Sunday, December 20, 2009

Unemployment Diary: Getting To Know Your Baby Daddy

The counselor at the Department of Labor, in Brooklyn, asked me if there was anything else I might want to discuss. We had already talked about the sorts of jobs I had done, and the sorts of jobs I might want to do that I hadn't already done. But now that he asked there was one additional thing ...

I asked if I could take what they call an "interest profile." I figured, why not? It's a little extra time for them that they have to spend with me, but I've already paid for it via my taxes. I might as well get everything I'm entitled to. I wanted to see what sorts of jobs and careers, in addition to journalism, I might be qualified to do, and have an affinity for. After all, if not now when?

My counselor, Mike, said sure. He called up a program on his computer and we were off. The program had 180 questions and I was supposed to answer them either like, dislike, or I did not know. The goal was to find what skills and occupations I might like independent of whether I might be qualified to do them. Don't think about it too much, Mike said, just answer them from the gut.

The questions broke down into some fairly obvious categories right away, I saw. Question number two, for example, asked me how much I would like to be a guard for an armored car. That would be a good example of "dislike."

Others were perhaps a bit unrealistic, and not anything I had thought about before but I put down "like" anyway. For example, I was asked if I would like to dance in a Broadway show. Sure, why not? It will never happen, and I have no burning desire to make it happen but if it happened I would probably like it, or at least like the story it would give me.

And so it went. There were a few that had me stumped, though, and I had to check I don't know. Such as, would I want to work in a lab curing infectious diseases? It might be interesting, but I never liked chemistry. On the other hand helping all those people ... I had to say I didn't know.

The test didn't take all that long. As instructed I went with my gut, and didn't think about my answers too much. Thinking, or in this case rationalizing, wouldn't have helped me, and it wasn't a pass/fail test anyway.

After about two minutes Mike tabulated my scores, and a very strong set of correlations emerged. There were six categories in which I could score: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, conventional. I will explain each one, from lowest score to highest.

Realistic: Here my score was a big, fat, whopping zero. "People with Realistic interests like work activities that include practical, hands-on problems and solutions." They like working with wood, tools, plants, and being outside a lot. They don't like paperwork or working closely with others.

Not a surprise that this didn't interest me. I like people, I like ideas, I even like paper. I don't like building stuff, and have no mechanical or technical skills. I once tried to solder a pickup to my guitar and after an hour of sloppy labor realized I had put it in backwards. There were only two wires. Guess I won't become a general contractor anytime soon. Darn.

Conventional: My score here was a "1." These folks, as befitting the name "conventional," like jobs with set procedures and rules. They like data and detail, not ideas. They like precision. They don't like judging their own work, but conforming to others' standards. These people are often accountants. Unless they are the dreaded "creative accountants."

Enterprising: My score "2". They like to start up and carry out projects, especially in business. They like persuading people, and taking risks for profit. They like action rather than thinking. These people are the smug butt-heads who helped destroy our economy. No way man!

So, I pretty much hated all these areas of interest. Now here is what I did like.

Investigative: Here I scored "11." These people like ideas and thinking, rather than physical activity. Big shocker to those of you who have ever SEEN an actual journalist. They like to search for facts and figure out problems in their heads, rather than persuade or lead people. In other words these people like to sit in the back of the room, make a bunch of smart-assed comments about stuff and then let everyone else figure out how to actually solve the problem in the real world. Yes, I have this side of my personality (just ask my wife!), but interestingly I scored higher in two other areas ...

Social: Here I scored "14." These folks like jobs that help others and promote learning and personal development. They prefer to communicate more than work with objects, machines or data. (Guilty!) They like to teach, give advice, or be of service to people. These people are Counselor Troi.

When I saw this I wasn't shocked. I always loved mentoring younger writers and reporters, even when I didn't always know that much more than they did. I felt gratified when I saw them learn and improve. It often meant more to me than my own writing. This felt good to hear, and is an entire part of my personality that needs to be expressed.

But the winner was ...

Artistic: Here I scored "16." These people like, well, art. They like self-expression in their work. They like jobs that can be done without a clear set of rules.

I agree I have this side of me. I sometimes would get very creative even with the most basic investing story. (Not with the data, just the way I wrote it!) I agree, this is part of me too. I am just not convinced it is the leading part of me.

Nonetheless, the evidence spoke volumes. I like thinking problems through, helping others and being creative. I don't like hard physical labor, data-entry or destroying our economy.

The issue now is finding ways to put all these affinities into effect in one place. Jobs that are intellectually stimulating (preferably allowing me to write in a meaningful way), while being intensely social and creative. Journalism can be that, if you get the right job, but it's not the only place to look.

The neat part of the process was that I was then hooked up, via computer, with a whole range of jobs that are relatively close matches for what I am naturally strong in. Editor and reporter came up but so did a lot of jobs in education (at all different level, including special ed, adult education, middle school, pre-school, high school and college) and counseling. And because I had to be a smart ass I was also told I might want to consider a career as a choreographer.

All this leaves me with an interesting dilemma, and avenues to pursue that I might not have considered before. I love writing; always have and always will. But I also love working with people, counseling them and helping them. Of course when the deadline pressure is on and someone turns in something craptastic you end up doing a lot of counseling, boy, do you ever. But I might want to consider the other kind too. And you do a lot of educating as an editor, which is what I often liked more than the actual editing, at least sometimes.

Well, that's it. It was an interesting thing to see. I just hope I can benefit from the knowledge, without making the process to hard or lengthy on myself or my family.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Unemployment Diary: The Upside Of Unemployment

I just laid Stella girl to bed, she had put her head on my shoulder, like she does many nights. I had sung to her, the same songs I sing on many nights ("Golden Slumbers," "You Never Give Me Your Money," "You Are My Sunshine" are some faves), right after I had given her her bath, which, again, I do on many nights. And after I fed her her dinner, which I also do on many nights.

Randi, of course, also does all these things on many nights. Which is to say we do them together.

The past month, though, has seen a very special, and wondrous bond develop between father and daughter that I am so happy about. I talk to her, she understands, she walks over, sometimes gives me a hug. I ask her to hand me something she shouldn't have, she does, no drama. At least if I do it right. In the car when we pick her up from daycare (which I also drop her off at two mornings a week) we all sing to one another, and it is sweet.

I might start it.

"Stella," I'll sing.

She pause for a moment and then answer, "Dada."

We'll go back and forth this way, and then she'll say "Momma." Or it might be reversed with "Momma" first. The way she says it is so nice, so sweet, so gentle. It melts my heart, even more than fourteen bears.

All of this is a long way of saying that being unemployed for the last month and change really hasn't been all bad.

I know, I know. I'm not supposed to admit this. It's taboo. I'm supposed to be worried sick all the time. Someone somewhere will pull my guy card. Because we Americans are supposed to work hard and play hard, and when we get sick, presumably die hard if we don't have health coverage.

I think about an episode of "Man Men" where they had to let fun lovin' Freddie Rumson go, because he drank too much on the job. But first Don and Roger took him out for a night on the town. Finally when it was at the end they said he could come back in six months after drying out, but he demurred.

"If I don't go to work in the morning who am I?" Freddie asked, a former military guy, reduced to this, not feeling like he had any real identity outside of his work. Freddie turned down their offer, and immediately found a worse job somewhere else, just to have somewhere to go.

I don't feel this same lack of identity as Freddie. In fact, unemployment has been a really nice, cool experience in many ways. True, we've had to fight hard to even get the semblance of affordable health care through COBRA (and I have more to say on that issue, but maybe for another entry), and the money this, and the money that, and all that stuff. Yes, it's true. We know money is a scary topic.

And it's also true that at the start of this little process I complained, in this blog, about Stella bothering me while I was trying to dig up leads.

But somewhere in the past few weeks my attitude started to shift. I'd drop her off at daycare on Mondays and Wednesdays, and I would enjoy our time alone in the car. Sometimes I would put on the radio, and she liked it, other times not. I became better about remembering to pack her water and snack for when we pick her up. I got really good at getting her coat and shoes on. (One tip for getting on the coat: put the hood on her head first, then it's easier to put her arms through the arm holes.)

Then Randi and I worked out a system where during the mornings when Stella was with us, she would have her. And I would take her in the afternoons. Of course there was overlap and the lines blurred, but it's mostly worked out. If I had an interview or anything important that took precedent, but mostly we agreed to let it go this way. If I was wiped out Randi let me sleep in a little, and I did the same for her.

And just being around Stella so much has kind of brought out this really cool, semi-telepathic bond. Like, for example, I was playing guitar today for her. She walked over and strummed it hard, really hard, and tried to get me to stop playing so she could basically smack the guitar. I thought maybe this wasn't a great idea, so I told her not to, and she walked away in a very huffy mood. She picked up two sealed paint containers (kids' paint, btw) and kind of stamped her little foot while holding the paints. This is just what she does.

Then I started to talk to her. I told her it's okay, we can try again, come on over. From halfway across the room she walked to me, dropped her paints on the floor (again, the containers, not the paints themselves, no mess) and, as I spoke to her, started to strum the strings, much more gently.

Readers, she's 19 months old! I don't know if this is unusual, but I was shocked by how much she could understand of what I said, and how she had become so receptive to me. We have a very clear and direct connection now, and it was only possible because I've been given the rarest luxury of all: time.

Of course this stage is also fraught with some stress. For most of it I networked and hit up my contacts as well as I knew how, and thought, as much as I could, about how I should conduct the rest of my working life. I came up with some answers, and still have some questions. And I am very lucky to have been laid off when I was because even if I complained about how expensive COBRA still is I can't fathom how to pay for it if we had to pay the full price. Right now my unemployment checks total $810 a month, and it would have cost $1100. Randi works two days a week and that more or less covers daycare. This country, I hate to say it, is not geared to help those who need it the most. I can't call this anything but shortsighted. And I'm being nice.

Believe you me, I've also hustled for jobs, busting my ass. I've gone on quite a few interviews within just the past few weeks, and when I'm not preparing for them, I worked to make them happen. But there's another side to this time.

Because overall, I can't say I am all that sorry with how things have worked out so far. I am not bitter about being laid off, I don't feel like a failure for being in a profession that basically collapsed. I only feel like a failure when I've ignored the voice inside me that tells me the truth. That points me to the things that matter to me. One thing unemployment does for you is allow you to once again connect with your priorities, and, yes, principles. Hopefully those two things can meet in the middle.

I also don't feel like less of a man without an identity now that I'm not going to the office every day. Like how we all heard those stories about how Japanese businessmen were so ashamed of getting laid off that they rented empty offices, right? And then they killed themselves.

Well, I don't feel like those guys, because I know who I am. I am Randi's husband and Stella's dad. Or dada, I guess, but, really I think it's better if that's just between me and her.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Story Of Fourteen Bears

Writing this at 2:23 a.m. because now that the kid is finally sleeping nights I have had a relapse of insomnia. Oy. I'll take the trade any day, but this is not so much fun.

Anyway, that's not really what I meant to write. I meant to write to tell you about this really strange thing that centered around my favorite book from when I was a little child. The book was titled "The Story Of Fourteen Bears," and when I was a toddler and pre-schooler I loved this book to death, and made my mom read it to me again, again and again.

A plot synopsis: A momma and papa bear live in the forest, with their 12 cubs. Each cub, and indeed momma and papa, lived in a different hollow tree. Each hollow tree is decorated in a cool and sophisticated way. One cub's home is what "modern" looked like in 1969 when the book came out (I loved this one as a kid), one looks like a castle, one looks like a boudoir, and so on. The bears wear some clothes. One has glasses and likes books, two bear cub twins wear tutus, the baby cub, Little Theodore has a cap. (I identified with him, and later thought of myself as the Baby Bear, and my mom as the Momma Bear. Okay, you cynics, stop laughing. I was four years old.) Anyway, the bears go swimming, but they don't hurt the fish so the fish like them. And, again, each bear wears different stuff when they swim. Some have floaters, some have life jackets, etc.

Moving on from there the bears then lay out in the sun until their fur is warm and glistening, then they get some honey that one of the cubs has, except the honey is flavored and looks a lot like delicious ice cream, especially to my young mind. There were flavors like chocolate, vanilla and coconut, which was special.

After that the bears, paw in paw, all go home, back to their hollow trees for the night. As before you see each bear in their individual beds, some bears say prayers (which rhymes!) and Little Theodore sleeps in a crib at the foot of mommy and daddy's bed. Again, as a little child this seemed completely excellent to me, and I wished I could sleep peacefully each night in the same room as my parents at the foot of their bed. They had other ideas, no matter how much I appealed, and they were not swayed by the this early, illustrated example of co-sleeping.

And that's pretty much the entire book. Suffice to say as a kid I devoured this world. Why? After all, the story's basic. I think the art had a lot to do with it. The bears just looked so nice. They each had this amazingly sweet and friendly look and the artist really illustrated the familial love they all shared. They lived deep in the woods, and I was so intrigued by all the architectural layouts in the hollowed-out trees. When they would walk through the woods the artist made so much detail; little animals, birds, rabbits, all there for a child to seek out. I simply identified with these bears, and wanted to be one of them.

So that was the book, that I loved way, way back when. But by the time I was older and could actually, you know READ, I had outgrown the fourteen bears. I put it aside and moved onto other things, like comic books, and all the rest. The bears were forever special to me, but I didn't revisit them often.

Then three years ago we moved out of the home that I grew up in, and I lost track of what happened to the book. I hadn't really thought about it in ages anyway.

So, about four days ago I am thinking that, you know what? I would love to one day read Stella "The Story of Fourteen Bears." I figured our copy from when I was a kid is likely gone, it was in bad shape and I didn't save it. My mom is notorious for throwing away almost everything so I doubted she kept it. But, I figured, I could just go on, and pick up a cheap, beat up old copy of the book.

I logged on. After a bit of searching I got just about the biggest shock I'd received since being laid off. They had the book, alright, as they have virtually all books ever printed, but not at the price I had expected. I thought I might pay $5 or $10 for the book. But when I looked it up I found, to my dismay, that the CHEAPEST copy to be found anywhere on Amazon was $85!

"Collectible" editions started at $200.

I was thunderstruck. What the HELL was going on in this world that could ever justify that a throwaway, albeit lovely, childrens' book could be worth that much? And what was I going to do? Even if I could afford to buy it, and I couldn't, what would be the point? I wouldn't enjoy the book like I had because it cost so much, and as for reading it to Stella, forget about it. Kids books are not meant to be preserved and left alone, they are meant to be read. Reading it to her would mean that it would get worn out, pages ripped, all that. Because this is what I did to my copy of the book way back when, so I should know.

Intrigued I started to do some research into the book. It was a "Big Golden" book, I learned. So I looked those up on E-bay. Maybe this brand of book is collectible.

Nope, none of the other "Big Golden" books were worth jack. Lucky me it was JUST the fourteen bears that commanded this premium.

Then I looked into who wrote it. And now it started to make more sense.

I found out that author Evelyn Scott did not exactly crown her literary career with "The Story Of Fourteen Bears," or even with its sequel "Fourteen Bears In Summer And Winter" (a book I didn't even know about until this week! The crime! I would have LOVED me some summer and winter bears way back when!) In fact in her long, interesting and noteworthy literary career her four books for children are but an interesting footnote.

No, she is a reknowned Southern writer and poet, and noted proto-feminist who produced several major, important works in the '20s and '30s.

In addition to her "'Bears" ouvre she also wrote books with titles like "Breathe Upon These Slain" (maybe about someone who got between the bears and their coconut honey?) and "A Calender Of Sin." Heady company these bears were keeping. (In addition, Scott died, I believe in 1963. My book didn't even come out until 1969, so it was a posthumous work.)

Now it all started to make sense. These books were anomalies of sorts, literary oddballs, of worth to scholars, perhaps, although what they would learn from the bears is hard to say. They certainly weren't just your run-of-the-mill kids' books. Add in that they had been out of print for decades and the price started to make more sense.

Fascinating stuff, but I was still screwed in my actual attempt to GET a copy of the book. What should I do?

Of course the next thing I did was call my mom, and tell her this whole crazy story. When she heard the price of these books she emitted a small gasp. This was followed by ...

"Wait, wait," she said, "I think I have it."

I was amazed, my mom, the great cleaner-upper, who can be so pragmatic had KEPT my book, from when I was just a little child, even though I hadn't even asked her to? It couldn't be. But then she said ...

"I am holding it in my hands."

I could have cried with joy. Not because it was worth whatever it might be worth. No, really, I just wanted to look at my bears again, and someday share them with my daughter. And even share them with my wife.

Long story short (too late!) we were at my mom's this weekend and she showed me the book. I opened it, and, again, I almost wept. There they were, in bright, beautiful color. The book held up. Yes, the story was simple but Evelyn Scott included all I needed to know about these bears. And the illustrations, by Virginia Parsons, were as lovely as ever, so rich in detail, so good-natured, so vibrant of color. I read it as soon as I could, then I read it again, again and again.

Then I tried to read it to Stella and she immediately started to rip a page. It was okay, this is what kids do. I wasn't mad. It's a book to be used, not hidden away. I will simply share it with her when she's a little older. And I'll be happy to read it to her again, again and again, too.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Unemployment Diary: Life Is Long, Be Nice

Oh life's ironies can be cruel and fast. Just about two and a half months ago I was if not on top of the world at least at the top of my game at my former job. The project I had helped launch was about to celebrate its one year anniversary and in honor of that the powers-that-were decided to hold a party. I was asked to invite pretty much everyone I worked with on the project and I did.

The party ended up being a whole lot of fun. It was about two or three hours, and even though the hors d'oeuvres looked like they came fresh from a Staufer's box (which should of been a tip off to me about what was in store) I had a great time. I may even have been the life of the party. Not because I drank so much, because I didn't. I didn't put a lampshade on my head, no thanks.

But because I knew just about everyone. This was MY network, in many ways. The project was successful, at least in part, because of the people I had brought on, or became close with along the way. And now I was mingling, laughing, making connections among people who didn't already know one another. I had a great time, and left feeling like I had just completed a pretty good year.

Of course a little over a month later the axe fell. Not just on me, but all the people at my level in the firm, with a few exceptions. I didn't take it personally, but as I waited in the rain for my cab, with my few cardboard boxes of possessions, I felt a little shocked that they were willing to throw us all a big party not long before they canned me. If it didn't feel wrong exactly it did feel a little perverse.

Still, I was kind of grateful for the party. Even if it hadn't been intended that way I felt like I had gone out with a bang. Seldom had I enjoyed a work function that much.

Now tonight I got to experience the reverse of this experience, far more completely than I had ever imagined.

About three months ago I booked a well known financial professional to appear on our video network. I liked his style, I liked his writing ability (he heads a well known financial website), I liked his outlook on life. As it went we hit it off, more or less, although I can't say we got to know one another all that well on a personal level. It's business, after all.

Well, tonight I attended his big holiday soiree, and just had a stone lousy time. It wasn't anyone's fault, it's just that the wheel of fortune has turned, and now that I'm the guy without a job the feeling was somewhat less celebratory for me than for the other guests.

The party was held in a loud, crowded but excellent BBQ place in Manhattan (and, no, not Dallas BBQ), a place I had been twice before and enjoyed. The food is excellent, although it's a bit on the noisy side.

Tonight before heading out Randi and I had a pretty strong disagreement about stuff I won't get into. Suffice to say I was not in the best of moods as I boarded the F train into the city. But, I thought, this is free barbecue, a chance to network, I like the guy throwing the party and I might even know a few people there. We'll see.

Long story short I show up, and almost immediately I feel like I had made a mistake. First, the invitation advised everyone to wear Western wear. I showed up in a flower print cowboy shirt, and am just about the only one who could even begin to pass for even an urban (or suburban) cowboy. Thank god I didn't wear the even more gaudy one, although initially I had planned to.

As I walk in they can't find my name on the guest list. After that's solved I am advised to "drink and have a good time!" The music is blaring, about a thousand people are milling about, in small or smallish groups, and immediately I am transported back to parties in high school and college that I hated: looking for people to talk to, alone, feeling like a loser.

The idea of "networking" here, at least for me, at least tonight, in the mood I am in, is hopeless. The music is too loud, and there seems to be no way into anyone's conversations. Whereas people at the party two months ago joked laughed and mingled, I felt like I couldn't break through, in any way. Maybe it was me, it probably was. But that was how it felt.

Making matters worse I wasn't even hungry, thanks to a "light" early dinner and the residue of feeling upset. But I did see my host, so I walked over.

He was speaking with someone else, and since he threw the party I knew he would be in high demand tonight. I wanted to thank him for inviting me, but the person he was talking to kept on talking. This lead to one of those awkward "hovering" situations, where I stood around like a ghost, waiting for my chance to pounce. Not good. In fact very uncomfortable for all concerned.

I did perceive a small break in their conversation, and I said hi, and thanked him for letting me come to his fabulous party. We chatted for about 30 seconds and I felt like such a goofball that I decided to shuffle on.

Then I looked to my left, oh great. Two young women that I used to work with at my old job, at the gambling tables. I didn't want to talk to them, because:
1. We were never that friendly anyway.
2. I would probably enjoy an additional 30 seconds of even more awkwardness.
3. I didn't want them to feel sorry for me.

That's the thing, when you've been laid off there can be a certain odor, I guess that seems to come over you. It's almost like Axe body spray in reverse, I suppose. Those that used to work with you, even if you had outranked them, now just kind of feel bad when they talk to you. As if someone just died, and that someone was you.

I then went downstairs and saw two journalists who used to work for me, who both now work for the financial website owned by our host. We had a pleasant enough joint conversation, but after not too long I could tell they wanted to move on, and felt, maybe, a little bit sorry for me too. Maybe I was feeling sorry for myself, and just imagined this is how they felt. I can't tell. They were nice to me, and asked me how I was doing, how Stella is, and all that. But it was awkward, again, there was no getting around it. After not too long one guy excused himself to go the bathroom (which is a move I do when I want to end a conversation gracefully) and the other one, a young woman, started a conversation with someone else.

By this point I'd had one beer, and checked my coat. That was about it. I didn't want to stay any longer so I then unchecked my coat, gave up, and went home. I wanted to see my wife, even if we'd had a pretty serious disagreement. I missed her.

The lesson in this? I guess it's that you really better be nice to people, because who knows how fast fortunes can change. I had felt, and hoped, that I had been a good person, a good co-worker, and even a good boss, and I think I was. But now the shoe is on the other foot, and I am the one looking for a job, and my former direct-reports (who both had been laid off in advance of me) could be in positions to help me, or not.

It's hard to know if you've got enough good will in the "favor" bank with people you used to work with, so you better try and be good people all the time. Did I reach out to them enough when they needed help, when they were laid off? Even to buy them a drink or a meal? Probably not, though I did reach out. Now I wonder.

(Of course the best reason to be nice is simply because it makes the world a slightly better place. And you should do so without expecting anything in return.)

The other lesson is that in this world you can feel perfectly great, or perfectly lousy, but all some see is your job. If you don't have one they see right through you. Until it's time to see you once more.

A last irony: the last time I saw both of my former journalists was in the same BBQ place. We'd convened a meeting of the "markets" desk of the well known financial website where I had worked. I had been the deputy editor at markets, where they had both written for me. After that I moved onto my erstwhile "succesful" new project. So at the dinner I was the one in the catbird seat and they were both fairly down and scrambling for work. I was even giving advice. This was about six months ago. Tonight it was the complete opposite of that, in every way.

You know, maybe I should just avoid that place next time.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Unemployment Diary: America, The Joke's On Us

I know this is a political entry, and not about Stella, but what's a blog for if not to spout somewhat informed opinions to the general masses that neither asked for nor desired them?

Which is why I am writing tonight, well that and insomnia.

I am in this state of mind, because I am thinking about our health care system once again, and the fact that as a newly unemployed father I have to do whatever it takes to keep my daughter and wife covered medically. That this is at best expensive, and at worst very expensive and inconvenient makes me not only sad, but angry. I feel we Americans have been sold a bill of goods in this department, and have let the rest of the civilized world blow right by us. As we fret about the ludicrous idea that a public option would somehow lead to a complete government-controlled health care monster that will pull the plug on grannie (even if she's not connected to anything!) the rest of the first world enjoys affordable, easy and efficient health care. Truly the joke's on us.

I could repeat some arguments and facts that are easily obtainable online, but that wouldn't make any sense. PBS' "Frontline" has already done it for me, with its program "Sick Around The World." Here's a link, I recommend you watch it. (The premise of the program is that correspondent TR Reid travels to five other capitalistic democracies to see how their health care systems work. Compared to ours they are all models of efficiency, humanity and excellence. They are also far cheaper than our own system, with administrative costs that are typically fractions of our own. Our so-called "capitalistic" system is revealed to be what it really is: an agreement, or cartel, among the large health care providers to not drive prices down. Hey guys, listen up: our three major health care providers really are just one big company, in effect if not in name. That's why everything here sucks so bad: it's a monopoly. The so-called "government" controlled systems actually introduce competition. Most tellingly no other government wants to even be remotely like us in this department, whereas we were once the envy of the world.)

I guess this topics been on my mind a lot lately because as we all know the majorly scary part about being laid off isn't the lack of money, unemployment mitigates that a little. It's the fear of lack of health care. My company-sponsored plan just ran out, one month after I was laid off. I wouldn't be surprised if the cost of my plan was WHY I was laid off, either.

Two weeks after getting laid off I was given the chance to enroll in COBRA, our national private plan for those who just lost their jobs. In one of the great and terrible ironies of modern life COBRA costs at least $1,100 a month for a family of three, with the main breadwinner, me, having just lost his job. This is expensive. But as we all know, if you think paying for health coverage is pricey, try not paying for it. Another irony: only in America could we have a health care system named for a poisonous snake.

Randi, unfortunately, can't get enough hours at her school to get us on her plan, which we would love. Teachers in NYC are actually totally badass, and fought, and won, a great health care plan that functions the way it should. Low premiums, a wide network of providers. You go to the doctor, you pay your $25 or whatever it is, and that's about it, you're covered.

But the fact is she can't get the additional work shifts at her school to get us on the plan. Why not? I have a theory. My theory is that times are so bad that teachers are putting off getting pregnant (which has been traditionally the major source of open teaching spots) because they are afraid their job won't be there when they would come back. I can't prove this, but things are much, much tighter at the school than they were two years ago when we decided Randi should stay home for the first year to raise our then unnamed baby. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that people are waiting for things to turn around before trying to get knocked up now.

So, I received my COBRA enrollment form from a firm called "Benefits Concepts" I believe. In the package there was at least a modest reason to cheer; of all the stimulus money being spent at least some of it was going to help mitigate COBRA payments. In fact if you qualified, which I did, your payments would be 35% of what they normally would be without this stimulus money. Criticize Obama all you want, but I think this is the one undeniably right thing I've seen from our government all year. Health care costs should not financially cripple those who can afford it least. This is just common sense. Because, guess what America, if we do get horribly sick over here in BBD Manor and we don't have health care/insurance you guys will still end up paying for us, except it will cost more. But we will go through the formality of being bankrupted first.

Cutting to the chase, I filled out my forms, and said that yes, in fact hell yes, I wanted to participate in this program. I mailed in my forms two weeks ago, hopeful and excited to take part in this program. My care still wouldn't be cheap. In fact our family's costs would still be $380 a month, but it would be much cheaper.

Well, I found out that my coverage hadn't started when I went to the pharmacy yesterday and they refused my insurance. Then I called Benefits Concepts to find out that they lost my paperwork and I wasn't eligible for the reduced rate. I went, to put it gently, batshit.

"I am pissed," I hissed to the pleasant-enough woman on the phone. "I sent this in and YOU GUYS lost it, either by accident or on purpose. I need this health care, I have a 19 month old daughter!"

I was so goddamned mad, and my choices were not appetizing. To be sure that my coverage didn't lapse I could pay the full price, and then hope they send me some kind of reimbursement when, or if, they find my paper work. Yea, right!

Or I could wait for them to mail a new form to me, because for some god-forsaken reason they could neither email it to me or fax it! Because, as you all know, we still live in the 19th century. They might even send it via carrier pigeon I suppose.

I told them to get me a supervisor, like now, like five minutes ago. They said they will. Now I had to face a scary thought. Until this gets straightened out, however long it takes, we ARE NOT COVERED AT ALL.

You do not want to be NOT COVERED AT ALL, in America, the land of the free the home of the heartless. Where I guess we're all supposed to hold charity car washes and bake sales to make up for the shortfall in coverage for our citizens in this once-great nation. No, should lightening strike, figuratively or literally and someone in this house get very hurt or sick until this clears up we are screwed, we are people in the next Michael Moore movie, we will have fallen through the cracks. How quickly I felt the difference now that my ass was on the line, and my daughter's ass and my wife's. This is what America has become. A place where you better pray you don't get fired, because you literally live and die at the mercy of your health care provider. It's not nice, but it's a fact.

No supervisor called, a shocker. Randi and I discussed what to do. She was calm, cool and magnificent. She said we will work it out, and that if I wanted I could put her on the phone with "them" and she would get all southern on them. Trust me, she's not kidding. When rising to the defense of her brood Randi is the fiercest creature in nature, worse than a mama polar bear, honey badger or wolverine. I thought about this, but wanted to do my best first. And I can be pretty fierce myself.

In addition to letting me know she would be happy to put the fear of god into them, Randi also reassured me that health-wise we will be fine for the next few days until this is cleared up. I said okay, okay, you're right. Let's just take this one step at a time.

I called back and spoke to a second person at Benefits Concepts, Joel. He told me that yes, they could fax me the form, and they would, but they had to be sure that they hadn't lost our paperwork first. As for the supervisor, who still hadn't called, he said they will get back to me within 24 hours. Because this is how they express urgency.

He was a nice enough guy, and seemed to listen to my issues, even if he couldn't do much about it. So I said, okay, look, and then call me.

Then we waited. About two hours later, when I was playing with Stella right before dinner the first person I spoke to called back. She told me they'd found the paperwork, and I could in fact GET the reduced government-sponsored rate after all. I asked where the paperwork had been. She said she didn't know, it just kind of turned up. She then said I could even pay for our coverage now, over the phone, to ensure it didn't lapse, as long as I had a checking or savings account.

I did, and we did the business over the phone, much to my relief. Let me tell you, I was never so happy to spend $380 as I was right then.

But can I also say ... how stupid, utterly ridiculous and inhumane all this is? Why should I have to beg for the "bargain" price of $380 a month at all? Why can't we simply live in a nation where we understand that even as our right-wing brothers continue to blather on about the right to life that providing health care insurance for all actually does more to guarantee that right than ANYTHING? Why do we continue to bow to the anti-government zealots, who are either in the thrall of big business or simply professing an ideal that has passed its sell-by date?

Okay, MAYBE you could make the claim in 1994 that a government sponsored plan, as proposed by the Clintons, would be relatively inefficient and pricey versus private industry. Maybe. But back then a visit to your doctor probably would cost you $70 out of pocket if you didn't have insurance. Today it is multiples of that. Hell, I've had tests that have cost multiples of that.

The truth is our health care system as it currently slouches is making America LESS competitive with the rest of the world. If you were a smart, qualified, coveted white-collar professional from, say, Britain why oh why would you come here? If you lose your job once you get here you are screwed big boy, whereas if you stay in safe, sane England you and your family remain covered for pennies on our dollar? Even greed can't trump family, most of the time at least.

I've spoken to a lot of people in our financial services industry about this, because that's what I did for a living before getting laid off. NO ONE likes our current system. It's bad for doctors, bad for patients and bad for our nation. You know who likes it? Health care providers and the various middle men that make money off the fat margins this cartel generates. That's it, them. And they have controlled the entire debate, and they're still trying to control it. And yet somehow they get nice, middle-Americans to worry about chimerical scenarios and "death panels." You know what a death panel really is? It's the insurance company board that decides your new disease is a "pre-existing condition" and then cuts you off. It's Tom DeLay and his cronies kowtowing to big pharma in 2005, guaranteeing the government's right to NOT negotiate prices with these firms. As a result they've pocketed $500 billion in profits, and counting since then. Seriously, how can you believe in a capitalistic system and ensure that the government, which has more leverage to negotiate than ANYONE, not be allowed to bargain to drive down prices?

Again, I say our current health care system has to be reformed, it is hurting America too much. The best and brightest are not going to want to come here any more when they see that other nations offer them far more protection should something bad happen, like, say the world's economies melting down. Their own desire for material gain is not going to trump the fear of their kid getting a terrible disease. It's just not. (And it's not just people from other first world nations that are leaving. I spoke with one financial services pro who said an acquaintance of her's moved back to not Western but EASTERN Europe after being laid off from his white collar job. Why? For better health care. Meaning that not only is the US system not the envy of the world, it's not even the envy of the former Eastern bloc!)

We've rested on our laurels for a long, long time in this nation. We've been brainwashed since we were children to believe that America is the best nation in the world, with the best of everything. When it comes to health care this is true. We do have the best health care system in the world. The third world. Because that's basically how our system functions, it is the world's largest and most expensive third world style plan, where the wealthy are totally covered with the best of everything, and everyone else had better scramble and pray they don't lose their jobs.

I'm sorry, but the jokes on us. As we've patted ourselves on the backs the health care firms have built a cartel system that has become extremely hard to break up. And they were aided and abetted every step of the way by right wing zealots who care more for their rhetoric and partisan victories than their fellow man. Oh, and the cash from big pharma that keeps the wheels moving. They care about that too.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Unemployment Diary: The Department of Labor

Being an unemployed baby daddy means being at the beck and call of the government should they need to see you. Since they are doing me the favor of allowing me to collect the unemployment money I already paid for they want to make sure I am not slacking off. You know, that I'm taking this stuff seriously and have things together like, say, a resume.

So, the other day I trotted down to downtown Brooklyn, right off Flatbush Ave and Atlantic to see the New York State Labor Department. It was raining pretty heavily and was cold, an archetypal New York November day. I didn't have a hat, or an umbrella, but I looked pretty dynamite because I had just gotten out of an interview, natch.

Before going in however I took a quick pitstop at the Fulton Street mall, to buy an umbrella and get a quick bite. To get the umbrella I walked up to a guy with a storefront open to the street. I asked him how much, he said $3. Sounded good, especially as it was freezing cold and wet. So I handed him a $20, and he gave me one of THOSE looks.

"Okay, hold on," he said. And then he vanished into another building for about three minutes, while I held my newest acquisition. After not too long he came back with the change, after hassling another merchant inside to make change for him. Seriously, I know the economy is bad, but how hard up do you have to be to not have change for a $20 ... when you're a store?

After that I walked into the local Burger King, to order a coke and order of fries. There was a cop inside. Typically this isn't a good sign. But I got my order just the same, and sat down at the window. There wasn't much to see, just the teeming masses, huddling here and there. Some smoking, some eating, most looking to get out of the rain, like me.

Following that I walked into a pawn shop that looked like it was going out of business. Again, not a good sign for the economy when even pawn shops look like they need a pawn shop.

Anyway, the line at the Labor Department building was pretty long, though it moved somewhat quickly. Once inside I was made to go through what they described in advance as an airport-grade security check. Meaning I had to take off my coat, empty my pockets, take off my belt and all that. I was allowed, however, to keep on my shoes. Take that terrorists!

(Sidenote: The terrorists might not have exactly "won," it's true--after all on the orders of our ex-commander in chief we still had the freedom and, nigh obligation, to go shopping. But with the gynecological-grade security checks we now have to go through every time we get on or off an airplane--which doesn't make me feel any more safe anyway--I still wonder sometimes if they didn't kind of win. At least a little. After all, how many billions have been wasted in an effort to make it look like we're "doing something" about airport security, when all we're really doing is not allowing people to bring 7-UP onto an airplane? And then we invaded Iraq ... )

Once inside, and cleared of any substances that would presumably sabotage the New York Dept. of Labor I waited in a room that had classroom style desks, with the seat and desk attached.

I filled out a questionnaire, explaining my experience and special skills, which meant I found about six different ways to say I know how to write and edit, and that's about it. For the millionth time in my life I also got to reflect on the fact that, yes, I only speak English fluently and never served in the military. It all made me wonder how qualified I really was for, well, anything.

Before not too long I followed an man in a yarmulke, schlepping all my gear, to another room down the hall and met my counselor. She was very pleasant, and almost certainly from China, as her English was spotty, but we understood one another fairly well.

She explained that I should email her my resume, although I had just handed it to her, and that there are various programs I could take advantage of. (Oh, I almost forgot about this, inside the first room I was handed a flyer about free or cheap healthcare for families through Medicare. I might have to look this up.) She also explained that I could speak with other counselors about whatever job related stuff it was I was thinking about.

"We see alot of people like you, editors, from newspapers and magazines," she said. I sighed, tell me about it.

Our conversation was going so well, in fact that I thought, hey, maybe she has a job that's worth considering, maybe for down the line. Helping people find their mission in life, working to make them happier. It sounded interesting.

"Can I ask you something? Do you like YOUR job?"

She paused for a moment.

"It's okay," she said. "The best thing is when it's over I go home and forget about it."

Well, alrighty then.

Although I had been ordered down there by the state (seriously on their letter they wrote that if I didn't make the meeting "MY BENEFITS COULD BE DELAYED") I am still glad I went. It made me feel not quite so alone, or hopeless in this quest.

I do believe what I do with my life, and my enjoyment of doing this, is important. To me and to the betterment of the planet. In some small way perhaps, yes, but still. Sometimes I feel some faint stirrings to pursue ideas that I hadn't done before, and the people down there really do want to help. It can be good to remember that there are people that are not only interested in helping you, they are paid to do so, even if it's through my taxes.

I walked out, feeling good. It was still raining, but I had my umbrella. And some leads to pursue.