Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Winter Sun

The winter sun is back, after what feels like months of gray. The snow is a frozen crust over the ground, wind-whipped deep in some areas and shallow in others. The snow is so dry that its surface crumbles under my feet, like I’m walking on very old bones. The top layer scatters like sand. On my morning walk to work, particles of snow flew around the air like hard little diamonds, glittering in the sun. I thought it was snowing again, but it was just the wind, scattering flecks of white, gold, and purple glitter. The air was so biting that I could feel my cheeks turn red. I breathed great plumes of smoke into the sky. I remembered a children’s book where the temperature was so cold that it froze the sun. A family cut off slices of rock solid sun to store in their freezer. I wish my morning walk led to a barn in my backyard, where I could climb up into a converted loft/studio and paint while I watched the squirrels and the neighborhood cats make their way across the white landscape.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Re-reading List

I’m always tired. Either I have some kind of terrible illness or this is the normal result of living with a one and two year old. Nowadays, I don’t have the luxury of spending my whole weekend reading, but what’s more, when I do find the time to read, I promptly fall asleep. Open book, close eyes, enter dream state. So what I’m doing, these days, is re-reading. Re-reading is great because, even if I only get through five minutes of reading a day, I can still keep the flow of the story straight in my head. Here’s what I’ve been re-reading lately, going backwards from what I’m reading now. Looking ahead, I’m thinking of Watership Down or Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard. Any suggestions are welcome!

Mountains Beyond Mountains -Tracy Kidder - The story of Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health. PIH wrote the book on treating underserved people with MSR TB. I think PIH is the best place to make donations to Haiti. They’ve been providing health care, food, and clean water in Haiti for years now. Much of their organization is made of up Haitians, too.

The Interpreter - Suki Kim - A woman hears a possible clue to the unsolved murders of her parents while working as an interpreter. Great, great writer. And she really captures living in NYC, even though she doesn’t talk much about the best borough, Brooklyn!

A Letter of Mary - Laurie King - The saga continues! I wanted to read O Jerusalem next, but I must have lent out my copy.

A Monstrous Regiment of Woman - Laurie King - Book II

The Bee Keeper’s Apprentice - Laurie King A great story about a brilliant young woman who befriends an aging Sherlock Holmes.

Woman Warrior - Maxine Hong Kingston - One of my most favorite books ever. A Chinese American girl struggles with her identity and with an overbearing, extremely intelligent mother. (Aren’t all mothers overbearing but extremely intelligent?)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

NPR and the Bag Lady

On NPR this week, Linda Wertheimer interviewed a painter who lost everything to Bernie Madoff. She had three homes with mortgages, so she sold one and is renting out the other. She was terrified of becoming a bag lady, even though her son immediately called to tell her she could stay with him. Now she’s written a book and she barters her paintings for things like hairstyling. Listening to this story, I couldn’t fault the painter. Who wouldn’t be devastated to lose their life savings? Who wouldn’t have trouble adjusting to a different kind of life where you can’t cough out the money for a dye job? But why would NPR let her promote her book on their show? With all the people out of work, desperately trying to put food on the table, pay medical bills, fill their tanks, and pay their single mortgage, why would NPR let this woman on for the sole purpose of promoting her book? The rich and well-connected get richer and the poor get poorer and forgotten about.

I bet there are a lot of people who could write books about the panic they felt when gas went up to $4/gallon and bread jumped to $4 a loaf. Our grocery bill went up by about 40% over the past two years. I choked, but I still bought groceries. What is everyone else doing? If you are barely scratching out an existence, you probably don’t have the time to write a book. But if you did manage, chances are you wouldn’t be able to find an agent. The painter on NPR probably knew lots of agents, or had friends who knew agents. I mean, she lived NYC and had a house in the Hamptons. Connections.

Other examples of connections? George Bush goes to Harvard and Yale, not because he was smart, but because of his family legacy. CEOs sit on each other’s boards and approve $23 million bonuses, even though the company is declaring bankruptcy and laying off hundreds of workers. And regular people like Lilly Ledbetter, who lost her discrimination case against Goodyear in the Supreme Court because she failed to file a complaint within 180 days now has an act named after her, but last I heard, she was on disability and barely eking out an existence.

If you look at the comments posted on NPR after the bag lady story ran, you’ll be amazed at how angry it made listeners. But, in NPR’s defense, they are going for ratings. Not as shamelessly as CNN, Fox, and the like, but they do need to be viable. And as much as people disliked the story of a woman with three homes complaining about money, in some ways it’s an easier story to listen to than the much sadder stories about the many Americans who trying to raise a family on minimum wage, or are laid-off, or scared about being laid off. Or the Americans who’ve lost everything because one injury and no health insurance bankrupted them? Indignation is the no-brainer response to the three-homes-lady. She doesn’t need our help. But how do we respond to the millions of working class Americans living in poverty who do need help, when we’ve no way to help them?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Let Your Money Do The Talking And Your Feet Do The Walking

Yesterday I received a letter from Citibank, which said that in order to maintain their profits “amid the rising cost of doing business” (ie: consumer protection laws) they were adding a $60 annual fee unless I spent $200/month on their credit card. For all these years, they’ve been charging interest rates of 18-25% and they now want to also charge everyone an annual fee? I’ve had that card for 21 years. It was my first credit card, and for many, many years, my only credit card. This morning, I called Citibank,
reached someone in India, and canceled my card. I was nostalgic for the 22-year old me who first walked into the Citibank on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, NY and signed up for that card. But it doesn’t pay to be sentimental when you are dealing with loan sharks. It took the man across the world in India just a couple of minutes to close my account. As he hung up, he said, “Thank you for choosing Citibank.”

Wells Fargo has been my bank for 12 years. I even got my mortgage through them. About a year ago, for the first time ever, I bounced a check. It was my mistake. I had the money, but I’d forgotten to transfer it from savings to checking. I realized the very next day, but by then I already had two overdrafts. I called Wells Fargo and explained everything. Talked to the bankers and fixed everything. I thought. But what the bankers didn’t tell me was that Wells Fargo had opened a line of credit in my name and used that money to cover the bounced check. I don’t always read my bank statements carefully. So it was a few months before I realized what was going on. By then, I had already paid over $200 in interest. I went in person to the bank, explained what had happened to a banker, and she said, “This will teach you to read your mail.” She was rude, condescending, and unapologetic.

Today, the New York Times reported that John Stumpf (see pic at right),
head of Wells Fargo, earned $18.7 million in 2009, up 64% from his salary in 2007, and double what Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs earned this year.

Wells Fargo has made their last dime on hidden fees from me. Last week, I moved my accounts over to a regional bank. When the regional bank’s banker heard my tail of woe about the interest charges on the line of credit, she said, “I thought it was illegal to open a line of credit without your permission.” It probably was, but how am I going to fight some fine print written by an army of Wells Fargo MBAs? Wouldn’t it be great if a great collective unconscious drove everyone to move their money out of Wells Fargo? In the meantime, John Stumpf is probably basking in the sun somewhere warm, laughing at how he nickeled and dimed his customers into the poor house while he lives like a king.