October 30, 2008

Plan B for the middle class?

It's official: New York State has declared me a card-carrying, check-rebate-worthy member of the middle class, handing out what is called a "2008 Middle Class STAR rebate check." My rebate is based on various factors, and it is billed as a rebate "in addition to the amount of relief [ital mine] I receive under NYS's existing School Tax Relief Program (STAR).

I have mixed emotions regarding the "relief" I receive. On the one hand, I do not, nor do any of my friends, colleagues, or relatives, have any children in the New York City Public School System. On the other hand, our schools suck; they need all the funding they can get. These kids will need to work; someone has to pay into Social Security.

It is Halloween Eve, a night during which I do think of children. I think of why I will not be one of those apartment dwellers who opens her door to the building's trick-or-treaters. The last time I did, the children ran in a pack, grabbing for candy as if they hadn't seen food since their last Federally subsidized school lunch.

They barely said "trick or treat"; none stayed long enough for me to admire their costumes; and none said thank you. No one in this building, this bastion of the middle class, has a school lunch subsidized by anyone other than a parent. A parent who, as far as I can see, appears not to have taught his/her kids any manners.

(This may not be the first Halloween I have ranted about the neighbors' children.) But if these children are our future, my late poet-friend's book title remains apropos: Be Properly Scared.

I do remember watching my cousins' children in Maine, seeing the inability of a sixth grade teacher to catch a major grammar error in the first sentence of one child's essay. In Massachusetts, my assigned role is to distinguish between less and fewer, to tackle proper use of prepositions and verb tenses, as well as assert the importance of asking "may I," not "can I."

Granted, I am one of the few remaining grammar Nazis, but I maintain that it is much easier to communicate when everyone can speak the same language, and can create subjects that match their predicates. I am not sure about the future, in the land of what can kindly be called the short-attention-span.

Life is not a video game, contrary to what computers and game boys may try to teach. For one thing, you can't always shoot the bad guy; sometimes, it's simply not an option, and besides, the bad guy is difficult to identify. For another, practice will not get you to Carnegie Hall. Practice will screw up the joints in your fingers to the point that when you are old enough to buy a drink, you will lack the ability to hold the glass.

Where I'm coming from today is my gut feeling that Plan A for the middle class, that economic merry-go-round we all thought would never stop, has thrown all its riders to the ground. It's not working. We need to go to Plan B -- but first, we need to figure out what it is.

No matte what happens next Tuesday (and I've been ready to cast my vote for at least a month), I don't think Plan B will materialize at any time soon. Government simply isn't cut out to work that way.

As my friend winding up 30 years at the FBI says, "we bring you yesterday's technology tomorrow." I assume that means that government does do Windows, but it probably doesn't do VISTA, much less anything to do with a Mac.

Obviously, at this moment, I don't think the proverbial glass is half full. I'm not sure I think it is even half empty. It seems more likely that as we wait for Plan B (the one in which politicians and finance people admit the economy has tanked, not that the economic outlook has been reduced, or diminished, or whatever euphemism they choose), that the glass is cracked.

All I can do is hope someone has some Crazy-Glue in his or her back pocket. Cause that's what we need to hold a Plan B together. Otherwise, well, let's not go to otherwise just now. Tomorrow is, after all, another day.

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October 26, 2008

Drowning in four-color slick paper stock

I have surveyed the landscape that is my apartment and discovered an appalling number of magazines received and unread. I do like the printed word, holding the magazine in my hands and flipping through the pages.

I particularly appreciate the mobility of the hard copy, how easy it is to read in transit, for example, or in bed, where it is possible to read while prone, something you can't do with cyber text.

However, the magazines seem to have reached critical mass, bringing up the question, are you going to read these periodicals, or shall they be relegated to the recycling pile? How many weeks of The New Yorker is one reasonably expected to keep?

The New Yorker
offers hours of entertainment and some additions to my knowledge base, as I suspect it is currently called; most of my other magazines are less intellectual and contain more in-the-moment content.

Do I really need to read "The cabbie in the coal mine"? How will this information enrich me? Or will it piss me off, so that I simply turn the page? Yes, the economic sky is falling, and it's not chicken little's hallucination.

Simplicity has taken on a new place in my life and in that of my friends. "Need" has become a working part of our vocabularies. "Want" has been relegated to what-were-we-thinking?

I have to laugh at the travel magazines: Endless Vacations? Forbes' Life Fall Travel? Gourmet? Then there are the "trade magazines," for which I pay someone $300 a year to summarize the articles and rate them, so I don't have to slag through half a dozen of them myself. Sure, I mean to read and file the articles, but then again, I mean to grow four inches taller, and neither is a likely scenario.

Plus, seeing that we are nearing the Christmas season, I am full up on catalogs, both from places I know and places that apparently rented my name for purposes of commerce. N0 one I know needs a fruit basket this year, much less outdoor apparel despite its money-back guarantee.

I have to worship at the alter of Lands' End and L.L. Bean, whose customer service is legendary. They will accept merchandise returns at any time, for any reason. My wardrobe may be boring, but at least it's replaceable without much cost beside postage.

Recently I received a magazine about offerings for rabbits; I called customer service and told them that the off-White Rabbit, aka Bunny Boo-Bearsky, had gone to his reward in the sky two years ago, and that I didn't need to be reminded of the days when my closet contained 10 pounds of Timothy hay and 5 pounds of rabbit breakfast pellets.

Nothing gets you off a list faster than when you say, the creature or person for whom these products was intended is dead. My mother, over the years, has become a whiz at responding to people who call asking for Mr. Uptown. She simply says, he can't come to the phone. Ever. He's dead. That will teach people to cold call, or at least rethink that particular vocational opportunity.

What falls into the "want" category is now scrutinized for weeks on end before a decision is made. Consumer purchases are debated, where once they were a matter of course. Currently up on the block is a 32 inch LCD TV. Do I join the flat-screeners with the high-res pictures or do I hold on the what I've got until it totally dies?

I have been offered birthday and Christmas money to subsidize the purchase, so it's looking tempting, and since New York City is carting away electronic refuse through mid-2010, it does seem timely. Yet in this economy, purchasing anything beyond the most basic needs seems like a display of financial security I don't honestly feel. Thus, the dilemma.

I am sure I am far from the only one facing these questions; all I can really say is, my mortgage is paid off, and I still do have money in the bank (and in the stock market, but that account is hemorrhaging fast) .

So, drowning in magazines is not the worst thing that could befall me. Not having any marketable skills, simply on the basis of having worked for myself for 20+ years and having no idea how to transfer my skills, much less my attitude, to any corporate culture, is my one major drawback.

Then again, I can always occupy my time with all those magazines to read.

October 20, 2008

a la recherche du temps perdu

In lieu of Proust's madeleine, what would probably trigger my generation's collective consciousness would be a bong hit, a line snorted, or some recreational pharmaceuticals consumed. At that point, we would all realize who we were, if we couldn't see who we've become.

It has been reunion season chez Alice, and in the past month, she has attended two 30th high school reunions. One was at the prep school from which she actually graduated; the other, from the public school system Alice fled in 1975, but where Alice spent most of her childhood. In other words, Alice went back to see her kindergarten, elementary school, and junior high school class. These were the people who knew Alice before we had permanent teeth, much less tits.

Herewith the report on public school reunion, an opportunity sought out through the Web, not from any list of invitees for whom the organizers had addresses.

You might call this, About Last Night. I got on the train to the once-upon-a-small-town White Plains. The cab driver who took me to the hotel was Haitian, and together we mourned what has become of his country, the one he has fled and to which I can never return. I also didn't recognize the town through which he drove me. It is calling itself a city, which I find to be at misnomer at best.

Driving through urban renewal land with a Haitian driver lent is an odd perspective from which to begin the evening -- to remember who I was for many years as a facet that none of my public school friends would have recognized.

It was weird to me that no one said, you look great or you look pretty -- which is S.O.P. for all the prep school and college reunions I've attended. Plus, there was a cash bar. Usually I don't drink, but I was also really surprised that no one offered to buy me anything, although my one friend from my street, did toss $40 my way when I said I needed cash. I was grateful, but once again, it appeared I'd landed firmly in DIY land, a surprising place considering how many married and traditional women were present.

Since I have put reunions together, I was really surprised that there were no hors d'oeuvres; dinner was buffet-style, and for drinks, it was strictly a cash-only enterprise from a less than complete bar. All this, for $100 a head.

Alice has planned reunions before, and at that price, even accounting for the venue rental, Alice knows you can get a lot more for your money -- and if your ticket prices breaks $100, an extra $20 for adult comforts isn't going to make or break the attendance records.

Then, too, the organizers knew I was coming, and that I hadn't graduated from the school, but the only name tags created were copies of people's senior year yearbook photos along with their names. My name tag was hand-printed, which didn't exactly feel welcoming. Granted I may be more than a little sensitive about some of this, but this was my take on the evening. Truly the best time I had was late in the evening, when the DJ was playing music I loved to dance too, and I just hurled myself on the dance floor, partner be damned. There, at least, I felt like myself.

One of the women at the reunion, Trisha C, whom I remember vaguely, recognized me as "you were the smart one." I must have recoiled slightly, because she added, "I meant that as a compliment."

Maybe now, but back in 7th grade or 8th grade, I remember becoming acutely aware that my spoken grammar was impeccable and that in junior high school, that was simply another mark of how different I was, and I had enough of those marks against me as it was. There I was, the last of the late bloomers, being more intelligent than most of the people in my class, not knowing what that meant, and not having the social skills so many of my classmates seemed to have -- not to mention not having a clue about, say, boys.

I did confess my 6th grade and my 9th grade crushes to the boys who had grown into men. And I grant you I was looking for what can only be called the fuckability factor -- a resounding zero, unless someone expresses subsequent interest in Alice, which she is not anticipating.

No one seemed to see the humor in my observation that I knew these people before I had my period and now I'm going through menopause. Or something else I've commented on before: I went to kindergarten with many of these people, so we all knew each other before we had permanent teeth, much less boobs and hips. (I never could wear those junior-high-school-hip-huggers that went with the huckapoo shirts, since I lacked the body curves. I do remember those shirts, though: 100% genuine polyester, guaranteed to go up in flames if the wind were blowing in the wrong direction when you lit a cigarette.)

I'm glad I went to the reunion, but I can't say I'll be back again. I thought there might be some variety in the stories I would hear, but the $100 ticket price pretty much guaranteed that the stories would be homogeneous, surprisingly so. Everyone, male and female, was married, with 2 or 3 children, most of them living in the 'burbs, or "locally," as one woman I went to elementary school with put it. Professionally there were, I was not surprised to find, a lot of lawyers. Most of the practicing ones were men.

There were a fair number of women who hadn't been in the workforce since shortly after they either conceived or delivered their first child. It felt to me like they had all drunk the same Kool-aid, and turned into their parents without a question. Probably not surprisingly, the women all looked great and the men weren't aging well -- a lot of rotund bellies coupled with major baldness or very short gray hair. I looked at the boys I had had crushes on in elementary school and junior high school and wondered, what was I thinking? (Not that I would have known how to handle a relationship then if someone waved it under my nose.)

Meanwhile, I'm single, never married (in my 20s most of my relationships were with women, so marriage wasn't really part of the picture), and have no progeny. Plus, I live in the big city, know nothing about cars, and was genuinely perplexed when some of the conversations turned to cheerleaders and football -- that seemed like something out of the 1950s. The one thing I do have in common with most of the people with whom I spoke is we all have aging parents. I, however, had to tell so many people my dad had died that I had to retire to the ladies' room for a brief cry. You can only clutch the windshield sticker that summarizes your life in 30 years and 30 words or less for so long before the glass breaks.

A good portion of my elementary school was present, and a fair number from junior high. Since I was only at WPHS for one year, and that was the year that pushed me over the edge to get the hell out of suburbia, I don't remember too many people I met that year.

I don't know why I thought I would feel more connected to the people I had known as a child, but the reunion didn't bring that out for me. What it did bring out was I suppose I've always been a nonconformist, but never felt it so acutely as I did last night. Some people have kids; I travel.

Where there were supposed to be a few years after college that we were equal with our parents, and neither of us had to take care of the other, I missed that experience. I went straight from graduation to feeling like Queen Victoria, not amused that my dad and brother were getting high together. Nancy Reagan might have been shouting just-say-no into a windstorm, for all it affected my family.

My family dynamics are not quite out of a Tennessee Williams play, but on the other hand, June Cleaver or Donna Reed would have been a far cry from any scenario I saw as a child.

I do think it important to revisit my past, if only to satisfy my historical curiosity, my wanting to know for posterity what has transpired.

I've been emailing an old friend I tracked down, who decided to sit out the reunion at home in her sweats eating chocolate. We've gotten below the windshield sticker arena, and, as I wrote to her, "as for your feeling you went through a phase of "mediocre mom and student," I'd say you came out pretty well. I have a friend who, at the the age of 40, had already raised 2 teenagers (with the help of her ex-husband and then current one) and published 5 books of fiction; her take on how she had achieved all that was that she had done it all badly.

"So it's a matter of perspective. No one's perfect, and I would bet that over the long haul, your kids are probably proud of you. From what I saw at the reunion, very few women had switched gears since the first "I do," and it takes guts to go against that tide.

At any rate, I'm very much enjoying our correspondence, and I hope to hear from you soon. I'm glad you come into the city, because after last night, I don't want to get on a commuter train again for many moons. I hope this missive makes sense to you -- I feel like you didn't drink the Kool-aid and hence might have a clue about my life, and perhaps an interest in it, for I would really like to see you, now that we are past the windshield-sticker level."

As for my prep school reunion, the day after, I was completely depressed. Like the public school gathering, this was filled with those who drank the Kool-aid. Once again, I was the only person who had failed to get the marriage-will-make-you-happy memo, and, apart from one friend, I was carried the childless banner solo. She was gracious; when asked whether she had children, she didn't say, "I had cancer, not children." In her shoes I'm not sure I would have been so polite.

Here is what perplexes me: we were raised in the 1970s, with The Rocky Horror Show our backdrop. It was, in essence, the anthem for nonconformity. I took it to heart and I have never felt like a solo operation at a college reunion, but the lack of diversity at either my prep school or public school reunions makes me think, the only reason people attend these gatherings is to show how much they have taken the current social zeitgeist to heart, fallen down a rabbit hole I have scrupulously avoided.

No wonder I have become Alice; I cannot think of anyone else in history, real or imaginary, with whom I share so many traits.

Questions, comments? Post here or go ask alice, at alice dot uptown at gmail dot com.

Incidentally, Alice will swear that the logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead. She echoes the door mouse's plea, "feed your head." And she blesses the Western pharmaceuticals that have made it possible to Alice to remain here, to share a thought or observation or two, no matter how infrequently.

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October 17, 2008

Dazed and confused...

as the song of 30+ years ago says. No, I don't know what to do. Not a clue. I attribute this state of being in part to stepping up my migraine preventive drugs to new heights of spaciness and also to the current state of the economy. Finally, my lack of time, energy, finances, and interest in business school have paid off. I don't know any more than those Wall Street M.B.A.s, but it didn't cost me a dime not to know it.

Ever so proud of the money I saved, I do does wonder how I will make my so-called living as the months unwind and the market tanks quicker than a crack addict's high evaporates. The pace is stunning. Fortunately financial planning is holistic (dreadful but applicable description). It's not just about investments. If it were just about managing money, Alice would be screwed. Talk about your ballroom days being over.... This brings Alice to her next theme.

Chaos: It's not just a theory, it's a way of life. Apparently it's the way that Alice has signed on for, whether she realized it or not at the time. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose? Alice wouldn't bet on it. Her theory on the lack of suicides in the financial district is that most of the newer office buildings have windows that don't open.

You would have to be very determined to that break glass in an emergency, and Alice doesn't think the I-bankers have the upper body strength. She could, of course, be mistaken. She is certain, however, that street vendors whose native language is not English have already cornered the market on vegetable and fruit sales. Depression-era apple selling set up shop years ago. For immigrants, it beats dish washing, and it's an all-cash business.

All-cash businesses are, well, priceless. And everyone needs to eat. The folks in Alice's upscale apartment building are all planning to apply heat to food on a more consistent basis. Say good-bye to last-minute restaurant dinners; say hello to home cooking. Alice's freezer is well stocked with bargains on meat, fish, and poultry. A year ago, she wouldn't have known a good price if it bit her on the ass.

These days she takes great comfort in her menopausal marches around the reservoir. Finally, Alice and nature are on more than speaking terms. Turns out she loves walking and even running under the trees -- far from the sound of the phone ringing or the computer chirping. She doesn't understand the multitasking walkers who have a dog leash in one hand and a cell phone in the other, or the mommies jogging behind a stroller outfitted with two children.

Domestic incompetence is looking increasingly less attractive. Still, Alice can't open the cap on a bottle of soda, much less change a light bulb or do laundry without turning everything pink. You can bring Alice into the kitchen, but you'd better bring the burn cream along, too. Given how flaky her thumb tendons are, Alice wouldn't mind a sous chef, but she suspects that position has been lost to what is most assuredly a recession.

On the money management front, Alice as family CFO has been bailing out of financials for the past year, a move not taken with any prescience about the fall of Lehman Bros. et. al, but one that looks pretty damn good no matter what its impetus. Still, it looks like that retirement Alice was dreaming of will be postponed for the indefinite future.

She is, however, keeping her carbon footprint small by not attending any financial planning conferences this year. A week in Whistler with the socially responsible folks, and Alice would have gone postal. (They seem to respect trees more than intellectual property, and Alice has a big problem with that.) A trip to Hershey to discuss baby boomers retiring, and Alice would have been puking chocolate for days.

We baby boomers are, not to put too fine a point on it, fucked. All those great plans we had, the country houses and the sojourns to foreign countries, well, not going to happen -- not unless great Aunt Matilda conveniently leaves a seven-figure cash inheritance ASAP. In real life, half the boomers Alice knows are scraping together college tuition money or shoring up their own finances, and another, larger-than-expected portion are supporting one or more parents.

Remember Goldie Hawn as Private Benjamin? She signed up for the Army with the private rooms and maid service. Looks like we're all joining her in the barracks, at an age when the kindergarten virtue of sharing has long since paled.

Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night.

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