Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Two words: stop talking.

The Wall Street Journal referenced a story from the Associated Press today to bring us the latest news about the long-suffering Governor Mark Sanford. To summarize: turns out that Ms. Maria Belen Chapur, of Argentina, was not the first women Governor Mark dallied with behind his wife’s back. As the AP described the situation, he “crossed lines” with some other women but he “never crossed the ultimate line.” That line would be this: engaging in sexual intercourse with them.

It hardly seems worth speculating about what exactly he would call not crossing a line. But still I can’t help but wonder how much he would actually “do” with another woman and somehow still feel virtuous. Can you say Bill and Monica?

If we believe Sanford's story, Ms. Chapur is the only woman to experience that delightful circumstance called “crossing the line” with The Governor. But make no mistake: this was no one-night stand down there in Argentina. It meant so much more. Here’s the Sanford quote that kills me: “This was a whole lot more than a simple affair, this was a love story," Sanford said. "A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day."

A love story. A forbidden love story. A tragic love story. In fact, this was a love story with a “soul mate,” another term Sanford decided to share during an interview in his office.

I wish I were the reporter conducting that interview. My next question would have been this: For God's sake! Are you out of your mind? Are you quite mad? What kind of person not only humiliates his wife, his family and his staff by lying about an overseas affair, then goes on the record about the affair by calling it a “forbidden love story” with his “soul mate?” And who is this Maria Belen Chapur...Wallis Simpson? At least in that case, the King Edward didn’t throw over a wife and family, just his country and his throne.

(Interestingly, according to Christopher Warwick in his book, Abdication, Mrs. Simpson recalls a particular cruise with then Prince Edward VIII as the moment when they “crossed the line that marks the indefinable boundary between friendship and love.” Maybe “crossing lines” has been code for screwing around on your spouse for a decades and I missed the memo.)

But let me understand this. Sanford isn’t all bad. He’s trying to do the right thing here. He’s trying to fall back in love with his wife. Isn't that just precious? What a hardship for him! In the now immortal words of Christian Bale, “Ohhhhh, gooooood for you.” That makes you quite a gentleman, doesn’t it?

About a year ago, we all watched in mixed horror and incredulity at the stoic and somber Tilda Spitzer standing by her husband, Elliott, as he confirmed his philandering ways with a prostitute. That was difficult to stomach for numerous reasons but now in light of Stafford’s admissions, Tilda can thank God for small favors. At least Elliott wasn’t mooning over his soul mate, Ashley Dupree, to an AP reporter. At least he didn’t term his $80,000 payments to the Emperor’s Club payments for a “forbidden love story.”

The Governor had an unexpected chance to back out of the spotlight and fade away in the shadow of the late Michael Jackson. Even covering the death of Billy Mays would have been enough of a story to distract the reporters. But here's today's lesson. Use “soul mate, or say “forbidden love story” and there you are: Right back on the front page.

I’m guessing Jenny Sanford is renewing her plea for a marital separation right about now. If they get the papers filed soon, Mark can be back on plane in time to spend the long holiday weekend “hiking the Appalachian Trail.”

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Apparently, $335,000 today equals $59,000 in 1987.

This is what passes for austerity these days. God help us.

My husband says I’m stuck in the 80’s. Back then we were a younger couple buying our first home. We acted very conservatively when we purchased our home, and bought an older twin home that served our needs nicely for several years, until our family grew from two to five in sixteen months. Even then, we stayed in our first (small) home for another year and a half, and moved in to our present home seventeen years ago.

That first mortgage was a lesson in control and conspicuous consumption. We paid $59,000 for our home. Twenty-three years ago, we were approved for another $75,000 on our mortgage (maybe even more). Despite the temptation that goes along with spending more money, we stayed on the low end of the buying scale and as a result, made extremely comfortable mortgage payments.

When we traded up to a larger home, we did the same thing. The sale of our first home netted us a $30,000 profit, and with the additional money we’d saved, we were able to put a down payment of almost $50,000 on our second home.

Once again, our principle, interest, and escrow payments were comfortable. Too comfortable? I guess that’s debatable. Yes, if we had stretched ourselves all those years ago and counted on the fact that our incomes would rise, we’d probably find ourselves in a more valuable home today. But that was our problem: counting on a growing income. We bought our second home with three young children in tow, and the only thing we counted on was that our expenses would go up as they grew up. And since one of the incomes we generated was the result of a freelance career, which resulted in reliable but not “paycheck reliable” income, erring on the side of caution seemed prudent.

The latest advice on mortgage as a percentage of income says that spending 40% of your income on a mortgage is expected. So let’s make this simple: if you make $100,000 a year you take home $65,000. And 40% of $65,000 a year is $26,000 a year or $2,166 a month on your mortgage. Let’s see what kind of home $2,166 buys. My figures won’t include taxes or escrow payments for home insurance but let’s leave them out of this for now. Although you can’t leave them out in the real world.

Well, this is promising. You can buy a home with a price tag of $481,500 and pay a monthly principle and interest payment of $2,166. That’s based on obtaining a 5%, thirty year rate on your loan. In many places outside of Beverly Hills, a home worth almost half a million dollars is quite lovely. Good for you!

Oh, wait a minute. This calculation works only if you put down 20% on the home. That’s $77,940 in cash before you take on the mortgage. Where a young person or young couple gets almost $78,000 in cash on a $100,000 a year income is beyond me.

Which brings me back to austerity. Seems to me, there’s something to be said for deciding to spend only 30% of your income on your home, or 25%, or 20%. It’s called planning for a rainy day, or the times when income disappears, or grows unexpectedly unstable or even smaller. [Example: during our mortgage, I had a career-building opportunity come along that would mean a temporary reduction in my income. I was able to take it because we have some room to breathe with our monthly expenses. Our mortgage didn’t hold us hostage. ]

But the free market needs incentives in order to work, right? Maybe everyone who takes on a mortgage for less than their “qualified” for gets a bonus. Maybe for every 10% they “undermortage” themselves, they save a point on closing costs. Maybe they get automatic refinancing that’s funded by the mortgage company should rates drop by half a percent or more. There has to be a way to convince people that underspending is admirable, too.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

I'm confused. Again.

I'll admit it. It doesn't take much to confuse me but please tell me what I'm missing here.

I do understand their message. I do believe that moral and ethical people can be found almost anywhere and that carrying around proof of baptism or having a religious text tucked under your arm are not required. I'm not questioning the message, just the greater purpose behind this campaign created by New York City Atheist Inc.

Apparently, this isn't a reaction to a Christian message of salvation (basically: you non-believers are going to hell) that previously ticked off some atheists in London who felt compelled to respond with their own message (basically: no, we're not.) My question is this: how is either party certain of their message? And if that's the case, don't they cancel each other out?

According to the atheists behind the New York campaign, the purpose of the bus placards is to end the estrangement or separateness atheists feel in our society. In fact, a successful campaign will create "atheist pride" or promote "acceptance of atheism."

This is the place where I get confused. I had no idea there was a lack of atheist pride on our country. And I had less of an idea that atheists feel estranged from society. And my sense of human nature is that for people who look down on the atheists that surround them, signs they read on the side of a bus aren't going to change their minds.

But let's go with this premise - why not? Maybe atheists do feel separate and unwelcome in many areas of our society. Maybe they don't feel quite at home at the local VFW or the corner bar or the gym or the grocery store or the Starbucks or the post office or the mall as the believers do. Maybe when they attend concerts, ballgames, movies, plays, WWF matches or the opera, they feel like everyone is staring at them, singling them out as different. Maybe when they check 'atheist' on their job applications, they feel just a little nervous about disclosing their non-beliefs. Maybe standing around with the other parents, watching their kids play soccer, is an uncomfortable experience. Maybe applying for a mortgage, or shoppng for a car or taking a vacation is always cause for alarm.

You know how everything just feels different when atheists are present. The entire atmosphere changes and never in a good way. It ruins the experience for the believers who are trying to enjoy themselves.

For God's sake (if you will): what? Is it necessary for yet another group in America to declare their need for acceptance? Are atheists the new protected class among us? Isn't it enough that there are a number of groups that deal with actual prejudice or mistreatment? Now we have to be concerned about atheists and how they're not getting a fair shake.

My favorite part of the Times article included the quote from Jane Everhart, spokesperson for New York City Atheists: “People who are religious have been advertising for generations,” she said. “But atheists never have. We have not come out, and this is part of our coming out.”

Question: Why would atheists have a desire to advertise? To convert believers into no-believers? And what do we gain by swelling the ranks of atheists?

I know that organized religion has its problems. I get that. I also know that religious groups of all kinds do an enormous amount of good work, and sure, they don't have an exclusive on doing good deeds. Once again, I'm certain that you don't have to show proof of religious affiliation to help out at the local soup kitchen.

I don't want to get all Rodney King here but jeez: can't we all just get along?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

You can't make this stuff up. Well, you can ... but in this case, I didn't.

A few months ago I commented about the upcoming World Business Forum and the eclectic (not really) lineup of business luminaries they'd assembled for their upcoming conference. The list of speakers included economists, business titans, artists and politicians...and one Olympic gold medal winner: Michael Phelps, giving a presentation titled "High Performance."

On the heels of this announcement came the news of Phelps' puff heard round the world and the subsequent reaction to it.

Well, the update is that the lineup has been slightly changed. I received a new mailing about the program, including a limited "Buy 1, Get 1 Free" offer and reviewed the speakers again. Surprise! No more Michael Phelps. I suppose he is now otherwise occupied in early October, or perhaps had a previous obligation come up, or maybe the people putting the conference had second thoughts. (I think it's that last one.)

Couple of thoughts: Our economy is truly in dire straits if something as prestigious as the World Business Forum begins offering 50% off tickets four months before the event takes place. It's likely that large media and investment companies supported this gathering in a big way in the past, possibly by sending some of their most valuable employees to it. I can see this type of expense being cut from a budget when someone in accounting starts reviewing then cutting expenses line by line.

And I don't know where you stand on the Phelps pot violation - maybe no where and you've long forgotten the headlines - but I have to hand it to HSM and the World Business Forum. Someone there was paying attention to ethics. And respectability. Someone decided that having Phelps deliver a combination "positive thinking" + "motivational speaker" message titled High Performance was just too much irony to bear, even for the well-heeled, cosmopolitan audience that will fill Rockefeller Center this fall.

Let's face it: Phelps filled the spot left open for the "star of the moment" for this year's event. How else could you explain having him appear on the same program as President Clinton, T. Boone Pickens, Jack Welch, Paul Krugman, Gary Hamel and Jeffrey Sachs? He was there to give the "you can do it, too" message that, in my view, is so specious it's painful.

So I say: good for you, World Business Forum. Phelps will most likely go on to additional glory in the athletic world, assuming he works out the party boy aspects of his life, at least while he's training and competing. But your program is undiminished by his absence. You can get back to your flavor of the month, 'positive thinking' speaker in time for next year. A new version of Susan Boyle should come along any day now.

Friday, June 12, 2009

How to spell "you're inadequate" with just four letters.

I know exactly what’s wrong with this country and exactly how we’ve gone down the financial path to ruin. Exactly. I’ve thought about this before (and touched on it from time to time) but last night it became more than just a notion to me: it became the absolute truth. Here it is, in four little letters: HGTV.

With all good intentions – doesn’t everyone always have only the best intentions? - HGTV has led us down the path of more, bigger, newer, and shinier? All in the name of surrounding ourselves with a living space that’s truly worthy of us? Don’t we all deserve it?

I watch way too much HGTV. I admit it. I love the makeovers and the creative solutions and the interesting decorating ideas but unlike a lot of people who have made astonishingly bad financial decisions based on dreams and wanting more than their share of the dream than they could possibly afford, I have the common sense God gave a flea. HGTV is about as real as my hair color. And that hasn’t been completely real and true for at least ten years, probably longer.

To me, the biggest offender, the biggest 30-minute version of “all this can be yours” is their show called House Hunters. (I’m not even going to touch House Hunters International which features lovely couples searching for the perfect second home abroad. Charming .) No, the domestic version of House Hunters is aggravating enough.

I must have been born too long ago. Because I simply can’t relate to the following reactions that took place in a recent episode of the show. They should change the name to Entitled House Hunters because it more clearly describes the action.

Here you go: a young couple – I’m guessing they were in their late twenties – are searching for the perfect home, in their very perfect price range of $525,000. Yes, more than half a million dollars. I’m not kidding. Not only did they have the ability to purchase a home for half a million bucks, they had the nerve to complain about the kitchen and bathrooms looking a bit “outdated” and the paint on the living room walls needing to be changed. They hated green! How could they move into a home that had walls painted green?? (The man pointed out that at an asking price of $515,000, they would have some money left over to play with; money that would help make everything more perfect for them should they make an offer. That’s very comforting, isn’t it? )

In the second home they visited, the back yard wasn’t landscaped quite as nicely as they had hoped for either. It wasn’t nearly as private as they wanted it to be. Landscaping. Please. Landscaping. Once again, I can barely relate, and I’m pretty far out of my twenties. In my twenties, I didn’t know what a boxwood was and couldn’t have cared less about knowing. Then again, this is why my backyard still doesn’t look quite the showplace I envisioned 18 years ago. Someday…just not now.

By the time they took a look at home #3 (they always choose from three on the show), I had stopped listening. I was disgusted with their attitude. God only knows what wasn’t right about the third house. Maybe the front door didn’t have the right kind of handle. How could they live with the wrong handle on the front door? Or maybe the fireplace had the wrong kind of mantle. What in the world would they do with a painted wood mantle?

Once again, I must be getting really, really old. I don’t begrudge people what they’ve earned – I really don’t. But programs like House Hunters, that repeatedly shows people whining and complaining about things like the too-small master bath, the cramped extra bedroom, the oak cabinets in the kitchen when they really wanted cherry, the wall-to-wall carpet in the dining room placed over perfectly good hardwood floors, the laundry room that doesn’t have enough space, the bonus room that won’t quite hold their pool table….this is just nuts.

So where does that leave us? The banks and the government and financial planners tell us to be logical and thrifty. Networks like HGTV offers a program that centers around people who covet only the best and look disgusted with homes that cost $515,000. Which one do you think most people will listen to?

Me too.

Monday, June 08, 2009

I'm some kind of magnet that attracts insecure loudmouths. I really am.

There’s something about sitting in an airport terminal, particularly when I’m delayed and stuck for hours in a place I’d prefer to leave, that ends up with me hating the world and every single person in it.

There’s usually a Supermom Working Parent sitting near me, carrying on some kind of superior conversation with some poor victim she has trapped in her web. In no particular order, I’ve heard these women cover the following topics: how amazing and wonderful it is to live and work in Manhattan; how amazing and wonderful her children are, particularly since neither of them (of course she has a boy and a girl – how perfect, right?) has ever so much as touched a video game remote control and would have no idea what to do with one if they had.

She then moves on to the fact that her family rarely watches anything as mindless as television – and when they do, they watch independent films together and generally find time to discuss them afterward. Of course they do. How could people as brilliant as they be engaged by anything else?

She usually finds time to describe her charming but smallish apartment on the Upper West Side but justifies it by saying: who needs another closet? Isn’t it preferable that the kids are growing up in the greatest city on the planet and aren’t we so much more than our possessions, anyway? Sure, we are; that's a wonderful attitude. That’s just great. So is a closet of your own. Must they be mutually exclusive? And if living in the city is so spectacular, why do all those people hop on Metro North at the end of every day? To go home and open up their closet doors? I don’t think so. I think maybe a patch of green they call their own factors into that trip every day.

On my latest trip, I was stuck near a Super Working Mom who shared her marvelous life story with a man originally from India. After enduring her lecture with enormous good cheer and more patience than I would have in seven lifetimes, he described his early life – in a much more low key way – and told her he grew up with his parents and six siblings in a home that consisted of three rooms: a living room, a kitchen and a bedroom. Now, believe it or not, she could relate to that. They were clearly of likes minds when it came to possessions. I don’t remember him saying this was some kind of statement his parents were making about doing more with less and connecting with things that really matter; things like IFC and competitive chess championships. In fact, I’m pretty positive the home around him as a child was all his family could hope for at that point in his life. And by the way, he doesn't live like that now with his own family.

I also found myself literally trapped on a plane directly behind or directly in front of the Super Business Woman who feels like she has to justify how brilliant and important she is. It becomes a contest between her and her conversation victim: who’s travelled where and why and how often, who knows more about a particular client, who is clearly indispensable when it comes to managing her business.

This makes me INSANE. I don’t understand people who feel the need to download their very special, very amazing, very admirable and indulgent lives to perfect strangers in a terminal lounge or in an airplane. PLEASE! Not one of us cares. Not one of us.

But I do have a few headlines for these women:
1. You’re not the only working mother on the planet. You’re really not. Millions of us have children who are just as brilliant, just as amazing, just as gifted as your own. They are talented, unique and loving. We just choose not to lecture strangers about them or about how amazing our own parenting skills are. How we’re just so enlightened. So insightful. SHUT UP! You’re just not all that special.

2. We all have work stories. We just don’t shout them from Row 9 in a plane. Not all of us feel compelled to talk about who we met, what we do or how we’re so creative and critical to the business at hand.

3. Ummmm…when you mention that your daughter is riding in a horse show tomorrow, we all get it: you’re rich. We get it. No doubt your darling is an amazing horsewoman; just amazing. So go watch her ride for god’s sake and leave the rest of us out of it.

I know this sounds incredibly bitter. Maybe it is. I just don’t understand this kind of communication. When I sit down in a plane, this is what I say to the person sitting next to me: “Hello.” I’m not kidding. That’s it. I very, very rarely engage in a personal way. I can’t understand people who do.

I think airlines would make a lot more money with one small change to their terminals and flights. If they had a silent section in the terminal, I'd go out of my way to sit there. If they offered silent flights, I'd take them, even if it meant a slightly longer trip. It would be worth it.

But it takes all kinds, right? Sure it does. I just don’t understand why they always congregate around me.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Who knew? I'm hip.

I would have never guessed it but it turns out, I'm hip. At least as hip as today's teenagers.

Let me back up for a minute. I hug people. I hug people I know, I hug people I kind of know a little bit, I sometimes hug people I barely know. I'm not kidding. I even remind people about it even when we're not together. Ask anyone in my personal life who receives an email from me. My closing? Hugs.

I grew up with hugs and thank God for it. I can't imagine being hug-free but the boys have told me they have friends whose parents do not hug them. Is that the saddest thing ever? Yes, it is.

Sure, there are a few circumstances that warrant a handshake. I can handle that; I'm not completely off the rails about this. But in casual or in friendly business settings, I hug. No question, no hesitation.

I've always hugged my kids. Even now, when my three boys are 19, 18 and 18, I hug them daily. Several times a day, really. When we're home, when we're not home - doesn't matter. And they must have picked up at least some of their own hugging habits from me: One of my twins just won an award for giving the best hugs from the Performing Arts Club at school.

I hug my boys - and always will - and I hug their friends. Even not seeing their friends for a year at a time doesn't stop me. I run into them or they stop by the house and there I am: opening my arms to give hugs.

The thing is, they give them back. Which brings me to the topic at hand: teenagers and hugging. According to an article in The New York Times, teenagers from coast to coast are abandoning the high five for a hug. (The high five, the fist bump and other points of contact have evolved into a prelude to the hug. And there are several kinds, including the kind of hugs young men give each other.)

The article offered ideas about why today's teenagers have become so hug-friendly. Theory: This generation was raised with all kinds of parental involvement - remember the inexplicable and truly yuppie-authored activity called "playdates?" Please. As they grow up - free of parents hovering and planning and monitoring every move they make - they feel free to hug and be hugged. And good for them.

Theory: they are so heavily cyber-connected that they take any opportunity they can to reach out and hug someone. Maybe. I don't know. I suppose if the internet can claim credit for elevating the role of hugs for an entire generation, it can't truly be the end of western civilization as I usually contend.

The article also claims parents are "baffled" by this behavior. Baffled? About hugs? What's hard to understand? For God's sake, hugs are nice. They're friendly and warm and welcoming. They say so much with so little.

The only thing that baffles me about the article I read were the schools and administrators who "ban" hugging in their hallways. It's all in an effort to "maintain an atmosphere of academic seriousness and prevent unwanted touching, or even groping." Groping??? Is that a synonym for hugging?

For God's sake. This is why adults are ridiculous. We make (understandable) rules about violence in our schools and we make rules about expressing friendship with non-romantic hugs in our hallways. That's super.

No wonder kids think we're clueless.