Friday, May 31, 2013

Ten Years Later in NYC

I remember being in third grade in 1989 and hearing about the new decade coming. I’d lived through the turn of the last decade, but was only a few months old at the time so this was a novelty to 9-year-old me. Ten years seemed like such a long time. It still does. And yet, here I am having lived a full ten years in New York City. 

My dorm room at Columbia in 2003. No pictures of my Upper West Side sublet exist, and for good reason.
I moved to the city on June 1st, 2003, somewhat reluctantly I might add. A year prior, I saw myself moving possibly to Chicago once I finished grad school at Syracuse. New York was nowhere on my radar. But as I progressed through my master’s program in television, radio, and film, I learned that I really had two choices: New York or Los Angeles. I gave LA about 30 seconds of thought before deciding on New York. And just a few weeks after graduation, I was riding across I-80 in my dad’s SUV headed for the big city. I figured I’d hang around a few years, get myself established, and then move off to a cheaper and easier place to live. At some point in the first few years someone warned me that I might fall in love with New York and stick around for the long haul. I didn’t believe them at the time, but they turned out to be right.

As noted, I resisted moving to New York. My advisor at Syracuse pressed on it pretty hard, insisting that to gain the kind of experience I really needed, that’s where I had to go. I distinctly remember a moment when I was driving into Erie from Syracuse a few weeks before my grad program ended. I was coming up I-79 passing the Millcreek Mall exit -- anyone from Erie knows that exit very well. And I’m not sure why, but I started to think about how I knew every road and route that led away from that exit. I knew a dozen different ways to get to my parents’ house from Interchange Road. I could go in any direction from there and not get lost. And then I thought, “This is exactly why I can’t stay here.” I had no intention of staying in Erie anyway. I knew that, for what I wanted to do with my life, there wasn’t much there for me. But this was a bigger realization. It was a realization that I had to keep challenging myself. I had to constantly expand my world. And that was the moment I came to peace with the idea of moving to New York. It was scary as hell and that was the biggest indication that it was the right thing to do.

But a few months later, in my dingy sublet room on the Upper West Side, I almost quit. I’d just accepted an entry-level job at the audio studio I’d interned at over the summer. That was, in theory, a victory. But the pay was low, even by Erie standards let alone New York. I was sleeping on a futon mattress on the floor that was hurting my back. I’d recently broken up with my girlfriend and most of my grad school friends in New York were scattered about and scrambling to start their careers, so seeing them was rare. I felt defeated and trapped, run down by the giant city I was reluctantly in. I tried calling several friends that night but couldn’t reach anyone. I broke down and sobbed. I remember saying aloud through my tears, “I want to go home!” The next day I got in touch with my parents. A bit more collected, I told them I was having a tough time. I also told them about the futon mattress and my sore back. The very next weekend, they made the eight hour drive to New York to see me. They even brought a real mattress. (Luckily my parents are packrats.) It wasn’t exactly luxury, but it didn’t hurt my back. My parents knew exactly what I needed and went out of their way to make sure I knew I wasn’t alone. I’ll never forget that. It kept me going in a town that is known for chewing people up. Within a few months, I’d moved to a great apartment in Queens with a friend from grad school, met some new people, and gotten a raise at work.
My bedroom at my Astoria Apartment. A significant upgrade.
Ten years on, I’ve had countless adventures that have dramatically shaped who I am. I’ve built a career, I’ve traveled large swaths of the globe, I’ve joined a church, I’ve made incredible friends, and I’ve gotten married. Everyone changes and evolves as they grow older, but this city has played an outsized role in who I’ve become. When I moved to New York, I considered myself a Republican. Being such close and intimate contact with so many different people has shifted me to the left while the Republican party has shifted to the right. When I moved to New York I had an undeveloped sense of faith. I still have an undeveloped sense of faith, but I’m on the journey now, giving serious thought to who and what God is. (Let me know if you know anyone who actually has a fully developed sense of faith. I’m willing to bet he wears sandals and hangs out with outcasts if you do.) When I moved to New York, everyone told me that it was “a different way to live” what with all the walking and train taking. It now confounds and disturbs me that walking to things is such a novel concept in most of America and I can’t ever imagine myself living somewhere where I couldn’t walk and take transit to most things.

Our yard at our current apartment in Brooklyn, complete with lots-o-friends.
I’ve truly come to love this place. For all its faults, it’s shaped me. And while I poke fun at Erie from time to time, I don’t begrudge it. It shaped me for the first 22 years of my life and when I see its real estate prices and Presque Isle Bay glistening in the summer sun, I get why people like living there. But I had to move on to become who I was to become. Now, ten years later in a nice apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn where I can walk to get anything I need, take the train to my job, meet up at world-class restaurants with amazing friends, and go to one of the most beautiful parks in the world with my wonderful wife, I no longer yearn to go “home”. I’m already here.

Monday, November 5, 2012

No Matter Who Wins, Someone Else Loses

We know this much for sure: No matter who wins the election tomorrow there will be many, many people across the country who are uneasy about the next four years. I have absolutely no idea what will happen tomorrow. I only know that nearly half the country will be left disappointed. I take some weird kind of solace in this. Knowing that each election cycle we face this odd paradigm and yet, we carry on regardless of which side is left sullen and dejected. But I still have my pick. I still have my side of the story. I have no illusion whatsoever that I can possibly change anyone’s mind at this point. But maybe, just maybe it would be helpful to know why a possible Romney presidency is troubling to me.

First, let me say that I do not believe, nor have I ever believed that Barack Obama was some kind of messiah that would usher in a new era in American politics. From his election in 2008 I was cautious about the high expectations he’d set up for himself. Perhaps that’s part of the reason I don’t find myself disappointed by him. I don’t agree with everything he’s done. He could have done more for the environment and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has its issues. Even so, he did block the Keystone Pipeline and my brother is able to afford health insurance for the first time since he came off of my parents’ insurance nearly 5 years ago. Add to that the death of Osama bin Laden and a complete and utter mess of an economy that was resurrected from the ashes as much as it possibly could have been in the span of 4 years (in my humble opinion) in addition to laundry list of other accomplishments and you have a pretty decent record.
At least I think so.

And then there’s Mitt Romney. I didn’t know a whole lot about him when this campaign started way, way back in 2011. As far as I knew, he was a moderate Republican who served a term as Governor of Massachusetts. But watching him in the Republican primaries gave me pause. I found Romney to be willing to bend and alter his positions any which way to gain favor with the conservative base. Sure, almost all politicians will do that, but he seemed to bend over backwards. After the Republican National Convention in Tampa, FL, Romeny started to slide back toward the center. By the first debate he was rejecting some of his own policies. On top of that, he began throwing out spurious claims about Obama left and right including the latest whopper about Obama “selling Chrysler to Italians and moving production of Jeep to China”, a patently false claim he’s pushing in ads in Ohio. Again, these are things all politicians do to some dgree, Obama included. But Romney’s use of dubious claims has only increased as the campaign has worn on.

Given the widespread lying and flip-flopping, I’ve determined with a fair amount of certainty that Mitt Romney is not a man of great integrity. He comes off as a man more interested in having the job of president than doing the job of president and is willing to do and say whatever it takes to achieve that goal. And that brings me to perhaps my greatest fear of a Mitt Romeny presidency. To retain power, I believe Romney will kowtow to the GOP in any way he can.

I won’t mince words here. As much as I’m trying to be pragmatic and fair, I need to be honest about my feelings on the Republican Party of 2012. What the GOP has evolved into is deeply troubling to me. I view it as a party that is controlled by extremely wealthy businessmen who will do absolutely anything to protect their business interests. This includes funding far-right ideologues who appeal to deeply socially conservative constituents. I seriously doubt most of these businessmen -- and they are almost exclusively men -- care much about whether abortion and gay marriage are outlawed, but if that’s what it takes to keep their companies ridiculously profitable and often subsidized by the federal government, then so be it. Add that to the Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that allows unlimited spending to support political agendas and to do so anonymously and you have the modern GOP and its grafted limb the Tea Party.

My misgivings about Romney’s character lead me to believe that he will go out of his way to enable the right-wing, pro business GOP. I worry that Romney will placate the bigots and willingly infringe on the civil rights of women and homosexuals by imposing social conservatism by law. (This in spite of the “get the government out of my business” battle cry of the GOP.) I worry that he will continue to saber rattle and at the behest of the GOP, possibly taking us into more international altercations we'd be better off avoiding.

I also worry about vast deregulation resulting in environmentally devastating consequences not to mention continued consolidation of wealth away from the lower and middle classes. It's important to note that I believe in capitalism and free market principles but at the same time I believe that to make those principles work for everyone that you can’t stack the deck in favor of those who are already at the top of the food chain.

Then you have my pet issues of urbanism and transit. The GOP is openly hostile to both. In their party platform they decried "dense housing and government transit". This would be very bad news for the entire country, but my home of New York City in particular. And in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I can see a great amount of resistance to helping us better prepare for the next massive storm, let alone taking steps to stem climate change in spite of the fact that this was an issue Romney once embraced.

Combine these concerns with Mitt’s promise to dramatically increase defense spending while cutting funding for the arts, social programs, and Planned Parenthood. Add to that a massive tax cut that will almost certainly primarily benefit the very wealthy and you have a recipe for bigger deficits in spite of Romney’s promises of fiscal responsibility.

Clearly, I’m impassioned about all of this. And I know there are some very smart, well-intentioned people who support Mitt Romney. I know this because some of them are my friends and family. And many of these people could challenge many of the things I’ve said here. But for me, the bottom line is this: The Republican Party I registered with in 2000 no longer exists. It has been replaced by a political machine hell bent on its way or the highway, everyone else be damned with Mitt Romney as their enabler-in-chief. I can’t get on board with that. And the prospect of it coming into power is disconcerting to me. And yet, with the election as close as it is I must be prepared for the possibility that they will do just that. Or maybe they won’t. Either way life must go on. And my conservative friends must remain my friends. Because to bury my head in the sand, to retreat to my own echo-chamber and to be so naive as to think that my way is the only will help no one. 

No matter the outcome of tomorrow’s race, I and everyone else must move forward, keeping the conversation going. I just hope, in all sincerity, that no matter who wins we remember this: A little less than half the country will have wanted the other guy to win. But at the end of the day, we still have to live in this country together. We’ll be a lot better off if we keep that in mind.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Evolving Views on Gay Marriage

This week, North Carolina voted in favor of Amendment 1, a state constitutional amendment that strictly defines marriage as being between “one man and one woman”. The result was predictable. Conservatives across the country claimed victory while progressives were stirred into a fury. The very next day, President Obama came out in support of gay marriage and the same two groups reacting in the inverse. A lot of rhetoric gets stirred up in this debate. Opponents of same-sex-marriage are dubbed “bigots” and “hateful” while proponents are deemed “immoral” and “going against God”.

I’ve seen a conservative state bluntly, “Marriage is between one man and one woman, period!” offering no further explanation as to why his particular view ought to be enshrined in law. And I’ve seen a liberal claim, “I’m pretty sure your gay friends hate you!” in response to a gay marriage opponent who claimed to indeed have gay friends. But what do these polarizing arguments really accomplish? Is anyone being swayed one way or the other? You can ask that question about any topic in our current political climate, but I think this one is particularly valid. Some issues are a bit more simplistic. But this one I find more nuanced. Probably because I’ve found myself in different places within it.

As I’ve noted in earlier blogs, I was once a Republican. Ten years ago, if you’d asked me my take on the gay marriage debate, I would have been unequivocally against it. I felt that marriage was indeed between a man and a woman and that it transcended religion into nature and society. (I give myself credit for at least knowing enough to not back up a political position with religious doctrine.) To allow gay marriage was to change the definition of the word.

A lot has changed in ten years. Being a creative professional in New York City will do that. Most of my friends are left-leaning, if not outright liberal. But moreover, living among such a diversity of people will change your take on life. Not all at once of course. But over time it has an impact. Knowing people who are gay will chip away at your preconceived notions. Having friendships with them will start to jackhammer at them. And your brother coming out not only as gay but in a committed relationship with a really good guy will demolish them and force you to re-examine just about everything you thought you knew about human sexuality.

When you see a group of people who oppose your views as “THEM”, it’s easy to hang on to preconceived notions. When you actually get to know “THEM” you may find there to be some cognitive dissonance. What you thought you knew often turns out to be wrong and those views you held don’t seem to hold up quite as well. That certainly happened to me.

And so my view on this subject has evolved. For a time, I felt that gay couples should be able to share the same rights and privileges as straight couples. But I remained uncomfortable with sharing the term “marriage”. I felt that civil unions for homosexuals and marriage for heterosexuals was an appropriate compromise. As a self-proclaimed moderate, I value compromise. I also felt it appropriate for states to make their own laws on this matter. But, as I noted, the relationships around me had an impact. Seeing two people of the same sex in a loving relationship finally gaining some degree of acceptance and recognition as a straight couple and the joy they experience in that is profound. This is not a perversion or a choice but who they are as human beings. My faith also had an impact. For some, Christian faith is the reason for being staunchly against any form of gay marriage. But mine made me question my opposition. Above all else, my faith emphasizes love for one another. I determined that it is not loving to use my personal preferences as a justification for laws that limit another's choices. And while I do wrestle with the notion of same-sex marriage within the church, my qualms with it in the civic space have consistently eroded over time. Moreover, I came to the conclusion that any qualms that do remain are mine to deal with and should not be used to deny someone else the opportunity to live their life.

I’m not alone in having evolving views on same-sex marriage. The views of a large portion of the country have changed as well. Less than ten years ago, two thirds of the country opposed gay marriage. Today, that number is slightly less than half. Some of this can be chalked up to generation Y coming of age and being generally more open minded. But considering the short span of time, it’s also reasonable to assume that there are many who have “evolving opinions” like the President’s. But if that’s true it means there are a great many people who are caught in the middle. They don’t despise gay people and do want them to have equality. But at the same time they struggle with the evolving culture and find altering the contemporary notion of marriage to be at least a bit jarring. That’s where I was and, if we’re being honest, still find myself to a degree. But people who feel that way aren’t bigoted or hateful. Getting used to changes can take time. No one should be demonized for having to process that. And I would argue that, ultimately, it hurts the cause to do so.

On the other side of the fence, I believe Christians of all kinds would be better served by changing their focus. Rather than spending huge amounts of time and energy trying to pass laws that are arguably strongly rooted in religious beliefs, why not seek out injustices in the world and work against them? Poverty, hunger, and homelessness are all pervasive in this world. Allowing these things to continue unabated poses a much greater threat to faith than does the civil observance of same-sex marriage. And moreover, what about the conservative principle of limited government? If conservatives feel that the government should not be responsible for charity and aiding the needy -- an undeniable Christian principle -- then how can they possibly argue that it should be responsible for determining who should be able to get married, a principle that there is much debate on even within the Christian world?

Polarization has been the name of the game in recent years. But in the end we do have to coexist, whether we like it or not. In that, creating laws based on our personal beliefs rather than the greater principles of free will and live and let live is dangerous territory. And the notion that one political ideology should prevail in a country as large and diverse as ours is absurd. But so is the notion that “you’re either with us or you’re against us”. Cultural evolution takes time and patience is needed to enact real change. In the grand scheme of history, a couple of decades isn’t that long, especially considering that the human race only began broadly embracing equality in the last century. If that eroding number of Americans who oppose gay marriage is any indication, it may not be long before we see the overwhelming majority of the country coming to the conclusion that they don’t want to stand in the way of someone else’s happiness in defense of their own ideals. And moreover, the conclusion that that’s really all it is.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Holiday You're Referring to is Christmas

Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year. I really do enjoy all aspects of it. I love to buy gifts for my family, I love Christmas parties, I love the decorations, and I love the reflective and celebratory sides of its religious origins. Having such a positive view of it all, it baffles me that Christmas can also stir up such controversy.

Whether you like it or not, you’ve probably heard about the so-called “War on Christmas”. It’s on Fox News, it’s on talk radio, and it even has its own (terrible) website. They lament the efforts of the “elite media” and the “secular left” to destroy Christmas as we know it. Of course this is entirely absurd. Christmas is absolutely everywhere. It’s impossible to go anywhere in this country without seeing Christmas trees, Christmas lights, Santa Clauses, and red and green decorations. It’s on the radio in the form of Christmas music, it’s on TV in the form of Christmas-themed movies and shows. And to kick it off, it’s been around since October. Clearly, if there is a war on Christmas, the aggressors are losing. Badly.

There is, however, one shred of sanity among the absurdity of the War on Christmas. In fact, it’s probably this grain of truth the rest of the insanity is built upon. There is an aversion to actually using the word “Christmas” to describe all of the, well, Christmas that surrounds us. It’s not universal, but it’s prominent enough to be noticed. Now, I don’t believe it grew out of some malicious lefty conspiracy to undermine religion as a whole. Rather, I believe it came out of neurosis. An anxious fear that, God (or Mother Nature or no one) forbid, we might say “Merry Christmas” to the wrong person and (gasp) offend them! Now certainly there are a few who actually oppose Christmas and wish it would go away, but they are a minute portion of the US population.

The Gallup organization reports that while about 80% of Americans consider themselves Christian, a whopping 94% celebrate Christmas. And that’s not really news. It merely puts numbers to something many of us already know. There are plenty of people who put up Christmas trees and decorations and gather with family without so much a thought of the baby Jesus. As many as 80% of non-Christians in America observe Christmas says Gallup. A former boss of mine, a born-and-bread New York City Jew, adored Christmas and even started getting a tree in recent years. Christmas is, for many people, not a religious holiday at all, even to some  who consider themselves to be Christians.

Given these stats, it really surprises me that both sides of this Christmas culture war seem to thrive each year. But at the same time, one seems to feed the other. Those who worry that the 6% that doesn’t celebrate Christmas might feel left out become emboldened in their efforts when faced with billboards reading “Put Christ back into Christmas”. So “Happy Holidays” becomes their requisite greeting. Meanwhile, those on the other side of the battle become threatened that Christmas is being dismantled so they redouble their efforts to assert it as the predominant holiday of the season.

All you have to do to see that both sides of this tiff are delusional is go to your local shopping district. There are decorations absolutely everywhere and, rest assured, you can find Santa somewhere nearby. No one is going to mistake any of this as anything other than Christmas. So those worried about offending ought to take note. This is distinctively Christmas and the vast majority of Americans observe it on some level. It’s OK to use the word. Frankly, it’s silly to put an ad on TV that features all of these obvious symbols of Christmas but to intentionally avoid specifically mentioning Christmas itself. That said, there is value in recognizing the other traditions of the season. This is especially true in more diverse places. Living in New York City, there is a lot of attention paid to Hanukkah and why not? (Maybe you weren’t aware, but New York has a high Jewish population.) But you’re not fooling anyone with your “holiday” ad that features Santa and jingle bell music.

And for those who think Christmas is being obliterated, do you really need any more proof that it isn’t going anywhere than its pervasive presence? If you’re truly concerned about “the true meaning of Christmas”, I suggest spending time making it a more religious experience for yourself rather than expressing exasperation that others aren’t acknowledging it at all. In fact, there is evidence that many Americans may be doing just that. Gallup notes that 51% of American Christmas observers view it as a “strongly religious holiday”. And that number has been rising since the 90s.

Today, the American Christmas is an institution. We buy gifts, we put up admittedly strange decorations that have absolutely nothing to do with the religious aspects of the holiday, we party, we feast, and we sing songs and watch movies that we associate with the season. And there are plenty of us who celebrate and reflect on God's gift of Jesus Christ to the world as well. Honestly, whatever combination of these things you partake in is up to you. Given the myriad of sources that have contributed to what we observe as Christmas in the US today, no one has a corner on the market. Christians may have started the holiday and have the most reverence for it, but when you share something with others you are bound to give up a little bit of your control over it. And there’s nothing wrong with that. As a Christian myself, it only warms my heart that Christmas might inspire joy and a spirit of giving in others. And I see nothing wrong with Christmas playing a large role in supporting our economy (so long as we keep the retailers from owning it). Whatever your tradition may be, whatever you impetus for celebrating it, Christmas is big enough for everyone. So why not call it by name?

Merry Christmas!

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Twelve Weeks of Christmas

I have a problem. I call it Early Christmas. Being myself a member of the “Media Elite”, I try to avoid blaming the media for the ails of society. But in this case, the media shares a large chunk of the blame. The rest of the blame goes to the general American public, or as we Media Elites call them, Dumb Americans. (We don’t really call them that, but you probably wouldn’t understand the actual term we use anyway.)

Every last one of my Facebook friends is acutely aware of the vitriol I have toward pre-Thanksgiving Christmas ads, decorations, and music. My aggravation has been especially acute this year as the very first Christmas-themed ad to be shoved down my throat aired BEFORE Halloween. Granted, it was an ad for Avon which relies on orders placed far out in advance, but I just could not handle jingly music in mid-October. It only got worse from there.

It seams that advertisers now define “restraint” in jumping the gun on Christmas as waiting until after Halloween rather than Thanksgiving. I didn’t see too many other Christmas ads through the rest of October, but on November 1 all bets were off. Red bows, Christmas trees, Santa, and jingly music abound on TV. I couldn’t get through an evening of TV watching without getting some cliche Christmas song trapped in my brain. Meanwhile, three decorative pumpkins sit outside our apartment while leaves of all colors float down gently from the trees. It’s disjointed and confusing. What happened to Thanksgiving? What did it do to deserve this kind of treatment?

Like most mental issues we experience as adults, this can likely be traced back to my childhood. When I was a boy (please be sure to imagine me saying that phrase in my best old man voice) November was a time for gourds and corn stocks, some of which were economically re-purposed after Halloween. There were pilgrims and horns of plenty. Orange and yellow and brown adorned my elementary school. Nobody so much as mentioned Christmas. Oh sure, there were a few folks quietly doing their shopping ahead of the holiday rush, but the key word there is “quietly”. We looked forward to Thanksgiving. We anticipated the food and the family and the football. And then -- after we had stuffed ourselves like good Americans and passed out with a game on the TV -- the next morning, it was on. It was time for Christmas, so watch out! Black Friday meant it was time to get out the advent calendar and start buying like there was no tomorrow. The tree usually went up the following weekend. And with all of that came the ads on TV. Then, and only then did the red bows and Christmas trees and Santa and the jingly music on TV fit into the context of what was going on in real life. The leaves were down. And where I come from, snow often coated the ground. It all came together so perfectly.

There’s actually a term for what’s happened since then. Christmas creep. And we all know why it happens. Retailers want to get people shopping earlier and earlier, hoping that they won’t stop just because they’ve checked off everything on their list. Whether this actually works or not is debatable. But even if people aren’t actually buying more, they’re at least buying into the notion that we ought to start celebrating Christmas earlier and earlier. Businesses trying to press us into Christmas is one thing, people actually doing it is another. I don’t recall anyone putting up their decorations so early before this year. I honestly can’t think of a single person who put their Christmas tree up before Thanksgiving. But this year through the immeasurable magic of Facebook, I know of at least 3 people who have already put up their tree and lights.

Now a lot of people freakin’ love Christmas and they want to get started with it as soon as possible. But here’s the thing. I freakin’ love Christmas too. And part of it for me is that anticipation. When Black Friday hits, it’s on! On that day I am off and running. I’m actually probably slightly (read: extremely) obnoxious about loving Christmas. But having it slowly creep in before Halloween undermines that anticipation and, frankly, runs the risk of burning the whole thing out before we even get close to December 25th. I know how I am with Christmas. People should not have to put up with that crap for more than a month.

I suppose what really disturbs me about this is that I’d like to think people see right through obvious tactics by marketers and advertisers. But with Facebook posts and Tweets about people “being too excited to wait” and “embracing Christmas in November”, it's clear people are doing exactly what the advertisers want them to. There’s an awareness of the pressure of Early Christmas, but at the same time people embrace it. I hate to tell you, but just because you’re aware that you’re willingly being a corporate shill doesn’t make you any less of a shill. Your shilliness is still abundant.

But, in spite of all my Early Christmas rage being focused into apoplectic Facebook posts and Tweets, up have gone the trees and lights. Strangely, I am unable to control peoples’ minds. Black Friday cannot get here fast enough so I can join the insanity instead of railing against it. In the meantime, the best I can do is mute the TV when Christmas ads come on, write a sardonic blog about my plight, and take a sip of eggnog to comfort myself. Eggnog!? I mean HOT APPLE CIDER! Curse you, Early Christmas!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and the Blue Collar Baby Boomer

I’m a pretty pragmatic guy. I also tend to gravitate toward a “live and let live” philosophy. So it’s enigmatic to me how much venom has been spewed regarding the Occupy Wall Street protests. After all, it’s our first amendment right to peaceably assemble and “address the government for a redress of grievances." There have been a few skirmishes, but by and large, these have indeed been peaceful protests. If you dispute that, take a look at what London went through earlier this year and get back to me.

Still, we’ve seen a rash of angry reactions -- mainly from conservatives -- to these protests both on social media and major media outlets. Lots of calls to “get a job” and “stop asking for handouts”. Plenty of name calling, too. Politicians have even gotten in on the act. (Call me crazy, but it seems rather foolish for any politician to tell anyone to “get a job” in the current economy.) The irony is that it seems this movement has gotten more attention through these rants than on its own merits.

Of course, the merits of OWS have been debated ad nauseam. The group does lack a specific and well-crafted message. But without major corporate funding it can be difficult to craft a superior PR campaign. The diversity of the people involved is broad, and perhaps that’s part of the problem as well. Detractors have zeroed in on the least desirable of those on board with the movement. I, however, have found myself drawn specifically to some of the stories that appear on the Tumblr site, “We Are the 99 Percent”. While there are stories on the site that are arguably closer to eye rolling than heart wrenching, there are some that struck a deep cord with me.

Before I go on, let me tell you a story. There was a fellow named Greg attending college in the early 1970s on an athletic scholarship. He wasn’t some big star, just a kid with some talent that was helping to put him through school. About 2 years into college, he was injured. He lost the scholarship because he could no longer compete. He weighed his options and, at the time, it seemed most prudent to go back home to help run his father’s small retail business rather than scrape up the money to stay in school.

By the early 80s, a mall had opened up in town. Business at the two retail stores dwindled. Greg’s father decided to retire and hand the business over to his two children. Greg and his sister smartly consolidated the two retails stores into one and re-branded. This kept the business going, but Greg was unable to make enough money running the store to support his young family. He took a second, blue-collar job during the day and would head to the store each night and on weekends to crunch the numbers and place orders.

With the 90s came big-box stores, further cutting into the store’s profits. It became evident the time he was putting into his store was no longer worthwhile, so Greg and his sister decided to sell. Greg focused his energy on his day job for a good many years thereafter. At one point, his employer went out of business and he was left unemployed. Undaunted, he worked for himself for a period until he was able to find another blue collar job in the same business. All the while, supporting his wife and two sons.

As the years went by, the physical labor took its toll on Greg. His physical health along with his ability to work declined. He works through the pain because he has to. His retirement fund took a massive hit in the recession. Various medical issues have taken him out of work for extended periods of time. But he presses on because he needs his health insurance. Now, he must go in for yet another surgery. His small business employer has no short-term disability insurance so he will have to pay his insurance premium out of pocket while he’s out of work recovering from the surgery, further cutting into his already dwindled cash reserves. 

It’s not hard to guess that Greg is my dad. He’s a good man with a very strong work ethic. He’s worked hard his entire life, so much so that it’s left him crippled. His work allowed my mom to stay home and raise me and my brother. Both of us struggled with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder growing up, so the environment my parents created together gave us a fighting chance that many kids with learning disabilities would never have. Ultimately, my dad gave up his physical health to support his family and so his sons could have opportunities he did not. 

So when I think about what the people involved in Occupy Wall Street are angry about, I think about a man who worked hard his entire life who really should retire but can’t afford to because of his need for health care and because his retirement investments were burned up by a market crash he had no control over. Knowing that there are millions like him, I can look past the trust-fund hipsters waving “Capitalism is evil!” signs. Every movement has its kooks. Just as you can’t assert every stock trader and bank executive is greedy and undeserving, you can’t assume every (or even most) OWS protester and supporter is lazy and wants a handout. What most of them want is what most people in this country want: to work and to be productive and to know that if they do things right they won’t end up getting screwed by the system they were part of.

My parents and others in similar situations are by no means perfect. Honestly, financial mistakes are easy to make, especially when you have less to fall back on. But no one who worked their entire life and made far more good choices than bad should be in the position my father is now in. And I’ll fully admit that this is a broad-based problem and that, like the protestors, I do not know how to fix it. But that’s why we elect public officials. We hire them to address broad-based issues that affect large swaths of the population. That’s what government is! And we have a right to address them for a redress of grievances. (Hmm, that sounds familiar.)

While overall there is disagreement about who is to blame, the bottom line is that there is real anger in this country that the system is working extremely well for a few while not at all for many, many others. This was never more apparent to me than when my life-long Republican dad, a man who often bemoaned his tax dollars being used to support welfare, said to me that he believes the Occupy Wall Street movement is on to something. In spite of its shortcomings, any movement that stirs up so much attention is likely rooted in something worth examining. We may need to sort through the clutter to find it, but I’m certain it’s there. I need look no further than my own father to find it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The NEW New new Facebook

As pretty much anyone who is reading this blog already knows, Facebook changed today. Facebook has garnered a reputation of changing itself fairly often. But today was the most substantial change of their UI (user interface) that I can recall. And, as anyone who’s logged into Facebook today knows, most users are unhappy with this substantial change. I only saw one or two posts from people who actively like the new interface. And then there is a small but hardy group who are annoyed by those complaining. They seem indifferent to the change itself and argue that no one should complain about something that is free to use. Is that fair?

According to its homepage, “Facebook is free... and always will be.” When Netflix changed its pricing structure earlier this year people were outraged and made their indignation known to the company. Just this past week Netflix distributed an apology letter from their CEO and in the same breath announced they are rebranding their DVD subscription service as Qwickster. Again, their customers were annoyed. The company has lost large numbers of subscribers and cut its subscriber projections by a million users. But Netflix customers pay to use the service. So can you really compare Netflix with Facebook?

Facebook may be “free” upfront. But you absolutely pay a price to use it. Facebook makes money by selling ads. But not just by feeding ads out en masse to anyone and everyone. They use the very information you post on the site to target you. They have the ability to sell advertising to very specific demographics based on your personal information that you willingly enter into the site. They also keep tabs on things you post and even monitor your use of other sites. They KNOW what you want to buy and make big bucks off of that. Of course we still see lots of ads that are completely irrelevant to us. My favorite is the “Mom finds one simple trick to lose weight/eliminate wrinkles/make big money in the stock market.” (Evidently, there are lots of very innovative moms out there.) But rest assured, Facebook is watching you and your tastes and habits and making money on them. Why do you think there are so many changes to their privacy policy all the time? So Facebook may be free in terms of money, but there is a cost to it.

So, you are paying to use Facebook with your information. In return, you are getting a service. Usually, if you are paying for a service and are unsatisfied with the quality of that service you have three options: Keep using it anyway; Stop using it; Complain to the service provider. A friend of mine commented today noting that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. That is, there is really no good reason to NOT complain if you don’t like the changes Facebook has made. Who cares if it’s free? And remember, you are still giving them something that they need so they have a vested interest in not alienating millions of their users (ah hem, Netflix).

It’s been noted plenty of times that every time Facebook makes modifications to its UI people complain. In general, people don’t like changess they didn’t ask for explicitly. But companies -- especially social media companies -- have a vested interest in staying ahead of the curve. Look what happened to MySpace/Friendster/AOL/Prodigy... shall I go on? So clearly, Facebook is trying to keep itself relevant. Like Netflix, they knew very well that some people will be pissed off when they implement their change. But the comic below describes the change Facebook has made as a “mild inconvenience”.

But if the change they’ve made undermines some of the basic reasons people use their site (as I believe it does), well then the users have a valid complaint. A good litmus test for this kind of thing is to check back in a month and see where people are at. Most of the mild changes that initially cause an uproar simmer down after a few weeks once people get used to them. The difference here is that the new UI is forcing people to consume the very information they come to Facebook for in a totally different way. A month from now if people are still actively aggravated, Facebook ought to take note.

Now, is the new UI really all that bad? The info is still all there. But, in my opinion, it’s fragmented and overly complex. One reason for Twitter’s popularity is its simplicity. There’s really not much to it. What you see is what you get. There’s no algorithm deciding what you see and what you don’t see like in the new Facebook. And while Twitter sometimes does make changes, they’re smart about it. Perhaps Facebook was trying to “pull an Apple” with a “game changer”. The problem is, you need a real visionary to make that work. And even Apple has screwed up that strategy. Just look at the new version of Final Cut Pro X. Overall, Facebook does need to keep its 750 million+ users happy. If they don’t, they could become the next MySpace/Friendster/AOL/Prodigy... shall I go on?

So to those who are annoyed by the Facebook redesign (a group I happen to belong to), I say keep up the noise. They certainly won’t do anything about it if no one makes their opinion known. And the folks who insist that no one should complain because you don’t pay money to use Facebook should take inventory of how much personal data they’ve freely given to the site. When you add that up, simply providing a good user interface sounds like a screaming deal for Mark Zuckerberg.