Saturday, July 26, 2014

Dear Corporations: It's a new millennium - women aren't goods and chattel

I separated from my now ex-husband in November 2003, and our divorce was finalized in December 2006. When the marital home sold, I bought the current house in which the kids and I reside. I hold the title to this house in my own name, the mortgage is held by me alone, and I have made all the decisions about financing and re-financing this house myself. My ex-husband never lived at this address, was never on any of the mortgages at this address, has had nada to do with this house. 

Yet I still get mail addressed to him here, even ten years after we separated, and eight years after our divorce was finalized. I even get mail addressed Mr and Mrs HIS NAME Littman at this address. 

About two years after the kids and I moved into the house, my son got an invitation to join the AARP. He was 15 at the time, and it was a source of much amusement to me, because I hadn't received my first AARP mailing yet (now I am deluged by them on practically a daily basis). Neither of us could understand why he would be on the AARP mailing list. 

"Maybe they figured that because you're the only male at this address, you're my husband," I joked. 

He looked at me with all the appropriate horror that comment would engender in a 15 year old boy. 

Well, recently my bank suggested I move to their private banking program. I met with a very nice chap, and before I signed on, I told him a very important story about how I feel about men giving me investment advice. 

A few years ago, I had my portfolio with an investment advisor. I wanted him to move my holdings in a certain direction, because as a political columnist I watch what is going on in DC very carefully, and I didn't like what I was seeing. He didn't agree with my assessment, and told me to "ask my father," before acting.

Now there are a few things about this that pissed me off. 

1. I have an MBA in Finance
2. I was, at the time, a woman in my late 40's, with children of my own. 
3. My father was in a nursing home with Alzheimer's, something that this person knew, because I'd bought a long term care policy from him, because of my concerns about developing Alzheimer's myself. 
4. Did this guy realize he was living in the 21st freaking Century?!! OMFG!!!!

As a result of that blatantly patronizing and sexist advice, I moved my entire portfolio away from that establishment, which lost them fees and commissions. 


Well, yesterday I got some mail from my bank as a result of become a private banking client. Here is how the envelope was addressed. 

Joshua happens to be my son. He isn't the main account holder. I am. In fact, if the bank cared to LOOK AT ITS OWN RECORDS, it would notice that his account is a COLLEGE ACCOUNT. 
But no. Because his is a male name, it takes priority over the actual private banking client, ie/ ME

Now my boyfriend, who is a database guy, told me I was overreacting, because "it's just an algorithm." 

But when I posted this on Facebook, the number of FEMALE friends who have been similarly enraged by this was long and equally furious. 

 "(Husband) and I are joint owners of our home and have a joint mortgage, but everything comes to him. With Allstate, we both have homeowner's insurance together, and then I have a policy on my car and my condo. But EVERYTHING comes addressed to him, even for my policies! I've had numerous convos with our agent and he is clearly puzzled as to why it infuriates me."

"Do I know what that feels like! I think most women do."

"My sister-in-law kept her own last name but gets mail to Mr & Ms my-brother's-name all the time. ALL the time. Grrrrr."

Now my boyfriend may be right. It might be "just an algorithm." As one friend commented, "We can't control what the computer does" is what Allstate tells me when they send me emails about my policy that start with, "Dear Hubby's Name...". It's insta-rage for me when I read it."

But here's the thing: WHO CREATES THE ALGORITHMS?* Computers don't program themselves, as any database guy should know. And whoever created the algorithm that takes any male name in a house and puts it FIRST, even though the policyholder, or the main account holder is a woman, even though that name might belong to a child, is not making a wise business decision. 

Here's a case where the marketing people need to go to their programmers and say FIX THIS. 

Because it's long past for "Big Data" to stop considering women as goods and chattel of the male of the species. 

*let's guess: Do we think this one was created by a man or a woman?

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

I started another blog: ORWELL UPDATED

It's called Orwell Updated, and you can check it out here.

Please send examples! There are so many. Once compiled, this will be a useful teaching tool for media literacy (euphemisms to avoid saying what's really meant)  citizenship (politicians using passive voice to avoid taking responsibility and using euphemisms to make the grossly unpalatable acceptable ) and writing (unclear writing, passive voice etc).

Friday, April 25, 2014

April is the cruellest month

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

TS Eliot The Waste Land

Never have those words rung more true for me than this year.

It has been a challenging six months.

We lost my father after a long struggle with Alzheimer's last November. Life has been so busy since then, there has barely been time to grieve. And so it comes out at weird times. I was in synagogue on the last day of Passover and for the first time I stayed for Yizkor service (memorial service for the dead). If both of your parents are still living, you leave the sanctuary for Yizkor. On Yom Kippur, I left but sat outside sobbing to my son Josh, telling him that I was afraid that it would be the last time I'd ever go outside for Yizkor.

It was.

Yet I've discovered there is a comfort in the prescribed rituals - sitting shiva, going to synagogue each week to say kaddish, even though I find reciting it each time an ordeal (Kaddish isn't Hebrew, it's Aramaic). Everyday life is so frantic that ensuring I allow myself the time to do these rituals means I'm making sure I've got time to left the grief out for at least a short time every week.

With the loss of Dad not yet healed, this month, April, has been the cruellest month indeed. On the second, we lost my children's uncle, Roby Littman, far too young, at the age of sixty. Even while desperately ill in hospital, Roby sent an email out that exhibited his unfailing sense of humor. As my youngest niece so sagely and sadly observed, "It's just not right" that he is no longer with us. He's left a very big hole left in all of our hearts.

This morning I woke up to an email from the UK that another person we loved and cared about, the woman my kids called "Nanny Janet", passed away yesterday from cancer. My son called her "my third grandmother". Janet didn't always have it easy, but she was an amazingly positive person. She also taught me some great words like "bonce" (head) as in, "Oh dear, did you bang your bonce?" Here's Janet with her daughter Natalie and granddaughters Amy and Katie.

When one is hit by waves of loss like this, it's easy to ask the rather colorful question my son did this morning: "Why is life trying to kick us in the b*lls?"

And it does kind of feel like that. You start to dread that first look at your cell when you wake up - is there going to be another email telling me someone I love isn't here anymore? What bad news am I going to read today?

To combat that, I'm working really hard to focus every day on the things I'm grateful for. Always, the first thing is my family. I am so blessed to have a family that cares and looks after one another. If one of us is having a tough time, we know we can count on the others for support.

I'm grateful for the friends I have made in so many different spheres of my life, who challenge my thinking, make me laugh, give me hugs (either real or virtual) - especially the ones who don't send me Candy Crush Saga invitations :-)

I'm grateful that my journey in life has lead me to the point where I am finally making a living doing what I love the most.

I'm grateful for health insurance. After my dad died when I kept having really bad headaches including a migraine that lasted a week and they did an MRI and I had an "unspecified spot" and so they had to do another MRI with rule out anything more serious - yeah, it would have really sucked if I hadn't been able to get health insurance after Anthem rescinded mine last year. And the insurance I got was cheaper and has dental. Thanks, ACA.

Forgive me if I seem shallow, but I'm going be grateful for a thing. It's my car. I'd wanted a convertible ever since I was a teenager and so two years ago I bought a secondhan hard top convertible - stick shift, twin turbo. I have had more joy per dollar from that car than anything I've ever spent money on for myself, ever. It's my therapy mobile. I'll be in a bad mood when I get in it, but then I take the hair tie out of my hair and put the top down and blast tunes and the wind blows all the cobwebs away. I'm grateful to feel that joy, especially when there's a lot of other life suck going on.

I'm grateful for T. S. Eliot's poetry, even though I was devastated when I found out that he was an anti-Semite.

What are you grateful for today?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

In memory of my Grandmother Dorothy - a true character

My Grandmother Dorothy died on March 22nd, 1993. I was living in Dorset,UK and was seven months pregnant with my son. In Judaism, we bury people very quickly. I had to race over to my GP's home to get a doctor's note to fly home for her funeral, because otherwise the airline wouldn't take me.

When I was a teenager my shoulders were slumped over because I was embarrassed by my rapidly expanding chest, she'd constantly admonish me with "Wings back, chest out!" (Me: internal "What part of I don't want to stick my chest out don't you understand?") She'd also make me walk up and down the redwood deck at the back of our house with a book on my head to try and improve my posture. Picture this young Deadhead with bad body image and even worse self-esteem, being drilled on posture by her regal grandmother (who'd been dubbed "The Duchess" by her younger sister when they were kids).

My father died last November, after a long struggle with Alzheimers, and I'm still coming to terms with the grief and recognizing, every day, how he influenced the woman I am today. Last night Mom posted some of Grandma's words of wisdom, and I recognized as will anyone who has read my books and my political opinion columns, how much my life is a reflection and continuation of her legacy, as well as Dad's.

"If you have a good thought, share it. You never know when it will take wings"

When asked How do you accomplish so much she replied " by inspiration and perspiration"

Where does inspiration come from? "That's a great question! "
(I would probably say, "Damned if I know!" I guess I got the language from Dad...)

"We are all part of one humanity. there is no pure group . We are all mixed up through commerce and conquest through the ages"

"How can we trace the influence of one group upon the other...through the arts! through music!, through dance, through theatre, and literature""

"Be grateful for your blessings! I am!"

"You can change the world ...First in your own circle, Your community, then reach out to the world!"

Grandma could be challenging at times. Despite her open minded views about some things, she had less open minded views about others - like the time she saw me drinking beer from a bottle. I'm not sure which transgression upset her more - that I was drinking BEER or that I was drinking it OUT OF A BOTTLE. The Horror...The Horror...

But today - and every day - I try to honor her memory by the way I live my life.

Friday, November 29, 2013

What I'm grateful for on Black Friday

I'm grateful that my kids were the ones who said they didn't feel celebrating Chanukah with presents so soon after losing my father, their grandfather, so we're just doing the spiritual part and postponing all the present stuff for some later date.

I grateful that my parents brought me up to treasure family over stuff, so that the idea of going out to shop on Thanksgiving is anathema to me and my kids.

I'm grateful I don't work for Walmart, and I support the striking workers.

I agree with Adam Zopf, who wrote this:

and I wonder how and when we are going to do something about the growing inequality in our society, which has now reached Robber Baron era proportions.

I'm grateful that I had teachers who were given the freedom to teach in creative and thoughtful ways, and that testing was kept to a minimum so we were reading, thinking and analyzing instead of being tested.

I'm grateful my youngest child is a senior so that we are going to avoid the coming debacle of Common Core implementation, SBAC and even more testing. But that doesn't mean I'm giving up the fight for public education, because it has been the key to my family's success in this country and I will not see it destroyed.

I'm grateful for musicians, who create soundtrack for my life.

I'm grateful that adversity has brought me friendship, sometimes from people who would previously have considered me "that crazy liberal."

I'm grateful that I am able to earning a living doing what I love the most, so that working my butt off, while exhausting, isn't soul destroying the way it was when I worked in jobs that weren't really me.

I'm grateful that through my work as a both a writer for teens and a political writer, I have met smart, creative people who share my passion to make the world a better place.

What are you grateful for today?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Enabling isn't love - an important takeaway from the Newtown report

I am not a parenting expert, and make no claims to be one. The only "expertise" I have is that I have raised two extremely different young people to the ages of 17 and 20, and that "Q & A", an animated interview between my then 12 year-old son and me at StoryCorps has over a million views on YouTube, so it's obviously struck a chord with a few people.

When I read the Summary of the Final Report on the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting by Stephen J, Sendensky III, State Attorney for the Judicial District of Danbury, I was overwhelmingly struck by one thing - the degree to which Nancy Lanza enabled her son.

Parenting is hard work at the best of times. It's a constant balancing act between giving your kids the unconditional love and support they need while still providing consistent discipline so they know that there are limits and values by which they are expected to conduct themselves in the family and in wider society.

As the Talmud advises: "push away with the left hand while drawing closer with the right hand" (BT Sanhedrin 107b).

When you're parenting a child with special needs, that balancing act is even harder. You feel like one of the Wallendas every day, trying to figure out if you're making the right decisions for your child; fighting the school system for services, fighting insurance companies for services, being criticized and/or second guessed by family members, by people in the grocery store, by well-meaning friends, and worst of all by yourself.

I can't tell you how many times I've cried in the shower, cried to my therapist, cried to my son's therapist, cried on my doctor's desk, cried to friends, cried in the car while driving, cried to my Rabbi, cried to anyone who who might listen, because I'm worried that I'm doing the wrong thing by my son - sometimes by pushing him because I think he can do things that others say he can't, or because I feel like I've failed to give him the right supports, or for any of a million other reasons. (Same with my daughter, but for different reasons).

But one thing I have always worked very hard NOT to do is enable him. I've messed up sometimes - no one is perfect - but when I read the Newtown report I could not believe the degree to which Nancy Lanza enabled her son, presumably under the notion that she was doing it out of "love".

Example 1: Doing his laundry. If her son was 20 years old and had OCD and felt the need to change his clothes several times a day, why the hell was she still doing his laundry? Why didn't she teach him to do his own laundry - especially since he was unwilling to help himself in any way through medication or therapy. If "the shooter" was capable of learning to drive a car and shoot any number of types of gun, he was bloody well able to learn how to operate a washing machine and tumble dryer. This is enabling, people. It's not love.

Example 2: Allowing him to living in her house for a year only communicating by email? If your son is exhibiting that kind of disrespect and anti-social behavior toward you, why are you putting up with it? Tell him that he goes for inpatient treatment, or he talks to you with the respect any human being - and particularly his mother - deserves. Again, how is this love? Allowing your child to act in increasingly anti-social ways isn't love. It's enabling. And twenty-six innocent lives were lost because of such enabling.

Example 3. Don't even get me started on the guns. Your son is exhibiting all these clearly antisocial behaviors, including only communicating with you by email in your own home, and you are not just training him to use guns, but giving him money to buy a gun as a present?

It's entirely possible - indeed it's desirable - to give your children the room to express themselves and grow, loving and supporting and respecting them while still expecting respect from them.

It's like when my son told me he was now an atheist. I said, "Okay. But when I light the Shabbat candles, I expect you to put on a kippah and let me bless you. Not out of respect to G-d, if you don't believe in him, but out of respect to me, your mother, because it's important to me."

I see enabling all over the place in the town I live in. Like typing their kids' applications for Ivy League schools. What's going to happen if the kid gets in and Mommy isn't there to actually do the work?

Enabling isn't love. It hurts your child, rather than helping them. And sadly, in the case of Nancy and Adam Lanza, it resulted in the deaths of 26 innocent people.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Shared Awareness: Information + Technology = "Education Spring"

Matt DiRienzo, Group Editor for 21st Century Media in CT, recommended Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody" for one of my MFA students (thanks Matt!) and I've been reading it, too. It's worth picking up if you want to understand the growing backlash against Corporate Education Reform, the Common Core and my focus here, recent events in Hartford, CT.

As anyone who has following the edreform debate will be aware, the push for the current brand of high stakes, test-based stacked ranking of students, teachers and schools has come from moneyed interests - hedge fund billionaires like Paul Tudor Jones, Steve Mandel & Whitney Tilson, and tech billionaires such as Mark Zuckerberg,

Add in the mega bucks of megaphilanthropies like Broad Education Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Donald and Doris Fisher Fund, and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, and corporate interests like Pearson, and you get a pretty clear idea of how much money and power is behind the corporate education reform movement and the push to privatize our public schools.

It was difficult for the constituency of people who work with children and could see the many, valid problems with corporate edreform strategies to make themselves heard, because to put it bluntly, in this country, for all of our ideals of being a democracy and a meritocracy, money talks. This has only become more pronounced in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision.

It's not just that the wealthy have greater influence in the corridors of power because of their ability to make campaign donations. It's that the wealthy and powerful have a disproportionate influence on traditional means of communication - newspapers, television, radio. To get out a conflicting narrative means rocking the donor/advertising boat, and when media outlets are already struggling to survive in choppy economic waters, it's become abundantly clear that boat rocking is avoided at all costs.

But what's happened in Hartford - and is catching fire all across the country, much to Arne Duncan's chagrin - is that new technology is giving the rest of us (Shirky's "everybody")the tools for shared awareness and that awareness leads to action, which is resulting in consequences for those who have willfully ignored our voices for far too long.

Let's focus on an example from Hartford. The Hartford Board of Education, consists of 9 members, 5 appointed by Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra (including himself) and 4 elected members. Parents have complained about lack of transparency about process, lack of interest in the types of programs being pushed on them, and lack of resources before the decision to privatize the schools. But they haven't always had sufficient information and the ability to communicate and disperse that information in a timely way, in order to protest the Board's decisions.

In the last year or so, however, things have changed. First, there is the blogosphere - and blogs like Wait What? and Real Hartford have been providing a function that traditional media sources haven't - investigative reporting - thus giving parents information.

Social media is what has given this information power. By spreading the information far and wide, it's become harder for the traditional media to ignore, and thus for the Hartford politicians and the Board of Education to turn a blind eye to parent's concerns.

What's more, as Shirky observed in HERE COMES EVERYBODY regarding protests in Liepzig, (GDR) in 1989 prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, "each of the citizens...had some threshold at which they might join a protest. Each week the march happened without a crackdown offered additional eidence that the marches provided an outlet for their disaffection; each successful march diminished the fear felt by some additional part of the populace."

We saw this with the Steve Perry/Capital Prep story in Hartford. Jonathan Pelto started covering Perry's inappropriate tweets, his chronic absenteeism for speaking engagements, and his bullying behavior on Wait What?. Former and current teachers started approaching him behind the scenes, but because of Perry's threats to ruin their careers, they were concerned about going on the record. However a few things happened at once which changed the situation. A former Capital Prep teacher, Michael Fryar, 45, filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities over his alleged treatment at Capital Prep.

According to a report in the Hartford Courant:
"Fryar said he was fired Nov. 8, only weeks after he formally complained to the district and state that he was denied professional development opportunities and given low evaluation scores "with no factual basis."

Fryar criticized Perry's leadership and described an environment of low teacher morale. He also questioned Capital Prep's disciplinary practices, including instances in which students ran up and down the school's stairs as an apparent form of punishment, Fryar said.

City schools spokesman David Medina said the district would not comment on Fryar's allegations because of "pending litigation." Perry, who declined to comment on much of Fryar's remarks, denied that morale is low."

This, coupled with Supt Christina Kishimoto's proposal to give Perry an additional school to run, (under structured as a private management company owned by Perry) which was scheduled for a hasty BOE vote, lit the spark. Having social media tools allowed parents to stay informed, to spread the word, and to make their feelings known publicly. As more parents and teachers started telling their stories, others became more forthright.

From Wait What?

Addendum: New parental complaint


At this point the issues became harder for both the BOE and the traditional media to ignore, although the establishment paper,(CT's Daily Mail) the Courant, appears to still be doing its best to do so. In its late, and obviously reluctant coverage of the Perry tweet affair (which it posted after the Washington Post had already taken up the story)the Courant headlines with "Teacher's Union Asks for Investigation into Principal's 'threatening' tweet." Let's put "threatening' in quotes because we're going to pretend that a student or a teacher making that tweet like wouldn't have been suspended, right HC? It's just that meddlesome old teacher's union making trouble again! it.

Multiply this effect with a network of concerned parents, educators, professors, writers and activists around the country and you can start to understand why the Opt Out Movement is growing, why opposition to the Common Core is growing, why districts are opting out of RTTT funding, and why Arne Duncan (and Democrats who support him) will regret that "white suburban mom" comment for a VERY VERY LONG TIME. Because it's not just white suburban moms. It's everybody. And we're here, armed with information, research and investigative reporting and the ability to spread it, even if the traditional media won't.