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Monday, March 23, 2015

Cynthia Shirar from Irving, Texas


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.

Cindy Shirar-Denning


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: . Many thanks in advance!--Linh



Anonymous said...

Thanks Cynthia. People get fired and then some don't they? It sounds as if your health has improved after leaving your last gig, this is as I have noticed. Ulcer heals, weight loss, better habits, no overeating, no gas lighting, abuse, or long hours. People are treated like shit at work, in varying degrees. I'm 5 years older than you, this is my best guess, and it seems to be getting worse.

There are some gigs out there, many don't pay much, that are wholesome and less destructive, But how to pay the rent? Sometimes though, the innocent sounding non-profits are a real horror.

Mortgage payin' money at a defense contractor can be the domain of antidepressants, fear, and stolen time. Some people do more than ok, usually not the hired help.

Eddie said...

Cynthia lays out beautifully what we need to do--come together as regular people to overthrow our oppressors.

How to accomplish that? What a difficult question to answer as I keep plugging away at my little contribution to the struggle.

CC said...

Unlike Cynthia, I managed to leave the U.S. My means were also limited, but at least I didn't have a family to support.

I think why so many people around the world still want to immigrate to the U.S. boils down to two major reasons: 1) their countries are a shambles - perhaps partly due to U.S. foreign policy - and 2) their notion of life in the U.S. is outdated by at least 20 years.

Bageant's passing was a big loss for progressives. He understood why poor conservatives vote the way they do and tried to get us to walk in their shoes rather than simply look down on them.

x larry said...

thanks cynthia, very moving story.
and i too completely agree that we must band together to fight our oppressors, these corporations. somehow (through no doubt violent struggle) we need to form powerful international unions, that will put THEM at OUR mercy. we also need to form worker cooperatives, ie worker owned businesses. i know it has happened before, say taking over a factory. or for one small example there was a brewery in colorado that was worker owned (that makes 'flat tire' beer). cheers and all the best!

x larry said...

i should add another obvious point, that americans and all the peasants worldwide, but especially americans, need to begin to change their outlook on life. by this i mean: stop admiring the rich bloodsuckers and scum, think about the earth, get away from the competitive mindset, especially in economic matters, stop thinking in terms of money = success = good (or the 'greater good' or the ultimate goal in life).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your story Cynthia.
I am curious, 10 years ago when you were a rich woman with a husband who made a 6-figure salary, a 2,300 sq ft home in an exclusive neighborhood, a son who attended an expensive private school, and 2 new cars, what was your attitude toward the poor and toward government assistance? thanks.

Cindy Shirar said...

Hi Anonymous...

Outstanding question.

My first spouse and I made a very good income together as well, prior to my second marriage. This was 15-16 years ago. At THAT time, I was (I am now embarrassed to say) a registered republican in the state of Virginia and held those with less fortune in contempt.

I worked as a head teller at a large regional bank and used to be disgusted when those coming in to cash their AFDC checks would complain that the bank’s teller lines "moved too slow." This was prior to the passage of Clinton's insane "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act" (PRWORA) in the mid-90's. I was indignant that--there I was--heavily pregnant, on my feet, working 45-50 hours a week for meager pay...and "free-loading welfare cases" had the audacity to complain bank lines were slow while sporting salon-manicured nails and Gucci bags. I thought such people were lazy at the time.

Feeling superior, I angrily read the likes of (I now know) crazies like David Horowitz, Larry Elder, and even occasionally listened to Rush Limbaugh. I had NO idea. None. This is despite having lived in utter poverty while serving in the military.

After divorcing my first husband, I discovered very, very fast that survival as a single parent--even with a full-time, semi-decent paying job--that even if one "does everything right," you can feel like you've been abandoned and thrown to the wolves. It was an awakening that I needed, although it was excruciatingly painful. At first, as brainwashed as I was, I believed that any struggles I was enduring were due to some personal shortcomings or "individual failures." I was not very kind to myself. I beat myself up worse than any contempt I had for those who were less fortunate.

It took a couple of years, but I slowly woke up and realized, with horror, that the deck actually was and is stacked in the favor of the "haves" and utterly devoid of fairness or recourse for the "have nots." I killed myself to keep myself and my son in decent living conditions. I worked full-time, donated plasma, sold all I could on eBay, etc. My son never knew what it was like to have utilities cut off, or evictions threatened, but it was a hard, hard slog...

So when my second spouse and I married and I moved back up into what one might consider the middle class, I "switched affiliations" to the Democratic party and even tried to help Howard Dean's campaign. (Again, my evolution was slow!)

I have grown a little since, I hope. I am now one of those “free-loading welfare cases.” Humbling and eye-opening would be my description of my journey so far. Of course, I now recognize the complete crap that all established, business-as-usual politics and power is (and this very much includes both garbage parties out there). The only way we can affect change is to drop our fear, brainwashing and timidity and fight with everything we’ve got collectively. Tall, tall order.

I really appreciated your question. Sharp! Thank you!

Cindy (

Ali said...

Wow, Cindy, thank you for your honesty.

Anonymous said...

Hi again Cynthia.
I like your honesty and your unusual ability to admit you were wrong in the past.
I am curious, you said "The only way we can affect change is to drop our fear, brainwashing and timidity and fight with everything we’ve got collectively. Tall, tall order."
How would you like our current Capitalistic system to change? What type of system would be considered fair in your opinion?
Many thanks!

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Cindy,

I profiled Chuck and his family twice, in a Scranton then Taylor Postcard.

The second Postcard is much better, I think, because I had gotten to know Chuck and his family better.



About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.