A manifesto of anger

An open letter to everyone who’s ever complained to me about lazy people living off benefits.

Dear Fucks Folks,

You come from a variety of walks of life.  Some of you collect six-figure salaries; others have only just come off disability benefits yourselves.  You might be a religious conservative or an idealist.  What you all have in common is an expressed contempt for the character of people who depend on public disability income.

“I won’t move into a building full of disabled people and crack whores.”

“It’s not like they’re blind.”

“They think they’re too good to work like the rest of us.”

“We’re just keeping them from getting better.”

At the root of all these comments, more or less enlightened at face value, is a fundamental confusion between inability and unwillingness.  It’s not as fine or blurry a line as you seem to think, gifted as you evidently are– and I say that straight-faced– with both ability and the inclination to use it to some end.

A good clue to the difference is the simple fact that the maximum benefit currently available for an individual on SSI– the benefit designed for those with low resources who haven’t accumulated a significant number of work quarters; i.e., most people with chronic disabilities– is $721 monthly.  Simple arithmetic says that’s less than $9000 annually.  By comparison, the federal poverty guideline for a single person is $11,490, which translates to about a hundred dollars more per month.  Disability income is also more than 1/3 less than the earnings of a full-time minimum-wage employee.

According to a popular rule of thumb that says 30% of net income should pay for housing, someone living exclusively on disability should pay rent (I’ll disregard homeownership out of hand as totally unachievable and untenable for the vast majority of people with disabilities) of below $250 monthly.

I live in one of the cheapest areas of the country, in the cheapest 2-bedroom apartment I can find.  For this, I pay $540 monthly, and the rent goes up on average about $60 every June, while cost of living adjustments to minimum wage and benefits go up by cents on the dollar.  Add in my basic utilities– while I don’t run the heat until the apartment drops below 55F– and my shelter expenses come to more than the SSI benefit, despite being only 75% of the national average.  An acquaintance who moved from Northern California in the late oughts reports finding studio apartments for no less than $1200 per month, plus a deposit twice that; he gave up his job and friends to come to the Midwest because he simply couldn’t afford to live, and was of necessity dug into a ten thousand dollar hole with payday loan companies.

These shelter expenses are exacerbated by having special needs.  People with mobility difficulties are often limited to available housing that offers first-floor access and 36″ doorways.  When most of the cheaper options existing in buildings 40 or more years old, with multiple stories and no elevators; with a landlord’s market ensuring that there is competition for every available space; with new construction being, obviously, targeted to those of means– this isn’t easy to procure.  In my case, my disability of social phobia and autism, even when I was single and childless, kept me from sharing lodgings with roommates, which could have radically reduced my expenses.

Add to this, further, the fact that low income and absence of a good credit record all but preclude being accepted for a lease:  if I didn’t have a family member to whom to turn as a co-signer, I’d be basically fucked.  And it’s difficult to establish a good credit rating when, as for me, your mental health makes credit cards a toxic concept, and you’ve left an abusive relationship while relinquishing any equity in property you had because you had no income to keep up payments.

After basic expenses, I can’t afford a reliable vehicle of my own, so I pay toward the expenses of a car I share with family in order to transport my son to and from school and his father’s house, gaining no equity: basically flushing what little money I have down the toilet with no possibility of recouping a dime.  It’s the equivalent of buying $10 boots every year instead of $50 boots every ten years.  Less money = less money.

Who among you would trade a disabled person a “lazy” well-below-poverty lifestyle for the security of your job, even if your earnings are meager?

Which of you would take the stress of managing a household on $8500 per year instead of that of working?

How about the hopelessness of knowing that the best you will ever be able to do for yourself and your family is scrape by, without any prospect of more comfort and security for the rest of your life?  The oppressive, guilty knowledge that you will never pay your child’s way through college, or own a home with a backyard for them to play in, or take them on vacation, or set aside savings for emergencies?

And the suffering of people with disabilities is hardly limited to numbers and economy.  I’m sure to many who can work, the prospect of a sedentary life, apparently without structure or monetary responsibility, sounds decadent and enviable.  You’d never miss a TV episode or a chance to drink a beer; you could finally spend time with your family, and, for some of you, catch up on that reading you’ve been meaning to do.

I don’t even deny sharing these sentiments during the few months at a time that I once struggled to maintain paid employment.  The grass is often greener, and I will never dismiss the fact that low-wage work is exhausting, unfulfilling, direly undercompensated, and oppressive in its own right.  That’s why I respect wage earners as much as I do: because I understand exactly how difficult and miserable that life can be.  My only quarrel is with the employed who view those less able as personally and morally inferior.

Let me inform you now that however it looks from the other side of this cloudy glass between us, life as a person with a disability is, frankly, hell.  You could pay me a middle-class income and it wouldn’t make up for the fact that I will never have the social and personal opportunities you enjoy.  I don’t have the privilege of spending my days locked at home alone watching the dishes pile up and the laundry scatter on the floor and the paperwork go undone until someone spills food on it.  I don’t have the luxury of being supported by the work of others.

No.  I’ll be fucked senseless if there is a day goes by that I think of my life in those terms.  My existence is one of constraint.  Of looking out the window watching people crowd toward their jobs and complain to one another and celebrate holidays and check their mail and take out their trash and pay taxes and repair their cars and go to the gym.  Of feeling involuntarily severed from the common suffering that holds society together, immersed in a solitary world where I am shamed every day by myself and others, incapable of pursuing the passions that compel me.

Staring blankly at the pages of books I meant to read for years.  Watching organic vegetables rot in the fridge while I lie on the couch without an appetite.  Watching episode after episode of inane Netflix titles– the same ones day after day, because I can’t follow anything new– because I can’t bear a moment alone with my own mind.

Making promises to the man I love and not keeping them, day after day, and seeing the sadness in his eyes– the eyes of less than a five-fingered hand’s worth of people into which I can honestly look– when he walks in the door, and looking for excuses and finding none other than who and what I am and will always be.

Having to explain to my child’s eager, innocent face on a warm day in November that Mommy is too tired to take him to the park, and seeing the resignation in his eyes because he has heard it so many times; watching him wander off to his room to entertain himself, or drift neutrally into an hour of My Little Pony, while I pull the covers over my head and wish I could cry about nothing something and everything.

Envisioning myself in the lives that everyone always wanted for me, as academic, poet, entrepreneur, musician, and grinding them into shards that slice me to ribbons because they are nothing more than idle fantasies, before I chuck them, day after day, into the bin of things that are restricted to Other People.

Who among you wants to get a few hours of video games in exchange for that impotence and shame?  Which of you wants to face the scorn of the gas station cashier when she tells you your card is empty and you can’t buy a bag of chips?  Which of you wants to be struck down year after year while you long for a life of strength and hope; told again and again that you are not and will never be up to the standard of the norm, and are thus worth nothing?  Who among you would face your own spite?

So go ahead, call me lazy.  But you’re right:  I’m not the one here who’s blind.

Yours Truly,

headcheese

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Words, interrupted

Lately I’ve been emphatically posting only about rhetoric and criticism, not about personal or autobiographical topics, because I don’t really think the internet needs any more maudlin self-indulgence.

But circumstances have caused me lately to resume my sporadic creative writing efforts, and I feel the need to briefly share my frustration and indecision.

I confess that despite any other ambitions have arisen in my life, the earliest and most consistent drive I’ve had is to play with words.  At all times I can’t help but notice their beauty and power, whether it’s in an Old English text, a 20th-century confessional poet, or daily conversation.  Some part of me always returns to the idea that I could say fuck it to prosaic ambitions and dedicate myself to wordplay as a way of life, as grandiose as that sounds.  I like to think of this part as akin to Bilbo Baggins’ “Tookish” tendencies.

But the greater part of me, which seems to grow in influence with every year of aging– the cynical part, or the realist part, depending on your perspective– says that only a rare handful of people ever feed and house their children on the fruits of their creative endeavors.

I’m lucky enough to have a father who sets a worthy example, as a children’s author of some renown.  I suppose that example is part of what fostered my early fixation– from the time I learned to read and write at three years old– on creative writing.  But I compare myself to him, and the way that he climbed his way into the small circle of respectable artists, not through manic inspiration, but through daily labor.  Even when he was working day jobs and helping to take care of me and my two brothers, he wrote and submitted until he succeeded.

I take as another example role models like Ludwig Wittgenstein, logical positivist philosopher, who at eight years old would suddenly stop, dumbfounded, in a doorway while contemplating questions about the workings of the universe– and never lost that insatiable drive to understand and explain.

I can’t believe that I am like either of those examples.  Once or twice a year, I seize on a rabid bout of creative obsession, and scrawl out poems and songs and fiction that, by others’ accounts (though I don’t really accept it) are pretty all right and have some artistic merit.  Then my mood swings and I tear up half of what I wrote and go back to accepting that I’m a destitute bum who contributes nothing of value to the world.

My drive isn’t enough, you see.  I don’t have the stability and dedication to sit down and write like a job every day– like Terry Pratchett, who early in his career, while still working day jobs, would force himself to write eight hundred words on his old manual typewriter every single evening, whether he felt like it or not.  (If he finished a book and was under his daily word limit, he promptly started another book, according to Neil Gaiman.)  And I’m not the kind of genius that Wittgenstein was, obsessed enough with a single mission that all other aspects of life can fall by the wayside while I pursue it single-mindedly.

My creativity can’t help but be all tangled up in my moods, my tumultuous relationships, and my own oddities and failings.  That’s the curse of manic depression.  Making superhuman starts, and then trashing or abandoning them.  That’s why my six-word biography is:  “Many projects started, none finished yet.”  It sounds amusing, and it really is– I can chuckle at it plenty.  But it’s also a fucking disaster.

My petulant inner demon also points out to me, usually at 3 AM, that I’ve had plenty of rejection in my life on all fronts, and I don’t really need to hear from an editor that my style “isn’t what their looking for,” or some other inane, patronizing let-down.  Because I tell myself that all the time already.

So there’s my pity-party, my tiny violin and my pathetic song, my bog-wallowing for today.  Have a good one, and I wish you more gumption and stick-to-it-iveness that I can muster up.

NB:  I do realize that ridiculing myself for self-pity doesn’t actually make it any less self-indulgent.  It’s basically my way of saying, “I know what I’m doing and I’m embarrassed about it but I’m doing it anyhow.”

Maybe it really isn’t for you…

You all know that I can’t resist stirring the pot when it’s hot.  There’s been a heartwarming (blech) new blog post circulating in social media the last few days, leaving a lot of heads nodding.  (Presumably in agreement, but maybe they were just tired.)  My heart’s not particularly warmed, but I do have my skeptical face on right now.  Here it comes.

I don’t like the message of this blog post, by Seth Adam Smith.  I think, intended or not, it slips in unhealthy, archaic platitudes about relationships beneath the guise of an insightful sentiment-fest.  I also think it’s one of those memes that asserts its own truth unchallenged and with enough face-value appeal that it elicits a positive response without people stopping to construct logical counter-arguments.  So it’s my duty to answer some of its content point-by-point, raising some serious objections.

I met my wife in high school when we were 15 years old. We were friends for 10 years until … until we decided no longer wanted to be just friends. I strongly recommend that best friends fall in love. Good times will be had by all.

Well, that’s really very nice, but right off the bat we have reason to suspect Smith’s capability for insight into relationships as a whole.  It sounds like he’s only had the one serious relationship, and he might need a little more varied experience to make generalizations about commitment.

Nevertheless, falling in love with my best friend did not prevent me from having certain fears and anxieties about getting married. The nearer Kim and I approached the decision to marry, the more I was filled with a paralyzing fear. Was I ready? Was I making the right choice? Was Kim the right person to marry? Would she make me happy?

Okay, so he was either having some run-of-the-mill cold feet– in which case he would have eventually decided that he did think he’s be happy with the choice– or he was having serious reservations, in which case he really probably shouldn’t get married just because it will make his partner happy.

My dad giving his response to my concerns was such a moment for me. With a knowing smile he said, “Seth, you’re being totally selfish. So I’m going to make this really simple: marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.”

To be fair, Smith’s quoting his dad here, so he didn’t originate this idea, he just climbed on board.  That still puts it squarely in his jurisdiction.  My main problem with this argument is that it equates marriage with having in-laws and children, and coparenting the children.  It assumes that without a legally binding contract, couples can’t nevertheless have all the benefits of love, closeness and shared lives.  It goes without saying how conservative this viewpoint is, but it also serves to shame and reject single parents, gay parents, and couples who simply choose not to marry, by insinuating that they are somehow leaving out a step, a service you ought to do your partner and children for some reason.

It also implies that people in unmarried relationships do not “make [each other] happy,” or at least not as happy as marriage does.  This partly smells to me like a like a misogynist assumption that women are all conniving to get men to marry them (presumably because they want an easy income?  I don’t know) and men are doing their girlfriends a favor by relenting and finally buying the cow.  Indeed, this whole piece, in its man-to-man chat way, embodies an androcentric and bigoted perspective.  Men, it whispers, you need to pony up and do right by your gal like your parents did, or she won’t be pushing your babies out.

As such, this passage not only perpetuates a ridiculous stereotype of women, it again excludes from reckoning all the nuances of coupling– the queer community, polyamorous relationships, and of course simply women who didn’t really want to get married anyway.  It never seems to recognize the obvious question:  What if both partners are feeling the same doubt and hesitance?  Is each of them supposed to be telling him/herself that it’s for the benefit of the other, when the other is passing the same buck?

My father’s advice was both shocking and revelatory. It went against the grain of today’s “Walmart philosophy”, which is if it doesn’t make you happy, you can take it back and get a new one.

Way to make human relations transactional, buddy.  That’s just what I always say to myself: “If I’m not crazy about this partner, I’ll just exchange them at the store.”  Surely there’s some middle ground between resigned selfless devotion and Wal-Mart?  What if, say, people cared about the mutual interest of themselves and their partners, i.e., having a positive, fulfilling relationship?  Does this really require transferring the entire purpose of the marriage to your partner alone?  Moreover, does it really have anything to do with a marriage license?

No, a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love — their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams. Selfishness demands, “What’s in it for me?” while Love asks, “What can I give?”

Again, this sounds like a very nice sentiment, and in some ways it really is.  I agree that treating the other kindly and lovingly is a crucial and beautiful and enjoyable part of love.  But there is a limit, somewhere, where free giving becomes sacrifice.  And trust me, I’ve been a martyr to my relationships.  It’s not pretty.  It can’t make either of you happy unless you’re with an utter narcissist and are yourself immune to resentment.  Encouraging people to remove themselves from the equation entirely is a recipe for codependency and emotional abuse.

Some time ago, my wife showed me what it means to love selflessly. For many months, my heart had been hardening … I was callous. I was selfish.

But instead of matching my selfishness, Kim did something beyond wonderful — she showed an outpouring of love. Laying aside all of the pain and anguish I had caused her, she lovingly took me in her arms and soothed my soul.

The kind, morally upright action of a good partner.  But what if he remained “callous” and “selfish” indefinitely?  What if this “fear and resentment” progressed to emotional, verbal, physical abuse?  If a person is deliberately blocking out self-interest, where is the line to be drawn between giving, and being used?

In sum, I want to give this article the benefit of the doubt and say that it probably doesn’t mean exactly what it says.  The author likely wasn’t really thinking, “I don’t get any happiness from my marriage, but it’s only for my wife anyway, and so that we can have a socially legitimate family with kids and in-laws.  If I didn’t marry her, I’d forgo all of that, and also break her heart because golly marriage would make HER happy!”

No, I imagine he was probably thinking about loving his wife and not treating her like shit, and about having resolved his temporary cold feet.  He was probably writing from the hip and not planning to deconstruct any of his ideas.  The trouble is that when you write, you always offer your own experience to your reader.  This blogger is setting himself up as a worthy example (at least, ever since his wife cured him of selfishness) via a description of an extreme and untenable relationship ethic. 

I have zero problem with people expressing controversial ideas, but they have a responsibility to think through the implications of what they say and, if necessary, clarify some responses to criticisms.  And on that count, sweet-sounding or not, Smith’s blog post fails utterly.