Monday, March 30, 2009

Leaving the economy aside for a moment....

I find myself contemplating some of the best parts of my life, that have not one thing to do with the state of the world these days.

I've believed for years that the very best parts of my life are my three boys. I can't explain how I managed to have three such special people enter my life almost twenty years ago but I did. They are each, on his own, quite amazing and wonderful.

The other night I spent a precious, unbelievable moment with one of sons, whom I was entreating to please, please get over the "Senior-itus" and finish his high school career on a high note...well, at least on a higher note than he's been playing lately.

Without going into the many complex and unhappy details surrounding the circumstances my son finds himself in these days, suffice it to say his social life has been somewhat curtailed lately. After discussing the next several weeks of schoolwork, that will, my hand to god, end up in a delightful graduation night of celebration and yes, a bit of relief for all of us, I tried to sweeten the deal a little. Maybe having a "date night," maybe having some time out of the house to have some fun would encourage one more quarter of hard work. The fact is that the "grounding" he's endured for several weeks has resulted in him spending almost no time with his girlfriend, or any friends for that matter. Tanisha is either the most patient young woman on the planet or she and my son have found that the wonders of texting, phone time and Facebook are reasonable substitutes for dates or spending time together. (Or they're finding time together and I'm unaware of it - which may well be the case.)

Regardless, I dangled the "date night" carrot hoping for good things. He looked pleasant enough, agreeable enough to the notion, although, surprisingly, not overjoyed. I said, "Jeez! You don't look very excited! Don't you think Tanisha would like to spend an evening out with her boyfriend??"

In what will go down as a historic moment in my life, his lukewarm response to my offer became clear. "O-o-o-oh-h-h-...I thought you meant I'd have a date night with you! I thought you meant that you and I would go out for dinner or something...."

Thank you, God. Thank you for a son who not only imagined I would dangle an offer of an evening in my company as some kind of fun-filled option, he actually considered it and didn't outright reject it. And God bless him for that. I'm thrilled with his lukewarm response if that's the case. THRILLED.

I don't need to tell you the excitement meter increased considerably when he learned a real date night was his reward for good work.

Here's the thing. Nothing else needs to happen here. Not really. I'm going to live on this moment for at least a couple of weeks - the realization that somewhere along the line, I find myself in the amazing situation of having helped raise an almost 18-year-old son who wasn't quite horrified or even the least dismayed about the prospect of spending an evening with his mother.

WOW. As my friend and fabulous writer Amy Krouse Rosenthal says, MOM is really just WOW turned upside down. She's right.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Is this harrassment? Could you do this and get away with it???

Several years ago, I attended a harassment seminar at work. It's purpose was the enlighten managers of the many, many ways one could harass employees. Sexual harassment gets the most press but there are a number of ways employees could be intimated or otherwise distracted (or "harassed" in legal terms) by management.

Turns out, having a manager who uses harsh or graphic language was one of the ways employees could feel uncomfortable in an office setting. Sure, we're all adults but nonetheless, if someone is not used to hearing cursing or off-color language, or does not use it at home or in personal life, it can be off-putting to hear it from the person who, to some degree, holds your professional life in his or her hands. Language like this can even cause an employee to feel less than comfortable talking to their supervisor about a work-related topic.

The March 2 issue of The New Yorker contains a profile of President Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel. He's an interesting, well-educated man who brings a lot of umm, personality to the office. Time will tell whether or not he is effective in his role in the White House.

One of the aspects of the story that startled me was the mention of a plaque displayed in his office. A gift from his brothers, Ezekiel and Ariel, it looks very official and bears this inscription: "Undersecretary for Go F--- Yourself."

Charming! Is this the message we want to send to everyone who visits Emmanuel's office on any kind of business? "Go F Yourself?" Nice.

If I worked for Rahm Emmanuel, the first thing I would tell him is that the plaque he's displaying is unprofessional and it offends me. The second thing I would say is thank you for not firing me for telling you that.

Look, it's not that I am an innocent who has not been around the block when it comes to language. But making that kind of statement, even in jest, on a plaque that is displayed in your office, when you have a very elevated position working very closely with the leader of the free world and everything that surrounds him, feels very different to me.

I get it. It's a joke from his brothers who know Emmanuel very well. So he should hang it or display it at home. In his family room. At least there, only his children and your wife will have to see it everyday. I don't think they can claim harassment at home.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Well, I guess it was inevitable.

The prevailing wisdom tells us that when we face a huge task or obstacle or project, we are supposed to break it down into manageable pieces and have at it. You can do almost anything is it doesn't look and feel so intimidating! A version of this advice is on the cover of every single women's magazine on newsstands every single month.

I guess I misinterpreted the advice. I thought it was related to things like cleaning out your dresser drawers or straightening up your file cabinet. Wrong. Given the horrible financial climate that pervades nearly every aspect of our lives, I guess it was inevitable that someone, somewhere took this advice and applied it to - you guessed it - spending money you may not have, but feeling okay about it.

I couldn't believe it but I just watched a General Motors commercial about - guess what? - financing your new car! Just like Ford, you can pay it off in just SIX SHORT YEARS. But here's their twist: why think about this in something as Pre-TARP-like as "monthly car payments." No, that's way too much money or debt to contemplate. It may make the payments look unaffordable, even to the most financially illiterate among us.

So back to the old wisdom: break it down. Break that figure down from a monthly total to a much more manageable daily expenditure. Maybe that makes it all okay. According to GM, a new car will cost you only $9.63 a day. Doesn't that sound so much better than almost $300 a month???

They make it look very accessible. Instead of buying yourself lunch, buy a car! Instead of seeing a movie on your own, buy a car!

Dear God when will this stop? Our national financial future is doomed. If we need convincing that we can afford new cars by calculating what they'll cost us on a daily basis, we can't afford them.

Now. Is that so hard?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Here's the problem - in thirty short seconds

I watched a Ford commercial on television and thought that it perfectly captured the blind eye many of us seem to be turning to the root of our financial catastrophe: spending beyond our means.

In a effort to motivate buyers, Ford is offering to make the first three payments for you on your new car. That's three months without a car payment while you drive around in your new car! WOW!!

What happens in month # 4 is anyone's guess. Here's my stab at it: if you finance a car and can't afford to make the payments each month, no matter how many times someone pays it for you, you won't make the first payment that comes due under your watch. In this case, in month # 4.

But wait - there's more to the offer. To help you actually feel like you can afford the car you want, Ford will help lower the monthly cash outlay by extending your credit/loan on the car for 72 months. Yes, that means just SIX short years later you can own a car that is by then close to seven years old.

Isn't Ford's promotion more of the same problem that got us into this mess? Overextending ourselves and our credit to finance a lifestyle or products we couldn't afford?

I'd like to see a major manufacturer, whether it's a car company, an electronics company or other fairly high ticket commodity try to do the responsible thing here.

Let's review the real offer Ford is making to consumers who don't have clue one about how to be responsible with money:

"Hey! We're going to make it easier than ever for you to come on in and buy a new Ford. We'll make the first three payments for you - and that means we'll pay $XXX a month for three months (disclaimers clutter the bottom of the screen at this point.)

After that, you owe $XXX for the next 69 months to own this car. That's right, in the middle of 2015 you will finally be finished paying off this car!

Yes, your insurance will also cost more on a new car, of course, but let's not think about that right now. Let's concentrate on putting you in a brand new car!!!"

I'd love to see someone make a commercial that delivers this kind of message:

"Hey - we're Ford and we make cars for a variety of budgets. If you want to spend $xxx a month and finance your car for 36 to 48 months with no down payment,and you have good credit and your monthly income is $XXX, come into one of our dealerships and take a look at these models. Let's discuss your monthly bills but it's possible one of these models won't break your budget.

"Here's a way to tell if models like the ___, ___ and ___ are good choices for you: your weekly paycheck should put at least $xxx in your pocket. And your weekly expenses should leave you with at least $XXX left over to put toward a car payment.

"We know there's a lot to think about when buying a car - and committing to that payment each month. Come in and talk to us - if the numbers add up for both of us, we'll put you in a car you can afford.

And that's the best offer there is out there today."

I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, March 09, 2009

50 years later...

Young girls are STILL playing Barbie. That's what you call it when you're a girl and you and your friends decide to play with your Barbie dolls. You don't say, "Let's play with our dolls." You say, "Let's play Barbies."

At least, that's what we used to say. My sisters and I each had a Barbie doll and so did our friends. One of our friends, Peggy, also had just about every Barbie doll accessory you could think of as well so playing Barbies on her front porch was always the most fun. She had cars, houses, and other dolls that would help us create that day's scenario. I have absolutely no recollection of exactly how we used to play with them or what could have occupied us forever, except that we were constantly changing their clothing. Which we never called clothing by the way. Barbie wore outfits.

(And by the way, women still do. I wrote about that years ago - the idea that only women, not men, use the word outfits. I can't explain it. It just is.)

These days, girls can have the Barbie Jeep, the Barbie RV, and the Barbie Pet Shop. My son's girlfriend told me she had Barbie Vet when she was growing up, and Barbie "Mom," with her very own set of quadruplets.

So the headline these days is that Barbie is turning 50. Just half a century after she was introduced at the Toy Fair in NYC in March, 1959, she is still going strong with her tiny waist, long legs and perky look. My question is this: how did this

Wouldn't you think that the women's movement - which hit it's stride just as Barbie was entering adolescence would have brought and end to Barbie and her breasts? Wouldn't you think that now two generations later, parents would have long ago turned their backs on Barbie, disdaining her for all the wrong-headed priorities she seemed to represent to girls the world over? Wouldn't you think girls would be over her by now?

Well, a few people think so. In fact, a lawmaker in West Virgina wants to outlaw Barbie for all those reasons. According to USA Today, Democratic Delegate Jeff Eldridge wants to ban the sale of Barbie and other dolls like her for the benefit of all girls in West Virginia because it places "too much importance on physical beauty, at the expense of their intellectual and emotional development."

Like others have before him, Eldridge also denigrates Barbies unnatural body image and faults her for "promoting materialism."

That's noble and high-minded of him. But we've heard these kinds of protests about Barbie and the glittery road to perdition she leads us down for decades now. Surely, there is some truth to it; surely she has led millions of women into a vapid existence of fashion, beauty and few if any accomplishments; in the opposite direction from a classroom and professional lives, right?

But how can I put this? How's this: Oh, for Gods's sake - give it rest! I have yet to read one study, one report, one snippet of investigation that tells me this: Barbie has caused an entire generation of girls to become dumb. To become materialistic, empty-headed bimbos. To become less than what they could be.

I know anecdotal evidence is nothing but that but let's revisit my Barbie play group for a minute, shall we? Out of the eight girls who played Barbies together, six of us went on to college and earned degrees. Among us, there is an attorney, an engineer, a social worker, a publishing professional, a librarian, and a teacher (by degree) who works in an office. The other two have worked in offices over the years as they've raised their families, one as single parent for many of those years.

So here's looking at you, Barbie. Happy 50th. Not one of us have your bone structure, your breasts, your waist or your long sleek mane. Not one of us can wear the heels you wear with a smile. But envy, jealousy or inferiority were never what we felt when we played Barbies. You were always our friend and you helped us pass countless fun afternoons with our friends.

Sometimes a Barbie is just a Barbie. Let's all relax and count on another 50 years of unenlightened fun by girls the world over.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

When is the middle missing a middle? When it's a panel from Washington.

Okay, this made me scream.

The night the President addressed the nation and informed us that VP Biden would head up a middle class task force, I shook my head and thought: “I’ll bet not one person on that task force has been a member of the middle class for decades.”

Now, thanks to, my reaction has been validated. Turns out, everyone who sat on that panel last week in Philadelphia makes more than $150,000 a year – some of them much, much more – which puts them squarely in the top 5% of wage earners.

The panel did not take questions from the audience but luckily, the government thoughtfully created a website where “the middle class” can go online and submit questions. Oh, please. That’s helpful. According to an article in WebProNews, 18% of U.S. households have no Internet access. And guess what contributes to that circumstance? Age and limited education. Who could that be? Perhaps they are seniors on lower fixed incomes or younger people with limited prospects for employment because of limited education.

Does it occur to anyone on this task force that perhaps those people who have the most questions or those who could offer the most insight into the challenges of the middle class might not happen to hop online every night on their laptops? These are the people who need to speak to the middle class task force. They may want to submit questions to this panel of $175,000 / year earners.

And don’t tell me they can go to the public library to access the web. They certainly can and I’m guessing at least some households at the lower end of the middle class income figure do get web access that way. Maybe even some of them will go ahead and submit questions to VP Biden’s task force.

I hope so but for some reason, I doubt it. I’d love to track back where the submissions originate. If even two percent of them come from places like public libraries, I’ll be stunned.

The most amusing part of the article in Time was the mention of the official Middle Class Task Force "live blogger" commenting on a discussion about the "greenest" city: Portland, Los Angeles or Philadelphia. When will these people get a clue? I"m not certain the MCTF needs a live blogger, that perhaps that resource and money could be better spent but what do I know?

The score is Martha:1 ; Bernie: 0

I’ve spent a decent amount of time thinking about this topic. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, “I can’t write it;” or “I shouldn’t write it.” Or something like that.
I know – a fair number of you would have bet I’d invested no more than six minutes thinking about anything I’ve ever written. You’d be wrong but that’s your prerogative. The truth is, sometimes I agonize over words or phrases, trying to create exactly the right feelings through a single sentence that I hope conveys the message I want to deliver. Warning: This isn’t one of those pieces. In fact, I’d recommend that if you’re looking for facts and journalistic integrity, you stop reading now.

Of course I’m talking about what else - the economy. I have absolutely no credentials nor do I have any specific expertise that qualifies me to talk about the financial crisis that surrounds us but that hasn’t stopped anyone in Washington from talking about it, or creating programs about it. And speaking of programs, who named “TARP?” Is the best word to describe these assets really “troubled?” Troubled? I’m troubled when I can’t remember where I parked my car at the mall. Or when I forget to record a check and then can’t remember why I wrote it. “T” should stand for Tragic. Or it should have been called HARP for Horrific Asset Relief. How about CARP, for Criminal Asset Relief? The activity that led to these assets being “troubled” is criminal.

Leaving aside the mortgage debacle, I think my own personal financial point of no return came a few weeks ago when The Wall Street Journal published a PDF of the document independent investigator Harry Markopolos submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission on November 7, 2005, in which he expressed his concerns about Madoff Investment Securities, LLC. Yes, THAT Madoff Securities. Yes, 2005. That would be just over five years after he submitted his very first suspicions about Bernie Madoff but four years before Madoff became infamous for a Ponzi scheme that resulted in $50 billion dollars of fraud.

I read the Markopolos memo – or, more accurately, I started to read it. While I don’t know finance, I’m fairly fluent in English and yet I was lost. I could define almost every word; I just couldn’t figure out what any of them meant, strung together in that document. On the very first page, Markopolos describes his credentials: “I have experience managing split-strike conversion products both using index options and using individual stock options, both with and without index puts.” Well…good. That’s sounds…complicated.

In one of the more straightforward passages, he states his intentions: “As a result of this case, several careers on Wall Street and in Europe will be ruined. Therefore, I have not signed nor put my name on this report. I request that my name not be released to anyone other than the Branch Chief or Team Leader in the New York Region….” Four years later, as the walls come tumbling down, he’s in front of Congress testifying about the contents of his memo that was summarily ignored by his supervisors at the SEC.

I feel confused and angry. I don’t understand why Bernie Madoff isn’t wearing in an orange jumpsuit behind bars. I don’t understand a court system that justifies sending a Martha Stewart to jail for insider trading that led to her own financial gains but didn’t ruin countless others, and allows a Bernie Madoff, who stole $50 BILLION dollars from scores of people, to remain in his penthouse. Wearing an ankle bracelet.

I feel gullible and abused. Turns out, if you did the “responsible” things, you lose. If you have savings accounts for college expenses, you watch them shrink every day. If you have a reasonable mortgage and make all your payments on time, you won’t qualify for the very favorable mortgage being offered to those who are overextended. If you own a business and run it well, you won’t get any help, either.

I used to think: Well, you’re still better off than many! Really? The way the bailouts keep piling up, that’s hard to believe. And the way the markets are moving these days, we all lose – no matter how many times we chose to do the “responsible” thing.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Maybe it's a Kevin Bacon thing....

Watching the last twenty minutes - I'm not kidding, it couldn't have been more than twenty minutes - of Apollo 13, I'm in tears. Again.

There is something so completely compelling and moving about this story that appeared to have united people all over the world in the face of tragedy. Even more incredible than that, who could imagine that the Congress of the United States would call for a day of national prayers from the American public?

So what's the deal here do you think? Maybe I don't let out real emotions enough of the time and they have to escape somehow. I've touched on this before but I seem to favor some sort of "control" over freedom when it comes to expressing emotions. Which, believe me I know, can't be all that healthy for you.

So where does that leave me? I weep over movies.

Then again, I'm not completely deluded. I've found myself overcome with tears at other times that have exactly everything to do with real life, not Hollywood. The movie tears feel less painful, of course.

I need to find a middle ground of some kind. A place that lets me express emotions over some of the bumps in real life but where I'm not necessarily in tears automatically. This middle ground is also the same place I could find a way to watch twenty minutes of a movie I've seen half a dozen times without crying.

At times like this I wonder if I'm the only person on the planet who reacts to life this way. I suppose it's possible but I'm not nearly that complex or unique so I doubt it. But I'd love to know.