All we know about the woman in this photograph is that she was 80 years old in November, 1936, when Dorothea Lange took her picture, and at the time she was living in a camp for migrant workers outside Bakersfield, California.
If we think of her in the context of the times, we can deduce that she and her family were probably among the thousands of farmers forced to migrate from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California in search of work. This would mean that she had been enduring dislocation and acute poverty for some time.
Yet the old woman's look is strong and her demeanor is positive. The shadow from the hand that shields her eyes from the bright sunlight obscures much of her face, but we can see enough to know that she is looking straight ahead and determined to keeping moving forward.
Everything about her embodies the courage expressed in the philosophy of life she shared with Lange in a brief dialogue just before the picture was taken. "If you lose your pluck," she said, "you lose the most there is in you—all you've got to live with."
At the Daily Grind coffee shop in Cortland, New York, I watched a steady stream of farmers in overalls, contractors in flannel shirts, and 9-to-5 employees in business dress, and I thought about how every town or neighborhood has a hub like this. Find a Daily Grind, full of regulars who stop in on their way to work, and you've found the heart of the work life of a city.
Listening to what was being said there, it became clear to me that the Cortlanders whose daily ritual I was observing were trying to make a living in a place where that is not always an easy thing to do—the town has an 11% unemployment rate and negative job growth.
People usually go about about dealing with work being hard to find in three distinct ways.
A 2005 article in the London Evening Standard about overwhelmed working women advised them “not to struggle into work when ill but to stay at home and rest.” Likewise, the November 2009 issue of Working Women magazine cautioned readers against “dragging [their] fever-ridden [bodies] into the office.”
Under ordinary circumstances, this would be simply a matter of common sense, but the economic slowdown we are experiencing has eroded our sense of work security and had the effect of making people fearful that their absence from work, even for a day or two, could have disastrous consequences. In a new context, this simple advice deserves a closer look.
In Crazy Busy, author and physician Edward Hallowell talks about having to go to work regardless of your physical condition as if it were something that belongs to the past, like the experience of the lower classes as described in Dickens’s novels. But is it?
Raise a glass half full to 2010!” said the headline.
Whenever I thumb through one of those women’s magazines, the kind with a photograph of a triple-layer chocolate mousse cake on the cover with a caption promising twelve effortless ways of slimming down, I usually forget what I’ve read as soon as I’ve read it, but the idea of toasting the new year with a glass half full resonated with me because it is both realistic and hopeful. Realistic because it acknowledges what isn’t there as well as what is. Hopeful because it offers the choice of where to put your energy with a more complete understanding of what’s missing.
Negativity being inherent in the human condition, most of us don’t have any trouble seeing what’s wrong or missing in our lives. But how do we, particularly in times like these, learn to “accentuate the positive,” as the Johnny Mercer song says?
So many of us are trying to manage the busy-ness of the four week sprint between Thanksgiving and Christmas with the aid of technology. Yet I’m beginning to wonder if electronic calendars really assure productivity, or if they simply create the illusion that we can do more with the twenty-four hours that make up a day than our ancestors, who marked the passing of time with pillars of stone or sundials, did.
We need to meet with a client, or attend a board meeting, or arrange an evening with our spouse, so we click to see if there is room in the little window that pops up. If there is, we book it.
What usually doesn’t happen in the few seconds it takes to add yet another commitment to our lives is any real thought given to the needs of our body, mind and spirit.
Nowadays Clancy's is open, but if you passed by any other time of year, you'd think it had gone out of business. And it has, except for the turnips.
When I moved here to Eastham a dozen years ago, Clancy's was a thriving farm stand. It was always manned by a member of the family with whom I enjoyed chatting, usually about the Red Sox. It was there whenever I wanted a sandwich made with tomato fresh from the vine. Trips to Clancy's were a highlight of my summer.
As the years passed, the amount of produce dwindled and the charm of interacting with the growers was replaced by a weigh-it-yourself scale and a metal box to put your money in. Yet I continued to delight in stopping by there and I treasured the connection to the past it represented.
The last few summers, the rough hewn tables, dilapidated umbrella, and faded OPEN banner have been in a pile and there hasn't seemed to be anything growing in the fields.
But right now, Clancy's has customers, lots of them. From Columbus Day through Thanksgiving they come for the turnips. They pull their cars off the highway onto the deeply rutted turnout, select the white-gold orbs from a bin, and stick their money in the slot. Gourmet magazine and the "buy local" movement have made the Eastham Turnip, long known for its light color and sweetness, famous nationwide, and Clancy's has a cash crop.
An editorial cartoon recently appeared in the local paper showing a massive traffic jam. In the picture, one driver is standing on the roof of his car, looking off into the distance at lines of cars that stretch as far as the eye can see. Heads are popping up through moon roofs. A sad-faced man leans against his car and looks at his watch. Another grimaces at the viewer. Plumes of steam rise from radiators. A sign with an arrow pointing down the gridlocked highway reads, JOB MARKET, and below the arrow is written, EXPECT DELAYS.
I saved the cartoon in my clip file because, for me, it makes the emotions that underlie today's unemployment statistics accessible.
As much as I would like to, I simply can't relate to a number like 236,000 jobs lost in September, resulting in a 9.8% unemployment rate with a total of at least 15.1 million Americans out of work. But I do know what it's like to sit in seemingly endless traffic.
Reading Robert Sullivan's, The Thoreau You Don't Know, recently inspired me to visit the Concord Museum in Concord, Massachusetts. The museum contains the furnishings from Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond along with a replica of Emerson's study, and it is easy to imagine the two of them there engaged in lively conversation.
Thanks to the book and my visit I have been able to shape a much clearer mental picture of Thoreau than the one I had before, that of the naturalist loner, and I have come to appreciate how much time this "classically trained handyman" (Sullivan) spent looking for work in a tough economy.
Thoreau knew how to work with both his hands and his head. In the course of his relatively brief life, he taught school, farmed, mastered the craft of pencil making, fixed and built machines, surveyed land, and shoveled manure. In between he wrote A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod, poems, essays, and a journal that runs to 47 volumes.
Of necessity (and I believe choice as well), Thoreau also knew how to attend to the practical realties of life, while at the same time pursuing a greater purpose. He often earned his keep by taking care of the daily needs of others, e.g. serving as a secretary and au pair for Emerson.
It was Emerson, who in 1843 arranged for Thoreau to go to New York City to tutor his brother William's son. Thoreau saw this opportunity as a means to an end—breaking into the publishing industry. His heart wasn't in the task of tutoring, but it provided room and board and access to editors and publishers in the city who might hire him.
I usually look forward to business slowing down a bit in the summer, but this year, when my workload started to slacken, I caught myself starting to worry (probably because I wrote a column about it last month), thinking "What if—?" You know the rest! Right?
So I stepped into my husband's office and asked him for reassurance.
I didn't ask for a review of our financial status, or go into a soliloquy on all the reasons I thought the sky was falling as a way of circuitously trying to get him to convince me I was wrong (a technique I learned from my grandmother).
I simply asked him to tell me we were going to be OK. He did, and I went back into my office and had a productive afternoon.
This incident prompted me to think about how important it is to give and receive reassurance, especially right now when so many of us are under the stress of change and economic pressures.
Months ago, in the early stages of the economic downturn we're in now, I read a report in the New York Times that over half of working adults were worried about losing their job. My instincts tell me that this proportion has significantly risen since then. Let's face it—it's hard to rest easy when giants like GM are tumbling.
Since there is so much anxiety these days, I decided to take a closer look at it by reading Edward Hallowell's book, Worry.
According to Hallowell, worry actually has a valuable purpose. It's there to alert us to danger and prompt us to take protective action. Unfortunately, being human, we have a tendency to let our imagination run away with us and create perceptions of danger that are not real.
Which is why Samuel Johnson, a consummate worrier himself, said back in the 18th century, “Worry is the disease of the imagination.”
Have you ever watched a movie you really liked for the third or fourth time and all of a sudden seen something there you never saw before? It happened to me the other night watching The Insider.
On previous viewings, I'd been so caught up in the drama I didn't realize that The Insider is really about a man in a career transition—abrupt and brutal, to be sure, but also transformational.
The Insider is based on true incidents in the life of a Ph.D. chemist named Jeffrey Wigand who worked as vice-president of R&D for Brown & Williamson tobacco company and was fired by them because he knew that the company was adding carcinogenic substances to the nicotine in their cigarettes. The action of the film is driven by Wigand's decision to go public with first-hand knowledge of how the tobacco industry uses chemical compounds to promote addiction.
How far will Big Tobacco go to shut him up? Will this bright, responsible, somewhat confused, man be able to hold up under intimidation by his former employer, on the one hand, and, on the other, pressure from a 60 Minutes producer to blow the whistle by doing an interview on national television?
When unemployment figures are announced, the media takes up the challenge of trying to show what x% of joblessness looks like in human terms, and the images they choose are predictable—long lines of applicants trying to get into job fairs, rows of jobseekers at computers in job centers busily scanning listings.
These pictures reinforce the message that the right, indeed the only, way to find work is to apply for a job, wait for a response, and hope you get lucky.
Rarely does an alternative approach get noticed, and when it does it is treated as something new and foreign. Take for example a recent story I heard on NPR about a laid-off architect.
Instead of wasting his time standing in line somewhere, John Morefield is making his expertise visible at a booth he has set up at a farmer's market in Seattle. Sandwiched between a fish market and a store that offers locally grown honey, he sells advice to homeowners who are thinking about remodeling—for 5 cents!
He got the idea from Lucy's "5¢ Psychiatric Help" stand in Peanuts, and he is using it to do the best possible thing he can do with potential customers—engage them in conversation about problems they want to solve.