Perspective and silver lining, thanks to the Joads

Sometime, when you think you’re in a bit of a spot, you need a little bit of perspective.  You know the old saying about “I once cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet”?  That’s the kind of perspective I’m talking about here — the “it could be a whole lot worse” kind.  The “you have no idea how good you’ve got it” kind.  The kind that says, “hey, our home state’s not so bad — look at California, they can’t even pass a freaking budget!”  I don’t mean being cheered at the misfortune of others; I mean being thankful that for whatever reason, God has chosen to protect you from that misfortune.

In my case, being thankful that my last name isn’t Joad.

See, just this morning I finished reading John Steinbeck’s masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath.  The Supermodel and I have always enjoyed Steinbeck’s work — Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, The Pearl, The Winter of Our Discontent — but I had never gotten around to reading Grapes until now.  While I know Grapes is a work of fiction, I also know that it was based on real events — in fact, part of the background of the book was a series of newspaper articles Steinbeck wrote in San Francisco about the “Okies,” the migrant farm workers who had escaped the 1930s Dust Bowl only to be marginalized as human harvesting equipment in California.  (Nor did the marginalization totally end then — in Woodland, California, where I lived for seven years in the 1980s, “Okies” were considered almost a separate ethnic group.  I dated an Okie girl in high school, which many of my peers considered rather radical.  True story.)

And as I read, one thing struck me over and over: how poverty-stricken the lives of the Joads were.  I’m not just talking about how they were forced off their land in Oklahoma and had to hit the road; I mean EVERYTHING.  How the people often had only two outfits of clothing and had to alternate them, or how they had to scrounge to get enough gas money together for a short trip, or how a dead relative meant the draining of their savings to cover even a pauper’s burial.  How they found themselves living in half of a decommissioned boxcar sitting in a flood plain, and considered it a blessing, because at least now they had a roof and a floor.

And the food … if anything, the food they ate was more unnerving than anything else.  Even at its best, the Joad family’s diet is nothing short of horrific.  Nothing but salt pork and biscuits and coffee for breakfast, for everyone, even the pre-teen kids and the pregnant lady.  For dinner, hamburger patties and bread and potatoes and more coffee.  And those are the really good meals!  The rest of the time, they’re eating things like corn pone and grease, or plain biscuits with gravy made from drippings, and that’s all.  I don’t think there’s one time in 619 pages where the Joads have three meals in a single day; there aren’t many where they have two.  And the only time any of them get to eat a fresh fruit or vegetable is when they’re picking in an orchard for two days and snacking on the windfall peaches … which of course, end up giving some of them diarrhea.  Any nutritionist worth their salt substitute would be scandalized.

So where does the perspective come in?  Understand that for much of my life, I’ve lived either below what the U.S. government calls “the poverty line” or darn close to it.  The Supermodel and I have filed ten federal tax returns in our married life (we always file jointly), and only once have we had to pay extra come April 15; every other time, our income was too low.  We live in an old house without central heating or air — in fact, when the house was first built in the 1920s, it didn’t even have plumbing.  Our health coverage is through the county.  Our car is a modest Dodge.  Restaurant trips, while not exactly rare, are treated as a luxury.  In short, we aren’t exactly in Bill and Melinda Gates territory economically.  And sometimes, we’ve pined for the nice things we hear about — the vacations and big houses and whatnot.

And yet …

Well, let me use today as an example.  This morning, the Supermodel went to the school where she worked this last year for her re-hire “interview.”  (It turns out the “interview” consisted of her being handed an offer sheet for the same job for the coming school year, which she signed immediately.  But they have to call it an interview because the state and the local school district require that.  Bureaucracies are such a hoot.)  She was also given her paycheck for the month of June — when she did a few months of standard classroom teaching in addition to her Special Ed. duties, they deferred some of that pay so she’d have income while school was out.  They screwed up her pay (again), but caught the error and promised her she’d get a check for the missing amount next week.  It’s okay, as we’ve got some money in the bank and can cover our current expenses with no problem.

While she was there, I drove my kids over to Victory Park, where they played for awhile on the jungle gyms and among the trees while I was reading Grapes and being appalled by the Joads’ diet.  At 10:40 we went over to the Victory Park swimming pool, where my daughter is getting swimming lessons.  After her lesson we went and filled up the car with gasoline, then swung by Rite-Aid and picked up my wife’s prescription for Loratadine (a muscle relaxant, which helps with her CMT, that the county covers) before coming home.

Then it was lunchtime.  Last night, I made a big pot of what I’m calling bouillabaisse, but which may or may not be.  It’s fish stew, anyway, and I threw in everything — two pounds of chopped whiting, a pound of pearled barley, an entire cabbage (diced), six carrots, two onions (one white, one red), basil, oregano and enough garlic salt to take out every vampire in the county.  While my kids ate their preferred sandwiches, I had a bowl of the bouillabaisse, cold, and it was absolutely wonderful.  It’s not easy to really nail homemade soup, but I think I did it this time.  I ate it while reading some articles at ESPN.com and the Onion AV Club, and sitting in front of a box fan to keep me cool.  Then I followed it up with a juicy ripe peach, beat the Pogo computer at Scrabble (seriously, I torched it, 488 to 194!) and finally settled down to write this.

So while technically we’re below that poverty line, in just a few hours today we were able to:

  • secure a job that begins in a month and a half.
  • receive a check for over $300 for previous work.
  • drive a motor vehicle in good shape, and fill it with $43 worth of gas.
  • have a swimming lesson led by a trained professional.
  • receive expensive medicine for a debilitating condition.
  • return to a three-bedroom home, full of useful accoutrements and toys, that has no serious structural issues.
  • enjoy a nice, nutritious, filling meal (the second of three today).
  • inform myself of the latest sporting and entertainment news via a $1000 computer system.
  • stay cool in the midst of Central California’s nasty summer heat.

We may not be living the life of someone like Warren Buffett, but we aren’t left digging through trash cans either.  Compared to the Joads — or for that matter, the vast majority of people in Asia, Africa or Latin America today — we are high on the hog indeed.  Heck, our car — an ’02 Dodge Intrepid with almost 112,000 miles on it — would make a better house than half the people in the world have, and we just use it to drive around!  And all that is on top of being able to share our life together, unencumbered by separation, divorce or alcoholism, being allowed to worship God as our consciences lead us without government interference, and being free to speak our minds in any fashion that doesn’t lead to a riot.  Sounds pretty good for so-called poverty, doesn’t it?

So if I’ve learned anything from reading The Grapes of Wrath, it’s this: to recognize how much I have rather than focus on what I don’t, and to be thankful for it.  And to keep that in mind, and be willing to give some of it, when I see someone who has less.  Including maybe a pair of shoes for their feet.

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