Archive for November, 2007

The Thinker

Review: Enchanted

In case you haven’t noticed, it has been a while since Disney Studios has had a hit movie. Other animation studios like Pixar Animation (which Disney acquired a few years ago) have been running rings around Disney, much to the disgruntlement of Disney stockholders. Enchanted, now playing everywhere is Disney’s latest attempt to prove it has its mojo back. The result is this very satisfying but not totally enchanting mixture of animation, CGI and live action.

Reviews for the movie have been solidly positive. Based on a 3:20 p.m. showing over the holiday weekend, which was nearly packed, Enchanted has enchanted the public as well. Disney shareholders can now breathe a little easier. It is hard to say if Enchanted marks the revitalization of Disney Studios or whether it is a one-time wonder but its success must be taken as an encouraging sign to both shareholders and diehard Disney fans.

If you are reading this you probably know the plot. If not, here is a brief summary. Giselle is an animated princess waiting in her home in the woods for her Prince Charming (well, Prince Edward in her case) to find her and marry her. Of course if Prince Edward marries someone, his evil stepmother Queen Narissa (played by Susan Sarandon) gets demoted, so Queen Narissa pulls out all stops to ensure this does not happen. Fate of course intervenes; the Prince finds the Princess, they fall instantly in love and of course plan to get married the next day. As Giselle enters the castle the Queen takes the form of an old lady who manages to waylay her. She sends her to a place where she will not only not be a threat, but where life is not like in fairy tales. In short she ends up coming out of a manhole in the middle of Times Square. As you might expect this is where animation reverts to live action.

It is too bad that Giselle (who is wonderfully played by Amy Adams) didn’t pop out of a manhole cover in Greenwich Village. She might have felt more at home in her princess costume there. Instead the hopelessly naïve Giselle is left to appeal to the kindness of New York City strangers. She eventually encounters Robert, a high priced divorce attorney (Patrick Dempsey) whose cute six-year-old girl Morgan (Rachel Covey) latches on to Giselle as something like the mother she does not have. Prince Edward, who of course must rescue his true love, eventually shows up as does Pip, Giselle’s pet chipmunk. Queen Narissa eventually also sends her besotted aide Nathaniel to make sure Giselle is poisoned before Prince Edward can rescue her.

Giselle shows she is a real fairy princess and soon has New York City rats and cockroaches cleaning Robert’s apartment. She also pulls a Scarlett O’Hara and makes a new dress out of Robert’s curtains. Slowly, some of Giselle’s naiveté wears off as she adapts to our strange and harsh world. Along the way though movie buffs are treated to lovely songs by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz. We also get both subtle and overt parodies of classic movie moments, including a scene in Central Park right out of the opening of The Sound of Music, and an ending scene that clearly had King Kong in mind.

Overall Enchanted is good spirited fun with a few hilarious moments but with a generally predictable feel to it. Yet what Disney family movie is not predictable? So in the insular world of Disney films, Enchanted is somewhat daring. Amy Adams (currently 33) is dead on as a fairy tale princess although her age suggests Giselle must have been waiting for Prince Charming for quite a long time. This is a scientifically designed chick flick that is also filled with plentiful humor that delivers the goods. The women around me in the theater were definitely enraptured.

Perhaps it takes a male perspective to find some flaws in this movie. While Amy Adams is delightful, and James Marsden plays Prince Edward with a fine comedic style the movie still feels too formulaic. The various CGI animals, which I now take as a given, generally annoyed me. Perhaps the director worried that if he strayed too much from convention the movie would be less successful. From the stockholder’s perspective, he likely made the right call. Still, Enchanted is not the best movie in this genre I have seen this year. While you will enjoy and likely even delight in Enchanted, if you missed Stardust, which played in theaters this summer, you should rent it. In my opinion, Stardust is the better movie and delivered the real enchantment and delight that I was looking for. Mark me, Enchanted is a very well done movie that you will doubtless enjoy. Yet if Hollywood were going to award any movie for best-realized fairy tale, Stardust would definitely win the award. So if you are pressed for cash, Netflix Stardust and skip Enchanted. It will cost you less and you will enjoy it even more.

Enchanted gets 3.1 on my 4.0 scale.

The Thinker

The Wegmans Effect

Last year I wrote about the Wegmans grocery chain, which opened two stores within ten miles of me. Shopping at Wegmans, a grocery chain that is just now starting to expand out of its northeastern roots was a real eye opener. Mainly, I had not realized that I had settled for grocery mediocrity for so long.

We continue to visit Wegmans regularly, even though it is hardly our closest grocery store. No other grocer in our area comes close to delivering its variety of products. The quality of its store brands often exceeds those of the national brands. For example, their Country Wheat bread is a staple in our house. My wife will only reluctantly eat something else. Since I do not necessarily visit Wegmans once a week, when I do go I make sure to stock up on their Country Wheat bread. I typically buy a half a dozen loaves at a time, much of which ends up in our freezer. In addition to superior store brands like their excellent strawberry jam, their meat, much of it served by actual butchers from behind a butcher counter, is truly a cut above the competition. Add their excellent store layout, their friendly clerks always happy to serve you, their bountiful and fresh produce, their in store food courts (which amounts to being a restaurant in a store) and the fact that they actually pay their employees a living wage then Wegmans is your logical grocery shopping destination. It seems counterintuitive that their prices should be competitive with the discount grocers, but they are.

In the Washington metropolitan area where I live, communities are clamoring Wegmans to open stores near them. Largo, Maryland recently became the first predominantly African American community to get a Wegmans. (It presumably got this honor because it is likely also the most prosperous African American community in the country.) Baltimore wants a store. Frederick, Maryland wants one too. In addition, rich, upscale Montgomery County Maryland has been petitioning Wegmans for a store too. Why, they wonder, does Fairfax County, Virginia across the Potomac River get one and we have none?

As for the rest of the grocery business, they are belatedly playing catch up. With a few exceptions, traditional grocery stores are trying to turn themselves into something that resembles Wegmans. Our local Giant Food was one of the first to sense they needed to look like Wegmans. They apparently convinced the owners of their shopping center to move the renters next to them somewhere else. The wall came down and the store was expanded and remodeled. Now our local Giant bears a more than passing resemblance to a Wegmans. (The Giant also has a Starbucks inside, even though there is a Starbucks literally less than a hundred feet away in the same shopping center.)

I really knew that the times were really a changin’ when the Wegmans effect struck our local Food Lion. Food Lion is perhaps the stodgiest grocery brand out there and its least exciting. The Food Lion in our prosperous neighborhood always seemed out of place, as demonstrated by their parking lots that never came close to being full. Over the course of a couple months, the Food Lion turned into a Bloom. Bloom is apparently Food Lion’s new and trendier grocery store designed for higher income areas. There is however a wee problem. It is only about one-third the size of a Wegmans. Even after all that remodeling it still feels like a Food Lion. They have more of the gourmet foods but its harsh industrial fluorescent lighting remains. Moreover, rather than having a customer friendly staff like you expect at Wegmans, they staff it with mostly minimum wage high school kids. No wonder I cannot stop calling it Food Lion. Bloom is merely putting lipstick on the Food Lion pig.

Change is also coming to the discount grocer Shoppers Food Warehouse. Apparently, its management concluded that its stores, in addition to having such limited selection (which is presumably how they keep their prices low) are seriously ugly. The result is an improvement but it too is no Wegmans. Shoppers Food Warehouse is now where Giant was before it upgraded its stores.

Other smaller and newer grocers seem less affected. Wegmans may have studied Whole Foods or visa versa because their layouts seem similar. I found a Whole Foods in Denver that was so huge it was nearly indistinguishable from a Wegmans. Out here in the Washington metropolitan area, the Whole Foods stores tend to be smaller. Trader Joes continues to market itself as a less expensive version of Whole Foods, emphasizing natural foods but with a more limited selection.

Will all this catch up help these traditional grocers retain their customers? It remains to be seen if this will be the case. Many of us will always prefer convenience to variety. A Wegmans requires a lot of real estate, so they tend to build in emerging upscale communities. I doubt the District of Columbia residents will ever see a Wegmans even though if any community needs a top-notch grocery chain, DC does. Many of its residents depend on substandard produce from liquor stores.

It is clear who is leading the grocery business and who is following. Wegmans is a leader. It is a shame they expand so slowly, but it may be for the best. It could be impossible for Wegmans to replicate its success across the country too quickly. In any event, if you are fortunate enough to get a Wegmans in your community, you will be wondering why you put up with substandard grocers all these years.

The Thinker

Second Viewing: Norma Rae (1979)

1979 was a year when modest sleeper movies won big. Two of them occupy special places in my heart, perhaps because at age 22 I was in transition at the time. I was just out of college, underemployed and nearly broke. I also was not sure what I was going to do with my life. Breaking Away spoke to my underwhelming transitional feelings toward my new adult life. Dennis Christopher, who played the biker Dave Stoller in Breaking Away, had an uncanny physical resemblance to me. In addition, he exuded all my early 20’s awkwardness. Norma Rae, starring Sally Field as the unlikely union organizer Norma Rae Watson, spoke to my feelings of disempowerment while I worked as a vastly underpaid retail drone at a local Montgomery Ward.

Sally Field plays a young and attractive mill worker whose personal life is in something of a shambles. She has two children, one out of wedlock. She and her kids live with her parents, who also work at the mill. Norma is the epitome of poor white southern trash. She is seemingly destined to cater to dysfunctional married men looking for a quick orgasm for the price of a steak dinner. Things slowly change when a union organizer named Reuben (Ron Liebman) arrives from New York. He is charged with the likely futile task of convincing the workers of the mill in this hot and sticky Southern town to unionize. In part because Reuben is forced to take a room at Norma’s favorite No-Tel motel their lives begin to intersect.

In Norma Rae, Director Martin Ritt very well captures the poverty, ugliness, hassles and facelessness of the working class. Most of the extras appear to be local townies. Sally Field seemed an unlikely choice for this part since she had hardly shaken off the typecasting from her Flying Nun days. Yet from the start, she feels like one of the townies. Norma Rae lives in a mill town in the very Deep South, an area known for its hostility toward unions. Blacks and whites work together at the mill, but racism lingers close to its surface. Virtually everyone has working class poverty and their job at the mill in common.

Sally Field won Best Actress for her role as Norma Rae Watson. Throughout much of the movie, she would seem an unlikely choice, since there is little in her acting that comes across as particularly noteworthy. It is only as Norma Rae is increasingly exposed to the stresses of being a union organizer that, much as a locomotive builds up a head of steam, we discover what Sally Field is capable of. It is hard not to be dazzled by her explosion of deft acting in the final fifteen minutes of the film. If you have seen the movie, you will know the scene. It is one of these great scenes in Hollywood cinema. I suspect Sally Field won the award principally for this scene, and yet she also shines in more measured scenes in the film’s denouement.

An impossibly young Beau Bridges (well, it is 28 years ago) plays her husband Sonny. Ron Liebman playing the union organizer Reuben is really the film’s principle supporting actor. Steeped in the New York City culture, Reuben gives Norma Rae a perspective of the world outside her insular southern town where she has lived her life. Regular exposure to Reuben’s intellect and passion begins to rub off on Norma Rae. He provides a means for her to tap her restless spirit for a greater good and thus give her a way to surmount her troubled past.

In some ways, Norma Rae reminded me of Dazed and Confused, but only in the sense that both films caught the sleepy southern town of the 1970s with eerie precision. As you might expect from its academy awards, Norma Rae is a much better movie. Both movies though seem populated with common folk rather than the buffed, skinny and overly pretty types Hollywood typically throws at us.

If you hunger for a powerful human story you should consider renting Norma Rae, whose message about the ability each of us have to rise above ourselves is timeless. I do not think any other movie since the classic It’s a Wonderful Life has told this story as well. Had I thought about it at the time, I would have added Norma Rae to my list of must see movies for progressives.

The Thinker

Suicide’s devastation and odd harvest

Through early morning fog I see
visions of the things to be
the pains that are withheld for me
I realize and I can see…
that suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
and I can take or leave it if I please.

From the movie M*A*S*H

To me, suicide is one of these impenetrable mysteries. I think I can understand how someone who has had the bottom dropped out of their lives might want to take their own life. What is there to live for if, for example, all your living relatives were killed in a car bomb attack? Nonetheless, feeling as if you want to kill yourself and actually doing it are two different things. Our life force is incredibly strong. No matter how much pain we have in our lives, no matter how bleak our future looks, almost always something will pull us back from the ultimate act. Instead, we seem to prefer to kill ourselves slowly through the usual vices like drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food and risky behavior.

Nonetheless, suicide happens. In 2001, approximately 30,000 of my fellow Americans killed themselves. The favorite method is to use a firearm. You are most likely to kill yourself if you are male, white and age 75 or older. You do not expect someone who is relatively young and very gifted around 6:30 one morning to plunge head first from her eighth floor dorm room. This young woman, age 18 and from a good home, was a close friend of my daughter. She, along with her many friends and her devastated family are left to grieve, wonder if there was something they should have done to prevent it and to struggle with the powerful feelings a suicide will surface.

At first, the story of her friend’s death came in muddled. We heard that she fell down a stairway. Where? At home or at college? It must have been a very long stairway to cause massive brain death. There was no hint that the death was a suicide. That came later during a gathering of friends of the young woman. At the gathering were a school counselor, friends and parents of friends and many, many suicide notes that she had written, including one to our daughter.

I met Taylor a couple times. Like most of my daughter’s friends, she was bright, goofy and artistic and she had a skewed perspective on life. She showed up most recently early last month when she attended her belated 18th birthday party. She had come home from a university out of state for the occasion. They laughed, ate pizza and a birthday cake, and watched videos. It felt somewhat quaint. Here was my daughter, a high school graduate taking a gap year between high school and college and she was still able to muster a small coterie of close friends for a birthday party.

Six weeks later Taylor was suddenly, tragically and pointlessly dead. She left few tangible memories: a long missive in our daughter’s yearbook, a few gifts received over the years, and one last unfathomable suicide note. My daughter is mostly quiet but we know that she is wracked with pain. She feels great anger at her friend, but in her final act, Taylor left no way for her to reply. Suicide closed all channels of communication. She feels survivor guilt. Should she have noticed her suicidal tendencies? She also feels a prematurely early brush with mortality. When you are 18, you should think of life as limitless and the possibilities boundless. Death is an abstraction. No more. Here is one more radioactive thing to sort out as she struggles into adulthood. Fortunately, her boss cut her some slack. She did not lose her job while she struggled to sort out her feelings. Three days later, she headed back to work, in part in the hope that it will distract her from her constant circular thoughts.

Most likely, her pain will linger. At 18, my daughter has to try to make meaning from an act that really has no meaning. She has to figure out how get beyond survivor’s guilt. In the end, she has to find a way (if it is possible at all) to move beyond her anger and her feelings that her friend was a coward, into acceptance. More likely though her feelings about Taylor’s death will forever linger, rising its angry head during moments of stress in her life. She has no choice but to come to terms with her loss. She lost a close friend, someone she thought she knew intimately but apparently not well enough.

We are keeping a close eye on our daughter. At some point, she may need grief counseling. I can imagine but not really understand the magnitude of the pain her family is going through, particularly today when family becomes the center of our lives. A million charitable acts, a thousand hugs and expressions of sympathy can never wipe away the devastation her family must feel. An amputee can learn to have a productive life again, but can never erase the memory of life before the amputation. So too a family struck by suicide will never be the same again. It can go on, but it will never be the same.

Taylor was declared brain dead, but her young organs were still alive and were harvested. I presume that many of her organs are now occupying new bodies. Likely, her organs are helping others live better and more hopeful lives. While nothing can erase the devastation of her death, some small measure of good came from it nonetheless. Perhaps her youthful heart now beats inside the chest of a woman with severe heart disease. Perhaps her kidneys will mean that two lucky people will no longer have to make twice-weekly trips for dialysis. I cannot help but honor her family for making these were painful but correct choices during a time of utter devastation.

Taylor’s mind and spirit are gone. Yet pieces of her body are still alive in others. While her family and friends remain devastated on this Thanksgiving holiday, other families are probably celebrating their perverse good fortune. I do not know if Taylor would have wanted her body used this way or not. Perhaps she chose to fall in a way to kill her brain so other parts of her body could be used to bring others happiness that she did not feel. Her tragic death is more evidence that life itself is utterly baffling. Yet even in a death this bizarre and tragic, a few are getting the chance to live again.

The Thinker

Presidential candidate marriages under the microscope

I know it should not bother me but it does. Fred Thompson is running for president. Fred is 65. His wife, the former Jeri Kehn is 41. Fred, at age 65 is looking, well, old, as in grandfatherly. Jeri looks like a fashion model. Perhaps when you are 24 years younger than your husband is this is to be expected. There is no question though. Jeri is a babe. Fred knows how to pick the lookers.

When it comes to May-December marriages, Fred is not the leader of presidential candidate pack. Think about one presidential candidate, Republican or Democratic, who you think is least likely not only to be married (secretly you think he is gay) but even if he were married, would have a much younger spouse? Raise your hand if Dennis Kucinich comes to mind. You are, by the way, spectacularly wrong. Dennis is on his third marriage. Dennis may be 61, but his far left leaning vegetarian lifestyle bought him quite a filly. She would be Elizabeth Jane Harper, born in 1977, whose resume includes working in Mother Teresa’s orphanages as well as the British House of Lords. She just turned 30.

I started this blog post thinking that if Republicans are the party of family values then their presidential candidates should not have as many divorces under their belt as the Democratic candidates. Conversely, Democrats, because they are left leaning liberals should have candidates rife with multiple divorces. Yet surveying the seven current Republican and seven current Democratic candidates, the presidential candidates for both parties are equally as likely to have been divorced. In this sense, both parties are fielding candidates who well represent the public on marriage, where approximately half of our marriages end up in divorce.

If you are interested, my statistics are summarized in a table in the extended entry. My survey should be taken with a grain of salt, since it involved about an hour of web surfing, much of it on Wikipedia whose veracity sometimes can be questioned. (If you find errors, please send them to me so I can correct them. Please note that Joe Biden’s first wife died in an automobile accident, so he has never been divorced even though he is on his second wife.) Many of the candidate’s spouses are good at hiding their ages from prying Internet eyes.

Rudy Giuliani and Dennis Kucinich might not appear to have much in common, but they top their party’s candidate lists in the number of divorces: two each. Which party prefers younger spouses? At least with the current crop of candidates, Republicans seem to like their wives younger. I was unable to find information on the ages of the wives of Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul and Tom Tancredo, but it appears their wives are close to their own ages. On the Democratic side, Joe Biden, Mike Gravel, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson seem to have wives not anxious to reveal their ages. Based on the incomplete information I do have, Republican wives tend to be 11 years younger than their spouses are. On the Democratic side, the difference in ages between candidates and their spouses is 7.75 years. Among Republicans, John McCain is 18 years older than his spouse Cindy is, and Rudy Giuliani is 11 years older than his third wife Judi is.

Dennis Kucinich skews the statistics on the Democratic side. If I could ignore his candidacy (and most of us do), the Democratic candidates would show no average difference in ages at all with their wives. John Edwards’s wife Elizabeth is actually four years older than he is. Barack Obama’s wife Michelle is three years younger.

Most of us assume that John McCain is the oldest of all the candidates running. In fact, he is the third oldest. Mike Gravel is the oldest at 77. (He is also, I was surprised to learn, a fellow Unitarian Universalist. No wonder he has no chance of winning.) The favorite candidate of the Libertarians, Ron Paul, running as a Republican, comes in second at 72. John McCain is 71. Barack Obama is the youngest candidate at 46. The average age of Republican candidates is 63. The average age for Democratic candidates is 60.

Given the small sample set, there is not too much I can say with authority about presidential candidates. The evidence does suggest that Republicans running for president prefer much younger spouses and Democrats prefer spouses around their own age. So perhaps the Democrats can accurately state that their candidates are more representative of traditional family values. Who’d have thunk? Read the rest of this entry »

The Thinker

Two years later

Two years later, I feel acceptance and serenity.

When a loved one dies, there is no accounting for the nature and length of the grieving process. Nor is there a way to know for certain whether you have really moved beyond their death. Yet here I am two years after my mother’s death. When I think about Mom at all, and most days I do not, those are my feelings. I accept that she is forever gone from my life. I find myself wholly at peace with her absence.

When I learned of her death, I was racked with powerful bittersweet feelings. Feeling unhappy, distraught and an emotional wreck were to be expected. I did not expect to also feel relief and happiness. I was relieved that her misery was over at last. I was glad to resume a normal life. In addition, I was happy that just maybe my mother was now in the presence of the God she had so slavishly worshipped. Perhaps she was even reunited again with her long deceased parents and many deceased siblings.

The first few months after her death felt surreal and were unnaturally quiet. It seemed like her death was just an extended absence. After all, for much of her last thirty years we lived apart. At best, I spent a couple weeks a year with her. It had become normal to be away from her. What was not normal were the last fifteen months of her life. She and my father had been living their retired years in far away Michigan. Her health had reached the stage where living at home was no longer an option. They sold their house and moved across the Potomac River from me to a retirement community called Riderwood. However, by that time she could hardly stand up and had to be carried up stairs. When she walked at all, it was with her walker. I went from seeing her once a year to once a week or more. Unfortunately, the time I did spend with her was rarely pleasant. Each visit demonstrated that her body was falling apart. Finally, there was little more of my mother than a shrunken old woman in a nursing home bed, ashen in the face, her eyes occluded and blank, her hair a surreal unnaturally white color. Near the end, her disease would not let her utter a word or even turn her head. You were never sure whether she heard you or not. I put on a brave face in her presence. I bawled in the hallways or in the privacy of my car. At some point how could anyone, including the dying, not take some relief from death? My mother’s death was ultimately merciful.

It took about six months before I really felt the aftershocks. My mother was the emotional heart of our large Catholic family. She was a loving person but she was far from perfect. She grew up impoverished, traumatized by the Great Depression and burdened with the impossible expectations from the God she loved yet that seemed to require ever more sacrifice and duty. She exuded duty and guilt, values she probably would not have wanted to transmit to me but which I absorbed anyhow.

My forebrain understood all this, knew that she loved all her children and was a product of circumstances. My neocortex had a different opinion. It still resented my perceived insufficient nurturing and the harsh punishments she meted out when we were children. I navigated through life but felt more and more detached. Inside, I was filled with turmoil. My neocortex was like a vast, dark storm cloud desperately wanting to discharge some lightning. My forebrain wanted to keep it at quite a distance.

Eventually I found myself disgorging my confused feelings to my therapist. Through therapy, I learned that to resolve my feelings that I had to do more than blab to her about them. I had to share them people who could empathize. Attempts to talk about my mixed feelings about Mom with my Dad were deflected. This left my siblings. One sister did not reply when I cautiously raised the issue in an email. Another listened patiently then gave me a different perspective of Mom, for being younger she had witnessed much less of her dark side. It was an older sister who I met for dinner one evening when she was in town who at last let me discharge my voltage. The one thing I had not anticipated was that I had a sibling who was far more upset with my mother than I was. It was clear from the endless tears flowing down her cheeks as we talked. “It’s is just hormones,” she claimed. For me, while I loved my mother some part of me also loathed her. Yet my older sister claimed that she never loved my mother at all. Her tears suggested otherwise.

At first, I had no idea I was on the road to recovery. Yet within a week, the storm clouds had disappeared. The voltage was gone. The skies were blue and the sun was shining in my life again. Since then I have felt simple acceptance at her passing and a serenity that suggests my feelings for my mother have finally been wholly reconciled.

On my first motherless Mother’s Day, I made a point to drive out to the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland where her cremated remains lie. This Mother’s Day, I felt no such compulsion. When I am near Silver Spring I certainly intend to pay my respects again. However, the sense of duty is gone. This suggested to me that whatever unintended apron strings were pulling at me from her grave had been cut. Instead, I concentrated on the one living mother left in my life: my mother in law. I made sure we sent her a card and called her on Mother’s Day. I wished her a Happy Mother’s Day and many more to come.

Somewhere in the space-time continuum, my mother’s spirit is still present. She is happy for me. She is glad I cut those final apron strings. At times, I imagine that she is whispering to me. She is saying, “Get on with life, Mark. Life is to be cherished and savored. Do not forget me but do not let my death hold you back either. Be free of me so you can make the most of your life. Someday we will meet again, and when we do we will meet in love, as friends and as peers.”

Thanks Mom. I love you too.

The Thinker

Why Al won’t run

There is depressing news for progressives and Democrats like me who want Al Gore to run for President. It looks like Al Gore is really, sincerely not going to run for President in 2008. How do we know this? It could be from Al’s periodic statements that he has no “current plans” to run for President. Hope springs eternal in the heart of his supporters though until, at last, events crush them. With many crucial filing deadlines for the 2008 presidential primary past and with Al Gore taking no action he is giving us another inconvenient truth: whoever wins the presidency a year from now will not be him.

Many of us ask why? Why Al? You are on top of the world! A movie on your quest to bring attention to global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Oscar. You have won a Webby Award (for interactive technology) and Quill awards in two consecutive years, one for your latest global warming book. You are also sharing this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for your strident advocacy on addressing global warming. You have set an example of how to live a carbon neutral life. You are opening an environmentally friendly investment firm. You are likely to be Time magazine’s 2007 Person of the Year. The American public, recently skeptical of your global warming hypothesis, now ranks global warming as one of its most important and urgent issues. Al, your time is right to claim the mantle that was denied you in 2000. Yet you are not interested in being president, at least not this time around, despite the fact that as president you could probably do far more to solve the global warming problem than you ever will with your movie, your books, your public speaking and your Nobel Peace Prize.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Al Gore asked those like me who are clamoring for his candidacy to be patient and to trust his judgment. By deferring on the presidency, is Al Gore smarter than we think? Why would someone whose personal approval rating is likely close to where President Bush’s was after 9/11 not leverage his sound insight, foresight, wisdom and considerable political skills while he has the most leverage and his country desperately needs him?

The more I think of Al Gore’s remark, the more I am starting to grasp why he said what he did to Rolling Stone. For as much as many of us would embrace him now, Al understands that this country is just waking up to the magnitude of sacrifices required to address global warming. Most Americans, if they have given global warming any thought at all, think that maybe it can be solved by switching their incandescent lights to fluorescent lights and driving a hybrid.

In fact, these are just baby steps that more than anything show that we just don’t get it. Americans do not yet appreciate the degree of sacrifice that is really required to address global warming. Until we feel its magnitude, Al Gore realizes that rather than helping the cause he is libel to end up hurting it. Moreover, we would eventually despise him for what we perceive to be his obsessiveness on the issue. I think that is why he is not running for president.

For if Al Gore were elected president, we would soon see him as Bad News Al. President Bush’s current approval ratings would soon look good in contrast. Gore would encourage us to make changes to our lifestyle that we simply are not yet willing to make. To win the global climate challenge, if it can be done at all, America and the world will have to fundamentally reinvent itself. We will have to halt destructive generational patterns that have never been halted before. Moreover, because this is America and it is the land of the free, we must convince ourselves that it is in our best interest to do this. To make this change, we first need to experience more and stronger negative effects from global warming. It has to seer into our consciences. Many of us are still living in the Ronald Reagan mindset that if we smile enough and think enough happy thoughts, it will always be Morning in America. To address global warming though we need to grasp the reality that we must make the sun set on our lifestyles. We have to develop the mindset of sustained personal and community sacrifice lasting generations. We have to embrace consuming less, smaller families and get comfortable with the notion that our days of living large are behind us.

For Americans, freedom is demonstrated through rampant consumerism and easy mobility. We want more money so we can buy more things and live ever more opulent lifestyles. We want the freedom to go where we want when we want, and that means having a car, not taking the Greyhound. While we can and must take important steps like develop more fuel-efficient cars, they mean little as long as we keep indulging in our selfish habits. Principally we have to stop breeding so much. Zero population growth is just one step in addressing global warming. Today there are about 6.5 billion people on the planet. Even if we could achieve zero population growth, we would still be in for an environmental catastrophe. Unfortunately, we need negative population growth, sustained for many generations, combined with smart technologies, less consumption and a smaller footprint on the planet. If we can do this then perhaps the planet has a chance of recovering.

We have many lessons to learn, but it will be devilishly hard to both take these to heart and make these efforts work globally. If we can do it, no achievement in the history of humanity will be more important or speak as highly for our species. If we fail, and all trends suggest that we will fail, we will eventually be the source of our own undoing, as well as the undoing of much of the known life on this planet. Our adventures in Iraq will seem like child’s play compared to the ugly, overpopulated, resource constrained and increasingly war-torn world ahead of us.

I think Al Gore quietly understands all of this but does not want to scare us by stating this openly. Nonetheless, I think he remains hopeful. The first part in addressing any large problem is to get beyond denial. In this country, I think we are mostly beyond that phase. The harder part will be moving toward the resolution phase. When we are ready culturally and mentally to make these tough choices, I think Al will be ready to be the leader we need. This process must play out. If it can play out quickly enough before Al ages too much then as our president, he will be a natural fit. He is probably ready to be that president. The problem is we are not yet ready for him.

The Thinker

Driven toward self destruction

In its early forms, Christianity assumed that the vast majority of us were hell-bound. Heaven was a wonderful place but apparently, admittance was restricted to only a few. Despite the odds, all were welcome to aspire to get into heaven. In addition to demonstrating regular religious fealty, you also had to not only not sin, but to also avoid the near occasion of sins. A certain amount of sin was tacitly understood to come with being born a human being, hence the doctrine of original sin. You could seek forgiveness for your sins from your local priest but likely you would go back to sinning later that day. In short, living the virtuous life is hard because it requires, well, lots and lots of virtue and we apparently are not born with much of it.

After the Reformation, a kinder and gentler version of Christianity slowly emerged. Today depending on your denomination, you are now more likely to be told that you will into heaven, providing you do not do anything too egregious in the eyes of God. I have no opinion about the reality of an afterlife (although I have my suspicions), since it is too detached from my reality. As a Unitarian Universalist, the Universalist side of me tends to agree with early Christian Universalists. As early as the third century, they believed that Jesus’ resurrection meant that everyone got a “Get into Heaven Free” card. However, the skeptical part of me thinks that the Heaven as conventionally imagined by Christians is so remote as to be laughable.

Looking at my own behavior as well as most of my fellow humans’, I think most of us are genetically programmed toward self-destruction. That most of us do not wholly succumb is something of a miracle. Ironically, the way we fail is by modeling our life as heaven here on earth. In heaven, for example, you can eat as many virtual Dunkin Donuts as you want yet never gain weight. Unfortunately, if we succumb to those donuts cravings here on earth we quickly gain weight. If we continue to indulge our donut eating habit then like Homer Simpson we end up with a much larger version of ourselves to love. We spend our fifties (if we make it that far) dealing with complications of our obesity.

I have never smoked. Nonetheless, while I suspect it is a habit hard to acquire, I doubt once acquired that I could really give it up permanently. For similar reasons I have avoided drugs and alcohol. There are virtues in being abstemious, but where we exercise self-restraint in one area, we tend to let lose it in others. Like most of us Americans, my principle weakness is food. Exercise does help control my weight. Yet it seems that my desire for more food will always exceed my desire to exercise. Managing the battle of my bulge is likely to be my lifelong challenge.

I think that all but a tiny few of us are driven toward self-destructive urges. Call it the side effects of prosperity, blame bad parenting, call it a natural human weakness; the effect seems to be true. If you can have more of something that you desire, you will fight your natural desire to have more of it. Any craving can be a sign of your own self-destructive tendencies. A craving does not come from our forebrain. It comes from some older part of our brain that tells us, “You got to live for the moment, baby! Feast on the spoils of victory!” Just as emotions tend to overrule intellect, our cravings tend have the upper hand. They impel us toward making choices that if we wholly gave into them would probably kill us.

I once remarked how the beautiful are a different species. As I ascend up the office ladder I am noticing something else: the further up the ladder you go, the more thin and healthy people I find. A good example is our first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. Love her or loathe her she is thin, healthy and attractive. A Washington Post columnist some time ago documented a luncheon that she recently attended. In addition to very correctly saying the right words and smiling in her surreal omnipresent manner, Ms. Pelosi was presented with a lunch that she never ate. Reputedly, she sipped from her iced tea.

A few weeks ago, I was on a business trip in Tallahassee. A boss two levels above me went with me. Like Ms. Pelosi, she is nice, professional and personable. She is also skinny as a rail. She is empowered to make decisions that to me seem very large. She makes policy. I manage people. All week long, she joined us for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like Ms. Pelosi, she mostly picked at all her meals. She was aghast when we went to a barbeque joint. The slab of meat she received was more than she consumes in a week. She did not eat much of it.

Maybe we promote these people because they seem capable of self-control that the rest of us do not possess. We figure that if they can avoid the vices of food, alcohol, tobacco, drugs and general obesity, they must have the right stuff to lead. By inference then, the rest of us mere mortals do not seem to have that right stuff.

The reality is that these people while pleasant and unusually competent in their own right, are also very, very rare. They are the types likely to see their hundredth birthday. The reality is that they are lucky more than virtuous. For whatever reason, their temptation gene was recessive. They have levels of natural self-control the rest of us will never have. No wonder we are anxious to mate with them.

As for the rest of us, we must fight our vices every day. For us, our vices are lifelong struggles. For example, we can say that we will give up pleasures like smoking or eating junk foods. We can say that we will do an hour of aerobics every day. Those of us who can actually move from our natural predisposition into a lifelong change of lifestyle are very rare. Our cravings will continue to try to possess us. At best, we can hope that we can substitute less destructive cravings to replace them. Even if we do, our successes are likely to be transitory. For most of us, lifelong behavioral changes are virtually impossible.

Consequently, I figure I will never be in a policy making position. I am not skinny enough, which thus suggests to those who can promote me (who coincidentally are often skinny) that I do not have the maturity to act responsibly at that level. I may have more self-control than most human beings do, for which I should be grateful. One of the reasons I admire Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee (personally, not politically) is that he succeeded in changing his own personally destructive habits. Mike used to be extremely obese. He lost over one hundred pounds. He did it without weight loss surgery, without a gastric bypass and without even liposuction. He succeeded by eating less and exercising more. He gives every appearance of being a man who can forever change his own patterns of personal destruction. Therefore, I have to admire him. I think, “What’s the worst that this guy could do if he were elected as president?” He clearly has some sort of magic power that I do not.

As for me and I suspect all but a handful of you reading this, we are among the damned. The good news is that we have plenty of company. Whatever our vices are, expect them to persist. They will persist like that spot on your back that you cannot quite reach but never really stops itching. You might develop strategies that will succeed in keeping them at abeyance, or that mitigate the impact of your vices. Perhaps like Barack Obama you will chew nicotine gum all day to avoid lighting up a cigarette. Nevertheless, your body will continue to crave that which you deny yourself. Moreover, it will do its damnedest to trip you up. Like Satan himself, do not expect the force to relent.

Perhaps it is time to go to church and utter an earnest prayer for yourself. Most of us will have to hope for that miracle because, frankly, it is unlikely to arrive.

The Thinker

The measure of a democracy

Here in America we are trained to look down on our lawyers. We assume that lawyers are just petty ambulance chasers. We think they are eager to bend justice for their clients but only if it also obscenely increases their fortunes. We do not understand how anyone can justify billing rates of $200 or $300 an hour by doing something as dry as reading dusty old law books. Sometimes we grudgingly express appreciation for those lawyers who attempt to provide equal justice to the poor. We do so while sometimes also expressing unhappiness if their justice was purchased with our tax dollars.

On Capitol Hill, the Republican Party seems to have an animosity toward trial lawyers. This is curious since the ranks of Congress are rife with lawyers. Nonetheless, when trial lawyers are successful suing corporations for what are perceived to be excessive punitive damages, Republicans tend to get their dander up. Tort reform is usually near the top of their agenda, right after tax cuts. Greed may be good on Wall Street, but not when their actions affect stock values.

We want to believe that lawyers are simply unnecessary. We want to think that we should be able to reach agreements without having to legalize it with these complex paper instruments we call contracts. The reality is that we need lawyers. Laws and contracts may be time consuming and expensive but they also remove legal ambiguity. Imagine the potential mess of a business merger without an enforceable contact hammered out by lawyers. Imagine if you willed your estate to your family but they ended up inheriting nothing because a judge decided arbitrarily to ignore your will. It is not obvious but, yes, we really do need lawyers. They are part of the epoxy that allows society to function in a predictable way.

In William Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Dick suggests to the rebel Jack Cade that an excellent way to start an insurrection is to kill all the lawyers first. Dick may have been on to something. Lawyers are the gears that make the law work. Without lawyers, anarchy or dictatorships become possible. Most of us do not choose careers that we hate. The same is true with lawyers. It is likely that most lawyers are drawn to the law because they respect it. That so many lawyers populate Congress is likely due to their fascination with the law. (It also does not hurt that lawyers frequently have enough disposable income and the connections to be able to run for Congress in the first place.)

Perhaps like me you were stirred by the recent events in Pakistan. I was not surprised that with his grip on power loosening, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf would find it convenient to suspend the constitution and lock up most of his political opponents. Like most of us democrats, I was upset. Yet I was also very moved to see opposition arise almost immediately. Who led the opposition? They were the Pakistan’s lawyers, who marched in the streets by the thousands. By standing up for their democracy, they literally put their lives on the line. In fact, it is likely that at least hundreds of them are now in prison for doing so. So far, it appears that most of Pakistan’s masses have yet to become engaged in the struggle for democracy. The lawyers are proving to be the phalanx for the restoration of the rule of law in Pakistan. It is also clear from footage of their marches that they are passionate believers in the law and in democracy. As they proved some months ago when they stood up to Musharraf in support of their chief justice, they have the courage of their convictions.

I wish our many lawyers in our Congress had similar courage. In their case, much less courage is required. Yet most of them appear spineless. Today, for example, with the shameful support of a handful of Democratic senators, the Senate approved the nomination of Judge Michael Mukasey as our new Attorney General. Senators approved the nomination even though Mukasey could not assure them that waterboarding was a form of torture. As egregious as this was, Mukasey also stated his belief that the President might have inherent powers that puts him beyond the reach of the law. Somewhere up there, Richard Nixon has an evil smile on his face.

Fifty-six men were signatories to the Declaration of Independence. Twenty-four of them were either lawyers or jurists. In the declaration, they pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to establish a new democracy called the United States of America. These were not just idle words. The British Army hunted down these signatories as treasonous rebels. If captured they would have paid with their lives. Some of them paid that price. Others spent the Revolutionary War constantly on the run leaving behind ruined families and businesses. Only one of those patriots, Thomas Jefferson, would survive and rise to become President of the United States.

I wish we had patriots in our Congress like this. We have many patriots in uniform overseas and I certainly do not mean to discount their patriotism. Thousands have died for their country, tens of thousands have been wounded, most on a mission in Iraq that will probably prove in vain. Their patriotism is beyond dispute. The least we could do to honor their sacrifices is to demonstrate patriotism by respecting the rule of the law in this country.

Congress can start by not allowing the telephone companies who broke wiretapping laws at the behest of the Bush Administration to get retroactive immunity for their illegal actions. It can do much better than this. Rather than just refer Representative Dennis Kucinich’s bill to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney to committee, where it will linger until this administration leaves office, it can press forward with real impeachment hearings. It can send a signal both to this administration and to future administrations that the egregious and unlawful unilateral expansion of executive powers by the Bush Administration will never be tolerated again.

Those courageous lawyers in Pakistan know that respect and adherence to the rule the law is the difference between civilization and anarchy. This is a lesson we should relearn now more than two hundred years into our own democratic experiment. If freedom is not free, neither is the equal application of the law. Our pragmatic founding fathers at least gave the branches of government power to check excessive power grabs by the other branches. It is long past time for the Congress, on behalf of the people who it serves, to restore the rule of law in clear and unambiguous terms.

The Thinker

Our Forgotten War

There is no lack of Civil War sites in this country. East of the Mississippi and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, it is hard to drive a hundred miles without running into a Civil War battlefield. I found that one rather obscure Civil War battle, The Battle of Ox Hill, was fought just a few miles from my house. This sacred battlefield has largely been desecrated. Shopping malls and apartment complexes now occupy grounds where hundreds of Confederate and Union soldiers paid with their lives.

There are also Revolutionary War sites that you can visit. These understandably are fewer and further between. Some of these have also been paved over. For example, the longest battle of the Revolutionary War, The Battle of Long Island, was fought in and around Brooklyn Heights. As you might expect since that time Brooklyn Heights has grown up. There is not much in Brooklyn Heights to remind you of the thousands who died in that long battle.

What about wars fought in the United States before the Revolutionary War? The British probably instigated the first, when in 1670 they laid siege to St. Augustine in Florida, which was then held by the Spanish. For most of us who studied history, The French and Indian War, which was fought from 1754 to 1763, was the first war of significance on the North American continent. Yet it remains a war seemingly lost in history. I did not expect that there were battlefields from the French and Indian War that I could visit. Yet there are.

Over our 22nd anniversary weekend last month, my wife and I ventured into Southwestern Pennsylvania. Our three-day mini holiday gave us ample time to explore the local area. Our trip was fortuitous because it allowed us to become acquainted with Fort Necessity. It is one of the few sites within the United States where the French and Indian War was fought. The more exciting parts of the war were fought in Quebec. The British eventually won the war. The spoils included most of the land in North America east of the Mississippi. This was not a bad deal for seven years of warfare.

The instigation of this war had long faded from my memory. A visit to Fort Necessity near Farmington, Pennsylvania helped jog my memory. It was at Fort Necessity that the father of our country George Washington suffered his first and only military defeat.

In 1754, there was no United States of America. George Washington was then a 22-year-old Lieutenant Colonel for the British Army. He commanded a garrison of over four hundred troops. They were charged with the unglamorous task of creating a wagon road into Ohio. Washington, perhaps in an attempt to show he was ambitious, appeared to provoke French troops that had claimed Western Pennsylvania. The French were encamped at Jumonville Glen, in what is now Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Depending on whose story you believe, either Washington’s soldiers were fired upon by the French or the French were surprised by Washington’s sneak attack. Technically neither France nor Britain was at war with each other at the time. Washington’s actions would change this. Ten French soldiers were killed in the attack and 21 others were wounded. It was what happened afterwards though that probably really started the war. Washington lost control of his troops, who decided to massacre the wounded French soldiers. Washington’s Indian ally, Seneca chief Tanaghrisson, put a tomahawk through the head of the remaining survivor, Ensign Jumonville. The French, once they got wind of the attack, were not amused. They went with larger forces in pursuit of Washington and his troops.

Fort Necessity

Washington withdrew to a great meadow near Farmington. There he and his troops hastily built a fort that he aptly named Fort Necessity. As you can see from the re-creation they did not have much time to work on the details. In fact, it took the French less than six weeks to locate the fort, which they attacked on July 3, 1754 and subsequently burned to the ground.

The “fort” itself was round, about fifty feet in diameter with a small storehouse in its middle. Constructed from local hardwood trees it was rudimentary and offered little protection. To defend the fort, Washington also ordered his troops to construct earthen berms from which they could fire at French troops. The French were quite successful picking them off from the woods during a driving summer rainstorm. Their defenses would not be enough. What would become known as The Battle of Great Meadows resulted in his defeat at the hands of 600 French soldiers and 100 allied Indians. Fearing a massacre, he negotiated for terms of surrender, which he later claimed to have misunderstood. The terms said that he personally assumed responsibility for the death of Ensign Jumonville. However, because of his surrender, his garrison was allowed to beat a hasty retreat back into Maryland.

Earthen berms at Fort Necessity

Washington and his garrison were lucky to emerge alive. Yet as subsequent events unfolded, he eventually got the last laugh. His skirmish and the subsequent battle instigated the French and Indian War, which the British eventually won. When the Americans eventually won the Revolutionary War this wild land west of the Appalachians opened to settlement and would eventually become part of the United States.

While there is not much to see of the fort itself, Fort Necessity is worth a visit. The meadows look much as they did when Washington and his troops camped there over 250 years ago. When we were there, it was both peaceful and bucolic. Nearby there is a visitors center. For $5 admission fee, you can tour the small but interesting museum and enjoy a twenty-minute engaging film discussing the battle and its repercussions. One of these was the sponsorship by Congress of The National Road, a first effort by our fledging nation to expand westward. The National Road comprises parts of U.S. 40 along this area of Pennsylvania.

My bet is that you, like most Americans, were unaware that our first president sparked the French and Indian War. Nor are you likely aware of Washington’s great failure at Fort Necessity. The site may not be large, but I found it fascinating nonetheless. It took me to a time that on the American time scale is ancient. Perhaps after a visit like me you will find yourself inspired to learn more about the French and Indian War. For the history buff there is much to learn about the war. Moreover, you do not have to cross an ocean to appreciate it first hand.


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