Sunday, April 28, 2013

On the Bottom LookingUp

Three guys get killed in a boat accident and they go before St. Peter. The first man says he was a surgeon. "How much did you make a year?" Peter asks. The man replies, "I made $375,000." "Enter," says Peter, who now turns to the second man with the same question. "I made $153,000 - I was an architect." "Interesting," says Peter, "enter." Now he turns to the last man. "How much did you make per year?" The man responds, "I made $16,500." Peter turns to him and says, "$16,500, eh? What paper did you work for?" - A fable based on fact

My first job in journalism paid $45 a week. I was a wire room attendant at a San Francisco newspaper and it was my job to keep a dozen clattering teletype machines running smoothly.

That entailed changing the paper rolls on the fly, clipping myriad stories and distributing them to the correct desk and listening to the tell-tale bells that would indicate a news bulletin. And, oh yeah, the hours were to 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

I lived in a dump with a couple of other guys and we scrimped and saved to make sure we had enough beer money, even if it meant living on Corn Flakes.

When I moved up a notch to be a real life news hound, I got to spend my time at mind-numbing city council meetings or, as I did at one paper, interview the loved ones of soldiers killed in Vietnam.

Things slowly got better as my career progressed. I finally earned enough to buy a house, send the kids to college and keep my wife reasonably well dressed. But if wealth is what I sought, I was in the wrong profession.

We ink-stained wretches justify this by claiming we are motivated by compassion and concern, not cash, although each and every one of us would prefer our paycheck to match our passion. After all, even a seeker after truth has got to eat.

Then there is the fact that nobody likes us very much. While there are two sides to every story, most newsmakers want us to print only their views or at the very least disparage the other side. As a result, we are roundly criticized by liberals and conservatives, Arabs and Jews, Catholics and Protestants, Bruins and Trojans, you name it.

To sum it up: If you're seeking love or money, apply elsewhere.

Sound like a lousy job? I never thought so but apparently I was mistaken.

According to the website, a newspaper reporter is considered the worst job of 2013. The website ranked the top 200 best and worst jobs in the United States, taking into consideration factors including physical demands, work environment, income, stress and hiring outlook.

Reporters were on the bottom of the heap looking up at lumberjacks, soldiers, actors, oil rig workers, dairy farmers, meter readers, roofers and flight attendants, all of which were found to be in preferable professions.

Based on this, I would have been better off chopping down trees or compiling someone's gas bill. But with all due respect to these fine professions, I never had the urge to live in the woods with a bunch of guys in Pendleton shirts while sleeping with my axe. Meter reading may require math, so that's out.

I did the soldier bit. It required complete allegiance to authority and a willingness to die. Cows? I prefer the final product, two scoops of vanilla topped with hot fudge sauce.

But let's get serious. What is missing in this equation is fulfillment. How else can you explain that in the CareerCast survey a podiatrist is listed ahead of a psychiatrist, a skin care specialist is ranked ahead of a surgeon, a bricklayer beats out a judge, a sewage plant operator tops a principal.

Milking a cow or patching a roof may hold untold intellectual pleasures. But I'm not sure it matches the satisfaction of exposing corruption in government, advocating for the downtrodden or exposing rip-offs, cons and frauds.

I suspect the reporting profession was thrown under the bus because the newspaper business is considered a buggy whip industry.

To some extent that's true. Total employment in newspaper publishing has dropped by more than 40 percent in the last decade . In 2001, the industry employed 414,000 people, but that number fell to 246,020 people by 2011.

But last year, revenues declined just 2 percent, according to the Newspaper Association of America. That may not be a reason to pop the champagne corks, but it suggests that the hemorrhaging has slowed and there's life in the old girl yet.

Which is good news for reporters who were thinking of making a career move to an oil rig.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Isolation Is Not the Answer

When I was a kid growing up in a Los Angeles suburb, I rode my bike everywhere. To school. Downtown to go to the movies. To music lessons. To parks. To the homes of friends who lived to the north, south, east and west of me.

It wasn't an act of daring. Most of my friends did the same thing.

It was a time when we could explore and learn about our little corner of the world without restrictions, without fear. If my parents told me to be careful, they meant crossing the street.

There was a cool little hobby shop about a mile away where I spent my allowance on model airplane and car kits. The local community college nearby had a couple of World War II fighters out back, part of an aviation repair curriculum. If you had the fortitude to scale a 12-foot fence, you could climb into the cockpits and shoot down imaginary bad guys.

You could make your way to the local drug story that had a newsstand full of comic books and a soda fountain that served cherry Cokes.

All in a day's travels by bike.

Muggers, pedophiles, felons, scam artists, domestic abusers, terrorists were never part of the conversation. They undoubtedly lurked in the shadows somewhere but they remained out of sight and out of mind.

My greatest fears were bloodthirsty space aliens in flying saucers and ballroom dance classes with the opposite sex.

I thought about all this when the news of the bombings at the Boston Marathon filled our TV screens on Monday.
There is no out of sight, out of mind anymore. Each time there is an act of cowardice, of madness, it blankets us like a bank of fog so thick that we can't see anything else for days.

Worse, it's the children who are hurt the most, sometimes without suffering so much as a scratch.

It is unlikely that any child living now or as yet unborn will experience the sheer exhilaration of exploring the world on his or her own terms as we did many generations ago. Few kids ride their bikes or even walk to school anymore. Drive by any school these days and the streets are choked with the vehicles of moms and dads who ferry their kids everywhere.

Paranoia about crime and terrorism has created a world in which we are restricted and regimented.

We keep our children close by lest they be exposed too soon to a world of mistrust, cynicism and violence.

Perhaps there is some justification for that. As Cormac McCarthy once wrote, "it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they'd have no heart to start at all."

So now our kids interact with their fellow human beings and travel the world via a chair in front of a computer screen. They go places we could have never visited on a bike but they never breath the air, smell the roses. And what is lost? Human contact. Face-to-face interaction. An appreciation of cultures other than our own. All pieces of a puzzle that, when assembled, lead to greater understanding.

As a result, we run the danger of confusing isolation with safety.

We need to make sure that our children learn that the world is mostly a warm and wonderful place and that terrorism or mass killings or war may occupy the TV news cycle but don't exist around every corner. After all, the chances of being killed by a terrorist is about 1 in 10 million.

They need to know that the people of Boston, confronted by a disaster, reaffirmed our faith in humanity by reacting with heroism and compassion.

They need to know, as Patton Oswalt observed, "We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves alive long ago. "

They need to know that those responsible for the attacks in Boston are not winning converts to whatever twisted cause they may embrace by killing an 8-year-old boy and maiming his family members.

Most importantly, our kids need to get out from behind their computer screens and out into the sunshine, to embark on voyages of discovery led by parents who remember the way.

The world is too small a place and the stakes are too high for us to raise a generation of isolationists.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Taking a Stab at Airport Security

As part of its ongoing efforts "to enhance security screening measures and improve the passenger experience," the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will now give expedited security checkpoint privileges to passengers willing to sing, dance, juggle or tell jokes to others waiting in line.

OK, so that's a bit of humor, courtesy of a satirical website. But for a moment, you probably thought it was legitimate. Because when it comes to the TSA, nothing seems too bizarre to be true.

These are the same folks who brought us a security pat-down which resembles an awkward romantic encounter in the back seat of a Chevy. Without the heavy breathing.

These are the same folks who produced a list of prohibited items that included such common household items as ice axes, cattle prods and blasting caps.

These are the same folks who decided military personnel are exempt from removing their footwear despite the fact that there have been terrorist acts involving members of the military.

These are the same folks who have decided that it is now OK for passengers to board carrying small knives (2.36 inches or less) or a pool cue, hockey or lacrosse stick, two golf clubs, or a souvenir baseball bat weighing up to a pound and a half.

It's a rollback of regulations that has not played well with politicians, airline employees or the traveling public.

Holding up a bottle of shampoo at a recent hearing, New York Sen.Chuck Schumer said, "I hear outcries from passengers about this ... but almost no one has called my office and said, 'Why can't I bring a sharp knife on an airplane?'"

"While we agree that a passenger wielding a small knife or swinging a golf club... poses less of a threat to the pilot locked in the cockpit, these are real threats to passengers and flight attendants in the passenger cabin," Stacy K. Martin, president of Southwest Airlines' flight attendants union, told the Los Angeles Times.

A spokesman for the Allied Pilots Assn., the union that represents pilots from American Airlines, said the announcement caught him by surprise. "It represents a significant step backward in security," said Gregg Overm.

That goes without saying. Someone has failed to remember that the most shocking thing abut 9/11 is how a handful of terrorists armed with simple box cutters - not automatic weapons, not grenades, not swords- killed nearly 3,000 people and changed the geo-political climate throughout the world forever more.

Now, the TSA is changing policy because it would allow airport screeners to focus on "catastrophic" threats to an entire aircraft, including explosives or detonators.

Does that mean agents aren't focusing on such threats now? Or is the act of confiscating knives somehow diminishing the effectiveness of that task?

What will happen when agents are forced to use their time measuring the lengths of knives or the weights of baseball bats?

And if you want to consider a catastrophic scenario, what if a group of terrorists armed with knives started slicing the throats of passengers one by one until the pilots agreed to their demands? Far fetched? So was 9/11.

Locked cockpits might save the pilots but there is little to protect the passenger. If you think there are air marshals on your flight, guess again. According to some estimates, they fly on only about five percent of aircraft although the exact number is secret for obvious reasons.

On a more mundane level, if people start showing up with hockey and lacrosse sticks and golf clubs, where are they going to get stowed? Many won't fit in overhead compartments which are already stuffed to overflowing. And they aren't going to slide easily under a seat.

I can hear the announcement now: "Ladies and gentlemen, is there anyone willing to give up their seat and take a later flight so we can accommodate some lacrosse gear?"

(As an aside, if you don't think golf clubs are dangerous consider the former Mrs. Tiger Woods. She took one swing with a 9-iron and inflicted millions dollars in damage.)

Nobody expected the TSA to be a public relations triumph. Post 9/11, it was put in charge of a security program which made a normally tedious airport experience downright dreadful. The trade-off: you got to your destination in one piece.

Eventually, travelers faced with the frustration and humiliation of a TSA security screening decided that the aforementioned trade-off was worth it.

It still is. I will happily take off my shoes and belt and submit to a frisking to assure the safety of my family and fellow travelers. And I'll be happier still to leave my knife at home.