Monday, September 8, 2014

Florence Thompson couldn't live in a house.

Mix Bakeshop
12oz Soy Mocha
Sesame Brown Sugar Cookie

I got the Barenaked Ladies song "If I had a million dollars" stuck in my head, yesterday.  I thought it was appropriate since I was catching up on my receipts and figuring out just how financially screwed we are.  It is a testament to my addiction that I am back in the coffeehouse today.  (Also a testament to how impossible it is to write at home with the boys).  Now, if I had a million dollars...

I wouldn't be freaking out over the cost of my mocha habit.  I would never again cry over the cost of peanut butter (yes, I have cried over peanut butter).  It would be organic everything.  Every account would be back in the black.  We'd set up college accounts for the boys, of course.  I would fix up my little car, pass it on to one of my sibbies - probably my oldest, or youngest, brother - and then I'd splurge on a new car... with four doors.... Luxury...

And then we'd probably pay off the rent and the utilities for six months, maybe a year, and then we'd do nothing.  No big shopping sprees, no indulgences... beyond coffee and internet...  I would need a little time just to get used to being okay.  I have been so strained for so long, I wouldn't know how to deal with security.  I would be afraid of possibility... and hope.

Hope is a painful and dangerous thing for someone like me.  I didn't realize how much so until one time in a Denny's lobby almost ten years ago.  I was on my way out, putting my change away, when I spotted one of those claw machines with all the stuffed animals inside.  The prizes were smaller when I was a kid, but I used to win a lot.  My brothers and I would walk down to the old Redlands mall with a handful of quarters between us.  They'd stretch their game time playing Galaga and Gauntlet and Rampage.  I'd play skeeball and the claw machine, and I'd always come home with a prize, sometimes several.

Over the years, claw machines with bigger prizes started moving in next to the machines with the little prizes.  The cost was double but you could get a bigger stuffed teddy bear to hug.  And soon, the machines with the little prizes disappeared.  And I started to notice, when I did drop my quarters in, that less and less often I'd be pulling a prize out.  At first I thought it was because, since I still only had a dollar to play with, I had half the number of chances to win.  And the prizes were bigger, so they'd be just that much heavier for the claw to hold on to.  But it became clear that, no matter how perfect my aim, the claws no longer held fast to the prize.  They were made to be more appealing and more impossible to win.

So I had stopped playing.

And at that moment in that Denny's lobby, possessed by a bout of nostalgia, as I started to lift my quarters to the slot, my hand started shaking.  My breathing quickened and my chest started to get tight.  It was not the excitement of playing a childhood game - it was the fear, the anticipation of certain loss.

Everything in my life has trended the way of the claw machine.  The prizes were smaller, once upon a time, but I could win.  And if I saved my skeeball tickets, I could cash them in for a really big prize.  Now, the cost to play is double, the prizes look huge, and you're almost never going to win because the game has been rigged that way.  And that's more than just an unfortunate state of affairs.

The prevalence of failing to succeed - especially, while all the lights are still flashing, telling you that you could still win if you're smart, if you're clever, if you keep practicing - it's damaging.  It steals hope.  It steals a sense of security.  It steals the belief that things can ever change for the better.

People do not respect stress - continual, lifelong stress - and the damage it can do.  I am a testament to the damage - physically and mentally.  Not only do I get mini-panis at the prospect trying to win something, but I have multiple chronic conditions that are directly related to stress.  I've written before about fun times with fibromyalgia, which is either triggered by stress or exacerbated by it.  But did I mention I have arthritis in my neck?  I'm 35!  But my neck is so tight that I have pulled it out of alignment (spondylolisthesis) and am grinding it away.

When my doctor asked why my muscles were so tight, I resisted the urge to look down at my chest and say, "Well, I have a pair of guesses..."  I gave him the (bigger) true answer instead - stress.  Years and years of it.  Unrelenting, with little prospect of things getting better.  When he said he was going to submit a referral to a physical therapist, I actually laughed.  I've been to this rodeo before.  They don't want to pay for the fix.  They'll pay for the drugs - the pain killers and the muscle relaxers.  They'll pay for those for years.  But no p.t., no chiropractic, no acupuncture, and certainly no massage therapy, which probably would be the most effective of all of them.  In a little while, I'm going to have a consultation with a pain specialist.  And unless I can unlock the Magic Medical Code of Approval, it will probably be my only covered visit, and I won't go to any more out of pocket because, of course, I can't.

Just think of how costly all of this is to all of us.  When winning at this economy is impossible, we carry a stress that only compounds, until we're paying so much more than just the price to play.  I don't care about the size of the prize, I'd just like to win sometimes.

I know it can be hard to understand for some people.  If you've been middle-class most of your life, like my husband, hitting a hard financial stretch is not that big a deal.  It's still something that will "work out in the end."  Even if you were broke growing up but were able to work hard, get that degree and have a successful career, the damage can be mostly healed and left behind.  If you were able to go to school 20 years ago, as opposed to 10 or even 15, you can have a drastic misunderstanding of the burden student loans.  The numbers are just not what they used to be, not for education... not for a lot of things... and we are hobbling hope.  And there are more and more people like me being created - sick and un-actualized, and needing so much more than even a million dollars can bring.

So... before I post another unedited ramble and rush off to another futile fix attempt with the pain specialist... just remember that, even if you don't understand how stress could be this bad, the damage is real.  It's debilitating and it's huge.  Just think about Florence Thompson...

Florence was the woman in the iconic picture from the Great Depression.  She sat with chin in hand, surrounded by children she could barely feed, eyes faraway, and her face nothing but lines of worry.  She lived through greater adversity than most of us today face, but worry is worry, and you don't have to live in the most abject poverty to understand it.  You'll be happy to know that things got better for Florence and her children.  But the damage had taken its toll on her.  According to her children, years later when they tried to get their mother to move into a house, Florence refused.  She said she need to have wheels under her.  She had been down so long that stability felt more insecure.

I've looked at that famous picture of her for so many years.  I've seen the worry, spoken more perfectly on her face than maybe any other has.  But I never noticed until recently that Florence Thompson must have been beautiful when she smiled.

As damaged as she was, I hope she could still smile.

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