Friday, March 18, 2011

Wonder Woman, Tiaras & Anti-Drama Llamas

When I last reported on Southern Belle Mama she was sashaying through my front door, looking spectacular after an eight-hour drive, and carrying homemade fudge. I, on the other hand, was fretting over the fact that my nails looked like I had been using them to pry open rusty paint cans, my roots were showing, the barbecued chicken in the oven was approaching jerky-status, and I forgot to wash the good napkins.

Like I told you before, Southern Belle Mama is the least critical person I have ever known, with the possible exception of Southern Belle Granny, but she is also the most together person I have ever known. And, try as I might, I have never been able to reach her level of Southern Belleness. If we actually wore tiaras, my mother’s would be perfectly perched and centered on her perfectly coiffed head, with no visible means of anchoring, and mine would be hopelessly tangled in my hair and teetering just above my left ear, despite the duct-tape running through it and under my chin. I consider myself lucky to be hanging onto the bottom rung of the Southern Belle ladder with my ragged, polish-free nails. Most likely, I have been spared banishment for the simple fact she is my mother.

Now, the words “Southern Belle” conjure up images of delicate females who get the vapors with little to no provocation, and are prone to being drama llamas. But Southern Belle Mama has always been strong, fearless and drama-free. I can easily picture her, hands on hips, facing down a grizzly bear, shooing him back into the woods, and then going casually back to putting on her lipstick, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

So, when I checked the answering machine yesterday and heard her almost-but-not-quite tearful voice saying she really needed to talk to me, I panicked. My hand flew to my chest and, yes, I almost got the vapors. If I actually had a fainting couch, I would have been draped over it. With my heart in my throat, I called her back, convinced that something was very, very, very, very, very wrong.

One ring, two rings, three rings and she answered the phone in pretty much a normal voice.

“Mama! What’s wrong?!”

“Oh, Hon, you’ve been on my mind the last few days, and I’ve been worried about you. I really needed to hear your voice. Are you okay?”

“Well, I will be as soon as my adrenaline levels come back down. You scared the crap out of me!!!!” (Yes, I was in such a state I actually said “crap” to Southern Belle Mama.)

As my breathing slowly returned to normal, I assured her I was fine, and we talked for another half-hour or so. I won’t bore you with all the gory details, but something important came out of that conversation you might need to hear.

Being the drama-avoiding, strong women we are, we realized we don’t tell each other important things we probably should. We have a tendency to keep things that might worry the other to ourselves. In times of stress, we don’t lean on each other and seek out that emotional support. More often than not, we don’t even tell each other about distressing events until whatever it is has been resolved and the whole thing is over. We have both faced down our fair share of life’s low blows, but most of those battles have been fought standing our own two feet, with the help of God.

Being a strong woman doesn’t mean you don’t need another living, breathing, caring person to lean on, share things with, or seek advice from, especially when you’re in the heat of battle. So, we agreed to start doing that more. My mother and I have always had a great relationship, but now I am excited to get to know her better as a person and a friend.

By all means, seek guidance from God, send up your prayers, and go out and fight the good fight, but remember, my sweetnesses, reaching out to one another is not a sign of weakness. Confiding in and leaning on a friend does not make you a whiner. You are allowed to be afraid. Everyone is. You are not Wonder Woman with a Magic Tiara and bullet-deflecting accessories. And, after all, isn't loving and supporting each other our Prime Directive?

Like I used to tell my son, you have to have at least four hugs a day to keep from being weird. Consider yourself hugged. It’s up to you to go get the other three.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Other Side: Public Employee Union Members

WARNING: For those of you who visit my blog for the occasional humorous or warm and fuzzy post, you should probably avert your eyes and close this page now, because this post is neither of those things. You might even call it a rant. Something I am known to do every so often, but I generally do it in the privacy of my own living room, so as not to inflict my crankiness on others. In other words, I’m climbing up on my soap box today. You have been warned.

I never intended for this blog to become a political forum but, for weeks now, I have watched the tweets flowing through my timeline about the public employee union dispute in Wisconsin. It’s not an exaggeration to say that 99.99% of those tweets have been mini-rants against not only the public employee union in Wisconsin but all public employee unions nationwide. Some people, in my opinion, have been truly outrageous in condemning all public employee union members and calling them, among other unsavory things, greedy, selfish, over-paid, lazy thugs. I have been surprised and saddened by this, because I thought most of my Twitter friends would be more interested in hearing both sides of the story and coming to a well thought-out conclusion.

Personally, I have searched for the actual dollar amounts involved in the Wisconsin dispute, and I have not yet been able to find anything which sets out how much union members earn or how much they pay for their benefits. From what I have been able to find, it appears the union members were willing to negotiate on benefit costs and other issues, until the governor abruptly decided to put an end to all collective bargaining. And everyone is surprised that the union members are upset? Frankly, to me, that doesn’t look so much like a move to balance the state’s budget as political grandstanding on the governor’s part. But I simply don’t have enough information to form a solid opinion about the dispute in Wisconsin, so I’m passing on passing judgment.

Are there bad seeds in public employee unions? Of course there are, but you cannot judge a group of more than 7 million people based on the actions of a relatively small number of union members and leaders. I’m fairly sure no one is condemning all Baptist congregations in this country because of the actions of the Westboro “Baptist” Church.

While I don’t know much about the specifics of the Wisconsin situation, I do know something about public employee unions, and I think some enlightenment is desperately needed. Not being in a particularly creative mood today, I’ll use an old, well-worn phrase – here’s the rest of the story.

First of all, state workers in our state have no choice. That’s not something they tell you at the new employee orientation. But, shortly after accepting a state job, a union rep will swoop in and hound you day and night to join the union. Then, if you steadfastly refuse to join or just keep avoiding the calls, you will receive a letter from the public employee union informing you that you do NOT have to join the union but you DO have to pay dues or you will be terminated. The letter will also state they are going to assess dues retroactively to your date of hire and, if you don’t pay up by a certain date, you will be terminated.

You will be stunned. You will wonder how that could be legal. But with a little research, you will discover it is legal. Then, after lobbing this grenade into the middle of your life and threatening your job, the union will then make you an offer you literally can’t refuse and say they will “forgive” most of the past due dues and accept a substantially smaller amount. All of which sounds like the very definition of extortion, but it’s legal extortion, so you fork over the cash to keep your job.

More than likely, years later, you will still have no clue what the union does, other than take money out of your check and give it to politicians you don’t like or support. Oddly, you will never hear from the union. There are no meetings, no newsletters, no explanation of what they’re doing for members, or even how to reach a union representative.

Meanwhile, when our state legislators realized the state was headed for a budget crisis, they instituted a hiring freeze, decided not to fill some positions as they were vacated, cancelled scheduled raises (which means there have been no raises for 2+ years), instituted furlough days and increases in the mandatory contributions to the public employees retirement account, which is now almost 11% of gross pay.

Other benefits offered by the state have seen similar increases. Of course, some of those increases might not affect you directly, because the price tag was too expensive from the get-go, and you opted out. Nevertheless, you are taking home less money now than you were two years ago. And, since those vacated positions in your department have not been re-filled, you have been doing the jobs of two or three people for years. Oh, and let’s not forget the 8 months you didn’t have a working answering machine or voice mail because it wasn’t in the department’s budget, so people called your home at all hours, 7 days a week.

I know several public employees and none of them are earning more than $50,000 a year. Most are earning substantially less, despite having degrees and years and years of experience. Some of them also work nights, weekends, and holidays, for which they do NOT get paid, for no other reason than they want to do the very best job they can for the public they serve.

Public employee union members in this state have taken all of this in stride – no protests, no yelling, no rabble-rousing, no capital building take-over, and no hitting of people over the head with signs. In fact, they have pretty much rolled over and played dead, because they just want to keep their jobs.

Despite all this, there are people in this country who are condemning public employee union members, calling them vile names, and questioning their character and integrity, simply because they are union members. My parents did a pretty good job of teaching me right from wrong, and that is wrong.

For the most part, public employee union members are hard-working, regular folks, just like you. The only difference is they were forced to join a union, or at least pay union dues, to keep their jobs.

Like the guy who inspects the restaurants in your town and the food vendors at every public event you attend to make sure the food you eat is safe and handled properly – that’s a public employee.

Or the social worker with 100+ open cases on suspected child abuse, foster placements and other heart-wrenchers – that’s a public employee.

Or the 3rd grade teacher who buys school supplies for 10 kids in her class who showed up without any and buys art supplies because there is no money in the school budget for them – that’s a public employee.

If you want to call out union leaders, that’s fine by me. There’s no love lost there. But, before you trash all public employee union members, take a look around your neighborhood because, chances are, you know one.

All thoughtful and rational comments are welcomed. Profane or offensive comments are not. Thank you.