Laborious

Finally – some good news!

Finally – some good news!

A few years ago – about a year after I got laid off from an engineering company and while I struggled to find even a temporary job while trying to launch my freelance writing career – I told a close friend of mine via email that, when the economy improves, people will start switching jobs without giving much, if any, notice to their employers.

“True,” he replied.

It’s starting to happen. The recent economic crisis – the worst in this nation’s history since the Great Depression – almost completely destroyed our financial stability. Multiple factors were responsible for it: broad-based tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens and largest corporations; further deregulation of banking and housing; and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Between December 2007 (when the recession officially commenced) and June 2009 (when it officially ended), the U.S. economy shed roughly 8.7 million jobs. Employers began to add jobs in 2010. Only recently, however, have we regained all those lost jobs.

There’s no real cause for celebration. The after effects of such a prolonged economic debacle are as varied as the causes. People lost accumulated personal wealth; state and local economies suffered decreased tax revenue; and home values dropped. Wages, however, remain stagnant, despite increased productivity. People have always worked too damn hard for their money. Of course, everyone feels they’re overworked and underpaid. But now, we have statistical proof. But, according to Ben Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, the “Great Recession” actually was worse than the Great Depression. In a statement filed on August 22 with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, as part of a response to a lawsuit over the 2008 bailout of insurance giant American International Group (AIG), Bernanke said:

“September and October of 2008 was the worst financial crisis in global history, including the Great Depression.” Of the 13 “most important financial institutions in the United States, 12 were at risk of failure within a period of a week or two.”

When asked why he thought it was critical for the U.S. government to rescue AIG, Bernanke replied:

“AIG’s demise would be a catastrophe” and “could have resulted in a 1930s-style global financial and economic meltdown, with catastrophic implications for production, income, and jobs.”

Obviously, too-big-to-fail truly has become too big to fail! The Great Depression was exacerbated by the fact the Federal Reserve System didn’t take command of the banks. Billionaire financier Andrew Mellon was the U.S. Treasury Secretary during the Hoover Administration and – like a typical conservative Republican – believed the nation’s banks had gotten themselves into trouble and needed to get themselves out of it, even if that meant they failed and took their customers’ money with them. Which they did, of course, in very large numbers. At the time, though, we didn’t have a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to safeguard people’s financial assets. The federal government’s lackadaisical attitude at the onset of the Great Depression forced Republicans to lose both houses of Congress during the 1930 midterm elections and shoved Hoover out of the White House two years later. That same kind of ineptitude is probably what caused them to lose both houses of Congress in 2006.

Yet, as the economy continues to recover and employers continue adding jobs, I see my aforementioned prediction materializing. During sluggish markets, employers can afford to be picky on who they hire and can freeze wages and salaries at will. It’s almost cruel and inhumane the way some can behave. And, what’s the average worker to do? With children, mortgages, car payments and other debts, they’re often stuck. They have little power.

But, from January to June of this year, more than 14 million people quit their jobs. I would like to think they left for better jobs. And, I’d like to believe they gave little notice to their employers. After all, companies don’t have to give employees any real notice when they plan to let someone go; albeit, quite often, people can feel it. In 2009, there were approximately seven people for every job opening. As of June 2014, the ratio had dropped to 2-to-1. Overall, the number of unemployed has dropped by 5 million, while the number of new jobs has grown by 2.5 million. Now, there’s talk of a problem we haven’t seen in a while: labor shortage. Companies are starting to feel one of the adverse effects of an improving economy; there aren’t enough people, or at least not enough qualified people, to fill certain positions. Thus, it’s employees and jobseekers who can be picky.

And, that’s a good thing. It’s really the way it should be. Only once in my life have I had the pleasure of quitting a job I hate; in January 1989, I left a retail position, which I’d held for nearly three years. I just walked into the place and gave my immediate supervisor a typewritten note announcing my resignation. But, I’ve known a few people who, in recent years, essentially gave their boss the middle finger and walked out of a company. They recounted their experiences with glee. We spend a great deal of time at work; often more than with our own families. Work gives people personal value and a sense of accomplishment, and everyone who makes an effort to complete a job should be respected. Whether that person answers the phones in a call center; digs ditches for sewer lines; programs a voice mail system; or rings up items at a cash register, they should be considered important. They pay taxes and insurance and they put the rest of their money back into the economy as consumers.

Last week, an executive in the company where I’m working as a contract technical writer staged an impromptu meeting to announce a major organizational change. After presenting a variety of business details, he said something that I’d never heard from someone at his level: “Family is more important than work.” He emphasized that everyone needs to place greater value on their loved ones than on their careers; noting that he hadn’t done that and almost paid the price for it. I’ve heard some executives tell people on an individual basis the same thing – but never in such a large setting. He’s right. A company won’t collapse because you can’t make it to a business conference. You won’t necessarily recall that training seminar. But, you most likely will remember a child’s sports event. And, you’ll cherish it forever.

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Happy Birthday Gloria Estefan!

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Gloria Estefan born September 1, 1957.

 

“Anything for You”

 

“Con Los Anos Que Me Quedan (Over the Years that I Remain)”

 

“Oye Mi Canto (It Hears Me Singing)”

 

“Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”

 

“Turn the Beat Around”

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Happy Birthday Barry Gibb!

Barry-Gibb

Barry Gibb born September 1, 1946.

 

“Grease”

 

“How Deep Is Your Love”

 

“Stayin’ Alive”

 

“To Love Somebody”

 

“Tragedy”

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Happy Birthday Lily Tomlin!

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Born Mary Jean Tomlin on September 1, 1939.

 

As “Ernestine”, the telephone operator

 

As “Edith Ann” Q & A with the Audience

 

Lucille the Rubber Freak

 

“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”

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Happy Labor Day 2014!

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“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Labor Day – United States.

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Nathan’s Promise

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Judge Glenda Fuentes caressed her left ear. “Is he serious?” The neatly-typed words had started to blur. She really didn’t have time for this. But, she read it anyway. Nathan Hagel was already dead. Poor little bastard, she thought. He really believed in himself. He really thought he was the victim.

“I hope you all realize what you have done to me. I know if I told you this in person you’d just laugh. But, I’m not laughing. I did not kill those people. I told you over and over I had nothing to do with it. I was there, yes. But, I didn’t take part in it. I didn’t know that was going to go down like that. I had no idea my brother and sister-in-law wanted to kill anyone. I knew James was mad at his neighbors. But, I didn’t know he was that mad!  Mad enough to want to not just hurt them, but kill them. I still don’t think he planned to kill them. I seriously don’t think that. I still think he just wanted to scare the shit out of them.”

Of course, thought Fuentes. A lot of killers say that: I just wanted to scare them; teach them a lesson; make them understand whatever. But, I didn’t mean to kill them. In her nearly two decades on the bench, she’d heard that claim more times than she could count.

Nathan and his older brother, James, had a rough start in life. Their father abandoned them and their mother, when the boys were little. Nathan, in fact, never really knew his father; couldn’t recall ever talking with him. Nathan had told his defense attorney the only clear memory he had of his father was when the old man lay in his coffin. He and James had learned by chance their father had been killed in a bar fight in Arkansas. James was laid up at home after a car accident, so Nathan drove to Arkansas by himself for the funeral.

The Hagel boys’ mother provided them no greater comfort. A “paranoid alcoholic” is how Nathan described her. The boys were pretty much left to fend for themselves from a very young age. Why didn’t someone in the family take them in, wondered Fuentes. That was the question a lot of people – inside and outside of the court – asked. Tarrant County Child Protective Services failed them, too.

But, Fuentes reminded herself – and several others – at some point, the Hagel brothers knew right from wrong. If James and his wife, Sandy, had such trouble with their neighbors, why didn’t they seek legal counsel? How could a property line dispute turn so violent?

“My mother used to beat the living crap out of James,” Nathan’s letter continued. “He’d let himself get beat up, so she wouldn’t turn on me. He didn’t want me to get hurt. Even after I got grown and could care for myself, he still tried to protect me from stuff.”

According to police records, James and Sandy had dialed 911 more than twenty times to complain about their neighbors, the McFarrells. They all lived in a relatively older section of Fort Worth – not far from where they Hagel boys grew up. The McFarrells had moved into their house next door to James and Sandy less than two years before they died. Apparently, animosity developed from the start; beginning with a new fence the McFarrells built on their property. They had to tear down the old fence, which meant getting onto the Hagel’s property. That’s where the trouble started. James and Sandy had called police some twenty times. But, the McFarrells and others in the neighborhood had also called 911. There were, in total, about sixty calls to police from that one block – all related to the Hagel – McFarrell property dispute.

Where is this, mused Fuentes. West Virginia? No, it was Fort Worth, Texas, and we don’t solve property disputes with a gun.

“I think my mother was insane,” Nathan wrote. “I really do. She would do the craziest shit. We never knew what kind of mood she’d be in. She would just go off on us. And, everyone else.”

Fuentes had heard that sad story before. So, had Nathan’s court-appointed attorney, Mark Gaston. Gaston – who looked a circus side show reject – leaned heavily on Nathan’s upbringing as a reason for his behavior. “A reason,” he emphasized, “not an excuse.” Nathan understood the consequences of his actions for the most part, Gaston insisted, but he let himself get caught up in the drama of his older brother and sister-in-law. Besides, violence was all they knew growing up.

Huh? The statement perplexed everyone involved in the Hagel case. Okay, Nathan knew it was wrong to take the shotgun when his brother offered it to him. And, he knew it was wrong to follow James next door to the McFarrells’ house. Nathan knew bad blood flowed between James and Sandy and the McFarrells, like swamp water left over from a hurricane. But, somehow, he still really, in a strange sort of way, wasn’t completely and totally responsible for his actions?

“No, he wasn’t!” Gaston proclaimed during his closing arguments, answering the very question everyone had in mind.

“That neighborhood where James and Sandy lived – it was such a dump anyways. It’s like it was born dirty and rotten. But, that house was all they could afford. Then again, that’s all we knew – dirty, rotten houses and neighborhoods.”

Gaston had subpoenaed the Hagel brothers’ mother, Sheila. When she arrived in court, she was on probation for drunk driving and looked as if she was still intoxicated. Nathan didn’t even look up at her; not once. He kept his eyes down.

“I’ve had some problems,” Sheila mumbled on the witness stand. “I almost wish I’d never met their father.”

The courtroom expelled a collective gasp, which prompted Fuentes to pound her gavel. But, she understood the shock. This wretched woman was essentially trying to say she wished James and Nathan had never been born. That’s an awful thing for a mother to say – with one son already on death row and another headed there to join him.

“I don’t believe in no god or heaven or hell or afterlife. I think that’s all bullshit and anyone who believes in that is stupid. Since I don’t believe in that, I know nothing will happen to me after I die. But, for those of you who believe in god, may he, she, it, whatever damn you and your family. But, I also hope all of you suffer for what you did to me and my brother. Suffer bad. I hate you. I hate every fucking one of you!”

Sandy Hagel had been given immunity in return for her testimony. She was in the house when her husband and brother-in-law decided to walk next door and confront the McFarrells. She could have easily called the police – which she did. But, not before she heard the gunshots. She mentioned how both the McFarrells had stood outside on their back porch and waved their own guns towards the Hagel household. “They called us trash,” Sandy said in court. “But, they were just as trashy.”

Prosecutor Carly Watson had no sympathy for any of them. She never showed concern for criminal defendants. She smirked in court when Gaston mentioned the Hagel brothers’ rough upbringing. “Cry me a river of spit!” she told reporters after the jury in James’ trial issued its guilty verdict. She repeated herself after Nathan’s trial – the exact same verbiage. The statement made it onto the front pages of local newspapers. It was such a typical Texas-style response from someone sworn to uphold the law. “If everybody who had a rough childhood could get away with murder, we’d have dead bodies piled up in football stadiums, instead of morgues!” she groused. “I don’t feel sorry for the Hagel boys one single bit. They knew what they were doing. No one forced them to pick up guns and head over to the neighbor’s house.”

That night, Sandy testified, the McFarrells had stood on their back porch, waving their rifles towards her and James – again. The new fence was already up and bushes were planted.

“So, what was the problem?” Watson asked her.

Sandy paused for a minute. “They kept waving their guns at us. Like they were itching for a fight. We didn’t want no more trouble from them. We just wanted them to leave us alone.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“We did!”

“But, your husband and brother-in-law went over there anyway! Didn’t they?!”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Why?!”

“Because they called us.”

“The McFarrells?”

“Yes. They called us three times earlier that evening. I don’t know why. Just to be mean.”

“What did they say to you?”

“Just stupid stuff.”

“Define ‘stupid stuff’ for us, would you please.”

Sandy sighed heavily. “That we were ugly and stupid. That we’d better watch our backs. We thought things were settled once the new fence was put up. But, they kept at us. Kept haggling us. We didn’t want any more to do with them.”

So, as Sandy recounted, James and Nathan grabbed a couple of James’ shotguns and marched next door to the McFarrell home. They merely planned to stand on the sidewalk out front, waving the firearms in the night air; the same way the McFarrells had waved theirs to the Hagels so many times before. Sandy didn’t know why James and Nathan decided to step onto the McFarrells’ front porch and force their way into the house.

“James always looked out for Nathan,” Gaston noted in his closing argument. “They were all they had. They had no one else. No one cared for them. No one cared about them. They had to take care of themselves. Always! And, the police had not helped much in this dispute on Warren Lane. They just told everyone to be neighborly and then went on their way.”

Even after other neighbors reported the McFarrells often marched around their front yard with guns in hand, as if they were guarding a vault filled with diamonds, the police still did nothing. The McFarrells had waved their firearms at other people on that street. Some had avoided walking in front of the house altogether. They’d step into the street and make a wide arc, far from the McFarrell home, before returning to the sidewalk. Gaston made certain these other neighbors testified in court.

“None of these people were pulled from the nearest church pew,” Watson announced after James’ trial.

That was nearly two decades ago. James was already gone. Sandy had disappeared into another life far away from Fort Worth. Now, Nathan had a date with the chamber. A week before, he penned this letter. Then, he slit his wrists and his throat with a piece of metal he’d somehow spirited into his cell.

“But, I hope all of you suffer for what you did to me and my brother. Suffer bad.” For some reason, Fuentes kept reading that part over and over. Suffer – that’s such a cruel word.

She finally dropped the paper onto her desk and called for her assistant, Janelle. “Can you get Ms. Watson on the line for me?” She had yet another death penalty case to discuss.

“Right away, Judge,” replied Janelle.

Fuentes returned Nathan Hagel’s letter to its envelope and wished Gaston had never wasted her time with it. “I guess he can just come pick it up,” she murmured.

Janelle stumbled into the office, sounding breathless. “Your Honor!”

Fuentes was startled. “What?! What happened?”

“I just called Ms. Watson’s office. Her secretary said she’s been in a serious car wreck.”

“A car wreck?!”

“That’s what he said.”

“When?”

“This morning – on her way to the office. She’s at JPS right now.”

John Peter Smith took the worst of the worst.

“Oh, my God!” crowed Fuentes. “That’s awful!”

“Let me make some other phone calls. I’ll see if I can found out more.” She wheeled back out towards her desk.

Fuentes sat back in her designer leather chair. “Damn! A car wreck! Good God!” She leaned forward to stand up – but her vision seemed to explode, driving her back into the chair. “Oh, God!” she screamed.

“Judge?” Janelle called out. She was already on the phone.

Fuentes stood. Another fucking migraine! She thought she’d rid herself of those years ago. She reached for her desk. This one was different, though, from what she remembered. She managed to stand.

“Judge?” Janelle repeated.

Fuentes tumbled face down. She probably didn’t feel her nose splinter when she hit the floor.

© 2014

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The Island of California

In this age of aerial photography – including satellite photos – it’s difficult to understand how our ancestors navigated the world and composed maps of their environment. But, they simply traveled across mountains, through forests and along coastlines, taking myriad notes and creating drawings of what they saw. Not surprisingly, they got a lot wrong and thereby, inspired many myths. One of the most legendary is the long-held belief by many Europeans that what is now the state of California was an island.

Much of this came from Francisco de Ulloa who explored the Bay of California in 1539. His curiosity apparently was provoked by one of the most famous Spanish explorers and conquerors, Hernán Cortés, who allegedly became entranced with tales of an island paradise called California that was ruled by a Nubian queen named Califía. (Somehow, they thought Africans had made it to the Americas before they did, which may actually be true.) In 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino, another Spaniard who established the city of San Diego, sailed up the California coast, as one of his passengers, Father Antonio de la Ascension, wrote a journal about the voyage. Ascension claimed that California was separated from the American continent by the “Mediterranean Sea of California.” This ultimately led to the depiction of California as an island beginning in 1622, with a small map on the title page of Descripcion de las Indias Occidentales, a book written by Antonio de Herrera and initially published in 1601.

But, the first complete map to depict California as island appeared in 1624, courtesy of Abraham Goos, a Dutch engraver who worked on maps for various individuals. The following year Henry Briggs, a British mathematician, produced a similar map. More explorers continued to add to the California island myth over the ensuing decades. By the 18th century, however, some cartographers began to doubt this theory and – as fate would have it – they were eventually proven right. I suppose, if any of these explorers had thought to converse with California’s indigenous peoples, they might have figured out sooner that the area was actually part of the mainland. But, hindsight is always 20/20.

 

John Speed, one of England’s most well-known mapmakers, produced this piece, “America with those parts in that unknowne worlde both people and manner of buildings Discribed and inlarged” in 1626. It was first published in A Prospect of the Most Famous Parts of the World.

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Nicolas Sanson, France’s most famous cartographer, created “Amerique Septentrionale” in the 1650s. This is one of the most significant maps of North America, in part because of the California island depiction, but also because it was the first map to display the five Great Lakes.

 

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This is a colorized version of John Speed’s “America with those parts in that unknowne worlde both people and manner of buildings Discribed and inlarged,” issued in the 1676 edition of his atlas.

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Vincenzo Coronelli, a Franciscan monk and cartographer, produced “Mare Del Sud, detto altrimenti Mare Pacifico,” first published in Atlante Veneto in 1690. This version is particularly unique because it shows much of the Pacific Ocean, along with depictions of Australia and New Zealand.

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French cartographer Alexis Hubert Jaillot continued the tradition of French mapmaking set by Nicholas Sanson, including depicting California as an island. He updated Sanson’s “Amerique Septentrionale” in 1692, which advanced French cartography and challenged the work of the Dutch.

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British mapmaker Herman Moll worked in both England and Holland and, in 1715, came out with “This Map of North America according to ye Newest and most Exact observations.” It’s notable for its extraordinary detail of rivers, lakes, cities and various other features – including, of course, the “Island of California.” Notice the “Gulf of California or Red Sea” between the island and the mainland.

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