My husband and I own a canoe, but for years the only action we took re canoeing was to talk about how we ought to take it out on one of the marshes or kettle ponds before the summer ended.
But we’d got rid of the car with the roof racks and it always seemed like too much trouble to have to figure on a new way to strap the thing on top, so there it sat, season after season, on sawhorses beside the garage.
This year, however, as the tourists began to arrive, I found myself looking at their kayaks with envy, so I told my husband it was time we went canoeing again.
He went to work, cleaning years of accumulated dirt off the fiberglass shell and fixing a broken thwart, while I rummaged in the attic and located the paddles, the life jackets and the dry bag.
At a local outdoor store we found a carrying kit suitable for hauling a canoe short distances and we bought it and drove straight home and loaded Sacagawea onto the car and took her to Salt Pond.
It was the beginning of rush hour, and the Green Line train was almost full, forcing us to stand. As soon as we boarded I grabbed the bar on the back of the seat nearest me and adjusted my stance to absorb the jerk which I knew would follow as soon as we started.
I noticed a man sitting in the aisle seat a few rows back, and two things about him immediately grabbed my attention. One, he was sitting with his back ramrod straight, and two, he was ex-military, wearing a black corduroy baseball cap embroidered in red and yellow letters that said "Marine Veteran" and a badge that read "Vietnam Veteran" above the pocket of his denim jacket.
His self-assurance was fascinating, yet I also found his eyes-front posture intimidating because of the oversize aviator sunglasses that hid half of his handsome face, making it impossible to read his expression. I aimed my gaze over his head and out the window and wondered what he'd experienced in that war that was more humiliating to those who fought in it than any other in America's history, and how it had shaped him.
In Free Agent Nation, Daniel Pink suggests watching two films to get an idea of how the world of work has changed since the middle of the twentieth century.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) is about a public relations executive, the Organization Man of the 1950s.
Jerry Maguire (1996) is the story of a West Coast sports agent who navigates today's freewheeling entrepreneurial culture.
But what struck me on the snowy afternoon that I watched these movies back to back was not so much how the culture of work has changed, but how much it has remained the same.
I am writing this on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving. Because I like to finish one holiday before leaping ahead to the next, I am making this a quiet day, a space to reflect on what this annual feast, now so narrowly focused on eating and football, really means.
The actual history of Thanksgiving is far more complex, both messier and richer, than the story everyone knows about the Pilgrims inviting the Indians to dinner.
We hear very little about how the Pilgrims stole seed corn from the Nauset Indians of Cape Cod a few days after they arrived, or the fact that the land around Plymouth had already been cleared and cultivated by Pokanokets who had been wiped out by disease shortly before the newcomers arrived, or that when Native American neighbors came to help the Pilgrims they usually showed up naked!
We cheat ourselves when we settle for an oversimplified view of history because the arrival of the Mayflower in Plymouth represents a nitty-gritty struggle for survival which is as relevant today as it was for the residents of Plymouth in the 1620s.
It was cabin fever, the need for a broader view of world than the one of the bird feeder outside my office window, that gave me the idea of going away for few days.
The snow began the afternoon I arrived, and by the next day, over a foot and half had fallen on Salem, with layers of ice and freezing rain for good measure, in effect closing down the town. The new snow fell on top of an already substantial buildup from earlier storms, causing unexpected problems, such as what to do with all the additional "white stuff" (it’s against the law to dump it in the harbor) and roofs that collapsed from excess weight.
Watching people laboring to shovel a path between snow banks almost as tall as they were, or improvising a solution by hanging out a window to clear off a porch roof with a rake, it struck me that their efforts had a lot in common with long-term unemployment. The work is arduous and all too familiar; "caving in," i.e., giving up, is a real danger; and it feels like spring will never come.
The US government reports two different unemployment statistics. The one we are most familiar with is the one most talked about in the news media, something called the "U-3 unemployment rate." It currently hovers just under 10%.
There is also the less well-known "U-6" rate, which is now over 17%. It includes what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls "involuntary part time, underemployed workers" and "discouraged" workers who have stopped looking.
For people struggling to stay positive after a year or more of unemployment, I'm sure that even the higher number must seem too low.
Yet there are many who know what discouragement feels like and have chosen not to give up.
Sometimes it comes on gradually—the pressure you feel to find work, get your business in the black again, or restore stability to your financial future accumulates, causing sleepless nights or mornings when you sit at your desk not knowing what to do next.
Or there may be a trigger—one rejection too many, a bill you can't pay, or a depressing headline saps your belief in yourself and better days ahead, and you have that sinking sensation of fear taking you over for a few days or a week or longer.
Fear is a natural reaction to change, and you can expect it to be particularly active when your work-life, that part of your existence that provides sustenance, purpose and identity, has been shaken like a snow globe.
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.
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?