Archive for June, 2007

The Thinker

Some Quick Movie Reviews

Here are some quick movie reviews. These are movies that I either forgot to review, saw on airplanes or did not think merited a full review.

The Good Shepherd. This flick stars two of Hollywood’s hottest and most bankable stars: Matt Damon as the CIA operative Edward Wilson and Angelina Jolie as Clover, his incredibly attractive but mostly emotionally estranged wife. Usually when you put two highly attractive actors in a movie, you do not get much in the way of stellar acting. Happily, that is not the case here. By framing Matt Damon in a pair of ugly 1950s glasses worthy of Clark Kent he comes across as almost ordinary. Since this movie takes place over twenty years, the trick is to make him look ageless, which director Robert DeNiro manages to do rather convincingly. This is a suspenseful and intriguing story of a highly trusted CIA operative. It is about as good a movie as is possible to make in the spy genre. Over his long career, the secrets Wilson keeps for the good of his country seem to suck the soul right out of him, and you are right there with him. Both Damon and Jolie are at the top of their acting forms. For this, we can thank DeNiro, who proves his directing is as excellent as his acting. The film starts at the beginning of the Cold War, which allows Wilson to become a rising star in the brand new agency. This is a long movie (more than two and a half hours) but the time will zoom by. It is fascinating, deeply engaging, and often supremely suspenseful. You end up leaving the theater feeling not as if you just spent two and a half hours being entertained, but that you saw a movie. It will make you wistful for the days when movies were not commodities, but classy events. Two thumbs up. It rates 3.4 on my 4.0 scale.

The Painted Veil. Like The Good Shepherd, this movie also gives us two very marketable actors: Edward Norton as the medical researcher Walter Fane and Naomi Watts as his wife Kitty. Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham, this is a story we have seen many times in the movies: the consequences of coping with infidelity. However, this time it gets to happen in the 1920s in the exotic location of rural China in the midst of a cholera epidemic. At the time, after the fall of the Chinese dynasty, China was largely run by warlords, but also maintained a considerable British influence. The Chinese resented the British, as much for their advanced knowledge as for simply being foreigners. The cholera epidemic just happens to coincide with the rise of Chinese nationalism. This makes tough going for Walter, a specialist in infectious diseases who has to turn into a physician. It also makes things challenging for his bored wife, a victim of the British privileged class. As such, she is someone who has been minimally exposed to the real world. Boredom drives Kitty into helping out at a Catholic run orphanage and thus testing her mettle. Her husband treats victims of the cholera while working feverishly to solve the epidemic by bringing in fresh water down from up in the mountains. These grim circumstances bring to light a side of her husband that Kitty has never seen. Over time, she begins to admire and then to genuinely love him. It will not spoil anything to say the ending is tragic and poignant. This is a good Friday night in front of the television with popcorn kind of movie and better than most movies in its genre. 3.3 on my scale.

Shooter. What Hollywood needs is another convoluted action and conspiracy movie, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not. Shooter delivers on the action part, but the conspiracy element is very transparent. The movie is about a Special Forces sharpshooter played by Mark Wahlberg. Apparently, he had enough of the business and decided to retire and live a modest life with his dog in a house deep in the mountains of Montana. Like Matt Damon in The Good Shepherd he a passionate patriot. So why would he not want to help the Secret Service? Apparently, the Secret Service knows that there will be an outdoor assassination attempt on the president at one of three upcoming events. They say that it will be done by one of a handful of men like Bobby Lee Swagger capable of knocking off someone with a rifle from a mile away. They need Swagger as a consultant to help prevent the assassination. Swagger’s sense of patriotism eventually prevails and he agrees to help. Except, you guessed it, Swagger has been duped! This is not a good thing because when he is duped, Swagger gets very, very angry. Apparently, there is some mysterious group with a bigger agenda than merely running the United States that was using Swagger. It turns out that it is not the president, but some African leader who is the real intended victim. Before you can say “Trilateral Commission”, this African leader is dead and Swagger has been framed for his death. Naturally, despite all odds Swagger has to free his good name, but not before becoming a fugitive, engaging in all sorts of heroic stunts, hitching up with a babe who must fall for him (Kate Mara) and messing with a certain evil Senator Meachum (Ned Beatty). Meachum represents a nefarious uber-force that apparently controls the destiny of the world. Naturally, many of our national leaders are also aligned with this force. It seems to have the goal of ensuring that their kind keeps wielding global power. If you are a conspiracy buff, you might appreciate the movie. However, the plot is transparent. While it is reasonably well acted and is full of terrific chase scenes, it is not particularly suspenseful. You get the sense that despite it all that Swagger will win in the end and wreak vengeance. Perhaps it was written as homage to the many putrid Billy Jack movies put out in the late 60s and 70s. Fortunately, this is a better movie than any of them, but it still feels transparent and lacks the suspense you should feel with all those crazy chase scenes. So unless you really liked Billy Jack movies, you can give this one a pass. 2.8 on my 4.0 scale.

Surf’s Up. As those of you who read me regularly know, my wife is into penguins. So any movie with penguins, real or animated is on our short list to see. Surf’s Up is an animated movie about, you guessed it, surfing penguins! You might call Surf’s Up a penguin comedy. Another recent animated penguin movie, Happy Feet had comedic elements, but there was also this dang social message. You do not have to worry about anything like that in Surf’s Up. The star is an animated penguin named Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf). At a tender age he had an up-close encounter with Big Z, the legendary penguin surfing star (of course penguins surf!). Big Z is obviously modeled after the real life surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, who popularized the sport. The movie is full of mostly lowbrow humor but executes a few really funny ideas quite well. Rather than take place in Antarctica though, it takes place on some beautiful tropical island. Of course, holding penguin surfing contests on tropical islands does not make any sense, but nothing in this movie makes any sense including the surfing chicken, Chicken Joe. There are some definite chuckles in this movie. As animated characters, these are more distinct than most. The CGI is so good you get flawlessly rendered penguins and lush animated scenery. Like in Happy Feet, you will be taken on a few digital rollercoaster rides that will have you checking to make sure you are still in your seat. Wow, those animated waves are better than any you will find in a surfing movie! Nonetheless, my tolerance for these kinds of movies is rather low; it is rare that an animated movie that fully engages me. This did not. In fact, I came close to nodding off a few times. My wife liked it though. If I were not married to her, I would have given this one a pass. It manages to be clever yet it never fully engaged me. Perhaps I would have liked it better if I were in the mood for fluff. This movie would improve by having a gin and tonic before going into the movie. Give it 3.0 out of 4.0 stars for decent comedy and the cool CGI. Lacking it, it would have ranked a lot lower.

 
The Thinker

Crazy like a fox

I am not the type given to needless paranoia. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine how any impartial observer of Vice President Dick Cheney could read this week’s special Washington Post series on our vice president and not become very alarmed. Cheney needs to be neutered, and quickly. Dick Cheney is busy shredding our constitution. If the rule of law and our republican government are worth preserving, he must be held accountable.

Sadly, unless we raise a hullabaloo, that seems unlikely. There is some slim hope that Cheney will find it in his party’s interest to resign. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Sally Quinn asserts that Congressional Republicans are working on a putsch. Congressional Republicans seem less concerned about his un-American activities than they are about being blown away in the 2008 elections. Ms. Quinn believes that it will become convenient this summer for Cheney to resign for health reasons. She speculates that Bush would nominate Fred Thompson, the former Senator, likely presidential candidate and former Law and Order actor to replace him.

I strongly suspect such talk amounts to wishful thinking. As the Washington Post series documents, Cheney is so adept at wielding power and so used to having his way that he is unlikely to go voluntarily. Cancer works the same way. It enters the body surreptitiously, does its evil work, and refuses to leave. Cheney has become a cancer to our constitutional government. He is putting our republic in grave danger. Yes, Cheney needs to go along with any political appointee reporting to the Vice President. For even if Cheney did step down, that does not necessarily mean that the cancer would be in remission. A loyal coterie of trusted advisors would still work to carry out his agenda. Therefore, his whole staff has to go along with, if possible, any die hard neoconservative lurking in the Executive Branch.

Cheney has learned that the ceremonial trappings of the presidency slow down its fun part: the execution of power. He prefers the role of puppet master. He likes to exercise power through stealth, cleverness and proxy. After all, if you are actually in charge, you are accountable. If you are not then it becomes possible to bend, break, or in his case, generally ignore the laws, regulations and conventions. So perhaps in retrospect it should come as no surprise that he unilaterally declared that his office was exempt from an executive order which directed the collection of classified information. Although the White House was caught off guard, he knew that President Bush would retroactively back him up. What his act thoroughly demonstrates is that he cannot be controlled and does not feel at all bound by tradition or jurisprudence. He constructed a bizarre new and laughable constitutional theory that because of his nominal duties as president of the Senate he was not fully in the Executive Branch, so his office was exempt from a presidential directive to protect classified information.

This ridiculous explanation says a lot about Dick Cheney’s mind. In this case, it is a middle finger raised high at Congress. He simply does not give a damn about what the Congress thinks and this is his way of showing it. Like Leona Helmsley, he believes laws are for little people, and clearly not for Vice Presidents. Nonetheless, he does not believe in overtly breaking the law. Instead, he grossly misinterprets or reinterprets the law so that it bends to meet his aims.

The “tortured” reasoning of the Administration’s stance on torture (another Cheney innovation) is a case The Post well documented. If you need to torture but the law gets in the way then you arm-twist the White House counsel (Alberto Gonzales in this case, now our disgraced Attorney General) to give you legal opinions that say otherwise. If Jesus can turn water into wine, then surely empowered vice presidents can turn torture into legal enhanced interrogation techniques. Cheney wins through stealth, sheer audacity, intimidation and when necessary, bullying. Who in the Executive Branch would dare to take their concerns about his behavior directly to the president? Cheney is Bush’s closest confidant and best friend. As the Post series documents, Cheney has been denied virtually nothing. He specializes in the fiat accompli: proactively working behind the scenes making moot the work of cabinet secretaries and the White House staff. Today, The Post revealed that former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman resigned because Cheney kept undercutting her authority. Likely, others like Secretary of State Colin Powell are also members of this expansive club.

No wonder Cheney has no desire to be president in 2009. Effectively he has been the president since 2001! Bush, the proud model of a CEO President, has delegated policy decisions to Dick Cheney. Bush is a figurehead president, one of Cheney’s many tendrils that do his bidding. Unlike a real president, who occasionally has to do disagreeable things like hold news conferences and meet with boring foreign dignitaries, Cheney gets to concentrate on wielding power 24/7. He is Big Brother. Think I am kidding? Which one of these slogans from Big Brother does he not parrot? “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.”

How did he do it? He did it by getting Bush to buy into the Unitary Executive Theory. As Bush practices it, it asserts that the Executive Branch can execute the law any way it pleases because it is independent of the Legislative Branch, even if (as numerous signing statements bear out) it completely contradicts the intent of the law. If in exercising the Executive’s prerogative a constitutional mistake was made, well, it can be left to the Supreme Court. Of course, it will likely take years for it to get on their docket, if it makes it at all. In the interim, power is exercised according to the Executive Branch’s aims. Naturally, it is harder for the Supreme Court to check the Executive Branch today, since President Bush has appointed two new members to the Supreme Court, who seem sympathetic to the theory. Cheney made sure only proponents of executive power would be nominated.

The Unitary Executive Theory means nothing if it is not practiced. Not to worry, Cheney is again leading the charge. The GAO found that of 19 provisions in signing statements that it tracked during 2006, nearly a third were not carried out according to the law. In short, Bush and Cheney have deliberately chosen not to enforce the law of the land, laws which Bush signed. Consequently, what Bush and Cheney are doing is far graver and more serious than anything Richard Nixon or his proxies did. They knew they were doing wrong, but tried to hide it. The Bush Administration feels no need to hide any of it.

Law is meaningless if not enforced. We trust the Executive Branch to impartially carry out the law, whether it agrees with it or not. (The remedy for disagreement is the veto.) Rather than have coequal branches, the application of this theory grossly, disproportionately and unconstitutionally shifts power toward the Executive Branch. Rather than it being a check on the power of Congress, the application of the Unitary Executive Theory shows an Executive Branch that is unaccountable and out of control.

The easy way out is to wait until January 2009 and hope that in a free and fair election, we will elect a president that respects the rule of law. However, this does not deter egregious behavior like this by future presidents. Consequently, Congress needs to hold the White House accountable, and Cheney is the obvious target. For the law has been broken. The Bush Administration has deliberately circumvented the law of the land. Moreover, it did so not accidentally, but quite deliberately. Its fingerprints can be found in its many signing statements. If it requires a constitutional crisis to resolve the issue of legality of signing statements, Congress owes it to future generations to charge ahead.

We citizens must demand that our government add additional checks so that someone like Dick Cheney can never usurp the rule of law with impunity again. This may require a constitutional amendment that clarifies the legality of signing statements and the duties of the president to uniformly and impartially enforce the law. Cheney’s actions have exposed a gaping hole in our system of government. It has thus far not been a problem because we have had leaders who had sufficient respect for the constitution to put it above their own partisan purposes. We must ensure that our constitution becomes meaningful again through a constitutional amendment and subsequent legislation.

 
The Thinker

Surprising gifts to classical music fans from rock artists

Paul McCartney is not a name one associates with classical music. In fact, simply hearing the pop star’s name associated with such a genre is likely to cause the classical music purist to recoil. “Tut tut, move along”, they are likely to tell us. “Nothing to hear there!” On the other hand, they might complain that Paul McCartney’s “classical” music amounts to a dumbing down the genre. Instead of being serious music, it is pop classical music, and thus should be avoided.

Having finished my second listen of Paul McCartney’s latest foray into classical music, Ecce Cor Meum (Behold My Heart) this classical music aficionado feels more closely aligned to Duke Ellington who once said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” Ecce Cor Meum, Sir Paul’s nine-year musical quest to pay requisite homage to his late wife and the love of his life Linda McCartney, is good. It is meticulously orchestrated and is filled with choral music that delights my middle-aged ears.

It is not only good, in my book it is classical music. To say it is not suggests that any classical music written since Vivaldi is not classical either. Classical music, like any genre of music, is bound to morph over time. If I am to dismiss Paul McCartney’s classical music, I should also dismiss Aaron Copland for brazenly inserting pedestrian Shaker hymns into his music, or diss George Gershwin for Rhapsody in Blue because of its heavy jazz influence. Heck, I should throw out my Gilbert & Sullivan collection, because of its simplicity, pervasive humor and continued popularity. It seems to some classical music purists that it cannot really be classical music unless it would make your typical pimply faced teenager immediately recoil.

One characteristic of classical music is the complexity in the variations on musical themes that unfold as one listens to it. To me this is one of the principle joys of classical music and is what truly distinguishes it from other forms of music. When I am in the classical music zone, it is much like being on a boat at sea. Each wave is a subtle but different restatement of the one you heard before, and waves of different kinds may be coming at you from different directions. Yet somehow, they interlock, like puzzle pieces. When I am in the classical music zone, even if the piece is unfamiliar, I can anticipate the next few cords, but never get it quite right. Like a detective novel, the best pieces of classical music wrap up neatly in the finale. All the tensions and variations are resolved and there is little else to do at the end other than sharply inhale and, after a live performance, applaud.

In that sense, Ecce Cor Meum may disappoint. These are subtleties of the genre that McCartney either has not fully grasped or has chosen to avoid. Nonetheless, this 57-minute work of music, broken into four parts with an interlude often surprises and delights. It suggests to me that McCartney is simply putting his stamp on classical music. It may be a bit different, but it should not be objectionable. My favorite part of Ecce Cor Meum is the second movement (Gratia) wherein Sir Paul expresses musically just how grateful he is to be the recipient of Linda’s love.

Ecce Cor Meum is both moving and profound. Linda McCartney’s death of breast cancer may have been untimely, but it had the side effect of bringing out something resembling genius from Paul McCartney. Few of us can adequately express the love we feel for our spouse, but Paul found a way through music to express his overflowing sense of love, appreciation and deep gratitude for the joy and meaning that Linda brought into his life. Essentially the work is a musical love poem for Linda. By writing it, Linda has become immortal. Moreover, the work is of sufficient quality that long after Paul has departed it will live on, to humble and delight lovers and music fans everywhere.

Ecce Cor Meum is not Sir Paul’s first work of classical music. His first foray into the genre was in 1991 when he wrote Liverpool Oratio. I became familiar with this side of Sir Paul shortly after he released Standing Stone in 1997. Standing Stone is an impressive piece of classical music too. While it is perhaps a bit more chaotic than Ecce Cor Meum it is overall an amazing work of music and well worth your time and attention. Both works suggest that Sir Paul has a fundamentally optimistic and joyful perspective on life. Both works at their core are sweet and tender. You do not often find this in music coming from my gender, thus it is noteworthy when it occurs.

Unlike George Gershwin, Paul McCartney had no training in classical music. In fact, Paul has never learned to write music! This makes all of his music, but particularly his classical music, all the more remarkable, since he has to work closely with a transcriber. It also explains why his classical music upsets more than a few in the genre. However, free of the constraints that come with classical music training, Sir Paul is able to do things with classical music that would otherwise be taboo. In that sense, he is liberating classical music, and perhaps sowing the seeds for a future revival of classical music.

Paul McCartney is not the only pop star who has made the foray into classical music. More than one rock star has borrowed, in some cases quite heavily, from classical music or have written their own classical music. Others more learned than I can point to numerous examples. Two that I am aware of include Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson. Keith Emerson wrote an impressive work of classical music thirty years ago when Emerson, Lake & Palmer were nearing their break up. In Works, Volume 1, Emerson records a remarkable piano concerto, Piano Concerto No. 1. So that it does not get lost, I have included this link (17 MB, WMA) for your listening enjoyment. I hope that it inspires you to pick up the CD. As far as I am concerned, the rest of the CD is largely worthless, since I am neither a Greg Lake nor a Carl Palmer fan. I have looked for other classical works by Keith Emerson, but this seems to be a one-time wonder.

If you have examples of others known for rock or pop music that have turned out classical music, please leave a comment. I along with others would probably appreciate the opportunity to sample some of these odd delicacies.

 
The Thinker

Uninspired

Is anyone really inspired by any of the candidates currently running for President of the United States in 2008? I am not.

This is the first election in my lifetime where there is neither a president running for reelection nor his anointed vice president waiting in the wings. Consequently, it seems like everyone and his grandmother is running for president. With so many candidates to choose from, why does it feel like mediocrity abounds?

On the Republican side, there is Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City and current Republican Party front-runner. He put on a good show immediately after 9/11 but his overall record as mayor of New York City was hardly exemplary. He certainly had his peaks in popularity and he can take credit for removing much of the crime from the city. However, his style left much to be desired. He proved himself tin-eared, pompous, secretive and extraordinarily vindictive. His friend Bernard Kerik plead guilty to corruption charges resulting from his actions as Corrections Commissioner for the city. Despite this, Giuliani promoted him to the Bush Administration for Secretary of Homeland Security. You have to wonder what he might be smoking on the side to do something this stupid. Then there is his disastrous personal life which the national press so far has chosen to ignore. He not only cheated on his wife, but did so quite brazenly in public, in front of the tabloids and without a care in the world. New Yorkers were thrilled to see him leave office.

John McCain is certainly an honorable man, but he seems intent to dig his own political grave. Give him an A for sticking to principle on national security issues like Iraq. However, this is like giving Thelma & Louise an A for hitting the accelerator at the end of the movie. We do not solve terrorism by continuing a losing strategy.

Mitt Romney is handsome but is far more vulnerable to flip flopper charges than John Kerry ever was. He was proponent of gun control and then he was for the second amendment. He is now against gay marriage and civil unions but once supported domestic partner benefits. He was for stem cell research in 2002 but now opposes research using cloned embryos. Who is the real Mitt Romney? He will be whomever he needs to be to win the nomination, is what the answer appears to be.

The rest of the Republican bunch consists of unknowns who are very likely to remain unknowns. They may each have merits, but they have not demonstrated a way to connect themselves with the voters nationally. Say Senator Brownback and most people say Senator Who? They have no idea where he comes from or what he stands for. While he may have done some great things in the Senate, they were not great enough to garner national name recognition. Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore was my governor once upon a time. He cut the much hated car tax, but it came back to bite him when the recession arrived. Rather than pull back on the car tax, he gave short shrift to both roads and schools in order to pay for car tax relief. Mike Huckabee did nothing to distinguish himself while governor of Arkansas. Being mere U.S. representatives running for president puts Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo out to pasture. Representative Ron Paul is a libertarian and consequently unelectable. Fred Thompson is not officially in the race yet, but his short Senate career was hardly distinguished. At least he has name recognition from his Hollywood acting days. Tommy Thompson was at one time my boss (when I worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), but his work there was unremarkable. He is hoping he can connect with voters who remember his success chopping of the welfare roles in Wisconsin before President Clinton persuaded the Congress to do the same thing. However, that was so long ago though that most voters have forgotten.

On the Democratic side, there of course is Hillary Clinton, who has six years as a U.S. senator. I would count her eight years as First Lady but while she doubtless had influence she had no direct power. I keep trying to get excited over Hillary and I keep failing. She seems too stage-managed. As The Washington Post documented recently, she is staged managed. She has a whole slew of official and unofficial female advisers that act as her de-facto Praetorian Guard. Her biggest mistake of course was for voting for the Iraq War, a vote she still has not officially recanted. She recently voted against funding for continuing the Iraq War, likely because she knew it would play well politically with Democrats. However, she has also stated that she thinks that tens of thousands of U.S. troops will have to stay in Iraq indefinitely. How is this getting us out? She has the advantage of being attractive and articulate but she strikes me as simply more of the well moneyed centrist Democratic tradition. Mostly, she makes me want to yawn. If she had not been married to Bill, she would suffer the same ignoble fate as Elizabeth Dole.

Having voted for the Iraq war and then later saying it was a mistake also makes John Edwards a flip flopper. Perhaps to amend his mistake, he is now running not just against the war, but as a populist. Yet his populism strikes me as a bit too convenient and timely to be wholly sincere. I do not care if he spends $400 on his haircut, but I do care that he was stupid enough to charge it to his campaign. I like most of his positions but they seem curiously to be tailored to give red meat to the liberal wing of the party, and thus improve his chances at winning the nomination. Nor am I convinced that even if he were elected he would have the political savvy to get many of his great ideas through the Congress.

Barack Obama remains a terrific orator, but some inept steps during his campaign so far have made me cautious. He has something of an aura surrounding him the likes we have not seen since John F. Kennedy. However, it takes more than aura to be an effective president. I would like to see how he spends the next ten years as a politician before he tries to reach for the Oval Office.

I was quite enamored with Bill Richardson until I learned more about him. His credentials look great, until he goes along with the Republican line that Democrats (except him) are tax spenders. It is clear which party is the “charge everything to the national credit card” party, and it is not the Democratic Party. In addition, his command of certain facts left a lot to be desired. Sorry Bill, Roe v. Wade did not happen was not a 1980s Supreme Court decision. It was a 1973 decision.

Gravel is an amusing joke running for president. Kucinich is just a joke. Kucinich’s positions are so extreme and weird that even I, a good Democratic liberal, want to run away from him. That leaves two aging senators: Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd. Of the two, Biden has more name recognition and credibility. Nonetheless, this is hardly his first try for the presidency. He never garnered more than tepid interest so this dynamic is unlikely to change in 2008. Like Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, Biden also voted for the Iraq War, and at the time gave impassioned speeches about the major threat posed by Saddam Hussein.

Given the open field, it is surprising and disappointing that those who do have the necessary combination of gravitas, command of the field and the experience to run for president cannot seem be bothered. Maybe they realize what I have long suspected: actually being president is a lose-lose proposition. Even so, for the good of the country I think Al Gore and retired General Wesley Clark should throw their hats into the ring. I could support either with enthusiasm.

The United States is at a crucial point in its history. It needs someone of Lincoln’s stature to be president. Unfortunately, what we are getting are uninspiring candidates. Perhaps this will encourage independents to fill the void.

I am a good Democrat but if these are the best both the Republicans and Democrats are able to field, they would deserve it if an independent ran and won instead. We need excellence right now, not mediocrity or more of the same. I wish both parties could throw out the current candidates and bring in a set of fresh faces. We can do better than this.

 
The Thinker

The Graduate

Time sneaks up on you when you are a parent. One day you are changing your daughter’s diaper and the next she is on a stage being handed a diploma. You stand there applauding, tears streaming down your face and hoarsely shouting her name to ten thousand attendees. The principle shakes her hand with his right hand while giving her her diploma with his left hand.

It is strange and surreal. You would feel like singing “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof except you are too choked up to sing. Also, there is the constant drone of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” from the school orchestra. Still, you would sing it if you could, for you are filled with a powerful and bittersweet feeling. Your heart just aches for the love you feel for your child, now a woman.

Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don’t remember growing older
When did they?
When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he get to be so tall?
Wasn’t it yesterday
When they were small?

Your heart also aches in sorrow, for the bridges of dependency you know you must slowly burn as your daughter to transitions into an adult. You want her to stay at home forever, playing video games, attending sleepovers and going to Girl Scout meetings. Instead, you realize that part of the parenting experience is behind you. You now express your love by letting her go. Now comes a time when love will look a little sterner and at times a little heartless. Every bird reaches an age when the parent unceremoniously kicks the hatchling out of the nest. So too do you realize that it is your solemn parental duty to do the same, perhaps not by suddenly changing the locks, but by sending your daughter out to get a real job, and to learn to do things like paying rent. Since she has elected to take a year off before going to college, she has to get a job to stay at home. After she turns eighteen, our daughter will start paying us rent, $200 a month to start.

When not overcome by emotion you sit there in the George Mason University Patriot Center, one of ten thousand attendees and are a bit mesmerized by the size of the crowd and the enormous Class of 2007. For our daughter Rosie is a graduate of Westfield High School in Chantilly, Virginia. To say she is one of many is to put it mildly. There are over seven hundred students in her graduating class. It will take a full hour for all the graduates to get their diplomas. Principle Tim Thomas’ arms will be sore for a week.

The number of graduates may be huge, but I am feeling wistful anyhow. This is the sort of high school graduation that I wanted but I never received. Instead of a huge auditorium, my class graduated at the Daytona Beach Kennel Club. Unlike my graduation, where a thunderstorm took out the lights for ninety minutes, this graduation proceeded like clockwork. And unlike my graduation where a fair number of graduating seniors smoked reefers in the darkness while they waited for the lights to come back on, at this graduation the mere failure of the men to wear black pants or the girls to wear a black dress and heels was sufficient grounds to be thrown out of the ceremony.

Yes, it may be corny, but an orchestra has to play “Pomp and Circumstance”. Of course, there has to be brief speeches by the principle, the class historian, the class president and the class valedictorian, none of which really inspires anyone, particularly the graduates. They are more focused on the all night party at the school that will follow graduation. Still, these things are necessary. It is how the reality of graduation sinks in. Anything less and the ceremony is stripped of its meaning and dignity. Still, these graduates are not without a sense of humor. Despite stern admonitions and a pat down of students before graduation, two inflatable beach balls were tossed among the graduates while diplomas were handed out. In addition, despite stern warnings not to do so, a few yahoos in the audience used their air horns anyhow. No graduation is complete without it turning into something of a popularity contest; you can judge a graduate’s popularity by the volume of cheers he or she gets when their name is announced.

Nonetheless, my daughter’s graduation was still deeply satisfying for this parent. I found myself crying at strange times, like when the orchestra struck up a tune from West Side Story but the graduates had not yet filed in. Perhaps it was the jet lag (I had arrived home from Denver, at 1 AM, and was up at 6:30 AM). Perhaps it was the wedding I attended the day before. (I was crying through that too.) On the other hand, perhaps through my daughter’s graduation I was vicariously experiencing the graduation I wanted, but was denied.

It was likely all these things, but mostly I was feeling obnoxious pride at my daughter’s accomplishment. She may not have been class valedictorian, but that was an unattainable goal among 700 plus students anyhow. For now, her proud father was simply awed that she had survived high school and eked out a better than B average. That is no small accomplishment in the 21st century and in a high school ranked 128th in the country. Despite her inexperience, my daughter adroitly dodged all the teenage minefields in front of her. She could have become drug addicted, hooked on tobacco, pregnant, in a car wrapped around a telephone poll or acquired some social disease. She rebelled by truly being different, even among her peers. Not many freshmen would join the Gay-Straight Alliance, or go on to be its vice president. While mostly she navigated below the radar of the preppy and popular, when she stood up, she did so for things she believed in: like civil rights for those whose lifestyle offended the majority of Virginians. How could I not feel pride in a young woman whose values are that well grounded?

As one of the speakers said, graduation is really the end of the beginning, as in the end of childhood. Now our daughter begins a strange and much different chapter of her life, where she navigates regularly to a job, does things she does not want to do for eight hours at a time, smiles when she does not want to, pays rent and learns to live within her means. Perhaps she will learn some other lessons, like what it feels like to be fired, laid off or to make a catastrophically bad choice that eluded her in high school. She will have that right in September when she turns 18. She tells me that one of the first things she plans do when she turns 18 will be to register to vote.

That is how we all learn, of course: by making choices and observing their results in the often nebulous minefield called reality. She is bound to stumble and she will have to learn how to recover by herself. Perhaps this year off from education will be the best education she will ever get. For the one course they cannot teach you in high school is how to navigate real life. Some things cannot be taught; they can only be experienced.

I expressed my confidence that she will make these choices wisely. I too must learn some new skills. I must learn to keep my lips buttoned and to give advice only when asked, and maybe not even then. Our daughter remains leery and cautious about engaging life, but she is not dysfunctional. She remains a nerdy, eclectic but sweet young woman, much like her parents. Her sense of caution will serve her well. She will sort it out in her own way. Her choices may surprise us and occasionally disagree with us. However, those choices will be authentically her own.

We have released the tether and she is unmoored. She is trying out the oars of her life tentatively. Ever so slowly, she will recede from our view.

 
The Thinker

The beautiful are a different species

I am a man with average looks. No one will ever rate me as anywhere close to a 10. Essentially I am too average looking to merit a rating, neither beautiful nor ugly, but simply ordinary. Like most ordinary people, I hang out with other ordinary people because there are so many of us but also because like types attract. We are all comfortable hanging with our tribes. My tribe consists of mostly other ordinary looking people, generally but not exclusively Caucasian like myself and generally in their middle years like me. They often come with above average intelligence and waistlines. We shop at Target and buy our clothes from places like Kohls. We have no idea why we would ever want to shop at stores like Nieman Marcus.

I do not often have a chance to hang out regularly with beautiful people. When I do, my relationship with them tends toward the superficial. Just as ordinary people tend to cluster together, the beautiful tend to hang around with other beautiful people. Since the beautiful are a distinct minority, if members of their group are not readily available, money and/or status (they usually go together) can be acceptable too. There certainly are cases of beautiful people marrying ordinary and not terribly well moneyed people but they are relatively rare.

It strikes me that life serves up more choices to the beautiful. If you are beautiful woman and have the choice between marrying an ordinary looking man who earns middle class wages and an ordinary man who has deep pockets then there is little reason to settle for less. Of course, if you are a beautiful woman, there is a good chance that you will get the opportunity to marry an attractive man who is also well moneyed. Unlike the rest of us, the beautiful tend to get these options. The ordinary like me get to marry other ordinary people, people who are wonderful, deep and personable in their own right but from the perspective of the beautiful, I suspect appear as mere table scraps. If you are beautiful, you probably do not need to spend much time looking for quality mates. You may have to seek out the beautiful and well moneyed, but the rest will likely seek you out.

The beautiful may not have asked to have been born beautiful, but since they are beautiful many of life’s pathways are set for them. They will get disproportionate and perhaps unhealthy attention. They are less likely to get speeding tickets or for that matter spend time in jail. Just as most women cannot resist a gorgeous bouquet of flowers, men find it difficult not to watch beautiful women. Women, as Fabio demonstrates, find it hard to ignore beautiful men. (Actually, many women are also checking out other women, because they have learned they should continuously check out the competition.) Our response to beautiful people tends to be hardwired into our genes. It is hard not to desire their time and attention.

I have a sister who is beautiful. She is tall, blonde, and lithe and like much of my family, overly educated. Although married for more than twenty years (to an ordinary guy) she is constantly getting unsolicited offers of affection from other men. She has a learned how to brush them off tactfully. She has also learned to take defensive measures. Unless the situation calls for it, she does her best to underplay her beauty. This means skipping the makeup, wearing her hair down, dressing down and the strategic use of sunglasses.

As we come from a large family, she also has many nieces and nephews. It may well be a coincidence, but since she has no children of her own she has concentrated her attention on a favorite niece. This niece is also beautiful. My sister is a vegetarian. Over the course of many long summers hosting my niece, my niece has picked up her vegetarianism too, not to mention much of her outlook and mannerisms. There is no question that my sister is her favorite aunt. It appears to me that my beautiful sister, perhaps subconsciously, is grooming her niece for inclusion into her tribe. I think my niece is learning valuable lessons from her too. They will prepare her for a long life full of dealing with the reality of being beautiful. In that sense, my sister is doing my niece a great kindness. This is not surprising, for my sister is also a very kind and compassionate woman.

If there is one thing I admire about beautiful people, it is their ability to eat healthy portions of food. Not all of them are completely successful, of course. In the extreme cases, they become bulimic. For ordinary people like me, such self-control is akin to magic. I tend to avoid junk food but if it readily available it tends to be hard to skip. In some ways, I see food as compensation for not being beautiful. Perhaps if I were beautiful and had plenty of positive attention then food would be less alluring. Instead, like many Americans, I see food as readily available compensation for things that are denied me, like the privileges that appear to come with being beautiful. I know the right strategies for weight loss, but the consistent day-to-day application of these strategies is a continual struggle. For the beautiful, it appears to be no struggle at all. I can eat a half dozen chocolates at a time. They seem to have the self-control to consistently stop after one.

Some weeks back I had the opportunity to spend the better part of a week with younger, single beautiful woman. Our relationship was of course cordial, since it was business related. In addition to being one of these beautiful women with almost no body fat like my niece she is a former gymnast. Her posture is always perfect. In the days we spent together, I never once saw her slouch. Her breakfast consisted of a granola bar. She could eat a bite of it, then put it away and have another bite an hour later. When we dined together, she was always served standard American portions of food. In other words, her portions were enormous. She never ate more than half of what was served. I simply do not have that kind of will. I have to finish what is on my plate. Not only do I want eat all my food, but I hear my mother’s voice echoing in my brain, “It is a sin to waste food.” Gluttony is also one of the seven deadly sins but naturally, I defer to my mother’s admonitions. I finish my serving and I often find myself wanting more.

My colleague’s weakness is coffee. She gets many of her daily calories from Starbucks. Even here, she exercised a surreal sense of control. She does not mind if her coffee gets tepid. She could still be sipping from it an hour or two later. In restaurants, she was incapable of ordering something greasy like a cheeseburger with fries.

Like many beautiful people that I have come to know, talking with her was sometimes a strange experience. I think this came from each of us viewing the world through such different lenses. We could express thoughts, but they often did not translate correctly. There were times when I felt like I was talking with a Martian. I think this was in part because in many fundamental ways we had trodden different paths through life. She did not appear to understand gluttony, for example. It was even hard to share life experiences. We both came from ordinary families, but her path through life had given her a much different window on our world.

While I certainly respect her as a person and colleague, by the end of the week I had had enough. Her world was just a little too strange to me. I was grateful to come home to my ordinary wife and our ordinary world. As she described it, returning home meant taking off her shoes the moment she walked in the door because she did not want to stain the carpet. Mine was to come home, kick back, pet the cat and watch a West Wing episode into my DVD player. I can imagine being married to a beautiful person. While I am sure it is great to wake up in bed every morning next to such a stunning work of nature, I think the other hours of the day would leave me feeling as if we had little else in common.

She, like my sister and my niece remain in their own little tribe. I, an ordinary person, seem content within mine. I cannot help but watch the beautiful people I encounter in life, and in some way envy them. However, the older I get the less envy I feel and the more value I find in being ordinary. In some ways, I feel sorry for the beautiful. They appear trapped in a slightly artificial world where real life is not quite the way they experience it. It must be hard to be both beautiful and grounded in reality. On the other hand, perhaps by being beautiful they have created their own version of reality wherein the rules work a bit differently from mine, but the effect is still the same.

They seem to be their own species, these beautiful people. It is curious that we elect so many of these beautiful people to be our leaders. How many of them though are effective leaders? Is their beauty something of a barrier to serving the public? Can they truly empathize with people like you and I, or are they just good at faking empathy? Should we be voting for average looking people like Bill Richardson and Fred Thompson rather than beautiful people like John Edwards and Mitt Romney?

My suspicion is that all things being equal I would be in better hands with Bill in charge rather than John.

 
The Thinker

Savannah: New Orleans Lite

Savannah, Georgia is where I am currently hanging out.

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I have this room at the local Hyatt, an allegedly four star hotel, that looks down on the Savannah River. The view from my room is satisfying. Tugboats periodically push freighters up and down the river. This gives me close encounters with ships that I rarely get. A yacht that looks fancy enough for Donald Trump is parked beneath my window. Also tethered nearby is a riverboat with a big paddlewheel that takes tourists out onto the river. Just up the river is the Talmadge Memorial Bridge, an impressive a cable-style bridge. Completed in 1991, it has given this otherwise sleepy Southern city an impressive and stylish new landmark. It will soon be hard to imagine Savannah without the bridge, in the same way it is hard to imagine New York without the Statue of Liberty.

This is not New York though; this is the South. I know I am back in the Deep South when I hear that distinguished muddy Georgian southern accent and have a hard time finding a restaurant without grits on the menu. Nevertheless, that is okay. The problem with most of the South these days is that it has lost its character. Atlanta is a case in point; it has gone crazy and completely morphed from its roots because it got addicted to growth. Savannah seems content to remain an old-fashioned Southern City. It has become gentrified, but in a good way. It is like New Orleans, but without most of its crime as well as its inebriated and often licentious patrons. Rather than having a French Quarter, it should have an Irish Quarter. Reputedly, it has the second largest St. Patrick’s Day parade outside of New York City. It is not hard to hear Irish brogues walking around this city. Yet there are other accents too. Whereas not too long ago the city was almost exclusively white and black, now it is increasingly multicultural. Russian was just one of the languages I heard this evening strolling along River Street, an aptly named road mostly for pedestrians that is right next to the Savannah River’s south side.

Also largely absent, at least from downtown Savannah, are many of the common markers of globalization. There is a Starbucks but it is several blocks away from my hotel. There are no Wendy’s or McDonalds within walking distance of downtown, at least that I have discovered. There are lots of independently owned restaurants, as well as restored vaguely Victorian-like buildings. It is a sleepy southern city that understands its current success is due to careful marketing and restoration. Minus much of New Orleans’ crime and poverty, it is much more approachable. You can find championship golf, horse drawn wagon rides and tours of Savannah’s many haunted areas. Savannah has a rich history of murder and scandal that presumably is now mostly in its past. The modern Savannah now sees these dark days as a marketing opportunity. You can take tours of its haunted areas conveyed in hearses.

For a haunted city, Savannah nonetheless has its charms and unique features. I like the little parks scattered every few blocks here in the downtown area. They are lined with tall and shady trees, and often come with a fountain. I imagine that in its pre-air conditioned days these parks were lovely oases for tired and hot souls. They still are. Although I am sure children are discouraged from playing in the fountains, I suspect in the height of summer that the temptation become too much to resist.

There is traffic in Savannah, but it is manageable. The streets are clean and well maintained. At least this is true until you move toward the outskirts of the city. Then it becomes a city rife with strip malls, fast food outlets and billboards.

I was charmed by Savannah’s airport, simply because it is small compared to the airport I regularly fly in and out of: Washington Dulles International Airport. There were no underground trams or movable walkways because the terminal is not big enough to need one. There is no need to worry about airport congestion because the airport does not have enough traffic to become congested. Despite the short walk to baggage claim and being in Seat 1A in the little regional jet I flew in on, my baggage had arrived at baggage claim about the time I had walked there.

I am here to press the flesh and to give a presentation tomorrow. An organization called the National Hydrologic Warning Council is convening here. While NOAA and the USGS are the two heavyweight federal agencies affiliated with the NHWC, there are other smaller and regional organizations affiliated with it too. Despite its name, this group does important work. One only needs to witness the mess that was Hurricane Katrina to understand why the NHWC is needed. It is in the business of sharing information on how to predict and warn affected people and organizations of major storm events like floods and hurricanes. My agency, the USGS is in the business of constantly monitoring the nation’s streams, lakes and ground water. The data we collect on the near real time stream flow conditions is in high demand by these people. Its ready availability and accessibility is crucial to their forecasting needs.

What I have learned so far is that it is easier to predict the effects of these events than to figure out ways to get the information to the right people so that lives and property are saved. The predictions for Hurricane Katrina were right on the money. So why did government on all levels do such a bad job of managing its effects on people? This is some of the dialog occurring at this conference. In part, I am here to point a way toward the future, by showing how my agency is working to make its stream flow data more accessible to other monitoring systems using a technology called web services. Savannah has seen its share of devastating hurricanes, so it is an appropriate place to hold a conference like this. It also makes an interesting place to visit, if only for a few days.

My family moved to Daytona Beach when I was fifteen. The Deep South was quite a shock for someone raised in upstate New York. It never agreed with me. Five and a half years were enough. After college graduation, I moved to the Washington D.C. area. I have been reasonably happy there ever since. Still, I found this reacquaintance with the Deep South a pleasant experience. Time moves a bit slower here in Savannah. It is not suffering from the effects of crazy growth as we have in Virginia. Savannah has figured out a way to live in the 21st century while being true to its Southern roots. Perhaps there is some wisdom here in the old South that my youthful prejudices could not see.

I hope life takes me to Savannah again. Next time I hope I will be here strictly for pleasure.

 
The Thinker

Review: Good Night, and Good Luck

I was alive in the 1950s, but just barely. I was born in 1957, but by that time, the wreckage done to our civil liberties by the anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and the first half of the 1950s had been mostly cleared away. America was still a pretty up tight and paranoid place, but the era of blacklisting was at least over. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the famous junior senator from Wisconsin who saw communists everywhere pervading our government, was the key figure of his age whipping up anti-communist hysteria. He died at age 48 in the same year I was born. Few mourned his passing.

As is well known, the CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow was instrumental in Senator McCarthy’s fall from power. The 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck chronicles the intersection of these two powerful men in the 1950s. Senator McCarthy is played by himself; he appears only in historical footage. Rather than try to recreate the already well-documented hearings of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, the film tightly focuses on CBS News, Edward R. Murrow and the staff of his influential TV show See It Now.

The film was written and directed by the actor George Clooney. Clooney also played the part of Fred Fielding, the CBS producer of See It Now. Its release in 2005 struck me as hardly coincidental. Indeed, near the end of the film, we see archival footage of President Eisenhower eloquently speaking about how American is differentiated by our respect for the inalienable right to Habeas Corpus. This just so happens to be a right that was recently denied to many so called enemy combatants from our War on Terrorism not to mention a handful of American citizens. Nor is Edward R. Murrow portrayed as an evenhanded journalist. He recognized McCarthy for what he was: a power monger and a threat to our constitutional government and civil liberties. In the movie Murrow, with the sometimes with the halfhearted support of CBS News management, makes no secret of his desire to bring down the imperial Senator McCarthy.

Shot (or at least rendered) in black and white this film is really a short (93 minute) behind the scenes look at Murrow, CBS and the See It Now staff during these decisive times. The film feels quite authentic. The 1950s were a much different place than our current decade. The film shows it as a time when the cigarette was king. It seemed like everyone smoked, and almost everyone in this movie is smoking all the time. Murrow himself was a chain smoker. His addiction killed him in 1965. The film often seems shot behind a gauzy curtain of tobacco smoke.

Actor David Strathairn, who won a nomination for best actor for this movie, powerfully renders Murrow. There is no doubt that Murrow was courageous journalist. Although his reputation was impeccable, taking on Senator McCarthy was still a nervy and very dangerous thing for him to do. We are also given some insight into CBS senior management, including Chairman William Paley (Frank Langella) as well as others on the See it Now staff. This includes two on the staff who were married, but had to hide their relationship in order to keep their jobs. It also portrays others on the staff who were worried they would be blacklisted for activities years ago that were now considered un-American.

The movie is so tightly focused that it lacks the broader context. If you know anything about those times, you know what eventually transpired. Consequently, there is little in the way of suspense. Indeed, hardly halfway through the movie Murrow is successfully delivering his first body blows against Senator McCarthy. The movie adds little illumination to the events of the 1950s. Instead, it serves primarily to illuminate modern audiences into the journalist Edward R. Murrow. It also portrays something we do not see much of these days from our media: genuine journalistic courage and a willingness of senior news management to risk reputation and profits in pursuit of the public’s agenda. Of course, it was easier to do it in those days, when the networks ruled the airwaves.

While I enjoyed the film, I felt that it won so many plaudits largely because of the times that we live in. Would this movie made in 2000 have garnered as many award nominations or as much interest by the media? I think not. Arguably, we needed a courageous media in 2005 more than in 2000. Perhaps one point of the movie was to encourage our modern media to develop some spine.

Overall Good Night, and Good Luck feels more like a political statement than anything else. It feels like an attempt by George Clooney to establish his liberal credentials and to win kudos from the Hollywood elite. I can think of much better political movies that were far better than Good Night, and Good Luck. (All the President’s Men comes to mind.)

Good Night, and Good Luck is neither a bad movie nor a mediocre movie. It is just a pretty good movie. It is worthy of a rental for the fine but focused rendering of CBS News in the 1950s, as well as Strathairn’s faithful portray of Edward R. Murrow. It is a succinct history lesson for those less than age fifty, as well as a convincing portrayal of the broadcast world of that era. While an important work, it is not a seminal work. Children of Men, which I recently reviewed, is a seminal work of art.

Good Night, and Good Luck gets 3.2 on my 4.0 scale.

 
The Thinker

Oh, the humanity!

It is completely impossible to ignore Paris Hilton when she is in the news. I wish I could ignore her, but unfortunately, the media will not let me. They figure I want to know all about her tawdry little life as the exceedingly spoiled and obnoxious heiress of the Hilton estate. The latest vital news bulletin assaulting me on Yahoo! News is that after three days in the clink for violating the terms of her probation (driving on a suspended license) the Los Angeles County sheriff sent her home to serve her sentence because of an “unspecified medical condition”. To make sure she did not resume her habit of driving drunk or going 70 miles an hour without headlights in the dark on a 35 mile an hour road, she was required to wear an ankle bracelet and not leave her house. Now Paris is being hauled in front of the judge again to see if she should go back to jail. Of course, poor Paris, probably because of her unspecified “medical condition”, wanted to “phone in” her court hearing.

I did not want to know any of this. However, now that I know I want to fly to Los Angeles, find Paris and slap her on both cheeks. That might get me thrown into the clink too for assault, but it would be worth it. Maybe Paris and I can get adjoining cells. This is unlikely though. Because she is a celebrity and I am not she gets special treatment. She is housed in a special wing of the Los Angeles County jail for people like her. Lord knows that is punishment enough; interacting with ordinary lawbreakers would amount to cruel and unusual punishment, which is unconstitutional. One thing is for sure. Even if Paris and I were in jail together, the Los Angeles County sheriff would not be releasing me to home custody for an unspecified medical condition, despite my inflamed hangnail.

Yes, of course Paris should serve her 23-day sentence, which has already been cut in half from the original 45-day sentence. She should serve it to demonstrate that no one, including celebrities, is above the law. The reality of course is that with a few exceptions the rich and the famous do get a higher tier of, er, service from the judicial branch.

Most of us though when we are in the presence of a celebrity lose all sense of perspective, which is likely what happened to this sheriff. We are too awed simply being caught in their aura to impartially appraise them as fellow Homo sapiens. There is something about being a celebrity, or just plain beautiful, that interferes with our prefrontal cortexes. Celebrities of course know this. This is the one muscle they have that operates reflexively. So it is a natural law that they will use their talent, charm and ready reserves of cash to ensure they keep living in their artificial bubble, free from any kind of pain or inconvenience.

You have to understand that Paris is suffering, poor dear. She is used to five star hotels. Can you imagine the shame and humiliation of being sent to a common county jail and forced to sleep on a thin mattress? To make your own bed every morning? To be woken up at an inconvenient hour and being told when to do things like eat and take a shower? Oh, the humanity! Three days apparently was sufficient for her to feel total repentance. “I am going to serve the remaining 40 days of my sentence,” she said today. “I have learned a great deal from this ordeal and hope that others have learned from my mistakes.”

Yes, she has learned that three days in jail is enough for a Hilton heiress, who should never have been subjected to such an indignity in the first place. The very idea! Not to fret. Even though she is at home, the remaining 37 days will be just as rough on her. After all, she cannot dash off on her private jet anytime she wants to for a while. She is limited to her tiny palatial estate, her toys, her closets full of shoes, her cell phone and her many airhead celebrity friends. Imagine the powerful lesson she will learn when she is forced to get up whenever she feels like it. Doubtless, she will be crying in shame when she takes those laps in her private pool.

However, I am all for an alternative sentence. I think Paris should spend her remaining 37 days, not in the Los Angeles County jail, but in Darfur. There she can do some community service, perhaps by handing out Giorgio Armani handbags to the raped and pillaged women who have to call these squalid and unsafe refugee camps home. For the children, DVD’s of the Telatubbies are in order. Bring many cases of Evian water, Paris. I am sure the women there will be quite grateful. It would be thoughtful to give them 50% off coupons for their next visit at a Hilton hotel or resort. Spread the love, Paris!

One thing going against her is that because she is a particularly obnoxious spoiled celebrity, American’s dander has been raised. Members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors report over 400 angry emails and hundreds of phone calls from the public all with one common theme: put that chick back in the clink! Paris should count her blessings. The days of the French Revolution are long past. Instead of a mob leading her to a guillotine, she just has to spend a few uncomfortable weeks on a thin mattress and then go back to her surreal opulent and spoiled life. Perhaps she can tell her harrowing story in a Barbara Walters exclusive interview.

I will be happy if she just serves out her tiny little sentence. I know that most celebrities will continue to get a different standard of justice than the rest of us. However, I am particularly grateful that this 26-year-old spoiled brat finally had her comeuppance, modest though it may be. She will soon be back living her bubble, but for a few weeks, she will have glimpsed an entirely new world called reality.

 
The Thinker

Death by Suburb

The suburbs are literally killing us.

Not only are they killing those of us who live in the suburbs, the suburbs are also killing our planet. Somehow, we have to break our addiction to suburban living.

In the short term, this seems unlikely. As documented in the lead article in this week’s Washington Post Magazine, more and more of us are literally driven to extremes. The article documents a few of the more egregious marathon commuters here in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. However, the phenomenon is hardly limited to the area where I live. Los Angeles pioneered it. Two hundred mile daily commutes like Marc Turner’s (as documented in the article) are becoming more and more common. The four hours Turner spends behind the wheel every workday gives him his affordable house in the suburbs for his wife and children. Unfortunately, his affordable house is in Charlottesville, Virginia and his job is in McLean, Virginia. He leaves for work around 7:30 AM and typically does not get home until sometime after 9 PM.

Turner drives 1000 miles a week getting two and from work. Think about this. 1000 miles is roughly the same distance between Washington D.C. and Miami. Imagine driving that distance every week to stay fully employed. But here’s the wackier thing. It would be faster to drive those miles between Washington D.C. and Miami. Even with modest traffic type ups on I-95 you can reasonably expect to average 55 miles an hour, which means you could drive that distance in 18 hours. During a typical week, Turner spends 20 hours a week getting to and from his job. This number will only go up. As traffic volume increases, roads become more congested and accidents increase. This will mean of course a longer commute. Every year a few minutes per day will be added to his commute.

Assuming he gets four weeks of leave a year, he commutes 48,000 miles a year. Turner drives a 1999 Saab 9-3 that according to the EPA averages 20 miles per gallon. Thus, his car consumes around 2400 gallons of gasoline a year commuting. Being kind and estimating only $2.75 a gallon for gasoline, he spends $6600 annually just for gas for his commute. This works out to $550 a month. Of course, there are the other costs of commuting like car payments, depreciation, auto service and other miscellaneous expenses. It is likely that the true cost of his commute is $1000 a month or more.

Those are just his direct costs. What are the costs to the planet? According to the EPA, the average car emits 12,100 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere per year. By my calculation, Mr. Turner’s car emits 53,095 pounds of carbon per year just in commuting, or more than four times the national average.

I suspect his job in Tysons Corner, Virginia pays a lot more than he could make in Charlottesville. Presumably, that helps compensate for the time, distance and expense of his commute. Nevertheless, you have to wonder. He spends at least twenty hours a week commuting. Let us assume he has a high tech job in Tysons Corner that pays $100,000 a year. That is $48.07 an hour. However, if you consider the time commuting as working time then he is working 60-hour weeks and is earning $32.05 an hour. My bet is that he could find a job in Charlottesville that is equivalent, pays at least this much per hour and he would have 20 more hours a week to do something other than commute. His marriage would improve and he would do more than glance at his kids every day. He probably makes the commute in part because he wanted a larger lifestyle than he could afford earning $32.05 an hour in Charlottesville.

Turner’s case is perhaps one of the more egregious ones. Yet as the Post Magazine article points out, he has plenty of company. Rush hour traffic is starting well before 6 AM on roads in West Virginia heading for Washington D.C. All that time sitting in a car though by yourself though is unhealthy. First, humans are social creatures. Not many of us would choose to spend four hours in a locked room by ourselves every day. Doctors worry about people developing blood clots from long airplane rides. What do you do to your health sitting in a car seat four hours a day? As the article documents, commuters have three times the likelihood of getting a heart attack in a car as opposed to not being in a car. I am also betting that with his marathon commuting lifestyle, Turner is not getting anything resembling regular exercise.

Why are we doing this to ourselves? Most likely, we are chasing the lifestyle our parents knew. Our desire to have a similar lifestyle is understandable. We are comfortable having this kind of lifestyle and it would be disconcerting and embarrassing if we cannot have it. There are many reasons why this kind of lifestyle is increasingly challenging. The principle one is that there are many more human beings than their used to be. There is also a big disparity between where the good jobs are and where affordable housing exists.

The suburban lifestyle is also bad for our health. You cannot live in a suburb without a car. Instead of walking somewhere, you are likely to drive there instead. Of course, with all that commuting getting any exercise if problematical. And speaking of commuting, if your suburb is like mine then it is probably missing a bus service. We actually do have a bus but it operates during rush hours only. Most of the time it runs empty. We cannot be bothered to take it because it is not convenient. It does not run frequently enough and it does not necessarily take us where we need to go anyhow.

Of course, most of us who do have access to a bus in the suburbs are already living out here. We bought in when prices were affordable. I could no longer afford to buy a house in my own neighborhood. My house, bought for $191,000 in 1993 is now worth close to half a million dollars. Unless a new couple comes complete with some very generous parents or have excellent jobs, the $3000-$4000 monthly mortgage payments are probably out of their price range. Therefore, they are buying further out instead.

There are alternatives, but they require reorienting your perspective and values. One alternative is to move far away from major metropolitan areas and live a smaller, more downsized life doing work that probably is less challenging and does not pay as well. Another alternative is to surrender those dreams of a house in the suburbs and a good neighborhood school for your kids. You have to imagine a lifestyle like in that 60s TV show, A Family Affair, where you and the kids live in an apartment or condominium somewhere in or very near the city. Unless the walls between units and floors are very thick, expect to have your neighbors in your face a lot more. You will still pay a lot for that apartment or condominium and it will have half the space or less of that house in the suburbs. However, at least you will be close to where you work. You will probably not have to spend twenty hours a week like Marc Turner commuting to and from your job.

These are essentially your choices for living in America in the 21st century. If you are emulating the Marc Turner lifestyle, expect that every year your lifestyle will become more difficult and more aggravating. At some point, it will become unendurable. There are West Virginians who rise at 3:30 AM in order to get to work in the city. The human body cannot endure such crazy hours and sleep depravation forever. If you lust after the suburban experience, you should face reality and downsize your expectations.

Our planet will appreciate your thoughtfulness.

 

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