Monday, January 30, 2012

Art, Artists, and the Soul of America

There’s been a lot of talk this week, in the wake of the State of the Union address, about Steve Jobs telling President Obama, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.” People are finally catching on to the ideas that 1) we need to have blue collar jobs housed here in America, and 2) we are going to have to invent an entirely new type of manufacturing to do it. This should not come as any surprise to anyone …except perhaps Congress who seems to think job creation is going of materialize out of thin air, and we’re going to retrain millions of unemployed workers for those magical mystical jobs.

Emma Simon
Misha Siegfried
Those, however,  aren’t the jobs I got stuck thinking about. I got stuck thinking about three of Bessie Simon’s great-grandchildren: the senior son, Misha, who’s about to release a new album this week, his little cousin Emma Simon who just got a teaching license when a corner of her soul would rather be singing her lungs out on a stage someplace, and their older cousin, Erik Simon, who, despite a law degree, is making his way as an axe-man in New York City. 

ErikSimon  (left)
Ariel Strasser
I was thinking about the children of our friends: Ariel Strasser finishing at Boston Conservatory but cutting demos as fast as she can, Jeffrey Baldinger in LA who is working his way through comedy clubs, and Jacob Grun who plays in all sorts of bands while running his own studio. All of them know art doesn’t come with health insurance, and in fact, neither do a lot of the day jobs. They take gigs as they come. They revel in applause; it’s air in their lungs; it’s the very sound of breathing.

We hear Madonna  and we think all singers have it made. They do not. We see Tom Hanks and think all actors are paid that way. They are not. And we read J.K. Rowling and think all authors get rich from royalties. We do not. Too many journey-people plying their crafts not only aren’t rich from their efforts, they live on a fragile shoestring.  You know that old saw, “Don’t quit your day job?”  Well, most of us cannot afford to quit our day jobs to pursue our craft full time even if we wanted to. That doesn’t mean we’re not good at what we do, it means we’re just not famous ….yet.

Jacob Grun
In the midst of this, the pathway to artistic expression is being strangled.  Cuts in education have curtailed art and music in more schools that not…usually unemploying artists who are trying to keep that day job. In the process, we stop teaching our kids to write, much less wright creatively. We will lose untold numbers of musicians because they will never get to try that clarinet or violin, or sing in a chorus. If Mozart was a kid in your average American inner city school, it’s pretty unlikely he would’ve become the Mozart we know….because he would not have had the opportunity to explore music.

Jeffrey Baldinger
Art, music, theater, poetry, creative writing….all these things used to be introduced in grade school. We are raising a generation who has never had a school assembly where a children’s theatre troop has come to perform.  They’ve never set foot in a museum because schools can no longer afford field trips. Kids who have never been in a museum are less likely to visit them as adults. No exposure will ultimately result in the slow death of many of our cherished cultural institutions because we are not developing audiences to support them.

Nor are kids developing the ability to sit through something that doesn’t rise and fall in 7 minute cycles, the action time between commercials. Already we see people texting or playing ANGRY BIRDS while sitting in a theater because they can’t concentrate that long on a live performance or a film. Their attention span is frighteningly narrow.

In the quest for more jobs and new technology, we cannot lose sight of another whole classification of seemingly old-fashioned jobs that still deserve our notice, not to mention our support. We need artists, writers, composers, singers and the rest. There need to be grants to encourage creative endeavors, but at the same time we must continually educate our kids and communities that art is an intrinsic part of our cultural heritage and must be supported by attendance, community membership, and most important, active participation.

As we continue the conversation about where to spend our tax dollars, we should not be excising art, music and literature from their places at the table. We do need more engineers, we do need more scientists, but at the same time we need those people who provide entertainment, beauty, and relief from the daily grind.

Lose artists, and lose the soul of our unique American expression. Without it, we are flat and colorless; and once gone, we will not be able to PhotoShop it back into the picture.

Wifely Person S Tip O'the Week
Instead of taking in a picture show, buy a ticket to a live performance.  
Just like being there doesn't compare to actually being there.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Weather Isn't The Only Weird Thing This Winter

This has been an exceedingly strange Minnesota winter so far.  Here it is, the beginning of the end of January, and there’s precious little snow on the ground. I will admit I got out a shovel this evening to clear the walk and the driveway, but mostly I was just pushing the white stuff out of the way. I didn’t even break a sweat. There is something fundamentally wrong with that.

Lately, though,  the weather here matches the mood of the country: grey, cold, and bizarre.  That’s the only way you can describe watching the political circus that plays all day, every day on the wireless and the boob tube. It's relentless. Instead of the Nine Circles of Hell Dante described in The Inferno, we as a nation are suffering through the Eighteen Ellipses of Egomania. I am not so naïve to believe politics has ever been fundamentally different, but the media has commandeered the process. In 2008, the Dems had 23 primary debates, 21 of which were televised, so this is not new phenomena. 

People used to have to read about a debate or the text of a speech in the newspaper; now, the nanosecond the words pass between the lips, they are splashed, usually out of context, across the universe and spun into something that bears no resemblance to what the candidate was actually saying. They're woven into a shroud for truth, designed to conceal rather than illuminate. The political machine recycles old snippets of statements and expects the public to believe these are all relevant when all it does is prove there is nothing new under the sun...or in politicians' heads for that matter. They steal, they mangle, they parody each other's ads. School yard bullies attacking each other. 

Lord knows both sides spin like whirligigs. And someone is bound to write in here to complain about my spin, but just for the record, I'm holding both sides accountable for the morass. And I am taking the press equally to task as the enablers of the debacle. I don't think anyone anticipated this overuse of the 1 nanosecond sound bite cycle when they invented the internet. 

Last night, however, I saw something that just about put me over the edge.

It was a Rick Santorum ad and it just burned my butt raw. Those pathetic, thieving, vulgar pigs ripped off the iconic Apple Big Brother ad and called it REBELLION.


I was physically ill, and I was mad that Steve Jobs isn't alive to sue their sorry asses for plagiarism right into the next decade. One of the most brilliant, visceral visual images that celebrated need for independent thought and creativity was twisted into something grotesque in support of a man who has pledged to curtail your biological rights. This is a guy who claims he wants to reduce spending, cut taxes, all the while preparing to start yet a THIRD unfunded land war in Asia. What happened to investing in America? Or is it only about paying dividends?

Folks, the rebellion he's gonna get is not the one he's pitching. This one is going to squash him and his misogynistic, anti-education, anti-economic recovery propaganda right into the trash where he...and it  belongs.

I'm watching the debate as Sanctamonium makes his case for a preemptive strike against Iran. Is this guy living under a rock? Has he learned no lesson from the past? He talks about smaller government and less spending, but nowhere does he mention how he's going to pay for a war in Iran. Does he think the Air Force can just drop a couple of bombs and that's that? 

Wars aren't like that and if he hasn't had that lesson yet, someone should foot his bill for  a holiday in Kabul and Baghdad. Wars are not sanitary, antiseptic Cinema Scope epics. When people in real wars fall over, they usually don't get up again. And they cost money. Lots and lots of money. And then the soldiers muster out and they need jobs. And on. And on. 

I don't know if I can take listening to another debate. And I'm beginning to wonder if perhaps we are as dumb as the Toontown candidates think we are. They keep repeating the same things over and over and over, as if by saying them, somehow they are true.

Great. That's all we need. A velveteen rabbit in the White House.

Wifely Person's Tip O' The Week
If your name is Sidney and 
January 28th happens to be your 91st birthday...
many, many happy returns of the day!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Closing The Books On 2011

Well, it’s January and time to do that thing I really hate doing….closing out the last fiscal year. Granted the spread sheets are done every month, so it's just a matter of printing them out and attaching them to the bills, but's like a mini review of my life and trust me when I say it's not nearly as interesting as it sounds. 

I used to run the family books back in the day. I paid bills and juggled the financial lives of us:  newlyweds... new parents... and then new homeowners. I did a pretty good job of it until Steve entered the land of stock options and stuff like that. He took over and I never gave it a second thought.

BIG mistake.

I should’ve been paying attention. It never occurred to me that one day I might have to do this again. I won’t go into the details of “if I knew then what I know now,” but even after losing over 2/3 of our household income when Steve died, I've managed to figure out how to keep the house, keep us afloat, and keep at least some of my sanity. (Okay, that's a stretch. I admit it.) My records are impeccable; every penny can be tracked. Even the junior son would be hard pressed to find fault with my bookkeeping skills. 

As widow, I’ve had to deal with the leftover pieces of Steve’s financial life, and let me tell you, it’s been quite the adventure. Seems he every time he changed jobs he left a 401k behind. Kinda like his shoes in the bathroom. That drove me crazy. And like the shoes, I avoided the issue by not confronting it. 

Once the medical bill saga drew to a close, it was time to consolidate my resources. Just like health insurance companies, each time I'd call one of those banking houses, I'd get a different answer. My favorite had to be the first call to Putnam requesting account name change forms. The guy told me I wasn’t the beneficiary. After I picked  my teeth up off the floor, I said that in the State of Minnesota that really didn’t matter since I was the widow. The guy then told me that when we filed for divorce, my ex-husband must have named his new wife as the beneficiary. Astounded, I demanded to know why this new wife hadn't been doing her share of the laundry or dealing with hospice. The guy on the other end of the phone did not seem to be amused. 

And just like health insurance companies, those big boys threw brickbats at me at every turn. I'd ask what kind of death certificate they wanted (and there are several kinds from which to choose) and send the damn thing in, then they’d tell me they wanted the other kind.  I'd ask for forms, and they would tell me to send an email. I’d send the email, and they wanted a fax. I would send the fax, and they would send forms to sign. I'd send those back, only to have them tell me those weren’t the right forms and I have to do it all over.  And as if that rigmarole weren't enough, they all insisted I had to open an account because they won’t send a rollover cheque unless you already have an account in their bank. 

I was getting ready to track down the imaginary widow to make her deal with these monsters when Stuart the Attorney rode to the rescue with a list of financial advisors who specialized in decomposing widows. 

Armed with a set of questions, I conducted interviews. And in the end, there was not even a moment’s hesitation about my choice. Lauri Salverda over at Clerestory, a small financial planning firm right here in little ol' Mendota Heights, answered my endless list of questions…and the ones she asked me in turn were the ones I wanted to be asked. She got that I was green all over: a complete rookie interested in green and ethical investment.

Lauri understood “the notebook” as soon as I handed it to her; she took the bottomless bucket of snailmail and handled the disbursement. She held my hand, handed me tissues, and even laughed at my very bleak humor. The papers are finally filed and the transfers are in progress.  It still won’t amount to much, but I will be able to stop worrying; this is a good thing.

But I will tell you all this one last thing: the banking industry is NOT your friend. They want to hang on to your money and not pay you a sou for the privilege of using your money. That's how they make their money...the stuff that makes them 1%'ers.  Be aware...they are not there to help you no matter how many toasters they promise. 

And for my next  trick....I will attempt to  do my own taxes!

Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
If you have large amounts of money ...large meaning anything over 50 bucks, 
find someone you can trust and let them teach you what you need to know.
You'll sleep better. 
I promise. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

In Order To Form A More Perfect Union ~ Part 2

I can tell you with absolute confidence, no client ever leaves a supplier because the service they’re getting is too good. No client ever leaves vendor because their users are deliriously happy with the service they’re getting.

Read about any service industry company on Glassdoor, and you will see a constant thread running through the  reviews: management doesn’t listen to the people on the front line. Not sure you believe that? Just have a conversation with anyone who works at the lowest level of a large corporation, and you will hear theme and little variation.

I actually remember working for a large corporation and being totally enamored with our upper management. It wasn’t that long ago. They would have us in twice a year to talk to our buyers about what was coming and what we needed. We could pick up the phone and there was someone who actively listened on the other end. Then the mergers started and suddenly we in the trenches were frozen out. We were told we didn’t understand our department and our customers…the same customers who complained vociferously about our new inability to meet their needs. Their...and our…voices fell on deaf ears. They voted with their feet, and ultimately so did many of us.

This is not news. Upper management knows the front line is the face of the company. That sales clerk or phone service person is the first and often the only link between the corporation and the end user. How that front line worker is perceived is what ultimately determines the success of that company. Yet, too many front line employees feel they are disposable, undervalued, and, perhaps worst of all, patently ignored by the senior management. They are told again and again that they don’t understand their jobs.

Do you really think companies intentionally hire front line workers too stupid to understand their own jobs, much less the concept of Return on Investment? We are not stupid and we get it.  We understand you want measurable ROI, but we understand you won’t get that if the customer/user is not happy.

What happened to building a relationship with the repeat customer? What happened to the part where your user/customer/client develops a sense of trust that you will do right by them? How does the trench worker reconcile the demand for speed above all else when they know it shortchanges the client?
Go to any corporate training and listen to the front line being told over and over to smile, be welcoming, make the user/customer/client feel as if they are the most important person in the world. They show us the F.I.S.H. video over and over and over, but when it comes to putting it into practice, they balk. They talk quality, but stress speed – accuracy be damned. Upsell an item. Open new accounts. Reach your $$ per hour goal,  but do it faster not necessarily better. Miss your goal, and you’re gone.

When the front line begins to doubt management's direction, employees begin to feel that they are being set up to fail.  The lack of trust between employer and employee is neither ignorable nor dismissible. That breach moves quickly from fissure to chasm. The higher stacked management gets, the more detached the top is from the actual relationship between front line worker and the client/customer. The loss of that understanding undermines the rest of the company and ultimately impacts the bottom line. Profit margin and ROI are certainly motivating factors for thems at the top who reap significant bonuses for delivering (or, in some cases, not delivering) that fat black at the bottom on the column, but if the only point of doing this is to have a fat black, what is the motivation for the front line who sees little, if anything, of that reward? 

The day business became only about the fat black is the day America lost its soul. You can call the old days terrible and paternalistic and all sorts of things, but once upon a time there were companies that protected their workers and treated them like a big family. They worked together, management and workers, to make sure the company succeeded. Everyone was invested in the end product. This is not a bad thing. There are companies doing just this and they are succeeding.

For the record, I do believe in cutting people who don't do their jobs, and I do believe in making sure you hire the most qualified people to do whatever it is you do, but I simply cannot believe that treating people as disposable is a desirable thing. It does not enhance the customer experience whether it’s in a door, on the phone, or via electronic media.

So now, how about a little symbiosis? How about treating your front line like the money generators that they are? After all, they are really the ones who make sure you get you bonus, right? How about remembering that every company, every corporation is really just a partnership amongst people working together toward a common goal? 

Is that really so much to ask?

Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
Rava said: At the time that man is brought in for judgement, they say to him: 
Did you conduct your business with integrity and probity? 
Talmud Bavli Shabbat 31a

Monday, January 2, 2012


A group of adult men spat on, shouted at, and generally terrorized an eight year old girl. They did this because they didn’t like the way she was dressed.  She was not wearing a bathing suit nor shorts; she was dressed in a long skirt and a shirt with long sleeves but they were the wrong kind of sleeves. So they called her a whore.

This was not in Iran. This was not in Afghanistan or Egypt or Yemen or even Saudi Arabia. This happened in Israel and these people were Jews. The men were haredim, the little girl, modern orthodox. And this was not an isolated incident in Beit Shemesh; it was just one more in a long and bitter religious war. Fortunately for Israel, Jews don’t suicide bomb each other….they just throw rocks and spittle.

The problem is that just like the Taliban, the Salafis, and the Muslim Brotherhood, the haredim want to control Israel. Not that they agree amongst themselves, which makes it very confusing. This is not new; it’s a 2000 year old problem:

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three evils in it: idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed . . . But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that during the time it stood people occupied themselves with Torah, with observance of precepts, and with the practice of charity? Because during the time it stood, hatred without rightful cause prevailed. This is to teach you that hatred without rightful cause is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together.
Babylonian Talmud Book III: Yoma 9b
circa 500 CE

The ultra-orthodox do not share equally in the maintenance of the State of Israel. For the most part, they do not serve in the army, and certainly their girls are exempt. The men receive state subsidies for studying holy books instead of working. They do not pay taxes at the same rate, yet they demand more than their fair share of services. They verbally abuse those who do not conform to their standards, and that abuse can, and does, escalate into stone throwing and other physical abuses. They want all the benefits of living in a free country …one that is virtually tax-free for them….without any of the responsibilities and obligations. They want the law bent to their specifications and the rest of the country be damned.

Well, that’s not acceptable.

Sign in Beit Shemesh:
Women - Move to the other side
 of the street
Israel is mired between plurality and halacha (religious law) and it sure looks like plurality is losing. (Come to think of it, there isn’t really a word for plurality in modern Hebrew…so that should be a real big clue right there.)  I’m not about to go into all the details of how this is broken; the list is endless. If you’re interested, you already know. If you’re not, it doesn’t really matter, does it? But if you’re more than just plant life and follow world politics, you know this is not the biggest problem Israel is battling.  

The State of Israel faces many more pressing problems. Here is a tiny little country in the center of a sea of countries that want it gone. The charter of the incipient Palestinian state even calls for the destruction of the “Zionist entity known as Israel.”  So what does it say about the haredim plotting the destruction of the modern state from within?

In light of the ongoing onslaught of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, as practiced by the haredim, how about we have a 3 state solution instead? Draw a line around the haredi communities beginning with Mea She’rim in Jerusalem, and give Haredistan its freedom. They can be their very own country with all the rights and privileges therein along with all the obligations that comes with running your own state.

This would serve a twofold purpose:  first, it would allow the haredim to structure all the laws they want. They can argue amongst themselves and it  just won’t be our business, will it?  Their women can strap themselves onto the tops of buses, a la Mitt Romney and his dog, or go around wearing refrigerator boxes for modesty with just two eye holes cut out. The women could run all the shops and businesses so the men wouldn’t ever have to do a day's work. They can have their own police and fire brigade. They would have to run their own services and pay or not pay their workers as they see fit. They can dictate whatever they want whenever they want. And the rest of Israel can get back to the business of running a democracy without having to pay for haredi mishugas. 

Of course, there’s no expectation for longevity here. The Arab states will overrun Haredistan as soon as possible; because they never bothered to establish diplomatic ties with Israel or anyone else, there will be no allies on whom to call for assistance. But all things considered, they might find sharia more palatable than the Knesset.

I bet you think I’m kidding. I’m not so sure. But I do know that if the other 80% of Israelis do not stand up to those hate mongers, Israel as we know and love it will cease to exist.

No one wants to see Israel collapse under the weight of its own Taliban. But if it does, Midinat Yisrael will have no one to blame but themselves. 

Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
If you don't live there, having an opinion about Israel is dicey at best.
It's always good policy to fly it by an Israeli 
just to make sure you're not completely off base.
[Right, Jen?]