Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Labor Day, Retirement and Unemployment
Well, I worked in the yard. For hours and hours in the hot sun. I clipped some bushes in the front of my house. I watered a yard that is beginning to look like the Sahara. I read much of the paper. I dipped into a few pages of a novel. I tried to wade through my magazines that are piling up. I feel like I am fighting a losing battle. I talked to a friend and some family members far away. I, unfortunately, plowed through my email. I tinkered with my blog. We took a friend to lunch. I worried about my friends and family members who live in the path of the hurricane. I worked out at the Y for an hour and a half. I snoozed in a chair for about fifteen minutes.
The folk that asked this question about what am I doing are smart people. But, like most of us, they confuse being with doing. I’ve done the same thing much of my life. I’m sure I’ve walked up to people who were retired and said, “Uh, what are you doing now?” There are days when I feel funny without a business card. Shoot, I don’t even have a business! Does this make me less than a person? I hope not. We really are more than the sum total of what we do.
Take that checker in the grocery store. Is she only a checker? Nah. There are layers and layers of her life. Like most of us she is like an iceberg. You don't see most of what she is. She’s got a family. She’s worried about her boy. She found a lump in her breast and is terrified. She goes to church when she can and most Sundays the singing touches something deep down. Her varicose veins are giving her trouble as she stands behind that counter eight hours a day. Yet she smiles and asks what kind of a day you are having and makes you feel better as you wheel your cart out to the car.
He works as an Air Conditioner repairman. He told me he worked all night last night. He didn’t complain—he just stated the fact. He was the second man to work on our unit this week but this man got it fixed. He never saw the inside of a college, he doesn’t read much. He watches TV and can tell you all the stats of Alabama and Auburn. He’s got a wife that doesn’t work outside the home. He says it with pride. He has two grown kids he worries a lot about. His Mama died last year of lung cancer. Smoked too many cigarettes too many years. He told me, “You know so many people don’t think I’m important. When I come to fix their air conditioner they tell me to come in the back door. They stare at me like I’m a nobody. Yet I fixed their air conditioner when it didn’t work.”
Labor Day was declared a national holiday in 1894. It was first called a “workingmen’s holiday.” It was to celebrate all “that vital force of labor" without which we could never have made this country great. With 25 million of us either without jobs or working without benefits—this holiday and our labor force is threatened. Somehow those who supposedly govern us must help get us out of this grotesque situation. I wonder how our politicians really sleep at night knowing that out there just beyond their gated houses there are families suffering simply because they cannot find a job.
Maybe we ought to celebrate Martin Luther's King's dedication with another March on Washington. We need to remind those whom we have elected that there is more to their jobs than keeping the well-heeled happy so they have enough money in their coffers to keep their own benefits coming. And so on this approaching Labor Day I think of that Grocery store checker and that good man who must walk through too many back doors to keep us cool. I think of all those others who would work if some door opened and someone invited them in, not only to fill out an application but to help them do what they would give anything to do once more. Labor Day is more than saying Rah-Rah to the working force—it should be a commitment from all of us to change this lop-sided way we have of doing our business.
What do you do? They asked. Well, maybe not much. But if enough of us raised our voices and really cared about those not as lucky as we have been maybe, just maybe, we could change this sad picture.
If you did not read Nicholas Kristof's splendid article in the Sunday New York Times on unemployment--I recommend.