Dispatch from the Edge of a Recession: Hit Me When I'm Up

After eleven weeks out of the workforce, I started a job this week and got slammed with a $100-boot on my car (for the first time in my life) all at once. Way to get hit when you're (almost) up. On the way up, we'll say. The most painful part of this incident: I was parked for about 8 minutes to get a $1 sub sandwich. I haven't received a paycheck in eleven weeks, have been barely hanging on, relying heavily on my credit card to make end's meet. Then I get my measly weekly unemployment check the same day I park in the spot that gets me a $100 boot. (I actually didn't even apply for unemployment until about three weeks ago, didn't even realize I could get money to help me during this phase. Man, it would have helped the whole time... but oh well.)

I'm rationalizing the sickening amount of wasted money by not getting a few other things. I've lost some weight since I've started running, and the actual width part of my bras is too loose. I really need new bras, to be perfectly honest; they're already a old. Instead, I've taken them in, with some unprofessional-looking, but very effective seams on both sides of the clasps at the back. I was going to get a desperately-needed haircut--my bangs are so long their not bangs anymore--but I'll keep the weird hippie look for a few more weeks. Hey, they already hired me, right? I could always use my old, dull barber scissors and take to my own hair.

I will be getting my first check at my new job (which is full-time but temporary up to the week of Christmas) next week. So that's a good thing. It was just so painful to have this incident now, as things are looking up. Why me, why me?

I was angry. I was yelling, and shaking, and sobbing, and cussing at these two men--all of these things, except the sobbing, are quite unlike me. And I was wayyyy late getting back to my new workplace, which is awesome. 

But then I had to get back into my cheerful elf voice, writing on the marketing team at the Christmas publishing company where I work. I honestly felt like calling it a day. But I kept it together because, first, now I needed all these hours more than ever, and second, these people are still getting to know how I operate, and it is imperative that I not fall apart and seem like one of those people who always has drama and is always crying at work. I am not one of these people, so today, when I get my first car boot, would not be a day to appear to be one of them.

Every time I thought about what happened this afternoon, my eyes would well up and I would feel sick. I thought about it over and over, what could I have possibly done to make those guys' jobs the absolute worst? I hope they really hate that job. Because if I had to stand there while some woman lost it--truly lost it--in the parking lot, and scream at me, I might hate my job.

I'm still not over it, but as the day has worn on, this raggedy, awful, headachy day, I just had to let it roll off of me. Ok, so it hurts now. It won't hurt forever. It's like back when overdraft fees were at their peak, and I was an undergrad, getting hit with fines multiple times a year. Nothing brings naseau faster than not having money you thought you did and seeing that red balance, or walking around the corner to find a $100 fine attached to your car. I hope there is a time in my life when I'm not at the bottom of the barrel scratching and can pay my monthly bills without my account balance zeroing out around $6 when they're all paid. I'm thankful to pay my bills, but even these last few months, that has been hard.

Honestly, I didn't see myself becoming a victim of the current economy: one of those recent-grad, lots of student loans, can't-find-work demographic that is touted and studied and reported on. With a boot. Today was a reminder that yes, you might be seeing some good news, some professional success come your way, but don't think that means this is the end of the roadblocks. They are all over, they are hidden and often conniving to stack up all at once, and they will never let you off the hook. I resign and concede to the inevitability  of the occasional really awful boot.

Dispatch from the Edge of Recession: Job Market Moment... the Elusive Excitement

I have that sick, nervous feeling right now. I just came across a job posting for a place I desperately want to work, here in Atlanta, with an amazing mission and unbelievable combination of my passions, skills, and beliefs. And every single thing they list on the job description I can do now, and would dominate in that position. Writing for the web and published media sources, networking, working with the press and local organizations, planning and organizing in-house documents and memos, social media management,  photography for events and media, group and project work, and a boatload of other exciting things--and above all, believing in the mission of the organization. Seriously, I would rock this job and every responsibility I am given, because it's things I excel in already and have done in many capacities before, but also because it's in a field that I have dedicated two degrees to so far, and both of them fostered my concern for the mission of this organization as well--civil rights, human rights, communication along cultural and racial lines, understanding of one another. I am riddled with excitement, to put it mildly. Suddenly, I have gone from a regular night of searching job listings and imagining my near future in retail once more (and working for seven bucks an hour, woo!), to imagining something far different and much more exciting--working in a meaningful position for a purpose, putting my skills and work ethic to the test and building them further. I desperately want to pour myself into a job. And I really want it to be something I care about, though I have had to make sacrifices in this portion of my goal, because employment is more important than holding out, unemployed, for a noble goal. I am realistic if nothing else. (Hey, it might take a few years of crap to get back to the noble goal. And student loans don't pay back themselves.)

So I have been applying to various clerical jobs, submitting my resume to staffing agencies, saying I'm looking for administrative work. And the recruiters ask me what kind of work I am looking for. The honest answer is any work, at least at a rate to cover my bills. But perhaps that sounds desperate, not ideal--so I'll say admin work, sure! The job fair I went to today had many openings for health care workers, police officers and security professionals, warehouse workers, and for those seeking employment in the fast food industry. It was a depressing picture for someone with a niche degree like Heritage Preservation. Try throwing that one on a staffing recruiter. I try to emphasize my strong administrative skills in the conversation, too.

In the nine months during which I have been applying to jobs, this is only the second one to arise that is here in the city I love, which I am qualified for and which truly, makes me utterly breathless with excitement. I immediately bound ahead in my brain, to having the job, making positive improvements, wearing my beautiful skirts and blazers and representing well everyone who has helped me get to this point. I have had days where it has been impossible to imagine, to conceptualize, my future--what job would I even be doing, and where, and for whom? It is a fast downward spiral when you can't conceptualize whether you will be folding clothes or doing data entry or answering phones, or changing the world in my own small way for an employer I love.

This is only the second job to send electricity down my spine. I read the long description over and over, and each time, I am more confident that I can nail every single bullet point. I am a master of so many of these things already. And when I am on paper, the only thing people see is that I'm a recent grad with no full time work experience, even though multiple, simultaneous part-time jobs have earned me all the skills I have and use in what equals a full-time commitment of my time--and which make me exactly the person for the job. But my mind has already blown past this more realistic doubting part of my brain, because, of course, you're made for this! They'll see that!

That is what I really believed about the singular previous position that I desperately wanted and felt highly qualified for. I didn't get that job. I got an overly formal and way-late e-mail response from some lady I had never spoken to, saying they had chosen someone else. Now, in nine months of scores of job applications and submissions, I am quite used to impersonal rejections and regrets, but this one hurt. I knew there was a good chance I wouldn't get it, but I also thought there was a good chance I could. The experience has made me thoroughly exhausted with employers not wanting to take a chance on a passionate, young professional. Heck, I'll work for next to nothing and I really care about the job! And I work hard to boot! And communicate well! What on earth more can you want from a candidate? Idealism? Creativity? Tech savvy? Perseverance? Amiable personality? Strong leader? Organizer? Oh, wait -- I am all those!

This is a public website, and I am fully secure in posting my thoughts publicly, because you know what? I'm a frustrated twenty-something in a tough transition, in a terrible economy, in a niche industry. And I am not going to hide that from employers, professors, parents, friends, strangers. The excitement I feel right now is very real, and I risk heartbreak and sadness all over again for what could become a missed opportunity to perform above and beyond in an excellent position for a great company. I really need to share that feeling with you, because it is the tiny little glimpse of the future -- of producing great things and of the potential I have sitting right here at my desk -- that keeps me from giving up.

The Life and Times of Things

I am absolutely fascinated by the relationship people have with things. I am fascinated by the meaning and value humans add to otherwise meaningless objects. I've written about it before: Why do we keep what we do, discard what we decide we do not want? How do we use things to celebrate and make meaning in holidays? And long after we are gone, what patterns do our consumptive and domestic habits leave behind about our lifestyles and value systems?

This is probably part of the reason I am drawn to working in museums with objects that have been selected to be kept, preserved, valued as historical in some way, and chosen to represent people, moments, and eras past, present, future.

That's also why I wish I had thought of this first.

The concept, the hypothesis, and the execution is brilliant. Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker were apparently pondering the regular, conventional assumption, that what gives an object value is somehow determined by laws of utility, supply and demand, or "qualities intrinsic to the object -- e.g., craftsmanship or design." No, there are more powerful, less explicable forces at work behind the irrational behavior of humans (I myself just finished reading Predictably Irrationaland its author Dan Ariely would agree here) and why and what we value. So they created the Significant Objects project, and drafted a hypothesis: "that regardless of of the thing's aesthetic or utilitarian properties, an object's value can be increased by way of the narrative attached to it."

They sough to find more evidence of this link between ordinary objects and extraordinary meaning.

Glenn and Walker thrift-store shopped for one hundred items, spending a total of $128.74 Then they asked one hundred authors (most pretty unknown names) to write a story about an object, so they would end up with one hundred objects and one hundred stories to match. Then, they listed them for sale on eBay, with the story in the item description (and a disclaimer that this was, in fact, a fictitious story).

When all the items were sold, the grand total of what people forked over for otherwise meaningless objects: $3,612.51. For tchotchkes.

They compiled their whole project and process in a beautiful little book that I purchased immediately after hearing Rob Walker talk about their project on Marketplace. They refer to this as a literary and economic experiment. After conducting three series of the experiments, three hundred items given invented meaning and then sold to interested parties online, they compiled the best 100 stories and their conclusions and thoughts into this book. It's part short story fiction, part economic enigma, part "in-your-face, logical economic thinking."

The experimenters, shall we call them, came up with these categories of significance, to try and determine if these kinds of factors play a part in determining what people might value, and how much they will value it (in an actual monetary amount). The short answer is, it's complicated. The shorter answer is, No; these distinctions don't matter overtly. Neither did the author who had penned the tale.

Neither, really, did the object type, which had been split into these categories: Novelty Item, House & Table, Figurine, Decoration, Kitchenware, Toy, Kitsch, Tool, Promotional Item.

It is befuddling, mysterious, and glorious to browse through the items in this series, examine the item, read the story that accompanies it, and marvel at much, or how little, it went for in the end, on the internet auction block. Sometimes a fantastical, or intriguing tale would only garner $20 from a buyer; other times, stories I thought were a bit throw-away (compared to some) brought in a cool $100 or more. Each item was, by their own rules, purchased for less than $4 originally.

What's also interesting is how now, precisely by being featured in a project like this, objects that had no meaning at all, tchotchkes and trash at best, again have a value and shelf-life, because you are unlikely to ever spot a second of these random, old, forgotten things elsewhere in the world. Pairs, brothers, additional copies produced long ago are now likely to have been long trashed, destroyed, abandoned, forgotten.

It speaks highly of the project creators, Walker and Glenn, that these pieces were so well-chosen and curated to begin with. They limited themselves, for example, from including "mid-century-through-1980s pop culture ephemera," and consciously did not include any furniture, clothing, books, or other things that were deemed to obviously "object-like."

What an entirely enigmatic project. I am so jealous to have not thought of this experiment first.

I spent a whole semester reading and discussing and researching topics in material culture, learning about British tea culture, eighteenth century American clothing culture, white and black spaces on the plantation homestead, hand embroidered crafts made by women living in refugee camps, Puerto Ricans' meaning in their homes and spaces on abandoned plots in New York City, and meaning in punk rock clothing and attitude, among other things. I spent a semester thinking about and researching, asking questions about meaning in quilts, for my own final project. We talked of tchotchkes and trinkets and souvenirs from trips far and near. I should have been thinking more deeply about the stories, the ones we create, the ones we forget, the ones that are passed down to us, the ones we make from our own life experiences.

Valueless objects take up lots of space in our lives, even when we consciously resist such a phenomenon. We can be upset that this occurs, and try our best to live simply. I agree. But I also think it is just a source of too much intrigue and love, sadness and grief, too much human drama for us to ignore those little trinkets that survive and speak to moments passed. That is what we do in museums all the time, after all, use objects to represent was once was, what stories have come before us, what things happened here. Who lived, and what they owned while they habited this earth.

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Modern-day "Peril"? Chinese language in American classrooms, and that long-standing friend-or-enemy dilemma

China has the second-largest economy in the world, a fact that looms ominously over the shoulder of El Numero Uno: the United States. And when you are as connected economically as China and the U.S., it behooves each side to attempt friendliness; it also means it would be nearly impossible for either side to start a conflict with the other, as the economies are so dependent on one another that any such move could bring collapse to both.

And perhaps the most important lesson for the United States to learn, the one it struggles with most, is coming to honest terms with the fact that China is not a democracy. It functions as a fast-paced consumer economy, and does allow more economic freedoms today (like job choice and sometimes location of residency, for example), without really having changed its governmental system at all; much has been written on this unique breed of national existence, this "socialism with Chinese characteristics," and so the basic system remains today--with obvious cracks and some severe humanitarian issues on its plate. America has trouble with this sometimes, this issue of engaging as an ally a country with fundamental differences from its own governmental policies.

Neither condoning nor condemning China's policies, though, it must at least be admitted that China cannot be ignored. Without condoning their humanitarian infractions, myself and many Americans have been able to learn about the Chinese people's language, culture, history, food, and customary idiosyncrasies; each American who speaks Mandarin Chinese is contributing positively to the larger relationship between these two economic powers, to the extent that it is hard for me to understand the neglect this language currently sees in U.S. schools. In urban areas, more is inherently available to students; but in smaller towns, like the one where I went to high school, French and Spanish are the only options, and only through the required level "two." (Let's not get into that larger discussion on our monolinguist nation.) Meanwhile there are 264 million children in China under the age of fourteen, going through school right now, and I'll give you one guess what language they're also learning. It just seems so very clear that we're putting our own children at a disadvantage for their lifetime and their job choices, if they are unable to compete with the bilingual Chinese children who can communicate in both directions in the business and politics of the twenty-first century.

Photo by Mustafah Abdulaziz for Education Week; link to story: http://bit.ly/dz96t1So the Chinese government has "stretched its linguistics muscles" this year by committing millions of dollars to U.S. schools to build Mandarin language programs in more K-12 schools. In a time of near economic crisis, and definite panic at least, in many schools across the country, this should be a welcome supply of funding, to get kids involved in their global world, and to infuse their studies with a new diversion--beyond their math, science, and social studies regulars. A connection with an Asian culture gives kids a much wider perspective on lifestyles around the world, connects them to a new level with Chinese-Americans in their communities, and, quite simply, gives them a "cool" language to study. Decoding Chinese characters is a thrilling revelation, for anyone who's studied the language.

But naturally, given the menacing vision of China as an economic bully (granted, the fixed Chinese currency is a festering thorn in the side of economic negotiations and discussion), and given its less than stellar past of censorship, political freedom, and dissemination of information, there are bound to be cries of cultural infiltration: these Chinese will infect the minds of our kids! It's Yellow Peril for a new age.

In a recent article from Education Week, this issue was explored. Some see it as accepting resources from a country who will provide language, with a heavy dose of propaganda on the side.

That dust-up caught the notice of Chester E. Finn Jr., a former education official in the Reagan administration and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank. He argues that public schools should not accept aid from the Chinese government.

“This is not an ally. This is the country on the planet from which the United States faces the largest and most worrisome long-term threats,” he said. “And for its government to be funding our schools to teach its language, I think, is an alarming and menacing development. And that our schools are welcoming this development strikes me as outrageous.”

Countering this, some educators see its value for the future or global relations, as well as for the schoolkids.

“It’s a great opportunity,” William C. Harrison, who chairs the North Carolina state board of education, said of his state’s program, to which China is expected to supply more than $5 million in direct aid and “in kind” services. “The best way to become globally competitive is to develop an understanding of those with whom you compete, being able to communicate with them, and being able to collaborate with them.”

He added: “We’re looking at the number-two economy in the world with prospects to be number one. ... I think it’s in our best interest to develop positive relationships.”

The key lies somewhere in the balance of being economic allies while respecting differences; we don't have the best reputation with that. Shortsightedness now will have a crippling effect on our country's standing in the future, and the people leading it then will be the ones in school now, learning minimal Spanish and French. Our world will look mighty different then; can we find those areas of change now, and adapt?


UPDATE 12/9/2010: Here is another article on America's trials and tribulations in building a Chinese language program in K-12 schools. From Newsweek: "America's Chinese Problem"