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Thinking: I Don't Deserve This
May 9, 2017
by William P. Meyers

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Loving, A Bar of Soap, and My Beautiful House

Last night Jan, Hugo and I watched the movie Loving. It was a great movie about the human condition, with enough suspense to keep me riveted. Also, I grew up in the America, specifically in the South, that Loving was in set in.

Clearly Richard and Mildred Loving had a hard life. They decided to get married despite the racial segregation laws still in effect in much of the United States in the late 1950s. It is probably hard today for young people to imagine how upset people could get in Virginia in that era about an interracial marriage. Since I grew up in that culture (I was 3 the year they were married), I know the very idea would have outraged my family, and almost everyone I grew up with.

Years later, in the early-sixties, I remember learning that while anyone could shop at Woolworth's, there were two lunch counters, one white and one black. Which in my little-child mind I thought of as the hamburger side and the hotdog side. For some reason they only sold hotdogs on the black side.

Before going on to the main topic of this essay, me, one more comment on Loving. Richard works building cinder block houses. These are the houses of my youth. Cinder blocks [I just learned the proper term is concrete masonry units] helped revolutionize housing construction in that era. They were used to build homes for working people, so the blocks are typically hidden behind some sort of facade in more pretentious homes. That is hard work, building with cinder blocks all day. No need to pay for a gym membership to keep fit. No sir.

After sleeping off the movie, when I got up I decided to take a shower. I don't shower every day, I probably would if I had to go to a job, but I write at home. I conserve water and know that much of our household electricity bills go to pay for hot water. And I knew I had recently put a new bar of soap in the combined tub and shower. Only its remnants remained. And that is because my granddaughter, after the ritual protests, had taken a bath there two nights earlier. Using my keen powers of deduction, I concluded that she played with the soap during her long bath until there was just a shred left.

A bar of soap is not a big deal, to me, financially. Yet I thought of all the people, today and in the past, might have considered having a bar of soap to wash with a real privilege.


Why do I have what I have, and why do people in general have what they have? I see people in Seattle I presume are homeless, and I know they are just about as varied as the people who rent, and the people who have mortgaged homes, and the people who actually own their homes.

I come from a brutal, unhappy, if lower-middle-class family, and when I was young I made the mistake of identifying houses and middle-class life with unhappiness. I was homeless a couple of times in my life, but those were not unhappy periods for me. I was a hobo, an enjoyer of freedom. Better than a job and a rental or house with mortgage.

I have been through the purgatory of paying off a mortgage. My wife provided the down, which in turn originally came from her ex-husband, which in turn was inherited from his parents. But I did work my butt off paying off the mortgage.

On the other hand, I was not doing something so obviously useful as building cinder block houses. During my mortgage-paying era I was mainly working for publishers, doing the unglamorous (and therefore relatively well paid) work of writing the indexes to other people's books.

I know there are a lot of people in the world who are smarter than me, or harder working than I have been, or both, who don't have as much as I have. They were mostly born at the bottom of America's class structure, or born in an "undeveloped" nation.

On the other hand I have seen that people born with less intelligence, and less appetite for work, than I have scooped up jobs I would have liked because of family connections. I also have noticed at least some of the clues that people have allowing them to decide whether an applicant is "one of us." I have met many people who live well with little or no effort because they can (and do) depend on family wealth, capped by an inheritance larger than a working stiff can earn in a lifetime.

I recently read that roughly 35% of African Americans make more than I do in a given year. Not that I make that much; don't become a writer if you care about money. Not even an indexer or a finance writer, which is now my main source of income. Still, this African American prosperous class is a long way from the income distribution reality, black v. white, of 1960.

Although some may pretend not to, most Americans respect money. You may always carry with you telltale signs of your class (or geographic) origins. There is no shortage of snobbery in America. But if people learn you have money, especially if it is as much or more money than they have, they will respect you on a basic level.

I believe that a mixed system, some socialism and some capitalism, can work better than either a strictly socialist system or a pure free-market capitalist one. In the post-war prosperity of the 1950s most Americans did too, though they mostly did not think about it quite so clearly. They liked the New Deal except the parts of it they didn't personally like.

Under socialism you might argue that each of us should own an equal part of the entire wealth of the nation. I have done the calculations and I am not up to my fair share yet. But everyone would not be able to just spend that money. Most of it represents capital: land, buildings, factory equipment.

Capital has to be taken care of, if you want it to keep producing things. A lot of us work at serving the old capital. Fixing a leaky faucet preserves capital, as does preventing land from eroding. A mass of janitors and fix-it people preserve capital every bit as much as financial advisors and capitalists.

We, the living, have inherited, collectively, an astonishing amount of capital from the past. It is derived from a complex mix of slave labor, wage slavery, intellectual work and science, just plain theft, and even, yes, the visions of far-sighted capitalists and government officials. It also has involved a great deal of ecological destruction, which is a form of capital destruction, and which is the great haunting issue of our geological epoch.

Today I am happy with what I have. It seems approximately fair. I wish I could give a down-payment on a condominium to my step-son. I wish I could help some other hard-working renters, who would learn to be good owners, get started into the purgatory of Mortgage. Hopefully you will all get there on your own initiative.

In any case, am not in that position. Jan and I got our townhouse style condominium partly because it was in disrepair; there was only one other bidder, in a market where 20 or more bidders is not uncommon. We've painted, bought a new refrigerator, and done too many minor fixes to list. We still have a long list of fixes and improvements that are still needed, and that takes both time and money. Fortunately the condo association had put on a new roof before we moved in, because there had been some obvious, if small, leaks.

I wish I could kick the Saudi royal family out of both Yemen and Saudi Arabia. I wish I could bring all U.S. troops home and give them good paying jobs helping to maintain or improve capital. I wish I could kick Donald Trump out of the White House. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. In the case of my granddaughter, when she is with Jan, wishes are horses, but that will come to an end as she grows up.

I wish I could convince people all over the world that one child per family is not only enough, it is the right things to do. But so far, my pen has not proven to be mightier than anyone's sword.

Here's to Richard and Mildred Loving, an example to us all. I had never heard of them until the movie was made. And let's keep in mind how good houses are built: cinder block by cinder block, and from a good plan.

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