Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!


Jobs, job hunt, unemployment, Labor Day

Is there a greater pleasure than waking on a Monday morning to the low sound of thunder and, instead of getting out of bed, pulling up the comforter against the chill and reaching for a Stieg Larsson mystery?

During my long period of unemployment, I could have done this any rainy day. But it wouldn't have the savor of contrast with the normal workday routine. It wouldn't feel like a holiday, an almost-guilty delight. Or conversely, a reward for the good and hard paid work I do some 50 hours each week.

The scent of baking oatmeal with cherries and almonds and some of the best cinnamon I could find at the Spice House is rising from the oven, blending with fresh coffee. For those of you whose Labor Day revolves around an outdoor grill, I wish a clearing sky. But I'm fine with the whole day going on like this, a little dark, a little quiet, a little introspective.

I think about workers on Labor Day the way some people think about warriors on Memorial Day. The history of labor as a movement, people coming together to improve their conditions and their income. Work--what it means to people, how it defines us, how we think about it. Jobs, how they fill our lives in good ways and not so good ways, the rewards and anxieties in having them and not having them.

This Labor Day, I've almost finished my sixth-month probationary period in a new job. I'm one of the lucky ones who has "landed," as they call in the businesses that have sprung up around "supporting" (or selling hope and services to) the bewildered unemployed--those of us who have always worked hard, who went to school, who followed the rules and proudly maintained middle class lives for ourselves and our children and still found ourselves without jobs.

So far, I haven't "unlanded." That's a phenomenon no one wants to talk about, people finally getting jobs and then discovering that those jobs were never intended to be permanent.

My job is wonderful, most of the time. It has good benefits which at least one candidate for governor is eager to slash. I'm not sure why so many people think the answer to our country's financial problems is to reduce the incomes and benefits of those with modest incomes. But then they don't understand why I am okay with reducing the incomes and benefits of those with very high incomes. So I guess it's a wash.

This wonderful job takes me around the state to households of every variety. Among the questions I ask people are "what job or work do you do for money?" and then I ask them to tell me a little more about what they do. The answers usually surprise. People's work is much more various than their job titles reveal. And as Studs Terkel learned when he wrote Working, most people take a lot of pride in what they do.

Those who don't have jobs would surprise some of you, too.

  • The frail man living in a boarding house used to manage professional services businesses. He was brought "down" by illness, not sloth or alcohol.
  • The "welfare mother" is taking care of not only her kids but her elderly neighbor and a relative or two thrown in while she's trying to start a business.
  • The attractive woman living down the street from you has a Master's degree or two and has been networking and applying for jobs for two years: she looks the same but she can't sleep at night and has thoughts of suicide.
  • The engineer with five patents is bewildered. The world does not seem logical anymore. If it were, there's be a job for him.

The evidence is clear enough: there aren't enough jobs for the people who want and qualify for them. The notion that people don't have jobs because they are lazy just doesn't fit what's going on with most people.

Of course, most of the advice about what to do doesn't fit either.

Milwaukee talks about needing a better educated population, and yet it has a long history of under-employing and under-paying those with good educations. You can apply yourself to retraining, but if there aren't jobs in that field, there's nowhere to land. You can learn all the scripts in the world and the right words won't get you the job. You can polish your resume until it gleams but most of the time, it's read by a scanner that sees keywords, not the person behind them.

Until there are enough jobs that pay decent wages, we are in trouble. If I have a job and you don't, I'm in trouble too.

The biggest lesson of my job is to have no preconceptions. Look at what is, not what you expect to find.

Sometimes you have to toss your ideology overboard. Not only does it not work: it just might sink the whole ship.

Conservative or liberal, we agree on the need for jobs. How to create them splits us. But it seems a safe bet that lowering taxes alone is not enough to save the ship, and government programs alone are not enough to save the ship.

I'm going back under the covers for awhile. Maybe shifing gears, playing, relaxing--what we do on Labor Day--will help prepare us do what the Swedish journalists are doing in The Girl Who Played with Fire.  Use some different ideas and methods: find a new way to solve the mystery.

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