Monday, December 09, 2013

This House Believes In Santa Claus

I just finished putting up the Christmas decorations. Not the tree... We get that in about a week or so. As always it will be a Charlie Brown tree -- one that no one else wants because it's crooked or has gaps between the uneven branches. Somehow that helps assuage the guilt of cutting down something that was alive -- just to decorate it for a few weeks and then throw it in the trash pile. We could of course get an artificial tree. But it would be - well - artificial. Not our traditional Christmas.

So I guess that makes me a bit of a hypocrite.

We celebrate Christmas but a secular way. As I always have. When I was growing up in downtown Boston, everyone was Christian. Or seemed to be. The old Boston "Brahmins" as the upper class was called were Protestant. Their names were still on the great old brick mansions up on Beacon Hill. I didn't know any of them. Just their houses.

The kids I went to school with came from all over the city. Boston's black families were also mostly Protestant. Almost everyone else seemed to be Irish or Italian and Catholic. So I grew up with a Christmas tree. As a Jewish kid (but not very) I was told we didn't believe in the "Christ" part but that Jesus was a Jew and a prophet so it was OK to mark his birth and to enjoy the spirit of the day.

I always believed (and kind of still do - wishfully) that Christmas is really about being nice to one's fellow humans. When I was younger - and it wasn't all about getting the deepest discount on some big screen TV or the toy of the moment - people WERE nicer and kinder at Christmas. We held doors open for each other, smiled at each other, weren't so pushy to get on the subway.

And we took the time to look around and savor the traditions of the season. When I was in high school and college we all went caroling on Beacon Hill on Christmas Eve. And when I finally grew up and got to live in New York -- there were always little groups of carolers walking around the neighborhoods. One Christmas my roommate and I with our boyfriends -- all professional singers except me who was only a wanna be -- went caroling around the upper East Side of Manhattan. We had the best time! People were opening their windows to listen to us.

But now we have Black Friday with its fights over deeply discounted door busters. And the news media talks of nothing but how much more or less people spent than last year. And I think about that and wonder how we all got to be so ugly during a holiday period which used to be almost magical.

Have we really lost the magic? Do we really need Macy's to remind us to "Believe" as they republish that famous "Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus" letter?

Or is it just that I was so young once. When the world was young too.




Friday, September 20, 2013

The Perfect Home

I have a thing about perfect homes.  Inside, outside. Rentals, condos. Minimalist Levittown-style capes, pseudo-palatial McMansions. It doesn’t matter. They just annoy me.

OK – that sounds perfectly un-reasonable.  And even a little nuts.  Maybe so.  But they still annoy me.

Maybe because the Boston I grew up in was a bit shabby, before the Route 128 high tech “miracle” pumped seemingly unlimited money and growth into the city’s neighborhoods, universities and suburbs.  Maybe because my busy voice coach mother – who DID love perfect homes – made me dust the perfectly clean apartment every morning before I left for school.  And nagged me constantly to clean up my typically teen-messy room where only I knew where to find everything.  My mother was the type who cleaned the apartment just before the cleaning lady arrived.  Fortunately I didn’t inherit that gene.

My own house -- the one I live in with my husband --  is what the perfection-focused HGTV would kindly call “cluttered”. There is cat hair occasionally on the cushions. Plants, paintings, photos, computers, iGadgets, books, video tapes of every format and the players to go with them, vinyl LP’s and folders for every story I ever covered vie for space. 

We (or at least I) like to think the result is “eclectic”.

Our current landscaping is – to put it succinctly – nonexistent.  But the annuals and perennials and bushes and grass -- and the pots my husband fills each spring with impatiens -- somehow blend into the rocks and trees which occupy most of our land in a way which says “welcome friend”.  It’s a place which looks like people live there. Comfortably. 

Which is, perhaps, another way of saying it would qualify for an HGTV makeover.

When I walk or run around my gym’s neighborhood of small, 50’s era houses – many expanded over the years – I think of all the young families which once or currently live there. Starter homes we used to say. Typically the owners are stretching to make the mortgage payments. So how do they afford the landscapers on riding mowers I see manicuring the tiny lawns?  And why?  I could mow those lawns myself in 10 minutes with an old fashioned, unpowered mower.

I guess it’s that perfect house syndrome again. Even handyman specials are perfect on HGTV. And as we walk or drive through our towns we all see the same perfect, estate-sized McMansions built out to the property lines. We watch as each leaf which falls this time of year is swiftly blown away by a small army of men with leaf blowers. The flowers never droop from lack of water and never wither publically because their heads are professionally snapped off at the first sign of brown.

Remember what Albert Einstein once said? “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”  He of course was talking about creativity. And so am I.  I’m talking about the overall environment needed to think big thoughts.  Or as Tinkerbell would have put it – lovely thoughts.  The ones which allow you to fly.

A house is not a home until it’s lived in.  Until there are piles of real print magazines from a nearly forgotten era sitting, nearly forgotten, on the floor. Until someone puts his feet up on the slightly scratched coffee table and gently transfers the cat from the couch to his lap. Until half the tiger lilies lining the walk are eaten by the resident deer each summer. And the other half die a natural death as fall closes in. Until there is an oak chair in need of more varnish where one can sit in the midst of it all and contemplate the universe.

You know – maybe I DO like perfect houses after all.  It’s just how you define perfection.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ordinary People

Throughout my long career as a reporter, it has always bothered me that when my work was done, my story shot and written, my live shot with the victim’s home perfectly framed over my shoulder finished – my camera person and I simply left.  Went home.  Back to our own, presumably comfortable and hopefully loving lives. Leaving the victim(s) of some awful event trying desperately and miserably to cope with his/her/their tragedy.

I didn’t cover yesterday’s shocking and tragic shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.  I didn’t have to face anyone’s grieving, unbelieving loved ones.  But I couldn’t sleep last night anyhow. 

I couldn’t forget that the 12 people who were murdered and the three who were hospitalized (out of the 8 hurt in the rampage) were just ordinary people. Many civilian employees or contractors.  They left home yesterday morning in the same way they always did. By car or bus or Metro or train. Said an ordinary “‘bye – see you tonight” to roommates, spouses, partners, kids, dogs, cats, birds.  THEY JUST WENT TO WORK!  And they didn’t come home last night.  12 of them never will.

Ordinary people. You, me, the guy down the block, the woman who sits next to you at the office.  Ordinary people with ordinary lives. Their lives.  That a man named Aaron Alexis – whom we are now learning kept his security clearance despite reportedly growing mental problems and past run-ins with the law – cruelly took from them for no reason that we know at this point. 

Because the shooter was himself killed by responding police we may never know his motive for the killing spree. But even if we find out, in the end it won’t change anything.

12 ordinary people living ordinary lives are dead. They will never be able to live those lives – THEIR LIVES – again.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The High Cost of Fixing My Teeth

I am now the proud wearer of a new, all metal crown.  It covers the very last rear molar of my bottom teeth. So far back it can’t be seen when I smile. A poor little, worn-down tooth which once sported another crown.  Unfortunately it fell off years ago.  Probably didn’t cost enough.

This is not about teeth or – really --  fixing them.  It’s about the totally off-the-wall, totally outrageous cost to maintain an essential part of one’s body.

Hello Washington? I know you’re there – and probably eating your taxpayer-subsidized lunch somewhere with your taxpayer-subsidized, nicely filled and crowned teeth. 

So a quick reminder. Without teeth, people can’t eat.  If they can’t eat they get sick.  And before they die of starvation and malnutrition and fall out of the health care system – they can cost Washington, insurance companies and all of us who pay for things a great deal of money.

What set off this rant was the cost of repairing this one, afore-mentioned poor little worn-down tooth.  It started last April with the root canal, needed so my regular family-type dentist could build up the tooth enough with a core and post to hang a crown in place. Since I live in one of the most if not THE most medically expensive areas of our country – the root canal –performed by an endodontist who specializes in root canals - cost $1600.  Molars, should you not have had to find out, have four roots.

After a few months for my bank account to digest that, it was time for the crown. As I said it’s a metal crown. No room back there for the added heft of porcelain fused to the metal.  Doesn’t matter.  The cost, my dentist told me, was the same. $1250.  Add in the post and core, another $360.  Plus something called Intraoral-Periapical-First Film. An almost throwaway $32.  Total cost: $1614.

And grand total for the whole deal – root canal plus crown – a bank account draining $3214!

Now like most Americans, I don’t have dental insurance.  My union health coverage used to pay for $1000 worth of dental work a year.  That went bye-bye some years ago when medical costs began to soar. I could buy insurance myself but usually outside dental policies are so expensive and pay so little it’s not worth the effort. Even employees of giant companies with Cadillac health insurance usually get a measly $1500 worth of dental coverage annually.  At best it pays for cleaning and half the cost of a few filings and maybe a small, front tooth crown.  Medicare?  Foggedddaboudditt!

To get deadly serious for a moment, what do people do who CAN’T pull $3200 bucks out of their pocket? 

A number of recent studies have linked everything from heart disease and diabetes to Alzheimer’s Disease to poor dental health.  Our bodies are a closed system.  Each part connected to the rest of the parts.  As that old song “Dem (Dry) Bones” told us so many decades ago.

It makes absolutely no sense that dental health care isn’t simply part of the overall health care system. Included in our medical insurance of all kinds – private, Medicare and Medicaid.  As with so much of the mess that we call our health care system in the US --- we’re among the few highly developed economies without almost fully covered dental and medical care.

Therefore my bank account is now $3300 dollars smaller.  I don’t know what I might have done with all that money  -- fly to the moon and stay there perhaps -- but I do know that if I were a typical parent with my own tooth issues and kids who needed braces and such  – I’d probably be wishing they still made crowns out of gold – so I could pawn my mouth for next week’s groceries.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Syria Crisis - Another Quagmire?

I'm watching and listening to our first black President Barack Obama speak at the 50th anniversaary of the March on Washington - just after the bells rang out to commemorate the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on this day in 1963.  As the President included himself as evidence of the progress made since then -- and challenged new generations to fight for the racial equality still not won -- I wondered if he was totally "in the moment".

I certainly wasn't.

Because marring this day of both celebration and rededication to King's dream was the specter of Syria almost visable over Mr. Obama's shoulder. Was he thinking about King and The Dream and his own place in that dream?  Or was he thinking about cruise missile strikes on strategic Syrian government military targets?

We heard alot today from various pundits and analysts about how the White House has gone too far down the road of those missile strikes -- of a one time slap on the wrist for the Assad regime's apparent use of chemical weopons -- to stop now.  But some analysts acknowledge the danger.  That once again the US will take the lead in military involvement in a Middle East nation, running the risk of another ever-escalating involvement.

Since we can't risk hitting the chemical weopons storehouses themselves, what happens when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- backed by his allies Iran and Russia -- decides to loose them again on his rebelling people?  Do we strike again? And again?  What does Israel do? And Iran?

Today UN chief Ban Ki-moon appealed for a diplomatic solution, pleaded with the US and other Western powers to go first to the Security Council (where of course Russia would veto any threat of military response).  But the US -- talking vaguely about another Bush-era "coalition of the willing" -- seems hell-bent on pushing ahead into the land of unintended consequences.

Why is it our job to strike Assad?  If every civilized nation has outlawed the use of chemical weopons, why isn't there a unified outcry backed by the UN?  Isn't a failed war in Iraq, a failed war in Afghanistan and at least two failed revolutionary states -- Lybia and Egypt -- enough for the US???

There are many reasoned, well-written assessments of President Obama's Syrian dilemma. Among them the one which sparked this blog post by veteran writer and reporter Christopher Dickey.  If only the President and his advisors would read it!

I haven't heard any ordinary American enthusiastically backing this so-called one time strike in Syria. My European friends are horrified that this out-of-control involvement in an unstable region seems to be happening again.

Is the White House just going to jump in with its missiles blazing before or over the Labor Day weekend -- while many Americans are distracted by what's left of summer? 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Davos and the World Economic Forum

Once again it's time for Davos.  Or more specifically the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland.  For the better part of the week – some of the best minds in the business, economic and academic world – not to mention UN officials and assorted royals and entertainers – have come together to schmooze, network, appear on important panels and of course sit for endless media interviews.

There are many such gatherings – some famous like this one, some just small think tanks trying to save the world or even a small part of it.  Davos looms large to me because the TV network I work for always sends a large team to beam back the weighty interviews and report on some of the weighty panel discussions.  So for all the years since my (and Apple's) first iPhone I've been dutifully browsing the WEF app and checking WEF's tweets.

I was talking to a friend in Europe today who was all excited about an upcoming Aspen Institute retreat. Where ostensibly the participants – all credentialed big thinkers – will come up with more ideas to save the world.

Which brings me to the reason for this rant.

I politely suggested to my friend – as I have before – that maybe this time all those brilliant minds  -- instead of producing  really big new ideas -- might produce some rather small but practical ones which might actually work in the real world.  And also produce some practical ways to implement those practical ideas.

My friend said a recent survey found people really want ways to fix what’s broken.  Like the US Congress.  Or middle class jobs. Or Greece.  We agreed that may be an opening for practical change – if the change agents can find ways to help the rest of us understand that our society will simply perish otherwise.

I’m not against big ideas.  All societies need people with the ability to see our problems and suggest fresh ways to solve them.  It’s just that so many of those suggestions or plans or philosophies will never actually work in the world most people actually inhabit.  OK – full disclosure.  I got through philosophy in college – a prerequisite to my beloved broadcasting classes – by reading a book on the history of philosophy by Bertrand Russell. One manageable chapter for each unmanageable philosopher from Aristotle on up. As a philosopher himself Russell must have realized that obsessing about a tree falling in the forest was simply useless if not impossible for a realist like me.  Oh wait a minute… wasn’t there a chapter on Realism too?

Maybe my “just do it” brand of realism isn’t quite what Russell was describing. But that’s what we need.  A group of deep thinkers whose names we all know. Who will get together at one of these high profile forums or quasi-secret retreats.  And return to our real world with some real, do-able plan to just fix it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Imagine Saving the New York Times

I really don’t like to sweat all over my iPhone. My iPhone is a thing of beauty and I hate to make it all yucky.

OK you say – so what?  Well – here’s the point.  I was reading the print edition of the New York Times today instead of reading it digitally on my iPhone or iPad as I mostly do.  I was reading print because I was on the bike at the gym. Sweating.  And then I turned the page and ran full bore into a lot of white space – and a love note from Yoko Ono. Of course. Today would have been John Lennon's 72nd birthday. “Imagine all the people living life in peace” Yoko wrote in big bold black letters in the middle of all that white. 
And even with our deeply polarized country about to vote for a president and a congress and then fall off the fiscal cliff  – for this morning at least Lennon’s wistful lyrics renew my foolish hopes for humanity.

So why am I telling you all this?  Because if I had been reading the Times digitally – on a smart phone/tablet app – I would have missed that full page message from Yoko Ono.  Or any other full page or half page or quarter page ad or public service message the Times would normally publish.  And it would have been my loss.

Print has not yet discovered how to create successfully such things as full page ads on an app.  Oh occasionally you’ll see an ad page briefly as you swipe through the pages. But only occasionally.  And never something like that “imagine” page.

And I think it’s wrong to blame just print.  Or broadcast.  Or cable.  Their corporate owners and the media advertising and marketing managers responsible for monetizing their product are still – for the most part – living in a siloed media world. Oh yes we have print reporters shouldering cameras. And local TV stations hiring “content” producers instead of reporters or writers. They all Tweet and Facebook and Storify that content in a frenzy of sharing.  It seems many media creators get it.  But somehow the marketing/advertising folks who pay their salaries – don’t.

People (like me) increasingly use ALL media – but at different times and for different purposes. Recently Nielsen reported that more than fifty percent of all consumers in this country have smartphones. iPad and other tablet sales are surging.  We stream movies and other video from our PC’s to our huge flat screen TV’s in the living or family  room.  And during last week’s first presidential debate – pundits discovered a new phenomenon. We were watching the debate on the big screen. But discussing it as it unfolded on Facebook and Twitter. It was the most tweeted-about event in company history with more than ten million Tweets.

The next morning maybe some of us new media mavens even read about it in a newspaper. Or at week’s end – in a magazine you could roll up and take out in the rain without getting your iPhone’s nice glass screen all spotted up.

I am as much in the new media moment as anyone who wasn’t born yesterday can be. But I have completely lost patience with the prognosticators who keep trumpeting the death of any media platform that wasn’t created by a guy in a hoodie.

Wake up advertising and marketing people!  Start putting ad packages together which span ALL media – not just an internet ad or a smartphone ad or a newspaper ad.  Yes you will have to be creative.  Find ways to make those smaller screens pay off without enraging those of us who like our apps and our content without annoying commercials. The expensive, award-winning ad for TV won’t work on a smartphone or tablet.  But something will.  Slice it and dice it and sell it as one integrated, pan-platform package. 

And I guess I’m slitting my own throat here but New York Times (and other newspapers and magazines) – find a way to single-price your pan-platform packages in the same way – so a little here and a little there in aggregate multiple platform ad revenue makes up for the bigger bucks lost in the smaller print runs.

Maybe then there won’t be so much talk about the death of print. 

After all -- if there are no more newspapers  -- what will you read while you’re eating that greasy burger and fries?  And how will you “paper train” your next puppy?  Or pack glasses and dishes for moving? What will you put under the bird cage? Or the litter box? Or on the floor when you’re painting that old chest of drawers? 

I’m writing this on my laptop, watching a TV news channel and using my iPad for research. That full page message from Yoko Ono which started it all – is sitting on the table with today’s print edition of the paper. The AP News app on my iPhone has just sent me an alert.

We need it all. New media, old media and media yet to be invented. You guys in marketing land – figure it out.  But remember.  One pan-platform ad package. Priced for the way we actually consume media today. Which is wherever and whenever and however we want it.