Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Missing the Point of the Anemic Housing Market

Until four months ago, I had very little interest in real estate and personal finance news. I do not own a property, nor do I wish to, exist mostly off the credit economy grid and don’t have much of a head for financial statistics. That all changed in February when I was hired as a senior writer for a respected housing market and stock analyst. By day, I research, write and report on the numbers, which I don’t have to tell you folks, have been seriously depressing in recent years.

Typically, I try to keep my two writing worlds separate. In the evening and on weekends, I am preoccupied with theater, politics, urban agriculture and of course, myself.

Recently, because of immersion in the topics, I have come to understand that my disinterest in banking and housing limits my understanding of the full political scope. What could be more important, from a public policy perspective, than sustained, long-term unemployment and a pullback in available credit absolutely decimating middle class American families and their home values? Yet tragically, both political parties have chosen to ignore these truly pressing concerns in favor of epically immature posturing regarding gay marriage (Rick Santorum), Executive branch limousine rides (Michelle Bachmann) and pushing disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner out of office (Nancy Pelosi). While our elected officials play chicken with a vote on the debt ceiling, Middle America has been placed on the sidelines.

It has been nearly three years since the world learned that irresponsible, and in most cases criminal activity on the part of large Wall Street financial firms had brought the economy to its knees. To date the banks and their financial partners have had to pay the piper very little. But periodically, a wrist slap is handed out so that lawmakers and legal eagles can tout the appearance of justice to the voting public.

This morning, on the front page of the New York Times and other media outlets, we learned that Bank of America, the largest U.S. bank in terms of asset holdings, plans to set aside $14 billion to repay a group of critical investors as a resort of its malfeasance in bundling and selling high-risk mortgages.

Who are these critical investors, you may ask? According to reports, the claimants are “a group of heavyweight holders of the securities, including Pimco, BlackRock and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, that have been pressing for a settlement since last fall.”

Does anyone suppose that this group has been the real victim of Wall Street’s shell game? While it’s wonderful to hear that the bank is going to have to make some restitution, it is with the wrong folks. None of this $14 billion will ever reach the hundreds of thousands of American families who have lost everything because of the risks taken by a small group of arrogant charlatans.

Meanwhile, hopes for a housing market recovery, or even confirmation that we have finally reached the bottom, continue to be dashed. This week, CBS MoneyWatch reported that home prices in six cities fell to new all-time lows, and nationwide, home values are averaging 2000 levels. For those keeping score, that is 11 years of lost equity.

Who will finally decide that it is beneficial to the nation, and politically advantageous enough, to throw American homeowners a lifeline? Voluntary loan modification programs have proven to be a sick joke marked by millions of reams in lost paperwork. No one on Capitol Hill seems to want to touch the development of a plan to create jobs (which is the real key to getting the housing market back on its feet), and around we go.

It’s utterly disgraceful to have to endure the chronic bellyaching of Big Business, whining about the hostile corporate attitude of the Obama administration, while stories like this one go unheard.

Bank of America can spare the $14 billion. The nation’s middle class can no longer afford the loss of dignity, combined with collective callousness, bought on by the risks of elite cads who fail to connect with the real repercussions of their actions. And our public servants need to stop enabling this disconnect.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Chicago Pride

For members of the LGBT community, their friends, partners and loved ones (so basically, everyone in America), this is a great weekend. Not only did the nation’s most populous state, New York, pass 11th hour legislation on Friday night that certified equal marriage rights for all of its citizens, but throughout the country, there was some serious partying already planned in the form of various Pride parades and festivals.

This morning Chicagoans awoke to the second day of a two-day reprieve from cool temperatures and consistent storms, and took to the streets for the City’s annual gay Pride parade. Even without a high of nearly 80 degrees, half-naked, beautiful, intoxicated bodies would have filled the roads and alleyways of Boys’ Town, but tolerable conditions promised to take the revelry up a notch. Locals and out of town visitors felt the enhanced giddiness in the air. Pride festivities in the town with the second highest concentration of gays by density, coming in third place in overall population, are never a dour affair. But New York’s bipartisan acknowledgement of the community’s civil rights, coupled with the waffling President’s “evolvement” make clear that momentum is finally on the right side.

As I booted up my laptop this morning and accessed the New York Times online, I was reduced to a puddle by a columnist with whom I was hitherto unfamiliar, a writer by the name of Frank Bruni. He wrote this touching piece, which cogently expresses the collective intuition that New York’s law might be on its way to becoming the national paradigm sooner than we might anticipate. Hell, even a right-wing ideologue like Rick Santorum has had to go easy on the gay bashing. It’s increasingly socially unacceptable for one thing, and for another, proponents of discrimination are becoming aware that they have a hard time publicly articulating a rational viewpoint. Homophobia is falling out of favor in the mainstream in supremely rapid fashion, and even those who sit on the fence share a discomfort with speaking about it while the cameras roll.

In 2011, the marketing acronym WIFM (What’s in It For Me?) fails the litmus test when politicians adopt an intolerant social stance. People want jobs, they want an end to staggering, endless defense spending overseas while things fall apart at home, they want to pay less at the pump. They don’t want to see their sister (like hockey player Sean Avery), daughter (I am looking at YOU Dick Cheney) or best friend (me) hamstrung from enjoying everything citizenship has to offer because of who they love. Where is the need to protect the “sanctity” of marriage while Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani walk down the aisle three times?

Yep, change is in the air. When you have professional athletes, a stereotypically homophobic bunch, publicly defending the right of gays and lesbians to marry, pay joint taxes and raise healthy families, I have to tell you Intolerance, your days are numbered.

Earlier this month, the state of Illinois took its own imperfect step forward by passing legislation that permits civil unions for same-sex couples. There’s more work to be done, locally and elsewhere. But we can do it after running wild through the streets today. We’ve earned it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Feminine Revolution

As much as I hated the small town where I completed my undergrad degree, I stopped going home to Chicago after the first summer break. The reasons were many and diverse but chief among them was the inability of my mother and I to stand each other for more than a day or two. It took many years and a lot of therapy to be able to verbalize the internal strife and emptiness in our relationship, that I would later come to understand as my mother’s consistent distrust and competitive spirit where I was concerned.

It was always that way. At the same time that she pushed me to live out her own frustrated academic and musical dreams, I couldn’t do so too successfully or she would weep and insist that I believed I was better than her. If I was finally popular in high school, enjoyed a string of boyfriends and my father preferred to talk sports with me, the son he never had, my mother could be seen glowering not far behind.

For most of my life Gloria was this impenetrable figure, often actively undermining her eldest child’s attempts to grow and locate happiness. During one of the last phone calls we shared before I graduated college and moved back to the Chicago to begin my first job, she came right out and admitted that she found me impossible to love. A year later, she had committed identity fraud against me to the tune of $17,000, and when confronted, took off for parts unknown with little more than a carton of cigarettes and the clothes on her back. I haven’t seen her for 10 years.

There’s much more to say on this topic and a lot of other heartbreaking details to share, but the point of this essay is that the complicated relationship I acted out with my mom affected the way I related to women in general for many, many years. I always had my sister and a couple of very solid female buddies, but by and large, I just didn’t trust members of my own sex. These were the same people who bullied me in junior high because I came from a “weird” family – enough so that I had to change schools. It was a group of women in my freshman dormitory who pranked me with unsolicited subscriptions to Ebony and Jett magazines and wrote “Wigger” on my dry erase board – for the crime of dating a Jamaican man.

Most of my friends, from kindergarten up until 2010 were men – for better or worse. My estranged husband has often accused me of “acting like a man,” which is his mind typically means ambitious, opinionated, invested with a sense of freedom and agency that has kept me from “settling down” well into my 30s. We can certainly debate the merits of questioning my womanhood based on a hard won assertion of individuality, but it is nonetheless true that female friendships and I have often been at odds.

A lot of tough things have happened this year. But one thing that has altered, undeniably for the better, has been the way I relate to my feminine peers. I suppose the transformation began a couple of years ago, when I fled the safety of the corporate world to strike out as a writer. The first mentor I found, the first person to give me a real writing job and connect me with an all-female journalism group, was a talented, gracious middle-aged woman. My current boss at the small publishing firm where I am employed is a woman of fairly high repute, yet you wouldn’t have any idea based on her down-to-earth respect for my talent and genuine concern for my well-being.

I am presently surrounded by all-female co-workers, an idea which would have horrified me not five years ago. But these women, of a diverse age range and experience level, have been behind me 100 percent as I endured the trials of marital dissolution with concurrent health problems.

No matter where I look these days, I am adding some fabulous new lady to my tribe: former classmates from my graduate program, a fellow redhead and fun-loving girl from the gym, an unlikely friendship with the gal who did my makeup before a charity fashion event last year.

Positive female relationships are suddenly everywhere I turn, and I am well aware that this is every bit as much about my readiness to embrace them as it is the quality of sisters I am encountering.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Work/Life Balance

I have been throwing around this terminology and thinking about this dynamic in my life quite a bit in recent days. I have let the spectrum get out of whack. With the physical and emotional turmoil I have been experiencing this year, time was I was very grateful to have my work to occupy my hours. That’s still true to a large degree. I am challenged, and experiencing growth as a person and as a professional in my day job as well as the diverse freelance projects I have undertaken.

As a working writer, I am never able to shake this fear, and I imagine artists, dancers, actors and other creative types can relate. The fear is that if I say “no” to a particular job, I may be daring karma to turn against me. I will never be offered a gig again. The freelance world is very feast or famine by nature and all I need is to conjure memories of those 4-6 weeks stretches where I can boast nary a byline. The periodic blackouts are scary enough that when multiple editors approach with projects, I am almost too grateful to consider whether or not I can deliver in a healthy manner.

Very recently I have resumed my post as theater critic in the Chicago market. The website for which I submit reviews had dropped Chi-town as an outpost in April of last year, but there’s just too much good stuff onstage in the Windy City for any arts and entertainment outlet worth its salt to ignore. So I’m back on, in a big way. I have four shows to cover between last weekend and July 19. Since it’s summer, ‘tis the season for urban agriculture stories, one of my bread and butter journalist beats. I sit on the board of a women’s press collective and edit the group’s quarterly newsletter, so that has taken a lot of my time and labor. I could continue to delineate specific commitments but you get the idea.

I am living my dream. I never asked for the riches and fame of a J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, and as I am neither a novelist nor seek media attention, I don’t think there was much risk of that happening anyway. I long to be Gail Collins of the New York Times when I grow up, but that may never occur. Honestly, I can live with that. My ambition was to be a writer. That’s all. I never attached any imaginary barometers for success to my goal. Could I write full time and pay my bills? Yes? Cool.

But I am having some trouble leaving enough space in my new world for myself. I am not allowing the time required for rest, strategic planning, friends and family. In my quest to keep myself honestly occupied, this was never my intention. I have a couple of aunts in Wisconsin who are going to be really disappointed in me this weekend. They understand my deadlines, but I used to complain vociferously when my estranged consultant husband would continually prioritize work over family. I have unwittingly become that of which I always disapproved.

I know a lot of smart people out there in the writer’s community. How do you folks achieve and maintain a work/life balance? How do you do it all without depleting yourself or failing the most important people in your life?

Saturday, June 18, 2011


The summer I turned 13 years old, I made a bold move, as far as junior high attempts at self-expression are concerned. Having been born with otherworldly pale skin, green eyes and freckles, I decided that my naturally golden brown hair was a mistake of nature. I corrected this error by walking to the neighborhood Osco Drug store, selecting a box of Ms. Clairol in the brightest shade I could find, and dyeing my hair red for the very first time.

My father was not amused. My mother, an imperfect figure to be sure, but bred with a little hippie in her, was reasonably supportive of my attempt to individualize. The outcome of that first DIY dye job was more purple, at least initially, than the Angie Everhart deep red that I coveted, but when I looked in the mirror, I felt more like me, even if I lacked the vocabulary to articulate the sensation.

Except for a brief Kurt Cobain-era foray into black (a horrendous choice) and a 2007 flirtation with blonde highlights (the things we do for love), I have been known for my ginger locks ever since. Though my chosen color (see picture above) is not exactly natural looking, the complementary physical attributes I enumerate in the first paragraph conspire to fool more folks than you might suspect. Though I am a German-Italian mix by cultural heritage, I have a great time high-fiving drunken well-wishers every St. Patty’s Day. I don’t have it in me to break their little inebriated hearts with the truth, and besides, who doesn’t enjoy free beer and kisses?

Much of my life is built around trying to overcome spiritual insecurity and meekness. Nothing says “I am a force to be reckoned with,” even if in reality, I am nearly paralyzed by my own second guessing, like a shock of big red hair. When your locks draws this much attention, it allows for a lot of other physical imperfections and subtle mood deficiencies to slip by unnoticed. It’s aesthetics and convenience rolled into one colorful package.

As I rode my bike (red, naturally) home from the hair salon early this afternoon, I caught myself wondering if there is a way to dye my soul red, so to speak. Like the head of hair I saw in the looking glass as a teenager, my spirit is a little deflated. Unemployment, divorce and cancer in quick succession tend to take the wind out of one’s sails. But I am in good health once again, having beaten the “Big C” into remission. I have been happily ensconced in a satisfying day job as a ghost writer for four months, and for half of that time, I’ve had the opportunity to start getting accustomed to living alone. There are days I actually enjoy it.

I am taking small trips, accepting new physical challenges and learning to be kinder to myself in every sense of the word. But nothing yet has felt like the sort of clean break from my confused past, an assertion of a bold and adventurous individual, which a box of hair dye provided in 1991.

So this summer, I am searching for red.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Weiner Fades Away

And so the sometimes funny, mostly pathetic and certainly odd spectacle of the Anthony Weiner social media scandal will takes its rightful place as a pop cultural footnote later today, if reports are to be believed. The beleaguered congressman wins major points for stubborn tenacity, but ultimately the growing list of icky online encounters with women proved politically impossible to surmount.

Weiner was able to weather his odd series of lies, before Andrew Breitbart literally caught the man with his pants down. He survived growing Democratic establishment calls to step down after it was reported that he exchanged messages with a Delaware teen. But as Charlie Sheen and Tiger Woods can attest, those porn stars will get you every time.

Earlier this week, ex-adult film “actress” Ginger Lee held a press conference with lawyer Gloria Allred by her side, where she asserted her moral fortitude in refusing Weiner’s technological overtures. Thus, “I did not sext Anthony Weiner,” assumes its natural position as the summer’s most popular t-shirt slogan.

Lee articulated the “nightmare” of being asked by Weiner to lie about the nature of their exchanges. I am sure being asked to keep mum about messages from a man you’ve never personally met is far more harrowing than a life spent on the pole having dollars shoved down your g-string by drunken, dirty and potentially murderous “clients.” And Gloria Allred – is there any person of ill repute you WON’T represent? This lady should have her legal license sprayed with Valtrex.

But I digress. In a weird way I was sort of pulling for Weiner to get through this crisis. I maintain, as I asserted last week, that there’s nothing illegal about being a bad husband and lying to the media. I insist that it should have been the decision of his constituents whether or not he continued in his elected capacity. But at a certain point, conventional wisdom must intervene in order for life to go on. The glut of images, “victims” and gossip showed no signs of slowing, and Democrats, who were enjoying a comeback of sorts after the upstate New York special election, were set to strip the congressmen of his committee posts.

I do believe that Mr. Weiner has bigger problems in life than retaining his job. The “therapy” thing is bullshit but I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of damage control that is required in his personal life, and at the end of the day, home and family is what matters most. I don’t walk in wife Huma Abedin’s shoes, but with a baby on the way, she has some complicated decisions to face. I truly hope that the Weiners are able to find a way to move forward in a healthy way – whatever that might entail.

I will not join the “good riddance” chorus here. This is a sad cautionary tale with an unhappy ending, an answer to the question what can happen when power, hubris, human appetites and the stalkerish capabilities of the Internet converge to cause a promising public servant to publicly self-destruct.