Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thankful for the Gift of Unemployment

The Gift of Unemployment

When it first came, we hardly noticed it. It was hidden among the jumble of personal effects in the cardboard box my husband carried the day he was laid off.  I remember it in an out-of-body sort of way, like a flashback in a movie: the two of us, on a hot July day, sitting together on our front steps while he quietly told me the worst had happened.

The environment at his workplace had become so toxic even workers in their 20’s were quitting for health reasons. I remember thinking this could actually be a good thing, because if he had continued working there, it might have killed him. Still, the gift of his health lay buried in the cardboard box he wouldn’t unpack for more than two interminable years.

Several months into his unemployment, the small severance had run out, and our savings were gone. This time the gift came not in a box, but in a paper grocery bag. It was left in front of our garage door. There was a card signed in stamped letters that said simply, “You are loved.” The bag was full of food. I wept.

Food had begun to be a problem.  We are a family of six.  It was time to go to our local food shelf. I’d been there to donate.  I never thought I’d be in need of their services. We were greeted by smiling volunteers and counseled for intake by a true gentlewoman.  Though it was so hard to take this huge step no one who donates to food shelves thinks they’ll take, we left with the gift of our dignity, wrapped in brown paper bags full of food and sundries. Our grocery bills were just too big to keep up with.  Hell, all our bills were big.  Electricity, water, garbage…

COBRA.  For those of you who’ve never needed it, it is a law requiring all employers to extend health benefits to laid-off employees for 18 months, but at full cost to the former employee.  For us that meant our healthcare costs were almost equal to our house payment.  But we had to do it. We couldn’t let anyone in our family go uninsured.  We loathed and scoffed at it at the time because it was so expensive. But then it ran out. Our gift was wrapped in the 18 enormous checks we had written for our healthcare.  Inside was gratitude for those 18 months of healthcare and the wisdom to recognize our naiveté at our insistence that we would never be able to do without it.  Because we did.

My husband and I are still uninsured. All of the children are now covered.  We found ways to cut some of our medical expenses by switching to cheaper prescription drugs, which in some cases was no small sacrifice. We carefully thought through every doctor visit, every medical test. We used minute clinics for acute illnesses. We shopped around for the cheapest pharmacy. We were gifted with self sufficiency and control at a time when those things seemed to have vanished from our lives. We now have a different outlook on health care in our nation, and no, we do not believe in ObamaCare or any form of national socialized medicine programs for the general population. But we do see how each of us plays a role in the enormous cost of medical care in America.

Lest you think I’m some kind of freaky, bubble-minded saint, I will freely admit we weren’t discovering a gift around every corner. Sometimes the discovery came months later.  Someone told us after about 18 months of unemployment that the depression in our house was so great it was palpable when coming through our front door. That’s hard to hear. But it was true. All of us were affected in different ways, and all of us are changed.  We each went through our private hell, a hell that some of us are still clawing our way out of. Except for the baby.

She loved having my husband home full time for most of her life. If I needed a break from care giving, he would take over for a while.  If she wanted to see him, she would yell, “Papa, I need you!” in her sweet baby voice, dragging him from his never-ending computer search for work. Her gift was Papa’s always available lap, ready for her to snuggle in to learn about coins or watch country music videos. Our gift was, and is, simply her.

The next gift was enormous. We managed to hang onto our home. I would often have nightmares my family was living somewhere else, and we would drive by and watch from our car windows while another family moved in.  The nightmare reoccurred in many forms during those two years.

We didn’t hate the empty space made by the deck we tore off our house just prior to my husband’s lay off only to have to spend the savings for our new deck to survive. The back of our beloved home is ramshackle at best, and the front isn’t doing much better. When you have no money to spare, home ownership becomes a whole different animal. Our paint is peeling, our front deck is rotting, and our lawn is full of weeds because weed killers and fertilizers are not necessities. Our concrete steps are cracked and our driveway needs to be seal coated. And that’s just the outside. But we love our home more than ever. We don’t look at it and see its flaws anymore; instead we see the place where our family has grown for the past 11 years, our dream home we fought so hard to get in the first place and then to keep, though the things we had to do to keep it sometimes hurt our hearts and our dignity. But we learned sometimes a gift can come along with dents in your armor and scars you’ll bear forever.

Because behind the scars is the biggest gift of all.  It’s a gift we’ve always had, but sometimes it seemed invisible. We took it for granted many times when we did see it, because it was there all the time.  We are forever humbled by its enormity, its continuity, its loyalty.

The greatest gift is, of course, family. If not for them we would have lost our home. If not for them we would have gone hungry. If not for them we would have no electricity, heat, water, gas for our cars. If not for them, I believe our little family may have fallen apart.

They were there after friends got tired of our chronic miserable state and the invitations for dinner, drinks or just to socialize dried up just when a free meal or a break from the monotony would have been so welcome. We couldn’t afford to be “fun” anymore, I guess, so friends just stopped calling. But our family rallied around us and not only kept us financially afloat with their generous gifts—the ones that were so hard to accept, the ones that left the scars on our dignity—but they held me above water while I cried for my children, my husband, myself.

They held us up through the deaths of our two beloved dogs who died unexpectedly three months apart from each other after having been in our family for more than a decade. They held us up through the lost of my husband’s father, about whom I have written more than once on these pages. During that time we almost lost my father as well, and we lost our church home. There were times I cried out to God asking what we weren’t learning, what weren’t we getting, why was it taking so long and why was there so much loss along the way?

And there are so many answers. When I said we have changed forever, I meant it. We can divide our lives into Before Unemployment, and, mercifully, After.  Before unemployment we were wasteful. We saw the flaws in our lives, not the gifts. We dwelt more on what we didn’t have than on what we did. Though we said grace before dinner, we weren’t truly thankful for the food on our table. Things we would have complained about before don’t bother us (my husband came home after the first week of his new job and said that very thing because he’s so grateful to be working that none of the little annoyances—the ones those who feel their state of employment is untouchable see everywhere—faze him).

Unemployment and the gifts it brought taught us so much. So, this Thanksgiving, I am most grateful simply for the ability to be truly thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Oh, no, not again...

Congratulations to all of last night's winners. I am bowled over (in a good way) by the Republican take-over of the state legislature and the U.S. House. A special congrats to Erik Paulsen, David Hann, Jennifer Loon, and Kirk Stensrud. I know everybody worked so hard, and they have the results to show for it. Special kudos to Stensrud for unseating Maria Ruud, which was no small task for a new guy. All the best to all of our conservative winners, and a prayer for clarity for the other ones.

I believe we will ultimately wind up with Governor Dayton. I can't quite believe people voted for him, but I think he'll hold on to the win even after any recounts. I know there was voter fraud on many levels and in many ways, but I don't think it will matter.

A couple of questions, though. My Dad noticed last year when voting that the woman in front of him in line to put ballots in the counting machine had filled out the ballot with check marks instead of filling in the little bullets. The machine rejected her ballot, of course, so the volunteer directed her to the table to receive a new one and fill it out correctly. The volunteer then took her incorrectly-filled-out ballot and put it in a pile to the side of the counting machine. My Dad asked why the ballot wasn't being shredded or destroyed in some way, and he said that was what he was instructed to do with them.

Then we saw the recount in the Coleman/Franken debacle, and low and behold, our T.V. screens were filled with images of ballots with check marks, circles, smiley faces, you name it. Then the persons charged with the task of recounting the ballots would have to discern voter intent ("they put a smiley face next to Norm's name because they think he's laughable and wanted their vote to go to Franken," etc.) . Now, if those voters' ballots were rejected due to being improperly filled out, and they were given new ballots and instructed how to properly fill them out, and took the new ballots and put them in the counting machine, that should be their vote, right? So there would be no reason to ever count ballots improperly marked with circles, check marks and arrows, right? If someone knows why this isn't the case, fill me in.

Dad asked the same question of the volunteer last night. The volunteer said he was just following instructions, and that he didn't make the rules. Dad asked who he would have to talk to to get this looked into, and the volunteer told him he didn't know, maybe the legislature. Well, that's wrong, it's the Secretary of State, Mark Ritchie, who allowed vote counting to stop as soon as state embarrassment, Al Franken, had enough votes to win, among other very questionable tactics. Well, Ritchie was re-elected last night (does anyone read anything in this state?), so I don't think anything will change with this recount. But I would like Dad's, and now my, question addressed. Feedback, please.

One more thing before I collapse. I have read reports and viewed video tape about bus loads of mentally challenged people being taken to the polls for early voting and being instructed whom to vote for, (democrats) or in some cases, had their ballots filled out for them. There are also some reports coming in about bus loads of impaired individuals from nursing homes in the same vein. There are certainly rules about assisting disabled individuals to vote, but isn't there some rule that the person at least needs to have the mental ability to freely vote for whom they wish to vote? I would never want a disabled person to be disenfranchised, but what those people did, especially with the mentally impaired people, was, well, evil.

(Three part video about the Crow Wing County early voting fraud. Worth watching.)

And I mean EVIL. What special kind of demon do you have to be to fill a bus full of mentally handicapped individuals who, from eyewitness reports, didn't even know what they were there for or what voting was or what a polling place was, and use them as literal pawns and puppets for the democrats to get more votes for their candidates? Isn't it bad enough that four out of five dead people vote democrat? This is much worse than that.

I would guess people who would do such things may be headed for that very, very special bad place they reserve for mean nurses and bad teachers. Because they all do the same thing: take advantage of or abuse helpless people. They make me sick.

So, we have a lot to be frightened of. Mark Dayton being our governor, for one. Sick, evil people who'll use the elderly and mentally challenged to swing an election their way.

But we have a great deal to celebrate as well. All that hard work really panned out (a special nod to Chip Cravaack, who unseated the damn-near unseatable Jim Oberstar.) Now, the newly elected need to take their mandate and run with it when they are officially seated in their new jobs.

They all need our positive thoughts and prayers, especially those with whom we disagree.

Monday, November 1, 2010

BREAKING NEWS: Is Mark Dayton Really Sober?

I was doing research for this series of articles when I stumbled upon something, a word actually, that made me change direction from asking the question, "Is Mark Dayton stable," to:

Is Mark Dayton sober?

Dayton is a self-identified alcoholic who has been through treatment twice, most recently about three years ago for one full week after relapsing near the end of his senate career. Records show Dayton has only been sober for about three years. Or has he?

I ran across an article from the StarTribune, published July 4 2010, which lead me down a path that questions Mark Dayton’s sobriety. The article was titled, "Mark Dayton: a topsy-turvey ride." In the second paragraph, something caught my eye. It said, "Sipping from a bottle of kombucha, a fermented tea that has become a campaign trail staple, this former U.S. senator is trying to revive an up-and-down political career at age 63."

Fermented tea? Doesn't "fermented" usually mean something has turned to alcohol? There began my research on kombucha, the official drink of the Dayton campaign.

What I found was a treasure trove of reasons why an alcoholic shouldn't be downing kombucha tea, and if he is, he is no longer sober according to the sobriety requirements of Alcoholics Anonymous. Here's an article on Relapse Prevention, which may apply to this situation, because this tea is well known for its varying alcohol content.

A website called, " contains this heading: "Who should avoid drinking kombucha tea?" The a sub-head reads: "We strongly suggest not to use kombucha under the following circumstances:"

Alcoholics in recovery - Many recovering alcoholics have found it helpful to drink Kombucha during their recovery period. It is said to remove the desire for alcohol. But be warned though, Kombucha does contain a small quantity of alcohol, normally less that 1% by volume. Any recovering alcoholic knows that even a small quantity of alcohol can have a negative effect on them, so be careful.

Kombucha, in fact, may contain much more alcohol than mentioned above. On June 28, 2010, the New York Times reported Whole Foods pulled the product from their shelves because, "the alcohol content might be high enough to attract the attention of the federal government."

Well, they were right.

Two days later, the Treasury Department issued a warning stating kombucha may be subject to the same taxes and regulations as other beverages containing alcohol. The agency said it “is coordinating with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure kombucha products currently on the market comply with Federal laws..."

Analysts said some kombucha teas sold under brand names like Synergy can ferment after shipment, raising the alcohol content from a legal 0.5 percent or less to as high as 3 percent, similar to some beers.

Kombucha tea seems to be well known for its "buzz." In fact a lot of people flipped out when their kombucha was taken away. The way people talk about it, it’s as if they need it, not want it. There’s even a facebook site devoted to the lamentations of kombucha users deprived of their favorite drink: “Dude, Where’s my Kombucha?” You can track “bucha” sightings around the country, including a supply in Vista, CA, to be sold only to those over 21.

GT Dave, owner of Synergy Drinks, announced a recall after reports of elevated alcohol levels in Kombucha products. More publicly, Linsday Lohan blamed Kombucha for setting off her SCRAM bracelet due to its alcohol content. GT Dave believes the elevated levels may be occurring after the product has been bottled and left their facility.

If that is the case, the bottles would need new labels marking the alcohol content. Kombucha is said to increase metabolism, reduce cholesterol, and even fight the effects of ageing. Oddly enough, Kombucha has been said to cure alcoholism. This seems rather bizarre being that Kombucha contains alcohol.

One could argue, “Well, Dayton might not know it contains alcohol. So it’s not his fault.” I argue that it doesn’t matter. I once knew a recovering alcoholic who was given a glass of spiked punch at a party, which led almost immediately to heavy drinking and the destruction of his family. It doesn’t matter why an alcoholic drinks, it just matters that an alcoholic in recovery should not drink at all.

We don't know how many of these drinks he has per day. Is kombucha the reason Dayton often appears befuddled? Is it the reason he seems to slur his words at times?

There is a saying made famous by the movie, "28 Days," starring Sandra Bullock. It addresses when an addict should try to have a serious relationship. It is, in a nutshell: after an addict has become sober he should buy a potted plant. If after one year the plant is still alive, he should buy a pet. If after the second year the pet is alive, then in the third year the addict may begin to consider having a serious relationship with another person.

We don’t know exactly where Dayton falls on that sobriety spectrum. But either way it’s too soon for him to be entering into the very important relationship of governor of an entire state with responsibility for roughly five million souls. I just think it's unwise.