Tuesday, September 30, 2008

From my pocketbook to yours

So there is no deal. No bailout forthcoming. Republican lawmakers had their feelings bruised by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this morning and decided to vote against bestowing $700 billion of your money and my money on the financial market. Troubled financial institutions will now have the same options as the rest of us. Now we will all have front row seats to the apparently impending catastrophic crash of our economy and the subsequent ripples to be felt around the world.

I wont pretend to know anything about finance and business. I withdrew while failing Accounting II in college; the closest I came to business or finance in graduate school was the budget planning section of my thesis. What I do know is how much money my husband and I earn and how much it costs to educate our children, put gas in our car and food on our table, and keep a roof over our heads. The wrangling in Washington and the happenings on Wall Street seem very far removed from my supermarket bill.

While my husband (pro fat cat capitalist) thinks me a bit socialist in many respects, I believe the markets should take care of themselves. I don't believe the government has any business holding interest in financial companies. (How is this different from the Russian government taking over oil companies?) Risk is inherent in all investments. Bad choices should have unfavorable results. There will be no congressional cavalry if I invest heavily in a firewood production company in Key West, nor should there be. If I choose to buy Manolo Blahniks and Stuart Weitzmans rather than pay my bills, I will have my light and water cut off. If I buy a house or a car I cannot afford, then I, like every one else living beyond their means, am carrying water in a basket.

As Jamaicans say "donkey seh di worl' nuh level." Regular people don't get bail outs from financial crises; whether they are self-inflicted or caused by external circumstances - unemployment or predatory lending. It seems to me that the people who claim expertise and take responsibility for other people's money should be held to a higher standard. Makes no sense to me that the more you lose and the more people you screw the better off you are.

I want a bail out that goes straight to the vein, not "trickle down to the masses" like the one proposed. Can we use some of that $700 billion to reduce gas prices? That would result in lower food prices at my Shop-Rite. Can we use some of that $700 billion to pay teachers and improve our public school system? Then paying tuition for private schools would be more of a choice than a necessity. Can we use some of that $700 billion to provide basic healthcare for the thousands of uninsured children across the country? That way we could save on the much more that is spent on emergency and chronic care. Can we use some of that $700 billion to revitalize and bring commerce back to towns and neighbors devasted by outsourcing and closed factories? That would create jobs and increase spending. That makes sense to me and would make me feel better about having to pick up the tab.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

News from the battlefront

It was Working Mother (and Parenting, Cookie, Family Choice, et al.) magazine that first made me aware. The "who's better" battle between stay-at-home moms and career moms has apparently been smoldering outside the awareness of the larger public for some time. Were it not for the publications, books, television commentators and radio experts I would have been ignorant of it and vulnerable to a surprise attack. Thanks to the mag's keen insight I was made ready for onslaughts from breastfeeding playground moms with vegan, organic-only toddlers on their hips. I became aware of every judgmental leer from the velour-wearing set toward my suit and pumps. I became armed with all the arguments of choice, women's suffrage and equal rights and justice. I enlisted wholeheartedly in the war.

Now, I'd like an honorable discharge. My armor is heavy and my aim is no longer sure. I want to make my peace with moms who stay at home, moms who work from home, moms who go out to work, and dads who stay at home. I want to share ideas about what to make for lunch and how to get my kindergartner to sit still.

While I worked long days I struggled to get my toddler boys in bed by 9. My stay-at-home sister-in-law would tell me that her kids were long gone to sleep at that hour. I would grit my teeth and curse under my breath, "Of course, they are. You have nothing to do all day."

Even as my boys would sometimes come home with the gifts of daycare - colds, foul language, bad behaviors - I was quick to address any disdain for daycares by pointing to how independent, sociable and well-adjusted my sons are; particularly compared to my friends' children who stay at home and are clingy and afraid of their own shadow.

I groaned about the moms who spent an entire day at school to decorate for events. I criticized the clique that chatted and had coffee after they walked their children to class. I thought they needed to find something constructive to do with their time.

Then, because God had a keen sense of humor, I found myself at home on mommy duty. Nothing I learned working with cut-throat politicians, arrogant administrators or obnoxious reporters prepared me for this phase of my life. Some of the challenges are the same. My sons still get sick at school and I still feel helpless to do anything about it - even if I can get there sooner now. I also have some new challenges. I seem to have far fewer hours in the day, for one thing. Someone who balanced multiple projects and consistently met unreasonable deadlines, still scrambles to get dinner on the table before nightfall.

I understand now that the moms who have coffee together are just enjoying a few moments of adult company, which can be few and far between. Many who volunteer at school are looking for outlets for their talents that can lie dormant in the roles of wife and mother. In addition to our parenting challenges, there are personal questions we face. Women bear the brunt of these questions. Our lives - and therefore our career paths - are altered at conception. We, more than men, have to ask ourselves what sacrifices we are willing to make and what kind of mothers we want to be. If I choose parenthood over career will I be living up to my full potential? Will I regret the choice and resent my mate and children for it? If I ardently pursue a career will my children suffer for my ambition? Am I being a bad parent if I enlist strangers to care for my child? Is it possible to reach a harmonious balance or is that pursuit destined to end in failure and frustration?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Uman Fren

My grandmother, who has already outlived her four score and ten by 25 years, has always been opinionated and willing to set everyone right. She has always been particularly generous with her opinions with me. My skirts were too short and my nail polish too red (worse than Hezekiah's wife); I did not sew and refused to make my bed (however would I find a husband); I fraternized with the weed-smoking locals and I stayed out way too late (decent girls aren't out on the street after dark). She had her hands full with me.

In addition to dress hems and domestic skills, my grandmother often castigated me on the female friends who were always at my house or on the phone. As far as she is concerned it is inevitable that 'woman friends' will double cross you, share your secrets with the masses and steal your husband - if you ever learned to keep a good house and got one. Having gone to an all girls' high school and having been on the receiving end of some first class bitchiness, I am well aware of the meanness quotient of the fairer sex. I don't, however, share my grandmother's skepticism.

For every time my trust has been betrayed, there have been ten times when both my trust and my spirit have been held by a sister-friend. I have been fortunate to have in my life a small group of remarkable women friends. They held my hands through scary times, counseled me when I was stupid, had my back when I was in trouble, and sat up late with me as I cried. They were at or in my wedding. They are godmothers and aunties to my boys. They call my mother Mom and ask how my brothers are doing.

Whether I talk to them every day or catch up every few months with a two-hour phone call, they are inextricable parts of my life and I know I can call on them any time. I cannot imagine not having them in my life. That was confirmed for me recently when someone I know went through an emotionally traumatic period - made worse because she didn't have anyone she could turn to. I was extremely saddened at the dire, irrevocable consequences of her not having someone to hold her hand and offer her some sage advice. There is nothing like being able to fall apart with the knowledge that someone will be there to put the pieces back together. It is one of life's most wonderful blessings to hold a friend's hand through challenges and having her thank you when she comes out on the other side.

I understand that getting close to someone - male or female - makes me vulnerable to hurt. I think it's worth it. I know there is a great casual easiness about having male friends. I think the deep connection between women carries a value that cannot be replicated with guy friends. Friendships with women are strengthening, affirming and sustaining and make my life richer.

No denying, girlfriends come with emotional drama, some silliness, and the likely fall-out every now and again, but I would not trade anything in the world for my girls.

My grandmother may have lived to 95 without having close girlfriends, but that might explain why she's so crotchety.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Can't live without it

Recently I have been been able to reconnect with some old friends through a variety of networking websites. It has been great to overcome the obstacles of time, geography and name changes to catch up with classmates I have not seen or spoken to in 20 years. (Is that a gray hair I feel?) The internet and all its resultant tools - instant messaging, blogs, online photo albums and networking sites - allow us to live almost without boundaries. One of my closest friends lives in England. I have not seen her in years, but our relationship has blossomed over the years since we graduated from college I have been blessed by how we have been able to support each other through difficult times and really stay engaged in each other's life - in large part, thanks to the internet.

GPS units now make it possible that you're never a stranger in any town. Smart phones now put emails, websites and turn-by-turn directions in the palm of your hand, no matter where you are. Digital video recorders that didn't exist a few years ago, have almost replaced the stove as the most important appliance in the home - especially since Grey's Anatomy moved to Thursday nights. The ubiquitous white cords of iPods no longer cause a pause or garner curious glances. Work never stops with laptops and wi-fi available everywhere, from the airport to the corner tire shop. Kids stave off boredom with handheld games that go with them anywhere and everywhere. And the Wii has saved us from having to actually go outside to play golf or tennis.

As a recovering Blackberry addict (Crackberry as my best friend snidely refers to it), I am wistfully aware of how the instruments can organize one's calendar, increase productivity, expand capabilities, and ultimately make the world a better place. No serious executive or homemaker can afford to be caught without one these days. In my car, I have access to satellite radio's hundreds of stations, a CD player and the standard radio. A lot of choices for my average 30 minute drive.

Through modern technology our lives have become significantly more convenient than it was when we were growing up. (That applies no matter how old you are.) Yet, according to a recent National Public Radio piece, we are not in fact spending more time than our parents and grandparents in leisure or with our families. It seems all the tools of convenience have taken up more time than they have given. There are few lazy days. Even relaxation requires tools, and it is almost impossible to be inaccessible.

Lyming has been replaced with instant messaging and online chat rooms. Laptops, Blackberries and remote access, allow work to follow us home. Handheld games, iPods and cellphones widen our personal space and minimize opportunities for social interaction. DVRs allow us to watch more television. Before cell phones (I know it's hard to remember, but try.), we were inaccessible at school, during travel time, and sometimes even at work. Today, cell phone chatter behind the wheel and DWT have become enough of an issue that some municipalities have legislated against it. Billboards reminding drivers not to text dot the highways. Early reports on last week's deadly train crash in California indicate that one of the trains' engineer may have been texting just before the accident. You have to wonder, what was so important.

My friend and I like to torture ourselves sometimes by listing all the things that were invented since we were born. It is a long list. The one thing they all have in common? Off buttons.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lipstick on pigs and other crap

I am insulted. If you have a brain, you should be too. The McCain-Palin campaign and much of the media thinks you do not know what metaphors and maxims are. What is more, they think you will overlook your concerns about the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, access to health care, and education to weigh in on the bickering about pigs in lipstick.

Anyone with a grandmother and/or half-teaspoon of common sense, and who heard Senator Obama's phrasing for themselves, did not for a second think he called anyone a pig. Yet for the next several news cycles, anchors and experts debated whether the campaign had taken a bitter turn, and whether Senator Obama had started to play dirty. Republican talking heads attempted to use the comment that was never made to contrive a conversation about chauvinism that does not exist, to make Governor Palin a pseudo-victim.

News editors rely on press releases and access to newsmakers for their bread and butter, and in such a contested election year I imagine they want to stay friendly with all sides. I get that. I do not, believe, however that every press release or phone call should be rewarded with a lead-in on the evening news. I hope for integrity sake, that some editor at a television or print outlet somewhere in the country saw this news item and decided not to run it. The discussion had no merit and by the second iteration of the news piece, it had no sincerity. It took away from what voters want and need to hear: the candidates stand on matters that affect our daily lives.

On Monday morning the story running the news cycles, between recovery efforts in Texas and the California train crash, is McCain's accusations that Senator Obama showed disregard for the those suffering through Hurricane Ike. What warranted this charge? In a campaign speech on Friday, Obama warned that the McCain-Palin campaign would try to undermine supporters' trust and change the conversation from the issues. I suppose the McCain-Palin campaign felt compelled to prove Obama right.

It is no wonder that with these tactics, Senator McCain and Gov. Palin raised $20 million less than Senator Obama over the last month. More people are realizing that the Republican ticket has nothing more than a zeal to win. They cannot win on the issues, so they try to occupy airspace with tangential conversations. They have no new ideas to deliver, so they mock Obama's oration. They do not have a strong foundation of service to others, so they criticize Obama's commitment to his community. They have no strategic plan for improving the condition of Americans, so they say vote for us because we are a war hero (read former prisoner of war) and a lady governor. Thanks to the McCain campaign, I am more sure than ever about who deserves my vote.

I love watermelon...and sushi

A former co-worker of mine used to frequently tease that I should return my "Black" card. As he saw it, I'm not black enough. He thought I was too 'uppity,' which he also thought was typical of West Indians. The strikes against my 'Blackness?' My vocabulary does not include 'gonna' or 'fit'na'; my children's names have a fair balance of consonants and vowels; I have no hood cred; thread count is important to me; and I enjoy international cuisine and international films.

When Senator Barack Obama began his primary campaign, he faced the same criticism. There was a persistent discussion about whether the presidential candidate is black enough to garner the support of African-Americans. If I weren't so irked by the inference, I would be flattered at the company I find myself in.

I am not above generalizations and even accept some as solid truths. What I don't understand is why any community would choose to saddle themselves with unflattering attributes. Black America has let a small-minded minority dictate the parameters for the rest of us. We have relinquished our identity to those who measure their own life's worth by jail stints, illegitimate children, and rim size. The ignorant have convinced our children that it is not cool or down to be smart and to make good grades. The boys on the corner have waged a public relations war against college education, convincing many that there is no future with a career and a white collar pay check. We have unwittingly (best case scenario) reclaimed the labels - lazy, shiftless, dumb - that our forefathers railed and fought against.

Presidential candidate or not, the worl' still nuh level. We cannot afford to gamble with our future and our children's future when there are still many obstacles in our way. A 20/20 edition that aired on Thursday night referenced a social experiment undertaken by ABC. The investigation showed blacks being passed by cab drivers who immediately stopped for white fares; apartments unavailable to black renters suddenly becoming available to white ones; resumes with 'black-sounding' monikers being overlooked for exact resumes with less ethnic names. It doesn't take ABC and 20/2o to tell us what we already know. The rate at which black men are pulled over and otherwise treated unfairly by the justice system is fodder for comedians. Black women get followed around department stores. Black men and women make less than comparably qualified whites.

We are starting behind the 8 ball, but we are finding ways to make our journey harder. Black or white, those with college degrees make far more than those with only a high school education. (Stephen Levitt's book Freakonomics gives a very convincing argument for why drug dealing doesn't make for a better income either.) Unless we have decided that poverty is one of the desirable badges of blackness, college should not be a white thing. If black men in suits have difficulty renting apartments and hailing cabs, then those who duck-waddle to keep their pants up should not be surprised that they attract fearful looks and police attention.

If some things are 'white' because historically only a segment of the population had access to them, then those things are now multi-hued. We all can use them to make our lives better and our experiences broader. We should not be rejecting them for fear of being perceived as less than we are. More than that, we should not let the degenerate few claim 'blackness.' Where is the outcry when someone's blackness is questioned because they are educated, successful and/or keep their underwear hidden?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Palin Hypocrisy

In the week following Sen. John McCain's announcement of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, there were complaints that the media was unfairly questioning the mother's decision to run for the country's second highest office. I never heard those questions, but was bothered by the very thought that in 2008 a woman would have to answer such questions.

Since then, I've become even more bothered by the seeming pass conservatives have given Gov. Palin. The party that decried sitcom character Murphy Brown as an example of eroding family values, is now rallying in support of the candidacy of a mother of four minor children - one, a special needs infant, and another a pregnant teenager. The Bible pounding, men-are-the-head-of-the-household christian right is looking beyond the fact that Palin's husband was the one who stayed home with her infant son when she returned to work only three days after giving birth to her son Trig was born with Down Syndrome. The drive and ambition that conservatives used to vilify Senator Hilary Clinton are now admirable qualities in Sarah Palin. It seems, the party has decided that she is the better of two evils. Senator Obama being the other evil. Just as the McCain campaign seems to not have thoroughly vetted Palin, party members have decided not to hold her to their own family values standards and take their chances.

Could it be that conservatives are looking past their deeply held values because they trust Palin's qualifications and have bought into her vision for the country. I'm not buying that. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that 43 percent of men and 57 percent of women think Palin is unqualified to serve in the oval office. Even if you assume that more conservatives than the general public think she is qualified, those numbers are low in face of the swell in the ticket's numbers. Conservatives are supporting Palin, even though they don't think she is up to the job.

That smacks of hypocrisy. Issues that conservatives have held aloft as the party's banner are now being downplayed, solely for the sake of keeping the Oval Office. It is this hypocrisy that causes the rest of us to snicker when legislators who vote against same-sex marriage and partner benefits get caught trolling airport bathrooms for gay lovers.

Friday, September 5, 2008

What does your dash look like?

A couple of days ago, a friend of mine emailed me a story about the obituary of Dolores Aguilar. The deceased woman's family wrote her a rather unflattering obituary in the local newspaper.

The obituary, written by one of the woman's seven surviving children, charges that she made no contribution to society, was mean to everyone she came across, and had spent her life sowing discord in her family. That a person could be so filled with pain and bitterness that they could find nothing positive to say of the dead (or the presence of mind to say nothing) is mournful. That someone went to their grave leaving such anguish and malice behind is woefully tragic.

A county commissioner I used to work for always said that the dates of one's birth and death are less relevant than the dash in between. Our lives are measured by the people we impact, the things we accomplish, and the feelings we leave behind - more than by the number of days we happen to stay alive.

In one of my first classes in graduate school, I was asked to write a narrative about my own funeral. That assignment gave me nightmares. I honestly had not, before that moment, thought about my life or my role in the world. I wondered who would come; what my eulogy would say; and if their would be snickers in the congregation. I had pause to question whether I had been a good daughter, friend and person. I had taken it for granted that I was, but being asked to look at me from my friend's and family's perspective gave me a great deal of uncertainty and self-doubt.

The exercise was catalytic. I think everyone should sit and think about the life they need to live to have a eulogy they can be proud of. I now think regularly of what I do with my time and my life and the impact I have on my family and friends and those I come across every day. I am clear about what I want my eulogy to say, and I spend my days writing it. Of course, there are some lines I hope get left out, but that is o.k. I know enough not to aim for perfection.

It is worth noting that days after Dolores Aguilar's obituary appeared in the newspaper, a neighbor wrote in to the Vallejo Times-Herald describing a very different woman. To Maria Guevara, Dolores had been like a grandmother. Maria described a woman who had loved her late husband and still grieved her son who died in Vietnam; who was good with people and loved animals; and whose hugs she would miss.

Dolores Aguilar must have done something right. At least one person thinks so. Who thinks your dash is worth defending?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Mommy V.P.

So Bristol is pregnant. After the big announcement on the opening day of the Republican National Convention, I wasn't surprised that on Monday morning talk radio was all abuzz about it. I have to tell you, after the teenage years I had, I am not for visiting the sins of a daughter on her mother. My high school and college years were filled with activities my mother neither encouraged, facilitated, nor was aware of. Her daughter's pregnancy is certainly not Sarah Palin's fault.

I can't help wondering though, about the parental wisdom of thrusting a pregnant teenager into the national spotlight and under the unrelenting scrutiny of the media. As most parents know, parenting is filled with sacrifices. Most mothers know, many of those sacrifices are ours. While the offer of being number two on a presidential ticket is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, we also get only one opportunity to do right by our children.

I hope it was at least a difficult decision for Governor Palin to run considering the impact on her daughter. I hope her daughter's pregnancy was not considered a bonus in the fight for the conservative, pro-life vote. That would be a terrible gamble that will never pay.

That being said, if the reports are true that the mother of five has been criticized in the media for running for office (I have not heard or seen any such criticism.), then I would have to join the RNC chants decrying journalists and reporters. Being a mother and trying to thrive in a career is no easy feat. Any woman who chooses to undertake those responsibilities has my admiration. Anyone who criticizes her, earns my eternal loathing.

Just choosing to be a mother can derail a woman's career. Taking six months of maternity leave can make the difference between being assigned choice projects resulting in advancement, and stagnation. That's a factor of many women's decision to have a child. It is not generally a thought for men.

My husband is a great dad. He is an active participant in his sons' care and I am grateful to have him as a partner. As with most couples I know though, medical appointments, school conferences, birthday parties, homework assignments, and other activities have become primarily my responsibility. On this day, at this time, that arrangement is ok for me. There have been moments though when I have had to decline invitations and assignments because of my maternal responsibilities and I have truly resented it. I didn't resent my children - or my husband. I resented that I had to make the choice. To face those often difficult choices and then be criticized by the stay-at-home brigade has always been disheartening to say the least.

These days I read articles in Fortune, Business Week and Working Mother that indicate that Corporate America is changing to take better advantage of the talent and expertise that working mothers bring to the work place. Shared jobs, telecommuting, flexible hours and onsite childcare are becoming more commonplace. Those are all good things, but the thing that needs to change most is our attitudes about women and parenting. I want the day to come when a mother is no more likely than a father to be asked about how she intends to juggle parenting and work. Better than that, I look forward to the day when the response of most women will be, "my husband is actually the primary caretaker."