Once a Reporter, Always a Reporter

Three old things I know: Reporters should be as a fly on the wall. Once a reporter, always a reporter. Flies on walls are more attended than political spouses. Thus I blog.

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Name: Viki Volk
Location: St. George Island, Maryland

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mandatory Unemployment Workshop

Unemployment insurance recipients in Maryland must attend a workshop (put on by another branch of state government) regarding job seeking skills and coping with the stress of unemployment.
It used to be a two-day workshop but was halved as the numbers of unemployed grew, Maryland instituted a hiring free and then began furloughs of the remaining employees.

I hope the workshops aren’t phased out entirely. Call me a Baby Boomer but I love workshops. They appeal to me as a quick fix like magazine quizzes: What type of man wants the real you? Can you wear black? Are you a Paul girl or a John girl?

Set before our dozen seats were the ubiquitous folders and blank name badges. The first page in the folder was a scrambled set of encouraging aphorisms titled, “101 Stress Relievers.” The page was blanketed with these hundred sayings spewed about in dozens of fonts and sizes, some reading across and others up and down. The workshop leader had been told the inanity of the layout was stress producing.

“Talk to yourself,” extolled one piece of advice further suggesting two phrases, “I can do a great job.” and “I can stay calm under pressure.” Another prodded, “Write down your fears. Write down your dreams. Write your congressman.”

And that was that for the stress management portion of the day. It seemed sufficient. Short of passing out Valium, how much stress reduction is actually going to be accomplished in six hours minus one hour for lunch and two fifteen minute breaks?

The rest of the time was spent shaping us into attractive new hires. We needed different things. All we had in common was that we’d worked on-the-books (meaning we’d paid into our unemployment insurance funds) and had job histories. No small feat as it turns out.

Nine of us were young – I’m saying nobody closing in on 40 any time soon. Three of the young men – one black, two white – were laid off from the construction industry. Six more young people – two white women, two black men and one white man – came from the service sector from jobs in food service, educational services, retail and automobile repair. And three older workers (let’s say 45- to 60 years old) consisted of a white man out of work after two decades in menial non-union retail labor and two white women – one with top notch administrative and para-medic skills and me, refugee from a dinosaur industry.

The workshop leader was among us oldsters and was spot-on with her assessments of each of us. She rallied with the spirit of a wise if slightly tired scout mother. But it's got to be a tough job, trying to arm a disparate people with the tools to battle increasingly bad odds. There's the economy, of course. But that allows for everything else to escalate, she tells us. And she has touched at a piece of each of us by now, so we believe her. Discrimination is alive and well, prepare for it, she says. There are hundreds and in many cases thousands of applicants for a single job, be the best candidate and know someone on the inside. You will take an income cut, the older you are, the bigger the cut.

And that specific information that gets through, it is just damn terrifying, such as: Cut 25 years off your resume.

That's a quarter-century.

But she gave good workshop. Here's some of  my specialized good news: Desktop Publishing is one of the projected “future careers.”  Old white women are, as always, encouraged to return to school to update their skills or open a small business.

I think I see a future career in this interplay. All I need now is to get one of my daughters to pose for my honed, on-line resume photo.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Seeking an Invitation to Scott Brown's Party


While the most optimistic among Democrats strive to cast Evan Bayh as a canary, for all the world he looks to me like a rat that precedes the call I have been waiting for -- “Women and children first.”
But a funny thing happened on my way to the lifeboats – Scott Brown rowed by.
Whatever the nature of Senator Brown’s party, he proved this week that it isn’t the nature of the Republicans or Democrats of the 111th Congress.
And what even the canary scenario makes clear is that the nature of the problem with the 111th Congress isn’t a two-party stalemate – not when one of the parties controls both legislative houses and the executive branch. It’s a food fight among all iterations that ever were in the splintered Democratic Party.
Gnashing their teeth at this table are everything from the Bourbon Democrats (which in Southern Maryland means needing to drink more to sit by one of them but elsewhere might simply mean Chamber of Commerce isolationists) to the New Democrats (somewhat akin to Chamber of Commerce internationalists). And there are the War Democrats and Peace Democrats, named not for anything in the 20th or 21st centuries but holdovers proving we’re a nation not recovered from its Civil War. There are even smatterings of New Deal Democrats and Great Society Democrats retread as Progressives (named such since the spell cast in 1964 forbidding the speaking aloud of the L-word). And of course there are the true Republicans affectionately referred to as Southern and/or Reagan Democrats.
Why even try to explain the Republicans who don’t splinter their factions but kill them off. (How else to explain the contemporary GOP as evolved from Free Soilers?) The last shreds of the Republican’s liberal faction dissolved in tears shed by Senator Charles Percy in 1978 when he promised Illinois voters that if they reelected him he would leave such waywardness behind. They did. He did. More recently the endangered Moderate Republicans turned into Independents. And who does that help?
Looking longingly at Scott Brown’s lifeboat it seemed possible that a Truth in Labeling Strategy might help me stay aboard my Democratic ship; first moving the Southern Reagan Democrats over to the Republican side of the aisle. Let’s at least get over the illusion that a majority of anything exists in congress. And before you Democrats start wailing about your loss of numbers (cause judging from my Southern Maryland district let me assure you there would be a loss of numbers) consider how this relabeling would reconfigure our upcoming gubernatorial primary.
If the Republicans are leery of these additions they could turn into Tea Partiers and perhaps those Southern Democrats could return some Moderates to the Grand Ole Party. It couldn’t hurt to have a few more Moderates running the place.
Then let’s throw the Bourbons and New Democrats in together. Let them bicker among themselves about who gets to make the buck today at the expense of ten bucks tomorrow. Let’s see if they can convince anyone besides the bankers that a dollar today regardless of tomorrow is really Capitalism at Work for All.
Let’s just change the name of the War Democrats to the Add-Ons and seat them near the New Democrats. Then fold those Peaceniks in with the Liberals because their couple of votes never matter in the present anyhow, but it is always nice in hindsight to see one or two Democrats had a sane world vision.
And as for all the rest of us – we wimpy Progressives and noncommittal Independents and even some of those Tea Partiers who actually just want their country back – let’s give Scott Brown a call to see just what this new form of governing is about. Let’s ask him to speak at a luncheon or something. Maybe he doesn’t have a grand plan yet, but it would be nice just to hear again his explanation for voting in favor of a Democrat-crafted job-creation bill. “…anytime you can make a small step, it’s still a step.”

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why Are Liberals So Condescending?

That question was posed in the Feb. 7, 2010 Washington Post Outlook above Gerald Alexander's argument that liberals “to a degree far surpassing conservatives” believe their view “self-evident” and that conservatives are either too ignorant to have legitimate views or are liars.

Liberal sanctimony far surpasses conservative sanctimony? The words “talk radio” alone should dispel that notion.

Not that liberals aren’t condescending. They are. It’s from getting there first on the social issues: universal education, civil rights, women’s suffrage, Vietnam. They are the outreach branch of government. They believe they can see the future, shape it and bring everyone on par with themselves (whether this means up or down). As Alexander implies, their condescension can be insufferable. Liberals not only think they are right -- as in correct -- they believe they are in the right. This is akin to believing God is on their side, which actually has something of a right-wing ring to it.

Alexander’s interchangeable use of Republican for conservative and Democrat for liberal is also inadequate to describe the paralyzing failure of legislators to listen to one another.

As the spouse of an elected middle-of-the-road Democrat I’ve had plenty of opportunities to sit between one of the many conservative Democrats in my husband’s district and one of the fewer liberal Democrats.

Painting in broad strokes, the liberals are condescending and, as Alexander describes, suggest that if I were smarter I would grasp the imperative of their vision and its singular rightness. When they are at the podium they tend to lecture.

Again in broad strokes, the conservatives are bombastic and not listening either. They pegged me as a liberal since I was a reporter a decade ago. Not that I wrote opinion pieces, just that I worked for a newspaper so I was a liberal. They don’t care if I’m smart or dumb, they just don’t care. When they get to the podium they tend to criticize.

It just isn’t about a warring two parties. If it were that simple the past year would have been a legislative triumph for the Democrats.

It isn’t about philosophical differences. The conversation is nowhere near a philosophical level. That would be a huge step forward. Great friendships, even love can grow across political, religious and ancestral divides. Even if not common ground, an exchange of give and take can be forged among people speaking and listening to one another.

It is about behavior, as Alexander suggests, but not just of the liberals. Perhaps town meeting rage shocked some federal lawmakers last summer, but nearly any local government forum on property taxes or garbage or land-use will show no one group more vitriol or inflexible than another. Or that one subject – be it health care, immigration, Afghanistan, Iraq – draws more fury than any other.

Enraging tones of voices and superior attitudes are the norm in political arenas today and maybe everywhere. Perhaps this is what is meant by “postmodernism,” suggested a friend more conservative than I am who agrees that no one philosophy or party has a corner on the misbehavior market. Her point is that today we value individual expression, the individual above the group.

Now that sounds capable of producing the intractable behavior both parties and both liberal and conservative philosophies appear to embrace today. In terms of the U.S. Congress, that would change the formula from a simple us versus them battle – which surely would have been won/lost by now—into a case of every single legislator versus everyone else.

Now that is postmodern. That is intractable.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Emasculated at the Super Bowl

Super Bowl XLIIII commercials from three ad agencies promoted three dissimilar products and all using the same theme.
Tom Shales of the Washington Post named the “oddly recurring theme” of the Super commercials “the perpetual male fear of emasculation.”
The Kellogg Super Bowl Advertising Review 2010 Results by Tim Calkins and Derek Rucker called this “creative theme … the domestication of the American man.”
I saw them as simply bizarre with themes of castration and impotence at the hands of women, not women in general but very specifically their wife/girlfriend.
Calkins and Rucker suggest “compelling research” backs up the “insight that men in the United States are feeling weak and powerless.” They offer unemployment and economic indices as specifies. (http://kelloggsuperbowlreview.wordpress.com/2010/02/08/kellogg-super-bowl-advertising-review-2010-results/).
Well, maybe that explains the theme of emasculation. Two other ads could be lumped in that category. One featured men wandering around fields dressed in their underwear. And then another spotlighted only one man, sleepwalking in his underwear, on his search for a Coke. Those guys looked pretty weak to me.
But what about those that blamed women for feeling powerless?
“Were these ads for a post-feminist age?” Shales asked and then answered, “They seemed to have a retro appeal – for better and worse. Probably worse.”
A retrograde synapse was sure triggered in my mind as the theme emerged – it recalled the 1970s perfume commercial of a woman who promises to “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never never never let you forget you’re a man.”( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4X4MwbVf5OA)
Yep, worse than retro, back then the theory was that sex sells. Neuromarketing holds sway today and finds that fear sells much better.
So although virility is deeply linked to wealth – or as Aristotle Onassis said, “If women didn’t exist all the money in the world would have no meaning,” – that doesn’t seem quite the message of the emasculation commercials.
And fear of domestication? Please. Marriage remains a much greater benefit to men than women – after all, who wouldn’t want someone to bring home the bacon, cook it up in a pan, and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera?
No, a few of these spots have the feel of the stuff of nightmares – the same fears of – dare I say it – women that prompted Germaine Greer to warn us, around the same time the bacon perfume was hitting the airwaves, “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Dreaming of Libraries

If I were dreaming about the perfect library I would plunk it down in the midst of a campus with – at least – a small middle school and small elementary school. My favorite part of this particular dream is to include – attached to the schools – offices for a social worker and a police officer and a public health officer. I’ve got no problem visualizing librarians in that mix.
Yeah, yeah, yeah … I know, I know, I know … That’s why I call it dreaming.
My public construction dreams always reduce central bureaucracies. I dream of central offices holding many fewer desks but just as many filing cabinets. Naturally, in my dreams, the few administrators are cheerful and keep their agency’s missions alphabetized, on-time and legal.
In my dreams social workers, public nurses, cops and other such human advocates work as close to teachers as I can imagine them – helping services are provided from offices embedded throughout the community.
My favorite part of this dream is linking to public schools. I believe public schools are the most important of the three great American institutions that permit democracy by making knowledge available to everyone. The other two are a free press and public libraries.
I can do quite a few riffs on this theme, but usually stop myself at this point; realizing dreams of de-centralizing bureaucracy and empowering neighborhoods borders on delusional. Still, dreams do ultimately prove the starting block for public construction. And lately dreams about a new county library on a hunk of undeveloped public land are making headlines – as such things often do. It got me dreaming.
A quarter century ago Leonardtown’s library was overflowing. Librarians and citizens convinced the powers that were of their need for bigger digs. They got the Armory.
The next St. Mary’s County library dream resulted in new construction – a regional library in Charlotte Hall. By the time the facility was built desktop computers, the Internet, changes in service needs and deliverables made the ultimate arrival of bricks and mortar obsolete by completion. (It's like when a jetty was finally built to protect a channel for commercial fishing access, but commercial fishing had died before the channel was completed. But that's another story.)
Because librarians are resourceful, the Charlotte Hall building was re-imagined as a community library that houses a regional function.
A more recent decade -- and this was nearly a decade ago -- was spent seeking funding to replace the old Lexington Park library because it was located beneath an aircraft flight zone for tester jets.
I’m just saying.
I'm saying that technology is ubiquitous. I'm seeing the time it takes to move dreams into bricks and mortar. Concrete outcomes are increasingly obsolete by the time they are achieved. Having sat through my fair share, I have my doubts that public hearings can resolve this. Bureacracies can't easily change course midstream. Perhaps, like most of us, they don't have the ability to see changes as they are happening.
But whether those of us steeped in print media acknowledge it or not, cataclysmic changes on the scale of Gutenberg’s press have occurred. It is no longer a question whether electronic books and computers will replace print books, let alone dvds and everything else ever labeled "media."
The questions now are how to preserve the integrity of knowledge in the face of incalculable input; how to disperse it. Books might not even figure into the equation by next decade.
What is needed is not less dreaming, but larger dreaming. Not delusional dreaming but struggling through today’s immediate needs to imagine a life not yet invented: Tomorrow.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Those Damn Watermen

Aren't they ever going to give it up? Those damn watermen, those under-educated, poorly disciplined, oddly spoken pirates, perennially accused of a willingness to take the last oyster (or crab or fish) if given half a chance.
As if to prove themselves just that bad they raise their Shakespearian voices and press their faces much too close and call their accusers bald-faced liars.
The vitriol suggests Shakespeare again, suggests they doth protest too much.
I walk a thin line here – writing about watermen. A legitimate newspaper wouldn’t let me do it. But I’m compelled, whenever I hear drums beating for those damn watermen again, when I hear government officials calling for restraint and scientists demanding more laws to prevent those pirates from taking the last living oyster of the Chesapeake. I'm compelled when the Shakespearian oratory starts up in my kitchen.
Each time officialdom drums up animosity against the watermen more empty Save the Bay promises follow and then some more money will be piddled away in yet another phony solution. At least that’s how the last 25 years have gone.
It is similar when the focus shifts to the farmer and that profession is pilloried in the name of the Chesapeake Bay. Or in the name of tobacco, as the case may be. Except, of course, the federal and state governments bought the tobacco farmers out.
Eh, eh, eh, not to go there, I walk a thin line.
Still, regardless of my biases, it seems odd to blame the aging and disappearing watermen for the death and breeding failures of the resource. I don't mean to be stupid. I get the tipping point theory; more watermen, more clever capturing devices, etc. etc. I get that they’re not angels. Trust me, I get that. I know they are pirates. I am bias. I wouldn't accuse them of taking the last oyster. I won’t have to. That oyster will be dead long before a waterman reaches it.
But putting all of that aside, if harvesting the Chesapeake Bay is the reason the life in the bay is diminishing, how come there aren't any more toad fish left? Why won’t the grasses grow? How come the eroding shoreline is filling with junk weeds?
Maybe the problem isn't actually the watermen. Or maybe their share of the problem is minuscule. Might not even be the watermen plus the farmers together. Maybe even both the watermen and farmers added together aren’t even a statistically significant portion of the problem. Maybe they're nothing but another resource being pilfered away by other mismanagement problems.
Maybe all of us recently arrived at water's edge to live and boat and spew and drain and dribble – those of us with those damn watermen in our view-shed, threatening to take our last oyster, maybe we too doth protest too much.

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