Monday, October 7, 2013

What is Essential?

"You know what they call a group of non-essential employees that get together on Sunday? The New York Giants."--Jay Leno

Oxford English Dictionary definition of non-essential: not absolutely necessary. Non-essential is the adjective some are using to describe my husband's employment as a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Actually "exempt" is the term used to describe his employment status. Non-essential is a name some commentators have long attached to government employees. This wouldn't be so insulting and scary if the definition of non-essential extended to paying our mortgage, buying groceries and paying our son's college tuition.  

Commentators like libertarian writer Nick Gillespie are pouncing on the furloughs of some 800,000 government employees as evidence of what they've long suspected: "DUH! I've been saying that government workers are non-essential for years!" This is a lame argument. Just repeat something often enough, and it becomes fact. Schoolkids throughout the generations have created similar epidemics of certainty as they almost universally complain about their teachers and going to school in the first place. Yet they learn valuable lessons and meet and learn to work with people from diverse backgrounds with diverse viewpoints. School's a great gig. So is gainful employment.

If the non-essential government shutdown goes on for much longer, my husband and others might be forced to look for other employment. That would be a a good plan, if the overall job market weren't so measly. Many of the so-called replacement jobs are part-time in the service industry, offering low pay and no benefits.String two or even three part-time jobs together and maybe you can scrape together an existence, if not a living. Going on unemployment and food stamps would be cheaper for the government than my husband's salary, but then Mr. Gillespie and others like him, who have so much insight and knowledge into what my husband and other government employees do or do not do and do or do not deserve, would be calling us freeloaders. No win-win in this scenario.

A non-essential pet rock. More than one million sold in six months in 1976.
All this talk of non-essential is confusing. We Americans practically invented the non-essential. Shopping malls are filled with tape stores and redundant boutiques and restaurants, and there is no pretense of a line between need and want. Much of our economy runs on making things that are nonessential, things that are nice to have, but expendable. But these are products, objects of choice and desire, not people and their life's work and livelihood.

I might be imagining things, but the only thing that counts any more are emergencies, real or manufactured, like the way this government shutdown has been manufactured. Only when the house is on fire, or the house under water, are we considered "essential." But as I said, I might be imagining things. There are many representatives in Congress who voted to deny aid to those caught up in the floods and destruction of Hurricane Sandy, including Rep.Cory Gardner, who represents the district in Colorado where Don and I live and have raised our family. Notice his website, still spiffy even during the government shutdown, as opposed to the NOAA website above. Of course, during the recent floods in Boulder Country, Gardner graciously accepted government aid for his constituents, just not for those folks out there in New York City.

The Flatirons in Boulder, frosted in show and swaddled in cloud and mystery, taken last Friday by my friend Andrew Nicholson

I turn away from the rage and the sadness at a government shutdown that has accomplished as little as the 113th Congress is accomplishing, to return to the subject at hand--what is essential? So often it's not the things we buy. It's what we give, what we enjoy, and what we're grateful for. These are essential to me: My family's happiness. Sunlight. Reasonable amounts of rain. Good food prepared with love and shared with people we love. Something to share, a smile, an encouraging word, a caress. A yoga mat. A good pair of walking shoes. Good books. Kindness. Natural beauty revealed, as in Andrew's photo. A giant pumpkin.