Playing Keep-Away: A Tragicomedy in Three Acts

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

What goes around comes around

A couple of decades ago, when my wife and I were first married, she owned a little purple car emblazoned with a bumper sticker announcing that “what goes around comes around.”

I’ve long thought of this phrase as a cautionary tale, designed to take the more hifalutin’ among us down a peg. Don’t think the rules don’t apply to you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that fate will grant you an exception. There is no beating the odds. Just wait, you’ll get yours, buddy.

It seems like a karmic argument for the Golden Rule.

So when it comes to coronavirus, I have my ear to the ground, listening carefully. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Now, with Passover so recently behind us, as I hope against hope that the horror will pass over our home, I’m thinking of a prayer that we recite on another Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). This part of the liturgy, a somber reflection on the fate that awaits us, begins with “who shall live and who shall die.” The reference is to God’s judgment upon the worthiness of our deeds and the punishment to be meted out upon the sinners among us (umm, that would be all of us).

There is no escape. Just when I start thinking that I may be rewarded for staying holed up in my house for weeks, on the phone my mother reminds me of the number of New York residents who have already perished of coronavirus. As transplanted New Yorkers, we find the very thought sobering. What will become of my 93 year old uncle, back in my old hometown? And what of my cousins, my uncle’s son and grandchildren?

Even here in California, where we haven’t been hit nearly as hard as New York and New Jersey have, we are holding our collective breath. At Kaiser Hospital in Fresno, ten nurses have come down with coronavirus. One of them is fighting for her life on a ventilator, while her fully masked fellow nurses protest on the street and cars passing by beep their horns in support. Is there no hope for the bravest among us, our modern-day martyr Nightingales?

Some say that infection and death haven’t hit peak levels here yet. We’re getting ready for the worst. A few days ago, our governor visited the big, empty arena where the Sacramento Kings used to play; it has now been converted into a hospital ward. He estimated that 56% of Californians will be sickened by coronavirus, then worked with the federal government to send enormous hospital ships to dock on the shores of our state.

So who in my little circle of family and friends will be stricken by this plague? Whom will it open its ugly maw to consume? Will it be someone from work? Will it be one of my nephews or nieces? Or someone in my own house? Will it be me?

Will it be one of my elderly parents? Will my wife and I need to don masks and head to the airport for an unscheduled flight to the epicenter, a graveside service at our family plot in Queens? Or will my parents be bereaved in their old age as they witness me being lowered into the ground near Sacramento?

These are the thoughts that wake me in the night and overwhelm me with a feeling of helplessness.

Seder for One

It’s been about three weeks since my last foray into a supermarket. I was on a mission to obtain five pounds of matzo to FedEx to my parents. I never would have imagined that such a mundane task as going to the store would turn into a surreal experience. From applying an alcohol wipe to the cart handle to surveying the aisles empty of people to doing our social distancing duty by standing six feet apart in the checkout line, the post-apocalyptic vibe made me start to understand the many online “Twilight Zone” references.

Perhaps the one point in my matzo expedition that felt full-on Cormac McCarthy was turning the cart into an aisle and finding another shopper already there, both of us registering a double-take.

I scooted by the poor woman sheepishly, hugging the edge of the aisle, somehow without knocking any cans, jars or boxes off the shelves.

The “kosher food” nook was a tiny corner all the way at the back of the store. I snagged my parents’ matzos as well as two bottles of Kedem grape juice. I had initially planned on sending the juice to my parents along with the matzos, but ended up keeping it for my own little Seder (after discovering that sending glass bottles from point A to point B is not the simplest or cheapest undertaking one may choose to pursue).

My parents received the matzos, and held a little Seder all by themselves on each of the first two nights of Passover. I did the same, from the easy chair in my bedroom that, these days, serves as my teleworking workspace. I set up everything on the little side table next to my chair. And as I read the Haggadah, I fondly remembered the large family Seders of years gone by. Traditionally, the youngest at table asks the “Four Questions,” but when it’s just yourself, you do both the asking and the answering. And all the singing.

In recent years, I have typically attended a Seder at an area synagogue. I no longer join my parents at their home for Seder, due both to the distance and logistics, as well as other family factors that are probably best left unenumerated here. But this year, there were no community Seders at synagogues due to the coronavirus lockdown. While some attended virtual Seders on Zoom, the Orthodox Jewish community (which does not use technology on the Sabbath or holidays) was pretty much left to its own devices. You either celebrated with immediate family or you had a Seder for one. (Disclosure: I am not Orthodox, not even close, but am affiliated with an area Chabad House, which is.)

About a week before Passover, the rabbi phoned to tell me that shmura matzos would be delivered to each congregant’s home. The Yiddish word shmura is derived from the Hebrew shomer, to watch. The creation of these matzos is closely guarded, from the time of wheat growing in the field until they are boxed up for sale, to ensure that no hametz (leaven) touches them. These traditionally round matzos are baked, typically in Brooklyn, for just a few minutes. They come out of the oven super crispy, and typically burned on one side. Some of them are individually sealed in plastic and shipped all over the world. Shmura matzos are traditionally used for the “afikomen,” the last matzo eaten at the Seder table following the festive meal, “after which no dessert ought to be set on the table,” according to the Haggadah.

I live about 30 minutes from the synagogue, so I did not really expect shmura matzos to be transported all the way out here. But they were. And when I confessed to the rabbi that I had no maror, the traditional bitter herb (grated horseradish root), he brought me a little bag of it along with the matzos. In true social distancing spirit, he arranged to leave it on my doorstep.

The Haggadah (“retelling”) is a paper bound booklet, typically sponsored by Maxwell House coffee, that recites the story of our exodus from Egypt. It begins “Slaves were we to the Pharaohs in Egypt” and describes the harshness of our bondage, Moses beseeching the Pharaoh to “let my people go,” and then the ten plagues that the Lord brought upon the Egyptians. Among those plagues were a number of bodily afflictions, bringing to mind our current plague. My favorite of the plagues, however, has always been the second one, frogs. Reading the book of Exodus, or its excerpts in the Haggadah, I am entranced by the vivid imagery of frogs jumping into the mixing bowl and occupying the king’s bedchamber and having to be chased out of his bed. I wonder why the Egyptians didn’t catch and kill those frogs and roast them for dinner. Instead, their amphibian corpses were wasted, as they were shoveled into heaps, “and the land stank.”

Finally, we painted the blood of a lamb on our doorposts so the angel knew to “pass over” our homes while slaying the firstborn of every household. This was too much even for the Pharaoh, who thrust us out of Egypt without notice. It was early in the morning, before the dough for our daily bread, left on the hot rocks to bake, had time to rise. And so we left Egypt with flat crackers to eat, the matzo that we eat for the eight days of Passover each year.

I made a point of leaning in my easy chair, a traditional symbol that, as slaves no more, we now have leisure to relax. I quietly sang Dayenu, the song that lists the many gifts bestowed upon us by God, starting with the splitting of the Red Sea that allowed our escape from Egypt. And after I had tasted the matzo and the bitter herb, I went to the kitchen and microwaved a bowl of vegetarian matzo ball soup for my dinner. Then I returned to my chair to munch on the shmura matzo and drink the final two cups of grape juice, while I finished the Haggadah with its tuneful songs of praise to God.

I am thankful to have found a way to conduct a solo Passover Seder in the time of coronavirus. And the pragmatist in me could not avoid the thought that, for some of us, this year’s Seder might be our last, should this plague fail to pass over our houses.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

It was about 35 years ago when I first visited California. I took a vacation from my job in the office of a giant drug manufacturer’s print shop when my recently married sister offered a spare bedroom. I was treated to some of the sights of San Francisco from the back seat of their tiny car, zipping up and down the hills. This is the famous Hyde Street, my brother-in-law announced. “And this is the corner of Run and Hyde.” I rolled my eyes at the corny joke, but today, I realize that all of us have now arrived at that famous intersection. We wear masks, wash our hands dozens of times each day, and hide indoors as we bob and weave, hoping to dodge the deadly bullet known as COVID-19. We are running scared.

I find it difficult to avoid anger when some of us fight against our current quarantine, wishing only to “return to normal,” no matter the cost. Be strong, state governors, and hold the line lest this deadly virus flare up and consume thousands more of us. I’d rather stay home than die.

I ask you to stop for a minute to think about how easing restrictions on social distancing dishonors the efforts of our health care heroes, the doctors, nurses, lab techs and hospital staff who are placing their lives on the line every minute of every day to save as many of us as they can. Gathering in public further dishonors the efforts of our essential workers, the grocers, long-haul truckers, delivery people, cooks, repair people, utility workers, firefighters, police and National Guard, and others working long shifts, disregarding the risks of becoming desperately ill themselves.

The online newspapers are full of articles about communities that stand on porches and hang out windows at 7:00 each evening to clap, hoot and holler, to cheer on those brave souls putting their lives on the line for the rest of us. I smile broadly. Indeed, it is the small expressions of gratitude that are the finest things in life. And though the naysayers point out that the clappers do nothing to flatten the curve, I beg to differ. For we are doomed without the efforts of our doctors, nurses and essential workers. Clapping as our way of saying “thanks for a job well done” is the least we can do. And who knows? It might be just the bit of encouragement that some of them need to go on. They are human, too.

I have not gone farther than our patio in 21 days. Staying home seems a small price to pay, far less than those toiling on the front lines.

My wife texts our neighbors to make sure they’re okay. She monitors our neighborhood site on Facebook. We do our best to find connection in this time of disconnectedness.

I decide that it’s time to see whether there is any clapping going on in our neighborhood, any cheering for our heroes. I want to participate.

So, a few minutes before seven in the evening, as the sun waxes low and the shadows begin to lengthen, I step out our front door and take in the scene. I look up and down the street. The quiet is jarring. Two teenage boys with skateboards saunter down the sidewalk across the street. Once they are out of sight, no one.

I realize that this suburban street is not a clapping kind of neighborhood. Everyone more or less keeps to themselves. Public displays of appreciation are unknown here. Under my breath, I begin singing.

Cheer for our doctors, cheer for our nurses,
hospital staff and essential workers,

Firefighters, police, delivery drivers

I make up more words to the chant as I go along, whispering in the silence. I think: If I raise my voice to audible levels or begin clapping, someone will probably call the cops. And, COVID-19 notwithstanding, they will come.

A dog on the next street barks once. And then the stillness returns. This does not portend ingratitude, I think, even if it betrays a paucity of community spirit. It is the sound of one hand clapping.

Silence, but for the frogs croaking in the background, oblivious of that long ago Egyptian plague, engaged in their spring mating ritual in the ponds and streams, along the banks of the Feather and Yuba Rivers, and along the shores of Reeds Creek.

Work, Play and the Gift of Love

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

“Do what you love, love what you do.”

Conventional wisdom has it that if you merge your avocation and your vocation, then “you’ll never work a day in your life.” In other words, it’s all about passion, following one’s dreams.

I say it’s a neat trick if you can pull it off. Sure, it works great for, say, Tiger Woods or Billy Joel, people who found stratospheric success and lucre doing the only thing they ever wanted to do. Once you move past the rarified worlds of sports and music, however, the ability to make a living from your heart’s desire drops off precipitously.

It’s been said that most of us “lead lives of quiet desperation.” We do what we have to do to pay the bills. Some of us hate our jobs, and more of us treat what we do for eight hours each workday with a sort of studied ambivalence. We’re checked out. We go through the motions. We see lots of glassy-eyed stares from clerks and servers who seemingly would rather be anywhere else. We wish we could be at home playing with the kids, or playing games on our phones, or playing our favorite music and sipping a beer. We use the word “playing” as opposed to the word “working” to distinguish what we want to do from what we have to do. Meanwhile, working is respectable while playing is despicable. Only a child has the right to play. The Protestant work ethic teaches that only diligence can keep us from indigence. In the post-industrial era, too many of us have found that staying on the right side of this equation is insufficient to keep us from falling through the holes in the safety net. And then coronavirus comes along and all bets are off.

Many of us never quite figure out what we want to be when we grow up. “Establish the work of our hands,” we pray in Psalm 90. None of us want to be left floundering around all our lives.

In centuries past, this malaise was quashed by learning a trade early. Following in parental footsteps was an expectation. Today, by contrast, we take a decidedly different tack with our youth. After all, we live a land where any child can grow up to be president. (Well, any male child, apparently.)

What we aim for these days is raising well-rounded children who are jacks of all trades and masters of none. We are all of us artists and musicians. As adolescents, we are taught to dabble in as many different aspects of human endeavor as possible, to feast at the smorgasbord of American possibility. We never really outgrow this mindset, changing college majors and careers as often as we change our underwear. What to do when none of the outfits we try on is quite right? The merger of avocation and vocation remains elusive. What we truly enjoy doing either cannot be offered for sale, or yields a paycheck only at the highest levels, leaving amateurs in the dust.

One can argue that this is starting to change. As a case in point, we now have professional video game players. You have a burning passion to be a mime, a ventriloquist, a magician, a country singer? TV talent shows can be your ticket to the Pantages, Radio City Music Hall or Caesar’s in Las Vegas. We have teenagers pursuing their dreams on American Idol, The Voice and AGT. And anyone can be a star on YouTube or maybe even hit it big as an entrepreneur.

When I was a kid, adults regularly played a cruel joke on us by inquiring as to whether we wanted to be a policeman, a fireman or an Indian chief. (No one was familiar with the term “Native American” or realized how racist they were being.) This seemed to apply to boys only. Girls got married and had babies in their split-level ranches. Who had ever heard of a policewoman, a firewoman, or a woman who was chief anything.

Growing up in suburbia, we knew that the real choices were doctor, lawyer or accountant. Sadly, for girls the choices still seemed to consist of nurse, teacher or secretary. The very idea of women working outside the home was just beginning to take hold.

If this were a standardized test, I knew I would use my No. 2 pencil to fill in the bubble under “none of the above.” What I really wanted to be was a poet. By the time I completed elementary school, I had become mesmerized by the ways in which one could manipulate words. I would twirl them around like so many spaghetti noodles around my fork, finding both equally delicious. But everything that I read and the advice that my parents provided led to the same inescapable conclusion: Robert Frost and Ogden Nash notwithstanding, no one really liked poetry, certainly no one was willing to spend his or her hard-earned money on it, and there was no way to make a living as a poet. I could still write poetry as a nice little hobby, my mother reassured me. A nights and weekends kind of thing.

And so I learned early that work is a miserable grind, engaged in for purposes of keeping the lights on, and that joy was to be had elsewhere, on your own time, thank you very much.
Over time, I came to recognize that there is a push and a pull involved between vocation and avocation. It wasn’t necessary to be the Tennessee Williams martyr who is fired for writing a poem on a shoe box. For poetry, like God, can be found everywhere and in everything. And most employers in any field find it useful to have someone around who can write, whether it be a letter to the Health Department, a blurb for the local newspaper, an email to Corporate, or an instruction manual for new hires.

I started thinking about this recently while working from home, and then again after reading about how neighbors are coming together to combat isolation and loneliness in the time of coronavirus.

Unless you want to be on the phone all day, working from home when you’re used to being in the office means that everything has to be in writing, even little text messages on Skype. But what if my passion were music rather than poetry? I once had a boss who reminded me that the singers among us should be tapped to entertain us during our meetings and events. It us important to recognize the value of the whole person, he used to remind me.

Then suddenly, we’re faced with a public health crisis of epic proportions, and we have the boy performing a Friday night violin concert on the sidewalk and the old lady performing a cello concert on her front porch and the bakers leaving tins of cookies at the doors of senior citizens and even the artists among us providing us with colorful chalk renderings on the sidewalk. What was once seen as a hobby, something to be engaged in somewhat furtively, something failing to contribute to gross national product and therefore indulgent, something frivolous, is now being used as the glue that keeps us together as a society, and is now being recognized for what it is: the gift of ourselves, the gift of love.

The Meaning of Blogging

Sad events tend to make me turn introspective.

More introspective than I already am, that is.

We grieve, and we try to make sense of the senseless.  The questions start to pile up:  Did this have to happen?  Could this happen to me?  Is there a lesson I’m supposed to learn from this?

When others suffer misfortune, we are called upon to comfort, to be there to listen.  We’re supposed to keep ourselves out of it.  After all, it’s about them, not about us.

Except that it is about us.  It’s about our relationship with the ones suffering the loss.  And it’s about how what happened causes us to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.  Misfortune ridicules the faux importance of the minutiae of our everyday lives and tends to help us obtain a clearer idea of where we’ve been and where we’re going.  For once, we get to ignore the trees and see the whole forest.  What’s the meaning of it all?

Here in the blogosphere, we enjoy opportunities to share both laughter and tears with fellow writers whom we have come to know and love.  Indeed, it is this sense of community more than anything else that has kept me reading and writing on WordPress.com.

I have yet to meet any of my bloggy friends in person.  And yet I feel that I know them better than some people I have known offline for years.  Sure, the anonymity and distance between the writer and the reader of online blogs makes it easier to divulge details of our personal lives that might be difficult to discuss with someone who we had to look in the eye.  This draws us closer to our fellow bloggers than we would ever likely become in person.

Most of us long for deep, abiding connections with others, connections that we often miss due to societal taboos as well as the personal and cultural roadblocks that all of us erect on the highway that is our lives.  “Don’t talk to strangers” is one of the first rules we learn as children.  It’s just too dangerous.  Others will hurt you if you let them.  Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve or it’ll just be broken.  I think of my elderly parents, who have learned to use the internet as a tool, but still try to keep it at arm’s length.  To them, it’s not “real,” just letters and words on a screen.  People are fakers who can pretend to be anything.

I get it that we can’t throw caution to the winds.  There will always be “bad” people online just as there are offline.  Those with malicious intent or a desire to misrepresent themselves can certainly use the internet as a means of doing so.  But that doesn’t give us license to dismiss the entire medium as duplicitous or illusory.  To me, the bloggers I follow have become family.

And so today I was saddened to learn that one of my favorite bloggers has deleted his blog.  Simply picked up his marbles and went home.  I felt a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I clicked on his goodbye post and received the message “(Blog name) is no longer available.  The authors have deleted this site.”

Some of you may know to whom I refer.  He was a popular blogger whose work helped to give me a sense of what our electronic community is all about and what sorts of things are possible on here.  In the early days of my blog, I paid close attention to those of his posts that referred to the hazards of blogging and how difficult it can be to strike a balance between one’s public and private personae.

As I started out saying, this sad event (like any loss) makes me introspective.  When a popular blogger who has been working at this for a hell of a lot longer than I have makes a decision to simply vanish, I feel compelled to take a step back and ask myself what exactly I’m trying to accomplish here.  For that manner, what does any blog hope to achieve?

We blog for many different reasons.  Blogs may be a method of doing business, a gallery for displaying photographs, a travelogue, a forum for political debate, a poetry slam, a cooking school.  Or an intimate journal.

But all of these reasons come down to one lowest common denominator:  We want to share a little piece of ourselves.  And no, we don’t want to talk to the wall.  We want to be heard and we want feedback.  We go to bed praying for “likes” and wake up with squeals of delight to find we have comments, reblogs, new readers and followers.  We want to start a discussion, an argument, a dialogue, a movement, a revolution.  We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.  We want to break out of our little worlds.  We want to make a meaningful connection with others.

My WordPress.com Reader brings widely scattered friends into my living room for a chat on a daily basis.  Pull up a chair and have a cup of tea, dear ones.  There’s one mother who has been feeling depressed and another who is dealing with her husband’s infidelity.  There’s the divorced one, the one coping with a sick child, the talented artist, the cancer survivor, the published author.  There’s a French teenager who manages to crack me up in two languages from the other side of the world.  There’s even a cat and a dog that I follow.

All of these and many more have become valued members of my online family.  For, in the end, that’s what we are, isn’t it?  One big, noisy, crazy, delightful, loving, extended family.

And the loss of any member of that family leaves a gaping hole that diminishes us all.

 

My Brother’s Keeper

shake hands

The little house across the street from us stands empty and forlorn.

Being so recently vacated, the red and white For Rent sign has not yet been staked into the lawn.  The window blinds need to be replaced and the roof shingles need some attention, but other than that, it’s a cute bit of a home complete with standard issue lawn and driveway.

Until last week, the occupants were a young couple with two children.  The boy looked to be a rambunctious two year old and the girl a first or second grader.  I often saw her with her backpack, heading off to school in the morning about the time I’d leave for work.  I’d see him tearing breakneck down the sidewalk on his trike or spinning and tumbling on the lawn.

The kids’ parents were poor.  I only stopped to talk to the man once; he told me they used to live here in town, then moved away.  Things didn’t work out, so now they were back to give it another shot in our hot, remote desert outpost.

He bussed tables at a chain restaurant at the other end of town.  She was a cashier at a local store.  I mentioned that I never saw a car in their driveway.  He told me that they didn’t have one at the moment.  They used to have a car, he related, but it broke down and his brother, who was supposed to fix it, sold it instead.

There was usually a shopping cart around, sometimes two, often overturned in the driveway or on the lawn.  We would see the woman pushing it down the street, sometimes with a kid in it.  She had to walk half a mile to work; he walked more than a mile each way.

They played music at high volume, usually rap.  If one of the kids left the front door open, the thumping bass would blare into the street, loud enough to be felt in our bedroom.

The couple fought a lot.  They would scream obscenities at each other, sometimes over the music, then start yelling the same ugly words at their little boy and girl.

I don’t remember the names of the man and the woman, although he told me once.  I’m not particularly good with names.  Or maybe I wasn’t paying attention.  Or maybe I just didn’t care.

Last weekend, a U-Haul van appeared across the street, its garish orange blaring out little known facts about a Canadian province, blocking our view of the little house.  Two men were carrying out belongings and loading the truck.  Then the vehicle left and the house stood empty.

On Friday, my wife had walked across the street with half a box of fruit-flavored ice pops for the kids.  The kids and the mom both thanked her profusely.  The kids were hanging around on the front porch while the woman talked with the interviewers who had come by to complete their investigation.

The father was nowhere to be found.  Our next door neighbors informed us that he had been arrested following allegations that he had molested the little girl.  He was in jail.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t been paying attention; looks like none of us did.  I was shocked and saddened to hear what had happened to this couple’s daughter.  And yet, I pray for this man.  I can’t remember his name, but God knows it very well.

I pray that the mother and her children will be able to pick up their pieces once again, bound together by a love that exceeds all adversity.  Wherever they’ve gone, I hope they have a better life than they did when they lived across the street from us and we rarely said so much as hello.

Whatever.  Nothing we could have said or done would have prevented the tragedy that occurred, right?  We couldn’t have possibly have made so much as a dent in their enormous problems.  Right?  It was better that we didn’t get involved.  A caring word from us couldn’t have made the slightest difference.  Uh, um, er, right?  Right?

Wrong. 

I recall the time my wife was away for a week.  Arriving home after work, I thought about taking the family across the street out for tacos so I could get to know them better and save the woman from the need to cook, for one night anyway.  But they weren’t outside and I felt uncomfortable about walking up to their house, ringing the bell and impertinently injecting myself into their lives.  They might think I was offering them charity and be insulted.  So I never did go over there.

“Don’t be a stranger,” I told the man on the single occasion that we stood in the street, between our respective rental houses, chatting.  “I won’t,” he replied.  But he never crossed the street and rang our doorbell either.  So strangers we remained.

The LORD said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”  And he said “I do not know.  Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Genesis 4:9

 

Unemployment, Community and the Future of the Family

community

I have been thinking about unemployment insurance a lot lately.  With the questionable future of my current work location, some of my coworkers who have never had occasion to receive unemployment benefits are contemplating what would be a first for them.

In the short term, I think unemployment insurance constitutes sound economic logic.  Capitalism assumes that most people will work for a living and use their income to support themselves.  This cycle of earning and spending is what makes our economic system go ‘round.  The social contract posits that when a break in this cycle occurs because an individual becomes unemployed due to no fault of her/his own, she or he is entitled to dip into common weal for a brief period of time during which efforts to become re-employed occur.  In other words, the taxes of those who are working help to support those who, temporarily, are not.

The idea is that those who are laid off due to economic factors beyond their control (bankruptcy of the employer or a recession, for example) should not be punished.  On the contrary, they should be rewarded for their past labors while they find their way toward resuming their roles as productive members of society and contributors to the economy.

Implicit in this provision of the social contract is that the unemployed person will return to the work force as soon as possible.  This implied condition is made explicit by state unemployment laws that limit benefits to a prescribed number of months.

Remaining unemployed rather resuming work at the earliest opportunity is discouraged by a twofold maneuver.  First, unemployment benefits are calculated on a schedule that assures that individuals receive a relatively small percentage of the income earned while working.  Hopefully, the receipt of unemployment benefits will provide the out of work with a modicum of support for their families (on an austerity budget, to be sure) sufficient to prevent hunger and homelessness.  Second, unemployment benefits end after a specified amount of time.  This provision is designed to light a fire under the unemployed, creating a sense of urgency fueled by the prospect of destitution should benefits end before re-employment is secured.

Where this neat little system falls apart, of course, is when this threat morphs from theory into reality.  Recent statistics suggest that the unemployment rate in the United States is falling, an indicator of increasing economic health.  As with any financial measure, however, the accuracy of one’s numbers depends on how you count.  The apparent decrease in the unemployment rate is, at least in part, a product of fewer individuals receiving unemployment benefits.  It is well known that a reduction in the unemployment rolls does not necessarily mean that more people are gainfully employed.  It may well reflect the thousands of people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits, thus falling off the charts even though they are still out of work.  These are our neighbors who fly under the radar, neither employed nor on unemployment benefits, and thus nonexistent as far as our tunnel vision economic figures are concerned.  The long-term unemployed become invisible.

Let’s spend a moment thinking about what happens to those who find themselves in this predicament — out of benefit weeks and still out of a job.  Out of luck.  As a society, we are simply abandoning these people, leaving them to their own devices.  After all, they need to be punished because they failed to follow the rules by finding work within the prescribed period of time. 

But what if their failure to find work is no fault of their own, just as the reason that they became unemployed in the first place was no fault of their own?  What if a person has diligently sought employment to no avail?  This can happen for any number of reasons.  In this age of microchips, there is the ever-present threat of technological obsolescence (otherwise known as “I’ve been replaced by a robot.”)  I can appreciate this one, having personally performed two different types of jobs that have virtually gone out of existence in this country.

Perhaps the plant has moved out of state or overseas, where operating costs are so much lower.  Perhaps there is no similar work available in the unemployed person’s geographic area.  Perhaps he or she is not at liberty to move due to family commitments or health challenges.  As it is, we have become a very mobile society, rolling stones who miss out on yesteryear’s advantage of strong community roots.  We acknowledge this as far as not denying unemployment benefits to those who decline to move hundreds of miles away to the nearest available job.  But then we shrug it off when the benefit period runs out.  If you really want to work, move far away from your support system and work!  If not, starve.  Let the support system to which you are so attached take care of you.

Whoa, stop right there.  When a person loses her job, we don’t throw her on the mercy of her family.  We recognize this person as a valued member of society who has fallen on hard times, and we provide her with some measure of support.  After a time, however, we say “okay, we’ve done enough, now it’s your family’s turn.”  What is wrong with this picture?

There are those who long for the good old days when members of extended families took care of each other.  No unemployment benefits needed, or as Archie and Edith Bunker cheekily sang every week during the opening of TV’s All in the Family, “didn’t need no welfare state (everybody pulled his weight).”  If one member of the family was unable to earn a paycheck, that individual could contribute in other ways, including child care, elder care and household maintenance.  Then, of course, there was also a thriving underground economy (in our inner cities, there still is — and not all of it has to do with selling drugs, either).  People grew gardens and raised chickens, both for their own consumption and to help feed their neighbors.  Payment was not always in cash; barter thrived.  Although Craig’s List and the TV show Barter Kings suggest that we may be returning to this model, it is still a drop in the economic bucket.

You see, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum:  The extended family who we expect to support the long-term unemployed has ceased to exist, at least among the middle class (leaving people out on the street and scavenging in dumpsters).  As if the post-World War II transition from the extended family model to the nuclear family were not bad enough, the cancer of family breakdown has now advanced to the point where even the nuclear family has crumbled into dust.  Fathers have become marginalized as single mothers raise their children and young adults choose to remain single for longer and longer periods of time.  There is no longer any shame or stigma attached to “personal choices” from abortion to childlessness to refusal to provide financial and emotional support to aging parents.  Meanwhile, the middle class, who have failed miserably in their attempt to glorify the nuclear family, continue to look down their noses at the poor who are forced by economic circumstances to crowd many people into small dwellings, whether urban apartments or rural cottages.

But I am hopeful.  Perhaps the vagaries of the economy and the evanescence of unemployment benefits will have the unintended effect of encouraging the resurgence of the extended family.  Perhaps the day will come when it will again become common for grandparents, uncles, cousins and friends to share a residence, each one contributing his or her special talents to the communal well-being of the family unit.  Perhaps contiguous family units (in old-fashioned lingo, these were called “neighbors”) will again check on each other’s welfare and engage in random acts of sharing.  Perhaps we will shake off our jaded ways and decide that community is still important.  Perhaps we will once again decide that we need each other, that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers.

As John Donne wrote more than four hundred years ago:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Amen.