Monday, May 25, 2009

pennies from heaven

Pennies make me smile.
No, I’m not one of those people with jars and dishes of pennies stashed around the house.
It’s that pennies like me. Really.
I go through periods in my life when they show up, unannounced.
I don’t go looking for my copper friends, you understand. I don’t stare at the ground, shake pants or empty junk drawers.
They just appear. In some of the strangest places.
And literally out of thin air.
I walk by the kitchen counter, nothing there.
I walk back a few minutes later, and there it is, in plain view, winkin’ at me. I move a jar of cream on a bathroom tray and a Canadian penny shows its face.
And I smile. Every time.
Because they are a reminder of abundance.
But also, I know that money is on its way.
It happens every time.
I don’t know how, when or how much. But ALWAYS some unexpected cash comes my way. Without fail.
And I am grateful for whatever it turns out to be.
It may be a long forgotten rebate check, a gift, a miniscule royalty payment. Recently, I learned I was entitled to a small annuity from my time at the Asbury Park Press along with a cash payment.

Of course, I wouldn’t mind a life-changing extraordinary infusion of green, like a big time lottery win.
I allow myself one a week ticket in each of the two Florida games.
This permits me to indulge in my favorite game: Fantasy Philanthropy.
(Full disclosure-a colleague came up with the name.)
When the jackpot is obscenely huge, I imagine myself the holder of the only winning ticket, then estimate the net amount, say $100 million.
Then the fun begins.
I imagine all those I’d like to help and look for unusual ways to do so: paying off various debts, mortgages, setting up trusts to pay real estate taxes, health care, college.
My latest twist is a foundation called Second Acts for those starting over in life. I figure my journalism friends could make use of this, for sure.

I also like the idea of paying off all debt for someone, like a Clean start foundation. Spending big money is big fun. And surprising, a lot of work.

But when I can’t sleep or am stuck in line or whatever, I occupy my mind with thoughts of creative giving, each tailored to a particular person’s personality.

Hey, it’s much more fun than fretting over my own economic woes.
And when the time comes, I’ll be ready.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Missing the mother of all reunions

I missed out on a once in a lifetime reunion this past Saturday. It was a family reunion of sorts. My journalistic family, culled from decades of those who worked at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey.

I’m sure it was one hell of a good time. Journalists—real journalists—are uniquely smart. The job requires the ability to think on a dime, absorb foreign, often complex, information at lightning speed and translate it into prose a 6th grader can understand.

My body may have been 1,200 miles south but my spirit definitely made the trip. So I can’t help reflecting on those 10 years, the most interesting work I’ve even done with some of the best people I’ve ever been privileged to know. It remains the only place I’ve worked where I felt I truly belonged.

I was late to the party at 40 years old, but fortunate enough to catch the wave at its crest and ride it in. It was a perfect journalistic storm. The paper, the people and the times melded together. As is the case, none of us knew how special—and fragile—it was.

(I was reminded of this watching The Soloist. Behind Robert Downey Jr., as he writes at his desk at the Los Angeles Times, there are continuing shots of people walking behind him pushing all their “belongings” in carts—like the homeless he is writing about—nameless journalistic victims of yet another layoff.)

The Asbury Park Press was at its zenith, among the top independent newspapers in the country, racking up awards for content and design, and about to have a Pulitzer prize-winning cartoonist. (Steve Breen, who just won his second such award.)

Its Sunday circulation hovered around 200,000, ranking it second in New Jersey behind the Star-Ledger. The synergism in the newsroom was palpable. It gave me the impetus to step forward.

When an opening to write a Sunday column came about, I was a personal finance writer on the Business Desk. With my heart in feature writing, I took every opportunity to produce Sunday cover stories. Instead of submitting one of those to the editor as my audition piece, I wrote a “first column,” introducing myself and laying out the tenor of the columns to follow. It ran exactly as written.

When it ran, my world cracked open. It had only taken 20 minutes for the words to pop up on the computer screen. But in truth, it had taken three decades to write.

I was never one to keep a diary. It just seemed to me too "square" an activity past adolescence. I never did get it. What was the purpose of committing yourself to the page then squirreling it away like an emotional time capsule?

Little did I realize that in fact, I was keeping a public journal. Interspersed with commentary on current events, I shared my some of my deepest secrets. I wrote about my depression and my brother’s suicide. I admitted being raped, that the unexpected death of my father tore me apart, and how bereft my mother’s death left me. I confessed, too, that I resented the unending demands of grown children, as much as I loved them, and so on.

Strung together, they amounted to a mid-life memoir that became my second book and gave this site its name. All this before “blog” was a common four-letter word.

But I digress—as my buro chief used to say.

This is my tribute to my former colleagues, where ever you are. I lift a virtual glass to you—to US.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

memories of Baby M

A story on CBS Sunday Morning updating the status of surrogate parenting in the U.S. brought forth a flood of images.

Twenty-two years ago, I was a fledging reporter with the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey when we were ground zero for the story of stories. I've always thought of it as the flip side to abortion. And it was my immersion into pack journalism.

Melissa Stern is now 23 years old. Back then she was known only as Baby M, an infant at the center of a landmark custody battle revolving around surrogacy.

First a recap:

Mary Beth Whitehead of Brick Township, answered an ad in the APP to help infertile couples. Whitehead signed a $10,000 surrogacy contract with William and Elizabeth Stern of Tenafly, agreeing to be inseminated with his sperm and then give the baby up to the Sterns.

But Whitehead refused to turn over the child, whom she called Sarah, invoking a media circus worthy of a TV movie. Actually, I think it was made into one. The Brick police raided the home, returning the infant to the Sterns, whom they had named Melissa. Whitehead sued for custody.

Among all the ethical and cutting edge science questions, there was the “class” issue. Did the Sterns affluence, that of a biochemist and a pediatrician, give them undue advantage over Whitehead, a high school dropout married to a sanitation worker?

(an aside: Local newspaper reporters would chaff at calls the Whiteheads were “working class”. Her husband's salary of $35,000 was considerably more than any of us made at the time. So much for a college education.)

On March 31, 1987, Superior Court Judge Harvey Sorkow upheld the contract, terminating Whitehead’s parental rights and taking Elizabeth Stern to his chambers to adopt Melissa.

On that day, I joined the flood of media camped out on Whitehead’s lawn in the now familiar scene, awaiting that decision. I was petrified and overwhelmed, decidedly out of my league and eager to prove myself.

As the hometown paper, I felt special pressure. After all, her front lawn was less than 10 minutes from my own. I was on first name basis with many of those Brick cops she so detested. I knew my paper expected me to find some fresh angle to a story beaten to death, some way in through the barred door to the emotions inside.

I watched hot-shot broadcast media types so desperate they interviewed young children milling about on their bikes who parroting their parents’ words proclaimed: “a contact is a contract.”

Then the familiar “slap” of a newspaper hit the driveway, our newspaper.

The Press smartly paired me with one of out most talented and aggressive photographers who had been shadowing Whitehead for the length of the story. He immediately slapped the paper into my hands and shoved me toward the front door. I took a deep breath, swallowed and knocked. A beat later I was looking into an extraordinary pair of crystal blue eyes. She was indeed striking. Newspaper photos didn’t do her justice.

Mary Beth smiled and reached for the paper. She was gracious but unyielding. I failed in my mission to cross the threshold and the surging crowd behind me fell back, although Tom got off a few shots.

In the end, with a bit of insider info, I was able to slip away from the pack and interview the sister-in-law at her house several blocks away. It was a second hand story, but I was the only one with it, earning me a bylined story running along the bottom of the jump page. At least I didn’t shame myself.

Whitehead appealed by the way, and on Feb. 3, 1988, the New Jersey Supreme Court voided the contract and adoption, restoring Whitehead as Melissa’s mother with visitation rights. They ruled a fit mother cannot be forced to give away her baby. In this case, a contract was not a contract.

With medical advances, gestational carriers, who have no genetic relationship with the children they bear, have since replaced paid surrogates in most cases. But the shadow of Baby M lingers in New Jersey, barring such carriers from receiving more than medical and legal expenses; compelling them to give birth outside the state to collect a fee.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A modest proposal

Bear with me here for a bit and I’ll get to it.

The “high season” is now behind us in Sarasota. The roads are clearing and restaurant tables are once again available. At times over the past month, the children’s department at the bookstore where I work, resembled the Tower of Babel. Not only could I go hours without hearing “American” English--of any dialect, but I often couldn’t make out the language being spoken. I find differentiating between the Nordic languages impossible. The decades I lived and toiled at the Jersey Shore, a Canadian “o” was as exotic as it got.

This gave me pause to consider why I choose to live where others come to play. The oft repeated phrase “another day in paradise” takes on a less than glorious sheen when you’re working--usually at a low paying service job--amid the smell of coconut suntan lotion and the echo of flip-flops. We are intimate with the upscale but the perennial outsiders, not a comfortable place, lacking the honorable service class history of our foreign brethren.

I used to dine out frequently with an affluent friend, one in a second marriage to a millionaire. She is in most respects a caring individual. And yet, I found myself so uncomfortable with her treatment of the wait staff that I finally had to say something.

One of those interminable emails making the rounds a while ago got on my last good nerve. It was one of those whinny pieces about customers doing all the work at check-outs (such as lifting their hand to swipe a credit card through a reader) while those of us behind the counter are goofing off—talking, chewing gum etc. Pleeease!

I am college educated, a former journalist with several awards to my credit. I’ve taught, written two books and once even earned well into the high five figures. The company says it takes two years to master selling books on its floor. Yet recently, a customer--irritated that I referred her to customer service when she interrupted me during story time--called me a “clerk.” The air of entitlement among many customers coupled with a general disrespect for those of us in the service field led me to this modest proposal:

Dear President Obama,

I would like to propose a new mandatory American youth service corp. Upon leaving high school—by graduation or dropping out—each and every one of our young people would spend two years in the service profession of his or her choice. The list of fields will include those of food service, retail, recreation (e.g. boardwalks, NOT Disney), health aide, farm work and the like. Corp members will be expected to live on their salaries, with any family support held in trust until their term is complete. Failure to live out the allotted term of duty will result in a dishonorable service discharge, a permanent part of a person’s record available to colleges, medical schools, employers etc. as is a dishonorable discharge from our military services.

The only exemption from this service would be extreme mental or physical disabilities—and this, too, would become a part of their record. If someone left the country, their service requirement would resume upon their return.

OK, I’m not naive enough to think this is perfect, or that the some of the wealthy and connected won’t find a way around it. They always do. Perhaps making the list of exemptions public would be some help.

But it’s time we recognized those “invisible” folks who tend to our needs. I suggest this in hopes a short walk in such shoes will have some lasting impact.

All honest work deserves our respect. Case closed.

Yours in the audacity of hope,