Archive for February, 2009

18
Feb
09

Mama Bear’s First Date

After updating my Facebook status with today’s bit of bitterness, I realized that I still am not ready to watch the news again.  I cannot talk about anything current if I am banning the news – which I am – so gotta talk about Mama Bear and Daughter Number One.

She went on her first date for Valentine’s Day.  I have anticipated this event, expecting to wait another year or two, but Number One has begun to date Mr. Wonderful.  My husband and I adore this kid; he golfs, skis, travels, ballroom dances, and has the most impeccable manners.  The manners have been impeccable since third grade when we met him.  He has also looked at Number One with sheer devotion since third grade.  Did I mention that he’s grown up to look like Christian Bale?  No mother could deny her child a budding romance with this young man, and I had no reason to.  Their match is a parent’s dream, other than the fact that they have not yet crossed the threshold of fifteen, which is why the young man’s dad arranged to drive them to and from the movie.

Enter Mama Bear.  I always think I am rational, but lately I have had to rethink everything, including my sanity.  It started with a phone call from Mr. Wonderful’s dad.  He wanted to check with me because he had been called away on business so he made arrangements for his close friend of over 20 years to drive the kids.  He made the arrangements, he said, because he didn’t want to deprive his son of the first date experience.  He felt it was important that he set a chivalrous standard for his son and ensure that the young man knew it was expected that he pick up his date.

It is evident that this child has been raised to be chivalrous.  The poor boy has run, on more than one occasion, from one end of the school to another to retrieve Number One’s books, violin, lunch box, or otherwise.  He always opens her car door and he greets me with a smile, look in the eye, and firm handshake.  Considering this example set over the past six years, I made the obvious assumption that this man had not made arrangements to ensure these teens had a date.  Instead, I was convinced that he made arrangements to sell them into a life of pornography.  I replayed our entire conversation again and again in my head until it became undeniable.  It never entered my mind that I read too much.

I hung up the phone and went back to my reading.  For a while.  It was only a matter of moments before I had unraveled his plan, so I got to work.  Thank goodness for the internet.  I discovered that Mr. Wonderful’s dad owns a publicly traded company – 10,000 shares issued.  See?  Obviously a bad man.  I read the articles of incorporation and discovered that his company is a subsidiary of a larger, international corporation.  A corporation that performs background checks.  I was convinced that he had something to hide.  Thanks to Google I confirmed the location of his company and the parent company, headquartered in Denver.  Both offices are in high traffic areas.  Definitely a front.  I zoomed in to look for the rear exits.  Found one!  I continued digging.  Board members.  I looked into each one and searched for any off-shore ties.  One of them has written papers on human resource issues.  Likely story.  They are surely practiced in the art of mind control, I determined.  I mulled over whether or not I could live with myself if I allowed my daughter to go on this date and something happened.  I imagined myself, depressed and swallowing everything in my medicine cabinet, unsuccessful in my own attempt on my life.  I imagined the ambulance coming, the neighbors watching.  Nosy neighbor down the street would be shaking her head.  This would be no way to go, with her shaking her head at me, so I went to my husband and explained to him that if Number One were to go on this date, she would be sold into sex slavery.  He tried to send me shopping.

I didn’t bite.  Instead, I spent the rest of the day steeped in worry.  Number One was unconcerned.  She had no first date jitters.  I asked her what she planned to wear and she said “this.”  That was right after she got up and put on jeans and a t-shirt.  I suggested a shower and a shirt with buttons.  Then I changed my mind.  Buttons?  What was I thinking??  Much easier to stay in a t-shirt than a shirt with buttons.

Finally the big moment came.  Mr. Wonderful showed up at the door.  He greeted us, then Number One, then Berlin (if you are not versed in my family tree, Berlin is the vivacious little sister in the story).  He told my husband that they would be seeing a two hour movie, probably two and a half with previews and he would have Number One home right afterwards.  My husband looked at me with that “don’t be crazy” look that I hate so much.  I barely noticed because I was getting my shoes on so I could follow them.  I waited for them to get halfway down the street, then made a break for my car.  Intercepted.  There was my husband, right in the middle of the hallway, waving my keys at me (I only have one car key since I got mugged while Christmas shopping).  He quickly stuffed the keys down his jeans, knowing I would let it rest.  The keys.  I let the keys rest right there.

And I waited.  For two hours and fifty-seven minutes I sat in the chair in my living room window.  Then she came in.  She was flushed and smiling and just beautiful, even in her jeans and t-shirt.  And she was safe.  This is the very moment we worked so hard to prepare for, stepping out into independence and having our complete trust.  It seems she is well prepared, too, but what we neglected was to prepare ME.  Nothing could have prepared me for the gripping terror that came from watching my heart walk out the door in the care of a neophyte.

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16
Feb
09

Bliss in a Ponytail

Has the cliche “ignorance is bliss” caused us as a culture to discount the intelligence of many a bubbly cheerleader?  Not just pom pom-toting-ponytailed high-school cheerleaders, but the ones we meet as adults, too.  The ones who remind us to keep moving forward when we can seem to move our feet on our own.  Personally, I have been very guilty of it.  Anytime I see a ponytail bounce by, trailing a cheerful “hello,” I assume that ponytail is attatched to a sweet but empty head.  I have always held to the conventional wisdom that those who know the most are going to finish first and best.  We need to know what is happening if we are to be protected against it or to benefit from it.  I refuse to fault myself; this makes perfect sense. 

HOWEVER, I have recently found myself nearly unable to cope.  I didn’t even notice how bad it had become (make not mistake, my children had) until I turned off talk radio and chose instead some vapid music to sing with until my throat bled.  It was great.  I had no idea until I was nursing my very sore and scarred throat that I had been unhappy.  Lately the world has become nearly unbearable.  I have steeped myself in statistics.  The size of the stimulus package.  The dollar amounts actually going toward infrastructure.  The dollar amounts that may not result in economic gain.  Previous GDP’s and the stimuli pressed through at those times.  The resultant tax burdens.  Child pornography.  Human trafficking.  Teen drug abuse.  The last time I had an oil change.  The unemployment rate…You get the very large picture.  I determined that I would unplug for a while.  No more talk radio in the car and no more internet research and NO evening news.  No newspapers, except the Target ad on Sunday. 

First, I began my experiment with a certain amount of fear.  I felt so isolated and I felt that I would be ill-equipped to protect myself and my family in the event that – I don’t know – there was a literal fan and the world became covered in, well, you know…Then I had an epiphany.  Thank GOD.  I realized that yes, it is ridiculous to live a life of complete ignorance.  But just as ridiculous is to climb under the covers over what amounts to little more than a lack of control.  I can learn all I want about every issue facing us as Americans, but this does not change the fact that I have no control over these issues.  Right now, I am not part of a majority.  I can write my congressmen and petition all I want, but I am unlikely to change the outcome. 

Now, I would never condone squandering one’s life in complete ignorance Paris Hilton style.  BUT, to determine one’s moral compass and live in such accordance, permits a life of ignorance.  My daughter argued with me the case of Oedipus (not Paris Hilton), making the case that a life of ignorant bliss would surely lead to complete destruction.  Oedipus seemingly had no moral compass.  He was living an ignorant and self-destructive life of incest, addiction, and all the other trappings. 

However, to determine a standard of living and adhere to this would fully allow one to exist in complete ignorant bliss.  For instance, were I to save 20% of my income, avoid debt, and donate 10% to the less fortunate, I would easily avoid increased taxes and now that the economy has turned, I would be unconcerned.  I would have savings to rely on and no debt to worry me.  This isn’t just a financial matter.  To live as outlined above, I would have to avoid envy and covetous behavior.  That is probably the very root of many financial ills. 

If I had lived a life based on a strong moral code, the concerns of our nation would not be mine.  As our situation worsens, I could use my strength to truly combat suffering.  I would not be beholden to debt, or even a job.  Is it possible that keeping my mind centered on the events happening each day in this culture is where true ignorance was born?  It seems that my extensive knowledge of these many problems has done more damage to me and my psyche than complete ignorance would.  Perhaps, had I ignored that which I could not control and instead worked just on myself, I would not be overwhelmed at this moment.  I would then be a worthy adversary. 

Whoever thought that the cheerleaders are the true heroes?

14
Feb
09

Driving Around the Big Love Billboard

I have nothing to say.  I don’t even know why I am here, on WordPress, on this day with nothing on my mind.  This holiday, Valentine’s Day, is the worst.  Tension rests over our house today like London fog.  My husband is lying on the couch, not knowing what to do.  He wanted to go to the movies and I declined, obviously hurting his feelings.  I just feel bad about it.  But this day is just a big reminder, a billboard we can’t seem to drive around, forcing us to recognize what we do not have.

For the last few years, well, 14 of them actually,  pretty much since the day we woke up as husband and wife, we have abused, neglected, and mistreated our marriage.  Finally, we decided to stop behaving so badly.  But it’s not that easy to just about face in a relationship.  We tiptoe around each other, praising the progress we’ve made like a cancer patient who finally starts to re-grow wisps of hair.  She is becoming herself again, but it will still take so much treatment and care to restore her that she may not survive.  Those last four words, I think, are destroying the relationship my husband and I have.  As we have tried to mend our relationship, it has been a joy to feel like a family.  We attend events together, eat together, and watch some TV together.  But we both know that if we talk, the pain is going to surface and that is something we just may not survive.  When we go out, we go with books.  When we watch TV, we are each on our laptops. 

Today we have to celebrate Valentine’s Day.  Somehow we have to address the state of our feelings.  Overall,they are good  – better than ever.  But if we misstep and are forced to look underneath, we may find ourselves back in chemo and I don’t think either one of us is strong enough to weather it this time.  It is somehow lonelier to be in a tremulously healthy relationship than it was to be in the dying one, the one filled with fighting and selfishness.  Now, all that is exposed is how far apart we are and how difficult the journey will be as we try to find each other again

08
Feb
09

Like a Thief in the Night

Something huge has happened.  It crept by largely unnoticed by the citizenry as a whole and barely remarked up by the press.  There was a data breach.  That’s probably why the story slipped by – it sounds so dull.  What happened, though, is that millions of credit and debit card numbers were stolen by an overseas group.  The group hacked into a third party credit card processor, Heartland Financial, and took these numbers.  Customers have been reassured that no damage was done and every bank is handling it differently.  Some banks immediately closed the cards, leaving customers to have their purchases declined.  Other banks notified their customers and told them that they may request a new card if it would make them feel more comfortable.  Still other banks have simply “blocked” the compromised cards until new ones can be issued.  Customers may still use their cards, but only if they are able to input a PIN with the transaction.  Still, this leaves customers unable to use compromised cards at restaurants and even Starbucks.  Heartland Financial contends that only card numbers were taken so it would be difficult for the perpetrators to do real damage with this information. 

The bigger picture has not been addressed.

It is very possible that this compromise may include millions of cards.  Heartland Financial processes about 100 million transactions per month and suspicions are that the sniffer software had been in place since May of 2008.  There is no question that this will be the biggest breach in history.  Right now it is second to the TJX breach, but the final numbers are not in.  Of course, Heartland has downplayed the severity of this situation, even going so far as to make the announcement on inauguration day, when the press was somewhat preoccupied.  Heartland was made aware of this breach by Visa.  They did not uncover it themselves, despite the security measures the company had taken.  When Visa noticed an inordinate amount of fraud on customer accounts, they traced it back to Heartland and notified the company.  It took months for Heartland to uncover it.  Their own staff was unable to do it; they had to hire a third party forensic analyst to find the breach.  As this has been uncovered, Heartland finally admitted that information is not encrypted during the transmittal phase of a transaction.  This makes the system inexcusably vulnerable.

Even as Heartland downplayed this situation, banks were noticing these fraudulent charges that Visa reported.  Heartland assured people that no harm would come of this, but in one weekend, a small credit union incurred $11,000.00 in losses.  The losses have since been traced to this compromise.  STOP.  So, we have potentially tens of millions of cards compromised.  If the perpetrators are able to put through just $100.00 on each of these cards, the losses will be astronomical.  Under Visa’s Zero Liability policy, banks issuing Visa cards may be liable for fraudulent transactions on customer accounts.  The banking system is already under duress.  Regardless of fraudulent charges, banks stand to loose.  Reissuing credit and debit cards can cost up to $20.oo PER CARD, depending on the size of the institution. 

In addition to the financial strain this is placing on the American banking system, it erodes consumer confidence even more.  Customers who are unaware of the many steps involved in processing these transactions are making the logical assumption that their bank is unsafe.  On a local level, banks are receiving harmful press.  In some places, businesses are refusing to accept debit cards.  Consumer confidence is already at an all time low and, unbelievably, confidence in the financial industry is even lower.  Much damage has been done to the American psyche.  While consumer confidence plunges, restaurants miss out on a week of business.  Many customers are coping with this situation by staying home until new cards arrive.  They know their cards will not work at restaurants, so unless they have planned ahead they are not eating out.

Customers face an actual danger in that there is evidence these perpetrators are “phishing” for more information.  Once the cards are closed, they cannot be used, so the criminals are searching for information that is useful.  They are calling these nervous customers and claiming to be from their banks, asking to confirm information.  If the customer gives it over, they are literally giving up their identity.  These perpetrators have not been named.  We just know that they were found overseas.  I would like to know if these are really just greedy men or if they need to raise massive amounts of money for a certain planned purpose.  Or, even more sinister, is this a concerted effort to undermine the American financial system?

We know nothing about the perpetrators of this crime except that they are overseas.

01
Feb
09

The Stimulus in the Corner

A man I look up to a great deal gave me some advice.  It was the best advice I have ever gotten.  I felt backed into a corner with no way out, so I was complaining and he said, “Why would let someone back you into a corner?  If you live right, you’ll never be in the corner.”  At first, I thought he just didn’t understand that I didn’t have a way out.  Then I realized that I had absolutely gotten myself into the situation and I had no choice but to find a way out, by changing my attitude in a drastic way.  The funny thing is, I don’t even remember the situation I was in.  I just remember this advice and the many choices I have made because of it. 

Our nation is backed into a corner.  Collectively, we were irresponsible and we landed ourselves up against a wall with now way out.  We achieved some financial success, but saw no reason for gratitude.  Instead, we borrowed more to satisfy our every whim.  Then, we failed to hold our leaders to any standard.  In our apathy, we stopped expecting honesty and objectivity from our media.  Now, we have a mess and we need to change our attitude.  Actually, we need to change our entire lives.  Everything needs to be different. 

We’ve been offered a solution in the form of an economic stimulus.  Now the question is whether to take it or leave it.  It is so appealing.  We could accept this solution at little or no cost – right now.  Eight hundred and nineteen billion dollars is so much money.  Properly spent, it could solve all of our problems, to be sure.  What then, would it leave our children with?  The interest alone on this $819,000,000,000.00 is more than we have spent on the war in Afghanistan.  The size of the spending package is equal to the national budget in 1984 and it is two thirds of our current budget, that’s for all government spending.  All of it.  In the ’90’s, a $19 billion dollar stimulus package was on the table and Bill Clinton, not known for fiscal responsibility, said it was too aggressive.  That was less than a quarter of the size of this package just a little over 10 years ago.  This money means $5000.00 for every household in America.  Right now, to fund the bill, every household would have to cough up $5,000.00.  When the nation is paying it back in 20 years, our children will bear the burden of $819 billion plus all that interest.  The tax burdenwill be crushing.  What this means is that this package will create another bubble, tantamount to the housing bubble or the tech bubble, that is destined to burst.  The question is, what will become of the next generation when this colossal bubble bursts?  If we pass this stimulus package, we are keeping ourselves backed into this corner. 

So what if we don’t?  I would love to say that this is a media-induced frenzy, and there is some evidenct to that point.  It is not hard to believe that if the economic situation is dire enough, we will do anything to solve it long before we take the time to truly consider our options.  And let’s be informed.  In the ’80’s, a time that keeps popping up in the media, unemployment hovered around 7 per cent and peaked briefly around 10.  It was believed then that if unemployment sunk below 6 per cent, inflation would run out of control.  Six to seven per cent unemployment was the goal then and that’s exactly where we are now.  We are moving higher, but is that the result of media-induced hysteria?  Everybody I know is employed right now, but nobody will spend.  When spending stops, commerce stops.  When commerce stops, production stops.  When production stops, jobs are lost. 

Also, the housing numbers for December are in.  New mortgages rose by 6.5% in December.  January is proving to be one of the busiest months many in the mortgage industry remember.  Those official numbers will be in within the next few weeks.  Interestingly, this optimistic news did not get a lot of press.  I, for one, am so hungry for positive economic data that I leapt on the news.  I waited for it to be touted near and far, but then, it fell flat.  In fact, to recall the exact figure I had to find the Australian version of the Wall Street Journal. 

Another thing we cannot deny – corporations are still making money.  American business is still profitable.  It may not be as profitable as shareholders and board members would like, but profits are there.  In the ’80’s, a lot of business was not profitable, not at all.  Then, the general population seemed to have enough common sense to understand that some years are better than others.  This was not a profitable business cycle.  This is not where we are right now. 

I have to wonder if our situation merits $819,000,000,000.00?  I really, truly want to believe that it does not.  But I don’t want to be wrong.

So every time I am confident that the media has hyped us to the edge of sanity, I remember the reason we are here.  Hedge funds.  A credit market gone wild.  In the last decade, the United States has lost ground as a producing country.  We offer services, intellectual property, and money.  Even in the beginning, when I was young and clueless, I looked at our credit markets and wondered where the money was coming from.  How, I wondered, did Household credit have enough reserves all of a sudden to loan billions of dollars to high risk customers?  It seemed that every company was doing this and I knew a very small bit about reserves and risk factors and it simply didn’t make sense.  I was 27 when I noticed this, and I was certainly no economist.  SO, how did Alan Greenspan miss it?  How did the OCC miss it?  How did we end up here where are lending institutions have a trillion dollar shortfall in reserves?  That is the crux of the problem, one trillion dollars, or one and a half, but whose counting?  When I remember that huge number, I have to wonder, do we need $819,000,000,000.00?  Possibly.  Should we take it?  Will it make a difference?  Will it make it worse?

It will make it worse.  It may save us now, in the short term, but we should be very concerned about what we are leaving to our children.  If we could find it within ourselves to change our way of life and to change our attitudes, we could keep our children out of the corner.




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