Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Mad Props To The U.S. Postal Service

It's easy to be sociable when you live in my apartment building, for rare is the week you don't get the opportunity to knock on a neighbor's door, hand over an envelope and say "This was in my mailbox. I think it's yours."

But last night broke my personal socialization-opportunity record. I've been checking my mailbox scrupulously of late, anxiously awaiting the arrival of my U.S. passport (which I don't need to visit Quebec City this August, but do need if I want to return to my home in the freedom-loving United States).

I found three pieces of mail, not one of which was mine or my boyfriend's. For that matter, no two envelopes were addressed to the same apartment: I found a cable bill for the guy across the hall, a credit card statement for the guy right below him, and junk mail for his neighbor next door.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Obligatory Gen X Nostalgia Over Michael Jackson And Farrah Fawcett

Last week a church near my office held a “strawberry festival” to raise funds for its acclaimed music program. I was there in the guise of Local Journalist On Duty, snapping photos of wholesome teens eating shortcake and toddlers getting their faces painted while collecting quotes from various adults about how the strawberries are extremely tasty and for a good cause. (I could post the story I filed that night, but you should probably just wait for the movie version.)

Little did I know that 3,000 miles away, a wealthy and insane celebrity who never knew I existed was breathing his last breath. But as I left the strawberry festival and started walking back to the office, I ran into the staff photographer, who told me Michael Jackson had died.

“Really?” I said. “Damn. I feel sorry for [the guy who does layout at the paper]; he already had the front page set up for Farrah Fawcett’s obit and now he’s got to fit Jackson there, too. I think—goddammit!”

I’d just stepped into the crosswalk (which had the white “walk” sign glowing) when a car sped around the corner at high speed, completely oblivious to the red-haired pedestrian. I jumped back onto the curb and the car missed hitting me by maybe five inches.

So I can honestly say I felt strong and unpleasant emotions within seconds of learning Michael Jackson was dead. However, I completely disavow the notion that as a member of Generation X I’m somehow obligated to take it personally when people like Jackson and Farrah Fawcett die.
"These people were on our lunchboxes," said Gary Giovannetti, 38, a manager at HBO who grew up on Long Island awash in Farrah and MJ iconography. "This," he said, "is the moment when Generation X realizes they're grown up."
Thirty-eight years old and he’s just now realizing this? Gary, you are doing it wrong: Generation X grew up and lost its innocence when Kurt Cobain died, remember?

Not that it matters to me. Celebrity news does not concern me; economic news does. And the economic news is still grim, so I have been researching ways to invest some of my savings, but not in risky markets like housing or manufacturing or banks.

So I've been checking out the Franklin Mint website, so I can be the first to place an order when they put their inevitable Michael Jackson commemorative collectibles up for sale.

Here’s how it works: every month I’ll pay the low low price of only $29.95 and receive a Genuine Bone China Thimble, each with a hand-designed portrait of the King of Pop’s awe-inspiring life: The “Ben” Afro! Jackson 5! Moonwalk! The first nosejob! The Lisa Presley Marriage TV Interview! The second nosejob! Duet with Paul McCartney! Burning hair and a Pepsi! Order this lovely limited edition collectible 25-thimble set, and receive this handsome wood-veneer display shelf absolutely free.

Then someday, in a few years, if I'm ever broke and really need the money, I can sell the whole set for under $100 on eBay.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Maybe We Should Have Listened To Anita Hill

The Supreme Court has ruled in an 8 to 1 decision that school districts can NOT strip-search students suspected of possessing Advil:
The Supreme Court said Thursday school officials acted illegally when they strip-searched of an Arizona teenage girl looking for prescription-strength ibuprofen.

In an 8-1 ruling, the justices said that school officials violated the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches when ordered Savana Redding to remove her clothes and shake out her underwear.

Redding was 13 when Safford Middle School officials in rural eastern Arizona conducted the search. They were looking for pills — the equivalent of two Advils. The district bans prescription and over-the-counter drugs and the school was acting on a tip from another student.

Clarence Thomas cast the sole dissenting vote:

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas found the search legal and said the court previously had given school officials "considerable leeway" under the Fourth Amendment in school settings.

Officials had searched the girl's backpack and found nothing, Thomas said. "It was eminently reasonable to conclude the backpack was empty because Redding was secreting the pills in a place she thought no one would look," Thomas said.

Thomas warned that the majority's decision could backfire. "Redding would not have been the first person to conceal pills in her undergarments," he said. "Nor will she be the last after today's decision, which announces the safest place to secrete contraband in school."

I'd be more sympathetic toward Thomas's argument if they were searching for, say, a miniature nuclear bomb in the girl's underwear, but think about the implication of his argument: strip-searching multiple innocent people -- children, no less -- is, in his mind, preferable to letting the occasional person get away with Advil possession.

Whatever happened to "innocent until proven guilty," Justice Thomas? Do you seriously believe "the right to keep your clothes on in public" is yet another right Americans must abandon in the name of the War on Drugs?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Bad Decisions Of My Youth Finally Pay Off

I hope y’all enjoyed yesterday’s Summer Solstice, especially you poor devils down south where, according to the Weather Channel, temps have been in the high 90s all week with humidity rates to match.

O you poor sweltering souls! I empathize. I remember those days. They’re why I left Virginia after college and moved the hell north, and all week it’s paid off bigtime.

It’s been in the 60s here all this week. A tad on the chilly side. On the first day of summer I carried a light jacket when I went to Northampton, Massachusetts, to see California Guitar Trio in concert.

This is exactly why I moved north. Moving to New England was absolutely worth it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Great Moments In Euphemism

As a member of Generation X, I spent my entire young adulthood hearing the media tell me my generation would be the first in American history to have a lower standard of living than the previous one (read: Baby Boomers), which makes me feel especially disenchanted to read stories proclaiming the devastation the economy hath wrought upon Boomers’ retirement plans.

Behold this one in USA Today. Or don’t. Chances are you’ve read this story already, with only slight variations: lots of Boomers who appeared to be in good shape a few years ago (or as recently as last year), now find some combination of lost jobs, lowered wages, reduced retirement plans, and all the housing-bubble fallout have forced them to keep working (assuming they can even find jobs) rather than start their long-anticipated retirements anytime soon.

But the last three paragraphs stood out:
Christine Neilson, 58, a teacher in Indialantic, Fla., had planned to retire at 62. Now, she expects to work until she is 65 or 66 because her salary has been frozen for two years, and her retirement savings have taken a nose dive.

"We have to look at retirement differently," she says. "They always say that if you are going to work in retirement, do the things that you love to do. So I'm not going to complain. I love teaching."

Baby Boomers such as Neilson may change retirement. "They may re-create themselves so that they can do something that is productive and still earn a paycheck," [financial planner Sheryl] Garrett says.
In other words, not retire.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dang Modern Kids, With Their FaceTube And Their YouBook And Their Hula Hoops

I have an old pay-by-the-minute cell phone: no long-term contract, calls are 25 cents a minute, and I have to buy 20 dollars’ worth of minutes every three months whether I use them or not. Mostly, I do not – at last count, I’ve got over $300 worth of unused minutes on the account. I use that phone so rarely I don’t even know my own cell phone number, though I’m pretty sure there’s a “9” in it somewhere.

It’s a huge phone by modern standards – almost an inch thick – and since it lacks a folding cover to prevent the buttons from pressing themselves against things in my purse, I store it in a hardshell sunglasses case where I also keep a piece of paper with my cell phone number written on it, and my boyfriend’s cell phone number, and my boss’s from two jobs ago. (I told you, it’s an old phone.)

But I recently dragged my cell phone out of retirement – by “retirement,” I mean “the very back of the cluttered desk drawer where I finally found my cell phone” – because one of my part-time freelance gigs requires me to make occasional daytime long-distance calls I won’t make from my work phone. My voicemail box was completely empty – apparently the phone company deletes old messages after 18 months or so – but I was surprised to see a few recent text messages waiting in an inbox.

I deleted them immediately, since only spammers would send a text to that number. I’ve never sent one, partially because I prefer e-mail for written communications but mainly because the amount of money my per-minute cell phone would charge to send even a tiny message is insane.

And it’s not just my phone that charges a fortune for text messaging – we’ve all seen the occasional headlines about teenagers running up insanely high text-message bills, and the high cost of text messaging is now the subject of hearings on Capitol Hill.

Consumer Reports reported that text messaging is overpriced.
[Consumer Advocate Joel] Kelsey emphasized that text-message files are very small—with five hundred of them containing less data than a one-minute voice call, he says. Further, Kelsey points out, there’s been an “explosion of texting” in recent years, with carriers reporting up to a six-fold rise in text transmissions within just a few years.

“Carriers should be experiencing economies of scale and sharing that savings with consumers,” says Kelsey. Prices are discounted heavily for text messages bought in monthly bundles that typically run into the hundreds. But carriers have steadily, and in lockstep, raised the price of sending single texts.

As CU has noted, less than four years ago rates to send a text message were 10 cents per text at the nation's four big wireless carriers: AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. Each company then raised rates to 15 cents, then to 20 cents.

To CU, these text-message rates, along with exclusivity deals for certain cell phones, exemplify the need for “more oversight” into the wireless marketplace, to “determine if government intervention is necessary.”
It seems pretty obvious that yes, the cell phone companies are charging huge sums – and making huge profits – from text messaging as opposed to regular cell phone calls. Billing the occasional teenager – or even adult – $5,000 for a service that likely only cost them a few bucks to provide doesn’t win them slimefree status, either.

But I also see phones with unlimited text messaging plans advertised on TV every night, and I can’t be the only one noticing these commercials.

Once I talk through all the paid-for minutes on my cell phone, if I talk through all the paid-for minutes on my cell phone, I might switch to an unlimited calling plan, if it looks like I’ll make enough calls to justify it. Otherwise I’ll continue my pay-as-you-go scheme. It’s a hell of a lot more expensive for each individual minute I talk, true, but cheaper by the month when you consider how rarely I use it.

Same thing if I start text messaging. Right now, if some emergency absolutely demands I send somebody a text message I can do it, though I’ll likely pay around a quarter to send just a few lousy letters to the receiving phone. Still, 25 cents every so often is still cheaper than 20 or 30 dollars a month for an unlimited text messaging plan I’d certainly never use.

Sounds simple enough to me. So why, exactly, is government intervention in text messaging supposed to be necessary?

Damned kids need to get off my lawn. Or at least stop trying to regulate it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Goth Fame Leadeth Not To Fortune: Spooky Synchronicity Edition

Raise your hand if you’re old enough to remember the days before music downloads, when you had to buy an entire CD ($15.99 or more) to get just one song you actually liked. These days I still have an ancient collection of one-song-wonder discs stored in their dusty jewel boxes on an out-of-the-way shelf in my room.

Last night I rummaged through the collection for the first time in years, and found a 1998 disc I’d all but forgotten about: As one aflame laid bare by desire from the band “Black Tape For A Blue Girl,” on a Goth label called Projekt Records. (Most Projekt bands and albums had names like that. Goths are capital-d Deep.) I saw Black Tape perform along with several other musicians at the Projekt Festival concert some Manhattan Goth club hosted around the turn of the millennium; I think that’s where I bought the CD.

My One Song on the album is “Russia,” which I set in my stereo to play as background music while I idly surfed the Internet. As the long, long piano riff started off the song, I turned my online attention to an article Emily Bazelon wrote for the New York Times about the plight of freelance workers in this recession:
On a rainy morning in April, Lisa Feuer took the subway to the Brooklyn Dojo, a martial-arts studio where she was scheduled to teach a mommy-baby yoga class. Outside, streams of water poured from awnings into the collars of passers-by. When she got to the studio, Feuer shook out her umbrella and picked out music from her iPhone to play for the class. But in the next 20 minutes, no one else showed up.
Lisa Feuer? Sounds vaguely familiar, I thought, though I had no idea how I'd know a Brooklyn yoga teacher. Maybe I'm thinking of that Max Headroom guy? Matt Freuer or something. The piano solo dragged on and on. Only then did I remember how I never cared much for the song's slow beginning; back in the days when I included that One Song on mix tapes, I always started it around the three-minute mark.

All this flashed through my mind in a second as I continued reading the story:
When Feuer started teaching yoga four and a half years ago, when she was 38, it seemed like the perfect entree to a life of free agency. Feuer spent most of her 30s working for her husband’s goth record label doing publicity and promotion. When they divorced in 2005, she wanted a job that gave her some of the same independence that he had. “I’d watched my husband go into business for himself, and I felt like I could do it, too,” she said.
Goth record label? I pulled the liner-notes booklet out of the CD jewel box, at the exact moment the flute-solo part of the song began.

Behold: Lisa Feuer was the flautist in Black Tape for a Blue Girl. Her now-ex-husband, Sam, fronted the band and owned the label that published it. And I suddenly remembered speaking briefly to Lisa and Sam at the Projekt Festival, since it turned out we knew a couple of the same people there.

I hadn’t thought of them in years, or played their song either, until the exact moment I found Lisa in the New York Times as a freelance yoga teacher whose customers can no longer afford her services in today’s economy, and Sam mentioned obliquely as the guy paying part of her rent.
Even in her best years, Feuer was never affluent, but with child support she was able to live what she considered a middle-class life. This year, however, because of the classes and students she has lost, Feuer is on track to make as little as $15,000, a 30 percent drop from the past. But because she is underemployed rather than out of work, she is not eligible for unemployment insurance. She also doesn’t show up in the unemployment statistics.
She hadn’t shown up in my memory, either, not anytime recently. I hadn’t thought of the band, song or festival in years, until I dug out that old CD seconds before reading about the former flautist from the long-ago Projekt Festival now illustrating an economic trend for the Times.

Spooky synchronicity. For the musicians’ sake, I won’t play anymore of my One-Song Wonder discs until the economy improves.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

And A Little Child Shall Lead Them

Back in my college days (which I spent in the It's-too-damned-hot-here part of the South), I paid occasional visits to the local fundamentalist megachurch, in the company of certain friends. None of us believed but we went to Fundie Church anyway because we were college students in the 90s, when Ironic Entertainment was popular.

So I've seen the megachurch megapreachers in real life, and occasionally on TV, and thus speak from experience when I say: this toddler's impersonation of the preacher is as near perfect as makes no difference.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Can't Afford To Be Poor Anymore

California’s budget situation is so dire, the state’s contemplating the abolishment of welfare. If this happens I expect other states to follow; the money to fund such programs simply doesn’t exist anymore. The last time I set foot in California was when I was 11, so I have no firsthand knowledge of what’s going on out there. But here’s a bet I feel safe to make: though the state might completely dismantle its various help-the-poor programs, it won’t even think about dismantling the myriad laws and regulations that make being poor a hell of a lot harder than it has to be. Neither will any other states following in California’s footsteps.

Technology makes life easier for the poor; clothes and food and books to stimulate the mind are cheaper now than at any time in history. Let’s hear it for weaving machines, the printing press, the Green Revolution and what have you! But every time technology gives poor folks a break, the government turns around and breaks something else for them. (Or maybe I should say “for us” – God knows the Man About The House here isn’t with me for my money.)

Consider housing. That’s my main financial concern these days (barring the possibility of a morbidly expensive medical problem, but I view that calamity on par with an asteroid striking the earth: I’ll focus my worrying on matters I can possibly control). Food is cheap; even in my broke-college-student days I never had the problem “I can’t afford to feed myself.” Clothing costs don’t concern me either, and even electricity – which is horribly expensive here in Connecticut – is still manageable so long as you remember to turn off unused lights and take other simple precautions.

No, whenever the worry “How will I manage to pay this month’s bills” crossed my mind, the bill in question was usually “housing.” Rent has always been my single biggest expense by far, and if I bought a house then my mortgage would be the prime concern. Considering how technology has, over the past century, brought about massive drops in the real cost of food, clothes, books and manufactured items, why haven’t housing prices dropped accordingly?

In a way, they have. I could buy a manufactured home, or one of those kit-built deals, for a relatively few thousand dollars. Another few thousand buys a piece of land – yes, even in my ridiculously expensive state of Connecticut – big enough to install the house, and then of course a few grand more for various utility hookups: water, electric and sewer.

I could afford to buy a house for cash, or at least with a loan small enough to pay off in a year – yes, even with my ridiculously small journalist’s salary. And even a journalist’s salary goes a long, long way if you don’t have to pay for housing.

But there’s one problem: I’d never be allowed to do that. Such behavior violates the zoning codes! Prefab homes are not allowed because they’d lower the value of the Toll Brothers McMansions down the street. And I could never buy such a tiny patch of land, not when the zoning codes require new houses to be built on nice big parcels.

A few months ago my town condemned a small apartment house – and put its tenants onto the street in the middle of winter – because the tenants were using space heaters in lieu of central heat. Were the space heaters a fire hazard? No, but The Code demands that all buildings not merely be heated but have built-in heat, whether the tenants and the landlord can afford it or not.

Don’t get me wrong – I find built-in heat vastly preferable to a space heater. But “an apartment with nothing but space heaters” beats the hell out of “no apartment at all.” Or “a shelter,” which my town made available (I hope) for the people evicted from their homes.

A few years ago I read of a case in Manhattan where a man was evicted from his basement apartment because the “basement” was actually a “cellar” (the difference has to do with what percentage was underground), and it’s illegal for New Yorkers to live in a cellar. So that man, too, lost his home on the theory “living on the street is better than living in a cellar.” Obviously the man did not think so, else he would’ve stayed on the street in the first place (which is much cheaper than renting a room in Manhattan). But the bureaucrat who evicted him was doubtless convinced that he, the bureaucrat, was doing the right thing.

Could be worse, for me. At least I don’t have kids. One kid might be manageable. With two kids, I’d better hope they’re both the same gender, or else I’d have to keep them in separate bedrooms once they reached toddler age. And a couple with more than two kids can say good-bye to any hope of ever owning a fuel-efficient car, since mandatory seatbelt laws require a family of five to drive a minivan at minimum.

About three years ago, for my then-newspaper job, I had to attend a zoning board meeting in a rural town where people were complaining about “subdivisions” and “15 percent green space.” At first I thought they were complaining about a law requiring developers to have a certain amount of green space – say, a playground – in any new subdivision they built. But no. It was more insidious than that: turns out if you own a piece of property and want to subdivide it – say, you own two acres and want to give one to your adult kid so he can build a house of his own – you have to turn 15 percent of that land over to the town, which will own it and make sure it remains “green space.”

I don’t remember, if I ever knew, the details of how the hell that passed Constitutional muster; the job didn’t give me the time to embark upon libertarian-flavored investigative-journalism projects. Besides, the subdivision rule is pretty popular among people with no property they’re trying to subdivide. The green space law keeps their property values high, and although the folks in that town occasionally worry about the town’s lack of affordability – “My kids can’t afford to live in the town where they grew up!” – they never talk about dismantling the laws that make affordability so unattainable.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Fell Off The Damned Wagon

Backsliding alert: I bummed a couple cigarettes from someone at work.

Tomorrow I’ll go back on the low-dosage nicotine patch. And buy myself a dog, and name it “Willpower.” That way, if any of y’all want to criticize me by saying “Jennifer, you have no willpower,” I can sic my dog on you and retort, “Like hell I don’t. He’s right there humping your leg.”

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Lottery Expenditures And My Impending Career Change

Last week I had to attend a university commencement speech given by Lowell Weicker, a former governor of Connecticut. Weicker’s main claim to fame is he’s the one who imposed a state income tax on Connecticut residents back in the 1990s. The idea, of course, was to use all that extra revenue to solve the state’s financial problems and leave it on firmer fiscal ground.

Now it’s the middle of 2009 and the state’s facing a budget deficit of $8 billion over the next two years. One proposed solution is – wait for it – an increase in state income tax rates(!). The idea, of course, is to use all that extra revenue to solve the state’s financial problems and leave it on firmer fiscal ground.

Hmm. Why does that sound so familiar? Maybe because I’m thinking of those news stories you see about guys who win umpty-squat million dollars in the lottery and then file for bankruptcy three years later. It’s not a spending problem; they just didn’t have enough money.

Too bad. But I’m not worried, because my own finances will soon improve now that I’ve decided to make a career change: I’m going to get pregnant, quit my job and have the kid.

“What the hell are you talking about?” you might say when you hear this. “I thought you said you didn’t want to be a mother.” Yes, granted, I’ve said such things in the past. But that was before I realized how in today’s economy, “unwed welfare mama” is actually a more lucrative (and more financially secure) career path than “print journalist.”

Free rent and utilities. Free food. Free health insurance that, while not great, is no worse than the policy for which I currently pay through the nose. Free clothes, since the thrift stores where I now pay cash will give me clothing vouchers instead. I’d even get a miniscule stipend that is still more than you’d have left over after paying for rent, utilities, food, clothing and health insurance on a typical journalist’s salary.

Of course, if I have a baby it will keep me up all night with its incessant crying. But that’s okay; I’m already a night owl and it’s not as though I’d have a job to go to in the morning.

The main problem is that I’d have to be unnaturally cheerful and optimistic around the kid, because it’s psychologically unhealthy for toddlers to be around cynical sarcastic pessimist types and no matter how bratty a four-year-old is, when she says “I hate you! I wish you were dead,” you really, really can’t reply “Some day I will be, and you will be too.”

So I’d want to do psychologically healthy things like take them to children’s museums, except I wouldn’t be able to afford that because I’d be on welfare. I’d enjoy reading to them, but if I read them my beloved old childhood books they might die.

Seriously. At least that’s what the government says: since my well-worn volumes about Paddington and Ramona and the Phantom Tollbooth were all printed before 1982, they’re presumed to be contaminated with lead. I could not legally sell or "distribute" those books on safety grounds, so would I dare read them to my own kid? If they're printed with lead and my kid licks the ink off she’ll get lead poisoning and grow up to be all stupid-like, thus reinforcing the statistics about how low-income children do in school.

How embarrassing that would be, for me. So never mind. I won’t be switching my career train onto the Mommy Track after all, not until my childhood books become safe again.
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