The Bad Economics of a Broken Unemployment System

February 26, 2015

How in the world is a dysfunctional unemployment system good for the economy? Looking at the facts of my own situation, I find it difficult to understand how the lack of a real support network is good for the community living beyond my own personal financial crisis. I have less money to spend and invest in the local economy, and I have less time and energy to devote to community and volunteer causes.

In September, I was fired from a job at which I earned $41,000/year. Having worked at that job for more than seven years, I should have been eligible to receive unemployment benefits. These benefits exist not just to help taxpayers through periods of unexpected unemployment, but also to give them the time they need to find jobs offering compensation comparable to what they were making before they lost their jobs. After applying for unemployment benefits, I received no communications about my application for more than four months. I could not afford to live without income for an extended period of time so I grabbed at every employment opportunity that came along. Those opportunities paid between $7.25/hr (grocery store) and $20/hr (catering). I now have a temporary office job that pays $12.50/hr. I can’t afford not to have this job, but neither can I afford to live on what it pays. I pay $182/month out of pocket for health insurance offered through the Affordable Care Act.

Any job offering a salary in the ballpark of my last full time job would likely have an extended application process. Without unemployment benefits, I can’t afford not to work while looking for a job that would compensate me commensurately with my experience (to use the popular phrase). But with a low-paying full time job, I have fewer hours to conduct a productive job search  and to prepare outstanding application materials.

In mid-February, my state’s Department of Labor and Industry sent me three determination letters that deemed me eligible overall to receive unemployment benefits. In late February, I received a fourth determination letter that ruled me ineligible to receive benefits because (for tax filing purposes only) I have my own business as a film projectionist. I work as an independent contractor at one theater and I was able to make $885 in October due to overtime; in December, by contrast, there was no work for me at all. (More typically, I make between $100 and $400/month as a film projectionist, and this has remained true during my unemployment.) It is shocking that a peak monthly income of $885 should disqualify me from receiving unemployment benefits–especially since those benefits would total twice as much. The Department of  Labor apparently rewards those who make no attempt to work right away and who can afford not to do so.

My current monthly earnings total half of what I was making before I lost my job. I can’t afford to live on these wages so I have to forge ahead with my job search. If I am invited to interview, I need to lose income in order to attend that interview. If history is any indication, the odds are not in my favor that an offer will ultimately be made. Is it worth risking the missed income to pursue an interview or multiple rounds of interviews? There is much about unemployment that is demoralizing, but it need not be such a financial struggle. It’s hard to have confidence that I will be able to secure a job at the level and salary of the one I recently held. I am fiscally conservative by nature, but my current lack of security is making me even more guarded in my spending. I don’t feel like I can spend money I don’t have and that I might never recoup. I am not the only person who has experienced unemployment. Can the economy really afford a stable of workers who fly without nets when they are unemployed, who jump at undervalued opportunities to become employed and who adopt the nervous spending habits of those who worry they will again be unemployed? As I see it, a more responsive and functional unemployment system would not only benefit unemployed individuals, but also the broader community that would benefit from a more affluent consumer base.


The Messiah Is Water Music

December 15, 2014

An impulse brought me to Amsterdam and Handel brought me to the Concertgebouw. Tis the season for liturgical glory so I signed right up for a performance of The Messiah. I’m neither religious by nature nor Christian by culture, but I’m not a stone either so the “Hallelujah” chorus is a rousing prospect. I regret to admit that I was not moved. I don’t know if I blame the hall or the performers or a spiritual deficiency within me. I felt like I was experiencing the music underwater. I was there, but not there. The performers were there, but “through a glass darkly.” It was the concert equivalent of watching the slow motion life that is controlled and contained within the four flat walls of an aquarium. Even my appreciation of the “Hallelujah” chorus felt tempered and mediated. I wanted to be overcome with feeling, but the sound within the hall was less than overwhelming. I didn’t want “period-correct”; I wanted more singers, more horn players, more, more, more! I felt like the pitiable American who always prefers BIG to the more subtle option.

The concert ended and the crowd went wild. Everyone was on their feet and no one was running for the coat check. I made my way slowly toward the stage so that I could make a quick exit when the clapping stopped. But the clapping didn’t stop until the singers returned onstage to encore their “Hallelujahs.” The glass was broken and suddenly we were all sharing this moment. The singers were no longer singing at the audience, but smiling at each other and connecting with individual people throughout the hall. The horn was triumphant. The basses proclaimed that “he will live for ever and ever” and the other voices rejoiced. I couldn’t move for all the water in my eyes: a room full of Dutch people and I wept openly!


This Tornado Loves Me

October 6, 2013

Grabbing at the words to describe Neko Case’s voice is an exercise in contrived metaphors. We all know that leaving the job to mere adjectives would be insulting so we just keep searching for that elusive comparison that will help us comprehend her miraculous sound. I was reminded of this during a concert last Wednesday. I’ve seen Neko perform more than any other artist, more times than I can even remember. I’m endlessly moved by her recordings and live performances, but I can’t describe why.

As far as I can explain, her music has always been the sound of everything I want my life to be–powerful, brutal, vulnerable, wounded, cutting, knowing, unpredictable, self-aware, surprising, exhilarating  and so on. It is so much the stuff of my waking dreams that I frequently feel as if I inhabit a space inside of it. There’s a wetness to her voice that suggests the moist soil where new things grow. And if she is the sound of “new life,” she is also the sound of “escape the familiar.” She is the sound of “quit your soul-killing day job,” “be bolder” and “be uncompromising when necessary.” She is the sound of beautiful, joyful, righteous rebellion, and I felt myself readying for rebellion as last week’s concert began to affect me. I have to admit that this took me by surprise. I didn’t know I needed to rebel and I certainly didn’t expect to find the inciting experience in the voice of a favorite singer. But I do know that I heard what I was supposed to hear. I don’t yet know what form my rebellion must take, but I heard that it’s coming.

Union-Busting on Labor Day

September 3, 2013

This was a hard summer for Philadelphians.  Our school district faces an unprecedented funding crisis and both our Democratic mayor and Republican governor have proved unwilling to put public education ahead of private, corporate and penal interests.  (In a widely contested decision, the state refused to fill a $304 million school funding gap, deciding instead to allocate $400 million to the construction of a controversial new state prison.) This crisis did not jump fully formed out of the belly of the beast.  The District has long been a test rat for all kinds [of] education ‘reform’ experiments since the state took control of the District in 2002.  Many of these experiments were explicitly intended to create opportunities for privatization efforts.  In 2002, a third of the District’s schools were farmed out to private managing companies.  Far less successful than either traditional public schools or charter schools, most (all?) of these “privatized” schools have since been closed or given back to the District. This has not slowed the assault on public education in this city.

I am a spectator to this drama–not a student, parent, teacher, administrator or politician.  But I am a voter, a District alumna and a concerned citizen.  And I am deeply disturbed by the vicious and unrelenting attacks on District teachers.  For years, career teachers have been demonized by politicians and ‘reformers’ as lazy ‘welfare mother-types’ intent on collecting cushy pensions while urban students are left to languish in a cesspool of illiteracy, ignorance and violence.  We’re meant to feel sorry for young, energetic teachers who are discouraged by jealous older teachers and administrators.  We’re supposed to feel bad for hard-working young teachers who get fantastic results, but who are under-compensated due to archaic union pay scales.  To my mind, the only thing that is really sabotaging relationships between younger and older teachers is a very strategic effort to take down the union.  Younger teachers are being told that they will benefit once merit pay is introduced [and the union is dismantled].  This makes no sense on multiple fronts:

No professional is excellent from Day 1.  If one is lucky, one will quickly become proficient, but true excellence is hard won.

Teaching is a difficult job that demands a diverse skill set.  Many skilled educators have difficulty controlling students’ behavior.  Many personable disciplinarians have skimpy teaching skills.  Few teachers have “the whole package” and no teacher–no matter how outstanding–will ever have a positive impact on every student.  Like all good professionals, teachers strive to improve upon their natural talents and develop their lesser skills.  Collegiality is critical to this kind of development.  Teachers should not be made into competitors for merit pay–this will never be in the best interest of students (or teachers).  The union pay scale may not be perfect, but it encourages both the professionalization of teaching and the growth of teacher mentor relationships.  When pay increases are predictable (and linked to experience and continuing education), teachers can better support and relate to each other and to the development of their profession.

Teacher performance is student performance (which is not quantifiable).

Teacher performance is most frequently measured by student performance on standardized tests.  Standardized tests measure neither knowledge nor acquisition of skills and creativity; they measure a student’s ability to unlock the rules of a very specific game.  When students suddenly improve markedly on standardized tests[,] this is generally because a teacher has started ‘teaching to the test,’ has taught the particular questions that will appear on the test or has changed student answers on the test.  None of these teacher behaviors warrant merit pay.

We need teachers–not soldiers.

We need teachers who will not only impart knowledge and skills, but who will teach our students how to think.  Our classrooms don’t need ‘teachers’ who can accept teaching from a script.  Students present a wide range of abilities, experiences and situations; we need nimble and creative educators who can respond to students’ unique challenges and give those students the particular skills they need to overcome those challenges to the best of their abilities.

I am worried at how the state’s politicians have pitted younger teachers against older teachers.  In the long run, younger teachers with aspirations of long teaching careers will never benefit from merit pay–and they will only be left more vulnerable if they lose their rights to collective bargaining. Our students will never benefit from a steady stream of inexperienced teachers who dream of teaching just long enough to pad their resumes.

I am worried at how the state’s politicians have pitted citizens and students against teachers.  The governor is now holding hostage $42 million in promised funds to the District until the Philadelphia teachers union makes satisfactory concessions.  The state is demanding that teachers give back 5-13% of their income (an average of $7,000 per teacher) before it will release the funds.  Who is the beneficiary when teachers are denigrated?  How does this help our students?  Who do we expect to teach our students when teaching is no longer a reliably middle class profession?  Why don’t we want our teachers to make a middle class living?

It’s Labor Day and we’re poised at the start of a new school year. It’s outrageous that our politicians who preach shared sacrifice offer nothing to our students or teachers.  Why aren’t we demanding that our politicians volunteer to give back 13% of their salaries? Until they provide the funding that our students need for the public education they are entitled to, we must continue to make noise and continue to make clear that we will be replacing all of our politicians who stand against teachers and education.

Letter Loves: A January Project

January 13, 2013

Here are the rules for the January project:

Contact me if you would like to participate.

Write a letter from one historical or contemporary celebrity to another (ie, a love letter from Elvis Presley to Virginia Woolf).  Fictional characters are accepted, but not encouraged.

Send me a message if you need help picking your figures.

Send me a message if you would like to submit figures for others to choose from.

Mail me your letter once it is written.

I will mail you one original letter and photocopies of all the others.

Let me know if you have any questions.

Have fun!

Timing Is Everything

July 25, 2012

Musings on playwriting:

I am still riding high from an early performance of Wendy MacLeod’s new play, Women In Jep.  Produced through the Arden Theater’s new writer-in-residence program, Jep is a manic black comedy that’s got me thinking both about the value of this residency program and the impossible task of writing good comedy. The Arden has several interesting posts about the program on its blog, including one by MacLeod herself.  She mentions that she had never before casted a play before she’d finished writing it.  And she says that it was helpful to have the actors’ voices in her head as she continued to rewrite so that she could write to their particular strengths.  I wanted to hear more about why it would be good to write a play to the strengths of a particular set of actors.  Shouldn’t a script have more flexibility?  Why isn’t it enough for characters to be consistent in their own internal logic?  What do actors have to do with developing the world and characters of a play?

And yet!  And yet this is one of the best productions of a comedy I’ve ever seen.  Smartly directed and deliciously acted, the play uses this theater company exceedingly well.  There were a number of humdinger lines that had the audience laughing out loud for the better part of two hours, but there were a number of equally hilarious lines that were not, in fact, hilarious in themselves.  (I would love to see how this play looks on the page!)  These actors are master interpreters who wrung every possible laugh out of establishing lines seemingly designed just to advance scenes or conversations.  I don’t know how a playwright could diagram a script’s lines to achieve the perfect pacing and timing on display in this production.  How could a playwright indicate on the page the layered rhythms and pitches of multiple characters in excited conversation?

Earlier this year, I saw a production of Body Awareness at the Wilma Theater.  After the performance, the playwright, Annie Baker, was on hand to talk about the play (her first) and her other work.  She talked about the importance of rhythm (and the effect of silence and pauses) to her plays.  She indicates where pauses should occur in her scripts and notes that if the pauses are dismissed in a production then a different play altogether is being performed.  She likened her plays to a composer’s score where rests are as necessary as notes if the correct time and musical sentences are to be maintained.  This approach would seem to bring some standardization across productions, but it would also seem to regard actors and directors (and, perhaps, collaboration generally) with distrust.  Does such precise direction within a script turn a play into something that can be assembled if the instructions are carefully followed?  How do we build a better play?

I’m fascinated by both approaches to playwriting, but I still can’t understand how either leads to sustained success.  … but I’m more than happy to clock my hours in theater chairs as a willing student and researcher.

In the Ether

February 7, 2012

I want to lay down my offerings and give deep thanks to MoMA for the dazzling de Kooning retrospective that recently closed.  I gotta hand it to those curators: they really know how to hang a show for maximum effect.  I love abstract expressionism, but it has got to be hung right.  Many of its most well-known artists sit uneasily in each other’s company.  I don’t like walking into a room with one Pollack and one Krasner and one Rothko and one Kline.  But a huge gallery hung with nothing but Pollacks or Rothkos is like jumping into a paint can and having all your three wishes granted by the genie inside.

The de Kooning show followed his work’s natural chronology, but it gave fascinating insight into his technique.  The man was like the Fred Astaire of visual art; his brush couldn’t dance but elegantly.  And this was particularly evident as he ventured ever deeper into abstraction; every stroke and flourish registered gracefully.  I am reminded of a compliment I once read on the wall of the Whitney.  A fellow artist (Duchamp?) said that Calder was a master of the line in space.  When I first read the observation, I had no idea what it could possibly mean.  I thought it was a totally abstract concept.  But the thought has stayed with me for years and it has powerfully informed how I’ve grown to observe the world.  … And I can’t think of a better description of de Kooning’s gift and burden.

It was fascinating to see his experiments in ‘unlearning’ his mastery: test drawings where he drew with his eyes closed or with his less dominant hand.  Each era of his art-making explored new ways of simplifying his compositions and stripping away unnecessary layers.  It seems that beauty itself was simply one more component to be removed from the picture and it took all his concentration to lose it.

The exhibit’s final rooms display the poetry of transcendence.  Out of context, I’d likely think very little of these works.  The palette is out of sync with my core attractions and the shapes hold no obvious resonances for me.  Yet, the journey through this exhibit gives the visitor an intuitive understanding of the work.  To see the ’80s paintings after moving though everything that came before is to experience them as the perfection of an idea, a life’s work and a spiritual search.  Clearly, the question is not about the meaning of life, but about the meaning of a life’s work.

In Praise of America

December 7, 2011

I don’t know how to speak of America.  How to feel proud of it or ashamed of it.  Though I strive to be a good citizen, I don’t know what it means to be a patriot.  But, earlier this week, I understood something of what it means to believe in America.  I enjoyed a performance of Dvořák’s New World Symphony and was, to my utter surprise, stirred deeply as an American.  I was surprised to discover that it was exciting and diverse in ways I’d never realized before.  Previously, I experienced the piece as a monolith, a single extraordinary composition.  This time I heard snatches of British folk music, German classical conventions, American Indian strains and that stubborn, utterly Slavic melody that Serge Gainsbourg memorably sampled in his ode to Brigitte Bardot.  But most lovely and most spiritual was the English horn solo at the beginning of the second movement.  I first learned this melody in elementary school as “Freedom Land, Glory Land” and it sounds like the promise of America, the best America possibly envisioned.  As played by Elizabeth Starr Masoudnia it was impossibly beautiful and I can’t believe there is a more wondrous America than the one pictured in the imagination of a smitten foreign visitor.

Under My Skin

October 30, 2011

I’ve been scratching at an itch I didn’t know I had ever since I saw the delicious new production of August: Osage County now on at the Arden Theater.  I’ve been scratching so hard that I had to see it a second time before I could sort out all the ideas it inspired about families and playwriting and acting and Philadelphia.  I can’t remember the last time the theater gave me such a rash!  I hope the compliment registers if I admit that this production made me want to sit in a tubful of oatmeal and just ponder.

I went into the show cold, knowing very little about it aside from a few dim memories of the  Broadway reviews.  It’s a hell of show to see while you’re waiting for your grandmother to die… especially if you come from a family of stubborn women!  And I guess that’s what’s most interesting to me: the cruelty that comes of intimacy.  It’s so much easier to be mean when you understand your mark.

I have a lot more thinking to do about the play and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of the script so I can start chewing on the stage directions.  There’s nothing I want more than to see how Letts instructs the oldest daughter to wear her dead father’s bathrobe.  It’s so darn elegant: the more desperately she tries to win the dead man’s favor through imitation, the quicker she starts morphing into her treacherous mother.  If I’ve ever wondered how a playwright communicates ideas or relationships without relying on dialogue, then this ratty old bathrobe is the answer.

But, bizarrely, this production affected me most profoundly as a Philadelphian.  Though I’m a native Philadelphian [and therefore endowed with unreasonable civic pride], I tend to see more theater in New York. I’ve continued to catch occasional local shows, but I’d forgotten how much better Philadelphia productions can be.  The strange thing about regional theater is that it takes chances Broadway cannot afford; this is particularly true of casting.  Ten years ago, I saw Wit in both Philadelphia and New York.  The New York production featured TV star Judith Light and led me to admire the play’s fine writing.  The Philadelphia production starred unfamiliar local actors, but it uncovered the play’s rhythm and emotional center.

I did not see the Broadway production of August so I can’t compare it to the Philadelphia production.  (And the Broadway version featured most of the original Steppenwolf cast, underlining the play’s deep roots in distinguished regional theater.)  But the Philadelphia production made me proud of how the local theater scene has developed. We have a stable of fine actors who are committed to the region and who bring the history of past collaborations  to their performances.  I hope that Philadelphia becomes even more of an incubator for coherent companies that nurture playwrights, actors, directors, technicians and all variety of collaboration.  I am thrilled to the core and I thank the Arden for these shivers.

Everyday Performance Art

July 21, 2011

I’ve been taking tai chi classes for just over two years.  Not really because I care about my health, or clearing my mind, or learning how to defend myself.  I go simply because I like being at the classes.  My teacher is probably the most graceful person I have ever encountered and it’s as disheartening as it is inspiring to see him turn the act of walking, the act of punching, the act of standing perfectly still into poetry.  He once explained to my class that we must be more determined if we want to attain grace: we must think even about how we raise a glass of water to our lips and resolve to do it beautifully.  So it’s not surprising that everything about his person, his studio and his classes seems always to be evolving into something more lovely than it was the week before.

I am particularly fascinated by his studio.  When I first started studying with him, he had just moved into the space and it was mostly empty.  He has regularly added plants and furniture, but the studio has been transformed by smaller changes as well.  From week to week, a small stone will be moved from a plant stand to a table.  Or a hanging decoration will be moved from one spot on the wall to another.  These movements never leave the marks of clumsiness – they always feel entirely intentional.  Since I can’t say for sure whose hand is doing the moving, the room has started to feel alive in its own right, as if it’s growing and changing from week to week.

I think of my tai chi studio as the best kind of performance art: the work of someone who is constantly working towards a more perfect beauty, whether anyone is noticing or not.  This is somebody who lives his life as an artist, constantly creating out of the raw materials set before him.

I was poking around MoMA’s website and I stumbled upon this video documenting the installation of a recent show, Song Dong’s “Waste Not.”  The show displayed all the hoarded trash and contents of the artist’s mother’s house.  It makes artistic sense of [the destructive act of] obsessive collecting.  But this video takes the art even further into the realm of performance.  The mundane work of mounting a show as complicated as this one makes for compelling video.  If we could all see our lives through the distance of time-lapsed moving pictures, maybe we could better comprehend the exquisite performance art of the everyday.