Are We Still Ready for Some Football (October 9, 2014)

It happens each time I pull out my Chicago Cubs-branded debit card to pay for a transaction, especially if traveling somewhere outside of Illinois. The look of disgust, a glance of pity, perhaps even an outright laugh from the bolder amongst them. I’ve come to regret having ordered the damned thing from Bank of America in headier, more optimistic days.

As any member of Cubs Nation well knows, ours is a long-suffering lot. It was 2008 the last time the Cubbies made the playoffs, 2003 when we came close to the World Series (still so painful to recall) and 1945 the last time we actually appeared. And with the recent conclusion of the 2014 season, it has now been 106 years, longer than anyone living could possibly recall, since the Cubs won the World Series. As a child growing up in the 1980s, the whole “Lovable Losers” thing was all in good fun. But that’s also when bleacher tickets cost $10, and youth permitted indulgence of the “Wait ‘Til Next Year” fantasy shared by fans.

Many broken hearts, one upwardly mobile corporate takeover of the Friendly Confines and an elimination of David Berg hot dogs from the concession stand later, I found myself in search of a new fix for sports cravings. It wasn’t just the Cubs latest post-season embarrassment that broke me in the fall of 2008. It was years of corrupt performance enhancing cover-ups, the mid-90s strike which led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, etc. Baseball felt used up and broken.

I started paying closer attention to the NFL during the 2006-7 season, the last time the Chicago Bears made a trip to the Super Bowl. True we were humiliated in epic fashion by Payton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, but at least we were there! And of course many native Chicagoans of my generation are still huffing the contrails left by the glorious 1985 Monsters of the Midway. Some denizens of this fine city may never recover from the pinnacle of the Ditka/Ryan era. ‘Da Coach, a near Illinois Senatorial candidate in 2004, remains a Christlike figure wherever he travels across the state.

Bear fever aside, I wasn’t sure football could hold my attention. To begin, the game is insanely complicated. My track record for staying engaged in activities I don’t understand is rather spotty. I’ve been a devoted Sunday disciple for eight years and I still only comprehend 60 percent of what takes place on the field – on the best day. But the good news is I learned that I really don’t mind. The promise of future expertise gives me an ideal for which to strive.

Secondly, I can’t see the players’ faces during the action. This may seem like a bizarre reason for avoiding a sport, but as a writer, critic, former youth stage actress and singer, emoting is an important part of any experience. I need to feel it. My favorite childhood baseball moments: former Coach Don Zimmer kicking dirt at umpires while yelling his face off, the usually calm and professional outfielder Andre Dawson tossing equipment onto the field from the dugout after being unjustly ejected from the game, Ricky Henderson’s not-so-humble “I am the greatest!” proclamation.

For me, baseball was all about the passion, the commitment..until it wasn’t. Though the sport is trying desperately to recover from two decades of fake records created by cynical, juicing bastards, it may have forever forfeited its special status as “America’s favorite past time.” And as I grew up, it became clear that Cubs ownership knew it was sitting on top of a sellout goldmine, so why spend money on trying to win? Schedule a game at the Wrigley Field, one of Chicago’s biggest tourist attractions, and they will come. Not exactly a great way to treat loyal fans left pining for competitive respectability.

At this point some of you may be thinking to yourselves: “Way to jump from the money grubbing frying pan to the fire Becky! The last time I checked the NFL was hardly a nonprofit operation, and they have plenty of violent, scandalous and cynical troubles of their own.” All true. I shall not disagree. My point is this. The 2014-15 NFL season is starting to look an awful lot like the MLB of the early aughts: a gut check moment of internal assessment and criminal player purging, leaving many a loyal fan wondering if all the concussions, abused women and children, bullying and weapons violations are worth it.

I can’t stand the Ginger Hammer of bald-faced moneymaking, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He’s a huge part of the league’s current PR problem. Similar to the follies of the MLB, he’s been willing to look the other way at a laundry list of disgusting behavior until fans and the media alike were brought to attention by a disturbing video of Ray Rice punching out this then fiancée. But dollars decide and as long as Goodell continues proliferating them for league owners, he’ll remain in charge.

Rehabilitation of the NFL’s image is not off to a smooth start, but if the league wants to avoid the fate of previous favorite American sport, baseball, this season’s high ratings suggest there’s still time. We await your next move Ginge.

Missing the Point of the Anemic Housing Market (June 29, 2011)

Until four months ago, I had very little interest in real estate and personal finance news. I do not own a property, nor do I wish to, exist mostly off the credit economy grid and don’t have much of a head for financial statistics. That all changed in February when I was hired as a senior writer for a respected housing market and stock analyst. By day, I research, write and report on the numbers, which I don’t have to tell you folks, have been seriously depressing in recent years.

Typically, I try to keep my two writing worlds separate. In the evening and on weekends, I am preoccupied with theater, politics, urban agriculture and of course, myself.

Recently, because of immersion in the topics, I have come to understand that my disinterest in banking and housing limits my understanding of the full political scope. What could be more important, from a public policy perspective, than sustained, long-term unemployment and a pullback in available credit absolutely decimating middle class American families and their home values? Yet tragically, both political parties have chosen to ignore these truly pressing concerns in favor of epically immature posturing regarding gay marriage (Rick Santorum), Executive branch limousine rides (Michelle Bachmann) and pushing disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner out of office (Nancy Pelosi). While our elected officials play chicken with a vote on the debt ceiling, Middle America has been placed on the sidelines.

It has been nearly three years since the world learned that irresponsible, and in most cases criminal activity on the part of large Wall Street financial firms had brought the economy to its knees. To date the banks and their financial partners have had to pay the piper very little. But periodically, a wrist slap is handed out so that lawmakers and legal eagles can tout the appearance of justice to the voting public.

This morning, on the front page of the New York Times and other media outlets, we learned that Bank of America, the largest U.S. bank in terms of asset holdings, plans to set aside $14 billion to repay a group of critical investors as a resort of its malfeasance in bundling and selling high-risk mortgages.

Who are these critical investors, you may ask? According to reports, the claimants are “a group of heavyweight holders of the securities, including Pimco, BlackRock and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, that have been pressing for a settlement since last fall.”

Does anyone suppose that this group has been the real victim of Wall Street’s shell game? While it’s wonderful to hear that the bank is going to have to make some restitution, it is with the wrong folks. None of this $14 billion will ever reach the hundreds of thousands of American families who have lost everything because of the risks taken by a small group of arrogant charlatans.

Meanwhile, hopes for a housing market recovery, or even confirmation that we have finally reached the bottom, continue to be dashed. This week, CBS MoneyWatch reported that home prices in six cities fell to new all-time lows, and nationwide, home values are averaging 2000 levels. For those keeping score, that is 11 years of lost equity.

Who will finally decide that it is beneficial to the nation, and politically advantageous enough, to throw American homeowners a lifeline? Voluntary loan modification programs have proven to be a sick joke marked by millions of reams in lost paperwork. No one on Capitol Hill seems to want to touch the development of a plan to create jobs (which is the real key to getting the housing market back on its feet), and around we go.

It’s utterly disgraceful to have to endure the chronic bellyaching of Big Business, whining about the hostile corporate attitude of the Obama administration, while stories like this one go unheard.

Bank of America can spare the $14 billion. The nation’s middle class can no longer afford the loss of dignity, combined with collective callousness, bought on by the risks of elite cads who fail to connect with the real repercussions of their actions. And our public servants need to stop enabling this disconnect.

An Argument for Anarchy (June 1, 2010)

Anarchy

It’s hard to imagine that the American public has ever felt more powerless in a given period of history than it does now, with the possible exception of the Great Depression. However, even during that awful fiscal and social crisis, there seemed to be a sense of agency – a pull yourself up by the bootstraps mentality that told citizens to wake up and each day and keep fighting. The idea was that if you toiled hard enough after suffering a bad break, recovery was possible.

It’s certainly hard to grab ahold of that sensation now. Millions of jobs have been lost since the “Great Recession” began in 2007. But this time, we sit in the middle of an economic rebound that doesn’t include employment creation. The eliminated positions in finance, construction, manufacturing and other industries may never come back. Companies have learned to do more with less, aided by the technology ironically developed by thousands of H-1 visa workers who find that their services, and thus their vision of the 21st Century American dream, are no longer required.

Oil leaks into the Gulf by the millions of barrels, and we are told this environmental catastrophe may last another couple of MONTHS before we can even begin cleanup. We accept this with a resigned weariness that is beginning to take the shape of a national spirit. We didn’t vote to authorize this deep well drilling, and if there’s nothing the Federal Government can do about it, then certainly John Q. Public can’t solve the problem either. We must all sit our hands and wait patiently for the villain in this nightmare, British Petroleum, to figure a way out of this mess before the Gulf region becomes an ecological holocaust. Fishermen lose their livelihoods, animals die, plants are coated in black sludge and still we must wait for the same non-information to be spoon-fed to us each evening on the nightly news.

Millions of families lost their homes in the housing bust, and their retirement savings in the market crash of late 2008. Individuals and their dependents try to climb out of their personal fiscal craters while Bank of America, Citibank, JP Morgan and other agencies responsible for the mess post more robust profit earnings than ever. The always inept Congress debates punishment while these corporations laugh all the way to the bank.

What is the lesson taken away from these developments as well as the BP saga? Big business, not middle America, is what matters. Most of us can feel free to take a long walk off a short plank for all that our little lives mean in the grand scheme of Federal health. Just ask the families who lost loved ones in the BP oil rig explosion. Their bodies were never found, yet this is not a headline.

Where voices were once heard, raised up to effect a shifting of the national consciousness, and beget change, a organized movement is now required. The Tea Party was written off as a fad until Glenn Beck and his multi-media platform gave it some validity. Candidate Obama’s surge to victory on the shoulders of small donors already seems so antiquated.

So what’s the solution? How do we, to borrow a phrase from the Tea Partiers, “take back America?” How do we return the USA to its heyday as a Republic that is actually run for the people, by the people? Because it seems that preserving the status quo is what has actually become un-American – not as Mr. Rand Paul claims, criticizing the corporations who are slowly breaking our spirits.

The system is shattered and those of us (including me) who were naïve enough to believe that one man as President could fix it, are removing the pixie dust from our eyes to find, to our shock, that we may just need to start from scratch. America has become the proverbial ship that is so off course that it may be sunk before it ever finds the right path.

With each passing day, I am beginning to wonder if that is such a terrible idea to consider.