Thanksgiving, Gratitude, and the Flower of Life

Today is Thanksgiving, a day on which it’s appropriate to give public thanks for the gifts we’ve received from life itself. Until recently, I had great disdain for Thanksgiving–just last year, I wrote a bitchy attack on it–mostly because until recently, bitterness and resentment were my favorite go-to emotions.

Paradoxically, I had to lose a lot in the past few months to appreciate what I have, and to grasp the true meaning of gratitude: a job, a marriage, a house, a car, tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours of labor, and a large handful of illusions, for starters. I sold the house, but stand to make very little from it, so I count it as a loss. I sold the car for a ridiculously lowball figure, so I regard that as a loss. I’m in litigation, make a nominal wage at a dirty job doing hard physical labor, and lack permanent housing or the means to pay for it. I have temporary housing, but it lacks running water. So there are challenges. And yet, life has never been better. Last year, I had everything I now lack, and made sure to get up bright and early “to take a crap on Thanksgiving.” Now I’m writing a paean to gratitude. What a difference a year makes.

My view on gratitude (now that I have some, and have a view on it) is that expressions of it should be as concrete and personal as possible, addressed to particular individuals or institutions. And yet no matter how hard we try to express our gratitude to everyone who deserves it, we’ll inevitably come up short. The list I’m about to write up here is bound to be idiosyncratic, with its share of TMI moments. And for obvious reasons, I can’t name every single person or institution that deserves my thanks. But I’m thinking that an odd, incomplete list is better than none, and makes up for my past sins on the topic of Thanksgiving.

As I’ve said before, I lost (or quit) my job at Felician University this past May. As a result, I lost my income and had to go on unemployment. A lot of people have criticized our unemployment system on one (or sometimes both) of two grounds: (1) it’s too slow, unresponsive, and ungenerous to respond to the needs that exist; (2) it’s generous to the point of dampening the desire to seek work. I don’t want to get into a social scientific dispute about either claim. Suffice it to say that whatever their truth as a general matter, neither claim was true of my case.

Technically, my job loss was a voluntary quit made under conditions of duress indirectly related to COVID. The New Jersey Department of Labor could easily have denied my claim by citing the voluntary nature of the quit (ignoring the duress), or by citing the merely indirect connection to COVID (ignoring the fact that there was a connection). But it didn’t. I submitted a claim on May 24 of this year. By May 30th, it was approved in a preliminary way. I got my first unemployment payment by direct deposit on June 2. Soon thereafter, NJDOL asked me for further documentation of the circumstances of my resignation in order to determine whether duress was involved, and whether a COVID connection existed. I followed their instructions and submitted documentation. Within maybe a week or so, NJDOL approved my eligibility for PUA, which I consistently received each Tuesday from June until September.

They didn’t miss a payment, and were never late. The payments were generous, but contrary to a lot of blather I read, did nothing to dampen my desire to seek work. I sought and found work (which wasn’t easy, a story of its own). After finding work, PUA continued, occasionally, to make modest supplementary payments to me on the grounds that my new job involved a large pay cut relative to the old one. Hard to complain about any of that. So the system worked. I’m grateful, and glad to have paid into it all these years. Those complaining about it might want to ask whether the problems with it arise more from the lack of support it gets than from any intrinsic failing in it, or in the idea of unemployment insurance itself.

COVID raged this whole time, and though I mostly kept to myself, I did my share of errands and so on, and spent a few weeks in a barter arrangement that required me (with a lot of misgivings) to be in close proximity to other people. So it seemed prudent to get tested. Many people have complained about COVID testing, saying that there are too few test sites, that the procedures are confused or confusing, that the staff doing the testing is undertrained, and that the turnover time for test results is unreasonably long.

I’m not in a position to comment on that as a general matter. All I can say is that my own experiences here in Hunterdon County, New Jersey were uniformly positive. Despite being asymptomatic, I decided at some point to get a COVID test every month, managing to get three of them at a nearby CVS drive-through. The process was straightforward, the wait times were minimal, and the personnel I dealt with were in every case friendly, competent, and helpful. The longest I had to wait for test results was 3-4 days; one test result came within hours of the test itself. All of it was covered by Horizon Blue Cross, and would have been free even if I didn’t have health insurance. Having a test site so accessible, and getting tests that were so efficiently administered and processed, gave me enormous peace of mind. (It helped that all three tests were negative.) Again, something to be grateful for.

Granted, I’ve found it nearly impossible to schedule a test during this second wave of the pandemic, but on the positive side, I’m entitled to free testing through Occupational Health at my job, and (as an essential health worker) have expedited access to a vaccine through my workplace as well. More on the job in a bit.

I’ve done my share of bitching and moaning on Facebook and to my friends about the whole process of buying and selling a house, which seems to me to exemplify the most objectionable features of the capitalist ethos on unapologetic display: do your best to make as much money as possible by bullshitting everyone to the maximal degree.

That said, I found an exceptionally pleasant and competent realtor, Jody Frattini of Weichert Realtors, without whom the house might never have been sold. She did a fantastic job, and in retrospect, I regard the snarky emails I wrote her (and snarky comments I made to friends about the whole process) as puerile whining on my part, a lapse to which I’m occasionally prone. It’s also worth noting that despite our colossal differences on politics (to understate the point), and one abortive argument about COVID that went nowhere, we managed to deal honestly and straightforwardly with one another, which is proof (to me) that simple honesty and mutual respect can transcend partisan politics. Put another way, human beings may be political animals, but need not be partisan ones. More cause for gratitude.

I won’t bore you with the details, but as remarked earlier, I’m in litigation. Being in litigation sucks, and not to mince words, I generally fucking hate lawyers, continuing a long-standing grudge we philosophers have with them after the sophistical little assholes killed St. Socrates back in the day. That said, I’m grateful to my own lawyers, John Carrino, Anthony Marucci, and Christopher Toppo, who charged me reasonable fees, tolerated my ranting and raving, and generally did what needed doing on the legal front. Props to them. I’m glad to have them on my side, and would hate to have to face them as adversaries, whether in court or out. Socrates should have hired one of these guys to face down Anytus and Meletus. On the plus side, Socrates would have been acquitted. On the minus side, neither the Crito nor the Phaedo would have been written.

I like to eat. So I want to express my gratitude to King’s Supermarket and Annabella’s pizzeria, both of Whitehouse Station, New Jersey. Both places have been badmouthed by commenters online, but people who write stuff like that are a bunch of spoiled, entitled assholes. The people who work at these places, mostly high school and college aged kids, are stand-up types. They work hard, but get paid a pretty low wage. They deserve more gratitude than they get. They definitely have mine.

I’ve already sung the praises of my new job on this blog, and intend to write a whole series on the subject. For now, I’ll just say that I like working where I do, but love the people I work with and for. Thanks to Ashley Byron for taking me seriously enough to consider me for a job at Hunterdon Medical Center, to Diane Young for hiring me in the OR, to Lee and Ibrahim for training me (and putting up with my eggheaded absent-mindedness and general klutziness), and to all the docs, nurses, anesthesiologists, techs, and EVS people who make working at HMC OR such a worthwhile experience.

I frankly despise my previous employer, Felician University–one of the sleaziest, most hypocritical, mediocre, and dishonest institutions I’ve ever dealt with–but love the people I worked with there, students, faculty, and staff alike (whether currently on payroll or forced off). Thanks for being there for me, and thanks for understanding that it sometimes takes me awhile to be there for you. I do what I can, when I can.

As I said, I can’t thank everyone by name to whom I owe a debt of gratitude–an interesting philosophical lesson in itself–but I have to single out a couple of people. My friends Hilary Persky and Ray Trumbo literally kept me going when I lacked the resources to take another step forward. Without them, life would have ground to a halt.

The flower in the picture above comes from Hilary’s world-famous garden in Princeton, New Jersey, and represents a passage from Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence that she once pointed out to me:

He had been, in short, what people were beginning to call ‘a good citizen.’ In New York, for many years past, every new movement, philanthropic, municipal or artistic, had taken account of his opinion and wanted his name. “Ask Archer” when there was a question of starting the first school for crippled children, reorganising the Museum of Art, founding the Grolier Club, inaugurating the new Library, or getting up a new society of chamber music. His days were full, and they were filled decently. He supposed it was all a man ought to ask.

Something he had missed: the flower of life. But he thought of it now as a thing so unattainable and improbable that to have repined would have been like despairing because one had not drawn the first prize in a lottery (The Age of Innocence, pp. 346-47).

With friends like mine, I needn’t think it unattainable or improbable, and needn’t miss it, either.

I also think of friends fighting much larger and more arduous battles than mine: Scot Peterson fighting defamation and false criminal charges, Carol Welsh fighting a growing brain tumor, Chris Sciabarra fighting Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome, Alice Roberts mourning the loss of her husband Rob to COVID. I’m grateful to know these people, but also grateful that my struggles fade into insignificance against the backdrop of theirs.

Speaking of struggles, I missed going to Palestine this past summer because of the pandemic, and may not be able to go for awhile given my financial and other circumstances. But the example of my Palestinian (and Israeli) friends, fighting both occupation and pandemic, is an inspiration to me in every waking moment: their courage, their resilience, their sumud, and their distinctive brand of wisdom. I’m grateful simply to have come into contact with them, and to participate in their struggle from the margins.

So that’s my Thanksgiving List for 2020, admittedly a long list for a fucked up year. Don’t get me wrong: I still think that righteous indignation is an underappreciated, underdiscussed and ill-understood virtue. There’s a lot to resent in this world, and expressing that resentment loudly and openly achieves far more than most “positive thinkers” realize. But Thanksgiving isn’t the day for it. Black Friday is.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Thanks to Kevin Bolling for inspiring this one. 

11 thoughts on “Thanksgiving, Gratitude, and the Flower of Life

  1. “I generally fucking hate lawyers, continuing a long-standing grudge we philosophers have with them after the sophistical little assholes killed St. Socrates back in the day”

    The ancient Athenian legal system had no such role as “lawyer.” All cases, whether corresponding to our civil or our criminal category, were argued by private citizens. The same hostility to “representation” that made the Athenians prefer direct over representative democracy also made them oppose “representatives” in the court system. If you wanted to sue me over what we would call a civil case, you would have to bring the claim yourself, and argue your case in court against me yourself, and I would have to defend myself personally in court; neither of us would be allowed to have a representative (unless we were second-class citizens, i.e. women or children, who were deemed incompetent to act pro se, and were excluded from the democratic assembly for the same reason). If instead you wanted to see me prosecuted for a criminal offense, i.e. one where the purported victim was Athenian society as a whole and not just you, you couldn’t bring a complaint to a public prosecutor because there was no such animal — no D.A.s, nothing of the sort. You would again have to bring the charge yourself, as Anytus and Meletus did against Socrates; and again I would have to give my own defense against you in court.

    The closest thing to lawyers in the system is that you *could* hire someone to help you ahead of time in preparing your case; that’s one of the services the sophists offered. But you couldn’t consult them once the trial actually began; if the other side made some unexpected argument, you were on your own in figuring out how to counter it. (Ditto for teaching the art of persuasive speaking, whether for the court or for the assembly.)

    The one “representational” element in the Athenian courtroom was the jury. As it wasn’t practical to have the entire community serve as jury, juries had to be representative subsets of the population; but the randomly chosen juries were made extremely large (200, 500, sometimes 1000) so as to minimise the likelihood that their verdict would differ from that of the electorate as a whole (and also to make it harder to bribe them).

    Ok, pedantry off. (Just kidding, pedantry never off.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Believe it or not, I actually knew that–for a change. Michael Young, David Riesbeck and I did a reading group on Riesbeck’s book on Aristotle’s Politics a couple of years ago, and instead of discussing what the book was actually about (Aristotle’s Politics), we spent a lot of time quizzing Riesbeck on the finer points of Athenian law and law enforcement, asking him unapologetically anachronistic questions like, “Who were the functional equivalent of cops in Athens?” and “Could Socrates have brought an attorney to his trial?” We harassed him with so many of these stupid questions (OK, I did) that he promised to write a special series of blog posts for PoT on “Law and Order in Athens.” He then disappeared into the ether, and was never heard from again. But he got as far in his responses to us as you just did you in your comment.

      I’ve written this post in a spirit of similarly unapologetic anachronism. I’ve just re-imagined the Apology as an episode of “Law and Order, Special Sophists’ Unit,” and imagined our man Soc hiring Anthony Marucci and/or Chris Toppo as defense attorney(s), prevailing against Anytus and Meletus, and possibly suing them for defamation. Did it happen that way? No. Could it have? No. But would it have been really funny? Yes. That’s the decisive issue.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Those who go to excess in raising laughs seem to be vulgar buffoons. They stop at nothing to raise a laugh, and care more about that than saying what is seemly [or historically accurate] and avoiding pain to the victims of the joke.

        –Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics IV.8, 1128a5ff


        • Yeah, I was just going to ask, “Where the hell is Riesbeck?” I’m sure he’d have an encyclopedia entry to write on Roderick’s Xenophon/lawncare question. I do think that this whole idea of “rescue” is a bit paternalistic, and could use some unpacking. Ironically, the paternalism involved would probably be a plus in Riesbeck’s book.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

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