Friday, December 18, 2009

Don't be Scrooges: Renew the COBRA subsidy

Before I lost my job as a journalist, I specialized in writing about social policy. I would have spent this year writing about the Great Recession of 2009 if the Seattle Post-Intelligencer hadn't closed in March. Instead, I experienced the economic meltdown firsthand.
I soon learned more than I ever wanted to know about the federal law called COBRA. It requires employers who lay off workers to continue their health insurance for 18 months. The big catch is you have to foot the entire cost yourself. That added up to a staggering $1600 a month for a couple or family in the case of former P-I staff.
But we got lucky, if anything about losing your job and career can be lucky. The sheer numbers of unemployed prompted President Obama to include a 65 percent subsidy for COBRA premiums in his federal relief package last spring. The subsidy for laid-off workers lasted nine months and was a huge help.
Now it's about to run out.
Anxiety is running high among my many friends and former colleagues who have not found work. The kind of gut-wrenching fear that tears you from sleep and plagues you with "what-ifs." 
Meanwhile, Congress is debating whether to extend it
What is there to debate?
My plea to our elected representatives -- all of whom already have excellent health care plans subsidized by taxpayers -- is that they do the right thing this holiday season. For the sake of the millions of hardworking Americans who never thought they'd be living on the edge. 
For the sake of my friends.
Update, Sunday December 20: Merry Christmas! The Senate did the right thing yesterday and passed a bill extending the COBRA subsidy for six months.
(Photo: by gwydionwilliams)

Monday, November 16, 2009

A Voice That Mattered: Andrea Lewis, 1957-2009

Today brought terrible news: My friend Andrea Lewis, radio host of Berkeley-based KPFA, died of an apparent heart attack over the weekend. She was just 52.
We met two years ago when we were lucky enough to be awarded 10-month John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University. Andrea always arrived early on campus, commuting from her home in San Francisco. We'd chat most mornings before class, inevitably diving into matters too deep for a few hurried minutes. Soon we began meeting for leisurely lunches at our favorite cafe where we soaked up the the rays and talked for hours.
Andrea wore her heart on her sleeve. She cared passionately about everything: her lifelong work in alternative media, her friends, her family, singing, camping, writing, her beloved Bay area.
She never held back when it came to controversy, her husky radio voice cutting to the heart of an issue. Leave it to Andrea to name the elephant in the room. She spoke the truth, come hell or high water -- and I loved her for it.
Sometimes she worried about what the future held for a single woman in her 50s who had devoted her career to fighting racism, sexism, homophobia -- for next to no money. But ultimately, her work mattered more.
When the Seattle P-I closed in March and I lost my job, she was one of the first to call. An hour after we talked, her email popped up in my inbox: "This is the real March Madness!" she declared with her special blend of compassion and outrage-- and I had to laugh, despite it all.
Losing Andrea leaves a huge hole in so many lives. And it's more than personal. The world has lost a journalist who gave everything she had.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Seven months later: What's happened to Seattle P-I Journalists

In March, Hearst closed the 146-year-old Post-Intelligencer newspaper and dumped 140 of us onto the street in the depths of the recession.

Instead of filing stories, we filed for unemployment. Instead of interviewing politicians, we took classes in How to Interview for a Job. Instead of rushing to cover the next story, we became the story.

Almost 25,000 print journalists have lost their jobs in the last 12 months. Reporters who kept an eye on those with power and money. Who showed up at school board meetings and city council hearings. Who filed public disclosure requests and wrote stories about uncomfortable truths. Losing our jobs -- and for many us our careers -- isn’t just personal. The public is losing too.

Here’s what I found by surveying my former P-I colleagues recently. Seventy-one of the 140 who lost their jobs responded:

·      23 have new fulltime jobs for an employer, half working in journalism and the rest in corporate or nonprofit communications, business, etc.

·      3 are working part-time for an employer and 6 started their own businesses

·      18 are freelancing (blogs, photography) or working on journalism start-ups (Post-Globe, InvestigateWest) and collecting unemployment

·      14 are in school, including 10 who are also on unemployment. Studies include education, web design, marketing, paralegal, art

·       4 said a combination of unemployment/jobhunting/parenting while two retired and one has a journalism fellowship

These statistics do not include the 18 or so former P-I staff working at the online Seattle P-I.

Overall trends?

·      Economic hard times: Only one-third have found new fulltime jobs and most are earning far less than they did at the P-I. Five people said their new jobs have higher salaries while 5 said they’re earning about the same. The vast majority, whether working or not, are struggling to pay the mortgage, afford health care and stay afloat economically.

“Unemployment is immensely difficult…I feel like my experience and education was a waste of time and I feel betrayed by investing myself in a field that didn't give a damn.” (Christine Okeson, former P-I copy editor)

·      Say goodbye to paid journalism: Only 15 percent have found fulltime paid work in journalism. Another 25 percent are blogging, freelancing or working on journalism start-ups like Post-Globe or InvestigateWest for little or no money.

“I didn't realize how difficult it would be adjust to the solitude and isolation of working alone instead of in the newsroom. Nor did I expect that fulltime job prospects would be this grim.” (John Marshall, former P-I book critic)

“Freelancing is busy but may not be financially sustainable…I'm stunned and offended by the number of major businesses (wait -- including the online PI) who expect professionals to write for free…There are very few opportunities to do the sort of important work that the old P-I invested in, because it is expensive and unsexy. The point that it is important to society has become irrelevant. And I am no dinosaur - I am Twittering, Facebooking, and Flip video-ing along with the rest of the world.” (former P-I reporter)

·      Say hello to public relations, business, marketing or self-employment: Half of those who found new fulltime jobs are no longer in journalism. Most are doing communications for non-profits or corporations. Another group has started businesses – photography, communications consulting, etc.

“The job I found with Boeing is the best I've ever had, and I had a great job with the PI.” (James Wallace, former P-I aerospace reporter)

·      Just a job? Half of those who are employed say their job satisfaction is worse than the P-I while a third say it’s about the same. The rest are happier – most of them in non-journalism jobs.

All told, I'd rather be a newspaper reporter than anything else.” (Mike Lewis, former P-I Under The Needle columnist)

·      New horizons: For a handful of people, losing their jobs was an opportunity to pursue their dreams – from returning to school to launching businesses to switching careers. Others mentioned finding a better work/life balance without the stress of daily deadlines.

“Life is very exciting, draining, scary. But it is freeing. I love learning, doing art. I feel I have received a huge gift from the universe. Knowing that financially we would be all right in a few years, would be great.” (Elana Winsberg, former P-I online designer)

·      Grieving the loss of the P-I:  Most said they miss the P-I newsroom with its special mix of collegiality and sense of mission. They miss the daily miracle of putting out a newspaper that served our community and made a difference.

I really miss the camaraderie and familial atmosphere of a newsroom. In a nutshell, I'm in the real world now, and I don't like it.” (former P-I sports copy editor)

“I see so many gaps in news reporting these days that P-I reporters and editors would have been filling were we still around. The paper was far from perfect, but it made a difference.” (Lisa Stiffler, former P-I environmental reporter)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Help Wanted: Egg Donor with Nonprofit Resume?

"You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant" -- Arlo Guthrie, 1967
Make that Seattle Craig's List, circa 2009. Yup, right there in the Jobs section under the category for non-profit openings someone posted an ad for an egg donor this week. 
Not just your run-of-the-mill egg donor: a college-educated woman in her 20s with brown wavy hair, Scandinavian/English/Portugese descent -- and nonprofit job experience:
 "Hopeful egg recipient has a life-long love of helping others through her career in non-profit work and is hoping to find an egg donor with a similar background," the ad said, offering $5,000 plus medical expenses.
I have plenty of empathy for couples struggling with infertility. I know how devastating it can be. Suddenly everywhere you go you see pregnant bellies. Every month turns into a roller coaster. It's enough to rip your heart out.
But since when did a bent for a non-profit career reside in one's genes along with hair color? Seems to me nurture plays a bigger role than nature in the choice of a non-profit career. What we value as parents rubs off on our kids.
"We hope you can understand our desire to give birth to a child with some of the basic physical characteristics or talents that I might possibly have passed on to a child," the prospective mom wrote.
I understand that to a point. But isn't it a bit presumptuous to assume that if the egg donor is a social worker, Johnny will want to be too? 
What does it say about modern life that we want to order up children who not only look like us but choose the same careers?
One of the challenges of parenting is letting go of who you thought your son or daughter would be and seeing them as they are. 
One of a kind.
(Photo: by fdecomite/Flickr)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Long Goodbye

 The seasons are shifting once more. Darkness falls earlier. The air has a bite and leaves turn crispy orange, maroon and lemon.
Spring had just begun when I walked out of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for the last time. Like so many of my colleagues, I was saying goodbye not just to my newspaper but to the career I had lived and breathed for two decades. The career that often demanded too much and paid too little but always stirred my passions.
So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that almost three seasons later I still feel the ache of that loss. It grips me at odd times, sneaking up when I least expect it. I'll be zoning out on the bus on my way to my communications job downtown when I look up and there it is: the big, blue P-I globe still turning. I duck my head as tears fill my eyes.
Or I meet someone new and she asks, "What do you do?" And I hesitate -- not because my current job isn't challenging but because it feels like a new pair of shoes that I haven't broken in.
Or my investigative instincts kick in when someone tells me about something that's just plain wrong. And I try to explain why the chance of finding a reporter who can look into it is about as likely as a return of hot type.
It is time to move on. But we must also live with what we've lost.
(Photo: by geishaboy500/Flickr)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spot.Us: The future of investigative journalism?

A creative, trendy experiment in citizen journalism called Spot.Us grabbed headlines last week. The latest buzz came from the Knight Foundation's decision to lavish $340,000 on the Bay-area start-up to help it expand to L. A. in partnership with USC-Annenberg's School of Journalism.
The way Spot.Us works is that anyone can pitch an idea for an investigative story on the website and seek donations. When enough pledges come in (the site averages $40 per donation) the project is a go. Stories can be sold to mainstream media or run on the website. has produced some lively coverage of flaws in police oversight, recycling and city budget problems. 
Lord knows we need new ideas in journalism these days. Anything is worth a try, including crowd-funded stories. But the truth is that this model isn't the magic cure for what ails us. The numbers just don't add up. raised just $40,000 from 800 people in its first 10 months of operation, enough money to pay for 30 stories, according to its website.
Thirty stories? That works out to be $1333 per project. And that equals a) slave labor or b) an investigation at warp speed.
When I worked as an investigative reporter at the Seattle P-I, we shelled out $1333-plus just to get key state documents copied. Or to do our own testing of tainted products. Or to hire sign language interpreters to help interview rape victims. Or to pay an attorney to review a story so we didn't get sued.
In the end, my newspaper went under because the advertising (read: money) that subsidized great journalism vanished -- not because we ran out of ideas. Sustainable investigative journalism is expensive.
So the next time an academic or Web guru touts Spot.Us as the future of investigative journalism, I hope someone will remind them: The emperor has no clothes -- and certainly won't be able to afford any in the near future.
(Photo: by stringer_bel/Flickr)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Sentence No One Deserves

The women were reluctant to talk when I finally tracked them down. Most just wanted to forget what had happened at SeaTac federal detention center. A few decided that speaking up was worth the risk.
 "I went through so much suffering, so much humiliation," one young woman from a Mexican border town told me in an interview for a Seattle P-I investigative story. She was just 19 when the guard sexually assaulted her.  "They have the power to do anything to us."
The guards who I wrote about preyed on those who were most vulnerable: younger, illegal immigrants and non-U.S. citizens facing deportation. Those who had no hope of fighting back.
They knew what everyone on the inside knows: that when it's prisoner vs. guard, the guard always wins. That less than 10 percent of sexual abuse complaints ever get prosecuted.
Three months ago, a federal panel that spent six years investigating sexual assault in our nation's federal, state and county lock-ups released a report about just how widespread this problem is. They toured the country and listened to story after story. Their report called for better oversight and lots of changes, from more careful screening of guards to reforming the law to give victims more legal options.
I wanted to call up every woman who poured her heart out to me two years ago and tell them the news. I wanted to write about it. But by then my newspaper had been closed and I was too busy looking for work. I promised myself I'd come back to the story when my life settled down.
Attorney General Eric Holder has a year to decide whether to turn the panel's recommendations into regulations that prisons and jails will have to follow -- or risk losing federal funding. Justice demands no less.
(Photo: by erokCom)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Full Moon

There's a lovely spot I like to walk my dog, a strip of green perched on cliffs overlooking the majesty of Puget Sound. Rain or shine, the sprawling vista of light playing on ocean never fails to inspire.
 But this summer, something is missing: I have yet to hear the delightful songs of the seals who used to hang out on rocks offshore and yelp like coyotes at a full moon. Have they moved on? Or is it a temporary hiatus?
As I meandered home tonight in the brilliant moonlight, I couldn't help but think about other voices that have gone silent in recent months. Although it's been almost six months, I still miss the Seattle P-I and the talented bunch of colleagues who made it special. The P-I's globe keeps turning but its heart is gone.
Many of the P-I's best reporters are now working for nothing, launching their own blogs, like Andy Schneider's Cold Truth, and Rebekah Denn's Eat All About It, or collaborating on nonprofit journalism websites like PostGlobe and InvestigateWest. These are noble causes deserving of our support. But they don't put food on the table yet.
I have had to take a different path, sizing up my skills and seeking work outside of journalism for the first time in 20 years. It's been a roller coaster few months. And I am grateful that my search has ended for now.
On Tuesday, I start a full-time job as communications manager for an environmental project protecting the Arctic Ocean in Canada and the U.S. It is very different work. Instead of digging for the truth and putting stories on the front page, I am helping an organization advocate for policies that will ease the toll that climate change and industrialization are taking on the people and whales and walrus who populate the north.
A bittersweet time. Have I moved on? Or is it a temporary hiatus?
(Photo: by Eggybird)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bad Boys of Ballard

Every neighborhood has its bad boys. The ones who crank up their music until the wee hours or toss trash on your lawn as they cruise by.
And then there's the really wild stuff.
I saw my neighbor standing in the street staring at his roof the other day. This is a guy who only leaves his computer/house when there's a good reason -- like going to work or buying groceries. Something must be wrong.
"What's up?" I asked him.
"Take a look," he said, pointing to his green, asphalt-tiled roof. "Over there by the chimney, and over there. A bunch of tiles are missing."
"That's odd," I said. "It hasn't even been windy lately."
The first time he and his wife noticed a bare patch they couldn't figure it out. And then more appeared. How annoying.
"You'll never guess who did it," he said. "We caught them one morning."
The culprits? Crows. A gang of big, bored, noisy young crows are cruising our neighborhood looking for action. And prying tiles off the occasional roof for kicks.
My neighbor, who is now getting estimates to have the roof fixed, is not amused.
"They're like juvenile delinquents," he complained.
Yup. Move over raccoons. Knocking over garbage cans in the alley at night is kid stuff. A new gang is in the hood.
(Photo: by Shikeroku)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Getting Naturalized: Nothing Like the Movies

What did I expect at my naturalization ceremony a couple weeks ago? Some sort of solemn ritual recognizing the significance of turning in our green cards for Old Glory. After all, patriotism is a big part of the American psyche.
Like many of the 99 others from 38 countries becoming U.S. citizens that day, I invited my husband and pulled my son out of school to attend. We dressed up in our Sunday best and drove to the Homeland Security building.
It could be that I've seen too many news stories about those Fourth of July naturalization ceremonies where tears stream down the faces of new citizens as a choir sings and the flag flaps in the wind. Or too many sappy movies a la Green Card.
By contrast, my ceremony was more like getting my driver's license renewed.
We spent the first hour being "processed" -- waiting in line to turn in our green cards and verify our identities. More waiting for the ceremony to begin as we squeezed into a crowded auditorium clutching our little American flags.
Next to me was a man from Korea. He's lived in the U.S. for 17 years, raised a family here.
"I was sad when I woke up this morning," he told me. He didn't have to tell me that his heart will always be Korean even as he becomes an American.
I looked down my row at other citizens-to-be, from young to very old. I wondered about what twists of fate had brought them here? What had they left behind to chase the American dream? I wanted to interview each and every one of them and hear their stories.
When the ceremony began, we were welcomed by an uninspiring mid-level bureaucrat who read from a script. Another official warned us for at least the third time to turn in our green cards -- or else. (Was it even possible to get through processing without doing that?)
We watched a couple of videos and a recorded message from President Obama -- the highlight of the event. Stood for the Oath of Allegiance. Marched across the stage to get our naturalization certificate. And it was over.
What did I expect? More dignity, less bureaucracy. Someone speaking from the heart about the journeys that led to this place. Or at least a reception with apple pie.
(Photo: by Blink)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Watchdog journalism: Where are we headed?

The first time I went to an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in 1998 I knew I'd found a Reporter's Paradise. What could be better than spending a weekend soaking up ideas and advice from the best investigative journalists in the country? I could hardly wait to get back to my newsroom and try out what I'd learned.
So much has changed since then. The feisty, beloved Seattle Post-Intelligencer is gone. Newspapers are melting down all over. This year alone, thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Watchdog reporting has taken a body blow.
That made for a strange mix of anxiety, exhiliration and angst among the 700 journalists at last weekend's IRE conference in Baltimore. Great work is still getting done -- just a lot less of it.
I was inspired by two journalists who spoke on a panel that I moderated about Covering Invisible Populations. Mimi Chakarova is a photojournalist producing remarkable work on sex trafficking of women in Eastern Europe, rapes of Iraqui women and other tough topics. Karyn Spencer, a reporter with the Omaha World-Herald, looked into how Nebraska's shoddy death-investigation system is letting people get away with murder. She found rural coroners who admitted they just wrote down "heart attack" if they didn't know what killed someone. I kid you not.
What ran through my head like a sad tune all weekend was, "This is what we're losing."
Sure there was buzz about the new non-profit investigative centers popping up all over. But those ventures, however exciting, can't replace the sheer exodus of talent from our profession. Journalists who used to spend their days prying documents from the hands of government officials are now writing press releases.
That can't be good for democracy.
(Photo: by Roger Blackwell)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Taking Notes: The Dreaded Job Search Audit

The reporter in me is always taking notes, a habit that dies hard after two decades in journalism. 
So it took all my self control to keep my notebook in my purse when I appeared at the state employment security office last week for a mandatory job audit.
The official envelope had arrived five days before with this cheery message: "You have been randomly selected for an in-person job search review," it said. "If you fail to will be denied benefits unless you show good cause for not reporting."
I was surprised to be summoned after barely two months on unemployment. After all, our unemployment rate just hit 9.1 percent -- the worst in a quarter century. Almost  320,000 Washingtonians are on the dole. 
Guess I thought state workers would have better things to do than check up on a lowly reporter who lost her job because of the very public meltdown of the state's oldest newspaper. LOL.
I showed up at the crowded employment office right on time with my list of three job contacts for the week of May 16th. 
"Tell me about your job search," Mr. Friendly, my very nice state worker asked after ushering me into his tiny cubicle and eyeing my list of job contacts.
I aced that question. If there's one thing reporters are good at, it's knowing how to search -- for people, documents, and yes, jobs.
Mr. Friendly said he'd done a search of his own. He'd tried to find two jobs in my field that I would be required to apply for -- and had come up empty-handed.
I smiled sympathetically and told him I understood. In the next cubicle, I could hear Ms. Grumpy, another state worker, grilling some poor soul. I wanted to pull out my reporter's notebook and ask: "What's it like to do this for a living?" followed by several more pointed questions.
Mr. Friendly referred me to a resume workshop and ushered me out.
Painless? Yes. A wise use of state dollars and my time? I'll let you decide. 
(Photo: by Clementine Gallot)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Health Care Lotto: Is Your Number Up?

I'm going to come clean right off the top: I grew up Canadian. And people north of the border are born into this world believing that health care is a human right.
Now that my newly unemployed state has made the fear of losing my health coverage very real, I'm getting a taste of the dark side of the American dream. The waking-up-at-3 a.m.-panic of staring into an abyss that's new to me.
So the specter of the state of Washington getting ready to boot 36,000 working poor people off its basic health care plan in the depths of a recession makes me just plain mad.
Smart, well-educated state legislators approved these cuts. Smart, well-educated state officials are now debating the "best" way to do the deed -- called "involuntary dis-enrollment." (Where do they come up with terms like that?)
One option they're considering is to hold a health care lottery. Not your lucky day? You lose. No matter how sick you are.
And that reminded me of Shirley Jackson's chilling short story by the same name. In "The Lottery," the good people of a small, nondescript American town gather every summer to draw lots. The person who picks the piece of paper with the black mark is calmly stoned to death in a ritual meant to ensure a bountiful harvest for all.
It's a story you don't forget.
(Photo: by Bernard Pollack)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Doggie and The Mailman

There's something about the sound of the postal carrier stuffing letters into our mail slot that turns my gentle cockapoo into a yapping maniac.
Six days a week the same scene plays out: thud-thud of footsteps (she races to the front door), rattle-rattle as the mail slot opens (she barks once, twice), rustle-rustle-thunk as the mails falls (woof, Woof WOOF, WOOF, WOOF.)
She only sounds ferocious. If someone came through the door, she'd high-tail it to her crate.
But I know from personal experience that not all dogs are so benign. You couldn't pay me enough to walk up to strange dogs' houses in a blue uniform.
That's because my puppy and I were attacked by a pit bull as we sauntered through our neighborhood three years ago. It came out of nowhere and struck like a guided missile. Both of us suffered bites. Both of us still fear strange dogs.
So I sympathized when the mailman left a brochure announcing National Dog Bite Prevention Week. It said that 3,000 letter carriers were bitten by dogs in 2007.
I read the brochure's tips about what to do when a dog is about to attack: stand like a statue, don't scream, avoid eye contact with the dog, back away when it loses interest.
That might work with some dogs. Pit bulls don't lose interest. Almost one in five dangerous dog citations and warnings are for pit bulls in Seattle.
If I were Mr. Mayor, I'd ban the breed, as Denver has done.
Don't agree? Bite me.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pay Now or Pay Later: Preschool for At-Risk Kids

Governor Chris Gregoire stunned early-learning advocates yesterday with her last-minute veto of part of the education reform bill that would have provided preschool for at-risk 3-and-4-year-olds.
Her reason? She believes all kids deserve access to preschool, not just poor kids. And she pledged to work on that next year.
But one look at the numbers makes her promise look like pie-in-the-sky. Adding preschool to the state's K-12 system for all kids would cost about $1 billion per year vs. the $170 million price tag for just those at risk. That's going to be a tough sell in this economy.
Why not start with the kids who really need it? The ones whose parents can't afford preschool. Who don't get tucked into bed every night hearing Good Night Moon and The Little Engine That Could and five other books. Who arrive at kindergarten so far behind that the odds are against them from day one.
If we don't pay now, we will pay later. These kids will need tutoring to make it through elementary school. By middle school, they'll be acting out in class or daydreaming in the corner because they've given up. By high school, they'll be dropouts.
And the saddest part of all? Missing the chance to tap into the love of learning that shines so brightly in those early years.
(Photo: by Ann Norman)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dinner Table Bonding?

Eating supper together is a ritual at my house. 
Before my son was born, my husband and I lingered over dinner, chatting about politics, work, books. Post-baby, the evening meal became a race to see if we could stuff down our food before all hell broke loose.
But babies grow up. Somewhere in the toddler years mealtime evolved from NATO-style negotiations over what our son would -- and would not -- eat, to the enjoyable routine I had remembered.
So I was interested in the findings of a recent study by Child Trends called the Strengths of Poor Families. It discovered that 63 percent of families living below the poverty level ate together six or more days a week. Only 47% of richer families did that. 
(It wasn't all good news, of course. Poor kids were less likely to have health and dental insurance and their parents read to them less.)
Here's a good reason to make it a priority: teens from families who eat together are less likely to use alcohol, marijuana or tobacco, get suspended from school or end up in big trouble, the study says.
What is it about higher incomes that makes families more likely to skip meals together? Do ballet lessons and soccer and swimming classes take the place of the dinner table? Are parents stuck late at the office earning those extra bucks? Or at the gym working off the stress?
Food for thought.
(Photo: by Edenpictures)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ten Tips for Getting Along With Jobless Friends

Losing your job in the midst of the worst recession since the Dirty Thirties is a little like falling down a rabbit hole. It's easy to feel like your world has shrunk and you are "shutting up like a telescope," as Alice in Wonderland opined after realizing she was only 10 inches tall.
Everything looks different from the vantage point of unemployment. Your life is in limbo. Your plans are on hold. Even friendships get out of sync.
"You should say what you mean," the March Hare went on. 
"I do," Alice hastily replied. "At least -- at least I mean what I say -- that's the same thing, you know." 
"Not the same thing a bit," said the Hatter.
If your conversations with unemployed friends sound like a Mad Tea Party, here are a few tips to help you reconnect:
1. Do reach out. Email, call, check in with them. Job loss leaves you feeling out of step with the busy world.
2. Skip the well-meaning cliches like "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade" and "when one door closes, another opens" and "you're so talented, I'm sure you'll land on your feet." Your friends have already heard them all.
3. Ditto for pep talks about how it took you only a month to find a job when you were laid off in 1999. This recession is a different animal. It's taking much longer to find work of any kind.
4. Don't give unsolicited jobhunting advice. Your friends don't need a career counselor. They need a friend. Let them vent or have a down day without trying to fix it.
5. Do offer your network of potential job contacts and pass on leads. Then step back and let your friends decide what to do with them.
6. Do invite them over for dinner. Going out to a restaurant and a movie is a luxury that ended with the pay check. What matters is spending time together.
7. Practical gestures are huge. Offer to babysit or let them use your photo-copy machine or drive them to the airport or lend a great book. 
8. Don't make job loss the #1 topic. Acknowledge it and move on. Your friends will welcome a break from talking about jobhunting, the terrible economy and whether the recession has bottomed out.
9. Think twice before complaining about that expensive kitchen remodel or the lousy weather on your Caribbean vacation. Your friends might not sympathize.
10. Do keep trying if you hit a rough patch. Your cranky unemployed friends will thank you.
(Photo: by Sarah G.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Surge in Hate Crimes: What Does It Mean?

A Seattle Times article says that hate crimes jumped 27 percent in Washington between 2007 and 2008, according to the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. 
It's the second year in a row that hate crimes increased in our state. Officials suggested it's because more victims are speaking up. 
Could it also be that the recession is stripping away the veneer of tolerance keeping some in check? When things go wrong, people look for scapegoats. Is this a sign of the times?
Academics who have done studies on this are all over the map: some say there's no connection, others disagree. A recent University of Iowa study found a link between economic downturns and higher rates of crime victimization among blacks and Latinos. But the study was looking at more than hate crimes.
What I do know is that words can wound. Hurling racial slurs during a scuffle turns it into something darker. Scrawling anti-gay graffiti on the fence  of a neighbor is more than vandalism.
It adds up to feeling afraid in your own home. To feeling vulnerable when you walk from the bus stop at night. To wondering what you did to deserve such cruelty.
Multiple those feelings times 235 incidents across our state in 2008 and that's a lot of hurt.
(Photo: by Kables)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Hit-And-Miss Relief

A timely article in today's New York Times describes the confusing patchwork of programs Americans hit by this recession must navigate to get government help:
"Aid seekers often find the rules opaque and arbitrary. And officials often struggle to make policy through a system so complex and Balkanized," Perle writes. "Across the country, hard luck is colliding with fine print."
I know what he means. I've found myself snarled in red tape a couple of times in the two months since my newspaper shut down. I won't bore you with the details. But what worries me is that it took persistence and considerable reporting skills to sort things out. What do folks who aren't investigative reporters do?
The article also links to a graphic that shows the differences in levels of state aide.
Washington state ranks somewhere in the middle on several measures of relief to needy individuals and families. We are in the top 10 states for the percentage of poor children and parents that get welfare benefits (32%) but in the bottom 10 states for the share of people eligible for housing subsidies who get them (24%).
The percentage of unemployed in our state who get benefits? Just 40%, a little under the national average.
(Photo: by JDAC)

The Mother In Me

I've been reading a book called "The Maternal is Political," an inspiring collection of essays by writers about motherhood and social change.
"If my life as the mother of three children has taught me one thing, it's that there is no more powerful political act than mothering," wrote editor Shari Macdonald Strong in her book's introduction.
It made me think back to the days before I became a mom. I was covering social issues for a daily newspaper -- a beat I'd launched because stories about child welfare and poverty and domestic violence rarely got any press. I wrote about emaciated toddlers and babies born brain-damaged to glue-sniffing moms. About little ones shuttled between six foster homes by the time they turned two. I made sure the stories landed on the front page. Maybe, somehow, it would help.
Then I got pregnant. As every new mother discovers, there's something about a pregnant belly that prompts lots of unsolicited advice. One common theme was this: "You won't be able to write about child abuse when your son is born. It will be too hard," people warned. I wondered if they were right.
My beautiful, brown-eyed son arrived on an early-summer day almost 14 years ago, initiating me into heady, exhausting new motherhood. Ten months of maternity leave whizzed by and too soon it was time to go back to work.
My editor called just before my return to suggest I switch to a new beat, partly to fill a gap and partly because she assumed I would want a change. 
My reaction was more mother-lion than rational: I was furious. How could she even think about getting rid of the beat?
That was the moment I knew -- becoming a mother had deepened not eradicated my commitment to telling these stories. Having a baby had schooled me, moment by moment, in the absolute vulnerability of new life: cupping my hand against the tender spot on my son's fuzzy head; answering his fierce cries of hunger; rocking him for hours when nothing else could comfort.
My editor chocked up my emotional reaction to maternal hormones and gave me back the beat. 
(Photo: by Alexis O'Connor)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Child Welfare Turmoil

Two government reports came out this week responding to chronic complaints about the state child welfare office in Colville, a town of 5,000 in northeast Washington. 
The reports are disheartening reading for anyone who cares about protecting vulnerable kids and their families. 
The title of the first says it all: Loss of Trust: A Crisis of Confidence in the Child Welfare System in Colville.  It's a report by Mary Meinig, director of the state's Office of the Family & Children's Ombudsman. Her office spent almost a year investigating after state Rep. Joel Kretz raised concerns about how that office was handling child abuse cases.
The 86-page report cites cases in which child welfare workers "did not comply with law or policy." But even more troubling was "a culture of pervasive distrust" between child welfare staff and medical, legal and community professionals.
The result? Delays in investigations, foster kids moved unnecessarily and children caught in the middle of adult power struggles.
Read the report to find out what Meinig recommends -- starting with making the adults sort out their disputes in mediation. And giving foster parents more voice in what happens to the kids they take in.
The second report is an internal investigation of the Colville mess by the Children's Administration of the Department of Social and Health Services. Officials admit there's been a "systemic lack of communication and cooperation" and are working on a solution.
Let's hope so. For the sake of the kids.
(Photo: by abkfenris)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Mondays After

In the old days, say two months ago, my Monday mornings went like this: run to the bus stop, catch a #18 to work and sip an Americano while savoring that peaceful hour before the newsroom began to hum.
Yesterday I found myself huddled in a lecture hall at North Seattle Community College with four dozen other newly unemployed. Scrawled on the board at the front were the words: "Welcome to Unemployment Insurance Reemployment Orientation." Only a bureaucrat could have come up with that. 
Clutching my Americano, I slid into a hard plastic seat in the front row. I never sit at the front. But one of my former P-I buddies had tipped me off that the front row gets finished sooner.
The earnest lady running the meeting began with a question: "How many of you have never been on unemployment before? Or at least not for many years?" More than half of us raised our hands. I saw kids who didn't look old enough to be there and white-haired folks who thought they'd be retired by now.
She pointed to our information booklets and launched into an hour-long lecture about How Not To Lose Your Weekly Benefit Check Before You Find a Job. 
A photo of a fierce tiger glared at me from the cover of my booklet. A tiger? Hmmm. My mind wandered. What could this mean? I remembered that perky old Esso ad, "Put a Tiger in your Tank." Was the photo some kind of subliminal message? It looked like all of us could use a tiger in our tanks.
Thirty minutes in, the earnest lady twirled her neck scarf and launched into Tough Talk. You MUST be available for work and make at least THREE job contacts a week to file a claim, she warned. Subtext: Don't even think about going on vacation while on the dole. 'Cause if they catch you, kiss your benefits goodbye. 
I waved my hand and asked for clarification. How did she define a job contact? Could I email an employer about a job and count it as a contact if  the person responded? She frowned, paused and said she wasn't sure. My question had her stumped. The reporter in me couldn't help smiling.
The final part of the session was a "one-to-one" chat with the earnest lady. My front-row seat meant I was third in line. She handed me two job openings. I glanced at one of them. My heart sank. It paid half of what I was making two months ago.
I hurried out the door and drove like a bat out of hell to a Ballard coffee shop where a group of former P-I colleagues has gathered every Monday morning since our first, sad Monday after.
 When I explained why I was late, they smiled knowingly and made room in the circle.
(Photo: by Clyde Robinson)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Giving Back

The ad on caught my eye: "Corporate recruiter looking to help those in the community." She was offering free help reviewing resumes and developing jobhunting strategies.
One soft spring morning last week I met with Noele and her puppy at a local cafe. We sat outside, sipping coffee and soaking up a rare bit of sunshine.
It turned out that Noele is also unemployed, laid off from a private equity firm late last year. As a corporate recruiter, she knows what employers are looking for. And she has time on her hands. So Noele is giving back.
An hour later, I'd gleaned some great tips on polishing my resume and a bit more insight into how recruiters think.
Don't be afraid to call an employer back and ask for feedback if you don't get a job, she said. Be persistent but polite. The more you network, the better. About 20 percent of the people she hired came to her attention through personal connections.
But advice wasn't all Noele shared. She lifted my spirits with her gift of time. She listened well. And reminded me that hard times reveal a community's heart.
(Photo: by Sukanto Debnath)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Kids Paying the Price

King 5 report on child abuse cites a disturbing statistic: three times as many kids have been admitted this year at Seattle Children's Hospital because of abuse-related brain injuries than last year.
"All parents are stressed," Dr. Frank Rivara, a Children's Hospital pediatrics professor, told King 5. "And there's a lot who are very stressed because they've lost their jobs and lost their homes."
The story includes a link to a new video with tips on coping with a crying baby and other pressures of new parenthood.
It's a fact of life that when we're struggling we take it out on those closest to us. Bad day at work? Snap at your spouse. Health insurance reject your claim? Yell at the dog. 
Didn't get the job interview? Slam your toddler hard enough to inflict a head injury? I think it's more complex than that.
 Physical violence is a learned response. We learn how to parent from our own parents. If they believed that a good smack was the way to quiet a whining toddler, then you are more likely to do the same. The more you do it, the easier it gets. A guilty habit. And then on that very bad, awful, terrible day when you get laid off and a car rear-ends you in traffic and your baby won't stop crying and you've had a few beers?
It's easy to judge parents who harm their kids. I've interviewed moms and dads who have done things that will haunt them forever -- and put them behind bars.
So what can we do? We need to learn new ways of disciplining our kids before things get out of control. To foster a culture where corporal punishment isn't OK and parents have somewhere to turn in a crisis. To pay for great programs like public health nurses who visit low-income moms and their babies.
To reach out to parents of young kids we know and give them a break by offering to babysit. To call someone in a financial tailspin and take them out for coffee. To nod when they say they're fine and then ask again. 
(Photo: by D. Sharon Pruitt)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Reporters For Hire

Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer cops reporter Hector Castro has posted an interesting article on Seattle PostGlobe about Reinventing Yourself In A Changing Economy He writes about trying to land a job as a cop. First rejection? Tacoma police, even though he passed their physical. Definitely their loss and here's why.
Hector, a former collegue of mine, is not only a graceful writer -- but a great guy. Any police department would be lucky to nab him. He's ethical, sensitive, hardworking, compassionate, calm under pressure and smart. And believe me, that can't be said for every cop I've dealt with over the years.
Hector's not alone in trying to remake himself in the post-P-I world. Unemployed reporters and editors are finding out that potential employers come in two flavors: those who understand what great skills journalists have and those who don't.
Here's my pitch on behalf of all of us: If you want smart, productive people who can go from zero to 100 on any topic, hire a journalist. If you want great writers who can turn the dullest facts into sparkling copy, hire a reporter. If you want researchers who can track down anything or anyone, we are ready-made. 
And the icing on the cake: making a difference is what motivates us.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Good Work, Tough Topic

Congrats to the newspaper sold on Seattle street corners by homeless folks, Real Change News, for winning a national Society of Professional Journalists Award for feature writing. It's for a story called "The Man Who Stood On The Bridge" about a sex offender who committed suicide by jumping off the Aurora Bridge in Seattle. The author, Rosette Royale, writes an unblinking account of what led Bret Hugh Winch to that desperate act.

And here's Rosette on Youtube talking about his work at Real Change:
(Photo: by Matt Brown)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lives Lost

The headline in the Seattle Times April 14th was pure horror: "Police say mother, 14, smothered infant because she was scared." The sort of headline that brings tears to your eyes.
Not that long ago, I might have been assigned the grim task of calling Federal Way police to find out what happened. It would have been my job to try to track down those who know the girl.
 I've written many versions of that same story over the years. Some things are always the same: the heartbreak, the grief over a tiny life lost, the harsh end to a girl's onetime dreams. Readers reacting with shock, outrage, ignorance. Asking, how this could happen? In the age of Oprah when advice about everything from parenting to sex is just a click away?
But every tragedy has its own twists as well. This time the "father" is a 20-year-old man who has been charged with child rape of the teen. Prosecutors allege he was having sex with the eight-grader for months with mom's knowledge. As the mother of a young teen, I find that hard to comprehend. 
And now the girl sits in King County juvenile detention accused of killing her child. Her unnamed newborn is surely a victim. But so is the girl whose fear and pain erased all reason. Whose panic severed any compassion for the life she bore. Whose own innocence had been bartered away long before if what prosecutors say is true.
My heart aches for two lives lost.