Friends of Yesteryear

Yesterday’s post about the value of a liberal arts education in a STEM world sent me tripping merrily down Memory Lane to my college days in upstate New York.  This set me to wondering what happened to the colorful cast of characters with whom I hung around back then.

Most of my partners in crime worked on the college newspaper with me.  We were a tight little club, or so I thought.  We did a lot of things together, but studying definitely was not one of them.  In fact, more than a few of us did as little studying as possible.  I’m not sure about the others, but I have no idea how I managed to graduate at all, much less on time.

Once we escaped, it wasn’t that easy to keep up with my widely scattered cohorts.  After all, we didn’t have the internet back then.  I did manage to gather some of the crowd for one last hurrah about a year after graduation.  On July 20, 1981, we had a big bash at my parents’ house, with college friends driving in from all over the tri-state area.  It seemed that anyone who I called or wrote to knew the whereabouts of someone else and thus the word got around.

After that, many of us did the usual things involving marriages, kids and careers, and I lost track of just about everyone.  Back when I was on Facebook, I’d occasionally see one or two.  One who I knew only slightly turned up at a Scrabble tournament that I attended several years ago.  Other than that, it’s pretty much a great big blank.

So I decided to do an online search to see if I could discover anything about where they are today.  Well, my first surprise was how easy it was to find them.  Many of them showed up in about two seconds because they have their own websites.  The following is a summary of my findings:

  • The one who lived in my hometown has her own business as an educational consultant.  After college, she joined the Peace Corps and spent time in Africa.  In her absence, I visited her mother on numerous occasions, particularly after her son (my friend’s brother) died of a drug overdose.
  • Two of them run their own companies, specializing in marketing businesses on the web and doing graphic design on websites.

  • At least one succeeded in our dream of being journalists; he is a bureau chief for a major newspaper.

  • One is a counselor in the mental health field.

  • One became a lawyer and now works as an assistant district attorney.

  • A couple of them who have their own companies hired several others of my acquaintance to work for/with them.

  • There were a few whom I was unable to immediately find, either because their names are common or because the sands of time have erased their names from my aging mind.

But the result of my research that shocked me most of all is that our work as budding journalists so long ago has not disappeared.  Thanks to the advantages of modern technology and the efforts of the university library, just about every issue of our twice weekly college newspaper has been scanned and is available to the public online.  And here I thought the fruits of our all-night labors so long ago had been lost to the ages.

I may not know what happened to all of my college buddies, but I do know that our nascent journalistic endeavors of nearly forty years ago live on.

 

Code is Poetry: Why a Liberal Arts Education is Still Relevant

I keep reading that a liberal arts education is a colossal waste of time and money, that all it’ll get you is unemployed.  This line of thinking holds that what the world of the 21st century needs is computer programmers and health care professionals.  STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) is where it’s at, baby!  Shakespeare is out.  Coding is in!

Colleges and universities have been placed in the prickly position of defending their humanities and social sciences programs against the battering rams of the STEM people.  Don’t say you can’t do anything practical with sociology, literature or philosophy (they tell us).  In today’s market, every job requires excellent critical thinking and communication skills.  Why, you can do anything with these backgrounds!  As in the classical Greek tradition, a broad education steeps students in history and ideas, providing them with a frame of reference for taking on any challenge of modern society.  After all, our statesmen, lawyers, teachers and, yes, artists, have to start somewhere.

I’ve been laughing at a humorous-yet-serious video posted by the English Department of our local college, California State University Chico.  My favorite line is about halfway through the video, where an English student composes a tweet to #imgonnaliveinabox.  Wow, members of the younger generation are afraid that a liberal arts education will doom them to a lifetime of poverty!

Prestigious Stanford University, located in California’s Silicon Valley (and therefore about 150 miles from my home), is known for its computer science and technology programs.  Students come from all over the world to study to become engineers.  And yet, most of Stanford’s professors don’t teach science, math or engineering.  The New York Times reports that 45% of Stanford’s faculty is in the humanities, but only 15% of its students are.

While it must be wonderful for Stanford’s political science or comparative literature students to receive individual attention in small classes, many other colleges are financially unable to keep sparsely-attended liberal arts programs going.  So departments of Romance languages, music and art history fall by the wayside.

Some say good riddance to useless studies (what employer wants to hire an anthropology major?) while others bewail the loss of intellectualism in favor of job preparation.

I think about my own college experience, well over a quarter century ago.  As a freshman, my heart’s desire was to major in theater arts.  Following some wonderful high school experiences both as a thespian and as a student of several teachers who knew how to bring drama alive, I was willing to paint scenery, gather props or do whatever was needed just to soak in the atmosphere of the seniors who surely were headed for Broadway and Hollywood.  Let’s just say that my parents vetoed this misguided notion right off the bat.  They wanted me to major in political science in preparation for law school.  That was all well and good except for one little thing:  I had no desire to attend law school.  But since my parents were paying for my education, political science it was.

At the start of my sophomore year, I transferred to a larger state university, where I learned that it was possible to major in two disciplines rather than just one.  Although I had given up the theater dream, I quickly signed up to double major in English along with political science.  One for my parents, the other for me.

I hadn’t really strayed too far from theater arts; all I had done was move from one liberal arts major to others.

But what I never, ever considered was majoring in a STEM area.  I am grateful that my parents didn’t insist that I study science or math so that I could land a job upon graduation.  They knew that would have been a disaster.  And they never suggested that my choice of college major could affect my ability to support myself.  Why would they have?  Mom may have been a biology major, but Dad was an English major. Both of them earned advanced degrees, went into teaching and eventually became administrators.

Indeed, not everyone is cut out for the STEM disciplines.  Even those so inclined may have a tough time making it through introductory science courses if they attended high school in low income areas where science education may have been sparse.  I took one math class in my freshman year, failed, and graduated without taking another math or science class again.  In the Chico video cited above, one student says “math sucks.”  While I was a bit startled to hear that in this day and age, the sentiment is not far off from my own undergraduate attitude.

Then again, I hit college in the mid-1970s, just in time to witness the tail end of the three Ps:  Petitions, protests and pot.  I wisely stayed away from all of those things.  This was partly out of fear, particularly since I knew that my college had nearly been torn apart during the Vietnam War, and particularly after Kent State.  But the shadow of the early ‘70s still hung over the campus like a pall of pot smoke in mid-decade.  Science and math just didn’t seem all that important.

The start-ups of Silicon Valley were just beginning to heat up during my college days, but this didn’t seem a blip on our radar on the east coast.  The hot major was business administration.  Accounting, marketing and economics textbooks were everywhere.  Arbitrage, anyone?  Wall Street, here we come! Everybody say moooooney!

I had nothing but disdain for that stuff.  It was like another world that had nothing to do with me whatsoever.  In my junior year, my sister joined me at the same institution of higher learning.  She was a STEM gal who breezed through calculus but had a hell of a time getting through freshman English.  She started out majoring in physics, then changed to biology.  Yep, my parents again.  Med school.

But my sister did not attend medical school.  And when I graduated, rather than attend law school I proceeded to spend six years working in a field in which none of my coworkers had more than a high school diploma.  Some took a few classes at the local community college, but most quit before long.

However, it was the early eighties and I saw where things were going.  Slowly but surely, manual processes were being computerized.  When I started my first job out of college, the clerks still used typewriters.  I hadn’t yet heard of Microsoft.  IBM and DEC computers were all the rage in the business world.  No one had a computer at home.  What on earth would you do with it?  And Apple?  That was a little toy computer that the kids used over at the high school.  But Hewlett-Packard peripherals began appearing in our office and I began hearing whispered stories of incredible things going on in places like Sunnyvale, Palo Alto and San José.

I saw that political science and English weren’t going to do it for me.  I needed a do-over.  I began taking night classes in computer science and business.  And yes, I retook that math class I had failed back in freshman year, and this time I earned an A.  Another thing that happened is my discovery that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  I was the one in our office who figured out how to use this stuff called “software” that the company kept purchasing.

Once my sisters married computer engineers and migrated out to Silicon Valley, I began to understand just how badly I had blundered in my education.  Or had I?  Maybe I didn’t know anything about math or science. But at night, I discovered that I could learn to write code.  And during the day, I was the one who wrote the documentation and the reports, the one who could proofread the technical manuscripts we kept receiving in French and Spanish.  I was the one who taught the grammar class.  I became a manager.  And eventually, I even went to law school after all.

I began to understand that STEM and liberal arts are not diametrically opposed, but in fact go hand in hand.  A well-rounded education requires significant exposure to both.  Engineering students go into management and end up giving speeches and writing white papers.  Liberal arts students end up as technical writers at software companies.  Every field needs readers and writers.  So yes, if liberal arts majors are to understand the way phenomena such as text messaging and the internet affect society, they do need to know a little about algorithms and graphical user interfaces.  By the same token, engineers need to know how to construct a proper sentence in the English language, and how to string together a series of such sentences into coherent paragraphs.

I’ll always be in awe of those who have a deep appreciation of things like Linux shell scripting.  But that doesn’t mean that a little bit of Shakespeare, Dickens or T.S. Eliot ever hurt anyone.  After all, how will the computer and biomedical people create our future if they know nothing of our past?

Or, as the magicians at Automattic (the company behind WordPress) like to say, “code is poetry.”

 

Recommended

Gopnik, Adam, “Why Teach English?” The New Yorker, August 27, 2013.  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/08/why-teach-english.html

Hamman, Kira, “Why STEM Should Care about the Humanities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (The Conversation, April 12, 2013).  http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/04/12/why-stem-should-care-about-the-humanities/

 

Of Fire Drills and Lockdowns

Back when I was in elementary school, about a million years ago, I thought that fire drills were pretty cool.  Not only did they get us out of doing our work for a few minutes, but there was the whole process of the thing.  They were exciting!

I think it was the element of surprise that really got me.  One minute I’d be hunched over my purple math ditto, working through the steps of a long division problem, when suddenly I’d bolt upright upon hearing that jarring Clang! Clang! Clang!

“Alright, everyone grab your coat and line up at the front of the room!” the teacher would announce.  There’d be a mad scramble to tear parkas and hats off hooks.

We were really good at lining up.  After all, we had to do it every day to go to lunch and then again to be dismissed to the school buses.  Lining up was always by size place, with myself and a couple of other shorties leading the way while the two guys who had an early growth spurt and had already passed the six foot mark bringing up the rear.

Lines of students of all ages, from the tiny kindergarteners to the big sixth graders, would stream out of the doors onto the playground.  Each class would gather around its teacher on the blacktop to wait for the all-clear.  Meanwhile, my heart would race with excitement as the clanging continued to scream from the open doors.  But it usually wouldn’t be but a few minutes until the alarm was turned off and all of us were shooed back into the school.

The one type of fire drill that really annoyed me was the one that occurred on the school bus.  The driver would announce the drill and then walk around to the back of the bus and open the emergency exit.  An alarm would sound and we all had to jump off the back of the bus.  As a fat, uncoordinated kid, I had a lot of trouble executing that particular maneuver.  It looked so far down to jump.  And it would hurt my feet when I hit the pavement.  And I might land on my knees.  More than once, a sympathetic bus driver would reach up and lift me down.  God bless them and their hernias!  I hope they had good chiropractors and excellent health coverage.

It never occurred to me that there could actually be a fire or any type of emergency in the school.  We all knew it was just a drill and we enjoyed the excuse to waste some time.

My parents, who grew up during the Second World War, tell stories about enduring air raid drills in elementary school.  All the kids knew how to “duck and cover,” cowering under their desks until the air raid sirens stopped their frightening bellow.

Air raid drills back in the forties were entirely different than the relatively benign fire drills of my own childhood.  With an air raid drill, you never knew if it was for real or not.  My grandfather was an air raid warden who enforced the “lights out” rules at night.  The Japs could try to get us at any time, just like they did in Pearl Harbor.  Even in the sixties, when I started school, the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation was ever-present and there were therefore yellow air raid shelter signs attached to the outside of schools and many apartment buildings in my native New York City.

In my junior high and high school years, however, we had to deal with a series of bomb threats.  One of the administrators would pull the fire alarm and a couple of thousand of us would roll out of every exit in waves. We’d cross the access road and wait up on the hillsides and athletic fields while the fire engines screamed onto the school grounds and cops with bomb-sniffing dogs roamed the halls, and checking out every classroom, nook and cranny.  This process typically took an hour or more.  It was exciting at first, particularly when a bomb threat caused us to have shortened school periods or to actually lose a couple of class periods entirely.

But then it would happen twice in one week and there’d be yet another bomb threat the next week, and it started to get old.  If it were mid-winter, they wouldn’t pull the fire alarm; it might be below zero and there was no time for everyone to go to their lockers to retrieve their coats.  Instead, one of the assistant principals would make an announcement over the public address system that we were all to proceed to the gym immediately.  It was quite a sight when everyone in the entire school, adults and kids alike, was packed cheek to jowl into the bleachers.

The rumors flew as to why this was happening.  The general consensus was that one or more students were responsible.  Kids were calling in bomb threats from the pay phone, or they didn’t come to school that day and called them in from at home.  (Imagine what could happen today with smart phones!)  We never found out what was going on, but we all knew that the Vietnam War was raging and that there was a certain contingent of the student body who believed that any form of disruption was right and proper under the circumstances.

Today things are different.  The air raid drills of the war years and the bomb threats endured by my fellow baby boomers are long gone.  There is the occasional fire drill, of course, to comply with the law.  But what today’s kids have to put up with is the school lockdown.

In the wake of Columbine and Sandy Hook, the danger these days is not from bombs raining down from the sky or thrown into the cafeteria by war protestors.  No, today we have to worry about the kid who comes to school with a gun or the outsider who breaks into the building, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and murderous intent.

So our children have become accustomed to the teacher locking the door and turning out all the lights while everyone hides as best they can, packed into corners and closets.  It might be nothing or it might be disaster.  One never knows.  Everyone is supposed to be quiet and huddle together.  Kids desiring to send panicked text messages are warned that the light from a cell phone could give them away to a killer.

An article published in the New York Times this week cites the negative psychological effects that school lockdowns have on children.  Kids as young as five and six years old have nightmares about bad men with guns attacking their schools.  At home, brothers and sisters play “lockdown” by hiding or running to the basement at a prearranged signal.

“Some parents wonder whether the trend has laid a backdrop of fear and paranoia across their children’s education,” states the Times article. When I first viewed the article, it was just beginning to receive comments.  Upon my second reading, it had logged 194 of them.

I noticed that the comments were full of the usual indictments of the Second Amendment, pleas for gun control and counterarguments from gun enthusiasts.  Some parents wrote of the futility of huddling in corners and closets, citing the Sandy Hook murders as a product of such “massing.”  Others wrote of the inevitable scarring that results when children are required to exit their schools with their hands on their heads to show that they have no weapons.

Another commenter remarked that children “understand that the fabric of society has worn thin when it comes to school shootings, and that they are on the front lines.”

In other words, today’s schoolchildren understand that they may be in danger at any moment and that neither teachers nor parents can protect them.  Their grandparents’ air raid drills and their parents’ bomb threats are long ago events that may as well be described in history books.  Even the “drop and roll” maneuver and training in the use of fire extinguishers have become quaint anachronisms in the era of mass shootings.

In the age of the lockdown, it is a wonder that children are able to concentrate on their studies long enough to learn anything.  Instead of school being a nurturing, comforting environment, it has become a scary place where the real creeps into their nightmares and their nightmares become real.

 

An English Major at the Movies

My wife and I had a date tonight.  We went out to the movies for the first time in about a year.

It’s not that we don’t love the movies.  We enjoy the entire experience, from the popcorn to the previews.  For the past three years, however, we have been living in a remote area of the Sonoran Desert where a trip to the movies involved driving three hours round-trip.  There actually was a two-screen movie theater in our little town when we first moved there, but it went out of business just a few weeks after our arrival.

In discussing this tonight, my wife and I tried to remember our last excursion to the movies.  We decided that it must have been during a long weekend in Laughlin, Nevada in 2012 when we saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in one of the casinos.  Now that we’ve returned to “civilization” in northern California, we hope to get back in the swing of attending the cinema.

Tonight we saw Saving Mr. Banks and we both loved it.  I particularly enjoyed the period sets that did such a good job of depicting early 1960s Los Angeles.  My only complaint was that the frequent flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in rural Australia, while an effective plot device, tended to make the film drag.  The repeated shots of palm trees in Queensland seemed to parallel the palm-lined boulevards of L.A. and, for Travers, must have been a trigger for childhood memories.  This would also help make sense of Travers’ remarks about preferring rain (typical of her London residence) to the Los Angeles (and Queensland) sunshine.  The California climate, coupled with reminders of childhood in the form of Disney stuffed animals and figurines, combined to bring powerful, unpleasant memories to the surface that nearly torpedoed the Mary Poppins project that was the subject of the film.

I know, I should just enjoy the film without being so analytical.  This, however, is one of the hazards of having been a college English major.  Regardless of the number of years that have gone by since my days on campus, some things stick with you.

Another example of my English major ways reared its head during a recent visit to my parents.  They had borrowed a DVD copy of Life of Pi from the public library and enjoyed it so much that they wanted to see it again with us.  Although I had not read the Yann Martel novel upon which the film is based, I found myself providing my wife with a running commentary on subtext and symbolism.

Did you notice that the tiger was originally named Thirsty and that when Pi snuck into the Catholic church and drank the holy water on a dare, the priest said “you must be Thirsty?”  Talk about identification between two characters!

Did you notice that Pi, a starving vegetarian, was forced to eat a fish, while the tiger, a starving carnivore, was forced to eat the biscuit rations that Pi shared with him?  Role reversal!  And what about the fact that the vegetarian tried to avoid being eaten by the carnivore while the carnivore depended on the vegetarian for food?  This symbiosis seemed to be reflected in Pi’s Hindu beliefs.  (Despite dabbling in many faiths, he attributes being saved from starvation to the appearance of the Hindu god Vishnu in the form of a fish.)

Did you notice that Pi was named for a swimming pool (water imagery) and was thrown into one by his father so that he’d learn how to swim, while later Pi was “thrown” into the ocean and similarly had to learn to fend for himself?

By this time, I think my wife had had quite enough of my literary explanations.

Then my niece, a college student, came over to visit and remarked upon how much she enjoyed the movie Pay It Forward.

Did you notice that the teacher was broken in body but whole in spirit while his girlfriend was whole in body but broken in spirit?

Did you notice the Christ imagery in the innocent, pure-hearted boy becoming a sacrificial lamb at the end of the film?  Remember the Bible verse about “a little child shall lead them?”

And what of the effort to create a chain of good deeds without end in the midst of the city of sin, painted in broad strokes in the depiction of the tawdry side of the Las Vegas entertainment industry?

I’m telling you, we English majors can be insufferable bores.  We should never be allowed into a movie theater.

 

Congress: No Unemployment for You!

So.  Looks like that’s it.

Not one, but two bills to extend federal unemployment benefits failed in the Senate on Tuesday.

Sorry that it’s been more than six months since you were laid off and you still can’t find a job.  The government ain’t gonna help you, fellas.  You lose!

Congress is proving to be no better than an unruly bunch of fractious children.  I am reminded of siblings who are instructed to decide among themselves whether the day’s outing will be to the swimming pool or to the park.  The brothers and sisters squabble among themselves and are unable to come to an agreement, so the parent announces that the matter is now closed because everyone will be staying home.

There was the bill that would have extended unemployment benefits for eleven months.  That went down in flames because many Republican senators believe that such a “gimme” would reward indolence.  Why look for a job when you can sit in front of the TV and have a paycheck dropped in your mailbox every other week, as if by magic?

Then there was the other, much stingier bill that would have extended unemployment benefits for three months only.  The idea was to help out-of-work Americans put food on the table for another twelve weeks or so while our elected representatives hash out a long-term solution regarding unemployment benefits.  But, hey, the Senate couldn’t manage to pass this one either!

Technically, there was no vote to accept or reject either bill.  Both measures became stuck in the muck that is the Senate’s procedural rules.  Senators voted to open debate on the bills early last week, so the next step is to close debate in preparation for a vote.  The 11-month bill failed 48-52; the 3-month bill failed 45-55.

So yes, both bills remain open for debate and there is always a possibility, albeit a slight one, that warring factions among the two parties might come to some agreement after they return from their eleven-day break.

One could say that it what it came down to was hurt feelings.  In recent days, Republican senators have been throwing the yellow hanky, insisting that the bad ol’ Democratic majority is trying to railroad them.  And they’re not going to put up with that, by golly!  The Republicans may have a handful fewer members than their Democrat brethren across the aisle, but they will not be underdogs!  They will show their muscle!

So, what was giving the Republicans such an ouchy tummy ache?  Amendments, that’s what.

At first, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his posse wouldn’t allow any amendments to the bill.  I mean, what the heck?  You can’t expect Republican senators to help tide over unemployed Americans unless they get a little pork tacked on to the end of it.  Right?

Then the Democrats conceded by agreeing, okay, each party can have five amendments added to the bill.  But each amendment could be passed only with the yea votes of at least 60 senators.  Republicans cried foul, citing Democratic demands that the Senate agree to pass the final bill by a simple majority (51 votes), waiving the traditional 60-vote requirement.  Republicans felt disenfranchised, alleging that this finagling would enable Senate Democrats to defeat all Republican-sponsored amendments while pushing through the bill to passage on the Democrat’s terms.

Do I blame the Republicans for crying big elephant tears?  Not really.  Do I blame the Democrats for being stubborn donkeys?  Not at all.  I mean, what do you want?  Everyone must get theirs, right?

Except for the long-term unemployed, apparently.  They get exactly zero.

Congratulations, Congress.  You blew it again.

Oh, and enjoy your eleven-day vacation!

 

References

Kane, Paul, “Senate Deadlocks on Extending Jobless Benefits,” Washington Post (Post Politics, January 14, 2014).  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2014/01/14/senate-deadlocks-on-extending-jobless-benefits/

Mascaro, Lisa, “Spending Bill is On Track but Jobless Benefits Stall in Congress, Los Angeles Times (Nation, January 14, 2014).  http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-congress-budget-20140115,0,3426233.story#axzz2qRghMq6u

Parker, Ashley, “Unemployment Extension is Stalled, with Two Proposals Defeated in the Senate,” New York Times (January 14, 2014).  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/15/us/politics/unemployment-benefits-extension-fails-in-senate.html?_r=0

 

Monday: Still No Unemployment Vote in Senate

What’s going on the day after tomorrow?

It will be Thursday, and you know what that means.  Time to go on vacation!

If you’re an elected member of the U.S. Senate, that is.

Our legislators just returned from a weeklong New Year’s break.  They’ve been working at least a good solid eight days, so I think they deserve some more time off, don’t you?

Good thing we have a federal holiday coming up on Monday.  A lot of us have to work that day.  Some of us who have the day off will be doing volunteer work, making it a day of service.  And some of us will just relax and enjoy the three-day weekend.

Not Congress, however.  They will be off for eleven days.

Although it’s hard to feel sorry for Congress with that much time off, I must say that I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes right now.  Not only is interparty antagonism and bickering causing them to do a Rumpelstiltskin and tear themselves to pieces over the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act, but now they’re faced with another government shutdown if they fail to pass a spending bill before they go on vacation.  In case you’re interested, that’s 1.1 trillion dollars in spending we’re talking about.

A million and a half Americans who lost their federal unemployment extension checks when enabling legislation expired on December 28 were hopeful that a vote Monday might have restored their benefits, at least for a while.  But, alas, it was not to be.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to postpone a vote to avoid a likely filibuster and to provide more time for senators to engineer backroom compromise deals.  Republican senators want to tack on amendments of every stripe and ilk, most of which have nothing at all to do with unemployment compensation.  Reid seems to be willing (reluctantly) to go along with that, but no, that’s not enough for the Republican side of the aisle.  They want to ensure that the billions of dollars needed to write those unemployment checks are paid for by cuts to other programs.  “My Republican colleagues can’t take yes for an answer!” was his frustrated remark.

So work hard these next few days, Congress.  Put your shoulders to the wheel and make it happen.  You can do it!  Otherwise, close to a million government workers (who are scheduled to get a 1% raise, after all) are going to be on vacation right along with you folks.  Only their vacation won’t be paid like yours will be.  Until, that is, you finally vote through a bill that makes their paychecks retroactive, like you did the last time.

Well, so far it looks as if you may have the bipartisan thing going sufficiently to keep the government funded.  Hmm, think you might be able to do the same for those who have been out of work for more than six months and then lost their income right after Christmas?

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not entirely unsympathetic to the Republican position.  I do believe that limiting spending to reduce the ginormous federal budget deficit is a laudable goal.  However, Congress ought to descend from its ivory tower long enough to make fiscal decisions that will avoid perpetuating misery for millions of Americans.  Long enough to empathize with those who have been bounced out of a job and have no means of feeding their families.

Yes, there is room for debate about which programs should be cut.  But when you wield that knife, please don’t cut off the nose to spite the face.  Thanks.

 

References

Kane, Paul, “Reid, Boehner Face Showdowns on Unemployment Benefits, Farm Bill,” Washington Post (WP Politics, January 13, 2014).  http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/reid-boehner-face-showdowns-on-unemployment-benefits-farm-bill/2014/01/13/875b3c42-7c6f-11e3-9556-4a4bf7bcbd84_story.html?tid=auto_complete

Klimas, Jacqueline, “Reed Delays Senate Vote on Unemployment Benefits Extension,” Washington Times (January 13, 2014). http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jan/13/reid-delays-senate-vote-on-unemployment-benefits-e/

Mascaro, Lisa, “Senate Closes in on Compromises for Budget, Jobless Insurance,” Los Angeles Times (Politics Now, January 13, 2014).  http://www.latimes.com/nation/politics/politicsnow/la-pn-senate-unemployment-benefits-extension-20140113,0,4713360.story#axzz2qMnfSzFO

Montgomery, Lori and Ed O’Keefe, “Lawmakers Unveil Massive $1.1 Trillion Spending Bill in Bipartisan Compromise,” Washington Post (Business, January 13, 2014).  http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/members-of-congress-to-unveil-massive-spending-bill-in-bipartisan-compromise/2014/01/13/71db3a8c-7c9e-11e3-9556-4a4bf7bcbd84_story.html?hpid=z1

 

Unemployed? Employers are Discriminating Against You

While the epic battle over the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act rages in the U.S. Senate, our elected representatives ought to consider that the “long-term unemployed” are a product of discrimination on the part of employers.

Discrimination?  Say what?

You heard right.

Let’s assume that just as soon as you get over the shock of being laid off, you begin looking for another job in earnest.  Does your chance of getting hired increase or decrease once you are out of work?

Looking at this question from the point of view of the employer, there are at least two schools of thought on whether or not it is a good idea to hire the unemployed.

  • Hire the unemployed! 
    • The unemployed face all kinds of financial pressure and are eager to work to avoid losing their families and ending up out on the street.
    • The unemployed aren’t in a position to be picky and are willing to perform difficult, onerous, repetitive or dirty jobs at which others would turn up their noses.
    • The unemployed are willing to work on the cheap.  After all, something is better than nothing, particularly when you can no longer put food on the table.
    • The unemployed are available immediately — no two week notice and all that!
  • Heavens no, don’t hire the unemployed! (Also known as “to get a job, you gotta have a job.”)
    • Don’t even bother.  The unemployed are so desperate, they apply for jobs for which they are overqualified or underqualified.  What a waste of time!
    • The unemployed are just looking for a stopgap job.  They’ll just leave as soon as they find something better.  Instead, hire someone who already has a job.  If an applicant is willing to leave his or her job to come work for us, you know this person is serious!
    • The unemployed are “scarred.”  These broken, dispirited people have been beaten down to the point where they have lost the will to succeed at any job.  During their time out of work, their skills have atrophied, they’ve missed out on technical updates and the only thing they’re good at anymore is sitting on their asses in front of the TV.
    • The unemployed tend to have health and family problems that will only end up costing the company money.

So, who’s right?

Word is that some employers have an informal policy of turning down the applications of anyone who is out of work.  And there are some employers who make no bones about it:  They have the guts to include a caveat in their employment ads that the unemployed need not apply.

If this sounds a lot like discrimination, that’s because it is.  And it’s perfectly legal.

This is what I call the “purple” type of discrimination.  If an employer loathes the color purple, he or she violates no law by kicking out any applicant who walks in wearing purple.  In other words, unemployment (like wearing purple garments) is not a “protected class” (like race, gender and disability, for example) under federal law, giving employers the right to discriminate to their heart’s content without legal consequence.

In 2012, the legislature in my home state of California voted in favor of a bill that would make discrimination against the unemployed illegal.  However, the measure failed to become law when Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it.

The bottom line is that the unemployed tend to be looked at with suspicion by potential employers.

Not too long ago, when I found myself in a company’s lovely conference room to be interviewed by a panel of managers, I decided to relax and “just be myself.”  After all, I knew that I had excellent qualifications for the job.  So I explained to the panel how I became laid off when my previous employer had to resort to a reduction in force due to severe financial difficulties.  There were three rounds of layoffs, during which I lost most of the employees who I managed before losing my own job in the last of the rounds.

I wasn’t hired.

After all, who knows why an applicant really became unemployed?  Sure, they’ll tell you a good story, but who knows whether they’re telling you the truth?  Could be that the employee engaged in unethical practices, robbed the company blind, committed sexual harassment or was caught sleeping on the job.  You can reference check from here to Timbuktu, but no former employer will ever admit to any of these things for fear of being sued.

With this attitude on the part of employers, the unemployed, who already ended up on the losing end of the stick once, are guaranteed to be the losers again and again.

And our senators wonder why millions of Americans can’t find a job during their initial 26-week period of state benefits?

We must at least consider that employers may be the ones responsible for causing laid off workers to become the “long termers” that Senate Republicans find so repugnant.

References

Cohen, Adam, “Jobless Discrimination?  When Firms Won’t Even Consider Hiring Anyone Unemployed,” Time (May 23, 2011).  http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2073520,00.html

Gordon, Clare, “Employer Explains Why He Won’t Hire the Unemployed,” AOL Jobs (Oct. 12, 2012).  http://jobs.aol.com/articles/2012/10/12/employer-explains-why-he-wont-hire-the-unemployed/

Lemieux, Scott, “We Don’t Hire the Unemployed,” Lawyers, Guns & Money Blog (Nov. 18, 2012). http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2013/11/we-don%E2%80%99t-hire-the-unemployed

Lucas, Suzanne, “Unemployed?  5 Reasons Companies Won’t Hire You,” CBS Money (July 27, 2011). http://www.cbsnews.com/news/unemployed-5-reasons-companies-wont-hire-you/

Rampell, Catherine, “The Help-Wanted Sign Comes with a Frustrating Asterisk,” New York Times (Business Day, July 25, 2011).  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/26/business/help-wanted-ads-exclude-the-long-term-jobless.html?_r=0

Smooke, David, “10 Reasons to Hire the Unemployed,” Smart Recruiters Blog. http://www.smartrecruiters.com/blog/10-reasons-to-hire-the-unemployed/

 

Unemployment Wrangle and Mangle in the Senate

Last Sunday, USA Today published an editorial urging Congress to restore federal unemployment benefit extensions immediately.  About 1.3 million people who had already exhausted their 26 weeks of state unemployment compensation were cut off from federal extension benefits on December 28 when Congress failed to renew the enabling legislation and then went off on a weeklong New Year’s vacation.

Many major newspapers have expressed similar sentiments, as has President Obama.  And things were looking possible there for a while.

No vote occurred on Monday due to the weather keeping seventeen senators away.  On Tuesday, the Senate voted to open debate on the issue.  Promising, particularly since it took six votes from the Republican side of the aisle to accomplish this.

On Wednesday, and even into Thursday, there was talk of a bipartisan deal being reached, perhaps one that would go so far as to provide back benefits to those who were cut off two weeks ago.  Better than that, the plan was to provide federal unemployment benefits for up to 31 weeks (at a cost of 17 to 18 billion dollars) rather than for just three months (at a cost of over $6 billion).  The exact number of weeks of unemployment benefits to which a particular claimant would be entitled would depend on the unemployment rate in the person’s state of residence.

It was thought that a way had been found to satisfy the demand of Senate (and House) Republicans that any benefit extension be paid for by cuts elsewhere.  While there may not be other spending that can reasonably be cut right now, the plan was for the corresponding cuts to be made ten years from now, in 2024 (most of the cuts would have been to Medicare providers).  In other words, buy now and pay later — kind of like a credit card.

But alas, Senate Democrats and Republicans were unable to overcome their differences and things quickly began to fall apart.  At least three of the Republican senators who had voted Tuesday to open debate on the unemployment extension bill indicated that they would not approve the current version were it to come to the floor for a vote.  One complaint among Republican senators was that they had been excluded from the process of hammering out the compromise measure, specifically that they had been denied the opportunity to offer amendments.  Another was that Senate Republicans are not interested in providing long-term unemployment compensation and would only consider a short-term restoration of federal benefits, such as the original three-month plan.

Some senators expressed hope that there may still be a chance for the bill to get back on track on Monday.  Meanwhile, most families who had been receiving federal unemployment benefits through the end of 2013 have now begun to suffer the effects of a missing check.  Many of these families have no other source of support.

The USA Today editorial listed a few interesting tidbits regarding our current unemployment situation:

  • Nationally, the current unemployment rate is approximately 7%.  The last time the rate was this high was 20 years ago.
  • Long-term unemployment is at its highest level since World War II.  Over 4 million Americans have now been out of work for 27 weeks or more.
  • There are currently about three job seekers for every job opening.

Oh, and also, another 100,000 or so American families have now fallen off the federal unemployment rolls in addition to the 1.3 million who were out of luck on 12/28.

And yet, there are Republican senators, who we have elected to be our representatives, who continue to insist that the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Extension Act is misnamed because there is no “emergency.”

For real?

 

References

Espo, David, “Jobless Bill Stalls in Senate,” Miami Herald (Business Breaking News, January 9, 2014).  http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/01/09/3860878/reid-expresses-optimism-about.html

Hunt, Kasie, “Unemployment Aid Deal Stalls Again,” NBC News (First Read, January 9, 2014).  http://firstread.nbcnews.com/_news/2014/01/09/22244801-unemployment-aid-deal-stalls-again?lite

Sargent, Greg, “Senators Close in on Way to Pay for Unemployment Benefits,” Washington Post (The Plum Line, January 9, 2014).  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2014/01/09/dems-close-in-on-way-to-pay-for-unemployment-benefits/

Stein, Sam, Arthur Delaney and Michael McAuliff, “The Senate’s New Unemployment Deal is Already Falling Apart,” Huffington Post (HuffPost Politics, January 9, 2014).  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/09/senate-unemployment-insurance_n_4571118.html?utm_hp_ref=unemployment-extension

 

No Text Please, We’re Parents

When I visited my parents recently, I sat down with my mother to show her photos on my iPhone.  There were photos from Thanksgiving, from Hanukkah and from my father’s eightieth birthday celebration, along with pictures from back in the summer — some really good shots I took of our family Fathers’ Day brunch in Los Angeles and my nephew’s college graduation dinner.

Although my mother enjoyed the photos, the problem, she says, is that they’re not real.  You can’t touch them, put them in an album, let them gather dust in a closet until you pull them out for special occasions.

I assured her that the photos can be printed and that we would make this happen.

After we got home, I emailed the photos to my wife, who uploaded them to walmart.com.  For about three dollars, Wal-Mart printed them and mailed them out to my parents.

They called yesterday to tell us that the prints had arrived and how much they like them.  Now my mother says she’ll have to buy a digital camera so that she can connect it to her PC with a cord and then upload her photos to Wal-Mart for printing.

I once again urge my parents to get rid of their prepaid TracFones and finally purchase smart phones, but as always, my pleas are rebuffed.  They don’t need a smart phone, they tell me.  They don’t even use all the minutes on their TracFones.  Every year, they renew their subscriptions and they still have a big pile of minutes left.  The only time they even use a cell phone is when one of their children call while they’re in FoodMaxx or Home Depot.

I try to tell them that smart phones are not really about making phone calls.  Wouldn’t you like to be able to get directions from anywhere you are?  “We have a Garmin in the car for that.”

Wouldn’t you like to be able to snap pictures and send them to people immediately?  Wouldn’t you like to be able to play whatever music you want, whenever you want?  Wouldn’t you like to be able to look up anything on the internet wherever you are?

No, no and no.  They don’t need to do any of those things.

What about texting?  We could text each other all the time.

“That’s so impersonal,” my mother says.  “It’s like you don’t want to talk to the person.”

“No, it’s not impersonal,” I argue.  “I text my sister and she responds whenever it’s convenient.”

“It’s just typing.  It’s not the same as talking to a person.”

I give up.  We’ve been through this texting discussion before, and I get absolutely nowhere every time.  My mother feels that if I want to talk to her, I should just call and talk to her.  After all, she has a cell phone now so I can call even if they’re out shopping.  Heck, my parents each have their own cell number, so they can call each other and argue when they get separated in WinCo.  And they have a phone in the master bedroom and in the kitchen and even out in the garage where they can run in and answer it if they’re outside planting and digging and mowing when it rings.  What more do you need?

Sigh.  I guess I could have mentioned that my mother-in-law has a smart phone and that she texts with her children and grandchildren every day.  I could have mentioned that our extended family now consists mostly of the younger generation, with whom it’s text or nothing.  I could have mentioned that they are able to pick up his ‘n hers smart phones for a song and that service contracts don’t cost that much anymore if you forgo all the bells and whistles.

But I know I’d just make her irritated and that, in the end, I’d lose the argument no matter what I said.

So I guess my parents will continue to be the only important people in my life to whom I will still be unable to send a text message just to say “I love you.”

And I know that the next time I call them on their TracFones, they’ll be out shopping for a digital camera.

 

Dorothy and the Nabi

elmo dorothy

Now I’ve seen it all.

At my age, there’s not a whole lot that surprises me anymore.  But thanks to my little grandniece, yesterday I had what is, for me, a new experience.

I have attended a birthday party for a goldfish.

If you have a child under the age of five, or if you are familiar with Sesame Street, you probably know what I am talking about.

Apparently, our Muppet friend, Elmo, has a pet goldfish named Dorothy.  And yes, you guessed it, she’s another year older.

The special day was celebrated by adding a birthday cake toy to Dorothy’s fishbowl and by having all the kids demonstrate how they wrapped their gifts for their favorite ichthyologic friend.  Behind the window shade, Mr. Noodle appeared in the cloud window to further demonstrate gift wrapping technique, but not before wrapping himself in orange paper and winding an entire roll of tape around his neck and body.  Silly Mr. Noodle!

Following a segment showing how birthdays are celebrated around the world, Elmo closes by singing a rousing chorus of “for she’s a jolly good goldfish.”

Please tell me that Dorothy doesn’t have her own fan page on Facebook.  Oh, she does, huh?

Unlike Dorothy, my grandniece is not celebrating a birthday this week (she turned one year old about three months ago).  But that didn’t stop us from buying her a present anyway.

Nabi Jr
We found a good buy on a kids’ tablet computer known as a Nabi, Jr.  Now, the Nabi website says this product is for children ages 3 to 7.  But we know Little One is going to have a grand old time with it, judging by the way she plays with all of our iPhones.  We have to keep an eye on our phones or she will swipe them and disappear before we know what happened.  The fact that they may be plugged in to charge will in no way deter her.  She will simply tug on the cord until the phone comes loose.  Once in possession of said phone, she will touch every part of the screen with reckless abandon.  My grandniece’s explorations have resulted in her sending texts to our friends, making phone calls and even deleting most of our apps.

I think I get it.  Our phones are a whole lot more fun than a birthday party for Dorothy the fish.

We figure it won’t be long before Little One will be speaking to us in an intelligible manner, and we know how that scene will go.  I fully expect her first full sentence to be “I want my own iPhone!  Now now now!”

We will cross that bridge when we come to it.  For now, however, we know that she will go crazy over all the colors, the games, the drawing and music — both kids’ tunes and classical (Mendelssohn, anyone?).  Most importantly, she will get to touch every part of the screen and making fun things happen.  At least until she throws it across the room (she likes to fling things).

elephant
My wife and I were playing around with the Nabi after we got it charged up today.  I accessed an app called ABC Color, where, after reaching the letter E, I used the drawing tools that appeared at the bottom of the screen to fill in an outline picture of an elephant with a gray colored pencil.  Like any infant worth his salt, I was unable to stay within the lines.  No problem there; I simply used the eraser tool to make the picture look perfect.

Well, I’d better sign off here and get myself to bed.  I want to make sure to be up in time to see the look on my grandniece’s face when we present her with the Nabi.  And to hear the crash when she flings it into a corner to go play with a spoon or hide behind my mother-in-law’s easy chair.

So good night, and uh, happy birthday, Dorothy!  Or, in your language, glub glub.