Robert Reich on income inequality, his new film, and the need to get money out of politics

For those of you without access to public television, Bill Moyers celebrated the fifth anniversary of “the fiscal meltdown that almost tanked the world economy” a few days ago by speaking with my hero, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich about wealth inequality in the United States, and his soon-to-be-released documentary film Inequality for All. Here’s video of their discussion, followed by an excerpt of the transcript.

BILL MOYERS: The figures are so startling, I had to shake my head in disbelief when I first saw them, showing that in the first three years of the recovery from the recession brought on by the financial collapse in 2008, the top one percent of Americans took home 95 percent of the income gains. Ninety-five percent?

ROBERT REICH: That’s right. As the economy grows it used to be, you know, within the memory of many of us, myself included, between 1946 and 1978, as the economy grew, everybody benefited. It was very wide– the benefits were very widely dispersed.

BILL MOYERS: Shared prosperity we called it.

ROBERT REICH: Well, we called it shared prosperity. It wasn’t socialism. I mean, Eisenhower was president through most of that. And we didn’t consider it abnormal. We considered it normal. As the economy grows, we should all get something. And during those years, the economy doubled in size and everybody’s income doubled. Even if you were in the bottom fifth of the income earners you did actually better.

And then, and this is really the subject of the film. Something happened in the late 1970s, early 1980s, to change the historic relationship between economic growth and the growth in productivity on the one hand and wages. Beginning in the late ’70s and really to a greater and greater degree over the last three decades, all the wealth, or most of the wealth, most of the new wealth in society went right to the top.

Income gains went right to the top and people in the middle, the median worker, the median wage, stagnated. In fact since the year 2000, if you adjust for inflation, you have to adjust for inflation, the actual median wage has been dropping. It’s now five percent below what it was then.

BILL MOYERS: So help us understand in practical terms what it means when the layman or woman reads that the top one percent of Americans took home 95 percent of the income gains. How can that be?

ROBERT REICH: I think that most people, if they really understand it, will say: “This is not the America that I should be part of. This is not an economy that is working as it should be working. Something is fundamentally wrong.” And the game feels rigged somehow.

And I think that’s the conclusion that many people are coming to regardless of whether you are, consider yourself, on the left or the right. Many Tea Partiers are angry at the system because there seems to be so much collusion between government and big business and Wall Street. That’s where the Tea Party movement came from.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. That was– that intrigued me back when Occupy happened, that it and the Tea Party were both about the one percent.

ROBERT REICH: Both about what looked like a fundamentally unfair subsidy going from everybody, taxpayers, to mostly the top one percent, that is the people on Wall Street who had blown it. Who had basically treated the economy as a casino for much of their own benefit. And leaving many of the rest of us underwater in terms of being able to pay our mortgages, with our savings depleted because the stock market had basically reversed itself, and jobless.

BILL MOYERS: And here we are, five years after Lehman Brothers collapsed and Wall Street went south and you say that the banks, the big banks are still at it, still gambling?

ROBERT REICH: Unfortunately, they are. We don’t even have a Volcker Rule. Remember when we had the Dodd-Frank Act that was supposed to clean up all of this? And a piece of it was kind of a watered-down Glass-Steagall. Glass-Steagall was the old 1930s rule that said you had to split your commercial banking operations from your, basically your casino, betting operations. And–

BILL MOYERS: You couldn’t bet with my deposit.

ROBERT REICH: You can’t bet with commercially-insured deposits. But we couldn’t even get the watered-down version of Glass-Steagall in the form of the Volcker Rule. It’s still not there. Why isn’t that there?

Because you’ve got a huge, powerful, Wall Street lobbying machine, a lot of money coming from Wall Street that influenced politicians, even Democrat politicians. This is not a matter of partisan politics. Everybody is guilty. And the money is still determining what the rules of the game are going to be.

BILL MOYERS: And these are the people who are taking in most of the income produced by the recovery.

ROBERT REICH: Not only they– they’re taking in most of the income produced by the recovery, they’re enjoying almost all of the economic gains and they are using their privileged position with regard to political power to entrench themselves in terms of their economic gains of the future and their political influence in the future.

So you know, it’s not unusual that many average people who are working harder than ever, worried about their jobs, worried about paying their next, you know, bills, living from paycheck to paycheck, are going to stay, you know, beginning to say to themselves, “There is something fundamentally wrong here.”

…The core principle is that we want an economy that works for everyone, not just for a small elite. We want equal opportunity, not equality of outcome. We want to make sure that there’s upward mobility again, in our society and in our economy. Now how do we achieve that?

There is not a magic bullet. But we’ve got to understand that the economy is a system of rules. And we can change the rules if we are organized and mobilized in order to change the rules in ways that make the economy work for us. Why shouldn’t we have a minimum wage that is at least as high as, adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage was in 1968? I mean, that would be $10.40 today. But the society is so much more productive. If we figured productivity into that, it would be at least $15 an hour.

We ought to have Glass– you know, the Glass-Steagall Act ought to be resurrected, so that there is that wall between commercial and investment banking, so we don’t have too big to fail banks that wreak havoc on the economy and on the middle class and the poor.

We ought to cap the size of the banks. And we ought to make sure that the banks are not as large and as powerful as they are right now. We’ve got to make sure that the earned income tax credit is larger. That’s a wage subsidy. It was a conservative idea. But it’s very important to people.

We’ve got to have a tax code that is equitable. And I’m not just talking about income tax. I’m talking about Social Security taxes. Exempt the first $15,000 of income from Social Security taxes. Everybody’s. And take off the ceiling on the portion of income subjected to Social Security taxes. And so it makes that system much more equitable. I mean, we can go piece by piece through it, Bill. The point is that we can do it if we understand the nature of the problem. That’s what this film is all about.

If you watched the Moyers segment above, you’ve already seen the trailer for Injustice for All, but, in case you didn’t, here it is. My hope is that it does for the subject of wealth inequality what An Inconvenient Truth did for global climate change.

Posted in Economics, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Too many damn Houdini movies…

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update: Our night was spent disassembling Alro’s crib, now that it no longer accomplishes the objective of keeping him trapped inside, putting up a gate across the doorway to his room, and trying to convince him, as best that we could, that there’s nothing more awesome than laying peacefully in a “big boy” bed and drifting off quietly to sleep. We accomplished the first two items, but failed miserably when it came to shifting the nighttime sleep paradigm that we’d worked so hard these past 22 months to establish. There were hours on end of gate rattling, screaming, and, ultimately, back rubbing, to no avail. The cycle kept repeating. Until, at about 4:00 AM, when we gave up and brought him to our bed. There were, however, glimmers of hope. Linette had gotten him a tiny pillow, a beautiful new blanket, and a few new stuffed animals, hoping that it would make the transition to the cage-less bed more appealing, and, by all indications, it worked beautifully. He was super happy about it. (He helped me take apart the crib, and was smiling like crazy the whole time.) But, without the sides of the crib to contain him, he just couldn’t resist the temptation to run around his room, screaming like a maniac, as the rest of us tried to sleep. I imagine it’ll get better at some point, but I’m not hopeful that his mother and I will survive long enough to see it.

update: About his getting out of his crib. He did it the first time on Saturday, during his nap. Linette heard a thud, and then the sound of scrambling feet. We couldn’t figure out how he’d done it without breaking his neck. I was tempted to set up a camera, and see if we might be able to strike YouTube gold, like the guy who posted footage the other day of his dog scaling the wall of his kitchen and escaping through a small hole in a window that, for some reason, had been boarded up. Instead, I laid on the floor, next to his crib, and pretended to sleep. It took a while, but eventually he made his move, as I watched through squinted eyes. He grabbed onto the top rail, pulled himself up as far as he could, and, then, after about five minutes of work, furiously pumping his fat, little legs, trying to run up the vertical slats on the side of his crib, he was eventually able to throw a leg over and scoot his butt up, so that he was straddling the beam… at which point I jumped up, grabbed him, and started to plan our response. (Linette had been convinced that he could levitate. I thought that he’s likely worked a board loose, which he’d promptly replace upon escape.)

update: And, for what it’s worth, I don’t know that it was influenced at all by Houdini. We did, however, just watch his film The Man From Beyond a few weeks ago… One more thing. And I just learned this today. Apparently, you cannot buy locking crib lids. (Thanks a lot, Barack “Nanny State” Obama.)

Posted in Mark's Life, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Good Times to Future Cop, the amazing journey of John Amos… The robots of law enforcement… My defense of Norman Lear… And so much more

I don’t know that it changes anything, but I wonder if the folks behind the statue of Robocop, which will soon be staring-down the citizens of Detroit, know that he wasn’t the first robot to wear a badge… No, a full decade before officer Alex Murphy became Robocop, there was officer Gregory Yoyonivich, breaking down barriers for all those who would follow, like an electronic Jackie Robinson. Granted, they’re a little different, as Murphy was a cyborg, and Yoyonivich was an android, but I still think that it’s worth noting that Robocop, while perhaps the most deadly of his kind, was not the first to pursue a career in law enforcement. Here, for those of you unaware of Yoyonivich and his accomplishments, is a brief clip from a documentary entitled Holmes & Yo-Yo.

And, yes, this is apparently how I’m spending my Saturday evening… scurrying around the internet like a chipmunk on meth in search of information on the 1976 production of Holmes & Yo-Yo, and the almost identical show, Future Cop, which came out just a year later on the exact same network (ABC). Here, for the masochists in the audience, is a little of that one as well.

I almost didn’t share that video from Future Cop, as it made me incredibly sad for the actors involved – Oscar-winner Earnest Borngine, and John Amos, whom I’ve had a fondness for since the very first time I saw the show Good Times. It particularly stung to see Amos subjected to this, as it must have been his first acting job after being fired from Good Times for complaining about the increasingly trivial nature of the show… Good Times, as you may recall, in spite of the fact that it had originally been conceived of as vehicle for the somewhat serious exploration of life in the projects, had taken off in the ratings thanks to the buffoonery of Jimmie Walker, the actor portraying the oldest of the three children in the family… Amos, along with Esther Rolle, who played his wife on the show, complained vociferously, demanding that the producers and writers focus less on Jimmie’s character, J.J. “Kid Dy-No-Mite” Evans, which had been evolving into something that they found offensive, and more on the plight of the hard-working family struggling to make ends meet in Chicago’s Cabrini–Green. And, in return, Amos was asked not to return for the third season. Then, to add insult to injury, he apparently took a job as “the black friend” on Future Cop who couldn’t figure out that something was amiss with his fellow police officer, who could quote obscure local ordinances verbatim and run faster than a car full of bank robbers.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but, as a kid, I loved the television show Good Times. I can’t recall exactly what it was about the show that I loved, but I know I was crazy about it. It may have been the time slot more than anything else. I remember very distinctly that it was on in the afternoon at my grandmother’s house, and that it was the only thing worth watching until later in evening, when Hogan’s Heroes, Get Smart and You Bet Your Life came on. I’d sit in front of the television, on the brown and gold linoleum, playing jacks, and laughing my ass off. It was, at least in my ten year old mind, the perfect expression of the art form known as situation comedy. I’m not positive, but I think that, in addition to just loving J.J., I understood and appreciated the fact that they were bringing real issues – like child abuse, prostitution, and drug addiction – into the living rooms of America. At least I’d like to think that I wasn’t just laughing at J.J.’s ever escalating antics.

In my 20s, I’d come to see it a bit differently. My cynicism grew, and, with it, my opinion changed about what had been my favorite television show. I’d started to suspect that all the stuff that I’d seen as socially important was, in actuality, just window dressing which allowed producers to lampoon the lives of poor, inner city blacks, as personified by the show’s breakout star, the aforementioned Jimmie “J.J.” Walker. (note: As I write this, my cherished J.J. doll is looking down on me from his home above my desk.) Sure, in the background, there would be a plot line about how, for instance, the food sold to the inner-city poor was more expensive and of lesser quality than that sold in the suburbs, but, what I came to realize is that it didn’t really matter. That stuff was interchangeable. The best current day analogy I can think of is NBC’s hit series To Catch A Predator. It’s sold as a meaningful exploration of the threats which face young people in this country, and the abnormal desires that motivate the pedophiles who target them, but, in truth, people just want to see folks walk into traps, make up ridiculous excuses, and go to prison. It has zero to do with making kids safer, or trying to understand the motivations of pedophiles so that they can be helped, and everything to do with ad sales.

And my perspective has continued to evolve as I’ve grown older. Now, I think the truth is likely somewhere in between. I think Norman Lear and his team likely really did want to make a meaningful series, and introduce middle America to some of the things that were taking place in the inner city, but, at the end of the day, they had to find a way to make it economically viable. And I think they deserve credit for finding a way, within the sitcom model, to push the existing boundaries. (And Lear didn’t just do this with Good Times. He also, as some of you will recall, brought breast cancer and abortion into primetime with Maude, and any number of other taboo subjects with All in the Family.) Sure, it wasn’t perhaps the most serious presentation of the subject matter, but at least he planted the seed. So, while I can certainly see why Amos and Rolle might be pissed that valuable screen time was taken up by J.J. attempting to seduce his female classmates by way of the family telephone, I know that, as the audience grew, so too did the ability to reach more people. And I suspect that, if not for Good Times, I may not have gone on to seek out Soul on Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X… As with everything else in life, there was a trade-off that needed to be made. Maybe Lear didn’t walk the line perfectly, but I think you could argue that, in the case of Good Times, when taken as a whole, the positive outweighed the negative.

With that said, I can totally see where Esther Rolle was coming from in 1975, one year into the show’s run, when she said the following to a writer for Ebony. “He’s eighteen and he doesn’t work,” Rolle said of the J.J. character. “He can’t read or write. He doesn’t think. The show didn’t start out to be that… Little by little — with the help of the artist, I suppose, because they couldn’t do that to me — they have made J.J. more stupid, and enlarged the role. Negative images have been slipped in on us through the character of the oldest child.”

With that said, though, here’s one last interesting factoid. Rolle agreed to come back for a fourth season only if producers agreed to make J.J. more responsible, which they did. And, the more responsible J.J. became, the less people watched… until the show was eventually cancelled.

Posted in Art and Culture, Pop Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Ypsi Immigration Interview: Heidi Jugenitz

A few days ago I was introduced to a young woman by the name of Heidi Jugenitz. She, I’d been told by a mutual friend, was new in town, and, having read my blog, wanted to ask me a few questions. We talked briefly, and I asked if I could follow up with a few questions of my own for our Ypsi Immigration Interview series… What follows is our unedited conversation.

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MARK: Let’s start by talking about growing up, if that’s OK with you… Where were you born, and what kind of kid were you?

HEIDI: I was born and grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. As a kid, I was sensitive, timid and a perfectionist. Also excessively thrift-minded. I would make lists of things I liked — especially intangibles — in reverse order, so that I could focus my attention first on the not-so-great ones, saving the best for last. I remember applying this to the boyes that I liked in kindergarten, and never getting past the first one on the list (who was actually my least favorite).

In terms of hobbies, I enjoyed music, and I started playing piano recitals at a young age. After watching that episode of the Smurfs where the witch casts a spell that takes music away, I developed an irrational fear of waking up tone-deaf and unable to carry a tune. So basically I was kind of a high-strung kid.

MARK: I was sensitive and timid. Not so much a perfectionist. And irrational fear is something that I’ve had a little experience with… I know this is supposed to be your interview, but sometimes I feel compelled to share… Oh, and I also save what I perceive to be the best bite of food for last… At the risk of turning this into a public therapy session, I’m curious as to how you made the transition from high-strung kid into the adult you are today.

HEIDI: It’s comforting to know I was not alone in my childhood neurosis… For me, managing anxieties and hypersensitivity is an ongoing process. I think the most important part of that process so far has been developing a better awareness of what’s really important to me so that I waste less time and energy sweating the small stuff. I still stress out over trivial things, but when I do it’s usually because I’m not focusing enough attention on the things that matter.

MARK: The childhood neurosis, in my experience, was nothing compared to the adult neurosis which took its place. I can tell you more over beers sometime, but things didn’t really get bad for me until I was about 24. Depression, panic disorder, anxiety disorder. The perfect storm. I’ve found that exercise, vitamins, sunlight, working outside, and keeping super busy help. I’m sure that sleep would help too, but I can’t seem to find the time.

HEIDI: It’s amazing what a difference exercise and vitamin D make. And water. I learned to drink water — proactively, without waiting to feel thirsty — while living in the Sahel, and it’s been life-changing.

MARK: Yeah, my panic definitely gets worse when I’m dehydrated. I can’t give up salty foods, though. I was raised on country ham… Back to you, I want to ask about the time you spent in Africa, but, first, I have one more question about childhood. Did you move around a lot as a kid?

HEIDI: I didn’t move around much as a child. My family lived in the south suburbs of Chicago until I was six, then moved to the western suburbs when my Dad changed jobs. Family vacations were almost always limited to the Midwest, though once we made it as far as South Dakota.

MARK: What was your first favorite book?

HEIDI: Not sure that I had a stand-out favorite. I recall reading a lot of the Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew series, and being deeply moved by To Kill a Mockingbird.

MARK: What was it about To Kill a Mockingbird that moved you? I’m curious, for instance, if you saw some of yourself in Scout

HEIDI: I don’t know if I was as much of a fighter as Scout, but the book’s portrayal of prejudice and injustice spoke to me. I don’t remember talking candidly about either of those themes as a kid, either at school or at home, so the book gave me an opportunity to think through them a bit on my own.

MARK: So, when it was time to head off for college, where did you go, and why did you pick that particular school?

HEIDI: College admissions were sort of a crap shoot for me. I applied to three schools — Taylor University (my mom’s alma mater), the University of Illinois, and Carthage College — and ended up at Carthage, which I had applied to at my dad’s insistence (because they offered early admission). Carthage ended up being a good match for me. Because it was small and not especially competitive, students who were curious and motivated were showered with attention and opportunities. I was able to design my own study abroad program in Ecuador and travel to Vietnam on a faculty-student research grant. I think that if I’d attended a larger or more competitive school, I’d have been lost in the crowd.

MARK: And what brought you to Michigan?

HEIDI: After college, I did a Masters degree at Tulane University in New Orleans, then started a career in the international health and development field. I spent roughly seven years living and working in different parts of Africa (Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Tanzania) before deciding for a variety of reasons that I wanted to return to the U.S. and put down roots here. Not knowing quite how to engineer a transition from international to domestic work, I decided a policy degree would help me re-acclimate to life in the US and open the door to new professional opportunities. (I was also craving intellectual engagement with other humans and thought that a policy program could help satisfy that craving.) I applied to several programs and chose the MPA program at U of M, which I completed in December of 2011.

MARK: So, were you out of the country for most of the Bush years? Did you miss Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and the subsequent wars? If so, I’m curious as to how it all looked to you from abroad. I imagine it must have been a bit surreal.

HEIDI: I was in New Orleans the night George W. was elected by butterfly ballot as well as the morning of September 11th. I was living in Burkina Faso when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, and in Rwanda when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. I remember feeling very alienated from U.S. policy and government throughout those years. I was in Tanzania during Obama’s campaign and early presidency and — like the majority of the world’s population, I think — experienced a wave of optimism about the future at that time.

MARK: Care to share your thoughts on Obama now?

HEIDI: I voted for him enthusiastically in 2008 and with reservations in 2012. As a self-employed American, I’m thrilled that in a few months I should have better health insurance options than I’ve had previously thanks to the Affordable Care Act. I also think Obama has restored a sense of seriousness and responsibility to the presidency.

As someone who cares deeply about human rights both in the U.S. and abroad, I’m disappointed in some of his policy decisions. I think Obama had an opportunity to stop using our military to project U.S. power (rather than to protect the American people), but passed it up. Many of his economic policies have placed the interests of large financial institutions and corporations above the interests of the middle class and small business. He’s been very silent on poverty in the U.S., as well as on the related issues of racism and segregation.

MARK: You mention that there were a variety of reasons for your wanting to come back to America. Do you care to elaborate on any of them?

HEIDI: On the personal front, a family medical issue came up that made me want to be closer to home. Obama’s election had made the prospect of moving back more welcoming. The financial crisis in the U.S. also reminded me that there was serious pain and suffering back home, and I felt that some of the things I had learned while working abroad could also be relevant in the U.S.. Especially since the austerity policies proliferating in the U.S. today are very similar to the structural adjustment policies that have been imposed on “developing” nations since the 1950s. (Spoiler Alert: They didn’t work out so well for most countries.)

MARK: What do you currently do for a living?

HEIDI: I work as an independent consultant doing program design, management and impact evaluation for public and non-profit organizations. I’m still straddling the divide between international and local work, but I hope that within a few years I will be working exclusively on programs and projects that promote social and economic justice in the greater Detroit area.

MARK: I’m curious as to what kinds of similarities you’re seeing between Detroit and the “developing” nations you’ve done work in. And I don’t ask this as someone who’s looking to daemonize the people of Detroit, who have clearly had the cards stacked against them for the past several decades. I’m genuinely curious to know, though, if, when it comes to public health, safety, education and economic infrastructure, there may be things that we can learn from other countries attempting to pull themselves out of poverty and reverse similar trends.

HEIDI: Of the countries I have worked in, Rwanda probably offers the most compelling example of a government charting a vision for long-term development, making difficult policy decisions that align with that vision, and committing resources accordingly. Interestingly, Rwanda is also the one African country I’ve worked in where the government was not afraid to stand up to external donors. The government wanted things to be done according to its vision and plan. I’m not saying that this independent spirit has always brought about optimal results, nor that national policies have always reflected a concern for human rights, but the government’s ability to resist the low-hanging fruit and outside pressure for the sake of longer-term gains has served it well. I think Detroit as a city should be prioritizing the well being of existing residents over the well being of outside investors or imagined future residents, and I don’t have the sense that this is the case currently.

MARK: I’m not sure if I’ve got this right, but do I understand correctly that, although you bought a house in Ypsi a year or so ago, you just really moved here a month or so ago?

HEIDI: I purchased my home in Ypsi in August of last year — while working on a medium-term consultancy in Cote d’Ivoire — and moved here permanently in May of this year after wrapping up in West Africa.

MARK: Why Ypsi? Was it just affordability and the fact that we sit between Ann Arbor and Detroit, or was there something else?

HEIDI: I was drawn to the openness of the community in Ypsilanti — it has a welcoming feel to it, and not being as saturated or expensive as Ann Arbor, a potential for change and reinvention that I find appealing. I also liked the fact that Ypsi embraces its diversity as an asset and is actively looking for ways to be more inclusive (through its new Master Plan, for instance). Affordability was definitely a factor, as was proximity to Detroit and Detroit Metro Airport.

MARK: Assuming you have aspirations to be involved in the community, what kind of stuff do you see yourself doing?

HEIDI: Broadly, I’m interested in getting involved with organizations and programs that are supporting quality of life improvements and greater economic and social participation for residents of Ypsilanti. One of the things that drew me to Ypsilanti, in addition to its openness and creative pulse, was the important work being done by some of its non-profits. I’m looking forward to learning more about their work and exploring potential collaborations.

I’ve toyed with the idea of opening a small business but am not ready to take the plunge just yet. And I hope to get involved in local decision-making by participating on one or more City commissions.

MARK: Can you give us a hint as to what kind of small business you might be considering?

HEIDI: I have a few ideas, ranging from a French pastry shop (modeled after an amazing one I frequented while in Abidjan) to a DIY-themed store and creation space. But these are still pipe dreams, for the time being.

MARK: In the wake of the Shadow Art Fair, I’ve seriously considered the possibility of a DIY pop-up store. We should talk.

HEIDI: Absolutely. A pop-up seems less intimidating and could be a lot of fun.

MARK: Now that you’ve been here for a while, I’m curious as to your thoughts on Ypsi, and how they may be evolving? Are you realizing things about the community, perhaps, that you hadn’t realized before?

HEIDI: Well, there’s a lot going on here, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface in a few months. I like the feel of the City and think it’s one of the friendlier places I’ve lived. I also like that it’s fairly diverse.

A couple of issues that are on my radar are public schools and quality jobs. I know Ypsilanti residents rely heavily (and increasingly) on Ann Arbor for both of these, but I don’t think regionalization is a panacea, and I’m hopeful that through forward-looking policies and resource decisions, the City can strengthen both YCS and local enterprise in a sustainable way. It’s challenging to prioritize long-term interests when you feel the noose (in this case the Water Street debt) tightening around your neck, but I think strong schools and good jobs are critical to the future of the City.

MARK: Do you have any questions for me?

HEIDI: I’m curious to know what keeps you and your family in Ypsilanti, how you think Ypsilanti is unique or special (if you do think so), and where you would be living if not in Ypsilanti. Also, I think your blog is highly entertaining and a great community asset, and I’m curious how you fit blogging into your daily routine.

MARK: I thought you’d ask me something like, “Where’s the best Chinese restaurant?”, but I think I can handle this.

Let’s see… Linette and I met in Ypsi, at a bar called Cross Street Station, which has since been condemned. I was playing in a noise band, and she’s the only person we weren’t successful in driving from the room. She and I started talking after the show, and, over time, we began dating. This would have been over 20 years ago, in early ’93, I think. I was just wrapping up at U-M, and she was just finishing at EMU. And that’s when I started spending time in Ypsi. (I lived and worked in Ann Arbor, and had only been to Ypsi about three times before becoming friends with Linette.) And, in May, after only having dated for a few months, we decided to move to Atlanta together. In retrospect, it didn’t make a lot of sense, but it worked for us. We started a zine together and began collaborating on projects. Eventually we came back to Ypsi, so that she could attend grad school. And, I think that’s when I really started to understand and appreciate the community we have here. I was especially fond of Ypsi’s Freighthouse, where I spent many a weekend, talking with other folks from Kentucky – old-timers who moved here during the war, to work at the bomber plant. (I was born in Kentucky, and still have quite a bit of family there.) My memories of sitting around the potbelly stove, and watching old and young people, of all types, dancing together to bluegrass music on cold winter mornings, are among the most cherished that I have. As it worked out, Linette and I left again, for D.C., and then Los Angeles, but I think we always knew that, when it came time to settle down, we’d return. And that’s what we did. When the company I was working for in L.A. went out of business, we moved back, found jobs, got married, and put a downpayment down on a house.

As for why we stay, I’m not sure I can articulate it. I think Ypsi’s the kind of place were a motivated person with ideas can not only contribute, but actually make a difference. While I’m attracted to places like Portland, and find myself, on occasion, feeling pangs of envy directed toward my friends who live there, I think that this is the right place for us. We have friends. We have a network. And, not just a network, but a network of people who can actually make things happen. This is the kind of place where you can suggest ideas… like “Let’s start an art fair that’s more interesting that they one in Ann Arbor,” or “Let’s adopt an acre of Water Street and create a commons full of native plants”… and they’ve actually got a good shot of happening. Not because I make them happen, necessarily. But because there are a lot of great, caring, talented people who want to participate, and make this a better, stronger community. And, the fact of the matter is, there’s not really much of an entrenched power structure here to stand in your way. It’s not like Ann Arbor, where there are arts commissions, and clearly defined hierarchies. Sure, there are some turf issues, but, for the most part, people are just happy to have people doing constructive things. And, it’s also worth noting that Ypsi has a long, rich tradition when it comes to innovation, entrepreneurship and boundary pushing. Preston Tucker, Iggy Pop, Winsor McCay and Elijah McCoy all called Ypsi home. That’s an amazing tradition of visionary iconoclasts. And that really resonates with me.

So, while there’s a temptation to go somewhere where things are already “working,” I think I’d prefer to be somewhere like Ypsi, where there’s still work to be done, and you can see that you’ve got a decent shot of making progress. We have everything we need to be successful. We’ve got a bright, creative, community-minded population. We’ve got incredible parks, a decent historic building stock and ample natural resources. There’s no reason why we can’t create jobs, fill our storefronts, attract new residents, fix our schools, increase our self-sufficiency, etc. I’m confident that we can do it. It’s just a matter of putting the pieces together in the right order.

And, it’s probably worth noting that it helps to have Ann Arbor seven miles away, with its museums, theaters, and jobs. As much as people, myself included, complain about Ann Arbor, and what’s it’s become, Ypsi wouldn’t be nearly as attractive, at least to me, without it to our west.

As for how I manage to get stuff done, I blame the OCD. If I don’t stay busy, I tend to ruminate on things to the point of paralysis. I’d much rather keep working. So, once the kids have been put to bed, I get to work. I probably put in about three hours an evening on the blog. I don’t watch TV. I don’t read. This is what I do. And I’ve always been that way. Before the blog, I used to make art obsessively. I need something to fill my time. I need to have someplace to channel my OCD. And this is something that I actually feel good about. (It’s better that checking locks on doorknobs for hours on end.) I feel like I’m contributing. Which is important to me. I know it’s probably unhealthy, but I have this belief that I need to justify the time that I’ve spent here on earth, like I need to make it count, if only in some trivial way. Maybe I inherited that from my more religious ancestors, or maybe it was just beaten into me as an Eagle Scout, but I have this voice in the back of my head that’s always demanding that I do more. It’s weird. And, as I mentioned before, probably not altogether healthy. It’s just the way I’m wired. Maybe it’s insecurity… a need to feel appreciated. I think, more than that, though, it’s a sense that we’re only on this planet for a very short while, and it’s incumbent upon us to do something with that time.

Sorry to ruin your Immigration Interview with my neurosis.

HEIDI: I’d still be interested in your thoughts on the best Chinese restaurant, but I like what you have to say about having a decent shot at progress and success here. That was my (hopeful) perception as an outsider before I moved here, and it has been affirmed many times over in the past months.

[If you enjoyed this discussion with Heidi, be sure to check out other Ypsi Immigration Interviews.]

Posted in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Mark's Life, Special Projects, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

My thoughts on movies and books to share with your kids through the age of nine

Two things happened this week that prompted me to write this post. The world celebrated what would have been Roald Dahl’s 97th birthday, and, a day or two later, my friends Murph and Cara welcomed two beautiful little babies into the world. So, as Linette set off in one direction this evening, to arrange for some awesome local ice cream to be delivered by bike to their now sleepless home, I began thinking about which Roald Dahl book I’d suggest that they begin with, and at what age. And, this, in turn, led to the following list.

Here, for my friends with kids, and those who love them, is a list of what I’ve found to be the best series, both digital and print, that you can share with your children as they grow into intelligent, decent, confident young adults… Or, at least that’s what I’m hoping my kids are evolving into… (The evidence would suggest that we’re on the right track, but I guess we won’t know for a while.)

A few notes before we start.

First, there are lots of awesome things in this world that haven’t been serialized. From the board books of Eric Carle and stories of Dr. Seuss, which are all different, and yet wonderfully familiar, to incredible stand-alone books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Charlotte’s Web, there’s no end of brilliant, non-serialized work that you can share with your children. When reading with Clementine, though, I’ve just really enjoyed the continuity of jumping from one book to the next, and following the same characters as they advance through life. And the same goes for the videos that we’ve been watching of late. So, yeah, I know that I’m leaving a lot of really great children’s literature off this list, but, for the purposes of this post, I’m just sticking with series that follow the same characters. SO, for the purposes of this list, I’m just focusing on series. And, second, I’m sure I’m leaving out some great series that we’ve made our way through over the course of the past eight years. So, if you’re a famous writer, who just happens to be reading this, and you don’t see your series mentioned here, don’t be sad. I’m sure we read it and loved it. I just have a terrible memory.

booksCollage

YEAR 1: Nothing matters. Just read anything you like to them. The important thing is that new little person, or persons, sharing your home hears your voice. For the most part, we went the board book route early on, sticking to classics like Goodnight Moon, and the works of the folks noted above. The only series I can remember introducing the kids to at this age was Columbo. Generally, I’m against video, especially in the early years, but I made an exception for Columbo. (One of Clementine’s first words was “Mumbo”.) Yes, there’s always a murder within the first 20 minutes, but they’re generally over in seconds, and not terribly graphic. And you can see them coming a mile away. Plus, it’s easy enough to cover the eyes of a baby, given how slow and weak they are. It’s not like they watch that intently anyway. At least that was the case with my kids. They’d just snuggle down into my beanbag chair of a stomach, watch for a few minutes, and then drift off to sleep. I’m convinced, however, that hearing Peter Falk question suspects, even subliminally, will pay big dividends later in life, whatever side of the law they might be on.

YEAR 2: Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books. They’re sweet, crazy, and chock full of things that only someone with OCD, like myself, would truly appreciate. A great way to introduce quirkyness to your kids, setting the stage for things much later in life, like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. More than just being funny and quirky, though, Frog and Toad teaches about compassion, empathy, and the importance of friendship… all things your children will likely need later in life.

YEAR 3: L. Frank Baum’s complete Oz series, starting with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As much as I love the movie, the books are better. Sure, they get a little repetitive over the course of the 14 books, but I’ve found them to be a great gateway into the world of imaginative thinking. (The thought of sprinkling magic dust on inanimate objects and bringing them to life, as happens often in the Oz books, is worth the price of admission, in and of itself.) And Baum, unlike a lot of other authors, doesn’t talk down to kids, which is more rare than you’d think. Sure, he tries his best to impose his somewhat strict view of morality on his readers, but he does so in a very gentle way. He’s also great at social commentary. And, through his writing, Clementine and I were able to have a number of thoughtful discussions on the complex nature of human existence. Baum, for instance, in one of the books, introduces us to an entire race of people who wear giant pasteboard masks in hopes of hiding their true “doorknob” sized heads, and I found that to be an incredibly insightful jumping-off point to discuss insecurity. “They foolishly imagined,” said Baum of these people, who were called Whimsies, “that no one would suspect the little heads that were inside the imitation ones, not knowing that it is folly to try to appear otherwise than as nature has made us.” Yes, some of the lessons he’s attempting to convey to his turn-of-the-centry audience are a bit calculated, and overly transparent, but the old sawhorses that come to life with magic powder, living paper dolls, and ponds that alter your mind so that, once bathing in them, you can only tell the truth, more than make up for it. (I remember telling Clementine many times that I was going to take her for a swim in the “truth pond.”)

YEAR 4: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I don’t know that it really helps all that much when stacked up against the massive wall that is modern consumer culture, but I’m of the opinion that kids should know that, not too long ago, it was expected that people their age would get up before dawn and milk cows in the freezing cold, that kids were lucky to get a shiny penny and an orange for Christmas, and that they would have gotten their asses kicked for rolling their eyes at their parents… So, if you’re looking for a “Bad Cop” foil to your “Good Cop,” I’d suggest checking out Pa Ingalls… But, there’s more to it than just showing kids how good they have it, comparatively speaking. It’s just awesome to learn about history through the eyes of a bright, inquisitive little girl. (Warning: Ma Ingalls is a bit of a racist when it comes to Native Americans. So you’ll also have an opportunity to talk about genocide, and the attitudes of American settlers that made it possible.)

YEAR 5: Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. A children’s author with a license to kill. I think that pretty much says it all. (Dahl’s contempt for adults is contagious, and, in my opinion, it’s good for kids to get a healthy dose of skepticism early on in life. It will serve them well.)

YEAR 6: It was around this time, that, between Thin Man films, Clementine and I jumped into the movies of Billy Wilder in a big way, bringing us terribly close to fulfilling the Onion’s prophecy about the father who raised his daughter on a diet of media that “put her entirely out of touch with her generation”. And that was the point when we decided to slowly start down the Harry Potter path, so that she’d have something to talk about with the kids at school. (The bonus is that it’s not that bad, at least when compared with all of the other nonsense out there for young girls… And Hermione can kick some ass.) And, it was around this time that I also introduced Clementine to the original three Star Wars movies. (We have very few hard and fast rules, but she’s not allowed to watch the “bad” Star Wars movies until she’s out of the house, and on her own. I’ve made that clear.

YEAR 7: Maybe it’s not technically a series, but we read The Iliad and The Odyssey when she was seven. We’d read an awesome kids’ mythology book before, but, after Harry Potter, we were ready for something a little more weighty. I had some concerns going in, as I didn’t want to traumatize her, but I thought that she was of an age to at least start thinking about conflict and war in a serious way, as little bits of news about Iraq and Afghanistan were surely making their way to her ears. I wanted her to be aware of what it meant to be at war, and and the costs associated with it. And I thought the risk of upsetting her was worth it. As it turned out, I think that she was ready for it. And many good conversations were had.

YEAR 8: After reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, substituting “slave” for the n-word (not because I disagree with the use of the word in the context of the book, but because I didn’t want to run the risk that she might accidentally say it at some point, when discussing the book), we moved on to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Sadly, I think this might be it when it comes to my reading to Clementine. She’s getting to be quite a good little reader in her own right, and I’m sure that, soon enough, she’ll be choosing to read The Boxcar Children Mysteries on her own, instead of having me read Sherlock Holmes to her. And I’m purposefully showing down in hopes of making it last a little longer. Having read to her almost every night for nine years, I don’t want it to end. We only have about 50 pages left in the Sherlock Holmes collection, and I’ve gotten to down to the point where I’m only reading about a page an evening, after our nightly 15 minutes of Star Trek. (I read somewhere that Star Trek was Martin Luther King’s favorite television program)

Thankfully, it’s time to start ramping up my reading to Arlo soon.

And Clementine and I will still have old movies and classic TV to bond over between listenings of Marquee Moon. (That’s a reference to the Onion piece mentioned above, for those of you who didn’t pick up on it.)

[One more thing… Clementine doesn’t know it yet, but, once we make our way though the original Star Trek, and revisit Columbo, we’re headed straight to The Prisoner.]

So, that’s my advice. Start with Frog and Toad (compassion), make your way though Harry Potter (bravery), and come out on the other end reading Sherlock Holmes (deductive reasoning) and watching Star Trek (exploration of the unknown). If you can do that, I give you an 85% chance of raising a good human being.

Posted in Art and Culture, Mark's Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

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