Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Signs of Recovery

I am no expert. I am just a writer who covers the news and gets to hear a lot of different points of view. And I'm hearing a common theme: Believe it or not, things are getting better.

If you've lost your job, if you're losing your home, if you're awake nights worrying about the future, understand that I'm not minimizing your situation. I'm just as scared as you are. But the fact remains, there's evidence that the economy is starting to breathe on its own.

Let me tell you what I've heard.

1. From the editor of a business publication that covers New York's Hudson Valley -
"Businesses are starting to make some very cautious plans for long term growth. Small businesses are still starving for credit but it seems like nobody's hiding under a blanket waiting for the storm to pass. They're coming out."

2. From a writer in Pennsylvania who's working on a book on the rush to drill for natural gas - "The gas companies disappeared for a few months there. They were rescinding leases, not taking out any news ones. I think the money for those leases were coming from the stock market and there just wasn't any. But in the last six to eight weeks, they're back. They're buying up leases again. It was such a relief when they were gone, but I guess it's a good economic sign that they're able to afford to get back to snapping up drilling rights."

3. From the New York State Association of Realtors - Sales of single homes in New York were up 14% in March compared to February - and prices seems to be creeping back up. Ulster County in the mid-Hudson Valley, had an eye-popping, jaw-dropping increase in homes sales of almost 67% from February to March.

4. Solar manufacturers are opening up facilities - three of them in the Hudson Valley in the past couple of months. There's a new wind energy project underway as well.

5. From a friend who works at a major radio network - "We're told the layoffs are over. They've cut as much as they're going to and now they're going to be trying some new ideas to market what we do across the country."

6. That business journal? It's starting up a new paper to replace a group of community papers that shut down when the Journal Register went bankrupt.

7. Banks are lending. They're darned careful and you'd better have all your ducks in order and have the money to back it up, but they're lending. That may seem unfair, but those stricter standards were the only ones that ever really made sense. It's a reality check.

8. Sonic is opening a new restaurant near me. Yeah, yeah, big deal you say. But this is in a town that recently saw its Friendlys Ice Cream shut down. It's lost Boston Market, Linens 'n Things stands vacant, Ann Taylor packed up and went home and Lazy Boy got off his recliner and hit the road. But Sonic's moving in. Not only that, but there are about half a dozen new gas stations all owned by one obviously very optimistic guy.

This is just one small corner of the globe, but we're not an isolated pocket. If things are getting better here, it's getting better in other places as well.

And what's really encouraging is that this damned uncomfortable time has resulted in some noticeable changes. A local town is organizing a massive cleanup day where over a hundred people have volunteered to go out and pick up the trash. And they're planning to do it again in the fall. A local realtor reports she's got customers who are moving to the country, deciding that if they have to change careers, they want to find work that contributes something to society.

We're not out of the woods, but maybe the trees are thinning. Hang on.

And if you've got any other signposts that indicate we're on the road out, share them here. We all need to hear.

A report on http://moneymorning.com speculates that a sharper than expected drop in the GDP can be considered good news as well, though you've got to squint to see it, in my opinion. An economic advisor in Pennsylvania says it's good/bad news - that it means companies are running as lean as they possibly can and any increase in demand at all is going to have a major positive effect. Okay. I'm willing to consider the idea.

But I've also been told some consider all this a bull trap. I wasn't familiar with the term - I thought it was a typo for something else. But a bull trap, I'm told, is a slight improvement which suckers any leftover cash into the market, only to have it rush down the drain with a sudden whoosh. Kinda like the dead cat bounce.

It's all speculation, people. Anyone who says they know for sure is blowing smoke because the one thing you cannot predict is confidence - and that's what this is all based on.

But it is interesting to see the signs and I admit to wondering what would happen if everyone started pointing out the bright spots in the darkness. Might we all pull out of this sooner?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Don't Just Read This

I was finally depressed enough to watch "21 Grams" last night. To get in the right mood, I watched "Synedoche, NY", too.

I have questions. About life.

First, let me say they're both great films. I am a confirmed Charlie Kaufman groupie, but I wouldn't say one is better than the other. They're both insightful, touching films done in an interesting way. And there is a common thread between them. They're examinations of life, what it means, and what connects us all, as well as what keeps us apart.

The message I got from "21 Grams" is that life can turn in an instant, that each choice we make has a million consequences that we can't foresee. Sean Penn's character got a second chance and he made a new life with it. Naomi Watts and Benicio Del Torro were blasted out of their lives by an accident - and until each of them could feel they'd actively been involved and acted in response to it, they were paralyzed. It was disturbing to see just how quickly a person can disintegrate once he or she is swept under the tidal wave of random tragedy. Given a sense of control, that person can just as quickly begin to live again.

Are we living that tenuously? And what does that mean for the people who have lost so much in this recession/depression? Do we really understand the emotional cost of losing your job, your home, your retirement savings?

Then there's "Synedoche, NY". It's a term, I now know, not just a word that sounds like Schenectady. Understanding one part as a way of understanding the whole. And that's what we're shown through Philip Seymour Hoffman's character. By watching him try to understand life by recreating it, we see the universal confusion, the universal disillusionment, the universal disconnect. We watch Hoffman watch actors playing out his life, finally watching him become an actor in his own play, following the direction of an unseen voice.

"Is it about the futility of life?" KB wondered afterwards. I think it is, but it's more. It's about how important and simultaneously meaningless our lives are, a fact that we ignore - perhaps because we can't fathom it.

So we're all just "little people" wandering through our so-brief existences, trying to make meaning of something and looking for non-existent answers? That view should upset me, but it's strangely inspiring - doesn't that mean anything is possible? That we are free to make this experience whatever we choose and when our part in the play is over the spotlight goes out on us but other equally central yet insignificant characters continue the show?

Is there something liberating about knowing we don't really matter, yet we do?
I think there might be, because knowing that requires us to acknowledge that we are no more or less important than the other players in this show...and that each of us is capable of doing anything. There is no stage direction.

So why are we choosing to connect only remotely? We Twitter, we Facebook, we MySpace, we update our friends and family by email. Too many of us literally update the world when we go to work, have a cup of coffee, make dinner. "Tired - headed to bed now," we write. We actually say goodnight to the virtual world.

I sit here, alone in a quiet room, and ponder the ideas raised by movies I've seen, knowing that people I've never met all over the world will read what I write. Why?

Our teenagers text, sext and hook up without making connections. Our children play video games instead of stickball.

I love the virtual community for the understanding it can promote. But I hate that we're using it to replace real communication.

I'm happy to know you read this. I think it's important to wonder about the big issues. But I don't want us to stop here. I want you to sit down with other people and start a conversation. "I read this thing," you can say. "This woman was wondering what life was all about and I thought..." Finish the sentence. There is no right or wrong choice - just your opinion. But what is important is for you to think about what YOU think, then sit down with other human beings and find out what THEY think. Ask kids what they think. Ask old people. Ask someone you love. Or don't talk about this at all. Talk about something else that really interests you, that you wonder about. But talk - and then listen. That's connecting. And that is important.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

What You Can Do To Help

I got this email yesterday. It's about an effort by writers to help put pressure on the Chinese government to free human rights activist Liu Xiaobo.

I just came across your blog entry on Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia. Thank you so much for helping to spread word about his case! PEN is working hard to help free him, and will be awarding him the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award for his unyielding dedication to free expression (http://www.pen.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/3423/prmID/172). As part of our advocacy campaign on his behalf, we are urging people of conscience to sign a petition calling for his release – www.pen.org/liu. Writers—his colleagues—like Edward Albee, Margaret Atwood, and Salman Rushdie have already added their names. Can you help spread the word and post another blog calling people to action?

Sarah Hoffman

Freedom to Write Associate

PEN American Center

Want to read more about this? Go here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7842315.stm

Want to help?

Go here:


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Best Image of Corporate America Ever

I can take no credit for this. The first I saw of it was here...a hipster blogger/cartoonist beloved of my hipster daughter.


But it's genius because it's so clear. Corporate America isn't structured like a pyramid, nor is it an oval..it's a big, fat, top-heavy broccoli. But when it tries to make cuts, all the cuts are coming off the bottom.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Socialized Autos

I went to the NY Auto Show this week. I haven't been in years, nor has KB. My daughter has never been at all. If you want to know what's wrong with the auto industry, it's a great place to go. No wonder they're begging for government handouts.

KB wanted to see the concept cars - the weird, scifi models that never see the light of day. I always find them sad - they're what engineers would do if they were allowed to make cars that people truly could be excited about. This year, there was no money in the budgets for futuristic vehicles - most companies showed their slightly-better-than-before fuel sippers. Excitement? Zero.

Chevy tried. It had a massive transformer figure standing above its two uninspiring Volt models. If the robot moved, it would have been a show-stopper - but it didn't move while I was there and the cars looked like cheap plastic toys; people yawned and moved on.

The big excitement was next door at Scion. That's where the iQ was on display. It's a Toyota with a new look, but they get it. It's economical, it's cheap, it's great on gas and it looks like nothing else on the road.

Smart Cars got a lot of attention, as did mini-Coopers. There were lines to get close to the electric luxury cars, the Fisker's Karma.

And then there were the tired old white bread cars in different settings. VW had a futuristic stage and everyone else was completely forgettable. My daughter wondered why anyone would ever want to go to an auto show, though she was quite fond of the Scion iQ.

Land Rover and Hummer, the old dinosaurs, were pushing luxury over efficiency. I heard the Land Rover shill informing visitors that the new model has more leather inch for inch than any other vehicle. Dead animals and gas guzzling - there's a winning combination.

There was one truly amazing car in the "no way!" category, and it made the whole show worthwhile. It was the Bertone Bat 11.

It put the other millionaires' sports cars to shame and it was a great story. Apparently the company was about to fold. Because of their finances, for the first time ever, they didn't have a stand at the Geneva Show. But they did have the Bat. And this latest version of a 50 year old concept car so excited investors and the world's top designers that they decided Bertone had better stay open to produce up to 50 of these babies.

Where are the exciting ideas from GM, from Chrysler? Conservatives continue to push the argument that the Obama administration is inappropriately stepping into the car industry - demanding changes in corporate leaders, dictating salaries, calling for new business plans. "He's socializing the industry!" is the alarmists' rallying cry.
I have one question. Didn't they ask for help?

Let's be clearer - didn't they beg for help? Didn't they say they were going under, and said it again after receiving an initial monstrous loan?

I'll make it simple. My money (which God knows I wish I could keep) is keeping them afloat because they can't do their jobs. They haven't ever anticipated the market - they always react to it, and later than their Japanese competitors. So now they want a loan - I don't loan money to a business without guarantees that they're spending it wisely. And if they can't get it together after the first loan, I'm fine with walking in, booting the people at the top and forcing the changes that will turn my money into a sound investment.

That's good business.

Friday, April 17, 2009

What Sacrifice Would You Make For Freedom?

I stumbled across this OpEd in the Washington Post. They titled it "A Voice for My Husband." It stopped me in my tracks.


I can spout the same old platitudes..."we're so lucky...we take our freedoms for granted...American has become complacent..." Blah blah blah.

This isn't a theoretical discussion. This is about a couple who lives in China and have made the conscious choice to speak out against a repressive regime, fully aware of the consequences it will mean. These are people who live in a country where the government is something to be feared. They have chosen to have no children - it would be too difficult for a child to live without a father.

Liu Xiaobo has been in jail since December, though he's been charged with no crime. His wife has seen him only twice. All the letters they write, all the books she sends, are confiscated. And now his wife, Xia Liu, has written an appeal to President Obama to intervene on her husband's behalf. She believes he is about to be tried as a subversive as the Chinese government strives to silence pro-democracy voices.

Liu Xiaobo is an internationally recognized champion of human rights. He has won an award from Reporters Without Borders for his defense of freedom of the press. He is a well respected teacher and a strong advocate of advancing the cause of democracy and human rights in his country. He is a symbol - and symbols make excellent targets.

These are heroic people. These are people who put many of us to shame, people who risk not just their comfort but their safety for what they believe is right.

I look in the mirror, see the woman who worries about paying the bills, despairs of her country when she hears reactionaries on both sides of the political spectrum scream too loudly to hear each other, and wonder - would I be willing to do that?

I don't know. But we should help those who will.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

My Hero: Susan Boyle

Do you need to smile? Do you need a lift? Watch Britain's biggest contribution to making a better world ever. And watch Simon Cowell's face as she nears the end. What a softy. I like being a human right now.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Mr. President : You STILL Want Me To Donate?

I like our new president. I voted for him. I want him to succeed, if his goals are the ones he pledged during his campaign. But the latest email from his media guru, David Plouffe, leaves me cold. Here is his discussion of opponents of the president's agenda who say they want him to fail.

It makes you wonder whether they see the same thing we do.

Advocates for the status quo are calling for President Obama to fail while millions of families struggle. They're playing the same old political games and offering the same failed policies at a time of crisis.

In the coming days, opponents will do everything they can to destroy the President's proposed budget, a bold plan to help fix our broken economy and healthcare system and finally make energy and education the priority we all know they must be.

The change we need won't come without a fight -- no meaningful change ever does. Just like in the campaign, Barack Obama can't win without you by his side. Town by town, block by block, this grassroots movement is organizing and uniting Americans behind the President's plan.

But to finish what we started, we need resources.

Will you join the fight? Help reach 10,000 donors before Monday, April 13th -- make a donation of $25 or more today to help President Obama turn this country around.

Donate $25 or more by April 13th

Excuse me? Did you just ask me to donate so my president can lobby Congress? Read on.

We know that Washington won't change overnight. It'll take time, commitment, and money, but this grassroots movement can make change a reality -- affordable health care, a clean energy economy, and quality education for all. We know we are asking a lot from you -- but the stakes couldn't be higher.

It's why we worked so hard to elect President Obama, and he's counting on us to follow through. Today, you can make a difference.

Jo Ann from Charlotte, NC, has joined thousands of other supporters this week to support this movement and reject the same old politics:

I am a sixty-two year old woman on disability. I followed the election closely and did what I could to get Obama elected. Since he was inaugurated, I have watched in awe to see how much has already been accomplished. I live in Charlotte, NC where the unemployment rates are double digits and going up. My youngest son was out of work for 8 months because the company he worked for went out of business. So many workers and families are losing jobs and homes. There's so much more to be done, but this budget has to be passed and the programs have to be put into practice before things start to recover. That's why I support President Obama and his plans.

Americans like Jo Ann deserve better than the kind of divisive politics we've seen year after year. They deserve a truthful debate about real issues and a budget that will turn this economy around so that they can turn their lives around.

We need to seize this crucial moment to help pass this budget and invest in the one thing that can make President Obama's promises of change a reality -- the movement you built.

Before the Monday deadline, help reach our goal of 10,000 donors to strengthen this movement. Make a donation of $25 or more today:

It's a finely crafted letter, designed to pull at the heartstrings of the loyal recipients, the people who helped Barack Obama get elected. We certainly don't want him to face unreasoning opposition to his progressive programs. Do we?

Maybe we do. Maybe the whole point of our so-called democracy is to elect a leader, then allow the opposition to get in his way as much as possible so as to ensure that
his programs are thoroughly discussed, examined and vetted. I know we're in a financial emergency and I know that FDR pushed through reams of legislation during the Depression in a frantic effort to staunch the economy's bleeding. But did he go back to his supporters and ask for more money to do it?

This feels all wrong to me. And I wrote back to Plouffe and said so. I told him that this is my president. I pay my taxes. His job is now to work with Congress to get the programs passed that he promised in his campaign. Asking voters for money to lobby Congress is inappropriate.

I support our president, but I won't support him blindly. I think he is making some mistakes, especially in not immediately rolling back Bush-era orders that undermine our Constitutional rights. I think he's a charismatic leader in an uncertain time, and that can easily lead to abuses of power.

I read the Bilderberger conspiracy theories and realize there is probably an element of truth there - global politics and business are inextricably entwined and it's one big club - why wouldn't they meet and set an agenda? President Obama probably couldn't have been elected without support from corporations. And don't call them Corporate America anymore - there is no such thing. Any corporation with clout is multi-national now.

I am still delighted that we were spared a McCain presidency. But I cannot entirely trust this president who promised so much but seems to be pulling back into a more centrist position. Blind worship is for sheep. I will support our president when I believe he is right and I will speak out when I believe he is wrong.

Allowing the DNC to solicit money from voters struggling in a recession is wrong.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What About the Horses?

Do you know what the economy is doing to the horses? If you live in the western states of the US, perhaps you do. Until today, I didn't.

Rich Gold, a trainer who has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, says "people around the country are just abandoning their horses". An equine vet who deals with thoroughbred racehorses, says it's a major problem as the cost of keeping horses goes up and income goes down.

Horse shelters have waiting lists. People who'd love to have a horse don't have the facilities to keep them and can't afford the exorbitant prices barns charge for boarding. There are hundreds of horses that are losing their homes and some people are just opening the barn door and yelling, "Git!"

What's the solution? According to many veterinarians, people who spend their career caring for horses, turning a domesticated horse loose is cruel...a death sentence. But their answer is also death - they're calling for more slaughterhouses. They say because of environmental laws, euthanasia by injection isn't practical for a big horse population. They say if humane conditions are insured as the animals are transported, slaughterhouses are a viable solution.

The vet I spoke with said a bolt is shot into the horses' heads, killing them instantly.

But a horse sanctuary operator I spoke to said that's simplistic. "It's not humane," according to Chris Dodge at http://www.hrsny.org. "Healthy, young horses are taken to slaughter where they're shot but often don't die. They're strung up and cut open while they're still alive. And their meat is sold to Canadian and European markets, where it's a delicacy that goes for as much as $30 a pound."

I grew up with horses. My dad was a gentleman farmer wannabe who chose to buy Arabian horses rather than go on vacations. Our horses were pets that went to a few shows on the East Coast, won a few ribbons, and mostly spent their time eating grass and getting petted. None of us rode them. They were as smart as dogs, kind, gentle and lovable with their own individual quirks.

Arabs, Gold tells me, have gotten a bad name. They were the investment of choice of wealthy hobbyists in the 70s and 80s, who took their animals to prestigious horse shows, dressed them up like desert steeds and hobnobbed with their wealthy friends as champagne fountains flowed in the barn aisles. Then they sold them for the price of a Lamborghini. Those days, according to Gold, are over thanks to changes in tax law. And Arabs, the border collies of the horse world, are now seen as difficult and mean.

Velvet Rae, our first Arab, was a quiet, gentle soul who used to let me sleep with my head on her shoulder as she laid down in her stall. Her barn mate, Amy, was a nervous girl who weaved in her stall and stole carrots from my pocket.

My dad studied bloodlines and tried to become a breeder. Velvet's first foal died within a few hours. I threw my arms around her neck and cried as she dropped her head over my back and let all her weight rest on me. She had three other foals, Opal, Nick and Tars. Opal was a grey beauty like her mother. Nick and Tars were bays, but physically the equivalents of Fred Astaire versus Gene Kelly. Nick was lean and long, an elegant boy with a floating gait. Tars, named after my father's favorite warrior from an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, was a huge hunk of horse who pounded his way into the show ring and refused to be ignored.

I was no rider and I couldn't bring myself to put saddles on their backs or bits in their mouths. They were my friends. But I sometimes hooked leads to Velvet's halter, jumped on her back and trotted her a few steps in the fenced field. Tars was a different story - he was downright intimidating, despite the fact that he was a total love. He was a snuzzler, but it was like being snuzzled by a bodybuilder.

I got brave once - I hooked up the leads and climbed on his back in his turnout - a smaller area than the big field which was a good place for the horses to stretch their legs when the field was too muddy. I sat there, my stomach churning, waiting to see what he'd do. He was motionless for a moment, then as I tapped his side with my sneaker I felt his muscles begin to bunch up beneath me. It was like sitting astride pure coiled power...exhilarating and terrifying.

Tars began to trot and for a moment I understood why these horses were so beloved of the Bedouin that they slept in the tent with their families. This animal was a powerful engine that could go for miles without tiring, yet with every step he was aware that I was there, and was flicking his ears to let me know he was paying attention to me.

As I said, I'm no rider and never was. Within a few steps I began to slide off, my shaky balance no match for Tar's pounding gait. As I fell, I pictured the pain as he accidentally stepped on me, the broken bones, the months of rehab. I hit the ground and tried to roll out of the way. I needn't have bothered. As soon as Tars felt me slip, he stopped. It probably ensured my fall, but it also ensured my safety. He leaned his massive head down and snuffled at me - pushing to see if I was going to move. He didn't lift a foot until I stood back up.

These are the animals that are being sent to slaughter.

It makes me ashamed to be human.

Want to do your homework? http://habitatforhorses.org is trying to present both sides of the issue.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Cost of Power

Electricity, that is. Here's a question for you: why, when the cost of natural gas is plummeting along with the wholesale cost of electricity, are New York's Central Hudson, Rochester Gas and Electric and NYSEG looking for rate hikes?

They argue that their aging infrastructure requires significant repair and the cost of the materials has gone up. They argue demand is down.

But the fact is that wholesale prices have tanked to levels not seen since 2003. Local legislators want to know whether the utilities have tightened their belts. The state assembly has a joint hearing going on that questions how the whole system is run.

It is, by many accounts, a mess.

So far, the rate hikes are getting the thumbs down by the state. But the next request is on file and a decision is expected this summer.

Compare what's going on in NY to New Hampshire. National Grid's requesting a rate change, too. It wants to cut what it charges its customers by 33%.

Makes you wonder.


Friday, April 3, 2009

Friendly To Business

Just what is it government has to do to be perceived as "friendly to business"? There
are a couple of stories in my region that have me truly scratching my head.

The one that impacts tens of thousands of people is IBM - Big Blue has quietly been swinging the axe and negotiating to buy another company as it retools itself for a
new marketplace. When put in those clean terms, it makes sense, no? If your company has to change to continue to be competitive, you change it.

But thousands of jobs are being cut and there's a dismal atmosphere of uncertainty as workers wait to hear who's next. IBM's PR policy is not to comment on "rumors".
It's bad form in a recession and I wonder if it will come back to bite them when the economy recovers. The public has a long memory when it wants to.

Then there's the question of taking state money to grow a business. IBM is getting 145 million dollars in NYS taxpayer dollars in return for expanding its business in the state. Should it be giving that money back, as its laid off 900 people in the Dutchess County area alone this year?

Another small, but equally frustrating story comes from little Port Jervis New York. Kolmar Labs Group's CEO, Robert Theroux, was in El Paso Texas this week to accept a one and a half million dollar tax rebate offer from the city to move his
facility there. He told El Paso reporters that New York "isn't friendly to business." What he didn't mention was that he'd already accepted a million dollars in incentives from New York State to keep his plant and corporate headquarters where it is. That agreement included a promise to keep 500 jobs in Port Jervis, where it's been since 1943, and hire a hundred more workers.
The agreement, apparently, is not legally binding.

Gee, Mr. Theroux, what would the state have to do to be seen as "friendly"?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How is the Recession Affecting You?

I had a poll on this site for the past few weeks. The question was simple.
"How is the recession affecting you?" There were four possible answers and I kept those simple, too.
Voters chose among "No effect", "I'm budgeting more carefully", "I'm on the edge", and "I'm in trouble".
It's a little blog - I didn't expect many answers. But the ones I got were interesting.
Of 13 responses, 8 chose "I'm on the edge." 3 chose "I'm budgeting more carefully."
2 chose "I'm in trouble".
I'm no Zogby, but honestly I was surprised. I expected the votes to weigh more heavily on the "budgeting" line. But the votes predominately indicated people who were far worse off than that, people who are barely holding it together as they teeter on the brink of financial disaster.
I've seen enough polls to understand there are variables here. Perhaps some people who felt better about things didn't bother to vote. People who feel desperate are more likely to speak up than people who are feeling safe.
But still.
8 out of 13 people saying they're "on the edge". That's worrisome.