Smile Therapy

😊 I have long been a bottom-line kind of guy, a value instilled in me early and often by my mother. Among her favorite aphorisms was “the operation was a success but the patient died.” I interpreted this to mean “don’t sugarcoat your failures.” You either reach your goals or you don’t, and you’re fooling yourself if you think there’s any in between. This is the way the world works, and the seriousness of the situation warrants treatment of the pretty scenery along the way as a dangerous and unwelcome distraction that may lead to never reaching your destination.

😊 In my school days, this meant ignoring my friends (“They’re not your friends, they’re your playmates!”) and their fads and fashions, and going my own way. Who cares if they fail, my only concern should be my own success.

😊 This type of goal-oriented worldview makes it difficult to focus on the present. From what I’ve read, “living in the moment” is essential for good mental health even in the best of circumstances. As hard as this has always been for me, a cancer diagnosis has made it nigh well impossible.

😊 I seem to be confused as to which stage of grief I should be in. My natural tendencies are to skip over all the denial and bargaining malarkey in favor of going straight to acceptance. I am always saying “it is what it is.” Facts are good.

😊 Except that the experts say this cannot be done. You have to do the steps. I may be engaging in an effort as futile as riding a self-actualization catapult to the apex of Maslow’s pyramid while perishing of hunger and thirst.

😊 This in no way inhibits my “acceptance” stage pull toward making arrangements. My wife and I recently made wills. I found the cemetery where I wish to be buried and talked with them about a traditional burial and the costs involved. I just want to go down there, sign the contract and hand over the money. I want it done.

😊 My wife accuses me of having given up, and I see her point. While that is not my intent, I don’t want any truck with dishonesty games either. The problem is that not all the facts are in yet. I am still undergoing tests. I plan to do whatever treatment is recommended. And the thought of being a cancer survivor brings a smile to my face. Indeed, the very act of smiling has begun to take on meaning of its own for me. This is no small thing, as my natural disposition might best be described as “grumpy.” Insert ghosts of Lemmon and Matthau here.

😊 So, at least at this point, I cannot agree with my wife’s assessment that I have given up. I pray daily and have others pray for me. And I practice what I have dubbed “smile therapy.” Eye roll, I know. I smile at myself in the mirror every day, just to remind myself that I still can. That anything is possible. Smiling as an act of defiance.

😊 Smile therapy has become particularly important to me in light of my twin bogeymen, pain and the narcotic medication being used to relieve it. My continued ability to work from home has been essential as well. As I explained to my boss the other day, work takes my mind off things.

😊 I thank God for small blessings. And I try not to fixate on those aspects of self-care that I could recently handle and that have become extremely difficult for me in a matter of just a few weeks. I refer to basic tasks such as lifting my right leg to climb into the car or into bed. Some days I can do it, but on others, my muscles go on strike and adamantly refuse. I would be totally out of luck if not for the assistance of my patient and long-suffering wife.

😊 I am tired all the time. Granted, I was never a high-energy person, even in my younger days. Now, however, I am learning to accept a new normal in which taking a shower uses up about every ounce of energy I possess. We ordered a shower chair, and I eagerly anticipate its arrival. I am able to work a full eight-hour day at my computer while seated in my armchair, getting up only to use the rest room. When 5:00 rolls around, I have just enough left in the tank to undress, get in bed, and be out like a light.

😊 Most of the layers of my onion have been peeled away. It makes for a much smaller world. I can only imagine that this will be exacerbated once I begin chemotherapy. I’ll just have to laugh while singing the “It’s a Small World” song from Disneyland (perhaps vomiting in between the repetitive verses).

😊 I do not believe that acceptance of all I have described means that I have “given up.” As I recently explained in decidedly terse terms, “it sucks, but it is what it is.” Denial would be pointless, and I certainly don’t have the energy to bargain as if this were some type of contract negotiation. No rageatar, por favor. For me, acceptance is where it’s at.

😊 But you know me. I need to have a goal. And I do. I want that Cancer Survivor shirt, size 4XL.

😊 Until I get it, I’ll keep right on smiling in the mirror.

😊 Just don’t tell anyone, please. I wouldn’t want to ruin my reputation.

The Certainty of Death and Christmas

An interesting article about death cafés, some of which host workshops at which participants write their own obituaries, recently appeared in The Washington Post. Now, I’ve heard of internet cafés and cat cafés, but this was the first I’d heard of a destination where one can get a steaming mug of java along with a side of pondering one’s own mortality.

I find the timing of the Post article rather appropriate.  While there is so much outward Christmas cheer to be had, with carols old and new playing everywhere I go, and my grandnieces and grandnephews declaring every piece of schlock touted on YouTube videos as their heart’s desire, it’s easy to ignore the sadness lurking just below the surface for many of us.  We hear annually of the spike in suicides during the holiday season.  The spirit of the season does not resonate for many of us who have suffered losses or who feel lonely, disenfranchised or marginalized.  The mental health challenges that are always with us seem to be accentuated in the month of December.  
In the hustle and bustle of work, family and holiday preparations, it can be easy to overlook our neighbors who are struggling.  Some of them may not make it to the new year.  For those of us who work in social services, it’s harder not to notice.  It’s in your face every day.  We know to expect an uptick in calls about child and elder abuse, an increase in applications for cash aid, and more stories of epic family squabbles than could fill a telenovela.
It’s a good thing that the media and charitable organizations make us more aware of the needy at this time of year.  We don’t want any child to be without gifts on Christmas morning, nor do we want to see impoverished families settling for cereal or soup for Christmas dinner.  So we try to do our part.  We give extra to the food bank; we haul a box of board games over to the toy drive.  And yet, it’s just so little.  We know it’s a drop in the bucket and we only hope that our tiny contribution makes a difference to someone.
But no one rings bells outside Wal-Mart or holds bake sales to benefit those whose suffering extends far beyond the financial.   There are too many whose pain is invisible, who drag themselves through the holiday season like zombies, who pray for January or maybe just to make it through another day.  I regret that the holidays are such a trigger for so many, in the midst of what is supposed to be a season of joy.  And I don’t know what we can do to be of much help.  Lend a listening ear?  Maybe.  Kindness, understanding?  Reaching out instead of pretending it’s not our problem?  I fear I am lapsing into serious cliché here, but that’s an occupational hazard of looking in the mirror, is it not?
I don’t think I’d do a very good job of writing my own obituary at a death café, no matter how strong the coffee.  But I do know that the one line I do not want in my obituary is “He could have done something, but he chose not to.”
Perhaps Dickens got it right when he had the Ghost of Christmas Future pass judgment on old Ebenezer and his self-imposed blindness to the suffering of others.
Carpe diem.

Schizo

I never heard of schizophrenia until eighth grade health class.  Along with learning about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and the obligatory, highly embarrassing sex ed curriculum (from which my parents refused to excuse me, despite my entreaties), we plodded through a unit on mental health.  When we covered neuroses, I knew right off that the teacher was talking about me.  But it was the psychoses that were really scary, and I wondered whether I could secretly have one of those.

When we arrived at a discussion of schizophrenia, I was shocked (pun intended) to learn about such strange phenomena as multiple personalities, paranoia, delusions of grandeur, catatonia and hearing voices.  Alone in bed at night, I prayed to the Lord that I would never be afflicted with any of these horrors.

Mental illness, schizophrenia included, was still on the pedagogic menu when we were once again subject to the tortures of health class as juniors in high school.  By that time, I understood that I was not psychotic and was able to relax a bit.  I went on to take two psychology classes before I graduated, one of which included a visit to the local mental hospital.  My father humored me by driving me to the Vassar College library on quite a few evenings, where I researched a term paper on schizophrenia until the librarians threw us out and locked the doors.

Even today there is stigma associated with mental illness, but it was much worse when I was a teenager back in the seventies.  This was the era of Psycho, The Exorcist and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  My fellow junior high and high school students were openly derisive about anyone who appeared to deviate from the norm in any way, and never more than when it came to mental illness or developmental disabilities.  If we didn’t like something that someone did, they were “retarded,” “psycho” or “schizo.”  We bandied these terms about indiscriminately in the same way that many continue to demean the sexual preferences of others by saying “that’s so gay” (sadly, still “dropped on a daily,” Macklemore and Lewis notwithstanding).

It’s good to be able to say that some things have changed in the past forty years, however.  While the causes of mental illness have by no means been locked down, advances in scientific research have made inroads in our understanding of the nature and treatment of schizophrenia.

Still, it came as a bit of a surprise to me today when I learned that bacteria, of all things, are now being implicated as one possible cause of schizophrenia.  New research estimates that about one-fifth of all cases of schizophrenia may be attributed to infection by Toxoplasma gondii.

Now, wait a minute.  I know about toxoplasmosis.  When my sisters (both of whom have always had cats as pets) were busy having babies, my mother warned them to have their husbands clean the cat box.  It was known that cat feces could contain Toxoplasma, and that if this microorganism was transmitted to the blood of the fetus, the baby could be born with horrific brain deformities.

Turns out cat boxes are just the beginning, however.  Humans can also contract toxoplasmosis long after they are born.  T. gondii can also be transmitted through eating undercooked meat or by drinking contaminated water.  It is estimated that as many as 60 million Americans may currently be infected with T. gondii, and that some of them will develop schizophrenia as a result of the protozoan’s effects on their brains.

Just think of it:  One in five schizophrenics could have avoided a lifetime of misery and incapacity by avoiding infection by Toxoplasma.

Still want that steak done rare?

Sounds to me like yet another argument in favor of the vegan life.

NaBloPoMo 2014 Logo

NaNoPoblano

Toward a Better Understanding of Hypocrisy

A blog comment I ran across last week suggested that “hypocrite” is just about the worst epithet that can be applied to a person.  I do not agree.  Not at all.  It seems to me that hypocrisy has a useful and respectable place in our society and that it has been unfairly maligned over the centuries.

Let’s start by taking a moment to examine the meaning and etymology of the word “hypocrite.”  Much as I esteem the opinion of the Oxford English Dictionary, I am unable to tell you how they weigh in on the issue, as the online version is behind a paywall and my unemployed ass cannot afford the $995 cost of the 20-volume print edition or even the $400 cost of the compact CD.  Making use of the tools that I do have available, dictionary.com cites the origin of the English word “hypocrite” as the ancient Greek hypokrites, meaning “a stage actor, hence one who pretends to be what he is not.”

The original Greek appears to indicate that, at some level, hypocrisy was a socially acceptable construct.  Ancient Greek audiences understood perfectly well that the onstage histrionics they were witnessing were the products of talented actors who were not actually being murdered and dismembered before their very eyes.  This is often referred to as “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Once we leave the stage, however, society has always had a much more difficult time accepting one who “pretends to be what he is not.”  Merriam-webster.com defines a hypocrite as “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.”  In modern times, the epithet “two-faced” has been applied to such an individual, but the revulsion visited upon hypocrites goes back centuries.  Arguably, the epitome of the public dissing of hypocrites was meted out by Jesus.  Among the best known statements about hypocrisy is in Matthew 23:14 (KJV), “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer:  therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.”

Despite the bad name given to hypocrisy in the New Testament, I submit to you that being a hypocrite was likely quite practical 2,000 years ago and is certainly so in our modern world of the 21st century.

1. We grew up with hypocrisy.  Most of us were introduced to the concept of hypocrisy at an early age, long before the word entered our nascent vocabularies.  Either by inference or (as in the case of my own parents) literally, our folks would tell us “Do as I say, not as I do!”  If you think about it, this makes sense.  All parents have hopes and dreams that their children will do better than they themselves did.  As parents, we have bad habits that we do not wish our children to emulate.  Of course, children are strongly influenced by the actions of their parents, which is why many fathers quit smoking or drinking or swearing when they learn that a little one is on the way.  When we are unable, for whatever reason, to forsake our evil ways, the backup plan has always been to tell the kids to “pay no attention to the man in the mask.”  Hypocrisy:  It’s how we seek to improve the next generation.

2. Hypocrisy as a coping mechanism.  A famous quote from novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald posits that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  We may, for example, simultaneously entertain the ideas that “drinking alcohol impairs my ability to function” and “I need a drink to get through the day.”  (In my own case, I suppose I should substitute ice cream and potato chips.)  One may dispute the accuracy of Fitzgerald’s assertion about intelligence, but acting against what we know to be our own best interest is a form of hypocrisy that is a valid coping strategy used to allow us to keep going (and to keep from going crazy) in the face of life’s daily contradictions.

3. Hypocrisy is a reasonable response to society’s persistence in judging us.  Back in the years when I worked in the court system, I would regularly hear criminal defendants bemoaning the law’s condemnation of conduct that they found perfectly acceptable.  Some of this is decidedly solipsistic in nature, but to a great extent, this sentiment is the product of conflicting cultural norms.  As the social workers and probation officers know all too well, the guy in the orange jumpsuit will likely think nothing of committing assault and battery if such conduct is a daily occurrence in his neighborhood, and particularly if he witnessed and/or participated in it as a child and adolescent.  “I’m being judged unfairly!” is the prisoner’s mournful moan.

How does this relate to hypocrisy?  Most of us attempt to stay on the right side of the law in order to stay out of jail, but things change considerably when it comes to matters of morality.  This may seem only marginally relevant today, but in times of restrictive social norms, we may seek to avoid the judgment of society by publicly spouting the party line while merrily pursuing our own agendas in private.  An example I mentioned in a post earlier this week is that many of us kept our criticisms of the government to ourselves in the 1950s to avoid social approbation that could include becoming unemployed and being run out of town.  Similarly, for years most gays remained “in the closet,” some even going as far as entering hetero marriages, in order to avoid being judged harshly by those around them.  So you can see that saying one thing and doing another is a reasonable response (“I have to live in this town!”) to persistent judgment by a society cherishing norms that directly contradict one’s own.  Those who hang out in the third standard deviation pretty much have the choice of being hypocrites or adjusting their behavior to conform with cultural norms.  Those who are unable to embrace either approach often find themselves in those orange jumpsuits, or arguably worse, in padded cells.

I have often pondered that much hypocrisy, as well as outright law-breaking, could be avoided if people would relocate to parts of the world in which social norms are better aligned with their predilections.  We may be horrified at, and quick to condemn, practices such as the use of hard drugs, allowing minors to consume alcohol or eating the meat of cats and dogs, but there are many areas of the world in which these are not the cultural taboos as they represent in North America.  Those who reside here but find it inconvenient to pick up stakes for an intercontinental move to a more compatible social environment often engage in culturally prohibited practices in private while, in public, pretending the horror that our society expects of them.  And let us not forget that many throughout history have found becoming hypocrites essential in order to practice their religions while avoiding death at the hands of an intolerant majority.

Rather than reviling the hypocrite, perhaps we should consider that none of us is perfect and that every one of us is hypocritical in some fashion at some point in time.  For example, we may be staunch advocates of truth-telling, yet accede to telling a “white lie” in order to spare someone’s feelings.

Among the problems that we have with hypocrites is the fear that they will “fool us” and the rage we experience when we feel that we have been duped.  This is symptomatic of a simplistic and childlike mindset that paints every situation in black and white.  We want to be able to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.”  Not only does this sentiment fail to acknowledge the complex nature of modern society, but it also errs in equating the good with current social norms.  Aside from the fact that such norms change rapidly, it behooves us to recognize the value of diversity and multiculturalism in that individuals with widely divergent traditions, mores and folkways can all make positive contributions to our heterogeneous society.

Some believe that once a hypocrite has been “outed,” nothing he or she says may be trusted ever again.  We think of politicians who are elected on a “law and order” platform and then are discovered to be crooks themselves.  A few years ago, a Scientific American article pointed out that our unwarranted emotional responses to hypocrisy (i.e., our unwillingness to put ourselves in the shoes of the hypocrite or, dare I say, to examine our own hypocrisy) “tend to short-circuit rational examination” of a person’s statements.  Just because one acts hypocritically to avoid harsh social judgment in a particular area does not mean that every statement uttered by that individual should be discounted out of hand.  Compassion, particularly among those of us who profess efforts to live a godly life, seems in order.

Yet compassion appears conspicuously lacking by many, particularly by those on the religious right, who chastise hypocrites as “liars” and “haters of the truth.”  It may be more accurate to say that an intolerant, judgmental society is the real hater of truth, the truths that there will always be dissenters in our midst, that there is a place in life for personal choice, and that peaceful coexistence is possible without achieving universal consensus in regard to every belief and practice.

 

 

Free Parking

FreeParking

(c) Hasbro… please don’t sue me, I’m unemployed.

God is watching over us. Of this I have no doubt.

We drove down to the Central Valley yesterday to appear at the first of six job interviews (yes, six!… can you believe it?) I have scheduled this week and next. The employer was located in a huge office building downtown, which can only mean one thing: No parking!

In the name of honesty, we could have left the car in a nearby parking garage and paid by the hour for the privilege. The plan, however, was for my wife to drop me off and come back for me in a couple of hours. I had to take a written test and then attend a panel interview, so I knew this would take a while.

The problem: Where should she drop me off? The information that the employer sent via email instructed me to use the entrance on a side street. This seemed relatively straightforward until we drove around the block four times before finally verifying to our satisfaction that there was in fact no entrance to the building on the specified side street! We saw a woman unsuccessfully attempting to use a locked side street entrance to what appeared to be the building next door. We had no idea what to do and I started to worry about being late. I knew I had to get out somewhere and look for an entrance. The wind was blowing and, remember, I have been battling agoraphobia for years. As you may imagine, I started to panic.

Finally, I agreed to be let out at the main entrance in front of the building. Although most of the area was a “red zone” (no parking or standing any time), we found the loading and unloading zone. I figured that I’d hurry up the steps, duck inside the building, do my breathing exercises and find someone who could tell me where the hell I was supposed to go.

I took the elevator to the second floor, where the interview was supposed to take place. Having no idea how to navigate the maze of corridors and offices, I stuck my head into the nearest doorway and asked how to get to HR. The young lady at the desk didn’t know and had to ask her superior. Make a left, walk all the way down to the end, turn right, walk all the way down to the end again, then pick up the red phone and someone will talk to you. Clearly, this was not going to be a good day. For this I got dressed up and drove two hours down the freeway? I was a nervous wreck before I had even arrived at the interview.

Walking the long corridors, I passed a series of floor-to-ceiling windows that showed me that I had in fact crossed over to the other side of the street on an interior bridge and was now in another building. I located the red phone, over which was posted a notice to dial 2 for HR. The human resources representative who answered the phone did not recognize my name and had no idea what interview I was talking about. She asked me to hold on while she checked with someone else — and then promptly disconnected me. I dialed 2 again and spoke to a different HR rep who said that someone would be out to talk to me. Sure enough, here comes the HR lady from the locked door at the end of the corridor. Don’t you know that you are in the wrong place, young man? Interviews are being conducted in another building on the next block.

I thanked her, turned around and began to retrace my steps. I texted my wife: “Please come back!” By this time, she had already gotten way down the road, completely out of the downtown area. Back down the elevator, out the door, down the stairs. Time to wait on the street and have a staring match with the guy selling hot dogs, chips and Skittles from under an umbrella. At least he had a canvas folding chair to sit on. A prominent sign warned NO SITTING ON STAIRS, so I compromised by leaning on a railing. Finally, hot dog guy deigned to speak to me. “Some wind, huh?” Yeah, rub it in, why don’t ya?

Meanwhile, my poor wife, who was somewhere on the freeway, got off at the next exit and somehow turned around and headed back to where she had left me. Both of us were entirely frustrated by the time she arrived, and she kindly drove me over to what I thought was the building that the HR lady had specified. “Please wait until I text you that this is the right place,” I asked. My wonderful wife is long-suffering and I have no idea how she puts up with me.

When she let me out of the car, I had to climb two half-flights of stairs. Unfortunately, bushes had overgrown the hand railing. Did I mention that I have bad knees and have to use the railing? Back in New York City, we used to call it “the bannister.” I did my best with the foliage, arriving at the door with leaves and stickers all over my left sleeve. A kind woman appeared at the door just as I approached. This entrance is locked, she explained, but I saw you coming. She didn’t know anything about an interview either, but directed me to Human Resources. Now, I knew that HR wasn’t going to be able to help me, as this building was occupied by a different company than the one with which I was scheduled to interview. These days, however, I’ve learned to take it as it comes.

The nice HR lady at this company also had no idea where I was supposed to go. Here’s our meeting schedule for the day. See? We have nothing scheduled for 1:00. I thanked her and asked for directions to the elevator. I’ll just head up to the second floor and see if I can ask someone up there, I said.

On the second floor, I noticed a couple of people sitting in a lounge area way across the atrium, past the splashing and whooshing fountains. Not knowing what else to do, I walked over there and heard a woman calling my name. Yay! I had finally found the right place! I texted my wife to let her know she could be on her way (again), then sat down to write essays.

Next came the ubiquitous panel interview, during which it became highly apparent that they were looking for someone with many years of experience in their very specific type of work. That person, by the way, would not be me.

My wife returned to retrieve me and we started to look for somewhere to have a late lunch before we headed home. We settled on a restaurant a few miles up the road for which we had a discount coupon. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we discovered that they aren’t open for lunch. So we headed north toward home and decided to stop and eat in Stockton.

If you’re familiar with Stockton, you know that it’s a big place and has many exits off the freeway. We kept looking for the exit we needed, but never found it and drove right out of Stockton. Forget about it, I said, let’s just go home and save some money. We can’t afford to be eating in restaurants anyway.

Later, we learned that the precise street that we had been looking for was the scene of a bank robbery, a shootout and a high-speed chase. Two of the three robbers and an innocent bystander were killed. Let’s just say that never in my life have I been gladder to have been unable to find my exit. Glad to have avoided an exit of another type entirely, my wife and I both thanked God that He continues to take such good care of us. In the grand scheme of things, it makes the little inconveniences of job hunting look small indeed.

On Thursday, I am scheduled to return to the employer in Sacramento at whose office I recently dropped off my application after learning that they never received the one I had mailed. I am scheduled to take a written exam; days or weeks later, the employer will call the high scorers back for an interview. This is also a downtown location where there is no parking and at which I must walk across a lengthy plaza to reach the building from the street.

In the meantime, however, I have applied for yet another job in a different section of Sacramento. As an apparent incentive to lure applicants, the job announcement prominently indicates FREE PARKING!!!

Anyone want to play Monopoly? I fully plan to land on that little orange car in the corner and pick up all the booty dumped in the middle of the board. You can be the top hat, the wheelbarrow, the thimble, the shoe or the racecar. I’ll be the cat, Hasbro’s newest token.

Meow!

Crazy as an Unemployed Person

On his blog, sociologist Alex V. Barnard recently described how, in nineteenth century France, a socially legitimate way to “go crazy” was to embark on a very long vacation and then forget about it.  I love this, if for no other reason than because it blurs the line between travel and emigration, between tourism and homelessness, between wanderlust and walkabout.  In the days before modern technology and the internet, it was still possible to disappear, either for a while or forever.  Whether or not you believe it is possible to consciously choose to “go crazy,” disappearing in another country provided people with a means of reinventing themselves, of living entirely in the present and putting painful parts of their pasts behind them.  You could be anything you wanted to be (a doctor, a priest, the illegitimate great-grandchild of a king or president), or you could be nothing, a blank slate, leaving others to guess at the mystery of your history, or, if you acted crazy enough, you could, like King David when he feigned madness (as described in 1 Samuel 21:12-14), become sufficiently marginalized that no one would care who you were and everyone would therefore leave you alone.  Of course, you couldn’t really do this unless you were wealthy enough to go abroad in the first place.  Today, we have ecotourism and voluntourism, so I guess we could call this 1800s phenomenon “psychotourism.”

In some respects, being among the ranks of the long-term unemployed can be viewed as a form of going crazy.  It is true that, in the United States at least, one tends to be defined by one’s career.  “What do you do?” is the first question a stranger is likely to ask you at a cocktail party, a convenient way for our brains to neatly categorize and pigeonhole a new acquaintance.  Continuing the nineteenth century analogy, one could say that being divorced from one’s identity is a bit of a Dickinsonian experience (“I’m nobody!  Who are you?  Are you nobody too?”).

There is always the option of answering the cocktail party question by stating that you are a mother, a golfer, a bridge player, a singer in the church choir, a vegetarian, a Republican, a homeowner or even a blogger.  But that, of course, is not what the interrogator wishes to know.  Your reply is likely to be greeted by a blank stare or an eye roll, followed by a mumbled excuse for making a beeline for the other side of the room.  The question is about money, how one earns one’s keep, the capitalist measure of self-worth.  Regardless of how much of one’s lifeblood is poured into a particular endeavor, if you don’t get paid for it then it doesn’t count.  You’re supposed to know that.  Failure to observe social expectations in one’s answer to this question is treated as an indicator that one may be a bit loco en la cabeza.

The ancillary circumstances that come along for the ride with long-term unemployment really do remind me of Barnard’s psychotourism.  Instead of voluntarily traveling abroad, the unemployed person’s lack of income is likely to force him or her to move to another location, to embrace a living situation different from the familiar.  You may find yourself in another city or state, doubled up with relatives, living in a homeless shelter or on the street.  And just as the nineteenth century psychotourist “forgot” that she was on an extended vacation, the modern long-term unemployed person gradually forgets that she is on “vacation” as the weeks turn into months and the months turn into years and not working becomes the new normal.  Over time, the long-term unemployed forget who they are, who they once were and who they may someday be.  In both cases, this loss of identity allows you to tell any story, or multiple stories, or no story at all about your life.  As in Emily Dickinson’s poem, you enter a strange twilight of nobodiness.

When mental health professionals speak of psychosis, they typically refer to a person experiencing a break from reality.  In some respects, this is comparable to what one experiences as an unemployed person.  If we consider reality as making a contribution to the economy, supporting one’s self and one’s family, and avoiding becoming a drain on society’s resources, we must recognize unemployment as a break from that reality.  Cleverly, the word “break” is a double entendre in this case.  It refers to “taking a break” from employment, implying that unemployment is a temporary state of affairs and that the unemployed will work again at some unspecified time in the future (a tenuous proposition these days, particularly when one is out of work for more than a year).  But it also refers to a break with the social compact (or the Puritan work ethic, depending on your view), a kind of contractual violation that occurs when one is forced to take from our pool of public resources without providing one’s labor in return.  Sloth, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins.  The unemployed are not playing by the rules and we can’t have that, now can we?  How would society function if everyone decided not to work?  The unemployed must be punished, which we do by marginalizing them, by insisting that there must be something wrong with them.  If you’ve been out of work for such a long time, then the problem must be alcohol or drugs or maybe you’re just not right in the head.

A separate but related issue is that one may experience mental illness as a result of long-term unemployment.  Even if there was nothing wrong with you upstairs before you lost your job, a lengthy period of unemployment can begin to have deleterious effects on one’s mental health.  Feelings of disgust at the state of the American economy fade into feelings of inadequacy over our inabilities to support ourselves and our kids.  Without the professional and support network that most of us gain at our places of employment, our skills become outdated (particularly in this age of rapidly changing technology) and our contacts attenuate.  Friends from work stop calling, perhaps out of guilt, or because you no longer have the latest workplace goings-on in common, or maybe because they don’t want to ask you to go anywhere because they know you can’t afford it anymore.  So you watch your social network die while you experience one loss after another — your savings, your vehicle, your home.  And you wonder what you’re doing wrong as you fill out application after application, make phone calls, go on interviews.  You lower your standards, talking yourself into taking bigger and bigger pay cuts and applying for jobs farther and farther from home.  As you get nowhere, you begin to lose faith in yourself.  You feel as if you just can’t cut it anymore.  Depression and anxiety creep up on you stealthily.

But none of this seems to register with our elected representatives in Washington.  Conservative Republicans in the U.S. Congress continue to deny extended benefits to the long-term unemployed largely because we are considered to be undeserving.  Who cares that we were laid off due to the bad economy?  If it has taken us more than six months to find another job, then we must not be trying very hard.  We must not really want to work.  If we choose to sit home in front of the TV and eat Twinkies, well, we can stew in our own juices.  They’re not going to violate their public trust and waste taxpayer dollars on supporting a bunch of slackers.

I respectfully submit to you, however, that Congress is wrong.  We’re not lazy — just crazy.

The Next Time

In the wake of Monday’s tragic news, my plan was to support the Sparks NV community by writing a post describing some of my delightful visits to that city.  Somehow, however, this doesn’t seem like the right time or place.

Along with the rest of the world, I was shocked to learn that a middle school student brought a gun to school and used it to murder a beloved eighth grade math teacher, to seriously wound two fellow students and then to kill himself.

The media is full of speculation about how this happened, but there seem to be more questions than answers at this point.

Where did the child get the gun?  The news stories are assuming that he brought it from home, that it belonged to his parents and that he somehow had access to it.

What would drive a 12 year old to such extremes of violence?  The word “bullying” is being bandied about as if it were a dirty little secret that may be spoken of only in whispers.

Meanwhile, the national gun control debate has once again bubbled to the surface as if to rip open the scars over an all too recent wound.

Columbine.  Virginia Tech.  Sandy Hook.  Sparks.

Year after year, the school murders reappear in the headlines.  And each time it happens, we are shocked all over again, as if it were happening for the first time.  And we mourn.  We grieve with the families of the victims, the students and parents and teachers who will never again be the same, the communities that are sent reeling.

We talk about how this horror could have been avoided and what we can do to prevent there being a next time.  But then there is a next time.

Should armed guards stand watch at all times that school is in session?  Should teachers be permitted, or even required to carry firearms?  Should school staff and even young students participate in “active shooter” training?  Has being a kid in America really come to all of this?

The issue of providing better mental health care for our youngsters inevitably comes up.  Everyone should know the signs of mental turmoil and distress (although what adolescent doesn’t experience this?).  We must destigmatize mental health concerns and make it easy for students to get help.

And we talk about that old bugaboo, “bullying.”  We satisfy ourselves with lip service to a zero-tolerance policy and then wonder why teachers and parents look the other way when students engage in physical, verbal and online harassment, why they teach their kids that they have to suck it up and be tough, that “sticks and stones can break your bones, but names can never harm you.”

As the weeks go by, the tragedy at Sparks Middle School will slowly be forgotten, subsumed into our increasingly jaded collective national conscience.  And much like issues such as the federal budget and the Electoral College, it will be “out of sight, out of mind” — until the next time (and the time after that and the time after that).

But those who were there on Monday, and their families, friends and colleagues, won’t ever be able to forget.  And neither should you.

Please call upon your elected representatives on the federal, state and local levels to turn their attention to the relevant issues, and not to give up until every kid and teacher who leaves for school in the morning can be guaranteed to return home in the evening.

Do it now.  So there’s not a next time.

RIP Michael Landsberry:  Husband, father, Marine, math teacher, coach.  Hero.