Sunday, September 25, 2011

Selling it short

When I learned that our school district was closing two neighborhood schools this year I experienced all the usual emotions a parent feels. I was disappointed that my children wouldn't be able to walk to school, up hill, both ways, in the snow and sleeting rains of September.

They wouldn't learn to diagram sentences or practice fluid writing at the brick school building just a few doors down the street. The joyful noise of students on the playground would be silenced.

As a community member, though, I was resigned. If there really were fewer students to educate, and less money with which to teach them, consolidation was inevitable. I felt sorry for the elderly people who showed up at board meetings voicing a widely held belief that with the economy in its current state something had to give … but it wouldn't be them.

They'd already given enough.

Consolidation wasn't a perfect solution. The buildings would still need to be maintained, though not to the same extent as they would were they being used. The real savings was in the form of jobs. And so it was decided the schools would close. Class size would increase. Scores of teachers would be released to hunt for employment elsewhere.

We weren't an exception to any rule. We fit a pattern that is being cut and sewn across the country. Tighter waistlines everywhere.

Schools nationwide are feeling the pain of this severe recession. Some districts have been decimated; half of their schools and staff already scraped off the chopping block. Schools are combining classes, cutting back on arts, some are even scaling back their hours of education all together. Teachers are buying communal supplies out of their own pockets. Some are ending their school day cleaning their own classrooms as maintenance jobs are eliminated.

Bare bones in the classroom, for some, has even meant doing away with soap and towels in the bathroom, opting instead for anti-bacterial hand sanitizers.

Doing without is something that seems inevitable for everyone in every industry. Unless you happen to be in a corner office in Corporate America, where profits are soaring despite jobs being stagnant.

It seems only the rich are eating their cake and having it, too.

But for how long?

I shake the thought from my mind long enough to help the kids on with their bike helmets. They want to ride to the playground. It will be their first bike ride outside of our meandering driveway.

They've been practicing.

They know they'll have to stop and look before crossing driveways. They're ready and eager to hop off and walk their bikes through intersections.

Getting to the playground under their own pedal power has important meaning. Another step toward independence as they embark on the long road to self-sufficiency.

All was as it should be.

Until we got to the school and found great heaving craters where the playground equipment used to be. Gone were the slides and monkey bars and climbing walls. Gone were the swings. The only thing remaining was an octagonal picnic table and a few chunks of discarded cement.

Where did it go?

I asked ittybit if they maybe moved it to another school, the most likely possibility.

She didn't know. They didn't move it to her school.

Maybe they sold it.

Whatever it was, it wasn't here - in this neighborhood - any more.

Standing there staring at the empty schoolyard felt more than depressing. It felt vaguely apocalyptic.

The only thing that could make that moment worse would have been if we had been holding ice cream cones and accidentally dropped them in the detritus.

Or perhaps a balloon, popped by the need to give investors their profits.

The disappearance of the neighborhood school wasn't so much of a weight lifted as a missing piece.

Small pieces gone for now. Maybe even forever.

If this is the future, I can't help but think we're selling it short.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Making lemons out of lemonade

She was so busy counting her money that she wasn't listening as her father tried to explain how IT worked.

The IT that was making him turn blue in the face was profit margin.

"Remember how you went to the store and bought all of the supplies?" he said slowly.

"Yes, I remember," she sung in response, pretending his stern look was a part of a game that started yesterday in the grocery store. "Mommy wanted canned and I wanted real lemonade. She won."

"Do you remember who paid for the inventory?"

"What's inventory?"

"The lemonade you sold today."

"Mom paid. We're not shoplifters!"

"No, no you're not shoplifters. But because mom paid for the supplies fair and square, it means she's an investor, and, as a shareholder, some of that money you made selling the lemonade she bought goes back to her."

"What does that mean?"

"You owe mom the cost of the lemonade out of your profits."

"What does THAT mean?"

"Basically, it means half."

She stopped counting her money. Her face clouded and tears filled her eyes.

I'm not sure if he recognized in her expression that telling her a percent more than the initial investment was supposed to come from her earnings, too, would send her over the edge.

He told her anyway, and off the cliff they went.

"This is MY money. I earned it."

"No. Technically, part of it is OUR money and we deserve to be repaid."

In essence, what followed devolved into each of them shouting "mine, mine, mine" at each other like a flock of seagulls at a clam bake.

She was too young for this lesson, I thought as I listened to my husband become more and more adamant about return on investment, and our daughter become more focused on the dollars in her grimy, this-is-why-we-chose-cans hands.

Poor little business girl knew she wasn't going to win this one. She forked over the cash her father had demanded and stormed to her room.

"What was I supposed to do?" he asked me guiltily, as if I had a clue.

Economic principles shouldn't be this hard to explain, I think to myself. You have a business. You buy supplies. The profit comes after you sell the product AND pay back your loans.

But it's never that easy.

I couldn't stop thinking about a story I'd read in the New York Times about how video gaming is the most heavily subsidized industry in the United States because it fits all the criteria for technological research and development, which the government will pay for to bolster the greater good.

Changing the criteria seems almost impossible because no one wants to kill tax breaks or jeopardize jobs, which are both substantial. According to the article, the industry's median job pays $80,000 and the amount it writes off completely is in the neighborhood of $123 billion.

No wonder why education is so screwed up.

Teachers, schmeechers. X-Box is more important than algebra anyway. Even the IRS thinks so.

The more I think about it the closer my shoulders align with my ears. How can I relax when I think the only hope for the future is if the gaming industry hires the teachers we fire so they can educate the next generation of video game makers? But then it strikes me that self-investment is the only viable answer to our own sour lemonade stand-off.

Next time she wants to set up shop, she'll just have to stake her own business. With all the loot she's been hoarding from from birthdays and tooth fairy visits, she's certainly got enough cash to keep from making lemons out of lemonade.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Look both ways, but cross the street

Dear Ittybit & Champ,

On this day ten years ago, at 8:57 a.m., I was sitting in my car in the parking lot of the newspaper's office. Stunned. The radio station had stopped regular programming to announce a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. As I sat there, blinking at the announcer's voice streaming into my car, I thought a small plane had gone off course and struck the building. 

 I shut the car's engine off, ran upstairs and told the only other soul in the newsroom to turn on the television because a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. When the picture faded in, we watched as a second plane hit the other tower.

Clearly, this was no accident.

I don't think I've ever been so stunned or uncertain or quiet in my life. I couldn't really absorb what was happening. It was all just rushing around me like waves of ice cold water.

The day went on like that, and the feeling continued into the next, and the next and the next. Whole months went by in a fog. 

Things changed. People were nicer to each other (for a time). We made decisions because of (rather than despite) the tragedy. In my case, the hopelessness I felt made marriage and children important where it hadn't been before. It made YOU important. 

Then time wore on and we found ourselves in a war that seems meaningless; a war on the crime of terrorism that is as "winable" as the decades-long war on drugs. We find our constitutional rights eroded, and we accept it as the price of safety. We have gone from a nation united in tragedy to one that is divided by ideology. 

Ittybit, you attended your first day of pre-school on the fifth year of this tragic anniversary. As I kissed you and watched you greet your teachers, I wondered what will you ultimately learn from this new milestone, school? I wondered what legacy we are handing you and your classmates?

Since the Champ came along we haven't spoken much about the events that in so many ways made you both possible. Made your father and I rethink what it was we were doing together. Playing house? Pretending to be adults? What was the purpose if not to raise children.

Getting married and having children wasn't an act of defiance. It wasn't a political statement. It was the understanding that the rest of our lives started right that very minute and it needed to count. It needed to be more than just us. 

Nevertheless, we have come to realize the world we brought you into has changed in ways we can hardly comprehend ourselves.

I know you cannot be safe. None of us can. And yet I am a part of this collective anxiety in which our bodies respond to Code Orange as if it had meaning other than to instill fear and loathing. I want to put it all into perspective, but the constant coverage of what-ifs and could-bes makes it difficult to remain calm. 

Home of the free? The brave? It doesn't feel like it much anymore.

Perhaps this is my cause, lovies. Something I want for you more than anything else. To realize our time here is brief and some of it will be tragic. There will be sadness for which we cannot prepare, and yet we have to be brave. To not give in to fear or hatred because it is likely to lead us down the wrong path. 

I want to tell you to take chances, my beauties. Play in the mud and the muck and the paint. Get dirty. I want you to learn how to talk to strangers. I want you to come to love them, even when they prove to be imperfect. I want you to be aware that you are not alone in this world. Look around and take it all in. Take precautions, too, but don't let them take over. Look both ways before you cross a street, but cross the street. 

And please, little ones, try to play nice, OK? 


Sunday, September 04, 2011

We are our own worst frienemies

Something was in the air.

Ittybit had been scouring the yard for poultry feathers. She had a fistful and I could see her mind turning with all the possibilities. Maybe she'd make pens for writing … or a headdress … or maybe she was planning on cloning an entire Gallus Gallus flock of her very own.

I also noticed she was running toward my friend, who, I noticed, was curling and uncurling her finger in my daughter's direction.

Whisper, whisper, whisper …. Pssst psst, psst, pssssssst … Giggling.

Here it comes ...

“Mommy, Can we take one of their roosters home with us? Abby's mom said it was OK.”

Abby's mom was sitting in the lawn chair, cackling like a possessed chicken, as her flock of fledgelings darted about the yard, diving into mud puddles and hunting down all manner of creepy-crawling things to eat.

As were our children, who, as the weekday backyard birthday party came to a close, were still finding themselves as hungry as if we'd fed all the festive fare to the fowl.

Well … most of our children, anyway. My youngest, filled to the gizzards with cake and ice cream, was sitting on my lap blowing soap bubbles. It would have been an unspeakable horror for him to have to walk on the grass – which was wet from all the make-shift water slide fun – and forever endure the squeaking of his shoes.

“Does he have sensory issues?” one mother had asked discretely. “No, he's just weird,” I laugh.

I was an outsider, a last-minute guest who had never even known such a thing as Weekday Birthday Parties existed.
I marveled at the turnout.

Abby's mom just laughed. “Well, none of them work.”

She wasn't making a judgement, she wasn't picking a fight ... she was just stating the obvious: These women didn't have to punch a time clock or show up at an office to put in eight hours before they could go home to their families.

So here I was, a new member of the maternal organization of free agents, finally seeing all the possibilities.

It's not as if I don't have work … like this column … or photography … it's just that I also have vacuuming … and carting of kids from one event to another ... taking the cat to the vet. I just have to get over the idea that sweeping up dirt that gets tracked into the house is my new job description. ... It is not.

It's not like I died.

I'd just been laid off. My job added to a pile of more than 3,200 positions torched by the news industry in 2011.

But oddly enough, once the shock of timing had worn off, all I was left with was relief.

I can do anything I want to do.

I can be self-employed. I can freelance. I can do whatever I want. ... Sort of ...

I could garden! If-I-could-find-something-that-didn't-need-sun-or-skill-to-grow.

I could write that book! If-I-could-figure-out-a-plot.

I could even raise chickens! If-I-didn't-live-in-a-village-that-has-outlawed-farm-animals-within-its-borders.

“You know, we haven't had a tick all summer and that's pretty amazing for this yard,” my friend gloated, as only a woman who lives outside of zoning can.

I just smile as I try to brainstorm something to reciprocate her kindness. Maybe I'll bring her kids a puppy.

With friendships like these, who needs enemies?