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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Eye Serum Saga: A wrinkle in time is ultimately fine…

** As promised, update at the end of the post!

Like many people, I have scaled back on my holiday shopping, instead knitting colorful hats, amidst the usual onslaught of commercialism. On some level, it feels like the relief I’ve always wanted from the burden of the season’s overkill of happy Christmas cheer and frenzied buying. As a Jewish child in a household of quiet tension and heavy depression, I spent many hours escaping into the joy of Christmas on TV. My mother, who struggled with many demons, lit up during the Christmas season. 

Our house was filled with little elves and toy sleighs, and we had a pink – need I say, fake? – Christmas tree, which sat on the mantle next to the Chanukah Menorah. This was to the dismay of my father, an avowed atheist who had been brought up in a strict Orthodox Jewish home. I loved Christmas, and I liked Chanukah. It’s one of the plights many Jews endure. How can Chanukah – a relatively minor holiday for Jews – possibly compete with the glamour and excitement of Christmas?! So perhaps it’s no surprise that the season conjures up a complicated mélange of feelings for me.

This year, as I neared the end of my knitting projects and gift buying, I ventured out to an upscale mall to buy that final present. I timed the visit so I would arrive the moment the mall opened on a Saturday morning, in hopes I could be in and out within a half hour, max. To my delight, the place was empty. I briskly walked by Gucci, Ann Taylor, Coach and Dolce & Gabanna, feeling somewhat smug about being a 99%-er in a 1% mall. I had only two stops to make. At the first, I purchased an item from a weary salesman who was bracing for yet another long day and seemed to appreciate my kindness and empathy. At the second store, I was greeted by a smiling saleswoman who said, ‘wow, you’re movin’ fast!’, helping me to maintain my pace, as she quickly processed my order.

As I was about to step onto the escalator to exit the mall, victorious in my rapid sweep, I heard a woman call out to me. Was it possible that someone knew me in this phalanx of the upper-class? No, it wasn’t anyone I knew; it was a well-heeled salesperson calling out to me from a small cosmetics stand. I turned around a second time, and we made eye contact, and she gestured for me to come over to her. Normally, I resist being roped into buying anything, much less a beauty product, and much less at a mall. But I had managed to not spend much money, and something about her friendly call amidst feeling stressed out in this upscale environment lowered my resistance.

The woman offered me a “simple treatment”. And I thought, why not take a moment for myself, a free moment with no obligations, and then I could sashay out of the mall feeling more relaxed and pampered… She took a calculated and up-close look at me, all the while, spewing a waterfall of words to both compliment me and convince me that I needed to buy a special “eye serum”. She bathed me in what you might call “back-handed compliments” – “you must have been very pretty when you were young, ah yes, you have lovely high cheek bones, and look at your gorgeous eyes! I’d love to see more of them!” I knew it was time to leave, but exhaustion and curiosity kept me there. When she blithely transitioned into the final hook, saying, “I have the product that will make you look much younger”, Mindy #1 said “leave immediately”, and Mindy #2 didn’t budge.

I allowed her to apply an “eye serum” around my eyes – clearly named to imply its scientific nature – while the saleswoman claimed it would reduce my wrinkles, dark circles and puffy eyes. Why didn’t I scream out “NO! I am fine the way I am!”, circles, puffy eyes and all? Mindy #1 knew she was falling for societal messages that glorify youth, and seduce middle-age and older women into spending millions of dollars to appear “young”. But Mindy #2 said that there was no harm in getting a freeby, and wouldn’t it be interesting to see the results of this magic application? Sensing my resistance, the saleswoman assured me that the product was safe and included only “organic ingredients” and “natural herbs”, all the while massaging my face (which felt good!) and telling me I was already looking younger. She worked only on one side of my face, promising me that I would see the difference when she was done.

And then she handed me a mirror and asked me to self-evaluate. Didn’t I see how much less puffy my ONE eye was? Couldn’t I see how the wrinkles had disappeared? Wasn’t my ONE eye looking brighter? Mindy #1 looked very closely and she agreed that one half of her face looked, for the lack of a better word, better... Then the saleswoman pulled out her calculator, as if we were close friends sharing a secret, and sidled up close to me, wordlessly holding it in front of my face to show me the price. You can guess that it wasn’t cheap. Mindy #2 took over, and got incensed. Seeing this reaction, the saleswoman appealed to Mindy #1 and counter-offered, whispering that she would use her special discount card, but no one else could find out. Do you think that the red flags shot up and sirens went off in my head? Yes, but, sadly only in the distance…

Even though I balked at the price, I had momentarily sipped the kool-aid, thinking that I could – or should – look younger through the application of this mysterious eye serum. The next price tag offered was still outrageously high, and the saleswoman got flustered (or should I say, “acted” flustered), moving about in her work area as if she were actually looking for something. Perhaps she was biding time as she thought of her next move, or maybe hoping her behavior would wear me down more. Finally, she stopped fidgeting and offered me an even “more special” discount, and, hooked into the bait, Mindy #1 said “yes”.

When I got home, I googled the product and confirmed that I was one of many, many women who have been bamboozled. The serum could be purchased on-line for about one-tenth the original asking price at the mall, and this so-called natural product was producing an allergic reaction for many of the angry women who “bought” into the youth serum argument… It was only after I realized I had been taken that I reminded myself that I’m fine with who I am, wrinkles and all.

What is aging well? It’s not about botox, eye serums and face lifts, although our consumerist economy would like us to believe that. It’s about eating well, exercising, staying intellectually engaged, and open to new people and ideas. We live in a youth-oriented culture where even young women are getting botox as a preventative measure! It’s time to reclaim our graying hair, our wrinkles and our sagging body parts! To love ourselves as we are…

At the time of this writing, the eye serum saga continues. I have returned to the mall twice to get a refund, but with this so-called “independent” business, only the owner has the “authority” to credit my account, and the owner is avoiding me. Should I camp out at the mall and demand my money back? Should I bring a group of 99%-ers to protest our culture that commodifies youth? Or should I not waste any more time on this foolishness and just accept that I lost some money? If nothing else, this experience has reminded me that I am not impervious to our youth-obsessed culture and am vulnerable to persuasion. Good information for the next time…

** When I first posted this piece, I said "stay tuned and check back at this site. I’ll let you know how the situation resolves (e.g., get my money back, have a raging argument with the owner, start an anti-anti-wrinkle campaign for older women!)…"

After two days of not getting a promised call-back from the owner, he finally called me this morning and said to come back to the mall for my refund. And lo and behold, I got it!  THE END!  
P.S. This was only part of the battle won. I still may start an anti-anti-wrinkle campaign!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Surviving downsizing...

There’s a lot of attention in the media on job loss and unemployment these days, but very little attention is being paid to the people who “survive” downsizing, the workers who remain on the job after a lay-off. Over the years, I’ve done numerous studies in corporate America, focused on family policies in the workplace. In some cases, massive layoffs were taking place as I was conducting my research. I was even hired by one company to find out why people were leaving their jobs, and then they laid off thousands of workers.

Life before, during and after a lay-off is no picnic. Researcher Joel Brockner says that workers who survive downsizing are likely to experience more stress and less organizational commitment and motivation. In fact, while victims of downsizing lose their jobs, survivors of downsizing experience a loss of control over their jobs. They worry they might be next, and that feeling of uncertainty permeates the entire work environment.

In one study, I investigated the impact of flexible work policies in six large corporations. Five had significant “reductions in force” during the course of the study. In effect, I ended up studying the family policies in the context of downsizing, as it affected the remaining workers and the organization.

Brockner says that corporations can mitigate the negative reactions from survivors of downsizing, particularly if they are perceived as operating fairly, in terms of the criteria or procedures they use to lay off their workers (1995). Other researchers say that companies can avoid the wrath of their surviving employees if they subsequently create employee empowerment and job enrichment initiatives after the layoffs (Niehoff, Moorman, Blakely and Fuller, 2001; Spreitzer and Mishra, 2002). But in my experience, companies are very inconsistent about what the provide for workers after a major downsizing. Some make an effort to maintain the morale of the “survivors; and others tighten up and demand more from their workers.

Tension in the workplace
After a lay-off, the surviving workers are often burdened with doing the same amount of work with fewer workers. Moreover, opportunities for advancement are curtailed, which creates increased competition among the survivors for any opportunities that do arise. What develops is a “mentality of scarcity”, which produces more tension in the work environment, and more competition for special assignments. One worker told me:

"What I find is that my coworkers don’t share information as freely as they used to. They’re just more protective about information. I don’t feel like I can trust them like I used to. It’s because people are scared. Their future is up in the air, and there are no positions, so people get kind of competitive and kind of closed".

In one company, I observed that this tension was also a set-up to exacerbate tensions around race, gender and work life issues. A substantial percentage of white males reported that they had experienced reverse discrimination, saying that they felt they had been passed over for jobs that were filled by women or African-Americans. Some even complained that mothers were given preferences for certain job assignments over them. These kinds of biases – likely unexpressed in the best of times – are more likely to manifest in subtle ways when there is economic stress. Because people don't tend to express these negative feelings openly, where they could possibly be addressed (possibly...), they fester silently and affect the workplace climate.

Moreover, in a downsizing environment, people are afraid to speak out about problems in the workplace. Self-censorship is more likely; dissonance is less likely, and innovation may be discouraged.

Trust in senior management broken down
Some of the workers I have interviewed said they perceived downsizing as a breach of the psychological contract between the employer and employee, hoping – and perhaps expecting – that they had job security and opportunities for development. According to researchers Morrison and Robinson (1997), this belief that a psychological contract has been breached can lead to feelings of injustice, deception or betrayal among employees.

In some cases, I found that prior to a lay-off, companies doled out information irregularly, promising there wouldn’t be lay-offs or buy-outs. Some employees described an elaborate process of how they found out about an impending lay-off. First they heard the promise that nothing would happen, then the “news” that there would be lay-offs, but with no date, and then a manager would post a new organizational chart, with no details. That would be followed by a promise of more information. Later they were given some criteria for who would be laid off, with no names. At that point, people would be scrambling to figure out if they were on the list. Finally, after all of this time, some workers were given the news, and told they had to leave in a couple of weeks, or maybe a month or two.

In one department of a company that had major lay-offs, nearly every employee I interviewed “confessed” that he or she was taking Prozac and seeing a psychiatrist. None of them were talking to one another about how they felt. In another company, workers found out about a major downsizing through a video from the company president, which they all had to watch simultaneously. You can imagine the morale of the workers, including those who lost their jobs and those who would remain. Another company pulled all of its middle managers into a special, private meeting, and they had to sit with the information for many months before they could share it with their colleagues. One worker told me:

”With all these policy changes that are being made, people just feel like something big is coming. Even if they say it’s not going to happen, nobody believes them anymore.”

The job lost its meaning
For some survivors, the loss of co-workers and their fear of losing their own jobs is only part of the picture. Downsizing affects how work is done, and impacts individuals and teams. Often the work itself feels less meaningful, as workers recognize that they have less control over the product and the process. One worker told me:

“The entire process feels like paper pushing now. People feel like they’re just going through the motions instead of doing a quality job. The job satisfaction is just not there. People do not feel challenged. They just do not feel like they’re making a difference anymore.”

Jobs Policy
As politicians battle over the best way to stimulate the economy, the priority of creating new jobs is imperative. We need to generate revenue to pay for new jobs, and I would suggest that the first place to start is creating a fair and equitable tax policy, in which the weathliest of Americans and corporations pay their fair share. Our political leadership should be looking back at the New Deal for how to create an interim jobs program; and forward to create a solid infrastructure that produces jobs that are well-paid and secure. Our government needs to increase incentives to the private sector to build jobs at home, rather than in search of cheaper labor elsewhere around the globe. And if we are to reduce poverty, we need to ensure that our education system and the social safety net are fully funded. 

Listen to Senator Bernie Sanders’ perspective on a progressive jobs policy:

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sex and the City for older celebrity men...

The past couple of days, we’ve been fed a double media dose of celebrity men who were outed for their sexual “indiscretions”. 

Gerontologists would describe both men as “young” old. Arnold Schwartzenegger is 63 and Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) is around 62. Interestingly, they are both married to successful women, and both sought out women with lesser social status, in the context of our racially and economically stratified society.

You might say, ‘who cares’ about what these dudes do with their sorry lives?! It’s just more fodder for infotainment, distracting us from real news, like efforts to make progress in the Middle East, the movement to save collective bargaining around the country, and the debate around the Paul Ryan budget plan, just to name a few examples of real news.

But there is something that grabs me, as I see the media go wild about two older men of means who pursued sex with young working class women of color. Did they think no one would find out? Were they so insecure about themselves that they sought to boost their self-esteem with sexual conquest? Were they so (falsely) secure that they believed they could do anything with and to anyone? What was Schwartzenegger thinking when he fathered two children at roughly the same time right in the same home, with different women? Did DSK think that the maid really was attracted to him (i.e., yes means no)? We’ll never know…

But we can look more broadly at the norms within our culture that promote and privilege male sexuality. We can explore societal values that support some men’s belief in their right to sex, even when it’s outside of marriage or even illegal. Does age factor into this equation? Yes. We generally view older men and women as less sexually potent, less attractive, less “available”. This notion is reinforced by a pervasive youth culture that surrounds us, which is hard not to internalize. By stepping over or around the sexual norms – whether through an affair or a sexual assault – these older men can affirm that they are, in fact, virile and therefore, still “real men”.

Gladly, in both cases, the media has not proclaimed “boys will be boys”. Instead, it is focusing on embracing two whole-sale opportunities to fire up some scintillating news and keep us wanting more. (Suddenly, Bin Laden is moving to the second page of the news, and Paul Ryan’s budget plan seems – well – less sexy.)

Perhaps we should view this media blast as an opportunity to better understand the relationships between gender, power, age and sexuality…

Saturday, April 30, 2011


Last night I went to a rally and public hearing in Chelsea, Massachusetts about the “Secure Communities” program. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this program – as I was up until recently – it would increase federal authorities' access to information about immigrants who are suspected of committing a crime. 

Currently, police now have the technology to take the fingerprints of crime suspects and share them digitally with other state officials around the country, to see if they surface other crimes. Under “Secure Communities", the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would have access to the technology of state officials, including suspects’ fingerprints and background information. 

The program was supposedly started by ICE to identify serious criminals, but it turns out that the majority of people identified by Secure Communities have minor or no criminal convictions. In fact. in Boston, where the program was piloted, over 50% of the immigrants who were arrested and deported were in this category! Nonetheless, the federal government plans to implement the program – to be administered through state agencies – by 2013.

Given this federal mandate, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has stated that he will comply with the program. Last year, a number of jurisdictions around the country - including San Francisco and Santa Clara - requested to opt-out of the program, but they were given mixed responses from federal officials about how the opt-out process works. First, the administration said that opting-out was allowable, and then they reversed their position, saying that the program was not voluntary. Finally, in an official response, ICE said that “Secure Communities is not voluntary and never has been. Unfortunately, this was not communicated as clearly as it should have been to state and local jurisdictions by ICE when the program began.”  What?!

Now, Representative Zoe Lofgren, the top Democrat on the House Immigration Committee, is calling oversight officials from the Department of Homeland Security to look into these conflicting statements.

It turns out that Governor Patrick only scheduled these hearings following pressure by community-based organizations that focus on immigrant rights. In response to the "Secure Communities" program, a non-profit called Centro Presente launched a "Just Communities" campaign, in collaboration with the ACLU of Massachusetts and the American Friends Service Committee. Their campaign included high visibility events like rallies in front of the State House, and hand delivery of 1,000 protest postcards to the Governor.

Last night, at the Chelsea hearing, opposition to the program came through loud and clear. Over 200 people jammed into the auditorium of the local high school, mostly to voice their opposition to the “Secure Communities” program. Before the event, there was concern that the Tea Party would show up and be disruptive, as they had been at another hearing in Waltham, Massachusetts. And sure enough, a small but vocal group was there. I happened to sit next to two Tea Partiers. Given the “otherness” with which these folks are painted – and the outrageous behavior of many of their leaders – I felt a certain trepidation and immense curiosity about who they were and what they were thinking throughout the evening.

The hearing began with a public official from the state’s Public Safety office, explaining how the system functioned to track criminals. His voice was monotonous, designed to make the most patient listener edgy. Backed by an uninspired Power Point presentation, he droned on and on, and the crowd got restless. His main points, which he made over and over again, were two-fold. First of all, he said that the “Secure Communities” program only involved procedural changes that would allow state officials to share information about suspects with federal immigration officials. Skirting any potential policy implications, the official described the program as if we, the audience, were simple people who just might not understand the complexities of government. His second message was that this program was going to be implemented, regardless of public concerns, and that the role of the state was to figure out how to best accomplish this goal. 

So what was the point of these hearings? Why bother asking us what we think of the program? There was something odd about this introduction that said, ‘basically, this is going to happen anyway,’ when clearly, the door for dialogue and debate is still open…

I wondered if the purpose of this state official’s droning speech was to take up time, so we’d have less time for public testimony. But sure enough, he finally finished and the audience was invited to line up along the side rows of the auditorium to take turns commenting and asking questions.

My Tea Party friends sitting next to me were busy. The woman adjacent to me was videotaping the entire event, and her partner – who carried a series of signs in support of the program – was tallying how many people spoke out for the program and how many spoke out against. Given my curiosity about them, I tried to make small connections. I asked the woman if she could lend me her pen and we smiled at one another. And when people were looking for seats, we both raised our hands and pointed to the seats in our row. I donned my sociological eye and thought of this as a “research-able moment”.

One by one, Latino immigrants shared heart-felt stories of working hard to contribute to this society and their sense of betrayal with this program. The audience cheered in support. Many shared stories of being racially profiled, or stories of friends who were deported unfairly to countries where they were not safe. Again, the audience cheered. An elderly Chinese immigrant spoke with the help of a translator, saying that we are all immigrants to this country, as the crowd stood up and burst into applause. And when he walked away from the microphone, audience members reached out to shake his hand in solidarity. Many white audience members spoke about being second or third generation immigrants, bridging the gaps between first generation immigrants and nearly everyone else in this nation. Again, the audience cheered. A lawyer from the Center for Constitutional Rights told us that there were a couple of lawsuits challenging the legality of the program, and her comments reassured the audience that there was, in fact, recourse. And several others spoke about the danger of "Secure Communities" for women victims of domestic violence as it might deter them from reporting abuse for fear of being deported if they are undocumented.

Interspersed between the 80 or more speakers who opposed “Secure Communities” were roughly 10 Tea Party speakers who supported the program. With some, it was evident that they were Tea Partiers from the moment they opened their mouths, because they started with inflammatory comments like “immigrants are criminals.” But the most controversial Tea Partier who spoke was a Latino man who loudly declared his support for the program because he said it would get rid of immigrants who were criminals. When the crowd began to “boo” him, he shouted defiantly, “Soy Dominicano y soy un Team Partier!” (I am Dominican and a Tea Partier.). And as he loped back to his seat, he nodded to his fellow (white) Tea Partiers, punching his fist in the air.

At the end of the hearing, as we were all putting on our coats and preparing to leave, I turned to my Tea Party friend and asked her what she planned to do with the video she had been shooting. She kindly responded that she would put it up on YouTube for those who weren’t able to be there. I asked if she was a member of the Tea Party, to which she answered, yes, and then replied by asking if I was in the Tea Party too! That surprised me, and made me realize that she wasn’t paying any attention to my hoots of support for those who opposed the program! I wondered what she was thinking about what she had just heard. After all, we had both spent the past hour listening to the same speakers and many of their compelling stories. So I asked her if any of these stories had moved her to think differently. She looked at me with a pained expression, and said, yes, particularly the women who were victims of domestic violence. ‘But what can we do?,’ she implored. ‘We need to deal with the criminals! We need to change the police chiefs!', she exclaimed. And with that, we walked in separate directions.

What will come of these hearings? Will the Governor take this outcry seriously, and consider opting out of the program? I certainly hope so, but I now realize that the pressure for him to do so comes from a number of directions, including the legal strategies being pursued by advocacy organizations, legal strategies in motion because of a powerful Congresswoman, AND the people in that high school auditorium. I left the meeting feeling satisfied and proud of the amazing people in that room who had the courage to speak out and express their outrage at a policy that doesn’t produce the outcomes it’s intended to produce, and in fact, creates more insecurity in our communities. It was this sense of community - created in that room - that gives me a sense of security.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


If 50 is the new 40, why do we need to get colonoscopies at 50? Can't we just wait until 60 - which is, after all, the new 50? Okay, I hear a rational voice saying that the reason we're living longer is that we DO have these great tests to detect the early stages of disease (like colon cancer which this test is used for), and early prevention allows us to live longer. Right? Right! But just wait until you need to prep for this "procedure" and you may - like me – become irrational and argue the insanity of preventative medicine. If you haven't had a colonoscopy "yet", stop reading now. It's just not worth getting all bent out of shape about it. (no pun intended) And if you're still reading and you haven't had a colonoscopy yet, I just want to say that it's really not the actual procedure that sucks; it's the prep.

Try drinking a gallon of slimy, salty solution and you'll know the meaning of hell on earth. Some people claim that it's just unpleasant, but don't believe them. After a few 8-ounce glasses, you feel like Sisyphus, as you realize that there are only around 11 glasses to go. 

If you try to be a "good patient", as I did recently, you will attempt meditation, deep breathing and lemonade chasers to help you complete your task. But nothing – and I repeat, nothing – makes it any better. Ultimately, I failed at completing the task. This is what I said to the nurse on the phone, the morning I was supposed to report in for the procedure. 

As I held my breath, waiting for her to reply with annoyance or disdain, or even worse, tell me that I was a sissy for giving up, she kindly said that this happens sometimes. Why didn't they tell me?! 

Of course, if you know what might happen, the suggestion may become a reality. (So I guess I shouldn't be writing this post in the first place, for fear that I may be biasing the uninitiated!) In fact, a little Internet search for "can't drink the preparation for colonoscopy" let me know that I am, in fact, far from alone in my failure to cooperate. And that there are some better alternatives, or so people claim...

I will try again, this time with one of those other concoctions. As you might imagine, there's a lot of chit-chat on the web about which ones are better and worse. Personally I would go for the horse pills, but my doctor doesn't use them. Darn. As Bette Davis said, "Old age is no place for sissies." And getting there isn't either...

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Save the arts because the arts save lives...

Federal funding for the arts is on the chopping block again. Why should we care?

The arts have a powerful impact on young people, providing a critical outlet for self-expression and creativity. In my work evaluating arts education programs, I have seen hundreds of young children come alive when they engage in arts-based activities that involve dance, theater, visual arts and music. While this exposure to the arts is important in- and of-itself, there is substantial research that links arts-based learning to students' development of core academic skills, including literacy and numeracy. 

The current federal budget reflects significant cuts in arts education funding. Why?  Because the arts and arts education are seen by some as non-essential. But given the heavy test-laden school climate aimed at improving the education of our children, arts education is anything BUT non-essential!

In Critical Links, one of the tomes of arts-based research, musician and researcher Larry Scripp cites multiple studies that link music education to spatial-temporal reasoning (Hetland, 2000a & b), achievement in math (Vaughn, 2000), achievement in reading (Butzlaff, 2000), and the reinforcement of social-emotional or behavioral objectives (Standley, 1996). A Harvard University study found that high school students who studied Shakespeare plays and then performed them developed a deeper understanding of the complexity of the plays.

"Their feelings and emotions about the plays were linked to achieving deeper understanding of Shakespeare's plays and were often a critical entry point to engagement with the plays." (Harvard Project Zero)

Other research demonstrates links between the arts and creative thinking. And in my own research on the effect of arts-based programming, I found that teachers who implemented arts-integrated curriculum into their classroom had increased enthusiasm for teaching as they observed the positive response from students, both in terms of their attitude towards learning, as well as their ability to learn.

As one teacher told me,

"I think (arts-integrated learning) helps kids get in touch with their own feelings and their own thoughts in a way that they wouldn't otherwise...By getting them in there, using voice or sound or vision, it enables them to really envelop the content. I think that's really important...It's just good teaching."

I observed a fascinating unit created by a science specialist and classroom teacher about the solar system, which incorporated a "sensory walk" and other visual arts experiences. They had a great time developing their audio for the "walk" using garage band. Not only did they enjoy preparing for this unit; they both agreed that their elementary age students were far more engaged and better understood the material after this exploration.

These research findings are just the tip of the iceberg!

Kevin Spacey has become the latest celebrity advocate for arts education, and he is a welcome player. In a statement to the Associated Press, he says,"To me, it is important to absolutely embrace arts and culture and the creative industries and what they bring to our nation. It is the single greatest export we exchange around the world."

Spacey also gives a moving tribute to the importance of the arts and arts-based teaching and learning: 

We have a lot of educating and advocacy to do before the federal budget is finalized!  House Republicans cut $40M out of a relatively small $168M annual budget for the arts, although this cut is subject to Senate negotiations. And Obama's proposed 2012 budget calls for a $22M reduction. Others would like to put all arts funding on the chopping block, including Sarah Palin, who told Fox News' Sean Hannity that government spending on the arts is "frivolous."

Robert Lynch, President of Americans for the Arts, said some of the new (aka conservative) lawmakers don't understand the important role arts organizations play in boosting the economy. In fact, the $166 billion nonprofit arts sector includes $5.7M jobs and generates nearly $30 billion in tax revenue.  Lynch comments:

"Without a lot of time to understand what this sector means and how it can contribute, (the arts are) lumped along with everything that can be cut to make a smaller government."

It's not too late to contact your Congressperson to tell her/him that you support the arts and arts education!  

As Democratic Rep. James Moran of Virginia recently said, the government is buying fighter jets that each cost as much as the annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. He comments:

"We are not a poor country. We are a wealthy country, but our real power comes from the power of our ideas... This is not about saving money.  This is ideological."

Monday, March 14, 2011


Joan and Warren lived next door. They were in the first-floor apartment of a modest, fading yellow, two-family house. Father and daughter, they had been living in that apartment for some 15 years. Before that, they lived in an apartment down the street, but the landlord raised the rent far beyond their means, and gave them no option but to move out. At the time, the neighbors were outraged. In their neighborhood, they said, people stayed forever, so the idea that a landlord could throw out one of their own was antithetical to "how things were done around here." Shunning the landlord, the neighbors banded together and found them another apartment right down the street. When Joan and Warren moved into the faded yellow two-family, they pledged never to move again. People lived their whole lives in this neighborhood. Why shouldn't they?

Despite an age gap of 30 years, many people mistook Joan and Warren for husband and wife. Maybe it was how they related to one another; maybe it was how they finished each other's sentences, or made similar sarcastic jokes with a twinkle in their eyes. Joan and Warren even looked alike. Not just a little alike, but a lot alike, with but a few distinctions. Warren was large and tall to Joan's short and stout. Joan hid her plump body in old wool, Catholic-plaid smocks, and comfortable old sweaters that united any division between breasts and belly. Warren wore flannel shirts and baggy pants, held up by a worn leather belt that had an extra six inches hanging off the buckle. Both of them had chins that receded into their necks, doubling and tripling in folds of skin. But Joan's chin was framed by curly, blond waves and Warren always covered his head with a railroad hat he constantly readjusted.

On the weekdays, Joan left early for her teaching job at a local parochial school, but after work and on the weekends, she devoted herself to her father. Despite her easy-going personality, Joan didn't seem to have many friends. In fact, Warren - her father - appeared to be her only friend. Since Warren's knees "went" on him years ago, as he told me, he wasn't able to walk very well, so he rarely left the house. Despite his maladies and the relative sameness of his days, Warren managed to maintain a chipper demeanor, sitting on the front porch in good weather and watching the world go by. He was limited by his health, and rarely had visitors, but he always seemed upbeat.

According to Harvard University-based psychiatrist George Vaillant, who studied the lives of 824 men and women over a 30-year period, "objective good physical health (is) less important to successful aging than subjective good health." In other words, older people continue to function pretty well, as long as they don't feel sick, and while we didn't know much about Warren's health, he certainly did not project the image of a sick man.

My daughter once interviewed Warren for an elementary school project, one of those-talk-to-someone-who-lived-through-the-war assignments. When we rang their doorbell, we could hear Warren shuffling slowly to open the door, accompanied by the thump-thump of his cane. Opening the door with a welcoming smile, we could see that he was tickled we were there. And as we entered their cluttered, old-fashioned apartment, we were struck by the sweet smell of Joan's homemade brownies she had baked for this special occasion. As my daughter nervously prepared to ask her questions, Warren said self-deprecatingly, "What do I have to say?", with the emphasis on the word, "I". And then he launched into stories of his past.

After the interview, I didn't see Joan and Warren for a few weeks. Joan's schedule was hectic, she told me one day, when we ran into her. The end-of-the-year school party was coming up, and her kids were "goin' nuts," she said. And then she chuckled, letting us know that she actually liked the chaos of her kids going nuts. She also told me, almost in passing, that her landlady, who had been in a nursing homes for many years, had just died. This meant that the owner's family would have to decide what to do with their house. It had never occurred to me that Joan and Warren might face another change...

But pretty soon the activity around the house picked up, as estranged family members began to lay claim on items they had inherited. Hungrily, they dragged out furniture, appliances, aged stereo equipment and pottery, hauling them into station wagons and SUVs. They also discovered that what used to be a working-class neighborhood many years ago had become a gentrified, sought-after neighborhood; and what had been an inexpensive house many years ago had soared in value. Rumors began to fly about what the family would do with the house. Would they sell it? Would one or some of them move in? And what would happen with Joan and Warren?

Finally, the house went on the market, and for two weeks, hoards of buyers came and went, gliding with ease through the upper two floors of this simple home, its rooms clean and ready for the next owner. They seemed to save their perusal of the first floor until last, more daintily tiptoeing through Joan and Warren's apartment, which was cluttered with memorabilia, dusty with age and daily living. 

When they reached the living room, there sat Warren, firmly planted in front of his television set, refusing to move to make it easier for real estate brokers to "show" the house. He was a part of the house, almost seemed like he came with it, one might say. So why should he move, just so some rich people could sashay through the house, looking at its "potential". As the days progressed and no one had ostensibly made an offer on the house, there was rumor that maybe the market had slowed down. But after a couple of weeks, the house sold at a good profit.

Joan and Warren hoped that the new owners wouldn't raise the rent, but they were getting nervous. When I saw Joan the next day, her eyes were red and her face bloated. "What will happen now?", I asked. She shrugged, looking embarrassed. "I'm not sure, but the new people seem pretty nice," she replied. Maybe they would stay, I thought, feeling more hopeful for them. I wished her "the best of luck," then felt the emptiness of those words. Shortly after we spoke, Joan got into her car and drove off to work.

When she drove back into her driveway later that day, her car was filled with empty boxes, in anticipation of the inevitable move. She slowed her car down for a group of kids playing soccer in the street, and waved first at them and then at the parents who were monitoring them. Slipping into her house, she self-consciously avoided conversation, but the parents on the street were painfully aware of her presence and concerned about both her and her father. Another parent and I started talking about helping her find a new home, but our conversation was interrupted by a piercing scream, coming from inside their home.

Somehow at first, the kids didn't hear it. In the midst of their game, maybe it seemed like just another loud sound. I ran to Joan and Warren's front door, which was ajar, and let myself into the apartment. And there, on the floor, was Warren, lying motionless, with Joan lying on top of him, sobbing...

The next few hours, we all learned that Warren had died of a heart attack. The younger kids were initially oblivious, but the older ones, particularly my daughter and her best friend, began to cry. The cries became wails that were deep and loud and persisted for about an hour, capturing a raw grief that many of the adults shared but couldn't express so freely. As the ambulance came and took Warren away, the younger ones were shuffled back to their homes, perhaps to protect them from that visual impression, and certainly to respect Joan in that painful moment.

Would it be too simple to say that gentrification killed Warren? It would be hard to make the causal connection, but perhaps there is a correlation, as Warren was forced to experience the stress of losing his home, again. Ironically, Warren was right when he claimed that this was going to be his last home. Ultimately, the power of the market won, as the highest bidder got the house, and with it, the legal right to determine whether or not to raise the rent, or for that matter, to take over the whole house. That evening, my daughter remembered that she had the tape from her interview with Warren, and asked if she could give it to Joan. "Sure," I said, "but let's wait a little while."

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

My father's legacy...

My father just died. My 98-year-old, fearless, outspoken father – who was devoted to fighting for the rights of workers – just died. He hung on for over a year, despite major organ failure, with incredible determination and will. Just the way he lived. Even towards the end, despite the challenges and limitations to his body and mind, he was energized by the protests in Wisconsin, as state workers – police, firefighters, nurses and more – fight to maintain their right to bargain collectively.

In the 40s and 50s, my father was unafraid to speak up for working-class people who toiled in factories. This was his organizing base, and as a child of the 50s, it seemed very foreign to me in my middle-class world. I was schooled by the antiwar movement, the women's movement and gay/lesbian rights movement, all a far cry from the world of factory workers who made auto or typewriter parts. 

Manny speaking before House Un-American Activities Committee 1964
But I absorbed my father's social justice values, even though I felt very separate from the people he was organizing. It was hard for me to imagine the unfortunate plight of the factory worker, but over the years, I began to understand the need to fight against inequities around workers' wages and working conditions. And once I was in the work world, I learned first-hand what it meant to be caught in a stratified social structure that appropriated varying amounts of power to its employees. In fact, a string of lousy work experiences was one thing that inspired me to study workplaces once I became a sociologist. I discovered first-hand that worker control is the key to job satisfaction, and many people don't have enough of it...

I was once on a plane with a factory owner, and over the course of our flight, discovered that this guy's plant - Remington Rand - was one that my father had organized. Listening to him talk about how he decided to move the company abroad, and how he couldn't understand why his workers weren't willing to move with him, I realized how out of touch he was with the reality of his workers. I knew more about him than he could have possibly known. My father had led the workers employed by that man in a successful strike against the company, and the workers forced the company to back down on cutting wages and benefits. I decided not to share this information, but found great satisfaction in knowing...

At my father's funeral this past Sunday, I told the congregation that if he were still alive and well, he'd be in Wisconsin. This was his fight, something to which he dedicated his life, through his organizing work, and then later through plays he wrote about worker-management struggles. The nature of the "working class" is different today, as factory work has moved to locations with cheaper labor. Wisconsin workers represent the "new" working-class, whose self-identification is folded into our broadly defined middle-class. They are service and professional workers who provide the critical supports to our society – regulating safety, putting out fires, teaching our children, maintaining our sewage systems, and caring for the sick.

There are far too few heroes these days, people who are willing to stand up against adversity to speak their piece and demand justice. My father chose to do just this. It wasn't always easy to have a father who prioritized the outside world over his family. In fact, I learned early on that if I wanted to be close to him, I had to speak his language. I tried very hard - sometimes too hard - back then. And the older and more knowledgeable I became, the more I realized where we differed. But at the very base, I valued his commitment to a set of ideals, even when they created adversity for him and for us. He always hoped that we would see he made the right choices. And in the end, as a daughter to a loving father who became more emotionally generous with age, I feel that he did.

Manny receives Joe Hill Award from AFL-CIO Labor Heritage Foundation

Monday, January 31, 2011

The kindness of strangers...

This past weekend, I visit my nearly 100-year-old dad who is now in home hospice in an assisted living facility. With several major organs failing, he remains the perennial survivor. As a literary guy, he always used to quote Dylan Thomas, saying: "Do not go gentle into that good night." And he continues to hold on...

I leave his apartment after my visit, feeling both a sense of relief as well as a deep sadness, even though I know I will see him in two weeks (assuming...), and that meanwhile, he is being well-cared for. As anyone who has taken care of an older person knows, caregiving is stressful, and caregiving from afar has its special stresses.

The ride to the airport is straightforward in this small city. It's always a bit nostalgic as I pass by my father's old house, where he continued to live alone up until two years ago, when we moved him into assisted living. As I pass the old street, I call my husband to let him know my plane is delayed, ignoring the state's anti-cell phone law. (Okay - I know it's unsafe, but I was at a stoplight!). And then it happens - BOOM! 

I feel my car being hit from behind. I say matter-of-factly, 'Oh my G-d, I was hit. I've got to go.' And then my car gets hit again! I manage to move into the next lane, and this car keeps charging forward, hitting the car that was in front of me.

I jump out of the car, realizing that I'm okay, but see that my rental car is not. The driver responsible for all this reckless bumper car action is an older man, probably in his 80s. I tell him to pull over and then follow him. Turns out that he had put his foot on the accelerator instead of the brake! He claims that his foot was stuck. He is on his way to visit his wife's grave. She had died six years ago, and he has borrowed his son's car to get there.

The front bumper on his car is mottled, but aside from being stunned, he isn't injured. Of course, what happens with him and his son is their next chapter, not mine, and I can only imagine. (Will the man continue to drive? With the son lend him his car? I hope not...) With this crash, we are connected by our humanness - this elderly man who is grieving for the loss of his wife, and I, who am grieving for the gradual loss of my father.

But there isn't time to meander. My flight is leaving soon. I get advice from the rental car company about information I need from this guy, and after well wishes, I move on, driving down the highway, with half of the bumper hanging off my rental car.

As I enter the airport roadway, I call the rental car company. Like relay racers, they are ready and waiting, as papers fly between us and I gather my luggage. Running to the ticket counter, I arrive out of breath, only to be told that boarding for my plane is closed, and it's too late to get on the flight. I plead for the airline worker to do something, sputtering fragmented sentences about my dying father and my accident. Just an instinct to use a sad story to manipulate authority... And then out-of-the-blue, another kind airline worker intervenes and calls the gate and tells them to hold the flight for me. Just for ME!

They tell me to HURRY to the gate! I get through security as quickly as one can get through security, run up to the gate, heart beating wildly, and apologize to the airline worker for holding up the flight. She looks at me whimsically, and says with humor, "Oh yeah, the whole flight is waiting just for you!" It turns out that they have not even started to board the plane. In fact, I have about 20 more minutes to wait. With that relief, I blurt out my story again, and this time, start to cry. For a moment, she looks me straight in the eye, and then she wraps her arms around me, saying, "I'm such a softy. I feel like crying with you!" And we do. Me and an airline employee! 

Today, the airline gave me a $50 credit for the "inconvenience you recently experienced with us." So thank you, Jet Blue worker and thank you, Jet Blue.

But most of all, I am grateful that in the midst of the challenges of caregiving, I have encountered people - strangers - with whom I connect, who gracefully help to diffuse those challenges.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Progressive family policies that are close to home...

A number of years ago, I was invited to the Pentagon to talk about a work and family study I was conducting. Anyone who knows me may find this fact pretty incongruous. But I was intrigued to find out about the human resources side of the military. Given my history of antiwar and women's rights activities - and the fact that my father had been subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s - I fully imagined that I wouldn't make it through the security screening. But, to my surprise, I sailed through. I found myself being chaperoned through dingy hallways to a very nondescript office for a meeting with a powerhouse of a woman who headed up programming on family supports for military "members" and their families.

Over the next two years, I worked with her and a real live Colonel, a kind and gentle soul who was an expert on domestic violence issues in the military. Our work together focused on assessing how well various military family support agencies were able to collaborate. Their "mission" was to support families through the challenges of dealing with deployment and loss.

I initially felt like a fish out of water working within this institution. But I soon connected with the human dimension and discovered that within the military, there are people from incredibly diverse backgrounds - including political perspectives - who really care about people's well-being. I also learned that the military has far more progressive family policies than governmental policies in the civilian sphere, which rely on a hodgepodge of precarious private and public funding to service those in need.

I discovered, for example, that the military provides high-quality, affordable and accessible childcare in which early childhood teachers are paid good wages. According to Gail Zelman and Susan Gates, researchers at RAND,

"While there are no easy or obvious solutions to the childcare problem, policymakers can look to an unlikely source from ideas about improving childcare: the military. The US Department of Defense (DoD) has succeeded in optimizing the three key aspects of child care delivery - availability, quality and affordability - a juggling act unduplicated anywhere else in the country. The system currently meets around 60% of the assessed need, serving about 176,000 children 6 weeks to 12 years old in 900 centers and in 9,200 family child care homes nationwide. (Family child care homes are usually run by military spouses.)"

Let's be honest here:  The military's desire for high levels of productivity and commitment among its members - and the need for support from military family members - are the drivers underpinning military support for these policies.

So what can policymakers learn from DoD's experience, ask researchers Zellman and Gates?

"The clear message is that affordable, high-quality child care requires a system level commitment to quality, as well as incentives and funding to make it a reality."

In contrast, our "civilian" child care system in the U.S. is underfunded and suffers from lack of quality, which can largely be attributed to low wages and inadequate support for its workers. In fact, the turnover rate of early childhood teachers in the U.S. is between 25-30%. Research points to a "turnover climate" which affects overall program quality. One study found that highly trained teachers (BA level or higher with specialized training) "were more likely to leave their jobs if they earned lower wages, worked with fewer highly trained teachers and worked in a climate with less stability." (Whitebook, at al, 2001). Therefore, worker retention is linked to the stability of the program and ultimately, to higher quality.

In addition to high quality, affordable child care, the military offers paid parental leave and universal health care. Ironically, when progressives promote these policies at the federal (civilian) level, conservatives cry 'socialism!'

In a memo entitled, "For Our Air Force Family," Lieutenant General, USAF, Assistant Vice Chief of Staff, Joseph H. Wehrle, Jr., says,

"The United States Air Force is committed to taking care of its own. Steadfast, homefront support is provided to family members by the Integrated Delivery System... As always, we remain One Force, One Family."

in the military, the credo - "We take care of our own." - is motivated by the belief that this will support "readiness" for battle, increase productivity, reduce turnover, and ease the process of leaving one's family behind to put oneself "in harms way" around the globe.

Without such immediate drivers in the corporate or non-military governmental sphere, it is hard to make the case - or as human resource professionals would say, the business case - for progressive family policies. But we don't have to only look to Europe for inspiration around family policies; we can look to the U.S. military to find some of the most progressive policies in this nation. Don't we all deserve them?