Archive for January, 2009

The Thinker

Watching Points

Men, if you want to meet women, join Weight Watchers. At least, that appears to be true based on the class I attended the other week. There were fifteen women in the room (including the leader) and I was the only man. So I asked the women in the room: do men, like, ever do Weight Watchers? Someone remembered a man who joined briefly some months back, but in general, at least with this group, men just don’t do Weight Watchers. Maybe Nutrisystem or something is a more manly way to lose weight. After all, prominent well-remunerated ex-football coaches endorse it.

Granted, if you are looking for super skinny women you won’t find any at a Weight Watchers meeting, except for possibly the leader, who is probably already spoken for. I also happen to be spoken for and as best I could tell the other women in the room were too. However, by being the only man in the room you may find women competing for your attention. Also, you are probably far more interesting than the weekly weigh in.

My cardiologist suggested Weight Watchers. “It’s easy. You eat what you want,” she said, which is okay for her to say, as she is from India, vegetarian and as skinny as a rail. My experience in dieting over the years probably parallels yours: it is never easy. Mainly it is a matter of consistency and force of will. If you regularly slip on either of them, you tend to put on the weight again.

While I would normally no more go out of my way to attend a Weight Watchers meeting than I would an AA meeting, I had to confess to myself I do not have that excuse. A group meets weekly on my floor, in a conference room about a hundred feet down the hall. Moreover, Thursdays from 11 to Noon, their meeting time, was also a convenient time for me to attend. Having no viable excuse and knowing my cardiologist would keep giving me a hard time, I opened my wallet and signed up.

I am on Day Nine of Weight Watchers. The one thing I have not actually done since my first meeting is weigh myself. That was because yesterday I was facilitating a large meeting of more than a dozen people, most of whom were from out of town. Nevertheless, I certainly have been scrupulously tracking points. Points are what you track if you do the Weight Watchers thing. You can look up the number of points for some dish in a convenient book they give you or on their web site, or you can use their calculator to convert calories, dietary fiber and fat content into points.

The women in the meeting looked at me enviously. I hope it was because I didn’t look like I should even be at Weight Watchers. I have no beer belly and what excess fat I have tends to be in the form of modest love handles. Their envy likely had more to do with me being a male, which means I am larger, thus burn more calories, which means I get six extra points a day. I am not supposed to exceed 33 points in food per day, whereas all the women in the room were somewhere in the mid to upper 20 points per day.

It is true you can eat anything you want on Weight Watchers and theoretically lose weight, but of course, you probably cannot eat as much of you want of the foods you like. You quickly learn that if you eat what you like, such as calorie-dense food full of sugars and fat, you can earn your daily points with just a few candy bars. Moreover, these sorts of food simply make you want to eat more of them. Naturally, if you are intent on minimizing your misery you quickly discover the virtues of filling foods, i.e. foods that have few points, and are relatively low on calories and fat and high in dietary fiber. One I like is grapes. One cup of grapes is just one point. They have some dietary fiber, taste nice and sweet, contain zero fat and are available year round. However, a cup of most fresh fruits will do the same thing. As I tend to like berries, a cup of fresh raspberries or blackberries as a snack or with a meal goes down rather pleasantly.

Still, you have to keep meticulous track of what you eat, at least for the first six weeks. You also need to track activity points. That’s not a problem with me, as I already get adequate exercise, so many days I earn extra points. This of course means you can eat more and still lose weight. However, exercise does tend to make you hungrier. The benefits of exercise though go far beyond weight loss, so it makes sense to exercise and diet simultaneously.

After a couple months, my feelings may be different, but overall the first week was not as hard as I anticipated. The trick seems to be to be doggedly consistent. In the morning, before I rush off to work I usually have a bowl of cereal. Since starting, I now measure one cup of Cheerios and three quarters of a cup of soy milk. That’s four points. Mid morning snack is that cup of whole grapes: 1 point. Lunch: soup and salad from the cafeteria. We have plenty of variety in the salads we can create. The trick is to add heaps of healthy vegetables, go sparingly or skip the salad dressing and avoid the urge to load it with proteins like chicken or tuna. If you do this, the salad can be just a couple points. If your idea of a salad is a Caesar salad loaded with dressing, three cups of Caesar salad is seven points! I love soups and most are only a few points. Many though are loaded with salt, which may be a reason to avoid them. An apple is just two points and very filling so it works for dessert. Enormous dinners are out, of course, and creating even modest dinners and staying within your point range can be challenging. I make sure I reserve two points for a Skinny Cow, a sort of ice cream sandwich-lite.

The goal of Weight Watchers is not just to help you lose weight. Virtually any diet will succeed in letting you lose weight. The hard part is keeping it off permanently. It means a new way of eating. It means listening to your body so you reach for a snack while your body is just starting to get hungry and stopping when you are satisfied but not full. The goal is to stay in the “comfort zone” so hunger does not drive you to excess eating. Small binges are okay. Weight Watchers realizes some days you will crave more calories, so it adds in 35 weekly points. If you don’t use them you lose weight faster. Last week I used up about half of my weekly points.

Time will tell whether a modest decrease in my weight will reduce my cholesterol and blood pressure. I am skeptical that I can wholly relearn eating habits because if I had been successful in various strategies I have tried in the past, I would not be losing weight yet again. Americans’ relationship with food is very complex. It is incredibly easy to overeat in America without really trying. Mindfulness through the tracking of points is a bit challenging but so far has not proven overly onerous. Perhaps with persistence my blood pressure, weight and cholesterol will soon all return to the normal range again.

Stay tuned.

The Thinker

What’s causing that great sucking sound

There is plenty of bleak economic news among the recent headlines. Today I read online that housing prices are 18% less than they were a year ago. The last unemployment report showed 7.2% unemployment, but yesterday came a raff of announcements from major employers that they too were cutting jobs. These include Caterpillar (20,000 jobs), Pfizer (8,000 jobs), Sprint-Nextel (8,000 jobs), Home Depot (7,000 jobs) and General Motors (another 2,000 jobs). Even Microsoft is planning to lay off people. It will shed 5,000 jobs over the next eighteen months. In fact, in 2008 the economy shed 2.6 million jobs, the most since 1945 and 2009 is just getting started. We can expect even higher unemployment numbers to be reported in early February. One has to look hard to find any company that is beating the odds. IBM still made a profit and beat Wall Street expectations, but it is unlikely that their winning streak will extend through the current quarter. As for the value of stocks in general, the S&P 500 index is at about 62% of what it was a year ago.

The only thing we can say with confidence is that we have not hit the bottom yet. Many economists think that things will turn around when the government stimulus finally kicks in late this year. I am no economist but my hunch tells me that a real recovery is likely in 2010 or later, rather than this year. In short, this economic downturn may well be the 21st century’s Great Depression. It is dramatically altering our financial landscape and fundamentally changing our assumptions about how society is supposed to work.

Banks are supposed to be in the business of lending, but few want to lend to anyone but their most creditworthy buyers, even after getting huge capital injections courtesy of the U.S. taxpayers. Why? There is too much uncertainty in the market. Why lend out money when you might not get it back? Moreover, sustained deflation is a real possibility. If it happens, it means that banks that hold on to their assets may yield more relative wealth than by loaning it out, even with interest. Of course, if no one lends money the economy halts, which is clearly well underway.

How did all this come about? It all comes down to one word: trust. The global economy runs on it. We have to have trust in our institutions to play by a set of fair rules. Until and unless it does, the economy is unlikely to markedly improve. Equally as important to our recovery as the massive stimulus bill being debated in Congress is the establishment of a new set of financial rules to govern the country and the world.

You may have noticed that the new Obama Administration is working hard to be the most transparent administration in history. It is doing this by putting far more public records online and in a more timely fashion than ever before. By being open about the way it is governing, it is desperately hoping to foster trust.

Yesterday within an hour of belatedly being confirmed, President Obama swore in as Timothy Geithner as the new Treasury Secretary. The evening was well underway when Geithner was sworn in, but Geithner went swiftly from the ceremony to work at the Treasury Department. He did so because the sooner he could affect a new set of financial rules affecting the country, the faster trust could be restored. Geithner and President Obama realize that the new rules must be judged fair, transparent and must be impartially applied. This is how trust is restored.

When Ross Perot first ran for president in 1992, he talked about the “great sucking sound” that would result from the then unratified North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He predicted that NAFTA would cause more jobs to move from the United States to Mexico than would be created. Whether he was right or wrong was debatable, but in 2009, we are hearing a global great sucking sound as millions of jobs vanish and wealth disappears by the trillions of dollars. That is the sound of trust being lost.

The world is reacting like a wife who discovers her husband is a philanderer. Just as marital trust is hard or impossible to renew after an affair, when shady Wall Street deals abuse our trust (evidenced in diminished stock portfolios and plunging home prices), financial trust becomes hard to reestablish too. In most cases, the abused wife will divorce her philandering spouse. She may marry again, but only if she is confident that her new husband would have the qualities her old husband lacked. When a massive trust crisis happens to a populace, a depression can result.

President Obama, his administration and the Congress thus must work very hard to establish the trust and confidence of the American people and the world. Like it or not, our wealth and future prosperity now rests in their unproven competence. This is why President Obama is working so hard to find common ground with Republicans. Trust is enhanced if both sides of the aisle can embrace a new set of governing rules, and is diminished when it does not exist. This approach may be unpalatable to many on both sides of the political spectrum, particularly given the Republican’s recent and toxic record, but it may be crucial to our recovery.

The good news is that we now have a true grownup leading our country. He understands in this critical time what is required for the rest of us to regain trust. So there is genuine reason for hope. Let us hope that we can work through our jitters and through transparency, decency and fair play come out of this and into a better future.

The Thinker

Unearned Income

What should you do when you get a $1000 award that you really do not feel you deserve? Should you celebrate or feel guilty?

This actually happened to me yesterday. Yes, people are losing their jobs, their homes, their health insurance, taking pay cuts and generally making do with less. And I, a very comfortably paid civil servant also just got a 3.52% general cost of living raise plus a 1.26% locality pay adjustment because living around Washington D.C. is expensive, dontcha know. Now due to what feels like a random act of nature, I am getting this $1000 award.

The award is for “vigilant operational focus, continuous monitoring, and troubleshooting” of the system I manage. The award was at least in part for troubleshooting weird network issues during an event that occurred early in December that nearly took down our critical real time system for more than a day. I will not get into the details, but let’s just say the problem had to do with our network, not our servers or software.

As the manager, did I spring into action? Not really. I have a woman who works for me in charge of the system’s operations. She definitely sprang into action, as did about half dozen other people. When problems like this happen, they are not hard to detect. Even if we don’t quickly discover a problem, which we usually do, the public will let us know. Our job is restoring the system to a fully operational state as quickly as possible. Since we run the system within a complex national enterprise environment, it can be hard to figure out where the problem lies. This incident was particularly daunting because we had never seen it before. We had engineered what we thought was a system nearly impossible to take down because it is hosted out of multiple data centers across the country. We were also drawn down a number of blind ends because the problem appeared to be due to something else we had been dealing with.

In other words, everyone was doing their jobs. Moreover, my job was to let others far more competent than me to handle the problem and keep my management chain regularly informed. If necessary, I was capable of making certain threatening noises to those who might be obstructing a solution. In general though I don’t go that route. We are all very collegial. When these things happen all sorts of teams (including some people I manage and people I don’t) myopically work on the problem, working on it nights and weekends if necessary until it goes away. I certainly have system responsibility as the manager, but I do not actually solve the immediate problem. In most cases, I add value by staying out of their way. That’s pretty easy.

In fact, before I took this job five years ago pretty much the same people were busy triaging this and similar problems when they occurred. In this case, my role was largely reduced to tugging my chin. There are situations in life like that. You can have people do what they can, but no amount of huffing and screaming will solve the problem like this any quicker.

Nonetheless, yesterday out of the blue I got this $1000 special award. Fortunately, I was not the only recipient. Two others in the branch I manage also got what are likely similar sized awards. They earned their awards by dropping their normal lives on a dime to solve these problems. The extent of my accomplishments in this area has been to persuade people with the money to give me more money to make these sorts of incidents far less frequent. I did this in part through funding a study that helped point out some of our root performance problems, then buying appropriately configured servers. This was doubtless helpful overall, as the general trend has been that we have been having fewer performance problems over the last few years. However, I have already been rewarded for these efforts in performance awards.

This one came from outside my management chain. After taxes, the amount will be considerably less than $1000, but it will still seem like money I am not entitled to receive.

Some part of me wants to give it to a homeless person, or shower it on House of Ruth (my favorite charity) or buy some meals and shelter for the homeless. I look around my house, which is full of all sorts of adult toys that tickle my fancy and find myself bereft of ideas on how it could possibly make me happier. Perhaps given these uncertain economic climate I should just throw it into my savings account.

I have another couple of weeks before I will actually receive the money. I suspect that rather than spend it on riotous living I will find some needy nonprofit and send them a check for the net amount of the award. They will make better use of it and I will not have to feel guilty about pocketing money that I don’t feel like I actually earned.

The Thinker

Transfer of Power

I could not help but marvel today watching Barack Obama’s historic inauguration on television. It is true I marveled at seeing a black man take the presidential oath of office. If you had asked me in 2004, I would have guessed we would have to wait another two decades before we were collectively mature enough to elect a black man as president. It is also true that I marveled at the million plus Americans standing shoulder to shoulder on the Mall in freezing weather. They stretched from the Capitol all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, with most cheering and waiving American flags. What I found the most marvelous of all was the peaceful transition of power itself. In many, if not most places in the world, a transfer of power of this magnitude is a cause for civil war or rioting. In the United States, it is a time for celebration and partying. Every four or eight years the world has a chance to witness and marvel at America’s peaceful transfer of power.

I felt the spirit of George Washington alive today in the city named to honor him. In his life, George Washington was so popular that could have been president for life. Instead, Washington performed perhaps his most patriotic act by declining a third term in office. In doing so, he showed us fledgling democrats that regular changes in leadership were healthy for a democracy and that our constitution transcended the personalities in power at any given moment.

Thanks in part to George Washington’s precedent another peaceful transfer of power went off today like clockwork and with great celebration. At precisely noon, President Obama became our 44th president, even though he had not yet taken the oath of office. At that exact time, the President’s military aide carrying our nuclear launch codes moved from President Bush’s side to President Obama’s side. Following protocol the new president saw the retiring president out of the Capitol and waved goodbye to him as a helicopter carried him out of Washington. Doubtless inside the president’s desk in the Oval Office was a letter from Former President George W. Bush to President Barack H. Obama with a customarily letter of congratulations and some personal thoughts on the transition of power.

As a civil servant myself, I watched this transfer of power at a somewhat lower level. Last Thursday, I was invited to a high level meeting. I sat across the conference table from our Associate Director. Also in the room were representatives from another department that we meet with quarterly. With one working day left on the George W. Bush Administration, the transition of power was on everyone’s mind and was freely discussed. Everyone was completely matter of fact about it and deeply respectful of the process which by then was well underway. Our Director was a political appointee and wanted to hang on in his job. Hearing nothing from the incoming administration though he knew what was expected and tendered his resignation. He did so not because he wanted to but because that is the way our system of government works. By losing his job, he demonstrated his respect our constitutional process and for the judgment of the American people.

Arguably, the outgoing administration was one of the most egregious in ignoring the law and the constitution. Yet, even this administration could not ignore our democratic electoral process. Had the outgoing administration, like so many banana republics, tried a coup d’état, I have no doubt where the loyalty of our armed forces, our secret service and our civil servants would have lied. Any such attempt is doomed to fail in America. Americans would not allow it. If push came to shove, the military, as is true of civil servants like me, are required to put the constitution above the orders of the president.

It says so much about the character of our country that these values are hardwired into us, in both good times and bad. Back in 2003, I penned a post where I lamented that America had lost its soul. Perhaps it was lost for a while. Perhaps our constitution was a more than a bit tattered by the latest Bush Administration. Yet, we survived and we did so in part because of George Washington’s example and the orders given by the people who once every four years weigh in on who their leader shall be.

Each inauguration is like a heartbeat in the life of our country. The mere fact that it happens like clockwork, in good years and bad, is proof that our country shall endure. Through regular repetition, these events ensure, however imperfectly, that our democracy will continue and we will keep moving forward toward a more perfect union.

The Thinker

Review: The Fall (2006)

During my childhood, I saw few movies. With eight of us children, my parents had other priorities for their money. Of the few I saw, naturally most of them were considered safe for children. Yet, sometime in the late 1960s I remember seeing Dr. Zhivago in a theater. It was probably a re-release, as it was first released in 1965. It was my first grownup movie seen in a real theater in glorious Technicolor. I was mesmerized by the film. I had no idea films could be so well done.

In the forty or so years that have passed, I have seen hundreds of movies. Most were fair to middling movies. Some like Children of Men had me quaking in my seat with tears streaming down my face. Rarely since Dr. Zhivago though have I seen a movie and felt mesmerized by it. I can now add a new film to this slim category: The Fall.

What does The Fall have that so many other movies lack? Two things: breathtaking cinematography and superb directing. If it has been a while since you sat in a theater and felt the presence of the camera, you need to see The Fall. With Stanley Kubrick gone to meet his maker, there are fewer directors out there willing to use the camera to its fullest. For director Tarsem Singh the camera is a lens in more than the physical sense, but also in a metaphorical sense. It reveals, principally by beginning with a close shot and then slowly pulling back to a wider shot. The camera exists not to show the ordinary, but to reveal the extraordinary.

The story centers on a Los Angeles hospital in 1920, a six-year-old girl with a broken arm and shoulder and a sad suicidal Hollywood stuntman that she encounters in the hospital ward. Alexandria injured herself in an orange grove where she helped her immigrant family pick oranges. She looks a bit grotesque in her arm and shoulder cast, which unnaturally pulls her upper arm up to shoulder height. Not since Haley Joel Osment played Cole in The Sixth Sense have we had such an exceptional child actor on camera. Catinca Untaru, the child actress who plays Alexandria is mesmerizing too. She too is a lens. The story created by the suicidal paraplegic Roy Walker (Lee Pace) to entertain her is realized in her eyes and in her head. For Alexandria, Roy is a hospital friend. To Roy, Alexandria is an unwitting accomplice for his own suicide.

This movie frequently cuts between the hospital and the story that Roy slowly reveals to Alexandria. The hospital set was actually in India, which is probably why it feels so completely authentic. Tarsem Singh’s eye for detail is perfectly realized in the hospital. Roy’s story, as envisioned through Alexandria’s eyes is a magical, Technicolor wonder. The tale follows a group of men determined to kill the evil Governor Odious. One of them just happens to be the famous British naturalist Charles Darwin. Marooned on an island by the governor it looks like they are likely to starve to death. Yet, together they embark on their impossible quest. As Roy’s mental illness increases, the tale becomes increasingly bizarre and the happy ending less problematic.

Be prepared to be stunned by imagery literally filmed across the globe. Part of Singh’s magic is how he weaves this movie together into a seamless whole, although it is shot over four years and on most of the earth’s continents. Alexandria and Roy’s imagined world is both frightening and glorious. Events in the hospital begin to effect events in Roy’s tale, and visa versa.

This movie is rated R and for good reason, for Roy’s suicidal behavior and mental illness is very adult stuff indeed. There is also some violence not for the faint of heart. Much of Roy’s tragic journey into his own interior darkness is excruciatingly hard to endure, particularly as it is seen through Alexandria’s innocent and hopeful eyes. Expect to be charmed, appalled, mesmerized, at times bewitched and full of pathos throughout this remarkable movie.

It is a shame this movie was largely ignored because it should not have been. If you enjoy landmark movies, you simply must add The Fall to your list of movies. I bet it is one of theses movies which after you watch it, like me, you will be anxious to tell your friends about it, and to own it on DVD so you can enjoy it many more times. Reviewers on gave it a remarkable 8.0 rating. If you are not familiar with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, you will be by the time the movie ends, because its music frames the movie.

If you can handle a movie with this emotional intensity, it is a must see. 3.6 on my 4-point scale.

The Thinker

Introducing the non-retirement retirement

With stocks in some cases at half or less of their value of a year ago, many Americans are wondering if they will ever be able to afford to retire. To retire with a decent standard of living you generally need to have a number of financial ducks lined up. First, you depend on Social Security and Medicare benefits to provide basic subsistence and medical care. Second, if you are lucky enough to have an employer that actually provides a pension, you need to hope that the company does not go belly up before or during your retirement. Third, you have the value of anything in your 401-K or IRAs that you have squirreled away. Fourth, you may have some other savings or some sort of inheritance to draw from. Lastly, and really as a last resort, you may have equity in your house you can draw from, which perhaps you can draw from with a reverse mortgage. With enough of these assets, you can afford to retire when you hit a certain age. How many of us reaching retirement age can honestly say our financial ducks are lined up?

For many of you younger readers retirement may be an abstraction. You are probably far busier trying to hold on to your job and standard of living than to worry about something so far away as retirement. For us middle age Americans, retirement is on our horizon. For example, I am a civil servant who will soon be 52. In theory, I can retire at age 55 with thirty years of service, which will be in May 2012.

Will I retire and begin a life of leisure at 55? Probably not. If I did, certain other expenses would need to be trimmed. Even with my very generous government pension, I would get at best something like 60% of my government salary. However, I still will have bills to pay and I do not particularly want to reduce my lifestyle. Moreover, my mortgage will not be close to being paid off in 2012.

Without some substantial adjustments in my lifestyle, I cannot afford to really retire at 55. Since my investments like yours are in the toilet, it is unlikely I will be able to draw from them in a couple years. So I will still have that 40% gap in income to make up, at least until the mortgage gets paid off. Also, I have many more productive years ahead of me. I am a restless creature too. I simply do not have the constitution to “retire”, at least not at 57, the age when I currently plan to “retire” but when in reality I hope to simply start my next career.

I am betting though that many of you do not have these options. Your “pension” is probably anything in your 401K or IRA, which if you assess it at today’s value might make your heart skip. If you “retire”, your retirement home may be in a trailer park. It is also possible with today’s economy that your “retirement” will be involuntary and you will end up with a fraction of the benefits you were promised. So your “retirement” could simply mean getting one or more new jobs at a fraction of the wages you are used to, perhaps while also working more hours than you do right now. Even with all this, you may end up with a lower standard of living.

In short, for many in the fifty to 60 something age range, retirement, which used to seem almost tangible, is now off the table. We might as well pretend we are twenty or 30 somethings again. If this sounds like your situation, you will have one option: the non-retirement retirement. With this is a retirement you work as long as you are physically capable of working even after you “retire” by collecting social security benefits. You will be likely working at substandard wages perhaps making little more in real dollars than you did as a teenager. However, you will still have Social Security income to draw from and Medicare benefits to cover most of your medical expenses. The combination will not let you really retire, but it will keep you from having your standard of living drop through the floor.

Unless our new President Obama and Congress are able to fix things, and the macro-economic forces work in our favor for a change over the next few decades, “retirement” as our parents knew it may become a luxury most of us can no longer afford. In short, even though the Social Security system will survive the New Deal will have largely unraveled. Social Security and Medicare will provide seniors with a foundation for keeping their financial heads above water, but still not provide enough income to retire.

Many senior citizens are already dealing with this reality. Many retired to discover that they really could not afford to do so. Their actual cost of living exceeded their income and assets. For many, the new model looks like you retire when you absolutely, positively cannot earn money anymore. In other words, when you retire, you will have one foot in the nursing home.

Suppose you are fairly young and headstrong enough to think that you should be able to enjoy a real retirement someday, perhaps when you are in your mid sixties? What do you do? You can invest now while stocks are cheap and hope they will become nice juicy retirement assets by the time you retire. There is no guarantee here, of course, but stocks have tended to provide a higher returns over long periods than other forms of investment. You can also choose not to have children, or if you have children, have just one. (This is what my wife and I did, in part for economic reasons.) Children may be loveable and give purpose to your life, but they suck enormous amounts of money out of your wallet. In addition, you can spend your earning years living frugally while doing your best to climb the income ladder by having a well paying job and specialized skills. Perhaps these things, a resurgence of the American economy relative to the rest of the world, and a government that works for the people, will turn the dynamics around. My gut feeling is that we are sailing into very strong headwinds. We can tack as much as we want but moving forward is likely to be daunting.

For many of us, particularly those of us nearing retirement age, our retirement can be clearly envisioned and it is scary. The vision that we are seeing bears little resemblance to what we envisioned some decades back. The retirement our parents knew is dying from a combination of economic forces and bad government. We are likely to pay the price in an anxious non-retirement retirement.

Let us hope that President-Elect Obama and our new Congress can actually move us in the direction we need to go so we can really retire someday. I sure hope that a real retirement does not become something we lose in the 21st century.

The Thinker

Lab Animal

That would be me. The lab animal, I mean. Since my physical last month I have been twisted, poked, prodded, pierced and probed like I was one of Dr. House’s patients. All these medical tests are merely preventive, although there were some warning signs: cholesterol above where it should be, and periodic blood pressure readings above that magic 120/80 level.

All these tests and consultations mean that America has a great medical system if you have excellent insurance, as I must have. Still I have to wonder, are all these tests necessary? Or is their primary purpose to keep doctors and clinicians in business? Shouldn’t there be someone who says, “No, this test is really not necessary.” Maybe there should be.

I am fifty-one after all, and will soon be fifty-two. Yeah, I weigh probably twenty more pounds that I should but considering the obesity problem in this country, I am doing far better than most. I also have incorporated regular exercise into my life since I turned twenty-four. It is a rare week where I am not at the gym at least three times. Most workouts include not just aerobics but weight lifting.

Currently my cardiologist has me the most worried. It seems that my aorta, which when it leaves my heart has a diameter of 3.65 centimeters quickly expands to 3.9 centimeters. Getting above 5 centimeters is bad but any enlargement is a cause for concern. My condition might be congenital or it could be a sign of cholesterol buildup or worse. Anyhow, she doesn’t like it so neither should I. At her urging, I will be joining Weight Watchers. Now I can count on yearly heart echograms. The good news was that after three tests this was the only thing about my heart that troubled her. Still, when a cardiologist uses words like “heart surgery” and “stints” a little paranoia is in order.

My primary care doctor, who initiated all these tests, tells me that his goal is prevention. It sounded like good advice. On his orders, I endured an Echo Doppler of my carotid arteries because one side sounded weird (no abnormalities found). My cardiologist ordered three other tests. The first was a nuclear stress test. First, they starve you overnight, then they inject you full of radioactive material while warning you not to go through a metal detector for a week. That’s reassuring! Before and after the test some fancy machine took fancy pictures of my unfancy abdomen. During the stress test itself, they pushed my heart rate up to 170. Three clinicians were monitoring me all at the same time. As you reward you get some crackers. By the end of it I was wondering if I had turned into a parrot. A few days later, I returned for a Doppler test of my heart. All these tests to learn that my aorta was a wee bit big in one spot, which might mean nothing at all!

My primary care doctor also sent me to a neurologist because I was concerned I might have early symptoms of Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, the condition that killed my Mom. He quickly assured me that I have none of the symptoms but that does not mean I might not get it someday. He was surprised to hear that my Mom had developed it at such a late age. He said most people come down with it in their fifties and die of it in their sixties. He said research suggested it could be fought with antioxidants so I now make sure I now get daily does of Vitamin C, B12 and some pill I have never heard of, Coenzyme Q.  Every morning I now have close to a dozen pills that I swallow with breakfast. None of them to actually cure a condition or relieve any symptoms but strive to prevent something that may never occur.

The neurologist also sent me to get a MRI of my neck. Apparently, I have hyperactive reflexes in my elbows and feet, which can indicate a pinched disk or something in my neck. I was asked before the test if I was claustrophobic. Well, I didn’t think I was until I got into the MRI machine, which is the closest experience you can get to being buried alive. I immediately decided that the best way to get through an MRI was to close my eyes and think erotic thoughts. It worked, sort of. While I sat there, wind whooshed past me at high speeds while the machine itself made noises like a machine gun that half deafened me. You must do this without moving a muscle. I have no idea how much the MRI cost but I bet it cost thousands of dollars. Is there a problem in my neck, which before seeing the neurologist I never gave a second thought? I will know after my follow up.

I really do not want to know how much all this is costing. I suspect a fair amount of it is unnecessary. Yet who am I to say? It is not as if I went to medical school. I just know that overall, I feel pretty darn healthy. I don’t smoke, don’t drink and excise regularly. If I have a vice it might be from having one too many bags of Dark Chocolate M&Ms. Surely a middle aged man is entitled to one little vice?

Alas no, not anymore, not once you are in the clutches of our medical system. I’ve decided that no matter how enticing those Dark Chocolate M&Ms may be, I’d rather forgo them then have to deal with being a lab animal for another month. Now that I am a post fifty older American, I suspect that this is just the beginning. No matter how much weight I lose, no matter how much exercise I get and no matter how heart healthy my diet becomes, the medical establishment will find reasons to make sure I remain their lab animal.

After all, I am insured.

The Thinker

Review: The Verdict (1982)

1982, the year The Verdict was released, must have been a very long time ago. Perhaps I felt this way because of the locale of the movie (Boston) or the ancient looking Catholic hospital and Boston brownstones around which this movie is framed. Or maybe it was Attorney Frank Galvin’s ugly little office, where the dust is deep and the plaster is peeling off the wall. 1982 feels more like 1960 something.

So you may gather that The Verdict is not a very pretty movie. Paul Newman was 57 when this movie was filmed. He looks a lot older, which is why initially I thought this movie was probably filmed in the 1990s. On the other hand, perhaps he looks so old because he had good makeup artists. In The Verdict, Newman portrays Attorney at Law Frank Galvin, who is an attorney more in name than in fact. Galvin made some major mistakes earlier in his career. He is reduced to soliciting for clients in funeral homes. Since his phone hardly ever rings, he spends much of his time playing pinball, drinking hard liquor and chain-smoking cigarettes.

His attorney pal Mickey (Jack Warden) throws him a charity case. It appears that an anesthesiologist at a local Catholic hospital was negligent during surgery. The female patient became a vegetable and has been wasting away the last four years in their hospital ward. The woman’s family simply wants to get a decent settlement from the hospital. Frank only has to negotiate the settlement and collect a third of the settlement as his fee to survive in his alcoholic haze for another year.

Paul Newman, who sadly departed this world last September, may have gone on to create a line of health foods, but his portrayal of washed up attorney Frank Galvin epitomizes what not to do to your body. It is amazing that Frank can feel anything the way he deadens his senses with cigarettes and booze. He makes the mistake of visiting the hospital and actually seeing the comatose woman, who is hooked up to a ventilator. The two hundred thousand dollar settlement proposed by the hospital suddenly strikes him as an insult, but the hospital refuses to go higher. He convinces the woman’s family to take the case to trial so they can get an adequate judgment.

While Frank does manage to get his friend Mickey to help with the case, taking it to trial appears to be a very bad idea. The bishop overseeing the hospital has enough institutional cash to hire Boston’s toniest law firm. Add in a hostile judge and the odds of winning a judgment seem against Frank. When witnesses mysteriously disappear, he is reduced to hiring third-rate expert witnesses to try to make his case.

Only a desperate woman would want anything to do with this guy. Against all odds, Frank encounters an attractive older woman in his neighborhood bar whom he propositions. Her name is Laura (Charlotte Rampling). Laura says she is new in town, but she projects a massively troubled demeanor just like Frank. They manage to become something of a couple. However, since both are wrapped up in their own problems their relationship does not amount to much. Yet, Laura is at least something new in his life. Perhaps because of Laura, Frank seems able to stumble through the case.

In The Verdict Paul Newman gives one of his better performances. It is hard to like Frank Galvin or inhabit his lonely and miserable little world, but it is also hard not to feel some sympathy for the guy. It does not take long for Paul Newman’s blue eyes to fade and to feel yourself inhabiting Frank’s hollow world. Equally memorable though is Charlotte Rampling’s portrayal of Laura, who looks devastated and shell shocked. What sort of secrets is she carrying around? By the end of the movie, you will find out.

As dreary movies go, this one is exceptionally well done, which perhaps accounts for its fistful of Academy Award nominations. It is in many ways a portrait of melancholy. There are certainly more miserable creatures out there than Frank and Laura. Yet none of us are that far removed from sad lives like theirs, and many inhabit far worse places, which perhaps why this movie is more compelling than expected. You may find yourself saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

The Thinker

Eyeless in Gaza (and Israel)

784 Gazans are dead. It is likely that the actual count is much higher. After all, it is hard to find bodies when they are buried beneath all that rubble. Traumatized children watch their parents die. Injured or unable to escape these children stay next to the corpses of their parents, crying, thirsty, starving, wounded and traumatized for life. There is no food, no heat, no water, no toilets and no escape from this war. Instead, there are massive, disproportionate and random acts of madness, terror and death. Bombs fall from the air and level buildings. For four days, the Israel army refused entry by the Red Cross to certain areas where innocent people were known to be dying. Even U.N. aide workers in the Gaza Strip are not safe. While driving a clearly marked UN vehicle during a three-hour suspension of violence, a UN relief driver is killed by Israeli soldiers.

Hamas retreats but continues to lob rockets into Southern Israel. The United States unhelpfully abstains from voting for a cease-fire resolution in the United Nations Security Council. Israel says it will not agree to a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip until Hamas stops shooting rockets into Israel. It also demands international guarantees that armaments will not be smuggled into the Gaza Strip via tunnels from Egypt. Hamas says will not agree to a cease-fire unless Israel ends its blockade, which for months earlier has reduced living standards to subsistence levels and ratcheted up unemployment. It also demands that all Israeli troops leave the Gaza Strip.

At what is likely to be at least a thousand dead, many more thousands injured and virtually every resident of the Gaza Strip traumatized for life, Israel may succeed in halting rocket fire for a while from Gaza. However, this action, like all the other military actions on Palestinian land will not win them peace. Others will soon be lobbing rockets inside of Israel again, or will blow themselves up at bus stations or will be finding other gruesome ways to seek retribution for the disproportionate violence inflicted on them, their families, their neighbors and friends. In reality, this incursion into Gaza simply sows the seed of future violence. Why should anyone whose home is destroyed or whose family members are killed or injured by the Israel military want to make peace? In truth, every bomb lobbed on either side simply creates a multiplier effect that ensures future military actions will be deadlier and that genuine peace will never arrive.

How is this war in the Gaza Strip being funded? Much of this death and destruction comes courtesy of you, the U.S. taxpayer. Since 2001, the United States has provided more than $15 billion in direct military aid to Israel, as well as over three billion dollars to an Economic Support Fund, which Israel is free to also use for military procurement. In addition, special supplemental appropriations for Israel for over a billion dollars have been signed into law since 2001. When many of those bombs have “Made in U.S.A.” written on them, is it any wonder why Palestinians do not trust the United States as an honest peace broker?

Here is the truth: Israel cannot have both genuine peace and remain a Jewish state. Moreover, Israel really does not want genuine peace because it will not make the concessions needed to actually achieve peace. The Israeli terms include rights to a monopoly on the water resources in the region, the right to indefinitely expand Jewish settlements in occupied territories and requiring that East Jerusalem never be the capital of a Palestinian state. They want all this along with the assurance that not one of the millions of Palestinians will ever engage in violence against them. And I want a pony!

Despite the carnage, probably a majority of Palestinians would love to have peace, maybe even on Israel’s usury terms. Unfortunately, among them is a virulent minority of militants who will never agree to peace under any circumstances. They are making it their mission to make sure their children carry on the cause after they are gone. It is not that hard to keep the cycle going. Every few years you just irritate Israel to the point where they feel they must take some sort of Orwellian action to keep the state “safe” again. Every time this happens, the cycle is guaranteed to continue into another generation. Israel seems to suffer from some cognitive dissonance. It seems to believe that by continually making war more miserable for the Palestinians, they will see the light. It has never worked with any other ethnic group, but they are sure it will eventually work with the Palestinians. In reality, fear spawned by vengeance ensures future violent retribution.

Can you pick the ultimate winner in this game? Perhaps it is obscene to suggest anyone can come out ahead when this ends. It will probably not end in our lifetimes, but it will end. It will end someday, probably after millions have died. Israel will dissolve because this is a war of attrition. Whoever remains standing “wins”. Since due to the toxic dynamics in play genuine peace is impossible, it will end when one side folds. Israel’s opponents will never fold because they also outnumber Israelis ten to one. So in the end it will be Israel that folds, probably some years after the United States decides to stop funding the carnage. And that will happen when the cost of supporting Israel eventually grows too burdensome for U.S. taxpayers to bear any longer. Then yet another Jewish Diaspora will begin.

Sadly, to hasten Israel’s end, smart Middle Eastern terrorists will emulate Osama bin Laden. Israel cannot be beaten militarily, but in a part of the world where it is vastly outnumbered, it cannot afford its military indefinitely without a benefactor. The United States is the only significant benefactor of note. We provide the means for Israel to exist when it could not survive long by itself. If it could survive without us, there would be no reason for us to give it aid. The terrorism will migrate to the United States because we are Israel’s Achilles Heal. They will find ways to explode dirty bombs on the National Mall. They will blow up airport terminals and metro stations. At some point, we will realize that the only way to stop them at home is to stop supporting Israel. While we support Israel, we will not support it indefinitely if it is at the cost of our standard of living and way of life.

A Jewish homeland is a wonderful dream, but it exists only through denying and oppressing the legitimate grievances of the residents that Israel evicted. Until these grievances are rectified, there can be no peace. They cannot be rectified if Israel is to remain a Jewish state. Meanwhile, as is demonstrated from this latest incursion into Gaza, Israel can only survive at the price of its soul. Such a state, like the quasi-state run by the thugs who run Hamas, is unworthy of any nation’s support. We would do all sides, including ourselves a favor by gradually reducing our aid to Israel now.

The Thinker

Review: Frost/Nixon

Why watch a movie about a disgraced President Richard M. Nixon being interviewed some thirty years ago by a British television personality? What possible relevance does it have for 2009? It has more than you would think, given that we are in the last two weeks of the disgraced Bush Administration. A series of four interviews were broadcast in 1977 between the reclusive Nixon and British TV host David Frost. This was three years after Nixon resigned the presidency in disgrace over his obvious complicity in the illegal Watergate cover up.

At the time, our current vice president, Dick Cheney, was the Chief of Staff to Nixon’s successor, President Gerald R. Ford. Many assert that it was Dick Cheney who is the current mastermind behind expanding the authority of the president beyond what most believe are its constitutional limitations. Where did Cheney pick up this idea? Toward the end of the movie, you will see reenacted the famous scene where President Nixon gives the opinion that if the President of the United States says something is legal, then it is. At least Nixon then went on to say that this was probably an opinion not shared by most Americans. His view is clearly shared by Dick Cheney. Arguably, Dick Cheney has spent the last eight years living out Nixon’s vision of the presidency to our own national shame.

Therefore, the timing of Frost/Nixon now playing in theaters is probably not coincidental. You had to have been born in the 1960s or earlier to have any remembrance of Nixon as president at all. Consequently, for many Americans, Richard M. Nixon is someone wholly unexplored. In Frost/Nixon, Director Ron Howard can acquaint younger Americans with arguably our slimiest president.

As an ex-president, Nixon was widely reviled and loathed. He needed his Secret Service protection because it was unlikely he would have survived otherwise. Yet, in many ways Nixon’s likely crimes, which were preemptively pardoned by President Ford, seem like a minor kafuffle compared with the actions of President George W. Bush. Had he not been pardoned, Nixon would have been impeached and convicted for the serious crime of obstruction of justice. George W. Bush though gets a pass for deliberately and flagrantly violating our laws on torture and wiretapping.

Back in 1977, when Americans heard the name David Frost, it was invariably “David Who?” Frost was a British TV personality known more for hosting lightweight shows than as a serious interviewer. Michael Sheen portrays Frost as a bit of an airhead and playboy, but also as someone unafraid to take major chances to enhance his career. He was indefatigable when it came to securing the coveted Nixon interviews. It took hundreds of thousands of dollars to land the interviews in the first place, which was during an era when “checkbook journalism” was considered unprofessional and was widely decried.

Frank Langella deftly portrays the disgraced former president. He demonstrates his ability in the first three interviews by dominating them. Frost can hardly get a word in edgewise. At the time, Nixon was obsessed with rehabilitating his image. His interviews with Frost became the means toward that end. He used every deft political skill he had acquired to succeed. Meanwhile, Nixon’s critics were obsessed with trying to get Nixon to admit he conspired to obstruct justice. Perhaps, they hoped, Frost could at least get Nixon to apologize to the nation for his actions.

The pressure is on both Frost and Nixon in the last interview. Nixon has to talk about the topic of Watergate, his least favorite topic, and Frost has to nail Nixon to the wall, which is much like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. At this point, Frost is seriously financially overextended and he is feeling desperate. He has put up much of his personal fortune buying the interviews. He has also undersold the interviews in the broadcast market. He needs a winning final interview to dig himself out. What happened is a matter of historical record, but in case you do not know, I will not spoil it for you here. Suffice to say though that even if you know what is coming, in some ways you will pretend you do not know.

Director Ron Howard does a great job pulling you into the post Watergate world. Nixon was a very private man, so it is hard to know exactly what those years were like. Thanks to Langella’s excellent acting, we have excellent speculation. The scene where a drunk Nixon calls up Frost is likely the invention of screenwriter Peter Morgan but it certainly helps spice up what would be for many a rather dry battle of wits.

Whether you enjoy Frost/Nixon will depend in large part on whether you were around when Nixon was president, as well as any curiosity you may have about our disgraced 37th president. It is a tightly focused film, equally as focused on the multifaceted Frost as our wily 37th president. Of the two, Nixon proves far more interesting.

Like most Americans who remember President Nixon, I grew up to feel ashamed of what he did to our country. After seeing Frost/Nixon I can better appreciate the tragedy of Richard M. Nixon, a Shakespearean character of the 20th century if there ever was one. Like our current president, he largely successfully hid from confronting the magnitude of his own mistakes, to his own diminution. He was not entirely successful in doing so though, thanks in part to David Frost.

3.2 on my four-point scale.


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