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.

So This is Christmas

“So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year older
A new one’s just begun”

John Lennon’s lyrics really capture this time of year for me.
Sure, it’s just another day on the calendar, but it also provides for us a clear line in the snow, a bright shiny boundary where we can pause to take stock of the gaps between the people we are and the ones we ultimately want to be.
By its nature a new year comes with a blank slate. It’s a place to identify our shortcomings and promise ourselves that we’ll do better.
Will most of those resolutions fall short? Inevitably most of them will but as we stand in the doorway that’s not what matters most.
It is the willingness to try that defines us on this fulcrum and gives us the hope that the next year will be better than the last.
2014 was not an especially notable year for events. The Erie Times-News pointed to ongoing gun violence as the top story of the year. Indeed that is a terrible blight on our society that is devastating to the families involved, but looking at a terrible but chronic problem as a top story suggests that the year was marked more by ongoing battles rather than new ones with no singular events standing out.
On a personal note 2014 will be forever known as the Year We Left the News Business. After 32 years it’s time for a second chapter and it is my sincere hope that I find a place where my accumulated knowledge and energy can leave a mark. It is in that hope that 2015 holds the most excitement for me.
So take a moment to stand back and take a look around at the incredible journey that brings all of us to this place at this time.
We wish you peace for this holiday and to quote Mr. Lennon one last time:

“And so Merry Christmas
And a Happy New Year
We hope it’s a good one
Without any fear”

Bureaucratic Nightmare

You can imagine that in my thirty plus years of being a reporter that I have seen my share of bureaucracies. Faced with taking an action that the system wishes to avoid, a tried-and-true tactic is to send an avalanche of paperwork at the request. At the very least it delays the inevitable and annoys the daylights of the person bringing the offending request in the first place.
You can imagine that a reporter asking for information from a government or agency runs into that tactic often and usually in triplicate. I’ve dealt with it for decades.
But just this week I have been the focus of what might be the most widespread use of cascading paper I have ever seen. And it’s no Merry Christmas to me.
It started after the passing of my father. One of the things he left behind was a small life insurance policy where I am the beneficiary. The thought was it would protect my family when they were young and we could use what cash value was there when the time came.
So I started the process of getting the ownership of the policy changed, a necessary step in cashing out. That was eight months ago and counting.
I’m sorely tempted to name the large and well-known company but unfortunately I made a promise to myself years ago to never use this space as a sword of petty vengeance. All I will say is that it was NOT Erie Insurance.
Anyway, I have filled out the same form three times so far and sent in not one but two death certificates to prove that my Dad has indeed move on.
I swore my last attempt was perfect. Everything signed, witnessed and filled out with all the right letters crossed and dotted.
And yet, just this week, three separate letters from the insurance giant showing up on the same day. The first said that the form did not come with an attached copy of my Dad’s will. The second said, “Sorry, but you can’t have a policy where the owner and the beneficiary is the same person.”
And the third, and this is what raises the term “bureaucratic nightmare” to new heights, was a letter saying that they couldn’t find the policy in question. That came with a huge questionnaire to fill out to help them in this department’s quest to get up to speed.
Three letters arriving on the same day Christmas Week finding three different ways to keep me from cashing out one small policy in this big huge world.
You’ll excuse me if I don’t think the letters came from Three Wise Men. Or even honest men. Looks like my present for an attorney will be a little extra business.

By Any Other Name

Can we find agreement on how to deal with extracting information from detainees in the future? I doubt it, since we can’t even agree on what to call it.
It was William Shakespeare who first explored the differences between reality and our descriptions of that reality.
Wouldn’t a rose, he reasoned through his love-struck Juliet, smell as sweet even if you called it by any other name?
While I understand Bill’s point that a rose is a rose even if you call it a pickle, the logic shortchanges the power that words have in not only altering the perception of a reality but also in providing clues as to what the speaker thinks about it.
This week the 24-7 news cycle gab fests have been pouring through a Senate report, released by Democrats before they cede power that outlines practices used by American forces in the years following September 11th to gain information on what else might have been coming.
The details are graphic and at times gruesome and for many rise to the level of torture. They argue that we are supposed to be the good guys and it’s hard to condemn acts of violence we see around the world yet perform the same under a national security blanket.
Also in the mix: the question of labelling torture as inhumane while continuing unmanned drone strikes aimed at “high value” targets. Smart bombs aren’t as precise as we would love to believe. Innocent people get killed. Some call that “collateral damage.”
Supporters of America’s tactics never use the T-word. They have come to call the practices “enhanced interrogation techniques” or EIT’s.
It sounds much more civilized, doesn’t it? But as the Bard reminds us, reality is what reality is.
We’re being assured that many of these practices are no longer being used in the West but who knows the steps some will take when a legitimate threat is revealed or executed.
But it’s clear that no real consensus can be reached until we are all on the same page, a place where a rose to some means a rose to all.

Thin Ice

I’m not a lawyer. I’ve seen a lot of them in action but I don’t pretend to know the nuances. I’ve never played one on TV.
But from where I’m standing it appears that the Erie Otters are skating on thin ice in attempts to keep the OHL franchise in Erie.
It’s been rumored for months that the team could be sold and then moved to the more hockey fan-rich land of Hamilton, Ontario.
Things became much more real when the Edmonton Oilers filed suit saying they had a deal in place with managing partner Sherry Bassin to buy the team.
According to the Oilers, the team forwarded Bassin more than four million dollars to maintain the operations until all the paperwork could be completed.
But Bassin pulled out of the deal and according to Edmonton never returned the upfront money. Just this week a federal judge stepped in to halt selling off the team to recoup the losses.
That strikes this non-attorney as simply delaying the inevitable.
The remaining options are for Bassin to go ahead with the Edmonton deal to clear the debt (now standing at 4.6 million with costs) and then wave goodbye as the busses head north or find another buyer willing to keep a team here.
As rumors of the sale started so did rumors that a local group was being formed to anchor the team here.
You have to admire the effort but question if the numbers will add up. It’s hard for the fans to hear but the best bet might be to let the Otters go and then try to create another team for Erie with new leadership and less baggage.
A lot of fans and the Erie Times-News are holding Bassin at fault for a variety of reasons. But whether it was bad business or outright deceit is growing moot.
This year’s Otters are proof that a winner can exist here and with quality players and newly renovated facilities fans support the effort.
One non-attorney conclusion: We need a white knight on our white ice and time is growing short.

Ferguson is Quiet Tonight

Ferguson is quiet tonight. Firefighters, ringed by police for protection, have doused the flames that consumed three businesses, places whose only crime was being caught in the path of anger.
The destruction came about after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer for the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.
Officer Darren Wilson testified that he shot Michael Brown after a scuffle and that the nearly 300-pound teen was charging him.
But conflicting eye witness reports, outlined by CNN and others, muddy the waters as to what exactly happened, how far away the two were and whether Brown was attempting to surrender at the time of the shooting.
The Ferguson protest sparked others to take to the streets in other cities, protests that were more peaceful.
Clearly the Brown case is the latest in what some see as a long line of injustices, the proverbial back- breaking straw of a predominantly white system’s handling of black suspects and defendants.
I have attended countless trials where the jurors, the bailiffs and deputies, the judge and the lawyers are all white. The only African Americans are the defendant and his or her family members.
When one group of people doesn’t even think about race in applying for a job, or a loan or walking into a bar while another group sees racial ramifications every day there are bound to be conflicts.
We all see the world through our own glasses and where some see the dangers of walking the thin blue line others see a system that protects its own.
I don’t know what happened in Ferguson on that fatal day, I wasn’t there. Even people who were there can’t agree.
But it’s clear that even fifty years after the start of the civil rights movement we still have a long way to go, and those who use the perceived injustice to burn a building or steal a bottle of vodka do little to help bridge that gap and may make it worse.
Ferguson is quiet tonight. How long will it stay that way?

Our Destination

Meetings are going on across Erie County this week to release the results of Destination Erie, an 18-month, federally funded effort to pinpoint the priorities on which we should focus for the next few decades.
Supporters insist we can’t move forward as a community without a common vision. Critics say it’s a nice way to blow through nearly two million federal dollars but don’t hold out much hope it could lead to more than that.
There are reasons to see both sides of the argument.
A similar effort in the 1960’s pointed out the need for the Bayfront Parkway we now enjoy. That is often cited as most visible example of what can happen when the community can reach consensus on what is needed and then work in the subsequent years to secure the funding to make it happen.
But for more than a few barstool naysayers, these reports start sounding a little repetitive. There are blueprints for addressing blighted housing, crime, education and the environment.
These are all chronic problems that society deals with year after year. Poverty, educational opportunities and reducing crime were all issues in the 1960’s too after all.
What’s the value, you might scoff, in just pointing them out again?
But we are getting smarter and there is reason to hope in that. We have come to understand over the years that the problems we face are all interconnected. Waiting until someone is a teenager and set in a culture of failure will just continue that cycle.
Newer efforts have focused on younger and younger people. Finding students getting off track as early as third grade can create greater chances for graduation later on. High school graduates have a better chance of earning more money, which helps reduce issues like poverty, unemployment and adequate housing.
The devil in reaching that destination of course lies in the details. Success or failure for Destination Erie will be measured not in todays or tomorrows but perhaps decades down the road.
The question is: Do we have the will to build that highway too?

Oldies but Goodies

Anyone reading the following might come to the conclusion that the author is coming from a certain age-induced bias. But since this is a blog and not a news story…oh well.
When it comes to our health we’re told that 60 is the new 40. Indeed, a whole host of new medicines is allowing people to live healthier, more active lives well into the Golden Years.
But that reality seems to be lost on the job market. In many areas, 50 is the new irrelevant.
Oh, I understand the economics. Older employees want to be paid more for the accumulated wealth of their experience. They often also cost health plans more because of the cumulative effect of both years and miles.
But there’s a reason why that gathered knowledge has value. People who have lived through situations, especially ones who have made mistakes in how they’re handled, learn how not to repeat them.
As Bill Murray said famously about God in Groundhog Day, “Maybe he’s not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long he knows everything.”
That comes to mind as I visit various workshops talking of the digital age and the right mix of social media for companies, one of my interests in considering the next chapter of employment.
Not a single presenter, not one, has topped 25 years of age. Most are 22 or 23, clearly just out of college.
Again, that age group works more cheaply than older folks and in the digital media arena are considered savvier since they’ve grown up with them.
But websites, Facebook, Twitter and their ilk are all means of transmission, tools that can be used to fashion a message to send to the desired clients, or customers or readers.
Knowing the delivery system doesn’t always give one expertise in forming the content.Does knowing how to hold a pencil make someone an author?
So as we live better longer we should also start to appreciate the contributions older employees can bring to the table.
Is that coming from a certain post-50 perspective? Yes, it is.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Until They’re Gone

There’s no better teacher than history, and one sad but true fact of a linear existence is that we often don’t realize what we have in a moment until it has passed and we have the benefit of a longer lens.
Another example of that presented itself as we said goodbye to Freda Tarbell, who lost a valiant three year battle against cancer this week.
If you are from around here, you probably heard of Freda. She started in radio in Buffalo but returned to Erie County to work for WSEE-TV as a reporter and anchor. She would later work behind the scenes as an assignment editor for WICU TV12.
Freda had a tremendous radio voice and a genuine interest not only in the news but more particularly how those events impacted people and their families.
She could do any story assigned to her but loved environmental stories the most, which in her time included covering the efforts to make Presque Isle Bay swimmable and the shoreline developable.
So it seemed like the perfect job when Freda finally left the business to do community and media relations for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources.
Freda, along with colleague Carol Pella, helped form a new breed of female reporters here. They weren’t interested in being weather “bunnies” or eye candy on the anchor desk.
These were tough, smart women who earned their chops on the street.
I think it was particularly grueling yet satisfying for both of them that they came up through the glass walls and ceiling of the good ole boys’ network that still existed in newsrooms in the 1970’s.
Will Ferrell has mined comic gold making fun of that era through his Anchorman movies, but if you were a young woman growing up through it, I can’t imagine it being all that funny.
But by the end of the decade when a cub reporter like Yours Truly got started, there was no sense of historical importance among the staff.
We just went to work and there was Carol and there was Freda. I mean, didn’t every newsroom have people of that talent and depth?
It’s not until the time and sadly, even the people have passed that history teaches us what milestone moments they really were.
How often we don’t know what we have, until they’re gone.

My Six Day War

I had something of a personal Six Day War to deal with last week, a battle that reinforces my belief that large monolithic systems only work in a perfect and therefore non-existent world. When I left WSEE I also left the company’s health care plan, a change that looking back seemed hell bent on pillaging my prescription pill plan. It started with a simple request for a refill of a drug that I have taken for a number of years. I told the pharmacist that I no longer had my primary insurance and would have to use my wife’s insurance plan of which I was already a part.

“No problem,” I was told. The company’s modern computer system would simply apply the secondary plan once the primary was denied. I returned the next day.

“Yes, Mr. Bremner, we have your refill right here,” the girl in the blue smock said with a smile. “That will be $1067 dollars.”

“Am I getting a year’s worth?” I asked in shock.

“No, your insurance doesn’t cover this drug.”

So it was off to the doctor’s office nearby.

“Yes, Mr. Bremner it appears your new plan prefers a similar drug to the one you’re taking.”

“And by ‘prefer’ you mean they made a deal with that drug maker?”

“Either way we called it in and it will be ready tomorrow.”

So for the third straight day I showed up at the counter.

“We actually have your original request filled Mr. Bremner.”

“Really? Great!”

“That will be $1067.”

And the wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round….

“That drug is not covered.” I offered as patiently as possible. “We’ve switched to the one the company likes.”

“Oh, well that’s brand new. The company wants prior authorization from your doctor.”

I’m now into Day Four and have moved to the phone to save shoe leather.

The Day Five stop yielded a puzzled look and a mumbled apology about the order not being filled yet. It is now also the third day since I’ve been out of the medicine. Out of either one of them actually.

When the glorious Day Six arrived I was told the good news. The pharmacy had TWO prescriptions filled for me. So for the third time in six days I had to tell them that I couldn’t spend $12,000 dollars a year for one pill a day even if I won the lottery.

My last call was to my doctor.

“I take a handful of medications and don’t want to go through this every time, so why don’t we send the insurer a copy of the whole list so they will all be pre-approved?”

”I’m sorry Mr. Bremner. The system just can’t handle that. We’ll have to do it one at a time.”

Really? Go figure.