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My Sims 3 social experiment: Living on part-time wages

12 Dec

I’m a social scientist. Well, at least that’s what my master’s degree says I am. I’ve decided to take on a social experiment that could reflect how many people in our society live — on part-time wages.

The number of people living on part-time pay because they cannot find a full-time job is astronomically growing. Last Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that nearly 8.2 million people classified themselves as involuntary part-time workers in November, according to NBC News. This means that they settled for less work because they couldn’t find more. That’s around double the number of involuntary part-time workers from 2006, before the economy went south. The number of people who are involuntarily unemployed has gone down since it hit nine million in the depths of the recession, but progress has been slow.

Many of these people work multiple — sometimes as many as four — part-time jobs. This number includes full-time workers whose incomes are not sufficient enough to meet their needs.  The New York Times quoted a woman working multiple part-time jobs as saying she works 70-80 hours per week. That’s a schedule held by most lawyers or investment bankers, with just a fraction of the pay. People in this situation come from all walks of life and all educational levels. Young college graduates are finding themselves in a bad labor market and with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans to pay off.

I’ll be joining these ranks very soon. I just took on a part-time job because I haven’t managed to find anything full-time after losing my job. I’ll be working full-time when I do my VISTA job, but it won’t be much money — at all. I’ll soon be making above minimum wage, but not by much. I’ve also had to buy pants for my work uniform I’ll have to wear, as well as shirts with a collar that are long enough to be tucked in. Belts are required, and I don’t believe my studded “metalhead belt” will be acceptable. I’m already incurring work-related expenses before even starting the job. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very grateful to have it, but life isn’t going to be sweet. I’ll also be working retail during the holiday season. Ugh. I’ll also be juggling this with my gig as a stringer. I also just got an e-mail saying my student loan payment is due. I’m trying for a deferment.

I didn’t get a master’s degree for this.

Until I get started at my new job, I’ve had a lot of time at the apartment to either sit and veg out, or try and do something productive. I have to watch every dime, so I can’t be roaming the roads and burning gas unless it’s absolutely necessary. So, I’m stuck here reading, playing guitar — or playing The Sims 3. I got an idea to try out something new with the game that I believe fits in with the blog theme. I created a family that lives on part-time wages.

Here’s how I’m doing it. First of all, I’m using absolutely no cheat codes with this particular game. That way, I play according to one of the things the game teaches — living on a budget, and starting out in life with very little. Playing with no cheat codes doesn’t allow me to play with my sims’ moods, perking them up in an instant when I need them to do something. They have to eat, sleep, pee, etc., just like the game teaches you about real people. Even though I have the Supernatural expansion pack, the sims I created are just humans with no supernatural powers to help them out.

Now, for the storyline. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Cornell family.

Dad: Jason Cornell

Dad: Jason Cornell

Mom: Kim Cornell

Mom: Kim Cornell

Teen Daughter: Lori Cornell

Teen Daughter: Lori Cornell

Younger Daughter: Megan Cornell

Younger Daughter: Megan Cornell

Dog: Priscilla

Dog: Priscilla

Cat: Domino

Cat: Domino

I set up the family this way to basically create a family that, on the surface, seems like something straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Don’t get me wrong. I’m an edgy liberal who, among other sims, have a family that consists of a happily married gay male couple. One is a werewolf, and the other is a vampire. Their teenage daughter is a werewolf, and their younger daughter is a vampire. They live in domestic bliss. I also didn’t want to do what I often do and create really bizarre sims, create sim versions of myself or friends and family, or create sim versions of celebrities. I gave them fairly normal, somewhat boring,  personality trait combinations — but included some that allow for special skill development. I’ll explain more of that later. On The Sims 3, your sims can get full-time work and in the field they want by simply driving out to the workplace at any time and getting a job. Granted, their first jobs in their fields stink, but they’re working full-time in their chosen fields. I decided to ignore this and make them drive out to get part-time jobs. In reality, we can’t always get full-time work, and getting it in our chosen fields is even harder. The teenage girl can get a part-time job, but the female child cannot. Oh yeah, all of these part-time jobs on The Sims 3 are in the evening.

Jason is a good cook, and he wants to be a full-time chef. He is now stuck working at a graveyard. Kim is a good writer and could work well in the journalism track. Instead, she’s working as a receptionist at the day spa. Lori started out balancing school and work at the local bookstore, and little Megan is having enough trouble just trying to keep up with school. I bought them a house within the budget they were given. Unfortunately, I had to download a house (No cheat codes are required for this. I was in the clear.) because no two-bedroom house was within the family’s budget. The Cornells settled into a very, very modest two-bedroom, one-bathroom (very small and to be used by four people) house.

Working multiple part-time jobs isn’t permitted on The Sims 3, but sims are allowed to develop skills that can earn them some side cash. I’m having all members of my family do this for their own survival and to illustrate what it’s like to juggle multiple income sources. I gave them special traits to build on. Jason has the “angler” trait, which means he loves to fish and learns the fishing skill quickly. Fishermen/Fisherwomen can sell their fish at the grocery store. Kim has the “bookworm” trait, which makes her a good writer. Writers can write novels and earn royalties from them. Lori is a “virtuoso”, which means she’ll learn a musical instrument faster. Once she reaches Level 5 of her guitar skill (Skills on The Sims 3 have ten levels.), she can play for tips at various places around town. Megan has the “artistic” trait, which helps her master painting faster, and she can sell her paintings once they are finished.

However, earning this extra money is not as easy as it seems. Because skills have ten levels, it takes some serious time to master them. Furthermore, people with the higher skills are the ones who earn big money. Musicians can’t even earn a dime from tips until they reach the fifth level. So the Cornell family, being that I’ve just started working with them, have minimal skills — and make little to nothing with their side incomes, even though they keep trying.

Megan is only a Level 2 painter right now, and her pantings only give the family about $20.

Megan is only a Level 2 painter right now, and her pantings only give the family about $20.

Kim is trying to finish her first novel, so she hasn't earned any royalties yet.

Kim is trying to finish her first novel, so she hasn’t earned any royalties yet.

Jason only caught $15 in fish on this trip because his skill is still low.

Jason only caught $15 in fish on this trip because his skill is still low.

My free Word Press account won’t let me upload the video I shot of Lori’s present guitar playing. Let’s just say she isn’t ready to try and earn ANY tips right now.

Here’s a big thing that keeps your sims from really working on their skills and earning money: Needs. They have to take out time to eat, pee, shower, have fun and keep their stress levels down, and socialize. Couple that with time they spend on work and school, and you’ll see why Lori can’t go to the park and earn tips with her guitar. Your sims’ responsibilities also affect their needs, and their needs affect their responsibilities. For example, the kids have to do homework every night. So after a long day at school, they have to come home and work even more. Teenagers like Lori who have part-time jobs leave for work as soon as they get home, then come home to homework. Lori had to quit her part-time job, even though the family needs the money, because she was too tired to finish her homework after work. Her grades were suffering, and she couldn’t work to build up her guitar skill. That guitar skill, once fully developed, can earn a sim more than what a full-time job would make.

Lori is desperately needing sleep, but she still has homework to finish. She's clearly not happy about that.

Lori is desperately needing sleep, but she still has homework to finish. She’s clearly not happy about that.

When sims’ needs aren’t met, they don’t finish homework, their job/school performance goes to the pot, and they don’t want to work to build their skills and earn money from them. If they’re miserable, they’re not productive at all.

Your sims also can’t afford the best of anything when they’re starting out, but they especially can’t when they’re working part-time. Right now, the Cornells have one car for Jason, Kim, and Lori to drive. Anyone else who can’t get to the car quickly enough has to ride a bicycle. Their cheap appliances are accidents waiting to happen. The family’s cheapo computer fried, and their “bargain John” toilet is a constant source of frustration for them.

Jason is working to repair the computer on his own. Because he has no mechanical skill, he risks death by electrocution. The family can't afford to call a professional.

Jason is working to repair the computer on his own. Because he has no mechanical skill, he risks death by electrocution. The family can’t afford to call a professional.

The Cornells’ pets are nice, and provide them with some relief from their miserable lives. However, one aspect of both pets causes serious problems for them. Both Priscilla and Domino have the “destructive” trait. This means Priscilla is constantly chewing things up, and Domino is constantly clawing on furniture. Priscilla also likes to knock over the outside trash can. Whenever a pet claws/chews on something, you have to pay up money to replace it. Otherwise, your house will look like hell. Because Priscilla ravaged the couch, no one wants to sit on it. The Cornells can’t afford to replace any of the furniture their pets have destroyed, so their home is quickly going to the pot.

Bad, bad kitty!

Bad, bad kitty!

Personal relationships also suffer for the sims whenever their work/school/skills take up all of their time. Couples don’t have time to be romantic, parents can’t spend time with their children, and no one has time to make/keep friends outside or inside the family. Their social interactions also become more negative, especially in romantic relationships. Kim wanted to have some “intimate” time with Jason, only for Jason to push her away because he hadn’t slept. The two want another child (how they’ll afford it is highly questionable), but that’s not going to happen if they keep pushing each other away. Work schedules also affect their personal relationships. Kim works on both days Jason has off. Both Jason and Kim work Saturdays and Sundays, the days their daughters are off from school.

Anyway, this part-time lifestyle could have serious implications on whether or not this family even survives. If you liked this post, I’ll keep the updates on the Cornell family coming!

Current music: Alice in Chains, “Sunshine”

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Secret project revealed: Returning to college! Grad school or bust!

7 Aug

The cat is out of the bag at my workplace. I’ll finally reveal my secret project.

I’m returning to college for a master’s degree after a seven-year absence from being a student. I’m leaving behind my job, career and for that matter — EMPLOYMENT. I’m going for a master’s in political science, public administration concentration. Public administration, in a nutshell, is making sure stuff in government works and that the wheels don’t fall off. You become the bitch or bastard who REALLY gets stuff done and makes the politician boss look good. You’re the Rahm Emanuel, per se. My primary interest is in homeland security/emergency management/disaster mitigation. What turned me on to that? I was in Louisiana, post-Katrina and post-Rita, in 2005 as an embedded reporter with the military. I didn’t have to stare at the place a looking glass to tell what happens when the governmental wheels fall off. I want to prevent THAT.

I put in my two weeks’ notice last week. My more-than-five-year tenure at the paper will end this week. I already have a new apartment and just have to move out of this one.

I’ve decided desperate times call for desperate measures. I tried finding a job in my field or even something related to my field/experience/etc. It wasn’t happening. It literally wasn’t happening for a few years’ time. So the months, years, etc. went on, and things got MUCH worse. We got hit by the furloughs starting last year, and we continue to be hit with them. I’ve been having to bum off my parents CONSTANTLY. Our tw0-percent-per-year pay raises were frozen a few years ago, and my rent kept skyrocketing. My rent reached the point to where my old place by a Florida beach was cheaper. It was ridiculous!

I kept falling deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit. With the schedule/days/demand/physical and mental exhaustion I have at work, there was no doing both work and school or even a second job at the same time. But I was so scared of losing an income, health insurance, etc. I was torn all to hell. But more time kept passing. The three-oh now approaches. Even before I turned 29, I thought, “I can’t be here in this same spot when I turn 30. No way. I can’t.” That would take every ounce of self-esteem I’ve had, have now and will ever have and butcher it.

So, I started looking around a bit. I first tried for law school, but — to keep a very long story very short — it was just pure hell for me to navigate it on my own. One of the lawyers I know well through my job told me numerous lawyers are out of work now. Yes, lawyers. The economy must bite that much ass. On to other stuff…

I kept searching, and public administration caught my eye for the above-mentioned reasons. I met with one of my former and most-beloved professors, who I found out was the poli sci grad program director. (I’m not just saying that because she’s teaching a 600-level class I’ll be taking this semester, either.) I liked what she had to say. It sounded like it was totally up my alley AND it can lead to a federal government job. Federal benefits are AWESOME. Government salaries aren’t traditionally as high as those in the private sector, but the master’s level salaries are hitting the lottery compared to what I make in journalism!

There was just the matter of giving up EVERYTHING…

(I know I blogged about this experience before. I just didn’t reveal everything then.)

I was in the same town where I’ll now be attending school to see the Alice in Chains concert in April. Being in that town made me mull over the whole, “Do I? Don’t I?” deal in my head repeatedly. I did it constantly anyway, but it was kicked up to a fever pitch the afternoon and evening before the concert. But I saw Jerry Cantrell’s blonde hair from behind the curtain up at the beginning and watched my hero since I was a kid playing on my side of the stage most of the show. During that concert, it was all about the most incredible band to ever walk on this planet. It was all about watching the Jerry play a Les Paul (my favorite guitar) like a hellcat, do that wicked slow hair whip thing he does — and wishing I hadn’t given up my guitar playing so long ago so I could do the same thing myself.

With one exception…

The band started playing “Your Decision”. I’ve loved that song since the moment I heard it, but that night, it took on an ENTIRELY new personal meaning for me. Some of the lyrics like, “Time to change has come and gone/Watched your fears become your god” or “No one plans to take the patch that brings you lower/And here you stand before us all and say it’s over” hit me like a ton of damn bricks. I realized, at that point, I was waffling and even close to accepting what I thought was my position in life — even though it was fucking horrible.

And toward the song’s end, you have these two lines: “It may seem an afterthought. Yes, it hurts to know you’re bought.”

*Gulp*

I knew I was bought. The overall situation here basically had me locked in a cell the size of a restroom stall. But prisoners who want out will undertake the most extreme, insane and mind-boggling ways to get out if they want out badly enough. I had to get that cake with a file baked inside smuggled. I also had to work my ass off to make sure the cake got there in the first place. Afterward, the sawing commenced.

My paper tenure will be over this week. At the beginning of next week, I’ll be following the U-Haul to my new home. I’ll come back here just to clean up one last time — and be DONE with this place for good.

I will be out from behind bars. The shackles will be removed. I will finally be FREE!!!

Grad school will be no picnic. I’m also a provisional admit, so I’ll practically have a gun to my head this coming semester. It’s going to be a long few months. Hell, it’s going to be a long year-and-a-half to two years! There’s no guarantee I’ll have a job when this is done. But there was a definitely serious guarantee: I would definitely rot if I stayed here. I’m going to go at this at full speed. I’ll basically have no life. I’ll be living off loans because I want to devote myself 110 percent to surviving this coming semester.

So I’m back. The reason for my absence was my trying to hold down a job and work on my “exit strategy”. You’re going to see some new content soon: The story of a gal who gave up everything to get out of poverty. I write about surviving poverty and getting out of shitty situations. Well, I was going to be a hypocrite if I didn’t do the same! I hope I can give you all a real glimpse into the experiences of at least one person who is taking desperate measures to better herself.

An ENTIRELY new life is beginning. *Takes a deep breath* Here goes…

Current music: “Your Decision” — Alice in Chains

I thought I’d include some footnotes at the end because I’ve been gone for SO long:

1. I have now lost 54 pounds and counting.

2. I AM seriously playing guitar again. I play every damn day/night. Even if I’m dead to the world, I’ll get it out for a few to run through a song I know. The world goes away when I have that guitar in hand. I’ve been needing — and will continue to need — as many escapes from the world as possible! I watched a You Tube video called “Jerry Cantrell: The Ultimate Alice in Chains Guitar Lesson” when I was on the post-concert high. My mental gears started turning, and the rest is history. The first song I learned was “Your Decision”. Thanks, Jerry 🙂

3. My dad has made a deal with me on this weight loss gig because he wants to see me lose this weight as much as I do. If I hit the 60 mark, I get a new guitar 🙂

Dear rich people: Have just an OUNCE of respect for us

3 May

I had the right-of-way because I made it to the stop sign first. You, sir, didn’t have the right-of-way because you drive an Acura, and I drive a lowly Ford.

Asshole!

The near-miss that nearly sent my car to the shop AGAIN last Saturday isn’t an isolated incident. Here’s one reality of being flat broke that I’m sure the newly flat broke are now facing: The lords tend to treat the serfs like shit. It’s like the medieval times all over again. Where’s my jousting pole? But here’s the deal: Those sipping their Dom Perignon beside their indoor pools owe more than an ounce of respect to the minimum-wage earners who poured it. Those people probably ensured those aristocrats had good food to eat and a clean place to shit, too, before going home to their studio apartment in a gunshot-riddled neighborhood.

Do you want evidence? Go to your local restaurant — whether it be a fast-food joint or a trendy bistro. Spend about an hour there, and you’ll see wait staff or hosts/hostesses being treated like dirt. The same goes for grocery store cashiers, sales clerks at the mall and school janitors. Even though they make considerably more money than the aforementioned occupations, we certainly can’t forget our often-underpaid teachers and police officers.

I can personally attest to just about all of this. My first job was waiting tables, and that experience really showed me how, as my manager put it, “It takes all kinds of people to make a world.” It’s not a world where everyone is singing “We Are the World.” During that time, I dealt with a guy I believe was in his 40s hitting on me and trying to pick me up. Sure, everyone deals with such people. I just didn’t expect it out of a man that age when I was 17. I heard a guy complain about my service to get out of the mandatory gratuity for waiting on his family that seemed to be bigger than the Partridges and the Bradys combined. I was on the floor scrubbing his kid’s puke out the carpet right at that time. I’ll spare you from the details, but let’s just say I also had to deal with two human-made restroom disasters from hell, too. I had to clean the toilets just about every night.

We also can’t forget the Wall Street fat cats who helped drag us into this mess during this discussion. Right when we believe we’ve heard the last of how they pissed on average Americans and led us toward economic meltdown, we find out more that makes us want to vomit. A U.S. Senate hearing last week sounded more like something on HBO or Showtime. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., cited a “fundamental conflict” in Goldman Sachs’ selling clients home-loan securities that its own employees called “junk”, “crap” and one other *cough* choice word. The company bet against the securities and didn’t tell buyers. Levin cited an e-mail between Goldman execs that described one product as “one shitty deal”. Yes, a United States senator said the dreaded “s-word!” Ooooh!

“Your top priority is to sell that shitty deal,” Levin said. “Should Goldman Sachs be trying to sell a shitty deal?”

I don’t believe any other Senate hearing has ever received as many search results on You Tube. Check it out this little excerpt. It’s not exactly an episode of “The Wire”, but…

* * *

Here’s something else a lot of people miss: Low-wage earners help support our economy, too. Taxes are taken from their paychecks just like taxes are taken from the paychecks of Wall Street investment bankers’. We need people do the jobs we consider lowly or aren’t brave enough to do. Otherwise, who is going to prepare our food? Who is going to ring up our groceries? Who will educate our children? Who will literally put their lives on the line while trying to keep our communities safe?

And of course, we can’t forget those who want to dismiss the poor as lazy, lacking motivation and ambition or siphoning wage-earning taxpayers’ money. Sure, there are people who try to cheat the system, believe me. During my brief tenure as a grocery store clerk, I repeatedly rang up people who were buying grocery items you would buy for parties with food stamps — and pay cash for their hard liquor. Meanwhile, I would go home in my 130,000+ mile car I had bought with my old waitress pay, drive to my apartment beside a junk lot, eat macaroni and cheese and pass out on my college textbooks. Other than student grants/loans, I wasn’t getting an ounce of help from the government. One of my middle school teachers told me of numerous students who told him they didn’t need to learn what he was teaching them because, “I’m just going to get on welfare like Mommy and Daddy.”

But those seem to be the only poor people we see — or want to see. How about the high school student who is juggling school and keeping a 4.0 GPA with a job waiting tables, being in the marching band, dealing with stressful family situations and being in the marching band all at the same time. Yes, that was me. I did it all to have a better life and escape from the single-wide trailer I called home for many, many years. Others going home at night covered in grease were doing the same.

I spent some time trying to find the percentage of welfare recipients who also work, but it was nearly impossible to find something halfway current. Many of these articles were written in the early 2000s or late 1990s — long before anyone even knew what we would experience now. But I have been able to find examples of successful people who are now struggling to survive. On one of my inaugural posts, I mentioned the story of Ken Karpman, a trader who went from a $750,000 per year salary to making $7.29 an hour delivering pizza. Then, we have John Jarrell, an unemployed truck driver from Maryland who is pumping port-a-potties to support his two daughters. He is a single father, by the way.

The U.S. Census is attracting a lot of temporary workers who would normally snub such work. For example, this CNN story has an interview with a woman with a Ph.D. who is taking on this job that ends June 1. Nonetheless, all people interviewed for this story is just happy as hell to have a job.

Note that this dosen’t apply to all of the upper class. One of my college roommates, one I met when I moved into that apartment, grew up in a family that had much more than mine. But I found out she had been picked on, too, for the fact that she was MORE fortunate. We were able to swap stories about being on one side or the other, while being teenagers, to boot. People on both sides often have to dodge bullets. There are so many other wealthy benefactors who use their earnings and status for good. Take Bono’s activism, the Elton John AIDS Foundation or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

* * *

When you pull into the mall parking lot to buy a new wardrobe for the season at Macy’s, watch for employees’ cars and not just ones like your Acura — or Porsche, Corvette, etc. That Chevette you may hit is possibly all a person has. Sure, that car is probably insured, but insurance only pays so much. If that other person is in debt for his/her car, part of the settlement goes to paying off the debt.

So, say you still want to point your finger at the poor and not bat an eye while treating them like scum? Well, you’re adding to your own tax burden. That car may be the only way a single mother gets to the job she uses to support her children or a college student goes to both work and class during his/her search for a better life. Maybe it’s the work truck that gets a West Virginia man to his job at a coal mine, so he can risk his life just to feed his family. It doesn’t just apply to cars. If you and your rich friends get drunk as hell and slam into a family’s trailer, they’re going to be hurting while trying to get their home inhabitable again. That’s less money they can use to stimulate the economy — and survive.

When you get inside the store, be that person — possibly the only one of the day — who is sweet and polite to your cashier or sales clerk. On some days, you may be the only person who is. You never know if that cashier or clerk is pulling himself or herself up by the bootstraps and will perform surgery on you one day. You want to be nice to someone like that 🙂

That 19-year-old college student who rode a bicycle to his McDonald’s job — the one you cussed out over French fries last week? You could be standing beside him flipping burgers next week. That’s providing you can even get a job at Mickey D’s.

Just remember: It can happen to you!

An open letter to Alice in Chains: Thank you

21 Apr

OK. So I know a snowball has a chance of lasting in Hell before there’s a chance any member of Alice in Chains reads this. But there are just some things you have to get off your chest. Oh yeah, all lyrics used are property of Alice in Chains and properly cited. So don’t sue me.

Dear Jerry, William, Mike and Sean,

More than 10 years ago, there was a girl just days away from turning 15 and wannabe guitar virtuoso watching Alice in Chains on “MTV Unplugged”. She was thinking, “Wow. This guy is beyond amazing. I’m going to be Jerry Cantrell when I grow up! I’m going to play like him!”

That girl is just a few days shy of turning 29, and she saw you guys in-person in Huntington, W.Va., Monday night. It’s just that the pre-thirty-something was not just in awe of how you all handled instruments like surgeons or how your harmonies were airtight. Your words and your music made me confront every emotion and every experience from the past and present and just throw them all into the wind.

I wish I could give you more detail, so you’d really, really know how your music has struck me like a sledgehammer. It’s just that so much of it is so deeply personal that I still don’t have the strength to be 100 percent open about it all. Publicly, anyway. But so many songs, particularly “Check My Brain”, “Grind”, “Man in the Box” and so many more that I’d be here all night mentioning are basically my autobiography. It’s like every emotion, every personal experience — everything — was spelled out for me. This applies to words AND music. The bends in “Check My Brain” quite frankly remind me of the constant rollercoaster I’m on. It’s like my personal rollercoaster is operated by someone on a serious crack high and running at 100 mph. It’s this dizzying, up-and-down feeling that leaves you trying to kick and punch your way out of the car, so you can jump off the tracks in desperation!

For me, it’s like someone is saying, “Yeah, I get it.” When you’re at some of the lowest points, you need someone who TRULY gets it — not someone who only provides lip service. It also seems like Alice in Chains’ form of “therapy” hits harder and is easier to swallow simultaneously because it’s set to music. I’m sure just about everyone has seen these “experts” on talk shows and the like try to tell everyone their one-size-fits-all methods of getting shit together. I usually spout off just a little bit of profanity and change the channel. But amazing music is magnetic. It’s almost like it’s hypnotizing, making you forget everything around you but that music. Once you’re drawn in, you can really process a song and see how it tells your “story” — whether it be your past, present or future. Keep in mind that emotions, not just events, are part of people’s stories. That’s how I see it, anyway.

These songs give you the chance to just cast off whatever horrible experiences, negative emotions or worries about the future and just throw them into the wind. See, just the thought of telling someone those things is traumatic for a lot of people. But sometimes, singing along — mentally or out loud — is like you can let it out without the entire world knowing. You get the release you often desperately need, and it’s emotionally safer. It’s a win-win situation at it’s best. Sometimes, it’s safer in other aspects. I’ve often been forced to be around a lot of people I truly despise. I’ve listened to some sort of angry, slamming song and whisper the tune if I’m feeling a little more daring. It was like I stuck a middle finger in their faces and without fear of retribution. Now that was beyond awesome 🙂

Music doesn’t only deal with problems. It presents solutions. I know lots of people, myself included, often roll their eyes in digust when someone tries to give a damn lecture. But once again, that music draws you in. So many of those songs get you pumped up and moving in the right direction. Maybe they’ll show you the error of your ways and make you realize you have to get off your ass and change things. For me, “Grind” became my personal anthem when I basically had to deal with multiple people trying to end a career and life I had worked so hard to build. They should have been “well advised not to plan my funeral for the body dies”.

I have to devote extra space to “Your Decision”. To me, the song is about how fear can consume you and how you can give in to the ones who are trying to take advantage of it. Maybe these opportunistic people are the ones causing the fear in the first place. People often watch their “fears become their Gods” and become “overwhelmed” and “choose to run”. And “Yes, it hurts to know you’re bought.” But here’s the deal: It’s YOUR DECISION as to whether or not YOU let that fear eat you alive. Yes, sometimes circumstances out of your control drag you into horrible situations. But it’s YOUR DECISION as to whether or not you fight to get out of it. The words, “No one plans to take the path that brings you lower. And here you stand before us all and say it’s over,” perfectly illustrate how so many people just choose to wallow after life’s shit hits the fan.

By the way, to say a lot of Alice in Chains’ songs have been inspired by serious heartbreak is beyond understatement. Putting those songs out there and performing them in front of thousands of people takes some serious guts. Just know that what you’ve done has been a serious lifesaver for me and so many others. Given how the economy has gone to hell, I’m sure there were many, many, many people in that arena who are also on sickening rollercoaster rides from Hell. Some are probably scared to death, too. I do believe you gave them the escape they needed, like you did for me. I’m sure you all do that at any place you visit.

I walked out of the concert practically walking on air. It wasn’t just the fact that I saw Alice in Chains. It wasn’t just the fact that I was in the room with the guitarist I’ve wanted to be for the past 14 years (Geez. I AM getting old!). I left there with all of my fear, hang-ups, bad memories — whatever — gone. I left there with a much stronger belief that I’m the mistress of my own fate. Even if roads I may have to take are miles beyond the beaten path, no situation is escape-proof!

By the way, I just thought I’d let you know that my friends and I are fully and totally supportive of William DuVall. He has stepped into a position most people would be too scared to take and worked like a hellcat — one hell of a singer. He’s also one serious showman, really working crowds into a frenzy and moving all over the stage to make sure no fan is left behind! Oh yeah, and we all really felt the love from you guys. You all really seemed to love us all as much as we loved you! When you all said you loved us in West Virginia, we truly believed you weren’t just saying that to be nice. I know Jerry, and I believe Mike and William, were saying you all had to get back to Huntington soon. We’re going to hold you to that 🙂

I did leave with one negative feeling, though. My guitar playing fell by the wayside years ago. It was just life in general and all the time it seemed to demand got in the way as I got older. I’ve tried picking it up again so many, many times, but I have found myself really discouraged because I now suck or being once again consumed by “life in general”. Jerry was on my side of the stage most of the time. I’d watch him and be in awe 99 percent of that time. The other one percent? It was my feeling like I let him down by not living up to my promise to be just like him. I know. It was my “decision”. But I do have two guitars I could get out of the closet. 😉

I also had my cell phone in my face the one moment when Jerry was looking in my direction!! I really hope I didn’t piss him off! I was fighting with my cell phone camera to take a decent picture because my digital camera’s batteries died in the middle of the show. The one time I forgot spare batteries… For that matter, I always hope I get the chance to possibly make eye contact with someone in the band. That way, I can wave, blow kisses, or do something cute and crazy just to show my love!

I’ll be awake with the chickens and mow grass if that’s what I have to do to get tickets to your next show! Thank you so much for giving me one of the greatest nights of my entire life!

With the utmost respect and all the love in the world,

The Flat Broke Diva

Getting thinner leads to a thinner wallet

8 Feb

It’s easier to point a finger at people who are overweight or obese.

But before you even raise a hand, ask yourself this: How the hell are they going to AFFORD losing weight?

I’ve been working on a second, second project besides writing about being in the poorhouse — trying to drop about 140 pounds. So far, I’ve managed to drop about 20. This has been awesome for me because each pound gone means I’m closer to having the figure, health and — most of all — life I’ve never had. It’s also been a major bright point in a majorly dark time. I need all the bright I can get, believe me!

There’s a yang to every yin, though. Trying to drop this weight has not been cheap, whatsoever. Trying to handle this whole weight loss deal financially has been almost as hard as trying actually lose the weight!

You don’t need a spreadsheet to link states’ obesity rates and per capita incomes. Mississippi has the highest percentage of obese adults, 32.5 percent. Its percentage of obese children is the highest, too — 44 percent. Mississippi also has the nation’s lowest per-capita income of $28,845.

Want more evidence? Then take yourself home on country roads. My state, West Virginia, is just behind Mississippi in both categories. Here, 31.2 percent of adults are considered obese. West Virginia — surprise, surprise — has the SECOND-LOWEST per-capita income of $29,537.

OK. Not every poor person is overweight, and not every rich person is thin. If you want evidence of the latter, pull up pictures online of various members of Congress. But there are ways the economically disadvantaged are more susceptible.

Economic hardship is a source of chronic stress. That stress could hinder people’s abilities to change weight-related behaviors, even when informed and motivated. I’ve tried to get this weight off for years, and I’ve been on track to do it many, many times. I’ve also failed many, many times. It just never failed that I would hit a stress roadblock from hell — college, personal/relationship drama, starting out as a reporter, beginning a new career, re-starting as a reporter, multiple unemployment spells, illness, injury and quitting smoking.

Not all of these are economic, of course, but they were all enough to make Mother Teresa run into the woods screaming and while opening fire with a semiautomatic. Guess what I did? When I was at home biting my nails about something, I’d find something to bite that would give me a better fix. During times I’ve been on-the-go or practically living in my car, I crammed whatever crap I could down my throat and did it quickly. And quitting smoking? Well, I had to increase one fix to make up for losing another.

If you’re feeling like hell, you’re going to eventually look like hell.

Then, there are, overall, lower education levels in impoverished areas. Lower educational levels could lead to an increased obesity risk because of limited economic opportunities (and any other links between obesity and economics I spout off here will likely result, if that’s the case). Less education also means that those affected may not have as much health information as others. How are they supposed to act on what they don’t know?

It’s not that people in impoverished areas don’t want an education. I’d venture to guess they have more motivation. That was certainly the case while I was growing up, anyway. That’s what made me study until I literally fell asleep on top of my books many, many times. But so many of them can’t afford education past high school.

Nineteen percent of Mississippians have a bachelor’s degree or higher. That number in West Virginia is lower with 17 percent. Compare that with Colorado. It has the nation’s lowest adult obesity percentage (18.9), and 35 percent of its residents have bachelor’s degrees or higher. It has the 10th highest per-capita income.

Then, your poorest areas tend have extremely limited recreational opportunities — or safe ones, anyway. People whose incomes force them to live in crime-infested areas aren’t going to go to the local park or basketball court. Sure, they may want to lead healthier lifestyles, but you’re probably better off obese than shot. We have a walking trail where I live now, but I’ve stayed away from it after such incidents like a shooting and a robbery.

In rural areas, a pile of dirt can only provide so much of a workout. There were no sidewalks where I grew up. If you were brave enough to walk to a neighbor’s house on the side of the road, there was a good chance you’d have to jump into a creek or ditch to avoid being slammed by Bobby Lee and his friend Jimmy Dale in their jacked-up 1976 pickup. There was also a good chance you’d wind up being bitten by a snake while walking in the more grassy areas, too. Kids often find themselves spread farther apart, so there are less playmates readily available.

Poorer areas, both urban and rural, have a lower tax base, and their governments barely keep police on the streets or the outdated fire engine running. So are they going to have enough money for parks and playgrounds? With unemployment on the rise and businesses shuttering — leaving local governments with less business and occupation taxes — more governments will probably have even less to spend. So, even if there is a playground or park, poorer areas may only be able to offer a patch of grass with a swing set — with only two intact swings and one’s rusty chains screaming “tetanus shot”.

You could always go a gym, providing you actually have one in your neighborhood or even your town. But have you seen some of these gym membership fees? Yikes! Also, if you’re working odd hours and days, like I do, some gym’s hours are tough to fit into your schedule.

Oh yeah, go to any fast-food restaurant or grocery store to see how much more healthier eating will cost you.

One of my favorite light items is grilled chicken sandwiches. I loved grilled chicken (can’t really stand it fried), and there’s also not much at restaurants that are waistline-friendly, anyway. At a McDonald’s around here, it’s a little more than $3. Double cheeseburgers are on the Dollar Menu. I’m grateful to the fast food chains for offering more healthy menu items (or something more than no choices at all) to their customers. I’m also grateful to my fellow West Virginian, Morgan Spurlock, for pushing them in that direction with “Super Size Me”.

Then, there’s your local grocer. As more consumers have become health conscious, more companies see that demand as profitable. So, thankfully, there are healthier versions of just about everything now. There’s even lighter versions of cheese, pizza and junk food. But a lot of these lighter versions have no generic. There’s often a BIG price difference between generic and brand name products. Generics are catching up. You can find store brand soy milk just about anywhere. But you’re still going to have a hard time finding generics for EVERYTHING.

But I’m managing to soldier on. I have managed to come up with economic fixes to get through this.

So, yes, we have a problem. Tomorrow, I’ll be throwing out some of the ways I’ve managed to dodge some financial bullets during what is going to be a long, long journey.

These people actually have the power to shape our economy. Really.

4 Jan

Are you scared of losing your job? If you’re unemployed, are you scared you’ll never find a job?

REALLY stupid decisions in both the public and private sectors probably won’t put your mind at ease.

CNN Money/Fortune has just released its “Dumbest moments in business, 2009”. You don’t have to be a financial analyst, stockbroker or, hell, a person who can balance a checkbook to see how stupid some of these moves were. Sure, some had far greater repercussions than the others, but that also shows people on all rungs of the social ladder can make some truly moronic business decisions.

Idiocy like this in the public and private sectors makes your fears very justified. Knowing these people, their minions and other like-minded people have shaped and will probably continue to shape our economy is scary. It’s a type of scary only Stephen King could imagine.

The economy has been bad for everyone, and some painful decisions had to be made. I get that. But note many of these moments are pure public relations disasters that were definitely avoidable.

Here are some highlights:

* AIG was already Public Enemy Number One at the economic crisis’ onset. Their new CEO didn’t make things better at all. Robert Benmosche called members of Congress a bunch of “crazies” during his first meeting with employees. He also said he would tell the people running the governmental body that threw his company a $173 billion taxpayer-funded life raft to “stick it where the sun don’t shine” if he were called to testify. After board members tried to rein him in, he asked for a private jet for personal use and later threatened to quit over government-prescribed pay restrictions.

Yes, the federal government gave this bunch billions. Your tax dollars at work, folks.

Pay attention to what gets the audience cheering the most.

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/clips/the-rock-obama/1056126/

* The “Big Three” automakers have taken significant hits. Painful decisions had to be in the works. But Chrysler created a public relations nightmare when they had to make one of those painful decisions. The idiocy here is not what was done, but HOW it was done. It sent 25 percent of its dealerships to the chopping block — sending good-bye letters via UPS — THE SAME DAY IT WENT PUBLIC WITH ITS LIST OF 789 DEALERSHIPS SLATED FOR TERMINATION. Many dealers found out they were being cut from the press, not the company. To add insult to injury, it only allowed those dealerships 30 days to wind down their operations. This forced the businesses to liquidate their inventories for songs and dances.

* “Hey! Let’s use a beloved comedian in our ads — after he is dead — and we’ll make tons of money! What a brilliant idea!”  Yeah right. DirecTV ran a spot featuring the late Chris Farley. The ad showed the popular “Fat guy in a little coat” scene from “Tommy Boy”. David Spade, Farley’s co-star in that movie, “broke from character” to make a DirecTV pitch. The company, Spade and Farley’s family issued statements defending the commercial, saying it was a tribute to Farley’s humor. Fans didn’t get the joke.

Judge for yourself.

* “The days of credit card companies screwing consumers are over — in nine months!” President Obama signed sweeping credit card reform in May, and this was called a major victory for consumers. Finally, some of the most abusive industry practices like arbitrary interest-rate hikes would be outlawed. That’s awesome. But there was a slight glitch: Lawmakers gave issuers until February 2010 to fully comply with the new law. Meanwhile, credit card companies have rushed to raise interest rates, impose new fees and cut credit limits. That’s like telling cocaine cartels, “*Shouting* You’re not going to plague our streets with drugs and violence anymore! *Whispering*  OK. So, you have nine months to hurry up and sell your stash and spray the city with AK-47 ammo.”

Chrysler dealerships had 30 days. The credit card companies had nine months. What’s wrong with this picture?

* I like to come up with my own leads, but the one from CNN Money is awesome enough that I have to share it here: “Finally — here’s what might happen if your financial adviser was the star of ‘Jackass.'” A 23-year-old man in Washington state installed himself at a shopping center and held up a sign inviting people to kick him in the groin for $5 a pop. He only made a $3 profit before the cops showed up — giving a female passerby a discount. I guess everyone has to make their pricing competitive in this economy. I don’t know if this guy was THAT financially desperate or, well, a jackass. Maybe he was a mix of both.

Anyway, read the entire story at CNN Money. Financial news was never more entertaining — or scary.

New Year’s Day advice: Just keep on truckin’

30 Dec

Traditional New Year’s resolutions bite.

We never fail to make and break these every year. I don’t care if it’s losing weight, being kind to others, cleaning up our language or quitting smoking. By Jan. 15, we’re chowing down on steak and gravy, mac and cheese and Old Milwaukee beer while watching really bad Lifetime movies. We’re screaming at the Wal-Mart cashier. We talk like drunken sailors, even at church. We’re lighting up a Marlboro behind the church.

But ladies and gentlemen, there is one serious resolution we can all make. You shouldn’t need a lit-up Times Square ball to do this.

Face the challenges thrown at you — constructively and immediately. Do this when they’re thrown at you — not just during the first days of January.

OK. So I know that may sound pretty lame and like something you’d find on one of those “inspirational” signs you’ll often find for sale at a mall kiosk. They’re next to the people trying to sell you miracle nail buffers — telling you to “prepare to be amazed”. But with our economy, it’s something we should all keep in the back of our minds and at all times.

Life is basically a fan. Sometimes, it’s moving at a slow relaxing pace. In a matter of seconds, it will spin so furiously that it sways back and forth — looking like it’s going to fall out of the ceiling. And crap continually hits it at warp speed.

So, here’s the deal. If you see something that needs to be done, just do it. You may come to this realization in January, April or July. You may have never been able to plan for it. But don’t wallow in your misery until the next Times Square ball drops. DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT AND AT THAT POINT. When you do this, try to keep the crying, screaming and general dramatics in check. I admit that I’ve done that quite often this past year, but I’ve let it out and gone on with life.

Case study: I used to smoke like a burning freight train from hell and did so for 11 years. One day, I was vacuuming the carpet with the sweeper I inherited from my grandmother. It weighs about 900 pounds and has a frayed cord thanks to her dogs chewing it up. I got halfway across my living room and I felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest. I honestly thought, “Oh God, I’m having a heart attack, and I’m not even 30!” I took a few minutes to chill out on the couch. I was just overexerting, I presume, because it went away rather quickly. I’m guessing it wasn’t a heart attack. But that did it for me. I took a moonlight ride, bought Commit lozenges and the rest is history.

It was Jan. 15, 2008. I had made no resolution to quit until that moment. I just had something suddenly thrown at me, and I took care of it. I haven’t touched a cigarette since.

See, the problem with traditional resolutions is that we often define them too tightly or automatically start slamming down mountains to climb right in front of us. The combination of little-to-no flexibility and something daunting is a great way to set yourself up for failure. When those resolutions fail, we tend to not get in the mindset of “Hey, let’s do something to make our lives better,” until another new year comes. The vicious cycle keeps repeating itself.

Here’s why there’s a better chance of the other one working. All of our challenges are different, and they usually travel in groups. These can be financial — as well as personal, health-related, etc. These pop up at various times. Some can be overcome in minutes, and others take years. Nevertheless, we’re not specifically defining what we will do and when.

Sure, a lot of people in the goal-setting world are all about strict definitions. But sometimes, you need flexibility. For we, the flat broke, stuff hits the above-mentioned fan constantly. If what we are doing is extremely rigid with its rules and timelines, there’s a higher chance it will fall by the wayside.

Need more proof that this is something we all need to do? Sure, there are signs the economy is improving. The unemployment rate has recently fallen in 36 states, and the national numbers have seen a slight decline. But that decline was only .2 percent. Notice that little decimal point. According to this CNN Money story, about 100,000 people enter the workforce each month during a normal economy. As the economy improves, that number could double each month of 2010. That means more than two million jobs would have to be created this year just to keep the overall unemployment rate from rising.

You also have to look at exactly what is making those numbers get smaller. Michigan has been in an economic quagmire even before “The Great Recession”. Its recent unemployment rates peaked at 15.3 percent in September, and they are now at 14.7 percent. But how much of this can be attributed to people leaving the state to find work? Economists say the only way Detroit’s unemployment rate — 17.3 percent — will decrease is for the jobless to leave and find work elsewhere.

I hate to be the manure dumped on the parade, but I don’t want to stray from reality, either.

But as I’ve said here before, we are in charge of our destinies. We are going to get things thrown at us that are out of our control, but we have a choice as to how we’re going to face them. You can run away or fight. I plan to fight. Are you with me?!

I have to give kudos to sandyb for the inspiration on this one. I was going to do an entry about financial resolutions for the new year, but she got me to thinking in a much different direction. She and I don’t have the exact same take on the situation, but she put my gears in reverse 🙂 Check out her entry here.