Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Legislators are picking on the unemployed

The News & Observer's Rob Christiansen took state legislators to task today over their dismantling of state unemployment benefits. Christiansen's column recounts the General Assembly's deep cuts in unemployment benefits following the Great Recession, leaving laid-off workers little cushion when they unexpectedly and through no fault of their own lose their jobs. The state had built up a big debt to the federal government for the benefits paid out when the state's unemployment rate soared after the 2008-09 financial collapse. The feds had to be repaid, but legislators put all the burden of that repayment on defenseless laid-off workers. Legislators cut the size of benefits designed to let workers put food on the table and keep their homes when the economy collapses beneath them. They also cut the length of time the unemployed can receive benefits, from 26 weeks to between 12 and 20 weeks. And then they made it harder for our laid off neighbors to remain eligible for benefits. Instead of documenting two job-seeking efforts per week, the new rules require five job applications per week.

Left nearly unscathed were the businesses that pay the unemployment tax. North Carolina's unemployment tax was among the lowest in the nation, which was one reason the state ran out of money when tens of thousands lost their jobs. The low tax rate was raised just a pinch so as not to burden businesses or their owners.

Legislators' actions suggest that they consider unemployed North Carolinians shiftless shirkers who are enjoying the time off from work while the state provides for them. Anyone who has been unemployed or who have been close to workers who've lost their jobs know that isn't the case. People who are fired for cause cannot receive unemployment. Only those who lost their jobs through no fault of their own are eligible. In a volatile economy, things happen. Downturns make it impractical to keep the number of employees a business once needed. Whole sectors of the economy disappear. Think about the video store business or newspaper business or the local hardware store when a Walmart moves next door.

Hard-working North Carolinians need an opportunity to make a transition to another job, maybe even another line of work. It takes time, especially in a deep recession, to find a job. Workers who cannot afford to move to a distant job have an even harder time. You can only commute so far.

I know the feeling. I was unemployed for a year after the newspaper I worked for laid off close to half its staff. Without unemployment benefits, I might have lost my home. I was fortunate that I had a working spouse and savings for emergencies such as a layoff. But I didn't lay around. I searched for jobs. I pursued jobs that were outside my field of knowledge and comfort level, but I made the effort. I wanted to work. I continued to get up at 5:30 each morning and stayed busy. I caught up on home repair tasks. I volunteered. I did a lot of writing. I tried to develop a home business but didn't get very far. I investigated getting certified as a lateral-entry public school teacher. I did all that I could to find work but was still off payrolls for a year before I landed a job paying about half my previous salary. Unemployment benefits got me through.

I also experienced the despair and depression common among the unemployed — the feeling of worthlessness, of being unable to support myself and my family, of failure. Unemployment hits you emotionally as well as financially.

Legislators who want to punish North Carolinians because they've lost a job just don't understand what it means to lose a job. They want to hit good men and women when they're down and helpless.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

I'm giving up the manual transmission

For the first time in nearly 20 years, I am not driving a stick-shift transmission in my main ride. Over those 20 years, I drove a 1994 Honda Del Sol and a 2003 Honda Accord V6 Coupe. The Del Sol had a five-speed, and the Accord had a six-speed. I enjoyed the shifting of the gears and the greater sense of control the stick-shift gave me. It was also nice being a little different from most everyone else. Stick-shifts are in sharp decline in the United States. A friend who was in the car business in Tennessee for many years said when the started, the dealership's inventory was about 25% manual transmissions (Hondas and Volvos), but more recently (five years ago), the breakdown was under 5% manual. Being different, however, my family at one time had three vehicles with stick shifts — my Del Sol, my wife's Altima (Nissan was offering a phenomenal deal on leases with manual transmissions) and my son's old Subaru wagon. When I fell and broke my shoulder blade in 2003, leaving my right arm immobile, I had to switch cars with my wife (who by then had an automatic) so that I could reach with my left arm across my body to shift the car into "D" for about a month until I got the use of my right arm back.

But now I've succumbed to modernity and aging, and my new ride has an automatic transmission. It's not that I was tired of shifting gears. The decision was a rational one, recognizing my advancing age and the likelihood that if I keep my next car ten years or more (as I usually do), my left leg might not be nimble enough to operate a clutch. So my new car is an automatic, but it has a "clutchless automatic" option — you can switch from "D" to "M" and shift the gears without use of your left leg, at least up to a point. The automated manual does not allow you to shift into fourth gear until you've reached a certain speed, and your downshifts are also limited. Still, the option is there if ever I want to use it.

This, I've told myself, is my retirement car. It's the car I will drive in retirement, taking long-postponed trips to places on our bucket lists, so I opted for the top trim line with all the bells and whistles for comfort and entertainment. It's a car I hope will last me for 20 or 25 years. And I hope I'll last that long, too, and still be able to drive.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The tomato sandwich's new twist

I grew up eating tomato sandwiches every summer. They were made from tomatoes plucked from the long rows in our garden, growing from tomato plants we planted as seedlings, or from tomatoes given by neighbors and relatives who had more tomatoes than they could consume.

The tomato sandwiches in those days were made with Duke's mayonnaise on soft, white bread. At picnics, the sandwiches tended to be like mush wrapped in wax paper, as the tomato's juices leached into the white bread and made a bit of a mess. I ate them anyway.

This year, I have discovered a new twist on the tomato sandwich: the BTM sandwich — that's basil tomato and mozzarella sandwich, and now it's on wheat bread slathered with Hellman's mayonnaise. I love the combination of tomato and basil, and the mozzarella adds a bit of protein and interest to the sandwich. With a basil plant on the deck and a stash of mozzarella in the refrigerator, I am all set!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A house of dreams

My walk to the end of the driveway to pick up the newspaper is in an easterly direction. I get a first look at the dawn through the neighborhood trees and above the roofs of houses across the street. When I turn around and head back to the side porch door, at this time of year, the first light of sunbeams poking through the clouds and trees hit the front of the house, and I suddenly feel that I'm lost.

I've lived in this house for 12 years now, striving to pay off a 15-year mortgage in 12 or 13 years, but still I look at it in the sun's spotlight, the white siding and black shutters, the two stacks of windows, one row across each floor, and the high-pitched roof hiding a spacious attic, and I cannot believe I live here.

I grew up in a house of perhaps 1100 square feet, with three bedrooms and no central heat. My parents slept in the bedroom with the oil heater, which was turned down to "pilot" each night so as not to burn too much kerosene. We five siblings snuggled beneath piles of warm quilts, leaving only our ears and noses cold. In the summer, we threw open the windows to catch a breeze, if there was one, and often lay awake in dampened sheets on hot, still nights.

Early in our marriage, we lived in apartments and duplexes. We heard the neighbors as they talked or yelled. We heard their stereos and their televisions. We turned up our own volume.

The first house I bought was a spacious 1906 one-story with a tall roof. It was in need of more renovations than I could afford. A naive real estate agent was so confident he could sell the house for our puny asking price that he promised to buy it if it didn't sell. It didn't, and he kept his word.

We next bought a condo with a tiny balcony and neighbors on four sides. When I changed jobs, we managed to sell it for exactly what we'd paid two years earlier. Our next house was a solid brick home with plaster walls and a welcoming arrangement of rooms — three bedrooms and one bath. The central heat was iffy, and the heating oil that fired the furnace was too expensive for our budget, so we used our tax refund to buy a wood stove and heated with wood for seven years before scraping together enough money in a refinance to put in gas heat and central air. We even added a second bath to better accommodate our three children, one already a teenager. We stayed there for 23 years and left only when mortgage rates fell so low we could afford a much better house, and the neighborhood had grown tougher.

When we moved our 30-plus years of accumulated "things," I swore that on my next move I would leave this house horizontally.

The HGTV stars would not be impressed by this vinyl-clad house with its repair marks and repairs not-yet-done, but walking back up the driveway, I have to pinch myself. This is our house. I sit in the living room as the morning light pours through the tall windows and gleams off the antique flooring and the white woodwork and built-in bookshelves, and the disbelief comes over me again. I'm not just visiting; I live here.

My greatest regret about this house is that my parents never saw it, though they had visited every apartment and home we had lived in. When we moved in, they had been in a nursing homes 200 miles away for months. We showed them pictures, which didn't seem to register. Sometimes, it doesn't register with me, either. 

Racist attitudes and deliveries

Hooray for Lowe's Home Improvement Stores! The North Carolina-based chain fired three managers after they acquiesced to a customer's request that only white delivery personnel should deliver her purchase to her home. A veteran African-American delivery man was pulled from the delivery route to satisfy the racist customer. When this narrative exploded beyond the store's walls, Lowe's supervisors took immediate action, firing the managers who allowed a customer to veto a black employee and who, by their actions, endorsed racism.

Prompt action by higher ups in the organization prevented the extension of racial prejudice in the appliance delivery business and saved the reputation of Lowe's. Kudos also to Alex Brooks, the white partner on the delivery team with Marcus Bradley, who had been pulled from his delivery job because his skin was too dark. Brooks, hearing of the injustice, refused to deliver to the racist customer without his black teammate.

All of this took place in Danville, Va., a city where I lived and worked for more than two years in the late 1970s. There was racism there almost 40 years ago, as there was in just about anyplace you name, but I never saw such flagrant exercise of racial prejudice as happened this week. Danville claims to be the "Last Capital of the Confederacy" because Jefferson Davis fled to Danville after Richmond fell to federal troops in 1865. He didn't stay long. The Confederate president was eventually captured by federal troops in Georgia.

I never thought that brief moment as home to what was left of the Confederate government made Danville any more racist than other areas of the South. Even 40 years ago, I would have been shocked by a customer saying she would not accept a delivery by a black man. That attitude should not be tolerated.

Given that demand, the delivery manager should have said, "Ma'am, our black delivery driver will deliver your refrigerator, and if you don't like his presence, he will bring the refrigerator back to the store, and we'll sell it to someone else, but you're still going to be charged for it. And, by the way, we're not going to deliver the white refrigerator you picked out. You'll get a black one instead. Just as a reminder."

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Repeated protests begin to look like anarchy

A year after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, a protest rally turned violent with a drive-by shooting and police exchanging gunfire with a man at the protest.

The initial protests of Brown's shooting by a police officer a year ago had dissolved into violent confrontations and massive arson and looting. A year later, protests are back in Ferguson, long after a state grand jury and the U.S. Justice Department found no grounds for bringing charges against the police officer who killed Brown.

This week's protests show a lack of confidence in democratic institutions — duly elected or appointed law enforcement and judicial officers — and an unwillingness to accept the conclusions of legally structured agencies. Protesters cling to unreliable and rejected narratives of the shooting of Brown, and they insist on ... something different.

What is it that the protesters hope to achieve? State and federal law enforcement officials have investigated and reached their conclusions. The case is closed. No amount of marching in the street, punctuated by gunfire and violence, will change the Justice Department's carefully reached decision or the grand jury's decision against an indictment.

The insistence upon street protests rather than acceptance of legally reached conclusions begins to look like anarchy. It is the anarchists' credo that government structures cannot be trusted and that no government is better than a government they oppose. Anarchy, however, is chaotic and dangerous. If everyone's opinion is as good as or better than the collective wisdom of democratically elected and appointed government officials, there can be no acceptance of governmental authority.

The rallying cry of "No justice, no peace" is true in this context: In anarchy, there is no peace.

Friday, August 7, 2015

GOP candidates have their say

I stuck around for only the first half of the 10-candidate debate last night but still came away with some impressions.

Start with Donald Trump: Although he was still the bombastic, egotistical narcissist he's always been, Trump did not do as badly as he might have — meaning, he didn't punch any of his fellow candidates or the Fox News questioners (who didn't toss any softballs to him or the others). He didn't sound presidential, but most of the time he didn't sound like a lunatic. He even made an occasional valid point, and didn't deny that he often insults people (whom he considers to be beneath him).

Jeb Bush: Of all the candidates, he looked the most presidential. It helps if you're the tallest candidate in the room. He seemed reasonable and knowledgeable but didn't run away with the debate. Jeb took the "political dynasty" question and did as well as anyone could with it, i.e., "I am my own man. I am running on my own record." Etc.

Marco Rubio: His comment that "this election is about the future" might have been the best comment of the night, a comment that could resonate with younger voters (Rubio is 44). The comment averts questions about past GOP positions and policies, and it opens a clean slate. Rubio has an eloquence and a forceful delivery that gives a Kennedy-esque aura.

Ted Cruz: The Texas senator seems determined to come across as the meanest SOB on the stage. His facial expression seems fixed in a pugilistic mode, and he seems ready to take a punch at somebody, anybody, at any moment. He is the master of the sanctimonious put-down and the vague but forceful catch-phrase.

Mike Huckabee: The former Arkansas governor and TV personality is clearly older than four years ago, but his delivery and speech have been honed by his time on talk-TV. His assertion that "personhood" begins at conception, and the newly fertilized ovum is protected by the Fifth and 14th Amendments is astounding. No court decision has asserted such a sweeping conception (excuse the pun), but he wants to argue that a newly formed zygote has a DNA and therefore is protected by the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

Rand Paul: Paul came across as feisty and a bit courageous in his willingness to challenge Trump. I wondered if the two might come to blows. While he fared well in defending his position on foreign aid, ISIS and domestic spying, his combativeness didn't seem presidential but rather Trump-ish. Paul's line about being tired of seeing ISIS troops riding around in a billion dollars worth of U.S. Humvees was memorable.

Chris Christie: Speaking of feisty. Christie couldn't seem to decide whether he should be belligerent or warm and fuzzy. He claimed that only he had the ability to challenge terrorists because he had prosecuted terror cases as a federal attorney. Paul got under his skin by reminding everyone of his hug of President Obama (after Superstorm Sandy), which Christie defended by veering off on his hugs to terrorist victim families. Non sequitur, Governor?


Monday, August 3, 2015

Vanishing American churches

The statistics from the National Council of Churches seem pretty clear: Americans are leaving churches at an alarming rate. Here are the losses by denomination from 2000 to 2013, as reported in The Lutheran magazine:
     ° Presbyterian Church USA: -30.3%
     ° United Church of Christ: -28.9%
     ° Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: -24.8%
      ° Episcopal Church: -17.5% 
     ° United Methodist Church: -11.4%
     ° Southern Baptist Convention: - 1.4%

In the ELCA, churches with an average worship attendance of 50 or fewer increased 66% since 1990. Churches are getting smaller with fewer donations to support their work and their very existence. We are witnessing the secularization of America, a nation in which attending church on a regular basis is no longer a normative practice.

More is at stake here than the fiscal health of congregations or the number of bodies in the pews on a Sunday. Churches have been guiding organizations throughout this nation's history. Look at the number of colleges and universities, going back to Harvard, the first college in the American colonies, founded by religious organizations and, originally at least, dedicated to the education of clergy. Other social institutions — the abolitionist movement, for example, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the YMCA — were based in Christian principles and came to influence all of American society.

Some may welcome the decline of church influence. Sunday "blue laws," which kept retailers' doors closed on Sunday, were such an inconvenience to shoppers. Churches and church-influenced organizations have found themselves in the minority on a number of "moral issues" of the past century, including alcoholic beverages, gambling (state lotteries and casinos), and gay marriage.

Churches are beginning to be seen as irrelevant to a growing majority of Americans, for whom Sunday is a day for golf or for sleeping in or even just another day of work. If religious faith is on the wane, as it appears, that bodes ill for society as a whole. Religion has provided the moral guidance and ethical principles for society, churched or unchurched. It is religion that dictates that people are responsible for other people, that caring for those in need is a virtue, and that good character is built on kindness, sympathy, generosity, truthfulness and honor.

Without those standards, American society becomes a very different culture, one that is less caring, less respectful of others, less generous and honorable and more self-centered and unkind. It's a change that even those who never "darken the church doors" might notice.