Baby Boomers '52

Born a third the way into the 18-year Boom

we 1952-ers travel just ahead of the crest of the wave . . .

. . . we're the froth.

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

I Believe Howard Kurtz

Newspapers died for me four years ago when I was disappeared from mine.

It was already a running family joke. Local elementary and middle schools invited both my husband and me to their job fairs. "Who in their right minds would suggest a child become a waterman or print reporter?" we would laugh at the dinner table. But even as we laughed neither of us really believed we would become extinct. But we have. And it isn't funny at all.

He went extinct first and reinvented himself as an environmental educator. Then four years ago I was banished in 20 minutes from the newsroom I had joined in 1985, before marrying that retrograde waterman who had reinvented himself once again, this time as an elected office holder.

The Washington Post Company's conflict of interest rules that govern the newspaper company I worked for proved impossible to abide during my husband's candidacy -- despite my transfer to a sister paper in a different county. I left the chain around the same time Matthew Cooper of "Time" and Judith Miller of the "New York Times" were refusing to name their anonymous sources regarding the disclosure of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. Gallons of ink debated the importance of anonymous sources to journalism and thus to democracy itself. It seemed the debate only generated interest among print reporters.

In July 2005 Howard Kurtz wrote a piece in "The Washington Post" about Cooper who Kurtz apparently couldn't reach, so he quoted Cooper's wife the "Democratic consultant Mandy Grunwald."

The story pushed me over the edge. Friends and former colleagues were already desperately tired of my entreaties: Why could reporters of large, national publications retain their positions and marriages to newsmakers? The only answer that ever made sense -- although it never seemed fair exactly -- was size. Large, national newspapers could move a reporter married to a newsmaker to a different floor or a different beat -- the conflicted reporter could be -- at least theoretically -- removed from those reporters who covered the spouse in question. At a community newspaper this is impossible on every level imaginable, including theoretical ones.

I was not assuaged by the size argument. I ranted and raved and fumed. Of course readers didn't believe in newspapers anymore -- from the outside it looks like insider baseball.

So when the layoffs -- called buyouts -- began and it became clear that the bigger the newspaper the faster it failed, I felt slightly vindicated. But that ended quickly, when entire papers began disappearing. And when the meager freelance budget of that community paper one county removed dried up last year, I started getting really scared. That community newspapers could fail, long considered the strongest financial bastion of the industry, was like suggesting that environmental educators could disappear as surely as the ecosystems they celebrate.

It got even worse last week when Kurtz, a self-proclaimed optimist, admitted he, too, saw the end at hand. The newspaper, he wrote within the first 100 words, "might be left behind by history and public indifference."

Might? Meet my daughters: avid readers who grew up in government hallways and the newsroom of a community newspaper. Their humor is newsroom cynical. Their history is community news. One even qualified for admittance to the august University of Maryland's journalism school last year -- despite those laughing dinners. But she turned on her heel and transferred to a school that doesn't even have a journalism department. These are the most newspaper-friendly of their generation. Even if I can convince myself they aren't indifferent, I cannot fool myself into thinking they see newspapers as anything other than history.

Kurtz's article was long and carried an increasingly desperate tone as he tried to affix blame and share blame. I know that feeling. I've lived that sense of banishment for four years now and struggle to confront living with it forever. I've created a webpage and write about all that has been lost of my husband's former life. Now I have to include my own. And I need to find other financial resources since writing doesn't do it anymore. It is hard to outlive your vocation. Really, really hard.

Toward the end of his article Kurtz pegged us all -- the celebrities down to those of us who cover school boards and planning commissions and the biggest pumpkin at the county fair. He wrote, "Newspaper folks may have an inflated view of their self-importance, but what they do has an impact beyond their readers and advertisers. Local TV isn't likely to expose a crooked mayor, as the Detroit Free Press did. Bloggers aren't going to reveal secret CIA prisons."

He's right. We're going to rant and fume and write about what used to be.

And we should all be scared. Really, really scared.

Monday, May 4, 2009

No More Kissing

What a relief! Finally a reason to turn away this kissy-kissy habit that has become the bane of many a political spouse and one would have to presume thousands of others, who, let's be honest, were much happier with a handshake instead of a kiss.

I'm not talking about those air kisses or even the cheek-to-cheek stuff. I'm talking about how in the past half-decade this kissing business has become extreme.

I don't think it was the matter of my demotion from reporter to political spouse that accentuated my personal awareness of this. I am willing to concede that I might have been more immune to the practice as a reporter but even so, I think this increased kissing was happening in the wider world and merely coincided with my demotion.

It seemed to be an established practice when I was a mere candidate's wife. Standing next to an already installed political spouse I watched with dread a reknowned lip-to-lip politico making his way down a spousal greeting line. (You may ask, "Why were only the spouses stuck in this line?" Even now as a bona fide elected official's spouse I can still only respond that I don't know. But after a mere four years I must add that their timing is a constant wonder to all us spouses.)

So, standing next to this tenured spouse, watching the lip-locker drooling his way toward us I asked, "Once you're elected, can you just say no? Turn your cheek? Avoid this lip-lock?"

"No," she said just before the lip-to-lipper drooled her silent.

As he turned to drool one on me she took a deep slug of her deeply amber shaded drink and as he laid one on me she lowered her drink and confessed quietly in my ear, "It's why I drink. It kills the germs."

The H1N1 flu warnings do not suggest alcohol as an antidote, but the warnings do make clear that the casual lip-lock is a bad plan in a world frightened of a pandemic. So while the warnings don't pointblank admonish casual kissing those masks appearing on everyone's faces imply it. And the constant handwashing advice goes further, suggesting that the handshake might rightfully be banished as well.

This has given me pause, I had never equated the handshake to a kiss, which is quite surprising as I look back. My decades of public bathroom behavior inspired stand-up comedy from both my daughters. Who would have thought washing with soap through at least two choruses of Happy Birthday, using elbows for turning off faucets and toilet paper for opening doors in restrooms equipped only with blow driers could be so inspirational?

But for all of that bathroom paranoia, I was a consummate handshaker. And for decades of such behavior I had never even heard of hand sanitizers. What was I thinking? Extending my hand all these years of reportage to politicians, criminals, lawyers, teachers, the afflicted, the winners and the losers, all in the search of a good story, a better angle, a closer bond. I used those same hands to first diaper, then brush hair and ultimately guide those little girls in and out of those bathroom incubators for, well, ever it seemed at the time.

And I missed the grip after my fall from reporter to political spouse. As a reporter the handshake felt like a great equalizer. As a spouse I learned that my old hand clasp became merely a handle pulling me into often awkward and occasionally really yucky encounters. Perhaps this is merely redirected bathroom paranoia, but once no one was interested in printing what I had to say about those objects of my hand clasps it began to feel that some of those former claspers relished lipping me up in my new role. And it didn't feel as though they meant it in the good way.

So these pandemic fears of damp germ distribution seem a healthy step toward a better life for many -- certainly for me -- but what's the alternative with handshaking suddenly considered risky behavior as well?

A friend suggests the oriental bow. Palms clasped together -- not offered -- and a slight inclination of the head toward your own fingertips. Of course, she counsels, the lesser personage must bow slightly deeper to the higher ranked, which will certainly pose some difficulties -- although not for spouses who are pretty clear where they stand in most greeting situations. But the lower bow can carry its own gender issues, not the least of which will be who gets the best view down someone's blouse.

Still, I like the idea. Frankly, looking strikes me as a lot healthier than all this touching. And I can think of a certain sloppy kisser who might be well pleased with the trade-off.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Not to Say Fishermen Aren't Scoundrels

Not to say fishermen aren't scoundrels, liars, maybe even thieves -- at least of fish and oysters and crabs. Until recently that seemed penny ante compared to, say, derivative trading, whatever that is.

Fish thievery was more in keeping with the waterman who asked a legislative panel, "You don't think we'd take the last oyster, do you?" Indeed, the legislators did and legislated accordingly.

It isn't easy to legislate fish, or crabs for that matter. Oysters can be a tad bit simpler, staying in one place as they do. Thus fishery laws end up as complicated as proverbial fish tales. To make the point, a New England maritime museum displays a four-inch thick three-ring binder filled only with current tiny-print regulations.

By and large fisheries laws boil down to limiting when and where a certain number of fish can be taken and by what method. The result is that every fish, oyster, lobster and crab caught commercially carries a manifest from sea to platter.

Scoundrels can still steal fish and lying about their size and how they were caught is as old as fishing itself. But a lying, thieving fisherman will have to eat an undersized, out-of-season fish. Selling the wrong sized fish in the wrong season isn't going to work.

That does, however, leave the Bait and Switch Con -- recently demonstrated by mortgage lenders and again those derivative traders. Consider the bait, "You can afford this house." And the switch: But only at the first year rate. Or,"This house is worth a half-million dollars." Last year.

If it didn't sound so Biblical you could almost call those folks Fishers of Men.

Recent federal indictments surrounding the baiting of watermen and switching of fish manifests are now sending a handful of St. Mary's County watermen to federal prison. It seems their manifests contained lies about the method they used to entrap the fish. And the way the feds figured this out was to entrap the watermen, which somehow seems to wind back around and make the feds Fishers of Men. Or, as one of the men who bit on the bait described it, "You might be able to walk by a $100 bill lying on the ground one time. Maybe you can even walk by it a second time."

In a Bait and Switch the point is to make more money than the delivered product is worth. When the indictments came out the amounts of money the watermen were accused of making were laughable. The value of those landed fish must have been based on Cafe' des Artiste's dinner prices, joked local watermen. That was before the specter of federal prison rippled through the local watering community.

"If I was speeding up this highway, a cop would stop me and I'd get a ticket," said another fisherman. "They wouldn't wait until I'd gathered five years worth of tickets and make a federal case of it."

Fisheries are federal cases, partially because of the transitory nature of fish. Unlike the folks at the bankrupt banks, the bankrupt mega-insurance agencies or the financial investment firms, these fishermen broke federal laws dealing with how they caught fish. Traders and bankers and other derivative folks didn't break laws. They broke the nation. Maybe the whole world.

It seems, though, greed motivated all of them. And it happens that greed makes wrongly manifested fish a federal offense but wrongly manifested livelihoods legal.

So the punishment for lying about fish doesn't warrant a bail-out. Still, it seems that would be cheaper. Probably only one of the derivative folks' bonuses would cover even the Cafe' des Artiste prices applied to these watermen's fish. It seems possible only one bonus would suffice to convince all of these busted fishermen to never fish again. That's what the federal laws are all about -- stopping overfishing. Federal law presumes overfishing makes fish so rare they deserve federal protection -- it doesn't assume what some folks suspect, that the explosion of over-mortgaged houses lining the waterfront might have had something to do with the rarity of fish as well.

Then again, in some lights, it does seem odd that overfishing is the federal offense. If that is really why the fish are gone how come you can't catch any of those old toadfish anymore? There has never been a fishery for them. No manifest necessary for those bardogs. Just used to throw them back and hope they didn't bite again. Maybe they'll come back, too, once those fishermen reach prison, that is if the folks struggling to find jobs or pay their mortgages ever get a chance to just take a day off and go fishing again.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Constantly Yielding to the Teachers

Tuesday night St. Mary's County government's 2010 budget hearings were televised. What a relief. I used to have to attend.

When I first attended -- this would have been in the mid-1980s -- the very richest man in the county was a county commissioner. He held fast to a policy of absolutely no property tax increases whatsoever, no matter what, come hell or high water. The tax rate was close to the lowest in the state, which saved most property owners some bucks but saved him bundles.

Two groups of people typically testified: Parents who wanted more money for recreational activities for their children. And teachers. The people who wanted more parks and sports asked that more money be spent on them. The teachers were more outspoken. They asked for tax hikes. They were working in schools from hell suffering from high water.

Public schools were visibly crumbling. The elementary school closest to my home had buckets collecting rainwater in classrooms and down the hallways. It was the solution to leaking roofs in other schools as well. Local teachers were among the lowest paid in the state. Recruiting and retaining teachers were Herculean tasks. Classrooms bulged with well more than 30 students at even the youngest grades. Closets in some schools were turned into instructional space.

It took another decade before all the roofs were repaired, new schools were under construction, teacher salaries became competitive and class sizes regularly fell below 30 students. The richest man in the county was still the richest man in the county but he wasn't a commissioner anymore. Term limits.

Teachers were the driving force of the changes. Some years recreational proponents gave way to library patrons who other years were overshadowed by sheriff deputies who other years were outdone by pleas from senior citizens to keep tax rates low. But every year teachers made the biggest show, created the headlines, demanded that St. Mary's County cough up the money to keep its educational system competitive. And they were successful.

Even during the years taxes were reduced -- in the late 1990s -- and the years they were raised to compensate for the depleted coffers -- in the early 2000s -- the teachers came one after another to speak for increased educational funding. They insisted, one after another, that the increasingly well educated population would support paying more for the benefits of quality education.

But this year -- and maybe it was the medium, maybe the television itself warped the message -- but this year, even as they asked for more money, a vocal cadre of teachers wielding umbrellas applauded an even larger cadre of speakers calling for tax cuts.

The umbrellas symbolized the teacher's perennial call for more spending on education. But as the same teachers applauded those calling for tax cuts the umbrellas reminded me of the old leaking roofs. That past was remedied by teachers and parents who insisted that the average home owner would forgo their relatively modest savings from reductions of pennies on the tax rate in exchange for a quality school system.

Of course, the richest man in the county would save a great deal more from those pennies than the average home owner. He's gone now. But I thought about him Tuesday night and imagined how he would have grinned at such a turn.