As my kids suit up as skeleton orcs and grim reapers tonight and prepare to trick or treat, I’ll be keeping a close eye on the candy that fills their plastic pumpkins. This year, the semi urban myth fears of razor blade apples has been replaced by something more real and tangible: candy made in China or containing ingredients from China that might harbor melamine or other toxins.
The villain isn’t some slavering American maniac anymore, it’s those motivated by greed – or in some cases stupendous ignorance – who have polluted the food chain worldwide. What bothers me the most about the Chinese toxins is that candy isn’t always clearly labeled. It might say “distributed in America” but where does it originate? Even candy that says “made in America” may use ingredients manufactured elsewhere. Everyone knows chocolate is made with milk and butter. And Chinese milk has been found to be tainted. So how do we know that the candy companies aren’t buying these ingredients from China? And if the products go through layers of middlemen, how can they be sure anyway?
I have long pulled Mexican candies out of my kids’ Halloween stashes because some of those have been found to contain lead, which can cause mental retardation. This year, I’ll be reading labels as never before. But where does it end? The LA Times recently cited a study showing that artificial colorings can produce symptoms of ADHD. Do I need to pull all the colorful treats too?
In the end, I’ll probably cut them slack on this one. I monitor my kids’ diets the other 364 days of the year and figure the mental trauma of seeing most of their candy thrown out outweighs the health hazard of gobbling some dodgy sweets.
And they’re actually pretty good sports. They’ve read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and they understand the perils. I hope Schlosser’s working on a book about the poisoning of the global food chain now. In the meantime, U.S. government needs to pass laws requiring food companies to list the originating country of all their ingredients. Only then can consumers make informed choices.
When I moved from Los Angeles to Portland, Oregon four years ago, it was with the sense I was going into exile. It was not so much the physical dislocation, as the fear I was leaving my work as a journalist. I was extremely fortunate that, from the time I began freelancing in LA in 1995, I was able to make a living. Nearly all the money came from local publications, which continued to give me assignments until the day I drove out of town, and beyond. I still occasionally contribute, though it’s been less the past two years, something I’ve chocked up to being far away, the umbilical getting too long to deliver ideas, and vice versa.
Then, yesterday, I received an email from one of my editors down there: “Am sure you heard about the Times this week… Good thing you moved and don’t have to compete with all these out-of-work LA journalists!”
Being a daily reader of LA Observed, and having friends and colleagues on Spring Street, I of course knew what was happening at the Los Angeles Times; had read the most recent list of lay-offs with real dread I would see one of my best friend’s names. (I didn’t.) I read earlier today there will be more layoffs at the LA Weekly. I have no idea whether my current editor will be let go, but do know my former one, Joe Donnelly, was laid off earlier this year, prompting me to think, then, that if they could let go Joe, no one is safe.
I landed in Portland at a timely moment. For a feature writer, there was a lot of work, if often at half the rate and half the length. And while some of the local papers have lately been shrinking, the major monthly, where I contribute, is getting fatter. They also have a sharp new editor in chief, they’re running smarter longer features, and, with the exception of Conde Nast publications, pay as well as any magazine I’ve written for.
Last year, when this same magazine was looking nationwide for its new editor, I mentioned the position to several folks in LA. No one was ready to jump, and why would they have? Portland is not as vibrant a city as LA (trust me); it’s a big move, people have kids; they had hope. Now, I have an LA editor asking about Portland real estate, a Hollywood columnist wanting to know whether there’s a position for him in my husband’s business, and, with increasing frequency, the sorts of emails above.
I tell them, I’d love to have them here, and that I will, as I tried to do for a recently axed Timesman, make connections for them. That nothing would make me gladder than a giant influx of big city news talent. But I also know, it’s already here: while walking through the magazine’s office the other day, I saw a gal in conference with several editors, and heard her telling them, “I was on staff at LA City Beat.” Two years ago – heck, two months ago – I would have butted in, to find out who she was and whether we knew each other’s bylines; to take her out and sit her down and tell her what I’ve learned about the politics of Portland journalism. But I didn’t. I walked on, thinking, I hope they have a job for her.
Way back in June, The New York Times published a story about "a growing band of supporters of Senator Barack Obama [...] who are expressing solidarity with him by informally adopting his middle name."
As you may have noticed by the new banner on my personal blog, I have kinda sorta joined that band, at least until Election Day, but not for purely political reasons.
If my goal was to support Obama's candidacy, I could certainly have found a more effective way. Instead, I took "Hussein" as a peaceful form of protest, a statement of my profound opposition to idiocy.
Today I write as "TJ Hussein Sullivan" because America's education system has so obviously failed to instill an ounce of common sense in many of our citizens. How else can you explain a person smart enough to work all the dials and switches required of a radio talk show host* who behaves like a schoolyard bully, attempting to belittle and degrade Obama by mocking his middle name?
"Hussein … Hussein … Hussein."
Obama, however, is hardly my only concern.
I am "TJ Hussein Sullivan" for Sen. John McCain, whose middle name is "Sidney."
I'm "TJ Hussein Sullivan" for former Vice President Al Gore, whose middle name is "Arnold," and for former President George H. W. Bush (41) who has a "Herbert" stuck in there.
And, remember the late Sen. Paul Tsongas? Paul Tsongas's middle name was "Efthemios."
Haven't the John Sidneys, the Al Arnolds, the George Herberts and, yes, the Paul Efthemioses suffered enough? My God, it's a wonder any of them survived recess.
*This is one of many examples.
UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times notices.
Less than a week before our historic presidential election, a growing number of American families are more concerned about where they will sleep tonight than with who will move into the White House in January.
Before the downturn, 59 percent of American workers with children under the age of six were living from paycheck to paycheck, and 37 million Americans were living in poverty. That’s about one in ten people across the country, a figure that rises to one in seven in LA County. The numbers today are certainly higher.
On Monday, the Downtown News reported that demand for help at LA’s downtown homeless shelters is soaring, while support for those services is shrinking. Most alarming is the increase in families seeking emergency shelter.
At the Union Rescue Mission, which serves more than 700,000 meals a year and can accommodate 1,000 people a night, an entire floor that was formerly used by volunteers has been given over to families, according to Andy Bales, the mission’s CEO. “We're actually increasing our services because of the need, and that's compounding our challenge,” Bales told the News. “We've been doing a lot of praying and stretching of resources.”
The News story continues:
Gregory C. Scott, president and CEO of the Weingart Center, said individual donations are down about 15-20% at the organization that houses about 600 homeless residents and helps 2,500 people annually find jobs. Scott said a program to help people find permanent homes will be canceled in December and City Live, a fundraising event scheduled for November that has been going for 17 years, was canceled due to lack of sponsor support.
“A lot of the companies that usually sponsor us were just not able to pull out those donations this year, and it's a ripple effect," he said. "The people we do get donations from are donating less because the economy has affected them as well, and because the economy has become the way it is, the need for our service increases, but we have less resources.”
Nearly three in four of California’s low-income working families pour more than a third of their income into housing costs, according to a report by the non-profit Working Poor Families Project released earlier this month. The Golden State ranks among the bottom four states in terms of housing affordability nationwide. That report is based on statistics compiled through 2006. Without a doubt many of those struggling families are now among those facing homelessness.
Yet the concerns of the growing ranks of the poor—for safe and affordable housing, for access to health care, food, transportation, education and adequate pay for thankless work – remain remarkably absent from the presidential campaigns.
It’s not for lack of trying. According to the Buffalo News, “the ONE organization, co-founded by Bono, lead singer of the rock band U2, said that it sent an Internet petition signed by 122,000 people to moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC, asking him to pose one question about poverty during the Oct. 7 debate. Brokaw did not raise any questions about poverty.”
In September, the Marguerite Casey Foundation hosted a tri-city convention, which drew 15,000 low-income Americans to gatherings in Los Angeles, Chicago and Birmingham Alabama (full disclosure: I’ve done some writing for them, both because I have my own family to feed and because I endorse their family-empowerment approach).
The families talked about their hard work and sacrifices to put food on the table, keep their kids in school, hold down multiple jobs and keep a roof over their heads. Most of all they worried about their kids – about their health and safety and education. They appealed to the government to join them in ensuring their children’s futures. The event was ignored by the dunder-headed LA Times and Daily News, though both the Huffington Post and New America Media provided good coverage.
In an article in the July/August issue of Harvard Magazine entitled "Unequal America: Causes and consequences of the wide -- and growing-- gap between rich and poor," writer Elizabeth Gudrais cites a study that found that "by the time the election comes around, the only candidates left in the race are those who've shaped their platforms to maximize fundraising: poor voters have already been left out."
Working families are filling our shelters and struggling to feed their children. What will to take for us to stop ignoring them?
I've had the Los Angeles Times delivered every day since 1982. My parents subscribed in 1964. This morning I left it the driveway. I didn't do this to protest the latest round of staff cuts that, with all due respect to those who have departed before or taken the buyout or remain in the building, have now drained the lifeblood and gouged out the marrow. Friends and professional associates are gone, and while talented and worthy staff remain, the paper's bones are brittle, cracked, and the paper has fallen and it can't get up. You know what happens to old people who break their hips and heads in a fall: they must take to bed. Prolonged lack of motion causes fragile body systems to shut down. And death.
I wish I could say I left the paper in my driveway as a symbol of, if not anger, then sorrow. But no. I just didn't go out and get it this morning because the paper has become so increasingly irrelevant to the city and to my life that I simply forgot it was there.
I didn't realize I had missed it until I drove over it on the way out.
As you have probably read, the movie based on LA Times columnist Steve Lopez's book, "The Soloist," has been pushed to next year. A eerie portent of how many staffers will remain when the film finally debuts? Forget blame, okay. Maybe it's not possible to do the counter-intuitive and spend for the best into the downturn so that the paper stands out again. Maybe it's a one-way street. Will the last person to leave -- Mr. Zell? -- please turn out the lights?
We deserve better in Los Angeles, and I don't think what we have is simply the result of an economic downturn, or readers stolen by the web.
Suddenly those ads asking me to subscribe to the New York Times have become very tempting.
Author Henry Miller summed it up best when he wrote that, to become an artist, you must "be crushed … have your conflicting points of view annihilated." He wrote that you must be "wiped out" as a human being "in order to be born again an individual." He used words like "carbonized" and "mineralized" to describe what a writer must endure before he or she can "work upwards from the last common denominator of the self."
Had I read Miller before taking my leap into creative writing four and a half years ago, I’d have surely dismissed his advice as inapplicable to my life. After all, I'd been planning since college to traverse the same gateway used by my literary heroes, many of whom also started out at newspapers. I was certain that my years of reporting would provide a kind of equity against which I could borrow to gain entry into publishing. My journalism career had been "successful" and "rewarding,” and I had an "impressive" list of "accomplishments" and "awards.” I fired these words like arrows at the hearts of agents and expected them to swoon.
There was no swooning.
Instead, I have been "annihilated ... wiped out ... (and) carbonized." I've learned to write all over again. I've repeatedly built and rebuilt, razed and reframed the same stories. The highs have been higher than any I’ve ever experienced. The lows have been the lowest, the destruction of self, and a bit of self-destruction.
In the past four and a half years I’ve rewritten two books so many times I’ve lost count. And, along the way, I've made most of the mistakes they mention in the books about book writing (the ones I read after I made the mistakes — STORY ... YOUR FIRST NOVEL ... MAKING A LITERARY LIFE ... ON BECOMING A NOVELIST).
And yet, that familiar stab of rejection still stings just as much.
I received my first rejection letter in long time yesterday, from an agent I thought would be a good match for both me and my book. I know now how little such responses mean. As with the rewrites, I stopped keeping tally of rejections long ago, an exercise as pointless as counting hiccups, or sneezes. They're all an ineradicable part of life. Some people get more than others. Some get less. Eventually, one will be the last. But, the first is always the worst.
This is the writer's life, and I've no intention of doing anything else but continuing to write books.
Nonetheless, as Billy Joel sang so well when I was back in high school, sometimes "I really wish I was less of a thinking man and more a fool who's not afraid of rejection."
* Cross posted at TJ Sullivan in LA.
Me and my three die-hard Obama Mama galpals had signed up for the Nevada "Drive For Change" canvassing campaign when it was announced Obama would be making a last-minute stop in Vegas on his way back from Hawaii. It felt like kismet to me and my Obamazon sisters. We were ecstatic. After all, we were four peri-menopausal women ditching our kids and hitting the road for the man we loved. There may even have been a bit of spontaneous squealing in the car.
We canvassed with zeal, knocking on doors in a desperately poor section of North Las Vegas, getting a chance to meet the Americans who needed Obama the most. It was a grueling and sobering day. Obama was scheduled to start right at 3pm at Bonanza High School, but at 2:30 we decided to push through and finish our list of voters before heading over. Besides, we reasoned, there was no way he’d start on time, right?
We could hear Barack's voice as we ran from the parking lot to the football field. Just as we got through the metal detectors applause filled the air and crowds began flowing out off the football field. It was over. We had missed the whole thing. A chopper flew off overhead and we knew our guy was on it. I sagged. I was tired and rudderless. Far from home, I didn’t know why I was here. We trudged dispiritedly through the parking lot back to our car. We had another round of door knocking to do before we could pack it in for the day. I wanted to cry.
Just then a group of sharp-dressed guys in polo shirts and aviator frames cut a diagonal in front of us. They were clearly an entourage of some kind and were ushering a frail figure dressed in all in black. “Oh my God,” said Deb, ”its Barry Manilow!” And indeed it was he, but Barry Manilow looking more like a folk-art dried apple figurine version of himself than the schnozzalicious, blow-dried hunk I remember from 1975, when I had a massive sixth grade crush on him. Now he was a leathery husk who couldn’t have weighed more than thirty pounds. His bodyguards looked like they were keeping him from breaking a hip, rather than from being attacked by fans.
“I have to meet him,” I blurted, feeling like if I could meet Barry, it might make missing Barack hurt a little less.
"Done," said Deb, and just like that she and Christine were off and running. My girls were going to get me Barry. I followed.
We tracked him through the crowd, which being mostly under forty, didn’t even seem to notice the star shining amongst them. We caught up just as he boarded his hotel bus, disappearing behind tinted glass. Another missed opportunity. We started to walk away in defeat, but then I stopped. This wasn't a day for giving up. This was a day for making change happen. I screamed, “We love you, Barry!” my voice hooking with all the pent-up emotion and love I had wanted to throw at Barack, but didn’t get to.
Barry was quiet, almost shy. His buddies asked how we liked Obama's speech and we told them we’d missed it because we were canvassing. Manilow and his posse regarded us with obvious respect and admiration.
“Thank you for doing what you did today,” Barry told us. “We need change.”
Oh Barry, you came and you gave without taking. Thank you.
The Vandals, the Goths, the Saxons…the Zells? A tribe of one, but hey, a billionaire can hire his own legions of destroyers. The latest round of L.A. Times cuts, which has decimated the paper’s cultural coverage, strikes me, for purely selfish reasons, as particularly repellent. It’s no exaggeration to say that I worked there during the Times’ Golden Age (1985-95), when Emperor Shelby ruled both benevolently and wisely and Timesian legions armed with notepads marched into the Inland Empire, Ventura and Orange County. Barbarians have been pillaging and plundering inside the gate for a long time, but this week they’re setting fire to the Bayeux tapestries, the Louis XIV furniture and the Renaissance paintings, just to collect the fractional insurance money.
Scott Timberg and Lynell George were two of the most astute cultural writers at the paper. Scott’s coverage was both elegant and enlightening, he understood how the arts shape a city and vice versa. Lynell was hands down, the most lyrical writer the paper ever brought on board, her stories thrummed with be-bop and salsa, with the exhilaration of driving 80 m.p.h. on the L.A. freeway at 3 a.m. when it’s almost a religious experience.
I’m also troubled that the departures include many reporters of color: John Mitchell, Lynell, Francisco Vara-Orta, Swati Pandey and Augustin Gurza. In a city that’s majority minority, which is hailed by the entire world as a kaleidescopic Petri dish of our collective future, shouldn’t the paper be trying to expand these voices, not contract them?
These are writers who interpret our city for us, who read the entrails and try to make sense of it, then write it up for the morning paper. Can their combined salaries amount to even one-tenth of 1% of what Zell has spent promoting himself and suing his enemies?
But alas poor Yorick, the court is sundered, its members scattered far from the smoking, ash-covered kingdom. There’s something epic and Shakespearian about the scope of this destruction, the zeal and near glee against which the dismantling of a great paper proceeds. And it’s insulting when such gutting is repackaged by Times mouthpieces, those capering court jesters, as a good thing. Is there anyone, apart from the bean counters, who really believes that?
I moved to New Mexico in the 1970s and I remember seeing my first tumbleweed when I got off the plane and understanding that I was home. For me, the sight was a confirmation of so many things - and then one: the West, to which I had long been fleeing in my dreams, was real, and now I was part of it. How could I have ever been away? And what accident had led me to be born on the mostly frozen shores of Lake Erie?
In college I enrolled in journalism class and began writing for the school paper. I didn't really know what I was doing, yet somehow I was fulfilling another long-held desire - to become a writer. The newspaper's advisor was Tony Hillerman, and fortunately for me, he was also my journalism instructor.
At the time, he was just beginning his Joe Leaphorn novels. I was struck by how humbled he seemed at the large task he had set out for himself. He had planned an entire series, he said to his students. He didn't know if he could do it, he told us. He wasn't even sure he knew how to write a book. But there was a lot he wanted to say about Navajo culture, and he thought he might put it all together in a way that combined his reporting skills with his great love of the land. The first book in the series was The Blessing Way and sometimes he read parts of it to our class. We were charmed by his descriptions of the beautiful scapes that lay just beyond the classroom, and he was kind of shy when he read, boyish in fact, and we were all rooting for him.
For many years, I too had wanted to write about the land; for me it was a character I had been living with since I was a little girl, conjured up by my father's reading of the Edgar Allan Poe poem "Eldorado," providing solace and nurture when nothing else on the waterfront of Cleveland seemed to. To take me deeper into the land of gold, I had read others who traversed that terrain, and by the time I arrived in New Mexico, I felt that they were all with me on the path. But could I really write about my beloved West? Where would I start? And what could I say that hadn't already been said by writers whose works had saved me many times over?
I can't remember any one statement that Tony said to me that made me think I could do the thing I had always wanted to do, and in fact had been doing in my own half-baked way since I was a child. I don't think there was one (although it was okay with him if I skipped the five Ws in my newspaper leads). Rather, there was something about his spirit. It was big. Huge in fact. And he was big. Very big. It was always comforting to be around him; in fact, I had the distinct sense that he himself was a kind of land mass, not unlike the desert itself - always there if you needed him, ready to listen, a mirror of your own self, and your best and higher self at that. Around Tony, you knew what the heart of a story was; you just needed to figure out how to get there. If you couldn't get there right away, that was ok; deadlines were for sports reporters and somehow, he made you understand that stories unfold in their own time; like the land, I came to realize, they have seasons.
Then there was the fact that he was funny. In the way that open space is. His humor wasn't about guile or one-liners but rather it had to do with the big cosmic joke, skinwalkers that steal your voice and then your life, and shape-shifters that hang out on the mesas near Indian bingo. This was not funny peculiar kind of stuff, or even funny ha-ha. It was funny scary kind of stuff, the essence of great story-telling, the tales you hear around a campfire - and need to because they connect us to what cannot be known.
And so people tended to orbit around him. There was a circle of us in his classes. Among our group was Michael Blake, who went on to write "Dances with Wolves." There was a mutual friend who was another very gifted writer; years later she would die in a horrific murder-suicide after finally completing her novel. Back then there was so much promise, back then we were all heading out into the great wide open and Tony was a signpost on the trail, always letting us know with a generous but insightful comment if something we wrote was off somehow, helping us make a course correction. In my case, he made me feel confident enough to take on the land, and with his own work had shown me the way. For that, I am forever grateful.
A few years ago, I spoke with him at the LA Times book fair, about how much his classes meant to me, and also about our dear friend who had died in the murder-suicide. It was a difficult moment and we both teared up and then we spoke of one of his contemporaries, the western novelist Norman Zollinger, who through his own recommendation had been coaching our friend about her ongoing novel and had himself also recently died. "Everyone's going," Tony said. "And I don't feel so good myself. Email me next time you're in town and we'll have a beer and talk about this thing they call a writing life." I did. It was a few months ago. I was in Santa Fe for a reading of my new book and ever the big-hearted soul, he had given me a quote for the jacket, reading my lengthy manuscript even though his health was rapidly declining. He didn't respond to my email, which was unlike him, and I kept looking for a response in the following days; I couldn't accept that he was fading.
And now he's gone, shape-shifting like one of his characters, out there in the cottonwoods and the slot canyons and the seeps and the stars, out where the tumbleweeds blow by, whispering of matters urgent and mysterious. RIP Tony Hillerman, and thanks for crossing my path. I'll look for you next time I'm in town and I'll never forget your classes.
October 21, 2008
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann
412 Cannon HOB
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Congresswoman Bachmann,
America is a wonderful place. I love America. I was born in it, grew up in it, and was educated in its schools. My great great grandfather moved his family here by choice, despite all those nasty people who greeted him with shouts of “dirty Irish,” and the signs in the store windows that said “No Irish Need Apply,” and all the rumors that suggested all Irish were cheats and drunks and fools and fighters and counterfeiters and blasphemers. Our nation has certainly come a long way from those ignorant days of yore.
Like I said, I love America, and, because of that, I fully appreciate the 21 months of service you’ve given to this great nation as a representative of the 6th Distrct of the state of Minnesota. Although I expect I disagree with most every single vote you’ve cast in all that time, I accept the fact that democracy means we can disagree without being disagreeable. You, however, seem to be a bit confused about the whole idea.
I’m of course referring to what you said on the Chris Matthews program HARDBALL on Friday, Oct. 17, 2008, the same statements you’ve since said were “misconstrued,” a defense that, let’s be honest, is ridiculous considering that the interview was recorded and can easily be replayed on the Internet.
I hope you will take the time to review our nation’s history before casting any more unfounded aspersions about the patritotism of your fellow citizens. In the meantime, I think you owe your colleague in the Senate, Barack Obama, your fellow members of Congress, and your nation an apology. The “U” in USA stands for “united.” It’d be great if you’d embrace that concept and join with the rest of us.
* Update: Oct. 22, 2008, two days after telling a Minneapolis television station that her televised statements were "completely misconstrued," Bachmann appears in a Minneapolis Star Tribune video [with story by Pat Doyle] apologizing without actually apologizing, now saying that "a trap was laid," that it was a "misstatement," and that Chris Matthews is the real culprit because he "continued to use the word anti-American, anti-American, anti-American." Good God, who's running against this dilettante grifter, and where do I send the campaign donation?
The final 90-minute debate between US presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain is set for tonight and, as a result, undecided voters are getting a lot of attention from every corner of the journalism industry, from cable networks like CNN to daily newspapers like The Des Moines Register.
The idea is to track how these undecided voters react to whatever is said tonight, and to then translate those reactions into some semblance of a performance grade for each candidate. Interesting as always, I suppose, but, in my opinion, it's hardly worth the time and effort.
The better story — the one I want to hear — is how anyone informed enough to even volunteer for an undecided-voter focus group could possibly be undecided at this point in the campaign.
We've been on this bus for nearly two years — Obama declared in Feb. 2007 and McCain announced in April 2007. On top of that, our nation is in the midst of what will likely turn out to be the worst financial disaster of any of our lifetimes, a problem to which each candidate has taken an approach opposite the other. In that and many other ways, these candidates are very different. Pick your cliché — apples and oranges, hot and cold, whatever — the choice is clear. So how could anyone who's been paying attention still be undecided?
Unless they're not really undecided.
Most Americans would surely defend any voter's right to alter his or her choice right up until their ballot is marked and sealed. But a voter who changes his or her mind is hardly an "undecided" voter. That's a "decided" voter acting within his or her right to re-decide.
At this stage it's just plain common sense to question either the honesty, or the analytical skills, of anyone who claims to be truly undecided.
I'm not saying there aren't undecided registered voters out there somewhere. I've no doubt they're there, probably far outside the reach of TV and radio waves, and nowhere near an Internet connection. But even if we rounded a bunch of them up, verified their undecidedness, and tied them down to watch tonight's debate, of what meaningful use would their opinions be?
We might as well ask them to name their favorite Beatle.
In the town hall-style presidential debate in Nashville on Tuesday night, moderator Tom Brokaw called on a few of the 80 gathered uncommitted voters to read their questions, inexplicably sharing with the television audience their section location, somewhere between A and F.
Since the question of the growing problem of poverty in America did not come up, I heretofore create Section P, from which I will ask questions related to the fate of the poor. Why should I care? Because the poor are always with us, now more than ever. And tomorrow the poor may be you. Or me. As Barack Obama related Tuesday night, his own mother once relied on food stamps. The Los Angeles Times reports today that the number of people in LA County falling into poverty and seeking government help is growing, and there is less help to go around.
It’s not likely that the presidential candidates will be taking my calls, so I put my questions to Mark Rank, an expert on poverty and author of a study, now under review, showing that an increasing number of Americans face economic risk that could lead to poverty in their lifetimes. The questions and answers appear here in edited form.
Q: How can you tell if you’re poor? Is there a “poverty quiz” readers can take that will provide a good indication?
A: The quick and dirty way is to use your earnings from last year. If you were in a family of four that was earning less that $21,000 a year you would be officially poor. That is an extremely low figure. Can a family really get by on $21,000? Europeans use 50 percent of mean income, which would put the number between $28,000 and $30,000. Have you relied on any kind of government aid such as food stamps or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)? How hard has it been for you to pay your bills? These are all ways to measure poverty. In European countries the talk has changed from poverty to social exclusion or social deprivation. Poverty is more than lack of income. It is it also being excluded from mainstream things. If you’re poor you’re much more likely to be disenfranchised, to be left out of the larger social system.
Q: Is the poverty rate in America growing?
The overall poverty rate this past year was 12.5 percent, meaning one out of every seven or eight Americans were poor. That figure has remained fairly constant, but it doesn’t begin to address the actual number of Americans who are at risk and who have experienced poverty over time. If you look at poverty rates of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s in ten-year increments you will see that since the 1970s the risk of poverty has increased substantially.
Q: When the number of poor people grows, do we all wind up paying a price?
A: We pay a very high price. It’s not like we’re not spending money, but we’re spending it on the back end of the problem. We have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, which is what happens when people who are blocked from opportunity wind up doing other things. On the front end, one example of a way we should be addressing poverty is through nutrition programs for children. One study puts the economic cost of childhood poverty in American at $500 billion annually. The point is we wind up paying for this one way or another.
Q: Is our willful ignoring of the poor part of the reason we’re in the economic mess we’re facing now?
America is a very individualistic country. You make it on your own and you don’t turn to the government for help. We think of problems as individual successes or failures. Crime, drug use and poverty get reduced to individual pathologies, enabling us to say to ourselves, “I may feel bad about this but it’s not my responsibility and it’s not the responsibility of the government either.”
Q: Are Americans working more to make ends meet?
A: Yes. The median full-time wage in current dollars for a male worker in 1973 was around $44,000. Last year it was about $43,000. Household income has been able to keep up because there are more and more dual-earner families and more people picking up a second job. If you compare how many hours Americans are working with Canada and Europe, Americans are working the most. This flies in the face of the myth that poor people are poor because they are lazy.
Q: So we’ve gone from the working poor to the working more?
A: Yes, the working more, and still poor.
It was 59 years ago today that brunette starlet Jean Spangler vanished, leaving behind a young daughter, gangster pals, movie star connections and a mystery that remains unsolved more than a half-century later.
On October 7, 1949, the beautiful 27-year-old divorcee, who lived in an apartment near Park La Brea, told her mother she was meeting her ex-husband, then heading off for a night movie shoot. Jean kissed her 5-year-old daughter Christina, waved goodbye to her mother and clip-clopped off in her high heels. She was never seen again.
Used with permission from Larry Harnisch's Daily Mirror blog.
When Jean failed to return the next morning, her mother began calling around. No one had seen her and the studios said she wasn’t on the list of movies shooting the previous night. The police were reluctant to investigate – most missing persons turn up alive and perhaps they figured pretty young Jean, an admitted party girl, had run off with a boyfriend. But Jean’s mother maintained that her daughter would never abandon her child. With the shadow of the unsolved Black Dahlia murder hanging over Los Angeles, she demanded answers.
When the LAPD began probing, they learned some interesting things. Jean’s estranged husband had threatened her in the past. And she'd been partying in Palm Springs nightclubs with two henchmen of gangster Mickey Cohen right before she disappeared. Those gangsters had also gone missing.
At the time, Mickey Cohen and Sicilian gangster Jack Dragna were in the middle of a gang war for control of the LA rackets. There had been shootouts on the Sunset Strip, bombs, assassinations. Could Jean had been at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong men?
Two days later, a city worker found Jean’s purse, its strap torn, in the Fern Dell part of Griffith Park. Inside was a note that said: "Kirk, Can't wait any longer. Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away."
Who was Kirk, the police wondered, and what kind of doctor was Jean going to see?
Could she have been pregnant by “Kirk” and gone off to have an illegal, back-alley abortion the night she disappeared? What if something went wrong and the abortionist disposed of her body?
Police learned that Jean didn’t have any boyfriends or pals named Kirk, but she'd worked as an extra on the movie “Young Man With A Horn,” which starred Kirk Douglas. When Douglas heard about the case, he called the police and explained that he knew the starlet casually from the set but that was as far as it went. Douglas was soon cleared of wrongdoing.
Jean’s ex-husband was also cleared. And police weren’t able to verify the abortion theory.
For years afterward, there were rumored sightings of Jean as far away as Mexico and Texas, but none of it led anywhere. No body ever turned up either, and as anyone who watches CSI knows, without a crime scene and body, it’s hard to do much except wonder.
Or maybe to spin these gripping, horrific, tantalizing facts into a novel, which is what I did in my latest book, “The Last Embrace.” Recently, I spoke to an LAPD cop, who told me the Spangler murder remains open, with a detective still assigned to the very cold case.
Without a deathbed confession or evidence, the case will probably never be solved. Only in fiction do we have that luxury. But today, scribbler and mother that I am, I can’t stop thinking of Jean and especially of her daughter.
After Jean’s disappearance, her ex-husband got custody of Christine and moved out of California and out of our collective narrative. Christine would be 64 and a senior citizen, if she’s even still alive. I wonder what happened to her. I’m saddened to think of her life, which must have been greatly shadowed by her mother’s disappearance and presumed murder.
The life of novelist James Ellroy has also been shadowed by a gruesome event – his mother was brutally murdered when he was 11. Yet somehow Ellroy was able to channel his anguish into writing, transforming himself into a fierce, uncompromising chronicler of humanity’s dark side.
Art can save us. But only if we find it in time.
I hope that Jean Spangler’s daughter, Christine, found a light in the darkness, a spark to warm her and keep her soul alive.
Remember when retailers had the decency to wait until Thanksgiving to start the big Christmas push? That's when the symbols of the season still belonged to us, still felt fresh and joyful rather than the Pavlovian cues to excess that retailers want them to be.
Don't expect any relief from that noxious trend in the coming holiday season -- this jarring little display of Christmas
greed cheer popped up at our local Ralphs nearly three months early, on Oct. 1.
Pimping out Christmas. Ho ho ho, if you get my drift.
Over at Design Observer blog, Steven Heller just posted a lovely tribute to Los Angeles graphic designer, Mike Salisbury, and his innovative art direction at West magazine. West magazine was the first iteration of the Los Angeles Times magazine, not Rick Wartzman's second version that suffered the same fate as the first version. Both got the ax pretty early.
Heller includes a slide show of Salisbury's West best covers.
According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary, Poor means “1 a: lacking material possessions b: of, relating to, or characterized by poverty; 2 a: less than adequate : meager : small in worth; 3: exciting pity
We are, as Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin proudly proclaimed in last night’s debate, a nation fueled by exceptionalism. Words like “lacking,” “meager” and “inferior” don’t quite fit that self image.
So when moderator Gwen Ifill dared broach the subject of the poor, the response of both Palin and her Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden, should have come as no surprise. Ifill mentioned the poor in the context of the Republican proposal to tax employer health benefits, which could add five million Americans to the 47 million who are currently without health insurance. “I want to know,” she said, “why that isn’t taking things out on the poor.”
This was Palin’s moment to pull a rabbit out of a hat and tell us how the poor might actually benefit. But even more so, it was Biden’s chance to say that yes, the poor will bear the brunt of the Republican’s ridiculous scheme. Yet both candidates avoided the word “poor” like a share of WaMu stock, clinging to the “middle class” mantra that has emerged with startling force as a catch-all for the American people in the past several months of presidential campaigning.
Since John Edwards flamed out, there’s been little talk in the campaign about the poor (Edwards soldiers on with his Half in Ten initiative). A New York Times piece on Barack Obama a few months back deftly illustrates the gaping chasm between America as it is and America as we all pretend it to be. After encountering a couple struggling to hang on to their double-wide trailer, Obama zips off to a fundraiser where he dines on crab salad with Rockefellers under the gaze of a Picasso. As writer Michael Powell observes in the piece, “a presidential campaign is as ungainly a marriage of the achingly real and the unrelentingly material as one can find in American life.”
But the word “poor” does not appear once in that piece. "Struggling?" Fine. "Ordinary?" A-okay. "Redneck?" Just dandy. "Poor"? Not on your life. As Americans, even if we are poor we do not think of ourselves as poor and do not, under any circumstances, want to be called poor. Poor is an epithet. Poor is a scourge. In America, if you are poor, you are either lazy or have done something very, very wrong. Yet more than one in ten Americans is poor, and 13.5 million children in this country live in poverty. A 2007 study by Clatchy Newspapers put the percentage of Americans in severe poverty at a 32-year high.
In LA County alone, 40 percent of residents don’t earn enough money to meet their basic needs, and nearly a third of full-time workers earn less than $25,000 a year. More than 20 percent of our children live in extreme poverty.
One national poll found that Americans want more media coverage in this campaign of how the candidates would combat poverty. But at the same time, a Pew poll earlier this year reported that four in ten Americans with incomes below $20,000 identified themselves as middle class. (Compare that with John McCain’s $3 million definition).
“Poverty” is an abstract, faraway thing, like “the environment.” We have come to define poor not as what we are but as what we are not. If we can find someone out there who is worse off than we are, we are not poor. The homeless guy on the corner, he’s poor. And what about all those wretches in Dharavi, who themselves are sitting pretty compared with the really poor people in Neza-Chalco-Itza. Will our economic crisis change that? Mark Rank, an expert on poverty in America, thinks so.
In a commentary in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Rank reports that that “75 percent of the U.S. population will spend some amount of time in poverty or near poverty between the ages of 20 and 75,” and that “two thirds of Americans will rely on a social-support program such as food stamps for economic help at some point during their working years.” Rank continues: “Contrary to popular opinion, poverty is a mainstream event experienced by the majority of Americans. For most of us, the question is not if we will experience poverty, but when.”
The Daily Show’s running "Cluster F#@k to the Poor House" bit suggests that in the midst of our current economic cataclysm we -- at least "we" in the popular culture sense -- may finally be slouching that way.
Observing an L.A. Photographer: seventh in a series
Monica Almeida's job requires her to cover a lot of ground. The Los Angeles-based New York Times staff photographer is liable to, as she puts it, "be sent on assignment anywhere west of the Mississippi.” However, a great deal of her working time is taken up within Los Angeles. Almeida has the perspective of a native Angeleno who covers Los Angeles for an east coast newspaper. There is broad diversity in the stories she shoots. This year alone she has covered the presidential campaign and the Academy Awards, gay marriage and the Chatsworth train crash. Her editors expect her to deal with a wide range of assignments, juggling the often-difficult logistics of an east coast deadline.
Almeida, 48, grew up in La Puente. After graduation from Catholic school she attended Cal State Fullerton and began working at the Los Angeles Times as a customer service clerk in circulation. She transferred to Cal State Long Beach and studied photojournalism, acquiring basic darkroom skills and working on the school newspaper. That’s when she began to discover the genre of interpretive documentary photography which continues to inform and inspire her work. “While in college I fell in love with photography through the work of Henri-Cartier Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Roy De Carava, and later many of the Magnum photographers,” she says. Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide is one of her current favorites.
Almeida continued working at the Los Angeles Times as a copy messenger and eventually scored an internship as a desk assistant in the Southeast bureau. That led to a photo internship during the 1984 summer Olympics, then work as a Times freelancer. A 1985 "Friends of Photography" workshop with Mary Ellen Mark "really changed my perspective" she says. "It opened up my world to more artistic documentary photography. It really blew me away." She continued to refine her technical skills with classes in fine art printing and the zone system of exposure (developed by Ansel Adams) at Otis Art Institute.
Hopeful for a full-time position at the Los Angeles Times, Almeida was told by the director of photography in 1986 that due to a hiring freeze there was no spot for her. "They told me the best thing to do was go to a paper in another city and get experience". Though disappointed, Almeida realized she was ready to leave Los Angeles. She had never been east of Arizona. A three-month tryout with the New York Daily News led to a full-time job.
"I like to say that I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but grew up in New York. I went to school and started my career here but my first full time job as a photographer was in New York City. I found a freedom to move and explore with a camera and develop my eye and sense of timing and observation in a way that was difficult to do in Los Angeles." While at the Daily News, she participated in the "Day in the Life" series of photo books. For "Day in the Life of California," she did a ride-along with the LAPD.
After five years with the Daily News she took a buyout with the intention of satisfying her desire for travel, but full-time employment came knocking once again. The New York Times was hiring photographers and they liked what they saw in Almeida's portfolio. At the NYT the scope of her work broadened. She covered both Clinton presidential campaigns, the Oklahoma City bombing, sports, entertainment, and the usual array of local New York City news events including "hundreds of parades." She was also, as a news photographer familiar with the lay of the land in Los Angeles, sent back here to cover big stories including the 1992 riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Offered the opportunity to return to her hometown as the only staff photographer in the New York Times Los Angeles bureau, Almeida took it. She loved New York but missed her family and the balmy Southern California weather. "I suffered the winters!" she says. On a more serious note, Almeida says, "after spending so many years on both coasts I am well aware of the cliches and stereotypes that are tossed back and forth. Now that I'm back home I'm pretty sensitive to it and find that there is sometimes a tendency for people on the east coast to think of Los Angeles as a quirky and superficial place centered in Beverly Hills and Hollywood. Being from the eastside of Los Angeles I know that there is nothing further from the truth…that the glitzy, artificially tanned and celebrity charged culture so predominant in today’s mainstream media is only a fraction of reality.”
Like most in her profession, Almeida has fully converted to digital equipment. The last time she shot film was several years ago. She has also recently begun shooting video for the New York Times website. "New media has opened up a whole new world,” she says. “I shot a short piece about the Arlington West memorial near the Santa Monica Pier; thousands of crosses put up each Sunday morning by volunteers for Veterans for Peace in memory of the American soldiers killed in the war in Iraq. I spent several Sundays taping the volunteers placing crosses on the beach and interviewing family members who were there to honor their loved ones. Not your typical Southern California beach scene.
“As a photojournalist I'm drawn to real people stories; personal stories that can humanize issues that are often discussed in abstract terms and statistics...immigration, poverty, the economy…"
Almeida is among the dwindling number of photojournalists who began their careers using pre-digital techniques. Nowadays young photojournalists will most likely never see the inside of a darkroom. Technical matters aside, her work is rooted in the tradition of the compassionate and socially concerned photojournalist personified by image-makers like Lewis Hine, W. Eugene Smith, and Almeida's photographic hero, Mary Ellen Mark. The New York Times – and Los Angeles -- is lucky to have her.
All photos: Monica Almeida / New York Times