Wednesday, September 30, 2009

It's Good To Get Out

I had to get out of the office all of yesterday and part of today to do some research for work, and it had unexpected benefits.

If I spend enough time working on my own, doing the same job day after day, I get smaller. Is it just me? My confidence erodes, my secret belief that my mom was right and I really am something special disintegrates, colors wash out, my spark contracts to a tiny, desperate click.

I see no reason for it; I've got a good life, I'm loved and I love, there are plenty of things to worry about but none of them are truly threatening. I can roll with them. Yet I feel less and less able to meet life's challenges the longer I play hermit. My job, because of time constraints, restricts me to interaction by telephone.

I re-energize after a day of productive work with people I find interesting. I'm not looking for new friends, I'm not sucking anyone's optimism. I just find that when my brain is engaged and I'm dealing with people, organizing a full day and creating a plan to create a project, it requires me to perk up on many levels and that effort makes a change in not only how I feel, but what I think.

After a good couple of days of interesting work that got me firing on all cylinders, I was more calm, more rational, more able to see problems from a higher viewpoint, and much, much more sure of my own ability to not only cope, but thrive.

So what is that all about? I at first wondered if it was simply the stimulus of other people, but I think it's more. I think it's about the kind of work I like to do.

I'm curious about a lot of things and I'm interested. Being a journalist is a good fit with those traits. But routine stifles me and feeling trapped by that routine is slow death by asphyxiation.

Are there really people who don't mind inescapable routine? I can't imagine it, unless it gives some people a sense of safety that makes it feel like the only option. I think if I had to work day after day in a windowless cubicle I would be dead in a year. I've worked in big offices; I even once temped in a major corporation's accounting office. I watched the world shrink to the size of a small conference room with a row of ten key calculators. But what if we want more from our lives?

Have we established a working culture where most of us are dying a slow psychic death in an effort to pay our bills? If so, we're doing it wrong.

My back's a mess and I probably can't split wood anymore. Is it too late for me to move off the grid?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ring Around the Foreclosure, We All Fall Down

If you've been checking in occasionally, you know that I've been in the middle of the loan modification process for a year. The simple version is that, bottom line, I should not have been given a mortgage...I just didn't have the income. But the banks were anxious to lend and I was confident that we had a plan that would make it work. Then the recession hit.

I haven't missed a payment. I haven't even been late. I was raised to pay my bills in full, on time, and not be part of the chain of delinquencies that cause trouble for everyone down the line. But I'm peddling hard and slipping backwards.

The local foreclosure prevention office encouraged anyone who was having trouble, who foresaw trouble down the road, to start talking to their banks before they hit a crisis point. I did.

We sent all the papers to IndyMac, only to be told that they needed more; they didn't have a program for people who weren't delinquent; they were being sold to One West; they needed us to apply all over again, they needed more. The president announced the HAMP program. I got turned down because they were transitioning to the new program. Please apply again. We did.

The latest word is that they're sorry, they're not yet participating in HAMP after all. They have no program for customers who haven't missed a payment. They'll let me know if they do decide to get on board.

This is, remember, the former IndyMac FEDERAL bank. They got rescued as they sank under the weight of their own greed and were snapped up by OneWest, which has adopted aggressive tactics to make sure customers are paying, including repeated calls demanding payment before the grace period is up.

So I've hit the wall. There is no light at the end of the long tunnel and I'm not even emotional about it. Many people have lost as much or more than I stand to lose.

But I am angry that despite compassionate words from the White House and our elected representatives, what's really happening is business as usual. Banks are seeing the recession as a terrific business opportunity and the Obama administration has backed off on demands for regulation, for common sense, for control of not only salaries, but size. There is no serious talk of reinstating the Glass-Stiegel Act. There is a stirring call from the president for business to regulate itself. That hasn't worked yet and there's no reason to believe it will in the future.

Money, big money, wins.

I have spent a morning with people who are living in low-income housing, trying to find work, lining up at the food pantries for the week's groceries. I'm lucky and I know it.

But the greed of this society, the unbridled lust for more, is destroying our foundation. The middle class is being taxed into extinction yet the burden for caring for the destitute, paying for services and trying to help the poorest among us get jobs, get an education and get on the road to self sufficiency falls on those of us who aren't much better off than they are. Taxes, insurance, the cost of living - they're skyrocketing while salaries are flat and jobs are disappearing.

We're in trouble but the people making the decisions are the ones who are benefiting from this situation.

I'm one of millions. And let me say it loud and clear: This System Is Wrong. Shame on us. It exists because we allow it to exist.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Huffington Post Grabs the Ball And Runs - Join IN!

I've been ranting and raving about the human cost of this recession, the corporatization of modern America, the rising numbers of homeless, jobless, insurance-less Americans who are going under, the rising numbers of students who just can't afford college, and the bitter truth that the top one percent of this country are still amassing wealth - and state governments are raising taxes on the people least able to afford it in a desperate effort to maintain the status quo.

Arianna Huffington saw Michael Moore's new movie, Capitalism, A Love Story and she's getting in on the action.

She's collecting stories, and doing it in a far bigger way than I ever could with this little blog. So go here, sign up and make some noise.

Unless you're content with the status quo. Are you?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Paterson Bucks the White House

New York has always been larger than life - now it's becoming downright surreal. While the Governator tries to toss every program he can find overboard to keep California from sinking below the economic waves, New York's governor has somehow managed to survive one political misstep after another.

Don't get me wrong - he hasn't come through it all unscathed - New Yorkers are withering in their assessment of his job performance. But he's still in office - and he's decided he can get elected again even if the White House wants him out.

If you haven't heard, President Obama, who is visiting New York today to continue his PR for health care reform blitz, sent word to Governor David Paterson that he doesn't want him to run again. It's a political move, an effort to make sure the Democratic party remains in control of the state in the next election.

Why not Paterson? Well, let me count the problems. 1. He played coy with the hopefuls who lined up to replace Hilary Clinton when she left the Senate. There was a definite echo of nyah nyah nyah coming from the Governor's mansion. 2. He was downright rude to Caroline Kennedy, an Obama buddy and an apparently blameless individual who just wanted to get into politics. Was she the best person for the job? I couldn't say - she didn't appear to be a good shmoozer, but maybe that's a good thing. 3. He was told that the one person the White House DIDN'T want in the Senate was Kirstin Gillibrand - she was seen as a weak candidate and one likely to get ousted in the next election. He appointed Gillibrand. 4. He totally lost control of the legislature and ended up sitting on his hands for a month while the Senate refused to work. 5. Why are his poll numbers down? Paterson blamed racism.

All in all, he's a liability for the party. And he's clearly not loyal to the president. In politics, loyalty is everything. Paterson's loyalty is to the New York Democratic machine. He does what it wants, and has from the start. Things have been running well for the machine since Hilary Clinton left - she was, bless her, an irritant. She didn't take marching orders nor did she have to. I didn't appreciate her til she was gone.

So Paterson says he can do it on his own. It promises to be an interesting match - the governor versus the president.

Meanwhile, Paterson finally got around to endorsing NYC Controller Bill Thompson in his race to oust NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bet that's making Bill feel great.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Circumcision - Why Is It Such a Difficult Discussion?

I interviewed Georgann Chapin today. She's head of an HMO, a strong advocate for a major health care overhaul in the US, and an ardent activist against routine circumcision. She heads a group called "Intact America" and says she has come to view circumcision as nothing less that genital mutilation.

I have an opinion on this as mother of a son. We didn't know what was best, his father and I, so we were guided by my obstetrician. He assured us that circumcision was in our baby's best interest, that it would prevent a myriad of possible health problems down the road.

"It's no big deal" he assured us.

I knew he'd lied when they brought me my baby after the procedure. A calm, serene infant had become a shrieking, convulsing, traumatized animal. I held him close and cried. It was too late to take it back.

I discovered no pain relief was offered before the procedure, as there was actually some dispute over whether babies feel pain. I almost threw up. I'd trusted a medical professional and I'd allowed them to do cosmetic surgery on my infant.

Georgann tells me that's changed in recent years. But the multiple needles that might numb the baby's penis hurt, too. And topicals aren't given time to work before the procedure is begun. And even if there is some anesthesia, it's going to wear off and a tiny infant, just hours old, is going to be recovering from surgery.

I did some research and it appears that when you talk about circumcision, people get defensive. They label the people lobbying against it as "kooks" or "people with a penis fixation." Why?

The medical data increasingly shows no advantage to circumcision. Hygiene isn't an issue in developed countries...we teach our children to wash themselves. It isn't a big step to teach our boys to properly clean themselves.

I'm not going to get into the argument except to admit that, having done it to my son, I'm completely against it. After we'd done it, my father asked me why. He, I learned, wasn't circumcised. But we were all too embarrassed to talk about it beforehand, when it would have made a difference.

I want to know why, when a rational discussion of the issue is attempted, we suddenly get embarrassed, offended or defensive?

I am not even talking about circumcision for religious reasons. That's a bigger issue and one that will take a lot of respectful discussion to make progress on. This is for non-Jews, non-Muslims, the people in much of the Western world who have been sold an elective surgery that makes the medical industry a billion dollars a year. We love our baby boys. Why aren't we rationally discussing whether we've been making a mistake?

Georgann Chapin of Intact America

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What Part of Off the Record Don't You Understand?

I thought I was disgusted with the VMA's before. My disgust just went into hyperdrive.

So the president, while being miked for an interview, was chatting with reporters off the record. The topic of Kanye West at the VMA's came up. The president, bless his heart, had an opinion. And he expressed it under the time-honored rules of speaking 'off the record' with reporters.

One problem. One of the troglodytes who heard the remarks but didn't bother to make sure of its context immediately jumped onto Twit-land to broadcast them.

That would be Terry Moran, the host of Nightline on ABC. I will be remembering his name.

Just an honest mistake, right?

Yeah. One with repercussions for everyone who reports on the news.

Speaking with newsmakers off the record is an integral part of a reporter's job. It is an opportunity to build a relationship, to build trust. It doesn't mean that we keep secrets. It means that we can ask for not only background on a story, which makes sure we really understand all sides of an issue, but it also means we prove to the people we write about that we have integrity.

If I agree that something is off the record, that's the final word. And the fact that sources know I mean it and respect it has made me better at my job. I'm more likely to hear the whole story and be trusted with more on-the-record information because I've proven I'm a professional.

The president undoubtedly feels burned. And well he should. There is a place for being able to relate to each other as human beings. There is a place for creating a good working relationship based on clearly established rules.

One of those rules, one of the central rules to the news business, is knowing that a remark clearly stated off the record is OFF THE RECORD.

Thanks, news moron. You've just made the rest of us have to work twice as hard to prove we're not sensationalist idiots.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lady Gaga And The Fall of The Roman Empire

I stayed up past my bedtime and watched the VMA show. I'm one of THOSE people - I was around when MTV was cool. I remember when MTV played music. I've loved Janet Jackson since she was a cute little chubby thing who liked to dance.

Thanks to my kids, I'm not a total music boob; my son introduced me to Kanye West and my daughter likes Lady Gaga (henceforth to be known as Lady Ga-Gah. I can embarrass the hell out of my son by singing JayZ's "Encore" along with him, word for word. I think Pink rocks. So this was clearly a show I was going to watch if I could.

So first, what was Madonna doing? How was it a tribute to talk about how she chased down Michael Jackson so she could get chummy, win his trust, then dump him? She had an interesting perspective, but the word "I" showed up just a few too many times for my taste. I think I'd have rather heard from someone who truly was his friend.

Janet? Still love her. I felt for her, doing the routine she once did with her brother, then standing on stage as the crowd that had turned on him for years now poured out its adulation.

Lady Ga-Gah. Ugh. I've been really on the fence about this performer, as she has a good voice and she certainly puts on a show. But that blood-drenched finale finally turned me off for good. Her videos are about shock for shock's sake, and that ridiculous routine with the wheelchair, the crutch and the hanging, bloody eyed end of the song flipped my stomach. It had the feel of the last days of the Roman Empire, where excess is piled on excess. Check out the photo. Those are some dead eyes. I'm beginning to think she symbolizes everything that's wrong with the world.

Pink wins my vote for best circus act/singer. The woman did a trapeze act! If only for not falling, not screaming and for nailing her landing, she was terrific. Plus her strategically placed heart on her costume didn't shift and get her into all kind of trouble.

Beyonce is so darned likable that I think I'd like to invite her out for a coffee and maybe go shopping (and I hate shopping). She was having fun, she was enjoying the show. She doesn't seem envious of anyone else, she just appreciates other talented people. I don't like Single Ladies one bit but she put on a good performance as usual. And then she did her gracious grownup routine for Taylor Swift after Kanye West made a total ass of himself. Big props for the Beautiful B.

Taylor Swift. As a musician, you can have her. But her performance on the subway was really cute and you had to feel sorry for her when Kanye came out and ranted that Beyonce was robbed. When Beyonce gave her time to Taylor, I wished Taylor had been as gracious and included Ms. B in those thank you's. But, as KB pointed out to me when I grumbled, that's the difference between a kid and a grownup. And Taylor did thank her later.

Kanye. As the kids would say, WTF. Really. If he's going to get sloppy drunk at an awards show, don't you think somebody would have the good sense to keep him off the stage? Hopefully from here on in he'll either be off the guest lists or on a short leash.

And then there was JayZ and the ubiquitous Alicia Keyes. That left me completely cold, and I like JayZ. When yet another rapper who had no business on the stage showed up, it started to feel like the inmates were loose. If Kanye had been there he probably would have tossed her off the stage like an empty Hennessy bottle.

The big finale? A promotion for the new Michael Jackson film in the presence, it was reverently pointed out, of Joe Jackson. Oh, yeah, he's the guy we're all feeling sorry for. And the film is undoubtedly lining his pockets.

If Lady Ga-Gah had fallen off her hanging strap and landed on Joe's head, I probably would have enjoyed the show a lot more.

I miss The Boggles, Thomas Dolby and The Talking Heads. I guess this makes me officially old.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Talking About 9-11

It's been eight years. And somehow, this year, I've heard more people talking about how that September day changed their lives than I ever have before.

I've met a couple who lived across the street from the World Trade Center. They saw the plane hit; their windows were blown out when the towers collapsed. They're part of an effort called, an attempt to get a question on the November ballot calling for a new, independent investigation into the events of that day. They just won a round in their fight against a city that wants to invalidate thousands of signatures: the city has accepted that they have the 30 thousand valid signatures required to petition for a referendum.

I've spoken with a woman who was on the other side of the country the day of the attacks. But as she watched it all on TV, she knew she had to go to New York. She had to be part of the healing. And she's been here ever since.

Another woman lived in lower Manhattan. She said her sense of danger has been so profound since that day that she first moved farther uptown, then out of the city altogether. She's never lived anywhere but New York City, but now she lives in a cottage in the country.

I've interviewed medical experts studying the endless list of health problems suffered by people who were there, who breathed in that toxic cloud of dust, debris and death. I've spoken to first responders, many of whom have watched their comrades die of exotic, lingering diseases in the years since they all worked together at Ground Zero.

I watch "Rescue Me" - and underlying the main characters development is the way their experiences on September 11th distorted who they used to be. They are like trees on top of a promontory - they're stunted, they're twisted, but they're alive.

The words keep coming up in conversation: when 9-11 happened...after 9-11...since 9-11.

Some people are convinced we're not being told the whole story of how and why it happened. Others want those people to shut up and let them move on with their lives. But we're all marked somehow.

For me, the day is a blur. I was already walking in a zombie trance from my mother's lingering death two months earlier. I was a teacher; many of my students were children of successful business people in and around New York. We gathered as a school and watched the coverage, doing our best to help students living at a school too far from their families find out what was happening, trying to assure them it would be okay.

9-11 has defined our generation just as the bombing of London has defined a generation in the UK. But for us, the enemy is still unclear and there has been no closure, no retribution, no sense of justice.

I think the president's call to make this tragic anniversary a day of service is a constructive one. I hope it takes hold. Sometimes, the only way to deal with sorrow is to get busy. And reaching out a hand to someone else is, I believe, the best cure for our national grief.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Imagine the Future

Ten years have passed. It's 2019. Where will we be?

Will it be disaster?

Will 2012 have brought about the end of the world? Will climate change have wiped out our coastlines and threatened the rest of us with wildly unpredictable weather and food crises?
Will the wars in the Middle East spilled into the rest of the world? Will a small country with nuclear weapons launch an attack with horrific results? Will some new superpower emerge? What about energy? What about new technological developments?
Will we each live secluded in a small, virtual world with no real interaction?

Will it be the beginning of an Age of Enlightenment?

Will we have learned to create energy with no impact on the planet? Will we repair the damage we've done to the environment? Will humans learn to respect each other and work together to solve the world's problems?

Will we decide our industrial society is destroying us and collectively choose a more agrarian lifestyle? Will we create an entirely new kind of urban life and preserve the rural landscape for all of us to enjoy?

Will the arts become as valuable to us as technology? Will we finally banish the starving artist stereotype? Will money become obsolete?

I'm not predicting - I'm asking. I'd be interested to hear what you think.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Going Solo - A Side Benefit of Health Care Reform

From Scripps Howard:

You've wanted to write a book or start a company or open a restaurant, but you've always been afraid of quitting your job and losing your health coverage. So would you be more likely to take an entrepreneurial leap if you knew you and your family's health expenses were covered, no matter what?

It's not a new question, but it's one that's being asked with more frequency now that health-care reform is again on the agenda in Washington. And while research on the topic has been limited, some studies suggest the patchwork system of employee-paid health care is discouraging entrepreneurship.

That's because of what's known as "job lock," a bit of economics jargon that's been in vogue since the 1990s, the last time Congress and the president staged a real health-reform debate. Basically, "job lock" means that you're more likely to stay in your current job, which offers health insurance, than take a chance on a startup business, where health expenses would come out of your pocket. So people are "locked" into jobs that they no longer enjoy, where they are economically unproductive, or so the theory goes.

This article goes on to say that some people dispute the reality of job lock, that insurance benefits through COBRA plans make it possible for workers to shake the dust of jobs they hate from their feet and get into work they love.

We live in the real world, you and I. We know that COBRA is ungodly expensive and no one but the exceptionally brave or exceedingly desperate would opt to bail out of a decent paying job into an uncertain future with only COBRA as an insurance plan.
Truth be told, if you're that brave or desperate, you'll probably decide to jump without the parachute because the cost of COBRA would eat up what little nest egg you've saved.

But how exciting if we didn't have to work just to be covered by insurance! What if we could write that book, compose that symphony, start that diner or join the Peace Corps for a year? Many, many people would stay in their jobs. They're not there for the benefits, they're there for the pay, the security and the relationship they've built with their employer and coworkers. But some of us, oh, some of us have dreams that we quietly pursue in the few free hours we have each night. And some of us have risked it all and tried to make ends meet with art - insurance is a wild, impossible dream for many artists. And some of us want to start our own companies.

Let me give it back to the newspaper article:

"The type of universal health insurance coverage policy proposed by President Obama will clearly promote the freedom of workers to leave their jobs to start new companies," writes Jonathan Gruber, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "By solving a major impediment to mobility in the U.S. labor market, a larger government goes hand in hand with more business development."

In other words, universal health coverage also ensures creativity.

And now I will turn it over to Robert Reich, who makes the whole issue pretty darned simple.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dying for a Cookie

The toll house cookie dough disappeared off the store shelves in June. I had no idea what was going on. It's still gone and I now have more information. It's a little frightening.

Bill Marler is an attorney who specialize in food poisoning cases. His client is a woman who's been hospitalized for months and is probably going to die. It appears to be linked to eating raw, pre-made cookie dough.

The culprit is EColi and it's caught everyone by surprised. No one expected such a highly processed food to be contaminated with fecal matter, which is how EColi is spread. And despite a voluntary recall by Nestles and continuing investigation, Marler says no one is still certain how it happened.

But it's clear our mass produced food addiction is starting to come back to bite us. There has been contaminated spinach, contaminated peanuts, peanut butter, peppers. There's lots of proposed safety legislation on Capitol Hill and it's mostly focused on making food easier to trace when it's found to be a problem.

The issue of how the contamination happens in the first place isn't getting a lot of attention yet. Factory farms grow food on a massive scale. One bad apple can, indeed, spoil the whole bushel. Germs in one place quickly spread throughout a facility.

Factory farms raise animals in filthy, inhumane conditions that now are proving to lead to not only bacteria, but antibiotic resistant germs that have adapted to a constant low dose of preventative antibiotics. An easy solution, according to an expert I spoke to this week, is to give the animals more space, clean up the waste and let newborns spend more time with their mothers so they can naturally ingest more infection-fighting organisms.

Where did your salad ingredients come from? Was it your neighborhood farmer or a factory farm in another country? Do you know if it's safe? If you eat meat, where does it come from? What kind of conditions existed at the farm or at the processing plant?

We want our food when we want it. We have no patience with seasonal restrictions. We want it cheap, convenient and plentiful. And the indications are growing that the price we may pay is very dear indeed.