Archive for June, 2004

The Thinker

Just Folks

My wife has many wonderful attributes. I should sing her praises more often here on my blog. I mean it’s not every husband whose wife is:

– A great and enriching mother
– A loving and devoted spouse
– An amazingly talented writer who one of these days will doubtless become published and write a bestseller
– When she is in the mood, a terrific chef
– Extremely well read. She not only knows a little bit about everything. She knows a lot about everything.
– Affectionate and thoughtful
– A wizard at puzzles. We’re not talking about just crossword puzzles but any type of puzzle. Nothing fazes her. She can figure out any problem. She can get out of any box.
– Builds computers for friends in her limited spare time, and rarely charges a fee
– Dotes on everything living in the house, including our cat, our daughter’s fish and the African violet on the kitchen windowsill
– Can actually fix the kind of complex Windows problems that would baffle even Bill Gates

I could easily go on for pages about things I admire and love about her. For eighteen years I have been fortunate to be her husband. But there is also something else nearly unique with her. She is wholly unfazed by wealth or status.

For years I thought she must have been faking it. But no longer. It doesn’t make any difference how much you make or don’t make. She doesn’t care if you are white, black, Hispanic, a Jew or have skin in colored polka dots. Whether you are President of the United States or the attendant at the car wash she could care less. Blue blood or poor white trash has no effect on how she feels about you.

That’s not to say she has no standards. She cares very much about how people treat her and the world in general. If you give her the finger you are likely to get one back. If you are obnoxious in an opinion she does not share she’s not going to think highly of you. She is in a word: classless. But that is not to say that she has no class. She is beyond class.

My wife works on a help desk. She spends her days scurrying around the Software Productivity Consortium fixing assortments of PC woes. She is often amazed by how little these people know about computers. These are people with advanced degrees who write professional articles for magazines like IEEE Computer or teach classes in software engineering topics like the Capability Maturity Model. But large numbers of them cannot troubleshoot even a simple problem on their computers. She will sometimes come home from a hard day of work to complain about the moron of the day or praise someone who was really nice and sweet to her. It’s always on a first name basis. I rarely have any idea who these people are and where they are in the hierarchy of the organization.

“Well, I spent all day teaching Bob today how to use a Windows computer,” she told me one day. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that Bob was the CEO of her company. It wasn’t Mr. Smith or “the CEO”. He was just Bob: another human being inhabiting space and burning oxygen who happens to run around her building. People she meets and work with are always peers.

When I learn these things I am still surprised. After all these years I shouldn’t be. Perhaps because I am a federal employee I am more sensitive to rank and privilege than I should be. When I meet a fellow employee the first thing I was to know is “What GS are you?” But I don’t think this is unique to us civil servants. My friends out there in the private sector are just as sensitive as I am to those with power over them. Perhaps it is because they have learned from experience that status does matter. My wife has been through her share of mean and dysfunctional bosses too. But it never seems to affect how she feels about people above or below her in the chain of command.

I’d like to be this way. Sometimes I think of myself this way. But in reality I am not. I am old enough and wise enough to know that very often status or privilege is unearned. But I also know that (at least for me) status matters. And most of the time I wouldn’t mind having more status or power. I’d like to think if Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter walked down the street that I wouldn’t care enough to even look in their direction. But I’d look and likely gawk and I’d probably want to talk to them and get their autograph.

That’s not the case with my wife though. While she might admire Bill and Jimmy it wouldn’t make any difference to her. She wouldn’t go out of her way to meet them. But if Jimmy asked her to troubleshoot a computer problem she’d probably do it cheerfully. And then I’d hear, “You know I was with Jimmy today and you should have seen the Windows problem he had.” And I’d probably never know she was talking about an ex-president of the United States.

To my wife people are just folks.

Damn. I wish I were as egalitarian in spirit as I am in theory.

She must be an old soul indeed.

The Thinker

Why Bush Will Lose in 2004 – An Update

It was about a year ago (July 4, 2003) that I wrote what at the time seemed to be a rather fantastic prediction: that Bush would lose this year’s election. Judging from the number of hits and comments it has received this entry turned out to be one of my most popular entries. A year ago even the most rabid Bush haters were stewing in silence. None except perhaps Howard Dean really thought Bush could realistically be defeated. His reelection seemed like a slam-dunk.

I think most of us realize now that Bush’s chances of staying in office are at best 50/50. As I said a year ago (and still believe) there are always last minute factors that could tip the election to Bush. I still think it is possible that some horrible September 11th type event, timed perhaps in mid October, could produce an emotional response that would reelect Bush, though not validate his governing style. We will all be hoping and praying that this does not happen. One of the few positive things I have to say about Bush was that I thought his approach to dealing with terrorism within the United States has been decent. It is by no means ideal. Our borders are still pretty porous. There are significant security gaps in our ports and in our air cargo system. But border security is much better than it was. I’d rate this aspect of the war on terrorism as a B, while I’d give others like securing nuclear stockpiles a D or an F.

The economy perked up a bit more than I expected. Bush hasn’t erased the three million jobs lost during his watch but he has perhaps a 50/50 chance of at least ending his term with no net loss of jobs. It’s unlikely that this is the sort of statistic he can use to ensure his own reelection. As others have pointed out the unemployment rate hasn’t changed much these last few months, in spite of the new jobs. This is because those who gave up hope of finding a job are more hopeful now and have put themselves back in the market. But there is also the disturbing problem that the new jobs tend to pay on average less than the old jobs. And though wages are rising, these don’t feel like good times yet to those who are coming off unemployment. And at least so far this year inflation is rising faster than wages. That of course means a net loss in income for the average worker. Gas prices that are likely to hang around or over two dollars a gallon won’t help Bush either.

Those on the top enjoying Bush’s large tax cuts are living large and have seen real income growth. Those on the bottom end of the income scale pay little or no income taxes and consequently haven’t seen much improvement in their standard of living. Most of them are paying markedly higher housing costs that have actually put them further behind.

Howard Dean has been vindicated on tax shifting. When taxes are cut in one place they tend to rise elsewhere. Most of us see it on the state and local level. I haven’t done a personal study of my own income. But I am willing to bet that my federal tax cut has been offset by other tax increases. Our house just keeps rising in value. Just this year alone I can expect to pay several hundred more dollars in property taxes. Over the course of Bush’s term in office I am likely to see my property taxes go up by about $1000 a year. And then there are those other taxes. For example our Virginian Republican legislature decided to raise taxes effective July 1st, in spite of pledging never to do such a thing. Miscellaneous taxes continue to rise too. My telephone bill is about 30 percent taxes. So for the vast majority of us tax cuts on the federal level have at best kept us even in our overall level of taxation.

Most of the trends I noticed a year ago are still true today. Iraq became the quagmire I predicted. Actually it is worse than I imagined a year ago. Not only is our war in Iraq a failure but also our war on terrorism in general is a failure. Our only success was overturning Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which supported al Qaeda. But despite this Osama bin Laden remains at large. Al Qaeda has launched many attacks on our allies and on us. Liberating Iraq doesn’t really count because it was never a threat to our national security and was never allied with al Qaeda. Our erstwhile “ally” Saudi Arabia is in a virtual state of siege.

Meanwhile the Taliban in Afghanistan are resurging. We don’t really have enough troops in Afghanistan to do more than ensure the Taliban can’t take over the country again. Planned elections in Afghanistan look dicey at best. Female poll workers are being killed. The country, unfortunately, is not yet at a mature enough place where true democracy for all can flourish. Iraq’s culture is more contemporary, but it must fight its own civil war with puritanical Islam before it can take root, if it ever does. Iraqis are more used to strongmen as leaders and are likely to revert to that model. If democracy happens in Iraq it is likely to be a long and violent process. If you can remember what a bloody place Beirut was in the 1970s and 1980s you have a pretty good idea of what Iraq will be going through for many years. And sadly it won’t be alone. Predominantly Islamic Countries all over the Middle East need to complete a soul-searching process. It will likely be violent and last for decades. Much the way the Soviet Union finally got the clue that communism was unworkable, eventually these countries will figure out that theocracy won’t work. Eventually and inevitably these countries will discover what we learned long ago: that a certain amount of secularism is required to enjoy the benefits of a modern state.

But I digress. If you want to know why Bush is likely to lose look not just at his poll numbers. Look also at how Americans are feeling overall about the economy and the war on terrorism. The only area where Bush gets positive marks now is his overall handling on the war on terrorism, and there he holds only a slim majority. When asked about particular aspects, like the War in Iraq, he no longer gets majority approval. And now it is clear that this will not change substantially before the election.

Red states will still vote bright red and blue states will vote bright blue. But Republicans will not vote passionately for George W. Bush. Many of them will stay home out of apathy and disgust, much as Democrats did for Carter in 1980. But apathy won’t be the case with the Democrats in this election. A lot of people, and not just Democrats, really really don’t like George W. Bush. Karmic elements are at work. The sort of rabid hatred Republicans heaped on Bill Clinton for marital indiscretions is about to be returned on George W. Bush doubly by Democrats. Democrats finally have a Republican they just can’t stand. Basically they just hate the guy. And hatred while not the most noble of our emotions can be very strong.

Although it’s too early to say for sure we can perhaps see the future in the weekend’s new box office hit, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Even in bright red states like Texas shows are selling out days in advance. Many of the people I know who voted for Bush in 2000 have changed their mind and won’t vote for him again. Many are doing so as a protest. They just feel he has totally screwed up.

And we feel that America has changed for the worse. This is not the country we remember. We expect our president to act from deliberation and consideration, not from prejudice and instinct. We expect our president to keep an open mind. We expect dialog from our president, not one sidedness. We expect presidents to find synergy with our international partners, not piss them off. We expect most of all: moderation. Lack of moderation is really the key to Bush’s downfall. Moderates win reelection. Radicals don’t. And the swing voters are, as always, the moderates. Bush promoted himself as a moderate but he was a chameleon. Now they know better. Bush will paint Kerry as a left-winger but Kerry will sensibly steer toward the moderate middle. Bush can no longer claim that territory. Through his actions he has shown that he is not a moderate.

Bush will be hit by a tsunami of disgust from large numbers of very angry voters. They will be telling their friends not to vote for Bush, and their friends will be telling their friends. The moderates will be seeking anyone who will actually steer toward the middle in this election. Kerry is the only choice for them. So I put the odds right now at 85/15 for a Kerry victory. And I predict when the popular vote is counted it will be Kerry 53%, Bush 45%, and Nader (plus miscellaneous candidates) at 2%. This is a minimum. I suspect Kerry’s number will actually trend higher.

Come back November 3rd and see how I did.

The Thinker

Review: Fahrenheit 9/11

Michael Moore is a documentary filmmaker with an unapologetic liberal bias. He has created memorable and quirky documentary films including Roger and Me, which I’ve seen. That film explored the negative impact the auto industry had on his hometown of Flint, Michigan. (This happens to be where my wife grew up.) Moore has also tackled more controversial topics such as his movie Bowling for Columbine. That movie focused on the shootings by two students at Columbine High School in Colorado and how he believed it was precipitated by the easy availability of firearms in this country.

In Fahrenheit 9/11 Moore clearly goes for the jugular: the Bush Administration itself. The focus of the movie is Bush’s response to the attacks on 9/11 but it is a general indictment of Bush and everything associated with Bush. This movie is very controversial and there are right wing groups trying to keep it from even being shown. So I was surprised to find myself yesterday with a ticket (courtesy of my friend Renee) to the 7:40 PM show at the Cinema Arts Theater in Fairfax, Virginia. Needless to say all the tickets were sold out. Had not Renee bought them earlier in the week I likely wouldn’t have seen the film until much later.

There were two aspects to the movie. The first was the movie itself. The second was the controversy swirling around the movie. The owner of the theater put up a large sign next to the ticket booth justifying showing the film. The sign noted that the theater had also showed Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ despite objections from some on the left side of the spectrum at the time. The owner was more than a bit nervous about showing the film. Before the movie he went up and down the aisles asking questions from us. I doubt there was a Republican in the house. We were ready for the film and we were prepared to applaud.

But how was it as a movie? This is after all a movie that already won the Palme d’Or (best in show) award at France’s prestigious Cannes Film Festival just last month! Given such kudos my expectations were pretty high. I was somewhat disappointed but not too surprised that it did not live up to my expectations.

Yes, I had big problems with the movie. First of all let me assure you that I am no George W. Bush fan. I am actively working to get him out of office. And I subscribe to Michael Moore’s thesis, which is well articulated in the film, that the media in this country had a largely uncritical bias toward Bush and his war. Still Moore often plays fast and loose with the facts. He jumps to conclusions not necessarily warranted by the facts.

What Fahrenheit 9/11 really is is an emotional parry from this country’s left wing to the Bush Administration in general, and to the way they botched up our response to 9/11 and the Iraq War in particular. It tries very hard to succeed in connecting the dots between a close relationship between the Bush family and Saudi oil interests. And I actually did learn some new things I did not expect from the movie. This is very unusual for me because I am a political junkie. To find events in the movie that didn’t even get reported on DailyKos or Atrios is pretty amazing. I have to complement Moore for his research. Still in playing connect the dots in many cases instead of drawing straight lines between the dots, Moore is really drawing dotted lines. He spends a lot of time making inferences that are not really justified by the available facts.

The film itself tries to be organized but only partially succeeds. Like Moore it often rambles back and forth from point to point. One moment we are in Iraq, the next we are in Flint, Michigan. It’s unclear where the film is going and when it will end. It feels a bit long at about two hours. And most amazingly enough it leaves out large areas of the story that should be told to a general audience. In place of these crucial events we get disturbing but very effective close-ups of a mother who lost her son in Iraq, or of our troops conducting midnight raids on an Iraqi family’s house. What crucial events are missing? Well, for one the lack of connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, which is hinted at, is never explored in any depth.

Instead the film often rushes to be sophomoric where it could have been soared. We all know on some level that our leaders are human beings with human failings. Moore goes out of his way to make everyone in the Bush Administration look like jerks. In the process he really just lowers our opinion of him. We get lots of pictures of Bush prior to going on the air getting his hair retouched. We see many shots with Bush looking like a lost little lamb. We even see Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz licking a comb to retouch his hair and similar nauseating events. We also get a very grainy shot of a beheading in Saudi Arabia. We see war footage from Iraq including those horrible images of the charred bodies of our contractors dangling from bridges in Falluja. There are numerous pictures of victims of the war in pieces or with parts of their bodies missing. The R rating was I think well deserved. War is not a clean business.

The movie is perhaps a bit unfocused because it felt rushed to the screen. Incidents like the kidnapping of Thomas Hamill (not my brother!) are discussed. The film is also annoying because it integrates so much video footage with filmed interviews. Much of the film is consequently jerky and grainy.

Where the film succeeds though is on an emotional level. If you toss out its problems with connecting the dots and see it as a crass appeal to our emotions it succeeds quite well. Sometimes it does so brilliantly. The events of 9/11 themselves are largely heard, not seen. We hear sounds of the airliners crashing into the Twin Towers against a black screen. Eventually the black fades to the looks of horror in people’s eyes as they watch people fall to their death.

Thinking about it last night, this is the sort of movie Matt Drudge’s evil twin would make. Although I can appreciate Michael Moore and his style, he is hardly unbiased. He frequently substitutes innuendo and snide remarks for facts and logic. No person who calls himself or herself a liberal should accept this film uncritically. To do so in my mind puts them in the same category as those neo-conservatives who perpetrated Bush and his mistakes on this country.

Moore may be biased but the poignant moments scattered in the film are real enough. And you have to love those signature Michael Moore scenes. One happens when he is in an ice cream truck running around Capitol Hill. He is inside the truck on the loud speaker reciting the details of the Patriot Act to Congress, which had never bothered to read it. I also enjoyed his on the street interviews with congressmen he manages to accost. He gives them brochures for the armed forces so they will send their kids to fight in Iraq. (Only one member of congress has a son or daughter serving in Iraq.) During these parts of the movies you can’t help but laugh and forgive a lot of his other mistakes.

Is the movie worth seeing? Overall I’d say yes. Will it change minds? My guess is it probably won’t change many since the country is already very polarized. For weeks the crowds seeing it will be highly partisan. But perhaps it will be seen by more independents when it is released on DVD (hopefully long before the election). Then it might have impact that translates into votes. And while I am annoyed by Moore’s leaps of logic I find it hard to be too upset. There are plenty of beyond dispute facts in the movie that need all the publicity they can get.

The Thinker

The Stranger in the Mirror and the Unexpected Adult on the Stretcher

The times they are a changing.

A couple weeks back I got one of these really unwanted calls from school that you know you will get once or twice in a lifetime. There is a rule that they cannot arrive until you are frantically busy with a deadline. Our 14-year-old daughter Rosie was injured during gym class at school. Some jock hit her not once, but twice with a basketball. The first blow landed on the back of her spine. She apparently didn’t think it was enough to bother moving off her bench. The second hit the back of her head. This one made her feel dizzy and nauseous. Since these were signs of a concussion the school clinic called 911 and us. I frantically dialed my wife who was resting at home in her easy chair recovering from abdominal surgery the week before. We made plans to rush to her high school. But before we could a subsequent call said Rosie was in an ambulance on her way to Fair Oaks Hospital. Despite her condition Terri managed to drive the van and pick me up at work (I had taken the bike) and we hurried to the hospital. We ended up beating her there by a couple minutes.

I hate hospitals and I particularly hate emergency rooms. I hate the gnawing feeling in my gut when someone I love is in danger. Fortunately when we saw her on the stretcher we breathed a sigh of relief. She looked fine. In case she had a spinal or head injury she was wholly immobilized. She had to be checked out by the ER doctor who ordered multiple X-rays. We knew that she was going to be fine. But it was an odd feeling to see her there on a stretcher in her gym clothes. She was uncomfortable because she was strapped in very tightly on a very hard immobilizer board. She wanted out immediately but we couldn’t let her off.

Perhaps most striking in the couple hours she lay there was to see the adult woman I apparently had raised. This couldn’t be. This was my daughter, the same girl I had bottle fed, read to, potty trained and played endless tedious games of Barbie with. But except for the acne she looked very much like a woman. She is already taller than her mother. She is likely to add a few more inches before she stops growing. I held her hand when she would let me but that stage seemed very much over. I offered empathy and found her a snack from a vending machine in the lobby. That’s about all the nurturing we dads are allowed to do for fourteen-year-old daughters. Our role at this age is pretty cut and dry. We show up when they appear in plays or recitals. We give lectures about grades and completing homework. We ferry them from party to party and sleepover to sleepover. We try not to give too much offense and give them plenty of personal space.

Still it took my breath away to think that in so short a time, a mere fourteen years or so she had gone from a fertilized egg to someone nearly as large as I am and on the cusp of independent living. As Tevye laments in Fiddler on the Roof: “When did she get to be a beauty? When did he grow to be so tall? I don’t remember growing older. When did they?” After several hours she was released. We retrieved her stuff from school. At home she made herself an overdue PBJ. She seemed back to her old self, but I she was no longer the child in my mind’s eye. She was an adult. And I felt very much like I was in a time warp.

It was a week later at a hotel in North Carolina. I woke up alone and staggered toward the sink for a glass of water. I needed it to drown out the acrid taste of dead bacteria in my mouth. I happened to look into the mirror and I was shocked. My father was staring back at me. But it couldn’t have been him … that person somehow must be me! Overnight I had arrived at middle age. And I was looking so much like my father, sans the gray hair perhaps. But mostly I saw him, right down to the long bony English nose. I was depressed for the rest of the day. Eventually after a long day at my conference, a long run, a hair wash and a fresh set of clothes I gingerly approached the mirror again to see if my father was still there. And he was still there. But I was also there too.

I don’t remember becoming middle aged. Someone threw the switch overnight. I realized I was different too, at least to myself. I no longer saw myself as youthful or virile. Unless I became Bill Clinton interns wouldn’t be chasing after my body. It was time to throw out those occasional foolish fantasies that dared to cross my mind. The reality was that someone other than my wife would never give me a second glance. I was yet another invisible middle-aged male.

Yet I rebelled but didn’t know what to do. Eventually I said no to a high caloric fern bar dinner. I bought a large Chicken Caesar Salad at a Schlotzsky’s Deli. I ate it quietly in my room and tried to accept my new reality. I don’t know if it will ever fully sink in. I suspect when I am in my eighties, just like my mother, that I will still ask just who is that stranger in the mirror.

The Thinker

Review: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

My daughter, one of the legions of Harry Potter fans out there, nervously sat at home the last two weekends. She could have easily been in the theater watching the latest Harry Potter cinema incarnation, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban instead. Why did she wait? The third book she said is her favorite book. And she was afraid like the first two movies it would be a pale shadow of the original material. Her thinking was: better to not see it and not be crushed again.

But we got a lot of positive reviews from friends who had seen the movie. So we finally sat through a showing yesterday. While I have read the first two books, I never got around to reading the third book. (The second book felt so much like a repeat of the first book it hardly made me crave more.) I was anticipating at least being surprised by the movie. And like my daughter I was hopeful that maybe, finally, someone would do a Harry Potter movie right.

Thankfully our hopes were vindicated. My daughter was delighted with the movie. My wife gushed about it. And I found, unlike the first two movies, that I was wholly engrossed watching it. It’s a sign of a good movie when I can actually tune out the noise around me and plunge into the movie itself.

The movie works this time around because the producers finally ditched director Chris Columbus. Picked instead was a relatively unknown director Alfonso Cuaron. It was a risky but smart move. Columbus’s approach was no risk: never deviate from the book, not even in the smallest degree. The result was two movies that were technically faithful yet more than a bit soulless. The characters did their best to be convincing but only fooled the prepubescent crowd.

Finally though we get a director that is faithful to the spirit of Harry Potter. Just as Peter Jackson was faithful to the spirit of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Cuaron was smart enough to know when to tailor the plot a bit to make it work as a movie. Just as importantly he brings to the film his own vision of Hogwarts. The Harry, Ron, Hermione and Draco Malfoy in this movie are wholly believable. The special effects (of which there are plenty) work seamlessly. The movie paces wonderfully. With Michael Seresin as Director of Cinematography the camera follows the action with near perfection, slowly moving in on just the right moments.

Moreover the characters become more complex in the third film. Part of it is a function of characters hitting mid adolescence. But mostly it is a sign of excellent direction. For once the actors feel like they are really in Hogwarts instead of on a movie set. And they project it faithfully onto film. We see these young adults wrestle with their strong adolescent feelings and anxieties. Harry Potter finally shows real anger. Even the stereotypical Dursleys come across as more believable. Richard Griffiths, as Uncle Vernon is actually a bit understated instead of farcical.

If you haven’t seen a Harry Potter movie you haven’t missed too much. But you might regret missing this one. The special effects (particularly the Dementors) occasionally look like they borrow a little too closely from the Lord of the Rings movies, but they integrate perfectly and scared the bejeezus even out of this middle aged man. Computer generated imagery keeps improving. It was impossible for me to tell a computer generated the hippogrif; I can’t say the same for Gollum in the Rings movies. The result is a well-rendered fantasy world that works well for all except those ten or under, for whom it is not one dimensional enough.

I haven’t seen either of the first two movies more than once. When this one arrives on DVD doubtless my daughter will pick it up. I will be in the TV room watching it with her.

3.4 out of 4 stars. Well done!

The Thinker

Infidelity: It’s Not So Simple

Prurient Americans (which, frankly are most of us) are waiting breathlessly for the release of Bill Clinton’s tell all book, My Life. Rest assured most of us will not start at Chapter One. Instead we will skip ahead to the part of the story where Monica Lewinski shows up. As you might expect many of the key details (from Clinton’s perspective) have already been disclosed. We learn that once Bill confessed his sins to Hillary he was in the doghouse. Apparently the First Lady can make the President of the United States spend two months sleeping on the couch. We learn that the whole family did counseling. Because we’ve seen snippets of Clinton’s interview with Dan Rather (scheduled to appear on 60 Minutes on Sunday) we learn that Bill dropped his pants for Monica “just because I could.”

It is doubtful that the book would sell quite as well if Clinton had kept his relationship with Ms. Lewinski wholly platonic. It is ironic that his human failing will cause sales of the book to climb into the stratosphere. For all the legal woes and bills inflicted upon him by Ken Starr and the vast right wing conspiracy during his years in office he may end up laughing all the way to the bank.

Clinton’s father died before he was born. He watched his stepfather repeatedly assault his mother. He learned very early to compartmentalize his feelings. He was hardly surrounded by role models during his upbringing. So in retrospect if he had a predisposition toward secrecy and trailer park trash it is perhaps not too surprising. It didn’t help that he was a fairly attractive guy, a terrific public speaker and a born extrovert. Add the title of President of the United States to his resume and if Ms. Lewinski was his only moral failing in office then I frankly give the guy some credit.

As a rule women other than my wife don’t fawn over me. But if I had a 21-year-old temptress willing to perform repeated acts of fellatio on me I doubt I would have held on very long. Most of us guys, when we are only with other guys and after a few beers will candidly admit we are more than capable of such indiscretions. Part of the male brain is wired toward infidelity. It takes repeated conscious effort to live up to our wives’ expectations. Fortunately for us we are rarely in positions of power. Most of us aren’t attractive like Bill Clinton. So his scenarios tend to be hypothetical for most married men. Because we are not alpha males it is easier for us to proclaim our undying commitment to our wives. It’s not that hard to be morally sanctimonious, at least in public, when others in the public spotlight succumb to temptation.

If there is an aspect to the whole sordid affair that really irks me though it is that we quickly resort to stereotypes. Bill was bad for straying. Hillary was good because she didn’t. Monica was a slut and would put out for any guy, not some star struck young lady with intimacy issues. That’s as deep as our thinking goes. Because Hillary held out and Bill didn’t, she is the one with the grievance. She was pure. Bill was Evil. End of public discussion.

This is balderdash. I’ll grant you that there are certain marriages where the wife can make a fairly convincing claim of innocence. We’ve all heard stories of husbands who repeatedly cheat on their wives. At the same time we repeatedly shake our heads wondering why the wives just don’t file for divorce or how they could be so clueless. I think in even the most egregious cases some fault lies on both parties. In the case of the chronically cheating husband the wife was probably more than a bit myopic going into the marriage in the first place.

I can cite the case of someone in my wife’s side of the family. He is roughly Bill Clinton’s age. At the time I first met him he was getting married for the second time. But by that time he had already fathered two children out of wedlock. His father repeatedly cheated on his mother. His father allegedly spent much of his adult life being verbally and physically abusive to them and wrapped up in an alcoholic haze. Wife Number Two was a woman who came from a family of some privilege and money. His wife didn’t learn about much of his sordid past until shortly before the marriage. Yet that did not seem to deter her from marrying him. I don’t know why she married him. Hopefully it was for love. But there were lots of alarm bells that should have gone off. There was one thing though: this in law is a really good-looking guy. We’re talking 9 on a 10 scale, at least. I can’t help but wonder if his looks overwhelmed her common sense. Anyhow, rest assured they have been divorced for some time. Eventually he strayed and hit the booze. She tried to patch things up, but it didn’t work out. He had mentally left the marriage years earlier. And now he is onto wife number three. Last I heard she was still a divorcee and not anxious to get remarried.

There is no way to know for sure the dynamics of the Clinton marriage. But I bet Hillary was more than a little star-struck by Bill. Certainly she knew Bill came from a dysfunctional family. She was likely attracted to him because he was handsome. But I bet part of the attraction was he gave the appearance that he could surmount his past. If so this was a naive assumption. She should have known better. The odds were that if she married Bill she would have many an episode of heartache. Warning flags were there and it appears she chose to ignore them.

Or maybe she figured she could change Bill. This is another one of those fatal mistakes often made by myopic women fixated on one particular guy. I’m guilty of it myself. I have learned the fallacy of this reasoning through the school of hard knocks. No one can ever change anyone. Personal change can only come from within.

Whatever the complex dynamic of the Bill and Hill relationship, Bill’s affair with Monica Lewinski was really a symptom of a larger dysfunctional marital relationship. Hillary was probably clueless. She shouldn’t have been clueless. If the relationship were at the deep enough intimacy level it most likely would not have happened. And if Hillary had reached that inner core of Bill Clinton’s being she would have known who he really was and perhaps never married him. For that she should shoulder some responsibility. I don’t know what kept her busy during the mid 1990s, but I have a feeling she should have spent much more private time with Bill. The work necessary to sustain a rich marriage gives the appearance of being postponed to revel in the thrills of power and prestige.

Hopefully as a result of this encounter their marriage now has that level of intimacy and connection it likely lacked. But somehow I am skeptical. Hillary is a senator and spends at least six days a week in Washington and away from her husband. It sounds like the pattern is repeating itself, except this time there is a role reversal. I hope there is no new Monica Lewinski in Bill Clinton’s future. He’s not quite the Alpha male he was now that he is out of power. But I wouldn’t be surprised if another one turned up in time.

The Thinker

Suggestions for Hoteliers

It amazes me that with competition for hotel rooms so brutal that hoteliers are missing some very obvious features that would bring back repeat customers.

The number one annoyance I have in a hotel is noise. I’ve slept in more than a few four star hotels and noise has been as big a problem there as in the two star hotels. Maybe I’m a bit different but I’m used to sleeping in relatively quiet surroundings. When a door slams in the middle of the night I usually wake up. When lots of doors slam in the middle of the night I wake up a lot. This makes for a broken night of sleep. There are solutions to the problem. The doors themselves could be insulated with heavy sound proofing material. But there are more obvious things that could be done. The doors could have resistance hinges so they don’t slam shut. The doorknobs could be engineered so they don’t make so much noise opening and closing.

And I still hear much more of my neighbors than I would prefer. My recent stay at a Courtyard Inn proved as much. It’s not quite as bad as some apartments I’ve lived in. Hotels are usually built these days with lots of concrete between floors. This is good because I don’t usually hear people above or below me. But Wednesday night I was inadvertently entertained/annoyed by a very noisy couple in the room next to me engaged in what Bob Eubanks (former host of “The Newlywed Game”) called “whoopee”. It might have been more titillating at half my current age and at an earlier hour. And I’d rather have been the one getting the whoopee. Given my druthers though I’d rather not have heard it. Sex happens. Sleep sometimes doesn’t.

Pipes can be annoying too. I almost always hear water running in rooms next to me. I can tell if it’s the shower or the toilet that’s in use. I’m sure today that pipes can be insulated and made reasonably soundproof. It shouldn’t make much of a difference in the cost of a hotel anyhow so why not just do it during the construction of a hotel?

Hotel rooms don’t have to be bland. In appealing to the least common denominator hotel rooms become wholly uninteresting places to inhabit. Why not have 10 percent of the rooms done with truly decorative or offbeat colors, or with something other than Early American furniture? Given the choice I’d likely go for the decorative room. I might even pay a few dollars extra. And I’d be more likely to remember the place.

Beds should be something hotels get right by default. But I am amazed by the variations out there. I had a king sized bed all to myself at the Courtyard Inn I stayed in this week. But I am six foot two inches. The standard king sized bed is a bit more than six foot in length. That meant that my feet were sticking out. I guess I could have slept sideways in the bed but that’s ridiculous. And sleeping diagonally feels weird.

And why not use fitted bottom sheets? I can understand there may be an economical reason to avoid fitted bottoms but I’ve rarely slept in any hotel room where tucked in bottom sheets didn’t pull out overnight. The bedding is almost always too dense (multiple blankets and/or a heavy comforter) or too light. In the latter case my legs often end up exposed and cold when I arise.

The mattress should invite deep sleep. I prefer firm mattresses but there are some mattresses that are firm but snug and meet even my wife’s picky standards. Whatever mattress was used at the Peabody Hotel in Orlando met my seal of approval. It was as comfortable, if not more comfortable than the high-density foam mattress I have on our queen size bed at home. It’s very rare to get a hotel bed that is conducive to deep sleeping. I’d say only one in ten hotels meet my high quality standard, and I almost always stay in three star or better hotels.

Then there are annoying interior room noises. The most obvious one comes from the air conditioner/heater unit, almost always built into the wall. These suckers are usually noisy. They abruptly cycle between on and off throughout the night. These noises are not always something I can sleep through. I prefer a hotel with central heating and cooling for that very reason. But as long as I am dreaming, how about humidity control in the room? Most hotel rooms become too dry for my taste. A couple days in most hotels can leave me with eczema.

Curtains should not only offer privacy but also actually keep out the light in the morning. Some of us are very light sensitive and this time of year the sun is up early. That doesn’t mean I want to be up early. It doesn’t take much sunlight creeping above, below or between the curtains to wake me up. And while we’re on the subject of annoying light, how about doors that are low enough so the light from the hallway doesn’t come streaming into the room during the night?

There is almost always one annoying thing in a hotel room. This week it was that my sink did not stop completely. This is not a hard problem to fix. You would think that someone would go through all the rooms in a hotel once a month checking for things like this. But apparently they don’t or they figure we don’t care.

Non-smoking rooms are great and I always ask for them. Nonetheless there are still hotels that haven’t figured out that a whole floor should be nonsmoking, not just a few rooms at the end of a hall. And if the air is controlled centrally a hotel defeats its purpose if smoke from adjoining rooms comes into my room via the ductwork. This isn’t rocket science. Just do it! When possible hoteliers please put the smoking and nonsmoking rooms at opposite ends of the building.

Okay enough of the whining. I am sure I could find more things to complain about. And yes I am aware it could be worse. Most of the hotels I sleep in these days are very clean. The staff is very professional. The maid service is usually excellent. Most hotels routinely add a continental breakfast in the morning. Not only is it convenient but also it saves me a few bucks. It’s been years since I have found a bug in my hotel room. So the good news is that the three star and up hotels are ninety percent there. Why not go the extra mile and show all your customers that you say you care about that you really do care about them? It’s not hard: give us an environment conducive to a good night’s sleep. Upgrade the mattresses, cut the noise and make sure the room can keep out exterior light. If you do you can bet if I have to visit your city again I will be coming back to your hotel.

The Thinker

Life in the Courtyard

In sitting here in my hotel room. It happens to be at a Courtyard Inn on the north side of Raleigh, North Carolina. I am here on business of course, and I won’t wend my way home until Thursday. During the day I head a few blocks north and hang out with three hundred or so party hearty hydrologists. Yes, hydrologists from across the eastern United States have come to Raleigh to trade notes, listen and have a good time. I’m here mainly to listen and observe. I am no hydrologist but I have to learn their lingo and have an appreciation for the work they do. “From the gage to the page,” is what I have to learn. My business is to serve the data collected from thousands of points across the United States, much of it in real time, to the public over the Internet. The Internet part I understand pretty well. But how the data gets from a gage stuck in a well or in the middle of a stream and makes it within minutes to the World Wide Web is something of a mystery to be explored in intricate detail. So that’s why I’m here.

Part of the good time of this conference was a barbeque and Bluegrass party tonight. I was okay with the barbeque, but nix on the Bluegrass. No offense to my good neighbor Steve (who loves Bluegrass) but Bluegrass music makes me itchy. I’m not a huge country music fan anyhow, but all that banjo picking, high-pitched male voices and endless songs about Jesus is about as welcome as a couple hours of rap music. So I wisely opted out. It was perhaps not the politically correct thing to do since my boss, her boss, her boss’s boss, and one of my employees were all going. But we all have limits. We’ll all do dinner tomorrow night.

So tonight I revel in the mundanity of my hotel room, Room 268 at the Courtyard Inn. It’s not a bad experience. I got out for a little food and spent some time loafing at a Borders bookstore down the block. After listening to presentations and chilling with Susan (my terrific boss) all day I don’t really mind spending the evening by myself.

I stayed at this very hotel back once before in 1998. Then I was here on business too, but for another employer. I’m beginning to feel my way around this city a bit. Raleigh like many cities in North Carolina is growing by leaps and bounds. However, the growth is not downtown. It is in the northern and western suburbs. I got a little lost finding my hotel because I got on the Raleigh beltway only to discover they had added an outer beltway since the last time I was here. My atlas is a bit old.

Raleigh is both a city and a state capital. But it doesn’t strike me as much of a city. It’s five miles or so from the inner beltway to the center of town. There are a couple buildings that look like they are twenty stories or more, but that’s about it. I drove into downtown tonight just to look around. It is one of these downtowns that must close up promptly at 5 p.m. Actually I doubt the place ever gets crowded, unless the legislature is in town. There’s not much there there in Raleigh. Much of the action seems to be in nearby Durham, or on U.S. 70 that connects the two cities.

One thing that is new this trip is that my hotel room now has a high-speed Internet connection. That was the reason I chose the hotel. I hope it is not much longer before this feature is universally available everywhere, including all the Motel 6s out there. I’m sorry but a dialup connection just doesn’t cut it anymore. I need high-speed Internet wherever I spend a night. And although I’ve gone through some annoying connection hassles it was worth it. So really I don’t need an evening social life: the laptop is my social life. I am virtually at home here in my soon to be forgotten hotel room, doing pretty much what I would do if I were at actually at home, like reading my personal email, checking my favorite political sites and blogging.

There are admittedly some dubious side effects to having high-speed Internet access while on a business trip. For one I feel I have to read my work email. I don’t really want to do it. But I get such a volume of email that I feel like I can’t let it wait. Otherwise when I get back to work on Friday I’ll be inundated, and I need to do real work on Friday, not read email. So I’ll spend an hour or so hurriedly going through it and sending most of it into the bit bucket.

While I like the high speed Internet, I can see why Marriott needs to offer it. That’s because there are choicer lodgings just down the street. There is a Hampton Inn next door, and two extended stay suite hotels just past it. Here I just have a plain room. Granted it is a nice and clean room, but it’s just a room. Courtyard Inns are a ubiquitous way station for the business traveler. You know exactly what you are going to get. I do find it curious though that when I look out into the swimming pool I never see anyone in it. We are the business class and the business class doesn’t take evening dips in the pool. We work on our laptops in our rooms, we make calls, and we may watch a movie on HBO if we have the time. In the mornings we pay $7.95 for the hotel breakfast bar and studiously ignore each other. Instead we feign interest in the McPaper (USA Today) placed outside our door every morning.

I am glad I am not boarding at a Motel 6. I love the high-speed Internet access in my room. But really there should be more to business travel than this. Yet this is more fun than the known alternatives. Crabtree Mall is only a few miles away. I could kill some time there. But it is nothing special. It has all the same stores I have 250 miles away at home. From sea to shining sea, America seems eternally bland to this business traveler.

I’ll be glad to get home.

The Thinker

The Battle of Ox Hill: Developers: 1, Preservationists: 0

You would think that having lived in Northern Virginia twenty years I would have some idea of the Civil War battles fought in my area. Yes, I was aware of both Battles of Manassas. I have even visited the site with my daughter a few years back. It was a sobering experience to walk across the battlefield. It was not difficult to imagine the carnage and horror that were twice visited there because it has been well preserved. You can walk for miles along well-defined paths and read the many markers along the way. You can also refer to the brochures liberally handed out at the Visitor’s Center.

Fortunately there is not much in the way of development encroaching on this sacred ground. But don’t think developers haven’t tried. In the early 1990s Disney purchased some acreage along the battlefield to develop — what else — a theme park based on American history. Thankfully the community and preservationists managed to kill the proposal before a spade’s worth of dirt was turned over. And yet development encroaches along the battlefield’s edges. As real estate prices escalate and as our memories of the Civil War recede I wonder how much longer this battlefield can remain unspoiled.

I hadn’t realized that a significant civil war battle was fought right here in Fairfax County. It was called the Battle of Ox Hill (or sometimes the Battle of Chantilly). It occurred on September 1, 1862 during a hellacious thunderstorm. All this history happened about five miles from my house. This was not some minor skirmish. This battle occurred shortly after the Second Battle of Manassas. Union forces were busy staging a hasty retreat after having gotten beat badly by General Stonewall Jackson and the Army of Northern Virginia at Manassas. There were believed to be 2100 casualties from the Battle of Ox Hill. Among the dead were two Union generals: Major General Philip Kearny and Major General Isaac Stevens. I’m no civil war buff but I’m pretty sure the Battle of Ox Hill was the closest Civil War battle to Washington, D.C. After the battle, General Robert E. Lee, trying to outflank the Union forces sent his army toward Leesburg. From there his army crossed the Potomac and eventually participated in the Battle of Antietam on September 16th, 1862. That battle of course became infamous as the bloodiest of the Civil War. It killed or wounded over 23,000 soldiers.

Those of us who live in Fairfax County might be wondering where the hell Ox Hill is anyhow. In Fairfax County we don’t have mountains. I didn’t even know there was an Ox Hill. It is an area that sits at one of the highest points in Fairfax County near the corner of Monument Drive and West Ox Road between Chantilly and Fairfax City. Aside from the vista it provided at the time it was also somewhat strategic. It was near the crossings of two major roads. Today we know them as Routes 50 and 29.

The battle comprised at least a mile of terrain in all directions. But what is left? I’m almost embarrassed to report there is only a tiny 4.5 acre “park” maintained by the Fairfax County Park Authority. I passed by it hundreds of times and had no idea it was even there. But my wife said she remembered seeing a sign about the battle. So yesterday I got on my bike and peddled down to the park to see it for myself.

The park is stuck between two major thoroughfares. Despite the small patch of woods that comprises the park the sound of traffic is deafening at times. There is one short path that goes through the park. It is gravel and it disappears as the hill slopes down. Through the trees of the park you can see nearby apartment complexes. Across Ox Road sits more apartments. Across Monument drive is a major retail complex holding a Safeway, a Tower Records and a cinema, among many other stores.

Inside the park is this small monument to the fallen Union generals Kearny and Stevens.

That’s it. There is not even a park bench in which to rest your tuckus while you contemplate the horrors of that day.

If you read the full story of the Battle of Ox Hill you realize that for days abandoned wounded soldiers of both sides quietly died in the woods. You learn that fellow Unitarian Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross, treated wounded soldiers from the courthouse in nearby Fairfax. Buried in these sacred grounds, now covered with strip malls, condos and apartment complex are doubtless the remains of more civil war soldiers like this.

And yet it is like it never happened. The markers are innocuous enough not to be noticed by most people. We zip by in our cars rushing on our errands and are largely unaware we do so on hallowed grounds.

It is too late to reclaim this land. All that is left of the battle is this tiny snippet of land, not easily accessible by car, with its small monument hidden in the woods and a few placards along the side of the road.

Perhaps because Fairfax County realized it made a mistake, there are plans to improve the site with a parking lot and a visitor’s shelter using some money proffered by the original developers of the site. This is certainly better than nothing but it’s not much better. The whole area should have been left undeveloped.

It is nothing short of a scandal that we allowed developers to pave over our heritage. And I suspect the Battle of Ox Hill is but one of many lesser known civil war battles that have largely disappeared under the banner of progress.

The Thinker

The Pluses and Minuses of Business Travel

I can already see that one of the aspects of my new job that will become something of a grind after a while is the traveling.

One thing we do at the U.S. Geological Survey a lot is travel. Sometimes it seems like I work with a bunch of constantly migrating gypsies who only occasionally arrive back at the office. USGS is a very spread out agency with multiple offices in most states. This is necessary since scientists have to get out into the field and do the mapping, biological, geological and hydrological work of the nation.

During my first week in the job this February I met Colleen. She is someone with a position similar to mine and has an office right down the hall. Silly me, I assumed because she had an office she must live in the area. It wasn’t until the week ended that I learned this was one of many places she hung out. A typical month will find her on the road two to three weeks. She routinely spends a week a month at my office in Reston. Colleen’s case is pretty extreme, but the travel requirements for USGS employees are not. If you are a scientist you are likely on the go at least every other month or so.

Colleen’s team, like mine, is geographically spread out. But she has a lot more people on her team than I have on mine. She feels that to really be effective she has to constantly migrate from one worksite to the other. If keeping up with her employees weren’t enough, there are weeks of user and acceptance testing and numerous conferences to attend. There are also various side trips to remote offices to do things like make sure a server farms is configured correctly. She lives largely out of a suitcase, but she calls Tucson home. She told me she has gotten to the point in her 36 years of federal service where she doesn’t even notice the jet lag anymore.

My boss is not quite as bad but is typically gone for at least a week a month. More often she is gone for two weeks a month. As for me I can pretty much decide how much traveling I want to do. And there’s the rub. I don’t necessarily want to do all that much traveling. I understood it was a part of the job when I accepted it. But it’s not likely that I will be visiting exotic destinations. Indeed usually I go some place where there are groups of other USGS employees. And wherever I go there are usually social obligations. After six o’clock though I’d usually rather crash in my hotel room and get online.

So I’m trying to minimize my travel without giving offense or appearing ineffective. This is amazing to my 14-year old daughter Rosie. “Let me get this straight Dad. You can go anywhere you want on business at any time, and you don’t want to go anywhere?” That’s how she hears it. She is right in that my boss is very liberal with the travel budget. I’m a chief and have new powers. She told me I could pretty much go anywhere I feel I have a need to go. But I suspect my boss won’t approve a trip to Hawaii just so I can watch hydrologists at work. It must serve some reasonable business function. So I won’t likely be jetting off to Paris to attend some important conference and tour the Louvre in the evenings. Instead I will be meeting the same groups of hydrologists and scientists over and over again at various places in the Continental United States. Next week, for example, it will be an Eastern Region Data Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina. It’s close enough that I will drive instead of fly.

Traveling on someone else’s dime can be a lot of fun or mind expanding. Early in my federal career I was selected for a two-week tour overseas. I had to install some customized software we wrote and to help people learn the system. I spent a week at the Atsugi Naval Air Station near Tokyo and another week at Subic Bay in the Philippines. This was in 1987 when our Navy still had military facilities in the Philippines. The week in the Philippines was particularly a real eye opener. The Philippines showed me a side of reality I probably needed to see but really left me appalled and disheartened. I found plenty of readily available prostitution just outside the gates. Our sailors seemed to have no scruples about banging anonymous women without even using protection. I found most of the kids there didn’t go to school because only those of privilege could afford schooling. Instead they roamed the streets, smoked cigarettes and often were involved in petty crime. I found horrendous air pollution in Manila. And I learned that if I had no scruples I could have had sex with a minor, no questions asked, for about twenty bucks. So this trip in particular was a very mind expanding experience. Even my time in Japan was noteworthy. I didn’t know that air could be so polluted you always had a bad taste in your mouth. I didn’t know a city could be denser and more expensive that New York City. Overall I learned to appreciate the United States as something of an oasis in the world. Much of the world is mired in poverty and filth. I am lucky to be an American.

This kind of business travel, when it doesn’t happen too often, is actually welcome. It happened exactly once and is unlikely to happen again in my federal career.

Today though business travel is mostly just a hassle and rarely a mind opening experience. The cities I go to in the continental United States all look the same after a while. Each city has pretty much the same restaurants, malls and hotels. The hotels have a bland, uniform familiarity about them. The hassle of getting in and out of airports gets old quickly. The airlines … well, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about them. It is never a good experience. At best a flight is a neutral experience. I hate the way the airlines treat us like morons. Yes, I know they have to say and go through all that stuff because it’s required. But thank you I think I can figure out how to put an oxygen mask over my face by now. I know where the exit doors are and I’ve only buckled a seatbelt a few million times by now. I’ve learned the tradeoffs of sitting in an exit row. And I’ve learned when possible to travel with my carryon luggage alone.

It’s often the case that now there is usually someone I know on the other end. We USGSers are one big happy extended family. But I’m not the most sociable of critters. I am working hard on that aspect of myself. When my business day is over I’m not necessarily in the mood for happy hour or a long meal with colleagues at a local fern bar. I just want some downtime, some privacy and a nutritious but quick meal somewhere. I often feel itchy because I need to exercise but haven’t found the time. Coming back late to my hotel room in a semi-alcoholic haze stuffed with steaks and fried potato skins is hardly conducive to exercise.

So I find business travel to be a mixed blessing. I’m trying hard to limit my travel to a week or less a month and so far I’ve succeeded. I figure someone has to help keep down the travel expenses. For me the best business trips are often the ones where I don’t know anyone at the other end. Then I am usually free of the social obligations in the evening. I often have a rental car at my disposal, and may actually go see some of the local attractions. Or I might prefer to hole up in my room and watch a movie on the DVD player built into the laptop computer. But those trips are few and far between. Business travel is really more like working a twelve-hour day and getting paid for eight.

Still I probably need to get out more. I am the more restless spouse. Going for years at a time without traveling anywhere on my employer’s dime gets old too. So mostly I don’t grumble about the travel and try to think of the travel as a job perk. After all I am not some trucker constantly on the move up driving all night. I am not sleeping at a Motel 6 and selling grub out of a suitcase. And the best part of business travel? Someone else is paying!


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