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Archive for April, 2008

As early as the second grade, I had an idea what I wanted to be, or rather I had two ideas. Having visited the United Nations on a previous trip  to see my grandparents, I was certain I wanted to be a translator. My mother put me immediately into French classes. In retrospect, Farsi or Russian or Mandarin would have been far more useful, which is to say I didn’t have a prayer of working at the UN. Probably just as well and in any case I can now order off the menu in a French restaurant with reasonable confidence.

The other career I wanted to pursue was in journalism. Then again, I grew up in an idealistic time, in the era of Woodward and Bernstein back when they acted like journalists and the New York Times published “The Pentagon Papers” instead of erroneous stories about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Those were the days but my desire to work in that “noble” field has disappeared faster than you can say “reporter.”

These days, our news delivery system is chaos, all noise and bluster and so falsely “fair and balanced” that every opinion and every story carry equal weight. In a world where we are all so enamored of our own opinion that listening to others or even sharing the same viewpoint as others is less important than getting noticed, the bizarre proliferation of opinions spewed across cyberspace (some backed by some sort of intelligence, thoughtfulness or consideration, others apparently backed by nothing other than anger, agenda, an ax to grind, what have you) become news. These opinions are given equal time and, worse yet, equal weight. The media mavens grab a story from the blogosphere, work it to death and regurgitate it back into the web. The same story gets recycled over and over again, skewing opinion even more. For example, Obama’s relationship with his ex-pastor Reverend Wright continues to be a hot topic but John McCain’s with another religious leader and supporter, Pastor John Hagee is not (Wikipedia carefully states that Hagee “has incurred some controversy for his comments regarding Catholicism, Islam, homosexuality, women, blacks, and hurricane Katrina.”). Good journalists, by the way, are caught in the middle.

Actually, I care less about who the candidates are hanging out with (yeah, yeah, I know, goes to judgement and all that) and more about their plans for health care. No I haven’t heard enough or I don’t understand it well enough. I’d like the media to help me but apparently, the media isn’t in the business of helping us stay informed anymore.

There are other people making noise about the state of the news, thank goodness. For starters, catch Elizabeth Edward’s op-ed piece on what the media does and doesn’t cover (for those of you with really, really short attention spans, she’s the wife of the “third” Democratic candidate, John Edwards, who dropped out of the race). Seriously, go read it; she makes some hugely important points about corporate control of media outlets and what kinds of stories those outlets chase. It’s depressing but worthwhile. Then read this article by Michael Ventre that addresses the John Stewart issue. While “traditional” media critics and “real” journalists have been lamenting the fact that the under-thirty set have been getting their news from a comedian, said comedian, apparently aware of his influence, appears to be putting more thought and, yes, analysis into his interviews and “reporting,” displaying more than a rudimentary understanding of the issues at hand. If he brings a certain detached irony to his delivery (he is, after all, still out to entertain), that is far better than the gonzo showings of some of more “esteemed” mainstream media colleagues these days (yep, I’m referring to the Democratic debates on ABC).

It’s small comfort, but comfort nonetheless, to know that I’m not alone in my despair over the way news is made, made important and then delivered. As much as I might like the sound of my own voice or the appearance of my own words, I really do want to hear what others are thinking about a particular subject. If they are as upset as I am or as I hope you readers will be, even better, especially because lately I’ve been feeling alternately isolated, afraid and mad as hell.

 

 

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I spent a few hours this morning interviewing a friend of mine for a chapter in my book. My friend has spent his entire career in government and has recently and delightedly retired.  During his professional lifespan, he worked for the Department of Agriculture, specifically Food Safety, and with the Food and Drug Administration, with short stints with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation. The guy got around, mostly unhappily, which may explain why the once pro-government liberal seems to have turned into a libertarian. He’s all for removing government from our lives and damned if he didn’t make a compelling case for doing just that. I’m not convinced yet but I was struck by the extent to which government has insinuated itself into our lives, mandating certain behaviors we take for granted are in our best interests, although they may not be.

What? You say you know that already? Then you’re more informed than I, or perhaps I haven’t put things together as he has. Sure, it could be argued that he’s a bit paranoid. Then again, he’s watched government work – or not work – from the inside for thirty years. What follows are a few of his examples which, amazingly, don’t even address the subject of post 9/11 erosion of civil rights.

  • It takes roughly 10 years for a drug to make it to the market place because of all the FDA requirements. That may seem like a good thing except that if you discover a cure for cancer and you’re not Merck, you won’t have the resources to keep your tiny research company alive long enough to get the drug out there.
  • Speaking of drugs, you don’t have to be pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine to realize that perhaps the argument shouldn’t be whether individual vaccines are effective in inoculating children (studies have shown they are) versus whether individual vaccines are dangerous for some children but rather whether combining all the vaccines and their preservatives and putting them all at once in a tiny body is the best method of delivery or might actually cause avoidable harm. Have we seen that study?
  • You may have noticed your car doesn’t have bumpers. Bumpers worked well in absorbing the impact of a low-speed crash, say in a parking lot or at a stop sign, where many accidents take place but they were eliminated in order to make lighter, faster cars that would presumably get better fuel mileage. Nowadays, cars get better gas mileage, probably because of more efficient engines, but there’s no  study showing bumper-less cars helped. However, rest assured that the decorative fascia that replaced the bumpers don’t absorb impact well and cost much much more to replace, which of course impacts your insurance.
  • All you drivers know seat belts must be worn; you can be pulled over and arrested if you’re not buckled in. Air bags are standard on all vehicles. We know that seat belts can keep you from flying out the car. They can also keep you from escaping the car. Air bags deploy in many instances, like that parking lot fender-bender described above and have been shown to be dangerous to children, pregnant women, pets, smaller people and anyone who wears glasses. These things save lives and also cost lives but anyway, it’s out of your hands at this point.

These are but a very few of the tidbits my friend shared with me, along with some insights into how regulations come into being. One thing we both noted is how often people petition the government for redress of one kind or another. We may not want to pay for Uncle Sam’s interference but we want him to make things better, even in the face of mounting evidence  that he isn’t always on top of his game. 

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I crawled out of bed after being hit by a spring version of the flu, I suppose, to learn that Priscilla Presley had been kicked off “Dancing With the Stars,” the Yankees had trounced the Red Sox and [your candidate here] had won the Democratic debate on Wednesday. I watched a little of it but the acrimonious tone and the constant hammering nearly sent me back to bed. While Obama’s use of the word “bitter” in describing small-town America is getting all the attention (temporarily sweeping aside Clinton’s claims of being under threat of sniper fire in Bosnia), did anyone catch the revelation that Cindy McCain’s homey little website featured a couple of recipes poached from the Food Network? That bit of “news” rated a six column article in the New York Times, which can ill afford the space in its print addition. Are we all going crazy here or am I still suffering the after-effects of the flu?

All three of the candidates are wealthy and privileged, all of them are educated and very smart and all of them are pandering, though Obama far less skillfully. I suspect he doesn’t understand why he has to and there are some days when I wonder the same thing. Why are we focusing on whether a guy wears a pin in his lapel? I don’t wear a pin nor do I have a flag decal in the rear window of my gas-guzzling car. You can love your country and recognize that symbolism can also mask laziness or hypocrisy. Don’t forget, there are politicians and CEOs wearing flag pins and it doesn’t mean they’re looking out for the best interests of the ordinary citizen. On the other hand, I can’t for the life of me figure out why Barry had to act so squeamish about the calories encased in a free sample he was offered at a chocolate factory in Pennsylvania. Just eat the damn thing!

This campaign feels like a train wreck waiting to happen. For historical perspective, I took myself out of bed and down to the living room couch to watch a repeat of part six of “John Adams,” HBO’s fantastic rendering of David McCullough’s Pulitzer prize-winning book about our second President. Adams was truly unpopular, despite his success at avoiding war with France. He signed the roundly despised Alien and Sedition Acts , was villified constantly in the press and he had to take up residence in a White House still under construction. Imagine contemplating important bills in a drafty building by the light of a single candle while roof scaffolding threatens overhead. Oh and his son Charles, an alcoholic, died.

Adams had it tough, no doubt. He also seems to have been a prickly, arrogant sort. He didn’t pander and he was punished for it. I’m not certain his stubbornness was a virtue; his successor, Thomas Jefferson seems to have been a man of conviction, intelligence and vision but with a much lighter touch. It’s all very well to think about shattering precedents with the election of a female or an African-American (or even somewhat older) president. But what I really want is a superior president.

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Yesterday was my birthday and I’d been planning on taking myself to Bermuda, which sounded sufficiently exotic but close enough to keep the airfare down and the headaches of air travel to a minimum. At the last minute I bailed, unable to secure a comfortable hotel room (okay near a golf course) for a “reasonable” rate, which is to say something less than twice the cost of a plane ticket. Boy am I’m glad I stayed home!

The wave of airplane groundings, starting but not ending with American Airlines, wreaked havoc on air travel yesterday.  I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering how the pileup in safety violations has been allowed to occur.  Actually, I’ve learned alot in the last few days, none of it designed to inspire me.

The airline industry conducts its own inspections; the “oversight” is provided by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  to which the airlines supposedly issue reports. Right, that’s like asking the foxes to keep the farmer updated on how many hens are supposed to be in the chicken coop. Sometimes a company (or several companies) will miss inspections. In the case of Southwest Airlines, planes that weren’t inspected for fuselage cracks flew anyway. Oh some of those planes were later found to have the cracks. Oops.

Where to start? On one hand, you’ve got deregulation, which suggests that the government pull back since private industries will police themselves. You can see how well that’s worked with the banking industry. On the other hand, you’ve got these hugely inefficient government agencies that soak up our tax dollars but apparently can’t seem to perform basic regulatory duties.

At this point, I’m ready to tear my hair out. See, I’m not about more or less government but about better government. I know, silly me. I’m thinking basic oversight from the get-go (since private industry has NOT shown itself to have consumer interests at heart, unless those consumers happen to be large stockholders). Presumably such oversight could, in turn, prevent the necessity of a last-ditch, hugely costly effort to save, bail out or otherwise come to the rescue of the industries we asked the government to leave alone. And why does the government have to bail out these industries? Because, John and Jane Q. Public, your lives, your livelihoods, your revenue streams and god knows what else are now extricably tied up with the fortunes of the private industries. They go down, you go down. I mean, unless you don’t have a mortgage, don’t have money in the stock market, don’t travel by air, aren’t concerned about food inspection (maybe you grow your own food?) and oh, don’t require health insurance. Lucky you. This time.

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One of the more interesting articles I ran across in yesterday’s paper concerned blogging(although I’m trying to get my news the new-fashioned way, via the Internet, the better to connect with my young friends and colleagues, I still like to peruse the paper with a cup of coffee in hand; call me old-fashioned). Anyway, the gist of the story was that blogging, which pays little and requires long hours in front of a computer, is so stressful you could die – literally. As was noted, two well-known bloggers, one sixty and the other fifty, had recently dropped dead and another had suffered a massive heart attack. Apparently, even those who manage to make a decent living feel chained to their stations, much like the assembly lines of ancient times.

 

Clearly there are certain factors at work: too little exercise, too little sleep, and probably a diet of whatever-you-can-grab, which is to say junk food. We all know that sitting or standing in one place for any length of time is bad for you but we all forget when parked in front of our computers to stand up or look up or stretch or even blink. Throw in the pressure of delivering content on a twenty-seven basis and it’s a wonder more people don’t drop on the spot.

 

I write, sometimes for pay and sometimes not. Like everyone else, I’m confronted with deadlines. But I’m at the point where, no matter how much I enjoy doing what I’m doing, I’m still aware that life is about – well, living. That means friendship and fun and exercise and sun and time with my dog as well as my beloved blog. So if on occasion I miss a few days posting, never fear. I’ve just pried my hands off the keyboard, closed up the basement office and headed upstairs for a cup of coffee and some time with the newspaper.

 

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A friend and colleague passed along an e-mail from a woman seeking to promote her book and her movement or, as she calls it, pandemic called “Age Esteem.” According to the copy on her website, “Age Esteem” seeks to create a world where age and aging are celebrated and people of all ages are seen as important, contributing members of society.” Like so many such movements, er, pandemics nowadays, she offers training and workshops, books and magazines and CDs and a monthly online newsletter. While I noticed a picture of a man somewhere among the collection of smiling mature faces, the audience would seem to be primarily women, an observation supported by a news brief mentioning the author, Bonni Lou, presented to the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations recently. Impressive.

It seems kind of sad – and a little strange – that in 2008, what with people living longer and all, there needs to be a movement helping us combat negative stereotypes about age and aging. Aren’t there still societies where the elderly are revered or am I flashing to a previous incarnation, say a few centuries ago?

Nowadays, fifty is not so much the new forty as the year in which we all pass out of the coveted advertising demographic and can count on being targeted mainly by those selling retirement funds, restricted living developments and almost any medicine. Women feel pressured to stay on top of their game even earlier. Let’s face it; you don’t hear much about trophy husbands. Meanwhile, men’s magazines and websites don’t seem to target age groups quite as strenuously; once the guys get past the slacker years, they all appear to be reading pretty much the same things.

If women have to work extra hard to stay fit, dress well and look hot into their middle years and beyond, they’re at least getting lots of help in print and online. The latest woman-oriented endeavor comes from four wildly successful women of, yes, a certain age who, with the assistance of a group of well-known female contributors, also of a certain age, have combined their marketing and business savvy to launch a new website called Wowowow.

The site is still in its beta testing phase, meaning subject to change. Some of the articles, like “Is Adultery Bred Into the Male Animal?” lean a little towards the “ladies magazine” prototype of yore but posts on finances, politics and international stories have also found their way onto the pages. The bloggers adding their comments strike me as intelligent and thoughtful people. I have high hopes for a site perpetrated and populated by such high-powered females. Statistics show women are still living longer than men. Since we’re going to be around awhile, I’m all for positive attitude adjustment. Besides, there’s a lot to talk about.

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