Archive for January, 2007

The Thinker

Over the Hill

Age they say is just a number. It may be just a number, but when the number is BIG and very ROUND (it ends in a zero) it becomes, if not a time for contemplation, at least hard to ignore. In two days, I reach a very big and very round number: I will be half a century old.

Naturally, I have been scrutinizing myself in the mirror a lot lately. I always wondered what I would look like when I hit 50. I did not expect (and I say this with all modesty) to look so good. Doubtless, part of my rationalization is denial. I hear we older Americans are good at denial. However, I do think there are some elements of truth. For a 50-year-old dude, I look pretty good. It is not accident. It required a lot of work: eating right, exercising regularly, and applying sunscreen religiously. Most likely though I owe most of my reasonably youthful looks to my mother’s side of the family. My father turned grey in his thirties, so in some respects he always looked older than his years. Not me. Yes, I have grey in my hair, but it is not very much and it is blended in so well that most days I do not even notice it.

I half expect though that I will wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and find that my face has fallen and grey streaks coming out of my hair like wild onions. I am in the middle of a large sibling pack, so looking at my older siblings gives me an idea of what may be imminent. It is not necessarily pretty but, like death, there is not much I can do about it. In fact, if I look at myself in the mirror it is obvious that my youthful look is more in my head than on my face. A small droop is developing under my chin. There are the lines near my eyes. Age spots are popping up here and there. My bright hazel eyes look a little less bright. My hairline is not receding, but it may be thinning a bit. Moreover, there are those other unwelcome signs of aging: the hard work that is required not to have a paunch, hair growing out of the ears, bifocals and annoying medical conditions that probably would not occur if I were half my age. Running, at least for the moment, is out of the question; my feet and my joints cannot handle it anymore. Thank goodness for elliptical machines. When I press those weights at the health club, I feel quite virile. Then I watch some young man half my age pressing twice as much weight. In addition, there is the truest sign of middle age: you have to constantly watch what you eat. If you get a free lunch, or even if you do not, it will end up around your middle.

Fifty is an age when you should have discovered some limitations. While it is also an age when you may be over the hill, you can still find the vista from being on top quite breathtaking. If your experience is like mine (and mine is likely atypical), it is a time when you have arrived after so much darn struggle. Career-wise, I cannot complain. Maybe I had dreams of being a bestselling writer at age 25, but there is nothing wrong with being a mid-level manager with a six-figure income running a dynamic, content driven website for a living. It is not just any web site though, but a web site depended on by the public and by governments, sometimes to make decisions that save lives and property. I am blessed to manage a talented and supportive team of people any of whom, if truth were told, are more talented than I am. My job is empowering as well as demanding. I may not always like where business takes me, but it does take me places. Last week I was in Denver. I know I will be back there again this year, and I also know I will be in Savannah in June. On what other adventures will I be sent on someone else’s dime before the year is out?

Admittedly, there are still challenges. Our daughter is about to graduate high school and she is so not ready to confront the real world. My wife and I have to work on that, as well as our own relationship, which after 21 years could perhaps use a dose of Viagra. Yet both these challenges seem doable. After all my wife and I have 21 years of marriage to build on. In addition, my daughter, while she is woefully unprepared for adulthood, is smart and personable and will no doubt succeed in time. I was just hoping that she would be a bit better adjusted at this point, so I could sail smoothly through my fifties.

That is likely not to be. Life of course is about living, and living implies that things will not stay the same. While I hope for a decade of optimal health, I likely will not have it. I will have to deal with it, along with my wife’s medical issues. Yet perhaps, with some good fortune my fifties will be reinvigorating. (According to my Chinese friend Hua, this is the Year of the Golden Pig, which only comes every 60 years, and which means good fortune.) Perhaps I will retain some semblance of my youth, my daughter will move into adulthood without major trauma, my marriage will deepen, and I will retire with plenty of financial security, able to squander the rest of my life as I see fit.

If for some reason, you forget that you will be turning 50, AARP will remind you. Actually, their mailer arrived more than six months ago. Apparently, age is no longer a barrier to AARP membership. Taking my father’s advice, I have declined to join. Nevertheless, there is also the fact that I just do not feel old. I know I should, and the 25 year old me would definitely see the 50 year old me as old, but I either live in denial or I am very fortunate.

A few things are clear. Even if I were inclined to go after a younger babe, they do not want me. They might if I were in my early forties, but in your fifties they only go after you if you will keep them in fine clothes and fine dining. In short, when you are fifty-something, they do not want you because of who you are, but because of what you are. This is good because my wife remains one of a small number of women who like me just as I am, and for whom my age simply does not matter. I do sometimes wonder when we are twenty years older, with droopy faces, wearing dentures and with a medicine cabinet full of Polident, whether we will still feel some spark of romance. I guess time will tell. Perhaps if I am still blogging in twenty years, you will find out.

For me, age 50 finds me in something of a state of denial. I do not deny the fact that I am virtually 50, but I do feel increasingly like denying my own mortality. It was less than two years ago that I watched my mother die of a progressive disease. Having observed the dying process close up, it no longer holds quite the horror it once did. One lesson though which I have incorporated as part of watching her dying and going through my own grieving process is to understand important it is to live robustly while you can.

It is hard though when you are over the hill not to contemplate your own date with death. Perhaps I am naïve or optimistic, but for all my life I have assumed I would live into my eighties and be in reasonably good health. It is no longer wishful thinking, given the mortality statistics. When I view my date with death dispassionately, I feel like a Las Vegas odds maker. I feel there is a 75% chance that I will make it to age 80, and maybe a 25% chance I will make it to age 90.

Coincidentally, I had a life insurance physical yesterday. A nurse from Portamedic came to my house. She had me pee into some test tubes, drew several vials of blood, weighed me, measured my height and even had me lie on the couch while she took an EKG. This is my third life insurance physical, and they get more intrusive every time. If I do another one, I expect a proctological exam. My financial adviser says I need to maintain life insurance through age 60, so I subjected myself to the process again. Sitting around the kitchen table while the nurse kept asking me intrusive personal questions, I could feel her sizing up my odds of making it to 60.

No matter. Life is about living and I intend to live it. Turning 40 was traumatic; I hid in the basement most of the day. Turning 50 feels fine. I intend to spend the day working, as I have plenty of tasks on my To Do list, and then maybe celebrate by going out to dinner with my wife.

Still, while I do not play golf, I do feel the need to go buy a golf shirt, a straw hat, a pair of sunglasses and some oversized canvas loafers. If it were summer, I would want to sit under the shade with a mint julep in one hand and converse with my aging neighbors at a block party. We will tell stories of friends and family lost, and our children blossoming into adults. We will chat about the latest movies or who should win the World Series. We will mention casually that trip to Europe we took, or our new vinyl siding. We will hear the steaks sizzling on the grill. After the mint julep, out will come the bottle of Chardonnay to be passed around and drunk from Dixie cups. The grill will pop when the occasional drip of fat hits the lava rocks. The dog will bound up the steps to the deck. Light conversation and laughter abounds. The next phase of our lives, the best one, begins.

That is how I feel as I turn 50.

The Thinker

Review: Pan’s Labyrinth

It is 1940 1944 and Spain is emerging from a civil war. The remaining insurgents have fled into the hills and are growing increasingly desperate. From his garrison in the woods, Captain Vidal has the mission to hunt down and kill these rebels lest Spain slip back into civil war.

Into this mixture come his new wife Carmen, and her daughter Ofelia. Carmen is in the last stages of a pregnancy. Ofelia, a ten-year-old girl, is swept up in an imaginary world of fairies. From the introduction to the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, we infer that Ofelia is actually a fairy princess who elected to move into the human world as a child. Apparently, she forgot her connection to this world, but she is unquestionably obsessed with fairy stories.

Ofelia will need her fairy stories to comfort her because they arrive at a remote garrison deep in the mountains run by Captain Vidal, and it is a cold and brutal place. It becomes clear very quickly that Vidal is a heartless and sadistic man, who will not hesitate to kill with impunity. Rarely has there been a villain on the screen more worthy of the title. He commands the garrison not from respect, but from fear.

This would seem an odd environment for Ofelia to encounter a fairy, yet she does. The fairy leads her into a labyrinth near the garrison, where she meets a faun. He informs her that she is a fairy princess. However, if she is to be reunited with her fairy kingdom she must pass certain tests. While a brutal war wages around her, Ofelia explores this magical world.

The fairy tale undertone though is actually a something of a subplot to the violent skirmishes between people that are waged in the real world. Ofelia’s real world is violent and confusing. Her stepfather the captain is obsessive and inordinately cruel. He has no problem using torture to achieve his aims, or even to kill the innocent. Unfortunately, in this R rated movie this is depicted unflinchingly. This makes it one fairy story for adults only. In fact, the violence is so graphic and on so intimate a level that I found it hard to endure. I watched many portions of this movie by squinting; I simply did not want to see such violence in all its gory detail.

The fantasy portions of the film however delight and enchant sufficiently to please even the most snobbish fantasy fan. They are in a word: flawless. The acting throughout this Spanish made movie (you will have to endure English subtitles) is first class throughout. You will cheer as if you are watching the end of a Billy Jack movie when the intensely evil Captain Vidal finally meets his maker. In addition, you will be warmed over by the message of the story, and the nearly flawless way the story is directed.

However, it is not a movie for the squeamish like me. Had I had an inkling that it would be as violent as it was, I would have stayed away, despite its fine production values and first class ensemble. If you can stomach the violence in the movie, you will find that the movie is worth whatever price the box office requests.

I find it hard to rate this film. While its violence so disturbed me, I still found it had so much merit. At least if you read my review you will be able to weigh for yourself whether its disturbing violence merits the otherwise fine acting, directing and special effects that made this film so memorable.

The Thinker

Cutting the Presidential Timber

It is that time in the pre-election season. The last thing most Americans want to do now is think about who they will pull the lever for in November 2008. However, serious candidates are already moving their pieces. If Pawn to King 4 is a traditional opening move in chess, forming a presidential exploratory committee is a candidate’s first public move into the complex dynamics of running for president.

Since most candidates come right out and say they are running for President, I am a bit puzzled why they claim their campaigns are “exploratory”. Most have done their homework and know that an exploratory committee is the end result of a long process, not the beginning of one. Most of these campaigns will be felled long before the Iowa Caucus. Many will find that no matter how large their ambitions, they simply will not be able to find enough money to run a competitive campaign. The more sober ones will realize early that they simply do not have the right mixture of personal magnetism and mojo to win, then withdraw. Even this early in the campaign it is easy to see who these will be. One will be Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. In addition, you can bet that Chris Dodd and Joe Biden will be among the first to hang it up. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, although he claims he is running to win, realizes his candidacy is about trying to raise issues that appeal to the ultra left wing of the Democratic Party. He knows he has no chance but he does enjoy his brief moments of in the spotlight that comes from being a candidate.

Timing your presidential announcement is always something of a crapshoot. It is never a good idea to be the first to declare. It is the kiss of death. That is why Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has no chance. He hopes, like all candidates first out the gate, to gather some name recognition. It is a rule that the first candidate to declare must be someone 99 out of 100 people will say, “Who the heck is he?” It is far better, if you are serious about running for president, to be wealthy enough and have time enough to spend years acting like you are running for president for years before declaring yourself. This has been former North Carolina Senator John Edwards’s strategy. At this point, he probably knows Iowa better than most of its residents. However, his tenacity has paid off. Most early polls of Iowa show him in the lead.

At some point, you must take the presidential plunge. Hillary Clinton took the plunge the other weekend. In her announcement (placed first on her web site, just to show that she is Netroots friendly) she invited Americans to have a dialog with her about their issues and concerns. I am sure I am one of the vast majority of Americans who, when they heard her say this, also heard their bullshit meters clanging. Nonetheless, try to take her up on it. Why not send her an email earnestly telling her your opinions on issues of the day. I am sure in her voluminous spare time she will give you a thoughtful reply.

Hah! Not a chance! Instead, here is how Hillary Clinton is probably spending her days. First, there is probably an hour of exercise somewhere. She may be pushing 60, but you are not elected president by looking flabby. Then there is likely another hour at the hairdresser, blow drying the hair and having her makeup applied. Then it is off to briefings and committee meetings, that is when Congress is actually in session. Otherwise, she is probably whispering to her chief of staff or working her Blackberry during those committee hearings. Perhaps because she is a very special FOB (Friend of Bill) she is not spending her evenings on the phone grubbing money. In her voluminous spare time, rather than opening a dialog with you, she is flying here and flying there in an attempt to be seen to be doing the right things. Right now she is busy being seen in Iowa, where the first caucus will be held. She will likely also be found at rubber chicken dinners at American Legion Halls across New Hampshire. When not engaged in these time consuming and expected activities of a presidential candidate, there are the numerous interviews with the press. This is how she really connects with voters. The conversation is one way and you only get to listen. If she reads a newspaper, it is probably when she is flying somewhere. Do not be naïve enough to think that she actually is busy reading editorials and in depth articles about the issues of the day. She has staff to do that for her. She gets bullet points.

In short, most presidential campaigns are about giving the appearance of connecting with the voters without actually following through. Those she connects with are likely to be people who already support or admire her in the first place, so their opinions are hardly a representative sample. If you take the time to attend one of her events (not that any are likely to be near you, unless you live in Iowa or New Hampshire), expect to listen and not speak. Perhaps if you leave a comment on her website’s blog an earnest staff member will take the time to reply. Do not hold your breath.

I do not know why but so far, Hillary’s candidacy has me under whelmed. This is a shame, because she is an articulate and principled woman who would be one of the better-qualified women in the country to be president, in spite of her long association with Bill. She certainly knows what the job is like, having already lived in the White House. Still, her candidacy to date feels stage-managed and slick, a product more of Madison Avenue than from genuine passion and interest. One gets the feeling that Bill is helping her furiously triangulate. It is hard to pin her down on very much at the moment. She is upset with the War on Iraq, but not upset enough (yet) to renounce her vote for the war. She wants to have it both ways. She remains very articulate but is not passionate.

If you want passion with a touch of charisma, John Edwards is likely your candidate of the moment. At least he comes across that way, and he projects the right combination of passion and eloquence on the campaign trail to both connect with voters and appear to have a comprehensive vision forward for the country. In addition, unless he is a remarkable faker, he has convinced me that he cares for the average person. It is unlikely you will find Hillary Clinton rehabilitating housing in New Orleans.

Some potential candidates are making motions like they will not run while not absolutely excluding it altogether. Al Gore comes to mind. It is a shame that he seems uninterested in running, but he may be playing his cards very close to his chest. He now has the conviction and gravitas he did not show in the 2000 campaign. With his tenacity and eloquence educating the world on global warming, he has proven himself as being a leader well ahead of the curve. Moreover, among only a handful of candidates he can claim he was right all along. He spoke out against the Iraq War Resolution at the time Congress was considering it. At some personal risk, he endorsed Howard Dean early in the 2004 presidential campaign. Whether Howard was more electable than John Kerry may not matter. What matters is that Dean was right about Iraq and correct on the issues then that matter so much now. If you have ever heard his speak lately on politics, you know he can speak with a special eloquences. The old stage managed Al is gone.

Others who should run are also being mum. As I survey the field, Al Gore would be my first choice. Lacking him, Wesley Clark strikes me as the person with the necessary combination of military experience and common sense to be an effective president at this perilous time. Bill Richardson, another dark horse who is also unlikely to get far in his campaign, would be another fine choice. Like Clark, he has the credentials in the foreign policy area including a stint as U.S. Representative to the United Nations. Richardson has a unique ability to get along with people than no one else can stand. He counts as a personal friend none other than North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-il. Richardson has also traveled to Darfur to speak to the leaders on all sides of the conflict, in a personal attempt to ease the crisis there. He has a combination of the pragmatic experience of running a state along with the right mixture of federal foreign policy experience.

To me Barack Obama, who also recently jumped into the race, remains an unproven commodity. He has certain advantages including eloquence, youth, and handsomeness. (The latter is an unspoken requirement for presidential candidates.) Yet his resume is thin. It would be exciting to have an African American or a woman as president, just for the novelty. Nonetheless, the challenging times we live in require someone not just with the eloquence but also with the skills and common sense to deal with a myriad of complex issues that challenge us. I suspect Obama needs another dozen years proving himself in the Senate before he will truly be qualified to say he is presidential timber. Americans though often prefer style over substance, so he may well run away with the nomination.

I will not speak too much of the declared Republican candidates. I do this frankly because I don’t think a Republican candidate will have a serious chance of winning in 2008. This is because President Bush, probably unknowingly, is putting a stake through the heart of the Republican Party. There is no candidate out there except possibly Chuck Hagel or Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee that would not be tarred by association with him. Right now Rudy Giuliani polls best, but this is among Americans at large, not among Republicans. Nonetheless, his star should dim significantly once more Americans are aware of his seamier side. It is not every candidate who will openly cheat on his wife while being mayor of America’s largest city. In addition, he is likely way too gay friendly to win the Republican nomination. The Republican conservative Christian segment is still too large.

The only thing certain in this presidential race today is that too much remains uncertain this far out. Surprises come with the territory. Expect a scandal or two to surface. Expect candidates who are perceived to have the edge now to flounder, and a candidate or two in the third tier to move up a notch or two. There may be some drama with an unexpected late run, perhaps from Al Gore. Moreover, expect that national and international events between now and the conventions will also affect voter’s perceptions.

My sense though is that neither Barak Obama nor Hillary Clinton will win the nomination. Those perceived at the moment to be first tier candidates will likely flounder. I do not know whom the Democrats will eventually nominate, but I suspect it will be someone that will disappoint those who place faith in conventional wisdom. For us political junkies, it will still be a lot of fun updating our scorecards.

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The Thinker

Legacy Achieved

Exactly a month ago today, on Christmas Eve, my friend Frank Pierce passed away. I briefly eulogized Frank after I learned of his death. As I noted at the time, that entry hardly qualified as a proper tribute to him. Even though I knew Frank for sixteen years, no eulogy I could write would begin to do him justice. For Frank Pierce was a complex mosaic of a person. I could put together only a few of his puzzle pieces. It would probably take a couple dozen of us sitting around a bar for the better part of a day slowly sipping from some dark German beers to properly give broad perspective to this remarkable man.

Most people are content to live ordinary and comfortable lives. On the surface, Frank’s life was quite ordinary. He raised a small family and lived in modestly in the Maryland suburbs. His work for the Navy spanned many decades and involved activities that I never fully grasped. Apparently, part of it involved writing manuals so Navy pilots could land properly and using the correct protocol on foreign vessels. He was actively involved in the Washington area’s local German American society. Through it, he developed a network of friends outside of work.

Frank was the type to grasp at any opportunity offered him, no matter how small. His nature was to be incessantly curious. He was also a ruthlessly pragmatic person. He would allow no mysticism to cloud his clinical observations of the world. He knew humanity’s place in the universe, and in his view it was much lower than we thought. He saw us as lucky to be where we are and believed we would not be there for long. Humanity, he often told me, was not a naturally peaceful species. We are a warrior species and aggression is in our nature. We had to fight it by carefully teaching each new generation and by learning lessons from history. He could survey the world around him, see its terrible wars, genocides, and rampant cruelty, and realize that Americans live fortunate and almost gilded lives. Our liberty, he frequently observed, was purchased at the cost of millions of lives. Consequently, he had a deep respect for the military (perhaps in part because he spent so much time working for the Navy), its necessity, as well as the necessity at giving the Commander in Chief the benefit of the doubt. In our many discussions on the War on Terror, and the War in Iraq in particular, he was very deferential to the President. Remember, he frequently told us, he has access to intelligence you and I do not. It was with some reluctance that late last year he came to the same conclusion that I did on Iraq even before the war had started: that we were engaged in folly. The Iraq War may be the sole instance wherein I was more cognizant of reality than Frank Pierce was.

Frank was a deeply grounded man, with his eyes wide open, who was always trying to discern cause and effect. The tools that gave him such wisdom included a natural brilliance, acute curiosity, direct exposure to the real world in ways that most of us would avoid, but also consummate self-education. It could take the form of slogging through history books, newspapers and magazines or watching C-SPAN for hours on end. However, it also came from simply making connections and talking to people. Most of us are lucky to know the name of our Congressman or Senator. Frank was likely on a first named basis with many of them. He could send a thoughtful inquiry to his Congressman and he would receive a personal and thoughtful reply. He would often get a phone call from them too. Not only did he know his representatives by name, they knew him by name too. No doubt, his incisive letters to them stood out in the crowd. As a writer, he could communicate with great effectiveness and did so in a way that almost compelled the recipient to start a dialog.

In short, Frank was not just a neat older guy friend (he died at age 75), a mentor and a role model, but also an inspiration. All these wonderful aspects of Frank though pale in comparison to the ruthlessness with which he seized control of his life. He found nothing boring. Every day and every hour had potential. It seemed to me that he saw his mission was living intensely. In truth, I think he simply found life too engaging to be philosophical about how he chose to live it. His incessant itch was not just to enjoy life, but to draw in all the world’s energy, let it flow through him and use it to energize him some more. If he were a light bulb, he would have radiated 1000 watts.

I was not surprised then to find myself in Princess Anne, Maryland last Friday for his memorial service. The service occurred so belatedly because both he and his wife suffered terribly from the same terrible infection. Apparently, it contributed to his death. It took weeks for his wife Nancy to recover to the point where she could participate in a memorial service.

Frank grew up in Princess Anne and apparently was enchanted with the small town. He wrote a book about life there as a boy during the World War Two years. I have not yet read the book (although I do own another book of his, which I purchased from him), but I hope to read it some day. At the memorial service, I spoke with a number of people who mentioned the book on Princess Anne and said it was Frank’s best work.

Speaking with his daughter after the service, I learned that Frank was the last of his family to grow up in Princess Anne. About fifty people attended his memorial service. At first, I was disappointed. I expected the church to be overflowing. Then I realized that almost everyone had to come from out of town. (It was about a three-hour drive each way for me.) Princess Anne is not convenient to anything. It is about fifteen miles south of Salisbury, Maryland on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. (This area is now chicken country. It is where chicken magnate Frank Perdue made his millions.)

The service was held in Princess Anne on a cold, clear and blustery day at the Manokin Presbyterian Church, a church so old its brick walls go back to the 1700s. Even his son remarked on the oddity of his father being memorialized in a church. Frank believed in God, but he was not a Christian. Nonetheless, there was a time as a youth when he attended services regularly with his family at this historic church. The minister, who had never met Frank, did his best to eulogize him. Even so, it was hard to get many of the congregants to join him in The Lord’s Prayer. His son, Frank H. Pierce IV, eulogized him at the man we all knew, loved and admired: the ruthlessly skeptical and secular man with a boundless passionate nature for life.

I attended the service with my friend Angela. After we paid our respects to his family, we found ourselves in the cemetery behind the church. There we found the graves of the Pierce family, from the first Frank Pierce, through the Junior, then to the Senior then to our friend, Frank H. Pierce III. Frank cremains will be placed next to those of his family.

His grandson stood alone by the family graves after the service. Angela and I spoke with him. We spoke of the cynical, sectarian man we knew. “I last saw him on Thanksgiving,” he said, “and I had a feeling it might be the last time I would see him.” Angela and I expressed our utter shock at his death. We had no idea he was even sick. It was not something Frank chose to share with us. Frank kept up his regular conversations on my electronic forum, The Potomac Tavern, with his usual eloquence until the day before he died. He sent me a brief German translation I needed on that day too.

Whether grandson or friend, on one thing we could agree. As I noted in my first entry on Frank, Frank claimed he was not concerned about death. He was concerned about leaving a legacy. From his wonderful family (some of whom I met for the first time) to his many, many friends, all of us were deeply touched by Frank. We were simply blown over by his infectious spirit of life. As I spoke with his grandson, we agreed. If Frank’s mission was to leave a legacy, then he accomplished his mission in a singularly fantastic style.

I already know that when I pass out of this life that my life will be little more than a footnote to those other than my family. Frank’s seemingly ordinary life though will not be. He made quite a splash. Frank was simply unforgettable, which is why I am sure thirty years from now, if I am still alive, I will continue to treasure my time with Frank. I will think wistfully about our many conversations. Frank succeeded in getting every minute and every molecule of enjoyment out of life. I have never met anyone else who did this. I am certain he belongs to a small coterie of people who have ever lived who managed to do so.

Now that’s a legacy.

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The Thinker

Love’s End Game

I spent part of my weekend in Boulder, Colorado with my brother and his fiancé. My visit was short but sweet. It included relaxing in a hot tub and snow shoeing for miles in the Rocky Mountains through a gentle snowfall. I felt relaxed and pampered.

My brother, who is in his early forties, is marrying late, but marrying well. My sister in law to be is a wonderful woman. She learned some hard lessons from her first marriage on what not to do in a marriage. My brother will be the fortunate beneficiary of her experience. I suspect my brother learned some things too in his long quest for a spouse. Ms. Right, when she finally appeared, did not come from meeting someone on eHarmony or one of the many Internet dating sites out there, but inadvertently through friends at work.

Of course, neither my brother nor his fiancé want or expect their marriage to fail. She knows the heartache of divorce. My brother knows the difficulty in finding the right person to marry. They inquired into my thoughts on marriage, from the perspective of someone who has been in one for 21 years.

I have written about marriage before, so I will not attempt to repeat myself. I have written a bit about love too. However, this latest conversation helped me clarify in my thoughts on the meaning of love. It made me believe that love’s mission is not what we think.

Love, if you can find it in its modern manifestation, is a wonderful experience. However, the word “love” does make me grit my teeth from time to time. I think it does because the word comes loaded with all sorts of baggage which can turn love from something joyful and freely given from the heart into an albatross around the neck. Keeping love joyful, particularly throughout a long-term relationship like a marriage, is a trick worthy of Houdini.

Like pornography, love is hard to define. Just as you can tell pornography when you see it, you will know love when you feel it. One person’s pornography though is another’s erotica. Similarly, one person’s experience with love will not be the same as another’s. The book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to your Mate, and its many variants by Gary Chapman, suggest that most of us feel and broadcast love in different ways. For me I feel most loved when my wife spends quality time with me, and just me, in ways that I find meaningful, such as working on a joint project together. Her way of expressing love might be to buy me gifts, but such expressions of love would largely be lost on me. It would not take too much behavior like this to conclude that she may be trying to love me, but she does not really love me, because if she really loved me she would express love in a way that I would feel as love.

Most couples expect their lovers or spouses to be mind readers. Chapman is one of many marriage therapists out there who suggests this is folly, and divorce statistics would probably bear him out. Nonetheless, after 21 years of marriage I think I have become something of a mind reader. I truly believe that at this point I know my spouse better than she knows herself. Moreover, I am convinced she knows me better than I know myself. This is a bit of a problem because after 21 years neither of us are the idealized creatures we found when we fell in love. Now we see each other’s warts, blemishes and fallibilities, much the way a doctor can focus in on a symptom and ignore an otherwise remarkably healthy body. In addition, what we see in each other has become, not so much an accurate picture of the other, but a darker image of ourselves. It is the phenomenon of projection that has been so well studied by psychologists: we see in our intimates the unacknowledged deficiencies in ourselves.

This is a tough lesson to learn. Now, whenever my wife does something that irritates me, I try to turn it around. What is it about me that makes this aspect of her behavior irritable? That she does X or Y does not mean that she is unlovable, but it does mean that there is something about X or Y that irritates me, and which I need to resolve.

I think in the natural course of events, that love moves from the infatuation stage to the stage where love becomes this mirror that shows you yourself in the form of your spouse. The challenge then becomes to move beyond this phase. It involves being psychologically naked to yourself and your spouse and seeing the warts on yourself and your lover. The real trick is to move past them.

I think love fulfills its mission when you are both stripped naked of all pretenses. Love is not about having all your specific needs expertly met by some other human being. It is about a new stage of growing up. Rather than being an end in itself, love is a means toward another end. The end game of love is understanding that your notion of love was all wrong. Perhaps “love” was just a trap. For I believe that the purpose of love is to give you an intimate encounter with yourself that would not likely occur any other way. It is there to find a way to help you tackle your deepest fears and deficiencies.

For most of us, this becomes too daunting a task. That is when the marriage devolves toward superficiality. We press what we think are our spouses buttons in order to keep them docile, so they do not give us an intimate encounter with ourselves. For it becomes easier to do this than acknowledge our shortcomings. However, marriage by design puts you in a long-term intimate space. Rather than acknowledge and work through our issues because they can no longer be avoided, it becomes convenient to project them onto our spouse instead.

If it becomes too acutely uncomfortable, we will seek someone else. For we will need someone else who will give us the illusion of love, but not its reality. What we really want in a spouse is someone who continually places Band-Aids on our self-inflicted cuts, rather than helps us to the doctor. We want a spouse that can distract us from confronting some fundamental and disagreeable facts about ourselves. It seems that the ideal spouse must lie shamelessly to us. In short, we desire the spouse we want, not the spouse we need. The proper spouse is like eating a glazed donut: it brings us a sugar rush and makes us feel wonderful. Unfortunately, what we really need is a spouse that tastes like a serving of vegetables instead. To get there we must convince ourselves that our spouse makes vegetables taste like glazed donuts. It can be devilishly difficult to maintain perspective when inside a positive romantic relationship.

In fact, the ideal spouse will love us in spite of our faults, and we will honestly love them in spite of their faults too. They will not lie to us. However, they will help us find the courage to acknowledge and tackle tough issues within ourselves. Moreover, they will be there to reassure us that they love us in spite of these flaws. The ideal spouse will be more coach than critic, and do so in a loving, firm but gentle way. In doing so they help us move through our issues into acceptance of who we are as human beings. In the process, we will grow in understanding of ourselves and eventually put these issues behind us. As a spouse it is our mission to do the same.

I wish my brother and his fiancé the very best in their upcoming marriage. Deep, intimate and caring communications seems to me to be means to achieving a long, lasting and healthy marriage. This kind of communications though will be a challenge for any couple. They will probably be moving through a minefield of sorts on a journey of joint self-discovery. If it works out right, I suspect it will be a journey of self-exploration through the lens of someone who will be a partner with them on this most intimate of journeys. I suspect (though I will never know) that marital love will complete neither of them, but instead it will be a conduit: a swiftly flowing journey of the soul into brave, uncharted worlds of self-understanding.

The Thinker

The Blog Returns

Google seems to have found its senses. I reappeared in its search index today around 12 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, after being ignored by Google for two months and 18 days.

I am not sure why it happened today. Perhaps it occurred because a few days back I requested a Google reinclusion. This was something I had not tried before, mainly because it was deeply buried in their web pages so I didn’t notice it.

I am skeptical that I will get the traffic I did before I was dropped, but time will tell. Anyhow, it now behooves me to be good on my word to my readers and resume blogging again.

Resuming blogging this week will be challenging because life finds me in Boulder, Colorado. I am at my brother’s fiancée’s house. I will be in the Denver area all week to participate in some training. I will likely see plenty of Denver this year. I should be back at least three more times before July. But hopefully my evenings this week will leave me reasonably free and I will have time to do some serious blogging again.

My thanks to all who left comments telling me how much they appreciated my blog. I will try to live up to your high opinions of me.

The Thinker

The blog goes dormant

I wanted to have a blog that meant something to me, and that provided some unique thoughts and perspective to the world. Until early November 2006, my modest goals seemed to be within reach. It was about that time that Google unceremoniously pulled my blog from its search index. More than two months later, I am still stuck in the Internet’s version of Siberia, with no way to change my situation. My SiteMeter page views, which reliably were between 150 and 200 page views per day before last November, dribbled to as little as 14 yesterday. A simple query on Google’s search index on “Occam’s Razor” returns nothing related to my site. In fact, if you try this query you will see that its search index contains not a single reference to this blog.

There almost seems to be a cascading effect. I remain in other search indexes like Yahoo and MSN, but because I am not in Google’s it seems like with every passing day that I rank lower and lower in their search indexes too. This translates into fewer and fewer hits.

So I am at a loss. I can continue to write blog entries for my own amusement and for a handful of family or friends that visit this place regularly. Or I can decide that blogging when my content cannot be found amounts to a waste of my time, and I should be doing other things instead.

I choose the latter. I will continue to do what I can to influence Google to index this site again, although I have followed their guidance to the tee. Creating and managing a quality blog is hard work. I have worked very hard to provide a quality blog for more than four years. Nevertheless, creating and updating a blog that hardly anyone can find is a waste of my time. Life is too short for my time to be squandered on a futile endeavor.

Unlike President Bush, who thinks that more of the same failed strategy in Iraq will work wonders, I am under no illusions. I may post the occasional entry here from time to time. Moreover, I do hope to be back in force once I am listed in the Google search index again. Until that happens, this blog goes dormant. I will use my time more productively: to read, research, indulge my other hobbies, play the good father and husband, and maybe actually smell a rose or two. However, I will be back once I am indexed by Google again.

Please do not throw away your bookmarks to my blog. I hope this is just a sabbatical and not the end. If you enjoy a good discussion, consider becoming a member of my forum, The Potomac Tavern, where you will always find me having conversations with my friends. Enjoy my archives because I believe I have left a lot of thoughtful and rich content. My Best of Occam’s Razor category is especially worth your time. In addition, feel free to leave comments (which I will approve) or send me email. You can also call Google to complain.

Let me extend my thanks and appreciation to all who have spent and enjoyed your time here. Thank you for all those who have posted comments. Whether this blog comes back to life though is no longer in my hands, but in Google’s.

The Thinker

Silver Dining

On the occasion of my 21st wedding anniversary, I waxed about the fine dining my wife and I found at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. The dining there is unquestionably extraordinary. However, like most couples my wife and I cannot often afford to drop $155 for dinner very often, no matter how fabulous. Like you, most of our dining is more pedestrian and far less costly.

How does a $20 breakfast for two compare with a $155 dinner? No one would mistake a $20 breakfast at a Silver Diner for high class eating. Arguably, you get much more value from a breakfast at a Silver Diner than you get a Ruth’s Chris. If you want good “get up and go” food that leaves your tummy sighing happily, especially after breakfast, but you do not want to part with most of your spare bills, Silver Diner is your place.

Silver Diner is a local restaurant chain with all but three of its nineteen diners located in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. When diners were de rigueur during the middle of the last century, they were leftover dining cars from an era when travel by train was as ubiquitous as flying is today. No one would mistake a Silver Diner for a dining car. They do retain the large windows of dining cars, a gleaming aerodynamic silver frame as well as a long counter where patrons can dine alone if they choose. A Silver Diner restaurant cannot be relocated nor does not stand on wheels. Moreover, a Silver Diner restaurant would be the size of at least three dining cars, since two wings extend at either end of the restaurant. I am waiting to see what Zippy the Pinhead’s reaction will be to a Silver Diner. I think he would be disappointed. It is like eating hamburgers at a Fuddrucker’s when you would have been fully satisfied at McDonald’s.

For those old enough to remember the authentic diner experience, Silver Diner would feel too fancy and too artificial. It is too wide and too clean, to start. It is more like a diner for the carhop generation. At the moment it targets us baby boomers as its major clientele. You can tell because at the Silver Diner, rock and roll music from the 50s and 60s comes with the territory. From the videos of the Beatles playing on the Ed Sullivan show in the foyer to the mini jukeboxes on many of the tables (which plays a song to the whole restaurant), Silver Diner tries to epitomize the Breakfast in America experience. The music may be Beach Boys instead of Supertramp and the waiters are more likely to be Hispanic than pasty Caucasians in aprons with slicked back hair, but it hardly matters. Silver Diner is hoping that buffed up nostalgia for a bygone age will keep it profitable. The strategy seems to be working.

My wife and I go to one of the local Silver Diners about once every two weeks. If we went more often, we would probably be sick of it. With my compressed work schedule, I take every other Friday off. This makes for a good morning for us to eat out and reconnect. There is a Silver Diner halfway to her office anyhow, and the shopping I need to do is nearby, so it is convenient for both of us. During the week, the blue-plate meals are the deal. We typically order one of the blue plates each, which come with juice and a bottomless cup of coffee. Usually we can have a tasty and highly caloric meal for two, with tip for $20. What a deal. Moreover, we rarely have to wait for a table. Their breakfast food is uniformly good to very good. The waiters tend to be fast and personable but business-like. At the Silver Diner, you can feel free to bring your newspaper and spread it out on your table if you want. It may market itself as a bit of an upscale diner, but it is still a diner after all.

For $20, I do not expect excellent food. To be clear, there is nothing that would qualify as excellent cooking at these prices. However, the food is of noticeably higher quality than you would get at, say, an IHOP. Whatever you get will be freshly prepared and likely served hot. Your table will be clean and your server, if not friendly, at least will not be surly. You cannot complain that their food is overpriced. It is a typical diner in that if the food cannot be prepared in five minutes or less, it is not worth having on the menu. We Silver Diners want good food and we want it quick. You will not have to wait long to chow down at a Silver Diner.

My one complaint about the restaurant is its music. Maybe the first dozen times you go to a Silver Diner, the 60s songs are kind of fun. When you have been there fifty or more times, like my wife and I, it wears off. It would be more tolerable if they would spice the music up more, but anything on their jukebox will be a Top 40 song. Perhaps in response to this we are noticing subtle changes in the music available at the table jukeboxes. 70s and even the occasional 80s tune are starting to show up. There is less Buddy Holly are more Michael Jackson (at least the early years) than there used to be. No doubt, this is because their demographics are changing. There are still plenty of Baby Boomers around, but we are retiring and the mortality statistics are starting to catch up with us. To stay around in the long run, Silver Diner must capture a younger crowd. There are signs that Generation X is starting to get some of its music on the Silver Diner jukeboxes. Perhaps in a dozen years the Elvis Presley tunes at the Silver Diner will be just a memory as the owners surrender to the financial powers of Generation X.

I have had dinner a few times at a Silver Diner. Dinner has left me much less impressed than breakfast. In fact, I am likely to look for other dining choices at dinner, however reasonable Silver Diner’s prices are. Breakfast is Silver Diner’s optimal dining experience.

Silver Diner is not the only diner experience locally. There is also a “diner deluxe” experience at Amphora’s Restaurant. I know of two Amphora’s restaurants: one in Herndon and one in Oakton. I have eaten three times at Amphora’s. I was under-whelmed on each occasion. Unquestionably, Amphora’s is more upscale looking diner. Their menu selections are much larger. Their waiters are better dressed and their on-premises bakery is impressive. However, nothing I have eaten there has risen above mediocrity. Therefore, my wife and I stick to Silver Diner. We know we will get very good food, good atmosphere and a predictable dining experience at an excellent price.

Try a Silver Diner and you will probably never go to an IHOP again.

The Thinker

Notes on “Notes on a Scandal”

Notes on a Scandal is one of these movies that two days later is still ricocheting around in my mind. The movie will not let me go. This is not because this movie is Best Picture material. I am sure there are far worthier contenders. In any case, you would not normally associate that kind of film with a movie about an English schoolteacher involved in a scandalous affair with her fifteen-year-old student. While the acting is uniformly very good, there is probably no Oscar winning material in this movie. Nor was this a costly movie produce. It was filmed in Great Britain, mostly in and around an old and decrepit public school with many students from poor backgrounds. The most expensive part of the movie was probably hiring Cate Blanchett to play the licentious woman who allows herself to get involved in this illicit relationship.

The thirty-something Ms. Blanchett is still lithe and attractive, and this movie allows her to stretch her acting limits in a very challenging part. How can anyone identify with a woman on the throes of midlife who would do something as deplorable as having a steamy affair with a creative but emotionally immature 15-year-old student? It is challenging material, to say the least. The material is so sensitive that even though it is not explicit it would likely be deemed too hot to even be shown in some states. No wonder I had to go to an art house theater in order to see it. I found it at the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia.

Cate Blanchett, as Sheba Hart, is very convincing in the role of an art teacher with powerful unresolved feelings. She has a much older husband, a fritterish teenage daughter and a son with Down’s Syndrome. Mrs. Hart did not quite draw the cards from life that she expected. She justifies her illicit affair as a way to get the attention largely absent in her pedestrian life in a British row house. Barbara Covett (Judi Dent), an older teacher at the school whom she befriends, chronicles their relationship in her diary. Ms. Covett is a battle weary, sixty or seventy something year old history teacher who has her job (which each year makes her more and more cynical), her beloved cat and little else.

At first, it is hard not to feel empathy for this neglected shrew of a woman. It is difficult to go through life as a spinster and to be seen as old, ugly and baggage by the rest of society. She has no delusions about her place in society and leads a very lonely life. She tirelessly chronicles her sad little life in a very personal diary, that also demonstrates that she is also very savvy analyzer of human nature. Once Sheba Hart comes into her life, her diary quickly becomes consumed by their friendship. It is when she discovers Sheba’s illicit affair that things really get interesting.

I will not say too much more or I will give away too much of the plot. I can say that by the end of the movie, I found Barbara Covett to be a far more interesting and complex character than the attractive schoolteacher Sheba Hart. For Barbara has one talent left in her sad little life: that of a dysfunctional Mary Worth. She can spot a troubled woman in her circle and wrap her life into theirs under the guise of being a friend and helper. She plays the Mother Confessor role with Sheba, who pours out all sorts of intimacies about her past. This weaves them together in a rather convoluted and ultimately toxic relationship.

What ricochets around my brain two days later though is not Sheba Hart’s violation of trust with a hormonally charged fifteen-year-old boy. Rather, Sheba becomes the conduit for a much more fascinating character exposition of Barbara Covett. In my mind, psychoanalyzing Barbara is what this story is really about. If your experience is like mine, you will end the movie feeling both aghast and sympathetic toward Barbara, a woman who is so lonely the highlight of her weekend is going to the Laundromat. The movie then becomes a study in the potential effects of long-term loneliness. It shows how it can perturb someone who would otherwise have turned into a normal person. Barbara Covett on the surface appears normal, but it soon becomes clear that she has very deep emotional scars. Consequently, the real kudos in the movie belongs not to Cate Blanchett, who is really a fine supporting actress in this movie, but to Judi Dent. She takes us into a new and largely unexplored world of the spinster women among us in society. Barbara Covett is one of these women who desperately craves intimacy but cannot find an appropriate way to receive it. She seems driven to grotesquely perturb any slim intimacy she can bring into her hollow life.

To me the success in a movie has never been about how much money was spent on it, or who is in it. If a movie takes me into new unexplored emotional terrain, I may loathe it on some level, but at the same time, I will appreciate it. Hence, I appreciated Notes on a Scandal. That I am still processing it means it succeeded on an important level. Despite its mature subject matter, it probably is worth your time to see too. It is both very realistic and eerily plausible. While Cate Blanchett’s acting is superb, it is Judi Dent who deserves the most applause for her outstanding caricature that brings us into the mind of a sanguine but battered old woman on the precipice of hell. Any fine actress of a certain age would kill for this role.

You might want to make a note to go see it too.

The Thinker

The Return of Government of, by and for the People

Today marks the welcome and long delayed return of sane government.

Admittedly, it is just one branch of government that has regained its sanity, but it is a start. For many of us the end of our long, national nightmare did not occur when President Nixon resigned. It happened on November 8th when voters threw the Republicans out of both houses of Congress. Today, as a new Congress was sworn in, government of, by, and for the corporation and special interests came to an abrupt end.

While I felt the political earthquake coming before the election, I was still nervous whether its size would not be enough to dislodge Republicans from both houses of Congress. It was, but just barely. The Senate, where Democrats are in control by a single vote, still does not quite feel like it is in Democratic hands. This is because Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota remains in the hospital, after brain surgery. While his recovery appears to be proceeding normally, he has a long way to go before he can actively participate in the Senate. If he cannot serve, you can bet that South Dakota’s Republican governor will appoint a Republican to his seat. In this event, the Senate would split 50-50, effectively putting Republicans in charge since Darth Vader, a.k.a. Dick Cheney would become its deciding vote. Due to Senate rules, it takes 60 votes to pass any controversial bill. However, by being in the majority the Democrats will be able control the chamber’s business.

This afternoon found us with a new Speaker of the House who was, for the first time, a woman. Nancy Pelosi is going to surprise many people. Republicans will be the most surprised. They see her as a far left liberal. While that may be true, that does not mean that she will govern as one. She understands that if Democrats want to retain power their impact must be broad and mainstream, rather than serving a narrow constituency of supporters. This is a lesson the Republicans never quite grasped.

It has been a while since government truly worked on behalf of the average Joe. Except for a brief period when Democrats captured control of the Senate, it has been twelve years with a Republicans Congress. Until 2001, we had President Clinton to reign them in. Not that it has been easy. In 1995, Republicans interpreted their majority status as a reason to close the federal government. Over time, their Contract with America became inconvenient to their true mission: maintaining power for themselves and their friends. Term limit promises and rules about not accepting gifts from lobbyists went by the wayside. During this decade all pretenses were dropped. Time after time legislation was passed that gave great benefits to fellow Republicans, and screwed the rest of us.

The Republican Congress and President Bush gave new meaning to the word “chutzpah”. In the House of Representatives, Democrats were effectively locked out of legislative process. All sorts of tactics were used to diminish their power, including enacting rules that excluded them from bill markup sessions. Over in the White House, President Bush signed bills into law with accompanying signing statements. In many cases, these statements explicitly contradicted the purpose of these laws in the first place. He is still at it. On December 20th upon signing the Postal Reform Bill, he said he would interpret the law as giving him the power to open people’s mail without a warrant, even though it gave him no such power. I hope that one of the new Congress’ first acts will be to bring a case to the Supreme Court to test their constitutionality. It is hard to imagine anything more unconstitutional than the president refusing to abide by the law of the land. At least when President Nixon broke the law, he knew he was doing wrong.

What were Americans smoking during the last twelve years? Virtually everything that came through Congress was framed this way: if it was good for Republican interests, let’s do it, and the fiscal consequences did not matter. Consequently, we got obscene tax cuts for the rich and favors for corporations and special interests of all kinds. We got faith-based initiatives on the taxpayer’s dime. We got politicians more concerned about the feelings of fertilized blastocytes than people who lost everything in New Orleans. The most progressive thing Congress did was pass a Medicare prescription drug bill. However, it did not do it until it made it easy for drug manufacturers to keep their profits high. Instead of carbon caps, we had meaningless voluntary quotas on carbon emissions. Throughout these years, while Congress kept increasing its salary it could not find a way to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour. This is a wage so niggardly that you can earn it and be well below the national poverty line. It was selfishness run amok.

Today meant a fundamental change in this sort of wrong and selfish thinking. It may be that after a long spell in power the Democrats may go back to the kind of corruption that deservedly got them thrown out of office in 1994. On the other hand, perhaps Democrats have learned a lesson. A hopeful sign is that the House Democrats, as their first act, will prohibit representatives from accepting gifts from lobbyists.

Granted, after twelve years of Republican rule there is so much fundamentally messed up with the country that all the needed changes cannot occur overnight. The Republican Congress’ contempt for the American people, if it needed any more proof, was evident in their lame duck session. They left town without even bothering to complete passing fiscal year 2007 appropriation bills. However, a new day is dawning in Washington. Congress appears to be ready to be a government of, by, and for the people again. It may be that in 2009, a Democrat will be in the Oval Office too. In that case something quite remarkable will have occurred: two branches of government will have changed hands in just two years. Looking toward the 2008 elections, it is hard to see how President Bush can fail to be a drag on any Republican nominee. In the Senate, the number of Republicans up for reelection is much higher than the number of Democrats, which suggests that Democrats will build on their majority. In the House, it is unlikely that Republicans will be able to chip away at the Democratic majority in only two years. Most likely Democrats will increase their majority.

The fact is that the country is changing right under the Republicans’ noses. Unless Republicans reinvent themselves as a kinder, gentler and more moderate party, they are likely to keep losing seats. The 2006 election proved that the times are a changing. The Midwest is turning blue. Even the Rocky Mountain States are turning a shade of purple. As Generations X and Y age and discover their political power, they are unlikely to model the Republican Party’s values of narrow mindedness, xenophobia and a cultural monotheism. They are growing up in a different America, which is culturally diverse, and where Caucasians will no longer be in the majority.

I believe that history will show that in the first half of this decade that the Republican Party reached its political zenith. Its hold on the majority has always been tenuous because it so steadfastly worked against the people’s interests. Despite Tom Delay’s attempts at gerrymandering, the demographics no longer favor the Republican Party. America’s future is colored blue.


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