the perfect life

One of my favorite films of all time–holiday or otherwise–is The Family Man, starring Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni. In it, Cage plays a Wall Street businessman who seemingly has the perfect life as a wealthy bachelor. One Christmas Eve he stumbles into a world that is a glimpse of what life would have been like for him had he taken an alternate course, that of a common family man living in a chronically untidy house in the suburbs with two adorable children and a wife whose career has been less than stellar.

I love this film for a number of reasons, but specifically because it questions what most people would consider the perfect life–fancy cars, a driver, a penthouse suite, the attention of beautiful members of the opposite sex. It begs the question, what would life have been like had we steered onto a different path? How different would our lives have been and would it have made us happier than we are now? And the film makes you question what is perfection. Is it the Ferrari and the penthouse suite, or is it a comfortable home with a loving spouse and children? Leoni’s character, Kate, is a lawyer–typically a well-paying career–but Kate is content helping the disadvantaged, taking on pro bono cases instead of the ones that could make her much more money. To her, the house in the suburbs and the minivan and the child in a decent public school is the perfect existence.

For sure, the movie poses an interesting scenario to ponder. What if you had married someone else? What if you had chosen a different career? What if you had more children–or none at all? What if you had never moved from that city or ended up in this one? What if you had never left the farm?

One of my favorite scenes in The Family Man is when suburban Jack gets a break at cracking into the lucrative career he had lworked at in his former/real life. On their anniversary, he takes Kate to a magnificent Manhattan apartment that he has been offered as a perk for accepting a high-paying, high-powered job on Wall Street. When Kate wants none of it, Jack pleads that this new business opportunity and living in the city would provide them with “a perfect life, a great life. Everything that we pictured when we were young; the whole package.” When Kate continues to protest, Jack says, “I’m talking about us having a life that other people envy.” To which Kate replies, “Oh, Jack. They already do envy us.”

This movie hits a nerve because my husband chose a career that makes many people quite wealthy. There are millionaires in his field. They live in mansions or at the very least McMansions. They drive foreign cars (and by “foreign” I do not mean Toyota). They have country club memberships and second homes in the country. They travel to expensive places on extensive vacations. In other words, they live the high life, what many would label the perfect life.

But even before my husband had started his career, the two of us had started a family. By the time he graduated from school, he was the father of two children and the husband of a wife with no job. We lived off of student loans the first three years of our elder daughter’s life and the first year of our younger’s. We worked part time at whatever we could manage. The loans totaled $15,000 for the first year, and $12,000 for each of the following two years, maximum. Try buying groceries and diapers, paying for health insurance, car insurance, paying the utilities and rent in the Bay Area for four people on that income, and without taking any kind of a handout. We had one car–a two-door Nissan Sentra, which posed a problem when getting the babies in and out of the back seat–and little more to our names. We ate a lot of hotdogs, chicken, and macaroni and cheese (the boxed kind, not the luscious stuff featured on the Food Network). A treat would be a very occasional bucket of fried chicken or lunch at McDonald’s. We shopped on an extremely tight budget and somehow made it work. By the time my husband got his first job, I’m sure our elder daughter thought generic was a brand name.

We started out behind the 8 ball, and it’s been a struggle ever since to roll it out of our way or push it completely aside. To this day–more than 20 years after first starting his career–we’re still living a modest life in a modest house with many flaws. No, we don’t have hardwood floors, marble or granite countertops (or even Corian, for that matter). Our carpet is old and grungy and when we need new flooring, we tend to pull up the carpets and lay down peel-and-stick vinyl. I shop at Target, not Nordstrom. Eating out is reserved for special occasions–birthdays, our anniversary, and the occasional holiday. Needless to say, most of my husband’s peers would not be able to even fathom our lifestyle. I’m sure they’d hardly consider this a perfect life. But it’s what we’ve made and it’s all we have. And it’s really not so bad. We pay our bills on time, have four terrific kids, two of whom have reached adulthood in that condition and one is less than a year away, and we have friends and family who love and care about us.

Now that my husband is struggling to find a job to replace the one he has been downsized from, I have once again begun pondering the what ifs. What would our life have been like had he taken a different road on his career path? What if he had gone for the high-paying, high-powered career? If it would have meant being without our cluttered, funky home, having three kids instead of four, or two instead of four, or none at all, I’d have taken the very road we’re on. It may not be the perfect life, but it’s an enviable one just the same.

T minus 51, and counting

My husband has just 51 days until he is out the door at the firm where he works, a job loss due to no better reason than there not being enough work at his firm for his boss to afford to keep both attorneys he has on the payroll. In other words, it’s the economy, stupid. Nearly two weeks have passed since the initial bad news and, although my husband has applied to four or five jobs and sent out e-mails to just about everyone he knows, asking them to be on the alert, nothing substantial has yet to turn up. Not even a bloody call-back.

Am I nervous? Does it snow in Alaska? You betcha. And I’m becoming more nervous as each day creeps into the next. To have just 51 days to find a job is bad enough during most times of the year. Add the holidays to that mix and the level of dread is multiplied many times over. Not only is extra money a necessity in November and December, but the impetus for HR people and firm heads to put the glass of eggnog down, remove the lampshade from the head, and come into the office to review resumes and interview people is, I’d guess, not a top priority. 

So, the wait continues.

In the meantime, I’m doing everything I can to earn us some extra cash. I’m taking on extra work this weekend and accepting everything else that comes my way. And I’m still scouring the job boards–for both me and my husband.

I’m scrimping and saving every penny possible, as well. The birthday of one of my daughters is this coming week, throwing a monkeywrench into the scrimping and saving plan. To my relief she has asked for a bare minimum of gifts, and I’ve purchased the three small items gladly, but nothing more. Our tradition of taking the birthday kid out to dinner also may be altered, if not completely pushed aside. I will see if there is a coupon or a gift certificate I can use at the chosen restaurant. Fortunately, her tastes sway more toward chicken masala and curry than steak and lobster. But just the thought of not being able to afford to take the family out on a special occasion is disconcerting.

I am praying for a positive resolution to all this, which I know will eventually come. It’s just a matter of time. Unfortunately, time is finite, but our savings are not.

And the Hits Just Keep on Comin’!

Just when I thought it was safe to go back into the world, having just secured extra part-time work to help out with the family finances, I have spotted an enormous, wide-mouthed Great White lurking off the coast: My husband will be losing his job at the end of the year.

This is what I had feared would happen. This is why I panicked so thoroughly when I personally didn’t have money coming in or when I’d get a measly $48 for an assignment that just a couple years ago would have garnered ten times as much for something similar. It wasn’t so much that my income was diminished and my ego was bruised or that I’d have to forego buying extra goodies, like an occasional frothy latte or a French-tip manicure (two items I’ve yet to even desire, thankfully); it was more that I knew that my husband’s job was less than stable. And, darn it, I was right.

He has just a little over seven weeks to find a full-time job or he’ll be standing in the unemployment line, collecting his maximum $1,800 a month, which will only cover our mortgage and property taxes. And although I was able to pick up some extra work, it’s still only part-time employment. I do not earn even close to enough to make up the difference between what he used to take home and what he will be bringing in.

I’ve already begun pulling up the bootstraps, tightening the laces, and hunkering down for a long, cold winter. Today I will survey the freezer and see what we can make use of without my having to go out and buy groceries, an expense that can run easily to $800 a month for a family of six. I’m also looking at items I recently bought that can be returned. Although the two items that first come to mind only add up to $35, that amount will at least cover one month of Internet service–my lifeline to a paycheck.

I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this–and it just might not, if my husband can find work before the first of the new year. But if it does, I will do everything in my power to stay afloat and keep that evil beast from encroaching on our shore.

A Room of One’s Own

Virginia Woolf was right: All a woman needs to write fiction is a little money and a room of one’s own. Or in my case, write nonfiction (or edit it) and a room of one’s own. Whether temporary or not.

You see, my eldest child moved out of the house this past weekend. She is educated and now fully employed and had the opportunity to share a nice, small home with a friend. She had been yearning for her independence for some time, but stuck it through in this house filled with chaos until she was able to afford a place of her own.

Now, her old room is empty, except for an old dresser, a small TV and a small student’s desk on which I write this. The desk is situated below a window that faces our backyard and the neighbors’ yards, with a hill behind them. A not bad view at all.

So it is here that I sit and write and where I will work until the room is painted and filled with the items that define a teenage boy–PlayStation and music and clothes strewn on the floor–as my elder son will be claiming this space as his own shortly. He is happy, his little brother is happy (they, for the first times in their lives, will finally get their own rooms) and I am happy for them. But I will be losing this nice little nook in which to have a quiet space to work–with only the whirr of my laptop fan and the tweets and squeaks of the birds outside my window for sound.

I can get used to this. But what brought me here will take greater acclimation, for the reason the room is so empty and so quiet and, for this blip of a moment in time, mine, is because my eldest child is gone. It won’t be long before daughter number two, then son number one, and finally (good God, no) my younger boy are packed up and moved–across town, across the state, across the country. Where their lives lead them is for now a mystery.

All I know is that one got away, but she’s close enough to visit regularly. I must learn to relish her independence and savor the moments I still have with the other three. And enjoy the view from my little window, which too soon will pass.