Thursday, 26 March 2009

One of My Hang-ups

About 18 years ago, I was living on my own in my beautiful pink apartment in suburban New York. I'd split with the first husband and was enjoying, for the most part, my independence.

But there can be a price for independence, such as having only two cats to talk to all weekend. Or buying a six-pack and sharing it with -- myself. And, for women, there's a safety issue too. I lost my job, though not employment, the same week my marriage went belly-up and went from having my own office, editing a Sunday magazine, to a broken drawer in a metal desk working on the copy desk till about 2 a.m. Still, I had my pink apartment. And the cats.

I used to call my answering machine several times a night from work, convinced the ex was going to beg me to come back. One night the phone was busy. Hmmm, strange. Are the cats calling sex lines while I'm out. I called again an hour later. Still busy. And still busy a few hours after that. Maybe something was wrong with the line?

I got home about 2:30 a.m. I had to park a few blocks away and struggled back with my drycleaning, which I'd picked up before going into work. I put the key in the flimsy lock on my front door. One cat was there to greet me, but where was the other one? I walked into my beautiful blue bedroom... and there he was trussed up with telephone line. He'd been like that for ages and had wet himself. I extricated him from the line and thought about how this had happened. I had two playful cats who would chase each other all over the apartment. Could one have knocked the phone off and the other one in play have gotten himself tied up? I chose to believe this line of thinking.

Until.... the phone calls started. They were brief, a bit of heavy breathing, then hanging up. They were infrequent too for a time. Then they started coming more often and at all hours. Once, having been awakened about 3 a.m. (I had moved on from the copy desk by this point), I called the ex's number. No answer. He must have been at his girlfriend's. I started to rack my brain for who could be making these calls if not the ex. People at work? The cable guy? I didn't want to think of the most obvious suspect.

When I moved in, I met my neighbours -- a middle-aged couple and their two grown sons. The husband was a dentist, the wife was an alcoholic as near as I could tell. The sons did nothing but wander round all day plugged into their Walkmans and not making any eye contact with anyone. One of them got into the habit of stealing my New York Times till I cancelled my subscription.

A few months after I moved in, I happened to meet the previous tenants who were friends of people I worked with. They told me of the fights they would hear from next door, the sons calling their parents all sorts of names, the furniture being thrown around. I heard them too, sometimes turning the TV up to drown them out.

The phone calls persisted, even after I met hubby and he answered the phone a few times. Why didn't I have the phone company trace the calls? I think I was afraid of the truth. I was afraid of having my suspicions of my neighbours confirmed. The only time I heard the person's voice was once when I let my answering machine pick up. "If you're there, pick up the phone. If you're there, pick up the phone," he said over and over till I unplugged the phone and the answering machine.

I moved not long after that. No more phone calls. Except once in the middle of the night. I froze, wondering how the person had found me. But it wasn't a person. It was BT testing the line. Safe at last.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

We Were Gannettized

When I was growing up, we took two newspapers every day: The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times. The Tribune was -- and is -- a morning paper; the Times was the evening paper. Around the time I was 8 or 9, we stopped taking the Times. No time to read it, my parents said. And the absence wasn't felt in the slightest.

Still the Times continued to publish into the 80s, when it died the death of an afternoon newspaper.

It was a similar story in newsrooms across the nation. People had changed. TV was to blame mostly, I suppose. People got their news and entertainment from the little boxes in their living rooms.

Some PM newspapers formed an alliance with the AMs to create a 24-hour news cycle. But it was too little too late really.

In the 70s, I approximate, news corporations started to take over newspapers. What had been mom-and-pop operations became slick corporate products. One man, Al Neuharth, was a genius at this. Al Neuharth started as a reporter, I believe, on a paper in upstate New York. But he had a genius for business and created the corporate Goliath Gannett Inc. He started buying up small and medium-sized papers across the country in places such as Coffeyville, Kansas, Fort Myers, Florida, and El Paso, Texas. Not exactly full of bright lights and big streets. What these small markets had, though, was a captive audience.

Neuharth wasn't satisfied with his empire of tiny papers. He wanted to create a newspaper for the nation. Thus, USA Today was born. Neuharth cannibalized his newsrooms in the smaller markets for the staff of USA Today, and the newspapers had to carry the salaries of these people for some time. USA Today was mocked as McPaper by serious journalists. Yet, today it thrives.

Somewhere in the 90s, Neuharth remarried, started a new family and passed the reins onto other more ambitious corporate guys. They now wanted quality, not quantity, and decided to buy it. They bought the Detroit Free-Press and the San Jose Mercury News, among others. But quality requires money. The 90s were perhaps the start of the beginning of the end for newspapers. Budgets were squeezed to maintain the bottom line. Gannett was very, very good at maintaining the bottom line and rewarded their investors many times over. But I believe this squeezing mentality is where Gannett and other corporate news organisations got it wrong. News coverage shrank and editorial space was limited as ad revenues started to dry up. Quality was sacrificed. Readers noticed.

Now in the noughties newspapers are dying or moving online. There is a great hue and cry across the world, mostly, it seems, from journalists or ex-journalists. Where did this decline begin? I think it goes back to the 60s and 70s. Changes in lifestyle and changes in ownership. Corporate greed over corporate good. The internet has just hastened the decline and fall of the media empires.

Where will it all end? I don't know that answer. Do you?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Another One Bites the Dust

Another day and another report of another newspaper biting the dust. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the latest fatality. In intensive care are several others, notably The San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Times has had to seek a bailout from a Mexican billionaire. The Miami Herald and many, many others are hemorrhaging staff in an effort to stay afloat. Here in the UK are similar stories. Will the layoffs work? Probably only for the short term.

I take a personal interest in the demise and ill health of newspapers since that used to be my chosen profession. I started my career during an economic downturn and felt fortunate to get any job at all. I ended my newspaper career during another economic downturn. Though I joined the newspaper world at the dawn of the computer age, I wouldn't say I ever worked during the heyday of newspapers. Always there seemed to be a struggle to balance the books, to sell enough ads to support the mighty costs of running a newspaper.

Advertising was, and is, the mainstay of a newspaper's economic health. Take it away and you see an awful lot of red. But advertising revenues during my time were shrinking, slowly at first, then in one great big rush. The big advertisers used to be banks (which may be dying daily now but have suffered ill health for some time), department stores (ditto), and car manufacturers and dealerships (same as the others). That was for the big ads. The little ads, the classifieds, could always be counted on to prop up the first group if need be. Not any more thanks to eBay, Craigslist and other internet sites.

People moan about the cost of a newspaper. Circulation revenues actually aren't that great. Think about all that you get for the cost of one newspaper -- an awful lot. People say they don't have time to read a newspaper anymore. Then turn off your TV. People say they don't agree with what is written in a newspaper. What? Not a single, solitary word?

My friends and former colleagues in the newspaper business naturally are anxious about their jobs, if they still have one. On the editorial side, one goes into newspapers almost because it's a calling. You don't get paid a lot. The percs are almost non-existent. On the advertising side, there's always (or used to be) a competition, a prize, a party for selling the most ads. Not for the editors and reporters. The prize is seeing your product in print.

Newspapers record the major events of a person's life -- birth, death, engagement, wedding. Think of the major events in the last century, and what picture comes to mind? The headlines in the newspaper. Pearl Harbor. VE Day, VJ Day. Harry Truman winning the election and holding up a newspaper that called it a day a bit too early. Kennedy being assassinated. 9/11/2001. Obama winning the election.

Now, take away newspapers. What records the importance of these days? What do you save to show your grandchildren?

Newspapers are partially to blame for their death. They haven't managed for change. But I don't put much blame on their shoulders. Despite or maybe because of all this change, it's a lazy world. And it's going to be a much less-informed world too without newspapers.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Where is HG Wells when you need him?

I've always been a grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side-of-the-fence person. I was always looking for the next job. When I was 9, I wanted to be 15; when 15, I wanted to be 18; when 18, 21; when 21, 25. Then I stopped wishing I were older.

I wish now I were any age or any place in life other than I am. I look in the mirror, and crepey eyes and jowly neck stare back at me. A lifelong sun worshipper, I now have the brown spots that go with it. The bulge is winning in my battle with it. My body aches and creaks every morning. When I try to increase my activity level, it moans and groans and sometimes screams out.

It's not just my body that I am dissatisfied with. I am sandwiched between elderly parents and curious teen-agers. I approach my weekly Sunday chat with my mother with trepidation. What illness has befallen her or her husband this week? Last week, she was in the hospital with chest pains again. While she was there, her husband slipped on ice while taking the garbage bin to the street and fell, laying there God knows how long till the mailman found him and lifted him up, then called the next-door neighbour, who is ill with cancer, who called his daughter.

My mother and stepfather are not the only ones I worry about. On Saturday, daughter had some friends round -- three girls and three boys. Only the boys were not the ones she had invited, or so she said. They were the ones who had left the urine-soaked toilet paper roll in the urinal at her birthday party. She knows what we think of them. Still, she risked sneaking them into our house, right under our noses. She also risked sneaking the bottle opener upstairs, and risked hiding four empty beer bottles and one WKD in a drawer in the playroom. She went to a friend's house for a sleepover after the party. Hubby and I were a bit suspicious, though we didn't quite know why. We knew the bad boys had been in our house and were very loud in our opinion of them so they left. After they had all gone, we went to check on the state of the playroom. Hubby, for some reason, pulled open a drawer, and there were the bottles. I called daughter and told her we had found the bottles and hubby was on his way to pick her up and bring her home. She's been very quiet since then, though one comment she made sounded like she's doing us a favour by being quiet. She blamed it all on one boy and said he'd been the only one drinking. Like I was born yesterday.

I suppose the worst bit of this is that we were home. This was done right under our smug noses. She has abused our trust, and I'm not sure if she even understands all the repercussions of this. No more parties, and certainly not with those characters. No laptop till the end of the month. And no more trust in her to do the right thing.

I hate this stage in my life. Transport me five years into the future, or five years into the past. Anywhere but here. I can't talk to my mother about this as she has her own worries. I have to be careful which of my friends I confide in or it could end up being broadcast across the Northwest of England. Hubby is disgusted and not much of one to talk to anyway. Just show me the time machine and get me out of here.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Put This in Your Pipe and Smoke It

There's been a lot in the news (the UK at least) lately about a woman who has written a thinly veiled novel about parents who kick their teen-age son out of the house for smoking cannabis. This woman, Julie Myerson, has made a career out of writing about her home life apparently. And she did indeed kick her teen-age son out of the house for smoking cannabis -- and apparently being violent toward her and supplying her two younger children with cannabis.

The backlash has been against Ms. Myerson though. And I must say I agree with a lot of it. She didn't consult her son about the publicity surrounding the book and her interviews about kicking her son out. So he went to the press himself and presented his side of the story.

Both sides feel they have been wronged by the other, but I see one side as being more wronged than the other. I think Myerson's son's privacy has been terribly invaded and compromised in his mother's quest for publicity. There used to be a saying, don't air your dirty laundry in public. Some things were family matters and meant to be kept within the confines of the home. That saying doesn't seem to have much relevance these days, what with blogs, facebook and its ilk, Twitter, etc. People -- I include myself -- feel free to write about whatever. Their relationships, their fantasies, their problems, their joys, their fears. It seems almost compulsory to bare yourself figuratively.

But is it fair to do this when the act of doing it bares someone else? The word loyalty comes to mind. I have written here of hubby, son and daughter. They are anonymous to you all and will remain so, I hope. Even still, I do not write everything about what goes on with them because of a sense of loyalty to them. How would they feel if they knew that anyone could read about them?

I think Myerson would argue that by writing about her own dysfunctional family life, she is reassuring others that it can happen to anyone. But here is where her conceit begins. Of course it can happen to anyone, and it does all the time. But not everyone feels compelled to tell the world about it. She and her partner are a certain type you find within the British middle class: educated, articulate, terribly earnest and principled. So principled they wouldn't allow their three children to eat meat. So earnest they wrote about it. They didn't believe any imperfection could happen in their family. When it did -- as in the son smoking cannabis -- they were angry at the son for showing the imperfections in their perfect world. He in turn was angry at them for using him as a topic for many an article and now a novel. I don't know that this fractured family can ever be repaired.

I think anyone who writes about their family in any forum must be mindful of the family's rights too. It isn't the same as having a moan about your spouse or your child to your best friend over a coffee. Setting it down in words creates a permanence. But all relationships, particularly the parent-teen-ager ones -- are fluid beings, full of ebb and flow. What is today will not be tomorrow.

Perhaps Myerson should have known that before all the hundreds of words were written by and about her and her family.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Swivel Hips, Softhands, and Fat Wanker

What you see isn't always what you get. People make assumptions all the time about others based on external factors. For example, at my salsa class I have come up with nicknames for many of the regulars: Softhands, a nice, soft-spoken young man with -- you got it -- soft hands; Swivel Hips, another nice young man who is a funky dancer; BT2, a woman blessed (?) with big tits and big teeth who can't seem to find T-shirts that fit her; Paul the Pillock, enough said; Big Mustache and Small Mustache, two jolly guys with, um, mustaches, though Big Mustache doesn't go anymore and Small Mustache seems to have ditched his wife; Smelly Man, who fortunately doesn't go anymore; Curvy Girl, who likes to shake that booty.

I don't know much about these people beyond twirling around, with, and among them for an hour once a week or so. Softhands could be a right bastard; Paul the Pillock could be a saint. I have made assumptions and judgments based on these assumptions.

I'm not alone. Others have done the same to me, particularly after I moved to the UK. I became The American, with all the connotations -- negative and positive -- that might have. I am also Blonde. I am also a Stay-At-Home Mother. Put all those together, and you might have a very negative view of me indeed.

Even people who have known me for quite a few years can't seem to get beyond these labels. Such as -- dare I mention their name -- the Frenemies. Yes, I should dump them, but it's difficult because our kids are friends and I actually like two out of the five couples. One couple I'm neutral about, and two I can't stand. Anyway, we were having dinner at the home of one of the couples I like on Saturday. Frenemy's husband and the fat, balding know-it-all wanker of a husband of another one were talking about George Chakiris, he of West Side Story fame. I piped up that he had been in White Christmas. Frenemy's husband and Fat Wanker scoffed at me. They fancy themselves Trivia Kings because they've actually been on TV quiz shows. But I know my White Christmas and I held my ground. Fat Wanker said he couldn't possibly have been because White Christmas came out in the 40s. No, I replied, it came out in 1954 or 1956 (you can tell from the clothes and hairstyles). Fat Wanker and I made a £10 wager. Fat Wanker's wife looked it up on her Blackberry on the internet. Guess who won? Guess who didn't get her £10?

They made assumptions and judgments about me and were wrong. In that case, at least.

It's occurred to me that this has happened to Barack Obama his whole life. Assumptions have been made about the color of his skin, his name, his parentage, where he's lived. And yet look at what a cool person he is. No chips on his shoulders.

We label people because that makes it easier to categorize them in our brains. And we humans generally like to categorize. It helps us cope with the unknown, probably a throwback to Neanderthal Man. But we must remember to look outside the assumptions and judgments. These can be wrong. Just ask Fat Wanker.