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.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The gas bill is paid off just in time for winter!

In recent weeks a lot has changed for my husband and me. He’s back to working full time and we’re eating high on the hog. Not really, but things have gotten a little easier. We made it through the summer and we’re headed into the fall ready to accept the change of our growing family along with the changing leaves.

I opened the mail yesterday and to my delight our gas bill was only half of what I’d been paying all summer long. You may be asking why we have a high gas bill in the summer. Well, that’s because we’re still catching up from last winter. We have a colonial style home and I always mix up the square footage and the year it was built. One is 1923 and the other is 1918. Either way, it’s an old house. We installed a new furnace and central air last year; however, our windows are pretty old, so there is a good chance that we’re heating half the neighborhood.

This reminds me of when I lived on my own in a one bedroom brownstone apartment and had a gas bill for one month that totaled $1,000. The building was old and used a gravity furnace to get the heat up to my second floor apartment. I even kept the heat between 60-65 degrees and told my guests to dress in layers. But I digress.

With the new baby coming we can’t be chintzy on heat, so we have to expect to pay a little more than what we’re used to. This winter, we’re going to get on the budget billing plan so we will know exactly what to pay each month. Let’s hope that gas prices continue to fall and we have a warmer winter.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

No Capers in this Economy

Ever since my children went off to college and beyond, I hate grocery shopping. When my family was around, I prided myself in cooking excellent dinners. But now when I get home from work I’d rather grab some cheese and crackers, pour some wine and enjoy my repast with Alex Trebek and Jeopardy!

Besides my disinterest in cooking, another reason I hate grocery shopping is that I’m an impulse buyer. These days I only go to the Acme when I’m desperate for something like laundry detergent or toilet paper (or wine and cheese). That means there’s no planning involved, and I’m easily seduced into buying stuff that eventually goes bad in the fridge or expires on my shelves. For example, I have a bottle of capers in my refrigerator and two in my cupboard. Why?? I don’t know. I guess I’m just attracted to emerald-colored glass bottles filled with tiny, squished balls – probably something Freudian. I also have three bags of special purple rice that once was exclusively eaten by Chinese emperors. I’m well stocked with Pad Thai-in-a-box, dried mango slices, peach chutney, pomegranate juice, frozen collard greens and cherry-flavored rawhide bones (for my Golden Retriever). Did you know you can buy fancy tins of chunky salt crystals from Tuscany and France? Ooh la la – I have a few of those. When I checkout and discover what I owe, I get the guilts big time. After last fall’s market crash, I’ve already resolved myself that early retirement is not in my future and here I am wasting money on things that I’ll cram in cupboards and never eat.

So this week I was desperate for crackers and ran into the grocery determined to take only five minutes. Don’t ask me why I grabbed a cart, but I did and started cruising the aisles. I first noticed the couple when I was gazing at a bottle of artichoke infused olive oil. They were obviously a husband and wife team in their late 30s armed with an alphabetized box of coupons, a shopping list and a CALCULATOR.

“We need flour, George,” she said. “The large bag is a better buy, but I think it will put us over budget.”

“We saved money on those generic cookies for the kids instead of Oreos, so maybe we’ll be OK,” he said with fingers flying over the calculator keys.

In the next aisle as I was contemplating a lovely jar of spiced watermelon rind, they were searching through coupons and running the numbers on which ketchup was the bargain. We kept bumping into one another around the store – they were pricing tuna while I was throwing Indonesian minced crab into my cart -- until we finally ended up at neighboring checkouts. My cart was filled with the usual ridiculousness – baked eggplant chips, shitakes, opal-basil cinnamon vinegar, organic tofu bars, raspberry beer. They were excited because their total was under their allotted budget and could buy ice cream cones on the way home.

Now I don’t know if this frugal pair was doing calculated shopping because of the bad economy or not. Perhaps they were just accounting geeks. But the seriousness with which they discussed each purchase made me think their efforts were out of necessity. Either way they certainly taught me a lesson – or at least made me feel really, really guilty. Pickled, white asparagus anyone?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"This Is The Promotion That Jack Got" (with apologies to Mother Goose)

This is the promotion that Jack got.

This is the raise that Jack didn’t get that goes with the promotion that Jack got.

These are the duties that Jack took on that go with the raise that Jack didn’t get that goes with the promotion that Jack got.

These are the layoffs that led to the duties that Jack took on that go with the raise that Jack didn’t get that goes with the promotion that Jack got.

These are the weekends that Jack now works because of the layoffs that led to the duties that Jack took on that go with the raise that Jack didn’t get that goes with the promotion that Jack got.

These are the friends who don’t have jobs who golf on the weekends that Jack now works because of the layoffs that led to the duties that Jack took on that go with the raise that Jack didn’t get that goes with the promotion that Jack got.

These are the resumes that pile up high that belong to the friends who don’t have jobs who golf on the weekends that Jack now works because of the layoffs that led to the duties that Jack took on that go with the raise that Jack didn’t get that goes with the promotion that Jack got.

These are the “redundancies” that led to the resumes that pile up high that belong to the friends who don’t have jobs who golf on the weekends that Jack now works because of the layoffs that led to the duties that Jack took on that go with the raise that Jack didn’t get that goes with the promotion that Jack got.

This is the budget review that revealed the “redundancies” that led to the resumes that pile up high that belong to the friends who don’t have jobs who golf on the weekends that Jack now works because of the layoffs that led to the duties that Jack took on that go with the raise that Jack didn’t get that goes with the promotion that Jack got.

This is the recession that led to the budget review that revealed the “redundancies” that led to the resumes that pile up high that belong to the friends who don’t have jobs who golf on the weekends that Jack now works because of the layoffs that led to the duties that Jack took on that go with the raise that Jack didn’t get that goes with the promotion that Jack got.

This is the recovery that ends the recession that led to the budget review that revealed the “redundancies” that led to the resumes that pile up high that belong to the friends who don’t have jobs who golf on the weekends that Jack now works because of the layoffs that led to the duties that Jack took on that go with the raise that Jack didn’t get that goes with the promotion that Jack got.

These are the executives who cheer the recovery that ends the recession that led to the budget review that revealed the “redundancies” that led to the resumes that pile up high that belong to the friends who don’t have jobs who golf on the weekends that Jack now works because of the layoffs that led to the duties that Jack took on that go with the raise that Jack didn’t get that goes with the promotion that Jack got.

These are the bonuses that go to the executives who cheer the recovery that ends the recession that led to the budget review that revealed the “redundancies” that led to the resumes that pile up high that belong to the friends who don’t have jobs who golf on the weekends that Jack now works because of the layoffs that led to the duties that Jack took on that go with the raise that Jack didn’t get that goes with the promotion that Jack got.

This is the promotion that Jack got.

Making plans to have a plan …

My husband I are back from vacation and back to the real world. We’re preparing for the arrival of our first child. We need to sterilize the house, paint the room, put the crib together, install new carpet and move furniture while maintaining our everyday tasks. Sigh. I don’t mean to complain but this sounds quite daunting to me. Maybe it’s the hormones or the heat, but I’m a bit overwhelmed.

With my husband’s income cut short during the summer, buying paint and putting in carpet have become quite a challenge. In fact, we’ve even had to put some necessities on our credit card this month. I hate to run up the credit card bills, but next month should be better, right?

At times like these I wish we had a better plan. Suze Orman and other financial gurus often talk about having three to six months of your income in a savings account in case something happens. I just don’t see how that is possible. We definitely need a plan, but how do we get started? Can we have an amended plan? Maybe I’ll spend some of my maternity leave catching up on the latest money saving strategies … or at least clipping coupons for diapers.

Once my husband heads back to work full time things should get better. We’ll both be working full-time jobs but with the new baby coming in about nine weeks, I can see “baby stuff” eating up any extra cash that we might have. I already save some money but I end up dipping into it every month. One thing is for sure, once I do figure out a plan, I will share it with my child. Not to blame our parents, but my husband and I were never really taught to save; therefore, we’re not savers … yet. I vow to learn to save so I can instill this lesson in my children at a young, impressionable age.

Monday, August 17, 2009

FORE! Another Swing at Health Care

Note: I would not have blogged about health care again except that NewsHour's editor for Patchwork Nation Anna Shoup asked for local reactions to the raucous town hall meetings taking place across the country.

My nephew, a college junior, has been working this summer as a caddy at a well-heeled country club near Washington, D.C. Last month he caddied for former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich. For a young man who spent last summer as a youth organizer for the Obama campaign, I was surprised at how much my nephew enjoyed his 18 holes with Newt. He said Gingrich was very personable, joking constantly about politics and his poor golf shots. At the end of the round, he tipped my nephew $150.

After seeing Gingrich on TV recently rabble-rousing about Obama’s health care plan, I would have tipped my nephew twice as much to take a swing at Newt’s backside with a golf club. Just joking – I’m totally a pacifist. Gingrich implied that the President’s plan was socialism and that it may lead to euthanizing the elderly. Just joking, Newt? Or once in the clubhouse, do you fabricate tall tales about your golf scores too?

A friend, who just went through a myriad of medical tests, told me that he’s not sure he can afford to be healthy. Even though his insurance partially covers costs, the out-of-pocket deductibles are killing him, so to speak. As I wrote in my first Patchwork Nation blog (posted 7-23), my recent surgery cost $25,432.65 or over two-thirds of my yearly salary. Fortunately I’m insured, although my premiums just went up. A number of co-workers had to opt out of our group plan because they couldn’t afford the higher monthly costs. Hence, my premiums will go up again.

The National Coalition on Health Care states that due to the recession and rising unemployment it’s conceivable 57 to 60 million Americans will be uninsured by next year. Over 8 in 10 uninsured people come from working families. Hopefully the advantage of a government health insurance option is that the competition would drive down the exorbitant prices of private insurance. I don’t think that’s socialism, Newt. Isn’t that a tenet of free-market capitalism?

After reading my first blog, another friend told me she enjoyed my clever writing but couldn’t believe I thought the government could run a more efficient health insurance system than the private sector. Hm-m-m-m-m-m. This friend worked in banking for 30 years. After last fall’s financial fiasco that created the economic funk, I don’t think the private sector can claim any superiority, especially over the government that bailed them out. The fact is Americans pay more for health care than in any other country on earth, yet our overall health statistics rival those of a third world nation. The system is broken.

As director of an arts organization, I’m proud that the national advocacy group Americans for the Arts has lobbied legislators about the health care needs of artists and nonprofit arts organizations. Many artists are self-employed or work in nontraditional employment relationships, leaving no options for group coverage. Also, skyrocketing health care costs are consuming the decreasing budgets of nonprofit arts organizations already battered by the recession. Americans for the Arts urges arts people to write their senators and attend town hall meetings to ensure that the voice of the cultural community is heard. Details at

So, Newt, if you happen to attend a town hall meeting in Akron and start telling tall tales about President Obama’s health care plan -- watch out for the teed off woman in the back row with a golf club. Fore! Just joking – I’m totally a pacifist. Really.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

One Day Closer to Realization of Opportunity

While the recession is taking its toll on jobs, there has been no shortage of good new technology-based business ideas. Simply having a great idea, however, is not enough. Taking an idea from conception to the creation of a successful technology company is no small feat. It takes a strong team and a diverse skill set to be successful. As Director of Entrepreneurial Services, I try to help entrepreneurs become successful. There is no guide book as each company and opportunity is unique. I draw upon my experiences of 25 years commercializing technology and upon a network of professionals. I have a strong allegiance to Akron, the city where I grew up, and a vested interest in seeing Northeast Ohio prosper.

In order to get a glimpse of my typical day, take a look at a few highlights. My first meeting is with a company whose vision is to produce high-value nutraceuticals from algae. I learn that these entrepreneurs know the young industry well, having studied both the organism and the markets their products can serve for over two years – most of it unpaid. They have come to see me not only because of the reputation I have developed for giving sound business advice but also because the price is right. The City of Akron and the State of Ohio combine to make consultants’ services like mine free so that young companies can get the advice they need without further financial obligations.

Today, I have arranged a meeting with an intellectual property attorney who provides free consultations for some of my clients. We spent an hour talking through a strategy for licensing negotiations with a major university. We discussed how to obtain the right to practice an enabling technology quickly without appearing overanxious and driving up the price. Next, I critiqued an executive summary which will be used to state the company’s need for investment to area Angel investors. The document is intended to pique the investor’s interest enough for a personal meeting, the first of a multiple step diligence process to secure seed funding. Typically $250 thousand to one million dollars are needed to get a technology company started. This is not to be confused with the millions still needed in subsequent funding to enable the emerging company to ultimately survive and be profitable.

The next meeting is with a young company that has already passed a validation test with the US Air Force demonstrating that their analytics software saves millions of dollars, and potentially lives, in their fix of a nagging operational problem for a trainer jet. A Pentagon general is now in their corner. Amazingly, this still isn’t enough to commence business. We are meeting today with a consultant who specializes in negotiating the maze of obstacles in the arena of doing business with the Government.

Next, I make a pitch to an area angel fund deal flow committee on which I serve on behalf of both companies I met with this morning via email. Tomorrow, the committee will choose the finalists to speak at their next event, a meeting at which selected companies can present their opportunity to a roomful of investors. I cannot be there to present my clients in person as I will be listening to seven companies make their pitch to a new cleantech fund. I craft my words carefully in an effort to convey the passion of those I represent. I am hopeful that they will be read in a thoughtful manner.

Finally, I learn that another client of mine who designs wireless network software received a “no” from an innovation fund offered through a regional college. This fund has become known as the place to go for entrepreneurs who are not quite ready to pitch to Angel investors. The opportunity to access $100K helping to bridge what is known as the “valley of death” to young technology companies has made this fund quite competitive. Not a great way to end the business day yet I remind myself that tomorrow is new day with fresh opportunities.

The key to success as an entrepreneur is persistence and hope that the victories outweigh the failures in the end. As a champion for these entrepreneurs, I will go to work tomorrow believing that we can achieve another victory.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Art is Dead

It is a sunny graduation day at prestigious Davidson College in North Carolina, and I have just invested over $120,000 in tuition to see my son receive a diploma from what is known as “the Princeton of the South.” (Of course, in the South they call Princeton “the Davidson of the North.”) He has earned a BA in liberal arts with a major in art history. After the ceremony we stand in the shade of a 30-foot magnolia tree, me smiling with pride. I hug my boy and say teasingly, “Well, I just hope you learned something.” He answers with a smirk, “I did, Mom, and in a nutshell this is it. Art is dead.”

That was seven years ago, and the poignancy of the story is that I was at the time the director of an arts organization. Ouch! Way to burn old Mom. Actually today I am still the director of that same organization, the Akron Area Arts Alliance, and the arts are still alive -- although truly in need of life support in today’s economy.

The Alliance is an advocacy group representing 46 organizations and 70 artists and arts supporters in Ohio’s Summit, Portage and Medina Counties. Last spring I surveyed our organizational members on the effects of the falling economy. Half of those responding experienced major staff and programming cutbacks. The other half said they were expecting changes. Performances were cancelled, museum hours were cut and staff members were laid off, dropped to part-time or forced to take pay cuts. Often the laid off staffers were in the essential areas of educational programming, development and marketing – the very things that keep an organization alive. (Studies prove that if children are not exposed to the arts at early ages, they do not attend arts events as adults. Arts education is the key to future arts audiences.)

Now someone could argue that lay-offs are happening in all businesses, so why are the arts any different? The difference is that the creative industries have been cutting back for the past decade. Across the nation, there have been major cuts in arts support from business, foundations and government since the 1999 mini-recession and more since the market fall after 9/11. The staffs of arts and culture organizations were already bareboned – working longer, harder, for less money. For example, the local theatre company that let go one person last spring was actually laying off a third of its staff. It had previously been reduced to three people. Arts organizations were already at the edge and this economy may just push them over the cliff.

When my son declared “art is dead” seven years ago, I am not suggesting he was prescient. He was not talking economics. His comment was purely academic – a highfaluting, intellectual argument about how art, once purely the domain of the rich and elite, has been democratized by making it accessible to the masses. Hence it has lost significance, and a comic book has as much artistic value as a Picasso. (When we discussed it later, his argument was much more convoluted with many big, need-a-dictionary words, but that’s it in a nutshell.) So why should anyone care that arts and culture may take a nose dive off that cliff? Are the arts even relevant today? That is discussion for a future blog.

Note: My son did not follow in Mom’s footsteps and go into the arts. He learned to speak fluent Chinese and went on to Duke University where he earned a masters degree in Asian Studies. He is now a businessman working in Shenzhen, China for an American company. I am still smiling with pride.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Wait -- Where's the Rust?

“There’s this big project called Patchwork Nation,” she said. “They’ve chosen eleven cities to tell the story of the national economy. And Akron’s one of them.”

When you come from a place like this, a midsize city that has struggled for a generation with identity issues, being noticed always prompts a particular kind of thrill. Sometimes we feel like the Who’s down in Whoville, trying to get our story out. For most of the 20th century, Akron knew exactly who it was, and the rest of the hemisphere knew it too: The Rubber Capital of the World.

In the years since the loss of that defining industry, it’s often been difficult to establish the same kind of connection. We can say we live in the hometown of LeBron James, but that only provides the touchstone of a native celebrity. It doesn’t say anything about who we are.

So, yes, I was intrigued that my city was one of the chosen eleven. But I also knew what was coming next. She said each of these cities would represent a “type”: Boom Towns, Tractor Country, Monied ‘Burbs, Military Bastions.

I kept waiting for the one I expected to hear -- Rust Belt or Post Industry. Something like that. That’s the other thing we’re used to, the world identifying us by what’s no longer here.
And that’s when she said it.

“Campus & Careers.”

“Really?” I said.

And maybe I sounded a little more surprised than I’d liked to have sounded, but it’s a conditioned response in a place like this. You don’t lose 75,000 fellow residents in your lifetime without having a bit of a complex.

“Yep. Campus & Careers,” she said. “ It’s based on the high concentration of colleges around Akron and the number of young, educated people who live there.”

Which may well true, but even at that, Akron and all of Ohio struggle mightily with what the demographers call “brain drain,” yet another term that defines us by what’s no longer here. We’re used to the headlines about our brightest talent flowing to other places (often warmer ones), headlines based on statistics, but also on perception.

A 2006 study by the University of Toledo’s Urban Affairs Center concluded that Ohio’s brain drain was less common than is generally believed. “Only about 20% of 2000-2003 graduates left the state,” the authors wrote, quantifying the figure as “a relatively low percentage.” Additionally, the report showed, the trend has been improving over the past decade, in great part, I’m certain, because of the effort by cities to keep their homegrown talent here.

That’s another trademark of a place like this -- the recognition that we have to work harder to keep what many other places take for granted.

Some can argue that the Campus & Careers category is an odd fit for Akron, and I wouldn’t completely disagree. But I’d also argue that part of the oddness is based on the fact that we’re used to old perceptions of ourselves, and not so good at seeing what we are in the present, and what we’re becoming.

“Campus & Careers?” Sure. Why not? Of course.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Uterus vs. The Economy

I was surprised at how many delighted women are walking around out there without uteruses and ovaries. This realization came about when I had a hysterectomy this past June. The surgery was definitely necessary. I am 59 years old, and although those parts of my anatomy had served me well – producing three bright, beautiful children -- they were now malfunctioning. I will spare you the gory details. Still I wasn’t all that excited about having my lower abdomen slit open and body parts cut out. But as word leaked to co-workers and friends that I would be out of the office for at least three weeks for surgery and recovery, women began sidling up and whispering, “I had one too. Best thing that ever happened to me. You’ll feel like a new woman in six months.”

An artist friend told me that since she had the operation, she has not had a cold or the flu – and that was 20 years ago. A 68-year-old co-worker, who has been
sans-uterus three years, said she feels sexy again. One said I would wake up one
not-too-distant morning feeling as energetic as a teenager. Another said that after hers she lost 50 pounds – the diet she had been on forever finally worked! These miracles seemed practically biblical. I even began believing that the surgery would cure my arthritic knees. (While in the hospital I actually thought it had. The first time I stepped out of bed, my legs felt young and bouncy. I would have jumped with delight except for the stitches and staples in my belly. I imagined running a marathon or climbing a mountain. Then as I stepped toward the bathroom, I heard the rattle of the metal pole that was attached to my arm administering a morphine drip. Oops -- just a medicinal miracle.)

I am now two months out from surgery with just four more before the miracles supposedly begin. I am well aware that there is still arthritis in my knees and Mt. Everest is not in my future, but a lot of other nasty symptoms are gone. But -- if not for my good health insurance -- the miracle I would be hoping for is staying out of bankruptcy. My surgery and three-day hospital stay cost $25,432.65 or two-thirds of my yearly salary. I cannot imagine paying that out-of-pocket. It was hard enough writing a check for the $1,751 deductible.

According to a Harvard Law/Medical study published in 2005, illness and medical bills were the leading factor of personal bankruptcies, causing 50 percent of them. Most of the bankruptcy filers were middle class; 56 percent owned a home and the same number attended college. In today’s economy of job loss, over-extended debt and market slides, I suspect these figures hold true or are worse.

Without my health insurance, I would not have had a hysterectomy in June. I would have continued living with those unmentionable gory details -- feeling constantly tired, not the least bit sexy and dieting to no avail. I would have put off treatment until perhaps the situation became life threatening. And actually, without health insurance, many women put surgery off even then. It is more important than ever that our (well-insured) government leaders come up with a universal healthcare plan. If not, there will be a lot more women walking around out there with malfunctioning uteruses and ovaries – with little hope for miracles.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Staycation vs. Vacation

For the last few months, my husband and I have really had to adjust our lifestyle and tighten our belts to keep up with the ever-changing economy. I took a 10 per cent pay cut for the last quarter of our fiscal year and my husband’s hours were cut in half during the summer because he’s a teacher. This year he was able to pick up some extra cash by umpiring baseball games most weekends.

We’re also preparing for the arrival of our first child in October. I can only imagine how our lifestyles and bank accounts will change then!

A group of friends asked us if we wanted to go on a vacation with them this summer to Myrtle Beach and share the cost of renting a condo. To give you an idea of how we’re saving money, picture eight adults in a two-bedroom condo complete with air mattresses. By the way, two of us ladies are seven months pregnant. After taking another look at our budget and managing to save on other expenses, we decided that this would be a nice break for the both of us. While it’s not a romantic suite at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas, it does allow us to get away from our daily grind to relax on the beach. With gas down nearly one dollar from what it was last year, it seemed feasible for us. Who knows how often we’ll get away once the little guy comes into our lives?

This year you’ve heard many people talking about staycations, where they cut out the traveling and boarding expenses, stay at home and find things to do around town. I, too, find this quite appealing and a nice way to stimulate the local economy. If you have the opportunity to take some time off but can’t afford to go far, check out some of the happenings in Akron. The Akron Zoo has been a popular place to visit among my family and friends, and one of my favorite places to visit is Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens. Don’t forget the great arts and culture community that Akron (and the region) has to offer, as well as the Akron Aeros baseball games. Take in a movie, go to the county fair, visit the metro parks or attend one of the festivals downtown.

However, in our case, we wanted to have one last hoorah with our friends (and no kids) in a crowded condo, becoming very familiar with one another. Road trip!

Innovate & Incubate

As a youngster, I remember being glued to our TV when Ted Kennedy was called upon to deliver the eulogy for his slain brother, Senator Robert Kennedy. He said: “Some men see the world as it is, and ask why. Other men see the world as it could be, and say…Why not!”

I work in a building filled with start-up companies, 48 entrepreneurs striving to create transformational products they think have the potential to change the world. Part of my job is to help ensure that their dreams do not become nightmares. In the best of economic times, it is difficult to start a business from scratch; and grow it into a success, even a modest one. The odds against creating another Google are enormous. In fact, most new businesses fail by the end of their first year. I work in an incubator, Akron, Ohio’s Global Business Accelerator. Our city is now called the city of invention. Less than three decades ago, Akron was part of the Industrial Midwest that produced most of the nation’s passenger tires. When production moved south, the smell of carbon black vanished along with 40,000 manufacturing jobs. It became an almost overnight ghost town.

Not so today. The city reinvented itself. When B.F. Goodrich closed its doors in the early 80’s, over 2 ½ million square feet of factory & offices were left vacant. Today, it’s the home of some 100 small businesses, plus the mostly high tech start-ups we house at the Accelerator. It’s been my experience that successful entrepreneurs are doggedly persistent, and have a high pain tolerance… the kind that comes from rejection by lenders, investors, customers, vendors not to mention the sharpest of pain from a neglected spouse and children. To borrow a military metaphor, some entrepreneurs develop “foxhole friends” with other entrepreneurs sharing similar pain within our four walls. It is the other entrepreneurs who understand the dilemma and the pain, because they have walked the same pathway themselves.

What is particularly frustrating in this economy is a nagging sense of impotence. Good companies will not flame and burst in a grand explosion; but rather die slowly from inactivity…. They’ll just run out of gas…like a roadster that coasts to a stop in the middle of the desert, not knowing that he or she was just a few short miles from the finish line.

Had he been able to coast a bit farther to the next hilltop, he could have seen the destination. But he didn’t; and what remains are the nightmares from each unfilled expectation. One of our life sciences companies worries me most. This company has a potentially disruptive technology, one that could change the face of medicine. Long term prospects are really promising; but his angel investors are nearly tapped out; and I worry that, one day, he just will not be able to continue to run his business on “financial fumes.” He will have to try to support a family first and foremost. This technology with the promise to improve health outcomes, lower costs, and add quality of life to millions of Alzheimer’s patients will whither away, like the deserted and out of gas roadster in the desert. This is his day-to-day reality. With our collective help, we hope to help him pull a rabbit out of a hat from any one of a number of potential funding sources; and do it quickly.

My friend, Bill, not only “sees a world that could be, and says why not” he has done something concrete about it. He developed a product and solution that could help millions of patients live longer, healthier lives, while saving our health care system billions of dollars.

Someone once said that if an idea is good enough, you can always find the money to develop it. It has never been more important that right now to test the veracity of that statement.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Economic overbite not easy to straighten

My wife’s father used to joke that if you wanted to see his Porsche, just look at his daughter’s teeth. It was his way of pointing out the high cost of braces, something so many teens need, including my two older sons, and which also aren’t cheap.

My boys’ dental needs are fairly routine, or so says the local dental expert with degrees all over his wall. The bill? “Only $10,000,” he said. Only 10-grand?? Only?? As though it’s a candy bar and they’re on sale so I should take two of them. (photo courtesy: The tooth technician told us not to worry because they have a payment plan, as though that makes the bill easier to chew with a few hundred dollars added as a new side dish to my monthly budget buffet.

Can I afford it? Do I really have a choice?

I think those are the two questions haunting so many in the Akron area right now. Many can’t answer the first question, without responding with the second.

It’s been easy for the media experts to simply tell consumers that they need to ask “Can I afford it” before every purchase. “Just do that,” they say, “and good decisions will follow.”

But when the answer to “Can I afford it” isn’t one of yes/no but rather “Do I really have a choice?” the easy rule of thumb isn’t that easy at all.

With unemployment topping 10 percent and with the ripple effect impacting every local family to some degree, many parents in Akron are wondering if they can afford new school clothes for their kids. Do I really have a choice? With the city’s public school district entering its second year of a mandatory dress code, the answer-to-the-answer is a resounding “Of course not. Just whip out your wallet and buy the kid a few new Polo's and khakis!”

I thought the media expert said just "do this" and "do that" and these financial oasis appear in front of me like water in a desert?

Already many Akron-area parents are shopping at thrift stores – Goodwill, consignment, etc .. – for the first time while hoping hand-me-downs hold out for another year. Some are considering carpools while having never let anyone else drive Suzie or Stevie to class; suddenly, being overprotective has given way to need to save gas money.

A few parents of Akron high school students are already wondering if they’ll be able to get their daughters a new dress to attend Homecoming or the Prom – and it’s only July. Again, if your little princess is now in high school, a special experience marked by events like dances, do you really have a choice?

So while so many experts point to the choices that got us into this financial mess, I hope they’re also looking at the choices we as parents in middle-class America don’t have any more. What’s selectively affordable on paper is tough to swallow when you look into your child’s eyes. Or in my case, my sons’ teeth.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Murder on the block

Two nights ago, three doors down from my house, a man stepped out of his car, took a few steps across the parking lot toward his apartment building and was shot dead.

I pause here now at the curb on the following Sunday morning, on my way to the park for a walk with my wife and daughter and dog, looking at the police line tape that has fallen slack and sways weakly in the breeze, trying to place where the body fell, looking for bullet holes in the wall, hoping not to see a blood stain, wondering why I didn’t hear the shots or sirens and trying to convince myself that things like that don’t happen in my neighborhood, even though it just did.

This has been a violent year in Akron, and especially within the past few weeks, when the news has played against a drumbeat of shootings and beating and stabbings. On the Fourth of July, a family was attacked by a mob of teenagers as they walked home from a fireworks display. Two nights later, a man stabbed his brother to death. Two days after that, a man walking near a park at dusk was shot in the back. The following night, a store owner shot and killed a robber. And then the next night, in this parking lot at the corner where my kids make the turn on their bikes, another man was murdered.

This was the city’s seventh homicide of the year, and the third in the past two weeks. As I write this, police are investigating another. Akron’s not the kind of place where news like this is so common. In a relatively stable city of just over 200,000, most of us feel secure. In Ohio, one of those states that always seems to be watching its back, Akron has reliably ranked among the safest places. When we learn of a violent crime here, we in the middle class scan down through the newspaper paragraphs, looking for the neighborhood, expecting that it happened “there,” in a place we might expect this sort of thing, a bad part of town, a neighborhood we can avoid.
But this year, it all seems, literally and figuratively, closer to home.

So we’ve been looking for different answers, and focusing on the one that seems to be the theme of everything this year.

Is it the economy?

That’s the logical question, the main variable that sets this summer apart from others in the recent past. My wife asked a friend on the police force that question.

Maybe, he said, his uncertain answer revealing a more likely truth: he doesn’t know. None of us knows. Much of the violence appears to carry the familiar back-story of drug dealing and street feuds. The man killed in my neighborhood was charged earlier this year for beating and robbing a man who was to testify against him in a cocaine case. His own sister told the Akron Beacon Journal, “We think his lifestyle probably caught up with him.”

Somehow, I’m supposed to draw comfort from that, but I don’t. This year feels desperate in so many ways that it’s hard to separate one aspect from another. Almost every working person I know has lost a job or taken a buyout or accepted a pay cut or seen an increased workload or just generally sweated out the constant tension of a situation that has left almost no one feeling safe.
The other night I was talking to a friend who has had his pay reduced and hours increased because of staff cuts, and his reaction was that he’s relieved just to have kept his job.

Akron’s unemployment rate is hovering around 10 percent, close to twice what it was a year ago. People don’t have money to spend. Nothing feels secure. No one knows what’s around the corner.

So it’s hard not to extend that anxiety to the worst parts of human nature. Society’s a system and when the entire system is under a strain, it stands to reason that most extreme responses to hard times will be magnified.

Is the economy to blame for this yellow tape stretched across the parking lot?

As we say when we really don’t know: maybe. But even if I knew for sure, I wouldn’t feel any better.