Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Surreal Life

Surreal Life comes to Trenton...
...oh wait, the surreal life IS Trenton...

...and here's why:

1. The Press: In college, I took a course called "The Trenton Press Wars." Probably uninteresting to anyone not from the area, and not interested in journalism. But there was a very simple reason for such a class: Trenton was one of a very few American cities with two competing newspapers, and the shit that happened in Trenton (the city, not the capital in this case) actually MATTERED. Many cities have two papers, but they're owned by the same company. But now, the Times of Trenton, or the Trenton Star Ledger, is all but gone. And this week, the Trentonian filed for bankruptcy. Love the papers or hate them (or their employees), this is hugely significant because Trenton runs the risk of losing the (often small and pathetic) printed voices it has, and that's unacceptable. This also indicates that the written word needs some rethinkin', since the closing of bureaux and the filing of bankruptcy doesn't just happen to newspapers in Trenton. Though, when it happens in other cities, the organization can put all of its apples into its other paper or TV or radio station. We don't have that luxury.

We already have a city government that acts with impunity, and without the newspapers, we might be in even bigger trouble.

2. The Pauls: Several of our existing politicians, and political hopefuls are the stuff of make-believe, as in, this shit would not happen anywhere else. Take the Pauls for instance. There's Paul Pintella, the Idiot Prince, who is not only unable to think for himself, but is also a completely disrespectful guy with some SERIOUS skeletons in his closet. Not only does he get elected to city council, but the other nitwits on council actually appoint him to council president. On more than one occasion. This is not the stuff of bad dreams or a work of fiction like the 1993 flick, Groundhog Day, but in this case, we — not Bill Murray — are reliving the same crap over and over again, IN REAL LIFE, because collectively, we haven't learned from our mistakes. This is real life in Trenton. Is our esteem so damn low that we cannot do any better than a mongo like Paul Pintella?

And then there's young Paul Harris, from the South Ward, who has been on the receiving end of Paul Pintella's lack of respect, and yet, has still been seduced by the Palmer machine (Pintella is a mindless cog in said machine). I have, on more than one occasion, agreed with some of the things that Paul Harris said, but it's only because he says every damn thing that pops into his head, it's simply impossible to disagree all the time. He is also planning to run against the only productive member of council, Jim Coston, instead putting his effort into one of the THREE possibly open at-large seats. This is stupid, and insane, and rude. Deep down, I suspect, he has a martyr complex, and likes the conflict, and the sound of his own voice. He does get picked on a lot on the forums, and I will admit that sometimes it is unwarranted, and petty. But often, it isn't, because Paul is driven by ego alone and does not often have a point, except when he's talking about how he's been treated. He argues for the sake of arguing; but this is not the debate team: this is real life. I think he's running for office because of the perceived prestige he thinks is associated with it, and does not understand the people he hopes to represent, nor the work involved to do that.

3. The Water Deal: I haven't said much about this, because I reached the point of bullshit saturation, last summer. My brain was simply too f'in full of all the other bullshit that happens here that I just had no room left to process the fact that the city's politicians actually want to sell off the one revenue-generating thing we have left in this city, and for the stupidest of reasons. The money will likely to cover the gaping hole in our budget caused by all that damn gas our lame-ass Mayor and his lame-ass friend, Joe Santiago, pissed away over the last couple of years while the price of fuel was obscene, and Santiago was in violation of the residency ordinance (Palmer still is); and it will balance the books after the city pissed away several hundred grand on Palmer's frivolous lawsuit to defend his friend in that residency lawsuit. Oh yeah, the sale of the Water Works will also help pay for the salaries of all the extraneous staff members Palmer has in his posse, people who should have never been hired in the first place. That our city's government cannot see the shortsightedness of this is just surreal; there are no guarantees how much we'll be paying for water in a couple years after we don't own the system anymore. Palmer needs to be held accountable for HIS wastefulness; city council, save for a few uncharacteristically lucid months last year, has been his softheaded, moronic accomplice, and also needs to be held responsible.

4. The "Don't Tell Us Nothin'" Mentality: Trenton is a small city fortuitously located in one of the nation's wealthiest states, and in a region filled with educational and cultural opportunities. Yet, Trenton spirals downward. Our kids don't graduate high school, and land in jail, while all the other kids, RIGHT OUTSIDE OUR BORDERS, not only stay out of jail, but actually go on to college and make something of themselves. Around us, there are functional, vibrant, low-crime cities (no, I'm not talking about Philadelphia; that city has been suffering from the same condition that Trenton has). So much research has been done on how to make cities more prosperous, on how to deter crime. Take a look at this eye-opening Newsweek article about a criminologist whose anti-gang/anti-crime tactics have been working in other cities; or the popular and now-ubiquitous "Broken Window" theories that are employed successfully in so many places; or Malcolm Gladwell's extremely logical, sensible essays (read some of them here) on crime and profiling and ideas that can turn a place around. Every now and then, a study group — usually citizen-driven — comes together to discuss these ideas, but I'd bet that most of our leaders don't, because they don't need to be told what to do. They can figure it all out by themselves, because, after all, they're so fucking smart. They're the elected and appointed ones, and they have things under control.

And I have a headache.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

"...without waste, without inefficiency, without fraud..."
Are you up for the task, Dougie?

President Barack Obama met with some of the nation's mayors yesterday, to offer advice and instructions on how cities should use their stimulus checks.

Here's an excerpt from his speech:

"Now, what is required in return, what I will need from all of you, is unprecedented responsibility and accountability on all of our parts. The American people are watching. They need this plan to work. They expect to see the money that they've earned, that they've worked so hard to earn, spent in its intended purposes without waste, without inefficiency, without fraud.

And that's why I'm assigning a team of managers to ensure that every dollar is spent wisely. And that's why we've created -- so that every American can go online to see how their money is spent, and hold their federal, state, and local officials to the highest standards they expect.

So I want to be clear about this: We cannot tolerate business as usual -- not in Washington, not in our state capitols, not in America's cities and towns. We will use the new tools that the recovery act gives us to watch the taxpayers' money with more rigor and transparency than ever. If a federal agency proposes a project that will waste that money, I will not hesitate to call them out on it and put a stop to it."

In attendance was Trenton's long-time mayor, Douglas Palmer. Trenton has a hugely inefficient city government, with more municipal employees per resident than Newark. Furthermore, the mayor has a posse fit for a rapper, not a mayor of a relatively small, and shrinking New Jersey city.

Trenton is witnessing Inspections — already kinda shoddy — get outsourced. Trenton's libraries and community centers are struggling — and failing, in some cases — to stay opened. Many Trenton residents struggle to pay their energy bills this year, while the mayor is chauffeured to and from his home in Hunterdon county. Dozens of low level city employees were cut from the payroll while the administration is full of redundancy, waste, and favoritism.

Mayor Palmer is hoping to sell off one of the biggest (and last) of the city's assets, the Trenton Water Works, as a last ditch effort to keep taxes and services status quo, so he can ride out the rest of his term without Trenton's oozing fiscal disaster from exploding in his face. Instead of looking at the last two decades of his own wasteful ineptitude for the problems, Palmer is blaming concerned residents who simply disagree with him, for the possibility of tax increases, should the Water Works sale fail. That's completely immature, and it's completely irresponsible. Without control of the Water Works, there are no guarantees about rate increases, down the line. And, certainly, once the cash influx the sale of TWW might bring is spent, what then? No one can read the future, but one thing's for certain: Mayor Palmer put us on a dark, dangerous road, cut the brakes, set a brick on the gas, and bailed the hell out, years ago. We're headed for some tough times, but with some responsibility and perseverance, we'll be able to dust ourselves off and move forward.

It's unlikely Palmer will change his behavior or philosophy on how to run the city at this late date of his term. It's up to us, the citizens of Trenton, to keep a close watch on what the administration is doing with our economic stimulus money. Become familiar with and demand accountability for Trenton.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Fantasy TV

I've been watching way too much television lately. It's not in my nature, really. I blame Matthew, but for the best of reasons: he needs to be fed, which takes up way more time than I ever imagined. And, it's extremely difficult to do anything else while feeding the little boy, since his ever-developing motor skills mean the pages of my magazine or book will get crumpled, the buttons on my phone will get dialed, the pen in my hand is pushed around, etc. He started eating some solid foods recently, and we don't have a routine established yet (though, soon enough). I know I'm not used to it yet, but I swear this is a two person job. I need an assistant just to hold his hands down and clean up the mush that inevitably falls out of his mouth. When Glen is around, we work together at the task of feeding Matthew solid chow; the rest of the time gives me a whole new respect for single parents. But while he's on his normal liquid diet, often, I sit in front of the boob tube, which keeps me entertained, and Matthew focused on the task of eating.

Nearly everyone asks us if we watch the HBO show, The Wire, the police drama series set in Baltimore, because of the show's focus on gangs, crime, and other urban issues, which I suppose, with our Trenton zip code, might be interesting to us. We don't watch it, but it's because we haven't shelled out the big bucks for HBO. We do watch The First 48, though; that's another police show, though unlike The Wire, The First 48 is a reality show. The show follows homicide detectives in several cities during the first 48 hours after a murder. I have a love-hate relationship with this show, because I hate knowing that the death we're watching is real. It makes me feel icky to see the show as entertainment, when lives are ending, for real, before my eyes.

Also, The First 48 is predictable. But that's not a criticism of the show: knuckleheads everywhere are predictable: sometimes an innocent person is killed, but more often, knuckleheads murder each other, usually on purpose, and then they deny it to detectives, by claiming they weren't at the scene.
This is how it goes when they sit down with detectives:
"I ain't did it. You ain't pinnin no [bleeep] murder on ME, dude."
After a bit of denial, the officers offer a bit of information to let the knucklehead know that they're on to him.
"Okay. Okay. Dis time, I'll tell you da trufe. Honest. Dis time, it's da trufe. My cousin do it, but I don't know why. Honest, man, dat's all I know."
The officers don't believe the knucklehead, but tell him they're going to check with his cousin. And during that time, the knucklehead's relatively law-abiding girlfriend/mother/cousin comes in, and tells the police the real truth. And by this point, the forensic evidence is starting to come in, further disproving the knucklehead's story. The knucklehead logically cannot refute this new information, but always does.
"I didn't do it, man. I didn't. Dat's da Gods honest TRUFE! I SWEAR!"
The knucklehead almost always cries, as the cuffs are slapped on his wrists, only the tears are for his own wasted life; tragic, to be sure, but not as tragic as the life/lives he cut short.

Even though I have summed up nearly every episode of the show, I still watch, because the police work is fascinating. Plus, I love the regional accents, and always get a kick out of what Sergeant Caroline Mason (of Memphis Homicide) is wearing. That girl ROCKS. Detective John Palmer (of Dallas Homicide) is also fantastic to watch, as he is both bad-ass and a genuine, gentle soul. He treats everyone — even the accused — with dignity, and he seems to have a brilliant track record for obtaining confessions.

I watch this and other shows, nearly always to the backdrop of my own block's knuckleheads carrying on. Usually, they're just hollering in the street, throwing their trash everywhere, or riding around, without any risk of punishment, on their ATVs. Every single night. Some nights, as you know, there is violence, as evidenced by my block's two murders last summer. Even without the violence, as soon as I hear their voices, my hackles go up. I curse fate and karma for not working quickly enough, or worse, not at all. The police can only do so much, though there are some days we're not sure they're doing anything over here. That sounds critical, I realize; that's my frustration speaking, but we do know that our knuckleheads, even with two murders under their collective knucklehead belt in a very short span of time, aren't Trenton's worst offenders. We always figure the police have bigger fish to fry elsewhere in the city. That's the reason we don't call much. We're discouraged.

Someday, though, I may snap. I'm the sort who would, especially if I had a weapon. Like a lot of people, I probably take too much crap in life; I let a lot of stuff slide. And I've certainly done that for my neighborhood's morons, and what sucks about that, is that they don't deserve my diplomacy. If I lived alone, I'm fairly certain I would lob rocks at them as they rode by on their quads, or get them with a power washer. I would take it upon myself to booby trap the alley behind my house, maybe with a big hole disguised with a large piece of cardboard, or asphalt; or if I were feeling particularly pissy, maybe I'd run a piece of piano wire across the alley. I've been fantasizing about building what looks to be like an obvious, and ominous hunting perch in the tree, right on the corner. "Oh hi, boys!" I'd say with a smile, as they rode by on their stupid, illegal vehicles.

Yeah, yeah, I can hear it now, "Chrissy, don't even think that. These guys are dangerous. They'd retaliate." I'm not denying that they're dangerous, but maybe I'm dangerous too. Plus, I think more people need to challenge these knuckleheads directly, with brooms and hoses and stones and 6-foot holes dug just for them. Personally, I'd wave as they were falling off their ATVs, so they'd have no doubt as to who made that happen. And I KNOW that nearly all of them, once they stood up and brushed themselves off, and saw me standing there, sleep-deprived, yet wide-eyed and crazy, smiling, with a baby on my hip and a power washer in my hand, would apologize to me. I am certain of it. However, I'm writing about it here, in the event I do snap when Glen's not here to hold me back, and, in the very unlikely scenario I wind up dead, you'll have a pretty good idea of the who, what, where, how, and why of the story.

All of this makes me wonder what are the possibilities, and ramifications, of a show like The First 48 filming in Trenton? Would the TPD be open to that? If so, would it help solve murders? Would it deter crime here, at all? Would it just help make the criminals smarter? Or is it just real life and real death of local kids turned entertainment for the masses?

I watch other shows, too, not just police programming. I watch a lot of cooking shows, lately, with just as much fantasy, and with very questionable results, and I'm ashamed of that. Also, I like home renovation/DIY shows, and luckily, haven't attempted, or even really fantasized about, that sort of stuff. (Yet.) One of my favorites is Urban Outsiders, an American show hosted by England's popular TV gardener, Matt James. If you know me, and read this blog, you know I like British programming, so I'm not embarrassed to admit I first learned of James on his original British series, called City Gardeners. Like other HGTV shows, the host turns a bland backyard and into a luxurious retreat. What I like about this particular show, though, is that he works in CITY gardens, and deals with issues that I face: a small space, lack of privacy, ugly fences and wires, and that sort of thing. The show has had a recent run in Brooklyn, which got me thinking: maybe I could contact the producers to see if they'd come to Trenton. The downside to this particular show is that the homeowner foots the bill, and Matt James always mentions in a voice-over how much they're spending, and it always takes my breath away ("with a budget of $8,000, Gary and Melissa should be ecstatic about their new, lush space.") I don't have a budget for that pressure washer I've been ranting about, so I can pretty much kiss goodbye a visit from Matt James. Sigh.

Urban Gardeners isn't one of those shows where the host sends away the homeowners and brings them back for the surprise reveal at the end of the show. Oh no. Matt James makes the homeowner participate every step of the way, and with big pieces of slate, and lumber, and large plants. That's really hard work. I don't have that kind of strength or time right now, even if I did have the coin. Also, I don't have the energy at present to tie piano wire across the alley, or dig ATV-traps. As much as I'd love some reality TV to happen here in Trenton, I'll bet Urban Outsiders has gone back to sunny, predictable California for filming. So I'll just have to manage in my own backyard without any expertise. Also, certainly the producers of The First 48 are probably too busy in Cleveland, Memphis, Miami, Tucson, and Dallas, to make it to Trenton.

Besides, crime is down here in Trenton, anyway. For realsies. At least for now.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Catherine's Day

Saturday marked the second anniversary of our daughter, Catherine's birth and death.

It's hard to believe two years have passed. Prior to my pregnancy with Catherine, I never wanted kids, never saw myself with children, and after preparing for, and laboring and birthing a beautiful child who did not breathe, I could not see how I could go on. Right after Catherine died, I connected with women who were a few years past their losses, to get an idea of what was in store for me. Were these women shells? Or were they okay? It was a mixed bag in the support group: there were some bitter, angry people, and there were others transformed by their grief. I kept the latter in mind as I went through the motions of life in those early weeks; just allowing myself to feel what I felt, without self-censorship, hoping to regain my footing. The earth revolved, and the sun came up every morning, and for a long time, I was stuck in one horrible moment in time.

Up and down eventually started to return to their places, even though I needed to reorient myself, as after a tumble in the ocean's surf. What was helpful was that I was able to think about those women who went on to live well after their losses; I saw the love they had for their children in that course of action. The fleeting, precious nature of life became so obvious, that taking better care of my own just made sense. After all, I was a mother, even though my daughter didn't live. I wanted to act like one, and I realized, after some months, that hoping for death to take me in the night, and staring at the walls, paralyzed during the day, did not honor Catherine. It was not how a mother should act. At least not for so much of the time.

I did a lot of art in that first year, and one result was the memorial created for Catherine; it was incredibly healing to work on it, to have something tangible to look at, to hold, for all we went through.

The circumstances of the second year without Catherine did not allow me the same kind of time for creative, therapeutic work, so I didn't know what to expect when January 31 came around this year. I had wanted to plant bulbs and work on a garden for Catherine on that date. Our autumns and winters have been so warm lately that fall-planted bulbs often get confused and come up too early, only to get knocked down by the next cold snap, which is why I've been trying to plant — at least bulbs — in January. But the ground is frozen now, so we didn't plant anything. We had Catherine cremated, and she's with us, so there was no place to go visit her. After all that I did last year, I felt like I was letting her down this year.

So, we worked on our den, to make it more Matthew-friendly; I figure making Matthew's world better is a good way to honor his big sister.

Also, I baked cookies. And, when the sun went down, I lit a couple of candles and had a glass of wine.

Matthew is too young to eat cookies, but won't be for much longer. Cookies are one of my favorite treats, and I don't often have them in, and I bake them even less frequently. A birthday cake seemed a little much emotionally, to make, or even buy from the store. And cake just seems too celebratory. But Catherine deserves something sweet on her day. It's only the second anniversary of her birth and death; it feels, in many ways, like decades have passed, and yet it's not nearly enough time to have an established tradition in place. But we're working on it. I'm hoping, as time goes on, and weather permitting, to plant bulbs on Catherine's Day. I am hoping her day gives us the proper opportunity to pause and reflect on how we can be so empty, and so full, simultaneously, because of Catherine. I have a horrible wound because of her death; it will not heal, like flesh heals. But we learn to carry that wound with us, and live, in spite of it. So, Catherine's Day, and our lives without her, cannot be morbid, because that wound has also opened me to a new world. I am capable of loving more than I knew possible, and I am way stronger than I ever thought.

Because of her, I found the strength to try again, after an unthinkable and tragic end to my completely uneventful pregnancy with her. While I was pregnant with Matthew, in the moments I could allow myself to see a positive outcome, I wondered if I could possibly love a new baby as much as I loved Catherine. I'm sure this is common for all parents, even when their first children live.

I've found my love for Matthew does not diminish the love I have for Catherine.
There is love after death.
There is love after love.

We miss you, Katie.