Thursday, September 26, 2013

Maybe Next Year, Genius

This image is from this blog.
So, yesterday, I have to say,  was a bit of a disappointment.  The list of MacArthur genius grants came out, and again, I wasn't on it.  In case you were left off this list too, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation(familiar names if you watch much PBS programming) awards money, known as "Genius Grants" to talented and creative people every year to invest in their work and productivity.  "Well, lots of people didn't get such a grant," you might say. And yes, only a handful of people a year have a qualified representative of a quietly filthy rich foundation tap them on the shoulder and say, "Hey you, you're lookin' smart.  I mean really smart, so how's about we give you a little dough-re-mi so that you can go off and work on something. Don't worry about expenses or anything, because you just won the smartypants lottery..." I know, I know, but still, it would have been nice, just this once.

This year's winners were especially lucky, because the stipend has gone from half a million dollars to $625,000, which is paid out in quarterly installments over five years. Somehow the words "half a million dollars" still sound like more than $625,000.  I guess the real geniuses say two thirds of a million dollars, which sounds like plenty to me.  Just the word "million" linked with the word "dollars" sounds like a lot more than any number of thousands.   I think this sort of meandering nonsense might be a sign of why the MacArthur people didn't grace me with one of their grants.

The genius grants are draped, if not shrouded, in some secrecy.  The recipients don't apply, but are nominated by an anonymous committee and then chosen by an anonymous selection panel.  The word genius makes it sound like this grant is only given to geeky nerds holed up in laboratories at the top of some university's ivory tower-- and it is given to those people, but it's given to real people too. Real talented people.  Writers, artists, dancers, poets, even philosophers get these things.  I was just reading that Jonathan Lethem, an excellent author from Brooklyn, got the call about his grant five years ago while he was at the car wash.  This is the kind of tidbit that gives me hope-- even people with dirty cars are eligible for the MacArthur grant.  Not only do you not have to do mind-boggling work in utterly unintelligible fields like theoretical physics, you can live in Brooklyn, and have a dirty car.

This image is from here.
This years winners range in age from 32 to 60, and the oldest person to ever receive the grant was 82, meaning I am still in the running, with several good, productive years to go.  This eases the sting of the recent realization that all those lists of "20 under 30" and "30 under 40" and in just half a year, even "40 under 50" are no longer something I can aspire to.  This lifts my spirits as I swill my generic vitamin water and apply for yet another hardship deferment for my student loans.  Another oddly comforting thought:  the awards began the year I graduated high school.  Coincidence?  I prefer to think not.

The idea of the grants, as I understand it, is to give creative, talented people the opportunity to concentrate on their art/science/vocation free from the strain of having to make a living.  Yep, that's right, it's the chance to "quit your day job" if you want to.  One of this year's lucky winners, the very fine author Karen Russell, mentioned that she was happy that she would be able to stop moving from one place to another to take teaching jobs to make a living.  This is a woman who has won literary awards and spent time on the New York Times Bestseller List.  She also mentioned that she might use the money to pay for an emergency root canal, as she hadn't known how she would cover it before she got the call.  Not only is she a literary giant, she really knows how to live it up! Other recipients mention paying rent, paying student loans and paying other artists who work with them.  It seems that recognizing talent might just be good for the economy.  Maybe some other foundations will get the giving bug...

I think the only thing really standing in my way here is lack of achievement, but hey, that's still possible, right? Knowing that some MacArthur Foundation scout is out there, looking for someone to bless with this recognition can be the inspiration I need to write every day.  I've got to get to work now, so I can be ready to get the call...

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Lovely Sounds of Thank You and You're Welcome

Last week, I spent the last three dollars and sixty-six cents of our nutritional assistance-- also known as Foodstamps. We have been in the program for a year, after multiple weeks of spending hours on hold for multiple telephone interviews which qualified us for a no-expenses-paid  trip to the DES office where my husband and I and our two little girls waited five and a half hours to be asked for I.D., photographed, and fingerprinted, so that we could solemnly swear that we were poor enough to receive family nutritional assistance and federally subsidized health insurance for the girls.  Not that we had been singled out for such treatment.  We waited those hours in a large holding pen, er, waiting room, crowded with other similarly eligible Arizonans.  Then, until last month, we got a couple of hundred dollars a month  loaded on a debit card which could only be used for food. It had a distinctive Arizona sunset skyline on the front that was instantly recognizable in the store, so there could be no mistake about the person using it and how they got it.   But, it helped to keep us from starving, so in retrospect, I guess the wait, and the way I felt when I used the card, was worth it.  

When I got my current job, which is part time, at the state's minimum wage, we submitted the changes in our income, by mail, not in person, (though there was a twenty minute telephone interview which came after  I stayed on hold for an hour and 57 minutes, hearing over and over again how important my call was) and were found to be $1.71 over the eligibility limit for assistance.  And so, I spent my last $3.66 on milk and bread and put the card away in my underwear drawer when I got home, just in case we ever need it again. Because really, I never thought I would need it at all, until I did.  

During all the years I worked, I never thought that I would need help buying food.  But when I realized that we could not manage without help, I told myself that all that work had also included those  mysterious "FICA" deductions that seem to take such a bite out of our paychecks.  I told myself that I had "paid in" for a long time, and now for a while, I was going to have to use those benefits... kind of like paying for insurance and then having a medical bill paid.  

I just wrote that like I didn't wrestle with myself and feel inadequate and guilty and shamefully over-educated and foolish about every transaction I made with that desert sunset debit card.  Clearly, I still can't quite get over that:  being the worn-out woman with the hungry kids hanging off the side of the grocery cart, making sure that we weren't buying anything that looked like a treat and feeling like I needed to somehow justify my very existence.  I'm working on it, though.

To say that we lived frugally is an understatement.  We had recently been living the working graduate student life, then the working graduate student life with little children, so we were used to a relatively low standard of living. This last year though, keeping food on the table has been the priority and other things, like haircuts and clothing and shoes and doctor's visits for grown-ups fell completely off the radar.  We got a lot of help from family and friends.  A lot. Of. Help.  If you bought us dinner or groceries, or gave us a ride, or brought us a pizza, or gave things to the girls, or made sure we had gifts at the holidays or took us for coffee, a bagel, and a much needed laugh this year, you know who you are.  I love you all the more for that help and for giving that help without making it obvious that needing help meant we were kinda dumb.  I really love you for that last part.

My mom has said that one of my first sentences was "I can do it myself!" I have never been comfortable asking for help, because I am not someone who feels comfortable needing help.  I love to be able to offer help-- to be helpful-- but I have never been graceful about being the one who is in need. This year, especially, has been about learning to take help gracefully and gratefully.  About learning to say thank you without apologizing at the same time, without feeling like I was just kinda dumb because I didn't have a job and money to manage without the help.  I've been reminded over and over again that people don't help you to make you feel bad, they help you to, you know, help you.

We still struggle, but I'm looking forward to the time when I will be able to offer help again, and offer it the way it was offered to us, casually and openly, and with no strings attached.  Our friends and family have been such wonderful examples, and I've learned from them.  I have learned to say thank you, and really mean it, then let it go when someone says "You're Welcome."  Those are lovely words.  
Image from here 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Happy 5774 Everybody!

From Tablet magazine
So, you know you're one of the chosen people when you get not just one new year, but two.  That's right, Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is tucked into September every year to give us the chance to reflect and reform and to get a free pass on sweets, especially those made with apples and honey, the customary foods symbolizing the wish for a sweet and happy year to come.  The year (5774) is considered to be the anniversary of man's creation.  The recollection of the ending year that inevitably accompanies the new year is built neatly into the Jewish program, as Rosh Hashanah is ten days before The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the day that G-d inscribes the names of those deemed worthy into the Book of Life for the coming year. Since none of us are theology scholars here-- well, I'm not, anyway-- and because I will surely make mistakes, I'm not going to delve any deeper into the religious roots and themes of the holiday, but if you are so inclined, and your new year's program for improvement includes study, you can read more here, on this site, and here.  As regular readers know, this blog is only peripherally about events and people and stuff in the world, so now we'll get to the heart of the matter:  what does Rosh Hashanah mean for me? 

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are meant to be a time of reflection, repentance, and forgiveness, to clear the slate for the year ahead.  Of course, as a compulsive reflector who doesn't need a holiday set aside to feel like there are things I could do better, I've already got a list of ways to try to improve 5774.  Here's a small sample:

1.  Let It Go. 
Not just say I'm letting it go, or simply know that letting it go is the right thing to do, but really Let It Go.  What is It?  Well, that depends, but for me, there are kind of a lot of things that seem to cause a sudden swell of bitterness or envy or regret.  Usually these things have to do with the past, or other people, or stuff I can't fix or control.  This year, I'm going to try to recognize them before that bitter taste or ugly word comes into my mouth.  Then I'm going to, you know, Let It Go. 

2.  Remember that the good fortune of others doesn't somehow subtract from my life. 
Sometimes it seems like there is a finite amount of good stuff that can happen, and it all seems to happen to other people.  I have actually heard myself tell other people that envy isn't logical because what someone else has wouldn't have necessarily been mine.  I am hereby telling that to myself:  someone else's money or free time or awesome vacation of which they Face booked several pictures every hour, doesn't take anything away from me.  I need to remember that when I start to feel twitchy about my own situation, wondering what I ever did to get shut out of the good stuff that someone else is getting. 

Next year, maybe I'll try to start working on the idea that the good fortune of others increases the good in the world, so I should be happy about the happiness of others.  Look for more about that in 5775...

3.  Take Responsibility.
Often, I think about things in terms of cause and effect.  When I'm thinking about the causes of difficulties in my life, it is pretty common for me to think about situations or circumstances or people (actually, I especially think of people) that I can blame as the cause of my unhappiness.  This year, I want to try to take responsibility for difficulties when I can, so that I can feel like I can make changes for myself.  To paraphrase, If not me, who?  After all, I can only change my behavior.  I know this, because for years, I have been utterly unsuccessful at changing or controlling how other people act, and frankly, I'm ready to give that right up.  That should leave me some time and energy to work on my own self.  Everything isn't my fault either-- I know that-- but only I can take responsibility for my actions and change them to make me happier. 

These are just the major issues for me.  There are a lot of sub-topics and side issues too convoluted and annoying and painful to go into here.  Not to mention, I'd like to be a little svelter, a little healthier, by 5775.  So there's plenty for me to work on while I try to cut back on the salt, fat and sugar.  And no one is saying I have to be perfect.  We're only human, after all, and this is not the religion in which people are expecting to be nominated for sainthood.  That's why Rosh Hashanah is celebrated every year.  There's always a slate to be cleaned. 

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur give us the chance to set up a good new year by Yom Kippur, when the new year's rituals come to a close.  Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and prayer, ending at sundown with a light feast to bring us back into every day life.  Unfortunately there is no mention of champagne, noisemakers, funny hats or other such New Year's revelry in the Torah, but, as long as you don't overdo it or give yourself something you'll need to repent next September, what could it hurt to have a little fun?  Here's to a rockin' 5774!