Not So Fast

Erie is getting quite the reputation nationally as a pretty crappy place to live.
First came the NBC report detailing how a “D” community like Erie went “R” in the election of Donald Trump as president. The report showed empty buildings and talked of an eroding economy to illustrate the frustrations that led to the cross-party revolt.
Next up a CBS web-only report in which General Electric union leader Scott Slawson said that Erie was “definitely a sinking ship and you’d be crazy not to get off.”
Now comes the annual Gallup poll of communities based on well-being, where Erie ranked 181 out of 189 towns or in other words in the Top Ten Most Miserable. The poll asked people to consider exercise, obesity, safety and hopes for the future.
It would be easy to see how an outsider could look at Erie and decide you would indeed have be crazy to move here or even live here.
But to all the naysayers both in and out of town I have a simple message: Not so fast.
With GE apparently on a slow downward spiral that could one day see operations leave Erie it’s easy to understand why a union leader like Slawson would have a dour view of Erie’s future. Easy to understand yes but also shortsighted.
Erie’s economy isn’t dead it’s changing. Global realities mean Erie will never again have the commanding manufacturing landscape it did in the heyday of Hammermill, Zurn, Bucyrus-Erie and yes GE. But smart communities have found new ways. If we don’t make as many things then we need to be in the business of moving things around. What’s one of the best companies for its size for that work? Logistics Plus. Where is it headquartered? Erie PA.
Then there are the three building projects all set to start in 2017 and all topping 100 million dollars each in investment. There is the new medical building for UPMC Hamot to handle the transfers from smaller regional hospitals. There are the plans to upgrade Saint Vincent’s emergency rooms and entrances. And there is the massive investment from Erie Insurance that will build a brand new seven story building and create 600 new jobs. That’s three entities willing to inject major dollars into Erie operations. It paints a different picture that never made the networks.
Add the beaches, the daily summertime free concerts schedule, the sports teams, the vineyards, Roar and the rest and an entirely new image emerges.
They can paint whatever picture of Erie they like concentrating on the half empty part of the glass. But those of us who choose to live here; to call this place home, know better.

An Engaged Electorate

I have long believed that as a country we are separating toward the polar limits of the political spectrum, often losing the compromise, common sense and governance that can be found in the middle.
But it hasn’t been until I began a grand experiment as a moderate journalist in talk radio on JET Radio 1400 that I have heard the extent of that division firsthand.
Sadly, it seems that as a country we have completely forsaken the ability to listen to each other and like the pundits in the 24-hour cable news cycle simply stand on the extremes of zealousness ranting at the world and shaking our collective fists at the sky.
Certainly holding one of the most divisive elections in modern history did little to dampen that fire as race, sex, sexual persuasion and economic standing all deepened the trenches within the voting public.
“Hillary for Prison 2016!”
“Love Trumps Hate!”
“Fake news from the liberal press!”
At first glance there’s real reason to believe that the country is on the brink of a political dysfunction from which there is no return.
But a funny thing happened on the way to disaster.
America for the first time in a long time has an engaged electorate. You can see it in the rallies both for and against President Trump. You can hear it in the daily calls to talk radio. And even more importantly you can see it in the number of people willing to run for office this year. When was the last time you can remember 10 people running for Erie Mayor, seven or eight for Erie City Council and another six running for Millcreek Supervisor?
Incumbents like County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper who in the past would have had an unopposed walk to a second term are now seeing opposition and from both parties to boot.
Don’t get me wrong. I have my share of concerns about the current president. “Obama bugged my phone!” Really Mr. President? But there is also plenty of proof that a lightning rod like Donald Trump can not only exaggerate our differences but also energize our resolve.
And it also speaks to the grandeur of an election system that can rise above the foibles of any individual candidate or race simply by giving everyone a voice.
And that’s not all a bad thing.

What lessons learned?

As I sit waiting for the election fireworks to begin my thoughts already are racing to what’s next.
A new poll shows that 80 percent of the American public is disgusted with the election process this year.
Let’s let that sink in for a second.
We’re talking about a process that has been held up as the gold standard to the world for some 240 years; the radical idea of a country not ruled by a king or a dictator or a cadre of the powerful but by the people themselves.
A system that stood as proof that a peaceful transition of power is not only possible, but enviable in an enlightened society.
Today there are those who believe that either their candidate wins or the system is rigged, that the powerful will still get their way just like everywhere else.
That cynicism is dangerous, not only to the future of the country but to the concept that initially brought the country to life in the first place.
The system is only fair if our side wins. Really?
The truth is that the only way to save a system of We the People is to have We the People act.
But do We as a People have what it takes?
Dreams of Elections Yet to Come:
Real change means holding candidates to standards of civility and withholding donations to anyone who crosses the name-calling line regardless of beliefs.
Viewers turning the channel when the stations allow enraged talking heads to start yelling at each other.
A world where people vote with their dreams instead of their fears.
Can we train ourselves in the difference between what is political news and what is infotainment circus fireworks?
Do we have the will to hold those differences accountable?
At the time of this writing I don’t know who the next president will be.
I do know we have to do something.
This has been the most divisive election in history; polarizing Americans by gender, by race, by economic status and by ideology.
A once lauded system of choosing leaders reduced to ashes by the scorched earth policies of two groups willing to do just about anything to win the prize.
We have to do better. There’s more at stake than just the next four years of the presidency .

Inappropriately Appropriate

One of my least favorite phrases these days as we explore this new chapter of my life is “age appropriate.”
It is usually used in some kind of context as to where people should go out to socialize.
“Oh, I wouldn’t go there,” she says, barely feigning kindness, “You should go somewhere more age appropriate.”
Ah. So in today’s Brave New World you must not only be a certain age to get into places but apparently you can age out of them after a while as well.
Do bouncers card for overage?
“But..but…what if I really like the band? Or the food? Maybe I’m meeting some people I know. Maybe I just want to go somewhere that I’ve been going to since before half of the current crowd was even born! Does any of that count?”
Don’t misunderstand. With the exception of a few of my co-workers and any young woman with the last name of Bremner I have little interest in even talking to any younglings, let alone dating one.
The complete inability to even grasp any of my numerous cultural references grows tedious quickly.
“Who’s Marlon Brando?”
“Where’s Green Acres?”
“Carpenters? Were they a singing group or a trade union?”
Good grief! I may not have lived through the Civil War but I know it happened!
Both my free time and my disposable income have limits these days so spending an evening out babysitting holds no great allure.
I like going to places that cater to people my age but I also reserve the right to frequent any other place without being made to feel that it’s creepy to even be there.
Anything else seems somehow…inappropriate.

Thump thump thump thump BOOM

My daughters have much in common but approach life from different angles.
When they were younger my oldest would often take a moment to look before she leapt, a risk vs reward analyzer born perhaps out of the abundance of caution that comes from first time parents.
She would get to the top of the stairs and stop to think about it, weighing the fun of what she was about to do balanced against the possibility of injury.
My youngest, while being her sister’s intellectual equal, has no such hesitations.
She would brush past and hurl herself forward, body surfing her way to the landing below.
Their mother and I would be standing in the kitchen, the only proof that the competition had begun would be the resounding thump, thump, thump, thump BOOM.
Perhaps there is something to this “Circle of Life” thing.
Now that I’m older and on my own again I’m finding that my new social interactions remind me of those days from years ago.
Most people I meet these days have become analyzers from the elder’s camp; carrying their baggage, fearing their scars and hesitant in the face of potential additional pain.
I have to believe that most of them, at least secretly, yearn to live life like the younger; to once again feel the rush of betting the “all in,” using both feet at once and worrying about the consequences later.
I don’t blame them. It’s common sense to flinch in the face of reliving deep personal pain.
How does the saying go? Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice….?
So while the fear is real we also know that a fulfilling life is only found in the time spent on the other side of that fear.
So now that’s the journey; a little less analysis and a little more what-the-hell. Just don’t expect me to go thump thump thump thump BOOM down a set of stairs anytime soon.

Decorum

There is an unwritten rule for those of us who go on television for a living. Not only is it not in any handbook but no boss in my thirty-plus years has ever mentioned it to me.
It may be unwritten, even unspoken but real all the same. It’s true in many companies but particularly on television.
It’s more of a bargain really, a deal that goes with the landscape of being on the public tip of the iceberg that floats the news of the day to viewers.
The deal is this: If you are going to represent the company to the public you must always display proper decorum to the public.
Most people who approach those they see on their televisions are polite and sincere, wanting to ask about an on-going issue or genuinely curious about the machinery that generates news each day.
But not everyone. Some are convinced that we are working from one bias or another and want to tell us about it in no uncertain terms. In my day many would approach me, perhaps even meaning well, to tell me that I don’t look nearly as heavy in person as I do on TV. Sigh.
Like everyone else, we have our good days and our bad, so trust me when there are times when I simply wanted to point north and say “Hey, the Lake is that way! Why don’t you go jump in it?”
But we don’t and it’s not because we’re afraid the person might call the boss to complain. We strive to maintain our civility because it’s part of the deal to understand that you represent something larger than yourself.
As a walking, talking symbol for your product and your brand there is a responsibility to present an image consistent with how you want your viewers to see your newscast.
Mistakes are made sometimes, sure, we’re all human but that’s the goal every time you interact publicly.
I’ve been thinking about that lately while watching the unfolding carnival that is this year’s presidential campaign, a place where insults have routinely replaced insight.
These aren’t people seeking to represent one company in one city; these people are asking to have the most powerful job in the world, to be the walking, talking symbol for the United States of America.
I’m sure there are many times during a grueling campaign when all of the candidates vent but it’s not just unbecoming to see it in public, it’s downright distressing.
If members of someone’s own party cause such unseemly public behavior, what does that forebode for a tough legislative fight on the Hill or negotiations with a foreign leader?
This is a process that will determine the next President of the United States. I just wish that more people would remember to act like it.

Walking the Aisle(s)

I’m on my own now after walking down the aisle 21 years ago. While my soon-to-be ex-wife moves on with her life, I have to re-learn a lot of the things she had done for us for decades.
One of them is walking down the aisles of grocery stores, something I would do only to pick up one or two things on the way home from work.
So with my inexperience clearly showing on my first trip solo, I went into Produce, immensely proud of my ability to find the apples after a reasonably short search.
Then I started to move through the store, with no real clue as to what was where. My pride grew as I, quite by accident of course, found a few more needs.
I had made it about halfway through the store when I realized I also needed lettuce, located about six rows in the rear view mirror back where I started.
So I put it In reverse, up the down staircase as it were, getting knowing glances from the women I passed who knew all too well that look of male deer-in-the-headlights shopping confusion.
So it was that I eventually made it back to Produce in Row 1.
That’s right ladies I now have captured both lettuce and apples and that swagger lost in the humbling backtrack to Produce was slowly returning.
Okay cheese, where’s the cheese? Row 12? Really??
Cereal? Back to Row 4.
Uh, milk? Row 10
So it was that a trip that netted about 15 items covered the equivalent mileage of a half-marathon.
It wasn’t all misfires. My math skils came in handy when I saw a major roll of 200 garbage bags normally 14 dollars.
“That’s seven cents a bag,” a voice in the corner of my brain told me.
But the bags were on sale for 11 plus change.
“That’s closer to five cents a bag,” the voice asserted.
It wasn’t until I was walking out to the car it dawned on me. Since I’m by myself now, I only go through one garbage bag a week.
The voice in my head now took on a distinctly mocking edge.
“You just bought enough garbage bags to last the next FOUR YEARS!” it sneered.
Oh well.
A woman at work heard this sad tale and took pity, telling me that she not only makes a shopping list, but she makes it in the order of the aisles so she just goes up, down, up, down, up, down, done.
I’ve never had more respect for what she admits is a slight case of OCD.
I have a lot to work on.

Miss Me?

Okay, I admit I’ve been on hiatus for a bit from the column but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working.
In fact, the reason why I took the extra time is BECAUSE I’m working.
Yes, after more than five months of living the life of leisure, I’m back in the game.
This time not as a reporter but as the Director of Marketing and Development for Home Instead Senior Care in Erie.
The company provides non-medical care for seniors who wish to stay in their homes, helping with daily duties like showers, meals and getting dressed.
Die-hard journalists believe that taking a marketing job is a little like going over to the dark side of the force, Obi Wan Cronkite.
For me it’s a different approach to using many of the same skills, but I must admit to the oddity of being a rookie in my fifties.
Still, there is something invigorating in getting out of the same old grooves, finding a different path and learning where you are going as you do it.
And I’m meeting new people, like a 98-year old birthday girl named Louise and an 87-year old retired music professor named William.
Marketing may be different from journalism but people are people, and just about all of them have stories worth telling.
Now if I can just fit this column into the new weekly work load, we’ll be back in full swing.

The State of Our Disunion

It is one of the grand spectacles in American politics and as such, I know I’m supposed to care.
Bringing the President, members of both houses and the Supreme Court all under one roof might be a security nightmare, but it’s also the one chance a year for the entire leadership of American government to come together to chart the course ahead.
But the State of the Union address has also grown into a retelling of well-worn positions and issues. President Obama stuck to those paths in talking about the successes he sees in the economy and the scaling back of armed American forces overseas.
He spoke of the need for a “middle class economy” and the role government can play in providing programs to address health care, child care and tax issues that are making it tough for many families to make ends meet.
The Republican response was equally predictable, saying life isn’t as grand as the President is painting it and continuing to harp on the party’s main bugaboo, Obamacare.
As such the night rarely offers many surprises.
The President also asked for a return to civility, asking the Republican-controlled Congress to at least find those places of common ground so that something can get done.
It was words many listeners were waiting to hear. New polling shows that an overwhelming 91% of the American public believes that Washington is dysfunctional and no longer working for the common good.
But the most telling moment might have been the only unscripted one. When President Obama started a sentence by saying he had no more races to run, it was met by a spattering of applause from the R side of the aisle.
That caused the President to shoot back, “I know, because I won both of them.”
That single remark lit up the Internet and dominated the cyber conversation. Critics of the President called him “rude” and said there was no place for it in an otherwise dignified event. Supporters whooped at the President’s quick wit and willingness to stand his ground.
For me it was proof of how thin the veil of civility really is. Both sides talk of working together because both sides know that’s what people want to hear.
But in the one moment when the curtain was pulled back we got a glimpse at how deep the divide remains.
If the State of the Union is supposed to give us a preview of the year ahead it succeeded. And that’s not good news for those hoping for better out of Washington.

Hopes and Dreams in a Brave New World

“I don’t have plans and schemes
And I don’t have hopes and dreams
I don’t have anything
Since I don’t have you”

The Skyliners released those lyrics in “Since I Don’t Have You” in 1958.The skies had indeed brightened from the dark clouds of World War II and Camelot was on the horizon. It was a time of romance where it was perfectly normal for a guy to forego just about everything else in his life to pine over a lost love.

“You’re so fine, you’re so fine
You’re mine, you’re mine
I walk, and I talk, about you”

“You’re So Fine” from the Falcons came a year later and continued this theme of being “all-in” when it comes to romance. People would go on dates, to dances or dinner or movies. Do it often enough and you would be “going steady” and wearing his class ring.
And without question there was an element of possession, noted in the Jo Stafford classic “You belong to Me:”

“See the pyramids along the Nile
Watch the sun rise on a tropic isle
But just remember, darling, all the while
You belong to me”

I haven’t talked to them about this directly but I’ve a pretty good idea what my teenage daughters would think about the concept of “belonging” to a guy.
Lovers and dreamers who walk and talk constantly about someone, who feel that they don’t have anything without someone might have been called romantic in the 50’s.
Today they’d be called creepy.
My girls and their peers rarely date one-on-one, preferring the less-awkward comfort of a larger group. Many of their conversations are by text, short and in code.
Don’t get me wrong. As a Dad I prefer my kids safe rather than sorry. I would hope they would stay away from people who think they own them regardless of where they are on the planet.
But there’s a cost that comes from that jaded cynicism, that loss of innocence that was attached to those romantic pop songs of fifty years ago.
Today it’s more likely the girls will meet someone at a place like EHarmony, the Brave New World’s answer to yesterday’s dance floor.