A couple days ago, I was reading Lucas some bedtime stories; among them was one of my favorites, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. As I read, Lucas was mumbling about something else, so I had to focus extra hard on the text. Reading deliberately, it turns out, has its dangers; in the middle of the book I had a revelation that the book wasn't at all about the challenges of having food fall from the sky.
In case you're not familiar with Judi Barrett and Ron Barrett's book (1978), a quick plot synopsis: A man tells his two grandchildren a tale of the tiny town of Chewandswallow, where instead of having supermarkets or raising their own food, the townsfolk depend on the weather to bring in storms of hamburgers, orange juice rain, clouds of sunny-side-up eggs, and Jell-O sunsets. But then, inexplicably, the weather takes an erratic turn, and, besieged by pea soup fogs and house-crushing giant food falling from the sky, the people of Chewandswallow flee the town for a new land, where they must adjust to rainwater, packaged food, and supermarkets.
As I read the book this last time, it increasingly seemed at once an allegory and a parable for my own life.
Recently, I caught up with several far-flung friends and colleagues, and I heard--explicitly, in the anecdotes they shared, and implicitly, in the alternately wistful and frustrated tone of their voices--a desire to move on to something new, even if it meant walking away from their current careers, where over decades they have built up a good deal of respect, authority, and expertise. They're in their 40s and 50s, and I'm 34, but I must admit I was feeling the same existential angst.
We admitted to intellectual fatigue, to wanting to have new conversations rather than rehashing the same old ones that kept arising. We wanted to move forward, to be creatively productive, to be proactive rather than merely reactive.
As many of you are undoubtedly learning through articles in higher ed publications or--God forbid--first-hand experience, the University of California is kind of a sucky place to work right now. We've gone beyond the point where the budget cuts are damaging the quality of our programs; the cuts have become personal. Some of us have been more than cut to the bone. We're oozing marrow.
We're in hedgehog mode, rolling up in little balls hoping to escape the budget scythe, hoping we don't lose our jobs and health insurance and our ability to provide for our families. We're being kicked while we're down.
So is it any wonder that when I read "Whatever the weather served, that was what they ate," I felt as if I had been punched in the chest?
Last week we were informed that employees represented by the clerical and technical unions that had not agreed to furloughs would be laid off for the same number of days that they would have been furloughed. I'm not represented--not by my choice, I assure you--but half of our office staff is. We non-represented employees are having our annual salaries cut by a percentage that varies with how much we make (e.g. I'm taking a 6% cut), with each paycheck being reduced by that amount. So yes, losing 6% of my salary sucks, even with the 16 furlough days I've "earned" as a result, but at least the pain is spread across 12 pay periods. Not so for the union-represented employees. My coworkers will be temporarily laid off for a certain number of consecutive days. If I were union-represented, for example, I would be laid off for 16 consecutive workdays--meaning my paycheck for that month would cover only 4 days. How many of us could live for a month on 4 days' wages?
Worse, these union-represented employees will also be required to observe the 11 mandated campus closure days (during which the rest of us will be using furlough days). They'll need to cough up some vacation or comp time or take those days off without pay. Which means a union-represented employee earning my salary could lose 27 days of pay this fiscal year.
Whatever the weather served, that was what they ate. Overcooked broccoli. Brussels sprouts and peanut butter with mayonnaise. Or nothing but Gorgonzola cheese all day long.
Another day there was a pea soup fog. No one could see where they were going.
I asked our budget person about upcoming cuts. As I said, we're already hemorrhaging, losing staff and being asked to find grants to pay for our own keep. She said she expected another $100,000 in cuts to our unit this coming year. We've already lost at least $200,000, maybe $250,000--I've lost track. Here's the deal about the $100,000, though--we only have $70,000 in our current budget for non-salary expenses. You do the math.
Confession: Fang and have $30 in savings and something like $75,000 in debt from student loans, debt Fang brought into the marriage, emergency car repairs during grad school when I was only making $13,000 a year, dental bills, vet care for the last dog, etc. We try to live within our means, but our means are a bit modest right now.
Alert: Fang needs $1900 in emergency dental care at the end of the month. We found out today the dog might need shoulder surgery. And we're spending $1,600 to attend a relative's wedding next month. We can't not attend the wedding because the groom is shipping out to his first tour in Afghanistan shortly thereafter.
When you take into account the university's freezing of staff (but not faculty) salaries the past couple of years, my pay has actually declined 13% over the past two years--and that doesn't account for inflation. Considering only one year I've worked here has the university offered merit increases (of 4%), I'm making considerably less than when I started.
We live, in short, hand to mouth. The cost of living in this town outstrips our salaries. And I'm tired of freelancing, of selling used books on Amazon in an attempt to make ends meet. I don't want to have another yard sale.
I know there are people in far worse shape. At least we have jobs. (For now.)
Everyone feared for their lives. They couldn't go outside most of the time. Many houses had been badly damaged by giant meatballs, stores were boarded up, and there was no more school for the children.
So what do we do in the face of tomato tornadoes and hurricanes of hard rolls?
Well, what did the people of Chewandswallow do?
A decision was made to abandon the town of Chewandswallow.
It was a matter of survival.
The townsfolk made sailboats out of giant pieces of stale bread and set sail on their rafts for a new land.
So I ask myself: What constitutes a new land?
Never have I had so many ideas and so little hope. I feel over the past few years I've set sail a dozen tiny boats, none of them seaworthy on their own.
Right now I'm trying to find the one or two projects on which I really want to focus, the ones where I can get busy slathering peanut butter between two huge pieces of stale bread before I jerry-rig some sails from oversized slices of pizza and Swiss cheese.
And I'm doing it all without the benefit of medication, which is making it especially hard on me, and on Fang as well. It's hard to be positive or to imagine--let alone chart a path to--a better future. In my current financial situation, it's hard not to resent the university--both as the grantor of a three graduate degrees I'm realizing are largely unmarketable and as my current employer. It's especially hard because in a perfect world Lucas would have a sibling, but my fertility and I are staring down the barrel of "advanced maternal age" and we can't afford another child, and won't be able to for a long time. I feel as if that decision has been taken out of my hands somewhat by my decreasing salary, and I resent that, too.
I'm so ready to be somewhere else--mentally, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, perhaps physically. I used to be the kind of person who could steer her own life in an appropriate direction. But for now here I am, with my stale bread and my peanut butter, wondering which way the wind will blow us next.