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I send up my S.O.S.
A message in a bottle set out to sea
It just reads “Soul in distress”
But nobody ever got back to me
Can you hear me now

[Can you hear me now – Emmylou Harris]

Four people were found dead in an Illinois house just before Thanksgiving, and the deaths are being labeled a murder/suicide.  Despite the grim nature of the story I had to read the article- sure I would see that the father (who apparently killed his wife and sons and then committed suicide) had recently lost his job.  The article didn’t say but I would not be surprised if that comes out in a later article.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  

According to an article on CBSNews.com job loss not only affects individuals financially – it can affect their mental health as well.  Yeah, well duh.

Over the past 9 or 10 months the Labor Department has regularly reported that the number of Americans who are unemployed is at a record high. Those who have lost their jobs not only worry about money or paying their mortgage, but also their families and how society views them. With all this stress, unemployed folks can end up depressed and lonely as they try to fill the void.

“Spouses are fighting more often, people may turn to drugs or alcohol, smoking, overeating,” says Dr.  Sudeepta Varma , psychiatrist at New York University Medical Center. “Losing the job… isn’t so much the problem, but the anxiety and the depression and the substance abuse [that can follow]… are often extremely more damaging than the job loss.”

Historically, the suicide rate follows the unemployment rate; Dr. Varma says that suicide rates do tend to go up during times of economic crisis.  So far the link between the economy and rising suicides is only anecdotal since there is generally a two-year lag in national suicide figures.  But browse the headlines over the past year or so and you’ll find stories like the laid off 55-year-old Petaluma building official who killed himself, the 90-year-old Ohio widow who shot herself as authorities arrived to evict her from her home, and most notably for the sorrow and horror it provokes, the Los Angeles man who killed his five children and their mother, and then took his own life after he and his wife lost their jobs.  

According to an article titled ‘Economic Crisis is Getting Bloody’ , which details recent mass killings related to job and home loss as well as suicides, the Elkhart, Indiana coroner estimates that a quarter of the suicides in that town (22 so far this year)  are directly related to the economy.  Elkhart had an unemployment rate of 15% in September 2009. 

Many mental-health crisis and suicide hotlines are reporting a surge in calls from Americans feeling despair over financial losses and the  only up spin on that is that people are seeking help and so may not join the suicide statistics or grisly headlines. 

It’s hard to know where to turn when you suffer setbacks like the loss of your job or home.  Or both. Former colleagues, relieved to have escaped the scythe of unemployment, retreat.  Friends commiserate but are busy with their own working lives and grow weary of hearing of your plight. Social services are a confusing warren of crowded and seemingly unconnected offices requiring similar (but never the same) stacks of paperwork and manned by unsympathetic and overworked staff.  Forms filled out disappear with a ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ rejoinder.

It’s easy to become depressed, feel powerless, lost and lonely.  Your actions seem futile and you are overcome by a lassitude. You lie awake nights agonizing over dwindling bank accounts and mounting bills.  Or you self medicate so that you don’t lie awake once again dwelling on all those things that you seem to have no control over.  Stress has corrosive effect on happiness and joy dissipates in the face of constant anxiety.

As months of fruitless job searches pass by it’s hard to maintain hope.  And without hope you are left with all those other inhabitants of Pandora’s Box as your companions on the slippery slope.

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If I won’t relocate, and I’m reluctant to do so at this point since relocating is involved and expensive when you have a family, my job options locally are limited.  I have applications in to the two currently listed jobs in my field and have branched out to apply for a non-profit job that interested me.  Sadly I’ve already heard from the latter- they had 175 applicants, and although I made it to stage 2, someone else was offered the position. 

I comb the job listings daily, as well as having established job searches and searchable resumes on several sites like monster.com.  Surprisingly there are a lot of local listings.  Even after I filter out the jobs I have no qualifications for like product engineer, LVN, RN, Instructor in Radiological Technology, behavioral therapist, and barber there are still plenty of options.  So next I discard all the jobs that pay minimum wage since those jobs would not support a family of 5 and are actually a pay cut from unemployment!  Let’s see- that leaves… jobs with a bilingual requirement, jobs that pay better than minimum wage but require 3-5 years of experience in theparticular field (insurance, dental front office, bar back, tennis instructor, paralegal, etc.), the miscellaneous stuff like weight loss study seeks volunteers, personal assistant to do house cleaning and grocery shopping 5 hours a week, sales of all sorts- commission only, psychic, dog sitter and various work at home scams.  I feel so inadequate.  How can there be so many jobs that I just can’t apply for or have no hope of getting if I do apply?

I did send an email in response to an ad for a manager of a self storage facility because it came with free housing and a storage unit but of course my resume doesn’t put me at the front of the line. 

I wonder if it’s worth retraining for another career at my age?

After the New Year I plan to re-evaluate the idea of relocation.

I spent 4 hours in the emergency room of the local hospital Saturday morning with my two youngest kids in tow.  It wasn’t our emergency but our friend Patricia’s.  Patricia and her husband Benjamin are homeless. We met them last year- when we were still homed and employed.  Benjamin was panhandling at a freeway exit- the one we took on our way to church- and we stopped to hand him a few bucks.  A tall, thin man of indeterminate yet clearly mature age, he smiled, and blessed us with his thanks. I was taken by his gentle nature and humble yet independent demeanor.  And the kids were interested in the big golden dog that lounged at his feet.  I was so struck by him that after church I popped into the store and bought up a load of groceries, deli sandwiches and a bag of dog food, and we took the lot back to his corner.  Since it was too much for him to carry ‘home’ we gave him and his dog a ride back to his camp- a tent tucked away on the edge of a celery field- where we met his wife Patricia. 

Just to dispel any notion that I’m some Mother Theresa in training I will admit that I wasn’t all that taken with Patricia, who sat bundled in so many layers and hat and hoods that her natural shape was completely obscured, leaving me with the impression that she and Benjamin fit the mold of a Jack Sprat and his wife.  She was clutching what was obviously not her first beer of the day in one hand and cradling a cigarette between stained fingers in the other.  Pale bleary eyes stared vaguely at me from a weather-beaten face when Benjamin introduced us and she carefully stubbed out her cigarette and clutched at my hand in thanks when he showed her the bags of groceries.  Frankly it made me uncomfortable.

Being reasonably compassionate and further, of the belief that people should be able to spend their money (however earned or gained) any way that pleased them, I would frequently stop to give panhandlers a buck or two.  ‘There but for fortune’ I told myself.  But I didn’t generally attempt to strike up a conversation with them; much less enter into a relationship of any sort.  After meeting Benjamin I started paying more attention to the local homeless.  When I gave them a donation I asked their name and if the situation was amenable, struck up a conversation.  Soon, in addition to Benjamin, the kids and I knew Craig from Colorado who hung out at the post office and played the guitar, Peter whose post was near Target and who liked to read westerns, and Mary who sat outside Vons and enjoyed James Patterson novels.  We started carrying little kits in gallon zip-lock bags- some food, toiletries, over the counter meds, clean athletic socks- and books in the cargo space in the van for the homeless folks we met.  Our charity work (later I would tell our pastor that it hadn’t been charity work but networking) wasn’t met with universal approval amongst our friends and fellow church members who advised me to let the system take care of the homeless (more of that in a future post).  

As much as we reached out to people in general Benjamin still held a special place in our hearts so it was with distress that we heard from him one day that Patricia was in the hospital in a coma and had possibly had a stroke.  As it turned out Patricia would spend almost 4 months in the hospital returning to some semblance of health.  This is to say she’s now mobile and has all her faculties but was also diagnosed with heart disease and advanced osteoporosis and a variety of other chronic ailments. 

Four months of rest and care and restrictions on her diet and smoking gave Patricia a new lease on life and she returned to Benjamin in much better health and condition.  I was amazed at the transformation when we stopped by last month and finally took the time to sit down and chat and visit with her.  She’s a very bright and well-spoken woman with a tale of how a few mistakes and poor judgments can derail a life.  She’s also a woman of strong faith- a faith that has sustained her during the past year as things went from bad to worse. 

Now things are turning around a bit.  She’s in better health, although using a walker to get around.  And best of all she’s finally gotten help signing up with services and will be receiving a disability check that will allow them to move out of the celery field and into an apartment.  Her visit to the hospital on Saturday was to care for an infection that wasn’t healing, partly due to the difficulty of keeping the wound clean while living in a tent with no running water or bathing facilities.  I am hopeful that her health will improve when they are in an apartment.

Homeless people frequently suffer from ill health.  Minor infections turn into emergency hospital visits.  Chronic conditions plague them, untreated ailments like hypertension cause more serious health problems.  The lack of facilities to attend to hygiene lead to dental problems and skin conditions. 

Patricia’s situation illustrates the points made in an article titled “The Basics of Homelessness” by the National Health Care for the Homelessness Council.

Each year, millions of people in the United States experience homelessness and are in desperate need of health care services. Most do not have health insurance of any sort, and none have cash to pay for medical care. Homeless people are concentrated in the nation’s urban centers and are dispersed throughout rural America, frequently not near the health care facilities that they need. They don’t have transportation or real control over their daily lives, since they depend on the routines of shelters, soup kitchens and marginal jobs to meet their most basic survival needs.

Finding health care is tough or impossible. People who are homeless are more concerned with meeting immediate needs for shelter, food, clothing, and safety than with seeking health care. For some, the symptoms of their illnesses or bad experiences with the health care system in their past cause them to actually avoid health care.

Unacceptable costs result from poor access to health care. Because homeless people often are uninsured and lack access to low-cost preventive health care, they go without care until relatively minor problems become urgent medical emergencies. Ultimately, most homeless people do get treated, but it is treatment of the most expensive sort, delivered in hospital emergency rooms and acute care wards. Through taxpayer support of public institutions and through the cost-shifting inherent in the health insurance system, we all pay the high costs of care deferred.  

A recent study in the Archives of Surgery found that, even though emergency rooms are required to care for all comers regardless of ability to pay, the uninsured trauma patient is 89% more likely to die than the insured patient.  Not because of the care they receive in the trauma unit where doctors are probably completely unaware of the patients insurance status, but because of the lack of follow up care.  For the underinsured there is decreased access to rehabilitation and chronic care services.

We don’t have insurance.  We are weathering illnesses such as a bout of H1N1 without seeing a doctor. We are foregoing dental care we need. I’m getting by with glasses that don’t really completely correct my vision anymore.  Let’s just hope we don’t get into an accident before I can land a job with health benefits.

It’s that time of year.  Thanksgiving is next week and Christmas follows close behind.  I have warm, wonderful memories of the holidays from my early childhood. Memories scented with the smell of roast turkey, nutmeg, gingerbread and pine.  Good friends gathered around our tables, laughter, camaraderie, pie and Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant.  The sounds of Christmas carols and the silence of an early country morning after a new snowfall.  Baking and decorating and shopping and wrapping.  Cold toes and nose as we trekked into the forest to chose and cut down the perfect tree.  And the cozy night before Christmas as we snuggled together in front of the fire, stockings hanging from the mantel, listening as our parents read aloud the story of the Christ Child’s birth. 

I’ve tried to create similarly ideal holiday memories for my children over the past decade.  Regretably, this year will be a departure, although hopefully not a precedent.  We are, of course, so lucky in so many ways.  We are not living in a tent, or sleeping in our car or on the street as are so many homeless families.  We are together not split apart or separated.  We have heat and food and a roof over our heads.  I see what could be; the children think about what was and what their classmates have and it’s harder for them. 

Although grateful for what we have, the coming holidays depress me. We have so many more constraints now.  Picture your own holiday plans- decorating, baking, entertaining, and now imagine carrying them out in a space about 9×20 feet.  The children worry about Christmas.  They point out to me that there is no chimney, no mantel, no place to hang stockings.  No room for a tree.  No baking cookes (our oven doesn’t work). And although they don’t say it, they know there’s no money for Christmas either.  Frankly it’s not like we have much room for ‘stuff’ – my Christmas list would have 2 things on it- a job and a bigger trailer.  In some ways the kids’ more extravagant lists are more realistic!  And since they are children, they maintain some hope- they still believe in Santa and so confer with each other as to possible locations for stockings to be hung- on the shower rod? Outside the trailer?  Perhaps we could rig a clothesline and hang the stocking there?  I agree to all suggestions no matter how outlandish, willing a Christmas miracle to occur.

Frankly, although I consider myself a neighborly person in general, I’m an advocate of the Robert Frost’s saying that good fences make good neighbors.  I like space and privacy (yes, an on-going theme in this blog) and of course there’s not much of either of those here- not indoors or out.  As a rule, I think, trailer or RV park dwellers have a live and let live philosophy.  People are acutely aware of how easy it is to infringe on each other and go out of their way to confer a sense of privacy that out strips the privacy you really have. For the most part relationships are superficial due to their ephemeral nature.  Most people don’t stay long at the park.  Some are here today and gone tomorrow- those are the nodding relationships.  You both exchange a nod when you pass each other. 

You soon discover who the longer term residents are- we’ve fallen into the habit of stopping and chatting with several as we walk the dogs around the park perimeter.  Our nearest neighbor is a member of the military stationed at a nearby base, at the other end of our road is a divorced older man just laid off from his 20+ year job as a building inspector, and between are a couple who sell nutrisytem and an unemployed woman and her boyfriend.  We don’t walk as far as 4th street where the registered sex offender (pedophile) lives.  Still growing accustomed to this lifestyle, I felt a pang of disappointment on learning that one of my favorite people to chat with was planning on moving on around the first of the year.  I had to remind myself of the temporary nature of the situation. 

While most of our neighbors are relatively friendly or at least not unfriendly, the manager of the park is a difficult person to like.  Unfortunately the same is true of her extended family, especially her excessively tattooed, shaved-head son-in-law and her bullying and disrespectful granddaughter and grandson.  This grandson has taken a dislike to my middle daughter- who had attempted to stop him from tormenting a stray cat- and now makes her life difficult when he encounters her.  Our options are limited- there aren’t many other RV parks in this area and the one other that I know of is about a third more expensive than this.  But at least if we had to we could pick up and leave- you can’t do that in a sticks and stone house.

Becoming unintentionally unemployed after working continually for the past 30+ years was a shock to my system.  Losing our home at the same time was a double whammy.  Oddly the second of those shocks seemed to cushion the first for me.  I might not have had an office to go into, or projects to run, and deadlines to meet, but I had problems that needed solving so I had work to do.  Belongings needed to be culled, organized and stored.  Camping equipment had to be acquired, reservations made at nearby campgrounds and the mini-van carefully loaded (we removed the middle row of seats to make this work) with tents, sleeping bags, coolers, and a camp stove while leaving room for four children and two dogs. And then we had to live in tents, moving periodically as one campsite or another filled up, packing and unpacking the van, setting up and taking down the campsite.  Just dealing with cooking and trying to keep clean and safe all summer was enough of a job.

I didn’t have time to miss work; the day-to-day activities and the anxieties about our safety, finances and future gave me plenty to think about.  After 2 months in tents, we managed to purchase our ‘boxcar,’ moved in on September 1st and things changed.  Life became much easier- we had a snug and secure base, cooking and bathroom facilities, even a radio and CD player.  We didn’t have to move every week or 10 days, and the kids went back to school and I had more time on my hands.  And I started to notice what I was missing.  Some small things, some not so small.

Starting with something minor – I really miss bubble baths!  Lengthy soaking in warm scented bubbles, unwinding and relaxing.  No more of that.  The kids and I bathe (shower) infrequently in the public showers here at the park or at the YMCA.  We do have a shower/small tub in the trailer but we also have a 6-gallon water heater and very pathetic water pressure.  And the tub acts as storage for laundry bags, and recycling so bathing there just isn’t practical.

Adult conversations would be right up there on my list.  With the exception of less than a handful of friends, my conversations with other adults have been severely reduced. I strike up conversations with people in line at the grocery store or changing in the YMCA locker room with great regularity now.  And I have to say those conversations are somewhat more superficial than those I used to have with co-workers.

Money.  Well that would be a big ‘duh!’ wouldn’t it?  Our income has diminished considerably to the point that our monthly expenses of rent, utilities, food, gas and storage fees pretty much equal or exceed it.  There’s nothing left over for the book order forms that come home from school, the ice cream truck that patrols the school boundaries, the birthday gifts required to accept the invitations that we receive. The kids begin to ask a question- can we buy something, go somewhere, do something…, and then answer it themselves with ‘no, we don’t have any money.’   I agree with sorrow, guilt and resentment.  ‘No, there’s no money for that.’ 

Insurance. I really miss insurance.  We have health needs that can’t be treated as there’s just no money for it- I need new glasses, my blood pressure was 167/96 last time I checked at the drugstore, my daughter has a cavity that needs filling, and two kids need vaccinations updated.  Just minor stuff that we can let slip for a bit, but the fear of anything more troublesome arising weighs on me.

A sense of purpose, of identity.  Funny how you become defined by what you do.  As a child you tend to be characterized by your aptitudes- you might be athletic, artistic, intellectual, or by your personality- funny, competitive, smart- but by the time you’ve been in the workforce for a couple decades you are just what you do.  When you no longer hold a job what are you?  Rewriting your resumé and trolling job sites for potential leads does not give you that sense of identity. 

OK- so this is the part of the post where I write about whatever silver lining I can squeeze out of the dark cloud.  That will have to follow in a future post.  Some days the dark closes out the light.

Did I mention that our travel trailer is small?  Very small?  And that there are 5 of us, plus 2 (granted small) dogs and a cat?  And that we are not on vacation, but living here?  Space is ALWAYS an issue.  Or rather lack of space, that is. 

 On my Pollyanna days, when I try hard to find the upside to being downsized, I can find these good points about a lack of space:

  • It requires you to strip down to the bare necessities- want to declutter your life?  Try a week in a trailer and you’ll be jettisoning possessions right and left.  Constantly tripping over things is a good motivator to remove those things.  A grand total of a 3-inch strip of ‘counter space’ will wean you of your need for fancy kitchen appliances.  We have no toaster, no blender, no food processor, no slow cooker, no rice cooker, and no – believe it or not- no coffee maker.  Thankfully we have a microwave!  Each child has one box in which to keep his or her toys and possessions and these boxes are stored on the bookshelf, along with our paltry library and a box of art supplies.
  • Lack of space means you attend to your household chores promptly.  Trash goes out daily, if not more often.  Dishes are done and stored as soon as the meal is finished.  Ideally- if they aren’t you don’t have use of the sink.  Laundry, well, laundry is a problem.  Try as I might to get the kids to keep clean clothes in the drawer and dirty ones in the laundry bag, socks still accumulate under the table and in available corners. 
  • It brings you close to loved ones.  And that’s real nice.  For a few hours. OK, I’m hard pressed to be much of a Pollyanna about being inescapably endlessly intimate with 4 other people, even if they are my kids.  I value privacy and time to myself.  I require it to maintain my equanimity and affability!  I ‘m a bit lacking in these qualities at the moment.  

 Do we sound like we are all shipshape?  We aren’t. Things are stored in odd places (boxes of canned food in the storage space under my bed, my eBay listings and mailing supplies in the ‘walk around’ space around the bed, the cat box under a dinette seat (believe me that gets cleaned often)). We are constantly tripping over things, stepping on hot wheel cars and homework sheets, moving things from one surface to another to create a useable space, sorting through the dishes in the sink for a fork to wash and use, and laundry bags and recycling fill the bathtub. We get cabin fever and we aren’t always very nice to each other. We are neophyte RVers.

Did anyone see the Today show today?  They profiled a family who hit the road in their RV when the dad lost his job. We don’t have TV so I didn’t see it but a friend sent a link to the story and video.  There’s a video clip of the happy family singing songs and sight-seeing across the country while the  kids do on-line homework in their brand new 42-foot 5th wheel.  Looks like fun.

The story says they are only one of many families who have taken up an itinerant lifestyle to cut costs in difficult economic times.  There’s a website for families who live on the road but unlike us they are ‘on the road’ not just staying put in a trailer.  Somehow that makes it so much more adventurous and FUN.  Well, that and having money in the bank to pay the expenses and a new 42 foot trailer!

Click for Audio.  No longer just a song for people in unsatisfying or dysfunctional relationships, but also a refrain that plays in the head of the unemployed job seeker.  There have always been people who travel for work, not ‘business travel,’ but picking up and moving to follow the jobs.  People working in industries like construction, drilling, and agriculture.  But for the most part middle class professionals tend to stay put- work at the same firm, live in the same town, and put down roots- at least for years at a time.  In my childhood we moved once- not because my father was changing jobs, just to a larger house in a neighboring community. 

But now, as more people lose their homes and jobs, and job searches drag on over months and months, you have to ask yourself – should I leave?  Should I move from this state with over 12% unemployment and look for work somewhere else?  According to a report by Challenger, Gray and Christmas, many people are answering that question in the affirmative – the job-seeker relocation rate at 18.2% is the highest since the second quarter 2006. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (as of September 2009) North Dakota is still holding up well with a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of around 4.2% and South Dakota is close behind with a rate of 4.8%.  Iowa, Montana,Wyoming, Virginia, Vermont, Utah and Oklahoma all have unemployment rates under 7%. 

So folks in those areas are staying put.  With the exception of Salt Lake, UT none of these places seem to be drawing job seekers, they may not be laying people off but they aren’t hiring either.  The top 10 ranking metropolitan areas in terms of job postings per capita as of the third quarter 2009 are: Washington, DC; Baltimore MD; San Jose CA; Boston MA; Seattle WA, Salt Lake City UT; San Francisco CA; Austin TX; Charlotte NC; and Hartford CT. 

Should we stay or should we go?  Are those 18.2% of job seekers right?  Every day my job search alert at monster.com informs me that there are no job matches in the 30-mile distance I’m willing to commute and I mull over extending that range- statewide? nationwide?  I don’t though.  For now we are staying.  I have no reason to believe a job would be easier to come by in any other state and  I wouldn’t move us without the job already in hand.  The kids don’t want to move again. We’ve moved already – to the mountain state and back again- and it’s a hard, expensive and difficult process for all of us.  We may be hanging on by a thread but we aren’t at the end of our rope yet.

I really, really want to be alone.  We have had 9 days of togetherness as the kids have been out of school for fall break.  While their classmates have departed for exotic destinations- Mexico, New York, Hawaii- with their employed parents (who come to think of it would have had to take vacation days :-)) we stayed home.  Not just in town but on several days we literally just stayed home.  And home measures 7.5 x 25 feet.  Our ‘yard’ – a cement strip next to the trailer just about doubles our space but the floor space inside the trailer is merely a hallway between the couch, dinette and the one fixed bed.  Space and privacy are big issues in family RV living. The bathroom is the only room with a door and if you try to escape in there (as my oldest daughter is currently doing to carry on a phone conversation with a friend) someone inevitably has to use the facilities before you want to give up your privacy.  At night my oldest two daughters convert the dinette and couch into beds, my youngest daughter (and all the animals) sleep with me, and my son sleeps in a sleeping bag on the floor beside my bed.  We guard our individual space with varying degrees of ferocity- my middle daughter has claimed the couch so thoroughly, strewing it with her possessions and sprawling across it,  that it seldom functions as a couch.  My son’s space is swept away every morning as the sleeping bag is rolled and stowed and the hallway reclaimed but the floor is littered with his hot wheel cars.

As an anthropologist I’m well aware that humans have spent much of our evolutionary history crowded together in small spaces- caves, tents, and huts filled with several generations of family members- and that children have traditionally (until the last century in the Western world) slept with their parents.  But I don’t find that knowledge does much to reduce the level of stress that I feel after being cooped up with four other people in a space about the size of two jail cells.  Guard- may I have a stretch in solitary?

Box Car Kids

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