Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Gaining Perspective While Looking for Housing

Last week, I commented on the ups and downs of being forced to follow a strict limit on the number of words used when writing for print publication. Another difference in writing for another publication, as opposed to the blog, is a loss of control over the formatting of the article itself. The newsletter can't just print an article, as is, with no formatting changes. There'd either be lots of blank space below the article on the page, or the paper would run out before the article was done. The newsletter editor must arrange the text, choose a size, a font, add pictures, draw a text box, etc. Whatever it takes to make the article fit the paper, and draw attention to the parts of the article that deserve it.

One thing I've noticed in the past couple of articles I've had published is that, while the editor has not actually changed any of my words (which would be their right), many of the words I'd had italicized wind up not being italicized in the printed article. In addition, it seems that this time, they also removed my footnotes. I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps the editor thought they were superfluous. Perhaps the word processing software missed them when I e-mailed the article. I don't know. After I send the article away, I have no further control over the process before seeing the article printed in the newsletter.

For this reason, it's nice that I retain the right to my own articles, enabling me to reprint them here on the blog in a more complete version. This is only a little bit different than the version printed (my intended footnotes are done as hyperlinks here, italics are added back in, and a few sentences are a little different), but at least I have control over my own work again.

When searching for an apartment a few years ago, my wife commented that trying to find housing in Southern California is like being thrust into the Total Perspective Vortex.

Readers of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy (which is actually five books, but that’s another matter) will be familiar with the concept of the “Total Perspective Vortex.” A person thrust into the Total Perspective Vortex sees the “unimaginable infinity of creation” in a single moment. Somewhere within that infinity, on “a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot,” is a marker reading “you are here.”

While looking for a place to live doesn’t quite allow one to see the entire universe, it does provide an opportunity for traveling many miles endlessly, seeing cities and suburbs that have not been previously seen, despite living in Southern California for many years. And while there’s no “you are here” sign, talking to multiple landlords only to find that they do not have anything to offer you (“we don’t accept pets,” “that apartment has already been rented,” the place is too small, or too run-down, or too expensive) does lead one to ponder the meaninglessness of one’s existence in the grander scheme of things.

In Adams’ book, a person who experienced the Total Perspective Vortex (and survived) was driven insane.

Why is looking for housing in Southern California such a highway to madness? One reason might be the high cost of living in this area. “Affordable rent" is generally defined as requiring "not more than 30 percent of an income.” The average rent in Pasadena is $1209 per month for a 2 bedroom apartment. Doing the math, this means that the couple would have to make $4030 each month to afford their rent. If a husband and wife both worked 40 hours a week, this means that each spouse would need a job paying approximately $11 an hour to “afford” their rent.

The current minimum wage in California is $6.75 an hour. Needless to say, there are lots of people who don’t earn enough to meet the government’s standards for affordable housing. I consider myself fortunate to have a fairly stable job here at the seminary. Since my wife is a student, she does not work full-time, and although we do get student financial assistance, we find ourselves constantly struggling to avoid going into debt. We don’t have any children, and so only have to worry about paying for ourselves. What about the person or family that doesn’t have such job security, and has several children to pay the costs of raising? It is easy to see how a twist of fate could send a family already in such a precarious position into utter destitution.

Clearly, this is an all-too common story in Pasadena. One can’t walk downtown for any length of time without seeing someone who is homeless, having to beg for whatever money generous people are willing to spare, just so that they can find their next meal. Each of these people has their own story. It’s far too easy to say that such people made poor life decisions, and that this is why they’re currently on the streets. There are plenty of people out there who are “playing by the rules,” so to speak, who still find themselves unable to make ends meet.

Does God have anything to say about this? I think so. Surely God does not intend for us to feel that our existence is meaningless as we face the harsh realities of our world. Acts 4:32-37 shows how the early Christians cared for each other. This is a pattern for us, as well, though our individual responsibilities may differ according to our own gifts and abilities. Some may volunteer to work at a homeless shelter. Others may donate material resources. Others may advocate for social policies that aid those in need.

My wife and I have considered ourselves blessed to have been able to find housing when we’ve needed it, and to have had the help of family and good friends who have helped us out during those transitional times. Not everyone has been so lucky. We know that many of our friends have had great struggles in finding housing, and can only hope that we have been able to provide assistance to them when they’ve needed it. Our perspective may never be total (thank goodness!), but hopefully the blessings we have been given may grant us some perspective on God’s call to help those who we come across in our little corner of the universe.

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