Friday, October 21, 2011

Seeds of Change

I wrote lots here about ceaseless visits to the Department of Motor Vehicles with number one son, who like his mother, encountered some hurdles on the path to becoming a licensed driver. Now it seems like the boy has been driving forever and when he leaves for college I am demoted back to chauffeur duty for Spuds who it seems has an inordinate number of places to go. When it is determined that proximity to my office is insufficient reason for him to remain at the behemoth and miserable Marshall High School Spuds is told that he can return to the far flung charter in Pasadena with the proviso that he become self transporting as soon as possible.

I hadn't hustled Spuds off to the DMV when he is first eligible for a learning permit at age 15 ½, thinking he'd be at school near my office. He is fully 16, plus three weeks, on the day of his appointment. I navigate the Lincoln Heights office like a pro. I know the short cut and the location of street parking. I have our documents in perfect order. I quiz Spuds on the sample test and he seems to have mastered the material. I am chill and thinking maybe that history won't repeat itself. Spud's number is called and the clerk is astoundingly spaced out and wearing the tightest pair of black spandex pants I have ever seen. I presume that processing a learner's permit is not outside of the usual parvenu of clerical functions but our lady is utterly stymied and asks other employees for assistance, which is provided, albeit noticeably grudgingly, several times. She remonstrates me and says I shouldn't let Spuds drive until he is eighteen and asks for payment twice and glares at me suspiciously when I tell her that I've already paid.

The application is finally complete and Spuds is sent to be photographed and tested. His hair is sticking up and I feel bad that he'll be stuck indefinitely with this photo but I keep my mouth shut. He passes the exam and is issued a permit. He notices his name is spelled incorrectly and returns to the window. The application is voided and then corrected and he is photographed again before I get a chance to address the cowlick. We are almost home when he notices that his permit indicates that he is a female. We return to the DMV. The original clerk chastises Spuds, who being stressed out about the pending test, did not check the application for errors, She tells Spuds he'll have to return another day and begin the whole application process again but a supervisor steps in and helps a different clerk override the archaic software. They spend about forty five minutes processing the application manually during which time I am able to discreetly smooth Spud's hair with some spit. He notices himself that the third photograph is far superior.

We are encouraged to fill in a complaint form and I get the impression that there have been other issues with the befuddled clerk. I describe her incompetence but do not mention the camel toe. I request an additional form to file a compliment for the two employees who take it upon themselves to rectify the problem and commend their courtesy and professionalism. It seems labor unions make it just as difficult to acknowledge a superior employee as to fire an incompetent one. Unions still play the proletarian card and have concertedly maintained visibility within the Occupy Movement. The embrace of the Occupy Movement may just be a smokescreen to conceal organized labor's culpability for the number of politicians who are beholden to union coffers. Still, there is a ton of documentation, particularly in the food service industry, that workers who are not protected by a union are exploited appallingly. It is unfortunate that the funds and energy that are expended ostensibly for the protection of selected groups of workers can't be spread equally to insure the protection of all employees. I am unsure about the future of organized labor in this country but I do know with great certainty that lessening government regulation of business does not bode well at all for union members and non-members alike.

Finally, Spuds has a legitimate and accurate learner's permit and the ramifications of this start to sink in. I love it that his older brother can drive and I have availed myself of this as much as possible often as shamelessly as “Go pick up a gallon of milk so I can remain prone on the sofa watching Teen Mom.” My mother admonished me to drive safely even when she no longer remembered my name. I doubt I will ever be at perfect peace when I know that one of my sons is behind the wheel of a car. I remember squeezing the shoulder harness strap until I lost feeling in my hand while practicing with my previous student driver and here I am again. I do love the freedom of not having to transport them hither and yon but I dread hours in the passenger seat training another new driver and the doubling of the “kid out driving among the potentially insane” angst after he gets his license.

Joe College returns for the celebration of his 19th birthday for which we will use a Groupon and not buy his preferred Baskin Robbins Ice cream cake because the icing has the mouth feel of Crisco. I still can't get used to the table set with only three places. When Spuds starts motoring the house will be even emptier and I won't be able to beg him as frequently to neglect his homework and watch TV with me. While I am a prime candidate for major maladjustment to empty nest it does warm me to witness the satisfaction and increased self confidence they reap from their growing independence. When I dropped the boy at college I was elated but felt also an undercurrent of fear about what will await him in four years. I envisioned him returning defeated, with a degree, debt and no prospects, to Casamurphy like so many of my friends' kids who have ended up back at home post-graduation. Now I'm a bit more sanguine as it seems the world is waking up to what's really wrong. The message widely disseminated and is apparently sinking in, proving that Facebook is good for more than stalking ex-boyfriends and looking at cute pet tricks.

The boy's birthday present is a contraption that will play the hundreds of our old vinyl records that he rescued from our garage sale and transfer them to his I-Pod. The boy is cynical about the newly burgeoning protest movement and while he is mad about vinyl he is unsentimental about schlepping back to Redlands crates of the same records I dragged there when I started college myself. I don't really miss albums. They scratch and warp and take up a lot of space although I did gift a comedian friend with the observation that it is difficult to clean a lid on an MP3. I hauled my records and stereo to college in 1974. The Vietnam War had just ended, largely due to a grassroots protest movement similar in origin and spirit to the Occupiers. We met every Wednesday at Johnston College for community meetings. We'd ended a war. Well, in truth it was folks a bit older than I was, although having co-opted their fashion sense and music so I thought I could take credit for the war too. We thought we could do anything and that what we said was important. During the eighties I was embarrassed by this hubris but having a kid who feels ineffectual and hopeless I guess it wasn't really so bad to feel that way. I hope my son's sense of possibility is kindled. I've tried talking to him about the significance of the Occupy movement and how genuine change could brighten his own future but as a parent I have no credibility. Maybe some of my old Dylan and Phil Ochs albums will do the trick. If nothing else he'll make the discovery that marijuana used to come with seeds.

Friday, October 14, 2011


I visit Occupy L.A.and while the message is muddled, the assembled masses and the mastery of social media give me a major rush. The closest occupiers come to a unifying issue is disgust with banks but a virtually unregulated financial industry is the consequence of the repeal, in 1999, during the Clinton administration, of the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act which prohibited any one institution from acting as any combination of an investment bank, a commercial bank, and an insurance company. This enabled the greedy money brokers who crashed the mortgage industry. Conservative pundits on Fox News shrilly demand less government regulation. It's no wonder as this has certainly paid off for them. Fox News itself exists and is able to disseminate disinformation due to the deregulating Telecommunications Act of 1996, passed under the aegis of Bill Clinton, which allowed for cross media ownership. Because there is no limit to the number of media outlets that a single corporation can control, most Americans now get news that's skewed and filtered to serve the interests of a corporate behemoth. Last year the Supreme Court gave another huge boost to corporate hegemony by ruling in favor of the Koch Brother's PAC Citizen's United, agreeing that restricting corporate political contributions is a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. An article in the New Yorker “State for Sale” is a wonderful and sickening illustration of how this has played out in North Carolina.

The Occupy movement has been more peaceful than the antecedent civil rights and anti-war movements. The Los Angeles City Council passed, unanimously, a proclamation supporting the demonstration and a number of unions have a big presence. It is certainly favorable to have this support but I can't help but question the sincerity. Maybe the politicians and unionistas are just bet hedging as a buffer from scrutiny, as it appears that the times may finally be a changin.' Political and union participation in the Occupy movement might indeed stifle any discussion of publicly funded elections, which based on where we are now, seem to be an essential ingredient for a true democracy. The legislative and executive branches stand, if the civil rights and anti-war movements are any example, to be altered by the seeds the Occupy Movement are propagating but the judicial arm is (almost) forever. The court as a whole is among of the most conservative in American history and also one of the youngest; the average age of the current justices is 53 so probably, unless there's some sort of global pandemic, there isn't going to be a lot of turnover.

Twenty years ago this week we toured the Gold Rush Country in a rental car listening to the unprecedented senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas which inspired several seasons of Long Dong Silver Jokes on SNL. Despite Anita's Hill's testimony, Thomas was confirmed. Joe Biden led the confirmation committee and he elected not to call witnesses who were willing to corroborate Hill's claims that Thomas was a sleazy perv. Thomas, who has always been virulently opposed to Affirmative Action and has often expressed his contempt for Yale Law School, claiming his admission there was mere tokenism, played the black card and responded, “...from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.” However perhaps he made an even bigger footprint on the landscape by claiming to have no opinion about Roe vs. Wade and other controversial issues that boded for the court. Thomas set a new precedent for court nominees, “taking the 5th” on inquiries regarding judicial philosophy during confirmation hearings.

Thomas was nominated by Bush the Elder to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only African-American justice on the Court. Thomas was considered the only viable conservative black candidate even though he had never written a legal book or article and had served as a judge for only sixteen months . The American Bar rating of Thomas was the least favorable of any confirmed nominee since the Eisenhower era. Candidates are almost always rated “well qualified” but Thomas was rated only “qualified” by a 13 to 2 vote.

Thomas is considered to be one of the most conservative justices in the history of the court, an “originist” who sees that his responsibilty is only to literally interpret the Consititution regardless of the relevancy, and feels strongly that the court should play no role in the creation of social policy. Thomas' opinion on whether lethal injection consitutes cruel and unusual punishment reads, as Jeffrey Toobin refers to it, “like a slasher movie.” Thomas states that the provision must be “understood in light of the historical practices that led the Framers to include it in the Bill of Rights.” He cites all manner of 18th century execution methods like burning at the stake, gibbeting, and “embowelling alive” as being what the framers meant by “cruel and unusual” and implying that our modern methods of execution are quite civilized.

Justices Thomas and fellow ultra-conservative Antonin Scalia appear to be in the pocket of the Koch brothers. Thomas denied his affiliation with their Federalist Society but his financial report reveals that they reimbursed him for four days of “transportation, meals and accommodations” over the weekend of a retreat. Justices are free to lecture and attend seminars but they are prohibited from engaging in partisan activities. The Koch shindig in Palm Springs, also attended by Scalia, and billed as “an opportunity to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it,” doesn't sound very non-partisan.

Clarence Thomas's integrity is also questionable in other areas. He neglected to report income his wife Jinni earned as a lobbyist for the conservative Heritage Foundation. Between 2003 and 2007, Ginni earned $686,589 and Thomas failed to note the income in his Supreme Court financial disclosure forms for those years, instead checking a box labeled "none" for "spousal non-investment income." He did file amended disclosures but it is puzzling that 689k would slip his ostensibly great mind. Jinni Thomas is now campaigning fervently against President Obama's national heath care plan and there is pressure on Thomas to recuse himself from the pending case although he has indicated he doesn't consider hearing the case a conflict of interests.

If the Occupy Movement sows a more compassionate government and is a catalyst for a more equitable tax structure and reform of the financial industry it will have conquered a lot. I hope the dialogue branches out to include our scanty regulation of giant corporations and the beholdeness of our politicians to them. The Supreme Court is quite an obstacle however. A justice can be removed from the court for a criminal offense but it has never happened. In 1804 an attempt was made to impeach Justice Samuel Chase, one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence for his “Federalist leanings” but he was acquitted and continued to serve. In 1957, at the peak of McCarthyism, there was a movement that emanated from the South to impeach Earl Warren, Hugo Black and other liberal justices on the grounds that they were communist sympathizers but this never amounted to much more than a few billboards.

It is unlikely the Clarence Thomas, or any other member of the Court will be found guilty of a crime severe enough to provoke an impeachment hearing so we may be condemned for decades to a one of the most conservative courts in history. This is particularly distressing when this year's docket includes cases not only pertinent to national healthcare coverage but also the right to marriage and immigration enforcement. Anthony Kennedy is considered a swing voter, although more often than not his decisions reflect a conservative sensibility. The Supreme Court may be a genuine impediment to the return to a government that is truly for the people but there are tent cities all over the country that I hope herald the end of apathy and feelings of hopelessness. The Judicial Branch is probably beyond the realm of possibility but there are other channels. Let's hope the occupiers get the message that Wall Street is just the tip of the iceberg.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, October 7, 2011

Cheap Spate

My mother was a coupon fanatic. Before they were bar-coded she would sneak coupons that had expired or for products she hadn't purchased into the giant stack she foisted over to the checker at the Ralph's (double coupons!). On April Fool's Day once I had a friend call her pretending to be the Ralph's manager and ordering her to cease and desist with the coupon shenanigans. She hung up in his face and took her business to Von's. Mom always kept a special stack of things she accumulated waiting for me on Fulton Ave. There were samples, junk mail and coupons which I'd sneak around the side of her house and dump in the recycling. I knew that my parents thrifty habits were a result of coming up during the depression. Up until a couple of years ago our income increased a bit each year and we assumed that this would always be the case. We discovered with a big bang that it is not. The new frugality has become tres chic but for us it's a necessity.

While I don't clip coupons from the newspaper I get a thrill when Fresh & Easy and Costco coupons arrive in the mail. I'm an avid user of Groupons and the similar Amazon connected program called Living Social. I pick up ten buck Groupons for a lot of neighborhood ethnic places which are great for the kids to use. I also purchase Groupons for a few sit down restaurants for family outings. I snatch a Groupon to an Indian restaurant in Pasadena after confusing the name with one we'd been to before and liked but it turns out to be a different one. Why are there so many Indian restaurants in Pasadena?

Spuds and I head to Akbar in Old Town on the day the Groupon expires. I suspect a crowd on the last day the coupon's good so we arrive before 6 p.m. and snag the last table in the house. The lady at the next table starts talking about the death of Steve Jobs and says she is waiting for her son and seeing Spuds says that it must be a mother-son dinner night which conjures the “Motherboy” episode of Arrested Development. Her son arrives, a big blond brute, much older than Spuds and he demands vegetarian food prepared without onions and not hot. He orders, “mango milk” and when the waitress suggests he means “mango lassi,” he snarls, “whatever.” When the food arrives he asks if there's some sort of sauce for it, maybe curry but not spicy,” and becomes sulky when the waitress says that they only have chutney which has chile. I think I got the better deal in the son department. By the time we finish eating there is a long line out the door. It was obvious that the staff is slammed and it takes quite a long time to get the food, which is edible but average. I paid $20.00 for a $45.00 Groupon. From what I understand, Groupon gets about half of that so the restaurant take is about $10.00. The staff works their tails off and the till is probably empty at evenings' end.

Groupon is one of the fastest growing companies in history and a spectacular IPO was anticipated. I would be very surprised, now that the data is in, if the stock offering actually comes to pass. I have picked up a few Groupons for places I know and like and would return to regardless. Most of the others were for restaurants that have decent reviews on Chowhound or Yelp. I purchased one for a natural foods market that I found to have grossly inflated prices and complained to Groupon and promptly got a full refund. With regard to the untried restaurants, I enjoy the cheap meals but have no incentive to return and pay full price when I can just use another Groupon for another new place. I think a lot of merchants participating in these coupon offers aren't building from them the loyal following they'd expected. Research shows that Grouponers also tend to be Yelpers. Perhaps it's due to mediocrity, or maybe the surge of customers a Groupon creates overwhelms a restaurant and food and service fall apart, but there is a definite correlation between Groupon offers and negative Yelp reviews.

I'm not sure how long Groupon, at least as it is now, will last but to my kids Groupons are more familiar tender than the green stuff. I was derisive about my mother's use of coupons but my own kids are accustomed to relying on Groupons and it is normal to be thrust one when they ask for clothes, shoes, electronic and food items. They are also used to helping me split orders at the Fresh & Easy so I can make use of additional $10.00 coupons for $50.00 purchases. There are usually union representatives in front of the Eagle Rock store. Fresh & Easy is owned by the huge British conglomerate Tesco. The union states that they have an employee majority in favor of joining the United Food and Commercial Workers Union but Fresh & Easy claims their workers are happy and has one standing in a kelly green Fresh & Easy shirt at the door, right next to the union organizers, handing out $5 coupons. While my parents were paragons of thrift, neither would ever cross a picket line. They were pretty apolitical but I think the legend of the Triangle fire and other labor horror stories recounted by their elders insured that their generation of Jews were unquestioning union sympathizers.

Unfortunately, I am able to stretch my own food budget by shopping pretty exclusively at non-union purveyors because the prices are dramatically lower. I feel guilty to some extent but I also can't ascribe to my parents' blind obeisance because it has become clear that the efficacy of unions is now suspect as they wield, and frequently abuse, so much political power. That said, I wish all workers in the U.S. had the same protection that most unions afford their members.

My sister and I resented my parents parsimony and our attitudes about money were definitely shaped by this. The economy ebbed and flowed while I was growing up but my dad's business seemed to improve continually and my mom got a raise once or twice a year so it seemed silly that they'd drive an extra mile to save a penny a gallon on gas or rush to arrive in time for early bird specials. My own kids weigh even the smallest expenditure. They've seen their dad become a wreck as his employer downsizes personnel and relentlessly heaps more and more work on the remaining staff. They've seen me lay off employees who've been with me for decades and are as close as family. They are well aware that we are more fortunate than most but after witnessing our insecurity over the last few years there's nothing to make them believe that it's going to get better.

The conservative press has made light of the Occupy Wall Street protests and nationwide spin-offs, blowing the movement off as a rudderless pothead blip on the radar. Joe College indicates that some of his fellow students will be camping out over this holiday weekend at City Hall and I ask if he's going himself. He says those things never do any good and I tell him that those things stopped a war and while he didn't rush out to the garage for his sleeping bag, at least he chewed that around some.

It is Erev Yom Kippur and the beginning of my annual 24 hours without coffee draws nigh. I will attend services, perhaps accompanied by grumbling members of my family or perhaps as a solo agent. This is the day when if we come clean, and not just about our own shortcomings but on behalf of the whole community, we get sealed in the Book of Life for another year. In the middle of the whole shebang there is a Yitzkor service when we remember the souls of the dead. I'll try to catch the sermons and reflect on my many shortcomings as well as society's but this year, as part of the 99% and the mother of cynical children, the figurative beating of my breast feels inadequate. I live in a country where 1% of the population control more than 38% of the wealth and the chasm bodes only to grow larger as health, education and other social welfare programs are decimated. I will go to services, more than likely alone, but I hope my prayers and meditations are a springboard for some action that will counter my children's cynicism. This seems like a more fitting way to honor the dead than reading names off a memorial board and chanting the Kaddish. I'll break the fast with a cup of coffee so big I'll have to take a Xanax before bed. Then I'll join my work weary husband and my soon to be less cynical children for a break-the-fast meal. Thank God I have a Groupon.

L'Shanah Tova, Shabbat Shalom and Power to the People