Aw, Snap!

I switched over to the Google Chrome browser a few months ago.  I had been using Internet Explorer just about forever (at least since Netscape days . . . remember that?), but I was scared off after constantly reading dire warnings about “Heartbleed” and the security issues that IE users are allegedly experiencing.  I tried Firefox for a little while, wasn’t all that thrilled, and finally settled on Chrome.

Well, let’s just say that I’m not all that thrilled with Chrome either.  For one thing, I have to keep reminding myself that I have 479 windows open.  I can’t see them until I click on the colorful Chrome logo, so I tend to forget that they’re still open.  It wouldn’t be that bad if all my windows showed up on visible tabs so that I could close some every once in a while.  But I really miss the days of each open window appearing at the bottom of the screen.  You could easily switch between them and close the ones you no longer need.  I haven’t forgotten that if you open too many windows in the same program, Internet Explorer no longer allows you see them individually, but instead see a message that reads “10 Microsoft Word…”  Regardless, I miss IE.

The most annoying thing about Chrome, however, is the way I am rarely able to access documents, particularly PDFs, from hyperlinks on the web.  This is particularly important for me in that I spend hours each day on my job search, which generally involves clicking on links to access application forms.  Far too often, Chrome greets me with an error message that reads “Aw, Snap!  Something went wrong while displaying this web page.”

The annoyance of being unable to access my document is compounded by Google insulting my intelligence.  It seems to me that the use of the phrase “Aw, Snap!” indicates one of the following:

  • Google assumes that I am 13 years old and in middle school.  The only person who I have ever heard using the phrase “Aw, Snap!” was the teenager who I used to mentor as part of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program.
  • Or, Google is using this phrase as a euphemism for “Oh, Shit!” that removes the defecation reference in favor of an expletive that, unbelievably, is even more juvenile.
  • Or, Google is merely a huge fan of Rice Krispies.  As I become more experienced with Chrome, I’m sure that I’ll run across “Aw, Crackle!” and “Aw, Pop!”  The latter will prove somewhat awkward for those of us who, like myself, don’t happen to be fathers.
  • When “Aw, Snap!” rears its ugly head, Google provides a hyperlink to a list of suggested troubleshooting techniques that it invites Chrome users to try in an attempt to solve the problem.  Inexplicably missing from this list is the obvious:  Close Chrome and open your document in Internet Explorer.

    Works every time!

     

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    If At First You Don’t Succeed, Apply, Apply Again

    Today is Memorial Day in the United States.  Banks and government offices are closed, but most of the shops are open, draped in red, white and blue bunting and hawking BIG, BIG sales on every kind of garbage.

    My wife does not like national holidays because her beloved mail is not delivered.  I don’t care for them for a different reason — because there are no new job openings posted and hence nothing to apply for.

    When you’ve been unemployed for a long time, applying for jobs becomes a way of life.  Looking for a job is your job.

    I have my résumé plastered all over the internet.  I generally start out my daily session by checking Career Builder, indeed.com, CalJobs, the federal government employment website (usajobs.com), govenmentjobs.com, the California state jobs site, the websites of several corporations in which I am currently interested, the federal courts site and the jobs websites sponsored by several other states (Oregon and Washington have been particularly productive).  Once a week or so, I do a pass through the county employment websites of each of the 58 counties in California.  About once a month, I do the same with every county in Arizona.

    Most employers accepting applications for middle management positions require the applicant to write a series of essays on diverse topics ranging from your theory of management to your experience in developing department budgets to your methods of handling disciplinary and performance issues to how you go about implementing orders from senior management when you don’t agree with them.

    Then there are the application forms themselves.  Some are interactive forms that can be sent directly to the employer at the click of a button, others become fillable PDFs only when saved to my hard drive, while still others must be printed out and completed in my chicken scratch handwriting.  Some of these are hybrids.  Just because a form is fillable, for example, doesn’t mean that all the fields will contain enough room to type everything.  Some forms automatically reduce the type size to fit, but others either truncate your text when you exceed maximum characters or cause a scroll bar to appear for the purpose of reading text that is now off the screen.  The latter situation is totally unhelpful for forms that must be printed and sent in hard copy format.  You can’t scroll a sheet of paper!  So the fields in which I can’t fit everything are left blank, to be filled in by hand after printing.

    Application forms can be quite lengthy, some literally requiring the details of “all employment since high school.”  When you get to my age, this means writing a book.  I must indicate the name of every supervisor I have ever had, including the one from my first job out of college on the night shift in my hometown and the ones who were my bosses at employers that are no longer in business and the ones who are long dead.  The sad thing is that some of the places to which I apply actually try to contact employers that I worked for thirty years ago.  As if anyone there would remember me at this point.

    Of course, every job application requires a cover letter.  I have numerous templates saved on my laptop, but these nearly always must be tweaked to highlight the particular qualifications that the employer claims it is looking for.  If I’m lucky, this will mean changing the wording of a couple of sentences.  If I’m not so lucky, I’ll have to rewrite the whole darned thing from scratch.

    Then there are the supplemental materials.  Some employers want to see my college and grad school transcripts, some want copies of my diplomas, some want a recent typing test certificate and some want an unedited writing sample (sometimes two of them, “one short and one long”).

    Some employers will only accept documents in Microsoft Word, others require that all the application materials be combined into a single PDF and attached to an email, while still others will only accept hard copies sent through the U.S. Mail.  Following a lot of frustration and more than a few cuss words, I am now familiar with the ins and outs of converting documents from Word to PDF and vice versa, including how to combine, separate and rearrange pieces of things in Adobe.

    A very short, straightforward application takes me about an hour to complete.  But let me tell you about the doozy that I worked on Friday night.  It took me five hours.

    I will start by saying that this application was for a Fortune 500 company that I would just love to work for.  I applied to them once before and wasn’t given the time of day.  Recently, however, I heard through the grapevine that they’re hiring again.  I went on their website, created my little profile, uploaded my little selfie, posted my résumé.  I bet my wife that I would never hear from them.  I lost that bet.

    They sent me a pile of application materials via email.  I was shocked to learn that they are actually interested in considering me as a candidate for possible employment.  Not as a middle manager, mind you.  Not even as a first-line supervisor.  And, no, not as a floor lead or as a quality control technician. They would be happy to review my application for an entry-level position.  Now, this job is not in commuting distance from my home.  Nay, it is not even in the state of California.  I would have to move hundreds of miles away to another state in order to accept a full-time 40 hour per week entry level position that requires working nights and weekends and pays an hourly wage that would not be sufficient to buy toilet paper to wipe my ass with, much less pay rent on.

    And the real punch line to this joke?  I am actually thinking about it.

    When you have been unemployed for a long time, the descent of your employment standards becomes a little like dancing the limbo.  How low can you go?  After being out of work for eight months, I think it’s safe to say that I no longer have any standards to speak of.  So here I am working through the application materials, grateful that anyone has expressed any interest at all in employing me, while in the back of my mind I am thinking:  Will I have to stay in a flea-bag motel and fight the cockroaches?  Should I start stocking up on ramen noodles?  Will I have to live in my freakin’ car like Homeless Guy #2?

    The application form itself asked for the usual education and employment history, plus a series of essays on topics that made me laugh.  I was grateful for the comic relief.  I won’t risk a copyright violation by revealing the essay questions, but I will say that I actually had a good time answering several of them.  They were unique.

    Upon completing the application, I had to fill out a survey that seemed to have the purpose of determining whether my personality would be a good match for this position.  Then came the online typing and grammar tests.  Finally, I had to turn on my webcam and do a video interview, presumably for the employer to get a feel for my demeanor and how I would interact with customers.  I really wanted to say “b-b-but I’ve spent years teaching others how to properly interact with customers!”  Oh, right, this is for an entry level position.  (Sorry.)

    Well, this was the first time I’ve ever used the webcam on my laptop.  I’ve always known that this is the function of the little eye that sits above my screen and darkly stares at me while I’m pounding away at the keyboard.  But since I’m not a vlogger and have no need to create perky video profiles of myself for dating websites, I’ve just kind of ignored the camera function of my computer.  Perhaps this in itself is an indication that I lack the technological savvy needed to succeed at even an entry level position in today’s world.

    I had no idea how to even access the camera and start recording.  But I figured it out.  After all, that’s what a manager does all day:  Figures things out.  It would be an understatement to say that my video interview was bloody awful.  I hemmed and hawed, went over my allotted time on every single question, found myself still talking after the camera had shut off.

    After that little debacle, I realized that I have absolutely no chance of snagging this job.  And although that fact saddens me, I know it’ll be okay in the end.

    At least I won’t have to live in my car.

    Long-Term Unemployment: A Matter of Bad Timing?

    Tomorrow will mark eight months since I was laid off.  This means that I have been among the ranks of the “long-term unemployed” for two months now.

    I suppose that a recent pair of articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times should make me feel better about my unsuccessful job hunt.  Paul Krugman and Matt O’Brien assure me that it’s not my fault.  As it turns out, I’m just unlucky.

    O’Brien ran a regression analysis that shows that becoming long-term employed is largely a product of being laid off at the wrong time.  Apparently, if you lose your job when the economy is bad, you may be out of work for a very long time.  If you lose your job when the economy is good, another company is likely to pick you up in short order.

    This seems like common sense to me.  When the economy is bad, your employer is suffering and you’re more likely to lose your job.  But all the other employers are suffering too, so you’re not likely to find another one.  Lose your job when the economy is good and, big deal, the company next door and the one down the street are both hiring.

    Despite the appeal of this logic, this theory hasn’t panned out for me personally.  O’Brien states that you were really out of luck if you lost your job in 2009, when unemployment peaked at 10% nationally.  If you were laid off in that year, he says, you had a 30% chance of becoming long-term unemployed.

    Well, it just happens that I lost my job in 2009.  It took me eight months to find another, so technically I had slipped into the ranks of the long-term unemployed, proving out O’Brien’s theory.  What did I do to find that job?  For one thing, I filed 133 job applications in a total of 26 states.

    After working at that job for three years and three months, I was laid off in the fall of 2013.  While the economy was not what one would consider wonderful at that time, it was a lot better than it was in 2009.  As I have been making just as concerted an effort to find another job as I did last time around, under O’Brien’s theory I would have expected to find work by now.  But it hasn’t turned out that way for me, or apparently, for anyone else.

    “There’s never been this much long-term unemployment before, at least not since they started keeping records in 1948,” states O’Brien.  “Right now, 35 percent of all unemployed people have been out of work for at least six months.”  This figure reflects the fact that many who lost their jobs in 2009 are still unemployed in 2014.  By comparison, I was lucky.

    So what of all my fellow “2009ers” whose job search efforts have been in vain and who have remained out of work until this day?  They have now been unemployed for five years, which is forever in the job market.  Their skills are no longer current, and their prospects of securing employment have dwindled right along with their self-esteem.  Not to mention the fact that prospective employers discriminate against them for that incriminating gap in their résumés.  Because they drew the short straw by becoming unemployed at the wrong time, they are likely to remain unemployed forever.  These people are forced into retirement, making a national economic recovery more difficult with the permanent loss of their skills.

    “It’s the economy, stupid!” writes Krugman in his Times opinion piece.  Running the numbers gives the lie to “the alternate story, which is that the long-term unemployed are workers with a problem.”  This, of course, is code for lazy, stupid, can’t follow basic rules, don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, aren’t trying hard enough, would rather live off a government check, etc.  These are the kinds of qualities that conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives attribute to the long-term unemployed and use an excuse for denying unemployment benefit extensions.  The fact that none of this is true doesn’t seem to matter.  It is a little too convenient for them to ignore the fact that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around and that, ultimately, the economy is the cause of so much long-term unemployment.

    But Congress would prefer that we stop confusing them with the facts.

    The Candy Hat Trick

    cups

    Life in the parsonage, Wednesday afternoon edition:  Cue Alice Cooper singing “School’s Out for Summer.”  My niece just finished her first year of college (and she’s still only 17!) and wanted to hang at the lake with some friends.  About noon, I headed over to my niece’s house to pick up her and the baby and drive them over here.  The poor thing (my niece, not the baby) still doesn’t have a car (we had been lending her mine, which she wrecked a couple of months ago).  They weren’t here long before her brother came over with his girlfriend, who also happens to be my niece’s BFF.  At least I think they’re still BFFs.  You see, I heard about that little juicing incident.  My niece has been getting into this juicing/cleansing thing where she turns berries and peaches and gross stuff like turnips into juice, which is the only thing she consumes for days at a time.  Apparently, she finally talked BFF into trying it with her, a juicing partner if you will.  The only problem is that my niece’s friend likes to eat.  A lot.  (I can really appreciate this.)  Friend went over to niece’s house, they drank a bunch of juice and my niece warned her friend not to go home and eat on top of it.  Well, you know what happened, haha.

    Which brings me to my nephews.  Two of them live close by, and I must tell you, these twentysomething guys have stick-to-it-iveness that I cannot help but admire.  I think I need to take a lesson from their perseverance.  One of my nephews was out of work for many months after he was laid off from his job building trusses for new home construction.  He was finally recalled last week, although he’s not too happy about the fact that they stuck him on the icky swing shift, meaning that he may never see his girlfriend again even though they live together.  He’s just happy to have a paycheck again, though.  My other nephew has been working loading trucks in a warehouse for months now, although they still consider him “seasonal.”  Oh, and he works the lovely graveyard shift.  Well, Saturday is his last night at work before he gets laid off again.  This is the second time he’s been through this rigamarole.  They’d rather keep laying off and recalling than taking on anyone permanently.  So he’ll get unemployment until he gets called back a couple of months from now for more “seasonal” work.  Bastards!

    Warehouse nephew was over here today helping Homeless Guy #2 with his repair work on the church.  I think he made three or four trips to the hardware store and Home Depot for supplies.  At least one of those trips was to return items that they ended up not needing.  While he was here working, his sister and her maybe-still-BFF took off for the lake, leaving Pastor Mom and Uncle Guacamole to watch Half Pint for, oh, seven hours or so.

    I’m guessing that Little One wasn’t feeling too well, as she was particularly fussy today.  We were lucky that she napped, if only for half an hour or so.  The rest of the time, she was acting all weird and clingy.  All of a sudden, she’d start crying for no apparent reason.  I’ve seen it before, but it’s definitely not the norm for her.

    With my wife gone for three days, I tried all our usual games and songs in an effort to keep Little One occupied and make things a little easier on Pastor Mom.  Currently, we have the finger pointing game (she points at me and I respond by pointing at her, with accompanying excited oh-my-gosh facial expressions), the Boo game (discussed in a previous post), the color game (I name the colors of each of her hard plastic stacking cups and she repeats them back to me in a language that sounds vaguely like a cross between Japanese and Serbo-Croatian) and the bang toys together to make lots of noise and pretend it’s music game.  Of course, there’s pretzels and chocolate milk (mama has taught her the sign language for “more”) and green beans to dump all over the couch and the floor.  Then we have to love our stuffed animals, Eeyore and Blue Bear and Curious George and Elmo.  And she has her kid videos on Pastor Mom’s phone while Sesame Street reruns blare from the big screen TV.  We love the little rat to pieces, but mama couldn’t return from the lake soon enough today.  Poor Pastor Mom was exhausted.

    Homeless Guy #1 showed up over here again this evening, making it the three-nights-in-a-row hat trick.  Possibly emboldened by scoring mini candy bars last night, he again asked for “sweets before I go to bed.”  We didn’t have any more regular candy, but we gave him my stash of individually wrapped sugar-free suckers that have been sticking to the bottom of a jar for at least six months.

    I don’t eat that crap anymore.  If it’s not chocolate, who needs it?

    A Tale of Two Homeless Guys

    Life in the parsonage, Wednesday morning edition:  My wife is gone for three days to visit her friend in the Bay Area.  Luckily for me, there is still homemade vegetable soup left over from Monday.  As great as it is hot and fresh off the stove, it is always better the second or third day, eaten cold with lots of black pepper and garlic, like a spicy gazpacho.

    I am eating lunch at the kitchen table when Pastor Mom walks in with Homeless Guy #1.  I have to number them now, because we currently have two.  They are brothers-in-law.

    Let’s see, how can I explain this?  Homeless Guy #2 is an excellent handyman who can do carpentry, plumbing, painting, gardening and just about anything else you can think of.  Furthermore, he is an awesome songwriter and guitarist.  The problem is that he is an alcoholic and drug user, hangs out with a bad crowd and has been in and out of jail.  Also, he has anger issues.  We recently sold him my trusty old car that my niece wrecked a couple of months ago.  The engine is good and you can still drive it, but the front end is all smashed in, it needs headlights and a new radiator, and the dashboard was blown out when the air bags went off.  Not surprisingly, #2 didn’t have any money to buy the car.  However, a charitable member of the church paid for it and #2 is satisfying the debt by working on the guy’s house and yard.  As it turned out, #2 wanted the car to live in.  I hear he parks it behind a friend’s house at night.  I see him driving it around, though.  That dude is going to be slapped with some serious tickets when he gets stopped by the Highway Patrol, as he will sooner or later.

    Homeless Guy #1 had made himself scarce for a couple of weeks, but lately he’s been hanging around again.  Monday, he knocked on the door 10:30 at night and asked to use the rest room.  “I haven’t seen you in a while,” he told me.  “Where you been, workin’?”  I reminded him that I have been unemployed for nearly eight months and that I am always here.  My wife says I’m rude to him, and she’s right.  As much as I’ve tried to help the guy, he rubs me the wrong way and I tend to be snippy with him.

    Last night, I heard a familiar knock about 10 pm.  Guess who?  #1 asked for Pastor Mom, but I told him that she had already gone to bed.  Then he asked me for a drink and I offered him a bottle of water.  What he really wanted, he confessed, was something sweet before he went to bed.  Would we happen to have some candy?  My wife dug around in the cupboard and found a couple of mini candy bars left over from what we had passed out in church on Mothers’ Day.  He thanked us and promised to share the bounty from the vegetable garden he is growing — radishes, cantaloupes and giant tomatoes.  Hope those bite-size 100 Grand bars give you sweet dreams.  Now get to bed — er, I mean get to tent.

    #1 resides in a tent with his dog, a sleeping bag and a Coleman stove.  Said tent is set up in the back corner of his mother’s yard.  Mother won’t allow him to stay with her or even to come in the house to use the bathroom, supposedly because he uses too much toilet paper.  She does occasionally invite him in for a meal, however.  Mother says that he must contribute to the water bill because he uses a water faucet outside the house to drink from and wash his hands.  He doesn’t comply with this requirement, however, because he has no money, only Food Stamps.  So far, Mother hasn’t kicked him off the property despite the fact that the cops are over there all the time.

    #2 was, until recently, living indoors — with his wife and mother-in-law, the latter being #1’s Mom (although arguably not a #1 Mom).  #2 and his wife are both tattooed from here to tomorrow, which may or may not have anything to do with their lives of alcohol, drugs and jail.  The fights over there were legendary and the sheriffs were regular visitors when the shrieking got out of hand.  I hear that a recent bloody argument concerned whether #2 had the right to open his bedroom window when Mom wanted it closed.  No longer an issue, of course, as #2 has since separated from his wife and lives in his (formerly my) car.

    As the U.S. Post Office does not deliver mail to backyard tents, #1 continues to receive mail at his mother’s house.  Apparently, he had received a letter from the IRS indicating that he may be entitled to the refund of some money that had been deducted from a paycheck by an employer years ago.  #1 showed up while I was eating my soup today to ask for help in contacting the IRS.  He started out by using Pastor Mom’s cell phone, then tried to use her desktop computer to log on to the IRS website, but didn’t have much luck with either method.

    #2 had been working on the church all morning, doing some repair and plumbing work.  The church pays him for whatever he does.  We also pay #1 for any odd jobs he does for us, which doesn’t happen very often.  In fact, #1 came by a few days ago to complain that we had allowed #2 to water the rose bushes when #1 said he wanted to be paid for doing this task.  We explained that we had allowed #2 to take care of it because the roses were wilting in the 100° heat and it was noon and #1 still hadn’t shown up.  Among the many reasons that #1 is unemployable is that he has absolutely no concept of time.

    #2 comes in the parsonage to clean up real quickly because he has to high tail it up the freeway to get to his appointment with his probation officer.  #2 doesn’t have a valid driver’s license anymore, but #1 helpfully mentioned that he has one.

    It seems that they are a perfect pair:  #1 has a license but no car, while #2 has a car but no license.

     

    Suspended, and Standing on Its Head

    When we were kids, my parents would occasionally take us to play in a park that had a jungle gym.  My sisters, two and four years younger than myself, would love nothing better than to mount the monkey bars, traversing from one end to the other, hand over hand, swinging like orangutans all the way.  Fat and lazy, I had no interest in any activity remotely athletic, and would look about for somewhere to sit and watch.  My father would record the action on black and white film or with a Super 8 movie camera, occasionally swiveling around to zoom in on me, sitting at a picnic table and staring off into space.

    At home, we had a standard issue suburban swing set in the back yard.  My favorite part was the glider, because the bench was wide and I didn’t have to perch as one must on the swings or teeter-totter.  Big plus:  It was nearly impossible to fall off the glider.

    My sisters, by contrast, preferred flying as high as possible on the swings, preferably in a standing position, or grabbing the top bar to perform all manner of one-handed and two-handed flips and gyrations.  When not on the swing set, gymnastics was their thing.  They could do cartwheels and somersaults and walk on their hands, but our mother wouldn’t allow them to do the split, claiming it would damage their insides and give them trouble when it came time to have babies.

    When my grandparents came to visit, Grandpa and I would sit on the back deck or descend the stairs into the yard, watching my sisters’ acrobatic antics all the while.  “Can you do that?” he’d ask me sarcastically upon observing some gravity-defying flip.  I’d glare at him with hatred.  If only I’d had enough guts to ask whether he could imitate my sisters.

    Among my sisters’ most amazing feats, at least in my opinion, was the headstand.  They’d often ask me to hold their legs so that they could get into the proper position without tipping over.  Then I’d step back and they’d be able to hold the pose for longer than I thought humanly possible.

    I was reminded of this recently while playing with my little grandniece, holding her legs up so she could stand on her head on the soft couch.  I guess I’ve always found something appealing about flipping upside down, standing on one’s head to view the world from a different perspective.

    One thing I’d like to invert and stand on its head is the Suspended Coffee movement that has gained some press in recent years.  The idea is to help the poor by performing a particular random act of kindness, namely paying for an extra coffee so that someone who cannot afford one can later come into the coffee shop and get a drink for free.  It’s supposed to be a feel-good kind of thing, not unlike paying for the order of the car behind you at the Starbucks drive-through.  Even though this costs businesses nothing (the “free” coffee being given out has already been paid for), most coffee shops won’t have anything to do with suspended coffees.  Certainly the big chains, such as Starbucks Coffee and Peet’s Coffee and Tea refuse to get involved.  I’ve read that coffee shops complain that it is takes too much time and effort to keep track of how many coffees have been paid for in advance.  Even in the shops where suspended coffees are available, I can’t help wondering whether a homeless person dying for a cuppa joe must settle for plain black, or whether he can actually glom onto a caramel macchiato.

    Today I looked up the nearest location at which I might purchase a suspended coffee for someone in need.  The place is 116 miles away.  Despite the fact that some businesses around the world have latched on to the suspended coffee movement, the fact is that in most places it simply is not available.

    Considering that the coffee is paid for first and poured later, the reticence of coffee shops irks me more than a little.  After all, we’re not asking them to donate anything.  Not that asking them to donate to the poor would be out of line, when one realizes the obscene profits that the coffee chains earn each year.

    I say let’s stand the suspended coffee movement on its head, much as my sisters loved to do as kids.  Let the coffee be given out to those in need, and let a mark be made on a chalkboard or in a ledger for those who wish to contribute to pay for it later.  After all, there are a few establishments where those with little money can have a snack or a meal and pay what they are able.  Panera Bread has done this successfully in some locations, giving the lie to the notion that huge corporations must necessarily value profit over community.  Those who can afford to pay more than the cost of their meal do so, which offsets the cost of the food of customers who can pay little or nothing.  Some economists insist that this model cannot work in the long run, while others shy away from the pay-what-you-can idea as “socialism.”

    Slogans for the pay-what-you-can movement include “take what you need, leave your fair share” and “so all may eat.”  The idea that food should be a right, not a privilege, is an old one.  That this is viable within a profit-making businesses, courtesy of generous customers, is what is new.

    And yet food service businesses balk and scoff.  Why give out a free coffee and hope that someone else will pay for it at an unspecified later time when such time may never arrive?  This attitude indicates a lack of faith in our fellow man.

    National chains (and small local establishments, too) justify their actions by claiming that they engage in charitable giving annually and that it’s their choice to stay away from the pay-what-you-can “gimmick.”

    But what do you expect?  When coffee shops refuse to join the suspended coffee movement in which products are paid for in advance, I suppose it’s unreasonable to expect them to stand on their heads and give out food that may or may not be paid for by others.

    The bottom line is that it’s just so much easier to simply say “no” to those in need.

     

    Toward the Alleviation of Suffering

    When I was heading out the door to a doctor appointment yesterday, I stepped into the living room to find one of our elderly neighbors sitting in a chair and being tended to by Pastor Mom.  The poor woman had gashed her hand on a protruding nail.  Applying peroxide with a cotton ball, Pastor Mom urged her to go get a tetanus shot.

    We have a very tiny congregation and I don’t recall ever seeing this woman in attendance.  But that doesn’t matter.  Pastor, doctor, mother, friend — the minister does it all, churchgoer or not, no questions asked.  Not only that, but she’s always on duty.  And I do mean 24/7.

    Case in point:  A few nights ago, my wife and I were awakened from a sound sleep by someone walking around the perimeter of the parsonage, banging on the outside of the building as he went along and yelling “Pastor!  Pastor!”  It was just past two o’clock in the morning.

    Apparently, the guy didn’t want to ring the doorbell and wake everyone in the house.  Needless to say, that little plan did not work.

    Next thing I knew, one of our former neighbors (he recently separated from his wife and moved in with some friends in another neighborhood in town) was sitting in the kitchen.  He is an ex-con whom I first met in November when he completed his most recent stint in jail.  Apparently, he had gotten drunk with a bunch of his cronies and woke up in a ditch, soaked to the skin.  We gave him one of my shirts to wear while my wife and Pastor Mom got dressed and drove him home.

    Thus is life in the parsonage:  Never a dull moment.  The reason, of course, is that there is never any shortage of suffering, misfortune, poverty and hurting people desperate for even the tiniest bit of succor derived from any source available.  And the church is a symbol of help, from God as well as from man.

    I ended up briefly discussing this subject with my doctor in the examining room yesterday.  He told me that nearly all the doctors in this particular clinic had been there for more than twenty years, and likely would make thirty years before they retired.  Nurses and receptionists come and go, he said, but the doctors remain forever.  The reason for this, he told me, is their dedication, the fact that they take the Hippocratic Oath seriously.  He must have been referring to the portion of the oath that states “in every house where I come, I will enter only for the good of my patients.”  We agreed that the need for affordable health care in our community is enormous and that the doctors of this clinic go along way toward filling that need.

    While at the clinic, I took time to thank the nurse for the friendliness and efficiency with which he has treated us during our first two visits to the clinic.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when he immediately credited everything he does to the help of God.

    I will say this:  If you ever feel down about your own problems, just sit in a doctor’s office for a couple of hours.  What you will gain is known as “perspective.”  The suffering you are likely to witness will help you to realize how trivial your own troubles are by comparison.  Yesterday, I sat inches from a man younger than myself whose left leg had blown up to four or five times normal size and was wound in bandages from ankle to calf.  Prayers of thanks to God just came pouring out of me.

    And then there are the questions that the clinic staff has to ask you.  Embarrassing questions like whether your spouse is beating you up and whether your living situation places you in danger of physical or sexual abuse.  I’m sure there are laws requiring them to do this, but the fact remains that too many of our neighbors are silently suffering from these very things, just outside our vision, day after day.

    Stepping on the scale, I was so pleased that I had lost weight for my second consecutive doctor visit.  When I expressed to my doctor how happy I was about this, he asked me whether I was experiencing starvation.  Initially shocked, I quickly realized that he has to ask such follow-up questions because there are too many in the community in desperate poverty who quietly suffer from constant hunger.

    Which brings me to our latest project.  In conjunction with our church family, I hope to take a lead role in providing a meal, free of charge, once a week in our church fellowship hall.  Anyone who wishes to eat with us would be welcome.  We see ourselves as preparing hot soup from leftover food items donated to us by merchants.  And we will likely be making a whole lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

    And who knows?  Perhaps if we are truly fortunate, and have enough volunteers, we might be able to do this more than once each week.  But helping to alleviate suffering in the community requires the participation of the whole community.  Despite our good intentions, we cannot do this alone.

    The hardest problem we face is getting businesses to agree to give us any food items that they would otherwise discard.  I refer to goods that are about to expire and fruit and vegetables that are starting to turn brown or that have soft spots or that otherwise are no longer pretty enough to display and sell.  We have already secured commitments from several people to chop vegetables and cook.  But from whence will the food come?

    Being unemployed, I have little but my time and labor to contribute.  I pray that, if God is with us, He will soften the hearts of our local grocers sufficiently to allow us to feed the hungry with items that typically feed the dumpster.  There is so much food waste going on in the United States, while at the same time there are millions who go hungry every day.  Please pray with us that we will be able to bring the two ends together and make a difference in the lives of local families suffering from perpetually empty stomachs.

    This past Christmas, as we do every Christmas, we prepared food boxes for some of our poorest local households, many of whom share living quarters with extended family, including scores of  children.  These are people would otherwise have no Christmas dinner.  Some of the food was donated by kind volunteers, but much of it was purchased with church funds or money out of our own pockets.  As I was helping to sort the bags of pasta and rice and potatoes and the cans of beans and pumpkin and applesauce and soup, I could not help but wonder how these families would eat on the day after Christmas.  And it was then that I decided that I could not in good conscience leave these desperate neighbors to their own devices the other 364 days of the year.

    We realized that, before we could even think of starting anything, some basic infrastructure had to be taken care of.  We needed to get electricity, air conditioning and heat installed in the fellowship hall, for example.  We needed to get our leaky gas line repaired.  By dint of volunteer efforts and timely donations, those expensive operations are nearly at the point of completion.  Then, by chance, while I was in a job interview in downtown Sacramento recently, my wife found a grocery store selling ten-pound bags of potatoes for three dollars.  Slowly, many things seem to be falling into place.

    It may be little more than a dream, but, with God’s blessings, we hope to begin ladling soup and passing out sandwiches sometime in July or August.  This would be one small step toward alleviating the needless suffering all around us that we can no longer ignore.  Whether this turns out to be a dream fulfilled or a dream deferred will depend on the support of our local merchants and volunteers.

    Please pray for us.

    Uncle Chicken

    Twice a week, we provide day care for my year and a half old grandniece from just about the time that the sun rises until well into the evening.  The other weekdays, and often on the weekends as well, we have her for part of the day.  It is fortunate indeed that Pastor Mom, my wife and myself are all available to share in the babysitting duties.  To put it mildly, that cute kid wears us out.

    Needless to say, my grandniece must be fed and changed throughout the day.  Beyond that, however, we do our best to keep Little One entertained at all times.  Toward that end, she has more toys, books and stuffed animals than a child ought to know what to do with, songs and games on her Nabi Jr. tablet, kid videos on our cell phones and reruns of Sesame Street streamed continuously from YouTube through our TV set all day long.  And, of course, our personal attention at all times.  Failure to provide said personal attention for more than, oh, I don’t know, say about 30 seconds, results in Little One reverting to her preferred activities faster than you can blink your eye.  Among the activities to which I refer are dumping the trash onto the floor and rooting through the soda cans, vegetable peels and used paper plates, opening drawers and removing the entire contents thereof, sending lengthy character strings as text messages to my wife’s friends, repeatedly opening and closing the kitchen cabinets, and pressing the buttons on every remote control, laptop computer and electronic device in the house.  In the immortal words of Julie Andrews, “these are a few of my favorite things.”

    We also take Little One riding in the car a lot.  To give you something of an idea of what I mean, today we:

    • drove to my niece’s residence (stopping at the post office to send out a job application on the way), picked up Little One and brought her home with us so that Niece could study for her exams;
    • an hour and a half later, we put Little One back in the car seat, drove back to Niece’s residence, picked her up and drove two towns up the freeway to drop her off at a meeting;
    • drove Little One back to our house, making a quick stop at the supermarket to pick up a few items on the way;
    • an hour and a half later, we put Little One back in the car seat, drove back up the freeway to pick up Niece from her meeting, then turned around and drove back down the freeway to drive Niece and Little One home;
    • drove from Niece’s residence back to our house, stopping for gas along the way because (surprise) our tank was just about dry.

    This was actually fairly minor, as we had Little One for only about four hours today.  Tomorrow we have her for eleven.

    My wife will start this show about 7:15 am, the time she leaves the house to drive over to Niece’s residence, pick up Niece and Little One, ferry Niece over to the college in the next town, and drive Little One back to our house.  As an inveterate night owl, I am forever grateful to my extraordinarily kind wife for not rousting me out of bed to join her on her morning rounds at that ungodly hour.

    The days and the weeks go by as we zigzag across three towns to get Niece where she needs to be on time, with Little One secure in the car seat just behind us.  I find it quite a challenge to keep Little One entertained in the car while she is thus constrained with nothing to divert her attention other than some bite-sized pretzels and her sippy cup of juice.  As my wife is usually driving, Entertainment Committee duties generally fall to yours truly.

    Let me just say that I am not good at this stuff.  Not at all.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that I don’t know what the heck I am doing.

    Some things are pretty standard, such as the mandatory singing of “Frère Jacques.”  After that, however, I am at a loss.  Thankfully, however, Little One is ever ready to prompt me for what comes next.  “Boo!” she will intone (it actually comes out more like “Buh!”), which is the signal for me to turn around and keep her entertained, gosh darn it.  When we first started this little game, I would merely “boo” her back, and we’d keep going this way in call-and-response fashion until we reached our destination.  By that time, I will have a severe crick in my neck from turning around to face her every ten seconds or so.

    Lately, however, we seem to have upped the ante.  It is, of course, all my fault for trying to be a show-off.  Never having been a parent myself, what I did not know is that once you go down this road, you can never go back.  I don’t know what possessed me to get fancy by booing up a regular storm, like the Pied Piper’s rodents, in fifty different sharps and flats.  Accompanied, of course, by appropriate facial expressions, including rolling my eyes, sticking out my tongue and clucking.  Said performance tends to result in Little One laughing her head off.  For that payoff, I’ll do anything.  God, I’m such a sucker.

    After that, we get into the Sesame Street songs.  My wife’s favorite is the one that goes “la-dee-dah-dee-dah, la-dee-dah-dee-dah, what’s the name of that song?”  As for me, I usually stick to “Counting to Four.”  You know, the one that goes “One, two, three, four monsters walking ‘cross the floor, one, two, three, four chickens just back from the shore, bawk, bawk, bah-bawk, bawk, bawk, bah-bawk, bawk.”

    Just call me Uncle Chicken.

    O Canada – Part 2

    It was the early 1980s when I finally visited Canada for the first time.  I had been out of college for a couple of years and was on my second job.  My first job paid fifteen cents an hour more than minimum wage, but now I was with a huge pharmaceutical company earning union wages.  I even had a full week of paid of vacation.  In the last week of June, I headed for Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula, along the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

    Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, this was to be the last trip with my entire family of origination.  My sisters were already involved with the men who would become their husbands a few years later.  In fact, my eldest sister’s boyfriend was a Canadian; we planned to spend a few days with his family in Montréal on the way home.

    The trip took place in my parents’ motor home, a monstrosity that slept eight and got about nine miles to a gallon of petrol.  My father was the only one of us who had the guts to pilot that beast down the freeway.

    We walked through the historic district of Québec City and laughed at the horrible French overdubbing of “Charlie’s Angels” reruns on the grainy images we were able to pull in with the antenna on the portable TV in the motor home.  After having studied French in junior high, high school and college, I was looking forward to the opportunity to finally speak the language “for real.”  It wasn’t long before I had my chance.  When we visited a large shopping mall, I decided to pretend to be a native and began speaking animatedly to my mother in French.  Salespeople would come over and try to help us in rapid-fire French, assuming that we spoke the language fluently.  My mother would roll her eyes at my antics.

    When we pulled into the campground in a provincial park in a rural part of Québec, I walked into the office with my father to register and pay.  Dad asked the man behind the counter whether he spoke English.  “Non,” he replied matter-of-factly, crossing his arms to imply “and what are you gonna do about it?”  At this point, Dad pointed to me as if to say “it’s all yours!”

    This was my moment!  “Nous voulons rester ici ce soir,” I began, stating the obvious — that we planned to stay overnight.  He then asked whether we had any animals with us.  Yes, I replied, our two cats.  My sisters had insisted on taking Schwantzy and Baby Baldrick with us.  (Weird names, I know.  Don’t ask.)  We paid the space rent and the guy told us that we had to leave the cats in the park’s kennel.  He called for someone in the back and a young boy, probably no more than seven or eight years old, came out to the motor home and grabbed our large cats, one in each arm, bearing them away to unseen cages.  You could tell he was an old pro at this.

    After pulling into our space, we took off exploring and quickly found the park’s tennis courts.  We played until we were exhausted and the sun was about to set, then returned to the motor home to prepare dinner.  Next morning, after breakfast we drove down to the office to retrieve the cats.  Out came the boy again, bearing a cat in each arm.  Baby Baldrick was having none of it, squirming until he managed to elude the boy’s grip, jump out of his arms and take off in the general direction of the Arctic Circle.  The poor kid ran after the cat, calling “minna, minna, minna!”  The rest of us quickly joined the search, calling out “puss, puss, puss!”

    But Baby B was gone, and after about half an hour we hit the road without him.  We often thought of him after that, hoping he was enjoying life as a chat in the Québecois wildnerness, making lots of Canadian kittens.

    Our fateful trip to Québec occurred more than thirty years ago, but it all came back to me yesterday as I sat by myself in an exam room, waiting for the doctor to appear.  The schedulers had made my appointment with the assumption that it would take 45 minutes for me to complete my new patient paperwork.  (Have you ever had hepatitis, tuberculosis or cancer?  Are you in fear of violence from your spouse?  Have you ever had sex with homosexual men?)  I was done in about 20 minutes, but we had been there close to an hour before the nurse called my name to come on back.  In the meantime, the waiting room had filled up.  Perhaps this was the Friday crowd, eager to be treated before the weekend.

    One patient was told that she did not have an appointment even though she vehemently insisted that she had made one.  There was an opening at 1:45, the clerk told her, and she’d gladly put her down for that slot if she didn’t mind waiting 4¾ hours.  Or she could just go home and come back in the afternoon.  The poor woman began pitching a fit that she had taken two buses to get over here from Yuba City in time for her appointment and that she was going to be seen!  Her blood sugar, she announced loudly, was 600 and her meter warned her to “seek medical assistance.”

    I was receiving my first lesson in Managed Care 101.  When we visited Montréal after we lost Baby Baldrick, I couldn’t help noticing that every neighborhood had a surfeit of little medical clinics, seemingly one every few blocks.  The family of my sister’s boyfriend explained that Canada has universal health care and that the walk-in clinics were primary points of contact.  From there, doctors would refer patients out to specialists, as needed.  The problem, they told me, is that there is a long waiting list for surgeries and other expensive procedures.  Those who could afford to pay for their care, they admitted, often got around this gridlock by traveling to the United States or other countries to have needed surgery promptly.  I was warned not to harbor any grand illusions; that although health care is free in Canada, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to get what you need this year or next year or maybe ever.  And what Canadians save in health care premiums, I was told, they make up for by paying high taxes.

    Now that we’d been at the clinic for an hour, the nurse weighed me, took my temperature and blood pressure and entered my medical history and prescriptions into the computer.  The doctor would be with me soon, he assured me, as he walked out.

    And so I sat in the examination room and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  I pulled out my phone and checked my email.  Played my turns in Words with Friends.  Read the news online.  Finally, I began texting my wife, who was sitting patiently out in the waiting room.  Our exchange went something like this:

    Me:  Still waiting for dr.

    Her:  Ok.

    <10 minutes later>

    Her:  Still waiting?

    Me:  Yes.

    Her:  Ugh.

    Me:  :/

    Her:  Gotta love managed health care.

    Me:  Ha, yep.  Welcome to Canada.

    Her:  At least you speak French if we need it.

    Me:  Ah, oui, madame.

    Her:  Gotta find the bright side.

    Me:  For sure.

    <15 minutes later>

    Me:  Still waiting.  Or should I say encore je lui attend?

     

    Finally, the doctor appeared, about 45 minutes after I had been called back, an hour and three-quarters after we arrived at the clinic.  Before we were done, he confessed that he had already taken three times as long with me as he was supposed to and that his superiors were pressuring him to see ever more patients and spend less and less time with each.

    “That’s terrible,” I told him.

    “It’s the way it is,” he responded, clearly resigned to the situation.

    I may have to write the Ministry of Health or maybe even Prime Minister Harper about this. 

    Here in northern California, there is an increasingly vocal faction that seeks to break off from southern California to form the State of Jefferson.  But I know the truth.

    When I wasn’t looking, we joined the Dominion of Canada.

    O Canada – Part 1

    I’ve been thinking about Canada a lot lately.

    I am told that, in my grandfather’s youth, greasing the right palms could buy you out of conscripted service in the Polish army.  By the time that I was a kid, however, draft dodgers simply ran away to Canada.  As I heard call-up numbers being read off lists on the local radio and watched burning draft cards on TV, I imagined draft dodgers as living in igloos somewhere on the frozen wastes.  And then I heard about something called “amnesty” that might allow some of these new Canadians to come back home.

    As the years went by, the romance of Canada captured my young imagination.  The border was only about an eight hour drive from the town in which I grew up, but Canada continued to allure me with the aura of the exotic.  It was “not-here” and must therefore be totally different.

    When I tried to explain to my Dad how I felt about Canada, he replied “the grass is green, the sky is blue, they have hot and cold running water.”  I wrote him off as a spoil sport.  Clearly he did not know whereof he spoke.  What about the Eskimos and the parkas and the seals and walruses and all that stuff from Sunday nights on Wild Kingdom?

    I found a map of Canada and one night I tried my best to draw a smaller version to scale in a notebook that I kept for just such projects.  Look at this, they have provinces instead of states!  Imagine that!  And the names — whoa, baby!  Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island.  I imagined Indians galloping across the plains in pursuit of herds of buffalo.  I had never heard the term “Native Americans,” much less “First Nations.”  And who was this Prince Edward?  Was he banished from England?  Did he escape on a pirate ship in the middle of the night?  This Canada was one cool place, I tell you.

    Using my trusty box of Crayolas, I attempted to give each province the shading that seemed appropriate to its name.  I filled in the major cities and drew a dotted line to indicate the Arctic Circle.  About that time, my mother saw that my desk lamp was still on and caught me red-handed.  It was two o’clock in the morning.

    “He’s drawing a map of the Maple Leaf!” she reported to my father, incredulously.

    I was constantly begging to be driven to the public library, my favorite place of refuge from my parents’ constant arguing.  There was a series of thin volumes about each Canadian province, and I sucked them up like soda through a straw.  Thanks to my library card, a thick coffee table book on Canada came home with me and sat proudly on my desk for a few weeks as I flipped through the glossy photos.

    That was a lot of years ago, but I recently told my teenaged niece that, if I had it to do all over again, I would move to Canada immediately upon graduation from college.  After all, Canada doesn’t have at-will employment in the brutal style of the U.S., unemployment benefits aren’t cut off after 26 weeks, and our sensible neighbors have socialized medicine.

    This last point has taken on a particularly poignant resonance for me lately.  Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I have now dipped my toe into managed care and I feel as if, somewhere a few miles back, I must have unknowingly crossed the Canadian border.

    For most of my adult life, I worked for employers that provided health insurance as an employee benefit.  Sure, at one point I ran into a rough patch when I worked for a Mom and Pop (actually just Mom, as Pop had recently passed away) business that couldn’t afford to pay for the health insurance of its few employees.  However, most of us were either still young enough to latch on to our parents’ health plans or were old enough to qualify for Medicare.  Unfortunately, I was in my thirties and fell into our very own doughnut hole.  For a while, I purchased health insurance through Blue Cross/Blue Shield, but then my hours were cut back to three days per week and I couldn’t afford the premiums anymore.  It took me about a year to find another job that came with health insurance.

    Eventually, I came to realize that it is ridiculous to tie health insurance to employment.  I suppose there must be an argument that, at least theoretically, everyone should be working, so as long as employers are insuring their workers, it’s all good.  The problem, of course, is that many employers don’t insure their employees, and that the downturn in the economy has forced a lot of us out of the workforce entirely.  I started hearing terms like “the single-payer system” and something called “socialized medicine” and then learned that every other industrialized nation in the world provides health insurance for all its citizens, working or not.

    All of which brings me to the present time.  I was laid off last September, which amounts to seven months of unemployment.  The Affordable Care Act took effect four days after my layoff.  Not a minute too soon, I thought.  I didn’t apply right away, figuring I’d find another job before too long.  Wrong!  Then I applied and was turned down.  It seems I earned too much money last year.  Um, excuse me?  That was last year, when I was employed and had employer-provided health insurance.  What about this year, when I have no income at all (since my unemployment benefits ran out) and cannot afford to purchase health insurance?  A few months ago, I tried again and was approved based on my current (lack of) income rather than based on what happened last year.

    This has been a blessing to my wife and me, to say the least.  I recall the endless arguments and bickering in Congress when the Affordable Care Act was being considered.  I remember the predictions of doom and gloom, that it would never work, that it would bankrupt America, that it was mighty close to being Communist.  The program earned the derogatory nickname of “Obamacare.”  Conservative Republicans tried every avenue to block the new health care law, even claiming that it was unconstitutional and filing suit in the Supreme Court.  I am very grateful that the law stood on its own two feet.  And so today I am moved to say:  Thank you, Congress.  Thank you, esteemed justices of the Supreme Court.  And, especially, thank you, Mr. President.

    Together, my wife and I now pay the princely sum of four dollars per month for our Blue Cross insurance.  I continue to hear complaints that young, healthy Americans are paying for us old farts who suffer with a litany of health problems.  So let me say this to all the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings out there:  When the day comes that I am working again, I will gladly contribute my share.  On my new employer’s health insurance plan, perhaps I will have a bigger copay or more out-of-pocket expenses.  But I won’t be complaining.  After all, I have been on the other side.

    So today I had my first doctor appointment in about nine months.  This was a pretty big deal, as I have more than a few chronic medical issues and have the pill bottles lined up on my bedroom dresser to prove it.  Pastor Mom recommended her physician, and amazingly, he was both a member of our group and, after some initial wrangling, turned out to be taking new patients.

    We pay $15 for an office visit.  After my appointment, I headed upstairs to the lab to give my blood and urine.  The lab asked for no money.  Then I went to the local pharmacy to fill my prescription.  Five bucks.

    Doc says he’s going to set me up with an eye appointment and that I need to get into one of those paper gowns and have me a colonoscopy.  I also need to see specialists about a couple of other things.  Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, all these uncomfortable, annoying and necessary things will actually happen to this unemployed guy.

    Maybe I don’t need to go to Canada after all.