Letter to Afghanistan

soldier

Dear Michael,

Merry Christmas and happy new year from California!  We hope this finds your entire unit well.

In reading your http://www.anysoldier.com description of your work as a medical unit in the middle of nowhere, I was amazed at how much you are able to do with so little.  It is beyond impressive to hear that your Army doctors have performed complex surgeries such as liver repair and craniotomies with a 97% success rate, saving the lives of many women and children caught in the crossfire.  I was astonished to read that your unit is still being attacked by the Taliban on a regular basis.  Here in the States, we don’t hear about the situation over there very much anymore.  Suffice it to say that I am extremely proud that our service men and women are out there making it happen every day!

I was shocked to read that your location is so remote that supplies must be dropped in by aircraft from 8000 feet, and that the packages can explode like a bomb if the parachute does not fully open.

We are a tiny church here in Yuba County in northern California, and we will do our utmost to collect and forward the few items you requested.  We will make sure not to send anything breakable since we now know that our package is likely to fall out of the sky!

I’m sure that by now winter must have hit with a vengeance in Afghanistan.  It has been much colder than usual for California, with temperatures around 40 degrees in the daytime and down in the twenties at night.  We even had a few snowflakes over the weekend.  I am originally from New York, so I feel right at home!

My wife and I recently relocated to this area from southern California (near the Arizona border) to move in with family when I was laid off at work.  I have been unemployed for more than two months now, and I spend most of my time applying for jobs and working on my online blog on wordpress.com.  We have several nieces and nephews who live in the area, and we are pleased to be able to spend a lot of time with them now.  Even better, we get to babysit our little grandniece (one year old) almost every day while her mom attends classes at the local community college.

One of our nieces and her husband are in the service, based in San Diego.  They realize that they may be deployed at any time.  Another nephew of ours completed his tour in the Army; even though he has a good job now, he is thinking of going back in, as he would like to serve in Afghanistan.

My wife and I spent five days in the Fresno area over Thanksgiving to share the holiday with my family.  My parents live there, and my sisters (and some of their kids) traveled from New Mexico and Texas respectively to be with us.  It was truly a special occasion, particularly since we also celebrated my father’s eightieth birthday.  We are planning on doing it again in March when Mom turns 80!

As December advances, we are all looking forward to spending Christmas here with the extended family.  We will be thinking of you, hard at work on the other side of the world, and our prayers will be with you.

You can look forward to more letters and a care package from our church.  In the meantime, please accept our warmest wishes for happy holidays.  God bless you for all you do.

 

A few years ago, my wife and I discovered a way to support our troops overseas.  Not only are they separated from their families for years in some of the most remote locations in the world, but they never have a holiday.  Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s are just regular days, business as usual preserving our freedoms.

There are many who remember our troops at holiday time, but then we tend to forget during the rest of the year.  This is a great time of year to send letters and packages to our troops overseas; they take so long to travel to their destinations that they will be received after the holidays.

Listen to some of the words that our brave soldiers have posted online:

  • “To all that donate to this cause, I would like to say from my heart, thank you very much.  Some of my soldiers receive nothing from home, so anything in the mail will make their day.”
  • “I have many single soldiers in my platoon that haven’t been receiving mail from friends and family.  Many of them have become discouraged because of this.”
  • “We have no heat or hot water.  We have microwaves but no refrigeration.  Many of my troops are brand new to the Army and it’s their first holiday away from their families.”
  • “With the holidays coming up, the soldiers would love to hear from you and the kids.  Drawings and cards remind them of home and help keep them going.  They’re passed out and then hung on the walls.  It helps keep the spirits and morale high!”
  • “Some of our young soldiers have no family and receive no mail.”
  • “There are a few soldiers here who are not receiving mail.  They don’t have much support from back home.”
  • “It makes our time deployed a little easier when we hear from people back home.”
  • “It is always nice to have a pen pal.”

Please take a few minutes to visit www.anysoldier.com and read some of the stories of the units who are working away in the military, unseen and often un-thought of here in the States.  On that website, you can find the postal address of the unit with which you would like to correspond.  Each unit has different needs — some ask for warm socks or toiletries, others want snacks such as chips, candy and beef jerky, still others hope for magazines and board games.  But what all of our soldiers have in common is the desire for mail from back home, the kind word that is so needed to keep them going.

Even if you cannot afford to send a care package, for the price of a postage stamp you can send a letter to a lonely soldier that will make all the difference.

May the spirit of the season move you to join me in supporting our troops.

 

The Healing Begins

resume

It’s one of my favorite times of day:  The middle of the night.  All is quiet but for the heat blasting warmth into the parsonage against the freezing cold night.  I have my cup of tea.  For the moment, I am alone with my thoughts.  And I am so privileged to share them with you, dear reader.

Too many things have been on my mind today.  It’s been that kind of Sunday.  So please accept my apologies if today’s (lengthy) post is a bit of a hodgepodge, veering from my usual practice of picking one topic and more or less sticking to it.

 

A Picture of a Person I Don’t Know

When I purchased my first new car, back in the mid-eighties, I was thrilled that it came standard with a cassette player.  I was a bit behind the times, still listening mostly to 33⅓ rpm vinyl records.  But I went right out and bought a few tapes to listen to on the way to work.  The first of these was the original cast recording of the musical A Chorus Line.  I had seen it performed on Broadway while I was in college, and it made a big impression on me.  So no surprise that this is not the first A Chorus Line reference I’ve made on this blog; knowing me, it probably will not be the last.

Being unemployed and applying for jobs online is a humbling experience.  It makes me feel like a beggar, hopeful for a crumb but not counting on it.  And yes, I am nervous as hell about an interview I have coming up next week.  So today I find myself channeling Paul, the dancer who sings at the end of “I Hope I Get It,” one of the musical numbers early in A Chorus Line (you can listen to one version here):

Who am I, anyway?
Am I my résumé?
That is a picture of a person I don’t know.
What does he want from me?
What should I try to be?
So many faces all around, and here we go.
I need this job, oh God, I need this show.

Here I was thinking that having the right résumé might make the difference between getting the job or not.  It should be limited to a single page, if possible.  It needs to stand out from the crowd, but still be sufficiently conservative to convey a proper business image.  Your name and contact information has to be big and at the top, but not too big.  You want to show everything you’ve done, but you don’t want to go back too far.  You want to include enough detail to allow the employer to determine whether you are a good fit with the organization but you don’t want to pad your résumé either.

And now I find that none of this matters anymore.  You see, while I was working all these years, the world changed.  The résumé has become obsolete.

I’m not kidding.  The last two jobs that I applied for were “résumé optional.”  It’s almost as if employers think that your résumé is nothing but a bunch of lies and half-truths anyway, so why bother?

At first, I wondered if employers were being serious about this, or whether this was just some sort of newfangled passive-aggressive thing.  So I figured there’s one way to find out.  I played along with this little game by sending in an application sans résumé.  And I was called for an interview.

I am witnessing a barrage of employer caveats along the lines of:  Do not write “See résumé.”  They want applicants to fill in all of their tiny spaces that are too small to type in.  Half the time I have to print some of the pages and write in the info in my smallest, most cramped handwriting.

The whole thing is pretty obvious to me:  It’s a control mechanism.  When the applicant sends a résumé, the applicant is control.  But when the employer requires the applicant to fill in little spaces describing his or her duties and accomplishments at every previous job, the employer is in control.  We don’t care that you’ve already spent time and money preparing the perfect résumé.  You’re in our territory now, and you’ll do it our way or get lost.

The employer knows that it has the upper hand, and seeks to take maximum advantage of the situation.

After all, there is a long line of Pauls at the door, toes on the chorus line, singing “I need this job, oh God, I need this show.”

 

Don’t Blink

The weather has been cool and crisp, hanging in the upper thirties during the day, freezing us out in the twenties at night.

Yesterday, it snowed.

I know.  In northern California?  Crazy.

Calling Al Gore — What was that about global warming again?

I didn’t actually see it snow, mind you.  But I have it on good authority that a few flakes did indeed fall out of the sky at our location.

I had been following the weather forecast and was duly warned that this might happen.

As a native New Yorker, I miss the snow.  So I kept an eye out.

At 3 a.m., I hauled myself out of bed, undid all the locks and stepped out the front door in my jammies to check.  No snow.

It gets light about 7 a.m. this time of year, so I opened one eye and drew back the blinds to see what was going on.  No snow.

A couple hours later, I dragged myself out of bed and headed to the bathroom.  Just as I was about to set foot in the shower, my wife pounded on the door:  “IT’S SNOWING!”

By the time I got out of the shower, headed back to the bedroom and looked out of the window, the show was long over.  Any flakes that had fallen must have melted immediately.

So I missed it.

But all is not lost.  My niece and her baby were out shopping and shot video of snowflakes falling on the mall parking lot.  My wife showed it to me on her Facebook feed.

The evidence is clear.  You snooze, you lose.

 

bread

The Joy of Bread

I love good bread.

A crusty sourdough, rye or baguette that is soft and chewy in the middle.  Forget the knife.  Just rip off a chunk.  You’re going to need your teeth for this one.

The best bread I’ve yet to find in this area is at Whole Foods Market.  The nearest location is about thirty miles from here, and it had been about six weeks since we’d been down there.

But today my wife and I enjoyed a lovely Sunday afternoon, driving over to the Roseville Galleria for lunch and some shopping.  The stores were packed with Christmas shoppers.  Whole Foods wasn’t too bad when we entered the store, but by the time we had walked around and picked out our purchases, the place had started to seriously fill up.  And forget about Trader Joe’s.  The place was wall-to-wall people.

But we picked up my favorite bread, along with some treats from Whole Foods’ olive bar, the best pickles in the world (Bubbie’s — pickled in brine, no vinegar), a sleeve of firm tofu (much better for broiling than the kind in water) and my 85% cocoa butter vegan dark chocolate from TJ’s.

Now I know for sure that my wife loves me.

 

Take a Number, Bucko

When we first moved in here, I wrote a post about the challenges of three people plus a steady stream of visitors sharing a single bathroom.

Let me assure you, nothing has changed.

I am reminded of my childhood days, when my little sister, wanting to be sure that her whereabouts were known should anyone be searching for her, would regularly announce:  “I’m going to the bathroom!”

“Put an ad in the paper!” my father would call down the hall.

And we had three bathrooms in our house.  Even when we vacationed out in the country in an old house that didn’t have electricity, our outhouse was a two-holer.  Know what I mean?

These days, I really do need to put out an advertisement before heading to the loo.  Hmm, maybe we can start our own daily for this purpose.  I think I’ll call it The Toilet Paper.

Within the last two days, I heard this:

“Are you coming out soon?  I gotta gooooo!!”

…and this…

“Aron’s going to take a shower.  Does anyone need in the bathroom first?”

…and this…

(bangs on bathroom door)  “You’re gonna have to take a break and go back later.  I gotta get in there.”

…and this…

“You’re going in there?  Wait!  I gotta go first!”  (from the other room) “Me, too!”

Take a number.

“Now serving… uh, number two!”

 

Healing

I woke up this morning to a sound to which I am growing quite accustomed.  People talking and laughing in the living room.

We had guests.

They blow in and out of here with some regularity.

Yesterday afternoon, my niece (and her baby) came by with friend (one of the Ms).  We put the baby down for a nap.  Later, my niece returned to retrieve the little one, this time with two friends (the sisters who we call M&M) and one of their boyfriends.  In the evening, my nephew showed up with his girlfriend and her parents.

So this morning it was no surprise when a crowd materialized before we had even rolled out of bed.  Pastor Mom was sitting in her recliner, visiting with my sister-in-law, my niece and her baby, and a nephew whom I had not seen in years.  He is one of the sons of my sister-in-law’s second husband, who she divorced a few years back.

My nephew is all grown up now.  He’s already served a tour in the service and now works as an engineer in Las Vegas.  He is thinking about going back in the Army.  I raised my eyebrows to learn that he actually wants to be deployed to Afghanistan.  Well, I’m sure glad someone wants to do it.

My wife and I have a lot of nieces and nephews.  While my sister-in-law still had her own three kids at home, she married a man who had custody of his eight children, from a toddler to several teenagers.

After the divorce, they scattered.  We tried to keep in touch for a while over Facebook and by text message.  But family issues arose.  Apparently we weren’t supposed to demonstrate any loyalty to the ex, nor (by extension) to his children.  I wrote about this sad state of affairs back in March.

I pointed out in that post that there is no such thing as an ex-niece or an ex-nephew.  You can’t expect people to turn love on and off like a light switch.

I am pleased to say that things are starting to change.  A couple of the nieces have returned to this area and brought their spouses and children to my sister-in-law’s table for Thanksgiving dinner.  And now one of the nephews dropped in to see all of us.

My wife and I are deeply moved by the way we are once again becoming the family that we’ve always known we could be.  Today, she copied a portion of my March post onto her Facebook page.  One of the nephews commented about his fond memories of us and how we will always be his auntie and uncle.  My wife and I both let the tears flow.

And then my sister-in-law added her own comment, stating that the healing has begun.

Amen, sister.

 

Sign Language

ily

My niece was selecting her college courses for the spring semester today.  She tells me that she signed up for a class in American Sign Language.

I find it admirable that ASL is now offered as one of the options for satisfying the language requirement at so many institutions of higher learning.  I once worked for the state relay service, where I had to learn at least some basic signs in order to communicate with the deaf staff.

It’s not like I didn’t try.  I even bought a book that had little pictures of signs that I tried to practice.  I was successful in learning how to say “good morning,” “how are you?,” “I’m tired,” “it’s raining” and, most importantly, “I need an interpreter!”

And then I met my wonderful wife, and learned the sign for “I love you” (graphic at the top of this post).

I remember sitting in a nearly deserted 24-hour diner after my night shift, eating with my book open and practicing the signs.  I could see the staff peeking out of the kitchen and laughing at this crazy customer who obviously was trying to communicate with aliens from outer space.

Unfortunately, my signing efforts pretty much came off the rails when I attempted anything beyond the most basic.  I quickly learned that a slight variation of the correct hand movement could result in saying something quite different from what was intended, usually in the most embarrassing fashion possible.

It seemed that no matter how many signs I learned, the concept I needed to express involved a sign that I didn’t yet know.  I’d ask a deaf staff member how to sign a particular word, then promptly forget and have to ask again.  One of my big problems was that a person facing me and demonstrating a particular sign was oriented “backwards.”  Could you please stand next to me and show me?

My niece is really smart and I hope she has much better luck with ASL than I ever did.

Meanwhile, I think my wife and I need to develop our own style of sign language, or shall we say hand signals, to improve our communication skills.

The problem, you see, is that I’m always being shushed because someone is always sleeping.  If it’s not my wife or Pastor Mom who is taking a nap, then my one year old grandniece is over here doing the same.  The bedroom doors must stay open when occupied to benefit from the
heater or air conditioner puffing away in the living room.

“Can you talk any louder?” my wife chastises me.  Well, I have no choice but to admit that I am indeed a loud talker.  It doesn’t help that half the time I am shouting over my headphones, through which music is pumping into my ears at a decibel level that may soon require me to learn sign language for real.  But it’s more than that.  I’m a New Yorker.  Sure, I’ve been living in California for 17 years now, but everywhere I go people tell me that they can still detect my east coast accent.  And the fact is, most of us who were raised in and around New York City are loud talkers.  At least by California standards.  We may not shout, but we speak up and demand to be heard.

For now, I have been handling the situation by texting my wife rather than speaking to her, even though we are a few feet away from each other in the same room.

I know that seems kind of dorky, and I have a better idea:  Sign language.  This will avoid waking whoever may currently be sleeping, and mostly will prevent me from continually pissing off my wife with my loud talking, I humbly propose the following set of hand signals.

As I’ve already indicated, I am no good at learning hand signs, so let’s keep it as simple as possible:  Five signs.  We only need to check how many fingers we are holding up.  We can do this with either hand, so we don’t have to do the backwards thing when determining whether it’s the right hand or the left.

Now, the set of signs will necessarily have to be different for my wife than for myself.

 

My Wife’s Hand Signals

1 finger:  More iced tea, please.  Lots of ice.

2 fingers:  It’s so hot in here, I’m getting a headache.

3 fingers:  Go wash your hands.

4 fingers:  Stop chewing your fingers!

5 fingers:  Please come to bed soon.

 

My Hand Signals

1 finger:  Yes, dear.

2 fingers:  Coffee! Cooooffffeeeeee. . . (Alright, so it’s decaf, but I’m still addicted.)

3 fingers:  Can we please go out to eat somewhere?

4 fingers:  I’m sorry.  Please forgive me.  Um, what was it that I did wrong again?

5 fingers:  I’ll be to bed shortly.  (Translation:  Sometime before 3 a.m.  Yes, I’m blogging again.)

 

A Personal Choice

broccoli

I’m tired of explaining myself all the time.

Why is it that when you admit to being a vegan, people look at you as if you have two heads, cloven hooves and laugh like a hyena?

And that’s if you’re lucky.  Half the time, they just roll their eyes as if to say “why can’t I know any normal people?”

But the worst is when they express sincere interest.  And just when you’re about to summarize the ecological, ethical and medical benefits of a plant-based diet, they blurt out the question:  “So why are you vegan?”

As if no one in his or her right mind would choose such a lifestyle.  Surely it must be some type of serious medical condition.  Unless, of course, you’re just one of those tree-hugging, granola-chomping hippie wannabes.  In either case, this is going to be a juicy story to pass around, so spill it!

Siiiggghhhh.

It’s bad enough when you have to go through this rigamarole with coworkers, clients and bosses.  Unfortunately, family and friends often aren’t any better.

My vegan proclivities are of recent vintage, but I’ve been a vegetarian for a quarter of a century.  My parents apparently feel that they’ve never received a straight answer from me, as every so often they ask again.  Such an occasion arose over the Thanksgiving holiday.  “Surely it can’t be for health reasons,” my mother offered.  Well, that’s obvious.  Health benefits clearly have nothing to do with it since I’ve been morbidly obese since childhood.  I would have done something about my weight long ago if health concerns were on my mind.  Right?

My father, ever helpful, chose this moment to add that, after all, Hitler was a vegetarian.

Thanks, Dad.

My sister, with whom I had had no contact for six years prior to Thanksgiving, had to ask me for an explanation as well.  And she is a vegetarian!  When I explained that I believe in the sanctity of life, she replied that this is no reason not to eat eggs.  As if no life emanated from eggs!  And where exactly do birds come from?

At this point, I became a bit snarky and offered my opinion that it’s disgusting to eat things that come out of a chicken’s butt.  My sister responded that, as far as she knows, the egg exits from a different hole than the feces.  Gosh, I feel a lot better now!

At least she didn’t point out that the plants I eat were alive until harvested for our culinary delectation, just as the cow and chicken were.  (My mother has pursued this line of argument in the past.)  Then I’d have to describe how plants do not have an animal nervous system and are unable to feel pain.  At that point, I’d be entirely on the defensive.

Why is it that no one asks “so why exactly are you a carnivore?”  And I’ll never forget the time I was chatting online with a self-styled pundit who demanded to know:  If we’re not supposed to eat animals, then why are they made of meat?

I’m never quick enough with the facile response.  In my sister’s case, what I should have said is that, in our Jewish faith, the entire rear third of the cow is forbidden as food, and there is no reason not to treat the chicken in the same manner.

Next time I’m asked the question, I think I will respond “I’m vegan because I want to be.” End of conversation.

My wife says I should just say “it’s a personal choice.”

Truly, I married a wise woman.

 

The Minimum Wage Debacle

minwage

When the clock ticks past midnight on New Year’s Eve and the calendar flips over to 2014, the minimum wage here in California will increase by a dollar from eight dollars per hour to nine dollars per hour.

You can’t get very far on $8 or $9 an hour, but this is what a lot of us have to contend with, year in and year out, with no relief in sight.  This is what the smiling server at the counter or the drive-through window of your favorite fast food place earns.

At one time, some of us justified this paltry compensation on the grounds that fast food provided part-time jobs for high school students, not only providing them with spending money, but also inducting them into the workforce, providing opportunities for advancement and indoctrinating them into the Protestant work ethic.  National fast food chains even received special exemptions from the federal minimum wage, allowing them to pay “subminimum” rates as a reward for providing jobs for large numbers of the hard-core unemployed.

It’s a nice theory, and maybe it held purchase, up to a point, thirty or forty years ago.  But today, that server who you can barely understand through the crackly drive-through speaker and who you gripe at for messing up your order is probably not saving up to buy a prom dress or to finance a Saturday night date.  More likely, she is a single mother with a couple of kids at home, scraping by with an emaciated paycheck that places her family below the poverty line.

Many fast food workers have to resort to public assistance to keep themselves and their families afloat.  Some fast food employers make a point of encouraging employees to take advantage of whatever aid may be available from local charitable organizations and federal or state assistance programs.  Why not?  Let’s get someone else to help them out so that we don’t have to pay them more and we don’t have to reduce our profit margins.

Please think twice before shooting dirty looks at the person in line in front of you at the supermarket who is paying with an EBT card.  You may be thinking that this lazy person is living off the dole and sucking the taxes right out of your pocket.  Chances are, however, that this person is employed and contributing to the American economy, just like you are.  Only he or she is trying to support a family on minimum wage or less and probably needs to make a trip to the local food bank when the paycheck is spent and the EBT balance reads 25 cents at the end of the month.

This is also the person who doesn’t work a regular schedule, eight hours a day, like you do.  Your neighbor’s work schedule changes all the time, based on shifting patterns of customer volume and the whims of a young assistant manager.  If business slows down unexpectedly, this employee will probably be sent home, further reducing the week’s wages.  To help make up for this unreliable stream of income, he or she may be working two or three jobs just to pay the rent, keep the heat and lights on, and put food on the table.  The kids may be receiving free breakfast and lunch at school, thanks to federal programs, but they still have to be fed dinner and on the weekends and during school vacations.  It’s a struggle to plan and prepare healthful meals when you’re always working and have to kiss goodbye a large part of what you earn to pay for child care.  The temptation to buy cheap crap full of sugar and sodium is ever-present.  Stick it in the microwave and, voilà, dinner.  Because you’re just so tired.  And it never ends, Lord, it never ends.

So it should come as no surprise that fast food workers around the country skipped work shifts to stage protests today, calling for a minimum wage of $15 per hour.  The fast food industry thinks such demands are ridiculous, citing a significant increase in the prices of their products that would result from such a measure.

Of course, this argument is very convenient for the fast food industry.  Careful what you ask for, people, because your favorite Big Mac or Whopper will end up costing you ten dollars.  Your beloved Dollar Menu will now be the $4 Menu.

I don’t have to tell my smart and insightful readers that the fast food industry is full of shit.  They care not what their prices are as long as the public continues buying and their profits continue to increase.  Their only concern is that some consumers may be priced out of the market and reduce the frequency with which they take the kids to visit Ronald at the Playplace.

The fast food industry also cites the likely paradoxical effect of job cuts should protesters get what they want.  Now there’s an interesting argument.  Are they saying that they are currently overstaffed but can afford to keep more employees than necessary on the payroll due to the low wages paid?  Why does this sound as if they are lying?  No employer is going to carry surplus employees when cutting out the fat could result into the additional profits going into their pockets.  I realize this is a highly simplistic explanation of a complex economic phenomenon, but there you have it.

I suppose I should stop picking on the fast food industry in general, and on its poster child, McDonald’s, in particular.  There are plenty of other industries around that subject employees to the same minimum wage indignities.  Fellow blogger and Californian Michael from Sophoxymoria tells a blunt and brutal tale of what it’s like to work in the Central Valley feed mills.  He’d like to find more lucrative work but realizes that this is easier said than done.  “I’ve been debating what to do,” he writes.  “I saw my paycheck and they bumped me back down to 8 bucks an hour, yes that is minimum wage, if they could pay me less I’m sure they gladly would.”  Michael goes on to gripe (and sometimes laugh) about uncaring supervisors, the disposability of temporary employees, and employers that look the other way rather than address rampant on-the-clock drug use and sexual harassment.  (And he is a connoisseur of the taco trucks in Turlock, Modesto, Keyes and Denair.)

Some of the news reports are indicating that participants in today’s protests were able to skip out on their shifts at fast food restaurants because protest organizers paid them $50 for the day, about what they would have earned at their jobs.  Beyond the minimum wage issue, protesters are asking for the industry to unionize.  So it is no surprise that some employers are blaming the hullabaloo on outside organizations who have their own agendas.  This conveniently allows low-wage employers to dismiss their own roles in creating the problems that resulted in the protests in the first place.

Here in California, we have it better than in many parts of the country.  True, six states have higher minimum wages than California’s, but at least we’re doing better than the federal minimum wage, which has been stuck at $7.25 per hour for the past 4½ years.  Five states in the deep south have no state minimum wage at all, and four states have minimum wages lower than $7.25 per hour (employers there must still follow federal minimum wage requirements).

What about other countries?  Everyone knows that the United States is the richest country in the world and that the freedoms we enjoy have immigrants from the four corners of the earth banging down our doors to get in.  Yet our federal minimum wage is lower than that of many industrialized nations, including Great Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Australia.

Come 2016, California’s low-wage workers will get yet another dollar per hour in their paychecks when the state minimum wage reaches $10 per hour.  Unless, of course, activists are successful in their efforts to convince Congress to double the federal minimum wage before then.

In the meantime, Michael and thousands of his fellow low-wage workers will continue to barely survive on their meager earnings, taxing already underfunded government antipoverty programs and further squeezing churches and charitable organizations doing their utmost to prevent hunger and homelessness.

Happy holidays.

 

A California December

electric blanket

It has gotten really cold here.

I know.  It’s December.  It’s supposed to be cold.

Not here.  I mean what the heck?  This is California, for crying out loud!  When I lived in New York and New England all those years, everyone spent the winter whining about the snow and cold, wishing they could live in a warm place such as Florida or California.

California, in particular, was mythic.  The home of Schwarzenegger and Mickey Mouse.  Everyone there was either a movie star or a surfer dude, and we’d all seen the romantic photos of couples walking along the beach and enjoying the ocean at any time of year.

Joe Dee Messina sang “Heads Carolina, tails California, somewhere greener, somewhere warmer.”

The Mamas and The Papas were busy California dreamin’.  “I’d be safe and warm if I was in L.A.”

Even in L.A., the weather people are calling for 41°F tonight.  But here, two-thirds of the way up from Mexico to Oregon, we’re going to have a hard freeze tonight, 23°F.

Just for kicks, I checked the forecast for some of my old haunts back east.  They may hit the low forties tonight.

Somehow, being in a place that is significantly colder than New York seems to defeat the purpose of living in California.

I am reminded that we don’t have blizzards here.  Sure, how often did that happen back in NYC?  Once per winter, maybe?  I remember my last winter on the east coast very clearly.  We barely had two flakes of snow to rub together the entire winter.

Be that as it may, this type of weather does not bode well for the homeless in our area, particularly those unable to reach a shelter or unwilling to stay there.  I am told that our homeless friend is still sleeping in his sister’s car, inside a fleece-lined sleeping bag, wearing a coat and covered by blankets.

I think what I’m supposed to do is smile and be glad it’s the holiday season.  It’s the eighth and final night of Hanukkah, and Christmas is just around the corner.  Cold weather is supposed to be a part of the whole ambience.  Mittens, scarves, hot chocolate and all that.  We wouldn’t want Frosty the Snowman to melt, now would we?  And perhaps, as we see our frozen breath while running about shopping, a taste of the North Pole will encourage empathy for the hardships endured by Santa and his elves.

I suppose that’s all well and good for the children and the Christmas carolers.

As for me, I stand with my bloggy friend, Vagina.

I want my electric blankie.

 

Merry-Go-Round

carousel

I’ve been thinking about the experience of the first day at a new job.

I’m sure this is partly because work (and the lack of it) is never far from the thoughts of those who, like myself, have been unemployed for a while.

When we’re not feeling sorry for ourselves, we’re worrying about just how we’re going to jump on this crazy old merry-go-round again without being summarily flung off on our noses while the pretty painted horses that stop for no one keep circling and the riders laugh their arses off at the schlub who can’t keep his balance for more than five seconds.

And the tinkly calliope music keeps right on playing, mocking our incompetence.

Can I still hack it?  Do I still remember how to sing this song?  Or has the economic vampire of long-term unemployment sucked my bones dry?  Self-confidence tends to be one of the first casualties of those who can barely remember their last paycheck.

So, yes, I’ve been thinking about how a new job would mean starting all over from zero.  You barely know where the rest room is located, much less who does what and how to get things done in the corporate culture in which you’ve found yourself.  It’s a little like parachuting into a foreign land with nothing but a crude map and a canteen of water.  You’re going to have to live by your wits for a while and, most likely, depend on the kindness of strangers.

The trigger for this line of thought was a post on Simple Dream in which Automattician Lance Willett reminisces about his first day at his current gig.  “I was new, overwhelmed and maybe even scared,” he confesses.  He then goes on to explain how his curiosity, willingness to ask questions and “investigative mind” has been the key to his success.

I particularly like the way Willett admits that he has no idea what he’s doing, the precise sentiment I expressed in yesterday’s post.

As John Michael Montgomery sings, “life’s a dance you learn as you go.”

While visiting family over Thanksgiving weekend, my mother suggested that we apply for “food stamps.”  These days, that translates into SNAP food supplement benefits loaded onto an EBT card.  Although these are federal benefits, they are administered by the individual states.  And each state has its own rules.  We quickly discovered that, in California, as long as I am still drawing unemployment benefits, I make too much money to qualify for SNAP.

Now I feel positively rich.  For one thing, I’m doing a lot better than those who have already exhausted their unemployment benefits.

But, hey, 2014 beckons, and things are bound to improve in the new year.

After all, when my unemployment runs out, I might become eligible for SNAP.

Unless, of course, I leap back on that merry-go-round before then.

If I do, you’d better believe that I’m going to hold onto that pole as if my life depended on it.

 

My Blogging Experience So Far: Thoughts on NaBloPoMo (Part 3)

keyboard

It all started with a clown.

Not just any clown, mind you.  Oh, sure, he had the shiny red nose, the giant shoes, the rainbow-colored hair and all that stuff.

But this was a special clown.  A foul-mouthed, French-Canadian clown.  I immediately detected a horrible smell, which upon further investigation, turned out to emanate from burning clown ass hair.  Pretty soon, the pompiers came round, put out the flames and shoved a water hose up his butt.

And that’s how I met Le Clown of A Clown on Fire.

Eric’s manically insane, insightful, well-written blog was, serendipitously, the first I happened to run across when first I typed www.wordpress.com into my browser’s address bar back in March.

You should visit him, by the way.  Not only is he funny as heck, but he has a heart of gold.

I no longer recall how I reached his blog, but likely it was through Freshly Pressed, an honor that has bestowed on His Magnificence™ three times now.

After all, when you’re checking out WordPress for the first time, you mostly are faced with prompts on how to start a blog.  If you’re not sure yet whether you want to start a blog, and even if you do, whether you want to start one here, there aren’t a whole lot of options that allow you to check out some existing blogs to determine whether this is a club you would like to join.  So, yes, I must have clicked the Freshly Pressed link for lack of a clue as to any other way to navigate.  I kept wishing there were a Random Blog button as there is on Open Diary.

Alas, as all thespians know, every comedy has its corresponding tragedy, as the “happy” and “sad” masks so readily remind us.

About the time I discovered Le Clown, my wife’s grandmother passed away.  After the funeral, I wrote a short piece expressing my feelings and started looking around for a place to post in online for family and friends to read.  That piece was Grandma’s Funeral, Post #1 on A Map of California.  Even though I had absolutely no clue what I was getting myself into, I still believe that it is one of my best efforts to date.

Ten months later, this is my 148th post.

Let me tell you a secret:  I still have no idea what I’m doing.

As much as I love this crazy blogosphere that sends me “likes” from the Ukraine and followers from Turkey and New Zealand, I have no advice to offer as to how to plan your posts, please your readership or improve your stats.

I take it one day at a time and let the chips fall where they may.  My blog reflects my life; in both cases, I fly by the seat of my pants and pray the seams don’t rip while I’m out in public.  The only problem is that, in our bloggy world, we’re always out in public.

I am not necessarily advocating my freewheeling approach to blogging.  I keep reading about bloggers who “schedule” publication of their posts in advance and those who cover specific topics on particular days of the week to better target audiences interested in some of their topics.  And then there are bloggers like Mindy Peltier over at In the Write Moment, who wax poetic over “Cool Tools” and possess an understanding of technology that goes straight over my head.  There are apps out there that can make your blog look better, ones that can generate interest from social media sites outside WordPress, ones that can help to keep you organized, and probably ones that can clean your house and wash your car.  I do not understand anything about this stuff.  I should probably learn, but right now I’m too busy writing.

I am told that my blog should have its own Facebook page, that I should maximize my use of Twitter and that I should take steps to improve the position of my posts in Google’s page ranking algorithm.  I routinely ignore this advice.  I don’t like Facebook for reasons I have previously discussed in this forum.  I have a nominal Twitter account, which I primarily use to see what interesting things others are saying, rather than to make like a birdie and tweet tweet tweet.  As for page ranking algorithms, that is a language which I do not speak.  I have been gobsmacked more than once to learn that a reader landed on my blog following a search for something on Google.

But the most basic and persistent problem faced by bloggers is how to come up with interesting things to say day after day.  My advice on this score is:  Follow your passion.  Write about what you care about and others will care about it, too.

Many bloggers take this advice by narrow focusing, writing single-topic blogs in such areas as cooking, crafts, books, travel or pets.  Check out the WordPress Recommended Blogs for a sample.  For example, you might be surprised at the number of cat bloggers and dog bloggers we have here on WordPress.  My current favorites are Bailey Boat Cat and Ruby the Black Labrador.  Bailey is a world-traveling Siamese who lives on the boat Nocturne, docked on the Mediterranean in Nice, France.  Ruby lives in Australia and enjoys eating dead things.  Both bring a smile to my face on a regular basis.

Then there are the mommy bloggers and the daddy bloggers, who have an endless store of anecdotes at the ready as their readers grow up with their kids.  I write so much about my burgeoning relationship with my little grandniece that, some days, I feel in danger of falling over the precipice and ending up in this category.

Despite the above, I believe there is still plenty of room for generalists like myself, whose blogs are more in the nature of journals than anything else.

The problem with journaling (as anyone who has ever tried to start a diary knows) is that most of our days aren’t very interesting or exciting.  Even Twain’s Tom Sawyer was moved to give up the effort when “nothing happened” for three days straight.

When I was in elementary school and had to write a composition, I used to whine to my father:  “What should I write it on?”

“On paper would be good” was his standard answer.

Turns out he was right.

I believe that the key to success in blogging, and perhaps in life itself, is to appreciate the little things.  If you noticed the colors of the sunset this evening or had a conversation with your sister or visited the supermarket or watched TV or cooked dinner or helped your kid with her homework or received some junk mail advertisements or did a load of laundry or had a doctor appointment or read an article in a magazine, you have something to write about.

So, as you can see, there really is something to write about every day.

Don’t worry about your post being just a few lines long.  Remember, brevity is the soul of wit.  I need to take this advice myself, as I tend to be longwinded and frequently belabor the point beyond all reason.  As my mother always said, “too good is no good.”

And to those whose slogged along in the trenches with me day after day during the month of November for NaBloPoMo, I say:  Congratulations!  We did it!

 

 

Gift of the Magi

Dad
My dad has always been a loner. With a house full of family to celebrate his birthday, I found him sitting out in the back yard, alone with his thoughts.

After five days away, we were very happy to arrive back at home this evening.

I can report seeing a few unexpected things on this trip to California’s Central Valley:

  • More than twenty members of a motorcycle club roaring down Blackstone Avenue in Fresno on Black Friday.  A few cyclists had passengers with them, one of which was a child.   One bike came about an inch from rear-ending a car and likely going flying over the handlebars.  The lead biker was a reckless dude who annoyed the crap out of drivers when he showed off by popping front and rear wheelies in heavy traffic.  Lucky for him that cop didn’t see the guy flip him off.
  • Trader Joe’s with nearly empty bakery shelves.  We had hoped to purchase a challah for Hanukkah Kiddush on Friday, but no dice.  The staff said they received no deliveries “due to a misunderstanding” that had something to do with the store being closed on Thanksgiving Day.  What, they expected the store to be open on Thanksgiving?  Please!
  • Motel 6 with a giant electronic sign out on the road that quoted a price more than ten dollars less than the price actually charged for a room.  A flyer was posted in the office indicating that the electronic sign is broken.  Again, please!  Cover the damned thing up then, will ya?
  • Restaurant Wars!  Many customers were seated on the benches outside Outback Steakhouse waiting for a table to become available.  Meanwhile, employees from Tahoe Joe’s across the street walked over and began handing out coupons for free appetizers, stating that there is no wait at their nice, warm restaurant, so why wait out in the cold here?  Um, do you think there might just be a reason why a couple dozen people were willing to wait patiently out in the cold evening for a table at Outback while its competitor had no wait?  You’d better believe we told the manager what was going on right in front of her nose.

Other things were more expected.  Like my sister arguing with my mother about the former’s cat vomiting in multiple corners of the latter’s pretty pink carpet.  And arguing with my mother about who is permitted to keep her soy milk in which refrigerator.  And arguing with my mother over the choice of restaurant for my father’s birthday dinner.  And bringing up forty year old childhood slights, real and imagined.  That’s my sister for you.

I am glad we all managed to make it for my father’s eightieth birthday.  My mother says he had been dropping hints for the past year about wanting to do something special for this landmark occasion.  Turning eighty really means something to him, she told me.  For example, she says, he likes to mention to grocery clerks that he can still carry his own bags out to the car.  “After all, I’m only eighty.”

My father, on the other hand, denies it all.  He says that celebrating his birthday was nothing but a smokescreen of my mother’s, designed to get the kids and grandkids together for Thanksgiving dinner.

If it weren’t Hanukkah, I’d call it the gift of the magi.

 

A Country Thanksgiving

image

MADERA

My parents live way out in the country.  Visiting them frequently results in the opportunity to view sights to which I am not accustomed.

Things like a neighbor’s calf, beautiful yellow grapefruit nearly ready for picking, and my sister’s cat ascending to the top of a nectarine tree to chase hummingbirds.

In the latter case, my tall nephew had to climb on a bench to retrieve Butternut.  In the process, he impaled his finger on a thorn.  Ouch!