When the Bootstrap Breaks

We have really, truly come to the end of our rope.  And not for lack of trying.  In an unfortunate series of events dating back 8 years, bad has gotten worse.  I am helping my daughter right now with a math problem.  We did mental math, and double checked by “carrying” the numbers.  We missed a step with the mental math.  She got a different answer.  When I pointed out that she found our “missed” step, she offered to write my name over the correct answer, patting me sympathetically on the elbow.  “I know how it feels to lose mommy; I usually do.”  What insight and tenderness from a little person.  How well she has summarized the mood in our house.

We are American, she and I.  I grew up middle class, hearing commentaries from other middle class people about those who are not middle class.  Urban legends, really, about how “anyone can be anything, if they just WORK hard enough, and TRY hard enough.”

And now, having spent the last 7 years watching my husband try to work hard enough, and try hard enough in three different countries, I can only conclude that either a) the fairy tale is true only in America, for those lucky enough to be born there, or b) the fairy tale is a fairy tale.  I am leaning toward b.

Probably the most recently celebrated American “fairy tale” was the docu-drama “the pursuit of happy-ness.”  Aptly named, for something so obviously capitalizing on our American fondness for stories of triumph in the face of odds. The problem is when we turn these stories into touchstones of what’s normal and achievable, instead of calling them what they are: lottery winners.

I recently read an article written about the poor financial decisions poor people make from the point of view of a woman who views herself in that category.  In the article, she tries to explain why poor people make the decisions they do. Depending on who you are, you may find the article full of excuses or explanations.  I think it’s a combination of the two. But the woman writing it writes from the perspective of someone who didn’t start with anything.  I think it’s important to contribute a perspective from someone who started with a lot.  I did.


And yet, in spite of both my husband and I having master’s degrees, and letters of recommendation from former employers, we find ourselves falling through an endless rabbit hole of despair.  My husband has pulled and pulled and pulled on his bootstraps.  He has been one of “those” people you hear of being accosted crossing the mexican desert to enter the US illegally.  Why?  Because he was waiting for his greencard application to process for an indefinite period of time, prohibiting him from the leaving the US, when his mother had a stoke.

Ask yourself; if you were in that situation, what would you do?  Would you sit tight for months or years, waiting for an allusive piece of paper, while your mother struggled to live on a different continent?  I might, because I am a rule follower.  Does that make me a better person, or a bigger coward, than him? I hope I wouldn’t.  I hope I would be brave enough to break every rule and run home to mine. It’s easy to sit smugly in a your house with the rent paid on time and food in the fridge, hot water in the tap and a car outside, opining about all “those” people crossing the border and breaking “laws”.

If you have never been in the dire straights that drives people to risk drowning, having their legs hacked off by moving trains, death, or rape, just to have enough to take care of your family or a future, I have to pose the question to you.  Are you are better person than those people who take the risk?  Do you have any idea what desperation drives them?  If you want a small window into that world, I recommend that you watch the mexican/american collaboration “Sin Nombre.” Or the Fifth Estate documentary “Run for Your Life,” about Honduran immigration.  You don’t have to agree with the choices people make, but you should try and understand.

After what we’ll call immigration “difficulties” in the US, my husband was lucky enough to get a visitor visa to Canada. And then, “lucky” enough to get a work visa.  Which involved a few months of sleeping in a car and showering on the beach.  This little episode involved getting his window broken, so he had the additional stress of worrying about where to store his tools while working.  And one day, he didn’t realize the streets were being cleared for a holiday, and his “home”/auto were towed-his wallet inside.

Try and imagine living alone in a city, with no place to sleep, starting out with about $50. to your name, and no one to call when things go south.  In a slow process of “pulling” himself up by his bootstraps, my husband found a job, saved enough money for a little basement apartment, and we joined him.  We slept on an air mattress for about 5 months, until a tiny hole sunk the middle, and we woke up in the night rolled into each other.  We saved for months to buy a couch.  Slowly, step by step, things get better.  We had an immigration consultant who suggested to me that I try asking AGAIN at the border if I could have a work visa.  He said I should be eligible.  For arbitrary reasons known only the ding dongs at the border, they decided a year later, at second glance that yes, I could have a work visa.

I got a job, we found a school for our ‘special’ needs daughter that was not composed entirely of Chinese students who would just as soon ignore her as look at her.  My husband began to work double shifts for what was going to be a season, so we could visit his family.  It became the routine, as the only way to replace our ailing car was with additional income. My husband, so you know, was so well respected at his job working with high needs children that he was promoted to a supervisor, and was told by the provincial providers that he should think about running his own house.  He was not taking anything, or feeling entitled to anything.  He contributed, a lot.

There was just one small glitch.  We had been temporary residents for 3 years, and were waiting for the outcome of our permanent residency.  To make sure we didn’t make ANY mistakes, we paid a consultant, endorsed by Canadian Immigration, to review and prepare our application.  As newly marrieds, we paid for paperwork instead of plates and furniture.  For 2 years running, we spent our anniversary stuck at our consultant’s house, going over paperwork.

3 years into our Canadian life, we tried renewing our work visas, a standard procedure.  I was denied at the border 2 times.  Once by a large officer who spent 10 minutes prior to attending me crowded around a co-worker’s computer, chuckling at some hilarous e-humor.  This was pre Canadian olympics time, and I kid you not when I say I was the ONLY person in the building, and there were 10 officers, not terribly interested in attending.

Even though it said on the Canadian Immigration website that I was ELIGIBLE to apply at the border, this giant genius informed me that if they attended every one looking to do what I was doing-after about 3 attempts of making him understand just exactly WHAT I wanted to do-the office would be backed up with people.  I repeat: 1 customer=me, 10 officers=them.  Excusem?

Thus began the insanity that is Canadian Immigration.  The rest went like this: I went to a local office to ask how I could be “pre-approved” for a work visa, as I was instructed to do by the genius at the border.  At the local office, they looked it up on their computers. (Thanks for that professional advice,  ’cause I couldn’t do that.)  I rounded up all the paperwork, sent it over, and a few weeks later, got my paperwork back with a note that “that” office doesn’t do “that” service.  So silly of me.  Just trusted the 2 DIFFERENT immigration officers I spoke with.  We then received a letter from immigration (located, btw, in Buffalo NEW YORK, wtf?) that because we marked a no on our application where we should have marked a yes (per advice from our paid consultant per consultation with a thick volume of canadian laws) we now had to fill out a different application.  An application requiring the acquisition of paperwork from three different countries, some of which needed to be translated.  So we saw another attorney, a few times, who told us I was LEGALLY eligible at the border for the work visa I’d already inquired about.  We filled out the second application-got all the paperwork and translations-and sent it in.  I went back to the border, and this time had the pleasure of dealing with 2 militant female officers, intent on proving they were every bit as serious as the fellows.  And clueless about the laws around my request.  So I was denied, again.  I missed my best friend’s wedding.  I missed a niece’s birth. And we waited for that 2nd application to be approved.

And waited.  Waited for Juan to start his own residential home, which would give us enough income to finally *adopt.* The dream, after we found out we are unable to have our “own” babies.  Enough income to become home owners.  Small dreams it seems, relative to what most middle class people I know wish for.  A baby and a house.  We waited.

And then the letter came, but not the letter we were waiting for.  The government asked us to send in Y in order to process X.  And then they processed X without ever looking at Y.  They gave us a month to leave.  My husband’s employer said they would get him an attorney to “fix” it.  This attorney cost as much as I have made in some years of working.  She looked at our paperwork and said NO PROBLEM.  She has done an application for many people that will remedy it.  So she put together some papers and sent them in.  And not long after, received a letter from Canadian immigration that we were not eligible for said application.  That she should never have sent it.  Even though she has done it MANY times before and they always approved it.  She has done it for people caught at the border with drugs, within the year previous to filing.  And they went through.  My husband worked with highly disturbed autistic children, that few people but he could manage.  I teach English.  But for some reason, we were left out of a system that worked for everybody else.  It is like falling into an episode of the twilight zone.

The month we were getting ready to go, my husband’s mother had a final, massive episode, and died a week before he made it home.  This time, he didn’t follow his heart.  He was practical, working as many hours as he could, so he could support us wherever we landed.  But in the end, his wages were garnished for the attorney that didn’t do anything for us.

I would like to say that at this point in our family saga, things get better.  Like Will Smith, I would like to pause our life, and say “this is the part we call happy-ness.” But I can’t.  Life is filled with little pleasures, if you look for them.  I won’t deny it. Hanging out the laundry on a balmy night, seeing the moon pulled down to earth like Gru actually stole it.  Adopting a kitten that sleeps on your face.  But life is also filled with big griefs and enormous disappointment.  Imagine that part in the movie when the rich guy asks Will Smith to borrow his last buck.  That feeling of being SO outside of some else’s easy existence, and that’s where we live.  If I could tell you how I want to scream every time someone suggests we just take this trip or do that activity, or enroll our child in X.  As if the money actually does grow on trees.

In her article about poverty, Lind Tirado writes this:

“Nobody gives enough thought to depression. You have to understand that we know that we will never not feel tired. We will never feel hopeful. We will never get a vacation. Ever. We know that the very act of being poor guarantees that we will never not be poor. It doesn’t give us much reason to improve ourselves. We don’t apply for jobs because we know we can’t afford to look nice enough to hold them. I would make a super legal secretary, but I’ve been turned down more than once because I “don’t fit the image of the firm,” which is a nice way of saying “gtfo, pov.”

And I have to say, I get it. If you are going to stand on a particular stair, people expect you to look a certain way, and it goes the other way.  If you look a certain way, people assume you stand on a particular stair.  The idea of health care is like the idea of Disneyland.  As in, yeah sure, some day we’ll go there. When someone tells me I just have to go visit so and so ruins in Peru, I want to punch them.  Sorry (kind of) but I do!  I know they are being perfectly cordial, and oblivious, but it feels about the same as when some friendly person asks me why we don’t have more kids.  I beg you, don’t ever ask near perfect strangers this question, or recommend that they visit some exotic local.  Because some day, they just….might….. punch you.

I invite you back into our movie: The train wreck kept on rolling.  Now transplanted to a new, garbage strewn and desert destination, we struggled to look for jobs.  I hopped around in a few schools, and took on a job as the director of a little school, where I discovered later, they paid me half of what my MALE and less educated predecessor received.  That ended up being an awful experience, where all the warnings from my husband and co workers that a certain someone was “sawing the floor under me” being true.  The ways in which it went wrong would really need a catalogue, but the aftermath meant that my daughter, enrolled there, needed to transition to yet another school. And this school was a whole new hell, eventually “suggesting” a change of “pedogological” environment for our daughter.  After my husband spent a whole year fighting for her fair treatment.  Everyone told him, don’t do it.  In the end, they’ll kick her out.  His answer?  It is the RIGHT thing to do.  They need to be accountable for proper treatment of children.  And guess what.  Year end, they kicked her out.  Code for: you parents are a giant pain in the ass.  There is no recourse in a city where we live.  If you complain to the ministry of education (which we did), they do nothing to protect you from retribution.  Everyone knows it, and no one fights it.  But my husband.  (Can you tell yet that he’s like a dad superhero?!)

All this time, my husband was hustling to try and make a living.  Just imagine that you went to school for A, worked doing B for 10 years, and then moved to a country where B doesn’t exist as a profession.  What’s a grown man do?  Pulls up his man pants and tries to beg, borrow, and steal a living.  Without, of course, stealing.  It has not gone well.  And not for lack of trying.  We have been at the doorstep of sooo many “almost” opportunities.  Through an almost overt system of bribery, my husband has lost multiple contracts for services he could provide cheaper and better.  But here, the “pituto” is king, and fat chance of a coup.  This week brought the hardest fall.  And all I can think is-sometimes you pull so hard on those bootstraps, they have to break.  And sometimes, you FOLLOW the rules, and get screwed anyways.  I’m here to tell you a little bit about the psychology of those rules.  If you know they only apply to some people, are un- evenly applied, or interpreted by human beings with the IQ of a rabbit, you start to have a certain disregard for the rules.  So when I hear people saying that all “those Mexicans” should just follow the rules, I’m here to tell you, the rules are not for them.  I once spoke with an attorney for 40 minutes who thought my husband was Mexican (he’s not); and he basically told me to FORGET trying to submit any applications for him, because they would never been seen.  I believe him.  Canada’s most recent response to a backlog of permanent residency applications was to shred them, and start over. CANADA.  This is a 1st world response.

Each of those applications represented lost money, time, and the dreams of the people who submitted them, FOLLOWING the rules.  So what is the message?

The bible says time and chance happen to us all.  And for some reason I cannot explain, some people get most of the chances, and some get nada, or nada and a half.  And it is a fallacy to assume that people who fail, fail for lack of trying.  It is very possible they tried so hard, their bootstraps broke.  My husband said to me last night “I feel hurt.”  Not a small thing to say for a man of few words.  It hurts to fall down, down, down and down again.  It is humiliating to look up a steep well of stairs, and know you probably will never get back to the middle.  Especially when so many people you know are up there, looking down at you.  It is a fairytale to believe it can be done through sheer force.  If it is true that time and chance happen to us all, it is also true that money makes money.  You can’t make something from nothing, and until you’ve tried, you can’t really know how true it is.  Sure you can take your lemons and turn it into lemon-aid, but try taking your nothing and turn it into something aid. You’ll end up with nothing aid, which about sums it all up.

Sometimes people are broke or homeless because they tried, and things went south.  There is no rainbow at the end.  We have work histories and educations, and it happened to us.  A series of decisions, system failures and bad luck knocked us right down one stair, and then another, until we seem to have hit the bottom.  And it sucks down here.  It isn’t just “poor people” or “uneducated people” who land on the bottom.  It can happen to anyone.  It could happen to you.  One gift of the bottom is the new view it affords.  It’s ugly, but you could never see it standing at the top. I watched a marvelous video yesterday about this.  If you have a minute, it’s worth a watch.