Please tell us your name, age, where you live, your family situation and how you're paying the bills?
My name is Cynthia Shirar. I’m the 43 year-old mother of four children, aged 17, six, four and 16 months. We live in Irving, Texas, which is a suburb of Dallas. My youngest three children are by my third, current, 32 year-old husband. We survive on his artwork commission income, child support and—at present—unemployment, as I was fired in early February this year from my job as a community college health center administrative assistant. I had been there nine years but, due to health issues, wound up needing more leave than I had banked. My former (incredibly wonderful) boss had just retired and, with a new, “no excuses” supervisor—even medically documented ones—I was let go. Texas is an “at-will” employment state.
How is your economic situation compared to five years ago? What about ten or twenty years ago?
Funnily enough, compared to five years ago, our economic situation has actually improved with my firing. Child support and unemployment alone total more than the income I earned in my former position at the community college health center. (Fortunately, my health has improved, so I have been very actively seeking other employment. Last week, in fact, I interviewed with a large university in the DFW metroplex and have my hopes high that I will be called back with an offer—or at least a second interview). In addition to the above-mentioned (albeit very modest) income, our family size and income makes us eligible to receive SNAP (food stamps), WIC, free school meals, energy assistance and Medicaid for each of the children. Without these programs, we would be utterly destitute, so we’re grateful for them.
Ten years ago, I lived in Hampton, Virginia and was married to my second husband who earned a six-figure income. With only one child at the time, and a full-time job of my own, we were incredibly comfortable with a large, beautiful, 2,300 square-foot house in an exclusive neighborhood. My oldest son attended an expensive private school. We had two new cars, lots of pets and I never worried about paying for utilities or groceries. Upon moving to Dallas in 2004, and a subsequent divorce, all that changed.
Twenty years ago, I was single, child-free, and serving active duty in the Air Force. At the time, I lived and worked in Aviano, Italy during the sham buffoonery that was the Bosnian war. Of course, as a low-ranking airman, I lived in abject poverty—but this was somewhat ameliorated with the free “housing” (cramped dorm life) and “food” (slimy, contracted, chow hall crud). Being half-Italian (my mother is from Florence and an Italian citizen), I was overjoyed to be assigned to Italy, but—although I was young and essentially apolitical at the time—even I could see that was the U.S. was doing in the former Yugoslavia was an unmitigated, unnecessary and stupid nightmare.
If you have children, how are they doing? What are their prospects? You can also talk about your parents or siblings if you don't have children.
I worry. I worry all the time about my children’s future prospects. While, at present, they are thriving, happy and well- taken-care-of, I know the world is a rough and difficult place—ESPECIALLY in the heart of this corrupt and drain-circling beast we call the U.S. I often research expatriate web sites to see if I can find anyone who fled the country with a young family and limited means. I don’t find much on this. I often fantasize about packing the family van and spiriting us south of the border—but I hold no illusions that this would be anything more than a half-baked, desperation-move. While I am fluent in both German and Italian, I have forgotten the vast majority of the Spanish I leaned when I lived as a pre-teen for four years in Madrid, Spain (my father was also active duty Air Force for 28 years and we lived all over Europe, Hawaii and elsewhere during his service). It would be a trek of last-resort, although there are days that it’s tempting. I don’t see much of a future for my children in the United States. I worry that the only jobs out there will be wage-slave, sweatshop-type “McJobs.” I am naturally biased, but my children are ultra-bright and deserve a real education and fulfilling careers. What passes for education and meaningful employment in the states is—for the most part—beneath garbage. Just my opinion based on painful experience and just-as-painful observation.
Please discuss your city, town or neighborhood, its industries and businesses. Is the local economy improving or deteriorating? How are your neighbors doing?
Irving, Texas is a slowly-deteriorating suburb of Dallas. The city’s former “claim to fame” was the now-disappeared Texas Stadium which was home to the Dallas Cowboys. It seems to mostly be an area that houses the less well-to-do of Dallas. There are several nearby community colleges and universities, and the Boy Scouts of America’s headquarters are located here, but other than that…maybe clandestine fracking and some dying oil industry stuff is here…? The area seems to be slowly deteriorating with pawn shops, payday lenders and shanty-ish convenience stores cropping up in semi-defunct strip malls. The usual “poverty caterers” that can be seen popping up across the floundering nation, I guess. The neighbors in our current, small apartment complex are a mixed group of mostly working class Hispanics, blacks and whites…all struggling to maintain a modicum of middle-class veneer and respectability. Almost all those in our little neighborhood worry about bills, collections, repos, unstable employment, etc., but we all do what we can for each other. Most folks are friendly, but one can tell there’s a bit of stand-offishness in a “can I trust you?” kind of way. Not something I have been around for long, but we’re getting used to it.
Do you agree with my basic contention that the country is unraveling economically, politically and even socially? What is your vision of the future?
I have been a long-time an admirer of your work of your work, Linh, as you know! Yes, I absolutely agree the country is going to hell, and has been for decades now. Having seen “greener pastures” and the way others live—even in absolute poverty—I know there are places one can be happier. The United States has become a frightening police state, and no one knows who to trust and where to turn for recourse. This is not and has never really been a democracy…and it seems any hopes for it being so crumbled not long before I was born in the very early 70’s. It makes me sad because most of the ordinary people in the country don’t even realize how badly they’ve been duped and brainwashed. It has dawned on me, very painfully over time that I am very fortunate to have traveled and had many of the experiences I’ve had. Most people aren’t bad human beings, just hopelessly lost because of what they’ve been exposed and subjected to. And they don’t even know it. The late Joe Bageant said it well when he described what we live in as a giant hologram.
What can we possibly do to mitigate our problems, whether collectively and/or on a pesonal level? If you're really struggling, please share some of your coping mechanisms and survival tactics. What adjustments, minor or traumatic, have you had to make?
It seems we, ordinary people, have to unite in some kind of solidarity to overthrow the real tyrants out there: big money, banksters, corporate vultures, greed- and war-mongers, the burgeoning police and surveillance state apparatus’ and our prostituted media and politicians. I don’t have high hopes. On a personal level, our family could emigrate, maybe. I feel like the U.S. is a lost cause. There are too many—way too many— things to go into on this subject. To cope with the deep depression, I had been drinking and had to force myself to stop. I now read everything I can by you, Chris Hedges, John Pilger, the late Joe Bageant, Dmitry Orlov and others of similar stripe. How healthy this is, I don’t know—but it keeps me from drinking myself to death. My family deserves me as intact as I can be to support them the best I can through these dark times. The biggest shift I’ve made, as agonizing as it was and continues to be, is in my mindset. Life isn’t perfect. I’ve tried to look at our constant daily struggles as a means to build strength of character and overall fortitude. It doesn’t stop things from sucking, but sometimes lowering standards is a solution, as sad as that sounds.
I want to thank you again, Linh, for all your outstanding work. It keeps people like me afloat. YOU help those of us out here cope. Your writing, photos and poetry are inspiring, and one day I hope to be near enough to attend one of your readings. Take care, Linh. You have my deepest admiration.
Please participate in this Readers' Postcards series, as your answers will be very instructive to all of us. Just answer the above questions then send them to me, preferably with at least a photo or two (of your town or just you or your family, in your home or wherever). If you'd rather not state your full name, that's fine. Even a pseudonym is OK. My email: firstname.lastname@example.org . Many thanks in advance!--Linh