Archive for March, 2007

The Thinker

Overpaid at $11.59 an hour

I am very grateful that I did not make retail a career. It is a scummy business, operating on very low margins and subject to the constantly changing whims of consumer demand. If you do decide to make retail a career then with a few exceptions expect to be treated shabbily. We need no further proof of this than recent press reports that the electronics retailer Circuit City is firing its retail salespeople because it apparently thinks they are overpaid.

Steven Rash, 24, said he was one of 11 workers fired at a Circuit City in Asheville, N.C. The store manager broke the news during a meeting at 8:15 a.m. and escorted them out of the store. Rash said he has worked for the retailer for seven years and was one of the most junior members of the affected group.

He said he earned $11.59 an hour and worked from 15 to 20 hours a week. He received four weeks of severance pay. Though he has a full-time job at Bank of America, he said he needs to find part-time work to help pay his student loans.

“It’s not just a part-time job,” he said. “It’s about paying the bills.”

Like most people working retail, Steven Rash is working part time. Retailers, like many small employers, prefer part time workers for the obvious reasons: they do not have to pay them benefits, they are readily expendable and can typically be easily replaced, because their job is not highly skilled. My wife does not work retail but is one of the part-time work force who falls into this category. In her case, she works as a level-one computer troubleshooter for a doctor’s practice with a staff of about 50. I will not say how much she earns, but I can say when she was working full time she made about $10 more an hour than she makes in her current position, and she was then surviving on a school teacher’s pay. Now she keeps the computers working at two offices in this practice for very modest wages and typically works 20-30 hours a week.

It is a good thing that she has my financial wherewithal to rely on. If we were divorced, she would be in serious financial straits. Even if she could convert her job into a full time position, could she even afford to keep a roof over her head? (We live in the metropolitan DC area, and rents start at $1200 a month.) I doubt she could afford to live alone. Despite working in a doctor’s office, she would have minimal benefits. The practice she works for is feeling squeezed too, perhaps because Medicare is squeezing them with reimbursement rates that do not cover their expenses. It trickles down to substandard wages and high employee turnover. She says in a typical month about 10 people on the 50 person staff leaves for better offers. The same is true in the retail business too. At the wages they are paid, there is little incentive to stick around. There is even less incentive to feel any loyalty for your employer.

Mr. Rash depends on $11.59 an hour to pay off his student loans. He was probably drawn to Circuit City, not because it paid well, but because it paid better than other scummy retailers like Wal-Mart. Still, $11.59 an hour is hardly the sort of salary that would let you lead an opulent lifestyle. By my calculations, if he could have converted his sales job to a full time job he would make $24,000 a year.

For him his “expensive” $11.59 an hour salary is now moot. The severance pay will pay for a month of student loans. He can take some comfort in that. Many retailers would not even provide a severance check. Nevertheless, likely his next second job will pay even less. Circuit City is helping to lower the bar and to ensure even more Americans cannot earn a living wage. Way to go, Circuit City.

Mr. Rash is also fortunate in one other respect: he has a full time job. It is likely that Bank of America offers him some benefits. I do not know how typical he is of most Circuit City workers. Clearly though not all retail workers are part time workers nor depend on the income just to pay student loans. Many likely depend on these second, third or, in some cases, first jobs, to pay basic expenses.

Today I flew out of Denver International Airport. I happened to overhear one of the people working in one of the screening areas. “It’s a good thing I have my retirement to fall back on,” I heard him say. “Because this job pays $18,000 a year. I could not afford to live on this wage.”

I hope for his sake that he works part time. Because if he has a full time job, then he is earning $8.65 an hour, which would be the wage the airlines are willing to pay to deter future terrorist attacks. I do not know if Denver International is one of these airports that are required to use federal screeners. At these wages, I suspect not. It is hard for me to believe that any federal employee would be required to do this sort of grinding work, day in and day out, on Wal-Mart wages.

Not everyone in the retail business though is being screwed. As The Washington Post reports, Circuit City’s CEO is doing fine. While grunt salesmen and women suffer, his salary last year was $716,346. He also got $704,700 in bonuses, $3 million in stock awards and $340,000 in stock options. Imagine how much more he will get this year for this latest brilliant idea.

The Washington Post also reports that the average hourly wage for retail worker, as of March 2005, was $11.14 an hour. Therefore, it is unlikely then that Steven Rash was underpaid. He was likely earning the market rate. This makes me wonder if this latest strategy by Circuit City will prove to be counterproductive. Call me dubious, but I do not think this strategy will help the Circuit City bottom line. Were I a Circuit City stockholder, I would be calling for CEO Philip J. Schoonover’s head or cashing in my stock. Where will this strategy take Circuit City, already suffering from competition from retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy? My bet is that it will probably take it right off a cliff. As a stockowner and thus an owner of the company, I would want a retail employee who is motivated to work in the best interest of the company, not some retail drone counting the minutes until closing time.

I have empathy for retail workers because I was one of them myself. In the intervening 27 years, I have been only marginally successful in changing the retail worker market dynamics. I have joined the Wake Up Wal-Mart campaign, which has resulted in a few, modest successes. I have also supported politicians who advocate living wages with significant campaign contributions. I do know one thing: any company that improves its bottom line at the expense of its workers earns my disdain and contempt. Other retailers like Costco and Wegmans have figured out ways to pay living wages to their employees in highly competitive markets and have thrived. So can apparently scummy retailers like Wal-Mart and Circuit City. Their “leadership” is simply bereft of creative ideas.

Although I have not shopped at a Circuit City in years, it now joins a growing list of retailers that include Wal-Mart that I will boycott until it treats its employees decently. They are not cattle. They are people. Employees deserve nothing less than to be paid a living wage and to be treated with respect.

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The Thinker

Review: The Last Mimzy

Suppose you were a movie producer and you wanted to produce a thoughtful science fiction movie aimed primarily at children. You also wanted the movie to have a touch of class and for it to be mildly creepy without being scary. The movie should feel a bit like an M. Night Shyamalan movie but not have a budget big enough to hire him. The last criterion is that the movie should probably win approval of the American Family Association. What you would end up with would be the movie now out in theaters, The Last Mimzy.

This is a movie that normally I would never see, nor even rent. Nevertheless, when you are on a business trip in Golden, Colorado, you have the evenings free, there is a mall with a sixteen-cinema multiplex within walking distance and you do not have a whole lot of time to read reviews then this is the sort of movie you pay $9.50 to see on impulse. At 94 minutes, it is also a movie that left plenty of my evening free to do other things.

However, before I review the movie, first a hiss at the obsessive marketing practices at our modern Cineplex. It is no wonder that Netflix recently shipped its billionth rental CD. I happened to see this movie at a Sony Cineplex, but it does not matter. Suffice to say that even if you skipped the candy counter the $9.50 ticket does not begin to cover the real cost of this movie. Instead, if you enter the theater before show time, you will be bombarded with nonstop commercials, some of which are repeated just in case you missed it the first time. To make sure you cannot miss them, the volume is cranked up to near deafening levels, which means whispering to your seatmate is out. Of course, the official start time of the movie means it is time to start watching trailers, which amounts to more advertising. You are a captive audience. Perhaps because The Last Mimzy is a family movie, all the trailers I saw were about another family oriented movies marketed for the preteen crowd.

The movie started just in time because the trailers made me come close to vomiting. If you can hold your stomach, you will get trailers for Spiderman 3 and Underdog, among others. Perhaps worst trailer of all was one for Nancy Drew. It would make the authors who ghostwrote under the name of Carolyn Keene want to take up poultry farming. The humor in these trailers was insulting and sophomoric, but presumably, what movie marketers think this crowd wants. Nonetheless, if I had been a Nancy Drew fan growing up instead of a Hardy Boys fan, this trailer would have me lining up other Nancy Drew fans to form picket lines around theaters.

Back to The Last Mimzy. In the movie two precious child actors, first time child actor Chris O’Neil and six-year-old Rhiannon Leigh Wryn play a brother and sister who are going through the normal sibling rivalry. At a family getaway house, apparently in the Puget Sound they come across an odd container in the water. We learn from the prequel that it is a message from the future to the present. In the future, thanks to pollution, the human race is dwindling. Safe sex? Essentially future humans look like pod people who spend their lives inside of giant latex condoms. No wonder they are obsessed with contacting the past and making things aright.

Unfortunately, previous attempts have failed and this is their last, desperate attempt to rectify the mistakes of the past. Inside the container is a stuffed rabbit along with a number of peculiar rocks and an odd shaped thing called the kids call a generator. The stuffed rabbit (Mimzy) can talk to the girl, and a glass shard inside the container teaches the boy a lot that he did not expect to learn about futuristic structural engineering. They quickly go from precocious to charming yet alarmingly queer kids, anxious to get away from their parents and spend time with their new toys. A science teacher at the Noah’s (the boy’s) school, who also has happened to have studied weird things in Tibet with his fiancé, takes a special interest in Noah after he fills up a notebook full of detailed drawings, which he and his girlfriend match up with ancient Tibetan drawings. Soon the girl, Emma, is spinning rocks in mid air and freaking out their babysitter. It takes much longer for their largely clueless parents to figure out that something truly paranormal is going on.

Fooling around with “the generator”, they manage to take out the power to half of Washington State. This rouses the immediate attention of the Department of Homeland Security. Eventually the genesis of the power outage is traced to their house. DHS, using the Patriot Act, detains the whole family and moves them to a laboratory. Emma’s stuffed rabbit, Mimzy, is dissected. It is determined to be a complex computer far beyond the current capabilities of Silicon Valley. You will be glad to know though that there is Intel inside, written in microns. One has to wonder how much Intel paid for this product placement. (It could not be much more than the Coca Cola Company paid. A can of Sprite is predominantly featured.)

This stuffed rabbit is apparently the last chance of future generations of the human race to live in a toxic free world again. They need some small piece of humanity untainted by genetic mutations as well as wholly innocent in spirit. It will not to spoil anything to tell you that it turns out to be one of Emma’s tears.

Adults like me will likely find the movie semi-saccharine yet not wholly without merit. The characters are all suitably stereotypical and unmemorable. The plot may challenge kids, but will be transparent to adults. The children, while cute do not descend into the wholly annoying phase. What The Last Mimzy amounts to is a decent sci-fi flick for children and pre-teens that will also win the heart of perhaps half of the adults who attend. It is doubtless better than Underdog or any of the other trailers I suffered through to see this movie. The special effects are okay, the directing is competent but not inspired, and the cast of characters small and the budget feels quite modest.

If you are looking for something science fiction-fantasy related that might draw the attention of children eight and up, and will not make you fall asleep, this film will suffice. However, while it might have pretensions of being a M. Night Shayamalan movie, it is not close to being on his tier. It is a solid B of a movie, and ranks 2.7 on my 4.0 scale.

You can do much worse than this movie but you can also wait until the DVD is in the discount rack of your local Blockbuster before seeing it.

The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 6: A few of life’s little lessons

This is the sixth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

Last night here in Colorado we had a little mini family reunion. It consisted of my next younger sister, my youngest brother, and me. I just turned fifty, and my sister and brother are still in their forties. My sister and I in were in a wistful mood. We are now wiser in the ways of the world, not due to any innate wisdom but from having dodged and parried with life for so many years. My sister posed the question: if you could go back in time, which life lessons would you teach your younger self?

When I think of the person I am today compared to the one I was then I am not sure that even if I could transport myself back in time that my headstrong and younger self would have listened. Perhaps you will. Each of us draws our own lessons based on what life throws at us and how well or badly we dealt with these challenges. Here, for your consideration, are some of mine.

Failure is a temporary phenomenon. When you were in school and screwed up, you may have heard the threat, “This is going on your permanent record.” Guess what. Failures happen to everyone, not just once, but periodically through life. No one becomes a permanent outcast from life based on a single failure. Failure is not only a fact of life, failure is often a virtue. You will learn the truest and most enduring lessons from failing at something. The only true failure is not learning from failure. It may take a while to recover from the shock and the hurt feelings, but picking yourself up and reengaging in life in spite of a failure is something you will have to do regardless. Life goes on. You too will surmount a failure, although it seems impossible at the time.

You do not need to go to an Ivy League school to be a great success. Throughout America, parents are obsessed with their kids’ success. Here in the Washington metropolitan area, there are parents who are planning their kids’ overachievement from before conception. For many of these parents it becomes critical that their children get into the right Montessori preschool, the Gifted and Talented program and eventually end up in an Ivy League school. Anything less means their children have not really succeeded in life. While there is certainly nothing wrong with attending an Ivy League school, you are hardly doomed to be on life’s second tier if you make other choices. Not convinced? Look around you. Clearly, the world’s business is getting done even though the numbers who attend Ivy League schools are paltry. In my case, I got both my bachelors and masters degrees from convenient and reasonably low cost public universities. My grades were typically a mixture of A’s and B’s, with the sporadic C and F. Yet I consider myself quite successful and am very pleased with my life. No, I am not a Wall Street baron earning millions, nor did that sort of life hold any appeal. Yet I live a very fulfilling life, have a very well paid and interesting job and have virtually every possession I could want. I am hardly unique. It is what you do with your education and skills that quantifies your success, not which tickets are punched.

A grunt job is the best preparation for success. Had I gone to prep schools and spent my school days in overachieving mode I believe I would be quite unhappy today. This is because that while grades and intellect are important, they are meaningless unless they can be applied inside the current social context, i.e. reality. You learn what real life is about by engaging it on its ground level, not by avoiding it. Do you want to know why our current president is a miserable failure? Not only were all his failures cushioned so he did not feel their impact, but he never had a grunt level job. Perhaps that is why during a recent Central American tour where President Bush worked in a carrot factory, he said: “It was really, really fun — and really heartwarming. As a matter of fact, it was one of the great experiences of my presidency.” It is too bad he did not get this when he was sixteen. Do not shun away from those first (and often necessary) entry level jobs, embrace them. Your eyes will open wider than they ever have been before. In my case, I spent my high school years working part time at a Winn Dixie supermarket. My unglamorous work involved bagging groceries, unloading trucks, mopping store aisles and flirting with cashiers. I experienced with crystal clarity what my life would look like if I did not embrace other choices. By the time I left Winn Dixie’s employment, I was anxious to spend my life in more engaging pursuits. Look upon every job you take as a lesson in the laboratory of real life. You cannot get this kind of education in school but these kinds of lessons are essential to succeed in life.

Play makes life meaningful. Because you are technically grown up, that does not mean that you are not allowed to regularly feel childhood delight anymore. Play is essential for happiness and growth, not only in childhood, but also throughout life. You can be adult without being “an adult”. You do not have to don the robe of being a sober, serious adult when you “grow up”. The term is really something of a misnomer. None of us really grows up. In fact, if you do truly “grow up” then you have ceased to grow. You might as well be dead, because you will have killed yourself spiritually. Do your best to carve out some time within your busy life to engage in activities that amount to play and that bring you the same sort of joy you felt as a child. Find activities that fill you with joy and wholly engage you. Just because you are over 21 does not mean you must stop being fun and silly. Parents do not need to be somber all the time. They can teach their children that adult life can be fun too. If you grew up singing to yourself, there is no reason to stop as an adult. If you liked playing Dungeons and Dragons as a teen, keep playing it as an adult. A life that is all work and no play is an empty life. Surprise your neighbors and go trick or treating on Halloween. Wear a goofy hat to work. Sing in your car at the top of your lungs to your favorite music. There is enough serious stuff in adult life. There is no reason to engage in more of it than is necessary. Do your best to find at least a couple hours a week for the frivolous and fun.

Life is about living. No one really knows what we were, if anything, before we were conceived. It is absolutely certain that you will die. No one knows what, if anything, will happen after death either. Most religions will try to persuade you that they have the answers to all of life’s persistent questions. At most, only one of them can be absolutely correct. Most likely, none of them is correct. What is absolutely true is that you are alive. Your life is your reality. If you have a mission, it is to live it in a way that feels natural to you. So live life as robustly as you can. Fill it with as much joy and meaning as possible. Since you like me will die someday, you do not want to spend your last days regretful that you lived only half the life you could have. Fill it with knowledge, with fun, with passion, with insight, with friends and with relaxation. Life is your pot to stir. Do not let others stir it for you. Grab the handle and stir it yourself.

The Thinker

Bush is killing the Republican Party

The Pew Center published a remarkable poll Thursday. In 2002, Americans were split politically right down the middle. When asked, the percent of Americans who called themselves Republican (or leaning Republican) was virtually equal with the number identifying themselves as Democrat (or leaning Democratic). This has now changed dramatically. 50% of Americans now identify as a Democrat or leaning Democratic. 35% identify themselves as Republican or leaning Republican.

What happened? While a variety of factors contributed to the political shift, which was borne out in the 2006 elections, doubtless the largest factor is our War in Iraq. As I noted some time ago, the public has turned irretrievably against the war. Right or wrong, regardless of the long-term consequences, Americans are insistent that our involvement in this war must end. Consequently, when Republicans line up behind the President on Iraq, it only deepens the animosity of the public toward Republicans. By a nearly two-thirds majority, Americans now favor a withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2008. Many would like us to leave sooner. A significant minority want us to leave immediately. The public sees that our armed forces are in the midst of a civil war. They did not sign up for this scenario in 2003. As we begin the fifth year of this unnecessary war, they simply want us out.

As we learned in Vietnam, it is much easier to invade a country than to get out of it. The House of Representatives made it clear yesterday that it wants to begin a process that gets our troops out of Iraq. The bill it passed calls for the withdrawal of most forces by September 2008. The President has promised to veto the bill should it come to his desk.

As a diarist on DailyKos noted yesterday, there is slim chance that there will be the votes in the Senate to pass something similar to the House bill, simply because the margin between parties is tighter. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) is incapacitated, and the allegedly Democratic senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman, will certainly vote against a fixed timetable for withdrawal. However, one other thing is also certain: only Congress can appropriate the money for our Iraq involvement. With the money running out, failure to pass a funding bill would, by default, make it difficult to sustain our forces there.

It is not clear how such a scenario would play out politically. During the Gingrich Revolution in 1995, a similar tactic resulted in shutting down the government. This caused a huge backlash against the House Republicans. It eventually gave President Clinton the upper hand. In this case, no one is threatening to shut down the federal government, only to benignly stop explicit funding for the War in Iraq by not supporting it with appropriations. This would be spun as failing to support the troops. So most likely, what will happen will be a game of political chicken. My sense is that if the Congress holds firm, what will likely be agreed to is approval of stopgap funding. I believe Congress would ultimately agree to continue funding at present levels in Iraq for six months, to see if the “surge” will in fact work and to see how the political winds ultimately blow as the 2008 elections move closer. I do not see from a House and Senate conference a bill acceptable to the President that would also be supported by the House.

There are initial signs that the surge of troops in Baghdad is having a calming effect in the city. This is not too surprising, given that when the surge ends the number of troops in Iraq will be at an all time high. The mission in Baghdad will essentially be what it should have been four years ago. This may give Bush a temporary political boost. By itself, it will not solve the underlying political problem. There is slim evidence that Sunni and Shiite groups are prepared to make the political accommodations necessary for genuine peace. Just as worrisome, it is highly unlikely that the Iraqi army and police will become both united and a stabilizing force in the region. So perhaps some rough peace could temporarily be purchased in Baghdad at the cost of a sustained American occupation. In this event I suspect there will continue to be scattered acts of carnage. With the political problem unsolved, and with too many other forces who will simply not accept political accommodation, the violence will shift toward easier targets of opportunity. The choice will then be to continue an American occupation of Baghdad indefinitely in order to ensure a rough peace there, or withdraw. There is no proposal being considered to bring in the number of occupation forces necessary to secure the entire country. This would require a draft, and except for a few eccentrics in Congress, neither political party wants to go there.

One thing that will not change is the date of the 2008 elections. A more politically savvy Bush might be willing to cut his losses in Iraq near the end of the year in hopes that Republicans will benefit in the 2008 elections. This would be contrary to his stay the course rhetoric. However, if the surge falters later this year he could say, “We did the best we could, but the Iraqis have not stepped up to the plate.” The start of a withdrawal later this year and his initiative might provide cover and political benefits to the Republican Party going into 2008 (or at least limit their losses).

This is unlikely. Even if it happens, it would likely be of marginal benefit to Republicans. We can expect more yielding on Iraq from Republicans in Congress, particularly from Republican senators up for reelection in 2008. Ultimately, as elections approach the political dynamics favor the Democrats. For Iraq is unlikely to get much better. Consequently, it should get easier, not harder, to pass bills that require the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq.

Unless it moderates some key positions, the demographics look increasingly bad for the long-term prospects of the Republican Party. Like it or not, our nation is changing culturally, racially and generationally. Generations Y and Z are growing up in a culture where racial differences, sexual orientation and hot button issues like gay marriage are less important. They are passionate about issues like the environment. However, as they move toward becoming vested members of society, they too will feel the squeeze of the cost of living. Consequently, Republicans may eventually draw back some of these people on issues like taxation and the scope of government. In the short term, although history suggests otherwise, I see Congress becoming significantly bluer in the 2008 election. The president we elect depends more on the personalities of who is nominated. Providing that Republicans can nominate someone politically moderate like Rudy Giuliani, they might retain the White House. In any event, much of the traditional Republican agenda is likely to bite the dust. Their recent legacy of fiscal wreckage will be too fresh in our minds.

There is great potential for a savvy Democratic Party to rebuild its political base over the next few years. Democrats have learned that being out of power sucks. Historically they have not done a great job of consolidating their political power. There is some hope though that Democrats have learned the lesson. Both Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid seem to understand how to be effective leaders. How they navigate dicey issues like Iraq over the next year may determine how much the Democrats can increase their political power.

Republicans though should be afraid — very afraid. Standing on principle is all well and good. In this case standing on principle is likely to leave their party marginalized in a way not seen since 1976. Their party leaders would be wise to pressure Bush to get out of Iraq quickly. Otherwise, it is possible that none of them will live to see their party in the majority in Congress again.

The Thinker

The Soulless City

When I find that four days pass between blog entries, it means either two things. It means either I am very sick, or I am very busy. Fortunately, in this case it was the latter.

I have returned from three days in the Soulless City. I did not need to take a bus or an airplane to get to this is a city. In fact, the Soulless City is less than ten miles from my house. It is a city without a real name, but it is a city nonetheless. Those of you who are Washingtonians probably know my destination. If you travel the Beltway around Washington, D.C., it is hard to miss. While it has no official name, it does have an unofficial one: Tyson’s Corner.

I understand that most towns and villages sprung up, quite literally, near the spring. They were built at the place in the river or stream where it became too shallow to navigate. Newer edge cities like Tyson’s Corner in Northern Virginia though owe their rise not to its proximity to water, but to its convenience to a number of prominent roads. The Capital Beltway was completed in 1964. It was not that long after that Mr. Tyson sold his considerable acreage near the intersection of Leesburg Pike (Route 7) and Chain Bridge Road (Route 123) to developers. This land, known informally as Mr. Tyson’s Corner, or Tyson’s Corner for short, just happened to be just off the new Capital Beltway.

Tyson’s Corner became a convenient location for one of the nation’s first large indoor shopping malls. By the late 1960s, Tyson’s Corner Mall had opened. It instantly became both a regional shopping Mecca and a neat place to visit, because back then any indoor mall was a novelty. Its convenience to the Capital Beltway meant that it had to be a place optimized for arrival and departure by car. It was also close to affordable bedroom communities. The shopping mall soon attracted other businesses. It was not too many years later, that Tyson’s Corner became noted as more of a convenient place for Beltway Bandits to set up shop rather than as a shopping destination. Tyson’s Corner Mall inspired numerous copies, not just in my region but nationwide. In time, one mall would not be enough for Tyson’s Corner. Around 1990, Tyson’s Galleria (also known as Tyson’s II) arose across Chain Bridge Road. While more upscale, it never enjoyed quite the success of the original Tyson’s Corner Mall, which itself has been thoroughly modernized and expanded.

I do my best to avoid Tyson’s Corner. I tend to avoid malls in general, but in particular, I avoid Tyson’s Corner. Its success has spawned a commuter’s nightmare, making it on any business day a time consuming hassle to get into or get out of. Although replete with many tall buildings, most of which are wholly uninteresting, it is also full of ugly wide boulevards with weedy and trash filled medians. On the sides of these roads are auto dealerships and many ordinary shopping centers. Routes 7 and 123 support six lanes of traffic each, plus ugly service roads and what feels like ten zillion traffic lights. It feels like each traffic light is engineered to ensure that you cannot get between any two points without encountering the next red light.

With a mailing address of McLean, Virginia, Tyson’s Corner it is actually an unincorporated edge city neither in McLean nor in Vienna, which straddles it to the south. I was there to attend three days of project management training. From my eighth floor window, I could look down on Leesburg Pike and grimace over the overwhelming view of aging office buildings, discount retailers, parking lots (and parking garages), asphalt and automobiles queued at traffic lights.

Tyson’s Corner is not a pedestrian friendly place. You would think with so many people working there that there would be plenty of dining options. Moreover, you would be right. Unfortunately, to get to most of them you have to get in your car, and thus get back in traffic. This in turn means waiting at red lights and creeping forward through the crush of traffic just to get to a McDonalds. If you are daring, you could walk to some of these dining destinations. I do not recommend it. For Tyson’s Corner is pedestrian hostile. It has the dubious notoriety of having the most dangerous pedestrian crosswalk in all of Fairfax County. You can try to walk across Chain Bridge Road at International Drive. If you are a praying type, you should say a prayer before doing so. You will have to cross nine lanes of traffic. Even a sprinter would have a hard time getting across the road before the crosswalk light changes. Do not expect drivers to be mindful of your presence.

Tyson’s Corner of course needs to be pedestrian friendly. Like most of Fairfax County, little thought was given to those without cars when it was developed. It was more important to bring in the growth than figure out sensible ways to manage the growth. You have to look hard to find anyone riding a bike around Tyson’s Corner. That would be even more dangerous than walking across International Drive. Since almost everyone commutes by car, the motorists are obsessed with getting in and out of Tyson’s Corner quickly. They will not cut a bicyclist any slack. Nevertheless, there is also the minor matter that there is no safe place to bike along the roads, and that includes the service roads, which are full of cars jockeying to get on the major roads. What sidewalks that do exist tend to appear and disappear rather suddenly.

There are actually people who live in Tyson’s Corner, but not very many. From its size you would think there would be hundreds of thousands of residents. Tyson’s Corner does not have residents as much as commuters. Approximately 20,000 people live in Tyson’s Corner and most of these live in townhouses on its outskirts, or in one of the few apartment or condominium communities.

There is some nightlife in Tyson’s Corner, if your idea of nightlife is going to the mall, or a Ruby Tuesday’s, or a movie theater. There are a few churches in the Tyson’s Corner area, but mostly they serve communities outside of it. Community theater? You are out of luck. Parks? There are a couple, but they are small and well hidden. Schools? Yes to day care centers and secretarial schools. It has exactly one public elementary school. A high school straddles its eastern edge. So accept what Tyson’s Corner actually is: a city where commercialism and the car is king. USA Today has its digs in Tyson’s Corner, along with many prominent software companies, many of whom pimp Uncle Sam to keep solvent. Parts of it try to be upscale yet even the upscale parts are typically surrounded by the garish and the mediocre.

There is talk of extending the Metrorail through Tyson’s Corner. To save money, planners want to put the Metro on elevated tracks. Tyson’s Corner is a logical destination so its arrival is long overdue. Many would prefer that the station be built underground. However, in this case, the federal government will not chip in; it would make their share too expensive. So likely if the Metrorail extension is actually built to Tysons, it will be placed on elevated tracks right through the center of this concrete metropolis. This, of course, will make the traffic in Tyson’s Corner for several years, already miserable, approach one of Dante’s lower levels of hell. It is the price or progress, or perhaps the price of insufficient land use planning by the Fairfax County government many years ago.

Three days in Tyson’s Corner was ample. I am glad to be free of it, and will have to work hard to wrest images of its congestion and ugliness from my mind. I pity those who work in Tyson’s Corner. I realize that job opportunities abound there, particularly if you are in the technology business. However, the place saps your soul. Maybe some day Tyson’s Corner will grow up and become a real city. Instead, it is more likely to remain just a destination for work and to buy stuff. It is a shame so little thought was given to properly managing its growth. It had the potential to be a real city.

The Thinker

Comic Justice

I will admit that newspaper comics, like sports, really do not mean anything. Sports exist for our mindless entertainment. If you watch enough sports though you start to care about whether a team wins or loses. However, if all sports went away tomorrow, we would adapt. The same is true with newspaper comics. They entertain, occasionally preach, and on extremely rare occasions enlighten, but they do not matter either. Comics are like drinking coffee. Once you have the habit, giving them up is like going through nicotine withdrawal.

Comics are also one of the major reasons the Internet has not killed the newspaper. My newspaper, The Washington Post, understands this. Its circulation is decreasing, but not as quickly as many other newspapers. A vital comics section is part of its long-term business survival strategy. It is so important that it has three full pages of comics in our daily newspaper. Apparently, most people buy newspapers for the sport section, the advice columnist and the comics. That stuff on the front page matters only to the relatively few news junkies like me. My wife will typically ignore the front page, glance at the Metro section, but she always reads the Post’s Style section (which includes the comics) from first to last page. While eating her breakfast she is also dutifully digesting the comics section. My daughter has picked up the same habit. Now, even if I wanted to get rid of our subscription, there would be a family uproar. My wife would simply not permit it. No Get Fuzzy daily fix? What is the point of getting up in the morning then?

For my wife, comics are a means to engage life’s clutch. Before she faces her fifteen-mile commute, before she gets that first frantic phone call when she reaches the office, there is that mindless fifteen minutes or so over breakfast where she can worry about the family dynamics in For Better or for Worse or bitch to the cat that Zippy the Pinhead is being lame again.

Our Washington Post comics’ editor is not afraid to make changes. Many of the recent changes have been the result of comics that retired. When The Boondocks went on hiatus (and was eventually killed by its author), we went through three series of test comics in its place. Readers were encouraged to share their feelings about the comics. Comics may be good for a few laughs, but they are serious business at The Washington Post. Readers are encouraged to call their Comics Hotline (202-334-4775) or to email the comics editor with all their vital comics issues.

Now, their comics’ editor is at it again, this time with some major comic pruning. Biting the dust this time are Mary Worth, Cathy, Broom Hilda, The Flying McCoys and The Other Coast. Good riddance to all of them, I say. Mary Worth is the only senior citizen I know who actually gets younger (and trimmer and more of a babe) every year. The dialog is so stilted it is almost like reading Shakespeare. This and its weird “camera angles” have inspired a parody. No one talks this way. I have not read her in twenty years. Cathy was funny for its first ten years, but everything is now a retread. Frankly, Cathy and Irving deserve each other, but we comics’ readers do not deserve to be subjected to their neurotic lives any longer. I never understood the appeal of Broom Hilda. Maybe you have to be of kindergarten age to appreciate it. Broom Hilda and Cathy were rarely funny, so they are out of here. Please do not come back!

Appearing Monday will be Agnes, Brewster Rockit: Space Guy! and Brevity (alternating with Close to Home). I have no idea if these comics will be an improvement over what they are replacing, but it is hard to see how they could not be.

Pooch Cafe is a recent strip the Post started running when Foxtrot went Sundays only. Without a doubt, this is the unfunniest and most annoying strip introduced in the comics section of the Post in the last ten years. Yet for some reason the Post is keeping it. Other strips we are subjected to on a daily basis deserve to die. The comics’ editor has repeatedly tried to kill some of these strips, but the readers have not let her. Zippy the Pinhead, for example, was funny twenty years ago, when it was avant-garde. Now it is just lame. For nearly five years straight Zippy did hardly nothing but wander the country talking to statues. That is funny? Poor Bill Griffith just could not think of anything else for Zippy to do.

What really amazes me is that there are people who think that Mark Trail is a good comic strip. Don’t they know that Brylcreem went out about the same time Marlon Brando gave up his motorcycle? It should not only offend Republicans, it should even offend the ones wholly detached from reality, like Jerry Falwell. I mean, it is nice that Mark is an environmentalist and all, but he makes Al Gore look animated. The Amazing Spiderman is another comic whose time is long gone. It is hard to care about anything since he married MJ. Without a doubt though the most annoying comic of all times that refuses to leave is The Family Circus. I cannot tell you how many times I have wanted to strangle those annoying kids. Truly, child molesters would be doing society a favor by going after them! There are other comics that could easily go because, at best, they make you laugh maybe once a month. These include Dennis the Menace (so 1950s!), Hagar the Horrible (who is actually just another hen pecked spouse with no sense of style), Curtis, On the Fastrack (Dilbert is so much better), Classic Peanuts (at least the three panel version, which is what we get — the good stuff was the four panel version from 1955-1965 or so), Big Nate, The Wizard of Id, Sally Forth and Judge Parker. Even the venerable For Better or for Worse is wearing on me. It has become too darn serious for my taste, too soap opera-ish and annoyingly preachy.

Pearls Before Swine makes my wife foam at the mouth, but I find it occasionally amusing. The best comics are consistently good, no matter how long they have been around. These include Tank McNamara, Zits and, yes, even Blondie. I still smile most days reading BC, because of its consistently wry humor, although it too can get preachy. It is clear that Johnny Hart feels it is okay to use the strip as a means of proselytizing on high holy days. Johnny, it’s a comic for crying out loud!

One thing I have noticed over the last thirty years is that cartoonists have become uppity. It all started when Gary Trudeau insisted that Doonesbury had to be shown full size. Then he started going on vacations and gave readers repeats. At first it was only a week or so a year. Now it is at least once a quarter. Others have followed suit.

I am sorry, but I find it hard to develop much sympathy for these poor overworked comic artists. I am sure creating a comic is not simple. However, it is only three or four little panels six days a week, plus one big cartoon on Sunday. In my eight-hour day, I juggle hundreds of emails and make dozen of decisions from major to minor as well as deal with people’s sensitivities and eccentricities. However, even though I have a comfortable salary, I make a small fraction of what Scott Adams makes while expending probably ten times the effort. All they have to do is find one joke and carry it across a few panels. If they lack inspiration, there are plenty of writers who will sell them ideas; Hank Ketcham has not written anything original in decades. It sounds like the ideal profession for the lazy person. After all, Dilbert is quite amusing, but it is not hard to draw. Heck, I could draw Dilbert.

I should probably become a cartoonist in retirement because apparently drawing ability is no bar to entry. Rhymes with Orange is usually quite amusing but goodness, any fifth grader can draw better than Hilary Price. It is too much to expect a comic author to have at least some artistic talent?

I realize the comics are designed to appeal to mass audiences. Not all will tickle my funny bone. Many, like Prickly City, will probably annoy me. Nonetheless, it strikes me that overall, we expect too little from our comics. They can and should be much better than the pablum we are served up on a daily basis. There are millions of potential comic artists out there, and this is the best we can get? I don’t think so!

So kudos to the Washington Post comics editor for getting rid of some comics that really died decades ago. Many of these have become institutionalized and serve solely to feed the coffers of syndicates and future generations of the artist’s family. Fortunately, more comics’ artists are coming to realize they need to stop when they are not funny anymore. Bill Watterson (who drew Calvin & Hobbes) eventually realized that he had said all he could about a weird five-year-old kid and his stuffed tiger and retired. However, others, like Berkley Breathed, are like vampires. Breathed keeps coming back, even though he has lost his edge around 1989. Opus, like Outland before it, is a pale imitation of the outstanding Bloom County. Breathed should retire permanently. I get so wistful when I see how far he has fallen compared to the sassiness and brilliance he had in the early 1980s. We comics’ readers need a way to give the artists feedback that is more direct. When they are washed up, we need to tell them. There is no reason to kill trees to feed our minds with such mediocrity.

I will look forward to my new and hopefully improved Washington Post comics section on Monday. Now I must email its comics editor again. That Pooch Cafe has got to go!

The Thinker

SiteMeter vs. StatCounter: a comparison

As you may have noticed, I use SiteMeter to monitor traffic on this blog. I chose SiteMeter about three years ago because it had name recognition and everyone else seemed to be using it. As I mentioned in this entry on SiteMeter, its hit count is imprecise at best. This is because it can really only monitor traffic on your site served as web pages. (That is why I also use Feedreader for those who prefer to use newsreaders, and offer users the option to subscribe to receive my entries via email.) Moreover, it will not catch all your traffic served as web pages. A surfer may elect to turn off Javascript, not to display any images, or hide details about themselves. There is no guarantee that the SiteMeter’s code in your web pages will successfully report back to SiteMeter. We all get “page not found” errors regularly. A similar error can happen when the SiteMeter code is executed, except it is less likely to be noticed. Even if the tracking data reaches SiteMeter, there is no guarantee that it will actually be recorded in their log. SiteMeter is not alone. Any service like SiteMeter suffers similar limitations.

The basic SiteMeter service is free. It shows detailed statistics for only the last 100 page views. Nevertheless, it suffices to give you an idea of your site’s traffic. Its reports may not be comprehensive, but at least the information is instantly available and up to the minute. If you have to depend on log analysis tools that come from your web host (typically Awstats) your information will be up to 24 hours old.

So SiteMeter mostly works, even if it is imprecise and occasionally slow. It satisfies my curiosity to know how heavily trafficked my blog is and if a particular entry is spurring any interest. Lately though, SiteMeter has been failing me. My statistics are collected on their sm1 server. It experienced problems on March 3rd and SiteMeter is still trying to recover. (It looks like they may lose all my historical data.) As a result, I have not been able to get my daily buzz from examining my metadata.

SiteMeter will probably get their act back together in time. In the interim, I decided to try a similar service. With a little Googling, I found StatCounter. I have been running it for a few days. I am trying to decide if I like it better than SiteMeter. Like SiteMeter, its free version limits detailed information to the last 100 page views.

SiteMeter takes you right to the pay dirt. You are instantly shown a statistics page showing things like the number total visits and page views, along with today’s total number of visits and page views. StatCounter has the same information, but it makes you dig for it, and you frequently have to log in first. This adds a lot of unnecessary clicks and keystrokes. However, StatCounter’s summary page shows more information and includes both graphical and textual statistics on the same page, including textual page and visit counts. SiteMeter has this information in graphs only.

SiteMeter has a convenient “who’s on” link that tells you how many visitors you have had over the last X minutes, as well as some high level details about each visit. (You get to configure the value. The “who’s on” feature is misleading. The World Wide Web is inherently stateless, so there is no way to really know if someone is actually viewing your page at a given moment.) StatCounter has essentially three variations of this report, but with more detail than you probably want. Nor is it quite a “who’s on” feature because you cannot limit the recent visitors or page views to a given time period. Instead, you have to pick one of the “recent” reports.

SiteMeter has a traffic prediction feature. Based on your current traffic it will infer how many page view and visits you will get over the next hour, day, week or month. StatCounter has no such feature.

SiteMeter allows you to view visitors by details, referrals, world map (it places dots on a world map for recent visitors), location, entry pages and exit pages. StatCounter offers similar features but again provides more detail. SiteMeter does offer an out clicks feature. This can be quite useful. Unfortunately, StatCounter does not offer it.

SiteMeter offers handy graphics showing traffic by month, week, day and hour. StatCounter has the same information, but it also shows quarterly traffic. In addition, it provides the exact numbers, rather than just a graph. However, it is harder to find these graphics. You have to select the Summary option, and then look for the links.

SiteMeter offers some “navigation trends” like visit depth and daily durations, but only as graphics. StatCounter has nothing similar. SiteMeter can track usage by continents, countries, distance and time zone. StatCounter cannot do continents or time zones, but instead offers state/region statistics. (These statistics are likely meaningless, since the web host may be in a hosting center in Georgia, but the user may actually be in Virginia.) SiteMeter tracks visitors by their language, operating system, domain and organization. StatCounter does not track language but does a better job of tracking by domain. Both can track browser share, Javascript capability and monitor resolution. Unlike SiteMeter, StatCounter cannot track color depth.

Overall SiteMeter offers more ease of use, but fewer details and features. Stat Counter does offer some unique features. These include reports over date ranges, area graphs, better drill down features, tracking by search engine, icon hiding, export features and IP labeling. It also offers information on how many visitors are returning, a feature I find quite useful. Its recent visitor map is actually a Google Maps mash up, which is more useful and navigable than SiteMeter’s service. These extra features make it more cumbersome to use and navigate. For many people it will be TMI (too much information).

I cannot speak to StatCounter’s reliability and accuracy compared with SiteMeter’s. To be fair to SiteMeter, my recent problems have been the first in three years that have been severe. Its other past problems were annoying, but considering the price, I could live with them. If I do end up losing all my historical statistics, I will be upset with SiteMeter, since I will have lost the yearly history that shows traffic growth for this blog.

If you value simplicity, SiteMeter is the better service. SiteMeter’s categorized links makes it much easier to navigate to essential information. If you value depth of information, StatCounter is probably the better choice, even though its screens are often unnecessarily busy. Either solution is free with upgrade options if you want to track details for more than the last 100 page views, so it does not hurt to add code for both. Now that I have started using StatCounter, I will continue to use it. However, I will not get rid of SiteMeter either. Both have their uses. Some months of experiencing both side by side will give me a better appreciation for the features of each.

The Thinker

End the Daylight Savings Time Extension

I hope I am not the only American upset with Congress because they forced us to move to Daylight Savings Time three weeks early this year.

I first wrote about this back in November 2005. Now that I have actually experienced it, I am just infuriated by the whole thing. Moreover, I think I know why. It is because it has taken me back to 1974 when I was a mere lad of 17. At the time, we were embroiled in The Energy Crisis (Part 1). The Arab members of OPEC were upset by the Yom Kippur War. Any nation that sided with Israel became one of its targets, so they stopped shipping oil to the United States. President Nixon and Congress did two things in response. They set the national speed limit to 55 miles an hour (which was not repealed until 1995) and the nation was put on year round daylight savings time. For two years, the nation lived in an artificial time zone six months of the year. In the winter, we drove to work in the dark. The sun peaked above the horizon for many months after 8 AM.

At the time, I was a junior at Seabreeze Senior High School in Daytona Beach, Florida. Because Florida, like most states then (and now) could not be bothered to build enough schools to support the numbers of students, they staggered our school attendance. Juniors and seniors attended classes from 7 AM to Noon. This meant I was out on the bus stop a bit after 6 AM.

This was challenging enough for a teenager. As anyone with a teenager knows, at that age in life a student need more sleep, not less. It is excruciatingly difficult for a teenage body to rise before 8 AM, let alone before the sun goes up. Thanks to The Energy Crisis, not only did I go to school when it was dark, but I arrived at school in the dark and most of my first class was in the dark too. How much learning occurred? Not much. At least half of the students zoned out in their first class. They were not subtle. They put their heads right down on their desks and slept. The teachers were foggy eyed too. Academics, always a challenge at my high school, suffered even further, particularly in first period classes.

Now here we are 33 years later. We do not have year round Daylight Savings Time again, thank goodness. Nevertheless, this is nearly as bad. We have shrunk Standard Time so it has little meaning anymore. When I was a lad, DST began on the last Sunday in April and ended on the last Sunday in October. If the old law were in effect, we would have seven more weeks of standard time in the spring. In addition, we will extend DST a week in the fall. Essentially, we have extended DST by 8 weeks or two months a year. Consequently, there is nothing “standard” about standard time anymore. By my calculation, only 18 of 52 weeks of the year are now in standard time. To put it another way, we are in standard time only about one third of the year.

So now, I rise needlessly in the dark. Coincidentally 33 years later, my daughter is 17 instead of me. Now she is being shuffled off to school in the dark instead of me. The sun rises sometime after her first period class starts. I am betting that most of the students in her class are snoozing through first period too.

Since I ensure my daughter gets out the door around 6:30 or so, I am up early too. Since I am up, I am off to work early, which means I am driving to work. It is not quite dark unless it is a cloudy day, but it is definitely early twilight. I would prefer to bike but I cannot see well enough to bike, so I am actually using more energy. Even if I could bike, I dare not cross the Fairfax County Parkway on my bike in the twilight; I am likely to be run over. At work, I try to read my email and it is a challenge. My body is not quite in the present at 7:15 AM.

This latest law, like the one in 1973, is an attempt to save energy. While it is nice to have more daylight in the evening, it is not much more daylight. In any event, those of us who want to take advantage of the daylight are probably not going to be outside to sit on our decks, where the air is likely too cool to enjoy anyhow. We will not be mowing our lawns either; the grass is not growing yet. However, we will be more likely to get in our cars and drive somewhere, like the mall. There we will do our part to max out our charge cards and keep the economy humming. This bill, passed by a Republican Congress, struck me as more of an attempt to keep the coffers of capitalism running at full throttle than a solution to our energy consumption.

Supposedly, the law was written with the understanding that if it did not reduce our energy use, it would be repealed. While I am hopeful, I am skeptical that this will happen. Starbucks will get used to boosted coffee sales and will doubtless petition Congress to keep the law in place. Any business that benefits by having more people in the evening will also be petitioning to keep it in place. This means I suspect that though this latest extension is deeply unnatural, we will have to live with it.

For my part, I made the likely futile attempt and wrote my Republican congressman to petition for the end of this unnatural daylight savings time extension. If you feel the same way, write your representative and senators now.

The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 5: Relationship Basics, Part 3

This is the fifth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

In my last entry in this subject, I discussed my thoughts on how to create a solid foundation for a committed relationship. I may have put the cart before the horse because there is also this murky area business of sifting through the dating pool for a lifelong mate.

Let me assure you that anyone you hope to hang around with for the rest of your life will have some problems and issues. While dating, couples finding ways to accentuate their positives and minimize their negatives. Consequently, when you are sizing up someone be mindful that what you see is not necessarily what you would get if you lived with them for the rest of your life.

This is of course because when you date someone he or she is not presenting their true self. Because they are likely interested in you or they would not be going out with you, at least some part of them is projecting an image of themselves that they think you want to see. The nice thing about a date though is that it tends to last only a few hours. You can go home, kick the cat and indulge in some habit like picking your toes you would not want to show your date.

Recognizing this I figured one-way around the problem would be living together. Shacking up was actually my wife’s idea. I was somewhat reluctant because I had never done it before. For me it was a further education in real life. Eventually though it wore on my wife. Like many a woman who have tried this arrangement, eventually they feel used. I got all of the privileges, like virtually all the sex I wanted, with none of the responsibilities. Moreover, she was responsible for half the rent, even though I made more money than she did.

Since I loved her and living together was certainly not a bad thing, I eventually agreed to tie the knot. I had a good idea what I was getting into at that point, or so I thought. Yes, the stockings on the shower rail and the collection of medications splayed over the bathroom counters took some getting used to, but these were minor annoyances. I rationalized that if the problems got too bad we could always divorce.

I do not know how typical my case was, but I found that there was a huge difference between living together and actual marriage. Part of it was psychological. For the first time in my life, my assets were legally tied with someone else’s. When we lived together, our biggest joint problem was making sure we both paid our share of the rent on time. Now there was all this other stuff to work through. It ran from the relatively trivial, like deciding how our apartment would look to the very personal, such as how to accommodate differences in our sex drives. I was not in Kansas anymore. Moreover, since we were married, we did not have to wear our masks anymore. I found the first five years of my marriage were constantly full of surprises.

How much of what I experienced would happen to you is of course impossible to predict. What is true is that both my wife and I are different people. There was no way to really know how things would work out until we worked through issues as a married couple. I am confident though that stuff will happen in any such relationship that will surprise, upset you or be of concern. When this stuff happens, you learn where the friction points in your relationship really lie. How you navigate through them will tell you volumes about yourself and your spouse.

Most of us though want to minimize that stuff. We want to feel harmony with our partner ten or twenty years into a relationship, not strife. Given that most marriages eventually devolve into divorce (and arguably many that remain are not that happy) finding that harmony without surrendering your self-identity and self-respect can be one of life’s thorniest problems.

As I mentioned in the first entry in this series, the best thing you can do before getting hip deep in the dating pool is to work on addressing your own issues. Granted, this is not an easy thing to do. We all come with baggage, but young adults do not tend to come with much money. Therapists are not cheap. Anything you can do to address what you feel are your biggest relationship problems before you get too far into intimate relationships will be time and money well spent. If you do not, you will be tackling them later. Moreover, if you are in a lifelong relationship, they will affect your spouse too.

Although hardly anyone bothers, simply writing down what you are looking for in a partner will make you more mindful of people who may meet your needs. It will also tell you a lot about yourself. Virtually all of us on some level will crave a partner who is attractive. However, your ideal partner is probably someone on roughly the same attractiveness scale as you. If you examine the standard deviation for the human population, after all, you will find relatively few 1s and 10s. Most of us are in the middle and that is perfectly okay. If you are one of these types for whom looks are paramount, you can save yourself a lot of grief by adjusting your standards. Not only is a perfect 10 likely saddled with their own baggage, if you were married to one of these people your life may be much more stressful than you can imagine. (For one thing, if you were the jealous type, you would be constantly worried about the competition eager to snatch him/her away.)

When your significant other suggests it is time to meet the family, rather than run away from this activity, you should embrace it. You will learn volumes about the person from their family. Let us say that you come from a family where your parents have a happy, comfortable and mutually fulfilling marriage. You discover that both your girlfriend’s parents have been divorced twice and she has known two sets of stepfathers. You find out that her brother is also divorced or had a child out of wedlock. You discover that Aunt Mabel hates Uncle Jeff. One or two incidents like this in a family is excusable, but still a caution flag. A family rife with these issues should be ringing your claxon bells. Know that if you marry this person the odds are your marriage will likely be full of similar issues.

I suspect you came from a family that had issues too. Full disclosure is the best policy. Let your boy or girlfriend shake out your family too. If you have concerns about her reaction to a particularly toxic person in the family, tell her about it in advance. Tell her what you have learned from of it, and how a long term relationship with you would be different.

It should go without saying that if your potential partner is evasive then claxon bells should be going off too. It is fine to be evasive if you are dating casually. It is another thing entirely if you are both seriously contemplating a lifelong relationship.

Indians have a rigid caste system that has endured for millennium. While I certainly do not endorse the system, the best partner for you is likely to be someone who is in a similar socioeconomic class. If your background and outlook is blue collar, you probably carry those values with you. Most likely, you will feel more comfortable with a partner who is also blue collar. Mixed marriages are fine, but the ones that are more likely to endure occur when both are from the same socioeconomic background. I dated two black women during my dating years. One was a pediatrician and the other the daughter of an Air Force general. I am sure a mixed marriage would have been full of challenges, but they would have been less so because both women came from solid middle class households where the parents were in stable marriages, like mine.

Your best guide is likely your gut instinct. If you feel uneasy about your potential partner, trust your instinct. He or she may be attractive and on the surface, everything may seem terrific. Wait for that someone who, when the flush of infatuation fades, still fills you with a warmth and contentment. He or she is likely the right partner for you.

The Thinker

Brought down to earth

Just what is going on at NASA? Until recently, most of us did not have much of a clue. Except on those tragic occasions such as when a space shuttle blows up, we mostly ignore the space program. We know what to expect. A few times a year, on a good year, NASA sends a space shuttle into orbit. It usually visits the International Space Station and while there, the astronauts typically do some heavy construction. Astronauts do all sorts of other research that we secretly suspect could be done for far less on Earth. We are also vaguely aware that NASA sends these neat unmanned satellites to distant places in our solar system. Only a few of us are aware that President Bush wants us to send men back to the moon, this time to live permanently, and to eventually colonize Mars. The NASA scuttlebutt is that in 2009, when presumably we get a Democratic president, most of these grandiose ideas will be killed, or scaled back.

All this is extremely interesting if you are a NASA insider. However, most of us do not care. The space program is, like, so 20th century! For us to pay attention to NASA it has to pander to concerns that are earthbound. So no doubt you did tune in when the bizarre and (we can accurately proclaim) other worldly story of now ex astronaut Lisa M. Nowak exploded in February. She was unceremoniously fired by NASA yesterday because she has been charged with attempted kidnapping and burglary with assault for what looks like a premeditated attack on fellow astronaut and Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman. Shipman had the audacity to get romantically involved with the same man with the right stuff that she wanted. He would be astronaut William A. Oefelein, a Navy commander and shuttle commander.

Despite being a woman astronaut on the hoof, the story doubtless would have received much less press had it not been for the bizarre means by which Nowak conducted her alleged assault. She drove 900 miles from Houston to Orlando, wearing an adult diaper all the way, because she could not be bothered to stop for bathroom breaks. She allegedly assaulted Shipman in an airport parking lot after following her to her car in an airport shuttle bus. She cleverly disguised herself in a trench coat and red wig and then allegedly tried to spray a chemical into her car. Shipman, naturally, wondered why this crazy chick with the bad wig was going postal at her, sped away and reported her to the authorities. She was arrested shortly thereafter.

Now Nowak joins a singular group of being the only astronaut ever fired, as well as the first to be charged with a felony. Instead of the right stuff, she showed that sadly an astronaut could have the wrong stuff. For the moment, she has returned to work for the U.S. Navy. Since she was technically on loan to NASA, the Navy will have to figure out whether Nowak, a naval officer, will also have to face military charges after she goes to trial for her alleged felonious conduct.

Things have not been tidy lately in Nowak’s life. She recently separated from her husband of 19 years, allegedly because she wanted to pursue Oefelein. She is the mother of three. Her relationship with Oefelein, until he dumped her in January for Shipman (who is about ten years younger than Nowak) was described as somewhere between more than friends but less than lovers. Maybe they were just f*** buddies.

Oefelein and Nowak never flew in the space shuttle together. After a ten year wait, Nowak finally got her opportunity to travel into space last July in STS 121. Shipman, who traveled into space on a recent shuttle mission, spent some of her free time in orbit steaming up the shuttle’s windows. Apparently, she and Oefelein were busy sending each other erotic emails. “First urge will be to rip your clothes off, throw you on the ground and love the hell out of you,” Oefelein, a divorcee, reputedly emailed to Shipman. Somehow, Nowak got copies of the emails. They were found in her possession after her tawdry airport parking lot encounter.

Yes, things look a bit grim for Nowak at the moment. Nevertheless, I predict that all’s well that ends well. We live in America, after all, where capitalism is our state religion. Nowak will soon learn that there is money to be made in scandal. Like Monica Lewinski, her tawdry story is good for at least six figures when she sells the TV and movie rights. There is also money in the book she will be encouraged to write. In it doubtless we will learn about a side of NASA that its public affairs office would prefer to keep under wraps. Oefelein should consider the advantages of selling out too. With luck we will get dueling made for TV movies, much like the many we got after the Joey Buttafuoco / Amy Fisher mess of the early 1990s. (I suspect that it did much to keep CNN solvent.) Perhaps like Monica, Lisa will eventually retail her own line of clothes. I suspect they are more likely to appear at a Marshalls than at a Nieman Marcus.

So cheer up, Lisa. That ankle-monitoring bracelet may be inconvenient right now. The time you might spend in prison and probation may not be fun. Your soon to be ex-husband will take care of the kids. Prison time will give you plenty of time for contemplation. Do yourself a favor, bring a journal, and write it all down. Let it all out, gal! It would be best though to write it all down now, while it is all fresh and while you can command the highest fees for rights to your “exclusive story”. Get yourself an agent, for you will need one. Your story will have legs for many years, particularly if you are wise enough to dole out little details to the media regularly. Eventually, if you do your marketing right, you will find it pays to discover redemption.

Here is what I recommend. Once released from prison, spend a year working for some hopelessly honorable charity like Goodwill. Make sure your agent gets the word out to the press. You want some reporter coming by at least once a week taking pictures and interviewing you about how you have changed. Start a charity that helps women cope with marital pain and suffering. Your career may now be earthbound instead of pointed toward the heavens, but it can now be much more materially rewarding than it has been to date. Think of this incident as a golden opportunity, not necessarily to learn any karmic lessons, but to repackage yourself. You are now Brand Nowak. If you can, start doing the talk show circuit. Confess your deeds on Oprah, if possible.

By the way, congratulations on getting into space. You are one of a select group to get into space, but it is also a group that keeps expanding. It looks like within a dozen years many of us with spare piles of cash will be able to get into outer space too. So it is unlikely that when they write your obituary your one trip into space will even be mentioned. Now, thanks to your moment of wigging out in such a spectacular and unforgettable fashion, you have achieved something many of us lust for but never achieve: immortality.

I may spend the rest of my life blogging and putting out my thoughts to the universe. Yet with one adult diaper, one crazed 900-mile journey, and one tawdry moment in a parking lot, the name of Lisa Nowak will live forever. You can use the money coming your way to put your children into elite colleges and universities – try doing that on an astronaut’s salary! You will retire early and if you invest your money wisely, perhaps it will be on your own private island. If you market yourself right, you will find plenty of men like Oefelein. Heck, once he discovers your new income potential, he may be ringing you up. Won’t that get the tabloids going! However, this can your only happen if you act quickly and engage America’s bottomless prurient interests.

Get moving, girl.


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