Friday, October 28, 2011

College Grads: No Jobs, so time to Occupy (Wall Street)

College is a lot of fun, peppered with iconoclastic activities that establish emerging adults in their own not-our-parents identities.  One of them is protesting the establishment, a time-honored college pastime now continuing with its second, or even third generation.

Oh yeah, matriculation also means studying, drinking, sororities and part-time jobs.  And finally, there's graduation.

Graduation with a baccalaureate in the past was soon followed by entrance into the work world, armed with the sheepskin guaranteeing at least an entry-level position in a company with prospects of advancement.  That BA enabled launching a creative new business, or heading out into traditional paths of marriage, parenthood and responsibilities.

But kids who graduated in the last three years, during the "economic crisis," have found a new post-college occupation: Wall Street, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles and Boston. Instead of finding jobs, these youths, at their physical peaks with revved up energy and ready-to-pounce pent-up ambitions, are largely stymied. A huge percentage must settle for limited-future positions beneath their capabilities, or can find no job at all.

Though college grads overall enjoy a low 4.2% unemployment rate (compared to 9.7% for high school grads), recent degree-holders face 10.7% unemployment.  What's worse, these kids often then endure the indignity of staying the child in Daddy's house--according to a Wall Street Journal piece today, "More than 14% of Americans between 25 and 34 (5.9 million in all) are living with their parents, up significantly from before the recession."

So they're "occupying" cities across America to express their frustration and ennui, their feeling gypped by a system that promised them a reward at the end of their academic persistence, or at least some path to pay back the staggering loans so many students or their folks took out to foot the tuitions tall as the Ivory Towers and Halls of Ivy they recently inhabited.

One such recent college grad, a dynamic, attractive young woman whose stellar academic achievements at a top-20 university should have allowed her an array of options felt lucky to beat out 200 others for a job working with kids at $13 per hour.

Many in her cohort have no employment at all.

Equally disheartening is the plight of her friend, another high-GPA grad from the same university, whose years of experience part-time in the financial field gave him no advantage for finding steady post-grad positions.  After months taking temp work, he finally landed a low-pay slot at a six-employee business; he's now considering law--though new attorneys too face poor employment prospects. I must clarify that college grads earnestly seeking careers don't have time to sit in urban plazas.  But their difficulties form the backdrop for a general malaise that fuels those who do.

If you look at Occupy Wall Street, which now like a spilled glass of milk has oozed out across the nation, you'll see one thing:  class envy.  Like early 1970s Boomers who "occupied" university campuses, they want the rich not so rich, and the poor made less so via the government taking some from the rich and giving it to them.  An "unofficial" website called Occupy Wall Street describes its goals as "fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations. The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to expose how the richest 1% of people are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future."

I'm not sure I completely understand those flowing prose, but here's what I get: Banks, "multinational corporations" and stock market investors conspired, creating self-serving "rules" that caused the US economy to collapse. The "richest 1% of people," (presumably banks, corporations and Wall Street?) colluded to create "an unfair global economy" that bars everyone but themselves from getting wealth.  Right?  Makes sense?

Interestingly, when my Fave Radio Host asked participants at Occupy Seattle their goals, several responded with long silence.  When asked by Host what they wanted to do to the rich, corporations and banks, protesters were at a loss--or said to tax the rich, spread the wealth.
Meanwhile, the demonstrators at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, the real Occupy Wall Street, seem to be having a party.  Well, until the cadre of volunteer chefs serving up " the usual menu of organic chicken and vegetables, spaghetti Bolognese, and roasted beet and sheep’s-milk-cheese salad" staged their own "'counter' revolution yesterday -- because they’re angry about working 18-hour days to provide food for 'professional homeless' people and ex-cons masquerading as protesters," according to the New York Post.

Apparently when word got out about the gourmet grub the elite Occupiers were enjoying for free, "vagrants" from other parks invaded--to the consternation of the more genteel demonstrators.  Disgruntled chefs showed their ire by refusing to serve food for two hours "to show they mean business," and dispensing only peanut butter sandwiches and chips for a time after the staff meeting where volunteers aired their grievances.

In addition, the "unwelcome guests" have created a climate of danger at Zuccotti. An understood "no snitch" rule kept much of the unpleasantries quiet, discovered the Post reporter, though "overall security at the park had deteriorated to the point where many frightened female protesters had abandoned the increasingly out-of-control occupation, security- team members said."

If you can't take the heat, get out of the Slow-Food kitchen.

What is this "movement" but a redeux of 70s-style liberal self-interest?  Its goals are vague platitudes.  It's easy to say the poor should be given some of the money earned by the rich.  The underlying politics of envy decrees that the limited "pie" of wealth should be sliced in equal pieces, and that those who "have more than they need" should provide their excess--which is implicitly ill-gained--to those who have little.  So why can't the volunteer chefs share their roasted beet-and-sheep's-milk cheese salads with their fellow unfortunates of Zuccotti Park?  Don't the homeless, who are surely as much victims of Wall Street and multi-national corporations as they, deserve some of the culinary wealth they're distributing?

No, the "derelicts" don't deserve the fancy comestibles, because the protesters sincerely believe that corporations are bad and bankers are hoarding wealth for their cronies, and so they're the ones entitled to the organic chicken and vegetables--while the freeloaders don't even care.  To earn gourmet fare, Occupiers hold the "we're the 99%" signs for hours, especially when news photographers happen by.  The others, the ones who just come for the efforts of professional chefs like Chris O'Donnell, 24, who "used to cook at Mario Bateli's restaurant Lupa" in the West Village, will now be directed to local soup kitchens.

I well remember the days of anti-Vietnam protests, when we or our boyfriends were subject to conscription into the military.  There's far greater urgency to protest when your very life may be on the line, torn from your personal plan for two years for a miserable Asian war.  You may recall that once the lottery removed most 19-year-olds from draft vulnerability, the protests (though not the war) petered out.

Occupy Wall Streeters don't like the economy, don't like that others have more than they do, and may be frustrated they can't easily address their own financial woes.  They also have drivers honking support and showing thumbs-up, plenty of interesting people to talk with, and free victuals worthy of any connoisseur.  Even with all these perks, the scene is winding down as cities tire of providing expensive police supervision and sanitation, not to mention the traffic and logistical headaches of hosting crowds of protesters and gawkers in congested areas.

On Tuesday, Oakland police and protesters battled over City Hall plaza, resulting in more than 100 arrests and one injury, perhaps the most visible of several cities' efforts to clear protesters from central locations, after days or weeks of easy-going tolerance.  The New York Times reported on police-protester conflicts in a handful of cities, including Chicago, where Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office was the site of demonstrators demanding the city drop charges against 300 arrested protesters.

The liberal stance of Occupy efforts was clear as The NY Times noted, "Still, the scenes of tear gas in the streets and provocative graffiti--including one spray-painted message reading 'Kill Pigs' in Oakland--has been seized on by some Republicans to try to make the protests a political liability for Democrats." 

While normal Americans watch the youthful outpourings with amusement, alarm or boredom, the Occupiers create their own embarrassing political statements, neither sacrificing anything personally, nor standing to gain much more than 30 forgettable seconds on the evening news.

Yes, the economy is frustrating, the camaraderie of demonstrating exhilarating, and the whole Occupy thing is cooling off with the weather (or freezing in the snow).  However, the flailing of new college grads unable to find appropriate employment remains, and unless that real problem is solved, Barack Obama and Democratic candidates will find youths' continued distress expressed not in plazas and parks, but on ballots across the land.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Protection against the Elements: Jewish holiday of Sukkot vs. Urban Outfitters catalog

Coming out of the first, intense days of the 8-day Jewish holiday of Sukkot, known to most as the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles (whatever those are), I glanced through the mail to find a catalog for Urban Outfitters, a clothes vendor whose styles I used to like.

In our holiday, Jews consume all our meals in an outdoor home-made temporary structure covered by non-growing vegetation, in our case cedar boughs cut from our forest-y back yard.  It was quite chilly and damp (though not raining, at least) for our gatherings, and our children, who returned from their studies in New York and Los Angeles as well as locally, shivered in their parkas, and snuggled in blankets around our table.  We drank steaming soup and continued through festive meals with friends, celebrating the "time of our rejoicing," a yearly harvest commemoration that emphasizes that all our dwellings--no
matter how fortified--are merely transitory and flimsy given the power of God.

It's true that by comparison with the heavy-duty messages of the season--increasing darkness, decay and cold reminding of our dependence--the styles in the Urban Outfitters catalog seem insignificant and inconsequential.  But the artsy, mountain-themed catalog, set in mossy glens, dense forests, and rural waterways among majestic peaks, (as well as the usual grubby alleys you'd expect from a company with "urban" in its name) was striking in its appreciation of rugged nature.

Lovely backdrops, silly, overpriced merchandise.  The style is to have nothing match, nothing you'd predict should be worn with anything else.  A long peach chiffon skirt with a bulky purple variegated mohair sweater and wood-grained platform heels where the platform's about four inches tall; the heel about eight.  A waif seated on a car trunk near a sylvan hillside wearing a gold cropped dolman-sleeved sweater, black and mauve wildly-printed jeggings, leopard platform lace-up heel-boots...and a blue dunce cap. Same doe-eyed girl standing on a verdant trail, in a see-through lace body suit, glimpse of a serape-stripe shirt beneath a denim, sweater-sleeved jacket. She's outdoors for this "late fall 2011" catalog pose, sans clothing on her lower half.  A two-page spread showing two young ladies on a large, ferry-like boat in an overcast lake (or perhaps Puget Sound), wearing mini-miniskirts, one so short it barely covers the essentials, above platform laced hiking boots.

The good news is that my daughter should no longer chide me for wearing socks with loafers; here it is in the Urban Outfitters catalog!  I don't pair this with miniskirts, however, which might demote me, fashion-wise.  I do feel liberated; floaty tops with weighty jackets and scruffy t-shirts!  Long skirts are back!  Could this mean I can take my slim-cut "mom jeans" out of the closet?  Hope so; I'm wearing them right now, though with a shirt long enough to cover the unsightly too-high pockets that cause my daughter to wince.

Hooray for capitalism; hooray for businesses who can make a profit based on customer response to pink-haired models with matching bags on cracked sidewalks, and close-ups of ingenues with white rats perched on their heads (both in this catalog)! I hope Urban Outfitters succeeds, because our economy benefits whenever a retailer prospers.

But the juxtaposition between the seriousness of a holiday that proves us vulnerable to the elements, and the positioning of models so unnaturally-clad in untamed nature is worth highlighting.  Every day, traditional Jews in their morning prayers thank God for "clothing the naked," our voluntary means of protection against cold and discomfort.  Humans in their nakedness don't have the innate insulation of fur or feather.  Rather, we're given the opportunity to choose how we are covered; we can observe our world and note the most appropriate garb, and beyond that use our creative abilities to fashion it.

For our wardrobes and the shelter of our homes and even Sukkot huts, we should be conscious and grateful.  Now, as the days grow shorter, we shouldn't take for granted our cozy clothes of whatever design, or the warming of hot chocolate by an indoor fireplace.

Post-script, as of Tuesday, Oct. 18:
Lovin' it: An Associated Press story today describes the umbrage of the Navajo (native-American) Nation at Urban Outfitters' usurping their trademarked name for a line of clothing including the "Navajo Hipster Panty" and a "Navajo" flask the article deemed "extremely insensitive." Outfitters' spokesman Ed Looram demurs, noting the name and Indian styles "have been cycling through fashion, fine art and design for the last few years." Members of other tribes share the Navajo's ire: Santee Sioux Nation member Sasha Houston Brown said Outfitters "trivialized and sexualized" the tribe's "life ways...for the sake of corporate profit."

I'm always fascinated by the passion about fashion.  I know, I know, we're talking minority-group pride versus corporate profits.  It's never about allegiance to a look or trend; it's about who's willing to pay how much for something to discard next year.  It's all ephemeral--which, as I think about it, dovetails nicely with the Sukkot message of the book we read this time of year, Kohellet (Ecclesiastes).  There's nothing new under the sun...even futility.  As one who wears my daughters' hand-me-ups from many years ago, (and who accepts my husband's famous shredded-and-ancient look), I really don't get the big money and seriousness generated by this industry.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs: So close to saying "God."

Aside from some pathetically silly guests on my Fave Talk Host's show today who rue his "concentration of wealth," nearly everyone in the tech-touched universe is saddened by the loss of Steve Jobs.

I certainly am.  The world needs brilliant, creative, iconoclastic but sensible and realistic entrepreneurs, and each of those adjectives certainly applied to Steve Jobs.  Even those of us who own PCs are really using Macs in some piece or form.  Even if we're too cheap to have bought a real iPod, our imitations all owe their success to it.  Even if we haven't downloaded iTunes (and most of us have), the idea of music organized and procured through our computers instead of in the physical world has transformed our listening.

And the guy was a deep thinker, viewing events and circumstances in a broader context.  This is especially clear when you read the address he gave to the 2005 graduating class at Stanford University.

In it, he tells three stories.  The first one explains how dropping out of Reed College allowed him the freedom to audit classes there he enjoyed, one of which--in calligraphy--a decade later influenced the typography available on all personal computers.  His point was that eschewing the conventional path turned out to have a major positive impact, but he only saw it years later, when he could "connect the dots" in retrospect.

Steve Jobs' second story describes when, at age 30, he got fired from the helm of the very company he'd founded, just a year after its release of the Macintosh computer.  It was a very public failure, but resulted in his later triumphant return to the company, the creation of Pixar films, and the bonus of meeting and marrying his wife.  His message in that story was to have confidence in pursuing what you love, despite obstacles.

And his last story described his initial diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.  Jolted by the doctor's advice to "settle his affairs" for imminent death, he focused on what truly mattered, which was again, doing what he loved.  Turns out he had an operable form of the disease, and he survived another six years.

In his commencement address, he says, "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

I admire Steve Jobs' accomplishments and his passion--and wonder about his conclusion.  He implies that "your own inner voice," what he also calls "your heart and intuition" is an independent entity which, anthropomorphically, "already knows what you truly want to become." And he talks about events in his life as casual accidents that later, "connect" to make perfect sense and seem to have had a purpose.

Between Steve Jobs' very eloquent words I see him dancing around the concept of God.  What is your "heart" and "intuition"?  Is it just your taste? Stuff you enjoy?  Do events just "occur" or, as he implies, do they happen so that something later can come of them?  Were Steve Jobs' enormous talents and dynamic, energetic enthusiasm--his drive--random genetic facts, or abilities and attitudes he cultivated, pondered and, through what--God?--had the opportunity and circumstances to make wildly important and successful?

He also seems to rebel against convention, almost ironic since he worked so well with the business establishment.  He admonishes against "living with the result of other people's thinking," and of course, we're all living (happily) with the results of his.  "Don't be trapped by dogma," he warns, and while rigid adherence to unexamined instructions can surely stifle creativity, sometimes "dogma" is formed out of the collective wisdom and experience of people who have come before.  Such predecessors can be insightful, and they can be prescient, and they can suggest you break out of the mold.  And at the same time intimate that all their certainty still holds questions.  That's the wonderful gift of people like Steve Jobs.

Note: It has been said that Steve Jobs was a Buddhist, though sources about his religious activities and affiliation are scant other than a well-documented relationship decades ago with Zen master Kobun Chino, who early on was the "spiritual advisor" for his company.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Disconnect from Technology for an Hour Today

I saw on a friend's blog reference to a program that tries to address the problem of technology addiction by asking people to unplug for just an hour today, October 2.  Now, I, and all my Jewish friends, just emerged from a period of three whole days of Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashana, moving directly into the Sabbath) during which observant people refrain from using any electric or electronic devices.

Instead, we spent hours in synagogue, concentrating on the idea that God is in charge of everything, not us.  That as urgent as the buzzes and ringtones and symbols that flash on a screen seem--whether on my 24-inch desktop flat-screen or a three-inch phone display--they're really only ghosts and whispers of real life.

The organization that sponsors this campaign suggests in its excellent video that the problem is that attention to devices causes us to ignore the humanity around us.  That's definitely a problem, but a tech-obsessed teen might answer that what he's doing, gazing downward to text or return an email on his smartphone, is just as much communication as saying the words directly.  In fact, he might argue that because his device allows him to reach so many more people than can be in his immediate environment, it actually expands his connections, and gives him more closeness with people he'd otherwise ignore.

But the issue comes down to the degrading of the connections we have.  One voice in the Ohr Naava video says, "I used to phone my wife; now I just text her, using little words."  This reminds us that there's a continuum of quality in communication.  Best is physical presence, when you can read a person's body language, touch him, watch his facial expressions as he says something.  Physical proximity alone--even without directly speaking--allows its own type of sharing.  I feel so much better when I know my kids are safe at home in their beds, asleep; I have happy comfort when my husband's writing an article or listening to music at home, even when we're in separate rooms.

Technology isn't bad; in fact I consider it a second-best form of contact. I'm sure glad my daughter in New York has her cell phone, so I can be reassurred about her well-being at just about any time.  I loved Skyping with my son in LA, getting a virtual tour of his new apartment, commenting on its dated pink tile and the Pergo floor that attempts to simulate wood.  But it just made me eager to visit his abode for myself, because there's nothing quite like seeing him settled, clothes in the closet, refrigerator stocked, for myself.

But I signed up to turn off my phone and leave my computer for three hours today not because I'm personally umbilically-tied and need the cold-turkey experience, but because I support the idea of owning devices, rather than them owning us.

Here's a little secret:  When my husband asked me to marry him, with great passion, I might add, he tacked on one deal-breaker condition:  No TV in our home, ever.  Now, this was 26 years ago, when cell phones and laptops were not a factor, but TV was (and continues to be) ubiquitous and addictive.  I'd never spent much time with it--though I did adore Masterpiece Theater--so, being ga-ga over the man, I agreed.

As a result, I never saw The Cosby Show, Frasier or any other boob-tube icons of the late 80's or 90's.  I was a bit culturally illiterate, and tuned out of conversations centered around whatever TV show was current.  But I soon found out that just by reading about the shows in the newspaper, I was pretty well caught up on the big picture about the small screen.  The point:  Once you don't have the attraction of electronics, you focus your interests and attention on other things, usually in the real world.

Now, TV is very different from a Smartphone, but not so very different from the entertainment we glean on our computers.  Aside from Hulu now offering TV fare, and downloading movies on Netflix or its competitors, the most addictive laptop activity is net surfing.  My son has wasted hours on StumbleUpon, which suggests sites of potential interest based on previous choices.  There's always Pandora, where you can engross yourself in listening to new songs for hours.  And that most insidious time-leech, shopping.  My friend and I both spent many hours trying to find a rug for my living room.  And how about researching vacation rentals?  Shoes.  I have a close relative who I won't mention who shops for shoes online.  It's a guilty pleasure.

OK, while we're on it, how about Angry Birds?  Anyone spend time on that wisdom-enhancement?  FarmVille?  Or...even Granny's on Facebook for hours on end, especially with that compelling feed that they've now got on the right edge of the page.

Oh, you can fool yourself.  I read newspapers online, clicking from one story to the next.  I get the physical, ink-on-your-fingers newspaper, but then I want to send an article to someone (innocent enough) and, ooops, it's two hours down the drain.

That's what I mean by our computers owning us.  Our time, the most precious commodity, the irreplaceable stuff of our lives, slips away without our even being aware of it.  Procrastination, life-avoidance, no-pressure entertainment.  The problem is we do not choose to take control.

Unless we make a concerted, direct effort.  And decide to give sensory experiences, and direct contact with others priority over virtual contact.  If we can phone rather than text, do it.  If we can talk in person rather than phone, do it.  If we can engage with the outdoors rather than the indoors, do it.  There are new dangers in the world, for sure, but why subject ourselves to smacking into something solid, walking while texting?

So today I'll stroll through a local street fair with my husband, enjoying the exhibits and bands and families and sights--including salmon leaping upstream to spawn--with my cell phone off.  I've pledged three hours of no technology.  Not really that radical, but it's a statement.  One that bears repeating--and living--often.

Here's a link to the page I set up, as part of the campaign to turn off technology among participants for a total of a million hours.