Mar 14, 2017 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Bittersweet job: Sweeping memories from the family home

My husband and his three siblings (assisted by a few hard-working others) gathered this past weekend in the home they all grew up in, putting the past behind them and remembering events and people that will forever connect them.

Sisters-in-law Mary Jane and Rhonda go through a few of the hundreds of photos and mementos saved by their parents.

The goal was to make serious headway in cleaning out the house that their 89-year-old father, a widower for more than a quarter-century, lived in almost until his death last year. Task one was to load a walk-in dumpster to the gills with decades’ worth of stuff stored in the basement, garage and shed. Task two was to sort through and split up albums and boxes of photos and clippings and related evidence that the lives of Ron and Florence Lombardo were chock-full of family and love.

I’d gone through this ceremony of sorts a year earlier with my brother and sister when our father made us eligible, as he liked to say, to attend the orphans’ picnic. So it’s been a bit painful to relive saying goodbye, this time to a man who’d been a second father to me for almost 40 years. But it was heartening to hear Jim and his sisters and brother re-tell family lore (alternately sweet and sad, and sometimes funny) sparked by picking up a photo – some from their own milestones and some from before any of them were born.

I’m a little blue that we’re running out of reasons to visit Mt. Morris, this “Best Town by a Dam Site” on the northern end of lovely Letchworth State Park, in a village where the waitress at Charred knows on sight to bring my husband a Stella and put in an order for pulled pork with onion rings, where the manager at the Country Inn and Suites can always find us a room, where

Husband Jim, right, and his brother, Ronnie, lug decades worth of stored stuff from garage into awaiting dumpster.

in July 1973 after freshman year at SUNY Binghamton I stepped through the breezeway and into the blue-cupboard kitchen to visit a college pal and meet the couple who five years later would be my in-laws.

For a while it felt like cleaning out my husband’s childhood home would take forever.

Now I’m kind of sad that it won’t.

Mar 9, 2017 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

Pensions: Why school taxes don’t go toward teaching kids

A large and growing percentage of school budgets support retired teachers and administrators, doing nothing for current and future students.

A significant amount of the money you pay in school taxes goes not to educate children but to pay people who don’t teach anymore.

Overly generous pensions are eating up school (and, to a lesser degree, municipal) budgets.

For instance, the average Capital Region teacher who retired last year with at least 30 years of service will be receiving a pension of more than $60,000 a year for the rest of their life. Not to mention health coverage.

The pensions were reported recently by the Times Union with numbers provided by independent think tank and fiscal watchdog Empire Center, which won a Freedom of Information lawsuit against the state Teachers Retirement System. The retirement system didn’t want the public to see what it’s paying for. (Go ahead and peek at the Empire Center’s database at seethroughny.net.)

Good teachers are worth their weight in gold. But that’s not the point.

Even someone as math-challenged as I can see that saddling citizens with the cost of these pensions doesn’t add up.

An increasing portion of school budgets goes to support pensions and health benefits. Over the years, some changes have sought to reduce this growth, such as extending the required years of service and bumping up teachers’ contributions to their health coverage. But the benefits are still out of whack.

In May, citizens across the state will be presented with their school districts’ annual budgets. Administrations and their school boards will keep spending increases under the 2 percent state tax cap, and thus under the public radar. They will shrug off the disproportionate benefits as “contractual obligations” out of their control.

Yet they’re the ones who approve the contracts.

Board of Education members all around the state – fortified by taxpayers – must find the gumption to say to the unions, “Enough!”

 

Mar 4, 2017 - Uncategorized    3 Comments

Is this the year to slay Saratoga Springs’ five-headed monster?

Saratoga Springs residents will vote in November whether to change the city’s form of government, a proposal that five-year council member Michele Madigan views with a skeptically raised eyebrow.

The city under its current form is fiscally sound, she points out. Taxes are reasonable. Competent and caring people work together and get things done.

But in a recently published piece, she too cavalierly dismisses City Hall’s greatest weakness: No one is in charge.

Saratoga Springs’ rare form of government consists of five part-time council members, each of whom, including the mayor, is elected as head of specific segments of city operations. They are both legislators and administrators.

They often work cooperatively. And plenty of times, they don’t. I’ve seen both firsthand and up close, beginning with my stint as City Hall reporter for The Saratogian in the late 1970s and through my years as editor of the paper.

If, say, the council members in charge of public works and public safety don’t get along, they don’t share information and projects that overlap their jurisdictions languish. The mayor has the same single vote as the other four council members, who are “commissioners” of this and that, and cannot order any of them to get something done. There is no full-time manager overseeing and responsible for City Hall’s daily and long-term operations.

Madigan discounts the description of the City Council as five “silos.” She notes that as the commissioner in charge of the city budget, she deals with all the departments. But successes she rightly points to were realized in spite of, not because of, the system.

I wrote my share of editorials over the years decrying the five-headed monster that is the City Council. But when push came to shove, I shied away from urging voters to dump a system fraught with inefficiencies in favor of new form with its own shortcomings.

The City Charter wisely calls for the mayor to appoint a commission to periodically review the government and recommend changes than ranging from piecemeal tweaks to major overhauls. As with past commissions, volunteers have devoted many hours looking into how City Hall could be both affordable and efficient. As with most past commissions, this one is confident that replacing the current form of government will best serve Saratoga Springs for years to come.

Could this be the year to take the risk and make the leap?

I’m not sure, not yet. The commission had hoped the charter change vote would take place in May, but I’m glad the City Council wouldn’t fund a special election. Madigan and I agree: The upcoming weeks and months will give people time to study and weigh the options and make an informed decision when going to the polls in November.

Jan 24, 2017 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Editors, an endangered species, are essential to journalism’s integrity

“All the President’s Men” illustrated editors’ rigorous questioning of reporter sourcing.

My husband scanned the business section of The New York Times the other day and gave me a pop quiz: Guess what jobs The Times is cutting.

“Editors,” I said, without hesitation.

Been there, lived through that. I get it. When a business needs to spend less, it takes the knife to its biggest expense: People. And when the business is about news, you’re at greatest risk of getting cut if you don’t create content.

Thus it’s no surprise that The Times, as described in a story about impending changes at the company, will soon have fewer editors.

No surprise, but not good news.

Editors are the last line of defense before a story goes public. They are the unsung heroes of every newsroom.

There are basically two levels of editing, and in the “old days,” even a community daily as small as The

The late David Carr talks to staffers in the New York Times documentary “Page One.”

Saratogian had two pairs of eyes edit a story before it was deemed fit for print. Bigger papers had three. They edited for basic grammar and punctuation. They also edited the content for accuracy, clarity, context, and completeness.

Sure, some editors obsessed over “that” versus “which” while typos, factual errors, and assorted gobbledygook still got through. But – then and now — good editors improve the stories of both promising and experienced reporters.

That’s good for reporters, for sources, for the credibility of the news organization and the news industry — and for the public.

Forty years ago, when I was getting my master’s in journalism, one of my best teachers gave students a big fat zero for any story containing a factual error, including a misspelled name, no matter how well reported and written the piece may have been. If we can’t get a name right, why should readers believe we got anything else right?

That burden still falls on reporters, even though they are expected to be multi-media story-tellers, providing words, photos, video and data. Some reporters are stronger diggers than spellers, better news gatherers than grammarians, and the most diligent make mistakes. Yet sometimes their work, at news organizations of every size, is made public with barely a glance from that last line of defense, an editor.

As a regular reader of The Times, both online and in print, I’ve resisted being the crazy lady calling once-rare typos to the editors’ attention. The decline of editing (of any presentation of news — words, images, and graphics) may seem like the least of the media’s problems. But relatively small bits of sloppy copy contribute to the bigger issue of overall reliability. What else are they getting wrong?

The Time magazine reporter who didn’t see the Martin Luther King Jr. bust in the White House on Friday hastily and erroneously tweeted that it had been removed. He quickly apologized and deleted the post.

But the damage was done: The White House, after accepting the apology, loudly pointed to this as an example of a biased, dishonest media. Arghhh!

Screenshot from video clip of The New York Times’ “Page One” documentary illustrates the editing process of a story by the late, great Times reporter and media writer David Carr.

The most honest mistake leaves the media open to being unfairly labeled dishonest. Well-intentioned humans – including reporters and editors — make mistakes. Any mistake, no matter how promptly and earnestly acknowledged, adds to the media’s vulnerability.

Journalists – and journalism — are nothing without credibility. I tell that to my journalism students at University at Albany every semester; I told it to my staff the years I ran The Saratogian newsroom.

The primary onus for accuracy is on news gatherers. But the work of reporters, no matter how scrupulous, needs to be questioned by rigorous, even fussy, editors who focus not just on readability but accuracy and context for every form of reporting. Editors protect the trustworthiness of the public’s watchdog; diminishing their ranks further endangers the media’s already fragile status.

Jan 5, 2017 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Quest for Stefanik answer reveals challenge of reaching U.S. reps

 

stefanik

U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik issues straightforward opinion on ethics amendment, yet remains mum about her vote.

My friend Bev taught me “No good deed goes unpunished,” a saying credited to Clare Boothe Luce, whose many amazing roles included outspoken Republican member of Congress in the mid-1940s.

The saying came to mind this week regarding a current Republican congresswoman, Elise Stefanik, who this week began her second term representing the wide swath known as New York’s “North Country,” which covers parts of Saratoga County and runs up to the Canadian border.

Stefanik’s good deed was posting to Facebook her opposition to gutting the investigatory Office of Congressional Ethics, which House Republicans agreed to do during a private GOP meeting.

Stefanik’s punishment? Being publicly harangued for refusing to say how she actually voted in the private meeting – a situation which she refuses to remedy by answering the question.

So, how did she vote? None of your business. And that goes double if you don’t live in her district.

My quest for an answer revealed something even more disconcerting: the futility of trying to reach any congressional representative other than your own via email. More on this in a moment.

The GOP dropped its ethics-gutting plan after President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that the Republicans have more pressing issues to worry about right now (a knock not on their goal but on their politically tone-deaf timing). Stefanik then wrote: “I strongly believe that Members of Congress should serve as a model to the public for ethical and accountable behavior. This is why I am a leader in Congress when it comes to transparency and accountability, including posting my votes publicly to Facebook and releasing my personal financial information. I oppose the ethics amendment to the House rules and believe it should be removed from the rules package. I believe there need to be reforms to the ethics process but that they should be implemented on a bipartisan basis.”

The wording implies Stefanik voted against the measure in the Republican caucus. But never assume. Despite being a self-described leader of “transparency and accountability,” Stefanik will not say how she voted.

Stefanik’s posting of votes is indeed a public service, for although congressional votes are public information, looking them up can be a pain. However, the ethics office-gutting vote didn’t take place in a public forum. It occurred during a caucus, an internal party meeting that is not subject to the rules of open government. Caucuses are where members can hash out business out uninhibited by the public. Yet other members of Congress have revealed not only where they stand on the ethics amendment, but how they actually voted.

Why not Stefanik?

The Post-Star, the daily newspaper based in Glens Falls, tried unsuccessfully to get an answer from Stefanik or her spokesman. Citizens making direct pleas and venting their frustration on Stefanik’s Facebook page fared no better. Neither did I.

Calling Stefanik’s D.C. office Wednesday morning, I immediately reached a legislative assistant who politely made it clear that she didn’t have the information and wasn’t going to ever have it; the vote took place in an internal party meeting, she said, as if that explained why her boss wouldn’t say how she voted.

OK, I said, so how do I contact Rep. Stefanik to ask her about this, or anything else? Go to Stefanik.House.Gov, she advised.

An easy contact dropdown on that website provides U.S. mailing addresses and phone numbers for Stefanik’s four offices (in Washington, D.C., Plattsburgh, Glens Falls and Watertown) as well as an option for you to send an email. Well, not you, if you, like me live outside her district.

The first thing you’re asked to do is enter your five-digit ZIP code plus those four extra numbers that zero in on your address. Doing so yielded this response:

“The zip code entered indicates that you reside outside the 21st Congressional District of New York. Due to the large volume of US mail, emails and faxes we receive, we are only able to accept messages from residents of the 21st District. If you are a resident of another district, we encourage you to use the Find Your Representative Service available at www.House.gov to learn how to contact your Representative in Congress.”

Turns out this is the standard operating procedure for members of Congress, regardless of party. And it’s reason to worry.

Sure, members of Congress must represent their constituents, but that responsibility extends beyond their district boundaries, to represent the interests of all New Yorkers, of all Americans, on broad, vital issues.

If my congress member already represents my view on a national issue, I should be able to reach others who may need to be persuaded. I don’t envy any political staffers whose task is to sort through email. But in this day and age, citizens shouldn’t have to figure out a work-around to send emails to a fax number, or to spend 49 cents to U.S. mail each message to an elected representative.

You can bet politicians are accessible to big non-district donors who help them stay in office. It should be the right of every citizen to be able to get the attention of any representative via email.

During my years in the newspaper business, I freely reached politicians and their aides via cell phone and email. This didn’t always guarantee getting an answer, but it sure made for easy access. Now, whether you’re an ordinary shmo or a member of the media, you may get nothing more than a pre-packaged Facebook post or, even worse, a tweet, without the benefit of follow-up and explanation essential to a representative democracy.

Sep 16, 2016 - Uncategorized    2 Comments

The metamorphosis of Stewart, from fat cat to fragile feline

Stewart sniffs at meals with medicine sneaked in.

Stewart sniffs at meals with medicine sneaked in.

This evening the cat fell out of bed.

Not the bed, actually. He was snoozing on an end table on our back porch. I was five feet away, grading papers on my laptop, and jumped to a THUD!

He was on his side on the wooden floor, just lying there.

Like when my late mother fell out of bed. And a few years later, my late father. Now Stewart.

Oh-oh.

Stewart looked at me. What the heck just happened? I picked him up. I petted him. He jumped off my lap and blithely padded away, preserving his feline dignity.

I’m worried.

Stewart isn’t eating enough to maintain his weight.

For most of his 15 years Stewart ate nothing but dried Friskies, and plenty of it. He had a mashed potato belly that swung as he walked and spread when he reclined. Even after losing one incisor to infection, he managed to put away the hard stuff.

Hard, soft, canned, fresh -- please eat something, Stewart

Hard, soft, canned, fresh — please eat something, Stewart

More and more often, though, he’d scarf it down and almost immediately throw it up, which I wrote off to gluttony. After a while, at the vet’s advice, I reduced the feeding, and in a year’s time he lost a pound, same as me but much more significant percentage-wise. Year after that, he lost a pound and a half. And in the last few months, he’s been dropping ounces like melting snow.

No more fat cat.

The vet said try canned Friskies to see if he stops throwing up and regains his appetite.

She was right, sort of. He doesn’t puke after licking at pretentiously labeled “pate” with allegedly real bits of salmon, turkey or “mixed grill.” But he barely finishes a spoonful of it. Or anything else.

It’s not for lack of trying on my part and his, with moments of hope. He’ll lustily lap up torn up bits of Dietz & Watson low-salt turkey breast, or tiny cut-up pieces of grilled chicken, canned anchovies, or solid white tuna, or a sprinkling of grated pecorino Romano. But next time I offer whatever he seemed to enjoy, he sniffs and turns away.

He still goes for the dry food, though not as much as he used to. And if he gulps it down, he’ll often throw it right back up. Usually on the rug.

Stewart was the name he came with when we adopted him, back when the kids were grade-schoolers, and he has remained an undemanding, unassuming member of our otherwise empty nest.

He greets me at the door with a meow and a long rub against my black slacks. He plops into my lap, forcing me to stop typing and fully experience the pleasure of scratching a grateful cat behind the ears. He responds when called more quickly and enthusiastically than some children – except for occasions of late when he’s hiding in the back of a closet. Oh, Stewart.

Stewart’s black, white and brown fur is still soft and full (except where it was shaved). But where for years he looked stuffed, he now is eerily chiseled. On the verge of fragile.

He’s had X-rays. He’s had his belly shaved to smooth the way for an ultrasound. Neither turned up anything definitive about what might be inside him that could cause him to waste away. I sliced pills in two and smashed appetite-inducing, nausea-reducing medicine into tuna that he left mostly untouched.

I’m not inclined to put him through surgery to determine if, for example, he has cancer, nor do I want him to suffer through treatment. We’ll let his life run its course.

He doesn’t seem to be in any pain. He runs up the stairs. He jumps on the table. He uses the litter box. He purrs. He seems content. A good cat. A cat.

Time for bed, Stewie. He follows along with a jaunty jingle of his break-away collar on which his name and our landline are etched, heaven forbid he gets out and takes off. I don’t want to lose him.

My once well-padded tabby curls his bony back in the crook of my arm, tucked in for the night, safe from mysterious ailments and unbidden falls.

Jun 23, 2016 - Uncategorized    No Comments

#NoBillNoBreak — Vote and be counted on gun laws

 

Dem sitdown tonko Dem sitdown 1Forty-nine.

That, apparently, is the number of innocent people who had to die in one massacre for the Democrats in Congress to say enough is enough.

What’s the magic number for the Republicans?

What will it take for the Republicans to revive the ban on assault weapons, a weapon of war; to keep guns out of the hands of people on “no fly” lists; to demand common sense background checks and waiting periods for people who seek to own a gun?

An amazing and wonderful thing happened today.

The Republicans put the House of Representative in recess and stopped official broadcasting to prevent discussion, let alone a vote, on common sense laws — but the Democrats refused to be shut down. The Democrats broke the House of Representatives rules and continued to show their own video, holding a sit-in and declaring “no bill, no break,” broadcast literally all day by wonderful C-Span for the world to see and share.

Nothing like this has happened, ever.

I am so proud of the civil disobedience of the Democrats because they are trying to make important change and, I hope, making it impossible for the Republicans to ignore.

A polite but misguided caller to c-span tonight said the Democrats want to place people’s safety and the Second Amendment in jeopardy: “They are wanting to take away our guns completely so the terrorists can come into this country and take it over.”

The opposite is true.

The Supreme Court, in striking down bans of handguns, has made clear that the standard for self-defense in the home is not necessarily the same standard in public.

“The Second Amendment … simply does not present as tall a barrier to gun regulation as some would have us believe. The bigger barrier is the political disagreement about how to protect the public from gun violence,” explained attorney Eric Ruben in a recent piece in the New York Times. Ruben is an expert on the Second Amendment and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice (and happens to be a 1999 graduate of Saratoga Springs High School).

Americans overwhelmingly support the obvious expansion of background checks and denial of guns on people on no-fly lists.

The Republican should do the right thing: Allow a vote on these basic bills, and stand up and be counted.

 

 

May 9, 2016 - Uncategorized    No Comments

Basement cleanup turns up more than chipmunks

Basement chalk love note

My parents’ chalkboard love note was a basement find I will handle with care.

basement kid artwork

Childhood art projects need not be kept forever, the now-adult artist assured me.

basement curlers etc

Fifty-year-old electric rollers — you sure no one has use for them?

When I was about to become semi-retired I promised my husband I’d clean out the basement.  Ten months later, it remained on the to-do list.

Then I saw a little chipmunk scramble up the foundation of our 148-year-old house and disappear behind the ceder shakes. Two days later, I saw a fat (or heaven help me, pregnant) one do the same thing.

The pest control guy walked me around the basement, ducking under and over pipes. Here are spots where they can get right in, he said, pointing out holes above the rock walls and below the nest-infested insulation. Here’s where they’re storing food, he said, waving toward piles of maple tree seeds in the corners. And here and there were chipmunk droppings, which, I realized, were nothing compared to mice droppings, which were here, there and everywhere. Yuk!

Warning to Chip, Dale and the Mouseketeers: Game on. First thing tomorrow the guy’s coming back to shop vac, disinfect, plug holes and set traps.

Truth be told, I don’t go to the basement except to empty the dehumidifier, write in the water meter readings for the city, bring up the turkey roasting pan on the fourth Thursday in November, and lug the Christmas decorations up in December and down in January. But I psyched myself up this weekend to do a Big Cleanout. Heavy duty contractor garbage bags from Allerdice, check. Respirator mask that wouldn’t fog my glasses, check. Broom, dustpan, paper towels, work gloves. IPad tuned to live-streaming WAMC and IPod clicked to soundtrack of “Hamilton.” Enough with the lists. Get to work already!

Throwing away stuff is like eating healthier. No one can nag or cajole you into doing the right thing. You have to decide for yourself when you’re ready to take pictures if necessary and part with that which neither you nor anyone you love will need, want or miss.

Ten hours later, five monitors, printers and computers are piled on the porch, destined for recycling at Staples. A bin of designer summer dresses that I loved, looked swell in 27 years ago (not blaming my 26-year-old, I’m just saying) and have absolutely no explanation for not passing on two decades earlier, will be donated to the shop that benefits Saratoga Hospital. Classic building toys that my kids outgrew in the ’90s are heading to the Franklin Community Center. And five swelling 42-gallon bags of crap are twist-tied in the garage awaiting a trip to the dump.

But some things I found down there were inarguable treasures. To me, anyway.

In a folder was the first page of the first story I wrote on deadline (on a manual typewriter, I might add) in my first journalism class, the assignment that hooked me into what became a lifelong career. “Not a bad lede,” was the high praise from the instructor, Dick Thien, using the old journalism style spelling for “lead” to refer to the opening of the story. “Good first effort on deadline.” He subsequently hired me as an intern in the newsroom of the daily paper he ran in Binghamton and later helped me land my first reporting job at The Saratogian.

On a shelf was a clock my father had carved out of wood, painted and decorated with a loving message on the occasion of the birth of his second grandson, and nearby was a ceramic lamp of a young athlete he made for grandson No. 1.

And in a container of stuff I’d stored without investigating after my parents passed, I found an iPad-sized chalkboard from pre-computer days. In yellow chalk my father wrote “I LOVE MURIEL. Jerry” and my mother had added, “I love” with an arrow pointing to his signature. I love you both, I told the chalkboard writers, and miss you terribly.

Purging tons of junk was incredibly good for my soul. So was discovering things worth saving.

Mar 25, 2016 - Uncategorized    1 Comment

Don’t miss your shot to see Hamilton

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Peggy and Barbara are high on “Hamilton.”

The first question people ask when they learn I’ve seen “Hamilton” is not “How’d you like it? but “How’d you get tickets?!”

Eat your heart out and hang on to your breeches.

You, too, can buy tickets — for next February, if you don’t dilly-dally. Don’t throw away your shot.

The “Hamilton” hype has been so overwhelming that I intended to share its shortcomings, but I can’t think of any. What falls short are my efforts to describe what makes it dazzling, ingenious, entertaining and moving. Read more »

Mar 22, 2016 - Journalism    No Comments

Brave journalists shine light in world’s darkest corners

ATDAnna Therese Day makes her living looking for trouble – and reporting on it.

She and people like her are the reason you know what you do about what’s happening to people in countries, especially in the Middle East, where conflict, repression of human rights and deadly crackdowns on dissent are the norm.

As a sister journalist, I couldn’t be prouder of this incredibly smart, bold and driven young woman. As a mother, I need a Tums.

Anna loomed larger than life in late January at a women’s luncheon in Saratoga Springs because she spoke not from the podium as planned, but via large-screen wall-mounted monitors — from an undisclosed location in Cairo.

She couldn’t get out of Egypt. Not safely, anyway. Read more »

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