Archive for December, 2008

The Thinker

Review: Doubt

Doubt director and writer John Patrick Shanley can be forgiven for framing his movie inside the insular world of a Catholic parish in the Bronx in 1964. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better setting for this movie. Catholicism of course has little room for doubt or uncertainty. Its priests and sisters are expected to have a finely honed sense for the presence of sin. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the principle of a parochial school in the parish. From her long experience among the unwashed and sinful masses, she can sense a fire long before there is any combustion. For a Sister of Charity she has few things charitable to say about the students she oversees. It seems that without her constant vigilance all her pupils are doomed to lapse further into a life of sin. She rules the school through fear and intimidation to such an extent that even her fellow sisters are cowed and silent in her presence. She makes no apologies for her methods and cannot conceive of any other way of governing.

Meanwhile over in the rectory Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is hard at work trying to become a more liberal and expansive priest. He is full of enthusiasm for Vatican II and wants to be known as a warm and accessible priest. This naturally raises Sister Aloysius’s suspicions. What does it mean when the school’s only African American student is called into a private conference with Father Flynn and he returns smelling of communion wine? For Sister Aloysius, this means something sinful and unnatural must have been going on. She plunges headfirst into these dubious moral waters, determined to make Father Flynn accountable for his behavior. After all, she has spent a career witnessing it among her pupils. Confirmation of her suspicions is rather beside the point. She must bring a stop to whatever immorality is occurring, no matter what the cost.

Streep and Hoffman provide fine performances as you might expect. What you do not expect is that Amy Adams (who plays Sister James) will rise to their level and by many measures give the finest performance in the movie. Sister James is deeply troubled because the boy is in her class. She becomes anguished and feels pulled both ways by Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. Her inability to resolve her feelings, which are amplified by both the stakes and the clarity of Catholic theology, nearly destroys her. Adams gets far less camera time than either Streep or Hoffman but in many ways her performance is the most memorable. Is Father Flynn a child molester? Are Sister Aloysius’s suspicions unjustified? The film magnificently explores the issue of reasonable doubt in a climate where none is permitted, and the havoc the dichotomy can cause within such an insular community.

If you enjoy fine character driven and human stories then without a “doubt” you should see Doubt. If you are a Catholic or ex-Catholic, you also might enjoy inhabiting again the world of the American Catholic Church in 1964, which is flawlessly rendered. As a result a number of those Catholic hymns that I had thought I had purged from my brain are now running around in my mind again, along with long forgotten memories of my own time as an altar boy.

I spent nine years in parochial schools. We had our own Sister Aloysius, so I can attest that Meryl Streep’s portrayal as school principle is dead on for the period. We had our Irish priest too, whom we secretly suspected of drinking too much communion wine. Consequently, I found the plot entirely plausible. The Catholic Church, like many moral institutions can run but not hide from the moral squishiness and ambiguity of life. Doubt captures it brilliantly.

3.4 on my 4.0 scale.

P.S. The metaphor of the windows in Sister Aloysius’s offices so often being unexpectedly open is, I am sure, quite intentional.

 
The Thinker

Second Viewing: City on the Edge of Forever

Watching movies and shows online can be both fun and convenient. On Christmas Eve, I watched the British film Cashback streamed live to my desktop computer. Last night I watched classic Star Trek, specifically the episode City on the Edge of Forever from the show’s first season. Many Trekkers insist this was the best episode in the three-year run of the original series and I am inclined to agree. It was ostensibly written by science fiction author Harlan Ellison, but had to be substantially rewritten by staff scriptwriter D. C. Fontana to keep it within the show’s budget and fifty-minute length.

In case you have not seen the episode, at the start of the show NCC-1701 (a.k.a. the U.S.S. Enterprise) finds itself in the midst of a space-time disturbance. It jolts the ship; the usual sparks fly out of the navigator’s console and knocks out poor Lieutenant Sulu. Dr. McCoy (“Bones”) rushes to the bridge to give Sulu a small dose of “cordrazine”. When the ship is rocked again by another space-time disturbance McCoy accidentally injects the rest into himself, which turns him into a paranoid schizophrenic. He manages to elude security and beam himself down to the planet they are orbiting, which is at the center of the space-time disturbance. There on the planet a mysterious structure called The Guardian acts as a portal to human history. Dr. McCoy, still in a cordrazine paranoia high, jumps through the portal and back in time to New York City during the Great Depression.

It is not a good idea to disturb time because McCoy apparently does something to cause their present reality to disappear. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock end up going back to the same time to try to prevent McCoy from doing whatever he did to change history. This is a tall order because there is no guarantee they can find him.

I will not give out too much more of the plot on the off chance you have not seen the episode. While I watched it online on Netflix, there are other places online you can watch it, some for free. One place is cbs.com, which is more than a bit ironic since it first ran forty years ago on NBC.

I was ten when the show first ran in 1967. For some bizarre reason my parents considered Star Trek too adult for us godly devout Catholics (perhaps it was the miniskirts the women wore), so it was off our list of approved shows. I did not actually see it until the early 1970s when it was broadcast in abbreviated form on an independent TV channel in Orlando. As I was living in Daytona Beach, this meant poor image quality and many Ronco ads. Watching it online though was a pleasure, because I could see it in full color and in higher definition than the 435 lines available to TV viewers back in the 1960s. It was like watching it projected in a movie theater. It made quite a difference.

Star Trek is of course a fantasy about the future, but to me it was a blast into my distantly remote past when I was only ten years old, we were up to our hips in Vietnam and prominent people like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were being gunned down. As much as Gene Roddenberry tried to hide it in its 23rd century frame, the show espoused the values of those times. Back then, the network censors were pretty ruthless. Kirk’s line at the end of the episode, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” considered shocking at the time, was lucky to make it past the network censors.

Women may have worn miniskirts in the U.S.S. Enterprise but there are oddities in the shows that today’s National Organization for Women would find sexist. When time stops, for example, Lt. Uhura says (rather unconvincingly), “Captain, I’m afraid.” It was perfectly reasonable back in the 1960s for a woman, even a Star Fleet officer like Uhura to revert to wallflower when the situation got too heavy. The same was not true for Kirk or Spock. It was time to raise the shields of masculinity and exude some testosterone.

For the 1960s, Star Trek was high primetime cinema. However, the pressures of putting out twenty-six episodes a year as well as keeping to a strict budget frequently strained the quality of the show. City on the Edge of Forever is an excellent episode for classic Star Trek, yet if compared to most shows of its successor, Star Trek: The Next Generation, it would rank maybe in the middle. In the 1960s, TV was not considered to be art, but entertainment. Occasional series like The Twilight Zone showed what the medium was capable of. With the constraints on time and budget the show was under, putting out good episodes every week was impossible. Unlike the original series, Star Trek: The Next Generation was syndicated. This allowed for bigger budgets, higher production values and better actors. Watching the original Star Trek series forty years later, the lack of quality, even for the better shows, is glaring.

Still, if you can rewind your mental clock back four decades you can appreciate that City on the Edge of Forever as a really good episode. New York City in the Great Depression was portrayed on a back lot of Desilu Studios, but the scenes were quite convincingly rendered. William Shatner’s ego is kept in check by director Joseph Pevney, who probably not coincidentally directed many of the show’s better episodes. Joan Collins plays the kind-hearted social worker Edith Keeler and renders a surprisingly fine performance. Some of the dialog comes across as rather strange and the music is at times too suggestive of how you are supposed to feel, but the episode is a great blend of fun, drama and science fiction. Actually, the best performance in the episode is given by the late DeForest Kelley (McCoy). It is consistently well acted, well directed and well written. The essence of Ellison’s fascinating and tragic plot is retained and convincingly rendered.

What a pity that network executives were so niggardly with prime time shows back in the 1960s. Star Trek was obviously an innovative idea for a TV series, given its long and successful franchise. Given the relative paucity of its production values (which were considered high for the time) the original series, when it was good in episodes like this one, demonstrated what the original series could have been had it been given the time and the money necessary. Star Trek’s true glory was destined to show up in future incarnations of the show.

 
The Thinker

Review: Cashback (2006)

Netflix is now offering a service where you can watch movies instantly on your home computer. I am not sure how but they offer this service at no charge above their monthly rate. Their selections are somewhat limited compared to all the movies you can rent, but it sure is convenient. Moreover, you can watch as many movies online as you want. Since I tend to like independent and foreign films I thought I would try my first online Netflix by watching the British film Cashback.

Sean Biggerstaff plays Ben Willis, an art major. Ben is an introverted and sensitive artist who is devastated when he is dumped by his steady girlfriend of more than two years, Suzy (Michelle Ryan). One consequence is that he becomes an insomniac. Eventually he decides that as long as he is awake and is a poor college student, he might as well earn some money. So he takes a night shift job at the local twenty four hour supermarket.

Ben is definitely not your typical early twenties young adult. Although he appears somewhat scrawny, he is a deeply sensitive and caring soul. Except for his lack of rippling muscles and his career prospects, he should be every woman’s idea of a great boyfriend. His artistic inclinations help him peer beyond the façade that most people exhibit and see their underlying humanity. He is particularly enamored with beautiful women and feels driven to capture their inner beauty in his drawings.

Unfortunately, Ben spends most of his life surrounded by crude and boorish men. This problem only worsens when he begins working at the supermarket. The store is full of characters, from the night manager to the shelf stockers all of whom have yet to emerge into adult emotional maturity. They may be crude and boorish, but each is memorable in their own way so they provide good entertainment. Working the night shift though is tough. Hours pass interminably. Ben’s own strategy to deal with the boredom is to freeze time. Whether it happens in fact or is a figment of his imagination is unclear. While people are in this frozen state, Sean is free to go around and examine them closely, and to draw sketches of them. He is so captured by beauty that while women are in a frozen state he will undress them to sketch them better. If you appreciate beautiful young women, there are plenty here to admire in both a partially and fully undressed state. There are also numerous flashbacks to Ben’s childhood, which help explain his obsession with beauty and the female form, as well as his somewhat different outlook on human sexuality.

For weeks, Ben seems unable to emerge from his funk over being dumped by Suzy, and appears to be one of the walking dead. Perhaps this accounts for his ability to freeze time. Only one woman appears to work at his supermarket at night, Sharon (Emilia Fox). She is the cashier and most of the time, she too seems to be one of the walking dead. Over time, Sean becomes interested in Sharon, although it takes a long time for the two to connect in any meaningful romantic fashion. As they do, Ben begins to sleep again.

The premise of this movie seems weak, but it is surprisingly engaging. I have tried to put my own years working retail into the form of a novel, but never got too far. If you are looking for a movie that captures the feelings of working retail (an experience common to many of us) this one should fill the bill. Of course, life working at the supermarket is merely a frame for a larger story about love, its nature and how it is experienced. The metaphor of freezing time works really well in conveying Ben’s feelings, which would be hard to capture any other way. At its core, this is a movie about the emotional pain and devastation that accompanies romantic breakups. It is also about how the human heart is healed from this experience. As this is a relatively unexplored aspect of love on film, this movie will give you some things to chaw over.

All the characters in this movie are memorable and each faithfully portray their characters. Director and Writer Sean Ellis does a nice job of portraying Ben’s sad and poignant reality, and adds some interesting visual tricks that merge past and present. Cashback surprised me because it turned out to be a much better movie than its premise suggested. It was doubtless shot on a modest budget yet the movie paints a broader and more interesting canvas than its modest plot would suggest. In short, be prepared to inhabit Ben’s world. You will both enjoy and grow from the journey.

3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

 
The Thinker

The Pastor Warren Gambit

I am one of many people who have been puzzling over Barack Obama’s peculiar inaugural invitation to Pastor Rick Warren. Just in case you have been living in a cave these last few weeks, Warren is a jet-setting pastor of the evangelical Saddleback (California) Community Church (a mega-church) and the best selling author of The Purpose Driven Life. He befriended Barack Obama a couple years back. Obama even spoke to his congregation. Warren also happens to be against homosexual marriage. Obama has at times sounded both pro gay-marriage and anti-gay marriage. However, he clearly is for civil unions, which he sees as the legal equivalent of marriage, and is opposed to all discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The gay and lesbian community is outraged over Obama’s invitation to Warren to say a prayer at his inauguration. They were among his staunchest supporters during his campaign and feel his invitation was a slap in their faces. After all, Rick Warren had equated gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. I am not gay and I sure found those words offensive when I read them. Yet, realistically his words were no more offensive than a lot of other tripe coming out of the conservative Christian community. As I pointed out in this recent post, polygamy is also Biblically sanctioned but I do not hear Pastor Warren sanctioning that.

As I expected, Rick Warren has quickly toned down the rhetoric. Today he asserted that he is not anti-gay, just anti-gay marriage. He has also said he regretted his choice of words when he associated gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. His church also removed wording from its website that said gays were welcomed as members only if they first repented for their homosexual lifestyles. It is unclear though whether homosexuals can now become members of the church.

Warren also recently shared the stage with songwriter Melissa Etheridge, a rather public lesbian and who is legally married in the State of California to her lesbian spouse. How much longer her marriage will be legal is an open question, given that people like Warren worked tirelessly to ensure the proposition’s passage. Sharing a stage though gave Etheridge and Warren a reason to talk about their differences on these sensitive issues. Etheridge for one is willing to cut Warren some slack on his past remarks.

I can understand why most in the homosexual and lesbian community would be irate with this invitation. If I had been discriminated and scorned much of my life for my natural sexual preferences and my perfectly understandable desire to have my marital state sanctioned by society, I would be hollering too. Why would our president elect do such a thing?

In the interest of balance, Pastor Warren is not be the only minister Obama asked to speak at the inauguration. Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, accepted an invitation to give the benediction. Lowery’s views are far more inclusive than Warren’s. Obama himself said, “It is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.” To gays and lesbians in particular, their rights are more than mere “social issues”.

Obama must have known that by inviting Warren he would raise a ruckus. What is Obama really up to with his invitation? Is he trying to win the respect of those who did not vote for him, and thereby increase his chances of rallying the country on painful changes that will be hard to swallow? Is he telegraphing that his support for gays and lesbians was half-hearted and his appeals to this community duplicitous? Is he making a statement that in the grand scheme of all the severe problems facing this country that gay and lesbian rights are not that important?

While I cannot read his mind, I think I understand Obama’s strategy. Those who are most virulently against extending full civil rights (including marital rights) to gays and lesbians are, in my observation, those who spend the least amount of time interacting with them. Sure, they are among us but unlike skin color, which you cannot hide in ordinary life, it is easy to hide your sexual preferences.

If we are to end the polarization on this issue, those who are opposed to gay and lesbian rights must spend time in civil dialog with openly gay and lesbian people. It is especially important for prominent people on both sides to have civil dialog. By talking to Melissa Etheridge before their appearance at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, as well as sharing a stage with her, Warren had the opportunity to have his beliefs challenged in person and in a way that did not make him defensive. It turns out that Warren is also a big Melissa Etheridge fan, which doubtless helped Etheridge get her views across. While I am sure she is not the first overtly gay or lesbian person he has met, repeated encounters help people like Warren understand that gays and lesbians are not freaks or a special class of sinner but completely ordinary people.

The full enfranchisement that gays and lesbians seek will not occur through noisy in your face confrontations. Such confrontations may feel good, but their effects are likely to be counterproductive and inflame passions on both sides. Such actions are also likely to retard the progress that gays and lesbians seek. Barack Obama is forcing a dance between these two social forces in a way that promotes genuine dialog rather than hate and vindictiveness.

An enemy ceases to be your enemy once you can relate to them. It is through dialog that conservative Christians and others opposed to homosexual rights will eventually be won over. There are far more vitriolic ministers on this issue than Pastor Warren. Warren though exhibits a certain amount of common sense and reasonableness. It is through changing influential minds like his that much larger groups are persuaded. Obama’s timing may be inflammatory, but I think his judgment with this invitation will be proven sound.

Social change is always painful, so this invitation is bound to be painful to many who fight valiantly for full civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans. However, it may turn out to be a significant step toward achieving the full enfranchisement that gay and lesbian Americans seek. If America can break the color divide by electing an African American president, can healing the divide between gay and homophobes really be that far away?

 
The Thinker

A favorite Christmas show

There are plenty of memorable Christmas movies and shows to enjoy this time of year. Each attempts to capture the spirit of the season that is largely absent. One of my favorites is not from a movie or a made for Christmas cartoon, but from the first season of the TV show The West Wing. The episode, “In Excelsis Deo”, was written by the series creator Alan Sorkin and Rick Cleveland.

I hate it when a show is so good that it makes you cry. Damn it, this episode made me cry, but in a good way.

If you are not familiar with The West Wing, the withdrawn and acerbic Toby Zeigler (played by Richard Schiff) is White House Communications Director. Toby also happens to be a Jew. As Christmas closes in, he gets a call from the D.C. police. A homeless man died on a park bench on The Mall. Toby’s business card was found in the coat. Toby had donated the coat the man wore to Goodwill.

The man who died turns out to be a Korean War veteran who was wounded in action. For reasons that seem to puzzle Toby, he feels compelled to make sure this homeless man he never knew receives a proper burial at Arlington Cemetery.

This episode was voted the best of the long running series by the viewers of IMDB.com, and it won probably for this last scene. This YouTube excerpt contains the key scenes from this episode. Grab a tissue or a handkerchief and prepare to feel the true spirit of Christmas. Moreover, perhaps you can do what I did today, and drop off a bag full of clothes for donation. Due to the poor economy, the number of homeless is rapidly increasing. We hit a high of 27 degrees here in the Washington D.C. area today.

Happy holidays to everyone, regardless of your faith or lack thereof.

 
The Thinker

The end of the middle class

My thanks to commenter George who, five years after it was published, left the first comment to my 2003 post, The Dual Income Trap. George is one of millions of average Americans who has meticulously played by the rules and done all the prudent things. By doing so, he now finds his family preciously hanging on to its middle class existence. In a way, George is lucky. Millions of others are not so lucky. They have lost their houses and in many cases, their jobs too and are now scrambling. I hope that most have some place of refuge for hard times, perhaps just a spare bedroom in Mom and Dad’s house. Others have downsized their lives and are living in apartments, which hopefully are more affordable. It was clear that their house was not.

The pain Americans are going through can be understood not just in unemployment statistics but also by other shocking statistics. For example, one in ten Americans are receiving food stamps. Autoworkers are feeling in a particularly precarious position. It is not just the members of the United Auto Workers that are wondering how long they will be employed. Demand for cars, including foreign cars, is way down, despite gas prices at $1.60 a gallon. If you are a UAW worker, you have the sinking feeling that you are about to kiss a living wage goodbye forever. Yesterday President Bush approved $17.5 billion in emergency loans to GM and Chrysler. He did so not because he has any sympathy for the UAW and its workforce (whom you can tell he detests) but to ensure they do not collapse until after he leaves office. That way he cannot be blamed for their demise.

This economic crisis should pretty much kill off the middle class as many of us knew it. I define “middle class” as being able to own your own and maintain a single family home, have a car or two, raise a couple kids and live in a generally safe neighborhood. In reality, this life was going anyhow. George mentions that his family income is around $100,000 a year. The real price of admittance to the middle class these days is about $100,000 a year in family income. There are exceptions of course because there are parts of the country where the cost of living is remarkably low. Particularly if you live along one of the east or west coasts, if you do not have $100,000 in family income you can pretty much rule out a standard of living similar to the one (presumably) your family had growing up.

As for those with a family income in the $40,000 to $80,000 range, these people have now largely been priced out of the middle class. Unsurprisingly, they are the ones who have been predominantly getting the shaft during this severe recession. Our nation’s autoworkers have epitomized the collapsing middle class. However, their situation is hardly unique and is emblematic of a very broad problem.

There is little in the way of silver linings here. One lesson these people have learned is that they can no longer charge the difference between their desired standard of living and the standard of living they can afford. Now, assuming they are not in bankruptcy, many find that their credit limits have been reduced and their monthly payments have increased. Some sort of credit correction was probably due anyhow, but this is a hell of a time to go through it. Much of the economic shock we are now enduring is due to the collapse of credit. No wonder we are spending less. No one is willing to lend us the money to live beyond our means anymore. Frugality has become necessary. This means fewer dollars circulate, which translates into a large economic downturn.

Many of the formerly middle class are moving swiftly into what can charitably be called the lower middle class. I prefer to be more realistic and call them the working poor. You are in this class if you find that one or more of the breadwinners are working two or more jobs just to survive. Granted, finding any job in these times is going to be challenging. Good luck even finding a job paying starvation wages at your local Wal-Mart. Most likely, any health insurance, if you had it, has vanished. You may have been living paycheck to paycheck before this economic crisis. Now you are in survival mode, desperately trying to keep a roof over your head and your aging cars usable until the economy turns around.

Even when the economy does turn around, do not expect that your financial situation will markedly improve. Perhaps with the collapse of housing prices you will be able to afford a single-family house again. The dual income trap though will not be going away and is likely to only be exacerbated.

The middle class has been destroyed. It was not an accident because to kill it you had to move money from the middle class to either the poor or the rich. It went to the rich because, unsurprisingly, they have power. Starting in earnest with the election of Ronald Reagan, the rich pulled every lever to make sure they paid less in taxes and you effectively paid more. Government costs what government costs, after all. Whether by increasing taxes for those of modest incomes or through deficit spending, the effect either way is to push the burden on the rest of us less capitalized. If your taxes were cut too but deficit spending made up the difference, it meant that wealth was moving overseas. The effect was to move our collective wealth elsewhere and since most of it was vested in the middle class, the middle class lost wealth. That is one reason why unsecured credit card debt kept climbing. Think of it: when President Carter was in office, we were the world’s largest creditor nation. We owned much of the world. Now we are the largest debtor nation. We are owned by much of the world.

How to change the situation? I wish I could be as optimistic as our new president, but I think he is on the right track. We have to transform our country so that it is the engine of a new 21st century economy. We have to offer products and services that this new resource-constrained world will need. Being the leaders in manufacturing clean technologies will be key, because these will be new technologies will be in high demand, hence profitable, hence wealth builders. If we can do this then perhaps the broken middle class will reemerge.

Our middle class needs to reemerge because our nation cannot be wealthy if its wealth is vested mainly in its aristocracy. Ordinary people power an economy. Until ordinary people have money to power it again, the economy is likely to remain poor. Unfortunately, this transformation process, if it can be done at all, will take decades. We have no choice but to start now. Let us hope our competitors are less adept at creating this new economy than we may be.

 
The Thinker

How traditional is traditional marriage anyhow?

Supposedly, you don’t fool with Mother Nature. Never mind that we fool with Mother Nature all the time. We eat all sorts of genetically modified foods. Perhaps you had some seedless raisins with lunch. Many also see gay marriage as fooling around with Mother Nature. Mother Nature has decreed that only a union between one man and one woman is natural. No exceptions allowed! Consequently, Mother Nature does not want a man to marry another man, or two women to marry each other. Nor does Mother Nature endorse polygamy or polyandry.

Or so we think, although these so called natural laws may not be all that natural. Biologists have discovered all sorts of unusual parings among animals that suggest that serial monogamy is hardly the norm. Among humans, social scientist Margaret Mead documented decades ago that the one man-one woman marriage thing we define as traditional marriage is just one natural variation among humans. Across the world, Mead documented numerous cultures where all sorts of arrangements are sanctioned: “traditional” marriage, polygamy, polyandry, polyamory as well as the tribal equivalents of gay marriage. If Mother Nature opposes them, she is turning a blind eye.

The Bible sure tells us deviations from traditional marriage are sinful, right? Not exactly. Depending on which books of the Bible you believe are divinely inspired, these deviations are either permitted, not specifically addressed or are seen as abominations that could even subject you to capital punishment. Polygamy was acceptable in Abraham’s time. According to the Bible, Abraham had multiple wives, as did many of the Jewish elders and kings whose lives are chronicled in the Old Testament. Apparently, the more wives you had the more status you had in the community. Polygamy also served the useful evolutionary purpose of spreading the seed at a time when humans were an endangered species. Mother Nature might have thought it necessary. Abraham reputedly lived to some impossibly old age. Yet, Yahweh apparently saw no abomination with Abraham’s polygamy. While polygamy is unlawful in today’s America, it remains legal in much of the Muslim world and is explicitly permitted in the Quran.

During the last election, California voters decided by a four percent margin that gays should not be allowed to marry in the state. Members of the Mormon Church in particular felt a call to spiritual arms and contributed $22 million toward a campaign to overturn court ordered gay marriage in California. This is curious because Mormons were traditionally polygamists and only relatively recently decided this aspect of their theology required some amending. In fact, the tradition of polygamy is much older than the idea of marriage as between only one man and one woman.

What are Jesus’ thoughts on gay marriage? Jesus actually has little to say on the issue of marriage except he said God did not allow divorce, a teaching most Christians are happy to ignore. According to the Bible, Jesus never married, so it clearly was not a high priority for him. Many religious scholars suspect he actually was married or had an out of wedlock relationship with Mary Magdalene but that part was scrubbed from the Bible.

St. Paul had a few things to say about marriage, and they were not particularly nice. In his mind, good Christians completely abstained from sex, since sex itself was sinful. He did belatedly suggest that if you could not abstain from sex you should marry because it is better to marry than to go to hell. In his view, marriage suggested some sort of moral failing, but a minor one. In his opinion, since sex was part of marriage, it was hardly worthy of sanctification. However, St. Paul also appeared convinced that the second coming of Jesus was not too far away, so there was little point to procreation.

If history is our guide, what constitutes “real” marriage should be a confusing muddle, not an issue of clarity. If we strictly adhered to the Biblical interpretation of marriage, most of us would find it unacceptable. As this diarist on Daily Kos points out, the Bible tells us that polygamy is okay (Gen 29:17-28; II Sam 3:2-5). It also suggests that is okay to shack up or have live-in lovers even while being married (II Sam 5:13; I Kings 11:3; II Chron 11:21). However, marriage is forbidden if the woman is not a virgin. In fact, if for some reason she isn’t, she can be stoned to death (Deut 22:13-21). (Maybe this is where the Taliban got it from?) However, apparently there is an escape clause because a man must marry his brother’s wife if his brother dies, provided she has no children (Gen 38:6-10; Deut 25:5-10). Also, sorry, divorce is not allowed, no exceptions ever (Deut 22:19; Mark 10:9). So, if you find yourself an abused spouse, deal with it. Maybe prayer will move some mountains in your marriage.

I don’t know about you but if this is “traditional” marriage, I don’t want any part of it. Nor do I particularly think that marriage between only one man and woman is the only form it should take. Yet, so many of us are certain that only marriages between one man and one woman are moral, and therefore only they should be legally sanctioned. I am left to conclude that while I respect those who support “traditional” marriage, there is no sound Biblical or natural rationalization to support it.

Supporters of “traditional” marriage are loath to admit it, but marriage, like most human customs, has morphed over time and will continue to do so to fit the needs of people. Another one of these shifts in the definition of marriage now seems underway. Just as divorce and mixed-race marriages are now legal, it is likely that within a few decades gay marriage will be legally available within any state of the union too. Moreover, most of us will simply be indifferent to it.

 
The Thinker

The physical

When you hit the big 5-0, your doctor will prod you into coming back annually for another physical. Now I know why. It is because no matter how healthy you think you are, by the time you are fifty something your doctor is bound to find something he doesn’t like.

If you are fifty something, be grateful if the doctor finds just one thing. I emerged from my annual physical last week with a long list of appointments and prescriptions. Of course, just the afternoon before I had been at the gym. I had gone through a routine of an hour of aerobics followed by pressing many weights. I do this three or four times a week. If it were biking season, I would get even more exercise. So what is with all these tests and prescriptions? I thought I inhabited the world of the very healthy.

What happened is I became a fifty-plus American. Things are bound to be less than optimal because, well, I am fifty-plus. Actually, I am 51. Maybe I could be healthier. Maybe if I had spent much of my life as a vegetarian my cholesterol would not be high. On the other hand, maybe it would not be high if I hadn’t eaten eggs for breakfast every day for a year. Supposedly high cholesterol should not be that big an issue if your HDL level is relatively low, which mine was, which was supposed to be the magic of eating eggs. My doctor still did not like the numbers. The solution was more exercise and less cholesterol. I could get more exercise but I felt like I got plenty already. Nor do I actually eat that much meat, and what I do eat is mostly boneless chicken. I now I eat eggs maybe once a week. So far, I have avoided statins but I have a feeling they are in my future.

While the doctor was using his stethoscope, he paused when he pressed it up to my left carotid artery. He wasn’t hearing the same thing on the right carotid artery. It could be a sign of cholesterol buildup in the left carotid artery. This is a bad place to have cholesterol build up, of course, since if the build up dislodged it would take a beeline into my brain and possibly cause a stroke. So now on my agenda for Thursday is a Carotid Echo Doppler exam.

These were just the start. The doctor also took an EKG and frowned when he showed me the result. It seems I have a case of Poor R-Wave Progression. This could be caused by lots of things including heart disease or it could be nothing. So Wednesday I have an appointment with a cardiologist. Me? The same guy who when he exercises routinely gets above 130 beats per minute and sustains it for thirty to sixty minutes?

Doctors are one of the few people who have permission to touch me in private spots. The doctor was manipulating one of my more private of private spots and I went “ouch”. You are not supposed to say ouch when he manipulates this part. He gave me a prescription for Cipro to cure a likely infection down there and sent me for an ultrasound. Thus, today I found someone else, a female this time, touching me in one of my private spots. Fortunately, they found nothing worse than an enlarged varicose vein.

Next, I confessed that sometimes I felt like I had trouble swallowing. This concerned me because my mother died of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy and this is a classic PSP symptom. I was wondering if this might be an early symptom of PSP. My doctor had no idea what PSP was (he is only a family doctor, after all) but before I could argue he had written an order for me to see a neurologist. It turns out that virtually every neurologist in my county is affiliated with my wife’s employer, so I will see one of their experts next week. I hope that there is nothing to worry about there. There are worse ways to die, but watching my Mom go through it, I sure do not want to go through it too.

Then there was the longstanding problem of numbness in my right foot. It hadn’t completely gone away and recurred after lifting weights, which makes sense because that was when I applied a lot of pressure to my feet. I probably should not be lifting those kinds of weights. I did learn more than I wanted to know from my doctor about foot disorders, specifically that you could get the equivalent of carpal tunnel syndrome in your feet. For me it is back to the shoe insert that my podiatrist gave me some years ago.

While he was examining my feet, I pointed out a small amount of toenail fungus. I mentioned I had tried many things and never gotten rid of it. One thing I had not tried was Lamisil, probably because it is so freaking expensive that insurance companies will not pay for it unless it is first confirmed by a test. I am waiting for the lab results. Ninety days later, I hope that I will be cured.

The nitrate levels in my urine were high. That wasn’t good but he will just monitor that for a while. As for Vitamin D, I need more: 1000 mg. a day. This is a hazard from being a cubicle dweller during the day. Maybe I also need to take walks outside during my lunch hour.

Physicals are doubtless beneficial because they help address issues when they are relatively small and can be rectified. Yet, I also find them unwelcome because they remind me that I am an aging American in my decline. Overall, I have enjoyed remarkable health, but age is catching up with me. This suggests that at my next physical, I will have more issues and maladies like these. They will be a recurring feature of the rest of my life. As if drooping skin, grey hair and age spots were not enough.

Thus far, I have gotten through the aging process by mostly denying it. I assumed that with a decent diet and plenty of exercise I could maintain something resembling youth virtually forever. Now it is clear that I must disabuse myself of my foolish notion. Perhaps when these medical issues feel routine rather than exceptional I will feel less irritable with my aging process.

All I know is that nature is telling me that Madison Avenue was wrong. There is no fountain of youth, not even for me. I too must grapple with my aging and my slow decline. I cannot change it; I can only accept it.

This time, my follow up is in three months.

 
The Thinker

Kissing the Rust Belt goodbye

If you want to know why the Republican Party is rapidly becoming the party of the Deep South only, you only have to observe the votes this week by Senate Republicans to block a bailout of our domestic auto industry. Thirty-five Republican senators blocked the bill, which actually won in a 52-35 vote. However, Republicans chose to invoke the cloture rule, which meant that 60 votes were needed to actually pass the bill. Therefore, it died leaving President Bush in the ironic position of deciding that maybe he needs to find $15 billion of the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street to keep millions of automotive and automotive related jobs from vanishing in this country.

Senate Republicans effectively gave the finger to Americans autoworkers this week, while also scorning them by telling them that they were paid too much. (This takes a lot of chutzpah when a senator’s salary is $169,300 a year, and a senator’s pension benefits for even a short stint in the Senate would make autoworkers swoon.) Yes, a bankrupt GM, Ford and Chrysler would probably destroy the evil United Auto Workers. It would also destroy the livelihood of millions of Americans, not just the autoworkers themselves, but a vast network of suppliers, dealers and merchants that eke out a living based on Detroit. But hey, that evil UAW would sure learn a lesson!

Yes, color the Midwest blue. If it is not entirely that way today, it will be in the next election. Moreover, if the key to winning the White House is to win Ohio, I may be in my grave before the next Republican ascends to the White House. (That would be fine with me, providing I live to a very ripe old age.) It used to be that you were showing your patriotism by buying American cars. Maybe you paid a bit more and maybe your car was not as reliable comparable with a foreign model. Nevertheless, it was “Made in America”, and that helped put food on your table, your neighbors’ tables and kept your community vibrant. Now in the bizarre world inhabited by a majority of Republican senators, you are showing true love of country by killing off our domestic automobile industry!

You see this is love. When your father beat your bums black and blue with his leather belt, he was doing it because he loved you. It was tough love. Never mind this sort of tough love that many of us endured growing up would now be considered child abuse. But it is okay to do it with auto industry workers and the vast numbers of workers who earn their living off our auto industry because, well, they are all adults! After all, it is not child abuse if they are not children.

Now the truth is that those of us who did have their bums beat black and blue by our dads (or in some cases, our moms, or both) do generally love them, in spite of their past proclivity toward inflicting violence on minors. You cannot divorce mom and dad. However, you can throw your senator out of office when their term expires. If they just don’t get it, that they are there to serve the interests of the American people, you simply vote for someone who does.

It is unsurprising that those Republican senators that voted for the bailout seemed to represent swing states. Few Republicans from swing states voted for the bailout, but there were some, including Allard from Colorado, Burr from North Carolina, Coleman from Minnesota, Ensign from Nevada and Gregg from New Hampshire. One thing these senators do have in common is that there is little or no auto assembly in their states. I have some advice for these senators: do not expect much in the way of contributions from the National Automobile Dealers Association for your reelection campaign.

There is no question that Detroit has been a follower rather than a leader in the auto business. Its management has been abysmal. However, the United Auto Workers has been accommodating about cuts in wages and benefits, somewhat begrudgingly of course, just not enough to keep up with the competition. What is true is that American automakers cannot be as agile as the foreign competition. For in most other countries the government provides universal health care for all, liberating manufacturers from these costs, or at least allowing them to be controlled. In our country, they are generally borne by employers. However, American cars no longer really deserve a bad quality rap. As Consumer Reports has documented, American cars are now often as reliable as their foreign competition. Part of the problem is the perception, which is often no longer true, that buying American means you will get a less reliable car.

You would think that if American autoworkers were so well paid that they would be living opulent lives. That is clearly not the case. The average assembly line worker for GM makes $28 an hour in wages. This is about $58,000 a year, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but not outrageous for a skilled assemblyman. All this assumes of course that they have steady employment. The auto industry has many ups and down, so it is unwise to count on full employment. It is true that autoworkers receive benefits too, but so do many of us who are employed. The cost of benefits is nowhere near the inflated $70 an hour figure bandied about. The Big Three’s pension costs are so high because they also have the legacy of pension costs for existing retired workers and their spouses. Foreign car companies do not have this baggage.

We should look on the $15 billion bailout as an interim measure to help put in place a structure that will make our car companies competitive again. At some point, this will likely mean shifting costs for pensions off the car companies and onto the taxpayer. Then American car companies can compete on something like an equal footing.

Meanwhile, by their votes, Senate Republicans have simply gained the contempt of many in auto producing states. Once you hold someone in contempt, it is nigh impossible to be held in esteem again. This is why Republican opposition to the automotive bailout was so needlessly counterproductive. Even the White House gets it. President Bush understands that his legacy rests on very shaky premises. To leave the White House with the American automobile industry collapsing around him will seal his fate in history.

Based on Senate Republicans’ foolish votes, people like me hoping to see even larger Democratic majorities have new reason for optimism. Any Joe the Plumbers out there living under the illusion that Republicans actually care about people like them are now thoroughly disillusioned. Instead, Senate Republicans are reminding them of their dear old dad and his leather belt, and senators are telling them to lower their trousers and assume a right angle. Why is Dad punishing them? Apparently, they had the audacity to expect a living wage.

Maybe they should run for the Senate instead.

 
The Thinker

Bum deal in Chicago

The city of Chicago provides my other story epitomizing what is wrong with today’s America. Unlike the death of a Wal-Mart employee by stampeding customers, which largely got lost in the news, this story at least got some attention. It deserves more.

More than half a million Americans lost their jobs in November alone. So perhaps the plight of just two hundred employees at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago does not matter. Unlike most of America, which is not unionized, Republic Windows & Doors is a union shop. Its workers belong to the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Supposedly, in the event their employer goes under, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act makes their job losses less painful. This law requires that covered employees, in most situations, must get sixty days of notice before a layoff or sixty days of salary.

They got only three days because Republic Windows assumed it would get credit that it did not receive. They requested credit from their creditor, The Bank of America. Ironically, Bank of America recently received $25 billion courtesy of the American taxpayer because it was having a financial crisis of its own from foolishly investing in sub-prime mortgages. However, Bank of America summarily refused to extend any of that credit to Republic Windows. With no money to draw from, Republic Windows felt it had little choice but to shut down promptly. It provided its workers just three days notice before closing the factory. Employees received no severance pay.

Probably because its workforce is unionized, the uppity employees of Republic Windows decided that, gosh darn it, they were entitled to the benefits due them under law! They occupied the plant (with the grudging approval of management, who said they could only do so if they kept the equipment in good order) while others protested outside the factory and tried to draw media attention.

It is unlikely that these employees would have fought their situation if they were not unionized. Only 12% of the American workforce today is unionized. With a union behind it, employees had a ready structure in place to stand up for what was lawfully due them. Chicago is also a heavily Democratic area and one of the more unionized areas of the country. (Indeed, Chicago features prominently in the union movement, which makes the location of this incident particularly appropriate.) It took a few days but their cause drew some media attention. Recently indicted Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was among a small number of politicians who rallied for the union workers. Even President-Elect Obama came out in support of these union workers. (Unsurprisingly, there was no similar statement from President Bush.)

All this publicity is beginning to show some results. Bank of America reluctantly joined talks with Republic Windows and the union. Talks are still underway and if press reports are to be believed, Bank of America reluctantly suggested it could lend Republic Windows enough money so it could pay its employees’ claims. Another bank, JP Morgan Chase reportedly is also offering a loan of $400,000. It is even possible, with the heat it is under and with the inconvenient fact that it took $25 billion in tax dollars, Bank of America may extend all the credit needed so that Republic Windows can stay in business. I hope that in this situation its employees retain their jobs that seemed certainly lost. If so, it will only be due to their backbone to protest loudly and vigorously.

Bank of America, like many troubled lenders, eagerly took taxpayer money. Unbelievably, it was never required by the government to use the money to issue loans. That’s right, our government was so incompetent (or devious) that it issued hundreds of billions of dollars to lenders with no requirements that they use the money to address the credit needs of the employees and businesses that were fueling the recession. Bank of America, like most banks taking the handout, seems more concerned with its own profitability and solvency than in lending money.

As this situation proves, lack of money can triumph over rule of law. If a company has no money to live up to its requirements under law, apparently it feels it can walk away from them. That seems to be the case with Republic Windows, although it is a fair question to ask how they could pay severance if they did not have the money to do so.

In today’s America, labor is simply not valued. It has been this way for decades, but the problem now has becomes more obvious with our major economic downturn. Good, decent and hardworking Americans get to take it on the chin with nary a thought for their financial plight. Rather, employees are routinely treated like a drunk tossed out on the street. One day management smiles at you and then next you are as valuable as used toilet paper. However, because they are unionized, workers at Republic Windows could fight back.

The Republic Windows protest may be (I hope) the catalyst for real labor reform. Our new president is sympathetic to unions. In addition, it appears that a larger Democratic congress will enable passage of the Employee Free Choice Act into law. This urgently needed law will go a long way to leveling the playing field, that has given management the upper hand in labor negotiations.

In the long term, expanded workers’ rights are probably in business’s interest too. We cannot sustain the economy forever with an American middle class that continually shrinks and loses income every year. Generally, workers are more productive when they feel vested in their jobs. Employees who have to continually worry they can be thrown out on the street at any moment are likely to be skittish and disloyal to those they work for.

In any event, it is nice for a change to see workers stand up aggressively for their rights and get some results, even if it still means they lose their jobs. At least they should get the severance lawfully due them. Our nation is a country of laws. This case demonstrates that it is important that the law should be not just respected but also actually followed. I hope workers everywhere are watching and learning. Workers deserve a fair deal again. We deserve better treatment than the shabby way we are often treated by employers today. What happened in Chicago is Dickensian. We are human beings, not rubbish to be discarded the moment it becomes convenient for an employer.

 

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