Monday, March 24, 2014

Unemployed in West Michigan: the Current State of Affairs

If you have been following the news about unemployment, you are likely not optimistic about any further relief for the long-term unemployed, in Michigan or elsewhere.

Here's where it stands: most states give a maximum of 26 weeks of unemployment compensation to laid off or terminated workers, but since 2011, to save money, Michigan limited the number to 20, a significant reduction from the 99 weeks' workers were getting during the recession.  Still, in 2013, with federal help, Michiganders could get a maximum of 48 weeks' assistance.

In December, 2013 federal unemployment extensions expired, and, for Michigan workers, that capped the maximum benefit at 20 weeks'. Congress has been ineffectively duking this issue out since then with various proposals in the pipeline, and last week House Speaker John Boehner rejected the Senate bill temporarily extending unemployment benefits at the federal level for the long-term unemployed as "unworkable," particularly reinstating benefits retroactively since the old law expired.

The latest unemployment statistics reveal Michigan, at 7.8%, as having the 5th highest unemployment rate in the nation, after California, Illinois, Nevada, and Rhode Island. Preliminary statistics reveal that the Grand Rapids-Wyoming metropolitan area has an unemployment rate of 5.8% (January 2014). The real unemployment rate, however, which would include the long-term unemployed who have given up hope of finding a job but have dropped off the unemployment rolls, is 10.2%, state-wide. Add to that the underemployed who would seek more or better work if they could find it, and those numbers only grow higher, probably much higher and growing as the new health care insurance laws solidify the disincentive employers have to give their workers more hours.

Some Michigan lawmakers have proposed laws that would offer tax relief for unemployment compensation at the state level or re-extend the total number of weeks to 26, but these proposals do not seem likely to go anywhere in the Michigan Legislature.

Add to this the staggering amount of student loan or underwater mortgage debt Generations X and Y are shouldering, and it's no wonder that many people in this current economy see themselves as just "picking through the rubble." Good news for the average Michigan worker seems less likely all the time, although we can of course hope that the area's economic growth will have some positive effect in job creation longer term.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Les Misérables at the Civic

If you haven't had a chance to see the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre's production of Les Misérables, you're missing a real treat.
Our family always goes to see the Civic's children's musical at Christmas, but my mother, sister, and I went to see Les Miz this weekend, and I was very impressed at what a fantastic production our local talent put on. While obviously there are more constraints in a small theater with a volunteer cast, I felt just as moved by the performance as I did when I saw it at DeVos in the 1990s. Part of this is the music itself, how lovely it is, and part of it is that the play's themes of income inequality, misuse of government resources to pursue innocent (or at least less guilty) parties, the plight of single mothers, and widespread suffering resonate especially well now, although Americans haven't experienced suffering in the same way that the 19th-century French citizens Victor Hugo described did.

The Civic Theatre was the first community theater that Music Theatre International approached with the opportunity of producing  the musical. There is a short window of time - 18 months - that it can be staged by regional theaters as Les Misérables is currently not playing on Broadway, nor it is touring the country.

Those familiar with the story know that it revolves around Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to five years' hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to save his nephew from starvation. He ends up serving nineteen years in total as a result of an escape attempt, and the play opens with his release from prison. Inspector Javert informs him that he will always be watching him and expects the worst. This sets up the first conflict: how Valjean will survive when he is even less likely to have opportunities as a known convict. The audience observes him falter and right himself, fail and then come to the aid of a fallen woman with a child, adopt an orphaned girl, and, eventually, become embroiled in the Paris Uprising of 1832. At its heart, this is a redemption story.

In our local production, Valjean is played by Jeremiah Postma, who is well suited to Valjean physically and musically. Unbelievably, this is Postma's first performance at the Civic - the role requires enormous vocal range and endurance, as well as strong acting skills. Postma frankly owned the stage and was particularly adept at conveying Valjean's slow aging process and loss of vitality.

David Duiven plays Javert. I last saw Duiven as Captain Von Trapp at Christmas time. He did a creditable job conveying Javert's utter inflexibility, but sounded a bit hoarse on Sunday.

The show's three female leads, Fantine, Cosette, and Eponine, were played by Kelsey Kohlenberger, Audrey Filson, and Molly Jones, respectively. All of their voices were fantastic, Filson's being especially clear, although Kohlenberger's suited very well the tragedy of Fantine. Eponine's parts are frequently of the outsider/third wheel kind, and she blended well with Cosette's, Marius's, and Valjean's parts. Her solo pieces were some of the show's most touching.

Marius was played by Michael Peneycad, who looked very 19th-century swoony poet radical and had a strong, passionate voice. The comic relief, necessary in a story this grim, was provided by John Girdlestone and Sarah Lacroix, as Thenardier and Madame Thenardier. It was obvious that Girdlestone had professional experience - he expertly worked the crowd and was very enjoyable to watch. Lacroix complemented his talents well.

Of course, a large part of the story involves the average French citizenry's suffering, so a great chorus is necessary and was more than provided by our local Grand Rapidians. The set decoration was well done, and costuming was suitably bleak and evocative.

All in all, I heartily recommend this production. I personally cried buckets at the end.  I enjoyed it far better than the 2012 film with Hugh Jackman and don't mind doing a little informal online marketing on its behalf.  Take the opportunity to see it before its run ends on March 30.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Stomach Flu in West Michigan

Yesterday, WZZM reported that there had been an upsurge in stomach flu cases in West Michigan being reported in hospitals, higher than the four-year average. Of course, the real stomach flu rate is unknown because people only seek treatment when the symptoms get out of control and they experience more life-threatening symptoms like severe dehydration. Most people suffer at home and, if they report it at all, it's on Facebook.

If you have a child in school or work in any large organization, you may have noticed a upsurge in sickness in recent weeks. Just a heads up - whatever strain of viral gastroenteritis this is, it's a monster, highly communicable. It rips through families, leaving nearly all members exhausted and dehydrated. Besides diarrhea and vomiting, other symptoms include chills, muscle aches, headache, and fatigue. It someone in your family falls ill, hunker down for the long haul. It's highly communicable and has a very short incubation period of perhaps 24-48 hours. Locally, the authorities have focused on notifying restaurants because sick people preparing food are potential Typhoid Marys.

The most important thing with stomach flu is to remain hydrated. This can be difficult because even drinking water can provoke vomiting, but if your body loses too much water too quickly, you will have to go to the doctor or the ER where the will put you on an IV. Remember your body is like a car, except that, unfortunately, you can't upgrade your thermostat if your internal temperature gets wonky. You can make sure that what you put in it is beneficial, though. Cars run on oil; bodies run on water. No water, no run. So stay away from sugared drinks, sodas and anything with caffeine. Coffee, tea, and caffeinated sodas are diuretics, and you need water in your body, not out. Mint or chamomile teas are a good substitute, soothing to the stomach while still supplying the water the body requires.

Eat nourishing foods too, when you can. They will help you get your strength back. You may find that taking a hot bath will relax you and help you to fight off the chills. The stomach flu isn't the only thing being passed around out there. We are on the tail end of the regular flu season, and it's not too late to get that either, but increasing your intact of Vitamins C and D, as well as other minerals many Americans are deficient in, such as Magnesium and Iron, can help your body fight off viruses and bacteria.

Stay healthy, and, if you do get sick, stay at home until you get better. Even after the vomiting and diarrhea are gone, you can still infect others. This is doubly true if you prepare food or work with immune compromised people.  Winter is almost over, though. We just have to slog through this last part of ice, cold, and sickness.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Getting ready for spring - and the garden

It’s the beginning of March now, and while nearly all of us are tired of looking at the snow, some of us are planning what we will plant in our yards and gardens. I've just re-upped for a CSA share with Eden Farms, and while it's too cold (so cold!) to put up my greenhouse yet, the seed and plant catalogs have started to arrive, and I can’t help but dream of new green shoots coming from fertile spring soil. I know I have a lot of work to do when all of this finally melts, though, because winter hit before I had time to mulch the vegetable garden or my flower beds. My usual rabbit manure supplier disappeared from Craigslist, and I had plans to get some horse manure one Saturday morning in November, but then it snowed, and I didn't want to drive in it, and, well, it all seems laughable now, 110 inches of snow later. I wish I could go back and kick my November self in gear now.

Mulch tackles a number of important jobs in the garden. Besides keeping weeds down, it maintains soil temperature better and more evenly, keeping the summer’s warmth in longer - as well as the winter’s chill. Mulch helps to control erosion from wind and rain and keeps moisture from evaporating, giving plants more time to soak up rain. As it decomposes, it enriches the soil, adding its nutrients and modifying its composition, making it more chemically and physically complex and better for plant growth. A well mulched yard or garden also looks much neater and is easier to work in.

So when is the proper time to mulch your flower or garden beds? Mulching in fall is a great idea to protect your plants from icy winds and bitter cold, but when spring comes, you’ll want to rake that mulch back until your seedlings sprout and grow a bit. This will allow the ground around your plants to warm up and will allow the rain to drain better and keep from waterlogging your soil, especially this year when we have up to 5 inches of rain in frozen form ready to be absorbed. Once the ground has warmed and dried up a bit, then it will be time to rake the mulch back and add more. How much mulch is enough? The USDA recommends a total of 2-4 inches of bark or wood mulch, spread evenly over the entire area being covered.  If more quickly decomposing matter is used - such as leaves or compost - they advise using 3-4 inches. Measure your garden carefully to determine the volume of compost that you will need using this depth. It's early in the season, but some outlets, like Kamps are already offering discounts on landscaping products, including mulch.

If you didn’t mulch this last fall, don’t worry. That thick layer of snow we’ve had all winter has served as a kind of mulch protecting and insulating your plants. It will likely be a wet spring, but your perennials will eventually peek up out of the soil and then spread their leaves and bask in May’s sunshine - as will the rest of us.