Friday, April 29, 2016

In Dog We Trust

Some of my friends were upset to hear that I’m struggling to make ends meet in my 4th year of graduate school. I know my previous post sounded dire, because I had just taken a good look at my finances and was feeling scared. But here I want to say that while it definitely makes life more challenging, being poor is not the worst thing in the world.  As long as you have a roof over your head and enough to keep going, not having a lot of money is actually a very good teacher.

It has taught me that I can make do without things I used to expect daily: a glass of wine at dinner, cream for my coffee (if we can’t afford coffee--well that’s a different story).

It has taught me to say yes to things I don't normally say yes to, like pet-sitting for cash. A pet-sitter in Fairbanks can get by looking after sled dogs, house dogs, and new litters of puppies. For mushers to be able to take a vacation away from their numerous dogs is out of the question, unless they can hire a trustworthy individual to stay at their house for a few days or weeks. l have no dog-yard experience, and I was honest about that with a potential employer, who wanted me to look after 37 sled dogs for two weeks. She found someone with mushing experience (thankfully!) and it turned out to be a stroke of luck for Simon, who was able to hire me to stay at Kiwi Kastle for a few days and look after his six puppies while he was caribou hunting in the Kuparuk watershed with a friend.  He took all his dogs and two sleds and drove all day on the Dalton to get a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, where they brought down three bulls and hauled them eight miles on sleds from the open tundra back to their truck parked off the haul road.

While he was doing all that, I was soaking puppy kibble in hot water three times a day, mucking out their kennel, and alternating my time between writing my first chapter manuscript draft and keeping the puppies amused with walks and safe, non-toxic chew toys.

I have learned more about dogs in the seven years I’ve been in Alaska than in a lifetime growing up with dogs in Chicago.  I learned that the happiest dogs in the world are dogs that have jobs.  Dogs are natural optimists, and since you can’t make a dog do a job he doesn’t love, giving them something to focus on allows them to take their natural talent at being optimists a step further. Sled dogs are bred to run; pulling the sled keeps their bodies and brains focused, it works off excess energy, and it allows them to gratify the primal urge to run with the pack.  Others are bred to hunt or herd, and a good long walk through a field or forest is their news, weather and sports rolled into one.

The funny thing is, if you spend enough time surrounded by optimists, it begins to rub off.

In the world of dog people vs cat people, I have always identified as a cat person.  Cat people are not optimists, and are sensitive to the three things dogs are really good at: noise, chaos, and foul odors—thus I’ve largely avoided their company (no hard feelings, guys). I have not been alone. Many cultures have shunned dogs as unclean because they consume carrion and carry pestilent fleas. Anti-canine cultures must wonder at modern people who let these ancient scavengers into their homes where they are hand-fed table scraps and allowed to snuggle in fluffy beds with their human companions.

Dogs don’t care about any of that. If you’re rich, of course they will happily accept steak and a velvet pillow. But if all you have is Alpo and straw, they won't stop wagging their tails at the sight of you, magnificent bringer of Alpo and straw, coming through the door each day. They won’t resent you if you don’t have new clothes or state-of-the-art matching doggy gear. If you fall down and hurt yourself they'll do everything in their power to comfort you. All they want is someone to love.  And when you come home to open the door, they jump on you and shower you with kisses as though they haven’t seen you for ten years—and once they are sure that it's really, really you and not a dream, off they go into the forest scenting a squirrel or rabbit, chasing each other through the bushes, ears flapping, tail up, prancing like mad four-legged ballerinas. Is there anything so happy, so carefree? Your dog could be a purebred with a diamond-studded collar or a rescue with a plain cloth collar—what does she care? She’s out in nature doing what she loves—and she’s with you--the person she loves in all the world!  If that doesn’t make you feel like a million bucks, I don’t know what does.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Low rent and white curtains

I woke up to white curtains of rain-snow and mist. I got up early to meet with my pet-sitting client in town. She was handing over some things I’d left at her place accidentally--and my pay.

I had just enough time to bake my weekly loaf of bread but not enough time to eat any. I also had just enough time to check that my auto insurance was current, and to make a cup of coffee, which I took with me. I was meeting her at a coffee shop, but I didn’t plan on buying anything there.

As I drove down the hill toward town I realized I had forgotten to brush my teeth. But then I remembered I didn’t have any toothpaste anyway.

I had stayed at her place for a total of 36 days; at $15/day this came to $540. I still have to make the rent on my own cabin. Her house had two bedrooms and two and a half baths. Heated floors and a heated garage.  Washer/dryer and a dishwasher. Two showers and an extra large bathtub.  Two dogs and a cat. I was surprised to see the check was made out for $625. She said she was happy with the way her house and her pets looked when she came home.

I thanked her and walked the check across the parking lot to my landlord’s credit union. They deposited the check, made out to me, into his savings account. I have an account at a different credit union, but unlike banks, credit unions “talk” to one another—without charging you a fee. That was handy, because it was snowing heavily just then. And I was fresh out of fee money.

$625 down, $75 to go. I texted my landlord.

I thought about driving to the supermarket. I had meant to bring my propane tank for a refill, but in my haste I’d forgotten to load it in the car.  Toothpaste, a battery for my kitchen clock, tea. That and propane would come to about $25. Oh, and eggs: $29. But I knew if I went to the supermarket I would end up buying things on my wish list: Ziploc bags. Vanilla extract. Cardamom. Flaxseed oil. Sigh. Out of sight is out of mind. After the credit union, I went up the hill to the University greenhouse to water what’s left of my germination experiments.

Two more years of grad school. $52,000 in my IRA account. $16,500 student loan debt. Should I just cash in the IRA to pay off the loan and live off the rest until I graduate? I had been talked into hiring a broker for $39 a month to help me get back on track. It seemed just the thing to do two weeks ago, sitting in the well-designed home-office of the house I was house-sitting, petting the cat to keep her from swiping the cell phone out of my hand with one lethal paw. I sent him a spreadsheet of all my expenses and assets.  We talked about my financial and personal goals. Where do you see yourself in three to five years, he asked. I see myself as a post-doc working at a university somewhere, I told him. I see myself traveling to visit family and friends. I thought to myself, would anyone want to hire/date a 58 to 60 year old post-doc? I might have gray hair by then. People/potential boyfriends would assume I’m a professor/loser and think I’m too expensive/old.  They might take one look at me and think: there are so many post-docs/women out there with less miles on them. Do I really want to hire/have sex with this old lady? What’s she doing being a post-doc/single woman at her age anyway?

Why do I assume nobody wants me? The truth? I never wanted me either. Once I realized that life is all about taking care of yourself because nobody really cares about anything else, I thought: raw deal, so much work, why bother? And yet, the body wants to breathe, the heart wants to pump. What can you do? I get up each morning a mindless blob, and gradually evolve into a human over the first cup of coffee.  Two and a half hours later, I’m ready to march out the door: Look out world, here I come again!!

I used to have a handle on things. I used to be able to buy any kind of grocery I wanted. Anything! Now I have to fork over a month’s pay to pay a month’s rent. I have to go without eggs, and add baking soda to a sliced-open tube of no-more toothpaste.  In three to five years will I be a jobless homeless toothless post-doc runnerup holding a cardboard sign just outside the parking lot at Fred Meyers?

How the hell did life get so low-rent? All I wanted was to be a scientist, but I find myself worrying more about my daily finances than about my dissertation. Did I make the wrong decision?  Should I have stayed an office worker? I would have maybe stayed employed. I would maybe have savings. I would maybe be able to take vacations, see my family--pay my medical bills. Maybe I could buy new clothes, nice wine.  All these things I could maybe do in my spare time if I had stayed in the workforce and survived layoffs. The rest of my time? I would be bored to tears clicking away in some cubicle. If I still had a job.