Friday, September 25, 2009

Autumnal Hiatus

I’m pleased and proud to announce that I now have my own column on Blogcritics ( It’s called

NewsWire, and you can get to it by going to the main site, clicking on the TV/Video category, and if you scroll down the homepage of that section, you’ll see, on the right, a sub-group called Current Features, and you should be able to view the NewsWire title, as well as my logo/icon: an old-fashioned weather-vane, complete with rooster and the four outstretched prongs, each with a directional letter on it: N E W S.

Click on the icon and it should take you to my column’s homepage, which is (or soon will be) topped by a banner, featuring a B&W photo of old-fashioned telephone/utility poles with wires strung from one to the other, many of them, alongside an empty highway leading to a distant horizon. I’m relying on the Blogcritics tech staff to put this together, because all I can manage to do is write and upload an article.

Somewhere – perhaps on the title page, but I really don’t know, will appear my permanent description of the column:

News is the lifeblood of participatory citizenship. Sometimes it's tainted with errors, sensationalism or dull stupidity; sometimes it's accurate, insightful, and genuinely informative. As (sadly) newspapers give way to screen-based news sources, TV news programs play an increasingly-important role in helping us understand what's happening in America and around the world. NewsWire monitors everything from the Sunday morning network/cable line-up, to PBS' Friday night roster of news/current affairs programs (and irregularly scheduled specials, like Frontline), to the comedy-news shows (Bill Maher especially, but also Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), to the broadcast networks' nightly newscasts and the cable news channels' 24-hour fare. We don't cover everything every day (or even every week), but we eventually touch on it all – to let you know about the style and content of what's happening onscreen (and, when possible, behind-the-scenes).

As you can imagine, it’s going to take a while to get this going and establish a rhythm for it. Meanwhile, to make the process less stressful, I’m putting the Tower on hiatus through October; I’m sure that by November, I’ll be able to juggle both. I love writing Views From the Tower and have no intention of abandoning it. But NewsWire will allow me to immediately reach a broader audience while focusing on the subjects that fascinate me most: the news of the day and the couch potato medium that delivers it.

I’ll be sending announcements (to my corps of regular readers…) each time a NewsWire post goes up, and, of course, I’ll let you know when the Tower re-opens (I’m thinking: fireworks, maybe a Goodyear blimp…). Meanwhile, I hope you’re entering what will be a cool and lovely fall season. Don’t miss the glorious change-of-season colors, if you’re somewhere that the seasons do change. Either way, hang in, be well, and looking forward to hearing from you on NewsWire.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sweet Mary (Mary Travers 1936-2009)

When I was around eight years old, my mother bought me the Halloween costume of my choice that year: Beatnik. We bought it at Woolworth’s, where it lay in a plastic bag among the similarly packaged ghosts and witches and skeletons. It consisted of a long-haired, platinum wig attached to a black beret and came with a long cigarette holder. I don’t remember if it also came with a black turtleneck, but I do recall being dressed in a little black outfit and that my mother did my make-up, complete with heavily darkened eyes and very pale lips. I knew about beatniks, because my parents were into jazz and other “hip” things. I thought it was all very cool.

Two years later (1962), I discovered folk music and bought my very first album with my very own money. It was Peter, Paul and Mary’s debut album and there was Sweet Mary: the quintessential hipster with the darkened eyes and pale lips. I loved their music and I was enchanted by her. I remember sitting in the living room listening to that album over and over, and looking at the album cover photo: two handsome young men with goatees and a beautiful blonde, all leaning against a brick wall. I think it was on the stage of The Bitter End, a now-legendary folk club/coffee house in the heart of Greenwich Village. That was the album with “If I Had a Hammer,” which became a Number One hit, as well as other songs that rang through my head for years (and often still do): “500 Miles,” “This Train,” “If I Had My Way,” “Cruel War” (which I was singing to myself just the other day), “Lemon Tree” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,”

It was Peter, Paul and Mary who brought a kind of clean-cut accessibility to the often-grungy-and-intimidating folk scene. Their melodic beauty gave a much-needed softness to important songs by Bob Dylan (like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”) that literally helped put Dylan over the top, despite his own odd, nasal, talk/sing voice. Their clear political courage and well-developed social conscience, sans stridency, helped bring many into the counter-culture fold. And as the years passed and their albums mounted up, they became symbolic of radical social change in a very pleasing package.

When I learned of Mary Travers’s death from cancer at the age of 72 yesterday, I felt as if a dear friend had died and a vital link in my chain to the past had been broken. Rest in peace, Sweet Mary. Thank you for the years of beautiful music, and for helping to shape my life.

Monday, September 07, 2009

On Labor Day: The Indignity of Unemployment

In the 1970s, one of my earliest jobs was in the fund raising department of a non-profit employment agency that specialized in finding work for those who were then still called “the handicapped.” Our pitches for support always emphasized the importance of “the dignity of work” for those who were in some way limited, yet longed to be self-sufficient. I was a young wage-slave consumed with fantasies of fame and fortune rather than guided by clear career goals, so naturally I hated having to get up early in the morning and schlep to an office bathed in fluorescent light where I performed largely dull, clerical tasks and often spent the day waiting to leave. But I loved getting that paycheck every two weeks (paltry though it was), contributing at home, and sustaining at least some of my necessities and all of my indulgences. So I totally understood the dignity of work, and was continually amused by the irony that our supporter base was comprised largely of the very rich, extremely social and primarily female – a population that for the most part had never worked a day in their lives and were preoccupied with the dignity of shopping, grooming, and supervising their housekeeping staffs.

More than 30 years, numerous jobs, and 11 years of self-employment later, I find myself among those whom we now call “the differently abled.” I’m reminded daily of the truth of the dignity of work and miss my capacity to be part of the full-time work force. As I used to say when I was making a half-way decent living, “I like to know where my next soft-shell crab is coming from.” These days, I take pride in coping with a fixed income and trolling three different supermarkets for sales. I haven’t had a soft-shell crab in years.

But I’m still among the lucky ones, because I still enjoy the dignity of supporting myself in some way. On this, the first Labor Day since the nation fell off the edge of our flat economic earth, millions of Americans can’t say the same. According to today’s New York Times, reporting on statistics from the Labor Department and a Rutgers University study, the dignity of work is in outrageously short supply. We’ve reached 9.7% unemployment nationwide, based on an irritating scale of miscalculation – meaning that unemployment figures are based on the number of people receiving unemployment insurance benefits, and employment figures include those in the military, who are underpaid for their national service and, in the main, have no civilian jobs to come home to.

The real numbers show that 17% of the population is unemployed, severely under-employed, and/or have reached the point where they are “discouraged from seeking employment” (English translation: exhausted, defeated, and out of viable options). A full 20% of Americans work only part-time, although the majority would prefer full-time work. And 11.3% of veterans (those who survived their military “jobs”) are unemployed. These are the folks who used to know the dignity of work and who now live with the crushing indignity of unemployment.

Some of them also know the misery of homelessness and the insult of public assistance. In New York City, for example, those on welfare get their rent paid and receive $67.00 every two weeks for all their other expenses. They also receive food stamps in peculiarly-calculated insufficient amounts and the ordeal of health care via Medicaid. This is the gravy train of entitlements that conservatives begrudge the men, women (and their children) who would give their right arms for the dignity of work – but that would put them in the disadvantaged population of the differently-abled who, along with both younger and older workers, have been hardest hit by this brutal recession the pundits have started telling us is slowing down.

To those of you lucky enough to be employed, I wish you a much-deserved happy Labor Day. To those of you still mired in the quicksand of unemployment, I wish you a swift rescue by the marketplace and government that, to a great extent, are enjoying the Indulgence of Indifference and Delusion.