Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Writing A Legacy

When I began to write my autobiography I had no idea I would ever publish it in anything by a spiral bound book produced at our local copyshop. I began as a whim when a friend invited me to join her memoir writing group. It soon became, however, an exploration into writing things that only I knew about, things than I cared deeply about, that would die with me if I didn't record them.

I started out with my birth, all that had been told to me by my mother in a letter she wrote me on my 40th birthday. From there it seemed natural to move on to the story of my mother, which happily she had written out for me, as little had been related prior to her death. My father's story had been written in a family history published in one of those spiral bound books by the wife of a cousin. Again, happily, as I had not thought to question my father about his family's story before his death when I was just sixteen. However, it was not long before there was a story that was just pressing to be told. It just wouldn't wait. It almost screamed at me to get it down on paper. And that's how the first two chapters of It's an Ill Wind, Indeed... were born.

I wrote those two chapters, but then could not read them in writing group without crying. They slumbered quietly at home for weeks. But I was able then to go back to writing the stories of my earlier life, about my aunt Teedy, about life on the farm when I was young, and about WWII, high school journalism classes, and everything up to the beginning of the story that changed my life, what became two distinct books: ...Invisible to the Eye - the first forty years and It's an Ill Wind, Indeed...that blows no good.

At some point, I came to remember that I had speeches on file that I had written during the Bereavement Outreach era, speeches about grief and bereavement I had given as I was going around the State helping other counties develop programs like the one I'd helped to found in Davis. The writing of those speeches had helped me write my way through grief. My mind had been so cluttered I could hardly think, but I learned things as I wrote and discovered new things about myself. I now came to realize as I reread some of those speeches that I may have written them to change others' lives, but what I really accomplished was to change myself.

As months passed in that earlier time, giving speech after speech from city to city, county to county, I saw a new life emerging from the mourning mists. Writing had always been an easy way to express my feelings. It's an Ill Wind, Indeed.... Writing at this time, just a year or so after the death of my husband and young son, helped to clarify my thoughts, led to new feelings, discoveries and understanding. Helping others to work through their grief became a reason for my having survivied.

When I began to write, I didn't imagine the journey. To write a memoir means wrestling with the truth, to tell or not to tell. It means you have to travel back in time. It has the power to reveal deep secrets and to explose long-buried hidden truths, pain and bring them to the light of day. For instance, in Invisible to the Eye, I wrote a chapter I called "If I had Known Then What IKnow Now" in which I bared my soul and for the first time tole about my teenage feelings about a mother who wasn't there for me.

Although I've always written, it's been mostly about current events, politics, vignettes about people and places, and sadly, not about the day to day living. I highly recommend journal writing to anyone who thinks they might someday want to write a memoir or if you have experienced a loss. Write down your thoughts and moods. When you look back later, you will be surprised at the changes, the progress you've made.

As I think about why I wrote these two books, which are now on the bookshelves of all of my children and grandchildren - or so I might hope - I suppose it is to be remembered, to be known. I recently saw a play at Berkeley Rep Theatre, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, which speaks to that very thing. "The desire to remember and be remembers is a mark of our humanity, a constant refrain the cacophony of history and change. The profound fear of being forgotten after our deaths underpins the way that we choose to chronicle our lives. After all, of our stories are not kep by those who follow us, it means that our deaths are a meaningless exercise in suffering and loss. We long for some kind of afterlife, hoping that the end of our time in this world will be compensated by some kind of existence in the next. We carve our initials in trees and tourist attractions, tuck our grandmother's quilts into a child's crib, and fix fleeting memories to a scrap of celluloid."

Though it finds a new medium in every culture and era, the impulse to bear witness and leave a tangible record remains. And that is why so many of my generation can be found today writing their memoirs. This poem, penned in a bible by a woman named Abigail Torr (1781-1869) says it all:

Abigail Torr is my name

New England is my nation

Durham is my dwelling place

and Christ is my salvation

When I am dead and buried

and all my bones are rotten

When this you see remember me

that I may not be forgotten.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Booksigning at The Avid Reader

I've not been writing a blog for some time - I've been writing and publishing two memoirs: ...Invisible to the Eye: The First Forty Years and It's an Ill Wind, Indeeed - That Blows No Good. Last night I read from both of them at a book signing at The Avid Reader in Davis.

Some books are written to make you laugh, some to make you cry. Some are written to make you think, many to make you ask the question, "why". Writing through your grief makes you do all of these things...PLUS I found it makes you sort our your feelings and fine a certain release. Both of my memoirs did that for me.

It's an Ill Wind, Indeed... maps my hard fought journey through grief from the very first day of a fire in our home and after the tragic loss of both my husband and son during the next week. The first part of the story is intense, not Pollyanna, but leaves its readers with important lessons to be learned. It is a candid story of the reclamation of my life and that of my four teenaged children, while I hope honoring the deceased.

It's an Ill Wind, Indeed... is easily related to by anyone struggling with bereavement, but may also be instructive to friends and counselors, as well.

Grief changes you. As I wrote in the book, my children lost not only a father and a brother, but a mother, too, as they had always known her.

When I began to write, almost ten years ago, I didn't imagine the journey. To write a memoir means wrestling with the truth. It means you travel back in time, search out your feelings, divulge deep secrets and long buried thoughts, and bring them and events to the light of day. It is to expose your deeply hidden truths, your pain, your anger, as well as all your joys.

From It's an Ill Wind, Indeed...

It is ironic that when all is going smoothly and our love, families, and/or
land are secure, we tend to focus on insignificant problems that divide us; when
we are threatened, we come together to look at the bigger picture - the promise,
the possibilities, our true purpose in life. It is at the time of crisis
that we have an opportunity to renew passions that have been kept slumbering as
if in suspended animation. It is at these critical times we are able to risk, to
go forward in the face of overwhelming odds, to search out the possibilities
and the promise. It is out of crisis that we get the chance to be reborn,
to choose the kind of change that will help us grow, to enable us to fulfill
ourselves more completely - as individuals - or as a country.

It is the unending paradox that we learn best from crisis - from loss,
pain, and suffering. It is through our grief that we are able to disengage
ourselves from the day-to-day status quo and bring ourselves to fully examine
our purpose - what is really imporant in life.

Perhaps crisis can be seen as our homework, given not to oppress us, to
beat us down, but to help us grow - to help us move on to the next stage of our
life. It was important for me to find a new definition for who I was - something
besides a survivor, a bereaved widow and mother. I feel lucky to have been able
to turn tragedy into triumph - to feel worthy again - through helping

In ...Invisible to the Eye, I wrote stories about my birth, my mother and father's lives, as well as those of forebears - and my first forty years. Those forty years included many changes - the McCarthy hearings of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, civil rights, the integration of Touro Infirmary in New Orlenas, and the beginning of the University of California Medical School - all of which we had a part. I wrote that memoir for my children and grandchildren, but then when people who had read It's an Ill Wind, Indeed... asked "Are you going to write about the first forty years?" I decided to make it more public.

As I began to write parts of that book, I discovered there were some emotional scores to work through and settle or which I hadn't even been aware. For instance this one about my mother:

I wanted my mother to be at the Mother-Daughter teas; I wanted her to ge at
the performances at school; I wanted more than the "What Every Girl Should Know"
booklet left with a box of "necessities" on my dresser. I wanted her to be home
more than on weekends at which time I would even then have to share her with the
friends and family who regularly gathered. Instead, she brought me gifts; she
brought clothes; she set me up with charge accounts at local stores at a very
young age with which I could buy even more things. I resented the things; I
wanted her presence - not her presents.

Looking back on it now, I can see that I was a little brat sometimes.
Mother would come home after a long week on the road, give me a hug and tell me
there were packages for me out in the car. I'd say, "Oh, do I have to...? doing
my best to ignore her as I perceived she had neglected me.

I tried to make these things not matter. I tried to avoid the wounds of
deep disappointment when whe would promise to try to make it to the
Mother-Daughter Tea in May, but wouldn't; when she would hope to be home in
time to help me get ready for the prom, but couldn't. My brother came in her
stead to my 9th grade graduation. I know that my mother loved me; but as a
teenager I suffered keen disappointment time after time. It seemed to me
that she had plenty of time in her life for the "Aunts" and even for
complete strangers, the "Bring Home a Serviceman for Dinner" fellows, who
often stayed on for a weekend and returned time and again,bringing gifts of
butter and other scarce items. The quality of time my mother and I share was
shallow by comparison, more than likely because of my pent-up resentment,
which snowballed into planned indifference.

As you can see, I dug deep for those feelings of the teenaged Joni. Our stories shape us...our families shape our stories...and I especially thank my family for allowing me to tell our stories. We are each a product of our own bubbling stew - culture, neighborhood, ancestry, DNA - and, in our case, Davis. How remarkable our years in Davis have been. As I finished It's an Ill Wind, Indeed... and read it through from start to finish, I realized that it is, indeed, a love story to Davis, to all those who stood by our family during our darkest hours and for years beyond. But it was a town that fostered my need to find a reason for having survived. It allowed me to make a difference in my community - to feel worthy again.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Search for Truth

Truth will out.

There are no whole truths: all truths are half-truths.

Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.

If you don't read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed. – Mark Twain

These are just a few of the hundreds of quotes about truth. My favorite is perhaps one with many attributions – my version: There is no truth; just perceptions of the “truth.” Mark Twains is the one I’m planning to write about today.

If you don’t read a newspaper, news on the Internet, listen to television news or interviews, you will remain uninformed; but if you do all of those things, you are very apt to be misinformed. I have found that it takes real work to come close to being informed. It’s ironic that if you can watch only one-half hour of television in search of the truth about what’s going on in the world today, your best bet is Jon Stewart, who professes to be a only a comedian, but whose sense of irony probably gets you closest to the truth.

Rush Limbaugh’s recent diatribe about President Obama’s authorization for using whatever force necessary to secure the safe release of the sea captain hostage of the pirates off the coast of Somalia is a perfect example. “Now we’re killing children!” Prior to the release, of course, his invectives against the President included, “Why isn’t he doing something?” One has to know that another scenario of an unhappier outcome would have led to a tirade about this liberal anti-military President being soft on terrorism. A no-win situation! No truth anywhere to be found, yet this man speaks for many in our country – and they believe his words to be true

Countdown with Keith Olbermann or The Rachel Maddow show are a shade better, but then that’s probably because of my liberal point of view. You still have to do a bit of sorting and weighing to come near the truth. I even listen closely to the interviews of Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers, although I am addicted to both.

Recently I watched Bill Moyers interview with Arne Duncan, President Obama’s new Secretary of Education, and found myself quite impressed with the choice. His merit-pay and incentive based learning ideas sounded really good – at first blush – but then I got to wondering just how they plan to go about judging the “merit.” Thus far measuring student’s learning has tended to be ephemeral, with teachers teaching to the test, cramming stuff into kids’ heads – mostly forgotten even days later. How much of what you memorized in high school do you remember now? Better measures of student learning would have to include evaluation of portfolios, exhibits, presentations, etc. to give credibility. A standardized test is only an abstract slice of the pie. And that doesn’t even bring up the subject of how political merit pay could become.

High school has become, in many communities – especially in the inner cities – more about controlling teens and teaching to the test, not opening minds and stimulating excitement about learning. Universities have to remedy that, and it takes time and effort. And it doesn't always work. This is a huge distraction, eating up a lot of resources, as well as undermining the value of a four-year degree. We all agree we really need to fix our K-12 system.

As a part of that “controlling teens”, according to a recent article by Andy Kroll in the Tom Dispatch, is a big part of Duncan’s Chicago school system, “…the most militarized in the country, boasts five military academies, nearly three dozen smaller Junior Reserve Office Training Corps programs within existing high schools, and numerous middle school Junior ROTC programs…. Nearly all are located in low-income, minority neighborhoods. This merging of military training and education naturally raises concerns about whether such academies will be not just education centers, but recruitment centers, as well.

I’m reminded of the day I read of the graduation of one of my former students from Davis's Independent Studies Program. Extremely dyslexic twin brothers, had been referred by their DSIS advisor when they were just twelve years old. Their mother, who had recently died of breast cancer, had been homeschooling them for several years, even taking them to a special reading program in the Bay Area, but they had yet to learn to read even on a consistent first grade level. In fact, perhaps because of emotional turmoil during their mother's last illness and death, they had probably regressed.

We had worked diligently with a program I had just learned about, as well as with Lindamood-Bell techniques, and within the year, I had them reading at a level DSIS thought would give them some success at a modified program in junior high in Woodland, where they lived.

One of the boys had a degree of success, but the other, thoroughly miserable and the victim of cruel junior high harassing, asked to be returned to my tutoring room for independent studies. We worked for three hours every day for the remainder of that year and through the summer on social studies, math, and writing, eventually achieving a reading level that would permit him to work independently the next year with some support from a neighbor.

Some time later, I was elated to read of his graduation from high school. I immediately called to congratulate him, asking of his future plans. He told me he planned to go to Yolo Community College for one year and then join the Marines. When I asked him what had brought him to that decision, he replied, “The Marines are an elite corps…and I want to be elite.”

Although the words came from his mouth, I knew they were not his words. He had been recruited. I wept. Recruiters prey on just this type of young man – one without the grades to get into a four-year college, one who would probably struggle with even a City College. This boy, who had worked so tirelessly and with remarkable motivation to be the best that he could be, would eventually join up and become Iraq fodder. This from the militarization of our public schools as they now are!

According to the article I just read about Arne Duncan’s Chicago charter school/military academies; this is what he may have in mind for cities across the country. This did not come out in the interview with Bill Moyers. There had been no mention of militarization, although he had praised the Charter Schools of Chicago.

Higher education offers its challenges, too, as it becomes more expensive each year. Does every student – even the prepared ones - need four years of study at facilities that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct, run, and maintain to learn the curriculum of a course of study that could be accomplished via methodical independent study. Tests could be offered that would confer the equivalent of a college degree.

Educators and parents urge their children to get a college degree, but can you take a four-year degree and go teach? No, I’m afraid not. You have not learned what you need to know. You have to now get a teaching certificate and preferable a Master’s.

How about Business College? Are you ready to open a business? I think you would find there is a steep learning curve, and that your business education at the University of California didn’t prepare you for it.

What about a degree in English? Could you earn a living writing? Not likely. If you’re lucky, you will find an internship or entry-level job somewhere on one of the few remaining newspapers that haven’t yet folded at a salary less than you could earn asking, “Ya want fries with that?” If you want the skills of a pro, you won’t find them in a four year college. You’ve got to practice, practice, practice…or you can write a blog.

I wish Secretary Duncan well, but I’ll be keeping an eye on him and his ideas. I’m looking forward to learning more. And it will take reading Truthout, Huffington Post, TomDispatch, as well as The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, listening to Charlie Rose and Bill Moyers Interviews, Jim Lehrer’s News, and Jon Stewart, plus reading many of the non-fiction books recommended…and still, I’m guessing, there is no truth, only perceptions of the truth.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Bill Moyers' Journal - a must see!

Oh, if you didn't see Bill Moyers' Journal last night, it's a must see!

And after you've watched it, don't miss reading some of the comments about last night's show on the blog. There are 'pats and pans' - something for everyone! I'd love to know what you think.

The Black interview's veracity may be debatable, given the confusion over the law related to "taking over the banks" vs. bankruptcy, etc., but the discussion about the state of journalism in this country is, in my opinion, right on target. It is difficult to find a newscast or interviews, such as Meet the Press, etc. that doesn't contribute in the dissemination of the current propaganda with very little true journalism. Bill Moyers Journal and Fareed Zakaria being two exceptions, I think...and maybe Jim Lehrer's and Charlie Rose, although they don't seem to be willing to be too confrontational either. As these two guests mentioned, it is ironic that Jon Stewart, viewed as a comedian, is our main source showing the hypocrisy and, indeed, malfeasance of the media...particularly cable news.

I loved Tim Russert for his willingness to confront his guests and show their inconsistencies, etc., but remember being horrified when he said that he only relayed to his listeners things he gleaned from the administration only if they released it - this during the Scooter Libby/Valerie Plame debacle. Where are the muckrakers when we need them? I care little about what the First Lady is wearing to meet the Queen, but I certainly care that Larry Summers, our President's senior economic advisor, received millions in fees from the very financial firms being bailed out, on his advice, by our government. A definite conflict of interest! The foxes appear to be guarding the hen house!

Meet the Press today, instead of calling Larry Summers to task today, interviewed the new CEO of General Motors, asking him time after time how he planned to get the company back on track and whether he is preparing the company for bankruptcy. Give the man time to get the work done...he's only five days into his 60 day deadline. Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, however, have some answering to do, it seems to me, and not just about the TARP program, but about their relationships to the recipients.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Dichotomy of Religion

I remember the day not quite as if it were yesterday, but I do remember it. I was in fifth grade, ten years old, maybe nearly eleven. Father Ryan had come into our classroom at my parochial elementary school in Hoquiam, Washington, to talk about our catechism lesson, as he did regularly. At some point, we had learned about original sin, baptism, and one "fact" that caught my attention: if babies died before being baptized they would end up in a limbo-like state in purgatory, since they had not been absolved of mortal sin through baptism and therefore could not enter heaven.

I’d been struggling with faith for some time, as I was a child who had to have logical reasons for everything. (Nothing much has changed in the ensuing sixty-seven years!) At my first opportunity, I questioned Father Ryan. I don’t remember the exact wording, of course, but it was probably something like this: “If a mother goes to heaven when she dies, how could she ever be happy knowing she would never be joined by her baby, who is in purgatory?” “If God is looking after us, looking down on us at all times, why does he let bad things happen to people?” “If God exists, it would seem that either he doesn’t care or he can’t do anything to stop these things from happening – like the war. So that would mean he’s not all-knowing and all-powerful, wouldn't it?” “There must be a lot of people praying for the war to be over and for their sons to be home safe. Why isn’t he answering all of those prayers?”

I think it was after only one of these sessions with Father Ryan that I was assigned to go to help the altar boys practice their Latin responses during catechism class. I always wondered why, but I think I know now.

My questions have never been answered satisfactorily. The unbaptised baby going to purgatory issue was resolved, however, when the Vatican decided in 2007 that unbaptised babies can go to heaven instead of getting stuck somewhere between heaven and hell. I’m beyond this questioning now, of course,, but I wonder if there isn’t a fifth grade child somewhere who wonders, “If limbo doesn’t exist, what’s happening to everyone who supposedly has been there for years and years.”

In fact, I’ve added many more questions to my list. As a teenager, however, I finally chose to abandon trying to believe in God and the religion I found to be hypocritical rather than to blame God for abandoning people. My main concern these days is how religion has become so entwined with the politics of our country, how a candidate must profess to be a Christian in order to have a chance to be elected, and how religions continue to fracture our world.

In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris, an avowed atheist, cites, Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, saying, “ ...(he) surpassed the Christian Bible in terms of morality with one sentence: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.” Straightforward and to the point, no if’s ands or buts.

Just today I heard on a brief news clip that Afghani President Karzai in his quest for re-election has proclaimed that an Afghani woman may not leave her home without express permission from an adult male family member, as well as "she can no longer refuse her husband sexual relations," thus apparently condoning marital rape, and I don’t know what other assault against her humanity in the name of Islamic law.

I reread parts of Harris’ small but powerful book this week. His withering attack on Christianity in the form of an open letter is stronger than I would make. I call myself an agnostic or humanist, as I believe it impossible to know, the existence of God cannot be proved one way or another. That’s why it is called “faith,” I guess.

“According to a recent Gallup poll, only 12 per cent of Americans believe that life on earth has evolved through a natural process, without the interference of a deity. Thirty-one percent believe that evolution has been “guided by God.” If our worldview were put to a vote, notions of “intelligent design” would defeat the science of biology by nearly three to one. This is troubling, as nature offers no compelling evidence for an intelligent designer and countless examples of unintelligent design….The same Gallup poll revealed that 53 per cent of Americans are actually creationists. This means that despite a full century of scientific insights attesting to the antiquity of life and the greater antiquity of the earth, more than half of our neighbors believe that the entire cosmos was created six thousand years ago. This is, incidentally, about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue. Those with the power to elect our presidents and congressmen – and many who themselves get elected – believe that dinosaurs lived two by two upon Noah’s ark, that light from distant galaxies was created en route to the earth, and that the first members of our species were fashioned out of dirt and divine breath, in a garden with a talking snake, by the hand of an invisible God.” (Letters to a Christian Nation)

I find the whole religion dichotomy frightening. Religion may have served some useful purpose, and still does, in forming social groupings; churches certainly provide a place to belong and do much good work. But it is frightening to me that a significant percentage of the American population would not see a mushroom cloud over the United States as a horrific thing, but as the return of Christ – a glorious thing. It might be the prophesied single event – the Rapture. It is frightening to me that a significant percentage of the world believes on the basis of religious doctrine that suicide is not just legitimate, but highly commendable when undertaken for reasons of jihad (holy war). Going into war knowing with the certainty that one will die, they argue, is not suicide but martyrdom, a much praised form of self-sacrifice in the path of God, a way to win the eternal affection of God in Paradise.

There have over the years been several movies and books written about the
Rapture, including Daniel J. Gansle’s book, Rapture Redux: Living with Hope and Purpose in the Last Days (Infinity Publishing 2007), which tackles the contentious question of whether dispensationalist Evangelicals have gone too far in supporting war in the Middle East (Iraq in particular) in order to hasten the Rapture and the return of Christ. It provides a fictional look into the post-Rapture world, and how the Rapture doctrine is believed by some Christians today, some of whom may be or have been leading our country.

The very idea that our elected officials must profess their belief in any religion, let alone one that by extremists looks forward to the apocalypse, in order to be considered electable, I find offensive and frightening! That our candidate for the highest office of the land and one who would be leader of the free world should have to believe, that is, have faith that something is true that is beyond all logic and scientific evidence to the contrary, based on a book filled with contradiction after inconsistency, seems frightening to me, Like Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion, “I dare you to read this book.”

Some reviews of Letters to a Christian Nation:

“Sam Harris’s elegant little book is most refreshing and a wonderful source of ammunition for those who, like me, hold to no religious doctrine. Yet I have some sympathy also with those who might be worried by his uncompromising stance. Read it and from your own view, but do not ignore its message.” –Sir Roger Penrose, emeritus professor of mathematics, Oxford University, author of The Road to Reality“

Reading Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation was like sitting ring side, cheering the champion, yelling ‘Yes!’ at every jab. For those of us who feel depressed by this country’s ever increasing unification of church and state, and the ever decreasing support for the sciences that deliver knowledge and reduce ignorance, ... “I dare you to read this will not leave you unchanged. Read it if it is the last thing you do.” —Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion

“It’s a shame that not everyone in this country will read Sam Harris’ marvelous little book Letter to a Christian Nation. They won’t but they should.” —Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch Professor in theoretical physics, Stanford University

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Enough Senators have signed onto a new revised downward bill that it will pass a vote and go to a joint committee of the House and Senate. The following is a list of the cuts that have been agreed upon by Senatore negotiators, including Republican leadership:

$40 billion State Fiscal Stabilization

$16 billion School Construction

$1.25 billion project-based rental

2.25 Neighborhood Stabilization (Eliminate)

$1.2 billion in Retrofiting Project 8 Housing

$7.5 billion of State Incentive Grants

$3.5 billion Higher Ed Construction (Eliminated)

$100 million FSA modernization

$50 million CSERES Research

$65 million Watershed Rehab

$30 million SD Salaries$100 million Distance Learning$98 million School Nutrition$50 million aquaculture$2 billion broadband$1 billion Head Start/Early Start$5.8 billion Health Prevention Activity.$2 billion HIT Grants$1 billion Energy Loan Guarantees$4.5 billion GSA$3.5 billion Federal Bldgs Greening
(Smaller cuts -- $10-$600 million -- after the jump)
» Continue reading List of spending "cuts" in Senate bill
div#summary{display: none;}

$100 million NIST$100 million NOAA$100 million Law Enforcement Wireless$50 million Detention Trustee$25 million Marshalls Construction$100 million FBI Construction$300 million Federal Prisons$300 million BYRNE Formula$140 million BYRNE Competitive$10 million State and Local Law Enforcement$50 million NASA$50 million Aeronautics$50 million Exploration$50 million Cross Agency Support$200 million NSF$100 million Science$89 million GSA Operations$300 million Fed Hybrid Vehicles$50 million from DHS$200 million TSA$122 million for Coast Guard Cutters, modifies use$25 million Fish and Wildlife$55 million Historic Preservation$20 million working capital fund$200 million Superfund$165 million Forest Svc Capital Improvement$90 million State & Private Wildlife Fire Management$75 million Smithsonian$600 million Title I (NCLB)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Beware of Free Lunch

An e-mail this morning from Dan Hollister of Integrity Financial Resources makes promises for getting out of debt that at first blush sound interesting, interesting enough to perhaps be enticed to read his special report and sign up for his $49 CD that promises to show you how to get out of debt in 5-7 years? Not quite, because I've heard of Dan Hollister before and I long ago learned there is no such thing as a free lunch.

The main pitch of the e-mail says that "armed with the right information, you can be free" of the bonds of your mortgage much faster than previously thought, even with your current income. He tells about back in the 17th and 18th centuries many people who wanted to come to the new world couldn't afford the boat ride, so agreed to be indentured as servants, committing to work for someone for a few years in exchange for their passage. Often, however, they became further indebted and, in effect, became indentured servants for life.

I'm reminded of company store owned by the same people who operated the shingle mill where my Dad worked back in the 30's. The company store in a rural area stocked everything a family might need and offered credit to workers and their family. For many of the workers, by the time payday came around, all of their check might be owed. It became a vicious cycle.

It's not too different now, only we can blame easy credit through credit cards and for many it was the enticement of sub-prime mortgages that created what has become a calamity.

As Mr. Hollister says, if you dissect the word "mortgage", you get 'mort' from the Latin word "death" and 'gage', meaning 'pledge, so effectively a pledge to death. Mortgages typically are for 15 or 30 years, but lenders make it oh so easy to refinance for a new car, the new roof, remodeling, or the cruise you've always dreamed of. And now they've instituted the "reverse mortgage", so that the older person who may have paid off their mortgage or have substantial equity can borrow against their equity in the house, to be paid back with interest from the proceeds if and when the house is sold.

In an effort to understand this global financial crisis, I've been reading George Cooper's The Origin of Financial Crisis - trying to understand at any rate. The Economist says, this is "A must-read on the origins of the crisis." The trouble is you have to have a PhD in economics to really understand - if then.

I've concluded the cause is due to a complex interconnection assocated with rising debt, weakening production, outsourcing, consequent unemployment, stagnant wages, rising costs, growing class inequality with a dwindling middle class, along with global economic instability, and militarism and imperialism of the past eight years, plus exploitive corrupt practices while leaving pressing needs, such as infrastructure and health care of the country, unaddressed
unaddressed. A simpler explanation may have to do with the central banks system.

Over the years I've watched the stock market be greatly influenced every time the Fed would raise or lower interest rates. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan just had to raise an eyebrow and say a word and the Dow could turn handstands. So when some talking head recently said, "The economy is sound. The downturn is psychological," I didn't doubt there was some truth to his statement. Although if you've just lost your job or your house is in foreclosure, it is far more than psychological, of course. In the past, the Fed would just have dropped the interest rate 1/4 or 1/2% with the promise of more if that didn't work. And the Dow would respond accordingly. The trouble is that the interest rate can't be dropped any more. And therein lies the rub!

Today reports came that another 598,000 jobs were lost last month. Are Republican senators serious when they suggest that instead of the Democratic financial stimulus package each single person be given a tax credit of $5000+ and a couple $10,000+? Hasn't this been tried before? Granted, it was a smaller amount, but did it work? What's that saying about the definition of stupidity, e.g. doing the same failed thing and expecting different results?

We voted for change. We voted for rebuilding infrastructure, improving education, evaluating our trade policies in an effort to level the playing field, health insurance for all, global climate change, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, and changing the way Washington works. I'd like to see President Obama succeed in accomplishing even a fraction of these things. Unfortunately, we're witnessing first hand this week how the sausage is made in Washington. The public may have to have an "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more" moment.