Waiting for the Unemployment Extension? Don’t Bother Checking Your Mailbox

My mother, who recently turned 80 and enjoys Hannity, Limbaugh and the rest of the conservative pundits on daytime radio, believes that the federal unemployment extension has passed in Congress and that the checks will be in the mail shortly.

Um, Mom?  I’m not holding my breath.

I hear it’s getting nasty, and not just on Capitol Hill either.  Inflammatory name-calling abounds.  Apparently, either you’re a “conservatard” or a “libtard.”  Wowzers, this unemployment thing sure has become a hot-button issue.

This should come as no surprise.  More than a million unemployed Americans lost their checks when the enabling legislation for federal benefit extensions expired three days after Christmas.  As most of them are still out of work, that’s January, February and March without any income.

This is part of the problem with the Senate bill to extend benefits, according to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).  If both houses of Congress were to pass the bill, unemployment checks would need to be provided retroactively to those who were cut off in December.  This would leave state governments with an administrative nightmare, according to Boehner, who believes that the states’ often antiquated data processing systems are incapable of making retroactive payments without creating openings for massive fraud.  Interestingly, some of the states with the highest rates of unemployment, including New York and Boehner’s home state of Ohio, roundly deny this line of reasoning.  Show us the money, they say, and we’ll take care of getting it distributed.  Then again, there are those states (including some of the poorest ones, such as Mississippi) that are happy to go along with Boehner’s ruse because they simply do not want to have to deal with passing out the money.

But Boehner, who has characterized the Senate bill as unworkable, has voiced a second objection: It fails to include any provisions to create jobs in the private sector.  In other words, why bother providing handouts when there are no jobs to be had and the recipients of government largesse are just going to run through their checks and need more?  (raising my hand)  Ooo, ooo, teacher, I know!  How about because we need to feed our families and keep a roof over their heads?

It would be easy to characterize Boehner’s smokescreen as a means of mollifying the Tea Party conservatives in his caucus and hence keeping his speakership.  But it goes beyond that.  Sure, Republicans gripe about how we’ve become “a nation of takers” and how government “handouts” merely perpetuate the cycle of dependence and a mindset of entitlement. However, the bottom line seems to be that representatives of both parties continue to demonstrate a lack of sufficient intestinal fortitude to engage in the type of fracas over the issue that the Senate has dragged itself through in the past three months.  The facts that children are going to be without food and that families will be rendered homeless have been reduced to meaningless details, apparently.

Now that five Republican senators have agreed to vote in favor of the unemployment extension bill (deciding, as one editorial put it, that “the time for callousness has run out”), it appears poised to pass in that august body on Monday morning.  Of course, anything is possible.  If even one of those five craps out at the last minute, the measure won’t have enough votes to survive a filibuster.

Not that it really matters.  The Senate gets a feather in its cap, sure.  Senate Democrats can rejoice in a hard-fought win and Republicans can crow about how, against their better judgment, they allowed their values to be compromised in order to bail out those of their fellow Americans who are in the direst of straits.  Senators can play the role of the good guys and point their collective fingers at the bad boys and girls of the House of Representatives, who (at least if Boehner has his way) are likely to prevent the unemployment extension bill from ever coming to a vote.

Meanwhile, those of us who have been out of work for more than six months get nothing.

 

References

Delaney, Arthur, “House GOP Says It’s Too Late to Pass an Unemployment Extension,” huffingtonpost.com (March 27, 2014).

Everett, Burgess, “Senate Advances Jobless Aid,” politico.com (March 27, 2014).

Firestone, David, “Despite a Senate Deal, the Jobless Still Wait for Aid,”  The New York Times (Taking Note, March 14, 2014).

Fram, Alan, “Boehner Questions Senate Unemployment Deal,” Boston Globe (Associated Press, March 14, 2014).

 

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Homeless Behind Bars

So our homeless friend has landed in jail.  I knew it was just a matter of time, but this still saddens me.

In some respects I suppose he’s better off in custody.  It’s been raining all week; at least there he’ll stay dry and be fed regularly.  Three hots and a cot.

I’m sure he’s not happy about how things have turned out.  After all, he enjoys his freedom and doesn’t like to follow rules.  This is one of the reasons that he continues to refuse our counsel to take advantage of the services of the local homeless shelter.

I hear they got him for violation of probation.  It’s got to be tough for a guy who lives in a tent and has no money to get several miles up the freeway and into town to show up for regular appointments with his probation officer.  Then again, I’ve seen him on a bicycle, so perhaps it’s not a transportation issue.  He may just be tired of having to report every week.  It’s got to get old after a while, particularly for someone who isn’t into rules.  At some point, perhaps you just say “screw it” and accept whatever consequences attach.

Our friend constantly shows up at the parsonage asking for food, money or the key to the church rest room.  He tells us all kinds of stories and lies, when we know full well that what he needs money for is cigarettes and beer.

We’ve gone around and around in circles with this guy.  For a while, we allowed him to stay overnight in the church rest room until an unfortunate series of events prevented us from extending this courtesy any longer.  First, a most unpleasant confrontation ensued when churchgoers were unable to gain access to the rest room one Sunday morning because he was hunkered down in there.  Then we discovered that allowing him to use the rest room as a temporary overnight shelter violated the church’s insurance policy.  We told him he couldn’t stay in the rest room anymore, but we still allowed him in to use the facilities.  Finally, Pastor Mom was restocking supplies in the rest room one day when she discovered that our friend had left his sleeping bag and a long knife under the sink.  We were lucky that a little kid attending church with his parents hadn’t found it first.  Pastor Mom told him that he had violated our trust and was not welcome here anymore.  He asked us where he was supposed to go to pee and she explained that it’s not our problem.

But my mother-in-law has a soft heart.  Eventually, she relented and again allowed him to use the church rest room to relieve himself.

Since then, our friend has been over here quite often.  If it’s in the morning, we invite him in for coffee and toast.  If it’s in the evening, we feed him dinner.

For the last few weeks, we’ve had volunteers here performing renovation work on the church social hall nearly every day.  Pastor Mom has gone to a lot of effort and expense to cook and serve them lunch.  One day, our friend appeared just when the workers were eating.  He said he was hungry, so we gave him a hot dog in a bun, a package of crackers and a cold bottle of water.  His reaction?  “Well, it’s better than nothing.”

Hopefully, the food is better in jail.  Ingratitude has a nasty way of complicating one’s innate charitable urges.  You want to do the right thing but, holy mackerel, it’s tough sometimes.

Earlier this week, Pastor Mom was away visiting a friend for a few days.  Our homeless guy came by to use the rest room and we gave him the key to unlock it.  We reminded him to lock it back up when he was done.  Apparently, he didn’t, as we found his bicycle on the property next morning.  I went to unlock the rest room so that the arriving workers could use it.  It was locked from the inside.  Our friend shouted through the door that he was in the middle of “changing.”  I suppose he was referring to his clothes, not his behavior.

I have no way of proving it, but I’m sure he deliberately left the rest room unlocked after he used it so that he could stay there all night.  I suppose it’s preferable to a wet tent.

That evening, our friend came by to apologize, stating that he was just in there “to wash up and shave.”  I used a harsh tone with him, explaining that he was given permission to use the rest room to pee only.

I told Pastor Mom that I knew this would happen once she relented and allowed him to start using the church rest room again.

“What would God do?” she asked.

“Invite him in and allow him to sleep on the couch,” was my answer.

Pastor Mom responded that she always does the best she knows how to do at the time.  And I agree. All we can do is the best we can come up with at any given moment.

I’m sorry that our homeless friend is in jail.  Checking the sheriff’s website, I see that he is being held without bail.  Visitors are allowed for one hour, twice per week.  The next visiting hour is on Sunday, and I suggested to my wife that we go see him.  After all, the worst thing about being in jail is feeling alone and forgotten.

My wife doesn’t understand why I want to visit “when I was so mean to him the other night.”  I attempted, not very successfully, to explain that there is a difference between being firm and being mean.  If I had called the cops on him, that would have been mean.

Turns out that wasn’t necessary.  I guess his probation officer had the sheriffs pick up our friend when he failed to show.

Even though this is his second probation violation, I’ll be surprised if he does as much as thirty days behind bars.  Then he’ll be out and back sleeping in his tent and begging us to use the rest room so he doesn’t have to risk arrest for peeing in public.  Until the next time he violates probation and makes another pass through those revolving jail doors.

And so it goes, on and on.  Is there any hope for breaking the vicious cycle that is homelessness?

 

A Nation of Givers

Along with the disadvantages inherent in poverty, there are certain advantages of being unemployed.  Chief among these is the fact that your time is your own.  As you’re not selling your time and energy to an employer (or to “the man,” as some would style it), you can do pretty much anything you want to do.  As long as it doesn’t cost money, that is.

Having plenty of time but no money certainly does make one stop and smell the roses.  I get to play endless games of “Boo!” with my little grandniece.  (Turns out her time is her own, too.)  I get to bake cookies with my niece on a weekday afternoon just because I found this cool vegan recipe on a blog that I follow.  And then I get to combine all these pleasures by sitting in the living room with my niece and grandniece, discussing theories of sociology with the former and sharing the freshly-baked cookies with the latter.

It’s a lot like being a kid again.

While I’m explaining the basics of regression analysis to my niece, I can’t help but feel that a part of me is regressing to an earlier time in my life.  Little One hands me (Curious) George, her stuffed monkey, and I make a big show of hugging him as a means of demonstrating my worthiness as designated (zoo)keeper of her favorite plush primate.

I get to push her around WinCo in a grocery cart, pretending to be a racecar driver while singing “Alouette,” much to the amusement of some of my fellow shoppers.

My wife and I get to pick up our niece and her daughter early in the morning, driving the former to the local community college and entertaining the latter for the remainder of the day and into the evening.

We get to see entirely too many episodes of Sesame Street, read the same picture books over and over again and teach the finer points of dipping French fries into ketchup.

I get to sing songs from my childhood that I hadn’t thought of in half a century, amazed when all the lyrics come back to me as if it were yesterday.

Tomorrow, I think Little One and I will whip up a batch of guacamole.  Those avocados are almost ripe now.

Uncle Guac has no clue what he is doing, but he’s having entirely too much fun doing it.  Now that he has the time to do it, that is.

So, yes, writers such as Nicholas Eberstadt point out that public funds spent on social welfare entitlements (from unemployment benefits to SSDI to Medicare to Obamacare) have increased from one-third of all federal spending to two-thirds thereof in the past fifty years.  Bemoaning the rise of the welfare state and what he sees as the “moral crisis” that is the death of the American Dream, Eberstadt refers to us as “a nation of takers.”  Ignoring the suffering endured by those whom the tanking American economy has left behind, he insists that men in their prime have lost their will to work and are perfectly content to leech off the public fisc.

Well, I only have three unemployment checks left, Mr. Eberstadt, but I’m still here.  And so is my wife, my mother-in-law, my niece and my nephew, none of us gainfully employed at this time.

And unless John Boehner and the Tea Party Republicans remove their heads from their respective asses soon, I won’t be “taking” a few weeks from now.

No matter what happens, though, I will still be giving.  Of my time, my energies and my love.  Because now I have the time to do so.  In between sending out endless résumés and receiving no response.

Yes, indeed, there are a lot us these days:  The silent nation of givers.  We are still here, and we’re not going anywhere.

By the way, Mr. Eberstadt, there’s someone I’d like you to meet up here in Yuba County.  She’ll be 18 months old on Friday.

Hope you can make it.  And why don’t you bring Mr. Boehner along while you’re at it?

 

Of Trains and Tragedy

There’s been quite a bit of sadness and mourning going on in our little town.

Two train accidents have occurred in our immediate area in the past month.  One was probably a suicide, the other a tragedy involving two teenagers.

About four weeks ago, a woman reportedly sitting on the tracks a few blocks from here was killed when the train couldn’t stop in time.  And then there was last night.  Two students walking to a local dance crossed the train tracks as so many locals do without a second thought.  The engineer said he blew his horn repeatedly and applied the air brakes but was unable to stop before running over them.

I wish I knew something about the woman who was in such pain that she felt the need to end her life on the tracks.  Did a relationship go sour?  Were her children horrible to her?  Was she unemployed and in debt?  Was she homeless and alone?  Was she suffering from drug addiction or mental health problems or both?  Living here in the parsonage of a church, we are no strangers to such issues.  I woke up from a sound sleep the other day because a woman was sobbing loudly in our living room and Pastor Mom was attempting to comfort her.  Trying to remain inconspicuous to avoid further embarrassment to her, through her tears I heard bits and pieces about someone leaving her knowing she can’t pay the rent and someone else making up stories about her.  Problems likely not very different from those experienced by the woman who sat down on the tracks.

The newspapers and local authorities won’t identify the minors who were killed over here last night, but just about everyone in this area is on Facebook and Twitter so the word gets around.  They were both sixteen years old and in high school.  Just a typical teenage couple heading to a dance.  He was killed instantly.  The word on social media is that she survived only because he pushed her out of the direct path of the train.  Rumor is that one of the train’s wheels ran over her anyway and that she has lost her arm.

There are no words for this.  I didn’t know any of the people involved, but my heart goes out to their families.

So what is the answer?  Better access to mental health care for those who most need it and can least afford it?  Mandatory fences on the railroad’s right-of-way?

I had two close calls with trains in my younger days, one in a vehicle (that someone else was driving) and one on foot.  Many years have gone by since I lived in a place such as this where so many freight trains pass back and forth over multiple tracks at all hours of the day and night.  In the New York town in which I grew up, there were trains that passed through the center of town.  By the time I was in high school, however, the train no longer came through town and the tracks were abandoned.  More recently, we lived out in the desert on the Arizona/California border, where the tracks running through town were similarly abandoned.

Passenger trains are a thing of the past.  I’ve ridden Amtrak on several occasions, but they are constantly on the brink of bankruptcy and survive only due to government bailouts.  Freight trains seem, at least to me, like an anachronism that belongs to this country’s past.  With most goods transported by tractor trailer or air, I question whether freight trains still have a place in our modern economy.  The objection I hear is that certain goods can be effectively transported only in large rail cars.  I say that if we can save so many lives a year by eliminating freight trains, then paying higher prices for those goods seems to be a more than fair tradeoff.

At the very least, grade crossings should be outlawed.  Railroads wishing to have their tracks  pass through populated areas should be required to construct high trestle bridges for their trains to pass over.  As rail transportation is a matter of federal law in the United States, I would suggest that you write to your senator and congressperson to express your feelings on this issue.  If we continue to feel that there is nothing that can be done about it, then nothing ever will be done about it.

I am convinced that those who are hellbent on committing suicide are going to do so one way or the other.  But to have train tracks running through the middle of town so that it is inconvenient for kids to do anything other than walk over them to get from Point A to Point B is unconscionable.

Update, March 30: My niece and her teenaged friends tell me that the young couple on the tracks had made a suicide pact in a sad Romeo and Juliet parody that concerned parental disapproval of their interracial dating. My niece says that only the surviving girl knows the whole truth and that she’s likely to commit suicide before she talks. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?

Jumping Through Hoops

Applying for management positions is not for the faint of heart.  I sometimes think that prospective employers make applicants jump through so many hoops just to see how badly you want the position.  Or maybe they put us through this just because they can.  And believe me, they can.  It’s a buyer’s market right now in the United States and employers can have their pick.  Middle managers are a dime a dozen.

Each time you apply for a management position, you can know with confidence that you will be competing with hundreds of other applicants.  You want your résumé to stand out from the crowd, but if it’s too flashy or trashy it will end up dumped in the circular file.

Pastor Mom has a friend visiting with us this week; she asked me whether I am able to send out the same cover letter and résumé for each position for which I apply.  No, no, no… That would be far too easy.  Employers want us to jump through hoops, remember?  Get ready to perform a circus act for their amusement.  For example:  Even though the years in which you started and left each job are clearly listed on your résumé, one employer wants you to list the exact number of months for which you’ve held each job (apparently they can’t be bothered to do the math), while another wants you to list both the starting salary and the ending salary for each job and a third wants you to list the number of employees supervised at each job.

Then you’re supposed to list the name of each of your direct supervisors, along with an address and a phone number at which they can be reached.  This may seem like a simple request, but if you have a lengthy work history as I do, it’s not.  I worked for one company for 8½ years, during which time I must have had at least five or six different supervisors.  After all, different companies were involved.  Although I stayed put, state law required that the work be put out to bid every few years, giving me a new boss and a different color paycheck each time the contractor changed.  Even if I could remember the names of all my supervisors from fifteen years ago (which I can’t), how am I supposed to get them all to fit in that little bitty space?  Continuing with the circus theme, now we’re moving on from jumping through hoops to stuffing 23 clowns in a VW Bug.  And, come on, you know that most of these people are no longer with the company.  Who knows where they’ve since gone or how to contact them?  And do you think they’ll really remember me?  I know for a fact that some of them are retired or dead.  Should I provide the address and phone number of Queen of Heaven Cemetery as if I were trying to brush off some creep ogling for my digits?

This doesn’t even begin to account for my former employers that have since gone out of business or have been bought out by other companies.  I started keeping a notebook with the addresses and phone numbers of my old jobs (because I got sick and tired of looking them up online all the time).  Many of those addresses are different than the locations at which I worked way back when.  Building leases run out, cheaper rental opportunities turn up and next thing you know, the company has moved.  Now that I no longer look up addresses each time I fill out an application, I don’t even know whether the information that I am providing is current.  Imagine my shock when I recently learned that a county in which I lived for a couple of decades now has a different area code.  So even though some of these places were still in the same physical location, their phone numbers had changed.

And if you apply for a job that requires a government security clearance (and many of them do due to federal contract requirements), applicants must list every home address at which they have resided since the age of 18.  Um, let’s see now:  There was New York, then Rhode Island, then back to New York, then Massachusetts, then back to New York again, then three different places in Connecticut, a couple of addresses in California, then Connecticut and Massachusetts again, then finally back to California for good, where I moved around the state oh, maybe six or seven times?  “If you need more space, use additional sheets of paper.”  No shit.

Of course, there is a large box in which you’re supposed to write a description of your duties at each of your previous jobs.  Most applications include a bold warning “DO NOT write ‘See résumé.’  A résumé will not be accepted in lieu of a completed application.”  This means that, although you’re supplying a résumé that already contains all this information, it is necessary to retype it.  However, the box never contains enough room for this purpose.  This leaves the applicant with the choice of adding additional pages and attaching them as a separate file in Microsoft Word (or converting them to Adobe), or printing out the page, filling in the details by hand and scanning it.  Either way makes for a lovely way to spend a pleasant evening.

Then there’s the “education” section of the application.  Providing the names, locations and dates of graduation from each college you’ve attended is fairly standard (although I object to this because it then becomes a simple matter to determine the applicant’s age and discriminate accordingly).  But you will hear me let out an audible groan when a form requires that the applicant list not only major subject studied, but also grade point average and class standing.  This is no small feat when you consider that I have attended six different institutions of higher education.  I had to order transcripts from each school (I mean, get real, who remembers this stuff?), which is not free of charge.  Finally, I got tired of consulting six transcripts and just made up a little grid from which to copy.

Well, I thought I had the “education” section all locked up.  Until last night, that is.  I completed an online application for employment that required applicants to list the number of credits completed in each subject studied.  So there I went pawing through the transcripts again, using a calculator to add up credits for sociology, psychology, political science, law, mathematics, English, business, economics and a bunch of other stuff.  I was extremely grateful that I was not asked to list the fact that I received passing grades in both badminton and tennis in my freshman year of college and that I successfully participated in both the choir and woodwinds.

Then you come to what is always my favorite part, the essays.  Some employers require applicants for management positions to write as many as a dozen of them, detailing such things as philosophy of management, experience with conflict resolution, knowledge of production statistics, contract negotiation skills, experience in writing white papers and delivering persuasive speeches, and projects worked on that required assembling a multidisciplinary team and achieving consensus.  Better block out a few hours for writing these.

Well, I’d better go now.  You see, I have an application essay awaiting me.  It may only run to a maximum of two pages in an 11 point font with one-inch margins.  In the space allowed, I am to describe the details of how it is that I meet each of the dozen qualities required in the candidate selected for this position, including “sense of humor.”

Yeah, right.

 

Remember That Car You Used to Have?

My first new car, purchased with savings from my first real job (working the night shift for minimum wage doesn’t count) and help from Dad, was a 1984 Pontiac Bonneville.  Two-tone green.  Racing stripe right down the middle of that baby.  Faux wood grain dash.  Cassette deck.  I thought I was hot shit.

My sister, who had just graduated from college, bought her first new car right about the same time.  Hers was a shiny red Dodge.  She wanted four on the floor and air conditioning.  I wanted an automatic and was unwilling to pay for air conditioning.  Both vehicles had to be special ordered.

As my vehicle arrived first, I loaned my brand new car out to Sis on a few occasions so that she was not stuck at home all the time.  Following one such occasion, I told her about a dream I had.  In the dream, my sister walked in the door and handed me a curious looking item that I was unable to identify.  “What’s this?” I asked.  “Remember that car you used to have?” she asked.  “This is what’s left of it.”  And just before I woke up, I recognized two small lines that may once have been green racing stripes.

My sister, ever the good sport, was able to laugh about this.  Truth is that she is an excellent driver and that I never had anything to worry about.  Mean Green Bonny lived a good long life and finally gave up the ghost after three long years of ferrying me back and forth between law school in Massachusetts and home in New York.

But today, it is with sadness that I announce the demise of my current vehicle, a thirteen year old Mercury Grand Marquis. Once my parents’ car, it was passed on to us after having acquired more than 100,000 miles in the course of being driven across the country on several occasions.  Just as many people as admired my wife’s Kia made fun of the Mercury.  It looks like an old grandpa’s car.  Hey, why are you driving a cop car?

But good old Whitey II served me faithfully for more than four years.  With over 160,000 miles on the engine, it still could haul up the Grapevine with the air conditioning blasting.  It survived three years in the desert, by which I mean three years of being parked on the street in the searing 120°F heat, being repeatedly dusted by blowing sand.

Yes, there was a Whitey I, my late vehicle’s predecessor.  Another white Mercury, we parted ways when it was given over to be crushed and destroyed in the “cash for clunkers” program, which helped us to purchase the Kia.

As for Whitey II, we took good care of it, hoping it would last us a good long while.  We had it serviced regularly – oil, tires, brakes, the works.  Alas, all good things come to an end, the best laid plans of mice and men notwithstanding.

Shortly after I was laid off from my job at the end of September, we left the desert and moved in with family in rural northern California.  My niece, who had just started community college, was struggling with bumming rides to class.  She was able to buy an old hoopdie that had two strikes against it:  It was on its last legs and my teenaged niece didn’t take care of it.  Without a father to teach her the rudiments of automobile maintenance, what can you expect?

As I have been unemployed for quite a while now, we saw no reason not to lend Whitey II out to my niece so that she could get back and forth to classes.  I’d rather not know all the gory details of how my poor Mercury met its demise, but I hear it has something to do with the car in front of it stopping while Whitey just kept right on going.  Crunch!

You will be missed, Whitey.  I am sorry that I didn’t take you through the car wash a little more often and that I took you for granted all those years of driving me back and forth to work every day.

Well done, faithful servant.  Well done.

 

Mom’s Birthday

birthday cake - March 2014

MODESTO

There is an eerie feeling of the past returning to haunt you when you enter a restaurant in which you haven’t set foot in years and are seated at the very table at which you often sat all those years ago.

We used to live here, but that was three moves ago.  When my wife and I were first married, this was one of our regular places.  It wasn’t unusual for us to recognize people we knew as they were heading out the door or hurrying past our table on the way to the rest room.  And as we ordered our coffee and tea and appetizers, I could feel the ghosts of meals past that populate this place.  The time that my niece dined with us and challenged my Jewish rejection of the divinity of Jesus.  The time we ran into one of my bosses not long before she was fired and, soon after, died.

We were celebrating my mother’s eightieth birthday, albeit in a much more low-key manner than we marked the same milestone for my father back in November.

It is difficult to wrap my mind around the idea that both my parents are now octogenarians.  They don’t seem to fit the profile, either in visage or in spirit.  They still perform physical labor on their land, build and fix things, travel all over to visit their children and grandchildren.

It’s more than that, of course.  At some level, we continue to see our parents as we did when we were children, regardless of intervening time and tide.  In our hearts, they will always be young and vital, as when they were the primary influence on our lives as impressionable infants and toddlers and school-age children.

My father removes a black and white photo from his wallet and passes it around.  My parents standing next to an old car, about a year and a half before they were married.  Age seventeen.  The same age that my niece is now.

We place the candles with the numbers 8 and 0 on the cake, light them, sing when Mom blows them out.  She will reenact the same ritual tomorrow in the Bay Area with two of her grandchildren.  My sisters, who reside in Texas and New Mexico, couldn’t make it.

As Mom opens the gifts (a wind chime in the shape of a bird, gardening gloves, a planter, a knitting bag), I can’t help but reflect on how many more of these times we will have together.  We want to believe that these celebratory occasions will just go on and on forever, but we know better.  Try to live in the moment, I tell myself.  Enjoy it while you can.

My mother can be a difficult person.  But I know that I have likely tried her patience at least as much as she has tried mine.  Today, she is in a delightfully upbeat mood, complains about nothing, does not bicker with my father.

As the party breaks up, we say we will see each other again next month, making tentative plans for Passover.  My mother continues to express bewilderment at my vegan ways; I try to make menu suggestions.

And then it is all over and we walk out to the cars together, some of us heading north, some of us heading south.  We have met halfway to celebrate this birthday, and it is then that I realize that we will meet halfway in all things for the rest of our days.  My mother tells me about her computer problems and laughs when I tell her about the Yiddish song I have been singing to my little grandniece.

As we prepare to part ways, she presses something into my hand, makes a mumbled remark about gas.  When I join my wife in the car, I open my palm to find three folded twenty dollar bills.

 

How Are You? I Am Fine!

stamp

I can’t remember the last time I received a personal letter in the mail.

We don’t have mail delivered to our door in our rural location, but when I turn the key in our post office box, I know exactly what I will find:  Advertisements, junk mail and trash.  Insurance forms, maybe a bill or two.  It’s as if the whole world spews up vomit into my mailbox.

If it were up to me, I’d probably check the post office box about once a month.  And then I’d forget for months at a time, the box would become stuffed with garbage, and the post office would start returning mail to sender because the box was full.  Ah, that sounds lovely!  You send me trash?  Back at ya, losers!

My wife, however, is addicted to snail mail.  She absolutely has to drive to the post office and check the box every day.  She is disappointed if a day goes by without any mail for us.  She hates federal holidays because… no mail!

I fail to see the point.  Anyone who wants to contact me sends me an email or a text.  Except for my parents, the only people who still use a telephone to call me because, well, they don’t do technology.

When was the last time you received a handwritten letter from anyone?  You know, sent the old-fashioned way, where you have to affix a postage stamp and drop it in a mailbox?  Sorry, birthday cards don’t count.

Back in December, I did receive a Christmas letter from a friend with whom I had lost touch.  I felt badly because he was informing me that he and his wife had divorced.

But before that?  I haven’t a clue.  It must have been years since I’ve received a letter.

Part of the reason for this is technology, of course.  It takes days for a letter to make its way through the mails.  Why wait when you can send an email or a text and have it arrive in a matter of seconds?  And who wants to go through the hassle of going to a mailbox or a post office?  Plus, email is free!  My young nephew, who was laid off from his job recently, informed us that he hadn’t sent in the documentation needed to receive unemployment benefits because he didn’t have the money to buy a stamp.  See what I mean?

Another part of this equation, I believe, is that we no longer have the patience and writing skills necessary to compose personal letters.  Just think of it!  You have to find a sheet of paper and an envelope and a pen.  And then you have to think of something to say.

Perhaps you do have something to say.  But it’s something like “Are you free for lunch on Wednesday?” or “Hey, come check out my new blog!”  Back in Victorian England, notes such as these might show up via post.  In our modern world, however, no one would bother to write a letter to express such brief thoughts.

Or for any other reason, for that matter.

If you want to discuss the pros and cons of dumping your skanky boyfriend or tell your friend about the cute things your baby is doing, you’ll probably go for a phone call.  Either that or you’ll post a pithy remark on Facebook.  My wife tells me that entire family feuds go on over F-Book.

I keep hearing that people can’t write a coherent sentence anymore, much less string together enough sentences and paragraphs to compose a letter.  Perhaps it’s a case of “use it or lose it.” Letter-writing has become technologically obsolete, so we lose the skills that writing letters requires.

I grew up in the Stone Age, before the advent of personal computers and cell phones; letter-writing, while past its heyday, was still common.  I learned to write letters by watching my mother write letters.  I remember being five years old and trying to copy the loops and swoops of her neat cursive (called “script” back then).  Before my mother was born, letters regularly went back and forth between immigrants arriving in America and their parents and siblings back home in Europe.  But she grew up during World War II, when letters were strongly associated with sons fighting far away in foreign lands and writing home to Mom and Dad.  Some parents wrote to their boys each week, faithfully, until they came home or a gold star was solemnly placed in the window.

When my mother was barely a teenager, living at home in New York City, her older sister took a train to the west coast to work in San Francisco.  We have family stories about my mom and grandma sitting down at the kitchen table to write her letters every week.

In my day, many kids learned to write letters while they were away at summer camp.  The counselors would always expect the campers to stretch out on their bunks and write home once a week.  I myself learned to write letters because I couldn’t wait to see my grandparents who lived a 2½ hour drive away in Connecticut.  Writing a letter was the next best thing to being there.  Once I got the hang of it, however, I wanted to write to everyone, from people I saw every day to people whom I barely knew.  I would routinely begin them with “How are you?  I am fine!”  Then I’d relate every little thing I could think of, from my favorite cartoons to a recent stomach ache.

My maternal grandfather remarried when I was about six years old (not long after Grandma passed on), and his new wife had two grown sons, one of whom loved to travel.  He used to tell me that his goal was to visit every nation on earth.  He probably succeeded, too.  Knowing how I loved fancy stamps from exotic countries, he’d send me post cards from places I’d barely heard of.  His tag line was always the same:  “There goes Global Sobel!”  It was always exciting when one of his post cards showed up in our mailbox.

When I was about eight years old or so, I was disappointed when my maiden aunt (great-aunt, really), whose fancy accountant’s adding machine and elegant high-rise apartment on West 57th Street I adored, moved to south Florida.  We immediately struck up a long-distance correspondence via U.S. Mail.  I loved receiving her letters on fancy perfumed stationery.  And I wrote back to her all the gory details of my life, including, much to my mother’s consternation, the blow-by-blow of my parents’ constant screaming arguments.  Of course, if there was any game or book I wanted and couldn’t wheedle out of my parents, I simply wrote to Aunt Iris and asked for it.  She would always oblige by sending something my way (A package in the mail!  Just for me!), although rarely the exact item I had requested.  I’d ask for a Scrabble set and Jeopardy! would show up on the doorstep.  I’d ask for a Bible and would unwrap a prayer book.  The poor woman tried!

Then my beloved grandparents moved to Florida as well, starting yet another wave of letters back and forth from New York to the Sunshine State.  Often, when I finished my letter, I’d hand it off to my sisters to write a few lines at the bottom.  Sometimes they’d add our cat’s name at the very end, lest any member of the family be left out.

Among my favorite letter stories involves the time we moved about an hour away and changed schools.  My sister and I both found ourselves attending John Jay High School, she a freshman and me a junior.  When I finished my latest later to my grandparents and passed it to my sister, she added a few lines of her own, including the statement “John Jay is great!”  When the letter arrived in Florida, my grandmother quickly got on the phone with my Dad.  “Who the heck is John Jay?” she demanded, thinking my thirteen year old sister had picked up some kind of boyfriend of whom she was particularly proud.

Even in my college days, during the summers I’d write letters to friends who I missed.  After graduation, I briefly corresponded with two of them who had gone overseas, one to work in Germany and the other to toil in the Peace Corps in central Africa.  As time goes on, however, our friendships of younger days tend to recede into the past, and the letters slowly petered out.

And when I wrote back to my friend who sent me the Christmas letter, I realized that this was the first personal letter I had written in many, many years.

My college student niece, whose little one we babysit while she is busy at classes, recently asked my wife and me for a favor.  She recalled how, when she was just a bit of a thing, she cherished the letters that my wife would write to her.  When our grandniece starts to read, she asked, could we please send her letters through the mail so that she can experience the same excitement of opening and reading them?

You can count on it, my dear.

 

Friday

Friday is the hardest day of the week when you’re unemployed.

I would have thought that Monday would be the most difficult day, with everyone heading off for an exciting new week of work or school and you sitting at home.  But that has not turned out to be the case.  Everyone knows that Mondays are no damned good anyway, so there is a certain degree of Schadenfreude involved when you can turn over and go back to sleep, laughing at family and friends dragging their butts to work where what awaits them is generally more in the line of another week of stultifying boredom rather than anything that might remotely be considered excitement.

When Friday rolls around, however, one must face the inescapable fact that another week without gainful employment has passed you by, with the last few state unemployment benefit checks running out like the final grains of sand slipping stealthily through the hourglass.  As one who grew up with a Protestant work ethic and a Jewish drive to improve your circumstances and support your family, Friday starts with a big capital F:  Failure.

I am now deeply into my third spate of long-term unemployment/underemployment.  The first time was entirely of my own doing; after many years of successful employment, I decided to pick up and move across the country from Connecticut to California.  Never having been unemployed before, I had no concept of what awaited me.  With my brothers-in-law both ensconced in Silicon Valley’s high tech industry, I was assured by family that their influence and direction would help me land a job in no time.  That may have worked out had I been trained as an engineer.  Since I’m not, however, I ended up sleeping on one sister’s couch for four months before being tossed out and ending up with my other sister for another five months.  During those latter five months, I was employed on a half-time basis by a technology startup that paid me just over minimum wage, covering my food and gas and little else.  The combination of the Bay Area’s prohibitive cost of living and my slim employment prospects caused me to give up and move back to Connecticut.  There, I found that I was ineligible to receive unemployment benefits from Connecticut because I had been working in California and that I had not worked in California long enough to be entitled to unemployment checks from Sacramento.  In Hartford, I did data entry for six weeks at minimum wage before being laid off.  After eating a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and still not being hired anywhere, I moved back in with my sister, who by this time had relocated to Boston.  I ended up doing data entry for minimum wage again until I could no longer stay with my sister, at which point I recrossed the country to very unhappily leech off my parents in central California.  I began to appreciate the depths of my blunder in leaving my decent job in Connecticut more than a year earlier.  Back in California, another 4½ months of joblessness ensued until I was finally hired into a stable position with the phone company.

My second bout with unemployment was eight months in duration after the tiny company that had employed me for four years decided that my position was no longer needed.  I’ll just say that office politics may have been involved.  All of which brings me to the present.  I’ve now been out of work for five months following a layoff resulting from my employer running out of money.  I guess I should have seen it coming; I had to endure the layoff of half the staff that I managed before it was my own turn.

I recently turned to my wife and asked:  Is this how it’s always going to be?  Unemployment every three or four years?  I’m having a hard enough time getting employers to consider me at the age of 55.  How is this supposed to improve when I’m 60 and 65 and 70?  I could certainly follow in the footsteps of those who have just given up and retired.  Although that prospect does make me somewhat uneasy, I could certainly consider embarking upon the next phase of life if not for the little matter of how we would pay for our food, clothing and shelter.  Yesterday, we gave five dollars to a down and out guy holding a “homeless and hungry” sign, hunkered down with his dog at the exit from a fast food drive-through lane.  Will this be me five years from now?

I think about the phrase “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”  While I have always given this sentiment its due, it has heretofore taken on a decidedly theoretical cast.  Now it’s getting personal.

Rather than throw myself a pity party, it is imperative that I take action to avoid ending up like the man hoping some kind soul will buy him a hamburger to share with his dog, or like our own homeless guy, who comes to the door of the parsonage begging to use the rest room so that he does not have to risk violating his probation by peeing in public.

In the current economy, middle managers are a dime a dozen.  Should my wife and I pick up and move 500 or 1,000 or 2,000 miles away to another state, leaving our families behind so that I can take a job paying less than half of my previous earnings?  I am inclined to answer in the negative.  Then again, I may not see it that way six months from now.  At some point, anything becomes better than nothing.

I am already starting to see a subtle change in “what I feel I can live with.”  My wife and I had initially decided to do our best to stay in northern California to avoid placing long distances between us and family as we had to do previously.  Last time I played the unemployment game, I applied for jobs in 27 states before being hired right here in California, albeit an 11 hour drive away.  I’d been avoiding applying out of state this time around.  Until recently, that is.  I have now applied for positions in four other states and hope I can cap it at that.  But I know it’s unlikely.

Late Wednesday afternoon, I was delighted to receive an email from an employer to whom I had applied just a few days before.  The employer just wanted to say that my application had been received and that I would be notified if selected for an interview.  This may seem like a whole lot of nothing.  To me, however, it was wonderful!  Most of my job applications are submitted either online or by mail, depending on the employer’s requirements.  Upwards of 95% of the time, I hear not one word in reply.  Ever.  You have to wonder whether your application even arrived.  So it brought a smile to my face that an employer bothered to take the time to let me know that my application is being considered.  Perhaps my appreciation of this gesture indicates that I have lowered my standards.  At some point, however, you start appreciating the crumbs.

Today I received another email from the same employer that had written on Wednesday, this time informing me that there is actually no supervisor opening at this time (a position that had been advertised and that I applied for even though it would have been a demotion and would have entailed moving nine hours away) and would I perhaps be interested in being considered for one of their clerk vacancies?

I’m telling you, Friday is the hardest day when you’re unemployed.  Everyone else is excited about the upcoming weekend, paychecks in hand, ready to go enjoy the fruits of their labor.  Ready to pay some bills and maybe go to the mall to buy a little something for themselves or their families.  Ready to spend a little pocket money to go out to dinner, take the kids to a movie or maybe even take a little drive and stay overnight somewhere.

But not for you, mister.  You’re not working so you’re not entitled to this stuff.  You need to make those last few unemployment checks last as long as possible.  You check your savings account balance and wonder how long it’ll last until you’re flat broke.

Everyone is going out for the evening, gleeful for their couple of days off.  But for you, every day is a day off.  And you know that every day that you’re unemployed makes it that much less likely that you’ll ever find work in your field again.  And you wonder about what the future will look like for you.  And you pray.

And you hope that the weekend will pass quickly so that when Monday morning arrives, you can once again feel good for two seconds when the poor schlubs drag themselves out of bed to jobs that they hate.

But for now, it’s Friday.  You think about maybe pumping half a tank of gas and buying a large coffee for a dollar at McDonald’s.  And when you drive pass the homeless guy with the dog and the sign, you try not to look him in the eye.

 

Lessons Learned from Working at Home

During the last two weeks of January and the first week of February, I earned some money performing contract work from home with the hope that the contract might turn into a permanent position.  It didn’t.

Although it didn’t work out the way I had hoped, at least this contract bought me some time.  Now my state unemployment benefits will take me into April instead of ending this month.  This is of critical importance since the U.S. Senate refused to approve federal unemployment benefit extensions on numerous occasions this year, then headed out of Washington until the summer.

As this was the first time I had worked a contract, it was a learning experience.  The following are among the lessons I learned:

Metamorphosis.  This works well for turning caterpillars into butterflies and Kafkaesque dreamers into giant cockroaches.  For the rest of us, however, let’s just say “it ain’t happening.”  When you take on a particular type of work, either you’re a job match or you’re not.  Sure, you can learn the day-to-day details and the particulars of an employer’s expectations as you go.  But a word person is not going to turn into a computer geek overnight, nor is the reverse likely to occur.  One’s background and temperament cannot be faked.  Wanting to get it right and trying hard are lovely, but they are not in themselves a recipe for success.  Yes, the vicissitudes of the American economy require us to constantly reinvent ourselves.  But there are limits.  Lesson learned:  Don’t try to be what you’re not.

The Plaza Diner factor.  Let me tell you a story.  We can call this “the parable of the Plaza Diner.”  When I was a child, I loved nothing more than the occasions on which my family would go out to eat.  In the days before Wal-Mart and mega malls, my parents would treat us to “all you can eat” fish fry on Friday night at The Skillet restaurant in the W.T. Grant Co. department store.  Then, after the mall came in, the area became more commercialized and diners began popping up all up and down Route 59.  I was thrilled when we got to eat at the Plaza Diner, where the menu was the size of a book and noodle pudding, pickled herring and feta cheese could always be found on the salad bar.  In fact, I loved it so much that I informed my parents that when I grew up, I was going to work there.  Lesson learned:  Just because you love the experience of a particular product or service does not mean you should work there.  You may find that it is not so lovely slaving on the back end to create the user experience you so enjoy as a customer.

Their end of things.  Every workplace has a culture, some more unique than others.  When you work remotely for a distributed company, the lack of a “real” workplace culture (you can’t meet your coworkers at the water cooler or knock on your boss’ door to float an idea that just came to you) may mean that the employer will attempt to create a synthetic one.  The distance factor results in communication via such electronic media as Skype and Internet Relay Chat, which seems exciting at first but can quickly become frustrating.  I found words on a screen to be a decidedly bipolar experience:  Either the discussion was so technical that I understood nothing, or my coworkers would leave me flummoxed by spontaneously breaking out into spasms of synthetic workplace culture.  The latter might take the form of an impromptu contest of wits to see who could make the best puns about coffee and tea or perhaps a request to post a photo of how you look right now, whatever you may be doing.  (If you don’t know how to create an HTML link to your photo that will work on the company’s message board system, you may as well have “Loser” tattooed on your forehead.)  This works for some, and more power to them.  For those such as myself, however, who are not programmers and are not quick on the draw with witticisms, “any way you look at it you lose” (with apologies to Simon and Garfunkel).  Lesson learned:  I am a conservative guy who wears a white shirt and a tie to work.  I don’t code and I don’t know any jokes.  Just leave me alone and let me do my job.  If I can figure how to do it, that is.

My end of things.  Working at home sucks.  There, I said it.  It’s supposed to be so wonderful because you can pick your own hours and work in your PJs and not have to sit in commuter traffic or pay for gasoline.  Plus, you don’t have to uproot your family and relocate to another state 2,000 miles away.  Sounds too good to be true, eh?  Trust me, it’s not wonderful.  Deceptive as the Siren song of telecommuting may be, it is not for everyone.  I particularly don’t recommend it when you’re working on a laptop set up in your living room while day care is being provided to a one year old.  If you live alone or you’re comfortable with hiding with your computer behind a closed bedroom door and ignoring all sounds emanating from the opposite side of said door, then go for it.  Lesson learned:  If you can concentrate enough to work effectively with Sesame Street blaring on TV, YouTube videos belching forth from a phone, visitors walking in and out, and a child having a conniption fit all at the same time, then working from home is clearly the way to go for you.  Otherwise, you’re just fooling yourself.

Your computer will hate you.  Performing contract work from home will generally require you to download or purchase all manner of software to bring your modus operandi into compliance with the employer’s standard operating procedures.  The company may insist upon this, but even if they don’t, you really, really need to use whatever software they’re using.  Don’t try to make do with what you already have, as the result will be endless frustration.  Before you load a pile of crap onto your computer, however, be sure that your computer can handle it.  Some programs are memory hogs, and if you don’t want your computer to slow down to a crawl that drives you insane, you’d better be sure there is enough free space available.  Also, be sure that all the software they throw at you is free of viruses and other little computer nasties.  Also, be sure to uninstall everything when the contract is done.  As I was performing said uninstall, my overburdened laptop decided that this was about as far down the road as it was willing to go and simply gave up the ghost.  I now have the pleasure of choosing between my mother-in-law’s desktop and my iPhone.  Lesson learned:  Have a computer dedicated to your contract work.  Don’t try to install and uninstall piles of software on your personal laptop unless you don’t mind losing everything when it throws in the towel in a binary fit of pique.