Archive for January, 2008

The Thinker

In Step with The Capitol Steps

There are a whole list of things that I as a Washingtonian should have done over the nearly thirty years I have lived here but have not done. Tourists often imagine Washingtonians as constantly down on the Mall or attending concerts at the Kennedy Center. The truth is few of us have that kind of money. In addition, most of us live far enough away from the center of the city where it is rarely worth either the cost or hassle to beat the traffic into the city, unless it is on the weekend. Moreover, since many of us work in the city during the week, the last thing we want to do on the weekend is drive back into it.

Therefore, I miss lots of fabulous Smithsonian exhibitions and concerts. By this time, I should have taken a White House tour. It remains on my list of nebulous things to do. I have been to the top of the Washington Monument twice, but only once as a Washingtonian. (The first visit was in 1967, when I visited as a boy scout.) Shear Madness has been playing forever in the Kennedy Center’s Theater Lab. I could never could be bothered. Mark Russell plays regularly at the Omni Shoreham on Calvert Street N.W. I have only seen him on Public TV during membership weeks. Ah, but The Capitol Steps; I can finally cross them off my list.

The Capitol Steps are loosely to Washington D.C. what The Rockettes are to New York City. In 1981, for Senator Charles Percy’s Christmas party three staffers decided to create parody songs and skits based on the topical political headlines of the day. They must have been good because they kept being asked to do other gigs. At some point, they gave up their day jobs and became part of the Washington kudzu. Now, twenty-seven years later it is hard to imagine a time when they were not around. Whereas there used to be just three founding members, now there are thirty of them. Whereas they used to do one gig at a time, now they travel in groups of five or six and do multiple gigs at the same time. They even travel the country trying to meet demand. Political singing and skits now provide them with a steady income. I bet they have 401-Ks and health insurance like the rest of us. Moreover, I would not be surprised if they belonged to a local actor’s union.

I am not sure how the performers who came out to Reston on Sunday night compared with the rest of the troupe. (If they are not being hosted locally, you can find them Friday and Saturday nights at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. That’s at the Federal Triangle metro station.) However, they come out to Reston, Virginia once a year for an annual benefit for Reston Interfaith. Since I give money to the charity, live three miles away and the Unitarian Universalist Church I attend has a member who makes getting tickets easy, I felt I had no more reason to procrastinate.

I probably would have enjoyed the show more if we had not been at a table in a far corner of the Hyatt Regency’s ballroom. Our tickets, $75 each, did not get us stellar seating. The premier tables, sponsored by local IT companies, got a much better view. Nevertheless, I did not feel too put out. My view was reasonably clear and the acoustics in the ballroom were okay. A fancy dessert and all the wine we could guzzle came with admission. Also present were a host of Fairfax County luminaries who hitherto I had rarely seen outside of newspaper photos, including two supervisors, our state senator and the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Gerry Connolly.

Even though attending a regular show of The Capitol Steps costs $35, I felt like we definitely got our money’s worth. The Capitol Steps of course exist to skewer politicians. Politicians were not only skewered, but also roasted over a rotisserie for long periods. The predictable results are many hilarious sketches and song parodies like this one, which skewers poor Senator Larry Craig and who by this time must be riddled with political buckshot.

Our particular show was fast paced. I do not know how long our show was compared to most of their shows. We got about ninety minutes of material, which was padded out to a bit more than two hours with an intermission and a benefit raffle. Virtually every presidential candidate was lampooned, often multiple times. A number of sketches would not work well outside the Beltway simply because the political figures (like Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert) are not names that trip off the tongue of most Americans. Yet he was one of many foreign politicians also stepped on by The Capitol Steps.

The humor of course must be topical and lowbrow. Sometimes the tunes they choose to parody are a little obscure. (I doubt that many Americans are that familiar with Springtime for Hitler.) The Steps assume though that if you are going to fork over $35 to see them, you must be politically savvy. Consequently, while the Steps will probably never appear on Broadway, they earn their money. Their songs and skits must constantly be created and reworked to keep up with current events. One of their signatures is their “Lirty Dies” segment where they do a backwards talk. This gives them a convenient way to say things you generally cannot say in polite company. You may find as I did that sometimes you cannot translate their backwards talk fast enough to laugh along.

The Capitol Steps were good enough for me to want to see them again some year. Perhaps someday I can drag a politically savvy sibling or friend into D.C. to see one of their regular shows. While I have yet to see Shear Pleasure, our perennial local lowbrow comedy, I strongly suspect The Capitol Steps are equally as lowbrow, but funnier.

 
The Thinker

Riding recession’s wave

As we headed for a recession? Are we in the midst of one now and just do not know it? Do I know? Heck, no. Even our best economists do not know. Most likely by the time it is declared official, some six months to a year after it begins, we will be out of it, or climbing our way out.

There is little doubt that recessions hurt. On a personal level, many people lose their jobs and that pain extends to all aspects of their lives. Those of us watching our financial portfolios get upset and nervous when we see the value of our assets decline. Many of us are already stretched to the limit and up to our eyeballs in credit card debt. Our house, if we have one, has provided us the equity we needed to confront life’s little financial emergencies. With declining home prices. for many of us our home equity is tapped out. Moreover, since the average credit card debt exceeds $3000 per credit card holder, taking on more credit card debt looks unwise, particularly at 18% annual percentage rates.

Then there is the problem lenders are having valuing their assets. With so many financial institutions holding bad debt in the form of dubious mortgage backed securities, they are unsure exactly what assets they have and how much they are worth. Without knowing what their assets are worth, it is harder to loan out money. Those of us with dubious credit histories are likely to find there are no lenders who will lend us money.

A recession should serve as a warning notice to those of us in debt. It is hard enough during flush times to live on borrowed money. During a recession, it can become impossible. There are stories locally like this one where otherwise normal people find that their fragile financial cards quickly tumble when the economy turns and end up homeless. Granted, even in flush times it is hard to build financial wealth if you carry a large amount of unsecured debt. Economic factors and job markets are always finicky meaning your hot profession may turn out in a few years to be worthless. During flush times, it is possible to get out of credit card debt and build reserves of cash. These assets may not get you through the next recession unscathed, but you are more likely to emerge less battered and bruised. Spending habits, like eating habits, can be devilishly hard to change. A recession though can give many of us the fortitude to make painful short-term choices for a long-term benefit.

Then there are others like me for whom a recession is in some ways good news. No job is guaranteed but I am fortunate to be a well-paid civil servant. Most likely, I will have a steady income throughout this recession. However, even if I were not in such a situation, many people in the private sector do fine during recessions. Their jobs are in relatively high demand, or they possess some important institutional knowledge that lessens their likelihood of unemployment.

You can usually tell which groups will be unduly affected by a recession. These are the same groups whose jobs are tenuous even in good times. Autoworkers, for example, tend to be among the first in the unemployment lines. The financial sector is taking a whack this time around, which is not surprising because of the debt crisis. Any industry that depends on discretionary spending is vulnerable. Those planning a career would be wise to keep these factors in mind.

I have good news for those who have always wanted to own a home, but could not afford one. Perhaps housing prices have not hit bottom yet, but if you have saved enough money for a traditional down payment and have a decent credit history, now is the time to buy. Not only are house prices down but mortgage rates are down as well. There are plenty of houses on the market to choose from now, so you are likely to find that dream house at an affordable price. You should be actively looking around.

Ironically, if you have ready cash, recessions are also a great time to buy most products or services. Businesses everywhere are anxious to cut deals because often they are just trying to stay in business. If you have the money for rather expensive things like getting the roof fixed or replacing the siding on your house, now is the time to get this work done at a discount. You will also help stimulate the economy by keeping people employed.

If you are invested in stocks, bonds and mutual funds, while you may be feeling nervous about the value of your assets, there is also a flip side. Many funds are a great bargain during a recession. Granted there are exceptions and I am certainly no stock analyst but you may find terrific buys out there. Presumably, you are in the market for the long haul. Profit is made by buying low and selling high. Consequently, this is the right time to buy.

It may not be fair but when some part of the economy suffers someone else profits. Recessions tend to happen because people, corporations and governments do foolish things. That certainly is true this time. Mortgage brokers created packages of bad mortgage debt. They sold them under false pretenses to investment firms that should have known better. In addition, our foolish federal government spent the last seven years spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave. Moreover, people in general ignored macro trends like global warming.

Very few of us will be the Donald Trumps of the world. Most of us though can distinguish between speculation, which usually throws away good money, and investments, which allows good money to grow prudently. Prudence and moderation are virtues, not just personally, but financially as well. People ride out and even prosper during recessions by exercising prudence in good and bad times. They do not live beyond their means. Saving money is their highest financial priority. They do not do foolish things with their lives or their money. Their lives may look boring. They may have a Subaru in their driveway instead of a BMW or Lexus. They may be sending their kids to public schools even though they can afford to send them to private schools. They may be buying clothes at Target instead of Nieman Marcus. They may live in a rambler rather than a McMansion. These are the sorts of people likely to live to see their golden years, and have plenty of money to enjoy those years.

If the pain of this economic downturn bites you, you do have my sympathy because I have been there a few times too. I was fortunate enough to learn my lesson early. While I am aware of the pain that recessions cause many people, I also know that recessions are a temporary phenomenon. Eventually conditions change, markets adapt to new realities and prosperity reemerges. While I cannot stop a recession, with some prudence and a little bit of luck I can not only ride recession’s wave, but also soar above the recovery’s crest when it happens.

So can you.

 
The Thinker

Advice I dare not utter

I will be as discreet and obscure as possible in this post. It is possible but extremely unlikely that its subjects will read this post. I am willing to take that risk because I feel better saying my peace at last somewhere. If I cannot utter it aloud, then I can at least write it somewhere. A blog is probably the appropriate place. Moreover, by publishing it here perhaps some will see themselves and do a midcourse correction.

I acknowledge that I, like most people, have huge blind spots. Particularly when it comes to parenting, my experience has been mixed, as has been documented in blog posts like this one. Every child is unique and no one style of parenting will fit all children. I like to think I have been a good father but I can hardly be objective. There is no real measure of successful parenting, but our daughter, age 18, seems reasonably well adjusted. As best I can tell, she harbors no particular grudges toward either my wife or I. We get along well and still do things as a family. We talk freely and exchange regular hugs. Our daughter does not smoke, do drugs or hang around with bikers named Thor. While it is too early to say for sure, I suspect we are doing better than most parents are. Our daughter is unlikely to be an Ivy League scholar, but I see nothing that would lead me to believe she will not eventually find her way into a successful, meaningful and independent life. I am sure she will have challenges and slip-ups on her own path. After all, as I once noted, failure is extremely useful, providing you learn from the experience.

Having given all the requisite disclaimers, both my wife and I knew this girl was going to have issues from the start. It was not because she was a particularly unusual child; it was because her parents had adopted parenting styles that left us both alarmed. A few years after their daughter was born they paid us a visit. We prepared a nice meal for their family only to find out that, well, C would not eat it. You see, C only likes X and Y, and not just any X and Y but X made with brand Q and Y made with brand R, which meant that Mom had to run to the local Giant and stock up on C’s special food. Moreover, it had to be prepared by Mom is a certain way and cut just so. Then she would eat it. She might even finish it.

She was not beyond getting the occasional timeout, but she was allowed unusual freedom for a young girl. For example, it was okay for her to use crayons on the walls, provided they were washable crayons. Her Mom would simply come by with a sponge every once in a while and remove her markings.

As for affection, the good news is that her parents loved her. The bad news is that her parents loved her. Gosh, how they loved her, devoting their complete attention to her whenever she made the smallest request, always in a cheerful voice, always in a tone that sounded like half baby talk and always with lots of hugs and kisses. As for praising her, they excelled in that. She was nurtured with the finest children’s toys that they could find. She had every childhood opportunity to explore her creative side. Hand me downs were not for her. God forbid she should wear clothes from a Wal-Mart. They shopped in stores like Baby Gap instead. She was trained by her mother to be a clotheshorse.

She is a naturally brilliant person, perhaps helped by her parents’ genetics. Her father has a PhD. Throughout school she excelled and routinely brought home all A’s. Mom and Dad were thrilled. She was lavished with praise and privileges.

Eventually she reached her teenage years and expressed the usual interest in the opposite sex. Suddenly, Mom and Dad who had been so encouraging were watching her like a hawk instead. She was kept out of the dating pool until she reached what she felt was an advanced age. They made sure she was closely chaperoned and were very strict with her curfews. She did not seem to mind too much. She filled her bedroom to overflowing with stuffed animals and furry cats and lived in what seemed like an extended childhood, if not infancy. Thanks to her excellent scholastics, she earned a full scholarship to a state university. Her parents bought her a brand new car so she could commute to class.

C is now twenty. She lives in her own apartment that she shares with a longhaired boy about her age. This longhaired boy though is a step up from the last one, a true bad boy James Dean type. Perhaps that is some small sign of progress. She still has her scholarship but since her parents did not approve of her lifestyle choices, they repossessed her car and ended all financial assistance. She gets by on her scholarship and a part time job. She works as a waitress in a restaurant that features nearly naked women who poll dance. Her mother and father spend much of their waking hours distressed over their daughter’s choices and hoping she will see the light. She showed up briefly in their house for Thanksgiving and Christmas but her estrangement is obvious.

They have not asked for my advice so I have given them none except for one small suggestion: if her daughter would consent to it, they might want to try family therapy. I have no idea if this will happen or not. Other than that, I simply offered them a shoulder to cry on should they need it and bite my tongue.

Here is what I would tell them if it were my place. There is a reason that your daughter is hanging out with men you do not approve of. There is a reason she is working as a waitress in a topless joint instead of at a Burger King. There is a reason she seems to go for bad men. It is because the two of you modeled the plastic parenting of Ward and June Cleaver combined with the 1960s “freedom to be the person you want to be”. The result was toxic. Mostly you smothered and micromanaged her. You wanted her to grow up to be like you and emulate your values. You were directing strong parental rays at her that said, “You must grow up to be a syrupy and surreal adults just like us.” Only, she could not utter her horror at the idea aloud. She did not know how and you were so nice all the time that she would feel like a heel if she did.

She is a young adult now. She can do what she wants and what she really wants to do is make you feel the pain she repressed because she was smothered, overly praised and micromanaged through her childhood and adolescence. Moreover, her actions, no matter how much they appall you, are necessary for her to find out who she is. She is finding herself by trying on a lifestyle that bears little resemblance to the one she knew. That is why she is attracted to bad boys.

How long will this go on? It will go on probably until you treat her as a human being who has dignity and not just the right, but your permission to make her own choices. It is obvious you do not agree with her choices. She is feeding off your energy and anxiety. Her life will probably look a lot like it currently is until you come to grips with a few things. You cannot change the way you raised her. However, you can love her.

You can love her by neither condemning nor approving of her behavior. You can love her by loving her in a way that will be meaningful to her: expressing unqualified and compassionate love for her and by acknowledging that despite the best intentions, you probably made some major mistakes raising her. Right now, your love has all sorts of strings, implicit and explicit, attached to it. She is discovering what it is like to not be like you, but she still does not know who she really is. To find her real self, you can help by lowering the voltage. You do this by both letting her make her own choices and turning off the parental guilt rays. If asked, express confidence that while her adult life may not be as you modeled it for her, she will always be okay and loved in your eyes.

My belief is that after a couple years of this she will likely lose her attraction to bad boys. She will move from rebellion into true personhood. You need to give up the role of being her parent. If you are lucky though and can win back her respect then there may come a time when you can be her coach. A coach does not make choices for someone, but helps them think through various alternatives and encourages them to be their best. This is the proper role for a parent of a 20-year-old young woman. When you decide you care more about your daughter as a person than that she model your values, that is when your relationship will truly begin to heal.

 
The Thinker

Mac Attack

Is it too much to ask your PC just to work? Apparently so. I have been living in the Microsoft universe almost universally since 1988. Why did I buy PC after PC and keep putting Microsoft on it? Was it because I thought that MS-DOS or Windows was the neatest and most reliable operating system in the world? Ha! I was never that naïve. No, I stayed with Microsoft all these years like most of us because I needed the applications that ran on it.

Around 1995 I did briefly flirt with OS/2 Warp. I installed the sucker (it came on something like a dozen 3 ¼ inch diskettes) and enjoyed its nice snazzy features. For compatibility, I ran my Windows 3.1 programs in protected memory. It did not take too long though before I was running Windows 95. Did I hate OS/2 Warp? Not at all. It was a cool operating system. The problem was that its applications, if you could find them at all, were generally crap compared to the Windows equivalent.

The reality was that until I could run applications that were the same or as good on another operating system, I was stuck in the Windows universe. After spending a couple hours yesterday with my friend Jim Goldbloom learning about his Mac, I realized: I do not have to take it anymore. Soon Bill Gates, it is gonna be see you later sucker. I just hope this time I do not have to come crawling back because of some killer applications that are just not available for the Mac. (Even so, I can now run a Mac in dual boot mode and run Windows on it, or buy Parallels and run Windows Vista at the same time.)

Currently it takes three to four minutes to boot my machine. It is a couple years old, and has plenty of memory and CPU and runs Windows XP. My wife built it for me (she does these things for friends and family.) I am not entirely sure why it takes so long to boot up. When it was new, it only took about 45 seconds. It is probably because when you have to build a software fortress around your PC every time you use it, it just takes time. There is the ZoneAlarm firewall. There is the free Avast! Antivirus software. There is my Webroot Spy Sweeper program. However, there are all sorts of other stuff, much of which I am only dimly aware of getting loaded and entertaining my CPU. Likely, some of it I do not actually need anymore. Perhaps there are tricks I could learn from a Windows Secrets book on how to speed up things. Perhaps it is just getting old. Booting my PC in 2008 takes longer than it took to boot my Commodore 64 in 1984 and load a program like PaperClip off my floppy disk. That took about two minutes, which seemed intolerably long back then.

I have enough PC savvy to know what the real problem is: Windows is an operating system that is about as lithe as an elephant. Windows was never engineered. It started out as a rickety shack in the backyard. The Microsoft “engineers” kept adding rooms, only they learned carpentry from Alf and Ralph Monroe from Green Acres. Bill Gates was the oily Mr. Haney. We were the foolish Douglases. No matter how crappy their operating system and software was we kept buying because we had to have those compatible applications. Moreover, we needed those applications because we had to share stuff with others, and they were running those applications. There were times when Windows 3.1 would GPF on me every fifteen minutes. Windows Me, released in 1999, was nearly as bad.

We got some relief with Windows 2000. It looked like Alf and Ralph had finally figured out how to add a room to the house without the rain coming in through the roof. It was somewhat acceptable and my applications ran okay. Gradually I could go days or weeks without getting General Protection Faults or BSDs (Blue Screens of Death). Windows XP proved that Alf and Ralph could even put up wallpaper right.

Still, Windows annoyed me. It is like my first car, a 1970 Toyota Corolla. Back then, they were cheap and crappy cars. The good part was that the car was elementary enough that I could do a lot of its servicing. Windows is like that. If you are not part PC geek, running Windows is like driving a car around with the oil nearly out. You can do it, but you are being stupid.

You should not have to be a hardware geek to run a desktop computer. You should not need to subscribe to an online newsletter like Windows Secrets because, well, there should be no secrets between you and your personal computer. Moreover, the damn thing should just run, and run reliably. There is a reason I drive a Honda Civic instead of a Yugo. I have better things to do with my time than take the damn thing into the shop all the time. All these years I have wanted to say the same thing about my PC, but could not.

I avoided a Mac for years not just because my software wouldn’t run on it but also because there were still a few kinks in the machine. They are gone. The OS/X Leopard operating system is as solid and reliable as UNIX, because it is UNIX. It is UNIX with a highly optimized graphical user interface that will finally enable me to do my work without much thinking, instead of a gadget I have to regularly fuss over. I do not think about how a screwdriver works. Why should my computer be a mysterious black box that occasionally requires some guru skilled in a black art to fix it?

OS/X Leopard is slick and effortless. I needed Jim there though as my tutor. The problem with learning the Mac is you have to unlearn Windows. You have to erase the idea that computers have to be mysterious or obscure. Need to find something? Click on Spotlight, type what you are looking for and see the results instantly appear. Lost something but you have not backed up your files recently? Not a problem. Time Machine, sitting in the background, can find it for you. Do you want the version of the file on November 5th or December 8th?

Where is that big rectangular box with all the hardware stuff in it anyhow? There is no box. The computer is built into the monitor. What sort of special cable do I need to get the photos off my cell phone? You do not need a cable; the Mac is Bluetooth enabled. Just where do I attach my web cam? Umm, it is built into the monitor, along with a microphone. It’s just there because it should be there. You have just been trained by Microsoft to spend your odd hours plugging in things to your PC and fussing with drivers. With a Mac, most of the time you just assume it is already there.

I went with Jim through all my myriad software requirements. Can I get Microsoft Word for the Mac? Yeah, you can buy it if you want, or use the Word processor that comes with it, or install the free OpenOffice suite, which is compatible. Browser? Safari is bundled with it, but you can run Firefox for the Mac, keep all your bookmarks and still use its many neat extensions. I am a web developer. Can I run Dreamweaver? Of course, you can get a Mac version. I keep all my financial stuff in Quicken. Yes, there is a Mac version for it too. What about my whitelist software? I hate spam and need a challenge-response system for people I do not know. The Mac Mail program will probably suffice with a little tweaking of the rules. If not, there are doubtless many free applications written for the Mac that can be your proxy that you can download from Apple’s website. Is there the equivalent of Webdrive, which lets me write to a web site as a Windows drive letter? Umm, drive letters are so PC. You do not need to remember drive letters anymore. You simply mount the sucker, and a SAMBA mount pointing to a server on the Internet will suffice. Will it recognize my printer? Just connect it. Unless it is more than a few years old, it will work transparently.

Bottom line: I do not need to put up with Windows anymore. I can finally be liberated.

I will not be rushing down to my Apple store to buy a Mac but I am making plans. I am wondering: will the Mac mini be all I need? After all, I already have an excellent monitor. Whichever Mac I buy I know that my desktop computer will be one less thing about which to worry. I will be driving a Ferrari, not a Yugo.

Sadly, I still will have to use Windows at work. I cannot escape Windows entirely until I retire. I do look forward to the day when I can purge Windows from my brain. It is impossible to have zero latency between my ideas and executing them on a computer or on the web. The Mac is likely the closest I will get to getting there.

 
The Thinker

Review: My Fair Lady

Going to see a revival of any Broadway musical is a gamble. A musical revival is a lot like a movie sequel. It rarely lives up to the original. I have seen Les Miserables three times over fifteen years and each tour was a step down from the last tour. Each incarnation becomes just a little more shopworn. Some musicals like Cats have been on so many tours that someone should shoot it to put it out of its misery.

It has been fifty years since My Fair Lady first appeared on Broadway. I was a baby in a bassinet when it first came out. My Fair Lady is one of these landmark musicals and excruciatingly hard to do right. For one thing, Rex Harrison epitomized the role of Professor Henry Higgins, both on stage and in the movie. In 1965, he won Best Actor for the role. The film itself also won Best Picture. Consequently, any revival of the musical must be treated with asbestos gloves. The chances are you are more likely to screw it up than satisfy.

Cameron Mackintosh though took the risk with this national tour. His risk was mitigated in part by getting many of the same cast that performed it so successfully on London’s West End back in 2001. My Fair Lady rolled into Washington, DC last month. My wife, daughter and I caught one of its last performances Saturday night before it moved on.

Good news to residents of Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Newark, Los Angeles, Toronto, Costa Mesa (California) and Tempe (Arizona). This tour of My Fair Lady feels as fresh as it was fifty years ago. While obviously I never saw it on Broadway, it fares nearly as well as the 1964 movie. Since it got a good review, I felt lucky to get tickets to it at all, and had to select from one of the later performances. Dig deep into your wallet and buy your tickets now. Any fan of musicals who has the opportunity to see this tour and misses it has only himself to blame. It may not role into Tempe, Arizona until June 17th, but if I lived out there I’d still try to get my tickets now.

Its success depends in part on faithfully sticking with well-known material. Christopher Cazenove, who plays Professor Henry Higgins, borrows more than a little from the late Rex Harrison’s portrayal. Considering what an odd and cantankerous professor Henry Higgins is, he would be hard to reinvent, and that he does not is perhaps just as well. Most of the characters studiously replicate the characters that preceded them in its original production. Walter Charles, as Colonel Hugh Pickering, looks like he could have been plucked from Wilfrid Hyde-White’s portrayal on the screen.

There are some exceptions. Unquestionably, the most fun part to play in the musical is the part of Eliza’s lowbrow alcoholic father, Alfred P. Doolittle, acted in this production by Tim Jerome. Jerome brings an enormous amount of energy to his supporting part and practically carries the whole cast off with him. This is one reason why it is so surprising that the rest of the production works so well. He could easily overshadow the rest of the actors and yet he does not. Lisa O’Hare delights as Eliza Doolittle, yet she gives her role a subtly different energy than Audrey Hepburn did in the movie. Except for being significantly wider in girth than Rex Harrison was, Cazenove slips into Higgins’ role with consummate familiarity.

As you might expect, complementing the ensemble is glorious dancing, magnificent staging and a wonderful energy from the cast. The only off-note of the evening was that the horns from the orchestra tended to make the higher registers from the performers hard to hear. That may have been due in part to the acoustics of the Kennedy Center Opera House or an overenthusiastic trumpeter. I was also somewhat annoyed by patrons arriving late, which made it hard to enjoy the first ten minutes of the show.

Thankfully, I can check My Fair Lady off the list of first class musicals that I have seen staged and thoroughly enjoyed. I realize that we were fortunate to get such a fine touring version. I must remember to keep my expectations more modest for the next musical that comes into town.

 
The Thinker

The Human Blastocyst: My Friend, My Dependent

I am reading Scott Adams’ book Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! Scott of course is the very successful artist behind the Dilbert comic strip. He has also written a number of legitimate non-comic books including some bestsellers like The Dilbert Principle. I bought his latest Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! for my wife as a Christmas present. Thus far, she has merely scanned it. I have been the one actively reading it. One must read something (while also scratching my cat’s belly) during the half an hour between slipping under the bed covers and actually turning off the light.

Thus far the book is a lot like my blog just (and I say this with complete sincerity) not as good. Scott’s book is essentially a collection of musing sent to members of his online fan club. If a book could be like the TV show Seinfeld, this would be it. It has no central theme or subject. It amounts to somewhat structured ramblings that escaped Scott’s brain. I am about a quarter through his book. Occasionally though Scott does have a topic that I find interesting or humorous. That it has no general categorization is actually something of a virtue. If you get bored with the current essay then since for the most part they fit on a page or a page and a half, you know you will soon be onto the next topic.

One ramble of his that I was reading last night titled “Adopting” stimulated today’s post. Scott is thinking of adopting some embryonic stem cells. He does not seem to have the patience to adopt a real child, but he does care about children so why not adopt some fertilized human eggs? He wants to keep them in his refrigerator. If they need to be fed, he figures it should work the same way it works with goldfish: shake something from a little can into their Petri dishes and forget about them for a day.

I had a similar idea years ago. I just forgot to blog about it. Scott’s little tongue in cheek essay though does neatly render absurd the whole argument of when human life begins. I try to have respect for the people who believe that life begins at conception. While I have respect for them as individuals, some part of me wants to call them a word that Scott Adams coined: induhviduals. I keep thinking, were they even awake during those human biology lectures in high school?

I am sorry but if you believe that a fertilized human egg is life (as in alive) you might as well also believe in the tooth fairy. Are those dozen eggs in your refrigerator alive? Granted in most cases they are not fertilized but occasionally a fertilized egg does make it into the food supply and ends up in your refrigerator. (Not to squick you out or anything but when this happens you basically cannot tell so you fry it up anyhow.) In any event, I think we would all agree that a fertilized chicken egg is not alive. If we revered chickens way the Hindus revered cows then perhaps we could keep excess eggs in cold storage until a spare hen was available.

What is clear is that a fertilized chicken egg is inert. Like every other form of life, to move from being a potential chicken into an actual chicken it needs something. Basically, it needs the right kind of energy and some time. When the egg absorbs sufficient warmth, it begins to grow. It is when something is growing that we know it is alive. The eggs in my refrigerator are not alive. Similarly, a human embryo is not alive either. It is inert.

As proof, go to the dictionary. My online dictionary defines life thus: “the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body”. There is nothing vital nor functional about a human embryo. Therefore, quite clearly a human embryo is not alive. Arguably, the sperm is alive until the moment it fertilizes the ovum. Then, like the male praying mantis after mating, it ingloriously dies. It carries with it some tiny amount of energy that is apparently sufficient to create the human zygote. The energy must be enough to cause the zygote to divide a few times until it becomes a blastocyst (human embryo). Once formed though the blastocyst is completely inert. It takes a lot of good luck for the blastocyst to become implanted in the uterine wall. At that point, if it is enriched by the energy in the uterine wall it can continue to multiply and divide. Perhaps at that point you can say technically that the blastocyst is alive. Anyhow, with luck nine months later a baby emerges.

It just so happens that my daughter is now of legal age. I will not be able to claim her as a tax dependent much longer. I have grown used to claiming our costs of supporting her on our income taxes. As our dependent, we get a tax break. Our taxes will go up when she is no longer our dependent.

However, perhaps I should go with Scott’s suggestion and get us a human embryo. I hope that it will remain inert. I am sure it will be just fine buried in the bottom of our freezer. It seems to me, as many moralists claim, that if this inert blastocyst is truly a human life and I am responsible for its expenses (our freezer probably costs a hundred dollars or more a year to operate) then I am entitled to claim him/her as a dependent. (It is hard to determine gender at this point.) Heck, I want a whole freezer full of human embryos. Perhaps instead of paying taxes, with all those dependents, Uncle Sam would pay me.

To claim them as dependents though, the IRS requires that I get each blastocyst a social security number. On the application, I must give the blastocyst a name. That should be easy enough to do with a baby names book, though to be safe the names should be gender neutral. One problem is that I will not have any actual birth certificate to show the Social Security Administration. This can be solved if the laboratory provides me with dated adoption certificates. The Social Security Administration will accept adoption certificates. I promise I will be a good parent to my blastocysts. Heck, I raised my daughter and she has not gone to jail or gotten pregnant out of wedlock. If necessary, to be a good blastocyst parent I will even ensure my freezer has a redundant power back up.

Since our president believes that as soon as we have a zygote we have a human life, and all human life must be protected, I am sure the IRS (as well as all fundamentalists) will stand with me when I claim my blastocysts as dependents. According to these people, there is nothing more important than protecting human life, unless you mean the time after they are born when we reserve the right to kill people if they do things the state does not like.

Anyhow, this is my plan to show I support the traditional family values this country stands for. And, oh yeah, it will also reduce my taxes. I am so overcome with patriotism at the moment that it is hard to keep from crying.

God Bless America.

 
The Thinker

My warranty has expired

My wife and I must be channeling each other. Shortly after Thanksgiving, she slipped her first disk. Since then she has spent much of her time in pain ranging from bad to excruciating. When you have pain that pervasive and acute, you get desperate. Unable to get physical therapy right away she ran to a chiropractor hoping for relief. Not much was found from either her chiropractor or her physical therapist. An MRI revealed a badly herniated disk. A shot directly on the affected ligament seems to have reduced a lot of the pain. She now bears some resemblance to her pre-Thanksgiving self. More shots are on her horizon and if they do not work spinal surgery may follow and with it the possibility of permanent injury.

Meanwhile my back has started hurting too although thankfully not so acutely. For a few weeks as we men often do, I ignored the pain and hoped it would go away. Eventually the pain reached a point where I grudgingly decided I should be seen. A nurse practitioner placed her finger in places inside my body that no human ever should and diagnosed prostatitis. Two weeks on Cipro though did not seem to alleviate the dull pain in my lumbar region. My doctor then guessed that I was probably dealing with lower back pain from sitting too much, as us office workers tend to do. A week on Naproxen and muscle relaxants seemed to help a bit but the pain has not gone away. It is time to consult with a urologist. Meanwhile, I convinced my boss to order me a fancy Herman Miller Aeron chair.

I had been warned that when you are fifty-something these sorts of medical mysteries become more routine than atypical. Somehow, I thought that I would be the exception. With enough regular aerobics and weight lifting at my local Gold’s Gym, I believed that I could beat the odds. Sadly, I seem to be suffering from self-delusion. My challenge now is to keep my medical issues minor rather than assume that with the right diet and exercise I can escape them altogether. My warranty has expired. In short, I am doomed.

I know intellectually that I will die someday. I cope with this morbid fact via the typical human means: denial and distraction. The sad fact about your warranty expiring is that neither denial nor distraction is possible. To deny your back problems while keeled over makes you worthy of derision. Age spots appear unwanted on my skin, which I had so carefully protected all these years with sunscreens and lotions. I need reading glasses to read anything closer than two feet from me. If it is more than two feet away from me then the font had better be large or I cannot read it at all. I used to have the ears of a dog. When some ultra high pitch entered my ear canal, I was frozen like a deer in a car’s headlights. This is no longer a problem because I can no longer hear those higher registers. Eczema splotches appear on my legs during the winter. Some years ago, something I wore irritated my legs. As a result, I lost most of the hair on my legs below my knee. The hair is not growing back.

Running, my preferred exercise for so many years is now largely out of the question. No matter what shoes I try, it hurts too much. In the best case, the nerves in my feet will tingle for a few hours after a run. In the worst case, the pain in my feet becomes excruciating for several days and my ankles swell up. Even some of the cardiovascular equipment at the gym designed for neutral impact on joints and muscles seems to give me minor inflammation. I am not that fragile, I tell myself. If I am going to work out then I need to work out, damn it. The last advice my doctor is going to give me is to stop exercising. I need to stay in shape and I need good muscle mass to avoid bone density loss as I age. The result of all this healthy physical activity is that I may live to see age 90. Yet it looks like in order to attain this milestone, I must spend inordinate amounts of time exercising when I do not want to do so and eating foods I do not want to eat while dealing with periodic bouts of chronic pain. I suspect if I reach age 90, it will be because I am chained to a treadmill.

I try to comfort myself by thinking, “Well, it could be worse.” There are plenty of examples around me. My wife deals with ten times the physical problems that I do. Somehow, she manages, though she spends much of her life in doctor’s offices and in pain. Watching her go through her issues may be contributing toward my anxieties. Wanting to avoid her issues, I feel like I need to do more of whatever she is not doing.

I can now clearly see my future. I was attached to my mother by umbilical cord before I was born. In my future, I will be attached not just to my doctor, but also to a whole network of specialists and care providers who will charge hefty fees to poke, probe and analyze my body so I will bitch less about my aches and pains. I want the body I had when I was 25, not the body I have now with its middle-aged aches and maladies. I pine for that body. Intellectually I realize I will never have that body again. Emotionally, I refuse to believe it.

When you turn 50, you consent to intrusive tests that you would never have agreed to at 25. Last month I endured a colonoscopy. The risk of colon cancer rises dramatically at age 50. The preparations for the tests were worse than the actual procedure. There was actually one fun part: being put under anesthesia. I was only under for 45 minutes while some extremely advanced gadget danced through my large intestine taking pictures. Nevertheless, I slept with the intensity of a baby. I wished an anesthesiologist could put me to bed every night.

The evidence is overwhelming. I am entropy in action. I can try to make the best with the body I have at this age, but it is unlikely to improve over time. It is likely to get worse. I will find relief in prescriptions but they bring only temporary relief. I need to accept that I am an older American. I need to think, not just about my retirement but about dying and death. I need to ponder what it means to be finite and adjust the rest of my life accordingly. That I cannot seems to cause cognitive dissonance that just makes my problems seem worse.

“It doesn’t get any better,” my sanguine brother in law told me last summer. At age 57 his face is dropping and his joints hurt most of the time. The feeling that he is Dorothy trapped in the Wicked Witch’s castle watching sand move quickly through the hourglass weighs heavily on his mind too.

Perhaps this is why men with the means look for much younger wives. Sometimes I think if Dennis Kucinich, age 61, can attract a babe half his age to be his lawfully wedded wife, maybe I should ditch the one I have too. For if they, being youthful, can love me in spite of my middle age aches and conditions, then perhaps some of their youthful pixie dust will rub off on me, and I will feel spry and youthful again too.

Fortunately, these are fleeting feelings. Age may just be a number, but aging has undeniable consequences. No red headed thirty-year-old vixen can change the fact that I am an aging American. I need to accept my reality and try to make the best of it. I sometimes dully wonder if some virtues will rise that will compensate for my aging. Perhaps I will find them in time.

Right now, I just want the dull pain in my lumbar region to recede.

 
The Thinker

Hoping for no clear winner

Since I announced that I will be voting for Barack Obama, you would think that I would be bummed by the result of last week’s New Hampshire primary, which was unexpectedly won by Hillary Clinton. Far from it. I am glad that Clinton won the primary. I hope she wins some more primaries. I hope Obama does too and I even hope (although it seems an unlikely hope) that John Edwards wins some state primaries.

I have many motivations. First, I am tired of not having my vote count. It is bad enough that since I live in conservative Virginia its electoral votes will go for the Republican candidate for president. (This year may be an exception, since Virginia may be becoming a swing state.) Since I live in Virginia, my primary falls after Super Tuesday. Typically, after Super Tuesday the party’s nominee is clear. This means that unless the remaining states suddenly breaks ranks and decide en masse that they prefer someone else, whoever is leading after Super Tuesday has a lock on the nomination. This year, when I vote on February 12th, my vote may actually be meaningful.

I also think that candidate competition is healthy for the election process. Granted that the nomination process is grueling on the candidates, but you learn a lot about a candidate when they are under stress. In some ways, running for president is far harder than actually being president. The stress of a campaign tends to expose flaws in our candidates, which is a good thing. How many of us Democrats, after John Kerry had locked up the nomination, subsequently had buyer’s remorse? I know I did, particularly after Kerry later said rather inept things. With the competition of a longer primary campaign, perhaps these sorts of statements would have come out earlier. Thus better informed, we could have selected another candidate.

Given that the presidency is such an important position and given that Obama, Edwards and Clinton are all excellent candidates, I could be happy with any of them as our nominee. While I intend to vote for Obama, who knows? Perhaps he will make a misstep or I will learn something new about Clinton or Edwards that changes my mind. Democrats in New Hampshire learned something new about Hillary Clinton when she choked up last week. They apparently learned that underneath her often-icy veneer was a vulnerable woman. Some found comfort and felt fraternity in the revelation. It may have made the difference that led to her win.

Therefore, I will keep my fingers crossed that Super Tuesday will leave the picture of whom our nominee will be muddled. Perhaps a few of the candidates will even deign to pay visits to Northern Virginia where I live, so I can hear them speak live and form my own impressions.

In fact, I did meet Hillary Clinton once, in 1992. I happened to be in Atlanta at a conference at the time. The Clintons and Gores were in town to be seen working with Jimmy Carter on a Habitat for Humanity project. It was also apparently an opportunity to do some fundraising. Bill, Hillary, Al and Tipper all came out the hotel where the fundraising was planned. I shook all of their hands. However briefly it was nice to meet the candidates in person. Why should the residents of New Hampshire and Iowa get all the face time? If I get anything, it will simply be campaign commercials.

It is unlikely but the result may be the first brokered Democratic convention in living memory. This would certainly make for an exciting convention. If so, I hope to be there to blog about it. In that unlikely event though, Hillary Clinton will have the edge. As I mentioned, superdelegates also get to vote. Presumably, they would favor the status quo, which would mean that Hillary Clinton would likely be the party’s nominee.

Meanwhile, let the campaign continue and may it remain murky for some time to come. Just once, I want my primary vote to mean something.

 
The Thinker

Thoughts on the dynamics of successful organizational change

This week a few light bulbs went off over my head. Unfortunately, I was kept too busy to have time to document them until now (hence the dearth of blog entries). What follows are some insights into how large organizations effect large changes.

Organizations of sufficient age will naturally resist change. They are typically optimized to solve known problems. This has the consequence of meaning that they are not well positioned to retrofit to solve new ones. Change is usually painful and the larger the change the more painful it is. Yet change is inevitable. While change is usually painful, change can also bring new rewards and new opportunities. Large government bureaucracies, such as the one I work in, are especially resistant to change. It is one thing for the senior leadership of an organization to make a decision. It is quite another thing to implement effectively their decision, particularly when the organization is distributed, the change is very large, the teams are highly matrixed and multiple managers have competing interests and goals.

Adroitly managing change is perhaps an organization’s toughest challenge. In the private sector, this ability translates into a company’s survivability and profitability. Which is why it is so interesting to observe how major changes happen successfully. I have discovered that inside my organization is a hidden group of change artists who have no name or formal affiliation.

I should point out that the movers and shakers are not necessarily its management. Senior leadership consists of people who are essentially directors. They tell people what to do in visionary terms. To be effective, successful senior leaders need to acquire two critical skills. First, they must develop an instinct of who to hire, since they must trust and delegate most of their work to them. Second, they must be excellent listeners. They need to be able to slip through organizational boundaries and listen to those in the organization’s middle and lower ranks. In particular, since change is inevitable they need to listen closely to those who have a proven record of accomplishment implementing change.

Managers are not necessarily movers and shakers either, although they can be and arguably should be. Managers come in all flavors too, from the dysfunctional pointy-haired boss to the exceptionally competent. Managers generally decide at a high level what things should be done and who should do them. However, their control is limited to those they supervise or direct. They may be brilliant managers of their own domains, but exceptionally poor at working relationships between other managers. If they possess both then they can be movers and shakers. Otherwise, they are just managers.

Organizational change is multidirectional. It flows down through the management chain in the form of decisions. It also should flow up, as expressed in the ideas, passions and implemented practices of those at the lower and middle levels. Change also operates laterally across groups of people engaged in similar missions. The ability of an organization to effect lateral change is critical to making large changes happen. It depends largely on the social networking skills and passions of people generally at and near or just below the management layer. In particular, it depends on the social networking skills of those people who need to work across organizational boundaries. If they have these skills, organizational change is more likely to succeed.

Organizational changes happen most rapidly and efficiently in organizations where every employee is empowered to the maximum extent possible. This is because the more an employee can infuse a job with his own skills and passion the happier he is likely to be in his job. Consequently, it is more likely that he will provide his best effort. When an employee is empowered, he becomes vested in the outcome of the change.

Who are the movers and shakers in your organization? Look for those with a passion for excellence and the internal wherewithal to focus like a laser beam on a successful outcome. Even when they have other problems that must be managed, they will be tenacious and continually work on implementing change even while they do their normal business. They tend to be determined people, skilled in the culture of the organization and relentlessly focused on the success of a particular endeavor.

I like to think of myself as one of the movers and shakers where I work, but I am not sure I am there yet. For one thing, I have been with my current organization only four years, which means I am still an apprentice when it comes to working the institutional kudzu. I do not always have the 24×7 passion of the best movers and shakers. However, I have been successful in promoting some my ideas for major changes. I noticed that the more passionate I felt about an idea, the more likely it was to see be realized. It occurred sometimes to the chagrin of my chain of command. They resist in part because they feel overwhelmed with change and do not want to foster any more of it. Were I more socially adroit, I perhaps could have sold these changes with less friction. Nonetheless, my passion for them kept me motivated and eventually persuaded those who could effect change to agree with me.

These movers and shakers though rarely are rewarded commensurate with the skill and passion they bring to their jobs. Yet they are invaluable. Without them, the organization would either cease to exist or devolve toward inertia.

I feel like I have one foot in their domain and the other foot in the past. As I absorb their lessons, I have a goal for myself to assume the rank of a full-fledged mover and shaker too.

 
The Thinker

Review: Borat

Am I the last person on the planet to have seen Borat? If so, this review will not garner many hits.

It is rare for me at my advanced age (I am 50) to see any movie and truthfully say, “I’ve never seen anything like that before!” The last time I said this about a movie was back in 2004 when I saw What the Bleep Do We Know? What the heck was it? As a movie, it truly sucked, but as a film that explains string theory from a metaphysical perspective it was unique and quite fascinating.

Borat can at least be categorized. It is a comedy. This movie is so funny that unless you are humor impaired you should find yourself laughing hysterically. Do not be surprised if you are so busy laughing that you find snot is running out of your nose. Wow! How funny is Borat? It is funnier than my previously all time favorite funny movie, the classic 1980 comedy Airplane!

Okay, the real name of the movie is not Borat but Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. That is too long for billboards so the rest of us call it Borat. As you probably know, it stars the hitherto largely unknown comic Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat Sagdiyev. Borat is ostensibly a reporter for the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. For the first ten minutes or so, we get an introduction to Borat’s wonderful life and family in Kazakhstan, which is a former republic of the Soviet Union. Borat’s family comes complete with a forty something mother who looks seventy something, an ugly and controlling wife and an annoying next-door neighbor. Amusements in Borat’s town include the annual Running of the Jews. At least in Kazakhstan, the “Jews” are in costume and are not literally paraded down the city streets and pierced with spears, as was true of Rome in Michelangelo’s time. Suffice to say that Jews, as well as Gypsies are viewed with great suspicion in Borat’s Kazakhstan.

Soon we learn that Borat along with his extremely obese partner from the media ministry Azamat (Ken Davitian) are selected by the Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan to visit the United States. Borat and Azamat are to create a documentary of their experiences in America. The humor of the movie comes from the unusual way it was done. Both Baron Cohen and Davitian are in character yet interact with real Americans who for the most part have no idea that they are in character.

Life in Borat’s Kazakhstan is much, much different from life in the United States. This of course is principally its source of humor. Values too are often greatly different. Consequently, virtually any interaction with ordinary Americans is full of humorous possibilities. Baron Cohen though makes the most of each encounter. Yet somehow, he comes across as plausible. For example, he seeks advice from a coach on American etiquette and manages to say the strangest extemporaneous things to her yet he never loses character. Nor do the people he encounters have any idea that he is putting on an act. From trying to kiss men in the New York City subway (apparently a routine event in Borat’s Kazakhstan) to carrying a chicken around in your suitcase (how else would you get fresh eggs?) it is impossible not to laugh.

If, like my wife, you are the sort who could not watch old I Love Lucy shows because it made you feel terribly embarrassed, Borat is not for you. You will have to watch it through cracks between your fingers. Let’s be clear: Borat‘s source of humor is quite pedestrian. It is Animal House kind of humor. It is crude. It is often vile. It is not afraid to offend. It is over the top shocking. Frankly, it reaches some level beyond mere hilarity.

Perhaps the subtitle to the movie should have been “Borat’s search for Pamela Anderson.” It does not take him very long after settling in to his New York City hotel room before he discovers Baywatch on television. This transformational event, along with a timely telegram that informs him that his reviled wife has met an untimely demise, provides his motivation to persuade Azamat they should go to Los Angeles. There he plans to find Pamela Anderson and ask her to marry him. In Borat’s Kazakhstan, this apparently involves putting a specially embroidered bag over the woman’s head and dragging her away.

Obviously, I do not want to reveal too much of this convoluted plot. Suffice to say you will laugh until you cry. You will be awed at the overwhelming audacity of Baron Cohen. Watching this movie must be something like lighting a dozen firecrackers inside a tin shed. You probably have an idea of what the experience would be like, but unless you actually do it, you would not really know. That is Borat‘s appeal. It is a singular experience and it is unlike anything you have seen on film before. Maybe you have seen what you thought were weird films like John Water’s Pink Flamingos. Step aside, John Waters. You have been outdone.

If you hated I Love Lucy, you will hate this movie. In fact, you will probably walk out after the first few minutes. Otherwise, be prepared to laugh until your lungs are about to collapse. Aside from saying that Borat is the funniest movie I have ever seen, I will not rate it. If this kind of funny movie appeals to you, you simply dare not pass it up.

 

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