Archive for May, 2005

The Thinker

More Mini Movie Reviews

None of these movies are actually in the theater. They were seen either on DVD or courtesy of United Airlines during coast-to-coast flights. Watching movies on airlines exposes me to movies I would not otherwise see. You can only read a book so long on a five-hour flight. Even mediocre movies are likely to get eyeball time.

But first a note on watching the movie Sideways during a coast-to-coast flight. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the movie in the theater. My wife says it is one of the worst movies she has ever seen. To show an R rated movie on an airline flight unfortunately requires a lot of sanitizing. In short the swear words, sex and sometimes the violence get edited out. For me watching bits and pieces of the airline version of Sideways turned a B movie into a C movie. While I am not a huge fan of profanity, without the profanity it was like drinking Boones Farm wine instead of the Pinot Noir that Miles favored. And it was especially irksome to note that the modest sex scenes, such as they were, were edited out. Remember the scene where Miles goes to the house of that Los Olivos waitress? He sneaks into the house to retrieve Jack’s wallet and finds the waitress and her husband going at it hot and heavy (if memory serves me right) in the rear entry position. Naturally you see him go in and retrieve the wallet, but you don’t see the sex scene and go to a quick cut. So it loses all of its humor just to be inoffensive. Yet the scene where Stephanie breaks Jack’s nose in the hotel parking lot with her oversize purse is still intact, minus the swear words. Geez, who edits these things, a bunch of Mormons?

Coach Carter

This is the story of the inspirational coach Ken Carter who brings a high school basketball team from Richmond, California to the state championship game. Carter is played by Samuel Jackson, who has a terrific performance as a man determined not just to win games, but to get his players to graduate high school and go on to college. Apparently Richmond is one nasty school where academic expectations are ultra low and teenage pregnancies are very high. So this is a “tough coach” movie where the plot is fairly transparent. While Jackson’s performance is excellent, the performance of the various players is a mixed bag. But they generally succeed in acting emotionally immature and looking vacant, which is perhaps the point. Eventually Carter begins forfeiting games even though they are on winning streak. Why? Because the players didn’t live up to their academic agreements to maintain a 2.3 average. This brings him a lot of publicity and, well, you can figure out the rest of the plot from here. If you like movies about a guy standing tall and inspiring people you will enjoy the movie. If you don’t, give it a pass. 2.8 on my 4.0 scale.

Because of Winn Dixie

This is a movie about a preacher’s girl who takes in an estranged dog. The dog was found running wild around the local Winn Dixie supermarket. The girl, Opal, is played by an ultra-coquettish Annasophia Robb. You can bet the casting director had to search high and low for a young actress with such a flawless face, blonde hair, perky demeanor and large, irresistible eyes. Her eyes are dangerous to look at. How dangerous? Think Elijah Wood. But don’t be under the illusion that she is also a good actress. One thing is for sure, this dog Winn Dixie is one ugly dog and is no Lassie in the brains department either. This is the last dog I would have befriended. If I owned a shotgun I would have put the dog out of its misery. Opal’s preacher father (Jeff Daniels) is a single parent. His wife apparently had a problem with the bottle. She bolted when Opal was very young. Naturally Opal is curious about her mother. Over the course of the movie she learns the sad truth. The town she moved to though seems to be very dispirited. Basically no one talks to one another. On this thin reed hangs what passes for a plot. Opal meets a number of curious eccentrics including an ex-con illegally running a pet store (played by Dave Matthews) and a nearly blind woman (from alcoholism) who lives alone and is thought of locally as a witch, played by Cicely Tyson. She befriends them individually then tries to hold a party to bring the community back together. The dog gets freaked out by lightning storms and ends up lost a couple times. A big storm happens in the middle of her party so off the mutt goes. You expect a happy ending and you sort of get it because Winn Dixie, unlike Opal’s mother, eventually comes home. The movie ends unexpectedly and abruptly, as if they ran out of ideas or realized this was a pretty lame movie, which it is. Perhaps if I were under age 10 I would appreciate this movie, otherwise give it wide berth. 2.0 is probably more than it deserves on my 4.0 scale.

Sleepy Hollow

Tim Burton’s films have a certain film noir that is hard to mistake once you’ve seen a few of them. This movie, based extremely loosely on Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (to the point where Washington Irving truly should turn over in his grave) was one of the films wherein he perfected his style. He seems to prefer Johnny Depp in his movies, and we see him in this one playing the earnest Ichabod Crane. Crane is sent to Sleepy Hollow to figure out why so many of its citizens are decapitated by a crazed and mysterious headless horseman. Sleepy Hollow seems to be perennially bathed in morning mist. Burton succeeds in rendering a convincing early American village, and populates the movie with lots of well-established character actors. The costumes look extremely authentic. Christina Ricci was about 19 when she played the part of Katrina Van Tassel but I swear she looks about 12 in this movie. She is serious jailbait. You will see decapitations in this movie, so many that you begin to lose count. The decapitations though have a rather cartoon quality about them, so they didn’t really ick me out. The same was true with all the blood in the movie: poor Ichabod was always getting squirted with cadaver blood. I hope Johnny Depp got hazard pay for those scenes. Depp is competent in the role. But really the whole movie instead of feeling real feels just surreal, as is true of most of Burton’s films. While exquisitely crafted, amusing at times, dashed with some cool special effects and more than a bit icky, ultimately it is just a fluff movie. Unless you just love Tim Burton or Johnny Depp you can find better ways to spend your time. It does get a 3.0 on my 4.0 scale though, mainly for a consistent vision and style, and generally fine acting. It’s just too bad the plot doesn’t draw you in.

The Thinker

It’s the Bushes vs. the Clintons

I am sure I am not the only one intrigued by this USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll. For the first time this poll suggests that if Hillary Clinton were to run for president in 2008 a majority of Americans today would vote for her. Of course it’s a long way from 2008. The last we had heard from Hillary Clinton she had expressed no desire to run for the presidency in 2008. But Americans are clearly warming up to Hillary Clinton. Although she still commands high negatives from highly partisan Republicans she is increasingly embraced not just by Democrats but also by Independents.

And no wonder. For many of us Hillary Clinton is one classy, articulate, respected and balanced woman. Unlike our current bumbling and oafish president, Hillary, like her husband, is articulate. She connects with broad sections of America. She is poised and has a certain gravitas. Rather than being extreme, she is seen as mainstream. Although arguably she comes from a family of some wealth and privilege, politics were never her primary calling. In her case this plays to her advantage, and makes a plausible case that she is in politics to help people. The vast majority of politicians are far more into boosting their ego and strutting their power than helping ordinary Americans.

She has made a few political mistakes along the way. She was instrumental in her husband’s national health insurance task force. Pilloried at the time in that role her actions now seem foresighted. Twelve years later more Americans lack health insurance than ever. The costs for those of us fortunate enough to have it increasingly are going through the roof. She is also widely remembered for her remarks about a “vast right wing conspiracy” against her husband. While the conspiracy remark was likely hyperbole, in retrospect there were certainly lots of connected and partisan Republicans busy sharing notes and dirt about the Clintons. Particularly as we watched the triumph of neoconservatism in the last two presidential elections and the clearly bogus case for war against Iraq, her hyperbole no longer seems quite so fantastic. Politicians not beyond making a false case to take this nation into war would have no qualms about pushing lies about the Clintons.

As the junior senator from New York she has made a mark for herself in the Senate by being both tactful and assertive. It would be hard to find anything she has done in her five years as a senator that has hit an off note. She pushes for common sense progressive policies yet she is clearly for a solid national defense. She bends over backward to accommodate Israeli interests. In New York State she is very popular among her constituents, in spite of being a relative outsider. Even her archenemy Newt Gingrich has found many things to admire about Hillary Clinton.

Should Clinton try to run for the presidency we could expect the usual vitriol and dirty tricks from the Republican Party. However, it will be tough to find mud that will stick to Hillary. Unlike her husband, she isn’t a philanderer. She comes across as pragmatic and sincere: the real deal unlike her duplicitous husband. Republicans will likely be successful in whipping up their base. But their base is only so large and the number of independent voters are increasing. That still leave a fair number of Republican women who, if they don’t particularly like Clinton, at least respect her. Some of the progressive and moderate ones will even vote for her.

Democrats that have been polled about potential candidates for 2008 prefer Hillary more than two to one over other likely candidates. So should she choose to run for president it is likely that she would find a natural base of support within her party. Others have suggested that if she had a running mate like General Wesley Clark the ticket would be unbeatable.

The animosity toward the Clintons is easily understood in retrospect. Bill Clinton demonstrated that he could peel apart Southern states through a combination of a good old boy persona and middle of the road stances. This frustrated the Republican Party during a decade that was otherwise very good for them politically. In particular they were frustrated in their aspirations to fill the federal benches with conservatives. As the party of the black and white thinkers they could not deal with a politician who changed his opinions. But mostly, aside from Bill Clinton’s moral failings, he was an extremely deft politician. With a few exceptions Bill was able to dodge around every one of the traps laid for him by his opponents, and the traps were voluminous.

I think in retrospect the Clinton years will be seen with much nostalgia. They were prosperous years for most Americans. During the 1990s we had the longest peaceful expansion of the economy in history. We had nearly a decade of real wage growth and higher stock markets. That has not been the case during Bush’s tenure. While many would argue that September 11th changed everything, it is hard to argue with many other statistics that show overall employment barely changed from when Bush took office. Overall the stock market indices are still down considerably from where they stood 2000. If there was Clinton fatigue in 2000 it will be Bush fatigue, or anyone who sounds or acts like Bush, in 2008. Most likely the Republicans won’t be nimble enough to understand this. Rather than pick someone relatively mainstream like John McCain they are more likely to pick someone from the neoconservative and religious base of the party like Bill Frist. This makes Democratic prospects for recapturing the presidency in 2008 good regardless of the Republican candidate.

But on some other level Bush’s father’s defeat in 1992 by Bill Clinton wounded the pride of the Bush family. And since that election there has been the need to even scores. Bush’s second term win showed that he could do what his father could not. However Bill Clinton also won successive terms. At the end of Bush’s term there will be a total of two Clinton terms and three Bush terms, if you count Bush’s father. What to do for an encore?

Hillary’s successful run for the presidency would settle the score. Should she win a second term then it would be Clintons 4, Bushes 3. But it is likely that brother Jeb would want to try a run for the presidency himself at some point. Should Jeb succeed there is no real response, unless Chelsea decides to take up politics like her parents.

But should Hillary win the presidency, in addition to being the first woman to ever win the presidency, many would perceive her win as the triumph of Clinton progressivism over Bush neoconservatism. As I noted after the last election even though Bush won by the time his term is over he will have wished he had lost. Should Hillary run and win the presidency in 2008 then mainstream and clear thinking policies will have returned to the Oval Office. And hopefully after suffering the Bush and Reagan follies through 20 of the last 28 years, voters will finally understand the real value in electing progressives.

The Thinker

Viagra for sex offenders?

In 2003 forty five million Americans could not obtain, did not choose to purchase or simply could not afford health insurance. That’s 15.6 percent of the United States population. Some of these people may be here illegally but most likely they are decent, hard working Americans who were priced out of the health insurance market. Too young to retire they are not eligible for Medicare. And apparently they are not destitute enough or cannot meet some of the weird criteria in order to qualify for Medicaid provided by their state.

But if they had been convicted of a serious crime at least their health insurance would be paid for. Admittedly it might not be much fun being in prison, and just evading rape can be a full time occupation. In the state of Virginia where I live and in many other states, when prisoners have served their sentence and are released to the community they usually qualify for Medicaid coverage paid for by the State. So crime seems to pay, or at least ensures that for a while you will receive free or heavily subsidized medical care.

But did you know that until very recently that if you suffered from erectile dysfunction and were a registered sex offender you could receive Viagra on the taxpayer’s dime? Sadly, I am not making this up. According to a survey by the Associated Press, here in Virginia and in 13 other states Medicaid paid for 788 sex offenders to receive drugs for treating impotence.

Silly me. I assumed that Medicaid administrators in these states had some lick of common sense. Some of these Medicaid administrators claim a 1998 Clinton Administration Medicaid policy by inference allowed sex offenders to receive these drugs. A letter sent to certain states by the federal government required Medicaid to pay for all legal FDA approved drugs with a few limited exceptions. Apparently erectile dysfunction wasn’t on the exceptions list. But that letter also said that restrictions could be put in place to cover abuse. I would hope this issue was simply overlooked by these state Medicaid administrators. But at a minimum it suggests officials in these fourteen states were asleep at the wheel.

This is not hard to figure out. No we certainly don’t want to do anything that would make it easier for proven sex offenders to potentially have more victims. And we sure don’t want to do it on the taxpayer’s dime. So of course we don’t want to subsidize these costs for registered sex offenders. My governor Mark Warner was one of the governors figuratively caught with his pants down. He issued an emergency order to prohibit future prescriptions of these drugs to registered sex offenders by the Commonwealth.

In my opinion as a condition of probation registered sex offenders should be required to take drugs that actually cause impotence. There are a number of them out there, and certain antidepressants actually have impotence as side effect. In addition to frequent checkups from their parole officers, sex offenders out in the community should be getting therapy to reduce the likelihood that they will sexually assault anyone again. Indeed the mayor of Miami has proposed a new ordinance that prohibits registered child sex offenders from going to certain places like public parks where children are present.

Miami’s proposed ordinance is a sad but necessary policy that I would like to see in other communities. I would like to hope that even a sex offender could be rehabilitated. However when it comes to crimes that tend to profoundly affect the victim for the rest of their life, such as serious sexual, physical or emotional abuse, it is completely reasonable for society to insist that registered sex offenders have their privileges sharply limited, providing they are released back into society at all. This should be a two strikes and you are out crime. A second offense should require these offenders be locked up again for the rest of their lives.

I hope that state Medicaid administrators use this opportunity to review their implementation of the federal Medicaid statutes so egregious actions like this do not recur.

The Thinker

A Nation Built on Smuggling

It can be dangerous to read history books. You learn things you don’t necessarily want to know. I am currently reading To Rule the Waves by Arthur Herman. It is the story of how the British Royal Navy shaped what we now know as our modern world. It’s an excellent read and hard to put down. As you read it you feel the mistiness of centuries past recede and you discern the often crude realities of those times. They were times that were certainly harsher than most of us can now imagine. While it often seems that today we are still a bunch of savages, reading a book like one this can make you realize we’ve still come a long way.

You learn that very famous people were not necessarily very nice people. Take for example Sir Francis Drake, the first man to circumnavigate the world. Clearly it was an incredible accomplishment but Drake was no humanitarian. Humanitarians were few and far between in the 1500s. Life was hard and brutish. But in addition Drake was no gentleman. He sailed with his good friend Thomas Doughty. But it wasn’t long after his ships passed the equator that their relationship broke down. Drake would tolerate no dissent. He interpreted some of Doughty’s words to be mutinous. On the coast of South America he convicted him for mutiny in a show trial and then had him beheaded him on the deck of his ship. Glad I wasn’t there.

I also learned that most of our founding fathers were, to put it bluntly, smugglers. Herman writes, “Virtually every wealthy American merchant involved in the rum trade, the wine trade, or even the tea trade, was to one degree or another, a smuggler. For decades, fast-running New England schooners, sleek two-masted fishing boats with fore-and-aft sails for quick handling, allowed the lawless Americans to thumb their noses at an overextended Customs Service.”

After Great Britain’s war with France, the overwhelming presence and numbers of Royal Navy ships off our coasts made it possible to effectively enforce trade laws in their colonies for the first time. Needless to say this seriously disrupted the lifestyles and incomes of the colonists. It turned out that smuggling in untaxed sugar from South America and the West Indies for other commodities like codfish and timber, and trading with countries with whom Great Britain was technically at war with, was much more profitable than trying to clear land and earn a living by farming. Much of the anger that fed the Revolutionary War was a direct result of the difficulty Americans were having maintaining our fine smuggling tradition. In short many of our forefathers were lawbreakers. And their standard of living was in jeopardy.

Naturally they did not see themselves this way. As we know the cry was about “taxation without representation”, a feeling that would doubtless be familiar to the citizens in our modern colonies like Washington D.C. But it matters not. If judged by the standards of our current administration our forefathers would be scummy lawbreakers. They would be unprincipled men for whom the ends justified the means and simply unwilling to abide by the law of the time. That Great Britain ultimately failed and that the United States won its war of independence was mostly due to the British Empire being vastly overextended. With no friendly ports on the east coast supplies for a war with America had to be imported from Great Britain itself, a ruinously expensive endeavor.

New England in particularly excelled at turning sugar from the Caribbean into high quality rum. In 1763 Massachusetts alone had 63 distilleries. Arguably rum profits were the primary source of colonial wealth, and those profits allowed a textile trade to begin in America. But Great Britain needed the money imposed on the colonies as a result of the Stamp Act to pay its massive war debts. However the Americans wanted nothing to do with paying for the costs of Great Britain’s wars, although they enjoyed the benefits of its protection.

This “have my cake and eat it too” spirit is clearly alive and well in America today. We still find taxes to be evil. We still want the benefits of free trade without any of the costs. Of course we think it is fine for us to impose tariffs on foreign goods when it is in our interests, but not okay for other countries to do the same to our products.

Maybe I was being na├»ve, but I was hoping that our founding fathers had higher ethical standards. But they must not have been complete scallywags. While they knew how to be pragmatic when it came to business, they were also deeply in touch with the base reality of human nature. As a result our constitution, instead of assuming the best from human beings, assumes the worst. “Trust no one” seems to be its guiding philosophy. We have branches of government continually checking and balancing the other branches. When one branch gets too much power it is usually in the vested interest of the others to figuratively whack the uppity branch on its head and tow it back into line.

Our forefathers may have been white-collar criminals and scallywags. But at least they were proud members of the reality-based community.

The Thinker

Review: The Tempest

The Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC is renown for its productions. Arguably it is this country’s most renowned Shakespeare theater. My family and I have seen a number of their productions including Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They had all been home runs. So I had decent expectations that we’d also get a good show when we went to see their latest production, The Tempest.

Alas the show, which closed on Sunday, was a disappointment. My wife counts the Tempest as her favorite of the Shakespearean plays. I have to disagree with her. I considered it one of his lesser plays. I confess the cast in this production gave me ample reason not to change my mind. To begin with all the characters in the play are one-dimensional. It is hard to develop any empathy when all the characters are made out of cardboard. With a few exceptions they were all annoying.

Start with Prospero, the usurped Duke of Milan. He spends most of his time doting over his very hot daughter Miranda, but only in a fatherly way of course. Played by Philip Goodwin he gets to be either doting, pretend to dislike Ferdinand (the son of Alonso, the King of Naples) or snivel at his ugly slave Caliban. Miranda (played by Samantha Soule) falls in love with Ferdinand (Duane Boutte) on first sight. This is not too surprising since she has never seen a man before other than her father and Caliban. But even so it would be hard to find a bigger airhead that Miranda. Samantha Soule though does a pretty convincing job of playing an airhead. Ferdinand may be the first guy her age she has ever seen but she is so in love with him you want to shake her by the shoulders and slap her across the face. It would be wholly sickening if she didn’t portray her love with such utterly sincerely.

The rest of the cast of characters were largely eminently forgettable. Of course all the people Prospero has issues with shipwrecked on his island by design. But don’t worry, nothing bad happens. Prospero has Ariel, a spirit, who causes his tempest but makes sure no one drowns, nothing actually is destroyed and everyone stays confused. In this staging Ariel (Daniel Breaker) gets to have the most fun, constantly suspended from piano wire and dancing over the stage, often hanging upside down. He also gets to sing a lot.

As usual you have to depend on comic relief to liven up the performance. Happily there was some excellent comic relief from Trinculo (Hugh Nees) and Stephano (Floyd King) as the bumbling, often inebriated sailors from the shipwreck. They give some modest life to what was otherwise a dreary performance.

Admittedly this particular play would be a challenge to even the most talented actors. It is hard to get people interested in cartoon characters. The staging was well done and dazzling at times. Yet it made little difference in a play where so many characters were miscast. Overall the play felt lifeless and uninspired. I was glad it turned out to be one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays so we could hustle on home when the curtain fell.

The Thinker

Mount St. Helens: One Badass Volcano

As I sit here on the east coast recuperating from jet lag my mind is still on my recent west coast trip. I was in Portland, Oregon last week to attend an information technology exchange meeting. On Thursday many of the attendees including myself were bussed two hours or so north into Washington State to spend 90 minutes or so at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which overlooks Mount St. Helens. (I work for the U.S. Geological Survey, so this was an obvious choice for a field trip, although not all of us are geologists.) Mount St. Helens, as you may recall, left its calling card twenty-five years ago on May 17, 1980 when it ferociously erupted.

As you know from recent news reports it still simmers today. Let us hope that if it blows again in our lifetime it does not wreak the same devastation it accomplished in 1980. At 8:32 a.m. on that May morning the mountain erupted sideways with a force that is still hard for us to comprehend. One could compare the force to an atomic bomb but really it was a much, much larger force than a mere atomic bomb. It was the equivalent of about one thousand atomic bombs. While it did not release radioactivity it did knock down old growth forest trees seventeen miles away. In the course of a few hours the 9,677 foot peak was reduced to 8,364 feet. The smoke from the eruption circled the globe. The swath of destruction reached for 234 square miles.


Unlike Hiroshima though when Mount St. Helens blew up it did so largely far away from people. But there were casualties. 57 people were known to have died as a result of the blast. Included in the statistics was USGS geologist David Johnston who had the dubious privilege of being the geologist on site on the day of the explosion. He was stationed at the Coldwater II observation station at least five miles from the volcano and likely died almost instantly. No trace of him or his equipment was ever found. This is not too surprising. Within several miles of the blast every living thing was vaporized. The power of the explosion was so severe that old growth forests in the inner circle of the explosion were not just sheared off but they completely disintegrated. After the explosion all vegetation in the inner core was gone and only sheer rock remained. Further from the blast zone 87,000 acres of trees snapped in two as if they were match sticks. The eruption melted seventy percent of the snow and glaciers on the mountain, causing boiling mud to come down the mountain, carrying trees and debris, clogging rivers, and making parts of the Columbia River unnavigable. Ash as white and fine as talcum powder appeared hundreds of miles away in Montana. In short it was the defining natural event in America during my lifetime. And yet apparently it was not nearly as big an eruption as have occurred in the past on the mountain. This one was more like a sneeze.

Getting to the mountain by car is more difficult than it seems, but involves a lovely bucolic drive north on I-5 from Portland and a turn east on Route 504. There is a visitor’s center near Toutle, but it is more than 25 miles from the volcano itself. The visitor who really wants to get a close look at the volcano needs to keep driving east following the North Fork of the Toutle River over many a twisty and steep road toward the Johnston Ridge Observatory. It is a drive is worth making, not just for the destination but also for the awe-inspiring beauty along the way. I was glad I wasn’t doing the driving since some of the turns were not the type that allowed much margin for error. 25 years later much of the vegetation has returned. Elks are grazing in the hills again. Trees can be found on the hillsides again too, although they are clearly fairly young trees. Outside the immediate blast zone though one can still see many of the casualties of that day, including the remnants of trees from the explosion. Today the streams run clear again.

We found Mount St. Helens much like Portland: mostly cloudy with periods of pelting rain. The Johnston Ridge Observatory sits above a pumice-filled plain and about five miles due north of Mount St. Helens. At 4300 feet it was a bracing place to be in mid May. I found that when I was outside I needed to put on my gloves. The wind is a constant presence on the ridge. Often passing clouds obscured the volcano. You may prefer to watch the volcano from the relative safety of the observatory, which includes a museum, gift shop and a large amphitheater. The multimedia show of course highlights the destruction that occurred in 1980. I found my umbrella to be useless. The wind was too brisk. So I had to dodge the pelting rain to grab a few pictures. Fortunately as we were leaving to return to Portland the sun broke through at last and I could take a few pictures of the mountain that were not obscured.

Looking over the edge of Johnston Ridge and down into the Pumice Plain is a feeling comparable to looking over the rim of the Grand Canyon. While the view is not quite as majestic as the one from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, it is awe inspiring nonetheless. When the fleeting weather permits the view of the volcano both inspires and unnerves. But what really rattles the nerves is imagining what it must have felt like to be there on the ridge on that day in 1980. It is hard to fathom the 800-degree heat and the ferocity of the explosion that destroyed and pulverized all but the impermeable rock. After all there are five miles between you and the volcano. The immensity of the space between you and the volcano feels grandiose. Nothing manmade would have survived those moments, but I wish there could have been a camera that caught it all anyhow. So imagination will have to suffice.

Back in 2002 my family and I visited the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s big island. That was also an impressive volcano. But Kilauea is an oozing volcano, not an explosive volcano. The bedrock of the Cascades mountain range is much different than that in Hawaii. At Mount St. Helens you are more likely to have massive explosive eruptions than slow oozing eruptions.

There are volcanoes all along the Pacific Rim, of course. But Mount St. Helens is likely the most active volcano of all of them. So while we can expect that the volcano will continue to sputter at us we need to be vigilant. There may be bigger and larger surprises from this volcano in our lifetime. It has surprised us before.

But while it is in a state of relative slumber it is definitely worth a visit if you are in the Pacific Northwest. My feeble words do it little justice, nor does the Volcano Cam perched on Johnson Ridge. In its slumbers it is a place to visit if you want to grasp the awesome power of nature.

The Thinker

Twin Sons of Different Mothers

When we parted in 1973 I was sixteen. Since fourth grade we had been best friends. But in 1972 my family moved to Florida. So we were reduced to sending each other occasional letters. In truth it was a bit traumatic for me to leave Tom and my life in upstate New York behind. But it was also a pleasure to get Tom down to Florida for a week or so in the summer of 1973 and let him check out my new subtropical digs. As I sent him back home on the Greyhound bus for a long journey back to the Triple Cities I wondered if I would ever see him again. He was my one remaining tenuous thread to that part of my past.

My fear was well founded. In those pre-Internet days it was easy for friends to lose touch. We were both rapidly turning into adults and being catapulted into a dubious future. I sent him a couple letters when he was in college but then he disappeared. After college I moved to the Washington area (where I still reside) and I effectively disappeared. But always in the back of my mind was the question “Where’s Tom?” Where was the guy who filled my youth with such creativity, enthusiasm and adventure? Would I ever see him again? The prospects looked bleak. On occasion I searched for him. When I went on business trips I looked for his name in the phone books. Once I spent a couple hours in the Martin Luther King Library in Washington D.C. going through their stacks of phone books from various cities looking for his name. No luck.

The situation finally changed in the mid 1990s when the World Wide Web emerged. Through the web I found online telephone listings. To my surprise I found his name in our home city of Binghamton, New York. The name turned out to be his father. Fortunately his father forwarded my letter to him.

We traded emails warily and sporadically. It was clear that the adult Tom was not quite the same teen I once knew. Nor was I quite the same person either. While we had a great youthful friendship, there were some unhealed and tender spots in our relationship. There were issues to be worked out between us. We groped our way through them, sometimes opening old wounds. Fortunately we did not lose touch with each other altogether. Over the course of many years and many emails we reconnected and worked through our issues. Despite the years we still appeared to have a lot in common.

Still 32 years is a very long time. When life finally took me to Portland, Oregon where he lived I knew that we could at last reconnect. But for me it was still an open question whether after so many years we could renew a friendship that was so rich during our youth. We are both middle aged now, with families, burdens and aging parents. I approached our reunion with both excitement and nervousness.

Tom’s flaming red hair is now white. My hair is peppered with gray. We are both not quite the skinny things we were in our teens. Life had scarred us and challenged us. Our youthful faces now have middle aged cares and concerns. I did not even recognize his voice on the phone. Who was this person? When we met in the lobby of my hotel I did a bit of a double take. I suspect he did the same thing with me. We both wear glasses now. Our hair is now shorter. But his infectious laugh and the lines around his eyes – those were instantly familiar.

The changes age had wreaked on us turned out to be superficial. Like two tuning forks struck at the same time we had spent 32 years apart on our own life adventures yet we were still remarkably similar people. Life challenged us in different ways. Yet here we were 32 years later with amazingly congruent interests, opinions and philosophies. One would expect that someone who spent his career living in the challenging and unforgiving advertising domain might naturally be a Republican. But Tom is not. Like me he is a flaming liberal. When we weren’t talking about times and people past, we were dallying in the present political situation. Once more I felt the harmony. We were still synchronized.

And we are both married with children. My daughter is older than his boys. (The older informed me over and over again he was “six and three quarters.”) His house in the burbs is comparable to mine. He drives a Toyota Prius. I drive a Honda Civic Hybrid. He expresses his creativity in art. I express mine in writing. We compared family histories. His family had their significant challenges as had mine. Our passion for the space program though remains undiminished. Even our taste in music is similar.

But most remarkable of all is that we connected on a new emotional level too. My wife sometimes remarks that I have few male friends. I say that is because so few of them are people of any depth. I have little patience for men whose conversation revolves largely around booze, broads and sports. Tom is a man deeply in touch with his feelings and who, like me, has learned to deeply care about other people. He knows how to express genuine empathy and warmth. Perhaps this is because we have so much history together or had shared some of our painful stories via email. But we know each other on a very deep level and could connect on that level too. It is a wonderful intimacy.

When tempted to generalize, which I do often, I see three general tracks in life for people. People either overcome adversity, are overcome by it, or float through life in a steady state, arguably alive but not growing in any meaningful direction, except possibly from side to side. Arguably both Tom and I had a lot of adversity to overcome, although I suspect Tom had more of it to deal with than I did. He has seen members of his own family unable to surmount (so far anyhow) their life challenges, as I have mine. To me it is quite remarkable when someone is dealt a tough hand in life yet manages to excel anyhow. Unquestionably though Tom has succeeded. As the pieces of Tom’s unique story fell into place I was filled with a sense of awe that he surmounted it all. And now here he is at midlife, incredibly busy and challenged but living a purpose driven life. The wonderful zoo of his life includes a lovely wife and two boys under age seven. Where many would have fallen into a lifelong depression or have given up, he managed to move through life’s landmines. Occasionally he stepped on them yet he survived his minefield scarred but ultimately triumphant. The result is a man who is a joy to know as an adult: full of complexity, richness, ideas, creativity, passion and eloquence. He is a privilege to know as an adult.

It still strikes me as odd that though thirty years and three thousand miles separate us we are still so alike. We truly are two tuning forks putting out nearly identical pitches after all these years. We both feel better for reconnecting. I think we both look forward to renewing a rich friendship that will hopefully carry us through the rest of our lives.

The Thinker

First Observations on Portland, Oregon

Life finds me on the west coast, attending an information technology exchange meeting. Since I will mostly be near or around hotels during this visit I fear that I will not learn much about the city of Portland, Oregon. I am currently at the Hilton Hotel in the City Center. It is your typical four star hotel: clean, reasonably quiet, modestly upscale but nothing exceptional. The room is adequate but the king size bed seems overkill for one guy sleeping alone. One really needs a second person to enjoy a king size bed.

I arrived late on Sunday night. My flight out of Washington Dulles International Airport was delayed for 90 minutes. In fact didn’t take off until it was close to 7 PM on the west coast. The flight might have been less full had it not been full of the many folks from my office on the flight. It was a long flight: five hours and ten minutes, but it had the virtue of being nonstop. Still, we went through two movies during the flight, a “dinner” with insufficient calories to feed a model and there was still time to spare.

This is my first trip to the Pacific Northwest. Yet so far there is not much to see. Like Binghamton where I grew up the place seems eternally shrouded in clouds. Occasionally the sun peaks through but precipitation always seems to be looming. Fortunately when precipitation arrives thus far it has been showers that quickly pass, rather than drenching rains.

What I’ve seen of Portland so far is inviting in spite of the clouds. My friend Tom who lives here describes it as an unpretentious city. Seattle, a few hours north, has delusions of grandeur. Portland may have similar delusions, but if so they are well hidden. Rather it feels modest and comfortable.

It seems to be a sensible and well ordered city, lacking the chaos of the east coast sprawl with which I am so familiar. Litter seems wholly absent here in the downtown area. There are homeless people here, but they are well mannered people. They petition for dollars quietly.

The streets have cars, but fewer of them. Perhaps this is because the public transportation system is so convenient. I chose to take their light rail system from the airport into the city and it was no problem whatsoever, cheap and very convenient. Unlike Washington’s Metrorail system, this one seems to run wholly above ground. Here in the City Center it feels more like a streetcar. Entire streets appear to exist largely to serve the rail system. Buses seem omnipresent around here.

The city reminds me of Binghamton in other ways than the climate. While I have been told there are mountains nearby, so far I haven’t caught a glimpse of them because the clouds have proven omnipresent. But in addition to mountains, this is a city full of hills. It is not a city for the vertically challenged, but doesn’t seem quite as vertically challenging as Pittsburgh or San Francisco.

For a city it seems relatively quiet. It is shortly after 7 a.m. as I write this. Any comparable spot in the District of Columbia would be a hellish, noisy, car choked mess at this hour. But here the streets are relatively free of traffic. I hear only the occasional honks of car engines.

In general I find the people here to be extraordinarily well mannered, for Americans anyhow. My friend Tom confirmed this last night. Here people seem to live in a time warp, not necessarily anxious to run over pedestrians to shave thirty seconds off their commute. And speaking of pedestrians they generally wait for signals before crossing the street. It is by no means a city devoid of energy. But it does not have the frantic energy of cities on the East Coast. Things move here at a high hum, but never on overdrive.

While the city is diverse, it doesn’t feel quite as culturally diverse as the Washington D.C. area. I guess that is to be expected. Few areas can match the D.C. area for cultural diversity. If there is a primary minority here they are more likely to be Asian Americans than African Americans.

Last night I had the exquisite pleasure of reconnecting with my childhood friend Tom after 32 long years. We have plans to meet again. I may stay an extra night or two if that works with his schedule. I hope so, not just to spend more time with Tom, but also to have the chance to see a bit more of this city. Despite the omnipresent clouds and threats of rain, there is something soul satisfying about this city. I am curious to learn more.

The Thinker

Hello G.I. Jane!

From yesterday’s Washington Post:

Day after day, Guay has faced situations that would test the steel of any soldier. And female soldiers like her — as well as Army officers who support them — are seizing opportunities amid Iraq’s indiscriminate violence to push back the barriers against women in combat. As American women in uniform patrol bomb-ridden highways, stand duty at checkpoints shouldering M-16s and raid houses in insurgent-contested towns, many have come to believe this 360-degree war has rendered obsolete a decade-old Pentagon policy barring them from serving with ground combat battalions.

“The Army has to understand the regulation that says women can’t be placed in direct fire situations is archaic and not attainable,” said Lt. Col. Cheri Provancha, commander of a Stryker Brigade support battalion in Mosul, who decided to bend Army rules and allow Guay to serve as a medic for an infantry company of the 82nd Airborne. Under a 1994 policy, women are excluded from units at the level of battalion and below that engage in direct ground combat.

“This war has proven that we need to revisit the policy, because they are out there doing it,” Provancha, a 21-year Army veteran from San Diego, said from her base in what soldiers call Mosul’s “mortar alley.” “We are embedded with the enemy.”

Dozens of soldiers interviewed across Iraq — male and female, from lower enlisted ranks to senior officers — voiced frustration over restrictions on women mandated in Washington that they say make no sense in the war they are fighting. All said the policy should be changed to allow, at a minimum, mixed-sex support units to be assigned to combat battalions. Many favored a far more radical step: letting qualified women join the infantry.

Necessity is often the mother of invention. Women are generally prohibited from serving in positions that place them in danger. In Iraq though the distinction is growing very thin:

Although the Army is barred from assigning women to ground combat battalions, in Iraq it skirts the ban with a twist in terminology. Instead of being “assigned,” women are “attached in direct support of” the battalions, according to Army officers familiar with the policy. As a result, the Army avoids having to seek Pentagon and congressional approval to change the policy, officers said.

“What has changed? Nothing,” said Lt. Col. Bob Roth of the 3rd Infantry Division. “You just want someone to feel better by saying we don’t allow women in dangerous situations.”

My prediction is that we will continue to see more women in the military and that more of them will be tapped to fill combat positions. Why? Because we need a lot more soldiers. We especially need more front line soldiers.

Our current situation in Iraq has become untenable and our exit strategy is a joke. We have National Guard members and reservists already on their third tour of duty in Iraq. Armed forces recruiting are seriously lagging. And prior to last year’s election Congress went on record saying they would not reinstate the draft.

So where will we find the armed forces that we need to accomplish the missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere? Short of doing something pragmatic like declaring victory and leaving we will choose the easiest course. With the draft allegedly out and our forces overextended we will become pragmatic. I expect that these archaic and artificial distinctions between what women may do in the military will gradually disappear. At some point it will becoming so threadbare that there will be no real distinction. Perhaps Congress will simply change the law. Indeed we may see female only combat battalions.

Such a change will be a mixed blessing. Our forces will become fully sexually integrated at all levels. As they do now, women will serve with pride and distinction. But they will also demonstrate that they have the right stuff to handle combat level stress. We will see women as a critical part of our force structure and kick ourselves for having kept them from serving in the front lines for so long.

But I cannot say that I welcome it. My motives are entirely selfish. I have a 15-year-old daughter who may soon garner the attention of military recruiters. I doubt the military would be a career that she would choose, particularly since she is gay friendly and it is not. But I am far more concerned about the less likely event of a draft. I don’t want to see her placed in the armed forces against her will and to fight in a conflict that she already feels in morally wrong.

Yet I can feel it. Push is coming to shove. Something will have to give, and give soon. Hello G.I. Jane!

The Thinker

In the Land of the Suits

I’ve gotten spoiled. For more than a year I’ve dressed business casual instead of doing the pants, shirt, tie and dress shoes thing. Actually where I work (U.S. Geological Survey) it’s more casual than business casual. It’s casual pretty much all the time. Jeans and T-shirts at work are okay, almost de rigueur. If you are having an important meeting, particularly with people in other agencies, you might wear skip the jeans and sneakers and go for something dressier. Dressy at USGS means slacks, a button down shirt (no tie) and possibly some leather shoes. I now have a whole closet full of the clothes I used to have to wear every day. It consists of dozens of ties, lots of nice and starchy shirts, shiny dress shoes and even a couple sport coats. Now they have become nearly obsolete, suitable largely for attending weddings and funerals.

And I now have a job three miles away instead of twenty-five miles away. Whereas I used to arise long before dawn I now am generally up with or after the dawn. (It depends mostly on whether I need to shuffle my daughter off to school or not.) Whereas I used to arrive before six a.m. at a carpool lot to board a vanpool for D.C. and spend a day in the city, I now more often hop on a bike and peddle to work. Instead of having to park in some distant space in Pentagon South Parking like I did for nine long years I now park my bike right next to the main entrance.

So I was beginning to forget what it was like to live that other life that encompassed the first twenty years of my career. But today I attended a Service Oriented Architecture Executive Event, sponsored by BEA at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington D.C. That meant for a day I got to play D.C. commuter again.

It’s a game thousands play every workday. In my case it meant getting up before dawn and putting on pleated pants, a quality shirt, tie and my dress shoes. I considered adding a sport coat but figured it would be overkill. It meant dashing through a hurried breakfast, driving to the Herndon Monroe Park and Ride and finding a parking space. It meant waiting ten minutes at a bus stop, making sure I had the right change and entering a packed bus for a twenty-minute ride to the West Falls Church Metro Station. From there it meant doing the Farecard thing, boarding an Orange Line Train then, after paying inflated rush hour rates, having to stand the whole way into the city. It meant juggling my bag making sure I wasn’t inconveniencing anyone else and wedging myself into an odd spot so everyone could get on the train.

On the way into the city I could not help but examine at the faces of my fellow commuters. What I saw were people more like zombies than alive. The more awake ones were reading one of the free papers passed out entering the station (usually The Express). But most had their eyes glazed over and looked like they desperately wanted to be asleep. But like they do every weekday they are operating on too little sleep, insufficient caffeine and subjecting themselves to an uncomfortable ninety minute commute. The announcements, heard a zillion times, served only to annoy and not enlighten.

My destination was the Federal Triangle station, just a hop, skip and a jump from the opulent Ronald Wilson Reagan Building. To call it opulent is to damn it with faint praise. While the public is welcome to come inside, you have to go through the hassle of metal detectors. That meant the same thing I did several times a day when I used to work in D.C. Empty pockets of anything that might be metallic. Show photo ID. Wait in line. Hope that you clear the metal detector on the first try. In short: trust no one. (Thankfully at USGS I just flip my ID at the guards and they wave me through.)

The Executive Forum turned out to really be a forum for executives. I realized as soon as I reached the Rotunda on the 8th floor that although I thought I was well dressed, I was really underdressed. Adding a sport coat would not quite have met their standard. This was three-piece suit city. Virtually everyone (and certainly all the vendors) had perfect hair. Even the waiters were wearing suits. My tote bag was clearly not quite up to snuff: everyone else had snooty narrow leather briefcases.

And it was a good event. I learned a lot about implementing service oriented architectures, even if I can’t see it happening in my agency any time soon because of the niggardly amounts of money Congress throws our way. But even so I found myself fascinated by looking at all the people in suits. The vendors were particularly dolled up and meticulously groomed. I know they were trying to make a good impression. I figured BEA must have had quite a wardrobe budget for its public sales staff. In particular they know how to hire great looking women. I’m sure they would decry any suggestion that they do so deliberately, but these were classy booth babes. My favorite was the thirty something blonde with the D breasts, low cleavage in the vertically striped dress. But please understand they were also entirely professional. And they were on top of us, moving us quickly from event to event and making sure we were shuffling to the right rooms and elevators.

For a free event they didn’t skimp on second-rate food. You sort of expect muffins, bagels and coffee for a continental breakfast. But there were also fancy bottled waters I had never heard about. And by the 10 AM break the confectioneries were replaced with lovely, nearly irresistible cookies. By 11:30 AM my head was buzzing with all this SOA stuff. Thankfully it was a half-day event. But they were not done with us yet. Because apparently BEA thinks it has a pocket as deep as Oracle’s. They are one of the sponsors of Bobby Rahal’s racing team. So who should show up as a featured speaker than none other than Bobby Rahal himself? A lot of people were excited. But frankly I didn’t know him from Adam. BEA must have deep pockets indeed to drag him out from Indianapolis for this minor little luncheon speech, none of which had anything to do with the event itself. But before setting us free they offered us a free buffet lunch that was first class and delicious.

Shortly thereafter my coworker and I left to return to our modest offices in the Reston suburbs. I felt out of place walking around USGS wearing a tie, but fortunately no one of note noticed me. They might have started pointing at me. Who was that dude and what was that strange thing around his neck?

It wasn’t that long ago that living in the land of suits seemed second nature. Even getting out of bed before 6 a.m., while it wasn’t something I liked, was something that became almost second nature. Now I wonder how I endured it all those years. What was with all that suit and tie stuff? Why do people in the city feel the need to be so dressy all the time? Why do they torture themselves and endure ninety minute commutes each way, much of it in the dark, and spend their days in office buildings far from the people they love? How do they manage to keep doing it day after day? The answer of course is that because they need the money and it’s a necessary tradeoff that they made.

All I know is I am not planning to ever find another job. I hope to stay with USGS forever. Not only is it a terrific place to work, but also 30 minutes per day for a commute beats the heck out of 2-3 hours for zero compensation. I have found working nirvana and I am grateful.


Switch to our mobile site