Friday, December 31, 2010

The Close Of The Decade

The first decade of the new century begins its last year at midnight.

Here's wishing it's a good one coming, with better news on the publishing front for all of us.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Race Or Reason

Looks like an office complex, doesn't it.

The structure pictured is, in fact, a single family home located in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood.

Yes, that Bridgeport. The ancestral homeland of the Daley clan and the font of all clout in the city of Chicago.

An African-American couple wanted to buy the place and now the Justice Department is looking into the real estate deal that wasn't.

It could be discrimination that stopped Daniel and Adrienne Sabbia from selling their modern residence to George and Peytyn Willborn. Or it could be the sort of 'after the offer' panic that sets in.

The Sabbias just might have thought that the Willborns could be coaxed into paying a higher price since they wanted the place so badly.

As in most home sales, the grantor and grantee reached a verbal agreement on a price, but the sales contract was never signed.

If the Willborns were willing to pay $1.7 million for a building that shouts 'Doctors Offices', maybe they could be convinced to pay a little more? As it turns out, the Willborns simply went straight to HUD and filed a complaint when the sale fell through and the house was pulled off the market.

The house is on the market again, starting at around $1.8 million.

The Willborns could call the Sabbias' bluff and meet the price, but a history of discrimination often leaves a large chip on the shoulder. They elected to make it into a federal case, but whether or not a judge sees things their way is another matter.

Some people are known to put a house on the market to gauge interest and value, only to change their mind when an offer is made. Many who have been through the real estate search have come up against a crackpot who acted like they were ready to move, only to find that the owner was not so serious about the sale after all.

Then again, this is Bridgeport we're talking about. It's a remarkably pale area in a city that is highly compartmentalized when it comes to neighborhoods.

It's taken as gospel that black folks move in and the gangbangers follow.

Hard to preach from that book, however, when you're talking about a family that has the financial means to purchase a home in the stratospheric price range.

Is it discrimination or a seller with cold feet?

A Federal judge will have to decide.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Shifting Deck Chairs

Economists are alarmed, and that sort of alarm often translates into the Federal Government stepping in to regulate.

We're not taking on more debt, honest. We're only shifting the deck chairs on our sinking personal finances.

Credit cards offering cash-back rewards are growing in popularity's obvious. You know you're paying a premium to use the credit card and getting a piece of it back is enticement enough.

But when the economists look at the total debt picture, they see numbers climbing and they become alarmed.

Please don't cause a fuss. There are a lot of us who understand that credit, rather than cash, will yield a small financial reward and we don't want to lose out because some people don't realize how credit cards actually work to benefit the bank that issues them.

Vendors pay a fee to the bank for the right to accept the card, and it means more business for them. Whether you charge or pay cash, that fee is passed on to you in the price of the item. For you to use your credit card instead of writing a check makes no difference.

You're paying the same price, and when you pay off your balance in full each month, you're in the same place you'd be if you didn't charge.

Add in a cash-back bonus for using credit and you're a few steps ahead of the game. The groceries or socks you purchased are a little bit cheaper, thanks to the rebate, and you're no worse off.

Should some well-meaning politician be stirred to act, those rebates could be taken away and those who use their cards wisely would get screwed over so that the unaware might be spared from their own ignorance.

Yes, indeed, there are people who don't realize that making a monthly minimum payment will never get the balance to zero.

But for those of us who feel like we're gaming the system by not paying a dime in interest fees while merrily collecting our puny cash-back bonus? Can't we go on moving the deck chairs so that we can pretend we're making headway?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Still Time To Recharge

You're heading back to work, not yet fully recovered from a long weekend of eating, drinking, socializing and not resting.

Physically, your internal organs are out of whack. They've been bombarded with the delicacies that they only see once a year and it takes a while for the body chemistry to recover. Too much fat. Too much sugar. Too much alcohol. Every cell in your unfortunate pancreas is reeling.

Don't worry. It will get better.

Scientists claim that we'll all feel thoroughly refreshed by this time next week.

Our heads will be so stunned from New Year's Eve that by the first Monday in January, we'll actually believe that we're ready to take on the world with plenty of energy.

There's said to be some kind of psychological trigger that kicks in. We think that because it's a new year, we're making a new start. We're ready to conquer the business world, win that account, and all because the date is 2011 rather than 2010.

This week, however, is a total loss.

Keep your head down, don't get laid off, and by this time next Monday you'll feel differently than you do today.

Or at least the scientists would have us believe it's so.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Reality Intrudes

There's no time for writing with Christmas just around the corner.

Someone (that would be me) has to finish up the baking and whip up an appetizer for the cousin's Christmas Eve dinner party.

One hundred years ago, several families stopped their holiday preparations and instead organized the funerals of loved ones. It's been exactly one hundred years since a massive fire at Chicago's Union Stockyards took the lives of twenty-one fire fighters.

Back then, the Morris Company's pig house was infused with the grease from countless butchered hogs, plenty of fuel for a hot fire. Just as the various brigades arrived to fight the fire, a wall collapsed and crushed men who were doing their very dangerous job.

How did it happen that the same tragedy could occur on the same day, one hundred years later?

On the south side of Chicago, an abandoned warehouse went up in flames and the fire department responded.

The firemen knew that most such fires were begun by the homeless, trying to stay warm. Noticing an unsecured door, they figured it was another such case. Whoever started the fire might be trapped inside, and the men in the turn-out coats were rescuers, after all.

The structure was unstable and the roof came in, killing two and injuring several more.

One hundred years ago, twenty-seven families of Chicago firefighters put Christmas aside so that they could mourn their dead. This year, two families will relive that experience of last century.

And all over Chicago, civilians watch the fire trucks go by and wonder if the people on the bright red engine wonder if they're going to go home at the end of their shift.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Further Signs Of A Booming Economy

Does anyone really need a large robe that's designed to be put on backwards?

If your financial picture is bleak, do you buy a blanket with sleeves?

Of course not.

The makers of the Snuggie boast that they've sold one of their products to one in twelve Americans. That's twenty-five million unneccesary items bought and paid for, at a time when economists say the consumer has gone into hiding.

The economists obviously aren't looking in the right place.

Only a well-crafted advertising blitz could convince people that they need a product that they don't, in fact, need.

There's an alma mater Snuggie for most colleges. There's sports Snuggies that celebrate your favorite football team. There's Snuggies for outdoor wear.

Does anyone not drunk wear a Snuggie to a Bears game and live to tell the tale?

Where's the Center for Science in the Public Interest on this one, I ask you. They're going after McDonald's for brainwashing children into obesity, but what is a Snuggie but an invitation to all to lounge on the sofa and not exercise?

Don't tell me that people aren't feeling positive about their economic future, if Snuggies are flying off store shelves. No one wastes money on a novelty item if they're struggling to make end meet.

Things are on the upswing. The Snuggie market indicator points up, up, up.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Public Rights Of Way

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

With those words, William Butler Yeats memorialized the country house in Sligo where Irish revolutionaries Eva Gore-Booth and her sister Constance Markiewicz grew up and grew away from their privileged way of life.

One elegant home, appealing to both literary and historical interests. Edward Walsh and his wife Constance Cassidy purchased Lissadell House from a descendant of the two sisters and turned it into a tourist attraction. They became the caretakers of a residence filled with ghosts of poets and rebels, not to turn a profit but to cover the exorbitant costs of a dream they were happy to share.

The new owners felt that they had to control access to the grounds. After all, an old house requires a boatload of money to maintain, and what tourist would pay to see the facade and grounds if they could simply walk around at no cost?

It's the concept of public rights of way, in which the common folk can walk across someone's property. In a recently decided court case, Mr. Justice Bryan McMahon determined that people had been using roads through the grounds since at least the 1950's, and that meant a public right of way was implied.

The owners have to comply with a standard that was set before they made the purchase. As ordered, they have opened the gates and all are free to stroll the laneways and byways of Lissadell House.

Joe Leonard of the Sligo County Council is delighted about the judge's ruling, a triumph for the little man against the mighty estate owner. It's the mindset of those who fought and died to free Ireland from English hands, with the owners of the big country estates of English origin by and large.

Oh, and by the way, he does very much hope that the owners will continue their excellent work in maintaining the estate and developing a tourist trap that's bringing in people to Sligo who otherwise wouldn't bother with an out-of-the-way, sleepy little town.

The Mayor of Sligo, aware that the home attracted 40,000 visitors to the area, also hopes that the Walsh-Cassidy family will carry on as if nothing had changed.

So the owners, who also live in the house, lose all privacy for themselves and their guests, while the locals of Sligo can bike along the roads of Lissadell House. They can drift towards the house, to see who's coming and going. They might be tempted to pick a blossom or two from the garden, and there's no telling what a group of bored teens might do for amusement when they've grown bored with video games.

The Walsh-Cassidy family is uncertain if they'll continue, which will be a great loss to members of the Yeats Society and anyone traveling to Ireland with a curiosity about life in a big country house---the sort of life that created women with a keen interest in overturning the existing government.

It's a triumph for the rights of the general public of Sligo, but they'll soon learn what the term "hollow victory" means.

Those 40,000 guests aren't going to flock to the peace and quiet of Lissadell when there's all kinds of traffic on what once were private roads. Guests taking moon-lit strolls will not be delighted when someone from town comes running along.

Strangers in a strange place have a fear of being assaulted, and if they're not prepared for the lovely people of Sligo out and about, they'll go home with a sense of not being safe as guests of Lissadell House. That sort of word-of-mouth negative advertising isn't healthy for the bottom line.

Having been sued by the neighbors, Mr. Walsh and Ms. Cassidy may not feel so positive about the area they tried to help, no matter how much Mayor Lyons blusters about his hope that everyone will just getting along.

Dear shadows, now you know it all,
All the folly of a fight 
With a common wrong or right...  

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Holidays Begin

There'll be no writing or reading or even so much as a glance at the newspaper.

Sure Christmas is not until the end of the week, but the brothers are in town and I'll be taking the day off. It's been an age since we gathered in the same town and such a rare moment deserves special commemoration.

That's right. We're on a pub crawl today. So enjoy yourself at work, all you wage slaves. In a matter of hours I'll be at peace and all will be right with the world.

Tomorrow, of course, is another matter entirely, but I'll worry about the hangover when and if it comes.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Welcome To Illinois Eddie O'Connor

Wind power is the energy of the future, and who wouldn't want to bring green energy jobs to....China?

Eddie O'Connor of Ireland's own Mainstream Renewable Energy has partnered with the Chinese (it's the Red Chinese Army most likely) to create a new business that will harness the winds sweeping off the Illinois prairie and turn it into electricity.

Tianrun Shady Oaks will soon be powering your home, Mr. Land of Lincoln taxpayer. Isn't it good to know that your electricity is generating income for the Chinese? How's that balance of trade working out for you there?

Sorry, Newton, Iowa, but the Chinese can make turbines cheaper than you and did you really think that all those tax credits for green jobs would stay in the States? Maybe if the folks in Newton were buying Treasury bonds by the billion they might have been able to wield a bit of influence.

Of course, if they'd work for pennies a day like the Chinese laborers do, they might have gotten the work.

The joint venture will see China construct the wind turbines with Mr. O'Connor providing his expertise. He made a fortune with Airtricity in Ireland and he means to do the same with Mainstream. Ameren Illinois will buy up the power from the 120 megawatt farm. So will this wind farm be constructed in Peoria, or does Ameren have someplace further away from corporate headquarters in mind?

You see, there's a wind farm near DeKalb, Illinois that has driven local residents into court to have the thing shut down. The noise is endless and maddening, as is the strobe effect of the blades. Birds have a nasty tendency to fly into the spinning blades, and crop dusting is quite a problem when giant fans are blowing the chemicals away.

Wind power sounds grand on paper, but once the turbines start to rotate in a populated area, all bets are off. Tianrun may have a twenty-year contract to sell electricity, but the unhappy citizens of Southern Illinois (die-hard Republicans in a Democratic-controlled state) will be looking at who might have cut a deal with Springfield and which Chicago politicians have gotten a cut of the action and that wind farm may not be up and running anytime soon.

There are a surprising number of people who will be asking questions about why the Chinese are reaping the rewards of renewable energy tax incentives when there's wind turbine manufacturers just across the Mississippi in Iowa whose employees would contribute to the American economy.
Eddie O'Connor may not be recouping his investment as rapidly as he may have been led to believe by the desperate-for-any-investment Governor Quinn.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Even More Troubles With Unity

As a member of the European Union and adherent to the EU Court of Human Rights, Ireland is getting whacked with two large clubs.

Not only is the bail-out taking governance out of the hands of the Government, but now the Court has ruled that Ireland has breached regulations and more rules have to be erased. Expect the Catholic Church to bellow loudly over this one.

Being oh-so-very Catholic, Ireland does not allow abortion on its emerald soil, but a woman is free to hop on the ferry to England and take care of things over there where the neighbors can't see.

This manner of brushing unpleasant things under the rug is a violation against women's rights, unfortunately, and it doesn't matter whether or not the priests or the faithful or the voters are fine with the status quo. The law has to be changed.

There'll be arguments made that it's the camel's nose under the tent, but the EU's Court has found that it's not right to make a pregnant woman travel abroad to obtain an abortion when her health is at risk. Irish women seeking medical advice as to whether or not they should abort were not getting answers from their doctors, but that's the National Health Service for you. Even the doctors don't want to be implicated in something that the priests decry as a mortal sin.

The Court's decision is binding and, just like the bail-out deal, Ireland will be made to conform as ordered by foreigners in a foreign country. Naturally, the Government will craft the law in the narrowest of terms that appease the EU's decree while keeping something of the old Irish ways, but things will not be the same.

That's what comes with unity. You have to take the bad with the good and hope you come out ahead on the deal in the long run.

Life Off-Line

The laptop broke down and you tried to fix it. All day long, you used the desktop to access the Internet to find out what fixes you could try.

In the end, you realized that it was beyond your capabilities and I'll be delivering the thing to the repair place when I run out to finish up the Christmas shopping.

All day long, I was off-line.

Sure, I can Twitter from my Blackberry but I can't send query letters, can I? And there's a new agent at Caren Johnson's agency who'd be perfect for one of my manuscripts. Late at night, I don't know if I can polish the old query letter into suitable form. Not as shiny as it would be if I could have started in the morning, fresh.

Off-line for the day. Before I fall asleep I'd like to catch up on the forums I follow. I don't have the spark needed to re-write the section of my current Work In Progress that I decided to re-write last night, thinking I'd get into it first thing in the morning.

But no.

I was off-line and cut off from the keyboard for the whole day.

Stupid laptop.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

There Are No Losers Here

The public high school in Evanston, Illinois was faced with a gut-wrenching problem.

Minority children were under-represented in the freshman Honors English course. What was the school board to do to correct this situation?

Perhaps someone would commission a study to see why so many black and Hispanic teens were already behind the white kids when they came into the school. Was there something lacking in the primary grades? Was there something in the average minority home that set them back before they even got started?

Yes, well, studies cost money and there sure isn't enough of that to go around these days. The teachers aren't entirely confident that they'll be getting their pensions when they retire, so dire is the financial picture.

Still, this glaring discrepancy had to be addressed.

White students were achieving and continuing to achieve, far surpassing their non-white colleagues. Everyone knows that such success in high school translates into further success in the future. It's the kids in the Honors classes who end up gaining admittance to the more prestigious universities, while the rest have to settle for less desirable options. Or they might not even make it into college at all.

The white kids are winning and the others are losing out. The township had to react, and react quickly.

So now there will be no Honors English class for the freshman.

Everyone will be treated as equal. Equally dumb. Equally smart. There are no losers in the achievement game.

Everyone gets a trophy and a pat on the head, job well done, good on you for trying so hard.

The question remains, of course. Why do the minority students come in behind?

That's a question for another time. The answers could be downright unpleasant.

The school district cannot mandate that non-English speaking Hispanic parents master the language before their children are born so that they can read to them like the white kids' parents do. Laws cannot be passed that force non-white parents to push their offspring like the parents of the children who excel.

The school system cannot correct alcoholism or drug abuse or physical abuse or anything else that the minority students have to deal with at home, when their white counterparts are busy studying and getting tutored and quizzed by mom after dinner.

Instead, all will be treated as equal. And the white parents will pay for private instruction so that their kids maintain the same high level as was once offered for free by the school.

The grade school will not be made to stop settling for adequate rather than risk tweaking someone's self esteem.

In the end, nothing will really change. The minority kids won't trickle into advanced classes as upperclassmen because dumbing down the curriculum won't solve the problem.