Employed!

It happened about a week ago.

While I was concentrating intently on something else entirely, I suddenly thought I felt a tickle in my pocket.  Sure enough, my trusty iPhone was vibrating.  I wasn’t expecting a call from anyone and I didn’t recognize the number on the screen.

As it turned out, it was an employer to which I had applied sometime in the past few months.  They would like to invite me to travel hundreds of miles to their out-of-state location on Friday to sit for testing.

Hmm, I know how this song goes.  The angst-ridden lyrics include a mention of “I’ve been down this road a time or two,” perhaps as a rhyme for “and this is not the job for you.”  Let’s see:  First, you spend hundreds of dollars in gas, restaurant and hotel money to sit in a training room with 20 or 30 other wannabes in various stages of unemployment discomfort.  I went through this twice down in Orange County this past spring.  Either you type insipid essays in Microsoft Word or you bubble in your multiple guess answers with a Number 2 pencil.  Then you go home and a couple of months later you receive a congratulatory email along with notification that you have now been added to the list of candidates for any management position for which the organization should happen to open recruitment within the next year.  About a month after that, you receive another email inviting you for an interview.  You make more hotel reservations, take gas money out of savings, drive hundreds of miles again to get dressed up, shake hands and tell a lot of stories about your management style and a time when you disagreed with your employer’s decision and how you implemented it effectively among your subordinates anyway.  After that, who knows?  You might receive a call inviting you back to a second interview (now that you’ve already blown through $1,500 in travel expenses) or you might receive a form letter informing you that a better qualified candidate was selected and better luck next time.

All of this flashed through my mind in the ten seconds I had to respond to the employer on the phone.  My answer tasted delicious on my tongue.  “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I burbled in my most sympathetic voice, “but I’ve already accepted another position.”

You read that right, folks.  After nearly a year of unemployment, Uncle Guacamole is once again gainfully employed in a full-time job.

It gave me great pleasure to be able to turn down this offer to spend a lot of money on nothing.  This pleasure was enhanced immeasurably by uttering it from my own cubicle at my new job on a very quiet floor of an office building from which several dozen of my nearby coworkers could hear my heartfelt rejection.

About six months ago, one of my readers asked that I be sure to inform her when I finally find a job by uttering “Hooray!” and “Yeehaw!” in this space.

Hooray!  Yeehaw!

Never say that I’m not a man of my word.

I have now been on the job for one week and, I’ve got to tell you folks, I am loving it.  I was a supervisor for years until I made my way up to manager.  This job is neither of those and thus represents a significant demotion.  Also I had to take a big salary cut from my last position.  But then again, it’s a big raise from the zero dollars and zero cents I was earning as an unemployed person.  And I will unequivocally assert that it is a heck of a lot better than standing in line for three hours waiting for a food handout.

I am also now a commuter.  My job (ooh, it sounds so lovely to say my job) is in downtown Sacramento, which is 36 miles away, nearly an hour’s drive in rush hour traffic.  Also, there is no parking to be had without paying a monthly fee to a garage and then hiking from there to the office tower in which I work.  Thus, my wonderful wife drives me to work each morning, then returns at 5 p.m. to pick me up.  At two round-trips daily, that’s about 144 miles, which works out to well over $150 in gas.  And we will certainly have to purchase another vehicle sooner rather than later.  Our old trusty isn’t going to last long at this rate.

It is truly a blessing from God that my wife is willing to do all the driving.  The rush hour traffic as one approaches downtown on Interstate 5 reminds this New York boy of his romps of yesteryear on the Long Island Expressway.  It is enough to fray the nerves of one stronger than I.  My wife, however, has it down to a science.  She has memorized every lane change from Arco Arena to Q Street and manages to execute this automotive dance with balletic aplomb.  I’ll say it again:  God has been very good to me.

As if that weren’t enough, I have a boss who is an answer to prayer.  His kindness and patience humbles me.  And if, someday, I make it back into management, I want to be like him.

Christmas in September

wreath

Hey!  All you last minute procrastinators had better get on the stick.  There are only 102 days left until Christmas.

Before you start pummeling me, allow me to assure you that there is evidence aplenty of the impending arrival of Santa.  In fact, word on the street is that the big man has put on mandatory overtime for the elves on account of the lateness of the hour.

I don’t know what it is that has led me to begin humming bell songs.  You know, the ones about jingle bells, silver bells, carol of the bells.  Ding dong.

At first, I thought it was just the festive atmosphere surrounding preparations for my grandniece’s upcoming birthday party that was getting to me.  She’ll be two years old, so this Christmas will be the first time she will really be able to appreciate all the hoopla.  Last December, she was barely a year old and I don’t think she was able to understand too much about what was going on.

I guess it’s probably the snow that did it.  Sure, here in northern California, the mercury has climbed over 100°F daily for weeks and all of us are dripping sweat and wilting like buds that are past their primes.  But I hear the Rocky Mountains had a pretty good snowstorm last week.  Fellow blogger Trouble Face Mom of Calgary, Alberta (yes, that’s Canada) thoroughly entertained me with her tale of how she dealt with three consecutive days of snow.  She was starting to get depressed, considering it’s only September and officially still summer.  So her family took the only logical course of action.  They put up the tree, roasted a turkey and had Christmas.

What really got to me, however, was a visit to Sam’s Club.  We needed to pick up hot dogs and buns for a church function.  But mostly, it was a water run.  You see, water is always on our minds these days.  Between the ongoing drought, the forest fires and the heat wave, some days water is all we think about.  And when we’re not thinkin’ it, we’re drinkin’ it.  The water here is contaminated, so we purify tap water and still have to buy bottled water.  Cases and cases of it.

I did a double take right after pushing a shopping cart into that cavernous warehouse.  There it was, right in front of the checkout registers.  Artificial trees all lit up in red and green and gold.  The regular green kind and the ones with fake white needles that are supposed to look as if they have been snowed upon.  Globular ornaments that looked like miniatures of the big balls from Wipeout.  Flocking.

You read me right.  Flocking, for heaven’s sake.  Faux snow.  In September.

I know, this is California, we need fake snow because we never get any of the genuine item.  I’d be happy to just get a little of our “poor man’s snow.”  You know, that wet stuff that drips from the eaves and causes (gasp) puddles.  I have it on good authority that the proper name of this substance is “rain.”  This is how I know:  There was a sign posted on the local frozen yogurt shop yesterday, offering a 10% discount on all froyo purchased when it is raining.  Believe me, they don’t have to worry about losing so much as a penny in receipts.

So yes, I do realize that we are supposed to have Thanksgiving and Halloween before José Feliciano begins singing “Feliz Navidad.”  The back to school sales are still going on and the stores are just now beginning to pull out the dusty boxes full of cardboard pumpkins and Indian corn.

My father insists that, back in the day, it was against the law to so much as mention the C word before Black Friday.  So you tell me what a ubiquitous box store is doing with the PVC and LED Tannenbaum displays in mid-September.  The least they could do is wait until after Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, don’t you think?

Well, there’s only one possible explanation for this madness.  Clearly, the stores are trying to remind us to get crackin’ before it’s too late.

After all, there are only 102 days left until Christmas.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MUPGxVCIvrI

On Student Loans and Dreams Deferred

Most of us who attend college these days have to take out student loans and then spend years mired in debt, trying to pay off the costs of their education.  I am no exception.

The ironic thing is that I nearly escaped this trap.  I was this close when I blew it.

You could say that I had it made.  My parents were teachers and school administrators for years, were frugal and saved their money, and made it clear that they would pay my college expenses and those of my two sisters.

As you may imagine, education was near and dear to my parents’ hearts.  From earliest age, they planted the seed in our brains that all of us were going directly from high school to college, no two ways about it.  We lived in a solidly middle class enclave, and nearly all the kids with whom we associated at school had similar college plans.  Not college dreams, mind you.  College plans.  We vaguely heard about kids who went to work straight out of high school or who went into the Armed Forces.  For us, however, there was a direct college preparatory path into the halls of academia.

In the case of my sisters and myself, college was far more than an abstract idea or a simple expectation.  From our elementary school days on, we understood what college was all about because we lived it.  My parents were always going to school.  At the age of four, my father bought me a toy typewriter because I wanted to be just like Dad, whom I observed, day after day, typing his master’s thesis on a battered manual typewriter in the corner of our New York City apartment.  When I was in fourth grade (and my sisters were in second grade and kindergarten, respectively), we had a babysitter one night a week so that my parents could run out of their jobs and straight to class.  Now that we lived in the suburbs, the drive to the college was two and a half hours round trip.

Then there were the summer classes.  By the time I was in junior high, my mother was working on her master’s degree and my father was on his way to a sixth year certificate in educational administration.  All of us would wake up at the crack of dawn to head up north to the college.  My sisters and I would amuse ourselves on campus while my parents were in class.  We’d walk the tree-lined paths, chill out in the library, play board games in the student lounges, beg my father for quarters to raid the vending machines.  I would pretend I was a college student by researching topics in history and geography and writing papers on what I had learned.  I thought it was the coolest thing to stretch out beneath a tree with a book.  No one bothered the three of us, and many of the professors recognized us.  “There go the Smith kids.”

One summer, my mother had to take a class in entomology at the college’s field campus in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York.  This was an even longer drive, but at least it was only one day per week.  My father didn’t have a class there, so he would take my sisters swimming in the pond while I, a fat klutz and certified water hater, holed up somewhere with a book.  Back at home, we’d help my mother get a good grade by catching butterflies, grasshoppers and beetles for her to preserve and mount on pins in her insect collection.

I would burst with pride when my mother was doing research in the college library and asked me to find a particular book for her.  Familiar with the Dewey decimal system from our public library, I quickly learned to navigate the college’s Library of Congress cataloguing system.  We watched my mother tip-tap her papers, and eventually her doctoral dissertation, on her Smith-Corona electric typewriter.

College was in my blood.

All three of us ended up attending the State University of New York, paid for in full by mother. (By this time, my parents had begun managing their finances separately — and they’ve now been married for nearly 62 years!)  As my wife frequently reminds me, I had the kind of advantages that many others do not.

After college, I worked for almost seven years before deciding to attend graduate school full-time.  Once again, my mother fully encouraged me in my plans, agreeing to pay for me to attend the best graduate school that I could get into.  Sounds like a dream, right?

For a while, it was.  I embarked on a three-year course of study at a small private college in New England.  There was the tuition, obscenely expensive textbooks, rent, food and the costs of maintaining my car.  My mother paid for all of it.

When I had one year left to go before obtaining my degree, it all fell apart.  A situation developed that I handled badly and from which I have never been able to financially recover.

Here’s how it all went down:  Just after I completed my first year of grad school, my mother accepted a position as superintendent of schools in a tiny school district in upstate New York.  She rented an apartment there and made the eight hour round trip to visit her house near New York City on the weekends.  By the time I finished my second year of grad school, my mother decided that she would like to buy a house in upstate New York and, eventually, retire there.  (She never did, instead retiring to California to be near her grandchildren.)  She planned to purchase a large house that had plenty of room for me to move in with her and that had a separate office wing for me to set up my own business.  Talk about having everything handed to me on a silver platter!

There were just a couple of small problems.  For one thing, I was thirty years old and didn’t want to live with my mother.  And for another, I didn’t want to set up my own business.

Well, you can figure out how this ended up.  I broke the news to my mother that I had other plans, to which she reacted by withdrawing all financial support.  But I still had one year of school left before graduation.  What to do?

The most sensible course of action, I decided, was to quit school, get a job and move on.  This, however, proved to be problematic.  Without the graduate degree, there would be no professional job for me.  I thought I’d go back to working as a typesetter or proofreader, but the economy had tanked and there were no jobs in that field to be found.  I answered every ad in the newspaper for clerical positions, anything on which I could support myself.  I had no luck whatsoever.  The only job I was offered was in fast food at a subminimum wage that would not pay my rent.  And so, as much to avoid homelessness as anything else, I took out student loans to get me through my final year of school.  All these years later, I can still see myself sitting alone in the grad school lobby, agonizing over this decision.

In retrospect, I should have told my mother what she wanted to hear; later, I could have reneged on my promise and there wouldn’t have been much she could have done about it.  But I’ve never operated that way.  I have a thing for honesty that has screwed me over royally more than once.

There were other factors involved as well.  I felt terrible about wasting two years of hard work.  I knew it was now or never, that I’d never be able to cobble together enough courses at night to earn my degree.  Additionally, I was invested in the school’s culture, stupidly being unwilling to leave behind trappings that, in the long run, did not matter at all.  It didn’t help that, at the time, I had a girlfriend who threw histrionic fits at the thought of me living with my mother forever.  If only I’d had half a brain, I would have gotten in my car and driven to Alaska.

In the intervening decades, I have never ceased to regret my decision to take out those student loans.  In the end, I graduated but was never able to find a position in my field anyway.  Eventually, I was able to make my way back to working as a desktop publisher.

I will be paying on those loans for the rest of my life.  My experience has included defaulting on my student loans, having them reinstated at lower interest rates, obtaining forbearance during two periods of unemployment, combining loans, being mercilessly dunned by telephone collectors and having my wages garnished.

Unlike other types of consumer credit, student loans have the distinction of being non-dischargeable in bankruptcy.  If this were not so, it would be easy to attend college for free by taking out large student loans and then declaring bankruptcy upon graduation.  If you are a low-wage worker, you can have your monthly payments lowered (or even temporarily reduced to zero if you become unemployed), but the interest on the amount owed continues to accumulate.  After a while, the compound interest becomes so huge that, short of winning the lottery, most of us can never hope to repay the debt.

One good thing about student loan debt is that it does discharge at the end of the life of the debtor.  The idea, I’ve been told, is that no education is ever wasted and that it is useful in any type of job, even if the student never works in the field in which the degree was conferred.  Because education is not transferable to another, however, the benefit obtained by the money borrowed ends with the death of the borrower.  As I took out my student loans many years before I was married, I alone am responsible for my debt.  It is comforting to know that the debt will be forgiven when I die, and that my wife will not continue to be saddled with payments after my demise.

Considering my difficult experiences with repaying student loans for a single year of education, I can’t imagine what hopelessness must descend upon those who took out loans to finance four to eight years of college.

But I have learned one thing in the process.  Regardless of the mistakes of one’s youth, we must go on.  Sure, we’ve made other financial mistakes over the years.  My wife and I have had our little dances with credit cards.  With the aid of her superb money management skills, however, we have managed to become nearly debt-free without declaring bankruptcy.  I say “nearly,” because those student loans remain.  They will never go away.

It makes me rather sad to hear people say “I can’t do this, I can’t do that…I have student loans, you know.”  One of my favorite bloggers has posted that she is planning to defer or renounce an opportunity to pursue a dream because she would need to stop working for a while and can’t do that with $50,000 of student loans.  I have unsuccessfully urged her to reconsider this decision, reminding her that loan payments can be reduced or suspended.  And when she achieves her dream, those good old loan payments will still be there for her to begin making again.

After all, student loans eventually go away when you die.  And you only live once.

The Very Inspiring Blogger Award

Today I would like to express special thanks to The Art Bag Lady for nominating A Map of California for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award!  I am extremely flattered and humbled by this kind gesture.

The Rules

Acceptance of this nomination requires the following:

  • Thank the blogger who nominated you and provide a link to his or her blog.
  • Display the Very Inspiring Blogger Award badge (and these rules) on your blog.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other bloggers for this award, and add a comment to each of their blogs, mentioning the nomination.

7 Facts About Myself

  1. I only wear long-sleeved shirts.  I can’t stand the sleeveless/short-sleeved ones.
  2. I have attended three high schools and six colleges; I hold two university degrees.
  3. Growing up, my favorite color was green.  Now, however, my favorite color is orange.
  4. Currently, my favorite food is garlic-flavored hummus with pimento-stuffed green olives, served on toast.  Next week it will be something else.
  5. I have played in 41 officially sanctioned Scrabble tournaments (8 with the Word Games Player Organization and 33 with the National Scrabble Players Association).  WGPO says I am currently in 470th place.  I don’t know my NASPA ranking because my membership dues are not paid up because I have no money because I am unemployed.
  6. I speak French, but not very well.  I know just enough Spanish to get myself in trouble.
  7. I have been working on a memoir of my childhood for years.  It is now about 90% complete.

Blog Nominations

I regret that I am unable to include several very talented bloggers who have gone inactive or whose blogs seem to have disappeared.  Here’s to you The Gratetudenist, A Rich Full Life in Spite of It, Little Bird’s Dad and A Clown on Fire.  I miss you guys.

I hereby nominate the following wonderful bloggers for the well-deserved honor of the Very Inspiring Blogger Award:

  1. Too Many Spiders – The pride of Staten Island!  She has seven children and her eighth is due any time now.  She shops and cooks with finesse to feed all those kids on one income.  She’ll argue philosophy with you and destroy you across a chess board.  She is raising her kids Catholic because her husband is Catholic.  Somewhere deep inside, however, she is Jewish.  Watch out, Bill DeBlasio.  Spider for Mayor!
  2. Movin’ It With Michelle – I don’t cook and I don’t run.  Many days I can barely walk.  So I have nothing but admiration for Michelle.  She is a gourmet cook, she runs marathons, she is raising two daughters and she is a professional histologist!  If you’ve ever wanted to have it all and do it all, Michelle is your role model.
  3. Gotta Find a Home – As readers of A Map of California know, helping the homeless is often on my mind.  Everyone has his or her own take on why people become homeless and how to solve the problem.  Dennis Cardiff, however, shows us the homeless as individuals, allowing each one he befriends to tell his or her unique story in his or her own words.  Riveting!
  4. Rachelmankowitz: The Cricket Pages – Follow this blog for a while and you will find that Rachel’s two furry white poodles, Cricket and Butterfly, have licked and pawed their way into your heart. Even if you’re not a dog person, it’s hard not to get caught up in the stories of the two rescue pups who changed Rachel’s life forever.
  5. Brooklyn Doodle – Mary displays her drawing talent on napkins in cafés all over Brooklyn.  Get to know this teacher and photographer who creates museum-worthy pieces in her spare time.  Grab a cup of tea, relax and enjoy.
  6. ~ L to the Aura ~ – I found Laura’s blog because we are both vegans, but stayed to read her thoughts on building sustainably, making green choices and living a compassionate life.  Her advocacy for women and girls didn’t hurt either.
  7. Dirtnkids – Shannon homeschools four kids, has a bird watching life list and a keyhole garden, and presses her own soybeans to make tofu.  She inspires me with possibilities.
  8. Ox the Punx – Sociologist Alex V. Barnard has opened my eyes to the incredible waste of food here in the United States.  His posts on working in a food bank and dumpster diving will make you think about those who do not know where their next meal is coming from.  I look forward to the publication of his book on freganism.
  9. Raising 5 Kids With Disabilities and Remaining Sane Blog – My own problems seem small when I read about what this blogger has been through.  I particularly enjoy the stories about her deaf daughter, such as the one about the PTSD flashback she had at an amusement park and the one about the time she asked her pediatrician to turn her into a boy.
  10. TED Blog – I didn’t know anything about TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Talks until I ran across this blog a few months ago.  If the marketplace of ideas that is the internet had to be narrowed down to a single location, I think this might be it.  This is a place to obtain inspiration on nearly any conceivable topic, from the world of the future, to comedy to terrorism to education to multiculturalism to the emotional lives of cats and dogs.  If you don’t believe me, check it out.
  11. Violet’s Veg*n e-Comics – I am impressed by this talented author and artist who is dedicated to making learning about food and the ethical treatment of animals fun for children.  Her work is a thing of beauty.
  12. A Napper’s Companion – John Coleman, whom I hear has just published his third book, waxes poetic about everything from world events to breast feeding to travel to the joys of being a parent and grandparent to, well, poetry.  I was shocked to discover that this guy is a Lutheran pastor!  If you check out Erie, Pennsylvania’s finest, tell him Uncle Guac sent you.
  13. Oops, I Said Vagina…Again – This blog is so funny that the author must have already received at least a dozen nominations for this award and certainly doesn’t need another.  Too bad, Vagina, you’re getting one from me!  Will someone get this funny lady on Jimmy Fallon, please?  Or at least the Ellen show or something?  The last time I nominated Vagina for an award, one of my readers emailed me to ask how on earth I could like “that blog” so much.  Such foul language, oh my!  Well, if you don’t like certain four-letter words, stay away.  Otherwise, you’ll have a grand time reveling in this wife and mother’s prose and videos.  And you’ll laugh your ass off.
  14. Gustatori – I’ve been living in California for 20 years now, but Tori’s restaurant blog is like a little taste of home.  If it’s worthwhile eating and it’s in New York or Philly, she’s probably been there and done that.  Great photos, too.
  15. Southernblondevegan – New blogger Sarah Argo caught my attention with the luscious photos on her home page.  Those kiwis make me drool!  If you’ve ever wondered whether being a vegan is expensive or how vegans get their protein, iron and calcium or even what would possess anyone to want to adopt a vegan diet, stop by Sarah’s blog and find out what it’s all about.

Thanks again, Art Bag Lady!

Now, with all these nominations going around, would someone please tell me how the hell you actually win one of these awards?

 

Frustration

Arms

No, Ma, I didn’t try to slit my wrists!  Honest!

This is my third attempt at starting this blog post.  There are times when so much is going on that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  But I think I can fairly characterize the general theme of my thoughts today as “frustration.”

I have always imagined myself to be a patient person, the type you would feel comfortable spending time with your kid or your grandma or, say, teaching French to your teenage niece.  However, I am discovering that this is no longer true.  I am becoming old and crotchety, my reserve of patience having run as low as California’s reservoirs in our current time of drought.

And everything frustrates me.

Little things.  Big things.

Everything.

Perhaps I am overreacting because I have just had the Friday from hell.  Perhaps Saturday will be better.

For one thing, I am seriously questioning whether I have the right attitude to continue blogging about homelessness.  Those of you who have been reading my ramblings for a while may have a general idea of what I mean.  Homeless Guy #1, whom all of us here at the church parsonage have tried to help in every way possible, is now in jail awaiting trial for rape.  Homeless Guy #2 is quite disappointed in me because I failed to assist him with his legal paperwork.  I had explained to him that he only had a month in which to file it, but he never seemed to find the time to review it with me.  He called me from a friend’s cell phone two days before the deadline and I had to tell them it was too late.  As for Homeless Guy #3, oh my…  We have been allowing him to use the church rest room and he has (in my opinion) abused the privilege.  I am therefore in favor of revoking said privilege.  Not only have I been overruled on the grounds that “two wrongs don’t make a right,” but I managed to make things worse by lashing out with an uncalled-for rude remark about it.  I don’t know.  The way I was raised, when you abuse a privilege, it is taken away.  Frustration!

I must pause here and say a special “thank you” to all of my 2,900 followers.  It warms my heart that you continue to read my posts week after week.  My current followers are even more precious to me because I am unlikely to collect many more.  You see, for months, A Map of California has been listed as a Recommended Blog by WordPress under the NaBloPoMo category.  Readers could find me!  Now, however, WordPress has removed that category.  Frustration!

I need a new pair of eyeglasses, as my current frames have become hopelessly scratched over the couple of years that I have had them.  I had an ophthalmologist appointment back in July, and was informed that I needed no change of prescription.  So today I called their office to request a copy of my prescription.  They informed me that there is a $45 charge to obtain said copy, but that they’d waive the charge if I purchase my glasses from their (expensive) optical store.  My poor wife was so upset that she said a bad word.  Fine.  We’ll just go to the optical department at Sam’s Club or Walmart and have them read the prescription off the lenses themselves.  When we called, however, they informed us that they don’t do that.  Frustration!

We recently purchased a birthday present for my wife from walmart.com.  It arrived in the mail and tonight my wife tried to use it.  Well, guess what?  It didn’t work.  Fine.  We packed it up and made a late night run to the store to return it.  Dodging the panhandler who insisted he needed just a few more cents to have enough for a hamburger, we asked the greeter at the door whether Customer Service was still open or whether we needed to take our return to a register.  She informed us that Walmart does not take returns “in the nighttime.”  We could come back after 7 a.m.  But you can leave your return here while you shop.  (As if it would still be there when we came to retrieve it!)  No, we’re not here to shop, we’re here for a return.  What time do you take returns until?  “7 a.m.!” was the cheerful response.  No, I reiterated, until what time do you take returns?  “We don’t take ‘em in the nighttime,” we were told.  “Yes, but what time is nighttime?”  Frustration!

We then stopped at the gas station next to Walmart to feed the car.  “Put it on the Visa?” I asked my wife.  No, she said, this place doesn’t take credit cards.  We have to pay cash.  She handed me a twenty and two singles, which I dutifully attempted to feed into the little machine on the island abutting the gas pumps.  The first single registered.  The second single had a bent corner, so I flattened it and attempted to feed it through.  No dice.  I spread it out some more and tried again.  Nothing doing.  After my third attempt, I noticed that I had waited too long to insert another bill (or another bill that the machine would accept, at any rate) and that the screen had reverted to asking me whether I wanted a car wash.  No, I don’t want a freakin’ car wash!  I want gas!  Okie dokie, Pump #1 is ready.  You can go pump $1.00 now.  Frustration!

Most frustrating of all, however, was my visit to the hospital today.  Now, the hospital is always good for providing me with an attitude adjustment.  The pain and suffering to be found there inevitably make my own problems appear small by comparison.  I was reminded by this of the guy who had come in with a leg infection.  And by the woman puking her guts out in the rest room so loudly that her distress could be heard in the lobby.  And by the woman who was stretched out across three seats in the waiting area, fast asleep and snoring.

I was scheduled for a colonoscopy today.  My doctor insisted.  I have reached “that age.”

I knew this was coming.  When we lived in the desert, I felt guilty every time I drove past the public service bulletin boards on Interstate 10.  “Each year, thousands of men die of stubbornness.”  “Real men wear gowns.”

Well, today I wore a gown.

My doctor is red hot on colonoscopies, not only because he had colon cancer and had to have half his large intestine removed, but also because his father is now dying of the disease.  In fact, Doc is currently out of the office for six weeks to spend time with his dad.

And then there is my own father.  More than twenty years ago, he had a little bleeding problem and had a polyp removed.  It turned out to be malignant.  But because it had been so close to the intestinal wall, they couldn’t be sure they had gotten all of it.  So he had major surgery and had a large part of his colon removed.  Turned out that there was no more cancer and the surgery wasn’t needed after all.  But, as the surgeon informed him, “only God knew that.”

God, if you’d like to speak to me about this subject, now would be a good time, please.

“I have to look at five feet of colon,” the gastroenterologist chastised me when I complained about the draconian prep regimen.  So yesterday I drank a gallon of vile-tasting liquid for the purpose of cleaning out my insides.  I tried chasing it with diet Sprite, then with iced tea, then with apple juice, but nothing can improve the taste.  It took me about six hours to down it all.  I spent most of those hours glued to the toilet.  Let’s just say that the stuff works.

This was not my first rodeo.  I rode this bronc about 12 years ago when I, too, had a little bleeding problem and feared I was following the path of my father.  After all, it is said that colon cancer has a genetic component.  I was fortunate in that no polyps were found and my troubles were written off to hemorrhoids.

So this time, I thought I knew what to expect.  Truthfully, the horrible cleansing solution wasn’t quite as bad as what they used 12 years ago.  But I had to be on a liquid diet all day Thursday and start drinking the solution at noon.  Last time, I got to eat breakfast and didn’t have to start drinking the putrid stuff until 3 pm.

My instructions read “nothing by mouth after 10 p.m.”  This wasn’t horrible last time, when I was to report to the hospital at 6 a.m.  Here, however, the gastroenterologist does surgeries in the morning, so my appointment wasn’t until 1:10 p.m.  The solution I had quaffed had wrung me out like a sponge.  Thus, by the time of my appointment, I was dehydrated as well as starving.

The procedure was to be performed at a tiny hospital about 45 miles north of here in Butte County.  (I nearly typed “Butt County,” which would have been appropriate.)  We have a large hospital just a couple of miles from home, but the gastroenterologist who was willing to take my Obamacare insurance works up there and does not have hospital privileges down here.  When I checked in and signed a lot of paperwork, the clerk called someone and then informed me that I needed bloodwork before I could have the procedure.  “No, I don’t,” I told her.  She insisted that I did.

Fine.  Back to the lobby I went to wait.  They called me to the little room where they do the blood draw.  The young phlebotomist searched for my bloodwork order and of course couldn’t find it because there was none.  She called back to surgery to ask “what I need” and then proceeded to spend some quality time with the veins of my left arm.  “I’m a difficult draw,” I explained, showing her the precise spot where the blood lab at my doctor’s office consistently hits pay dirt.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t pull it off.  “Ooh, it rolled,” she complained of my vein the first time she stuck me.  Look, lady, my vein doesn’t want to be doing this any more than I do.  She stuck me again.  Nada patata.  She called in the reinforcements.  The next lady was a bit older, but apparently no wiser in the way of my veins.  She stuck me and drew a little blood.  She rushed it back to the lab “before it clots,” admonishing me “don’t go anywhere.”  Um, and where exactly would I go?  Out for a sandwich sounded good.  A gallon of iced tea sounded better.  Okay, I’d settle for a sip of water.  Five minutes later, she returns with the bad news.  They didn’t get enough.  So now they bring in the big guns.  A man who they say is an expert.  And, sure enough, after two more sticks with the needle, and some interesting medical invective regarding my uncooperative veins and something called “flashing,” he managed to get enough blood.  Well, what do they expect when I am so dehydrated due to being denied water for the past 16 hours?

Back to the lobby.  My left arm was a mess of purple, red and green by this point.  Finally, I was called back to a room and told to disrobe and get into bed.  I was freezing, a result of being both naked and dehydrated.  A nurse covered me with a blanket.

I waited quite a while for another nurse arrive to start an IV.  My wife came back and sat in a chair near the bed.  Our long wait allowed her to enjoy the contraband she had with her, Dorito’s and her cell phone, both prohibited.  (Alright, I didn’t see a “No Doritos” sign, but some things you just know.)  She let me know that Joan Rivers’ death during a medical procedure is now under investigation.  “What kind of procedure?” I asked.  “Endoscopy,” she told me.  Oh, man, just what I want to hear.

Allow me to spare you a lot of boring details by simply relating that two nurses were unsuccessful in starting an IV in various locations.  They finally decided to bring in an EMT off an ambulance.  We had to wait quite a while for that.  He was unsuccessful on the first few pokes, finally getting in the IV on my right arm, “but not very well.”  I was to tell them if it hurt.  Well, within two minutes, the pain was not funny anymore and my wife called for a nurse to come back in.  Tears leaked out my eyes and ran down my face.  Tears of frustration as well as of pain.  By now it was 5 p.m. on a Friday and my doctor undoubtedly wanted to go home to start his weekend.  He came in and saw the sad state of affairs.  “I think I’m just going to call it quits,” I told him.  He said that he understood, and a nurse came in to take out the IV.  “It’s a good thing you let us know it was painful,” she said.  “It wasn’t in properly and you would have had the procedure with no anesthetic.”

Thus, I drank that horrible prep solution all day yesterday for nothing.  And I endured being stuck repeatedly like some kind of pin cushion for nothing.  And I still didn’t have my colonoscopy.

Frustration!

I just hope there’s nothing wrong with my colon, because I think it’ll be a couple of years before I will be able to entertain the thought of doing this again.  And I just can’t wait to see the bill we’re going to get for my little fun today.

One thing I know for sure:  I’m not looking forward to my next doctor appointment.  I can just see it now.  “You’re not gonna believe this, Doc…”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEp9oi1LVXw

 

The Underground Economy

If you’re interested in the effects of long-term unemployment and the ways that out-of-work people manage to get by, I highly recommend the Longreads selection that was Freshly Pressed this past week:  “Mango, Mango! A Family, a Fruit Stand and Survival on $4.50 a Day.”  Douglas Haynes, whose piece was originally published in Orion magazine, takes us through a day in the life of families who eke out a living by selling snacks in the squalor of Managua, Nicaragua’s sprawling Mercado Oriental.  While some of the tiny businesses that set up folding tables are licensed, most are not.  With so many thousands of stands cropping up and disappearing daily, selling everything imaginable, the government can’t even begin to keep track.  For most of these mom and pop entrepreneurs, the profits are barely enough to feed their families.

In Nicaragua, as in the United States, working “under the table” means that nothing is put into the government’s established economic institutions and nothing is taken out of them.  These are people who work without paying taxes into the public coffers and without the ability to draw social security benefits once they are no longer able to work.  And, as Haynes point out, they suffer all the disadvantages of the self-employed — no paid vacation, no sick leave, no health insurance.  Still, in societies in which there are tens of thousands of people out of work, it is a way to survive.

Several years ago, I read an excellent book about residents of the South Side of Chicago who provide goods and services to the community on street corners, in alleyways, out of parking lots and abandoned buildings.  In Off the Books, author Sudhir Venkatesh refers to this phenomenon as “the underground economy.”  Operating in the shadows, these informal businesses fill a void in that they provide a way to obtain desired goods and services in areas that may be underserved due to a deteriorating economic establishment in the wake of poverty, crime and the participation of “legitimate” business owners in white flight.

In the public eye, the underground economy is often associated with illegal activity.  Indeed, criminal enterprises, such as prostitution or the sale of drugs, necessarily remain outside of the mainstream.  But the fact that they’re not counted by the government doesn’t make them any less a part of our economy.  As long as there are those willing to pay cash or barter for these goods and services, there will be enterprising folks willing to evade the law to sell them.  I think of when I lived on Broad Street in downtown Hartford, where cars would slowly approach each other from opposite directions and stop for just a moment, in broad daylight right in front of the brownstone I called home, to make their exchanges through open windows.

However, a significant part of the underground economy consists of legal activity, such as the sale of sliced watermelon, bottles of Coke and fried platanos in Managua or the automotive repair and oil change businesses that operate out of back alleys in Chicago.  In an economy in which there aren’t enough jobs to go around, the point of such efforts is to earn a dollar or two in profit to allow one to get through another day — to put some kind of food on the table for the family, even if it’s just rice and beans in Nicaragua or peanut butter and jelly in the United States.

Indeed, it’s sad to say that unemployment is starting to make the United States look more and more like Latin America or Africa.  With a large segment of our population descending into third world conditions, it’s no wonder that the Occupy movement railed so mightily against the “one percent” just a few years ago.

In most other parts of the world, the “underground economy” goes by the name “System D.”  The “D” stands for the French term la débrouillardisme, which is most often translated as “resourcefulness,” although that word fails to capture the true nuance of the French.  The original phrase embodies some combination of “schemes to get by,” “living by one’s wits,” “knowing how to get around the system” and one of my favorite terms from back in the 1970s, “gettin’ over on the man.”  In France, to say that someone is très débrouillard is an expression of high admiration.  It means that you are able to figure out a way to get what you need, even when the odds are stacked against you, wink, wink.

I have come to realize that, here in the United States, System D takes on numerous forms, including learning how to work the system and learning how to live outside it.  Some combination of these is what enables the unemployed to keep going without a steady paycheck.  For example, it is perfectly legal for a person to earn a certain amount of money while drawing Food Stamps.  Your EBT card will rarely feed the family until the end of the month; even if you can supplement it with some canned goods from the local food bank or the occasional dumpster dive, that isn’t going to help if your kid needs a pair of shoes.  So the unemployed frequently supplement whatever kind of benefits they are receiving by selling goods or services on the side.  This could mean anything from setting up a table at a swap meet to babysitting to fixing things as a handyman.  Haynes describes bus drivers who pay a man a few cents to shout out the bus route number in the crowded marketplace.  Such informally obtained income is generally taxable, but of course, most people don’t bother declaring it.

Further strengthening the underground economy, those who find themselves in poverty often exchange good will by patronizing each other.  “I know a guy who knows a guy” is what everyone wants to hear.  And when there’s not enough money to pay the guy, there’s always barter.  Change the oil in my car and I’ll bake you some pies.  Venkatesh mentions Chicago shop owners who can’t afford a security guard and instead “hire” a homeless person to sleep in their tiny storefronts at night.

Understanding how the underground economy works in one’s community often makes it possible for the poor to get hold of the things they need.  The main thing, of course, is that you don’t ask too many questions.  Back in New York, I remember that there were always guys who knew how to get stuff that “fell off a truck.”  The retired guy who might be willing to fix your leak or the out-of-work teacher who can tutor your kid probably doesn’t have ads in the Yellow Pages (although, these days, they might have one on Craigslist).  It’s very much a word of mouth thing.  Here in our little relatively rural community, many people have little gardens where they grow various things — could be cucumbers or cantaloupes or cannabis, you never know.

I think of the three homeless guys who we’ve tried to help out here at the church.  Homeless Guy #1 is in jail, awaiting trial.  His needs are being provided for by the judicial system.  Homeless Guy #2 has done a lot of couch surfing and has now found a place to stay for a month or so.  Sometimes he works as a day laborer or fix-it guy or painter.  Other times, he doesn’t, particularly if there’s alcohol to be had.  He figures out ways to trade his services for whatever he needs.  Homeless Guy #3 sleeps on someone’s porch or under a tree, and begs sandwiches at the door of the parsonage when his Food Stamps run out.

His EBT was replenished yesterday, so we weren’t surprised to see him walking along the road with a full plastic bag from the local dollar store this afternoon.  When he passed by the panhandler who stands at the freeway entrance with the “homeless and hungry” sign, we saw him give the guy some money.

It’s funny how those of us who have the least are often the most generous.

 

The Employment Paradigm: A Labor Day Story

I used to think that the scariest thing about unemployment was the obvious, the lack of an income.  But I soon came to realize that there is something else:  The fear of the unknown.  Will I find anything before my unemployment checks run out?  Will I have to take a job that pays a lot less than what I have been earning? Will I have to change careers, give up my home, move to a distant state?  The one question I never asked, however, was whether it might be possible to have a good life as an unemployed person.

Just as I wrote the above, Homeless Guy #3 appeared at the door of the parsonage, asking for food.  He said that he’d run out of Food Stamps for the month and that his EBT card wouldn’t be filled up until tomorrow.  I went in the kitchen and made him a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  He began to chow down the moment I handed him the paper plate with the PB&Js, right there in the doorway.  That guy was hungry.

Although our friend has mental issues, substance abuse problems and has been in trouble with the law, it’s hard to avoid thinking “this is what long-term unemployment can do to you.”  It’s a vicious circle, of course; no one wants to employ people with those types of problems, but it’s hard to surmount those issues without a paycheck to purchase things like food, clothing and shelter.

When I received my layoff notice about a year ago, my coworkers and subordinates all asked me “What will you do now?”  Um, look for another job, maybe?  What do you think I’m going to do, dorkus mallorcus?

Biting my tongue to avoid blurting out a facile answer (“I’m going to Disneyland!”), I would tell them that we were headed up north to live in a church parsonage with my mother-in-law and that I hoped to contribute my efforts to the church ministries.  When they’d press me for details, I’d talk about starting a food bank, collecting coats for kids and helping the homeless.  I had no idea whether I’d actually end up doing any of these things, but I did have a dream about some of these possibilities and, well, I felt as if I needed a more intelligent answer than “I don’t know.”

But I didn’t know.

I got tired of answering the same questions over and over, but I had to remind myself that at least some of it was the product of genuine concern.  A few would sweep aside formalities and ask what was really on their minds:  “What will you do for money?”  I really wanted to answer by whispering confidentially “Well, you know, we have savings.  You don’t have any, now do you?”

As annoyed as I’d be with the question about money, I came to realize that this is part and parcel of the paradigm of employment:  You need money for the necessities of life, and you have to be employed to get that money.

Later, however, sociologist and fellow blogger Alex Barnard of Ox the Punx helped to introduce me to alternate economic paradigms.  There is an interesting school of thought that holds that most of us waste our lives in meaningless employment that is mind-numbing, contributes to the destruction of the earth and makes us sick — all in order to earn money to purchase consumer goods that we don’t need and that don’t make us happy in any event.  Okay… So is it possible to have a happy life of unemployment without sleeping out in the open and starving to death?  Without ending up like Homeless Guy #3?  It turns out that it is.

I have been learning about a movement known as freeganism.  The word freegan is derived from a combination of the words “free” and “vegan” (although many practitioners are not vegans).  The crux of the idea is to reduce waste via the four Rs:  reducing, reusing, recycling and repurposing.  Specifically, make use of perfectly good items that others throw away.  This can take a huge variety of forms, but it essentially assumes that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  This week, for example, our elderly neighbor was thrilled to find, discarded on the roadside, a pair of pants that fit her perfectly.  In our relatively rural area, we have county and state food distributions, free bread pickups on Fridays and churches hosting food banks and free lunches and dinners.

But it is the practice of “dumpster diving” that has caused the freegan movement to attain a negative image in the press.  The truth of the matter is that restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores throw out perfectly good unsold baked goods at the end of the day and unopened cans and boxes of food when they approach their expiration dates.  Those who reclaim this discarded food not only use it for themselves but also share with others in need.  Nevertheless, instead of lauding the efforts of freegans to reduce unnecessary waste, the media have characterized freegans as a disgusting class of untouchables.  The economists and sociologists have suggested that the anti-capitalist nature of eschewing money in favor of making use of the castoffs of others is at least one reason for the denouncement of freegans in the media.

When it comes to housing, the joint efforts of government agencies and volunteers in places like New York and Detroit have created safe housing for those who would otherwise be homeless.  We constantly hear about homeless camps under freeway ramps, people sleeping on heating grates (or here in California, on the beach) and beggars panhandling on corners.  Although those are some ways of surviving for free, they are often unsafe and frequently made impossible by law enforcement.  What we rarely hear about, however, are efforts such as the conversion of in rem buildings (apartments seized for nonpayment of taxes) into housing for the homeless in my native New York City, or the use of adverse possession and other laws to allow volunteers (neighbors helping neighbors) to convert abandoned homes into family housing in Detroit.  The latter practice is often denigrated in the media as “squatters’ rights” or “squat-to-own” — which conveniently forgets that this is similar to the way that the American frontier was settled in the nineteenth century.  I am proud to be from New York, where the state constitution has codified that housing is a right, not a privilege.

Whether we are talking about food or clothing or shelter, there are those of us who believe that we can make the world a better place for ourselves and others by minimizing our possessions and maximizing our use of what others have thrown away.

But it is the freegan position on employment that really makes me sit up and notice.  Too many of us work, directly or indirectly, for corporations that rape our natural resources and seek to sell us garbage that we don’t need.  Meanwhile, the stress and unhealthy working conditions of our jobs are killing us.  Wouldn’t it be better to spend our time with our families, helping others and enjoying the one life that God has given us?  And indeed, by reducing our consumption and becoming aware that most of our “needs” are false idols created by Madison Avenue, we can reduce or eliminate our need for work.

This point of view runs contrary to society’s (and, I might add, Congress’s) disdain for the unemployed as “slackers” and “bums,” lazy, worthless people who leech off the generosity of others.  But now that we’ve reached a point in our economy at which technological obsolescence has become a runaway train, and where there aren’t enough jobs to go around for those who want them, perhaps we need to take another look at the viability of remaining permanently unemployed.

The suffering of the unemployed goes beyond the uncertainty of providing for our needs when we have no money.  This is because we have built our entire identities around work.  The very words we use when we talk about employment give us away.  We don’t say that we are employed as a secretary, waitress or computer programmer; a person says that he or she is a secretary, waitress or computer programmer.  Becoming unemployed takes that identity away so that our financial struggles are compounded by feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, leading to family problems, depression and even suicide.  While the employed waste their lives on the job, the unemployed waste their lives by destroying themselves from the inside out.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Instead of allowing ourselves to be occupationally pigeonholed, we can reclaim our identities as individuals.

And so, as we celebrate Labor Day here in the United States, I call upon each of my valued readers to keep an open mind and to rethink what it means to be employed, what employment is taking away from us, and to what extent employment does or does not remain a valid paradigm in the 21st century.  Unlike some, I’m not saying that being employed is a bad way to live; I’m just saying that it’s not the only way to live.

I can tell you from personal experience that unemployment is not for sissies.  But I can also confidently state that we can vastly improve our world and our lives if we make it a point to help each other rather than burying our heads in the sand, to make use of perfectly good items that others throw away, and to value each other for our unique personalities rather than merely for our ability to contribute to the economy.

References

Freegan.info, “Free Your Life from Work”

Goodwin, Jan, “She Lives Off What We Throw Away,” Marie Claire (March 11, 2009).

Halpern, Jake, “The Freegan Establishment,” The New York Times Magazine (June 4, 2010).

Kurutz, Steven, “Not Buying It,” The New York Times (Home and Garden, June 21, 2007).

Spencer, David, “Why Work More?  We Should be Working Less for a Better Quality of Life,” The Guardian (Feb. 4, 2014).

Swanson, D. Joanne, “The Cult of the Job,” http://www.whywork.org (2004).