Archive for December, 2004

The Thinker

The Fading American Middle Class

The Washington Post has been running a series of articles on the fading American middle class. These articles are enlightening. However they are not all surprising. The reality is the American middle class is an endangered species. America is quickly dividing into a society of haves and have nots. This trend probably does not bode well for the United States. If it continues it may actually hasten the sort of liberalism anathema to many so enamored with our current corporate-ocracy.

Is “corporate-ocracy” too strong a word? I don’t think so. I would argue strongly that a government by and for the corporation has supplanted our republican government. There are exceptions. But the safeguards put in place during more liberal times that restrained corporations so they act in the public’s interest have frayed to the point where they are becoming hard to see. If anyone doubts that special interests are firmly in control of our government they need only watch the recent 60 Minutes interview with outgoing South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings. He laid it all out: money buys influence and as a result the public interest gets short shrift.

“Communications, defense, you got them all – farms, agriculture people and everything else like that … They get their piece of the pie. That’s our problem. Today, you can’t find the real interests of the country.”

It would be tempting to blame the decline of the middle class entirely on American corporations. And certainly they share a lot of the blame. For the last thirty years corporate America has worked hard to marginalize labor unions. They are now at the point where they hardly exist anymore. Even when they exist unions are increasingly impotent. Corporations have options now they didn’t have before, such as the ability to quickly outsource jobs to countries where pesky labor laws don’t exist. And Congress has aided and abetted this process. It has made it easier for a company with pension plans to change them so that workers receive less in the way of pensions. The better companies throw newer workers into 401-K plans instead of defined benefit plans. Some of them convert all their workers to 401-K plans. Others have used legal shenanigans to raid pension funds to prop up their share prices. And if the corporate pension fund goes bankrupt, it’s not a problem for shareholders. The costs are foisted on the taxpayer, that is the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. Increasingly, if companies offer health insurance benefits at all then workers are asked to pay larger shares of premiums and higher deductibles.

The result is that marginal cost of living raises are more than eaten up by increased costs for health insurance. This cascades into a decline of the standard of living for middle class people. Increasingly these costs have the effect of dumping people out of the middle class. A labor force that is increasingly disposable exacerbates the situation. Careers long thought secure are now often easily outsourced. Workers that used to be able to get benefits are often now employed as temporary employees or as contractors, if their work is not outsourced to some foreign country.

It is hard for many of us, particularly younger workers, to grasp the magnitude of the change that has occurred over the last 30-40 years. Consider this: in the 1960s a single breadwinner could support the middle class lifestyle for a family. For example a bus driver could afford to buy his own house and car, keep the wife at home and send the kids to college. He usually didn’t need a second job. What’s the situation today? To live a middle class lifestyle a family requires at least two wage earners. The bus driver is likely living in an apartment somewhere, and is probably working another job. His wife is pulling a couple jobs too. It’s increasingly unlikely his family has health insurance. They are precariously holding on to their middle class existence. One lost job or one huge medical bill and their lifestyle is blown away.

The Washington Post talks about the $17 an hour job as typical middle class wages. I laughed when I saw this number. Exactly who can afford a middle class existence on $17 an hour? It can’t be done in my neighborhood, that’s for sure, unless the spouse is also earning $17 an hour. And those kind of wages likely mean they are living in an apartment, or perhaps a modest town home, not some single family house with a two car garage.

And what sorts of jobs are paying this kind of money? I can think of some. Clerks perhaps, mechanics and plumbers. Many of these jobs are also the most vulnerable to outsourcing. What does one do when they lose that $17 an hour job that has been outsourced or made obsolete? It’s possible but unlikely that they will find another job at this wage rate. Instead, as the Post documents, they are working two jobs somewhere to maintain the same income level. But if they had benefits before it’s unlikely they have much in the way of benefits now.

Working two jobs instead of one they live an increasingly precarious and exhausting life. The smartest ones may have anticipated their obsolescence and went back to school. But as many computer programmers found out in the last few years there is no guarantee that the money invested in a new career will ever pay off. In our modern world the uncertainty of maintaining any job is much higher.

And so the middle class slowly disappears. Manufacturing moves overseas. Machines handle more farm jobs. Computer repair people find they aren’t needed because machines can be replaced for less money than it takes to fix them. The winners are those who are born into money or can simultaneously be savvy, intelligent, multitask and have connections. To sustain the middle class lifestyle it is no longer sufficient to have a trade. You must continually reinvent yourself. You must be a shrewd businessman. You must do your market research. You must find a particular niche. You must network ruthlessly. In short this new Darwinism requires a combination of skills never needed before. Not all can cope with the complexity and demands of such changes. So they fall through the cracks. They spend their days as cashiers at Wal-Marts and their nights at a second job, and their weekends at a third job.

And who is benefiting? Perhaps by shopping at Wal-Mart in their few off hours they are saving a few bucks. Clearly stockholders are benefiting. Their share prices are increasing. But where is this wealth really coming from? In effect we have decided that in America that we will transfer wealth by screwing the hard working earnest American laborer tighter and tighter. The money will largely go to those who had wealth to begin with, making them increasingly wealthy. And that’s how the middle class disappears, slowly, until one day it is gone entirely. By that time it will seem natural and we’ll all smile and say we are happy because we believe in the Republican Party, and the Republicans are good.

How long can this go on? I would hope not much longer, or the character of the country that I grew up in will be changed irretrievably. I often feel like our future will look a lot like Brazil’s. It seems that the stranglehold by the corporation on our democracy is virtually complete. But perhaps the corporation has pressed its advantage too far. Perhaps like Howard Beale the American worker will no longer play the patsy and demand a government of, by and for the people again.

But this seems naive. Apparently we are a nation of sheep. We’ve bought into the whole corporate bullshit and we’ve wrapped it around God and the American flag. We can’t tell them apart anymore. Why are the people who are getting screwed the worst pushing for their own obsolescence and poverty?

There is a solution to this madness. It’s called electing people who represent your interests, and not the special interests. It remains to be seen if Karl Rove can keep sufficient numbers of Americans ignorant of what we are in effect doing to ourselves.

 
The Thinker

Mental Health Issues Strike Close to Home

Last night a subset of my extended family (eight of us altogether) went out to dinner. Since we are geographically disbursed every opportunity for group chitchat is welcome. It was a mixed crowd this time of siblings, in-laws, and nieces. Perhaps because of the preponderance of women we largely ignored the usual topic during such times: family gossip. Instead we talked about weightier issues. One niece, for example, spoke of all the medications she is on for her mental illness. That opened the floodgates. As the discussion evolved I was struck by how many in my family are or have been mentally ill.

Collectively on my side of the family I have two living parents, seven siblings, five brothers or sisters in law and eight nieces and nephews. As best I can tell this is our current mental health picture:

– Currently on medication: at least 6 out of 16
– Seeing therapists regularly: at least 7 out of 16
– Ever been diagnosed with a mental illness: at least 8 out of 16

Where did all this mental illness come from? My side of the family? I grew up in a large but “normal” Catholic family. The idea of sending one of us to a psychiatrist back then seemed ludicrous. We all had our issues but we didn’t see our issues as mental health issues. They were simply things we had to cope with as part of growing up. In retrospect looking back on my childhood and adolescence, time with a head shrinker would have been quite helpful. But in the 1960s and 1970s our notion of the mentally ill was limited to people wearing straight jackets and inhabiting rubber rooms. We always assumed we were in perfect mental health.

But admittedly there was the case of my maternal grandmother. My mother, a psychiatric nurse, spent the last months of her mother’s life taking care of her while she went through mental illnesses. And then there was my paternal grandfather, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. And perhaps some of the mental illnesses in my nieces and nephews came from my in-laws’ sets of chromosomes.

There is a marked amount of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in our next generation. But even among my siblings there are problems with ADD. While I have never been tested I have some ADD symptoms. I know I am easily distracted. I find it hard to concentrate on anything unless I find the task very engaging. I interrupt people often. I have to make a point of listening carefully but even when I do sometimes I cannot sustain the effort. My mind eventually fatigues from the effort. I’m pretty good at remembering tasks but others around me, such as my wife and daughter, frequently forget important things like homework or doctor’s appointments. I can see symptoms of ADD within my immediate family.

Then there is depression. I have had situation depression, as have many of us coping with life’s challenges. But I have never had chronic depression. But people who are chronically depressed surround me. My mother was recently diagnosed as depressed, which is understandable for an 84-year-old woman in declining health. But I suspect she has been depressed most of her life. Otherwise it appears that my siblings have been fortunate not to suffer chronic depression.

I am very grateful that within my extended family that we can afford to have our mental health problems treated. While there are lots of bad shrinks out there and it seems that medications they put people on are often hit and miss at least these options are available now. I am thinking of both a niece and a nephew who would likely to be unable to cope with adult life at all if it were not for the treatment they are receiving. Thanks to modern medicine they can become not just productive members of society, but have the promise of living full and happy lives. At the same time I recognize how fortunate we are. I know others who live marginally and who cannot afford health insurance. As a consequence mental health is a luxury they cannot afford either. Those with mental illnesses spend a lot of their lives in pointless misery and seem to stumble through life, often sinking into black mental holes.

Still I wonder if historically so many people have been this mentally ill. I have read about women suffering from melancholy, which I assumed was the name given to depression in days gone by. Until recently was brutal Darwinism at work? Without effective treatments were our ancestors with depression more likely to commit suicide rather than procreate and pass on their genetic predisposition to the next generation? Perhaps it is because depression can now be treated that means that we are seeing more of it. It is just as likely though that depression has always been around and it was never recognized as the serious problem it is until recently.

I am angered that mental health benefits are not universally available in this country. Of course I am also angered we do not have universal health insurance. If we are to provide any class of universal health insurance I suggest we start with universal mental health benefits. While it’s not a solution to our health care crisis being able to cope with life provides a foundation for so much more, including self-sufficiency. I think even my Republican friends would understand the natural logic of my suggestion. Collectively we shoot ourselves in the foot by not providing universal mental health coverage. To be a world-class country we need the best from all our citizens.

 
The Thinker

Oh the Mundanity!

Oh the mundanity of it. It’s time for my annual vacation at home: that indulgent time off that starts a couple days before Christmas and ends after the New Year. During this time I am not just off, but I am off. I spend my days doing nothing much and reveling in it. Altogether it is ten days of staying up late, sleeping in late (which for me might be 8 AM) and doing not much. My brain is in a different time and space. I enjoy all the comforts of home because, well, I am home.

And my wife and daughter are on vacation too. My wife happens to be unemployed so in a sense her vacation is about two months old now. This annual recess from real life is a perfect way to end a year that was full of work, school, extracurricular activities, doctors’ appointments, family crises and numerous other things, most of them necessary but no fun. So now it’s that time of year to turn off the dutiful part of my brain and recklessly, deliberately and insistently slack off.

I thought perhaps of starting a project to keep me busy, but that thought was quickly dismissed. There are some doors that need to come out and be replaced by drywall. We need to purchase and install a new microwave over the stove. But I can’t seem to summon the energy to start. I’d rather be lethargic. There was no hurry to do these things six months ago so there is no reason to do them now either. Even trying to sum up the energy to go see a movie is proving difficult. My wife is deeply into watching two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD that she got from me as a Christmas present. She doesn’t want to be disturbed by reality. My daughter is doing something similar. When she isn’t online (usually IMing her friend Laura) she is watching an Invader Zim DVD. When I can use the DVD player, which is not often, I am watching the appendices in the Extended Edition of Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Mainly I exercise, eat a bit too much Christmas food, and surf the Net. It’s good to be a vegetable as long as the money keeps coming in.

Not that I’ve been permitted to totally zone out. There was the usual Christmas activities and obligations to attend to. The Christmas Eve dinner with the parents and my sister at our house went well. They arrived late and took off early, which was fine because we saw them all again on Christmas morning at my parent’s apartment. But by 3 p.m. my crew was anxious to rush home to do nothing in particular. There was too much socializing going on for their tastes. Time to go back to Gumby mode.

Once a year I use this time to go to areas of the World Wide Web I normally don’t bother with. I read obscure Usenet news groups. Foreign newspapers. Kos diaries that aren’t even recommended. Polyamory newsgroups. I watch online short movies at sites like Atomfilms.com. I even peruse the casual encounters section at Craigslist. (I have to wonder about some like this lady.)

I’ve decided though that with the remainder of the week I will reconnect with friends if I can. Since I’ve changed jobs I’ve lost regular contact with friends mostly made through work. It’s time to make a physical presence again instead of trading emails. My dance card is filling up. Tuesday I’ll lunch with my friend Sokhama in Silver Spring. But I will also show my friend Frank the virtues of my new Honda Civic Hybrid. And, as long as I’m near my parent’s apartment I’ll bring my wife’s laptop with me and do some modem diagnostics for my father. Wednesday I hope to see my friend Courtney for lunch, who also lives and works in Silver Spring. And Friday it’s Angela’s turn to endure me for lunch; we’ll meet at Union Station. And somewhere in there I hope to see Lisa and her husband Bill to fix a computer problem they’re having. But I’m hoping Lisa and I can abscond to a Starbucks for some long neglected chitchat.

Somewhere in all this time maybe I’ll see another movie. We’ll take down the Christmas tree and the outdoor lights. I’ll pay some bills. But mostly I hope to keep doing a whole lot of nothing. The most ambitious I’ve gotten so far on Day 4 was to work on the web site for the next class I will teach in January. Since it’s basically the same as the one it didn’t take too much time.

My wife and daughter are big into emulating vegetables. I have to admit there is something to be said for it. What’s the point of working hard for a living if there is not the reward of being able to recklessly slack off? I need to do more slacking. I need to chill. Instead more often than not (and mostly out of habit) I am running from one activity to the next. But for now I live in the moment and enjoy each day in its splendid mundanity while it lasts.

 
The Thinker

Grateful

It is Christmas Eve: my favorite day of the year. Christmas is always something of a let down. As a child nothing received on Christmas could meet my wild expectations on Christmas Eve. So Christmas Eve is for me a day full of boundless expectation, wonder and hope. It doesn’t hurt that the whole Christmas season reaches its wild crescendo today. The days are very short, the nights are very long and the houses spend their long nights ablaze with colorful electric lights. The Christmas tree (artificial in our case) is up and perfectly decorated. Presents are heaped up beneath and around the tree. Except for my daughter’s room the house is clean.

All this ritual and ceremony and yet I can’t actually claim to be a Christian. It seems there is little of Christ left in Christmas in 2004. After all it doesn’t take much research to discover that Yule celebrations are about as old as mankind itself. Christmas was set up by the Christians to counter the Feast of Saturn, or Saternalia by the Romans. Before the Romans got around to inventing their gods it had many other names. Pagans, Wiccans, Druids and many others celebrated the Winter Solstice. Christianity is but one of the latest traditions to latch on to this special time of year, Kwanzaa being the latest.

There is no present I can receive anymore that is likely to delight me. I have everything I want and amazingly I am satisfied with life. It helps I suppose that my dreams are rather modest. I do not feel the need for a midlife sports car, nor an estate, nor do I secretly crave for to be an executive. I have so much to be grateful for that it is hard for me to think up anything that I truly want. Those things I want are things I cannot really have and which seem corny. For me terrific Christmas presents would include world peace, the end of hunger and respect for our environment. No, I am not kidding. Alas money can’t buy these sorts of presents. Money could not even put John Kerry in the White House. I suppose I could wish for immortality. If not immortality then I could perhaps wish for eternal youth. But I’m not sure I’d want these either. I’m not sure I’d want to inhabit this same body 1000 years from now. The earth as it will be then will be so changed from the one I know now that I suspect living in it would be unbearably sad. Nor do I want to necessarily look like I did at 20 when I am pushing 50, because I don’t want to be thought of as someone quite as naive, headstrong and impoverished as I was then. Nor does the idea of attracting women that young appeal to me because for the most part they shared my naivety and immaturity too. Been there, done that.

Instead I find myself reflecting on how fortunate I am. In many households the loss of one income would be devastating. My wife lost her job at the end of October and it’s nice to know we don’t absolutely need her income. We can survive nicely on my income. I have perhaps the most precious gift of all: good health. Yesterday as a huge rainstorm moved through the area I counted my blessings that we have a roof. As the storm passed and cold wind followed in behind it I counted my blessing that I had indoor heat. Many in this world are not so fortunate. In Iraq families wait in line overnight to fill up their automobiles or for gas to heat their home. Our major “crisis” yesterday was having our Internet service go down for a couple hours. Poor us: we watched a DVD instead.

2004 was still full of personal struggles. Perhaps the most challenging was my parent’s relocation from Michigan to a retirement community in Maryland, all this while my mother’s health declined precipitously. Numerous hospitalizations and weeks spent in nursing homes eventually resulted in something resembling a real recovery. My Mom has been home in her apartment for a couple months now with no subsequent hospitalizations. Her mobility has improved, and with the aid of antidepressants, physical and mental therapy she is a much improved 84 year old lady. When she arrived from Michigan she exclaimed, “I made it! I actually made it!” She expected to die before she left Michigan. Now she gets around slowly, her congestive heart failure is being well treated and she can occasionally make visits. She will be at our house eating Christmas Eve dinner with us tonight. Most importantly some of her old spirit is back. No money can buy such a wonderful present. I had grieved it was gone for good.

I am grateful for my friends. While not large in number they are all dear to me. And I am grateful for my siblings. Though we are geographically separated we are all still very much one family. And I have had opportunities to see all of them over the last year, along with many of my nieces and nephews. I am grateful to have a wife who loves me, and a daughter who is very creative. I am especially grateful for my 18-year-old boy cat Sprite, my best companion in every sense of the word who wants nothing more than the pleasure of my lap and to look into my eyes while I stroke under his chin.

I am grateful for my job. While I could ask for a larger team, I could not ask for a better team, even if half of us are geographically separated. How unusual is it for any manager to have just one employee who gives 150% or more? I have a whole team of people who continuously go the extra mile and dig into the thorniest problems, during and after hours, with nary a complaint. And I am grateful for Susan, my wonderful boss, the best boss I ever had, who somehow manages to make her stressful position fun. But I am also grateful that my job, though often stressful, still gives me sufficient time off to do the things that are meaningful to me. I am grateful that it gives me time to take up my new hobby of bicycling. I am grateful for my many travels up and down the W&OD trail this year. I am grateful to have a job three miles away instead of thirty. I am thus grateful I have at least 90 minutes more on a workday to do with what I want, instead of commute to and from work.

I am grateful that for whatever reason I have left my midlife crisis behind at last. I am grateful that while there are major stresses in my life and there will doubtless be more that I can usually ride above them. I know that every year will have its ups and downs. But I am especially grateful that here, today, I am in a place of peace and contentment.

I hope your Yule time celebrations, in whatever forms they take, bring happiness and comfort to you and to all you love.

 
The Thinker

The Tree of Life

I’ve been debating with an atheist friend about life after death. She would like to believe in it but simply cannot. Too much real life experience informs her otherwise. I have agreed that no one can really know for sure whether we have an afterlife but I feel that some form of our individuality does survive death. This took us to a discussion of near death experiences. I find the evidence pretty compelling given the commonality of experiences. She thinks it is more likely that this is some sort of hallucination that happens with oxygen starvation that precedes death. In short it’s unlikely that we will convince each other either way to change our minds. But it is good that we can talk about these meaty issues in a civilized way and not start throwing things at each other.

Discussions about life after death sometimes remind me of the question of whether the glass is half empty or half full. What you reply depends on the perspective you bring to it and your experiences to date. (It is accurate to say the glass is both half full and half empty, although few can embrace such duality.) Genetics may predispose us to see the world in a certain way. Both my friend and I are clearly left brain dominant so we are by nature skeptical. It is only in recent years that I have moved to tentatively embrace ideas I once considered far fetched. I suspect (but do not know for sure) that right brain dominant people tend to be more spiritual and religious and thus are more likely to believe in notions like souls and an afterlife. I don’t think any perspective is fundamentally wrong. I think that all perspectives, even the wacky ones, should be listened to with some level of respect.

I have recently found a metaphor that is right outside my window: the tree. It may be officially winter now, but there are still a few leaves clinging to the trees outside my window here in the Mid-Atlantic states. I’ve been watching them fall throughout the autumn. Every spring I watch new leaves appear as replacements. Every year the tree gets a little bigger and a little taller. The leaves are inarguably part of the tree but they are not the tree. The leaves though are vital to the growth of the tree. In fact they provide the energy the tree needs to grow.

I am wondering if my life is like a leaf on a tree. It may take eighty seasons or so before my leaf falls off but it will fall off. During these eighty or so years I too will be taking in the sunlight. I will gather energy from other things around me: people, places, books, and bicycle rides. I gather this sustenance wherever I can find it then try to radiate it on something or someone else. For eight hours a day or so I channel it back into the livelihood that let’s me survive from year to year. But I also give some of it back in other ways: to my family, friends, and coworkers and even to total strangers by posting blog entries like this one. Hopefully I project positive instead of negative energy, and as a result of my labors I do my small part to make my world a bit nicer and more livable.

It seems hard to imagine that by putting out all that positive energy that I am not nurturing and sustaining something else. Perhaps this larger “tree” that I infer is truly me and there is the physical/temporal me (the leaf) and the spiritual/immortal me too (the tree). If I have a spiritual side then perhaps during this life I am providing sustenance to my spirit. Or perhaps I am feeding a larger communal tree of some kind. Perhaps the tree I call my spiritual self is but a branch on a much larger tree. In fact the tree of life must be enormous. It has six billion or more leaves just representing human beings on this planet.

Reincarnation does not seem illogical at all to me. In fact it seems illogical not to believe in reincarnation. One way to look at nature is to note that everything dies. But another way to look at nature is to see that everything reincarnates, or at least regenerates. So the tree becomes an excellent metaphor. Every year a tree brings forth new life and growth. Each year is both the same thing it was and it is something quite different. In fact nothing alive stays the way it is. We change moment by moment. So if everything alive is constantly changing and regenerating then why should human beings be an exception? Why should I not be the phoenix rising from the ashes over and over again? I have been feeding my spiritual tree for 47 years now with new energy. I suspect I have been sentient many times and will be back again. I will not be entirely the same next time. If I come back as a human being I sure won’t look like I do now. Just as every leaf on a tree is subtly different from each other so is each human being. Yet on one level we are all the same. We all have 46 chromosomes and come with four major appendages.

The tree of mankind may be but one tree is a much larger forest. One way to look at it is that there is a tree for every species on the planet. Trees in a forest affect each other. I am a bit enamored with the feline tree, since I have a cat to which I am much attached. I think he feeds my spiritual needs and he feeds mine. It seems all these various trees interact with each other on some level.

So while I give my atheist friend wide berth for her beliefs I don’t that feel mine are wholly illogical. Actually I find hers to be more likely than the notion that we have but one chance at eternal life so we have to get this salvation thing right the first time through. My gut instinct is that there is some logic and order to our universe and it is not wholly a result of randomness. It feels right that I am just a leaf on the tree of life.

 
The Thinker

Review: Sideways

After my brother Tom’s high recommendation and recent news articles that said the movie Sideways had picked up the most Golden Globe nomination this year I figured it was past time for me to see this movie.

Having seen more arts movies than blockbusters recently I have found I have a craving for movies that tell simple human stories. Special effects don’t wow me anymore. I prefer good acting and an engaging story line. With the buzz picking up on Sideways I was anxious to see if this would be 2004’s sleeper hit, much like My Big Fat Greek Wedding was in 2002. Like the fine bottles of wine around which much of the movie pivots, this movie may take a little more aging before we know for sure.

The story involves two middle-aged guys spending a week together touring Napa Valley. Twenty years earlier they shared a dorm room for a year but it was clear their relationship never got much beyond first base. Miles (Paul Giamatti) plays a rather ordinary southern Californian. In other words he is divorced, trying but not quite succeeding in selling his great novel and making ends meet teaching English. When not popping antidepressants and fretting over his ex-wife he occupies his time being a wine snob. His former college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is within a week of getting married and feeling frisky. Two people less likely to be friends have not been seen since The Odd Couple. Miles is introverted, bookish, and frequently peevish but obviously still hurting over his divorce. Jack is an actor who doesn’t act much and who used to have a part in a soap opera but is now way past his prime. Jack is also someone who clearly may have graduated high school but mentally never quite made it out of adolescence. Miles and Jack have hardly finished their first tasting at a winery before Jack is checking out the women and desperately figuring out how to get into some woman’s pants before he ties the knot.

Miles is too wounded and still in love with his ex-wife. He is also more than a little appalled by Jack’s behavior, which grows increasingly juvenile as the movie progresses. Eventually Jack’s antics get them involved with two women. Jack becomes obsessed with a tart he picks up at a winery, while Miles avoids moving too quickly into a relationship with Maya, a lovely blond who works at a local bar who shares his deep passion for wine.

I won’t give away more of the plot. The movie careens between romance, comedy and the eccentricities of odd people. Being Californian I guess Miles and Jack only seem eccentric to us in the other 49 states. The most passionate part of the movie probably comes when Miles and Maya talk about wine. I can enjoy a glass of wine but I can’t begin to distinguish a quality wine from a cheap one. If nothing else the movie made me appreciate wine in its many subtle aspects.

The movie is fun and a pleasant way to kill a couple hours. It is oddly touching at times. But I confess I don’t quite understand why it is garnering so many positive reviews. I particularly enjoyed the acting of Paul Giamatti as Miles, perhaps because I see so many things in him that remind me of myself. Chances are you will enjoy this movie more than I did, and I did enjoy it. It gets a solid three out of four stars from me but nothing more.

Please leave a comment telling me why you liked or did not like the movie. I’m wondering if I am missing something.

 
The Thinker

In Praise of Uppity Blues Women

Quick question: what do you get when you combine the Blues with a bunch of very talented, largely postmenopausal women? You get what I sure didn’t expect: one hell of a really terrific show by a three women Blues band: Sapphire, The Uppity Blues Women.

Thanks to my wife’s friend Debby, who had seen them perform before we found ourselves last night at The Birchmere in Alexandria. It was our first trip to the Birchmere, an out of the way place that bills itself as “America’s Legendary Music Hall”. It’s clearly not the Kennedy Center since it sits off Mount Vernon Avenue in a neighborhood that has seen much better days and in a building that would otherwise be an ugly and undistinguished warehouse. The Birchmere seems to attract an eclectic mix of established and up and coming groups. At the Birchmere you sit at tables in front of the stage and generally order food before and during the shows. We arrived early for dinner, which was modestly priced and enjoyed our desserts during the performance itself.

Sapphire must have developed something of a local reputation because the crowd had many more women than men. Many in the audience had seen the group before. It attracts a liberal but down to earth snarky crowd of predominantly middle-aged women. All seemed more than ready (anxious even) to laugh and have a good time. Sapphire delivered because Sapphire is about attitude as much as it is about the Blues. It’s an in your face, no holds barred feminist Blues band, if you can imagine it. Most of their songs dwelled on the feelings and attitudes of middle-aged women that were for the most part completely irreverent and in your face. Somehow these women had totally missed charm school. At least during the performance they turn off their tactful side and enable us to see their femininity in its most raw form.

The result is hilarious and fun. Sapphire consists of Gaye Adegbalola, Ann Rabson and Andra Faye. You would expect a Blues band to be African American, but Gaye is the only one in the band that meets that qualification. Gaye and Ann appear to be older than Andra and could even be considered grandmotherly. None of these women could remotely be considered to be “babes” in the Hollywood sense of the world. But don’t make the mistake that they are not women deeply in touch with their femininity. They let it all hang out. They don’t care whether you are bothered by their less than model-like bodies, age or weight.

But here’s the best part: while their attitude is just delightful and often outrageous, the most amazing thing is how talented all three women are. All have wonderful Blues voices. All have an amazing command of the instruments they play. Ann Rabson, for example, is just a wizard on the piano. Gaye perhaps does her best work on the harmonica, but her true treasure is her kick ass voice and the way she gets livelier the more she gets riled up. Andra’s voice is also a treasure, but she wowed me with her mastery of the fiddle, mandolin and acoustic bass. Generally one woman leads off a number and the others back her up. No one woman dominates the group.

Many of their songs are so funny it’s hard not to find yourself rolling in the aisles. You wonder how they get away with some of them. One was a song in praise of her “silver beeper” (vibrator). Another was about the virtue of women with thunder thighs and the places they can take their men with this unique asset. At least half of their songs seem to be original. All are full of heart and very well done.

Looking at their booking schedule it appears that Sapphire is very much a part time gig for these women. I assume they have other lives and perhaps jobs outside of the group. Perhaps this is good because this allows them to have plenty of time to rest up between gigs. Sapphire is about the Blues combined with a sassy attitude. If you are for some reason offended by women singing about how she really feels you probably won’t like them. But I find it hard to imagine anyone other than someone who is completely soulless or stuck up (some conservative Republicans come to mind) who would not enjoy their music.

I found Sapphire to be not just good dirty fun but refreshing. It’s fun to see women without the masks. We men spend much of our lives pretending to be people we are not. Listening to Sapphire reminded me that women do the same thing: wholly investing themselves in the Madison Avenue version of femininity and Norman Rockwell’s depiction of motherhood. I can understand Sapphire’s appeal to women. Finally there is a group of women who unapologetically sing about the way they feel on the inside, in a soulful and in your face sort of way. For any woman who needs to escape from her tired feminine roles for a few hours I can recommend attending a concert by Sapphire as an ideal escape. Men should enjoy it too, even if we are sometimes the butt of their humor.

 
The Thinker

Just Say No to Obscene D.C. Baseball Stadium Subsidies

Oh, the audacity! Linda Cropp, the swing vote on the DC City Council, managed to convince a majority of the council that Major League Baseball should not be invited into Washington D.C. unless private funding can be found for half of the cost of the new proposed stadium along the Anacostia River. Rather than have D.C. taxpayers foot virtually the entire cost of a new stadium (conservatively estimated at $440 million dollars, and which could be as high as $614 million according to a Washington Post analysis) Cropp had the guts and good sense to insist that D.C. taxpayers should not be entirely liable for the cost of the stadium. From Wednesday’s Washington Post:

Yesterday, Major League Baseball said it would immediately put all Washington Nationals business and promotional activities on hold and, upon request, refund deposits on season tickets. It seems unlikely that the Montreal Expos will become the Washington Nationals in perpetuity without an agreement to pay for a new stadium.

Which, as Cropp makes clear, would be unfortunate, but perhaps necessary. Someone has to be responsible for the District’s treasury, she says. Someone has to say no if the deal’s a bad one.

Cropp is right. Somebody has to look at the District’s ledgers. If this subsidy is added to D.C.’s expenses something will have to give. D.C. doesn’t print its own money. It speaks highly of Cropp that she had not just the courage to speak up but to forcefully cast the swing vote to say this is an outrageously bad deal for District of Columbia taxpayers. Yes, it is.

First, it’s not like there isn’t already an existing stadium readily available. Robert F. Kennedy Stadium sits east of the Capitol and is unused for most of the year. Perhaps before building yet another stadium for another team the team should first demonstrate that it can attract the number of fans needed to support an expensive new stadium. Meanwhile, RFK stadium could do well with modest modifications.

But Major League Baseball is feeling pompous. Right now it is refusing to even consider amending its “deal” with D.C. even though, of course, the deal had always been subject to approval by the D.C. City Council. Never mind that other jurisdictions have attracted Major League Baseball without putting the entire burden on taxpayers.

And it’s not like the city of Washington D.C. is awash with extra money. It already has some of the highest taxes in the country, much of it due to the inadequate subsidy it receives from the federal government for its services. In addition D.C. is prohibited from enacting revenue enhancing measures like commuter taxes used by other large cities such as Philadelphia. So D.C. residents have to pay high taxes and this “deal” would likely mean even higher taxes. Sales taxes in D.C. are 5.75%. Gasoline is taxed at 20 cents a gallon. There is a $1 a pack tax on cigarettes. Income tax rates are also astronomical: 7.5% on income over $10,000 a year and a whopping 9.5% on income over $30,000 a year. (By comparison, in Virginia’s top rate is 5.75%.) No wonder the suburbs are booming and population is declining in D.C.

And who would attend most of these baseball games? It is unlikely that with a per capita income of $28,000 (1999) many residents of D.C. will be attending. It’s going to be tough to afford $50 per game baseball tickets. Most patrons will be from the wealthier suburbs, if they decide to bother with the hassle of commuting downtown in the first place.

Major League Baseball wants all the benefits of an active franchise with none of the costs and certainly none of the financial obligations. It’s time to just say no to such an arrogant organization. D.C. managed to attract professional hockey, basketball and football teams without having to build them special stadiums. The Wizards and the Capitals do fine in the MCI Center. The D.C. government paid only $50M for that $175M structure. The MCI Center seems to be in fine financial shape. And the Washington Redskins paid for their own stadium in suburban Maryland. Why should D.C. taxpayers now give carte blanc to Major League Baseball?

The fact is that Major League Baseball probably needs D.C. more than D.C. needs Major League Baseball. The demographics for the D.C. metropolitan area are a marketer’s dream. Aside from D.C. itself the surrounding area is highly educated and affluent. The federal government provides a solid financial base that means the area is likely to withstand economic downturns, as it has repeatedly demonstrated. We already have professional hockey, basketball and football. A well marketed team is much better positioned to thrive today than when the Washington Senators played. When the Senators left Washington it was more of a sleepy town than a major metropolitan area.

I would hope that Linda Cropp and the D.C. City Council will stand fast to Major League Baseball. If Major League Baseball decides to host elsewhere that is their privilege. Private money for half of the stadium could be found in time. If not we won’t really feel the loss of Major League Baseball. Baltimore is still within commuting range if we get the baseball itch and we have plenty of other professional sports locally to enjoy.

 
The Thinker

Change others by changing yourself

It’s all their fault. I’m as guilty of this predisposition as many people. The government is such a mess because the Republicans are in charge. If only my child would listen to me about schooling. If only my wife would fold the laundry right away instead of letting it accumulate in baskets to be done later. If only my mother would get her daily exercise instead of sleeping so much. If only my father would stop this passive-aggressive thing with my mother.

I bet most of you have thoughts like this every day. I often wonder where these thoughts come from. I do know I have spent perhaps an inordinate amount of time analyzing people around me and saying in essence “If they would only do things my way things would be so much better.” And perhaps they would. All they would need to do it make a copy of my brain, implant it in their skull and throw out the old one. They would then think like me and at least that aspect of their behavior would change. Too bad that whatever unique personality they had that attracted them to me in the first place would be gone.

I have looked at myself. Much to my surprise and chagrin I have discovered that I have a lot of character deficiencies. Even by my own standards, which I hope are pretty high, I probably eat too much and exercise too little. I tend toward procrastination. I know my dress appalls my wife. If there was one thing she could change about me it would probably be to give me some fashion sense. Never wear a dress shirt with your blue jeans. You look stupid when you do that. I strongly suspect though that I will continue to dress like a dork. Even if I could get an appreciation for fashion I’m not sure I could find the motivation to dress fashionably. I seem to be missing that chromosome.

I am starting to figure out though that all this projection of my values and my ways of doing things on other people is unhealthy to both me and them. Step one in this self improvement process was to button my lip. I decided it was okay to think these things just not okay to actually express them. There was only one problem to this approach. These feelings still have a way of manifesting themselves. I might not say anything about my wife for not folding the laundry right away but I was still projecting this bad vibe and she was picking it up. Every time I projected myself onto others, either directly or indirectly, it created a poisoned atmosphere. Rather than helping the situation it seemed to make the situation worse. People I allegedly care about, rather than addressing my perceived problems, put up their defenses instead. This inhibited communications and simply entrenched the very things I would like to change about them.

I’m trying to understand how I broke away from this mindset. I would like to think that some part of it came from paying $130 for 45 minute sessions with psychologists every couple weeks or so. But I don’t recall him ever connecting the dots for me. Rather he went through boring cognitive therapy. He asked questions like “What can you do about this problem?” In most cases I couldn’t do much. But what I could do was turn down my own defenses and find opportunities to talk about issues with, say, my wife when her guard was down too and we were both in a mellow space. Part of the solution for me was not to tell intimates like my wife what I wanted them to change, but simply to express how I was feeling on a particular issue.

And it turned out those simple non-defensive conversations with people I cared about worked very well. (I learned to express things differently. “I feel upset when you do XYZ” not “What you are doing about XYZ annoys me.”) In most cases it didn’t change the underlying behaviors in other people that annoyed me. But the act of expressing them was very therapeutic for me. Over time I found that I cared less and less that the laundry wasn’t getting folded immediately or that my daughter wasn’t bringing home straight A’s. Instead I found other more pleasant things to fill up the time I spent needlessly dwelling on behaviors of other people that I could not really change.

It turns out, at least in my case, that the more I stopped projecting my expectations on the rest of the universe the happier I became. My marriage improved. My relationship with my daughter deepened. Toxic coworkers became less toxic and more like human beings. I found myself enjoying life more. I found that the cloud of doom that seemed to either be above me or close by had receded. Now it’s gone pretty much all the time.

What an irony. It seems that sometimes I can demonstrate caring by appearing not to care at all about people I love the most. Rather than be overbearing I have found it is far better to be supportive, positive and nurturing.

I hesitate to say that I am all cured and I will now live happily ever after. I still nitpick about things that shouldn’t matter too much, such as having my daughter do her chores twice a week by 9 PM so I can take the trash out. But I am improving. And so are the people around me. In most cases they are still engaging in the same annoying or potentially self destructive behaviors that irritated me to begin with. But in other cases now that the pressure is off they too are finding ways to improve their behaviors. And sometimes they choose ways that please me. But more often I find that even if they choose ways that don’t please me, it doesn’t bother me.

So I’ll keep my little self improvement project going. Understanding myself should be a big enough challenge for me in one lifetime. Letting go can be healthy, liberating, and best for all involved. And maybe it is the best way of all to change people. From now on I vow to do my best to be supportive and not domineering of my friends and intimates. It’s the best I can do for them and it’s the best I can do for myself.

 
The Thinker

Two Years of Blogging – A Status Report

It will be exactly two years ago tomorrow that I created my first blog entry. So it’s time to do a little meta-blogging about Occam’s Razor. Here are some statistics.

– I have written 268 blog entries to date. I average 2.72 days between blog entries. Hey, life keeps me busy!
– But when I blog I tend to be verbose, not short and sweet. Approximate words per blog entry: 717 (assuming 8 characters per word). I think you’d be hard pressed to find too many blogs with an average entry length as long as mine!
– All this typing amounted to about 1,532,000 characters to date. (This includes embedded URLs.)
– I don’t generate a lot of comments. I get about one comment for every two blog entries. Number of non-spam, non derogatory comments to date: 136.

How do my entries shake out by category? Remembering that I sometimes put one entry in more than one category, I dwell mostly on politics, then mostly on just my life in general. Here are the number of entries per category to date:

– Best of Occam’s Razor: 23
– History: 2
– Life: 74
– Metaphysics: 14
– Philosophy: 23
– Politics: 91
– Sociology: 17
– Technology: 21
– The Arts: 24

What about my web site traffic? This is harder to say since I didn’t start collecting statistics until late February 2004. As I put more content on my site the site is more likely to have entries picked up by search engines. This I suspect accounts for the gradual increase in my traffic. Bear in mind when looking at the SiteMeter graphic below that December isn’t over yet. I suspect my traffic dropped in November because the election was over. I got a lot of hits from search engines on my political entries. (Why Bush Will Lose in 2004 was especially popular. Too bad it wasn’t prophetic.)

Occam's Razor Traffic Summary

Overall since late February I’ve had about 17,600 visits and 23,000 page views. So having been tracking my site about nine and a half months that works out to about 61 visits per day and 80 page views per day. I suspect the numbers will continually to gradually creep up over the next year as I keep adding content.

So Occam’s Razor remains a backwater blog and it will probably continue to be this way. I don’t do anything to market it beyond listing it in a couple blog directories. Overall it appears that about 80% of my readers arrive via search engines (and about half of those seem to be on searches for “Occam’s Razor”), the other 20% appear to have me bookmarked or type in my URL directly.

And the future? I’ll keep blogging. It remains a time consuming hobby since I am fussy about what I write and I can’t seem to say anything succinctly. It is also challenging, because as the blog gets older it gets harder to think up new things to write about. I can usually write something about politics if I can’t think of anything else, but increasingly I am writing fewer political entries. They are like club soda: they go flat rather quickly. I prefer entries that have more longevity to them. Unfortunately, these entries are harder to think up.

I edit every entry about three times before posting it, and sometimes months later I’ll find little typos and correct them. I wish I had the resources to afford a professional proofreader before posting a blog entry. But at least I spell check my entries! I never change the content of an entry after I post it, feeling that if I am wrong I’m not so headstrong that I need to erase my tracks. Although some of my predictions have proven wrong, others like the war in Iraq have proven dead on. You win some and you lose some.

But this blog remains a fun hobby. I hope it continues to provide insight and fun for my readers. Its primary purpose for me is a form of online diary. It chronicles what I am thinking about on a particular day. Before blogging I often felt like my head would explode if I didn’t articulate my thoughts. Now I do it regularly and it is great therapy. And in doing so I can see my own thoughts unfold. I fully expect that over time I will change my opinions many times. For me there is not much about life that is static, so it’s okay if my opinions change too. My opinions and insights try to keep up with the way things are now.

Are there things I won’t write about? Yes, truly private matters like my sex life or lack thereof won’t make it here. I do admittedly skirt around the edges sometimes. When I have personal problems they tend to be big ones. Writing about them, even tangentially, gives some relief. I also won’t directly name names unless they are public figures. And when I discuss my work life I keep a positive tone. It helps that this is generally the case anyhow. But too many bloggers have been bitten when private thoughts about people they know get out. I don’t think that will happen to me.

Hopefully I will still be here a year from now and still posting regularly. And hopefully those few of you who visit this site regularly will feel like you are getting a consistently good product.

 

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