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Archive for November, 2012|Monthly archive page

Nov. 14, New York City: Malled event!

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, Media, Technology, work on November 10, 2012 at 12:06 am

The final frontier — Manhattan!

My book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” was published April 2011 in hardcover and July 2012 in paperback, but my first-ever event in New York City is November 14, presenting with three other authors at a mediabistro evening.

I’m glad to finally have a chance to present the book in NYC, as it’s virtually impossible to get a bookstore or other event there unless you’re a Big Celebrity; 100 authors (!) asked to be chosen for this event, so those odds give you some idea what we’re up against!

The Stand

228 Third Avenue, between 19th and 20th.

6:30 to 8:30p.m.

Few Broadside readers live close enough to stop by, but if you do, I hope you’ll come out!

I’ve been doing a lot of public events in the past few months: The Decatur, Georgia Literary Festival; speaking to 200 retail students and retailers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; speaking locally to two women’s clubs.

I love meeting readers and potential readers. We all shop and many of us have worked, or are working, in retail, so it’s a subject we can all easily relate to. Retail and foodservice, part-time jobs with no benefits and very low wages, are the two largest sources of new jobs in the U.S.’s still-struggling economy.

“Malled” offers several important stories:

It’s my own story of losing a well-paid staff job, at the New York Daily News, in July 2006 — returning to freelancing — and watching my income plummet to barely one-quarter of my former salary, like many people in the recession.

It’s the story of what it’s like to, even part-time, shift careers from a respected and intellectually-challenging role as a writer to a low-wage hourly worker whose every move is captured on security cameras.

It’s the story of dozens of retail associates around the country, some earning excellent money on commission to a woman in her 50s, with a shiny new master’s degree, making $7.25/hour at a department store in North Carolina.

It’s also the story of how a global supply chain puts workers’ lives and health at risk, like the 30,000 workers in Shenzhen, China who make electronics for Apple, Nokia, Samsung and others; as I was writing the book, 17 workers at Foxconn committed suicide, so appalling were their pay and working conditions; this link is to Wired magazine.

On Black Friday, 2008, on Long Island, a worker who opened the doors to impatient shoppers was trampled to death. His story is in “Malled” as well.

Here’s a sample of the book.

If you buy a print version and would like me to sign it to you or someone else as a gift, email me and I can share my mailing address; it’s also available as an e-book, of course.

I’d really appreciate it if you’d help spread the word about this the event and the book — blogging, Facebook, Tweets. We also have a Malled FB page with timely, updated retail-related stories.

Thanks!

Hating the poor will not make you rich

In behavior, culture, life, Money, news, parenting, politics, religion, urban life, US on November 9, 2012 at 2:20 pm
Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Stained glass at St John the Baptist’s Anglican Church http://www.stjohnsashfield.org.au, Ashfield, New South Wales. Illustrates Jesus’ description of himself “I am the Good Shepherd” (from the Gospel of John, chapter 10, verse 11). This version of the image shows the detail of his face. The memorial window is also captioned: “To the Glory of God and in Loving Memory of William Wright. Died 6th November, 1932. Aged 70 Yrs.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are several strains in the American worldview I find, even after 24 years living here, confusing and wearying.

There is the persistent narrative that government is bad, that self-reliance is good and that no one who needs government help — other than victims of natural disasters — really deserves it. If they were just smarter/harder-working/thriftier/better educated, they’d be fine.

The self-righteousness is pervasive and ugly.

I get it. My first book, which looked at guns in American women’s lives, included interviews with many women who own guns, some of which they use for hunting, for sport and for self-protection. In speaking with 104 men, women and teens of every income level from 29 states, I came away with a much clearer understanding why 45 percent (then “only” 30 percent) of American homes contain a firearm.

This is a nation predicated on the belief that everyone is responsible for themselves.

This is, (and this is the confusing bit), also one of the most overtly religious nations on earth — the percentage of those “churched” is much higher than England or my native Canada. This is a nation where some people proudly, loudly and routinely boast that they are God-fearing Christians, while sneering at the poor and weak, something Christ would have difficulty with.

Here’s an interesting link discussing seven current trends in American church-going.

I’ve seen extreme wealth and extreme poverty here.

Yet, in today’s deeply divided nation, as Romney and his supporters lick their wounds and Obama and his staff prepare for his second term, the rich rarely — if ever — encounter the poor. They remain some weird, distant abstraction, nothing they or their children will ever encounter or experience.

Until its fury erupts within their circle, like the New York City nanny who recently slit the throats of two of the three children she was caring for, commuting from her difficult life in the Bronx. She was, she told police, tired of being told what to do and wanted to earn more money.

The middle class, however you define it, is terrified of falling into poverty. It’s so much easier to hate the poor and struggling than face the reality you are them or soon to be.

The middle class has been told, from birth, that if you just work really hard and go to college and get a degree, and then get another, and maybe another, you too can become wealthy. For some, yes. For many others, who can’t even find any job right now, that ever-receding horizon is starting to look unattainable.

So much easier to look down in terror and disdain than cease gazing up at the private-jet set with awe and envy.

I recently watched a new documentary, “Set For Life” that’s making the rounds of film festivals in the U.S., about workers over the age of 50 out of work, and the struggles they face in this recession. It is sobering, and depressing, made by a recent Columbia University grad named Susan Sipprelle.

I have mixed feelings about this intractable divide, one that is only growing.

I was a Big Sister in the late 90s for 18 months, mentoring a 13-year-old girl living a 10-minute drive east of me in my suburban New York county. I had never, in the U.S., confronted poverty firsthand or known someone personally in its grip.

My time with C was instructive, and ultimately left me less reflexively liberal. I liked her, and admired her grit and humor. She was fun and a loving, affectionate girl. But her family’s behaviors, attitudes and expectations — even with four tax-payer supported workers helping them — horrified me and I struggled to make sense of them. Her mother had simply disappeared for five years, and showed up a week after C and I were matched. I’d feed C fresh vegetables at my apartment, or take her to the library, while her mother — a decade younger than I — watched TV in the basement night and day.

I tried, writing a five-page single-space letter pleading her case, to get C a scholarship to a local private school, where if she boarded, would have offered her a respite from the shouting, filth, junk food and three-generation welfare dependency of her family.

She never showed up for her tryout day at school. I never heard from her, her family or Big Sisters again. I still wonder how she is doing.

In my retail job, I served some of the nation’s wealthiest men and women, in their triple-ply cashmere and five-carat diamond rings. The one word they never hear, the one that makes them recoil in shock and disbelief? “No.” It took me a while to realize that money buys you a lot of agreement: your nanny/au pair/personal trainer/driver/SAT tutor/assistant(s)/maids/staff/employees are unlikely to ever argue with you or deny you your every whim.

Their world is a shiny, pretty, insular one, where material success safely brands you as a winner, a member of the tribe.

They often spoke to us low-wage, part-time, no-benefit hourly workers slowly in words of one syllable. They leaned over the counter as we entered their addresses, certain we couldn’t possibly know how to spell. One man (not in our store) threw a quarter behind him as he left, sneering: “Go to college!”

Everyone in our staff of 15 had. Two were military veterans.

Several different Americas went into the voting booth this week, their mutual incomprehension unmitigated by billions of dollars spent on attack ads, “informed” by Fox News or NPR, but rarely both.

The side that lost is apoplectic, crying foul, red-faced with rage. Romney cut off his workers’ credit cards immediately.

Obama, speaking to his campaign workers, wept openly with pride and gratitude.

Obama wins again — plutocrats and misogynists sulk

In behavior, life, news, politics, US on November 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm
English: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clint...

English: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama stand with Honoree Sonia Pierre of the Dominican Republic at the 2010 International Women of Courage Awards at the U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C. March 10, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s so annoying when $300 million just won’t buy you the President you want.

From The New York Times:

At the private air terminal at Logan Airport in Boston early Wednesday, men in unwrinkled suits sank into plush leather chairs as they waited to board Gulfstream jets, trading consolations over Mitt Romney’s loss the day before.

“All I can say is the American people have spoken,” said Kenneth Langone, the founder of Home Depot and one of Mr. Romney’s top fund-raisers, briskly plucking off his hat and settling into a couch.

The biggest single donor in political history, the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, mingled with other Romney backers at a postelection breakfast, fresh off a large gamble gone bad. Of the eight candidates he supported with tens of millions of dollars in contributions to “super PACs,” none were victorious on Tuesday.

Not to mention all those nasty wimmin.

From Gawker, quoting from The Christian Men’s Defense Network, whose words I have put in boldface:

[O]n radio ads, on TV, and on the web, the Democrats tried to make this election about a single issue: The right to slut.

Or more precisely, the right to slut without the responsibility of consequences. The famous “gender gap” isn’t really a gap based on gender. The right overwhelmingly wins older and married women. The “gender gap” should more accurately be called the slut vote.

“Instead, we are looking at four more years of skyrocketing debt, stifling regulation, and the only First Lady who could possibly be bitchy enough to make Hillary Clinton look feminine.”

There is a small, nondescript building – indistinguishable in appearance from its neighbors – somewhere in the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Within that building there is a room. Within that room there is a trapdoor leading to a smaller room, and in that subsequent room, resting in cold storage, there are no fewer than 17 First Ladies bitchy enough to make Hillary Clinton look feminine. Every one of them is a monstrous lesbian. One of them has silver eyes. Silver eyes! When she wakes, the world will burn.

“Women make up about 54% of the electorate. It is very hard to win without winning that segment, or at least losing it only narrowly while winning men big.”

A popular misconception. Women make up only about .0001% of the electorate. Did you know there are only 17 women in America? Through a complicated system of levers, pulleys, and elaborate hats, they are able to appear far greater in number.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of relief that millions of us felt when Obama won re-election. Yes, the economy still stinks and millions are still struggling hard to find a job or keep one or keep their homes. He has a lot of very hard work to do to pull the poor and middle class up the ladder, and I’m not sure what he can do. Every time a political candidate promises to create millions of jobs, I think — really? How? The government is already broke and corporations are sitting on record profits and refusing to hire.

The people who voted for Obama are young, female — and poor; 63 percent of those with incomes below $30,000 chose Obama.

No one who is struggling can see themself in Mitt Romney or his wife. Obama grew up never knowing his father and was a community organizer, dedicating himself early to helping others. Not, as Romney did at Bain Capital, helping others get richer.

The Republicans may now realize that playing with the word “rape” as two defeated candidates did, is political suicide. One suggested there is such a notion as “legitimate rape” and another felt that any resulting pregnancy was God’s will and must be carried to term.

Women vote. Women sneered at and dismissed and treated as political footballs notice.

The most powerful moment of election night, for me, were two brief glimpses of Romney’s supporters — white men in khakis — and Obama’s, a crowd of men and women of all colors and ages and sexual preferences. This is America today.

Also from Gawker:

Increasingly, the message in America is clear: If your organization or project is a myopic den of white homogeneity, or if your strategy for success includes trying to gin up fear around people who are different, you are destined for irrelevance, and nobody will care how rich you are, or who your daddy is, or at what ivy-draped liberal arts school you cut your perfect teeth. Those who haven’t learned that lesson are mocked, shunned, or, worse, totally ignored. Either way, they don’t win elections.

If you’d like to follow the Republican example and turn your nose up at diversity and bridge-building between races, genders, and creeds, more power to you. It is, as the call of children and patriots alike says, a free country. But don’t be surprised when you end up like Romney in his final moment last night: red-eyed, tired, dizzy, and congratulating the black guy who just beat him at his own game.

Huge snowstorm now hitting New York area. Enough already!

In behavior, cities, domestic life, life, nature, news, urban life, US, Weather on November 8, 2012 at 2:16 am

It’s hard to make this up….with tens of thousands

New York City in Winter (NASA, International S...

New York City in Winter (NASA, International Space Station, 01/09/11) (Photo credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center)

of New York and New Jersey residents already suffering after Hurricane Sandy without heat, light or even a home, we’re now in the midst of a huge snowstorm with high winds. I just measured five inches of snow on my sixth-floor suburban balcony, so thick and deep I could barely shove the door open against it.

My husband, again, is staying in Manhattan at a hotel (paid for by his employer, The New York Times) but this time sharing a room with his co-worker of four years, whose own wife is now huddling in a small studio apartment with her own daughter because she has no heat or light.

The euphoria (for some of us) of last night’s win by Barack Obama is now tempered by the freezing, windy, snowy reality of a closed railroad on Long Island and a closed highway there as well.

I’m lucky, right now, to have heat and light and a generator for our building. I know and like my neighbors. I made a huge roast chicken and vegetables tonight and baked banana bread and painted bookshelves, oddly grateful to be snowbound….as a native Canadian, I miss snowstorms and their silent aftermath.

I stocked up today with dozens of batteries for the radio; have multiple flashlights and candles and plenty of food and water in the apartment.

But I’m not pregnant or old or frail or ill or caring for small children, as many others are here tonight, some of them huddled in three layers of clothes and four layers of blankets in their dark and cold homes.

Please say a prayer for them!

The comfort of community

In aging, behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, family, life, love, religion, urban life, US on November 7, 2012 at 2:52 pm
English: Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881, ...

English: Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881, Pierre-Auguste Renoir) housed in The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This past weekend, shaken by the hurricane and our renewed sense of vulnerability — knowing the next power outage is inevitable — Jose and I instinctively went to be, in person and face to face, hug to reaffirming hug, with two of our long-time communities.

They are certainly distinctly American: softball and church.

I started playing co-ed softball about a decade ago, on a suburban park field in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, joining a group of men and women, ranging from their 20s to over 70. It was founded by Jon, who then worked for the commuter railroad, and who soon adopted two small children, a Chinese girl and a tow-headed boy named Dakota, who used to sit in their strollers behind the batting cage.

The years since then have been a parade of deepening friendships. When Ed’s Dad died, we drove into the city to attend his wake, much of it in Spanish. When CJ fell and shattered his leg, Marty, an orthopedic surgeon who also plays with us, was able to do a quick, if sobering on-field diagnosis. When I went onto the DL list in November 2009, unable to play for the next three years with a damaged left hip (fully replaced Feb. 6, 2012), I kept coming out for after-game lunches to stay in touch with this group I love so well.

At lunch last week, as one of only two women among 20+ men, I felt — as I always do — completely at home, teasing Sky, the handsome young man sitting to my left who’s become a personal trainer, with his Mom, a newly retired teacher, sitting to my right. We now feel like family, laughing and teasing and hugging. Ed, a tall, thin lawyer my age, has the same last name as Jose, so I call him “el otro Lopez.”

In an era of almost constant job and financial insecurity, some of us shifting careers in our 50s or beyond, having a group of people who love you, sweaty and dirty, injured or healthy, employed or not, is a wonderful thing.

Here’s part of an essay I wrote about them for The New York Times:

One unspoken rule of Softball Lite is that men don’t help the women — who usually make up roughly a third of about 20 players each time — or tell them what to do. We know what to do, and after a few games, our teammates know and trust our skills as well. If we goof up, well, it’s not fatal and we’re quite aware that we goofed. I usually play second base, and I didn’t appreciate one new male player who marked a spot in the dust and told me where to stand.

Off the field, too, we cherish our longstanding ties. When one player had a multiple organ transplant and spent many long months in the hospital, teammates went to visit. (He’s now back to running the bases full tilt.) We’ve attended friends’ parents’ wakes, celebrated their engagements and weddings, applauded their concerts.

And, after every game, a group heads to a cafe where — like some sweaty version of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” — we gather green metal tables in the shade of a spreading tree, with stunning views of the Hudson River, and settle in for lunch.

We’ve watched Jon’s kids grow from toddlers to grade schoolers and cheered when Joe’s author made the best-seller list.

Jobs and homes and friendships have come and gone.

It’s said that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. This dusty little one is mine.

The other place we went back to, after about a six month absence, is our church, St. Barnabas in Irvington, NY

I rarely blog about religion because it can be such a divisive issue; I’m Episcopalian (Anglican) but not super-religious, another reason I don’t blog about it. I began going there in 1998 after I became the unwitting victim of a con artist, a man I dated, a convicted felon whose predatory behavior terrified me.

His ability to so effectively dominate me psychologically proved to me how terribly lonely, isolated and lacking in self-confidence I had become, allowing him access to me, my home and my property. He stole a credit card of mine, forged my signature and committed other crimes — but the police and district attorney were derisive and dismissive, making me feel even more alone and scared.

I needed to repair my fully broken spirit. Two of the women I met my first week at church, Niki and Barbara, married women a bit older than I, are still friends. We’re still in touch, years after they have moved away, with our former minister and one of his assistants.

On our visit back this week, I was worried we might be snubbed for having been away for so long, but people were lovely. One older man, much more hunched over his cane than we had ever seen him, stopped me to say, with joy: “You’re walking so well!” They had seen me suffer 24/7 pain for 3 years with my damaged hip, on crutches for three months to relieve it, seen me through three prior surgeries.

I congratulated one woman on a 60-pound weight loss, saw another get baptized and heard about a friend’s move.

They knew me single, knew me when dating and living with Jose, and know and value us now as a married couple. We were asked to carry the elements — the Communion wine and wafers — down the aisle in their gleaming silver containers, cold to the touch. I feel deeply honored to be, however briefly, a part of the service, and in such an essential way.

Jose and I are not much like our fellow parishioners, many of whom are wealthy and live in large houses, the women staying home to raise multiple children, when we have none. But his parents are decades in their graves; his two sisters live far away and my father is a 10-hour drive north in Canada.

Like all of us, we need to know we are appreciated!

And, while I obviously value on-line connections, I most crave being in a room with people I know.

It is deeply comforting, especially in times of such fear and insecurity, to be known, loved and accepted by community.

Where  — in person — are you finding this sort of community in your life now?

Which America will we choose today?

In behavior, History, life, news, politics, US on November 6, 2012 at 12:03 am
100 highest counties by median household income

100 highest counties by median household income (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 2008, I went with Jose to vote.

We went to a nearby local synagogue where the voting machines were set up, and a neighbor was overseeing it. I went into the voting booth with Jose and watched him vote for Obama, and I burst into tears of excitement and, yes, hope.

I was still working my retail job then, at a suburban mall, for The North Face, and all day long there was a tremendous, palpable sense of excitement. We asked every customer: “Have you voted yet?” Our managers kept checking the internet all day long to see the results.

This year, with the race neck-and-neck, I fear mightily for the result…and with the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy, voting is physically impossible for many residents of New York and New Jersey.

On Sunday, The New York Times wrote a light-hearted story about how Americans always threaten to move to more-liberal Canada if the Republican candidate wins.

As a Canadian, I have another country I could move to only a 90-minute flight away, one filled with family and old friends and which, if we really tried hard, we could probably both find jobs. But it’s never that simple.

And Europeans are watching this election cycle with some dismay as well.

Columnist Simon Kuper, writing in the Financial Times:

In politics and economics, we diverged spectacularly. George W. Bush introduced a peculiarly non-European evangelical Christianity into presidential politics. He landed Europeans in two wars that we ended up regretting. He shattered the belief that western countries stood together for human rights. Our mutual trade waned: in the decade to 2007, even before the economic crisis, the share of the European Union’s imports coming from the US halved to just 12 per cent.

Meanwhile, as money flooded American politics like never before, US elections came to provide Europeans with an alien spectacle of plutocrats fighting aristocrats. Here’s a typical line from The Economist, about Pennsylvania’s senate race: “Though Mr Casey is the son of a popular former governor, Mr Smith has vowed to spend millions of dollars of his own fortune on the campaign, lashing Mr Casey …”About $5.8bn will be spent nationwide in these elections, says the Center for Responsive Politics. By contrast, as David Cameron noted recently on the Late Show with David Letterman, British political parties cannot even advertise on TV.

One of the issues that Hurricane Sandy laid bare is the extraordinary and growing divide between rich and poor in the United States. Note: I’ve added the boldface.

From The New York Times:

The rich got richer and the poor got poorer in New York City last year as the poverty rate reached its highest point in more than a decade, and the income gap in Manhattan, already wider than almost anywhere else in the country, rivaled disparities in sub-Saharan Africa…

“To see the poverty rate jump almost a full percentage point is not a good sign,” said David R. Jones, the president of the Community Service Society of New York, an antipoverty advocacy and research group. “We’re still seeing really high rates of unemployment, while jobs have been growing in an anemic way and the jobs that have been created are really low-wage.”

“These poverty numbers reflect a national challenge: the U.S. economy has shifted and too many people are getting left behind without the skills they need to compete and succeed,” Samantha Levine, the mayor’s deputy press secretary, said on Wednesday. “As President Clinton recently said, ‘The old economy is not coming back,’ and that’s why the mayor believes we need a new national approach to job creation and education, one that gives everyone a chance to rise up the economic ladder.”

Median household income in the city last year was $49,461, just below the national median and down $821 from the year before (compared with a national decline of $642). Median earnings for workers fell sharply to $32,210 from $33,287 — much more than the national decline.)

New Yorkers at the bottom end of the income spectrum lost ground, while those at the top gained.

Median income for the lowest fifth was $8,844, down $463 from 2010. For the highest, it was $223,285, up $1,919.

In Manhattan, the disparity was even starker. The lowest fifth made $9,681, while the highest took home $391,022. The wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites made more than 40 times what the lowest fifth reported, a widening gap (it was 38 times, the year before) surpassed by only a few developing countries, including Namibia and Sierra Leone.

Reading The New York Times, (Jose’s employer of 29 years, and for whom I write freelance), is a dizzying example of this split nation. On the news pages are horror stories of long-term unemployment and, now, a $50 billion economic loss from Hurricane Sandy — with a major cold front and storm due to arrive here in two days’ time, when thousands still have no light, heat or power in their homes.

Those who even have homes.

Yet, in the Sunday Times was a Macy’s ad for a $23,000 engagement ring and an editorial page offering second homes in Palm Springs, California, the cheapest of which (!) is over $1 million.

So, voters can choose Romney’s world, in which he knows people who own Nascar teams and, if you need money for college, you just borrow it from your parents.

Or you can re-choose Obama, whose performance could have been a lot better, but who, at least, has some clear understanding of, and compassion for, the weak and poor, the old and struggling.

When I hear Romney, with that weird, fake tight smile and his Mom jeans, tell us he’ll create millions of jobs, all I can think is — what a liar. He won’t have that kind of unadulterated power, no matter how sexy and comforting that sounds. He’ll kill Obamacare and, with it, plunge millions of desperate and terrified Americans back into the vicious maelstrom of trying to buy full-price healthcare on the open market.

There are two Americas now.

One is weak and very frightened: old, ill, poor, poorly educated, unable to afford re-training, who can’t afford the childcare to get to school or don’t have computers to train from home or don’t even speak English well enough or don’t have the right skills to do the higher-wage work they need to leave poverty behind. A quarter of American homes are “underwater”, worth less than their mortgages, un-sellable.

The middle class is sliding into poverty. Wages are stagnant and costs skyrocketing, especially food and gasoline, in a nation largely built for people who travel by private automobile. Millions, especially those over the age of 50, have been seeking a new job for more than a year.

The rich are set. They glide past us in their gleaming Escalades and Mercedes and Maseratis and Ferraris. They live in 20,000 square foot mansions and send their children to private schools — so who cares if the public schools are lousy? Not their problem! Their kids and grand-kids have trust funds and powerful connections with which to access the best jobs, tutored by $125/hour experts so their test scores will beat those of the kids who can’t possibly afford that sort of help, assuring them entry into the schools of their choice.

The poor, the middle class, the struggles of others — an annoying abstraction!

I spoke recently to a 1% crowd, at a library in Scarsdale, New York — where the median income is $250,000 and the median house price is $1.2 million. It’s a 30-minute drive from our town, in the same county, where the median income is about $80,000, double what it was when I moved here in 1989.

I spoke, with my usual passion, about my personal experience of moving from a highly-paid newspaper job, at 50, to $11/hr. selling overpriced clothing, part-time, in an upscale mall. I wrote a book about it. I also speak for millions of other low-wage workers in this economy, most of whom struggle mightily on pitiful wages.

And the two largest sources of new jobs in this divided United States? Retail and foodservice: low wages, part-time, no benefits, no raises, physically grueling and intellectually deadening.

“Even at $11/hour, they’re still jobs,” said one Scarsdale woman. Yes, they are.

Do you want one?

I didn’t ask her.

Which America do you want?

Which America will we get?

What do you see?

In beauty, behavior, culture, design, life, photography on November 4, 2012 at 1:03 am

Here is a lovely blog post from a young British man who keeps a limp yellow balloon as a reminder of a lost young man who needed his help — and who gave it to him. When he looks at the balloon, on the surface nothing more than a piece of yellow rubber, he sees connection, kindness, a reminder of the things he’s grateful for in his own life.

I love his clarity of vision — both rare and precious.

And here’s a great post by a feminist blogger deconstructing one of the most iconic photos of a man and woman kissing. Turns out it’s not at all what we thought — or hoped.

And here’s a recent post by labor activist Sara Ziff, whose organization represents the rights of models, arguing that the use of teen girls on the runway is a poor choice.

Not to mention, two huge and shocking scandals that have recently rocked the United States — the conviction and sentencing of Jerry Sandusky, a football coach who abused children in his care and the late Jimmy Savile, a beloved BBC entertainer, now accused by 300 adults of abusing them when he was also a popular figure, like Sandusky — whose public facade was a deep devotion to the care and welfare of children.

We see what we want to see.

The other day, my husband came upstairs from the laundry room and burst into tears. A proud and private Hispanic man, he very rarely cries. Typically, he began apologizing for his emotional reaction to what he had just seen — one of our neighbors, a retired single woman fighting multiple cancers. Normally gruff and private, she was staggering along the hallway with a friend, clearly weak, in pain and scared.

Jose saw it all.

It’s one of the reasons I love him. He is a career photographer and photo editor, so his talent, and profession, is observation and analysis. But it’s much more than that. He sees the person inside the clothes, the fear inside the bravado, the doubt beneath the smile.

I live in a suburb of New York, in a small town that, to my eye, is bursting with beauty: a red brick concert hall built in 1885; wrought iron fences, cupolas, wisteria, a view straight up the Hudson River, one often shrouded by fog or mist or snow or rain. Every day that I live here, and that’s now more than 20 years, I am deeply grateful to live in a place with so much to delight my eye and lift my heart.

As I write this, a bouquet of crimson-tinged calla lilies, in a hand-made pot, sits on my desk. It’s curved, sensuous, lovely — and a reminder of my wedding day, because my bouquet contained those colors and those flowers. So in them I also see, and savor, a sweet moment from my past.

I’ve lived in Paris, London, Toronto, Montreal, Cuernavaca and a small town in New Hampshire. Each place had ugly bits and moments of deep, desperate unhappiness in my life.

But each also offered its own specific beauty, from the austere, gray elegance of Paris to Toronto’s enormous parks and ravines and the islands in its harbor to Lebanon’s white houses with dark green shutters. I have a photo I took on Green Street, there, of late afternoon sunlight gilding the telephone wires.

I was in the Times Square subway station recently and, for once, looked up at the stretch of round glass embedded in the ceiling that allows light in from the street above. It was a sunny day, and the shadows of those above created a moving, kinetic artwork, their bodies and their motion making a dancing, ever-changing light show — of glass and concrete. It was mesmerizing.

Beauty is everywhere.

So is need — for love, tenderness, warmth, compassion, connection.

We are, all of us, surrounded daily by loveliness, grace, wisdom, intelligence.

We are, all of us, surrounded daily by pain, fear, anger, depression, frustration.

We are, all of us, surrounded by tremendous material wealth — and grinding, terrifying poverty.

We are, all of us, living in a world tinged with mystery, magic, madness.

We are, all of us, surrounded by exquisite creation — the squirrel nibbling an acorn, the hawk circling overhead, the blue jay flashing through the pines, the mushroom clinging to a rotted log.

We are, all of us, sheltered nightly beneath a sky freckled by galaxies, mere pindots on the shoulder of the universe.

As you move through your world(s), what do you see?

Trick or treaters, sirens and gas shortages

In behavior, business, cities, domestic life, life, nature, news, politics, US, Weather on November 2, 2012 at 10:27 pm
Photo of a Halloween trick-or-treater, Redford...

Photo of a Halloween trick-or-treater, Redford, Michigan, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I write this — sitting on a friend’s sofa who has power and wi-fi — I hear two sounds, the wailing of sirens and the calls of little kids out trick or treating in their Hallowe’en costumes.

But I also heard a third lovely sound, the rumble of the commuter train once more heading north.

Life post-Sandy is weird indeed.

I went out today for a business lunch and had a great three-hour meeting with a potentially really interesting and valuable client. The restaurant was full, the lights on, the music playing, the food delicious.

Then it took me 30 minutes to drive back to my town, normally about a 10 minute journey, because the line-ups for the very few gas stations that are open right now stretch for miles.

The New York City marathon got cancelled today, the idea of starting the race on Staten Island — where they are still digging bodies out of the rubble — too offensive for many people to stomach. From CBS News:

The New York City Marathon was canceled Friday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg after mounting criticism that this was not the time for a race while the region is still recovering from superstorm Sandy.

With people in storm-ravaged areas still shivering without electricity and the death toll in New York City at more than 40, many New Yorkers recoiled at the prospect of police officers being assigned to protect a marathon on Sunday.

An estimated 40,000 runners from around the world had been expected to take part in the 26.2-mile event. The race had been scheduled to start in Staten Island, one of the hardest-hit areas by this week’s storm.

“We would not want a cloud to hang over the race or its participants, and so we have decided to cancel it,” the mayor said in a statement. “We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event — even one as meaningful as this — to distract attention away from all the critically important work that is being done to recover from the storm and get our city back on track.”

I read friends’ posts on-line and hear horrific tales: exploding cars, homes on Long Island and New Jersey utterly destroyed, people putting up old, ill family members in their tiny apartment, the sudden value of a camper’s headlamp for reading and getting safely around a darkened home. (We have two. Yay!)

The challenges now are:

1) stay warm, dry, bathed, fed, safe, connected; 2) making sure your vehicle has enough gas; 3) not driving to make sure the gas you have lasts; 4) checking up on neighbors to make sure they are OK and offering them whatever help you can that they need, from sharing your fridge to using your power and/or wi-fi.

What’s really interesting is how (we pray, oh, how we pray) this terrible disaster may also affect the Presidential election, which is scheduled for November 6, only a few days away. There is a video clip making the rounds of Mitt Romney saying how immoral FEMA is. Perfect!

FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

You’re right…what were we thinking? Disaster relief is for losers and government-dependent leeches, says dear Mittens.

It’s hard right now know what to focus on — work? friends? groceries? gas?

I’m still doing as much of my work as I can, checking in with clients and sources in Michigan, Minnesota, Georgia, Florida and Toronto. But it feels surreal and annoying to have to do any work at all when we all feel so disrupted and ill at ease.

Yet it’s good to be able to keep the machinery moving, to send an invoice and be able to deposit a check. My friend needs to find a new job and get some freelance work lined up and a week without Internet or power means another week of financial anxiety.

I hear a woman on her cellphone say: “I have no idea what time it is anymore. I feel like a cavewoman.”

I suspect there’s a lot of that right now.

Life in New York after Hurricane Sandy

In behavior, blogging, books, business, cars, cities, culture, journalism, life, Media, news, urban life, US, Weather on November 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm
Satellite imagery demonstrating the core of th...

Satellite imagery demonstrating the core of the New York City Metropolitan Area. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Welcome to an 18th century world.

One without electricity.

One in which –– like rural villagers shoving and pushing to reach a communal well for water –- strangers cluster around an extension cord snaking out of someone’s house who does have power. Every open public library is now a refugee camp, open early and open late, with every table and corner jammed with people clicking away on their laptops, notebooks and cell phones in a frenzy of collective, relieved connectivity.

I sit down this morning at the library, whose small parking lot is jammed as soon as it opens,  and the gray-haired bearded guy beside me is the same guy sitting at the other end of the table last night. I move to another spot and see a neighbor, a retired woman on my apartment floor, who has no power. Her neighbor across the hall does. The person below her has none.

It makes no sense.

And Americans are big on individual freedoms, not suddenly enforced intimacy or inter-reliance.

The world has changed and we’re not ready for it.

Today, one-third of the American workforce does not have an office, cubicle, staff job or steady paycheck. Many of us are now – willingly or not – entrepreneurs and freelancers, temps and contract workers. Like many others in today’s shaky economy, without access to power and Wi-Fi, I can’t earn a living.

Most of us, certainly in urban areas, no longer have kerosene or oil lanterns at home or fireplaces on which to cook or gain light and heat. If you do not have a backyard or firepit or grill, and can’t cook outdoors, you’re toast. People who rely on medications that need refrigeration are endangered.

Here, we live in cities and suburbs designed for automobile transportation — crippled without ready access to gasoline, oil and electricity. You can’t gas your car or bus if the gas station has no electric power, so there are now long line-ups at the few stations that are able to stay open.

It was reported yesterday that two children, ages two and four, were swept out of their mother’s arms during the storm, their bodies found in a marsh. Bangladesh? Somewhere in Africa?

 Staten Island, one of New York City’s five boroughs.

A politician wept as she heard the desperate pleas of victims there shouting: “Where is FEMA? Where’s the Red Cross?” The Red Cross has already received $11 million in donations to help Sandy’s victims.

In the 18th century world, you rise when you once again have natural light and it’s safe enough to venture outside. You go to sleep earlier, having dined (if you can) and read by candlelight. Like some earlier ancestor did, I placed tall candles in front of a mirror, to double and reflect their glow.

There is a generator – thankfully very much 21st century – grinding away below my apartment window. It gives our 100-apartment, six-story building enough power to use our elevators, offer heat and illuminate our long hallways. Luckily, our kitchen was one working outlet and we have a gas stove, so we can cook. We also, now, have heat; in former power outages, becoming “normal” here, we fled the freezing temperatures of February for a local hotel. No one repaid us the cost of two nights there.

We paid $80,000 to buy the generator last year, a cost every resident here is sharing.

The storm’s aftermath – scarcity, fear and frustration — naturally, brings out the best and worst in people. There are fist-fights, already, at gas stations because it gas is now a more difficult commodity to obtain and has suddenly jumped again in price as damaged oil refineries shut down. Other people are sharing their homes, food, shelter and kitchens with one another.

A six-outlet power strip is de facto helfpul. (I brought mine to the library.)

One immediately sees the divide between those with electric power – literally, the powerful – and those without. I was able to go to my regular salon and get a manicure this morning and enjoy an important business lunch at a local restaurant, depriving the original spot we’d originally chosen because – right beside the Hudson River –– they’re closed right now.

I’m lucky that my husband, Jose, is a former news photographer who has survived multiple hurricanes for work. He knew what to do. It was he who filled the car with gas (many stations now have no power, creating long lines at the two local ones that have it) and put it into the garage; bought dozens of bottles of water; stocked the fridge and freezer, lined the balcony door with plastic and towels in case it flooded or the glass shattered. (Neither happened.) He’s been in a hotel all week across from his office at The New York Times, working double shifts for colleagues who cannot get to work with most of the subway so badly damaged.

I toured our town yesterday, gasping in dismay at the shattered ancient trees, the smashed wooden and metal fences beneath them. A cabbie tells me the Hudson River rose so high that it has damaged the computers in the police station – which sits a good half-mile from the river’s edge.

 In the town just north of us, Ossining, a 40-foot sailboat sits on the train tracks where the commuter train normally ferries workers into Manhattan.

I was in Minneapolis, giving a speech to retail students and retailers at the University of Minnesota about my book Malled, when the storm hit New York. I never turned on the radio or television – but read Facebook – where my friends in New York and New Jersey posted photos and updates that told me everything I wanted to know.

The number of dead remains fairly low, now at 38, but some of these are tragic – like the person who stepped into water that held a loose electrical cable.

Jose will be home tomorrow, now that the trains are running north to our suburbs again.

Some people are calling Sandy the “storm of the century.”

I doubt it. We’re only 12 years into this century and, given the tremendous violence of weather patterns here in the past few years – drought, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires – I think this is our new normal.

We have no money for it. We have no infrastructure for it. We have no offices or homes or modes of transportation – horses? carts? canoes? – built for it. Doctors no longer make house calls.

We have no idea, or methods for, how to bathe and cook or wash clothes or offer medical care without electricity; Bellevue Hospital, a major downtown Manhattan facility, shut down and had to transfer all its patients.

From The New York Times:

Bellevue Hospital Center, New York City’s flagship public hospital and the premier trauma center in Manhattan, shut down Wednesday after fuel pumps for its backup power generators failed, and it worked into the night to evacuate the 300 patients left in its darkened building. There were 725 patients there when Hurricane Sandy hit.

At a news conference Wednesday night, Alan Aviles, the president of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs Bellevue, described third-world conditions, with no hot water, no lab or radiology services and pails of water hauled up the stairs to use for flushing toilets.

After pumping out 17 million gallons of water from the basement, the water is still two and a half feet deep in the cavernous basement where the fuel pumps apparently shorted out and became inoperable — unable to feed the 13th-floor backup generators, Mr. Aviles said.

Welcome to the 18th century.

Care to gavotte?

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