Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Few of My Favorite Things

Happy New Year. Enjoy!

Happy New Year!

A New Year and a New Decade

My love tells me there's a blue moon on New Year's Eve. How appropriate.
This is a big time; a new decade, the decade in which I'll turn sixty (not to assume anything, but...), a decade in which both of my children will reach their thirties.

We had a picture perfect day just a few days before the screaming cold came roaring in. I took a walk and tried to capture this place. There was the golden angel atop the gift shop, the clouds skating across the mountains, a lovely mix of religions and season.

I do love this town, silly old hippie haven and overpriced city chic spot though it is. Around every corner there's something just incredibly lovely...

or tremendously silly.

I got to spend the holidays with my favorite people...KB (who would far prefer I never, ever put his picture here) and my kids (who may think this picture is okay as it's dark and silly) - it wasn't exactly like the Cratchett's, but it was us and we were together.

So ends 2009...so ends the 2000s. I'm not usually one for resolutions, but I think this may be the year for it.

I am going to appreciate what I have. I spend far too much time worrying about what I might lose or what I can't have. But I have everything. And no matter if I live in this house, if I live somewhere else, if my life changes utterly or stays just as it is, it will be enough.

I will remember what matters. It's way too easy to get bogged down, especially when there is a world of things to worry about and you've got a genetic tendency to worry. But I do know what matters. People matter. Relationships matter. Feeling good about myself and my life matters.

I will take better care of myself. I'm currently cutting out sugar completely - not forever, but long enough to remind myself how much better I feel when I eat well. I'll continue to exercise, thought it's a struggle when the wind is howling and I just don't feel like it. I will remember that what I need matters, too.

I will trust the universe. I work way too hard trying to make everything alright for everybody. I'm going to stop trying to rule the world - even a benevolent dictator is, after all, a dictator.

I'm going to try to relax and let my own world run itself a bit more. I doubt I'll be able to ignore the problems I see all around me, I doubt I'll stop preaching from my progressive soapbox, but I'm going to remember that everyone, no matter who, is always more likely to do well when you trust in their basic humanity.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Dear President Obama: My New Year's Wish

This is not a fan letter. Neither is it hate mail. It's a wish, a hope, a dream for the next three years of the Obama Administration.

It's no easy job you took on. It's complicated by an uneasy legacy from the past administration, one which has weakened our international reputation, increased the mistrust Americans have of our politicians.

You campaigned on change. It was the centerpiece of your platform. Simply by being who you are, being a very different style of president, you've delivered.
But not the way many of us who supported you hoped for.

You promised to bring our soldiers home. Instead, you're moving them to Afghanistan. Is it a strategically logical move? Perhaps, in traditional thinking. But it's no change. Change would have been to put a small, well funded group of covert ops experts to work on the terrorist problem, and divert the rest of the massive funds we spend on computerized warfare to humanitarian aid.

Shore up the education system. Rebuild the countries. Establish reliable food and water systems. Be the good guys. Make it impossible to argue we're not. Win hearts and minds in a real way, not with a few half-hearted efforts to understand the culture. Despite the enormity of the job, I'm betting it would still cost a fraction of what we're spending on our wars and it would be a godsend for our own country; allowing the thousands of our own soldiers whose lives we're maiming to instead believe in the possibility of their own futures again.

Your first months in office have been a big disappointment to me and many others who hoped for real health care reform.

You're accomplishing something - yes. Is it better than nothing? I have my doubts.
It discriminates against women, against gays. It doesn't offer health care to all. It gives the bloated health insurance industry what IT wants. It doesn't give us what WE wanted.

Sadly, it appears this half-assed health care is what you envisioned all along. That isn't what you told us. We didn't make up the promise of the National Health Insurance Exchange. You told us you intended to create it.

You promised you'd open the doors to prescription drugs from other countries, lowering the cost of medication for millions. That door is shut tight.

The winners here are the establishment - the insurance industry, the pharmceutical companies. The American people lose again. Because we allow ourselves to be ignored.

You took office in a financial crisis. You bailed out your administration's cronies on Wall Street, bailed out the firms that created the crisis, bailed out the auto industry. A bailout for Americans losing their homes? Lip service.
Loan servicers make more money if they pursue foreclosure. So they say they're participating in HAMP, but in truth they far prefer to foreclose.

I've been in the midst of that process, taking that proactive position we were all told to pursue. Staying current on my payments, watching my savings disappear, filing form after form, mailing file after file to IndyMac bank in hopes of getting a loan modification. It's been well over a year. They're still asking for more paperwork, pretending they don't have forms they've had on file for months.

Meanwhile, they got bailed out by the feds and bought out by OneWest. Fannie Mae, which owns my mortgage, is a bottomless pit of fiscal mismanagement which has a limitless budget of bailouts from the taxpayers. That would be me.

I've given up. There will be no cushion for me and for millions of others who are selling their homes, short selling, losing them.

Where is comprehensive financial reform? Where is the oversight?

I live in New York. My state is slashing funding, delaying payments to localities, and they're forced to try to make up the difference. Who will pay for this? I will. My neighbors will. We are the source of all the funding that government demands. Don't you see it? And yet jobs are disappearing, salaries have been flat for years while costs have risen so quickly that our dreams of a home of our own, a car that has fewer than 150 thousand miles on it, our hope of retirement are gone.

My children must borrow money to go to college. I cannot afford to pay their tuition. They will graduate with massive debts, which I will only be able to pay for them by winning the lottery.

We spend billions on a war that we cannot win. We will spend billions to bail out businesses that have cheated their way into near-bankruptcy. We will spend billions on a health care plan that won't cover everyone. And the next generation is lining up at community colleges, hoping to get a seat at the only affordable higher education opportunity there is, knowing that a four year degree means borrowing tens of thousands of dollars.

Don't you see how backwards this is?

Is America truly leading the way in developing sustainable energy? Is it developing a sustainable, growing economy? Are we moving forward or backwards?

There is a deep well of righteous indignation all over this country but you don't see it. You may find it swallows you whole in the next election.

Mr. Obama, I haven't given up on you. I think you're a decent man. I think you really want to create a legacy of positive change. You need to reconsider your course.

Your advisors are Washington insiders; the very people who've created the corrupt, old-boy network that's given us every abuse of power for the past twenty years or more. Their loyalty is to America's corporations. They're the wrong people at the helm.

You don't need them. You need to surround yourselves with great minds, open minds, people with ideals who refuse to accept the cynical "business as usual" and "it can't be done" mentality that sucks Washington DC down like quicksand.

You had us. You had our support. You are squandering that incredible privilege and for what - influence? Influence comes from grassroots support. Mobilize the American people and no amount of lobbying can compete. A second term? Look at your poll numbers. No amount of campaign funding is going to get you into office a second time if we don't believe in you.

The Republicans are unifying. They all see a clear threat to their philosophy of government and they will whip their voters into a solid voting bloc. Your base is disintegrating with each disappointment, each wrong turn.

Yours is a young presidency. There is time to change, time to set a new course.

We want to support you. We want to help. And we desperately need your help. We need an advocate in the Oval Office, not an adversary.

You work for us, Mr. President. And I know you know that. That should be the bottom line of every decision you make. Every single one. "Does this make a real, positive difference for the American people?" And coupled with this question should be a second one: "Is there a better way?"

I wish you the very best for the coming year. And I'm hoping you do the same for us.

Very sincerely,

Susan Barnett

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays.

I've got my holiday decoration on my virtual door, the purple lights are strung on the wall and it feels like Christmas, pretty much. I got Christmas cards out this year (not nearly so many as prior years, but more than the years I sent none at all), I've written my holiday thank you's to the people who've contributed to my radio show over the past year. My shopping is done, my kids are on their way and my guy was up all night trying to finish his ambitious gift plans.

If you asked me most days, I'd say it's been a pretty rough year. For everybody.

But as I wrote those thank you notes, as I sit in my home office and prepare to start another day at a job that, for the most part, I enjoy and that seems secure, I realize it's been a decent year.

We're still here. We're okay. I got a book agent, I'm writing a book (though when it feels like I'm pulling out my insides and giving them a careful examination, it doesn't seem like such a fun project), I've got a new circle of friends and a man whose company I enjoy more than anyone else's. My kids are well and seem to have found their directions. This blog is read by people all over the world; people I may never meet but who know what I think and, perhaps, sometimes, agree.

There's been illness, there are money worries, there are my usual litanies of angst and neuroses. If I look at the world picture, I worry. But if I look at just my little corner of it, I have to admit it's alright. All in all, life's okay. And that gives me hope and energy to try to make it okay for everybody.

I hope you can say that and more and I wish you even better for the coming year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Women's Rights in America

Two items of interest to me today as host and producer of a women's issues program.

One, the Senate health care reform proposal. Its language calls for women to make a separate payment, write a separate check for full reproductive services health coverage to the private insurer which would be offering insurance under the program.
The idea is to make certain that no public funds are used to finance abortions.

This ignores the Hyde Amendment,passed in 1976, which guarantees that very thing. It's not beloved of pro-choice lobbyists, but it exists. So this extra contortion reaffirms a prohibition that is already law. And what it effectively accomplishes is discrimination. A man will pay for his insurance, period. A woman will pay on a two-tiered scale, depending on her age and what services she might need.

I am not arguing for abortion. I've struggled with this one for years and I believe that except under very exceptional circumstances, that choice should not be abortion. I hate that there are people who treat abortion like a form of contraception. But I'm a woman; I know the difficult situations we all can face. Any choice made must be one that forces a real searching of the soul. But bottom line, I believe in allowing that choice. I do not believe the law should require you to have a child.

So we're creating a mandatory system that will force women to pay extra if they want to preserve that right to choose.

Not to mention the fact that insurance companies will also be permitted to charge far more for covering older people (like me)...one figure I've seen predicts it will be 300% more.

I'm disappointed in our president. I think he has been disingenuous. He's promoted a single payer public option while promising the insurance industry that he doesn't really mean it.

If I were a legislator, I think I'd have to vote down this cutout version of reform. But if I were a legislator, I'd be hounding Joe Lieberman out of any position of clout he even dreams of holding. I'd be holding 24 hour full volume heavy metal vigils on his doorstep.

So just as well I'm not.

Then there's CEDAW. Do you know what it is?

It's the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women.
It was part of Eleanor Roosevelt's vision when she helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is an international treaty which has been ratified by 185 countries, countries willing to affirm that they stand against "any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."

Sudan hasn't signed it. Neither has Somalia. Nor has the United States.

Presidents Clinton and Carter signed it, but never managed to get it out of committee and into a vote by the Senate.

So I live in a country where my government cannot agree that all women deserve the same human rights and fundamental freedoms as men.

CEDAW turned thirty years old this month. And we are still waiting for it to come up for a vote in Washington.

It's a significant treaty, if only on moral grounds.

Isn't that high ground the one we like to claim as ours?

You can find out more here.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Call For Ideas

I'm working on a book. It includes profiles of women doing remarkable, inspiring work aimed at improving one problem, whether it's global or local. What matters is that they have a story that makes you sit down, take a second look and say, "Wow. That's amazing."

My job puts me in contact with fascinating people on a regular basis and I've got a great list of interviews lined up or already done. But I have a nagging feeling that I'm missing someone - that there's someone out there with a story that should be told and I haven't heard of them.

I'm deliberately steering clear of celebrities and well known politicians. A few of the women I've spoken to have written books of their own. Many are well known to people in their cause, but not outside of it. Obscure is fine. But that makes them harder to find.

Here's where you come in: do you know of such a woman? Is there someone near where you live, or is there someone well known in your part of the world but perhaps not so well known in mine, who's dedicating her life to work that makes a real positive difference? Is there someone you'd like to know more about?

I'd like to know who she is. I don't want to miss her.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

This Is What It's All About

Meet Lena Moultrie. She's an amazing young woman and one whose story must be told.

Lena died last year. She was eleven years old. She went to school, she had friends, she loved her family. She loved to dance, she hoped someday to marry Michael Jackson, she loved the movie "Seven Pounds" with Will Smith. Her life was not stopped by a three year old diagnosis of a cyst on her brain.

When a brain aneurysm left her on life support, alive only because her body was too strong to die, her mother remembered that Will Smith movie.

In it, Smith's character tries to atone for a horrible accident by sacrificing himself to save seven lives. He gives up his possessions, his identity, his future and his organs to give others a chance to live.

Hazelee Moultrie says that resonated with Lena. She thought it was wonderful that he'd sacrificed himself for others.

"She was a wonderful little girl," Hazelee told me. "She was always thinking of others, always reaching out to try to make someone feel better."

So Hazelee knew what Lena would want: she donated her organs to save others.

Lena saved four lives - and her heart was given to another eleven year old girl who is now strong and healthy.

"It's helped me so much," her mother says. "It's helped all of us, particularly knowing there's another girl Lena's age who's having a healthy life because Lena's heart never stopped beating."

Hazelee will be on the Donate Life float at the Tournament of Roses parade on New Year's Day. She says she knows that Lena will be with her, helping her get through it.

A hundred and five thousand people are on the organ transplant waiting list nationwide. Every day, nineteen people on that list will run out of time. The Center for Donation and Transplant says the need for donors is increasing though the number of donors has stayed flat.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two Lives in the Recession

The new version of the American Dream appears to be just "getting by". Here's a story I did for the holidays profiling two lives - musician/photographer/writer DB Leonard and former social worker Sharon Butler.

Getting By As the New American Dream

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The People Speak

Maybe I'm a Populist. I don't pay much attention to labels, but I stumbled across a Bill Moyers interview with Howard Zinn last night that made me sit up and cheer.

Zinn, if you don't know, is the author of "The Peoples Guide to the United States", a history of the events behind the history of our country. The transcontinental railroad may have been an incredible milestone in our development, but we're told very little about the thousands of men who built it. Those are the people Zinn wants to know about.

"The People Speak" is a film featuring actors reading some of the most dramatic, inspiring, yet seldom-heard words from great Americans.

These are everyday people who spoke out for social change. Their words are no less stirring today - a time when all of us again are called to stand up, to speak out, to demand reform, to demand that our country discard the rotting trappings of governance by greed and again stand proud and clean, a democracy created for, of and by we, the people.

The United States of America declared its people free, free to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We actually wrote that as part of our societal goal -
the pursuit of happiness. Not the struggle to survive, not the hunt for the almighty dollar, not the chance to have more than your neighbor. The goal was happiness. We lost sight of that.

I demand it. I demand to be allowed to pursue happiness. I demand it for you, too.
I am willing to work for it. You have to work, too. But our government was established for us - not for a few CEOs, not for Wall Street, not for the people with the most money, the most influence. It was not intended to tax us into submission, to conquer the world, to impose our form of government on everyone else. It was not intended to support corrupt and bloated industry.

We have lost our way. What I've seen of these performances convinces me it's not impossible to find our way back. We have to be willing to speak.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Pitchfork Mobs: The New Meme

The more I read, the more convinced I'm absolutely on target with my revelation that we have no middle and lower classes anymore - we have serfs and we have Corporate America. And it's not a thought unique to me - the angry people who are fed up with slaving for our corporate/government masters are known as Pitchfork Mobs. Man, there's a mental picture.

There does seem to be increasing news of violence. There have been questionable stories of Goldman Sachs executives buying pistols to protect themselves (stories that Bloomberg began and seem a little shaky on fact-checking). There are stories of attacks on individuals seen as involved in all this, which you can check out on the fine blog, Naked Capitalism.
It's worth reading not only the post, but the comments.

I'm sorry to hear that frustration and anger may be leading to violence. That's not the way I'd like to see the massive change we need occur. Dr. Martin Luther King proved that a peaceful show of mass dissent can make a difference. Ghandi did it as well. Mass marches are needed. A grassroots movement of angry people willing to call, to email, to visit their legislators over and over and over are required. People willing to speak out, to protest, to run for office - that's what we need.

Violence is an outburst, an expression of rage and frustration - and it poisons the people who do it.

That is not the kind of change we need.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's All About the Corporations - We Are Serfs

My cousin the conservative likes to debate me on my blog. You'll find his arguments most every time I express a liberal view. But his latest comment made me realize I can explain what I believe is wrong with our system very succinctly: it's about the corporations, not about the voters.

Government and corporate interests are the same. The government's job since the eighties has been to loosen regulation and let giant corporations run free.

And as the corporations are the largest contributors to campaigns, that's likely to continue.

They like this form of capitalism real well. For the rest of us, it's not so good.

They hike credit card interest rates, they do mass layoffs while demanding government incentives not to move and the few at the top make obscene salaries. They fly their private jets to Washington to ask for bailout money.

This recession has taught us nothing, as we haven't made a single meaningful reform to the banking industry and the corporate climate continues to encourage massive conglomerates that are "too big to fail".

My cousin says legislators need to realize they're spending our money.

"Our money?" Our aging career legislators and the business interests who own them consider it all "their money". Our job is to keep them going. Our job is to keep paying for them to make more.

I resent being a serf. But that's what our capitalism has created. And that's what I am.

I work to support a government whose goal is to be business friendly, and I'm told the benefits will trickle down to me. I'm not feeling it. Nor will I. It's a lie.

I am entitled to nothing for my significant tax dollars but the right to live here, pay taxes, and watch my freedoms slowly erode.

I will pay for wars that cannot be won but were begun to get at oil that the corporations wanted. People will die for that.

I will pay to bail out banks that tripped over the fake bundled mortgages they made, and lenders and servicers will go through the motions of modifying loans while waiting for foreclosures that are more to their immediate benefit.

I will watch my governor threaten to cut promised funds to localities, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his "tough guy" stance simply means that the towns bleed when he makes the cut. It all ends up coming out of my pocket.

What do I want? I want a government that represents ME. Not the corporations, not the career politicians, not the party bosses, not the lobbyists.

When cuts are required, I want government to cut its own spending - not pass the pain on to the next level. I want government to cut taxes to attract business instead of hiking taxes, then offering businesses tax breaks.

I want my government to extend Medicare to me and to my children; my children should not be too old for coverage while they're still trying to finish their education. I want my government to create a system which ensures that the elderly have enough to eat without the stigma of poverty. I want my government to care for the people who support it, not the corporations that exploit it and its citizens. I want my children and your children to have access to the education they need to excel in the future. They shouldn't have to carry thousands of dollars of debt before they've even graduated.

I want the serfs to rise up and tear down the castle walls. I want us to throw out the career politicians and make serving as a legislator like jury duty - something we all have to do, even if we don't want to. Do it once and you're done. Wouldn't that be an incentive to get an education and make sure everyone else has one, too? But we're so tired, so demoralized, so stuck, that we can't even see a hope of change.

Welcome to medieval America.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ah, That Feels Better

Some Good News - a little cooperation in trying to make things better. 56 newspapers in 45 countries carry the same editorial - all calling for leaders in Copenhagen to take definitive action on climate change.


Tune Up Your Fiddles - The Fire's Begun

There is a fiscal crisis. Yeah yeah yeah. You're sick to death of hearing about it.

But really. There is.

Today's news was that the brand new MTA payroll tax New York's governor imposed on the Hudson Valley service area has come up 200 million dollars short. And the state's cutting its aid to the MTA by 143 million dollars as well.

What happened? No one's sure yet. Maybe people just haven't paid up yet. Maybe they can't. But the MTA is now scrambling to create its legally mandated balanced budget with a huge, nasty surprise hole in its revenue.

That's just the beginning, according to the governor's budget office. There are hard choices ahead, a spokesman says.

There's a three billion dollar deficit this year. Next year it's seven billion. And the next year, when the stimulus money is gone, it's thirteen billion dollars. Thirteen billion dollars.

This is in a state that's already so heavily taxed that businesses are leaving - not arriving. It's a state where personal and property taxes are among the highest in the country and while the cost of living goes up, salaries stay flat and jobs disintegrate.

You'd expect to see some very serious talk of reform at the state level. Or maybe not. If you live here, you know better.

We're transfixed by the former Senate majority leader's corruption trial (he was found guilty on two of seven counts). We're watching our former governor rebuild his image as a political pundit after being busted for paying for sex. We're arguing over whether the governor should run again or step aside.

Meanwhile, New York is burning.

There are a lot of important issues and it's hard to prioritize - there are civil rights questions, environmental issues, things that will haunt us for generations.

But not if we don't change the way we do business and make sure the state actually stays solvent.

New York mandates school programs but doesn't fund them. Instead, our taxes go up. New York mandates social programs in the counties but doesn't fund them. Our taxes go up.

There is no efficiency, there is little oversight, there's no big picture thinking.

There are highly paid positions filled by cronies and relatives. There are career politicians who are more interested in the content of their pockets and the influence they can wield than the welfare of their constituents.

There is partisan gridlock, with no better illustration than the immature, irresponsible shutdown of the Senate this past summer.

We've got crooks in the legislature - not just quiet ones but ones facing charges. Others have been convicted.

Aid to social service agencies is being cut while the need for their services is at an all time high.

We're in trouble. But there's still no sense of urgency either among the voters or in Albany.

And what's really sad is I think it's not an uncommon story.

Hear that? The fiddle's playing.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Apparently I Hit A Nerve

What a weird few days.

I did a radio show with my boss on a hot-button issue and the heavens split asunder, raining warm and fuzzy fan mail, while the earth's core also opened and hate emails were vomited forth in a seemingly endless stream. All aimed at me.

I'm the most eloquent voice on the issue. I'm a liar. I do an outstanding job and am an asset to the region. I'm a moron. I got my facts all wrong. I did a wonderful job explaining the issue. I should be featured more regularly. I should never be invited again.

I'm used to being in the public eye in a small way. This is way beyond my comfort zone.

It makes me realize just what the hot seat feels like. Very, very uncomfortable. It's not just where celebrities sizzle - it's where anyone who takes a side in a polarizing issue is tossed. Even if you don't take a side, someone will assume you did if you are put out in front and told to start dancing.

There are a couple of possible reactions. Mine is to withdraw. I'm not crazy about confrontation and if an argument can't be civil I just don't want to be part of it.
Others find it exhilarating - there's nothing like a good fight to get the blood pumping. Perhaps there are some who can maintain an emotional distance and simply debate the issue, refusing to get drawn into the heat and the venom. I'd like to be more like that, but I take it personally when I'm attacked.

I know plenty of people who take no prisoners when someone gets in their face; they don't take the first bite, but once bitten they turn into wolverines. It's very effective with bullies. I am horrified and secretly a bit envious.

I imagine it would feel really, really satisfying to bite back.

But that goes against my vision of what this life is supposed to be about. So I keep it civil. I maintain my outward poise. And I think I truly do make a horrible mistake every time I venture beyond my mailbox.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Holidays In Woodstock

The most famous small town in the world would, you would think, roll up and hibernate once the summer is over. After all, Bearsville, Allaire, the biggest music studios have closed their doors. The days of hearing Jimi Hendrix jamming amid the stale peanuts and beer at the Cafe Espresso are long gone. The Joyous Lake is a tee shirt shop. So if the tourist season is over and the music is no longer the central draw of the town, what's left?

Sheer silliness.

The Woodstock I grew up in is very different from the Woodstock I live in now. My childhood Woodstock was scruffy, worn around the edges and, to be honest, smelled a bit. It was a stoned town; there was a general fuzzy sweetness about the kids on the street and, for the most part, an affectionate tolerance from the town's "straight" residents. They were used to artists - remember that Woodstock was home to the Art Students League and both the Byrdcliffe and Maverick arts colonies long before Michael Lang's 1969 concert that used its name.

The shop that perhaps best personified what Woodstock was, was its leather shop: Happiglop. I think I'm spelling it right. It was a made up word which was the result of the owners' mis-hearing the name of an animal at the Natural History Museum. They were high at the time. That pretty much says it all.

Today's Woodstock is a bit slicker, a lot more tourist-y and a lot older. Most of the tourists who arrive looking for the old Woodstock find a couple of tie dye shops and go away content. But for those of us who live here look forward to the holidays; it's when the new Woodstock proves it's got something to offer.

Last night was the town open house. Most every shop in town opened its doors and served wine, cookies and snacks. Kids from the local school sang Christmas carols in front of the shops. The pizza shop had a cauldron with mulled cider heating over an open flame and the strip mall down the road had a bonfire, cider and s'mores.

KB and I both tend to be hermits; we go out and watch what's going on but seldom get too involved. You'll most often find us sitting on a bench on the main street with our coffee just watching the world go by. This year we got pulled into our neighbors' orbit and saw the event in an entirely new way.

Kim is an irresistible force. She used to be an actress, she's now a radio personality, a writer and a standup comic. We ran into her with the man she calls her "spousal equivalent", Joe, and we decided to tag along and see how Kim works what she calls her favorite night in town.

Her system is simple: find the shops with the wine and the best snacks, swoop in and enjoy. She's perfectly polite: she makes small talk with the owners, she samples just a little and she says thank you.

"You didn't eat before you came, did you?" Joe asked us.

We confessed we had.

"We really have to talk to you," he said.

Their dinner last night consisted, as best as I could see, of crackers, cheese, salami, cookies and, in one shining moment for Kim, cake. The cake is a story I'll save for a bit later here.

KB had his very first s'more last night and pronounced it "about what he'd expected." I think he regrets losing his status as a man who'd never tasted one.

Then we trooped up the hill and began hitting the shops. There was an art gallery with a fine spread and a lovely Husky dog. One of our friends' very little daughters was holding the dog's leash, wide eyed and delighted, while the dog snoozed happily amidst a crush of people and raucous live Celtic-inspired music. We had wine. I think my three companions also had crackers and cheese.

From there the hunt was on. One shop with wine informed us that the next shop had mulled wine. This being a distinct step up, we had to go. They also had a veggie platter. Joe and Kim got the four major food groups thanks to the local shoe shop.

Kim, at this point, was holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. She's serious about this. She forged on ahead, her long sweater flapping behind her. We followed, helpless to resist.

In the real estate office Kim discussed the merits of satin versus gloss finishes on the floors as Joe scoped out the cheese selection.

The cookies were particularly excellent in the candle shop. We discovered that one of their friends had opened a new gallery so of course we went. Amazing furniture, actually, and an enormous head created by parallel layers of what looked like green styrofoam.

Our goal was the music shop but this year they weren't open. Highly disappointing. But that was made up for by hot toddies at the streamside gift shop and Pecan Sandies. I was very excited about that.

The men's shop had cookies that sent Kim into paroxysms of delight...miniature half moon cookies.

"Oh you got real quality cookies!" she cried.

The expression on the owners' faces was somewhere between confusion and amusement.

"Go ahead and eat one," they suggested as Kim continued to coo over the plate.

There was the world's cutest Golden Retriever puppy in front of one shop. I never checked out the snacks inside because Kim and I were very busy petting his belly. Four legs straight in the air, he presented his little fuzzy soccer ball of a body for our attention.

At this point, I was introduced to a neighbor who wrote us a nasty anonymous note about the lights on the back of KB's studio - he apparently is annoyed by the lights he can see through the trees in the distance. Those are the lights which Kim, who lives directly behind us, loves. We know it's him but he never admitted it, nor has he ever spoken to us. I don't know how I'd have reacted if I hadn't been distracted by the puppy, but as it was I just "Oh, hi." and turned back to the dog. Kim was amazed.

"You didn't realize? she gaped.

"Nope. I was paying attention to the dog."

"Totally understandable," Joe said.

Peace on earth, etc.

We ran into a lot of people: Joe knows everyone, Kim knows everyone else, KB knows his fair share (though when the buxom little stoner girl threw herself into his arms for a long hug and told him she'd been wanting to come to his house and give him a massage, both Kim's eyebrows and mine shot up) and I even ran into a woman I know from junior high. Celebs were around (KB encouraged me to talk to one actor from a show we both like and, emboldened, I ran up, put a hand on his arm and said, "I really like your work. Now I'll leave you alone." He was a bit surprised but very nice.) And while we were in a shop (where aforementioned actor also ended up, trying on hats- I pretended I didn't notice.) I overhead two women whisper as they looked at KB, "Rod Stewart's here!" We said nothing. I hope they were really happy with their celebrity sighting.

Then Kim heard there was cake. You must understand that Kim loves cake. She blogged about it. She did a routine about it. She thinks cake is the answer to all of the world's problems. So free cake is not something she's going to pass by.

We walked down a side street to a basement gallery I'd never noticed. There were a couple of older men inside and yes, there was clearly something going on. There was a veggie platter, some cookies, some wine. Kim went in, followed by Joe. KB stayed outside to have a cigarette and I waited, too. But Joe peered through the window and beckoned us in. So in we went.

"It's his birthday," they informed us. The artist, an older gentleman seated at a workbench, gave us a friendly nod as we wished him a happy birthday. We had just crashed his birthday party.

Kim, always gracious and at ease, was petting his dogs' stomachs and telling him about our adventures so far. I was off in a corner, staring in wonderment at what his gallery featured. He makes intricate wire perpetual motion sculptures. Most of them look like insane ferris wheels with marbles that are lifted up, spin madly around and around, chiming bells as they pass, then landing back at the bottom only to begin the circuit again.

More guests arrived (people who knew him) and we all began to chat. Turns out they love my radio show so they were very excited to meet me and ask me why they can't figure out what my co-worker is saying when she says her name. We understand. We're still not sure if NPR's reporter is Corva Coleman or Corava Coleman or maybe Cora Vacoleman.

So Kim got her cake and Joe delightedly informed us that that's a pretty good picture of their relationship: he eggs her on to do things he would never do and she'd probably never think of. She does them with great gusto once the idea is planted. This, in fact, was not the first birthday party she'd crashed just to get a slice of cake. He dares her. Kim can't resist a dare.

It was a very silly evening.

And this is just the beginning. On Christmas Eve, the center of town is blocked off and Santa arrives - and being Woodstock, he never arrives in a sleigh. One year he was shot out of a cannon. It's a big secret and no one knows what will happen this year.

My guess is that while everyone else is watching for Santa, Kim will be hunting for cake.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The High Cost of Hosting the President

Those are cookies served to the media as they waited to cover the president's speech at West Point this week. Yeah, they actually had cookies with his picture on it.

That made me wonder - just how much did this little event cost?

I was there: I'll tell you what I saw and you can speculate along with me.

First, incredibly tight security at the gates. Several officers at each gate, dogs, security at almost every corner. Cadets were given vans and told to drive in front of reporters to make sure they parked in the appropriate lots.

From there, we were sent to the hall where the president would speak. The White House press office had a mobile office there, very sparse indeed - a couple of laptops and some harried looking people in suits.

Next door was the huge room for the media. Lines and lines of long tables, each with power and internet hook up times four. Then they brought out the food.

It was a nice gesture - they made us arrive at least eight hours prior to the speech, so they decided to feed us.

There were cold cut platters, salad and dressing. There was chili. There was lasagna. There were cookies, brownies and the very special petit fours and Obama cookies. Coffee, tea, iced tea, soda. And a spectacularly carved watermelon which spelled out "West Point".

Don't picture a bunch of fat reporters sitting around for hours eating well. Within fifteen minutes of laying out the food, we were kicked out of the building. Too bad if you hadn't eaten. It was time for the security sweep. We were left outside for the next three and half hours. At least it wasn't raining.

I spoke with a photographer who ended up going back into the building at the request of the Secret Service. He said he'd never seen anything like it - high tech equipment, dogs, weapons...it had to have cost a fortune.

Then there was the routine security - boats and divers in the river nearby. Secret service patrolling the grounds. Dogs. I stopped to take a photo of a particularly interesting tunnel and was surrounded by men with a dog.

"Can we help you?"

"I'm just taking a picture cause it's cool," I replied breezily.

It was a total lockdown. We're in a post 9-11 world.

I didn't stay; I'm not sure if they fed everyone again around dinnertime. I'll bet they did. The speech didn't begin until eight.

Then factor in the cost of flying the president to West Point, the motorcade, the police, the traffic control.

How much did all this cost?

It was no cheap outing for the media either.

It made me wonder: wouldn't it have been cheaper to fly some cadets to the White House and do it all there?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Her Name Was Scout

We got her to try to help ease the transition in a tough move. We already had the best dog in the world; his name was Gus. But Gus' puppy days were long behind him and it seemed like a great idea: a puppy would not only be a terrific playmate for two young kids, but might give Gus a new lease on life.

My daughter desperately wanted a puppy; Gus had been with us long before either of our kids were born. So we went to the local shelter's adoption fair and there she was: a little Lab/Border Collie cross with the fastest tongue in the East. We wrapped her up in a towel and brought her home. By the time we got there, she had a name - Scout.

Gus had infinite patience with her as she nipped at his ears and growled at his tail. I think he may have snickered when she got caught in the sunroom because her little legs couldn't reach up one step to get into the family room.

We tried to take pictures of her, but she was so black that she was hard to see in the tall grass. She had to grow to her full size before we could get a decent picture.

She's gone by many names, though Miss Pooh seemed to be one of our most frequent nicknames. She was also Nurse Jane Blackdog, as she had a talent for snuggling up against anyone who appeared to need care.

She loved to burst out of the back door and race in mad, ecstatic circles around us when she was feeling particularly full of herself. "Happy dog" we called it. She also piled into snowdrifts with her shoulder and push herself through them on her side. That was "snowfish".

She could play basketball with my son for hours. She'd leap up and pull down the ball with both paws as it bounced, then chase after it, trying to grab it with her teeth. She never managed to do it. But she never tired of trying.

Pooh was a pain in the ass on a leash. I have to say it. She was always so happy to get out, so anxious to see what was out in the world that the first half a mile was like playing tug of war. But she eventually settled down, realizing that she was going to be out for a nice, long while and would happily trot alongside you.

Off the leash, she could be an angel or a devil. She might stay close, or she might decide she just had to chase the neighbor's cat. Or poop in his yard. Or find a body of standing water, no matter how filthy, and jump in.

She proved it was possible to have two perfect dogs in one lifetime. She never, ever threatened anyone. She used to bare her teeth when I trimmed her toenails (she hated that), but her tongue would flick out between her teeth and she'd lick me as she made ferocious faces.

Scout was afraid of thunder. She'd come running, shivering, and hide her head when it stormed. She was afraid of spray bottles (my fault- I thought spritzing her when we tried to house train her was a gentle form of correction - it scarred her for life). We couldn't iron - she was terrified of the spray starch.

When my son went away to college, he wrote and said he missed one thing more than anything - he missed seeing Scout. I took pictures and sent them.

I missed Scout - she stayed with the kids' dad. Her life was lonely sometimes, but the kids' grandfather is a kind soul and he decided she'd make a great shop dog. In her last few years he came to pick her up a few times a week and brought her to his antique shop. She loved going to work.

I got a note from my daughter tonight that Scout was gone. I called. She had a tumor, she said. It burst. It was either surgery she wouldn't survive or putting her to sleep. My daughter said she stayed with her. I so wish I could have been there.

Scout loved jamming herself between your legs and forcing you to scratch her butt. She'd stand there for hours if you'd put up with it. She loved chewing. She went through chew bones made for wolves - she'd destroy them. But she never chewed furniture. She never wrecked anything. She never broke anything.

Except maybe my heart.