Thursday, November 28, 2013


I'll admit, I've been struggling with depression for over a year. Some of it has been financial: I haven't had steady work in a long time, and we've been lurching from crisis to crisis, hoping each month we'd be able to pay the bills and keep our home. That damaged my self-esteem more than I realized, starting to wonder if I was unemployable before I even reached fifty. Some of it has been due to the ongoing legal battle over my stepdaughter's custody and medical treatment, which has taken a horrific toll on the whole family. Thankfully those issues are beginning to resolve, and I start a new job in about a week, teaching at Full Sail University.

However, it's taken me a while to realize that there's been an unseen third factor - homesickness. It seems that it's something almost all expatriates suffer from after a couple of years abroad. It can often last a year or two, after which they either recover or go home. Fortunately, I seem to be recovering.

If you're not British, you have no idea what this is all about.

One of the things you don't realize the significance of when you move away from home is holidays and other traditions. Take Christmas, for example. First time you experience Christmas in your adopted country, it's new and exciting and different. The next year, it's sort of familiar, but it's not yet part of your personal tradition. The third year, you start missing the mince pies, the sparklers, the turkey dinner, the crackers, even the tin of Quality Street and the dumb Christmas special re-runs on TV. They've been part of your life for always, and now you're conscious that they're gone.

And you miss those birthday drinks with the people you've got together with since always. The annual Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race where you pretend for a day that you care about sports. The New Year's Eve family dinner you always hated except for talking to one of the cousins, but now you see the pictures on Facebook of everyone else playing those stupid after dinner games. The coy, polite ads for Safeways instead of the brash, screeching commercials for Wal-Mart or Target. The unfulfillable cravings for your favorite comfort food when you're sick. Primroses and snowdrops on the roadside in the spring. It's the little things that slowly get you.

But perhaps most of all, for a Celt like me, living in Florida, what I miss is a sense of history. Before moving here, I owned a house that was four centuries old, in a town two millennia old, and from my window I could see burial mounds four thousand years old. I went to school and lived in buildings constructed in 1382. I studied archaeology and thought of the mediaeval period as modern. My world was steeped in mythology and folklore, in history and tradition. Solstices and Equinoxes at Stonehenge or Glastonbury were normal, and I drove past those places every week. And that was nothing unusual - the whole country was like that. Hell, the whole damn continent is full of ancient stuff.

This place is part of my soul. It's not just an image on a New Age T-shirt.
But here, anything older than me is considered "historic". American versions of European traditions seem like commercialized parodies of what I'm used to. They're fun, and they're important local traditions in their own right, but they're not the same.

I've felt, in the very truest sense of the word, rootless. America has been my home for four years, and I love it here and have no desire to return to England, but I haven't felt like I'm part of the place in the way I do in England. For a long time I couldn't work out why I felt as I did, until a chance remark from a friend, an English girl living in North Carolina, made me realize that my depression was about more than just money and stress. Talking to friends and family back home, and staying in touch, isn't the same as being immersed in the place. I guess that's why so many expats end up forming isolated communities where they can maintain the traditions of home and pretend they're still back where they came from.

Recognizing homesickness as part of the problem was a big step in addressing it. It's about understanding who I am, and where I fit in this culture, and how I can maintain my sense of identity when I'm so far from everything that's familiar to me. I don't feel British, but I'm not an American either. Instead, I'm having to learn to be just a person who has been lucky enough to have experienced most of my life in a culture that most of the other people around me have only read about or seen in books; and I have to learn to let go of my past in the same way I let go of my possessions.

As Richard Bach said in Illusions, I am here now, and that's all of us can ever be.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fifty Shades of Meh

Yes, I read it. Partly out of curiosity to see what all the hype was about, and partly out of professional interest to see what made this such a self-publishing success.

The main thing I learned was this. All that stuff they tell you about having to be a great writer and practice your skills and persevere and be original if you want to be successful? That's bullshit. This is mediocre at best. It's not truly appalling writing, but it's not in any way good. There are tens of thousands of much better writers publishing their stuff on Smashwords and the Kindle store. There are many people writing much better stuff in the exact same genre of "billionaire BDSM erotica". So what made 50 Shades so insanely popular?

What you need if you want to be a successful writer is first and foremost, luck. Luck can transform a mediocre book like 50 Shades into a major success (and pave the way for all your future books to rocket to the top of the best-seller lists). Or luck can doom a literary masterpiece to obscurity. Success has nothing to do with the quality of your work or the effort you put in. It's just a roll of the dice.

Frankly, it bored me. It's the modern equivalent of a Harold Robbins or Jackie Collins or The Red Shoe Diaries or 9½ Weeks: absurd romantic fantasy with some kink, aimed at bored middle-aged housewives and young women looking to be daring and guys looking for something a bit pervy that they could get away with. (And those were phenomenally successful too in their day, despite being mediocre.) Half of the appeal of those was because they were known to push the edge of what was acceptable in the mainstream, it was cool to say you'd read or seen them. You didn't have to like them - it was more about showing how sophisticated and open-minded you were.

To be honest, it wasn't as bad as I expected. It just doesn't deserve to be the poster child for self-publishing. It doesn't send the message that self-publishing is the way for great writers to be discovered. Instead, it tells us that no matter how poorly you write, you could, if you're lucky, be a success. That's why we have a flood of truly crappy books thrown into the e-book lottery by untalented writers hoping they've written the next 50 Shades. And the depressing thing is that one of them probably has.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


When I was a kid, it was normal for people to make jokes about black people, Jews, the disabled, homosexuals, mothers-in-law, and women. Not just any old jokes, but cruel, demeaning jokes. All those people - basically anyone except straight, white men - were lazy, stupid, useless, and... well, every other insulting stereotype you could imagine. These days, that's much less common. We seem to have matured as a society on both sides of the Atlantic. Derogatory jokes are mostly no longer acceptable. Most of us - not all, I'll admit - have understood that these kind of insults are hurtful, even when made in jest. Some comedians can still get away with edgy jokes, but to do so requires great skill and wit, usually with a fair amount of self-deprecation.

Except, it seems, when it comes to men. It's still very much okay to make jokes about men.

We can't cook. We don't know how to use a washing machine or dishwasher. We never tidy the house. We can't look after the kids. We're babies when we get sick. We're stupid and only interested in sports and beer and cars. In fact, we're totally responsible for screwing up women's lives in every way possible. Every single one of us.

"So what?" you say. "Why the hell does it matter? Can't you take a joke, Matt?"

Well, for a start, if men were making the same jokes about women, then most women would get - rightfully and understandably - upset and insulted.

"Women are only good for one thing, and half the time they can't even do that!" 

"Women are like fine wine... it's up to men to stomp the shit out of them until they turn into something acceptable to have dinner with."

Not exactly sentiments many women want to hear, are they? So why is it okay to say the same to men?

But more to the point, gender stereotyping matters more than we realize, even in humor. Fifty years ago, it was normal to joke about treating women like obedient little housewives, and their lives sucked because that's how men grew up thinking they should treat women in real life.

Today, we laugh in barely concealed shock at sexist ads like this, and we - both men and women - cringe at the misogynistic society that spawned them. We watch Mad Men and are appalled by the way women were expected to behave and the uncaring attitudes that men showed them. Even comics reinforced these gender stereotypes. (Okay, there are still issues with gender portrayals in comics now, but images like this are a thing of the past.)

Women and men aren't so different apart from a bit of biology. They're equally smart and talented. They're just as good at holding down jobs or caring for kids. They're equally loyal, kind and funny (or not). They're just as emotional - though culturally, the sexes are conditioned to display different types of emotion. Just look at guys screaming at sports. And although men are on average stronger, I've met plenty of women who could kick most men's asses at almost any physical challenge you care to name. Men and women - we're all just people.

So why do we accept casual modern day sexism aimed at men?

When I posted something recently about looking for a present for my wife, I was hit by a scornful barrage of women suggesting that "maybe you could try doing the laundry for a change - if you can figure it out" or "have you thought of cooking her a meal instead of expecting her to make your dinner?" 

As anyone who knows me will be aware, I in fact do almost all the cooking, almost all the laundry, and the kids and I do most of the housework. It's pretty insulting to realize how many of my female friends assume I do none of those things and act like a complete asshole to my wife, because I'm straight and apparently only gay men are prepared to do traditionally female tasks.

When I was sick a few months ago, I lost count of the number of women who sent me cartoons about "man-flu" and men being pathetic when they're sick, and telling me to man up, go back to work and stop being a pussy. It turned out I had pneumonia. I nearly died because I didn't want to go to a doctor and look like a malingerer so I carried on working. (And incidentally, when my wife was sick with the exact same symptoms a week later, her wall was full of sympathy and best wishes from both men and women.)

And it goes deeper.

Some people I am very close to are going through a horrendous time right now coming to terms with sexual abuse from many years ago. But their anger and bitterness and resentment and mistrust, while understandable, isn't just directed at their abusers. It's directed at men. All men. Me included, even though I wasn't even on the same continent when it happened. And probably you too, if you're male, even if you've never met anyone in my family. Men are bad. Men are untrustworthy. Men are scary. Men are smelly and hairy. Men are repulsive. Men are disgusting. Men are rapists. Women would be better off without men.

Why do they feel that way?

Because we seem to have accepted that it's okay to lump all men together in an undifferentiated mass and assume we're all alike. We're not individuals. It doesn't matter if a man cooks, cleans, takes care of the kids, tidies the house, how kind and caring he is, how much he believes in equality, or how respectful he is towards women. He's still part of that group who has to bear collective responsibility for everything ever done by everyone with a Y chromosome.

Collective responsibility is a true evil.

Not all Muslims are terrorists.
Not all Christians are homophobic misogynistic bigots.
Not all Jews are greedy Christ-killing Zionists.
Not all whites are racists.
Not all Americans want to invade the rest of the world.
Not all foreigners want to destroy your way of life. 
Not all immigrants are lazy welfare scroungers.
Not all unemployed people are stealing your tax dollars.
Not all gays have AIDS.
Not all women are bitches or hoes.
Not all men are bastards.

Thinking that way is dangerous. It leads to fear, hatred, to abuse, and in extreme cases to killing. 

If we truly want a society where everyone is treated as equal, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or anything else - which I'm sure most of us do - we need to recognize that this kind of stereotyping is extremely damaging. Even when it's used in humor, whether it's aimed at men, women, ethnic minorities, religious groups, the handicapped, or any other group, treating people in this manner is hurtful and creates a society filled with prejudice, discrimination and bigotry. 

In the war of the sexes, I'm a conscientious objector.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Would you donate $2500 to your boss?

If you were earning $10/hr and your boss asked you to give him $2500, would you do it? Probably not. But that's exactly what many people are expected to do.


You're keen to impress your boss, and keep your job, so if he expects you to turn up 15 minutes early, you do it, right? No biggie. And staying 15 minutes late to finish off a few things, sure, you can do that. And then in the evening, you take care of a couple of emails, maybe take a phone call, or deal with a couple of little tasks at home... it's only half an hour. So what?

But add that up. It's an hour a day. Five hours a week - more than half a day's unpaid labor, or $50. Over the course of a month, that's 20 hours - half a week, or $200. In a year, you've done 250 hours unpaid work - that's six whole weeks! Even at normal rates, not allowing for overtime payments, that's $2500 you should have earned. Instead, you worked for free, and the company keeps the money. If they have 20 employees, that's $50,000 they didn't pay out to their staff.

Obviously, for higher paid staff, extra hours go with the territory. I've often been in jobs where I was expected to work 60-80 hours a week, but my salary and other incentives more than compensated for it. But for lower paid staff who have nothing to gain, it's immoral that they should be expected to donate free labor and be exploited in this way.

Unpaid overtime hurts many workers, and it damages the economy. That $50,000 could have employed two extra people. Obviously the work needs doing, and there are people who need the jobs. If the companies who do this actually paid for the work that's done on their behalf, unemployment would be drastically reduced, hundreds of thousands of families would be better off, and the national welfare bill would plummet.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

My desire to be well informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane

Photo: (M) Does anyone else feel like this?

Posted on the Being Liberal fan page.

Okay, I'm going to try and lifehack myself. That meme about how my desire to stay informed is affecting my sanity? Well, it's true. And that thing I posted on FB about stress yesterday, and the way it's exacerbated by all the fear that people are pushing?  That's true too. And the cartoon about switching off the TV to stop being terrorized by terrorism? Yup. So it's time to get rid of that stress.

I'm unsubscribing from all the political and activist feeds on my social media. Not because I disagree with them, but because I don't need the constant barrage of negativity. I don't need my awareness raised. I know that poverty exists. I know that big business is greedy. I know that cancer kills people. I know that animals get mistreated. I know that many legal drugs don't work and many illegal ones do. I know that religion causes problems. I know that politicians are corrupt. I know that women and homosexuals get a shitty deal. I know that our energy policy is unsustainable. I'm not learning anything new. I'm just being reminded how fucked up the world is, all day, every day, and getting more examples of the same old issues. It's driving me, quite literally, insane.

And if you post a lot of political or activist stuff, then I'll probably unfriend you or hide your posts. Again, not because I disagree with you or don't like you, but because I don't want to read about that stuff. If FB or Twitter could filter by topic, then I'd filter out those posts, but they don't let me do that.

So I've had enough.  I quit.

I may slip. It's hard to disconnect from that overwhelming current of thought. It's an addiction, and it's one that's easy to justify by seeing it as civic duty or intellectual responsibility. If I could go back to 1970s Britain, where I had 15 minutes of TV news once a day, that would be perfect. I could stay abreast of the main stories, focus on the facts, but not get drowned in a 24/7 tide of media trying to outdo each other with who can tell the most terrifying story, like a bunch of school kids round a camp fire telling urban legends.

You may say that I'm just hiding from reality. And yes, you'd probably be right. But my option is to take a bunch of happy pills, keep reading, and not care. I'd rather just walk away. It's not like I can do anything - especially as I don't even get to vote - so I'm being constantly reminded of my own powerlessness. That's not a good feeling. I'm doing this for my own mental health.

It would be different if activism was about spreading positive ideas, about being inspirational, or about having a vision, but it's not. It's about tearing the other guy down, showing how bad things are, and finding someone to blame. It's about why the Republicans are crazy, why the Democrats are evil, why the Christians or the Muslims are stupid, why the scientists are in league with commercial interests, and so on. We've collectively focused on running headfirst into brick walls to prove the other guy wrong instead of finding creative ways to go over, round, under or through them. We're not solving problems, discussing issues, trying to see anyone else's point of view, or compromising. We're locked in an unending partisan battle based on outrage and destruction, not trying to find a way forward based on rationality.

Goodbye, real world. I'm going to start constructing the mental and social world that I want to live in. It'll have music and movies and food and books and stupid animal pictures and spaceships and science and amazing nature pictures and places I want to visit and incredible history and friends who make me laugh... and best of all, it'll have a vision of future I want to look forward to.

Photo: Happy Monday!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Americans, fuck yeah!

In Europe, we have a pretty pisspoor image of America these days. We see the Westboro Butthead Church, asshole rednecks, gun nuts, and idiotic xenophobic warmongers who can't tell one foreigner from another and want to bomb everyone.  

But after living here for four years, I have to say that the best thing about America is Americans. Yeah, sure, there are assholes. But you know what? There are assholes everywhere, and the media love to talk about them. The Americans I know are some of the kindest, most generous people I've ever met. 

The last few months have been rough in more ways than I care to talk about. Financially, emotionally, every which way. And the support I've had from friends - including people I barely know - has been astonishing.  Financially, emotionally, every which way. 

In the UK, I would have had state assistance, for unemployment, for legal bills, and for medical bills. Over here, that hasn't been an option. Instead, friends and strangers have rallied round in a way that I've never experienced before. There's a sense of community that's all but disappeared back home. Yes, British people are helpful, but they know that when things get really bad, there's a safety net. Here, there's nothing. And that's when the community pulls together.

I've been reduced to tears several times in the last few months. Whether it's someone giving us a few hundred bucks for legal fees or medical bills, or a neighbor bringing us a meal because they've realized we're too tired to cook, I've been touched and humbled by the generosity of the Americans I know. Forget the bullshit media stereotypes. Forget the extremists, the fuckwits, and the nuts. They're a minority. Americans are good people, and I'm proud to live among them.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

An aversion to money

The other day, someone told me that my problem was that I have an aversion to money. I thought about that for a bit, because it's true, I do have something of a phobia when it comes to dealing with banks and other financial institutions. But no, I don't have an aversion to money. You want to pay me $100 an hour or $200 or $500 instead of what I'm currently making? Deal. I'm worth it. I've inherited a hundred grand? Sweet. I just earned a royalty check for a million bucks?  I won't turn it down.


I do have an aversion to people who think that having money makes them better than those who don't. I value qualities like compassion, intelligence, loyalty, and talent more than the size of someone's bank account.

I do have an aversion to people who think that having money makes them more important than the rest of us and think that being rich gives them the right to control everyone else's lives. There's a difference between money and power. However, they're inextricably linked, and too often, the possession of money leads to abuse of power.

I do have an aversion to people who think that the pursuit of money justifies treating others with contempt. Sure, get rich, but don't do it by wrecking other people's lives. And saying "it's just business" isn't an excuse for fraud, theft, disloyalty, or being a bastard.

I do have an aversion to people who forget (or never knew) what it's like not to have money, and then lecture others. Do you have any idea how offensive it is when you tell someone that it "only" costs a sum of money equal to a month's or a year's wages for a basic service? When your pocket change is someone else's ambition, don't deride them for not making the same life choices as you.

So, no, I don't have an aversion to money. I have an aversion to rich assholes.

It is possible to be wealthy and still be a nice person. I've met a few of them, though they're vastly outnumbered  by the rich assholes. I'd like to think that if I ever make any serious money, I'd be one of the nice guys.

Sadly, I'm probably too ethical ever to get the chance to find out. But feel free to throw a large pile of money my way. Call it aversion therapy.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Them negative waves

I want to finish off my series of blog posts about living on the wrong side of the poverty line with a look at what it does to you as a person. The poor and unemployed are always criticized for having a bad attitude, for being lazy, and for being persistently negative. Well, when you live like that, it's pretty much impossible to keep a positive attitude for long. I only had a few months of much less income than I'm used to while I tried to start up a business, followed by two months of virtual unemployment when that failed, and it affected me really badly. I was depressed, grumpy, permanently on edge, and negative about absolutely everything. I've never experienced long-term poverty, and I hope I never do, but the terrifying reality is that for millions, both here in the US, and back home in Europe, this is their life.

Kelly's Heroes: one of my all-time fave movies, mostly for this quote.
When you're at the bottom of the economic heap, negative attitudes become a survival trait. Slowly, inevitably, and inexorably, your entire thinking turns towards staving off disaster, not to finding ways towards a better life. Everything you do is eventually dominated by these four negative principles.

I mustn't

Once money becomes tight, you have to respond by cutting things out. You don't go out, you don't buy that tasty treat, and you don't splurge on luxuries. Then you start cutting deeper, and start denying yourself to basic food, medicine, and essentials, but you feel like it's the right thing, because you're trying to live within your means. Self-denial becomes your way of life. Your first instinct is always to say no, and that sets the tone for everything else. You're surrounded by adverts for things you can't have, and stories of your friends doing things you can't do, and you have to train yourself to respond by thinking, deep down, those things are not for me.

I can't

You soon start to realize that often, you're genuinely helpless. You're doing all you can, but it's not enough. If you don't have the cash, you simply can't pay that bill that's due tomorrow. If that guy who owes you money doesn't pay up, there's nothing you can do about it. If someone buys those games you put on eBay, you have some money for food: if they don't, you don't. You've left countless messages for the guy who promised you some freelance work this week, but if he's not calling you back, there's nothing you can do.  It's exacerbated by people helpfully telling you that all you need to do is... with no understanding that if you don't have those few bucks spare, it's simply not possible. Everything gets filtered through the viewpoint of whether something's actually feasible with your limited resources and without the cooperation of others, and most of the time, the answer is no.

You also become painfully, horrifically aware of your personal limitations. You look at endless jobs, and initially you're sure you could do them but then you realize you don't quite meet the official requirements. You talk to people and they tell you that your resume isn't good enough,  you need to go back to school, and you don't have the necessary skills. Sure, I can use Photoshop perfectly well, but I don't have an MA in Graphic Design with at least five years creating imagery for a major client, so I guess that doesn't count. It doesn't take long before you doubt your own ability so badly that it's paralyzing. You end up responding to every opportunity by thinking, I'd love to, but I can't.

I'm worthless

When you're struggling to stay positive, the last thing you need is other people beating you down, but that's usually what you get. Western societies have a very simple measure of someone's value. Money. When you haven't got any, you're quite literally worthless.

You've got people telling you to your face that getting a job is easy, and anyone who can't get a job inside a week is either stupid or lazy or both. There's a screaming, ranting, well-funded news media telling you 24/7 that the poor are lazy, workshy, scrounging, useless bums who are ruining life for everyone else. I was even told by one kind-hearted soul that people without jobs "might as well just die because they're not contributing to the economy, so who cares if they can't afford medical care."

But, you have to shut your ears to the endless insults, screw up your courage and plough on, applying for job after job, and then...

... nothing.

I must have sent out over 400 job applications in two months. I received precisely seven acknowledgements (of which two were rejections). I applied for about 160 freelance gigs. I got four responses. In other words, 98% of the people I contacted - in response to their ads - ignored me. I wasn't even worth an email. I didn't merit thirty seconds of someone's time, let alone an interview or an actual job. The employers didn't even show up for half the phone interviews they arranged. Recruiters wouldn't return my phone calls. After twenty-five years in business, with a degree from Cambridge University, nobody would even talk to me.

Some days, I actually started to wonder whether I even existed. I used to check my email sent boxes to make sure I hadn't imagined the applications I'd been sending out. I shut myself off from friends and family, and spent all day hiding in my office. I kept telling myself I was looking for work, but in reality, I was simply unable to speak to people. I seriously started to doubt my own sanity at times.

It's pointless

Insanity, as it's often said, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. But that's exactly what we expect job-seekers to do. I was spending fifteen or sixteen hours a day applying for jobs, chasing freelance gigs, and getting nothing back. Just keep going, people assured me. It's a numbers game. Sooner or later, something will come up.

Actually, that's bullshit. It's mostly a contacts game. It's very rare to get a job by simply sending out resumes. Most people get jobs through knowing someone and having an introduction. Every interview I got, bar one, was via an agency, not via sending off my resume. I'm fortunate enough to have enough skills and experience that an agency would actually take me on - though even they didn't respond to me until I got an introduction via a friend.

Eventually you start to realize you're wasting your time. Why bother spending all day, every day, playing the job-hunt lottery, getting more and more depressed, and achieving nothing? At least if you don't apply for anything today, nobody's going to ignore you, and you're not going to get your hopes up for no reason, right?  And, in many cases, even if you do get the job, it probably won't be enough to cover the bills. So after a while, you think fuck it, I'll play a video game, surf the net, watch crap TV, and lie in bed. At least that's better than thinking fuck it, I'll go knock over a gas station and buy some crack, but frankly, you reach a point where that doesn't seem any worse than any other plan.

You'd maybe like to do something creative - after all, if I'd spent those 15 hours a day for two months solidly writing instead of chasing crap jobs, I'd have written a whole bunch of stories or maybe a novel. In retrospect, that would probably have been a smart move - my current portfolio of just three stories brings me in a few hundred bucks every few months, even after nearly two years, and maybe writing some more could actually add up to a significant, if insufficient income. But when your head is full of negative waves, you don't feel like writing, drawing, or whatever your medium is. It's not the blues, where you pick up your guitar and sing soulfully about the bad stuff - it's that mind-numbing blackness where you can't think about anything except getting through to the end of the day, and wondering why you bothered to get up. All that goes through your head, every single day, is I mustn't, I can't, I'm useless and I'm going to fail.

It's not surprising that so many people give up on themselves, on the system, and on their future. Being poor is a real test of mental endurance. You have to keep picking yourself up day after day after monotonous, soul-crushing, joyless day. Time and time again, you have to brave the self-doubt, the financial worry, and the barrage of negativity, ignorance and criticism from other people. You have to cut yourself off from a society that only values people for their economic status and purchasing power.

Your entire life is a cycle of worry followed by (if all goes well) debilitating relief. You don't sleep when you know that tomorrow, the electricity bill is due, and if you can't raise $200 from somewhere within the next few hours, they'll cut off your net connection (which hampers your ability to find work), your phone charger (ditto), your cold food storage, your cooking facilities, your cooling and heating, your lighting, and your sole source of entertainment - and then charge you more money you haven't got to reconnect it. And that's not an occasional thing - that's every damn night, every damn bill. And when you're tired and stressed, you don't present yourself well to potential employers. You know it, and that's another source of stress.

And yet, through all of this endless crap, you somehow have to keep trying to get yourself out of the hell you're in. You have to keep telling yourself it's a mother beautiful job and it's gonna be there, even when you see it blown to hell in front of your face time and time again. Sadly, there's only so much optimism you can draw on.

2013 has so far been much better. I had one interview, and I was offered a job starting the next day. After just four days of earning money, and with the confidence that I will be able to pay all my bills this month and have a little left over for some treats, I feel like a different person. I feel valued. I feel intelligent. I have confidence in myself once again. I feel healthier. I sleep soundly at night, and I have a reason to get up each morning. I'm gradually getting my creative mojo back. I smile.

I have hope.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Taking responsibility

One of the things that annoys me most is being told by my more right-wing acquaintances that poor people should "take responsibility" for their circumstances. Most galling of all is being told that if they'd only saved something each month instead of "squandering it on luxuries", they wouldn't have any financial problems.

Just save 10% of your income each month, I'd get told. That's a great plan, except that it shows a complete lack of understanding of the reality of the situation when you're on a low income.

For a start, even in the best situation, it doesn't really solve the problem. After a year, you've saved about one month's income, so when you lose your job, you've got one month's buffer. Since it can easily take four to six months to find a new job, that doesn't last anywhere near long enough. If you've got a nice, safe, secure job, then it doesn't occur to you how often low-income workers get fired without warning, or how often they find their hours cut and their weekly pay packet drops unexpectedly. And when everything's that tight, you can expect little emergencies every month or two - vets' bills, car repairs, or basic household maintenance.  You can count on having to dip into that savings pot frequently, and it doesn't build up to a nice healthy reserve.

And then there's the question of how the hell you actually make savings when you're living hand to mouth, week to week, and you're barely making enough to cover the bills, let alone food, transport or clothes. Cut back on luxuries, is the inevitable answer. What damn luxuries? As I said in a previous post, even a $5 treat once a month is no longer an option. Several people suggested cutting out health insurance. One suggested fasting two days a week. So, in other words, they're talking about "luxuries" like medical care and food. (And for the record, health insurance isn't an option when you're poor anyway - you have to pay for medical care as you need it, and hope you don't get sick or have an accident.) One particularly distasteful, but common, response is that poor people shouldn't have kids: so what happens when your income plummets and you already have kids? Are you supposed to get rid of them like unwanted kittens?

When money's tight, you raid every single one of these jars for  essentials. Is that irresponsible?
What puts the final seal on the total unreality is when real numbers get bandied about. You should be putting aside a couple of thousand a month, I'd hear. Not just once, but many times. Seriously? If you're on a low income, you don't even earn a couple of thousand a month. If someone honestly thinks that a couple of thousand a month represents 10% of my (after-tax) income, that would imply that my gross salary would be somewhere in excess of $300,000. How disconnected are these people?

On a similar note, I heard frequently how poor people should take responsibility for bettering themselves and get a proper education, then they could get a better job. Go to college - it only costs twenty or thirty grand for a degree. Where the hell do you get twenty or thirty grand when you can barely afford to eat?

Or else there's the often-made suggestion that you should move to where the jobs are. That's easier said than done when you don't have the spare funds to go somewhere new. Not only do you need to cover the cost of getting there, you probably need a couple of months' rent in cash to get a new place. It's feasible when you're single and have friends who will let you crash on a sofa for a while - not so easy when you have a family.

People on a low wage would love to be saving money every month. They'd love to go out and get a college education. They'd love to be earning enough to make that possible. They'd love to move out of areas with high unemployment. But they can't do it on what they earn: every single dollar is needed to cover the essential basics. They aren't the ones who make the decision to pay them so little they can't afford to save: it's their employers who make that decision. It's the government that sets the minimum wage and the tax rates. It's businesses that decide how much the basics cost. It's financiers who created the recession that caused massive unemployment and forced millions into unemployment or low-paid jobs. Blaming the poor for being poor is the economic equivalent of blaming rape victims.

Taking responsibility for your financial circumstances is all very well as a political mantra, but you can't do it if you don't have any flexibility at all in where your money goes.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The fundamental inequity of poverty

The really unfair thing about being poor is that things cost more.  Not just in relative terms - when my income halved, my mortgage went from being 20% of my outgoings to 40% - but in absolute, dollars and cents terms. The less money you have, the more you have to pay for the same things.

You can't buy in bulk

If you only have enough coming in to cover the week's essentials, or what you need right now, you can't take advantage of any of the money-saving offers or buy in bulk and stock up. A 250g bag of rice for $4 is obviously not as good as a 1kg bag for $7.50, but if you don't have the extra $3.50 right now, you don't have that choice. You're now paying $16/kg for rice - over twice as much for the same thing as someone with a little more flexibility in their income.

The same's true of just about anything else you buy. Small quantities cost more, whether you're talking about food, washing powder, or season tickets. When you're managing your finances day to day, your cost of living goes up, right when you need to be saving money.

You can't take preventive action

Everyone knows that maintenance is cheaper than repair, but if you can't afford regular maintenance, sooner or later, you're going to have a major incident that will inevitably work out more expensive. It's the same with insurance. In the long term it saves you money, but when money's tight, it's one of the first things to go. And of course, when one of those repair bills comes in, it's catastrophic to your finances. What would have been a quick $50 maintenance job if you'd had some spare cash turns into a $500 disaster.

Finance costs you more

If you have money, you don't pay bank fees. The banks will fall over themselves to offer you free banking. When you're not earning as much, though, then you suddenly find that every month, the bank starts charging you just to keep your account open. And if you accidentally slip up and go overdrawn - often thanks to those damn service charges - you'll end up with hundreds of dollars in surcharges, right when you can least afford them.

The cost of credit is also often tied to your income. The less you earn, the more expensive it is to borrow money - not just cash, but car payments, mortgages, and so on. If you don't have the cash for a $400 fridge when you need one, the actual cost over a few years could work out to way over $1000. If you were earning more, but still wanted credit you might only end up paying $600 for the same fridge.

You also don't get the opportunity to pay bills in instalments when your income isn't great. Not only does this mean you have to find the entire sum in one go - a huge problem when you're living week to week - but many places give you a discount if you spread your payment. It's only poor people who pay full price.

You can't buy money-saving devices

Technology is full of gadgets that can reduce your outgoings. They involve a bit of up-front cost, but your monthly bills will go down, and over a year or two, you'll see big savings. These can be simple things like heat-reducing window coatings, low-flow shower heads, or energy-saving refrigerators. Looking at larger items, a new a/c system, a new boiler, or installing solar panels will have a big payback over a few years, as long as you have a few grand spare to install them.

When things are tough, it really hurts to realize that our economic system is designed so that you're paying over the odds for almost everything you buy. Not only do you have less money, but what you do have doesn't go as far. It's a cruel double whammy.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Little luxuries - the essentials of life

One of the things I'm looking forward to, once I have a regular income again, are a few of the little luxuries I had to cut back on. It's one of the truly soul-crushing things about tough times - having to cut out even the tiny things that make life not just pleasant, but bearable. When you're literally watching every penny, scraping together enough money to pay the water bill before it gets shut off, then everything non-essential has to go. Your whole perception of household economics gets changed: if you have to go to a job interview 20 miles away, you find yourself calculating whether to take the toll road and spend a buck each way on tolls, or whether the extra gas from sitting in traffic on the main road will actually cost you more.

In those circumstances, you're reduced to nothing more than what you need to survive. Life becomes bland, boring and depressing. You say no every time your friends invite you to something, and you make up excuses because you don't want to be embarrassed that you can't even afford the gas to get to the event, let alone tickets or food. Everything that made life fun has gone away, and it becomes harder and harder to motivate yourself and present the right attitude to potential employers. You work your butt off chasing jobs, and at the end of the day, you don't even get to reward yourself for whatever you do achieve.

Just those few little moments of happiness that brighten up your day can totally change everything. Much though I'd love to say that the best things in life are free, and you don't need money to find happiness, it's not entirely true. Some things, you need money for. Not a lot - a few bucks is plenty - but there are only so many invigorating walks you can take before they lose their power to make you smile, especially when you live in suburban Florida and don't have gas money to go anywhere.

2013 is looking much brighter. I'll still be paying off debts for a while, and dealing with some of the neglected maintenance on the house and vehicles, so it'll be a while before any of the big ticket items are going to happen, but there's now room in the budget for a few little luxuries, mostly under $10. I don't see them as luxuries, though. They're something to look forward to. They make me happy, and when I'm happy, I'm less prone to illness, more productive, and more motivated. They're what gives me a reason to keep going.

The first little $5 treat I bought myself, last Tuesday, was a small jar of Marmite. I'm not one of those expatriates who has to have all the comforts of the home country, but I do like to start my day with toast and Marmite. On Wednesday, everything was different. It felt right. It felt like the bad days had come to an end, and things were finally picking up. I felt like me again. Tastes can do that - they're comforting, and they touch a very deep part of the psyche.

My plan is that every week I'll pick up one more little tasty thing for the cupboard. I'm not talking about a bottle of wine or other things that are gone right away, although those are nice too. I'm talking about things that will last for a while, and which you don't think of as luxuries until you can't afford to replace them.  A weekly visit to the Winter Park Spice & Tea Exchange for a $5 treat is definitely part of the plan.

  • Truffle salt. A little of this sprinkled on scrambled eggs turns breakfast into a delicious taste explosion.
  • Vik's Garlic Mix. Add to olive oil, and dip home-made bread into it for a Mediterranean style snack. 
  • Saffron. Add to fruit salad and it takes it to a whole new level. Put it in a curry, and make a mind-blowing korma.
  • Medjool dates. My favorite snack. Regular dates just don't taste the same.
And then there are other little luxuries. Not everything in my life is food-related!

  • Some decent shaving oil, so my face doesn't feel like it's been sandpapered. And knowing I can change the blade in my razor as soon as it starts to get dull, not seeing if I can make it last another week, or two, or three...
  • New shirts. Sure, I have smart shirts, but they're old and worn, and wearing them to the office makes me feel unprofessional. Two for $6 each in J.C. Penney's sale last weekend? That'll do nicely. I don't need new ones, but I feel better, I work better, and I'm sure that's unconsciously reciprocated by the way my clients treat me.
  • Replacing the power supply in the stereo for the hot tub, so we can listen to music and relax. Actually, one of the first things we did was get the hot tub going again. We had it powered down after solstice because we couldn't afford to keep it running, and we couldn't afford to change the water either. The hot tub's not really a luxury either. Both of us suffer with back problems, and a daily hot tub is far cheaper than a regular visit to a doctor or massage therapist. 
  • A set of steel files. Decent model-making requires decent tools. I managed okay on Kong with just a knife, but the joins weren't as smooth as I wanted. $6 in Hobby Lobby with a coupon, and I'm ready to start making models again. On a similar note, I'll be taking a trip to Office Max and getting them to print out the next cardboard model. 
  • Going to a dollar movie. One freaking dollar is all it takes for a few hours of escapism. Last weekend, we saw Cloud Atlas. Lincoln and Skyfall will be coming up soon. Eventually we'll be able to afford going to the Enzian again, but for now, this will do.
  • Buying a bunch of flowers for my wife. A little romantic gesture can go a long, long way.

As hobbies go, it's pretty damn cheap, but even making things out of paper isn't free. 
All the above adds up to well under $100 over the next two months. It's not really a lot of money in the big scheme of things, but those few little items are worth everything to me. It's the difference between enjoying my life, and enduring it. 

I was only out of work for a few weeks, although things were tight for a while before that. I was lucky - I had good contacts and a good resume with skills that are in demand. I know how much this affected me in that period.  Some people have to go through unemployment for much longer - six months is nothing unusual. I can't imagine how it would feel to go through it every single day for months on end, knowing there was nothing to look forward to except another day of living in a culture devoted to telling me about all the things I can't have, being told by employers I'm no good, and being told by society I'm clearly lazy and useless. 

Luxuries aren't just luxuries. They're the rewards we give ourselves for getting through the daily grind. In moderation, they're essentials. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

How to avoid paying minimum wage

Chris Rock sums up the problem with minimum wage nicely. It's a pesky law designed to tell business owners that hey, this is as low as you can go. Any less, and you could find yourself in court.

However, that shows a remarkable lack of creativity. There's no need to pay people minimum wage. You can get away with paying them far less - and indeed nothing.

So, for business owners who are looking for ways to reduce their costs, here are six ways to pay less than minimum wage. They're all perfectly legal, and all quite genuine. I've been exposed to every single one of these business strategies personally within the last twelve months, and I've seen the businesses that use these strategies flourishing. After all, reducing costs is the key to increasing profits, increasing profits is good for business, and what's good for business is good for America, right?  So it's your patriotic duty to deal with the recession by circumventing minimum wage.

1. You don't work for me - use "independent contractors"

Minimum wage only applies to employees. But if someone's working for themselves, then it's up to them how much they charge you. It's just a business arrangement. So if someone agrees to do this amount of work for that amount of money, and it happens to work out as $3.50 an hour, that's their problem, not yours. Of course there are rules about whether someone qualifies as an independent contractor or an employee, but you can usually ignore those. After all, if they're not happy, they can choose not to work for you any more. Get some competitive bids going, and see how low you can drive the price. You may be surprised.

Pro Tip: when they've agreed the rate, tell them it looks a little low, and offer to increase it slightly. You're still only paying $3.60 an hour, but it makes you look like you care.

2. Doesn't apply here - go overseas

More and more jobs can be done by people working remotely. And if they're remote, they can be anywhere. Why pay an American $60 for a full day's work if someone in Sri Lanka, Pakistan or the Philippines will do it for $20? Look around on places like Elance and oDesk, and you can get people who'll happily work for $2 per hour or even less and think they're making good money.

Pro Tip: always ask for a "test project".  If you're lucky you can get this for free, but at the least, they'll keep their rates low in the hope of more long-term business. Then never use them again. Repeat ad infinitum.

3. Just until you get up to speed - mandatory training

If the job requires any skill at all, then you can require your staff to take a training course - at their own expense, of course. Conveniently, you (and only you) offer this specialist training at an affordable price, which you deduct from their wages. Alternatively, you generously offer to cover the cost of training, which happens to involve on-the-job experience for three months. Obviously, they won't get paid during this training period, but at the end of it, they'll have a real, well-paid job... and then you fire them and start over with new trainees.

Pro Tip: If you're really smart, fire them before they complete their training, then point at the small print that says that they're liable for the full costs of the training if they fail to pass the course. Then you send them a bill. Hey, someone might actually pay it, and now your employees have become a revenue stream.

4. Why pay at all? - use interns

You don't need to make people think that they might get a job with you in order to get them to work for free. That's what interns are for. They're just there to build their resume. If you run a fairly straightforward business, you can run almost everything on interns. College kids can build web sites, operate tills, write copy, answer phones, and so on.

Pro Tip: remember to offer a staff discount. That way they're still spending money with you, you're still making a profit out of them on top of the free labor, and they think they're getting a great deal!

5. It's just helping out - unpaid overtime

Business is tough. Everyone needs to put in just that little bit extra. Of course, you can't make people work for free, but you know, you've got to go with the hardest workers, and if they don't want to do those extra few hours, there's someone else who will. Pay for 20 hours, get them working for 30.  That cuts the wage bill down and fosters a sense of company loyalty.

Pro Tip: remember to call in at odd hours so it looks like you're working your butt off too. Send emails at midnight, or leave text messages at 6am. Investigate scheduling services, or else employ an intern or a low-cost Filipino to send out of hours messages on your behalf.

6. We're all in this together - make them shareholders

In a small business, you can really get people to do ridiculous amounts of work for free by promising them a share in the profits. Obviously you can't pay them right away, but when the money comes in, you'll give them a cut. Remember to pay out your bonus and all your other expenses before you calculate the profit share, and practice your "disappointed" face when you tell them that because of unexpected financial issues, there's only about $160 profit to share between five of you.

Pro Tip: soften the blow by saying that under the circumstances, you're willing to pass on your share, so you'll just split the profit four ways, but hopefully next year will be better. See, now you're being generous and understanding, as you hand over two $20 notes for a whole year's work.

So, next time one of your staff complains that they don't have enough money for food, or gas, or medicine, or somewhere to live, explain to them how generous you're being by paying minimum wage. Then fire them and replace them with someone who'll be happy to work for half that.You now have a happy employee and you're making more profit - everybody wins!