Archive for June, 2006

The Thinker

Getting Continental

One week from now, my family and I will be in Paris. I am not sure what we will be doing there one week from now, but we should be there. Yeah, I know about the Eiffel Tower. In addition, I have heard of the Louvre. Moreover, I will definitely check out the Cathedral at Notre Dame, along with as many cathedrals as I can. (I have this thing for old gothic churches and cathedrals. Unfortunately, my wife and daughter do not.) Aside from hearing that the French have a reputation for hiring snooty waiters and open contempt for those like me who cannot speak French, I might as well be heading to the Moon. It is hard to know how to prepare properly for what will be an alien experience.

Still, I am hopeful. Perhaps I have concentrated too much on the negatives, and not on the positives of Paris. Josseline from my covenant group is French, and she assures me that Paris is a charming city that I will fall in love with. That is fine with me. I would like to fall in love. Since I am married, it is better to fall in love with a city than with another woman anyhow. For the eight days or so that we are there, I will do my best to turn off my inner Washingtonian and adapt to Paris time. Aside from the six-hour time change, I will also try to avoid trying to see how many different museums and cathedrals we can take in during a single day. I come from a city where every minute is rigorously metered. Time is money in Washington. Spending an extra half hour at a Parisian café just taking in the ambience sounds wonderful.

Unlike my last two vacations where the computer came with us, during this one the computer stays at home. A blogging vacation, at least for me, is an oxymoron. I cannot fully enjoy a vacation if I am regularly streaming my thoughts about it back to the Internet. So Occam’s Razor fans will have to accept my absence from July 5th until at least July 15th. I do hope to bring a notebook (the paper kind) to remember key points. Moreover, I expect that I will regurgitate a lot of this vacation for your amusement or annoyance later in July. Along with my notebook, we will bring our new Canon Powershot digital camera and the 1GB memory cartridge we purchased for it. That is big enough for 500 or more photographs. Perhaps I will risk recording a brief movie with the camera, and posting it to the blog. I have never posted a video on my blog before.

I hope getting there and back is half the fun. We saved a few bucks by flying through Iceland, so perhaps we will catch a spectacular view of an Icelandic fiord from our 757. To tell the truth, Iceland sounds more my kind of vacation than France. I am impressed with Mother Nature, and in general, the wilder the country feels the higher the better.

I was hoping to have our first European vacation in England. At least there, I can sort of speak the native language. My sister Doris however informs me that Paris is much better. She asserts that not only is it less expensive but the English never developed taste buds. Of course, the French are renowned for their food. Since they seem to live to ripe old ages despite the tobacco, fat, cholesterol and large volumes of wine they consume, maybe I will appreciate the Parisian diet. I am concerned about my daughter though, whose taste is very American and who does not believe in vegetables. I expect she will live on croissants while we are there.

While red eye flights are probably the best way to travel east, I cannot say that I look forward to it. There is no sleeping on them, even in business class. Coming back from Hawaii, the best I could do was try to sit quietly for a few hours with my eyes closed. I never came close to falling asleep. Perhaps this is just as well, for the classic way to adjust to jet lag going east is to forget about getting any sleep and stay up until the sun sets in your destination. The only problem with that approach is staying awake until nightfall. I have received mixed advice about using Melatonin as a sleep aid. My experience with sizeable jet lag, as I discussed elsewhere, is that most tactics fail. Since the time shift is six hours, and the body can seem to adjust about three hours a day, I figure it will take two days to get on Parisian time. Thankfully, it is summer time and the days are very long that far north. In addition, I am the morning person of the family anyhow, so it should prove less stressful for me.

Why are we going to Paris? Simply because we have a 16 year old daughter with four years of French who is enamored with all things French. She has hopes of studying overseas, and France is her preferred destination. While she has gotten more realistic about her plans (I am not sure how many years of tuition we can afford at American University in Paris with a tuition rate of 30,000 euros a year), seeing France in person will at least give her a reality check. If truth were told, I am hoping she returns not too enamored. Quebec is a lot closer and likely less expensive too.

So I have been thumbing through our Frommer’s book on Paris trying to get prepared. While I am sure I will stand out as an American tourist regardless, I am considering their advice to blend in by perhaps being dressier. Perhaps I should avoid the blue jeans and sneakers and wear pants and shoes instead. The guide warns us to watch for pickpockets and to try to not get too upset by all the prostitutes. In Europe, prostitution just does not have the stigma it has here in the states.

Then there is all the mystery and logistics of international travel. We have had our passports since January, but there are many issues related to reservations and money. Will our credit cards work overseas? It looks like they should, but Visa will insist on tacking on a 1% fee every time we use it. Do we need to have some cash in Euros before we arrive? It seems to be a good idea, so we will change out a few hundred dollars at the foreign exchange office at BWI before the flight. Is it a good idea to register with the State Department? I do not know, but we did it anyhow. Do I need a foreign phrasebook? Apparently not, since we will have our French speaking daughter with us. This is good, because with my luck I will get one of those phrase books parodied on Monty Python: “If I told you that you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?”

In truth, I need a vacation. Paris will more than do. I need to get away from the office, because it is hard not to carry the office with me on vacation. The very day we leave, I have to brief our Associated Director on a project on which I am involved. Fortunately, we have an evening flight. I make my living as an information technology web site manager. As such, half of my brain is always focused one to six months in the future. It is a challenge to get all my ducks lined up in a row so I can enjoy my vacation. I am hoping with a complete change of scenery that I really can forget about my job and all the responsibility that comes with it.

So okay Paris. I will let down my guard. I am ready to fall in love with you. I will be easy.

 
The Thinker

Unnatural weather

The Great Flood must have started this way: huge dark rolling clouds skittering quickly across the sky, choking off the sun, and almost hugging the terrain. While outside, I felt an overwhelming stickiness all over my body, even though the temperature was in the low 70s. I also felt vaguely apprehensive, but did not know why. Then in the distance, I heard it: the first peal of thunder. At first, the rain was almost a mist, and then it spat droplets on my windshield. The thunder grew louder and sounds came closer together. I sensed lightning, but was not sure where it was coming from. Sometimes the bolts reached the ground, and at other times, they just illuminated the clouds. The droplets turned to drops, then came closer together, and then cascaded across the pavement. They seemed alive and anxious to leave the loud and turbulent troposphere where they have been hiding. Sheets of rain followed, hitting the ground with an unnatural intensity, splattered off the pavement and recoiling inches up into the air. The gutters were quickly overwhelmed. The dry pond filled up and threatened to overflow. Images of my basement flooding coursed through my mind. I wondered if the sump pump still worked.

That’s how it started last Friday night and except for a few couple hour breaks that’s how it has been here in the metropolitan Washington area ever since. I would like to say it feels like Oregon, but Oregon does not get thunderstorms, or so a resident who lives there told me. This is the rain we needed during the spring but mostly never received. It has arrived, finally. And yes basements were flooded, although mine was not. The low spot in my backyard, however, resembles something of a pond. Birds are enjoying playing in it. All over the metropolitan area there is flooding. Trees are down, including a large elm tree on the White House grounds. Storm waters lifted cars off the pavement on Constitution Avenue. Blocks were closed to traffic until the water could recede. In the building where I worked, the water covered the cafeteria. The janitorial staff worked overtime with the wet/dry vacuums during the weekend to remove the water. The tile floor looked scuffed and damaged.

Around midnight early Saturday a huge storm hit, keeping my wife and me up half the night. Even with my ears plugged with silicone, I could not tune it out. Saturday morning found me bleary eyed in the kitchen. The storm had receded for a few hours but it was soon back. Boom. BOOM. More shake, rattle and roll. The dry pond, which had nearly drained, was now close to overflowing again. More waves of rain danced for our amusement on the pavement in front of our house.

Sunday, it was more of the same. By Sunday, it was no longer fun. In fact, what we were experienced seemed unnatural. Having lived in Florida I knew my thunderstorms. At least they went away and disappeared until late in the afternoon the following day. There was some relief. Here in Northern Virginia, there was little in the way of relief. If you had to go somewhere, a sturdy umbrella was a prerequisite.

Today at work from my fifth floor office, I found it difficult to concentrate. My eyes kept being drawn outside the window. There were more very ominous clouds in the southwest. The rain for a while had receded, but there was no sunshine, just another ominous feeling again. Boom! Flashes of lightning. I am not sure where the wind came from, but somehow the flag in front of my building was moving in the wind, despite a torrential downpour. My boss stopped by my office to marvel at this long lasting natural oddity. Was that hail? No, they were just megadrops cascading off the roof, and dancing on the concrete ledge outside my office window. Even from five floors up, you could feel the intensity of the storm.

Water cooler conversation was dominated by the weather. Some federal buildings were shutting down. You know it is serious when the Office of Personnel Management is issuing statements that it is okay for employees to take unscheduled leave. The basement of the National Archives was flooded. Local news reported numerous stories of people stuck in surging waters, only to find themselves trapped. Fortunately, I have not yet heard any story of a fatality. However, there were reports of many rescues.

It is now Monday evening. For the first time in days, the pavement is beginning to look dry. The skies do not look so ominous. There is no peal of thunder in the air. Perhaps the worst is over. On the other hand, perhaps not. More showers and thunderstorms are forecast for tonight, as well as additional localized flooding. A flood watch remains in effect through tomorrow night. Showers and thunderstorms are expected tomorrow too. It is not until Wednesday that skies are forecast to clear, at least partially. Perhaps then, our umbrellas will have a chance to dry out. Perhaps I will sleep through the night again. Perhaps I will not need to build the ark in my backyard after all.

 
The Thinker

Some words on faith

I receive a comment today from John O’Brien. It is attached to an old entry Unsaved that I made back in 2003. His questions deserve a fuller answer. I will not answer all his questions here, because I have put my thoughts in other blog entries where I touched on religion and faith. Readers are welcome to check out these entries:

I would like to preface my remarks by saying that I do not claim to have all “the answers to life’s persistent questions”, as the radio detective Guy Noir puts it. I simply have my thoughts, informed by my unique experience and through learning. I respect everyone’s religious beliefs or lack thereof. In some cases, I may profoundly disagree with your beliefs themselves, but I do respect your right to believe in anything you wish.

Conversations on matters of faith are always iffy. Often there is a subtext to such discussions. It is, “I want to keep discussing things with you until you come around to my point of view”. This more often translates into “I want you to become a Christian/Muslim/Jew/Atheist/Moonie/Mormon just like me.” There are many people out there who want to save my soul. While I respect your wish to save my soul, I do not want you to save my soul. I do not open my door to proselytizers. I avoid public discussions of faith altogether. One thing I have learned painfully about the devoutly religious (and it probably applies to me as well): if you have your mind made up about the correctness of your faith, argument cannot change it. Only those without a faith can have an honest discussion on the merits of faith. Otherwise, you come into the discussion with a profound bias.

John wonders if there are parts of the Bible that I consider trustworthy. Yes, there are parts of the Bible: matters of historical record that have been proven as a result of archeology. I am very skeptical about certain alleged events like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but others like the Sermon on the Mount seem quite plausible, although I suspect Jesus was paraphrased. I doubt someone was standing in the crowd taking notes.

His question on what authority can be accepted in one’s life implies an absolute and external standard of reference. Clearly if you believe in God, it is easy to posit an absolute standard of reference. Clearly, the Bible is one of many out there. For myself, I do not place faith in any absolute authority, which is why I am logically agnostic. Bertrand Russell has an answer that works fairly well for me:

I am constantly asked: What can you, with your cold rationalism, offer to the seeker after salvation that is comparable to the cozy homelike comfort of a fenced dogmatic creed? To this the answer is many-sided. In the first place, I do not say that I can offer as much happiness as is to be obtained by the abdication of reason. I do not say that I can offer as much happiness as is to be obtained from drink or drugs or amassing great wealth by swindling widows and orphans. It is not the happiness of the individual convert that concerns me; it is the happiness of mankind.

John asks if I believe there an acceptable authority, either internal or external. I think we must each answer that question ourselves. As creatures of free will, we can choose to submit to someone else’s will, or we can choose to think for ourselves. I choose the latter, but I have no problem with those who prefer the former. They seem to make up the overwhelming majority.

Is there any absolute standard of life to which I can relate? I am not very sure what John means here. For myself, I notice that our universe is ordered relatively, not absolutely. Einstein’s Theories of Relativity, for example suggest that everything made of mass or energy influences everything else. As you watch a train go by and you hear the pitch of the train’s whistle change as it passes, does the pitch actually change? It depends on the perspective of who is doing the listening. To the train’s engineer the pitch does not change. To someone watching it pass, it does change. Both are true at the same time. Einstein’s general and specific theories expand this idea to all the energy and matter in the universe. If I have a small article of faith, it is that I do not think I am really separate from anything else. I think our separateness is an illusion and we are both united and separate at the same time. For me, this renders the idea of absolutism absurd. I think the universe is an organism and we are part of it. For some this suggests that each of us is part of the mind of God. For more thoughts on this, check out my entry Our Wild, Wild Universe.

I hope this answers John’s questions though. I suspect though that it will more likely leave him confused.

 
The Thinker

The Power of the Shirt

I am one of the least fashion conscious people on the planet. While I am unlikely to look someday like an “I don’t give a damn” senior citizen (you know, the type that plays shuffleboard, wears knee high socks, shorts and a badly mismatched Hawaiian shirt) I am not too far removed from this sad fashion state. One of the most terrifying things I have to do is try to match a tie with my shirt. Does it match? I cannot tell. That is one of the reasons that I got myself a wife. She earns her keep by keeping me out of hot fashion waters. To her it is obvious what goes with what. To me it is a big mystery. I feel the same way about wine. There are plenty of wine snobs in my neighborhood. However, I cannot tell the difference between a $5 bottle of wine and a $50 bottle of wine.

So clearly, I am missing a few critical genes. Fortunately, this seems to be a general problem with men, so I do not necessarily stand out in a crowd. No matter how far our beer bellies extend over our abdomen; no matter whether we think our hair is tousled when it is in fact dirty, cowlicky and flecked with dandruff; no matter even if you can fit a bowling ball down the crack in the back of our jeans, we still assume we are stud muffins. All those other men are the ones who look ugly. We look in the mirror, smile, see ourselves and are content. Here’s looking at you, kid.

I do not require fancy clothing, and I am fortunate to have a job where it is normally not required. Jeans, a t-shirt, and some sneakers or sandals suit me fine. I dress for comfort, not for professional impact. The other day I slipped on a pair of blue shorts and then put on a t-shirt that was virtually the same color. For hours, I did not notice anything. Then I caught my reflection in the mirror. Hmm. There was something wrong with the way I was dressed, but I could not put my finger on it.

Recently, in preparation for a vacation in France that starts in two weeks, I went clothes shopping. Clothes shopping is for me an activity that comes way behind cleaning out the cat’s litter box. It is something I generally do when I have no other choice. I wear underwear until it has holes through it and its elasticity is gone. I have shirts in my closet as old as my sixteen-year-old daughter. If it looked good in 1989, I figure, it still must be fashionable today. I have wide ties from the 1970s I stole from my father that I think are starting to become fashionable again. It is hard for me to say; I do not keep up on tie fashion. I just notice fewer narrower ties than I did in the 1990s. When that day comes, I will be ready and retro! I knew that whatever I wore in Paris, I would likely still stand out as the badly dressed American. Still, the peer pressure got to me. My wife and daughter had no problem spending $200 or so to pick up a few odd pieces of clothing just to wear in France. So off I went to the neighborhood Kohls. I gingerly approached the men’s department. Fortunately, it was summertime. There was a plethora of cheap and tacky clothes from which a fashion-impaired man like me could choose.

About six months ago, I made a clothing discovery. It may have taken 49 years, but I finally decided that a light olive green was my color. I looked good in olive green, or at least I preferred it to the other colors of shirts that I have. I do not think I came to this judgment by myself. I think I picked it up from stray coworkers, since I kept hearing the same complement about the same shirt. With enough repetition from disparate parties, it entered my stream of thought. Since that time, I have sought out more clothing in this color. Therefore, I started hunting the Kohl’s for my “favorite” color.

I came upon an olive green knit polyester shirt that cost maybe $16 or so. It is a pullover. That was about the extent of my analysis at the time. I picked up a couple more in that color, others in other colors, and a pair of new shorts, since holes were peaking through the pockets on the old one. The next day I put on the green shirt and looked in the mirror.

Whoa! Just who was that handsome man in the mirror? He looked vaguely familiar, but he had never looked quite so trim before. This knit shirt has subtle vertical lines going down it. I thought for a moment that I must have lost some weight, and then I realized I weighed pretty much the same as I did last week. What had happened? Most women would have no problem understanding what slowly dawned on me: vertical stripes make you look thinner. Horizontal stripes make you look fatter. Yet for me this was a revelation. It was a real “Ah ha!” moment. Moreover, because the stripes were subtle but close together, and the shirt hung so evenly across my body, I realized that a simple shirt could make me something of a minor babe magnet. My wife complemented me on it. At work, I got many complements, all of them from women. Yes!

It is unlikely that I will be taking up a subscription to G.Q. Still, I was impressed. Moreover, having watched The Learning Channel I think I know why this is. The shirt spoke to the power of symmetry. My nose is long, bony, and not terribly symmetric. If the truth were told, it looks more like a boxer’s nose. Symmetry is what women look for in a man. The better the symmetry, the more attractive they find you. Why do women swoon over Tom Cruise even though he is just an attractive dork? Because his face and his whole body are so symmetrical. You can say pretty much the same thing about all our current pop idols. Now, through the power of a shirt, I realized that it could show a symmetry that was probably unearned. Nevertheless, it did not matter. I was perceived as more symmetric, and thus more attractive and interesting in general. For a brief period anyhow, I was more than an ordinary man, I was a symmetrical man. I was a man of some substance.

Since I now have a power shirt, I am afraid I might lose it. Perhaps I should hand wash it only, treat it gingerly, and lay it flat to dry. I should eat carefully with it on; I do not want to get stains on this baby! Perhaps I should go back to Kohls and find more like it. Apparently, I am not so wrapped up in introversion that I cannot appreciate the sincere complements when I wear it. Thank goodness.

 
The Thinker

Appalled

If you need more proof that our social fabric is unwinding, this story “Health Care Creates Dilemma for Tennessee’s Poor” today on NPR’s All Things Considered should scare you and make you very angry.

You can read the story on the NPR site, but please listen to it online if you can. As shocking as it is to read, it is even more appalling to listen to it. Linda Warner is a great grandmother who lives on a $600 a month disability check in a doublewide trailer in Cocke County, Tennessee. She is mostly confined to a wheelchair and helps take care of her three-year-old great grandchild. Because she is poor, Medicaid covers her. However, Tennessee got permission from the federal government to provide the poor with a cut rate version of Medicaid called Tenncare. As a result of a state budget crisis a few years ago, the state’s Tenncare program was cut back. Way back.

So this is what is left of our social safety net. Despite being disabled through no fault of her own, despite doing good for her family and her church, the state set a limit. No Tenncare patient, unless their circumstances are “unique and complicated” can receive more than five prescription drugs per month from the state. As you might expect if you are a great grandmother who is living on $600 a month, that does not leave much money for other prescriptions you might need to stay alive. Therefore, Linda Warner, like many of people in the program, has to make painful choices about which medicines she will or will not take.

She gave the pharmacist her prescriptions, but told him not to fill the bladder medicine. Normally, she takes it four times a day.

“It stops me from wearing a diaper, a disposable diaper,” Warner sighs. “I really hate to do without the bladder medicine because I can’t go anywhere without it.”

Along with the bladder medicine, she decided to skip her pain medication for the month. That way TennCare would cover the $28 worth of antibiotics she needed.

“You have to choose,” Warner says. “And I have to have the inhaler … because I have to breathe. It’s OK that I’m wet, but I got to breathe.”

One would hope that she were the exception, not the rule. This is not quite the case according to local physician Dr. Edward Capparelli:

In fact, says Capparelli, since the drug limits took effect, he’s spent almost as much time figuring out how to take people off medications as figuring out which medications to put them on.

“This is a real problem because the clock resets on the first of the month,” says Capparelli. “So if you happen to get your meds on the first, and then on the 15th you get sick, you really are not allowed to get any more prescriptions on that limit until the first of the following month.”

Capparelli says that for relatively healthy people, the five-prescription limit hasn’t been much of a hardship.

“But for people who have more than one chronic illness, it’s impossible to try to pick which is more important,” he says. “And unfortunately, physicians have often had to choose for what’s life-threatening today and give up on what might be life-threatening tomorrow.”

Here is what is left of our social compact. If you lead an honest life, earned an honest wage, yet can no longer work and have to live on a disability payment that keeps you in deep poverty you get to enter a medical Twilight Zone. You probably will not get the health care services you need. You may have to choose between breathing this month and accidentally urinating all over the house. Perhaps when the state’s coffers are a little flusher they will allow you to have an extra prescription per month. You may die or suffer some chronic illness needlessly but that is just too bad: the state only pays for five prescriptions per month. Here is your best advice: stay healthy. Never get sick. The state cares, but not enough to matter if you are old and chronically sick. Moreover, consider yourself lucky that you get any care at all. There are thousands of others in the state worse off than you with no health insurance.

There is no question that health care is expensive. On one level, it makes complete sense for Tennessee to cut back on these rising costs. Unlike the federal government, they do not have a printing press to manufacture money. Yes, there are other expenses for which the state has to pay besides ballooning medical costs for its poorest citizens. Those schools, roads and law enforcement officers do not come free.

Still, how can societies which call themselves civilized being just accept this? How can anyone see this as a situation where the glass is half-full? Why can we not summon the political will to raise our taxes so everyone at least has the medication they need to live their life with some modicum of decency?

Apparently, we are a first world country with third world values. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

 
The Thinker

Review: An Inconvenient Truth

Is global warming happening? If it is happening, is it part of a natural trend? Or is it being caused by human activity? If so, can we really do anything to stop it? Or should be just shrug it off and consider the upsides: more time in bathing suits and less time shoveling snow.

Those who keep up on my blog know I do not need convincing. Global warming is undoubtedly happening. Even our president admits it is happening. In addition, human activity is contributing to global warming. President Bush admits that too. He only disagrees on how much we humans contributing to the problem and the methods that should be employed to address it.

Al Gore begs to differ. You remember Al. In the film An Inconvenient Truth, he introduces himself as the man who used to be the next president of the United States. It gets a laugh at every seminar he gives on global warming. The documentary An Inconvenient Truth is largely a filmed version of Al’s global warming seminar. It is his traveling road show. Armed with a Macintosh computer with a very big screen, Al is now traveling the world doing his best to convince anyone who will listen that the global warming phenomenon is real and action must be taken now. His slide show is very impressive. It would take a very cynical person to come away from the movie not realizing that human activity is the major cause of global warming.

The film is marketed as the scariest movie you will ever see. What could be scarier than real life? In fact, I did not find the film that scary. I certainly learned some new things from the movie. However, I understood before coming into the theater that global warming was real and that its consequences were catastrophic. I do hope that the film will bring in average Americans who maybe are not totally convinced. I suspect though that the film will largely preach to the choir.

I hope that it will not dissuade you from seeing the movie, for even those who agree with Al should still see this film. Do the earth a favor though, and bring someone with you who are a skeptic or are still on the fence. Ideally take a whole bunch of friends. Not only will they be uncomfortably awake after the movie, but also by just attending, they will help address global warming. Five percent of the ticket price goes to support advocacy. I can write off 5% of the $19.50 I paid for two tickets on my income tax!

No question about it though. Al has a terrific yet sobering slide show. Whatever presentation software he is using, PowerPoint was not up to the job. The movie is 90% filmed lecture, and 10% background. We learn that Al was first exposed to global warming research in college. For whatever reason, it became a cause he passionately latched onto. As you may know, in 1992 he wrote a book on global warming, Earth in Balance. Here he is fourteen years later, the almost president of the United States, yet we see him going through metal detectors at airports just like the rest of us. He is now Citizen Gore. He seems to have put his defeat behind him and is doing the best he can to shake us up on this issue before it is too late. In the movie he says that he has given his lecture thousands of times. We even see him giving the lecture in China. Al really believes that if he works hard enough the message will get through and real policy change will happen.

Gone is Wooden Al. In the movie, we find the authentic Al Gore. While he may not be wooden, his passion is still somewhat restrained. We see a rather low-key Al Gore who is introspective, sobering and full of gravitas. No theatrics are necessary. This is one time when the facts speak far more convincingly. Instead, you are left wondering: are we doomed? Is there any hope left for our planet and our species?

Thankfully, the answer is yes. Stemming global warming is quite doable. It is not some sort of pie in the sky notion that must wreck world economies. All it takes is will. In fact, Al makes a convincing case that companies that work to stem global warming will be the economic winners. Perhaps that is why General Electric is working on products that will help stem global warming. Al shows us that it is possible because we have already demonstrated that will. International efforts have stemmed the manufacture of chlorofluorocarbons. That once gaping ozone hole in the Southern Hemisphere has closed up. It is one first and modest success in the climate change challenge for which humanity can take credit.

Usually when the movie credits start, you head for the exit. During the credits in this film, we also see suggestions on how each of us can help stem global warming. The Bethesda Row Cinema, where I saw the film with my father, also had a stack of flyers with suggestions on how to help stem global warming. I took one home. I was glad to see I am already doing certain things right (I own a hybrid and bike to work frequently). Others will take more convincing. I am not sure my wife will let me set up the thermostat two degrees during the summer.

In a world of self-serving politicians, it is such a pleasure to see an ex-politician not squander the rest of their life, but work to do something meaningful for humanity and the planet. Jimmy Carter works hard to bring democracy to the rest of the world. Al Gore is working hard to wake us up to the reality of climate change. It will be the rare person who comes away from this movie without a renewed respect for Al Gore. I for one wish he would run for president again.

 
The Thinker

Trapped in the Crazy Hall of Mirrors

It is true: there are days when it is better not to get out of bed. Yesterday was one of those days.

I would like to blog about things that happened in my life yesterday, but I cannot get into specifics. All I can do is synopsize how the toxic crap I endured yesterday is affecting me.

In one incident I was called to task for not communicating with someone about an important matter. Apparently, this person wanted to be regularly consulted and communicated with on this sensitive matter, but I was insufficiently skilled in reading his brain. Therefore, he is insulted and deeply hurt by my actions, said my not consulting with him was about the most egregious thing anyone had ever done to him, and he felt like cashing in his chips and going home. The good part (if there is a good part) is that he communicated this to me privately. I responded as best I could. I did not know you wanted so much information on this sensitive matter, I am sorry if I hurt you, and I hope we can move beyond it. Left unsaid were many things I would have liked to express. I was just doing my job. What I was doing was really none of your business. I am sorry you were so upset but I also know you are a Prima Donna and irreplaceable, so I must treat you with utmost respect, even though this is none of your damned business. I think you are a terrific person and I like you a whole lot, but you lost perspective on this issue. I cannot say those things.

The second issue revolved around a long-standing personal problem that increasingly feels like being in a crazy hall of mirrors. Everything is distorted and it is even hard to tell which way is up. Good is bad, bad is good, I am not sure if I am good, or evil, if I am wasting my time and my life, or if things are on the verge of resolving themselves. Suffice to say I am spending a lot of time and money trying to resolve the issue and it seems go on forever with no resolution. Yet I must remain endlessly stoic, patient and play the role of the guilty person, even though I do not feel that guilty and feel pretty darned aggrieved myself. It feels like it is reaching the theater of the absurd. One would think one set of kid gloves would be sufficient to deal with this situation, but I am not sure four or five would be enough.

One of these kinds of issues a day is more than enough; having them come back to back inside of six hours made for a nasty double whammy. Neither is likely to come to quick resolution. I would love to actually talk about them with the aggrieved parties, but I am cast in the role of submissive supplicant who must wait around until they decide to communicate. So I sit here and stew and fret and wonder why I put up with both of them. Where is the reward for doing your job to the best of your ability? Where is the reward for being endlessly patient? Why should I feel guilty for being who I am and the way I dealt with the crazy cards that I was given?

It seems the reward never comes. Therefore, I am left in an interminable state of suspended animation, frustrated, headachy, and sleeping badly. I know over this three-day weekend things will lighten up. I will probably sleep well tonight. Perhaps I will hear on one of these issues and things will be back to the status quo. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it is just that time of year for me to twist slowly in the wind. As a believer in karma, I suspect I probably deserve these things that came my way. On the other hand, maybe I am more like a rape victim who thinks they must have deserved the abuse. A part of me says what I am dealing with is ridiculous, unnecessary, unwarranted and unjust. However, as I learned Catholic guilt at a tender young age, I figure, no, it must be me. I must be a sinner. I must be a bad person. I probably deserve this.

So I will wait, cross my fingers and hope I am not too far from the exit from the crazy hall of mirrors. Given past history though I am more likely still stuck somewhere in the middle. Perhaps if I stay in it long enough, it will feel like home.

 
The Thinker

Mediocrity abounds on the rental car lot

Has anyone else noticed that rental car lots are stuffed with cars that you would never actually buy?

This has happened so often to me that I have begun to think it is more than coincidence. The one exception was one Toyota Camry that I rented some twenty years ago. More often, when I rent a car I end up with a bright, shiny, clean and well-maintained car that, if I did not have to rent it, I would never even want to test drive.

Last week I was in Denver. Since I am a government employee, naturally I have to go with the contract car rental firm. In this case, it was Alamo, which at least at Denver International Airport is now partnered with National. Although my contract was with Alamo, I was pointed to the compact cars in the National lot. “Pick any one of them,” the attendant told me. “Any one of them” turned out to be a half dozen or so Chevy Cobalts, in my choice of colors.

I picked the closest one, pulled the key out of the driver’s side door lock and pressed the trunk release button. Nothing happened. I pressed it several times, very hard. Nothing happened. Okay, I thought, I will just try the next Chevy Cobalt. At least this key allowed me to pop the trunk. I put my suitcase in the trunk. Fortunately, it was just me in the car. For a two door car there was not much room for luggage. Then I made the mistake of actually getting into the car.

This was wrong. All wrong. I am six foot two inches tall, but I could not fit in this sports car unless I bent back seat quite a way. Of course, I could reach the steering wheel, but my long arms had to be fully outstretched. Maybe this is the way it is supposed to be with sports cars. I have never owned one. However, the position felt unnatural and awkward. I couldn’t imagine driving this all day long.

Then I closed the door. I should have grabbed the seat belt before I shut the door because, even though I had the seat pushed way back to accommodate my long legs, I could not grab the seat belt. Even with the door open though, it was a hassle. The arm motion to grab the belt was beyond unnatural; it was almost painful.

After the usual inspection at the exit gate, I left the car lot. Then I tried to change lanes. WTF? I knew I had a blind spot, so of course I craned my head back to see what was coming in the lane next to me. I could not see my blind spot; the frame of the door, which was receded way back, got in the way of my vision. Are all sports cars this dumbly designed? Maybe there is more than testosterone to blame for so many sport car accidents.

Perhaps it is stylish. I am no judge of style. I can say it is an impractical car. There were numerous other things that annoyed me: a badly laid out instrument panel, a funky interior car smell, no elbowroom for my left arm and it was hard for me to read the odometer. I kept fumbling trying to locate radio station; the buttons were not in the usual spots. For a sporty car, you would think it would take a light touch with the accelerator to move it forward, but I had to press quite hard to make it move.

I was so glad to return the car. As I scanned the lot, I realized there was not a foreign car in the whole place. Like the Chevy Cobalt I drove, the lot was full of very shiny, clean but wholly unmemorable cars.

Last year on a similar trip, I was given a Chrysler PT Cruiser. Oh boy, I thought. This was a step up because it looked bigger than a compact car. I had rather admired the car when I saw it on the road; it was somewhat retro. After driving it though, it felt flimsy and was loud. I too turned that one in, glad for the experience because here was another car I would now never buy in a million years. I prefer a car that looks plain but is well engineered. While I prefer quality to style, but I do not understand why I cannot have both.

Perhaps the worst car I ever rented was some ten years ago. It was a Ford Aspire. It was a catastrophe of a car. As the Car Talk guys put it, “It aspires to be a real car.” Truer words were never spoken. It was cramped, loud and came with a sticky accelerator. No power brakes here: be prepared to press very hard. It had virtually no headroom either; it was the rental car from hell. For years after when I would see someone drive an Aspire, I would laugh aloud. “You mean you actually paid good money for that piece of crap?” I wanted to yell at them. Alas, I am too well mannered to actually articulate it.

I guess it is too much to find a copy of my Honda Civic Hybrid on a rental lot. What I wrote about when I bought it is still true: it is a finely engineered automotive experience. Over eighteen months later, I am still thrilled with my car. The trunk is too small but that is its only drawback. I feel integrated with the car. It breaks smoothly. It turns steadily and predictably. It is amazingly quiet in spite of having its tiny four-cylinder engine right next to the steering wheel. It responds uniformly to the minutest presses on the accelerator. While I am sure there are better-engineered cars out there, it is about as fine a driving experience as is possible in a compact car. In addition, it is better for the environment.

My theory is that rental car companies buy overstocked cars that would otherwise languish for years on dealer lots. I figure they are getting a hell of a discount from the car manufacturers. Why else would anyone buy these cars? They have to go somewhere, so they end up in rental car lots across the country. Apparently, we rental car buyers just are not fussy because we know in a couple days we will turn the car in.

I heard that buying used rental cars makes sense. Perhaps there is some logic to this. Rental cars are very well maintained and their vehicle history is rarely in any dispute. I doubt though that you will find a model for sale that will inspire you. If you aspire toward mediocrity or if you are trying not to be noticed on the roads, any of these cars will do. I would ask for a hell of a discount.

 
The Thinker

Co-opted by the gay agenda

While out in Denver this week I read that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was so concerned about gay marriage, that he made the Senate debate a constitutional amendment that would prohibit states from legalizing gay marriages. Naturally, our extremely moral president also petitioned for the amendment to “protect marriage“. Yet for some inexplicable reason, the bill failed in the Senate 49-48. It could not even attract a majority, let alone the two-thirds majority needed for approval as a constitutional amendment.

This suggests that our Congress, rather than being the upstandingly moral human beings are instead a nest of brooding vipers. Okay, you knew that. However, politicians also know what side of their bread is buttered. Therefore, it is surprising the Senate could not find much enthusiasm for this amendment. Could it be that Senators judged correctly that most Americans just do not care that much about gay marriage?

Because I live in the great homophobic state of Virginia, I should be less worried. The law protects my God-fearing heterosexual marriage. However, Massachusetts, where gay marriage is already legal, is only a few hundred miles away. Virginia law and our soon to be approved state constitutional amendment permanently banning gay marriage should make me feel less concerned. Yet who knows? Maybe, as our Congressional leaders see it, gay marriage is like the bird flu so a mass inoculation is in order. One state like Massachusetts catches it and before you know it, even Baptist ministers are performing gay marriages. Such wide scale sin and debauchery would simply be more proof that the end of times is almost here. Perhaps because I am in a traditional marriage I am one of the elect without knowing it. Perhaps as a result on Judgment Day (which should be any day now) I will sail into heaven because of my heterosexual marriage. (Presumably, my many wife beatings will be excused.)

With encroaching gay marriage, and particularly since social conservatives assure me that our sexual orientation is a choice, how long before I try out the gay lifestyle? Massachusetts allows gay marriage, Vermont permits civil unions and now Washington State may allow gay marriage too, even for couples coming from out of state! Oh, the horrors! While I was in my hotel room the other night, I caught Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and I confess I enjoyed the show. I was impressed by how well groomed and articulate the gay men were. Perhaps, this is the first step toward my future homosexual lifestyle. Although I cannot recall any sexual feelings for my gender in my 49 years of life, I have been known to look at pornography now and then. I have noticed that male genitalia figures prominently in it. Moreover, I do not necessarily find the presence of male genitalia in heterosexual pornography disgusting; in fact, it can even be a turn on. What does this mean? Is there an inner homosexual in me yearning to get out?

And what about my wife? She is into homoerotic fan fiction, also known as slash. She spends much of her free time reading and even writing the stuff. Many of her friends now come from the slash community and most of them are gay. Maybe she has been faking it with me all these years. If she is heterosexual as she claims, how long before she succumbs to the temptation of her own gender, divorces me and takes a wife in Massachusetts?

We must be close to faltering. After all, homosexuality is a choice. Seemingly normal heterosexuals wake up every day and decide, “Hey, I want to try out this gay thing today. In fact, I want to be gay the rest of my life.” Maybe that is me. After all, my marriage is a bit stale after twenty years. You only live once. It is probably watching that episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy that will do me in. It probably starts innocuously, like that first puff of a joint. You find yourself laughing along with Ellen DeGeneres. You start to admire gays. Before you know it, you are hooked. Perhaps I will start by reading motorcycle magazines. Then I will want a motorcycle and a fancy leather-riding outfit. Soon I am spending my weekends with the Hells Angels. Then I am spending them with one of the many gay motorcycle clubs out there. Yes, homosexuality is a choice, social conservatives tell us. Since it is a choice and because I can choose to switch on that side of my personality whenever I want (although it has lain strangely dormant all my life) I am vulnerable. My wife is vulnerable too. In fact, we are close to slipping. Sin is a slippery slope, and Satan will use all his wiles to get me. Extreme vigilance is required. I need to keep reading General J.C. Christian’s blog. Just as importantly, I need the state to keep me from falling by protecting my marriage from all threats, foreign and domestic.

Then thank goodness, I live in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It has a no tolerance policy for gay marriage. No gay marriage ever. Because of our zero tolerance policy for gays, I feel more secure in my heterosexuality. If I have the stray thought to try out the homosexual lifestyle, well, just knowing that the state will not allow me to have a gay marriage means I am less likely to try it out. Don’t you see? I say hooray for that. I feel protected by the wise citizens of my state. My wife should too. Since my marriage is so well protected, I should never, ever let my lurking homosexual side out of its closet.

Yet in truth, there is one wee little problem with this logic: I have never felt the least bit inclined to try homosexuality. I cannot speak for my wife, but I trust her enough to take her at her word that although she has many gay and bisexual friends, she too is not attracted to her gender. Therefore, what I am thinking is that for heterosexuals like my wife and I, you know, us moral Americans, heterosexuality is not really a choice. We are hardwired this way.

As for those homosexuals (not to mention the bisexuals, polysexuals or the whole polyamorous community), well, things must be different for them. Maybe they did not get enough attention from Mom and Dad growing up, or skipped too many Sunday school lessons. For some bizarre reason these folks though claim that their sexual orientation is hardwired too. Moreover, they want equivalent rights because, get this, it is the fair thing to do! Somewhere in their American history lessons, they learned that all citizens in this country have equal rights and responsibilities under the law. They missed the asterisk that certain rights only applied to heterosexual couples only.

Anyhow, perhaps I am delusional but I have given their perspective considerable thought. So I would like to inform any social conservative out there reading this that I am confident that even if gay marriage were to be legal in the Commonwealth of Virginia (perish the thought!) that my marriage would not be endangered. In fact, there is simply no chance that I will ever choose the homosexual lifestyle. If my wife and I are to end up divorced some day, I am afraid it will be for more prosaic reasons, like we fell out of love with each other. That apparently still qualifies as grounds for divorce.

If protecting my marriage is truly this important to the commonwealth, perhaps our legislature should outlaw divorce. Yet for reasons I do not wholly fathom, they are much more concerned about keeping homosexuals from getting married than making sure I stay permanently married to my wife.

In addition, neither am I offended by gays getting married. Back in the 1980s, we lived in a townhouse community. We had two guys up the street who were openly gay and kept a townhouse together. Their townhouse was the most well kept unit in the complex. I found them to be warm and interesting people. I know I should have been afraid of them. The state and many ministers tell me so. I know they must be living the immoral lifestyle. Yet still, I never felt the least bit threatened by them, or worried that my community was on the road to hell, even though they probably practiced regular oral and anal sodomy. In fact, I thought they were terrific neighbors. Not having them as neighbors was one of the downsides of buying our single-family house.

Here is the most amazing part: despite this gay couple living in our townhouse community full of children, not once did they molest any of the children on the playground. We sure were lucky!

I must be one of the fallen though. I must have been co-opted by the gay agenda. Really, I just do not care about gays getting married. Shoot me, but I agree with them: I think there is nothing more American than for everyone to have equal rights and responsibilities. If gays want to get married, I say more power to them. In addition, as long as the government requires that my marriage be legal, I cannot see why gays should not be able to have their unions legally sanctioned too.

 
The Thinker

Random thoughts during another business trip

I do not know how people endured business trips before laptop computers and high speed wired hotels became par for the course. Business travel is easier to endure if the destinations are exotic, your coworkers are fun to be with, and your work days are short.

Alas, such trips are the exception, not the rule. This one qualifies as somewhere in the middle. I am back in Denver on business this week. More specifically, I am in Lakewood. Denver is a big city, but as big cities go there is not too much to recommend it over any other big city. One thing I really notice being an East Coast dude: the air is so thin and dry out here. No wonder my skin is still so wrinkle free at age 49: it’s spent most of that time in a moisture bath. This dry Denver weather plays havoc with my hair. It makes me look like Albert Einstein. My sinus cavities soon feel like a desert. I feel the need to buy some saline solution for my nose but know the effect would be only momentary.

Work is more of the same too. I spend my days partly in meetings, partly chatting with my customers, but mostly doing exactly the same things that I would be doing back in the office. I simply unpack my laptop computer and plug it into the local area network, and it is as if I were back in Reston. All my files back at the office are available, and the latency in fetching them is hard to notice just because I am 1500 miles away. This still feels like wiz bang stuff to me.

There are usually evening activities with coworkers that I can elect to attend. But tonight I choose to catch up on my blogging. The alternative was bowling, which is not my cup of tea. The people I work with are very nice and I generally enjoy spending time with them off hours, but not necessarily every night. While I am not antisocial, neither am I a social butterfly. I can take or leave the social aspects of my job. I can entertain myself quite happily. So I give the social aspects of my job 50%. I usually attend the happy hour. Once or twice during the week I will partake in a social event. (A colleague who works out here throws a party once a year, so I will be there tomorrow night.) I am equally as happy on my own in my free hours. Tonight was my night to be antisocial.

So tonight I discreetly headed alone to the Colorado Mills Mall, which is across the highway from the hotel, to finally give it a once over. There I dined alone in a food court, and noshed on Chinese food from the Panda Express. I wandered the length of this very large mall and browsed a bookstore. It may be a big mall, but there was nothing that I particularly wanted to buy.

Now I am back to the sanctuary of my hotel room. Here though I am not really bounded by four walls. Thanks to my laptop and the high speed internet, cyberspace can be my playground. With this basic infrastructure, location no longer matters. Here I can read my favorite blogs, catch up on the day’s news, play with Google Earth and mostly just relax, just like I might to at home. The major difference is of course that my domestic companion, a.k.a. my wife, has not spent fifteen minutes debriefing me about her day. Nor will she be giving me the latest briefings from the world of slash that she inhabits in her off hours. While I miss my wife and daughter back in Northern Virginia, and would prefer to be home, a little time apart every few months is not a bad thing either. It makes me appreciate them more when I get home.

Off come my shoes and socks. My feet are liberated at last. This room would be a bit more comfortable for surfing the internet and writing if it had a desk. Perhaps because we negotiated such a discount rate, I got a “studio suite”. There is no desk in this room, but there is a couch. Time to put a pillow on the coffee table and prop up my aching feet.

My thoughts are pretty muddled. I am thinking about how early the day starts here in Denver in June. I went running yesterday morning before 6 a.m. and the sun was already well above the horizon. While I cursed the lack of sidewalks at least there were not many cars to harass me. It is no problem getting up at 5 a.m. Mountain Time when you are used to living on Eastern Time. When the sun is out, it is like you have a few hours to enjoy life before beginning the workday. The prairie dogs kept me company as I jogged by Red Rocks Community College. Sometimes their squeaky sounds remind me of a bird call. There are many rabbits out at that hour too, and they are not as afraid as I would have expected. I see them scurrying near the side of the road. A dog barks at me from the front lawn of a house a couple hundred feet away. Why is he alone and untethered? Fortunately, he doesn’t want to do more than let me know I am one of the few people awake at this hour.

From so many trips here, Denver has become a lot less enchanting. My first business trip out here was in 1984. I thought it was really neat. The Rocky Mountains are still an impressive site, but the terrain, which once seemed exotic, now seems ordinary. At one time I wanted to live out here. Now, I can’t imagine it. I have grown accustomed to how lush everything is out East. Despite the humidity, despite the rain, despite a limited ski season, despite the population density, I would rather live on the east coast than here.

I will be glad to return to it on Friday.

 

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