This Heartbreaking World

I want to start by saying that I don’t usually give homeless people or people that are begging anything except my compassion. We all know that story about the rich beggar with the garage full of undriven cars and the big house filled with unworn clothes – the beggar who sits on the corner asking … Continue reading “This Heartbreaking World”

I want to start by saying that I don’t usually give homeless people or people that are begging anything except my compassion. We all know that story about the rich beggar with the garage full of undriven cars and the big house filled with unworn clothes – the beggar who sits on the corner asking for money. Or the drug addict or alcoholic who takes handouts to fuel their addiction. Or the professional beggars who find it more profitable than having a job. All those stories and well intentioned advice have led me through the years to refrain from giving to individuals. I sometimes donate to charities or drop a dollar here or there but generally, like almost everyone, I keep my distance from the homeless, the needy, the sick, the impovershed, and the dying. Aside from all of that, I struggle to pay all of our bills, I struggle to meet our obligations, and each dollar is too hard won to give it away. So you should know that before I write any more.

It’s impossible to ignore the suffering here on Oahu. Just like it’s impossible to ignore in Oakland and other places where the class divisions have grown so pronounced that there is nearly speciation between those who have and those who do not. We are forced to look at them as a different species – because the moment we stop doing so- the moment we let the wall down between us – it’s such a heartbreaking and awful feeling that it would be nearly impossible to let the world continue on as it is. They are ‘the homeless’ which carries a laundry basket of associated terms like drug addicts, mentally ill, alcoholics, criminal, unfit, and more. We put those terms on them – and we say sometimes ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ but we have to delineate the line – there is us and there is them. Us and them. They are not like us, we are not like them. There is no we, only us and them.

So, that’s what I’m writing about. Today, I went and got my car washed. I stopped and bought some spices at a health food store. I was sitting at a stoplight at a corner and there was one of them. Sun-baked skin like the back of a sailor’s neck, unbrushed grey hair frizzled like a sheeps coat in winter, dirt sticking to her clothing and sticking to the dirt on her clothing, second hand pants too big, rolled up and cinched with a rope. There she was sitting and staring at the ground, talking to herself, picking up small stones and throwing them at her feet, holding a sign “Please help. Homeless and Hungry” She was just like so many of them. Another of the homeless begging on a corner. She wasn’t any different than the last one you saw outside Walmart or next to McDonalds or sitting at the divider. And there I was, sitting in my car listening to the news on the radio and trying to ignore her, trying not to make eye contact, trying not to acknowledge her in any way. I caught myself devising a strategy if she caught my eye. I would smile, nod, and look away. I caught myself and I felt disgusted by me. I wanted to throw up all over myself. I knew what I was doing. I’ve done it so many millions of times. As she talked to herself and threw those pebbles at her feet, I told myself she was obviously crazy. I told myself that she might be one of the rich scammers or the lazy do-nothings. I told myself every lie that we all tell ourselves. None of them worked. I’d caught myself. I told myself that I didn’t have money to give away, that my money wouldn’t make a difference, and frankly, I don’t and it wouldn’t – not really.

But I couldn’t do it – I thought to myself “I’m going to give her $5” and I reached for my wallet, I opened it and I only found a $1 and a $10. The voice in my head said “Never mind, just move along” and then “Just give her the buck, you can’t give her the ten” but my better self, the financially stupid self, the compassionate human self was in the driver seat of my car. I took the ten, I rolled down the window and I said “Hey”

She looked up in surprise. She never would have caught my eye. Her eyes had never looked up. She looked at me and slowly began to push herself up off the ground to move towards the money I was holding out to her. She reached it and before she could say thank you or anything else it was me that spoke “I’m sorry for this world”. Our eyes were locked on each others – hers as blue as mine, as clear as mine, her mind as clear as mine, her humanness as clear as mine. “It’s a pretty messed up world,” she said in return.

The light was green. I rolled up my window and drove on. I wept all the way home.

It’s a pretty messed up world.

It’s Difficult to Not Be Angry With the Wizard

I find it a constant challenge to not be angry at the complete bullshit that we are all wrapped up in. Here we are, all wrapped up in our world-views, struggling, fighting, suffering, striving, dying, and all to achieve what we view as ‘the way it is’ – and yet, it’s not really the way it is at all. Not even close. Consumer culture, politics, capitalism, success, failure, (the list goes on) these are all human constructs which in point of fact, have no actual basis in reality. Yes, they are real, yes we are trapped in them for the time being, and yes they affect us – but these things are not actually real.

In the book, The Wizard of Oz (not the movie, the book), Dorothy and her friends and all of the inhabitants of Oz are forced to put on green glasses before entering Oz. The Wizard is not simply hiding beind the curtain and manipulating light and sound – he is fucking with the reality-perception of an entire society! He is using every trick he can to maintain control and keep the society under his control – and he sends Dorothy and her friends on multiple death errands because he feels threatened by their awareness and power. He sends them with the thought that if they succeed, it’s good for his people and if they die, well, it’s good for him.

Our human society and governments are the wizard. In reality, we are not missing the things we seek. We have brains, courage, heart, and even the ability to get ‘home’ – meaning in this context home to our true nature, to what we truly are. We are not made to be politicians or business people or financiers or developers or any of ten thousand other things – we are made to be friends, family, nurturers, builders, craftsmen, explorers, and more – but the wizard has blinded us so that we only see green, so that we only see financial security, monetary success, and so that we become consumed by riches.

It’s difficult to not be angry with the wizard. I’ll admit, I’ve been incredibly incensed for most of my life. I’ve made myself sick with anger at the false nature of our existance for most of my adult life. I was young when I tore the glasses from my head and have spent the better part of my life trying to convince others that what they thought they were seeing was only an illusion – most people seem to already understand that on some level – but most of them prefer to live in the illusion – they understand how to navigate in the wizard’s world and intuitively understand that navigating outside of it is far more dangerous than mastering life within the illusion. The problem of course is like that of a video gamer who is very good at a video game but terrible at life – you may be President in the game but in reality you are suffering from malnutrition and alone in a filthy pile of refuse.

So, those of us who know the truth about the glasses – we are left with a dissatisfying choice of either wearing the glasses and immersing ourselves in the illusion or removing the glasses and suffering the reality that all around us are living the lie. The Buddha offered a third alternative which is – from my experience – the most difficult. The middle path allows us to live in the world of illusion while seeing it for what it is. Finding the true middle path is incredibly hard – I have spent my life bouncing from one side to the other – and when I get close – I am distracted by this anger, the anger at the illusionist, the anger at the illusion itself, the anger at being put in the position where I must don these green glasses and walk amongst the delusional – my anger is self-righteous (as all anger is) – and it is dangerous. I must strive to put my anger away- as far as I know, there are only two ways to do that – acceptance of what is and releasing the anger as love through compassion and empathy.

Homeownerlessness

Thus far, in my life, I have never owned my own home except when I’ve lived in VW vans. It’s my own fault – mortgages were easy to come by several times in my life and I chose not to invest. This will sound funny, but the prices always seemed too high. In the early-1990s – a Staff Seargent in my Marine Corps unit suggested that a bunch of enlisted guys pool our money and start buying real estate. It was a good suggestion and none of us took it. In the mid to late 1990s, I was struggling to find my calling – if, while I had worked in radio, I had applied for a mortgage using my VA Loan – I could have bought a modest house in what is now the booming real estate market of Bellingham, Washington. In the early 2000s – I had the opportunity to purchase a small studio apartment in Honolulu for $100,000 – the price seemed pretty extreme to me and I passed. And then, the housing boom came and I was sure that the economy was heading over a cliff but mortgages were incredibly easy to come by – I chose not to seek a home loan. That was it for me – those were my opportunities. We all know what happened in 2007 with the economy and housing – as a result of that – the requirements for getting a home loan became much more stringent – in fact – in 2016 when I talked to several banks about getting a loan – they told me that my VA Guarantee was no longer worth much and that as a self-employed business owner that my reported income was too low to qualify for a home loan – both bankers suggested that I ‘find a way’ to report a higher income. Yes, I could have lied on my taxes this year. I could have taken less deductions. I could have paid more tax…but the truth is that this year with the long grey winter and the bizarre politics of 2016 – my business wasn’t sufficient to do that. We needed those deductions.

Now, the housing market is again red hot. Things like AirBnB have made housing prices soar in desirable locations. I am in the midst of closing or with any luck selling my business (I do not own the building that houses it). For the present time, my VA Home Loan Guarantee sits in a folder – worthless and unusable. I console myself by imagining that the housing market will again have a massive crash and perhaps I will be able to buy something afterwards – but I don’t really believe it. I tell myself that the banks own most of the houses that people live in – and the mortgages are simply another form of rent and home ownership is by and large an illusion anyway. We have been served an eviction notice in the house we’ve rented for the past four years because the owner wants to sell it. I am thankful that we had already been making plans to move before we got the notice, but can’t help asking myself “What if we had not?”

We currently exist in a 60 day limbo in which lies a form of homelessness that terrifies me. The landlord was apologetic and felt bad about serving the eviction because we have been great tenants – but right now is the time to sell. I don’t blame her a bit. I would have done the same thing in her position. We are 60 days away from involuntary family homelessness.

Yes, we have been making plans. Yes, I am sure we will find something. I’d be foolish, however, not to be concerned. AirBnB and the red hot housing market have driven rents sky high.

I am a person – actually, we are a family, that if you want to send a birthday card to my 5-year-old daughter, a letter to my wife, or even a bill to me – more than 60 days from now to us – we have no forwarding address.

So, once again, here I am. This time, I was ready to seize opportunity – and this time it was denied me. I am rooting for the collapse of the economy. I am rooting for the collapse of the housing bubble. I am rooting for the collapse of AirBnB and more. I would rather be cheering for the economy and housing – but this Gen-x USMC veteran has been left behind by it. I have been left out of it. I accept my responsibility in this process – but no matter how hard I try – it just doesn’t make sense that this is all my fault. And so – here we are. Here I am. Here we go.

My Last Oregon Garage Sale – God Willing

I used to love having garage sales. It was fun to let stuff go and meet who was taking it while making a little money at the same time. I think all of that changed when we moved to a small Oregon town with a depressed economy. Here, and probably in many other parts of the United States, there are a large number of people who rely on garage sales to survive – they are pensioners, unemployed, housewives, and thrift shop owners, flea marketers, ebayers, antique dealers, and still, once in a while – someone just looking for something that will make them smile that they prefer not to pay full price for. That level of necessity changes the intensity of a sale. There is a dog-eat-dog competitiveness which in some cases determines whether someone will eat or at the very least – whether their food is quality or off the McDonalds $1 menu (which is no longer a $1 menu but a $1.69 or $2 menu).

Then there are the people who shop with their phones – comparing prices on Ebay and Amazon with my prices. Things just aren’t worth very much when just about anything can be had for $20 and shipping. We are in the process of getting rid of virtually everything – and not surprisingly – it’s hard. After two days of a garage sale with decent but not great stuff – I filled our utility trailer to overflow for a dump run and have ten boxes that will go to charity. That’s stage one. Next stage is to do a total estate liquidation sale and of course to empty our shop. This last weekend was the citywide sale here in our town – there was a lot of competition to get stuff in people’s hands. After two days, my wife and I were done – we packed it all in. Unfortunately, the little town we are in makes having a sale incredibly difficult. You can’t be on commercial or industrial or dual zoned land – which we are. You can’t be a person who makes a living selling second hand goods, which I do. You have to get a permit – which due to the previous two conditions, I am unable to get for our house. And then there is the rain. This is the Oregon Coast. Everything got rained on yesterday despite a forecast of clear and sunny. Yuck.

Anyway, that was step one. It was hopefully, the last garage sale I will have in Oregon. Our next sales will be store liquidation and then total estate liquidation – these tend to be better because they are indoors and you can command higher prices and sell a better quality of items. This weekend’s sale was enough to pay off a credit card bill – and we got rid of a lot of crap we didn’t need – so it was a success. Thank God.

What I’m Reading: The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson

My quest to understand the world we live in continues to focus on capital and finance with The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson, like another book I recently read and reviewed, Money – this was written on the eve of a major financial catastrophe – though Ferguson, to his credit, is much more aware of the systemic instability he is writing in than Robertson was. And, unlike the Great Depression, the onset of the Great Recession had already begun at the time of Ferguson’s writing and by the time he wrote the revised conclusion of the paperback version – the major effects had already been felt and dealt with and the recovery efforts were well underway.

This was a good book and offered a wealth of information about the transition of money from hard currency to fancifully re-packaged imaginary money based on money that was loaned but which never actually existed and then even to the most chimeric form of capital yet – the hedge fund. Ferguson’s telling of the birth of banks, stock companies, paper currency, debt markets, and derivatives was both entertaining and informative. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand capitalism and money.

That being said, Ferguson is a cheerleader of capitalism and an enthusiastic supporter of the positive benefits of money. For Ferguson, there seems to be no possibility of imagining a world in which unfettered capitalism, collecting interest, and central governmental oversight of monetary instruments could possibly exist. There is a palpable admiration present in his tales of swindlers, con-men, and thieves enriching themselves at the expense of honest workers and virtually no empathy present as he ignores the human toll that the financial escapades of men and governments wreak upon five centuries of humanity. He is a gifted storyteller and a talented teacher of economic principles and history – but ultimately, it is clear that he is a capitalist and not a humanitarian.

Still, the book is a must-read as these several notable passages illustrate:

..there were few mourners when the last meaningful vestige of it {the gold standard} were removed on August 15, 1971, the day that President Nixon closed the so called ‘gold window’ through which, under certain restricted circumstances, dollars could still be exchanged for gold. From that day onward, the centuries old link between money and precious metal was broken.

In his chapter about financial bubbles, Ferguson tells the colorful tale of John Law, a murderer fleeing justice in his native Scotland, who managed to take complete control of the French Royal Bank and essentially destroyed the treasury of France (and her citizens) through selling shares in the Mississippi company which was responsible for leaving France bankrupt and in need of the capital that selling the Louisiana Purchase to the fledgling United States brought. According to Ferguson, Law was single-handedly responsible for the founding of New Orleans and the ascent of Britain over France. I would love to see a movie about Law, but I’m glad to have not been one of his direct victims.

And finally, this quote struck me as incredibly powerful. It’s worth holding onto and thinking about deeply.

Longer life is good news for individuals, but it is bad news for the welfare state and the politicians who have to persuade voters to reform it.

And that, is perhaps the most powerful, though unintended message of this book – what is good for the individual is not necessarily good for the capitalist or the capitalist state. Buyer beware indeed.

The Joy of an Ebay Auction

I’m watching an auction right now….it’s something I want, but don’t need yet, but will need eventually, so I’ve been watching a few auctions. Most of them have gone for way too much – this one though – the price is right – at the moment, but there are 27 minutes left, so that can change in a bit. I’ve learned that bidding too soon is a mistake and only drives the price higher, but so has everyone else. The price just went up by $10…. 16 minutes left. We are all only waiting for the last five minutes and ideally the last minute…if it hasn’t gone past my limit by the last minute, I’ll punch in my highest price and hope that no one else goes higher…but they might…that’s the risk I take, but then, I know what the most I want to pay is, and I only give myself time for one bid – if the pre-last-minute-bids exceed my maximum, than I will watch another auction. And wait…and of course, the rule of whatever that is…oh, Murphy’s Law…says that just before I punch in my last minute winning bid, the internet will cut out, there will be a household emergency, or the power will go off…it happens all the time, or at least we notice when it happens and when it doesn’t we don’t notice but this time, we will all be aware of it – you and me that is….down to 11 minutes now…me and the six people waiting for the last minute are on the edge of our seats for 10 minutes – this is really living – and it’s not like a live auction where a last minute bidder can steal it from you – ebay runs on time, not energy – so we have all learned that if you wait until the end – you might get a bargain but if you bid early, you are screwed and only screwing yourself further…it’s gone up $30 since I started this post…oh, the agony of waiting but the orgasmic thrill of actually being alive every moment as the seconds tick down…this is life (as we know it) this is living (as we know it) this is the thrill of the hunt (as we know it). It’s hard to contain myself, to keep myself for premature ebidulation, I am so excited, oh my goodness….the last time I did this, I got distracted and punched in my final bid two seconds too late and missed the deal of the century…(is my tongue too firmly in my cheek as I write this) but wait, here we are at five minutes and I still have a chance…should I bid now, no wait, wait. Hold back man….these are either real professional masters of self control or maybe I’m the only one watching in this heightened state of excitement….how can they not be bidding? How can I? It’s at the point where I need to just go watch the clock now…you will have to wonder if I won or not…(but the price went up by 300% in the last minute!)