During my breakfast and light reading period this morning, I came across the latest installment of Salon’s ongoing series “Pinched: Tales From an Economic Downturn” called “I Live in a Van Down by Duke University,” which I will admit initially caught my eye because it was this morning’s featured main story and because of its titular Chris Farley reference. But aside from my reasons for reading it in the first place, I found the essay brought up a lot of issues that we don’t really speak about in America today, like poverty, education, and consumerism. Ken Ilgunas, the author of the piece, engages in a compelling discussion of the real costs of doing the things we value as a culture that are supposed to give us security, like pursuing higher and higher levels of education and the risks of finding unorthodox ways to live while doing them (I particularly liked his humorous digression into his course of action should Duke University catch him living in a van in a campus parking lot. I, too, would like to start wearing all white and inviting undergrads curious in following my ways to have tea with me during a long-term and principled stand against the establishment).
Many of Salon’s “Pinched” essays talk about something we generally try to avoid – what happens when you do everything right and everything still goes wrong? But with the current economic situation, we’ve been forced to ask this question a bit more openly. While I haven’t read all of the “Pinched” essays, I recommend Heather Ryan’s “Our Cupboard Was Bare,” about her experience of having to take her children to the local soup kitchen, and Rosencrans Baldwin’s “How I Ended Up Living With My In-Laws,” which has a pretty self-explanatory title. For longer works on this topic, I would suggest Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.