Week 17: Another car?

July 23, 2020

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

How many cars does one household need?

For the last four years, we’ve been an outlier among our friends. In 2015, we added a third driver. In 2018, we added a fourth. At some point, our 16-year-old will get in the last of her driving lessons and take the test and we’ll add a fifth driver.

We still have two cars.

The only reason this is possible is that my husband, Bill, likes to ride his bicycle to work. He’s spent entire summers, when one or both boys were at home, barely getting behind the wheel. These days, all five of us are home, and there have been weeks, when the bike path was closed, when Bill had to drive every day. That was fine, though. The rest of us had nowhere to go anyway.

But even though cases are going through the proverbial roof in L.A., we’re also moving around more these days. Part of that is we’re stir-crazy. But it’s also true that we don’t know anyone who is sick with the virus. We did back in March.

I think I had it, but I tested negative for the virus and for antibodies, and so my “illness” is a source of fierce debate around this house. But leaving me aside, we knew quite a few other people who fell ill with odd respiratory symptoms, and some of them did test positive. The germs felt pervasive, and universal.

Today? There’s no sign of it except in the news. This makes me feel bad, because I suspect that’s a sign of affluence. My husband and my physician friends tell me COVID is rampaging through poor households, and that the hospitals are filled with Latino patients. I heard a story today of one such household — a nuclear family of a mother, asthmatic father and three little kids; a grandma and a grandpa with a lung condition; and two uncles, all sharing a four bedroom apartment. The mother and the asthmatic father and the grandmother all have tested positive for COVID, and the mom, dad and three kids have spent the last two weeks in one room together, trying to shelter from the others.

Same city as me. Different world altogether.

This is not fair. Of course not. None of this is fair. Not only can I afford a third car when many Angelenos can’t even afford one. But now, it turns out, my family and I can afford to not know anyone who is ill. Our privilege surrounds us like a vast ocean, lapping away from us all the way to the horizon.

Some days, I feel like the very fact of this virus will crush me. But that’s me being fragile. Imaginative. Too drenched in the news. The truth is, I have time and space to worry about possible exposure at a time when there are so many cases, L.A. is running out of tests.

Meanwhile, I’ve got three kids who try very hard to stay safe. They wear masks. They socially distance. They keep their friend circles small and somewhat exclusive. But they’ve also been cooped up here for months, and the last thing I want is three depressed young adults on my hands. So at the moment, their lives are — how shall I put this — not exactly isolated.

One of these days, Sarah will drive, too. I suspect it may be time to break down and get that third car, if just to avoid the ear-splitting arguments when everyone’s back home in December and there aren’t nearly enough wheels to go around.

We have one hybrid already, a Ford Fusion. Liam, who studies environmental economics, insists our third car be green as well. I don’t want to lavish a lot of money on this thing and anyway, our insurance tells me if I get them a car that’s new or new-ish, my insurance bill will leap by 5K annually once Sarah gets her license. But if I get them a seven or eight year old car, it’ll inch up by $600. At the moment, I have my eye on a 2012 Lincoln hybrid sedan. Not too sexy (sorry, guys) but not too thirsty, either, and what a deal, because who else would want it?

I’m not sure I do, either. But life is getting busy, and soon there will be five of us vying for the driver’s seat.

Week 12: Privilege

June 9, 2020

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

I know the internet is chock-full of silly quizzes, and I know I take them at my peril. Still, when this Buzzfeed quiz on privilege rolled up on my Facebook feed last week, I thought, hmm….

It’s one of those quizzes where you are supposed to post your results to Facebook. If you follow me on there, and don’t remember seeing my score, no worries, I didn’t post it. I was too embarrassed.

This is what popped up after I hit “calculate”:

You live with 75 out of 100 points of privilege.

You’re among the most privileged people in the world. We don’t live in an ideal world, but you happened to be born into an ideal lot. 

Good heavens. And I think my life is tough (I mean, not all the time, but I’m totally known to fly off the handle for what seem to me in the moment very good reasons).

I’ve been sitting on this declaration for days, thinking about it, turning it over in my head. It wasn’t exactly a surprise. I grew up white and Jewish in a wealthy household with both of my biological parents. I went to private high school, and a top public university. I only worked in college for pocket change.

I’ve always either worked or been supported by someone who has. Never known hunger and had only fleeting moments of economic insecurity. Today, thanks in no small part to my parents, who gave us a down payment, my husband and I live in a home we own, with a mortgage payment that is within our means, in a neighborhood that is safe and charming. And I’ve never in my life had to lie about my sexuality or any other part of my identity. Sometimes, I don’t mention that I’m Jewish, and it’s easy for me to pass because neither my last name nor my coloring is particularly Semitic. But I don’t think that really counts.

So, yeah, serious privilege.

It’s tempting now to list all the ways I’ve been unfortunate, to counter that damning conclusion. But that’s how we distract ourselves, I think. Everyone has their moments when Lady Fortune decides to go on holiday. What’s significant is the structure around life’s struggles, and mine is, I guess, unusually solid.

So I’ve been asking myself questions, the same ones I’ve asked of myself for years, only in light of the recent protests and national discussion around race and privilege, and my own privilege quiz score, with more-than-usual urgency: what do I owe the world because of how much I’ve been given? How best to repay that debt?

And maybe, most elemental of all: am I even aware of my privilege? When I’m not — because who ever does go around, consistently aware — whose souls do I trample upon?

This is no idle question, as I write for pay. For the last few years, I’ve written dozens of articles, for the same personal finance website, about credit scores, credit cards, and any and all other things credit-related. It took me until this week, and listening to a New Yorker podcast, to realize that I’d framed all these articles with “white” as the default experience.

At times, I’ve tried to bring in a diversity of views, particularly when I’m writing about personal finance advice. There are a lot of people out there, of all different backgrounds, doling out this kind of wisdom (although, come to think of it, most of them trace their financial awakening to Dave Ramsey, a cisgender white male, which is a framing problem in itself).

But I’m wrapping up work tomorrow on a story I’ve reported, on and off, for weeks, about small business financial struggles during this time of COVID-19. I didn’t ask about anyone’s skin color, but I am almost positive that everyone I interviewed for that story was white. Most of them were male. I didn’t do that because I didn’t care about other experiences. I did it because it was easy, and I was trying to be “efficient” with my time, and those were the names that popped up first, and sometimes repeatedly, when I did my Google searches.

What’s horrifying isn’t that it happened with that one article. Or that it goes on with most of my articles. What’s horrifying is that it’s true of most articles, by most reporters, most of the time.

I don’t know that I can even turn my own habits around in reporting on next week’s article, transform myself into a paragon of enlightened journalism because Now I Know. It’s hard and time-consuming and energy intensive, to do the work differently, and frankly, they only pay me just so much. But I vow to try. Really, it’s the least I can do.

I’ve also been thinking about an exchange this week I had over Messenger, with Jennifer, a yoga teacher of mine who is African-American. We’ve only been in touch sporadically since the lockdown, though I used to see her every Sunday, at her class at the YMCA. I reached out over the weekend to let her know I was thinking about her, and to see how she was doing. This is what she wrote back:

This week has been a mix of emotions from hate to hope and everything in between. It’s surreal. Definitely not freeing because there’s a long way to go to be free of the weight I have carried in this country and I don’t trust people really get it.

I’m sure I don’t. I don’t know that I ever will. But I will try, at least, to listen.

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P.S. I’m going to be attending a Zoom seminar for freelance writers this weekend, and one of the guest speakers is an African-American journalist who’s started a newsletter to chronicle how the coronavirus is impacting her community. I urge you to take a look, and consider subscribing. If it’s your jam, you may even consider supporting her work with a small monthly donation (she’s set up a Patreon account).