problem. I can't do this in response to Macbeth. It goes exactly as it should. A completely satisfying experience, and -- in some ways -- my favorite of Shakespeare's tragedies. Verdi compresses the already very tight play further, and reduces the actors to three important parts: Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and the chorus. The last got considerable applause at the opera's end, and they had earned it.

It's possible to see the opera as having an ancient Greek structure: a protagonist, an antagonist and a chorus. All the violence happens offstage. I don't want to push this far, since it's a long time since I've read any ancient Greek plays.

On Comments

My previous post has three good comments, which should be read. I especially liked the comment by Foxessa, which reminds me that there is much in 19th century fiction worth reading -- and also that I make generalizations based on too little.

I have a strong, strong bias toward fantastic fiction, which -- most likely -- makes me undervalue the classic bourgeois realistic novel. I did read and like Middlemarch, though I prefer Dickens and Austen.

I need to repeat that I do generalize on the basis of too little. It's a fast way of learning. Someone will correct me, and then I know more than I did before.