My dad is like Jesus in many ways. First, he rocks the beard, just like Christ did. Second, he receives gifts on Christmas -- although very rarely does myrrh enter the equation. And third, he is a Union Carpenter. (Jesus wouldn't have been a scab, right?)
But Christ comparisons aside, over several decades and much travel, I have never in my life met anyone who is a harder worker than my dad. He works 8-12 hours a day, building structures with his hands. He has built prison blocks where criminals are removed from society, doctor's offices where the sick are healed, factories where your car's brakes were manufactured. He built part of the hospital I was born in.
After a long day of pouring a foundation, hanging drywall, or building a roof, my dad comes home and unwinds by plowing a field, mucking a chicken coop, weeding his garden or shoveling compost. With his own two hands, he built the bedroom I once slept in, the kitchen where my mom baked this years' Christmas cookies, and the family room where Christmas presents were arranged under a small artificial tree. He built the garage where their cars are stored, the shed where he keeps his outdoor equipment, and the animal houses for chickens, goats, and turkeys, among others.
This is the portrait of a man who just won't stop. He has a drive to provide for his family, a strong work ethic and a moral compass I have never seen waver from true north. If this sounds like hero worship, it should because it largely is. My dad is my hero.
I used to think we were very different. If my dad won the lottery and had a billion dollars, I don't think he would just sit around on a beach somewhere. I, on the other hand, could do nothing all day and feel pretty content about it. My dad could fix a broken water main pipe with a toothpick, a twist-tie, and an apple core. I, on the other hand, once almost burned my apartment to the ground attempting to make toast. In the past several years, we have had problems with our washing machine, our dryer, our water heater, a toilet that wouldn't stop running, an alternator on my car, a sensor of some sort on our van, and our central air conditioning unit. None of these things would give my dad any problem at all, but for me they are all-consuming catastrophes.
I am not my father.
But we're alike. The same drive that causes him to build things, to grow things, to create things also causes me to write things, to photograph things, to create things. The longer I live, the more I see my dad in the things I do, even though we seem so different.
In recent years, though, things have gotten more difficult for him. He has a genetic problem with his vertebrae (I probably have it too) which causes pretty excruciating back pain after intense physical exertion. His job, of course, is full of intense physical exertion.
The good news was that he has been a Union Carpenter almost his entire adult life. As part of the retirement plan offered by the union, after your age and years of service add up to a certain number, you can retire with a full pension. For my dad, that magic number will occur in 13 months. Not that I expect that he will retire to spend the rest of his days doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku and watching the People's Court all day in his recliner. I know he'll still work on things. But I'll feel better knowing it will be on his terms, that he won't be doing metal siding in -10 degree windchills, or shingling a roof in the hot August sun.
This past Saturday, my wife and daughter and I visited my parents for Christmas in Michigan. Several other family members were there as well. The mail had come, and my dad got a letter. It was from the union benefits group, concerning his pension. As required by law, they had to inform my dad that the pension fund was in critical status. As a result, some cuts in the program might be made, including the retirement benefit that would have allowed my dad to retire in early 2010.
Since they received the letter on the weekend, my parents couldn't call anyone for any details. Once they were able to call this morning, they couldn't reach anyone who knew any specifics, and many people are on vacation until next Monday due to New Year celebrations and schools' winter breaks.
My mom cried, wondering what would happen if my dad was not able to retire when they had planned. Even 13 more months of the kind of pain my dad has been in seems cruel, but extending this indefinitely brings a new level of despair into the equation.
And he's not alone. The baby boom generation is retiring, or on the verge of retiring. Obviously many have seen investments toward retirement annihilated recently as a result of the recession and financial collapse we are in. Retiring boomers are anticipating those pension plans too. If expected retirement benefits and pensions evaporate, we will see a lot of people forced to take a much lower retirement income than they were anticipating (often only Social Security, with no supplemental retirement income whatsoever). Alternately, many will be forced to remain in the labor market during a time of high unemployment. Either way, economic problems will continue to be acerbated and the downward spiral will continue.
Thank God the idiots who were trying to get Social Security tied into the financial markets/stock markets were shot down. I can only imagine the clusterfuck we'd be experiencing now if that had gone differently, and how many other families would be receiving letters leaving them with a sick feeling on Christmas.