Thursday, February 28, 2008
It was nice to be in the limelight for a few days as the Democratic candidates visited and told us that they understood what globalization had done to us. It was comforting to hear Senator Clinton say that America can't give up manufacturing or its manufacturing jobs. Both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama say they would like to renegotiate NAFTA. That all sounds good here in the Valley where thousands of manufacturing jobs have been lost to overseas production but there are areas of the country that have benefited from trade agreements and those folks vote too. I go shopping and I see Wal-Mart and K-Mart packed with people enjoying cheap goods imported from the very countries they disdain. It makes you start to ask some tough questions.
Here's one. Given how badly this area has been damaged by trade agreements and a local economy that is sluggish at best, why do so many kids drop out of school? Why don't we learn from our parent's mistakes and take advantage of the educational opportunities here? Why do parents who are struggling to survive allow their children to drop out or not go on to higher education? I thought growing up in hard circumstances was the incentive to do better, to escape the hard life.
Here's another. Why are we always looking for someone to save us? There is an almost undefinable attitude among us that is just waiting for the next big thing to come along and make everything better. With the success of the Youngstown Business Incubator and the construction of the Taft Technology Center it seems like we are starting to figure out that we are going to have to save ourselves but there are still those who think that success is something that just happens rather than the result of effort.
Both candidates talk about green collar jobs. Well, there's a surplus of manufacturing knowledge here in the Valley that could build everything from windmills to recycling plants. The fact is though, that our labor force shoots itself in the foot. Don't believe me? Ask the members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 880 that are picketing Nemenz IGA in Hubbard. They've been picketing the newly opened store since September of last year. Why? Because the store that was in that location before Nemenz went out of business. The union thinks it did not get a fair shake when the store opened under new ownership so they've spent the better part of six months picketing the store. What if the store closes down? I'm not sure how another empty store front and even more unemployed people benefits Hubbard but their tunnel vision keeps them marching on the sidewalk.
So Clinton and Obama came to ask for our votes and we told them how tough it has been. You have to ask yourself, though; are we doing everything we can to succeed or are we still waiting to be saved?
Sunday, February 24, 2008
The mechanism in this article differs from the one in Spain in that they are using a fluid other than water which they claim will stay hot longer. It sounds like that would solve the problem of how to generate electricity after dark. The Spain project relied on other technology, like batteries, windmills or coal plants.
It is exciting that this new technology is coming to the United States and that state requirements demanding utilities generate a certain percentage of their electricity are helping drive the innovation. This project in Arizona will power 70,000 homes.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Barack Obama's message is completely different from what we've endured these past 7 years. I know that no one man is going to fix all of our problems but it's energizing to see people rally around hope and optimism instead of accepting the "reality" that we must be at war and give up our ideals to be safe. I hope he gets the chance to attempt even half of what he's talked about.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
John Bagley wandered sullenly down
It was just past on Friday afternoon. “Of course they did it on a Friday,” he mumbled. “They always do it on Fridays.”
It really hadn’t been a shock, he realized. The failure of two high profile projects was bad enough. The reasons for the failure were what had really sunk him.
He stopped outside a thrift store. He had hours before he was supposed to be home and right now he couldn’t face Ellen. No, he couldn’t go home and explain that his next pay check was going to be the last one for a while. He glanced at the store name in front of him, Gainley’s Thrift. The gold leaf paint on the glass door was scratched and worn. He cupped his hands and looked inside. The lights were on and one old man sat behind the counter reading a paper. This was the first time he had seen the store but that wasn’t surprising. He usually only ventured out of his office to grab lunch. The retail outlets on the block weren’t name brand and never caught his attention.
John pulled the door open and a small bell tinkled against the wood frame. The man behind the counter looked up, gave him the once over and nodded before dropping his eyes back to his newspaper. The shopkeeper looked to be in his late sixties, heavy set and neatly dressed, even if his shirt was a bit thin and his tie a bit short. John moved to a display table, unbuttoning his heavy coat as he did so. His glasses fogged up immediately in the store’s warmth and he wiped them clean with his handkerchief.
John was surprised. Instead of racks of used clothes like he expected to find, the store seemed populated by everything else he could imagine. Bookcases filled one whole wall; tables were piled with knickknacks, keys, CD’s, DVD’s, tools and wallets. Junk was piled as far as the eye could see. The piles were haphazard and he couldn’t tell if there was a method to the madness or not. John didn’t mind. Though he normally disliked prowling around flea markets and junk stores it looked like he could kill some time here. Places like this were fascinating but he preferred the big box stores near the mall.
“Is there something I can help you with?” The man behind the counter asked.
“I don’t think so,” John answered. “I’m not looking for anything in particular.”
“Really?” The man answered. “Most folks who come in have something in mind; a copy of a movie, an odd tool that no one seems to sell anymore, you know, things like that.”
John shook his head. “No, I just like to look through old stores,” he lied. “See what I can find.”
“Sure, sure,” the man agreed. “We get lots of folks like that too. Let me know if I can help you. I’m Earl Gainley and I own the place.”
John nodded politely. “Thanks.”
He wandered farther into the store. It was big, much larger than it appeared from the street. Footsteps moved further back in store but John didn’t see anyone. He picked up a book at random from the table in front of him. It was yearbook, from Fowler Ohio, class of 1999. Odd, John thought. Why would a yearbook be in a thrift store? He thumbed through the inscriptions:
“Amy, remember 5th period Geometry and Kenny’s impression of Mrs. Stewart. BFF 4 Eva, Carol”
“Amy, thanks for all the help in French. Je suis canard gigante. Bobby.”
He flipped to the back cover. There was one inscription scratched out. He peered at it and could just barely make it out beneath the inky black scrawl marks. “Piggy Wiggy, maybe seconds on pizza Friday weren’t such a good idea. Oink! Oink!” No signature after that one.
“Wow, what a bitch, whoever you are,” John thought and set the yearbook down.
John kicked something with his foot as he stepped away from the table. A white tennis shoe with the blue Nike Swoosh stuck out from under the table. He kicked it aside. A sigh from his left caught his attention. He glanced up but didn’t see anyone.
Farther back in the store a folding card table held a large aquarium. John shook his head, unable to believe what he was seeing. Instead of fish, the aquarium contained eyeglasses, hearing aids and dentures. John picked up a hearing aid and rolled it over in his fingers. Something was stuck to it. Ear wax, John realized with disgust. He dropped it back into the pile.
John turned, thinking about making his way back to the front of the store. Junk was one thing but this stuff seemed more like the collection of an obsessive compulsive. There was no rhyme or reason to anything here. A stack of half a dozen or so boxes further on in the store looked tempting, though.
The boxes were of the heavy moving variety and they were piled haphazardly against a wall. John pulled the folded lid open and his mouth fell open. There were guns inside. Revolvers and semi-automatic pistols were lumped together, one on top of another.
John picked up a Smith and Wesson .38 and rolled the cylinder. To his surprise, the gun was loaded. He looked closer and saw that the primers on all six shell casings were dented. The gun had been fired but the empty shell casings were still in the cylinder. Puzzled and concerned, he set it down and refolded the flaps on the box.
Footsteps in the aisle next to him clicked quickly in his direction. High heels, he thought, as they passed near him. He wandered up to the top of the aisle and turned the corner.
No one was there.
He walked down the aisle, faster than he might have normally. He knew heard someone but… He reached the other end of the aisle and found himself quite alone.
He ran a hand through his hair. The stress of the day was getting to him. Being fired after twelve years was hard to take. Just thinking about it made fear gather in his stomach like a ball of ice. A wave of cold washed over him as he realized his nice, neat life was coming unraveled.
A Rubik’s cube beckoned from the shelf in front of him. He hadn’t seen one since high school twenty years before. He smiled as he reached for it, ruefully remembering that the only way he’d ever solved one was by prying it apart with a flat-edged screwdriver and reassembling the pieces. Just as his hand fell upon the brightly colored cube it vanished.
John shook his head, unable to process what his eyes had just seen. The puzzle had been their one second and gone the next. He was sure of it. His eyes weren’t playing tricks. The Rubik’s cube had disappeared just before his hand reached it. His hand drew back, shaking slightly.
He turned toward the front of the store and saw the old man approaching him.
“Have you found anything?” He asked.
John shook his head, unwilling to discuss what had just happened. “No, I haven’t found anything.”
“Perhaps I could help you with something,” Gainley said. “As you can see, our stock is quite eclectic.”
“Like I said before, I’m just browsing. I have some time to kill before I go home.” John was ready to leave now. He could go grab some wings down the street and blow a few hours watching TV at one of the sports bars.
“I don’t understand,” Gainley said. “Whatever it is you’ve lost, I’m sure it’s here.”
John was puzzled. Why had Gainley mentioned losing something?
“What makes you think I’ve lost something?” John asked.
Mr. Gainley smiled. “Everyone who comes in here is looking for something they’ve lost.”
John considered the old man and his strange store. Looking past him toward the end of the aisle, he saw something move. A shadow moved across the floor and he heard the squeak of a sneaker but he didn’t see anyone. His eyes fell on the proprietor again.
“Well, Mr. Gainley, I haven’t lost anything I’m likely to find in here. It’s probably time for me to go. Thanks for your help.”
He moved past the curious old man and made his way to the front of the store. He almost bumped into a woman pawing through a curio cabinet filled with Christmas tree ornaments as he approached the front door.
“It’s got to be here,” she said. “I know it is. It wasn’t in the back so it’s got to be in this cabinet.” She was frantic, John could see. The woman appeared to be in her late fifties. She was overweight and wore a floral print house dress. Ornaments rolled around and clicked together inside the cabinet as she pawed through them. The brightly colored balls didn’t look fancy. Rather, they were homemade, the ceramic kind little kids paint in pre-schools and brought home to their parents. The only store bought ones were special occasion bulbs, like those inscribed with “Baby’s First Christmas 1998”. There weren’t any fancy collector ornaments like the one’s Ellen collected. No Snow Babies or licensed properties like Star Wars.
John wanted to leave but the woman seemed so helpless, so desperate to find what she was looking for that he felt compelled to help. He set his briefcase down and approached her.
“What is it you’re looking for? He asked gently.
Without looking up from the case she answered in a whispered voice. “Melissa’s Christmas ornament. I know it’s here somewhere.”
“What does it look like? He asked.
Her hand swept across a shelf, reaching into the back. “It’s a green Christmas tree with 1977 written on it in gold paint.” She stepped back for a minute and ran her hands through her hair. “She made it for me in third grade. I know I wouldn’t have lost it or thrown it out. I’m sure it’s here.”
John looked at the ornaments. There seemed to be hundreds of them. The cabinet was full of them and several boxes near the base were stuffed. He looked through them but they all looked alike. It would take hours to go through them all.
“Miss, are you sure it’s here?” He asked.
She nodded her head and dug into a box. “I’m sure. Mr. Gainley said it was here. He said he saw it just a few days ago.”
“But how could it be here, in a thrift store, if you didn’t throw it out? How did it get here?”
She paused for a moment, one hand holding perhaps four ornaments. “I don’t know, I …know it’s here. I know it.”
John backed away from the woman. He looked toward the counter and saw Mr. Gainley staring at him from behind the counter. John made his way over.
“Can’t you help her?” He asked. “She’s driving herself crazy looking for that ornament.”
Mr. Gainley shook his head. His face was drawn up sorrowfully. “Wilma? Only she can find what she’s looking for. I can only help guide her.”
“What does that mean?” John asked. “What do you mean that you can only guide her?”
Gainley looked at him with eyes that were not so kind as before. “People come here, into my shop, because they’ve lost something. What they are looking for is here. It is always here. However, in order to find it, they have to realize what it is they’ve truly lost.”
John was puzzled. “Are you saying she isn’t really looking for a Christmas tree ornament?”
Gainley watched the woman as she dug frantically into the ornaments. He motioned to her with a pudgy hand. “When she finally admits to herself what it is she truly lost, she will find what she is looking for.”
John felt a pang of guilt at the store owner’s comments. He had been lying since he walked in and knew that the man was aware. He sighed.
“I guess I am looking for something.”
Gainley looked up. “Oh?”
“I lost my job today. I don’t suppose you have it back there in a box do you?”
The older man shook his head. “I’m sure I don’t,” he said. “And I am not accepting applications right now.”
“Then I don’t know what I’m doing here. What I’m looking for is a paycheck.”
“Is it?” Gainley asked.
John walked away in frustration. Here he was facing the worst disappointment of his adult life and Yoda here was giving him fortune cookie answers. He found himself next to the woman by the Christmas ornaments. She was on her knees digging through a box. She looked up at him with swollen, tearful eyes.
John knelt down. “You said she gave it to you in third grade?”
Wilma nodded. “She made it herself in school. It was the year her grandmother, my mother died. It was my first Christmas without her and I was feeling so lonely.” The woman struggled to get to her feet. John got up and offered her a hand.
“Thank you,” she said as she dabbed at her eyes with a mascara stained handkerchief. “I was sitting at the kitchen table feeling sad and in came my little ray of sunshine. She was all smiles, so happy to be home for the Christmas break. Glad that we were going to have all those days together.”
John nodded. “I know the feeling.”
“You have children?” she asked.
“Two boys,” he answered.
“Enjoy them. You never know what could happen.” John chilled at the thought but she kept talking.
“She was telling me about her day and the party they’d had. Then she gave me her ornament. She’d made it all by herself. Painted it green and drew the date on it in gold. 1977.”
“Did something happen to her?” John asked gently.
Wilma nodded. “Cancer. I lost her earlier this year. This morning I was sitting in the kitchen again, thinking about whether I was going to put a tree up this year. I’m not sure I have it in me.” She dabbed at her eyes again.
“I got the tree out and the decorations but I couldn’t find her ornament. I went out shopping and saw this shop so I stopped in. I don’t know why…” Her voice trailed off as she glanced over a table full of ornaments.
“I just miss her so much. It’s so hard to keep on doing the everyday things. It’s silly to think her ornament is here but Mr. Gainley said he saw it. It may have been in a box of things my husband donated to charity. He’s careless like that. Maybe it made its way here from the charity.”
Her hand sifted through the ornaments on the table. “It occurs to me that she would want me to. Put up a tree, I mean. She wouldn’t have wanted me to sit around and be sad. That wasn’t Melissa.”
“She sounds beautiful,” John said.
“She was.” Her eyes lit up. John was surprised by the look of joy that washed over her face. “There it is. I can’t believe it.!”
He looked down and saw her gingerly pick up an ornament. A ceramic Christmas tree painted green with 1977 written across in gold.
“I can’t believe it either,” he said and looked up at Mr. Gainley. The old man smiled and winked at him.
Wilma was crying again but this time she had a large smile on her face. “This is fantastic. What are the odds I would find this here?” She walked over to the counter. “I found it, Mr. Gainley.”
The old man nodded his head. “Quite wonderful, dear. Let me wrap that for you.” He reached below the counter and extracted a small box lined with cotton batting. “We wouldn’t want anything to happen to it on the way home would we?”
He placed the tree gently in the box and taped it shut. Wilma picked it up. “Do I owe you anything?” she asked.
Mr. Gainley’s mouth popped open in mock horror. “Surely not, Madam. How could I charge for a family heirloom? You go straight home and put that on the tree where it belongs.”
She smiled and it felt like sunshine to John. “Thank you so much. You two have a very merry Christmas.”
John watched her go and turned back to the shopkeeper. “It wasn’t the ornament she was looking for, was it?”
Mr. Gainley shook his head. “No.”
“It was what it meant to her.” John’s brow furrowed as he looked down at the counter.
“Are those Ray-Bans?” He asked, picking up a pair of black sunglasses. “I haven’t seen those in years. In fact, I used to have a pair back in high school.”
“Yes. I used to put them on and cruise around. Wearing them could change your whole perspective. Putting these babies on and getting behind the wheel could make a bad day great.”
The shopkeeper smiled. “Well try them on. So what are you looking for, John? Why are you here?”
John considered it for a moment. “I lost my job.”
“But what is it the job means to you?”
“The same thing it means to everyone else,” John answered, “Safety, security and support for my family.”
“Why did you get fired, John?”
He took a step back before he answered. “I flubbed up a couple projects and embarrassed myself during a presentation to our biggest client. My boss started checking up on me and wasn’t impressed with how much time I spent on the internet during work hours. He put two and two together and decided that he didn’t need an uninterested salesman who spent more time on fantasy football than researching clients.”
“Did you like your job?”
John grunted his reply. “Not especially. I took it because it paid well and I could do it without much effort. But now that lack of responsibility has lead me to a Christmas where my kids have a dad out of work.”
“Do you think they’ll care?” Gainley asked.
“What do you mean?”
“They’re kids. They aren’t going to think their dad is a failure. If you tell them that you didn’t like the job and are looking for something new.”
John gave him a small laugh. “That isn’t going to work with my wife.”
“I bet you’ll find her more sympathetic than you think.”
John was puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Did she marry you for your money?”
John shook his head. “No, of course not. I was broke when I met her.”
“I’m sure you haven’t been able to keep your unhappiness from her.”
“Yeah, she knows I didn’t like that job.”
“Have you given her any reason to think that you won’t find another one?”
John thought about it. “No, I haven’t been out of work since I was sixteen.”
“Then why would you think poorly of her?”
John was stunned. “I hadn’t thought of it like that. This could be an opportunity for us to start over. As long as it doesn’t take too long to find another job we should be okay. I mean, we have some savings.”
“There you are,” Mr. Gainley said.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in the boxes we set up in our lives that we get consumed with making sure each one is filled. That’s how I felt about my life. Like I was going along making sure each box was filled.”
“Instead of enjoying it,” Mr. Gainley said.
“Exactly. My family isn’t going to leave me because I lost my job. I just need to make sure I take care of the important things and nothing is more important than them.”
“It wasn’t my job I lost. It was my perspective.” John considered it for a moment. “Thank you, Mr. Gainley. It was good talking with you.” He buttoned up his coat. “I have to get home now. Ellen and I have a lot of talking to do.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Mr. Gainley asked.
“What you came in here to find.” The shopkeeper held up the pair of sunglasses.
John took them and grunted out a little laugh. “Have a good day, Mr. Gainley.”
“You too, son.”
The little bell over the door clinked as John left. He walked out into the November sun and slipped on his diddy-bop shades.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Youngstown deserves to be the scene of a debate. The area never really took part in the 90's economic boom and recovery from the last recession has stalled. The city and the rest of the Mahoning Valley are a microcosm of the entire industrial Northeast and Midwest that is suffering from high unemployment, crime and a shrinking population. This location is the perfect place for both candidates to explain their positions on crime prevention, education and health care. Youngstown, Detroit, Cleveland and other rust belt cities are all suffering from the effects of an economy that is slowing and transitioning from manufacturing to service and technology. We are prepared to ask tough questions whose answers impact us locally but are relevant to a wide swath of the country.
The Chevy Centre provides the perfect venue for such a debate. The candidates should make use of it.
Sunday, February 03, 2008
I absolutely refuse to do it.
As has been previously mentioned in this space, Americans, on average, have a negative rate of savings. Annually we spend more than we make. I refuse to believe that spending even more money is the way to solve our problems.
The government has studies that tell them the less well off a person is, the faster they will spend found money. They are counting on people who don't make a lot of money and who do not save much to dump this check right into the economy by purchasing big ticket items like flat screen TV's and DVD players. The government knows people who are better off save their money and plan their big purchases. It would seem to me that the best way to become more well off is to hold onto this rebate check like grim death.
I have read article after article that says the path to prosperity lies not in making more money but rather holding on as much as possible to the money you earn. Money not spent becomes money saved. Saved money earns interest. Interest can be re-invested and your income grows. I don't give two figs about Best Buy having a good quarter. I only care about my bottom line. That's why I think this rebate should be used to pay off debt or be saved and invested. It's a sucker's bet to run out and spend it on anything else.
If you don't have a savings account, this is your opportunity. Dunk this check right in the bank and you will have a safety cushion. The next time you have an emergency you will be able to pay cash instead of getting out your Master Card or Visa. Better yet, lock it up in a CD or two and earn some interest. As those CD's come due you may find yourself in a position to reinvest the interest and add to the principal. There are plenty of mutual funs that love small investors and will accept a start up investment of $500. Once you start investing, no matter how small, you begin walking down the road to financial freedom.
So, I'll take the government's check, after all, it's my money, but I won't be doing any shopping. I'll be investing in CD's or mutual funds that pay me. Paying me is always better than me paying someone else.