Friday, July 30, 2010

Happy Holidays

The hap-happiest season of the year finally has arrived. It's that proud yinzer tradition of salivating at the very thought of watching a few overpaid football players pulling big screen televisions out of their fancy cars before running wind sprints to open training camp in Latrobe, Pa. Of course, all of this is a welcome distraction from our bland lives (and the abysmal Pirates baseball club) in the middle of summer.

So how did we get here?

Obviously, professional football (along with the college and fantasy versions) has taken over our lives. But do the Steelers really mean more to Pittsburgh that other teams mean to their respective cities? I would have to say undoubtedly yes.

The Steelers will forever be linked with the molten metal that made Pittsburgh. But it seems incredibly ironic that the football team was becoming an unbeatable dynasty in the 1970s just as the city was losing that very industry. An untold number of yinzers left Western Pennsylvania to find jobs elsewhere, but they remained devoted to the team. Meanwhile, the Pirates' clubhouse devolved into a crackhouse and the Penguins were still awaiting the arrival of Le Magnifique.

Even as the Steelers struggled through the 80s, out-of-towners held on to the football team as the only connection to their city. I knew that feeling when I lived for a couple years in Charleston, W.Va., but made sure to follow every play from my living room couch.

Say what you want about the modern-day players who have tarnished the team's imagine, but I can't see a day when yinzers aren't frothing at the mouth as the Steelers report to training camp. It's a special bond between a city and its team... unless, of course, they go 6-10.

Friday, July 23, 2010

An impossible question

The woman interviewing me by phone last night caught me off-guard with a question I knew was coming, but yet I had no idea what to say.

"Where do you see yourself in three years?" she asked in the middle of my fourth job interview in the past 13 months.

"I really have no clue," I foolishly, yet honestly, stated. "Hopefully in Pittsburgh, and hopefully with a secure company."


But what was I supposed to say? Forget three years from now, I don't know where I'll be three months or even three days from now. It's a typical job interview question that probably is designed to measure your goals and priorities. And it's a question I had answered with ease in previous job interviews during my journalism career. I wanted to write for a NASCAR or sports publication, although those dreams are all but dead now.

Could I have ever imagined the correct answer to that question when the Observer-Reporter interviewed me in November 2006? "Well, I see myself struggling to pay my bills after you decide to can me -- along with 24 other people -- in the midst of a prolonged recession that essentially destroys the newspaper industry."

There is no good answer to that question when you're unemployed, because the most important goals are immediate: Finding work. After talking to my father about the interview, he offered an answer that might be appropriate should I be put on the spot again.

"Probably living in the gutter... unless you hire me!"


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Unempalooza 2010

A buddy recently sent me a hilarious blog entry by state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-King of Prussia, that attempts to understand the reasoning behind Republicans blocking the jobless benefits extension. In his satirical blog entry, Leach imagines what prominent conservatives think the unemployed do all day as they celebrate Unempalooza 2010. Most nights, according to Leach, the unemployed snort Jaegermeister until the wee hours of the morning before rolling out of bed after noon. In other parts, Leach asks how middle-class Americans can be viewed by Republicans as hard workers until the day they're let go from a job. Then they're trash that must be swept to the curb. Here's my favorite line...

"You see most of the time, Republicans talk about how great the American worker is. They are the salt of the earth, and all of our policies should be directed towards helping "working families". They are "real Americans", not like liberal college professors or weird Kenyan/Indonesian Presidents of the United States. These are great people! Until the moment they lose their jobs. Then, they become lazy, predatory parasites, lazily suckling on the teet of Socialist Leviathan."

The full blog can be viewed by clicking on this link...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My thoughts exactly

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Jim Chukalas, an auto parts distribution manager living in New Jersey, lost his job nearly two years ago. On Monday, he became the de facto spokesman for the unemployed after appearing on The White House lawn with President Obama urging the Senate to extend jobless benefits. His comments remind me of many breadline stories I have heard -- including my own -- since this recession began. He spoke about his problems on MSNBC's Countdown with guest host Lawrence O'Donnell the other night.

"The automobile business is not where I would want to be trying to make a living right now," O'Donnell says near the end of the interview.

"It's tough, but it's all I know," Chukalas responds. "But it's a tough business right now. It's a tough time."

I hear ya, buddy. Just substitute "auto business" with journalism.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What's the jobless to do?

For those without a job, unemployment benefits are a lifeline. For our elected officials, it's a political football to be kicked around in anticipation of the upcoming midterm elections.

Despite the bickering, the federal government is now on the verge of passing a benefits extension that Republicans vehemently oppose. There are arguments on both sides about whether UC benefits help or hinder unemployed workers. Liberals argue that this money is immediately injected into the economy, which is true. Conservatives argue that it allows unemployed workers to be picky about jobs and reject substandard positions.

This argument may also be true. But what conservatives do not address is how subpar these positions might be. A job is a job, right?

James Sherk, a policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation think tank, told the Post-Gazette that unemployed workers will continue looking for jobs in their field rather than taking a position that pays less. That leads to longer unemployment, he said, because they are more willing to reject a position while still receiving benefits.

Well, obviously! Why wouldn't someone continue searching for jobs that they are qualified to do? And why wouldn't they expect to attain a similar salary level to what they had upon termination?

What conservatives will not say publicly when they are quoted in this manner is that they think the unemployed should take jobs normally reserved for high school kids during the summer. But for someone who has a mortgage, car payments and possibly children, how will a minimum wage job pay the bills? If this was my future, I wouldn't have spent the past decade studying communications at college before working in that field to boost my resume.

So let me pose this questions to the BLB readers. Do you think unemployed workers should accept subpar jobs that may not pay the bills rather than continue searching for a position in his/her field? With that in mind, let me also ask if you would voluntarily leave your current job and take another position that pays at least 25 percent less than what you're making now?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Losing control

The longer we slink around in the breadline, the more hopeless the situation feels. But there's also a sinking reality that goes with long-term unemployment: Total loss of control.

It feels as though we have control over nothing any more. It's a helpless feeling, whether it be the Senate failing to extend unemployment benefits or human resource workers chucking our resumes in the trash or companies deciding which professions are in demand.

I've applied for at least 10 jobs this week and called to inquire about two others. And each time, there is a certain euphoria after hitting the "submit" button. But by the next day, that high fades with the realization that those job applications probably will never see a supervisor's inbox.

This feeling is nothing new, of course. I busted my chops for the O-R before they sent me packing. I foolishly thought that you could keep your job by working hard for the company that cuts your paychecks. Silly me.

Then there is the decision by a local company not to hire me for an open public relations position. I'm not saying they didn't make the right decision, because I don't know who they eventually hired. But it does leave you with an empty feeling while waiting for a decision after the interviews and writing tests are completed.

Finally, I learned today that the state Department of Labor & Industry does not consider my work with the Tribune-Review a sideline business. Therefore, I am allowed to keep the unemployment compensation money I received during several weeks in 2009 in which the Trib published my $50 stories. However, I've been waiting nearly two months for a response to this question while other writers told me DLI decided to cancel their unemployment compensation due to their work.

Everything seems to be a waiting game, and I really don't know what will happen in most cases. And I don't like that feeling.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thank me in November

Found this appropriate political cartoon by Ed Stein over the weekend. I was thinking the same thing upon learning the federal government had unceremoniously stripped away my unemployment compensation on June 5.

As Stein said in his explanation of the cartoon: "The new talking point is that extending unemployment benefits will only discourage people from looking for jobs. Oh, we lazy Americans. Fifteen million of us thrown out of work since the recession began, and we just don’t want to go back on the job because of those cushy benefits. Unemployment is our fault."

I certainly will remember that in November.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The merriment ends

The most glorious 46 weeks of my life have ground to a halt. My unemployment compensation has been terminated due to the Senate's inaction on the issue. I knew the end was coming, but what caught me by surprise is that the benefits actually ended on June 3. Apparently, my job working for the U.S. Census did not lengthen the UC benefits as they should have because I was earning auxiliary money. Instead, I'm pretty much screwed.

I contacted Adecco yesterday and likely will be working as an office secretary in the near future. Maybe I'll call a local freight contractor and get that job driving train crews from station to station.

This, of course, is what fiscal ideologues wanted. They want the unemployed to take subpar jobs that don't pay the mortgage. This is what they want for middle-class Americans. So this is what they're getting. And we'll soon find out what their experiment achieves as thousands of the unemployed lose their paychecks by the day. Welcome to the New America.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

We are all suckers

Changing jobs can be an exciting and worrisome time in one's life. But is anyone so important that they need to hand in their two-week notice on national television? Apparently, LeBron James and ESPN think so.

So since the four-letter network plans to air this insane spectacle of LeBron choosing his new basketball team, I thought it would be just as ridiculous to Live Blog the event. Do I really care about LeBron James and/or the NBA? Not a chance. But this opportunity to blog was just too stupid to pass up. See yinz at 9 p.m. sharp.

8:59 p.m. -- Anticipation is swelling on the four-letter network with most rumors pointing to Miami. That means it CAN'T be Miami, because that would blow all the fun, right? Meanwhile, ESPN is airing a viewers poll showing that its Miami with 99% precincts reporting.

9:01 p.m. -- "The Decision" rolls in with a throaty narrator introducing the show: "With breathless anticipation, the basketball world is waiting," the Morgan Freeman wannabe says. "The time has come. The most coveted free agent in the history of the game... LeBron James." It can't get any worse, can it?

9:05 p.m. -- A roundtable discussion of four talking heads puke up their opinions with no real clue about what's going to happen. Put me in a suit and I could offer a similarly mindless analysis of this colossal event. Roll B-footage about LeBron's career, as if we don't know who he is. I think it's time to grab a beer.

9:11 p.m. -- ESPN is milking this golden calf for all its worth as the commercials start rolling in. I would like to know who thought an hour-long special was a good idea. They could've pulled it off in five minutes and let the four-letter network roll around in the slop for the next four months.

9:17 p.m. -- Stu "Cyclopes" Scott is asking the panel AGAIN what they think "real quickly." How many times are they going to try to answer this question. Just ask the man himself, already! Just for good measure, they show the viewer poll again before sending us off to another commercial.

9:22 p.m. -- There he is! The time has finally arrived! Or not... Jim Gray is seated across from LeBron and asks him "what's new?" ARE YOU SERIOUS? WHAT THE HELL KIND OF QUESTION IS THAT?!?!

9:27 p.m. -- Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Let's get this charade over with. Although, Gray nearly let's him off the hook by asking him if he would like "to sleep on it."

9:28 p.m. -- LeBron James: "This fall, it's very tough, but this fall I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat." Hahaha, there are GROANS in the audience. As much as I hate Cleveland, this is the biggest middle finger I have ever seen given to a city (besides Bob Nutting owning the Pittsburgh Pirates).

9:30 p.m. -- "I never wanted to leave Cleveland," LeBron says moments after announcing that he's leaving Cleveland.

9:32 p.m. -- "You have to do what makes you happy," LeBron says, quoting his mother. Yet, he looks like he's about to cry. This is comically bizarre.

9:33 p.m. -- Now that he announced his decision, it's time to do more productive things like look for a job. Good luck, LeBron, in Miami. And I'd like to offer my condolences to Cleveland. At least you still have the Browns!

Hiking to the summit

By Michael Jones
O-R Staff Writer
Sept 15, 2008

MEYERSDALE, Pa. - My knees weakened and palms began sweating as I climbed the rickety metal stairs to the observation deck overlooking Mount Davis in southern Somerset County.

A person afraid of heights probably shouldn't be venturing to the highest point in Pennsylvania, I thought, as I gripped the railing and took gingerly steps to the summit last week.

But upon reaching the top and standing more than 3,000 feet above sea level, the anxiety immediately turned to serenity as I gazed at the picturesque view of rural Pennsylvania and Maryland.

These acres at one time were owned by Civil War veteran John N. Davis, but he died in 1913 without knowing his land was the highest point in the state. It wasn't until 1921 that geologist Harold A. Bean definitively measured the height of what formerly was known as Davis Plateau. The highest elevation was previously thought to be Bedford County's Blue Knob at 3,136 feet, but Bean determined in May 1921 that this "bump on the mountain" was the highest at 3,213 feet.

Less than a month after Bean asserted the highest point actually was in Somerset County, thousands of people living in small towns around Negro Mountain celebrated the news by hiking to the summit on a rainy day on June 18, 1921, according to a story in the Meyersdale Republican newspaper. Led by the Alpine Club of Pennsylvania and its leader, Col. Henry W. Shoemaker, about 1,000 trekked to the top for the formal ceremony.

"The Alpinists do not pick the easy road to the summit, and the rougher the going and the harder the climbing the better it is liked," the club's secretary, J. Herbert Walker, told the Republican. "Of course, if there is a good road down from the summit, this is taken, but the ascent is made over the rocks and through the brush to test the mettle of the climbers."

The Alpinists suggested naming the summit Mount Freedom, but the county commissioners settled on Mount Davis its name for the past 87 years. It is located on top of Negro Mountain, a 30-mile range that runs through Somerset County and Garrett County, Md. The name evokes the story of a brave black servant, but it is now draped in controversy.

There are two relatively similar tales about the name's origin, both of which date to the French and Indian War during the mid-18th century, according to separate newspaper reports from 1756.

In one account, Col. Thomas Cresap led 71 volunteers from Fort Cumberland over the mountain and into Pennsylvania. Cresap was accompanied by a "large and powerful" black slave, believed to have been named Nemesis, when the group encountered three Indians on horseback. Nemesis raised his gun and the Indians jumped from their horses and hid behind trees. Nemesis showed courage in the fight but died during the battle.

In another story, Capt. Andrew Friend left the same fort with a hunting party heading for Ohiopyle in what is now Fayette County. They, too, encountered Indians and retreated. During the fight, an unnamed black servant was mortally wounded, but Friend and another man helped him off the trail and comforted him during the night. The man died before dawn, and they buried his body on the mountain. Upon returning to Fort Cumberland, Friend named the mountain after the man because of his bravery and the compassion showed after the fierce battle.

There are several other urban legends the locals continue to tell, and it remains a mystery which one is correct.

"We don't know the exact details, but because it was named Negro Mountain it did involve a black person," said Cynthia Mason, a researcher at the Meyersdale Library. "That's about as far as I can go with anything. It makes for interesting stuff."

However the mountain was named, it continues to raise eyebrows for some who travel over it on Route 40 or Interstate 68 in Maryland.

Democratic state Rep. Rosita Youngblood of Philadelphia sponsored a resolution last year that would have formed a commission to study renaming the mountain. She requested that the name of the mountain be reconsidered to "accurately reflect the history of the region and the heroism displayed by the African-American" involved in the fight on Negro Mountain.

She suggested renaming it Nemesis Mountain to update the historical significance of the battle and the man. The resolution has failed to gain any traction in state government, but the racial undertones of the name remain.

"My question is, 'Does it have to be Negro Mountain?'" Youngblood said. "The man had a name."

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The merriment continues

After going more than a month without hearing a peep from the company that interviewed me in May, it became crystal clear I hadn't been hired for the public relations position. Sure, I'm disappointed that I didn't get the job, but life and unemployment are full of frustrating roadblocks. But why did it it take six weeks after the final phase of the interview process to get word about the job?

I e-mailed a human resources person on June 14 to ask if they had made a decision. She told me they were going to pick the sweepstakes winner in a few days and then notify everyone the following week. With still no word three weeks later, I sent the same e-mail back this morning.

"A candidate has been chosen," the human resources representative responded in the e-mail. "You should have received an e-mail notification from the HR Dept."

Opps. Guess I don't check my e-mail nearly often enough.

A sustainable job was so close I could taste it. Then it lingered for two months in a continuous tease that can only be described as barbaric. Oh, well. It's bound to happen. But I just don't understand how a company searching for a public relations specialist could be so unorganized that it fails to communicate its hiring decision to a potential employee. Maybe they should've hired me to help them fix that little problem for them.

Monday, July 5, 2010

No place like Daytona

This story originally appeared July 4, 2006 in the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail

By Mike Jones
Daily Mail Staff

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - NASCAR fans are a rare breed. Anyone who has ever attended a race knows that. The fans pay thousands of dollars for tickets, hotel rooms, parking and, most importantly, beer.

Bewildered outsiders don't even begin to understand. They ask why someone would shell out that kind of cash to watch cars drive in circles. What they don't realize is NASCAR is an experience that can't be explained on television. It must be felt in person.

I will never forget the first time I heard 43 cars roaring by at nearly 200 mph at Daytona International Speedway or the echoing thunder as they flew down the backstretch. The Fourth of July event at Daytona Beach, Fla., has changed somewhat since I attended my first Firecracker 400 in 1993. Track officials added lights to the high-banked oval in 1998, altering the race for both competitors and fans.

Previously, drivers weren't the only ones who sweated buckets when the green flag dropped at 11 a.m. in the 90-degree heat. Fans perspired beer faster than they could consume their cans of Miller Lite and Budweiser that are stowed in coolers under their seats.

With an 8 p.m. start now, visitors take trips to the beach or barbeque in parking lots in the morning and afternoon. Others wade in the hotel swimming pool for most of the weekend and the beer cans that line the edge of the pool document their progress.

In the 2005 edition of the Pepsi 400, rain began falling an hour before race time, prompting my father, stepbrother and me to march back to the hotel for a late-night swim. Other fans, many of whom weren't fortunate enough to have a hotel room next to Turn 4, waited out the three-hour rain delay in their seats and soldiered through the race that didn't end until nearly 2 a.m. Sunday. Exhausted fans that partied for nearly 19 hours simply crumpled in their seats and passed out moments after Tony Stewart took the checkered flag.

That wasn't the case in 2006 when the race passed rather quickly and we were able to get to bed before midnight. There were the usual drunks at the event. A Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan stumbled out of his hotel room on his way to the track and mumbled incoherently to others.

But instead of a rain soaked holiday, fans were treated that year to a cool summer breeze passing from the Atlantic Ocean as the race started as scheduled. The distinctive smell of Octane 110 firing from the exhaust pipes filled the air just moments after the command was given for drivers to start their engines. One man, spitting chew while lounging in his seat, waved the fumes toward his nose in a circular motion with a cupped handed.

Now this, I thought, is what racing is all about.

Most fans at the 2006 Firecracker 400 wore shirts emblazoned with Budweiser, Home Depot and Dodge, but some lesser-known drivers' gear was speckled in the crowd. My father, known by most of his friends as Hobie, wore a Joe Nemechek T-shirt and U.S. Army visor to support his favorite driver. Nemechek appeared to be poised for a good showing after qualifying fifth and my father was excited.

Nemechek, a native of Lakeland, had bought auto parts from my parents' store in the little central Florida town during the late 1980s while he was racing dirt bikes and stock cars at local tracks. He and his brother, John, who died in a crash at Homestead Speedway in Miami in 1996, often chatted about racing, prompting my father to root for Joe over the past 15 years.

It was a admirable position to pull for the underdog. But besides winning the 1992 Busch Series championship and a handful of Cup races, Nemechek hadn't done much in his career. Dad pulled for him anyway.

But this was to be the final time after years of disappointment took their toll. We had made a deal a few weeks earlier that he would re-evaluate that allegiance if Joe couldn't finish 17th or better in the Pepsi 400. The prized Nemechek shirt, it was agreed, would be torched in our $29.97 charcoal grill if he couldn't muster even a mediocre finish.

Just hours before the race, a good omen occurred as I met Nemechek in his "swag trailer" just outside the track. He signed a few autographs, and with a smirk and a nod, sent me on my way.

But not long after the green flag flew and Stewart jumped out to the lead, Joe began his usual descent to the back. We prepared ourselves for the impending barbeque as the laps ran down. With 14 laps left, however, Jimmie Johnson bobbled, sending his car into Bobby Labonte, who had an uncharacteristically strong run until the crash. A few laps later, a bigger pile-up collected more front-runners, catapulting Joe closer to the cutoff point.

But the late crashes weren’t enough for poor Joe. It wasn’t to be. We watched as Denny Hamlin and Brian Vickers sealed the shirt's fate while Nemechek stumbled to a 19th place finish.

As Stewart climbed the fence and mingled with thousands of fans who met him at the bottom of the flagman's stand, we trudged back to the hotel room in search of a lighter and a few bricks of charcoal. Before the race, my step-brother had vowed to save the shirt regardless of Nemechek's finish. Now, he was discussing pulling for Kurt Busch in honor of his favorite adult beverage.

We toasted the memories with the shirt aflame and my father, a closet Junior fan, closed the lid, and, more importantly, a chapter. But when we reopened the grill, the name "NEMECHEK" still was legible on the charred remnants of the cloth. At that point, I doubted my father ever could give up on the driver he had cheered for more than two decades.

When we return to Daytona, I expect my father will be just as dedicated to Joe Nemechek. He's truly a rare breed.