Getting Laid-off (again)

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These are layoff notices. Receiving two of these for a two-income family is a bad day. A really bad day. Today, we have two incomes. On July 1, we will have 0 incomes and no benefits. Over the past year, two of the key phrases heard have been “more jobs” and “drain the swamp.” Well. This is what that policy looks like folks. In Alaska, that has translated into firing many thousands of people and eliminating the option for even collecting unemployment insurance. The real bottom dwellers in our political system are the politicians who only act in the interest of people who give them money. In all other countries of the world, this would be considered bribery or graft. In our country we all pretend it’s ‘free speech’ and then try to go about our business as if it’s not going on at all. As the state moves to lay off some 20,000 people, the politicians will continue to be paid, and no-doubt, be receiving money from their well-heeled benefactors to keep them going.

To digress from the political rant a bit, and make this into something more positive, I posted something like this almost exactly two years ago. In response to the layoff threat two years ago, I went and got a new job. A job that would free me from the threat, a job that would offer me opportunities for advancement, and an opportunity that might make me more marketable in the broader economy.

That new job was generally most of the things I hoped it would be though to be honest, it was no less subject to layoffs than where I’d left. While there, I realized that there is no longer such a thing as a ‘stable job’. The best you can hope for is a marketable skill set and a local economy good enough to shop that around. That said, the job I got turned out to be what I describe as a hostile environment. Based on things I learned at ADF&G, I tried to be inclusive. Things go better when you involve your team and other folks who’s support you will need to proceed. I attempted this and for the first year or so received mostly responses of “well, it’s complicated, good luck”, and (quite literally), “I hope your project fails.” That last one stung the most, even though I tried to roll past it with good nature.

That hostile environment is one of the reasons I left. You can either be an agent of change or shrug and let them carry on. When my old job at ADF&G opened up and the possibility to return came to me, I was in a meeting being told about all of the things I wasn’t doing right at the new place. To be clear, the purpose of this meeting was to explain that I didn’t have the resources and might not make the deadlines set in spite of every attempt to get there. With this option in hand, I spent a few nights thinking very, very hard about what it meant. And yes, it did mean possible layoffs, but that’s going to be true across the board with the Trump administration gutting government – no job is safe. I concluded that, for the benefit of my family life, I needed to leave the job even with layoffs a distinct possibility. So. I left. There were other options, some lucrative, some very risky, but they were there, once I really started putting myself out there.

What that short-lived foray out of ADFG did give me, however, was a sense of optimism and life satisfaction with my old position that I desperately needed. Just six months back and I am a genuinely happier person with a seriously adjusted attitude for optimism. Even though both myself and my wife are going, as likely as not, to be out of work and out of health benefits without even the prospect to collect unemployment, I feel more optimistic about what comes after. There are no plans for me to bail from where I am, and I’m not even looking. Not because I’m not worried, but because I really like my job and want to hang on to it and because even if I’m asked not to come back in the end, I know there are options out there. If this extends into a month or longer and we default on our mortgage or wrack up tens of thousands of dollars in surprise medical bills or perhaps just lose a car or two for failing to make the bills, I know I can find ways to start digging us out. We probably won’t be living in a cardboard box.

The truth of the matter is that, I genuinely believe that the politicians engineering this shutdown really do want to inflict damage on state employees and, indeed, the state economy as a whole. If we’re in a shambles and desperate for work, we will sacrifice freedom, income, health, education, property, and environment to feed our family. They know this. So too do the politicians in Washington. If you make us hungry, we will beg. That said, I’m also confident that we’ll pull through this mess. Perhaps poorer, perhaps without the land we’ve worked so damn hard to get and keep, or even some of the nice things we’ve gown accustomed to, like the ability to afford reliable transportation and the certainty of our next meal. What I do know – what I believe – is in spite of the concerted political attack on families by our politicians, we’ll figure it out, even if we have to move to Canada.

The Wild West is all Wrong

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Everyone’s seen at least bits and pieces of a western. You’ve got gunslingers and bandits, train robberies and shootouts. I’m not a historian, so I couldn’t tell you what the real wild west was like, but I live in a place that people still take for the wild west. I was out doing some shopping last night and this thought hit me, it’s fictionalish, and I couldn’t quite turn it into flash fiction, but here it is:

It’s a little late in the evening, but I need to hit the grocery story for a beer and breakfast for the kids. On my way along the two-lane country road, a huge jacked up truck crawls right up to my bumper. I check my speed it’s fifty-five, a few above the speed limit. He blasts his horn and roars past belching black smoke. Back of the bed is adorned with a pair of flags, the confederate battle flag on one side and a yellow flag with a snake in the middle on the right hand side. I slow a bit so he doesn’t clip me as he rolls into my lane a little too soon. Then he brake-checks me. I dive to the right and slam on my brakes. He floors it, tearing off into the dark.

I’m alright, my heart rate is up a bit, but the car’s not hurt and I’m still on the road. It happens all the time. Driving along, minding my own business and someone takes it upon themselves to bully the guy driving the beat up minivan. There isn’t anyone to deter or check the behavior. Doesn’t matter how dangerous it is. The people here just won’t pay for police, so there aren’t any. The truth is, I know this guy though he doesn’t know me. He’ll keep doing it until he spins out of control on that little road. That truck will flip three times and roll over on to a sedan with a small family in it. Three people will be dead, including the driver of the truck. When the dust settles, all of his friends will talk about what a good person he was and all of the good things he did and what a terrible freak accident it was. There won’t be a word paid to the unacceptable behavior this young man and the absolute disregard he has for the health and safety of other people.

By the time I get to the store, I’m already ready to be home, but I can’t remember all of the things I’m supposed to get, I’m too stressed out. There’s an overweight man at the check out counter, he’s wearing a cowboy hat and a t-shirt that reads ‘You can have your hope and change, I’m keeping my guns and money.’ He’s sporting a tough expression and has a .45 strapped to his hip. Turns out I know this guy too, but he doesn’t know who I am. His gun may be conspicuous, but it’s a naive gesture at best. He’s never shot a living thing in his life, doesn’t have the stomach for it. What’s really going on is that he’s afraid, he’s bought into the fear that someone, who he’s helped to arm, will roll into his rural grocery store and start shooting people up. The irony is that the man isn’t involved in illegal activities, he’s cautious, he’ll never see a shootout, no, he’ll die of a heart attack. Something he’s always assumed won’t happen to him, he’s too tough for that sort of nonsense.

I move past the register by the customer service desk. The manager is standing there looking every bit the part of a zombie. Even though I make eye-contact, he doesn’t acknowledge my presence. He doesn’t know me, but it turns out I know him. He was the valedictorian of his class who had decided to take a year off to save up. In that year he broke his arm and had reconstructive surgery. All of the money he had saved up went to pay for his hand. Another year went by and more expenses came, there was no savings for college, then another and another, and he met a young woman, and decided to put it off. Some twenty years later, here he is, divorced twice and working a job he hates.

Finally, I remember what I came for, it was in the freezer section. The girl stocking back there looked up, and then turned away to go do something else. She’s cute, perhaps 19, lots of curves, but fit. I remember her from twenty years ago, just after high school. Tonight she’s going to go back to the apartment she shares with a couple of friends where she’ll drink too much. She’s going to have sex with one of those guys. Later, she’ll giggle uncomfortably as she explains to another girlfriend of hers that she accidentally had sex with a guy, and that she didn’t really want to. She’ll never call it for what it is, rape. Her friend won’t ever call it that either. After all, she’s a flirt, she must have been asking for it. Everyone believes that.

With breakfast in hand, I wander over to the liquor store, pick up my six pack and hit the check-out. The woman I’m staring at is wearing a grimace her acne is as bad as I’ve ever seen and she’s rail thin. She looks as though she’s pushing sixty, but no, she’s no older than I am. I’m staring at the woman, she has a familiar face. Then it hits me I knew her back when too, she doesn’t remember me though. She left home just after high-school and started experimenting with drugs. At first it was just pot, truth be told though she was doing enough of that back before graduation. She wanted more experiences, acid, coke, then meth, and now heroin. It’s left her as no more than a skeletal representation of what a person should look like.

When I leave the store, I drop the six pack in the back of the van with the little sack of groceries. I’ll retreat to my little house in the woods, lock my doors and hope that someone doesn’t break in in the middle of the night. This here, this is the wild west, it is and was, and it’s not good, and if this is how people want it, it’s not a place we can take much pride in.


photo credit: Last light of the day via photopin (license)

It’s hot out there

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There it is again. You could make an argument that it sounds about like any other prop-driven aircraft, excepting the DC-6 has a low throbbing growl, perhaps owing to the weight 3,000 gallons of fire retardant it’s hauling. In some respects that sound should be reassuring. It means that someone is looking out for us, yet it’s thoroughly disturbing, because you only hear them when there’s a fire nearby.

Fire season comes every summer. Around here the worst of it usually seems to be in the springtime when folks are trying to clear away brush and the tinder-dry trees have yet to get a few good rain-showers. Further north, it tends to be worse later, in large part, because of increased lightening activity and much hotter, drier conditions.

As I listen to the fading hum of the aircraft engines, I start to wonder. Is this the year? I mean, it could be. Everything is green and we’re hardly in to May. In spite of repeteted threats, the daily appearance of ominous looking clouds have failed to do more than spit a few drops of rain for the last several months. Is this the year of the fire?

I’ve lived in Alaska for over 35 years, and I can’t recall ever having had spring this early. As a child I can remember hunting easter eggs in calf-deep snow. I may have been short and it was the granular dessicated snow of late winter that has a way of working it’s way into the top of your shoe and causing ankle freeze, but it was still snow. This year, my kids didn’t have an Easter egg hunt, but if they had, it would have been in above-freezing weather without snow under the swelling buds of the birches.

For years we’ve been hearing the phrase ‘early fire-season’. It’s been said routinely enough now I reckon it’s safe to just call it normal. Every one of those years I’ve heard it, I’ve wondered if wild fire will devastate the Anchorage hillside, reaching even into mid-town, displacing tens of thousands of residents. Perhaps, it will be Wasilla instead, burning through the sprawling suburban neighborhoods and even across Lake Lucille where flaming ash could alight on Sarah Palin’s house, causing even her to eat her words on climate change.

I don’t know, but what I do know is that every year, the feeling of danger is lurking just at the edge of my conscience. Sometimes it’s just general discomfort. This year, it’s a little worse. As I drove home listening to a report of the evacuation of Fort McMurray, Alberta, a northern city with a population of 80,000, I saw a jaw-clenching sight from the highway. A column of smoke, much too close to home, rising from the patch of land between the Knik arm and the Talkeetna mountians. It was not the smoke of a controlled burn. It was a wide band heralding the arrival of a potentially dangerous wild-fire.

As I thought of those people in Canada, with so little time to gather their most precious belongings and head for safe ground, I wonder, is this going to be my lot this year too? What will we do with the animals? If I have only 45 minutes to evacuate what to I take? Where will I go? How will many thousands of people evacuate on only three routes, two of which are only two-lane highways.

It also begs the question, how the hell did we get here? March used to be a bitterly cold bitch of a month. The past few years have been pretty damn mild, really. I understand that it’s an El Nino year, a year where warm ocean currents poke much further north than usual, but I’ve been through those before. They’ve been nothing like this. Is this what we can expect from climate change? Is this the shape of things to come? Will the fires continue to close in our our Alaskan urban centers until disaster? I expect the answer is yes. In spite of all caution and tireless heroics of our wildland fire crews, we could very well find ourselves watching as any one of the most populated areas of our state burns.

I know, perhaps this is all a doomsday scenario, after all the story is hardly a 3rd line note in the local news outlets, failing even to beat out an electronic-device sniffing dog, but as I sit and watch the thermometer outside my window with disbelief, listen to yet another DC-6 rumble overhead, and wait for the golden sky to turn hues of pink and orange, I wonder just how unrealistic it is. After-all, green trees before the end of April? Who ever heard of such a thing?