It's Easy to Make a Living
Telling the people in control they're right
When I left my old job at the end of 2015, I was determined I would never compromise my time and energy in service to a paycheck, or a need to get ahead, whatever that is, again. The tyranny of the hierarchical nature of the workplace. The humiliating nature of a particular kind at every turn, humoring people and industries that I couldn't respect. It was too much. I determined that I would rather live in my car, if it came to that (it hasn't)(yet), than ever submit again.
The header image to this week’s screed is a quote from a 2012 interview with the late writer Charles Bowden, one of my favorites, from this seven-minute interview on YouTube with writer/reporter Scott Carrier. I wrote it on a scrap of paper and put it in my wallet and it has remained there ever since as a reminder. It has survived due to some crafty backroom lamination techniques (a hunk of clear packing tape from a tape gun) but it's still holding strong.
I cashed out every penny I could from the old gig and paid off every debt I could. I didn't have student loans because I never went to school, so that helped. My debt wasn't significant and that helped. But the point was to lower my overhead drastically even as my income plummeted. It's worked out so far. Things have gotten tight here and there at times over the last few years but stuff works out. I take more satisfaction in the pay I do earn; the checks arriving in the mail from a Montana Quarterly piece, for example, that I usually get a couple times a year, mean more to me than the old paycheck was, even though just two weeks of work at the old job was about what I make in two months now. My idea of "getting ahead" is to try and make money by not needing so much money.
We all need to make money to live and that isn't going to change anytime soon. But it's how we make it, and how much we think we need, that creates problems. Who we are steamrolling in an effort to "get ours." Bowden talks about whatever it is we are called to do—writing, art, whatever—as a gift, and it is a "sin" to ignore it. He also says, "It's easy to make a living telling the people in control they're right." It's true. It's way easier to just go with the flow than it is to see what is wrong in the world and try and square off against it. "Speaking truth to power" is a phrase I first encountered many years ago reading the book Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery by witch and activist Starhawk, and the idea has loomed large in my thoughts over the last couple years.
A good friend of mine—a younger guy, a fine writer, works two meaningful jobs that don't pay what they're worth but are, to my mind, essential—was telling me a few weeks ago about a small basement apartment in Missoula he applied for to rent. He was excited because, though tiny and with ceilings barely above his head, it was affordable for him: I think it was $650 or $675 per month. He wants out of his current place because of roommate stress (he has something like three of them).
Fast forward twenty-four hours to when he texts me that he won't be moving into the apartment after all. He shares this message he received from the owners:
Applicants for 422 E. Pine Street Basement
It looks like we have underpriced this unit for the market. We have received offers for higher rent to secure the apartment. So we are giving everyone an opportunity to level the field again.
If you want to submit your highest amount that you would pay for the apartment in our great downtown dog-friendly location, with off-street parking spot, all utilities and internet provided.
If you wish to submit we need to hear from you within 24 hours of this email.
The story here is that the renters received several offers from people willing, and able, to pay more, who decided to outbid everyone else. A little capitalist light bulb went on over the head of the landlord when they realized they could make more money than what they thought they needed in the first place and my friend, and anyone else like him—i.e. anyone lacking the from-outside-of-Montana money with which to game the system—lost out. That is largely the housing situation in Montana and places all over the West. Throw in the rich a-holes who buy up property for use as AirBnB rentals that used to house people like my friend and the situation is even more sideways. It's heartbreaking, soulless, unethical, and should be criminal. Missoula used to be a place where one could find little hole-in-the-wall places to live. It's not anymore.
What are we going to do to take care of people who live and work here but are getting priced out by people who have more to spend? It is not a case of fairness. It is a case of being ethical and compassionate rather than worshiping all this market-based bullshit.
Here's another gouging-for-money story. Barack Obama has a new book out, the first in what is slated to be a two-book memoir. At least two, anyway. Now I think $28 is a fair price for a hefty hardback tome. This one is selling for $45. Why? Because the publisher knows people are going to buy it. And it will stay in hardback as long as they can possibly keep it there, just like Michelle Obama's memoir (two years and counting in hardback at $32.50). I think that's bullshit and I hate selling the book. It's a cynical rip-off and probably keeps people from buying books by other people.
(Of course the publisher has to make back the advance they paid the Obamas for their joint publishing deal ... which was $65 MILLION DOLLARS! Who needs that kind of money? That's a power couple for the PEOPLE, those Obamas)
The very first person who called the store the day the book came out was a customer who asked to have it reserved. She wanted to pay over the phone and send her son in to pick it up. When I told her the price, she flipped out. So here I am, the lowly bookseller, bearing the brunt of her outrage as if I am personally responsible. She ultimately sighed and paid, but not without "reminding me" that she could get it a lot less at Amazon ($27, as a matter of fact), and made it very clear that she was doing me a favor by choosing to buy it from us. That attitude, my friends—which we get a lot, if not every day—fills me with white hot rage. Take a quick internet search and see how much Bezos and Amazon have made during the pandemic, then look at how poorly Amazon employees fare, not just during these dark medieval times but ALL the time. That too is heartbreaking, soulless, unethical, and should be criminal.
"That's the way the market works, dude," says the crass bro who dreams of his own portfolio one day and all the rad shit he'll do with his money. The market is EVIL. If free market capitalism is so great, why is the world burning up and so many people are living in misery?
This ranting isn't really the road I intended to go down this week. I often feel like such a friggin' judgmental nag all the time, ranting and raving about how much we all suck. But we are so conditioned to the idea that we need to "get ahead." Though most of us never do. And those that do are stomping over corpses to get there, and that can't be denied. We are all just feeding the machine that pukes out billionaires, and they don't care about us. The fact that there are so goddamn many of them is proof that the wealth is out there, we've just been duped into thinking it isn't ours to hold onto.
What are we going to do about it? Are we going to continue to worship people like the Obamas as icons of some better, more equal time, or recognize that we have been duped all along, every step of the way, by ALL of these people, and find and lift up and become NEW kinds of leaders, who really do put us filthy masses first? Where do we find our inspiration? What do we want our world to look like?
I think about it all the time.
Sometimes I imagine my perfect living situation would be in a little shack, where I spend long hours sitting and writing and thinking, with a river or stream nearby, with an outdoor sitting area not so different from the patio where Bowden and Carrier are hanging out in the YouTube video, and there are raised beds full of flowers so that at certain times of year the entire space actually vibrates with the buzz of visiting pollinators. Bird feeders, a few chairs, a table. I'm visited regularly, for days even at a time, by the people I love most, and who love me the most, but even they recognize that for me to maintain my sanity I need stretches of time and space all to myself. Not because I don't like company, but because I suspect the weight of my brooding presence can be difficult on others, and I'm often at my best alone where I don't feel I am bothering anybody.
Within walking distance of my shack is some big organic farm run by hippies and queer people and artists and Indigenous healers teaching people about native plants, the whole bit, and I'm just the grizzled old graybeard who doesn't hardly know shit about anything going on there but putters around helping out in exchange for a basket of food now and then, can effortlessly drive a stick shift, and is a pretty good source for dropping wisdom on all the troubled young people who are just getting started, who are wondering when they need to give up the itinerant life of hoboing along and get a "real job," and a “real life” and I can wave my ink-stained old hands extravagantly and say, "But this IS the real life!"
This is not to say my current real life isn't good. It is. When I let myself remember, I have a better life than just about anyone. But it's fun to romanticize ourselves, isn't it? It’s fun to be the eccentric stars of our own movie franchises.
Simplicity and recognizing less is more is goddamn hard with the whole world queued up against the idea. So we do what we can.
In other news. If you aren't tired of reading my jibber jabber, I will direct you to my good friend Anne Helen Petersen's Culture Study space; she interviewed me earlier this week and it was a fun exchange. You can read it HERE. She writes:
If you’re at all involved in the book world in Montana, you probably know Chris. He has formidable facial hair and the sort of booming voice that makes you pay attention at readings. He is acerbic and, yes, occasionally irritable. He is also one of my favorite people, and a straight up knock out writer.
She edited out all the parts where I addressed her awesomeness directly, so I will say it here: I have so much gratitude for AHP that I can't even express it properly. She's smart, and generous, and kind. The vast majority of people reading these words right now wouldn't be if she hadn't decided, for no real reason at all, to champion my writing. She's one of the good ones, people.
I mentioned Scott Carrier earlier. He was doing a podcast before podcasts were even a thing. I've been a fan for years. He's a guy I'm surprised I haven't figured out a way to meet yet, but I hope that changes. Check him out at his website, Home of the Brave. He's one of the best too.
Also, back to that Bowden interview. It really makes me want to visit Tucson. Julia, my wife, has all of her family there and we often visit there in the winter. Here we are at the end of a stretch where we haven’t gone anywhere or done anything and we won’t be doing that either. So I’ll just simmer in my own bitter juices a little longer.
Be kind to each other, friends.
I was at a residency a few years ago and there were these two writers in their early 20s who were lamenting that they’d been let go from newspapers or journals because there’s just not enough money in journalism, writing, etc. It made me so sad that they’d internalized and accepted this, especially when over the next few months people like Matt Lauer and Bill O’Reilly (please fact-check me) got severance payouts of tens of millions of dollars after allegations of chronic sexual assault/harrassment. There are resources in abundance; they’re just being hoarded by a teensy percentage of the population. And I don’t truly know what to do about it, either. Except to keep connecting with the people working for a better world and reminding us of the beauty and reality all around us. Thanks for doing that, Chris (and AHP too) 💗
Yes yes yes. The longer I'm away from the fast-paced, capitalist-driven nonprofit job (which should be an oxymoron in and of itself) the more I feel like I can't do the mental math necessary to go back. A big part of me wants to find a way to scrape by and get my MFA and take freelance gigs and odd jobs. I've been staying with friends in Washington--their house on 10 wooded acres and that simple routine of coffee, morning walk with the dogs, writing and reading and household projects, then cooking dinner together has felt worlds better than I ever did in the "before" times even though we're all broke. It's just unconscionable that the way our country is set up makes it so damn hard to live a life like that. It seems like your friend's housing plight is becoming the norm more and more and it's unconscionable.