Monday, June 20, 2011

Darwin in Gatorland

When I first moved to Tampa, Florida years ago, I bicycled to Lettuce Lake Park to get a first-hand look at the local flora and fauna. They had a nice swimming hole there with a stone seawall and a sandy little beach. The water was tea-stained, but clear and still. It looked like an excellent place to take a dip except for the signs posted all around that said 'No Swimming – Alligators'. The signs were pretty much superfluous as the swimming hole was occupied by a very visible and very large alligator. By large, I mean 12 to 14 feet in length and many hundreds of pounds, most of which were teeth.
There were two pre-teen boys standing on the edge of the seawall. They were throwing marshmallows into the water to attract the gator over to where they were standing. When the gator glided over to snarf up a few of the floating candies, they poked him in the face with a stick. The gator didn't offer any protest, but I looked into his big reptilian eye, and it looked to me like he was considering his options and measuring distances.
I didn't know about the Darwin Awards at the time, but I have since decided that both those kids have probably made it onto the list by now. They may even have done it together. Stupidity loves company. They could have gotten a miraculous infusion of basic sense in the intervening years, but I doubt it. This is Florida after all.
It's a good thing to learn from your mistakes, but, if you put yourself into situations where even minor errors can prove fatal, learning from them is moot. As a consequence death can really get your attention, but once you've suffered the consequence you no longer need to know what it taught you.
I was reminded of all this by a story in the St. Lucie News Tribune last week. The headline, 'It's wise not to leave guns in your car', seemed so obvious that I passed over it at first. It didn't seem much like news. Then I began to think about why the editor thought it necessary to include this bit of wisdom in the paper. Surely this was something that gun owners already knew, something about which they shouldn't have to be reminded. I for one don't want to think that gun owners who don't know this are running around with...well, guns.
not in our courtrooms, thank you very much.
I searched for the on-line version of this story so I could post the link here. When I found it, I also found quite a few comments, which didn't surprise me, but most of them were in support of, or at least excused, people leaving their guns in their cars, which surprised me no end. I began to suspect that my two alligator pokers were indeed still living and had moved to St. Lucie County.
The gist of the story was that local police have reported that 48 guns have been stolen from 40 vehicles since 2009. They also reported that most of these thefts were from unlocked, unsecured vehicles. This last bit seems particularly alarming to me. People leave guns in their cars, and fail to lock them up. Sometimes they leave more than one gun in their car. Apparently, I thought, gun owners do need the occasional reminder about the rudimentary aspects of securing their property. Imagine how surprised I was then to discover, when I read the on-line comments, that this is not, in fact, a security lapse on the part of the gun owners. Oh no, it is rather a natural consequence of draconian gun laws.
Oh, yes. You see, even though getting a permit to carry a firearm in Florida is pretty easy, there are places where guns are not allowed. Courthouses and police stations are such places. There are more, but you can appreciate that the Florida legislators, in an attempt, however muddled, to keep the wheels from coming off the criminal justice system, thought it would be a good idea to prohibit firearms in places where officers of the court might otherwise be intimidated by gun toting whack jobs from meting out actual justice. Well you would be wrong in that appreciation because the wielding of weaponry by private citizens is, it seems, an essential component of the dispensing of justice here in the Sunshine State. Besides, you never know when an angry alligator might show up for an unscheduled sidebar, and need to be taught a lesson in proper courtroom procedure and decorum.
You see, the citizens commenting on the story thought, almost to a man, that gun owners were forced by these unreasonable and probably unconstitutional provisions of the law to leave their guns in their cars. They didn't do it because they were lazy or stupid. They did it because the government had given them no choice in the matter. It was the government's fault, and, by God, the government officials have no business making gun owners feel responsible for something that clearly they would not do if they had a choice.
If gun owners were able to strap on their pieces and walk wherever they chose, you know, a well armed militia being essential to the safeguarding of our freedom, then you would not have firearms being stolen out of unsecured cars by criminals who probably should have been shot before they had the wherewithal to shoot back.
Now I actually like guns. I'm a pretty fair shot with a rifle, and I'm fascinated with handguns. I don't own any guns for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is there are many more interesting things on which I'd prefer to spend what little money I have. But the fact is I understand the desire to own a gun, and I don't really have an argument against it. What I do take exception to, however, is the singular disdain for logic exhibited by the gun owners around here—at least the ones who've had their guns stolen and the yahoos who are defending them in response to a fairly sensible and straightforward newspaper article.
For years the NRA has been telling us 'Guns don't kill people; people kill people.” This has become a sort of mantra for gun owners everywhere. It is one of the fundamental underpinnings of gun lobby philosophy, notwithstanding that it seems a lot to me like saying “Teeth don't kill people; alligators kill people”. It may be true, but if an alligator didn't have teeth, he'd be hard pressed to get his pound of flesh for getting poked in the eye. And yet those who choose to own and bear arms, ostensibly at least for the protection of their person and property, apparently expect their guns, when left alone in unsecured cars, to be able to take care of themselves. It defies logic. Here's a new platitude I have come up with for them to chew on:
When law-abiding citizens leave their guns in unsecured vehicles, sooner or later only criminals will own guns. Well, them and your occasional fat, angry alligator.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

...and 10 Surprisingly Good Things about Being Unemployed

Better than a knife in the back   

One of my sisters-in-law thought my last post was depressing. She felt bad for me, immersed as I am in self-perpetuating misery. I thought the post was hilarious, although I did point out to a commiserating commenter that, while misery makes excellent blog fodder, it's still freaking misery. Once again, apparently, I have missed the humor mark.
In the interest of balance, I thought it would be a good idea to address the positive aspects of losing one's job. The fact is not everything about losing your job sucks. It won't be rosy by any stretch of the imagination, but there are a few pleasant surprises along the way.
  1. You can now finish a library book before it comes due.
  2. You won't overflow the hard drive on your DVR with recorded shows and movies that you don't have time to watch.
  3. No paycheck you sold your soul for is ever quite as satisfying as a severance check when you know you were offered up to appease the capricious gods of commerce.
  4. Your daily exposure to fools, charlatans, pirates, and thieves is at an all-time low.
  5. You have an automatic and very effective response for solicitors and telemarketers. “I lost my job” shuts them up almost every time. I say almost because you are still going to have to deal with the religious whack jobs who want to pray with you.
  6. If you were thinking about a career change while you were still working, you now have time to realize your ambition. Just because it didn't happen the way you envisioned it doesn't mean it's not an opportunity. A word of caution though—there are already a bazillion people out here trying to monetize social interaction by blogging, tweeting, and booking their faces. There may not be any barriers to entry, but it's a bitch to get noticed.
  7. You can bond with your pets in ways you never dreamed possible. All your dogs and cats and whatever elses are firmly in your camp when you're home all the time. They will be connected to your hip or ankle. This may seem an annoyance at first, but you will soon realize that your pets are an improvement over the jerk-wads at work. A cold nose up the butt is way better than being stabbed in the back by an ambitious co-worker with a self-serving agenda.
  8. All the self-improvement plans you neglected when you were working are now within reach. You used to be too tired to go to the gym when you came home from your ball-busting job. Now you can go in the morning when the poor schmucks who are still working for your old employer are just stumbling into their first mind-numbing meeting of the day. You can read the books on your list instead of hundreds of e-mails from management wanting you to explain why the company is not meeting sales targets without telling them that their targets were set to satisfy unrealistic directors rather than being based in any objective, quantifiable data. The smartest manager you ever met could not have written a mediocre novel, and even vampire romance is better than the last business memo you had to read.
  9. No more buzzwords. No more jargon. No more obfuscated business-speak. If you are a big fan of jargon, doubletalk, and ambiguity, you can get your fill by reading the congressional testimony of Goldman Sachs executives regarding their actions during the recent financial turmoil and alleged Great Recession.
  10. So long as you can keep your blood pressure under control, there is a lot of entertainment value to be had in following the rants of ignoramuses who still believe, variously, that: the sub-prime mortgage crisis was caused by dead-beat borrowers who failed to honor their obligations because they are bereft of any moral backbone, that anyone drawing unemployment compensation benefits ought to suck it up and just get a job, that Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner are heroic civil servants who saved us from financial ruin at the eleventh hour, that George W. Busch tanked the economy by military adventuring in Iraq and Afghanistan, that Barack Obama is spending our future to further his own political aspirations, that Lady Gaga is stylish and talented, that the Real Housewives are either real or interesting, that Charlie Sheen is winning, or that Anthony Weiner is less reprehensible than, say, Mark Sanford or Arnold Schwarzenegger because he didn't actually reach out and touch anybody. Really, the number of things with the capacity to amuse us grows exponentially every day. I don't know how I ever found time to work.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

10 Surprising Things that Really Suck about Losing a Job

Enjoying the view from your new office.

Everyone understands, I hope, that losing one's job is a huge setback. It's not for nothing that losing a job is referred to variously as being 'fired' or 'getting the axe' or, my personal favorite although you have to think about it a little to understand all the ramifications, being 'discharged'.
No matter what you call it, it sucks. It sucks on many levels, but most people understand the impact of losing a job only in economic terms. Certainly the economics of unemployment are deleterious enough, but financial difficulties are not the only problems facing the terminated. Joblessness will gnaw at your innards in insidious ways that would surprise those who have not experienced it first hand. Here are ten of my favorites:

  1. No matter the reason you lost your job, you can't help but feel that you have somehow failed yourself, your family, and your potential. This may not be fair, but it's natural, and it may be unavoidable. The trick is to use your feeling of inadequacy against itself. I mean, if you are the big loser you think yourself to be, then what you think is naturally suspect and you shouldn't take it seriously. Seriously, this will work, but it's not easy...and it helps of you've already turned to strong drink for solace.
  2. Feelings of inadequacy and depression make it that much harder to get another job. Say you score an interview, and it is scheduled for a day when you are feeling particularly down on yourself. (In a relatively short period of time, this will be every day.) The interviewer asks you some stupid question, the purpose of which is to see how good a liar you are—something like 'where do you see yourself in five years?' The answer that leaps immediately into your confidence-starved brain is something like 'still sucking up to a snot-nosed diesel douche like you,' and the despair engendered by this thought will take root and flourish so that it will be impossible to come up with the kind of lie that will get you the job you suddenly realize you are not worthy of anyway.
  3. Your creditors will not be sympathetic. They will immediately begin to take advantage of your inability to pay them by charging you enormous fees and raising your interest rates into the stratosphere. (How convenient for the banks that the financial lobby managed to get most usury laws repealed before they crashed the system and drove so many of us to the brink of ruin.) When you try to cut your expenses by canceling their services, you will be forced to pay burdensome cancellation charges. If you protest, they will talk to you like you are a deadbeat. After a while you will begin to accept this as your due.
  4. If you elect to take advantage of the COBRA provisions to keep your health insurance in force, you will find that it costs you double what you were paying when you had a job. Unemployment compensation is not enough to cover this. You can't pay your mortgage and your health insurance too. There is no kind of math that makes this work—not even the math that Wall Street used to tell them that securitized sub-prime mortgages were a safe investment. If you get sick, you are screwed. All the depression, anxiety, and self-loathing that have come to roost in the cobwebbed recesses of your psyche make it that much more likely that you will, in fact, get sick.
  5. Unemployment compensation is not enough to keep your boat afloat, especially since all the providers you are used to doing business with are taking advantage of your unfortunate situation to enrich themselves before you go belly up. Your expenses will go up instead of down. The only expenses you will have any control over are food and cable TV. Ironically these are only the two things that are keeping your depression from lurching across the border into Suicideland. How are you supposed to stay upbeat and positive when you are forced to give up your daily ration of chocolate covered pretzels while you watch the Real Housewives of Swankville bicker about who said what to whom while they are drinking wine and getting a group Brazilian bikini wax at some high-dollar spa?
  6. You will suddenly become aware of a gaggle of bozos who think that drawing unemployment is the same as being paid not to work. They resent your lazy, shiftless, scheming, system-scamming ass because they think that while they are at work, you are using their hard earned tax dollars to put fuel in your yacht. They are everywhere, posting comments, writing letters to editors, phoning into radio talk shows to shout out kudos and dittos. You will rightly wonder why people that ignorant have jobs while you do not. While you are wondering this, they are making campaign contributions to candidates who are promising to put an end to extended unemployment benefits and anything that looks like a real economic stimulus. They want to run you out of options. They don't really care if you get another job. They certainly aren't going to spend any money to help make another job available. Only by dying will you cease to be a drain on their resources. After a while it will seem as if this is their true kill you. They are too cheap though to buy bullets and make quick work of it. They want you to go quietly on your own nickel.
  7. The elected officials that you hope will fix the problems of the larger economy, the problems that are keeping jobs in short supply, are instead busy chasing skirts, tapping their feet under the stall dividers in public restrooms, texting inappropriate messages to their constituents, engaging prostitutes to help them maintain their legislative focus, and e-mailing pictures of their genitalia to further clog the bandwidth of cyberspace. As with the self-proclaimed voices of reason in number 6 above, you will rightly wonder why people this ignorant have jobs while you do not. You will think briefly about running for Congress, but you quickly realize that nobody wants to run a candidate who doesn't have a job. They think something must be wrong with you. Perverts, apparently, are harder to vet.
  8. Criminal activity begins to look more and more like a viable career path. Not only are there few barriers to entry, no inane job interviews, no credit checks, no hoops to jump through, but the downside to failure is better than the lifestyle you are currently enjoying. If you get caught, convicted, and sentenced to prison, you have free room and board, free medical care, and free cable TV. This beats hell out of the cardboard box under a bridge that seems to be in your future otherwise. In addition, if the powers that be ever get around to prosecuting the Wall Street bankers for their complicity in stripping the wealth and livelihood of the middle class, you may even get a cellmate who can regale you with tales of unimaginable decadence. When the Geezer Bandit begins to look like a sage old life coach, you are well on the way to making sense of your life again. Best keep it to yourself though.
  9. If you are a husband and your wife is still working, you are going to have to man up and become the woman of the house. This is only fair. In time you will realize that suffering the abuse of a churlish boss or the mind-numbing drudgery of yet another meeting is exactly as mentally depleting as cleaning the bathroom or folding underwear. The problem is not that these tasks are difficult. It's rather that they never end. You are never finished with them, and neither was your wife except that she had to do them after she got home from work. When that little tidbit sinks in, you suddenly realize that you owe your wife a huge debt of gratitude and probably an apology for taking her for granted—the kind of apology that demands to be accompanied by jewelry. The irony is that, to do right by her, you will now have to use the money your wife earns to bring the bling. Better perhaps to just put another load in the washer and try to come up with something tasty for dinner.
  10. When holidays and birthdays come around, you have to look the people you love most in the world directly in the eye and explain to them how sorry you are that they are pinned to your worthless coattails. Gifts are a luxury you can no longer afford. When they pat you on the back and tell you not to worry, they understand, this will only make it worse for you. This is the moment when, finally, you understand the value of life insurance. It's unfortunate that there's only one way to realize that value. Luckily, your don't have to take matters into your own hands. You can just wait for the angry clowns in number 6 to come hunting for you.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Oh, Summer Days

 My notion of summer days goes back to a time when I lived with seasons. When winter seemed like a question of survival and spring was wet and windy and chill, summer was a big deal. It's what we lived for the rest of the year...even if, in the grand scheme of things, it's wasn't that great.
My memorable summers were filled with turkeys...

The brothers and their flock.

...and the world's most intractable boat.

Bringing the boat home after another frustrating day on the water.

Both required more effort than they were worth. The birds lost money and the boat wouldn't run. You'd think, then, that I would have difficulty looking back fondly on either, but such is not the case. These are the best summers in my memory although I cannot tell you why.
My dad was a country veterinarian brimming over with entrepreneurial spirit. He was determined to build an enterprise that he could leave to my brother and me. He enlisted us early and often in his schemes, none of which ever paid off for him...or us either for that matter.
The turkeys were a case in point. Dad tried this several years running on a fairly large scale. He would buy 100,000 hatchlings in the spring, and pay to have them fed and watered under heat lights for a month. When the poults were big and hardy enough to live outdoors they would be sexed and moved to a range. Hens and toms were kept in separate flocks of five to ten thousand each. The ranges were fenced fields and included feeders and watering systems and covered roosting shelters on skids. The whole arrangement would have to be moved to a different location in the field every week so the birds would be standing on clean ground. Hens went to market after 14 weeks; toms after 18.
The timing of the whole process was nearly perfect for a summer job. Dad ranged 10 separate flocks across three counties in those years. My brother and I managed two of them in rented pastures. Eight farmers took care of the rest on their own land. I drove the truck to feed them all. The pay for ranging the birds was a percentage of what the birds brought on the market over an agreed upon cost. There was a flat guarantee of 10 cents per pound. At an average dressed weight of 9-10 lbs. per bird, that would amount to $9,000 split between my brother and me. Pretty good for a summer job in the mid sixties.
Trouble was, Dad never paid our guarantee. We didn't have contracts, and we were family. For a number of reasons, and compounded by a prodigious amount of bad luck, Dad lost his shirt in the turkey business. We brother sons were expected to share in the misery.
Not to worry though. I still got paid an hourly wage for driving the feed truck—a vehicle with front tires worn down to the cord and so dangerously unbalanced that no one else in Dad's employ would even get in it—and any remaining misery was to be offset by idyllic weekends at the lake, fishing, skiing, and trolling for bikini-clad girls in our boat. Unfortunately this too turned out to be a monumental disappointment because Dad, along with his adventurous entrepreneurial spirit, also possessed a sphincter-clenching sense of thrift.
He bought the boat, a lovely mahogany inboard runabout, on the cheap from another veterinarian. It had had its port side framing and planking replaced after being staved in by a loaded brick truck with a faulty parking brake. The extent of the repairs, as yet untested, and a dollop of professional courtesy yielded what Dad considered a substantial discount off market.
In addition to the question of structural integrity, which turned out to be not a problem at all, the boat's engine was newly rebuilt. This did turn out to be a problem, although we didn't find out why for nearly a year. The thing was unreliable from the start. It would run like a champion for 10 or 15 minutes. Then it would seize up, leaving us stranded in the middle of the lake. It spent more time at the marina being worked on than it did relieving our poultry-induced misery. You couldn't ski behind it unless you were a strong swimmer, because once it quit you were going to have to get back to the boat on your own, and towing your skis. It was completely useless for the pursuit of girls until we hit on a clever ruse, necessity being the mother of invention.
When the engine seized in the middle of the lake we were faced with two choices: either sit and wait for it to cool down to the point where we could restart it, or raise the engine cover and wait for a kind fellow boater to offer a tow. What we ended up doing was politely refusing any offers to tow us back to the dock until we encountered a boatload of young women. Sometimes we had to wait for hours, but we were young and stupid and the only other thing we had to look forward to was a flock of turkeys and, of course, the terror truck.
What we discovered eventually was that when the engine shop rebuilt the robust little Greymarine six, they left the aligning shims in the crankshaft races. The shims would get hot and expand, freezing the crankshaft and stopping the engine. In other words , several seconds of forethought on the part of the engine shop could have spared us hours and hours sitting in the middle of the lake waiting to be rescued by girls we didn't yet know. So much in life comes down to basic competence. It is daunting to realize that a little thing like a misplaced metal shim can stop social discourse and human reproduction in their tracks. This is why, when I hear mention of chaos theory and the butterfly effect, I always think of Summers at the lake.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Different Kind of Hero

Dad in the radio shack of a B-17. Grim prospects have dulled his usual smile.

My dad was a hero. Not the movie kind of hero that sprays bullets all over the place to save the world from imminent destruction, but the quiet kind of hero that shows up every day to deal with life as he finds it without complaint or rancor.
Not that he didn't exhibit plenty of raw bravery. He was a radio operator in a B-17 bomber group during World War II. He did this at a time when B-17 flight crews had a 75% casualty rate. That means every time his plane took off he had a three in four chance of coming back dead or maimed—or not coming back at all. This must have been a terrifying prospect. It makes me cringe just to think about it, and I'm only imagining it on his behalf. He never talked about it.
He flew nine missions from England to Germany and back. On the last one his ankle was forever ruined by a ten inch shard of anti-aircraft flak. He kept the piece they took out of his leg in a box with his purple heart and a way cool pair of aviator sunglasses. Army surgeons basically botched the job when they tried to put him back together. After three surgeries, his ankle was still frozen at an odd angle. He walked with a pronounced limp the rest of his life.
It didn't slow him down much, and he never complained about it. He could bowl a 220 game without any practice and foxtrot and polka into the wee hours at a wedding reception. Even more amazing were some of his feats as a country veterinarian. More than once, I saw him take a kick that would have felled a bigger man. More times than that I saw him thrust his whole arm into the south end of a recalcitrant cow and shove her calf into position so she could deliver it alive. As often as not these things were done on damp concrete floors in freezing barns using that ruined leg for purchase.
By the time he was the age I am now, his gimp walk and the physical demands of his profession had ruined his hip as well. His doctors botched that fix too, and the aftermath was a slow spiral into a relatively early grave—his personal aspirations largely unfulfilled, his dreams as shattered as his bones. Still, in the forty odd years that I knew him, I never once heard him curse his fate, swear, or say an unkind thing. I think that's heroic. Too bad it wouldn't make a movie anybody would watch.