Monday, March 1, 2010

Weary & Wary in the Heartland

Our online NewsHour editor requested that the Patchwork Nation bloggers comment on the fact that consumer confidence had fallen in February to the lowest level since last spring. She asked if we were confident consumers? Why or why not?

Here’s the deal. As far as I'm concerned -- and as far as a lot of people I talk to are concerned -- we are simply fed up with greedy business institutions, self-serving politicians, ego-inflated celebrities, cheaters, liars, over-indulgers, media blowhards and shameless marketers. Most of us are people who played by the rules – paid our taxes, paid our credit card bills on time, bought modest homes, didn’t live above our means, provided for our families, saved for our kids’ college educations, had savings accounts, invested what we could for retirement, did our charity work, helped our neighbors, got out to vote and ate our apple pie with skim milk. So what did we get for living a decent life? Screwed.

I feel a slow-burning anger in people – cynicism, frustration and defensiveness. We’re on our guard expecting to be taken advantage of at every turn. And we are! For example, look at these credit card companies sending us changes to our agreements in tiny type and incomprehensible legalese. Here’s a recent example from my life:

When my daughter went off to college four years ago I got her a credit card in her name for emergencies. The card company billed it as a card that parents could trust because of the low credit limit. The bills came home to me and I paid them, as I always do, on time. Over the years that limit crept up, but my daughter was responsible with money so I didn’t balk. So last fall the company sent one of those Changes to Your Credit Agreement letters. I admit that I generally ignore these things, which I'm sure the credit card companies depend on, but this time I read it.

Well, I read it and I read it again and then over again attempting to decipher the fine print and financial jargon. Then I called to ask questions. The company wouldn’t talk to me even though I pay all the bills. So I called my daughter and gave her a list of things to ask. The deal was that they were starting to charge immediate interest on all purchases -- whether you've been a responsible client or not. You buy something and interest charges start that day. So when you get the monthly bill you already have interest charges built in to the amount you owe!

So my daughter said she wanted to cancel the card. The company threatened that doing that would destroy her good credit record. There was an option -- in tiny, tiny print -- that you could reject the agreement changes and the account would close on the card's expiration date and not be renewed. So she did that and stopped using the card.

After a few months of no purchases on the card, the company took note and sent a revised credit agreement letter changing the daily interest rate provision to some other complicated scheme. I got her a different credit card. But guess what – I now go over every one of those complicated Changes to Your Agreement letters with a fine-toothed comb looking for twists that are going to somehow pick my pocket. My son just got one that said his credit card company was going to start charging him $60 per year unless his spent an average of $200 per month with his card!

I know there is new federal legislation to regulate this – BUT I don’t trust the government either. After all who deregulated all those financial institutions and let greedy Wall Street executives gorge with abandon on our meager middle-class investments? My dreams of retiring early to somewhere warm and sunny crashed last fall along with the financial market.

So are you getting the picture from out here in the Heartland? Consumer confidence? No such thing. Confidence in our government leaders – Democrat or Republican -- to solve the country’s financial problems? No such thing. We’re weary and wary.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A new year ...

2009 is now a memory and what a year it was! For our extended family, it meant new beginnings with four new babies! That’s what made my holidays so special this year. Seeing the holidays through a child’s eyes can really put things into perspective. Most little ones are as pleased with the packaging – ribbons, bows and tissue paper – as they are with what’s inside!

Spending time together meant more than exchanging large, elaborate gifts, as it should. We watched the faces of grandparents and great-grandparents light up as they held the new little ones in their arms. Their faces shone brighter than any star atop a Christmas tree. It was priceless.

Most of my family and friends had to scale back the spending this year due to layoffs and salary decreases. My husband didn’t get paid for the two weeks he had off surrounding the holidays, so that will make the next couple of months a little tight for us. We won’t spend as much on entertainment as we normally do, and we may have to charge a thing or two or dip into our small savings.

We’re looking forward to the tax relief that the new baby will bring, which reminds me that we’re still catching up on those hospital bills. This is the first year that I’m actually eager to file our taxes. I really wish that we could have earned the tax credit for making our home more energy efficient with new windows, but the initial investment was too much for us. We bought a new car - well new to us - but that won’t qualify for a tax break either.

The state of the economy and concerns about the future may have taken a back burner during the joyful month of December, but they will soon resurface. A new year brings new worries and possibly New Year’s resolutions. For my husband and me, it may involve spending less and working more. While I’ve held multiple jobs before, it’s not going to happen this year with the new baby. However, my husband will work as a referee during the summer and fall to supplement our income and believe me, we will need every penny.

Although times have been a little tougher financially, we still have our heath and happiness. Our home is overflowing with the joy of our new baby. He’s changing and learning every day and we’re excited to watch him grow.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Final Payment in Kafka's World: My Story

I sleepily answer the telephone on my nightstand at
8:30 am Friday, September 25 – my day off.

Bank: Hallo. Is this Hessy Rye-no?
Me: That’s Jessie Ray-nor. Just like it’s spelled.
Bank: Yes. Yes. Mrs. Rye-no. This is Its-urg Bank calling.
Can you verify your home address?
Me: Who did you say you are?
Bank: Its-urg Bank. Please verify your place of employment.
Me: Are you saying Pittsburg Bank?
Bank: Yes. Yes. Please verify your home address, place of employment and telephone number.
Me: I don’t have an account with Pittsburg Bank.
Bank: Are you sure, Mrs. Rye-no? What about a car loan?
Me: I sent my final car payment to Fifth Third Bank in July. Oh,
is that what you’re saying – Fifth Third Bank?
Bank: Yes. Yes. Its-urg Bank car loan. You still owe $250.85,
and it’s now past due.
Me: Hold on a minute. I already sent my final payment in July.
It wasn’t even due until August. I’ve been waiting to get my car title from you guys.
Bank: Yes. Yes. Your balance of $250.85 is past due and
there’s a $35 penalty charge.
Me: You’ve got to be joking! I’ve been making my payments
a month in advance for four years. I used the last coupon in the payment booklet.
Bank: Didn’t you get a balance letter?
Me: Obviously not.
Bank: Didn’t you call the bank?
Me: Why would I? I’ve been expecting the bank to send my
title. And I’m not paying any $35 penalty.
Bank: You’ll have to take that up with the Dispute Department,
Mrs. Rye-no.

I dial the number for the Dispute Department.

Me: There seems to be a misunderstanding about my
final payment…
Bank: Did you receive a letter?
Me: Obviously not. Look at my credit history. I’m an
excellent customer. I’ve been making payments a month in advance for four years. Hey, is this going to affect my credit record?
Bank: Not as long as we receive the final payment by
September 25th.
Me: But that’s TODAY! How was I supposed to pay a bill I
didn’t know I owed? And I’m not paying any penalty!
Bank: You’ll have to take that up with the Customer
Service Department, Mrs. Raynor. Call this number and ignore the automated questions. Just push zero twice and you’ll be speaking to a representative.

I follow the directions and nothing "please hold for the next available representative," no music, no nothing. I hang up and try again. Nothing. Again. Nothing. Again. Again. Again. Ten minutes pass, so I try answering the automated questions.

Bank: Yellow. Tits-ferg Bank
Me: Is this the Collections Department?
Bank: Yes. Yes.
Me: I’ve been trying to reach your Customer Service Department for ten minutes and nothing happens.
Bank: Just call the number and hit zero twice.
Me: I’ve done that and nothing happens.
Bank: You’ll have to take that up with the Dispute Department.

I dial the Dispute Department…again…and explain the situation.

Bank: It sounds like you’re having a bad morning, Mrs. Raynor.
Let me try to dial that number for you.

Minutes pass…

Bank: It’s not working for me either, Mrs. Raynor. Please hang on and I’ll keep trying.

MORE minutes pass…

Bank: Mrs. Raynor, I’m going to try to set up a conference call
with you, me and Customer Service. Maybe we can get through that way. Keep holding please.

MORE and MORE minutes pass…

Bank: I’ve got Joe from Customer Service on the line. Joe, this
is Mrs.Raynor and she needs your help.
Bank: Hello, Mrs. Raynor.
Me: Hello, Joe. I have some questions about my final payment.
Bank: OK – I’m going to hang up in the Dispute Department
now that you and Joe are talking. Have a good day.


Me: Joe? Joe, are you still there? Joe?

I dial the Dispute Department…AGAIN…and explain the situation. I've now spent well over an hour of my life on this.

Bank: It sounds like you’re having a bad morning, Mrs.
Raynor. We’re so sorry. I’ll try to patch you through to Customer Service again
Me: No! Just give them my phone number and have them
call right away. I’ll be sitting here waiting.

Ten more minutes pass…
Ring. Ring.

Bank: This is Customer Service. I hear you’ve been having a
bad morning. Now what’s your problem?
Me: My problem? I think the problem is yours. I never received
a final payment letter about a balance on a car loan that I thought I’d paid off back in July. You’re penalizing me $35. Your Customer Service number doesn’t work. And your collections people can’t pronounce Fifth Third.

It took over two hours before the bank and I came to a resolution. The bank would FAX me the final payment letter, which required a trip to my office (on my day off) to pick up. They promised to waive the penalty and said nothing would happen to my credit record if I got the check in the mail. I did.

I sleepily answer the telephone on my nightstand at
8:00 am Sunday, September 27.

Bank: Rellow. Is this Ressy Reen-rear?
Me: That’s Jessie Ray-nor. Just like it’s spelled. Hey, wait
a minute is this Fifth Third Bank about my car loan? I sent the check.
Bank: Yes. Yes. This is Rits-rurg Bank. Do you have that
check number?
Me: Not right here! I’m in bed! It’s 8 o’clock Sunday morning!
Bank: You don’t have to raise your voice, Mrs. Reen-rear.
Bank: You don’t need to speak to me like that, Mrs. Reen-rear.
Me: That’s right! I don’t need to speak to you at all.


A month later I received a $34.85 check for overpayment of my loan and was told to go to the county government building to get my car title. Franz Kafka himself couldn’t have written a more nightmarish ending.

Friday, October 16, 2009


If Akron had a writer laureate, it would be my Patchwork Nation-Akron colleague David Giffels, a longtime newspaper columnist and book author. His September 24 blog titled “OH YEAH – THEY ALSO PLAY FOOTBALL THERE” inspired my writing this piece.

With bands, barbecues, fireworks blasts, parachutists and a sold-out crowd of over 30,000 people, the University of Akron (UA) celebrated opening day of its brand new football stadium. Besides excited students and alums, there were university, government and business leaders sitting in premium seats, munching upscale concessions, hobnobbing, glad-handing and celebrating this $61.6 million expenditure. Adding to the festivities, the UA Zips football team annihilated the “nobody-ever-heard-of-before” Morgan State 41-0.

I know this all secondhand because although I was offered premium seats for the game I declined. First, I’m not a UA graduate so nostalgia wasn’t in play. Second -- in what Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman calls an “education recession” -- I think spending millions of dollars on a football stadium isn’t the best investment of our community’s financial treasure.

But wait you say! Won’t this glorious stadium entice more young people to go to college? As a matter of fact, UA has enjoyed increased enrollment in recent years by enhancing its urban landscape using many millions of dollars to add 11 new structures, including new academic buildings and fancy dorm rooms. Plus there’s the new student union with a movie theatre, Starbucks, food court, billiards room and bowling alley and the new recreation center with a 56-foot rock climbing wall, three-court gymnasium, leisure pool, spa, lazy river and cafe. BUT, according to the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper, the university’s graduation rate is below 40%. Obviously UA is doing a better job getting students to enroll than getting them graduated.

In a recent New York Times column, Krugman reported that the U.S. -- once the leader in educating its young -- has fallen behind other advanced economies. This acclaimed Princeton professor wrote, “If you had to explain America’s economic success with one word that word would be education.” Yet today America has a college graduation rate below the average across all advanced countries.

The current economic crisis has further assaulted our declining educational statistics with increased teacher/professor job losses due to decreased state and federal funding. Universities are canceling faculty searches, hence class sizes are larger. Plus they’re shifting to non-tenure-track and part-time instructors who can be paid shamefully low wages and no benefits. At UA 60% of its faculty is non-tenured or part-timers. According to an October 3 Beacon Journal article, one part-time UA professor “earns the annualized equivalent of $8.65 an hour.”

Maybe that’s why I overheard this conversation between two stock girls bagging loose potatoes in my neighborhood organic market. “Yeah, I just couldn’t afford to go back to the U. this fall. Why did you quit?” said one. The other answered, “My husband graduated two years ago, and I can earn almost as much working here as he does. It’s not worth the time or money.” Perhaps she’s married to a part-time professor.

This is a particular problem for Akron, which is in Northeast Ohio where only 25.2% of the population age 25 and up holds a four-year college degree. Even Detroit and Buffalo have more college grads, and growing areas such as Austin, Texas and Raleigh, North Carolina approach 40%. According to a September 27 Beacon Journal editorial, economic analyses invariably show that talent drives economic development and what measures talent is the amount of higher education.

Once I questioned an acquaintence -- who already had a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees -- why he was applying to law school. He explained that he grew up in a family of Holocaust survivors. They taught him that people can take away his money, his house, his family and all his worldly treasures, but no one can take away the treasures he puts in his mind.

Now back to football – following the gala stadium opening the Zips quarterback was suspended from the team for an undisclosed infraction of team policy, an assistant coach was put on leave under allegations of violating NCAA recruiting rules and a lineman was suspended until the outcome of a felonious assault charge is resolved. The next week in front of a half-full stadium, the Zips' back-up quarterback led them to a 38 to 21 loss to Indiana. They lost on the road to Central Michigan 48 to 21. Back in the new stadium for Homecoming, the Zips lost to Ohio University 19 to 7. In the first half, the back-up quarterback suffered a torn ACL to his left knee and is out for the season.

Foolish actions by players and coaches or just a hard-hitting tackle can take away a university’s hopes for an exciting football season and crowds at a new $61.6-million stadium, but no one can take away the educational treasures a university puts in the minds of its graduates.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Why There Are Starving Artists

I was recently forwarded an email about internationally renowned violinist Joshua Bell who, at the urging of a Washington Post writer, played his Stradivarius next to a trash can in a D.C. subway station for spare change while mid-level bureaucrats rushed by with little response. Starting at 7:51 AM, Bell played for 43 minutes some of the world’s greatest classical music on a $3.5-million violin. Only seven people stopped to listen for at least a minute, 27 blindly tossed coins totaling $32 into his open instrument case and over 1,000 people hurried by to their government office cubicles without a second look or listen.

This event took place in 2007 and the resulting article earned writer Gene Weingarten a Pulitzer Prize. News of the incident has been floating around cyberspace for two years finally reaching my inbox in Akron, Ohio this month. The story questions our perceptions of artistic value, our priorities and the numbing pace of our lives. As an arts administrator for the past 10 years, I have observed a lot about these things.

For example on artistic value, a recent visitor to the gallery I help run complained about the $100 price of an original lithograph created by a talented, local artist. He haughtily said it wasn’t worth that much and offered $50. I politely declined and reminded him that artists have to eat too.

Another example is the city-sponsored summer performances that our professional ballet company and symphony orchestra give in public parks. Thousands of delighted people pack up picnics and kids to enjoy these talented artists. In fact, this past summer there was record-breaking attendance at these free arts events. Common sense would say these performances should be great marketing opportunities spurring ticket sales for upcoming fall/winter seasons. Not true. National studies show that free arts performances don’t put paying butts in seats later. They only whet the public’s appetite for MORE FREE ARTS.

Why are artistic talents valued so much less than, say, sports talents? Remember that besides having innate abilities, visual and performing artists invest many years and many dollars into training, practice and university educations. Is a $90 ticket to a two-hour professional basketball game a better value than buying a work of art that you can enjoy every day and pass down to your children? Imagine what the crowd size would have been if Lebron James was in that subway station bouncing a basketball. OK, perhaps people would naturally notice a six foot-eight inch NBA superstar plonking a ball up and down. But shouldn’t people naturally notice the moving strains of Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" played by a virtuoso?

On a recent trip to North Carolina, I picked up a Charlotte Observer newspaper and was struck by two, side-by-side headlines – “Football rekindles passions” and “Symphony players take pay cut.” It’s all about perceptions and priorities, isn’t it?

In defense of the government drones who ran past “the greatest American violinist active today” according to the Boston Herald -- I wonder if I were late for an 8 AM meeting and hadn’t had my Starbucks latte would I have tuned out my harried personal agenda and tuned into "Chaconne" from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Probably not, even though Bell calls it "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history.” Of course, when the Ohio State Buckeyes won the national football championship in 2002, I called it one of the greatest achievements in history. We all have our perceptions and priorities.

But thanks to Akron’s Tuesday Musical Association on February 2, I can relax into a seat at EJ Thomas Hall and hear Joshua Bell play his Stradivarius for $22. I can only hope he plays that Bach piece.

The true value of a home …

When my husband I bought our house last year it was sort of a “no brainer.” We bought his grandmother’s home at a price that we couldn’t resist and we could afford. Grandma was looking to downsize to an apartment and with current state of the housing market she knew that it would take a long time to sell. We bought it to avoid having to rent and in turn got a house payment lower than our some of our friends’ car payments. It was built in 1918 so it needs to be updated, although we have done a lot to it already. We’ve added central air conditioning, a new roof, an additional full bathroom, as well as some painting and new carpet. Our home is not in the suburbs and it’s not considered “new construction,” but it’s still a home and the memories that my husband’s family created there for more than 50 years live in the walls.

We’ve been in our neighborhood for almost two years now and not too much has changed. However, there are a few vacant houses near us and more than a dozen are for sale. Our property value and taxes have decreased, but our insurance has increased. According to our insurance agent, the cost to replace a home has skyrocketed. This article, published last year in the Akron Beacon Journal, explains how Akron experienced a 4.4 percent overall decrease in home values. County Fiscal Officer John Donofrio called it “an unprecedented decline caused by lackluster home sales and thousands of foreclosures.”

The world is full of unknown circumstances so it’s important to me to live within our means. It seems as though at any time you could lose your job, a family member could become ill, or you could suffer some other economic strife. We try not to overspend and certainly don’t live a lavish lifestyle. I think that some people live outside of their means and that’s how they get into trouble and lose their homes. They simply buy too much house, or car, for what they can afford. I think that your lifestyle should reflect your attitude toward living and shouldn’t take too much of your bank account to maintain.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Standing in the full parking lot on a mid-September Saturday afternoon, next to an actual tailgate, I could hear the marching band coming across campus, the cheerful punch of bass drum cut with brass and timpani, the sound and the feet beneath it charting the course toward the new football stadium.

The sun was warm in the way apple pie is warm: the bees were drunk on it. These are lush, leafy afternoons that seem exclusive to Ohio in the early weeks of football season, and exist specifically to answer any question of why one would choose this place as home.

This is my alma mater, the University of Akron, an urban campus I attended some two decades ago and where I now teach. When I started college here, the only thing making its way through the middle of campus was a busy city street that bisected the cobble of lecture halls and occasionally sent a slow-footed co-ed to the emergency room. In the time since I graduated, and especially in the past 10 years, the place has been transformed into something I hardly recognize, with lush gardens and lawns and sculptures flanking a brick promenade where the street once ran, fanciful clock towers at the portals into campus and so many new buildings that I still sometimes stop to recollect if I’ve seen this one before.

A brilliant mirrored polymer science center anchors one end of campus; a student rec center with a lazy river and rock climbing wall anchors the other; there’s a new student union at the center with a bowling alley and a grand piano and a Starbucks, all set off with recently constructed residence halls and academic buildings, prompting a recalibration of the campus of my own memory.

But this has become old news in Akron, in the way that everything remarkable settles eventually into its context.

So it’s been especially interesting to me just how remarkably remarkable the addition of this new football stadium has been. It’s not like it’s the only recent improvement. Far from it. But it seems to be the one that has drawn all the others into their full context.

College campuses are communities and communities are bound to their campuses. The old football stadium, harmoniously named “The Rubber Bowl,” was a Depression-era concrete donut six miles from campus. So this new complex (the cacophonously named “Summa Field at InfoCision Stadium”) has achieved a kind of dual magic in bringing the atmosphere of a college football Saturday directly onto campus, and bringing the wider community together to experience it.

As I stood in that parking lot, I heard someone call my name and looked over to see a friend, someone I went to high school with, someone I run into maybe every couple of years. We exchanged hellos and the common astonishment over how much things have changed and he told me that one of the freshmen in yonder marching band was his son, drawing the facets of this random meeting into high relief.

Later, in the stands, I found myself in a near constant state of recognizing old faces and waving across the way to people I knew. And I was only one of 30,000 people there that day, doing the same thing. “If nostalgia is a hangover,” I thought, “this is the bloody Mary,” and I wondered if that made as much sense as I think it did.

I don’t know what will happen when this place too settles into context, but I do know that the context has been changed forever and for good.