Thursday, May 28, 2009

Out of Work, Luck, Sight, and Mind

September, 2008 - 321,000

October, 2008 - 380,000

November, 2008 - 597,000

December, 2008 - 681,000

January, 2009 - 655,000

February, 2009 - 651,000

March, 2009 - 699,000

April, 2009 - 539,000

These are the official figures of non-farm job losses, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And what a story they tell. The economy hadn't been a good story for sometime, but in October, it went over the cliff, and by November...well, the numbers tell the story. Come to think of it, there are many more stories that the figures don’t tell – several million stories.

You often hear it said that the economy is shedding jobs. Shedding jobs? If you’re a few pounds overweight, you might want to shed a few pounds. You may get mad at your cat, when she sheds all over the furniture. Let’s agree to drop the word shed and replace it with hemorrhage – as in blood. Much more appropriate, don’t you think?

To listen to some, we should have taken to the streets and celebrated those April job loss numbers. They were “surprisingly good.” The markets reacted well. There’s cause for optimism. The May numbers will be out on June 5th. Who knows? We may fall below the 500,000 mark. That will certainly be cause for celebration. Won’t it?

Imagine only 500,000 new souls being added to the ranks of the unemployed. As if that spectacular news isn’t enough, we are hearing reports that the housing market may finally be bottoming out. It probably hasn’t quite hit bottom yet, but let’s try not to be the skunk at the picnic.

Make no mistake about it. Good news will soon be upon us and we’re going to greet it with open arms. We’ve been waiting anxiously for it and we’re ready to start cheering, no matter what.

But about those millions of stories that don’t get told. The human stories behind the staggering numbers that are mostly confined to charts and graphs. Unless, their story just happens to strike a certain human-interest cord, which gets them singled out by 60 Minutes or featured in your local newspaper, you will not know them. And they will not know each other.

Today, dignity is protected, at all costs. No more standing in line to get your public assistance check. Our sensitive society spares you the humiliation. You go online. You get it in the mail, or by direct deposit. They give you classy looking debit cards, rather than ugly, demeaning food stamps. You are protected from prying eyes. From busybodies who want to know your business. You are practically invisible.

I did not live through the Great Depression. I know those sad times only through books, movies and black and white photographs. Those pictures of men standing in the bread lines or swinging pick axes by the side of a road made an indelible impression.

For those men there was no anonymity. They were out in the open. But, they were with each other. There were lots of others standing in the same lines, who were just as down and out and just as visible – real faces, not just statistics.

Today, how awfully alone some people must feel in the dignified privacy of their own homes. Not seeing the faces of neighbors and strangers as burdened as themselves. And how much worse it will seem to them when confronted with headlines and news stories announcing: The End of The Recession, and reports on a Return to Normalcy.

Get ready to hear about how well so many of us are doing. Stimulus money creating new businesses and revitalizing existing ones. New opportunities creating new fortunes. Consumer confidence back at last. Mall shoppers once again piling onto the escalators.

But don’t look for good job numbers quite so soon.

Jobs come back slowly – painfully slowly. Businesses get good at running lean. They will see the economy getting healthy, but they will not yet trust it to stay healthy. They will wait to hire. And the employment numbers will stay bad, though experts will tell us that they are not as bad as they could be – not nearly as bad as they could be.

But what about all of the individual downward spirals that have been set in motion – taking families and futures slowly down the drain? For so many, a job loss is just the first loss, followed by losses of incalculable value: marriage, home, health, life-savings, education. For some strong or fortunate souls, the spiral will slow or maybe stop, providing breathing room, allowing them to recover.

For others, it will not.

I have no idea how many will fall into the recover category and how many will continue whirling downward. I just know that there will be a lot of each. For the recoverers, let’s be grateful – not just for them, but also for ourselves. We’ll remain stronger.

For the down-the-drainers, I guess it’s better not to see them. Seeing them up close could cost us our optimism.

Remember, you heard it here. The good news is coming.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Boxing Lessons From Nana

When I was in the fourth and fifth grades, my parents regularly went out on Friday nights, leaving my grandmother with the job of keeping an eye on my sister and me. I don’t remember what my sister did on those nights, but I remember quite vividly what my grandmother and I did. We were glued to our twenty-one inch Zenith, watching The Gillette Friday Night Fights.

The fights, as Nana referred to all boxing matches, were a visit into a very different world. We watched as some guys took awfully bad beatings, which didn’t seem to bother my grandmother, who grew up in a much rougher environment than her suburban grandkid. We watched Carmen Basilio win, while covered in his own blood. “Don’t worry,” she told me. “He’s a bleeder. He’s not really hurt.”

At that age, all of the fights, including the bad ones, were interesting. All of them had lessons to be learned. Lesson #1: You sometimes get beaten up while you’re trying to win, or maybe trying, with everything you’ve got, not to lose.

Not all fights were clean, crisp exchanges of jabs, crosses, and uppercuts. Some featured round after round of one fighter draped around the other like in a scene from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Lesson #2: Fighting while exhausted comes with being a pro.

One of those Friday nights held special significance for all of us at school who hung around with Anthony Vasquez. When Anthony first told us that the up and coming fighter, Joe DeNucci, who was about to fight the tough ring veteran, Ralph “Tiger” Jones, was his cousin, we naturally thought he was making it up.

Then, one day, our teachers ushered us all into the school auditorium, where, sitting up on the stage was – Hol­y Cow! – Joe DeNucci, and running up onto the stage to introduce him was – Double Holy Cow! – Anthony Vasquez. Did that shut us all up? Yes. That shut us up good.

I don’t remember a word of what Joe said to us that day, but, I remember that, thanks to my grandmother, The Friday Night Fights had introduced me to my first real gladiators, and that day in the auditorium at Bowen School, brought to us by Anthony Vasquez, put one of those gladiators very up close and personal. In my memory, he had a small band-aid above one of his eyes. That mental snapshot is still with me.

Soon after that big day, Joe lost his fight with Tiger Jones. “The kid just needs a little more seasoning,” said my dad, reassuringly, and added: “The kid put up a pretty good fight.” It didn’t matter so much that he lost. He fought bravely. But he must have learned that he would never get the best of a Tiger Jones, so he went on to carve out a future in Massachusetts state politics. When he’s on television, I always see the fighter, not the state auditor.

Years ago, I started hearing and reading alarming stories about parents and teachers who used their influence to have scorekeeping removed from their kids’ baseball games. Apparently, losing contributes to a loss of self-esteem. So your team hits lots of home runs, while the other team hits nothing but air, and both teams get to go home and celebrate. Call me crazy, but I think a kid should be armed with more than self-esteem when it comes to dealing with the real world.

The desire to win is in our bones. Winning is how we measure ourselves against our rivals, and it is the way we are judged by our spectators. Once upon a time, an early caveman was the first to club a rival caveman over the head in order to be in the perfect position to club to death a four legged dinner prize. (I guess that would have been a double win.) And, a Stone Age grandmother just might have been on hand, to enjoy the contest.

The great Lombardi, famously uttered: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Trying to take that sentence literally always gives me a headache, but we know what the great coach was saying.

You’ve heard the overused line about ties: A tie is “like kissing your sister.” We demand clear winners and losers, especially when we invest our time and passion, and scream ourselves hoarse.

Seldom have I ever rooted for a draw. The first Ali-Frazier fight was one of those times. I loved Ali – most of us college, white, liberal, Nixon-hating fight fans did – but I also admired like hell Frazier’s toughness. They both deserved to win. Only one of them could. It was Frazier’s leaping left hook, which perfectly exploited a weakness in Ali’s otherwise perfect defense.

Find your opponent’s biggest weakness, exploit it, and victory shall be yours – usually. You know that from playing tennis with your work buddy. You may pretend that it doesn’t matter that much to you when you find his or her weakness and exploit it, but then, of course, you’re lying.

Ali and Frazier were each other’s nemesis. Each had the other figured out, so much so that they nearly killed each other in their final contest – ­­­­­­­­­that famous Thrilla in Manila, which should have ended in a draw. The only clear winner was us. In your whole life, you don’t see many contests like that one. Without each other, their claims to greatness would always have been in dispute. It took one to validate the other.

Most of us are not win-at-all-cost people. We want contests to be fair. Of course, fairness doesn’t always happen. Refs make lousy calls that take wins away from the deserving. But that’s part of life. The human element can change the outcome – like when players cheat.

Drugs are also part of life. No question about it, the era of performance enhancement drugs has badly tarnished some of our sacred sports – especially baseball. The records we grew up with, as kids, are the measurements we still hold dear. McGwire’s amazing record has been rendered meaningless, and has only served to shine the light more brightly on Roger Maris. Bonds could have gone on to hit 2,000 big ones, and it wouldn’t have mattered. We care about our winners so much that we demand purity in their performance.

Then there’s Manny.

Manny Ramirez plays baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He used to play for the Boston Red Sox. I was at the Fenway opener, his first season. First time at bat, first pitch, a blast out of the park. Oh man, we were going to love him. And we did, for a while. What was he really like? He was described by one of his teammates as a “big teddy bear.”

What’s not to love about a big teddy bear who hits the ball out of the park when the game is on the line? Well, as we got to know him, we found that Manny didn’t always try very hard. Didn’t run out his slow grounders. Didn’t attack the ball in the field. Took time off with phony injuries, when the team really needed him. Finally, we were happy to say goodbye to the childish athlete with the bloated paycheck.

Still, there was something nice about a guy that didn’t do what too many superstars got caught doing – the drug thing. Alex Rodriguez – no surprise – A-Rod’s a jerk. Roger Clemens – too old to still be throwing that kind of heat – well, the Rocket’s also a jerk. But Manny, in spite of his faults, did it naturally. We had to respect that. Until now.

He got caught with one of those bad prescriptions, and he’s out for 50 games. That little weakness of not caring if he let his team down a little bit here and a little bit there becomes a possible season killer for the Dodgers. The other day, at the command of the owner, he apologized to his team.

Now he needs to apologize to the kids who are wearing his jersey. Kids who have a whole memory full of stats and measurements that they might as well throw away.

Kids who are keeping score.­­


Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Astonishing Signs of Normalcy

I’ve said this before, and I really need to say it again: I’ve seen too many movies. You might not think a movie problem is a big deal, but trust me, it really can hurt you when it comes to the reality thing.

Take, for example, Iraq. This war has been going on for as long as I can remember, and you might be a little foggy on some of its history. If you think back, you’ll remember turning on the news and seeing some of the locals toppling that big Saddam statue. That scene was pretty darn dramatic; wouldn’t you agree? It was so dramatic, I figured there wasn’t much that could top it. There would be some more action. Then, the movie would end with dancing in the streets – kind of Bollywood.

Then, they caught Saddam. There he was, right there on our television screens, looking like some crazed, off-his-meds street person. Time to roll the credits? Not so fast. OK, here it comes: The grand finale – MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! Remember that? Well, that was a very long time ago -- measured in cinematic time, that is.

I grew up with little screen and big screen cowboys. The good guys weren’t always that good, but (sometimes with a little prodding from the townspeople and the pretty school teacher or sultry saloon gal) they eventually did what they had to do. They walked into the saloon, called out the bad guys, killed the worst of them and either jailed the rest or ran them out of town.

It was a damn good formula. Even a very modern Western, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven stuck to the same basic script. The hero walks into the saloon and kills the villain. Clint’s own formula, which brews up a not-so-virtuous hero and a not-so-evil villain, is more morally murky than the westerns of old, but the plot keeps the tradition alive.

Back to Iraq:

In the midst of being stuck in that awful quagmire, an odd thing happened that almost went unnoticed. Wyatt Earp rode into Tombstone, told the frightened townspeople to go home, and that he, Morgan, Virgil, and Doc Holliday would take care of the bad guys. That’s pretty much what happened when General Petraeus announced his plan for “the surge.” Of course, everyone, including me, was sure the quiet cowboy was just trying to buy some time for his boss to sneak out of Dodge, unmolested. A surge? Give me a break.

The Iraq movie had gone all reality on us, ages ago. Every time a cattle rustler got killed, more would pop up. That pudgy, pompous little cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr was continually sticking his thumb in our eye. No, there would be no Hollywood ending.

But, hold-on a minute.

There was a Hollywood ending. The General and his gang cleaned up Baghdad. The pudgy, pompous cleric was told to behave himself. And he did. The General reported: “astonishing signs of normalcy.” Of course it wouldn’t last. But it did. Sure, there’s still work to be done. People are still getting blown up, and Baghdad isn’t on anyone’s top ten vacation destinations, quite yet, but even Tombstone still had outlaws, after the Clantons were removed.

So where was the celebration, marking this incredible accomplishment? There should have been a MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, but the Committee in Charge of National Celebrations had ruled: No more Mission Accomplished celebrations until May 2, 2103 -- one hundred years from the date of that unfortunate scene on the USS Abraham Lincoln, where a cowboy president flew noisily into the spotlight and took that famously undeserved bow.

Americans expect heroes to emerge and handle every major crisis. We shouldn’t. We had our Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Patton, Schwarzkopf, and lots of others, including I think, Petraeus. (This is no place to argue good wars vs. bad wars. Let’s do that another time.) It would be good for us to start losing that unrealistic expectation. Maybe it was a good thing not to celebrate the General’s achievement -- letting it slowly slip from our consciousness, making it easier for us to stop expecting the arrival of movie heroes and movie endings. Sure it takes away some of the joy of victory, but we’re better off in the long run.

Now, on to the next movie:

The gangs had looted the banks. Wait, that’s not quite accurate. The bankers were in the gangs that had looted the banks. That may not be it either. It’s confusing. The point is that everyone went broke except the gang leaders who got paid millions and billions for stealing our money. “Don’t panic!” said the new President. “A new marshal will be riding into your town. Go on with your lives, and leave the bad guys to him.”

Then, one day, we met him.

We waited anxiously for him to tell us that everything would be fine, now that he was in town. We listened. He finished. Then, the markets and our hopes dropped like a rock. Some said it was because he was too close to the gangs, maybe even a gang member himself. Yes, that was the problem. Or, part of the problem. He was too much one of them, but he was also too much one of us. Too little. Too nervous. Too flimsy. He was dwarfed by the small screen. Forget the big screen. This movie was not going Hollywood.

And so it continues. Every day, we search for astonishing signs of normalcy – in the job market, the housing market, the stock market, the shopping malls.

I’m writing a screenplay.

I call it a Surrealistic Monster Movie Western. In it, The General is seated at his old roll top desk in the frontier jailhouse, with his shotgun across his lap. (I am really, really mixing metaphors here. It's that damn movie problem.) He is keeping a close eye on Monsterstan (that would be the Afghanistan-Pakistan monster, in case it wasn’t obvious to you), when his mail arrives. In it, he finds a foreclosure notice for the jailhouse, along with notification that his pay is being rolled back and his 401k match has been eliminated.

On the streets of Tombstone, the similarly plagued citizens are looking for someone to hang. He calls for his deputies. Together they round up the bad guys – you know, bad bankers, bad brokers, bad regulators – and march them to the O.K. Corral.

And shoot them.

You think that’s going too far? Relax. It’s just a movie.