Saturday, December 21, 2013

Fingerprints and Scars

A friend, the brilliant, funny, Wendy Wagner, recently wrote a post on growing up poor:

I want to riff on that here.
How you grow up leaves traces, whether you call them scars or fingerprints.  My parents were working poor, and some of my earliest memories are listening to my parents argue about whether or not we'd have money for food.  They always waited until late at night, until they were sure we were asleep... but we never were.

When dad decided to go into business for himself, things tightened up again.  And when he decided to liquidate and move to the middle of nowhere to prepare for the end of the world... let's just say there weren't a lot of jobs.  Just enough to keep our heads above water, most of the time.  And because we were expecting nuclear war or economic collapse or the ice age or the population bomb (just some of the apocalypses that were promised to us in the 1970's) we were also living with no electricity or running water, growing or hunting most of our own food.

Just as Wendy writes, that left fingerprints, but the way it marked our lives was very, very different.  She was honest about her pain.  Mine was minor-- kids will notice if all of your sweaters are homemade, and if your pants came from the discount rack and the legs aren't quite the same color.  If you bathe once a week (36 extra buckets of water to pack from the creek on bath day) they notice. The only spending money I had was from returning my dad's beer bottles to the store, and I could always feel the proprietor snickering over how much dad drank.  My only source of income, until I learned how to polish stones, is tied with deep embarrassment, and that colors my attitude to money to this day. 

But I always had the desert and the cliffs to run to, to be alone.

I think the biggest factor in how Wendy and I processed our childhood was in our attitude towards assistance:
Wendy: Some memories of my childhood are indelible: the wonderful texture of the paper they used to print food stamps on, back when food stamps came in little coupon books and each increment was printed in its own color. The taste of government cheese, salty and waxy and melty and gooier than any cheese I’ve eaten since.

My dad told us we were on our own.  No one would help us and we wouldn't accept it if they offered.  "You get hungry, you go kill something." I remember waking up from delirious fever dreams, a 106 temperature and looking at the ice forming on the boltheads on the inside of the camping trailer we lived in.

If we were hungry, we hunted, fished or went and slaughtered a chicken.  I never got into hunting or fishing for fun.  It was food.  When I found a wart (only time in my life) I knew a doctor was out of the question-- I pulled it out with a pair of pliers.  My mom had told me that warts have roots and seeds, and I was afraid if I cut it, I'd leave the roots.

I was able to go to college because my older brother, in the Air Force, and my grandmother both died.  The wills left enough money to clear some debt and pay for one year of college.  Where Wendy writes about her insecurity in fitting in, I knew I didn't fit and it was defiance bordering on arrogance: This place had ten times the wild food of the desert where I was raised. I learned how to butterfly a gash when I was thirteen.  You can't starve me, I don't need your doctors and you can't beat me in a way I'll stay down-- you think I need you?  Yeah, I was a dick, and it was just as much insecurity as anything Wendy experienced.  But I never had a feeling of dependence... and I would look at all the other kids in college, kids who seemed rich to me, and I would listen to all their needs and desires, all the stuff they felt they couldn't live without and, yeah, I felt contempt.   A huge amount of contempt.

I found growing up poor, and especially working to create a middle class life, powerful.  I think without that experience, it's likely I would have been lazy, complacent, self-satisfied.  I feel that necessity made me stronger, tougher, more resourceful.  It was a bad environment to be delusional in, and honed an ability to see what the real problem was, and that lack of food always trumps social bullshit.  I like who I am, and have few regrets.


Malcolm Rivers said...

Rory, this is an interesting post. It gives some useful insight into your perspective on a variety of topics (it certainly helps to explain your views on protesters.) What would you say to people who are looking to become self-reliant in a society that is so predisposed (or arguably pushed/forced) toward dependency on specialized individuals and their knowledge/skills? How does one, in the age of facial recognition technology, google glass and the arguable end of privacy, assert any sort of independence if they didn't have the opportunity (depending on how you view it) to grow up the way you did or in another way that supports self reliance?

Rory said...

Malc- independence is not something anyone can give you. You take it. You want to be independent, you learn the skills, you practice doing without. It is a harder life, no doubt.
And recognize that independence isn't freedom from obligation. the worst of the protesters want the government to supply their housing, their healthcare, their education and give nothing in return. They think they are independent if they don't pay for what they get. But they do pay, they vote for the people that offer something for nothing deals and keep them in power-- and they become dependent for what they are given, and they enslave others or future generations to pay.

Malcolm Rivers said...

hmm. any recommendations for first steps or places to acquire said skills? (might be a worthwhile topic for a future book project)

Josh Kruschke said...


Where do you think soom good place to start looking for the answers/skills, you seek, would be?

Josh Kruschke said...

... some good places...

Malcolm Rivers said...

Josh, I honestly had never thought seriously about it until I read Rory's post. While the idea of a SHTF or WROL (or whatever acronyms people use) situation had occurred to me as a possibility, I have never felt like I was professionally or personally in a situation where any meaningful exploration of these skills would be possible. I suppose then, the first step for me was asking the questions and talking to people like Rory and others about what types of resources exist for acquiring them. Now that I've done that, I can make inquiries into the logistics of training with these people and starting to acquire the skills and mindsets necessary.

Josh Kruschke said...


Fair enough.

Just becareful you don't fall into the trap of relying or become dependent on others to do your thinking for you or give you their answers.

This means question even what I just wrote.


Malcolm Rivers said...

thanks Josh, I'll do my best to tread carefully and remain open minded but skeptical

Anonymous said...

"It was a bad environment to be delusional in" may become one of my favourite sentences.