Archive for March, 2009

The Thinker

Review: Coraline

There are plenty of 3D movies now in production, and a couple now in theaters including the recently released Monsters vs. Aliens, which has been widely panned as having an empty soul. Do we really need 3D movies? I kept asking myself this question while watching the recently released movie Coraline which my wife and I found in 3D at our local theater. We had to pay $12 for the privilege of watching a matinee of this 3D movie.  For this extra money I sure hoped there was some content in the movie that justified the extra expense of our tickets. In fact even for a movie as entrancing as Coraline, you really do not need the 3D trapping. This movie probably would have been just as good, if not better, without it.

Here’s the problem with 3D movies: they needlessly distract from the content of the movie. Having objects come hurling at toward you from the screen is a one trick pony. It is novel the first half dozen times you encounter it but after that it is like radio static, too many scratches on the film stock or some noisy theatergoers settling down late into seats near you (which happened to us while watching this movie). 3D offers another limitation: by adding another dimension you somehow lose a tiny bit of resolution and for some of us it is just enough to be bothersome. Unless we can become inured to having three dimensions in a film, it adds no value. And if we can get used to it, what is the point in adding it in the first place?

So don’t go see Coraline to see a movie in 3D. Go to see it if you enjoy deftly conceived, directed and produced fantasy films. Although at this late date it is hard to find in the theater, if you enjoy fantasy then Coraline is a must see film. You may have to wait for it to appear in DVD, hope your HDTV will render 3D, and the DVD comes with pairs of 3D glasses.

The reason Coraline works is because it is the brainchild of the noted author of many a fantasy book (and graphic novel) Neil Gaiman. If you had to pick one person on the planet that probably gets how to render modern fantasy, Gaiman would be it. However, Gaiman did not write the screenplay to Coraline, although presumably Gaiman had his unseen hand in its production. Henry Selick directed and wrote the screenplay, based on Gaiman’s book of the same name. Although I have not read Gaiman’s book of the same name, I suspect it is a largely faithful interpretation of the book.

Coraline Jones is a prepubescent girl (this is almost a requirement for a children’s fantasy movie) who moves with her parents into the Pink Palace Apartments in Ashland, Oregon. The Apartments are actually a hundred and fifty year old Victorian house subdivided into residences on the top, bottom and middle floors. At first, the other residents seem largely absent. Also emotionally absent are Coraline’s parents voiced by Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman. Their attention seems to be on finishing a catalog which they will present in town, so Coraline is largely left to her own to explore the creepy old house and its surroundings. There does not appear to be much in the way of neighbors, but Coraline does quickly encounter Wybie Lovat, a weird boy about her age who shows her the location of a mysterious well outside the property. Coraline also soon finds an old door inside one of the vacant rooms of the house. Curiosity makes her want to find the key to open it. It covers a brick wall, but at night the brick wall seems to act like a portal into a somewhat parallel life.

Coraline, accompanied by a mysterious black cat, venture through a weird pulsating tunnel reminiscent of the one in that bad 60’s TV show The Time Tunnel and into another version of Coraline’s life. In this life Coraline’s parents welcome and cater to her but they have one ominous difference. They have buttons where they would normally have eyes. And as we soon learn to stay and get the quality of parental attention she craves, Coraline too will have to choose to have her eyes replaced with buttons.

This is a reasonably scary children’s story and probably inappropriate for children under age ten. For children above that age, and us adults who are still children at heart, Coraline is an enchanting and often feels hypnotizing. Like with most Neil Gaiman stories, there is a lot of intrigue and subterfuge lurking below the surface of this story, as well as plenty of strange characters. The characters include Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, two aging spinsters in the downstairs apartment who performed burlesque in their heydays, and Mister Bobinsky, a former Russian gymnast who at the start of the movie we glimpse balancing himself on the house’s weathervane. The film is tightly focused on Coraline and only on one occasion goes outside the dark, surreal and often threatening world of the Pink Palace Apartments.

The only possible advantage to having this movie in 3D is rather than make it feel more real, it may help exacerbate its surreal feeling and thus may help provide a sort of hypnotic state which makes the movie so engrossing. I suspect it would be equally engrossing without it. This is a fantasy film obviously a cut above what you usually find and which tills some new ground in the fantasy film business.

3.3 on my 4 point scale.

 
The Thinker

Welcoming the Bush Babies

News item:

A federal judge ordered the Food and Drug Administration yesterday to reconsider its 2006 decision to deny girls younger than 18 access to the morning-after pill Plan B without a prescription.

Another news item:

The 4,317,119 births, reported by federal researchers Wednesday, topped a record first set in 1957 at the height of the baby boom.

Behind the number is both good and bad news. While it shows the U.S. population is more than replacing itself, a healthy trend, the teen birth rate was up for a second year in a row.

I was born in 1957, at the height of the baby boom. It was an excellent year for cranking out babies. Apparently, 2008 was as well. One of the reasons that 1957 was an excellent year for bringing babies into the world was that birth control was largely unavailable. The FDA approved an estrogen-based pill in 1957, but for menstrual pain only. A variation of this pill was not approved for birth control until 1960. The first plastic IUD was made available in the United States in 1958, but many women found it uncomfortable to use and serious side effects like uterine bleeding were common. Condoms were available, although they were often hard to procure given that birth control was generally frowned upon and public discussion about sex was largely taboo. When men discovered how much pleasure was lost using those old-fashioned condoms, many preferred to take their chances. In effect, in 1957, contraception was largely unavailable. With plenty of fertile men and women in their prime baby-making years, the nation’s maternity wards were full.

Society today is quite different but many things are still the same. Men and women continue to have sex, and teenagers in particular feel their oats more than most. Condoms can now be readily procured with no questions asked, but it generally falls on the male to buy them and only men can use them. The contraceptive sponge turned out to be a so-so contraceptive device, better than nothing, but no guarantee for preventing pregnancy. For years it was off the market, and was only relatively recently reintroduced in 2005.

The birth control pill is still only available by prescription. Plan B is contraceptive available without a prescription that allows women concerned that they might be pregnant to change the situation, provided they take the medication within 72 hours of intercourse. However, the Bush Administration found Plan B to be deeply offensive. In its view, it was an abortion drug, should not be available to anyone, but in particular should be restricted from use by minors. It gave marching orders to the FDA to drag its feet on approving the drug, which went on for three years. Finally, the FDA approved it for adults only. Even though there was no credible evidence that it was medically unsafe for minors, it required pharmacies to place the non-prescription drug behind the pharmacy counter, and to ID purchasers who appeared to be minors.

While birth rates are up for all age ranges of women, it is disturbing that they are up for teenage girls in particular. Doubtless, some of these girls were trying to get pregnant. Some of them would have liked to have had the option to purchase Plan B discreetly off the shelf.

The Republican theory was that teens could be deterred through abstinence education. There was also doubtless the hope that these adolescents would confide in Mom or Dad before taking a major step like becoming sexually active. I doubt many of these knocked up girls were comfortable with having such conversations with Mom and Dad. I also doubt many of them knew that if they could get to a Planned Parenthood clinic they might have gotten free or reduced costs contraceptive and counseling. One thing is clear: after having sex, they could not get a Plan B from their local pharmacy. So at least some (and likely a great deal of) teenagers gave birth to little baby girls and boys that would otherwise not be here. Call them Bush Babies. The Bush Administration tacitly agreed that if it would mean compromising their principles then it was okay to bring thousands of unplanned babies into the world. In their crazy heads, this apparently was a more moral choice to have babies out of wedlock than to allow minors to procure a safe over the counter contraceptive designed specifically for these teenage encounters with adult life.

Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol (who recently gave birth to an out of wedlock child and who is now estranged from the baby’s father) recently provided some pragmatic advice. Doubtless Republicans everywhere were stopping their ears full of cotton and singing “La la la la la” when she told Fox News that teenage abstinence was not realistic. The sadder-but-wiser Bristol Palin also suggested that teens should wait ten years before having a child.

Even if the Wasilla, Alaska Wal-Mart had Plan B on its shelf of other non-prescription drugs, there is no guarantee that Bristol would have purchased it. At least if it had been available she would have had the choice. She could be planning for college now instead of trying to figure out how to raise a baby with an absent father.

If abstinence is not realistic, the reality of teenage birth is something far more tangible. Bristol could do teenagers everywhere a favor by documenting her life as an unwed teenage mother. Meanwhile, we can only hope that with a new administration it will not be long before this counterproductive rule on Plan B is rescinded and seventeen year olds like Bristol can postpone the responsibilities of parenting until they are mentally and financially up to the task.

 
The Thinker

Review: Son of Rambow (2007)

I am still scratching my head on how Son of Rambow ended up in my Netflix queue. I first thought my wife had placed it on there but she said she did not.  Then I thought it was on recommendation of a sibling or friend, but a search of my email revealed nothing. Anyhow, it sat in its red wrapper for few weeks and came with my wife and I down to Chincoteague the other weekend. We finally watched it on an otherwise dreary March night in our hotel room.

Rambo of course is a big muscular character immortalized by Sylvester Stallone. By the time these movies were produced, he was sick of playing Rocky Balboa. I never saw the Rambo movies because big muscular guys shooting up lots of people does not agree with either my head or stomach. Clearly, Rambo had a following as it inspired three additional movies, including one as recent at 2008.

You can understand how Rambo movies might hold some appeal, particularly if in 1982 you are a ten-year-old boy, live in Great Britain, your mother belongs to the Mennonite Church, and you weigh maybe eighty pounds soaking wet. Such is the case of Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) who lives what for most people would be a surreal life in a Mennonite community. There you cannot even attend services without taking off your watch. Will also is forbidden from watching TV or movies, so when a documentary is on the agenda in his public school classroom, the teacher makes him wait out in the hallway. There he encounters Joshua (Neil Dudgeon), the local miscreant of a similar age.

Joshua quickly gives voice to many of Will’s repressed yearnings. Will expresses his creative yearnings with florid drawings in a book he carries with him. Joshua wants to be an action movie director. In particular he is fixated on John J. Rambo, as portrayed in the movie First Blood, where Rambo returns stateside to wreak some havoc. Clearly, Joshua would like to emulate Rambo, but he is inconveniently still a kid. Still, he has plenty of time to indulge his pursuits. He is overseen by an older brother who he worships but who largely ignores him. He and his brother apparently live in the back of a nursing home.

When Joshua casts Will in his amateur movie he calls Son of Rambow, Will and Joshua become improbable friends. Casting Will as Rambo’s son is quite a stretch considering that Rambo has more muscles in one bicep than Will has on his entire body. Soon Joshua is filming Will doing all sorts of crazy stunts, all without the training of a professional stuntman. Will is having the time of his life, but he has to continually sneak away from his mother to make time for his new friend.

Eventually though Will’s creative side asserts itself. Rather than act with someone else pulling the strings, he would rather change the storyline to create his own scenes. This upsets Joshua, who likes being the Alpha in the relationship. A larger cast is needed to complete the movie. Fortunately, the casting situation improves when a group of French exchange students show up for an extended visit. The English middle school students are largely awestruck by these fashionable and chic arrivals. Especially ultra-cool is the exotic Didier (Jules Sitruk) who merely has to flick his wrist to have a line of English girls at his disposal. Even Didier has ambitions. When he learns of Joshua’s film, he wants a piece of the action, as do many in his entourage.

For a group of middle schoolers, it becomes clear why Rambo holds so much appeal. Rambo can do things that they cannot in the well-ordered Great British. The naughty Joshua, who can get away with just about anything, becomes an easy conduit for expressing their largely repressed sides. After a while, Joshua finds his cast rebelling. Instead of controlling people through his movies, they each begin to go off script, showing their own repressed personalities. This tension causes predictable relationship ruptures between Will and Joshua, Joshua and his older brother, Will and his mother, and Will’s mother and her Mennonite paramour.

Stand By Me, this ain’t. Stand By Me had a much better director (Rob Reiner) versus Garth Jennings, who directed this movie. It turns out that in 1982 when First Blood was released, Jennings was only ten. Perhaps there is something autobiographical about this movie, given that Jennings also wrote the screenplay. As a film, it is uneven and frequently feels disjointed. It may be that this is really a movie for today’s thirty-somethings, for whom movies like First Blood with ultra-virile men like Sylvester Stallone held some undue fascination. It does have some humorous moments and both Will and Joshua feel reasonably authentic. Overall the movie is hard to get into and harder to finish. My wife made it to the end of the 96-minute film only to please me. I came close to giving up on the movie myself, but other than HBO, there were no entertainment alternatives on a cold and wet March night in our hotel room.

So this is a movie you can safely skip. It rises above mediocrity, but if this is supposed to be a coming of age movie, it is a subprime example. You would do better renting Stand By Me instead.

2.8 on my 4.0 scale.

 
The Thinker

A grave business

Life is about living, right? So why spend any time at all planning for death? After all, there are few things more certain in life than death and taxes. Once you are dead, unless you are Jesus Christ, you can forget about coming back to life. The best use of my corpse will be pushing up some daisies somewhere.

Alas, my passing is of interest to my financial adviser. For the two years I have had him he has been pushing my wife and I to plan for being dead. These days though, just writing a will is not good enough. You need many documents, all of which are vital for keeping lawyers in Birkenstock and driving their Mercedes Benz. Apparently, in addition to a legally enforceable will, I need Power of Attorney statements, a trust until our daughter is old enough to spend her inheritance wisely and a life support directive. Death is apparently a very complicated thing, at least for those you leave behind.

Just because I am dead, I would not want to burden my loved ones, would I? Hmm, maybe I would. I mean, I do love my loved ones. That comes with the definition. However, from my jaundiced perspective, I have given more love to them in love than I have gotten back in return. Yeah, I know, it’s good to give more than you get. But isn’t the least they can do for me when I am departed to deal with a few inheritance squabbles and tax issues? Knowing my future deceased state, does it require an extra level of love while I am alive beyond which I have already borne out in my fifty-two years of devoted service?

How do I know that this world is real anyhow? It sure feels fleeting. Maybe nonexistence is real and life is surreal. Maybe I am like Neo in The Matrix and when I die, I wake up to find my life was just a wild dream. If life is a dream, why bother with the drudgery like wills and such? Why not just live in the moment and get as much enjoyment as you can from life?

Maybe that’s why I’ve dragged my feet on updating my will. The last one is nearly fifteen years old and was done by a friend, and just so my wife and I could feel comfortable going out of town without our daughter. Because it turns out that planning for your mortality is a complex business. Naturally, this being the United States of America, there is no simple way to make your wishes known. Instead, you need either pricey software or a good attorney or two, and likely both witnesses and a notary too.

Here is my idea of how it should be done: each state and/or county would have a web site. When you want to complete your will, you they would provide you with a way to legally authenticate yourself. You would go onto the web site and be presented with a standard will complete with a number of “most popular” checkboxes and open text fields. For 95% of us, this would work fine. Since I am married, if I die first, I want my wife to get all my stuff. The same is true with her. If we both died at the same time, our daughter would get the bulk of our estate. She’s no longer a minor, but if she were I should be able to fill in that part of the web form where I indicate who would be the custodian of our child, who would oversee the estate, and enter the disposition of important heirlooms. It should take a half an hour maximum, be all done electronically and remain on file in the county clerk’s office. It would be accessible if necessary so properly credentialed officials, like the doctor in the emergency room, could also get the information.

You can write some things in your will that will have no practical effect. For example, do you want your body buried or cremated? Where should your remains go or be placed? Should your body go to medical science? Wills are read weeks or months after the deceased passes, so it is best to tell your family your wishes on what to do with your corpse. Yet, the county could easily collect this information in a central database. Every five or ten years, say whenever you renew your driver’s license, you would be required to recertify your electronic will. All this strikes me as a perfectly logical way the government could become more citizen-centric.

However, because I suspect that my survivors will otherwise engrave, “The bastard didn’t even bother to leave a will” on my gravestone, I have much belatedly decided to work on all these death documents. I quickly discovered why I dragged my feet. They are expensive to get right, particularly if you have lots of money and assets. After all, you do not want your loved ones to deal with complex things like probate taxes. No, you want to create a trust instead and screw Uncle Sam. I called one of the more prominent firms around us and found out that a modest set of these documents cost in the $3000-$5000 range. How many of us has that kind of money to throw around?

There is software you can buy, like WillMaker, but I remain a bit leery that it will not write the proper words or know precisely how to have forms properly notarized, witnessed and filed. So I did the next best thing, and shopped for a discount lawyer. It turns out that if you have to hire a lawyer, this is a good time. Many have been downsized and are scrambling for work, working from offices in their home. I found one via the user comments on Washington Consumers Checkbook. (Warning: you must subscribe to see the user comments, and they are not of much use if you live outside the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.) The lawyer even offered me a recession special: all the right documents done for a little under a grand. This still seemed like a lot of money, but it did not seem outrageous.

It turns out that what matters most is likely not the will itself, but various power of attorney statements and emergency medical directives. Do I want the plug pulled if three doctors agree that I am a goner but I cannot speak for myself? Who should speak for me when I cannot? Who can and should pay the bills or act when I cannot? Like most Americans, these obligations would fall to my spouse, but if she is not available, then who? For now, it seems safer to entrust this decision with a sibling. That may change as we age.

It will probably be money well spent, but in my deceased condition, it will mean nothing to me. We invited Carrie (the attorney) out to our house.  She told us much about the legal business of death and dying that we needed to know but about which we would have preferred to remain ignorant. We have been marking up drafts of documents she has cranked out, plodded through other verbose documents and keep trying to remember why we are doing this in the first place.

The good news is that when she is done we will have a set of PDF documents that we can easily update at any time, to name new executors and the like. We hope to have a final signing in our living room a week from Friday.

Dying is ordinarily a messy and depressing business, as is handling the estate of someone. Wills provide some comfort that the process may be less messy. As I discovered watching my mother decline, it is bound to be both messy and heartbreaking for those who go through it. Given these facts, much can and should be done to make it less onerous and expensive. With major economic crises underway, straightening out the business of death and dying is probably on no one’s radar. I hope someday someone will tackle it because the current process is unnecessarily complex and expensive, making it hard for the many who need these documents to acquire them. In the end, it is of most use to those who profit from it.

While death is inevitable, estate planning need not be the equivalent of rocket science. Instead, we could use the time and the money on worthier endeavors like enjoying the short life we were given.

 
The Thinker

Where the wild things are

Most people love the beach, but not usually during the off-season. A few oddballs like my wife and me have a hard time appreciating the beach except in the offseason. Lying on beaches can lead to skin cancer, and since my father is predisposed to it, I figure I could be too, so I tend to limit my exposure. Moreover, if you live inland, then getting to the beach can be a hassle. It is particularly a hassle if like me you live in Northern Virginia. To reach the closest beaches you will have to take many frequently traffic-clogged roads. The trip includes a journey over the majestic but often congested Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Once on Maryland’s Eastern shore, you then have to brave U.S. 50, which during the summer can turn into a hundred or more miles of stop and go traffic. In short, given its cost-benefit ratio, the community pool is much more convenient.

While lounging on a beach holds little appeal to me, seeing a beach ecosystem in a largely unspoiled state has a lot of appeal. My wife and I heard for years about Assateague Island on the Virginia coast, but until last weekend never actually took the time to visit it. The Assateague Island National Seashore, which actually spans parts of the Virginia and Maryland coastline, is a large stretch of shoreline left pretty much the way nature intended it.

The Eastern Shore of Maryland, more correctly called the Delmarva Peninsula, is serious chicken country. If you are familiar with the Perdue brand, you might say it is Frank Perdue country. Would Salisbury, Maryland be the big city it is today without his oversized influence? It is hard to say. The peninsula has only two major cities of note, Salisbury being one and Dover being the other. We did not pass through Salisbury, but instead passed around it, passing through smaller cities and towns like Princess Anne and Pokomoke City as we headed south on U.S. 13. Aside from the occasional chicken barns, you will find a lot of mostly empty flatland and scrub pines. Civilization does not quite disappear but it does recede. If your idea of a fun way to spend Friday night is dinner and a movie, you might have to travel all the way to Salisbury to see the movie.

While Assateague Island was our final destination, the inland island next to it, Chincoteague Island, was our base of operations. To get there you pass the Wallops Island Flight Center then drive down a long causeway and finally over a rickety bridge onto the island. (A new bridge is being built, and not a moment too soon.) Chincoteague is well populated with houses, B&Bs, motels and places to eat, yet it is small enough to feel somewhat remote. Wal-Mart has not made it to Chincoteague and likely never will. Most of the B&Bs were closed for the season, so we stayed at the Hampton Inn instead. Hampton Inns are good bets in general, but this particular hotel was the nicest and fanciest Hampton Inn we had ever stayed at. All rooms faced the sound and it was crazily quiet, clean, modern and almost ornate. The Jacuzzi looked very inviting, particularly since a cold rain was falling outside and we were chilled to the bone. It was not an option for us, as we had not packed our swimsuits. Our view from our third floor window revealed a number of moored trawlers nearby and noisy ducks squawking on the dock.

There was not much is happening on a cold and wet March evening in Chincoteague. Yet, some restaurants were open including Bill’s Seafood Restaurant, which was conveniently right down the street. It was crowded like it was the middle of tourist season, which is a sign of a good restaurant. It helps to be a seafood lover if you come to Chincoteague, otherwise you may find your dining options limited. The rain combined with a driving wind made us wonder if we made a mistake with the timing of our visit. So instead, we spent the evening huddled inside our hotel room, watched Son of Rambow on our portable computer, and hoped for better weather in the morning. Our large king sized bed proved exceptionally comfortable.

Morning offered us overcast skies but a temporary abatement of precipitation. After filling ourselves with the standard Hampton breakfast fare, we headed over to Assateague Island, reached by yet another bridge. As soon as you pass over the bridge, you realize you have left civilization behind. The weather may have been cold, but it had the virtue of being too cool for insects. Maybe visiting Assateague in mid March was a brilliant rather than a stupid idea.

There are a few but not many manmade structures on the island. They include two visitors’ centers, only one of which has flush toilets and a historic lighthouse. The warmth of the visitor’s center was welcome. Inside on a television we could watch the nest of two bald eagles and their two eaglets. From the visitor’s center, it was a short drive to the beach. While it was not raining, the temperatures in the high thirties, the wind and the moisture made it feel quite cold. The weather did not stop a small boy from chasing a seagull feather down the beach. There were not many cars on the beach, which was part of its allure. As long as you were bundled up, you could sit on the sand, enjoy the pounding of the surf and ponder the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean.

Assateague Island is probably best known for its wild horses and ponies, which are probably not native to the island. You cannot pet them and for the most part, they wisely prefer to stay away from humans. We were able only to catch glimpses of them with our binoculars. There is other life in great abundance on the island, but you have to know where to look for them. We found them in the Assateague Park Pond. As ponds go, this one is huge, and it is more marsh than pond. It is a 3.2-mile hike around the pond along a road that is wisely blocked from cars until 3 PM.

Pond on Assateague Island

Pond on Assateague Island

The walk was the highlight of our weekend. The pond, which reaches a mile in diameter, was full with thousands of waterfowl, from ordinary ducks to swans and egrets. We passed a magnificent grey heron that warily watched us from less than a hundred feet away. Nearby we also observed the majestic flight of the bald eagle we had watched on TV in the Visitor’s Center. Except for an occasional exceptionally loquacious waterfowl there was little to be heard but our footsteps, the distant sound of waves crashing on the beach and the gentle squawking of thousands of birds inhabiting the pond. Many had their butts pointed toward the sky as they worked to find food in the marsh. A pristine and wholly unspoiled natural environment enveloped our senses. I count the ninety minutes we spent walking around the pond as one of the great natural experiences of my life. It is achingly sad that such experiences are so hard to find in the 21st century United States. The Assateague National Seashore remains one of the last unspoiled natural ecosystems on the East Coast. If you are a naturalist, it is not to be missed.

Fortunately, the rain held off until we had left the island. There was time to travel to the Wallops Island Visitors Center. Before Cape Canaveral was used for launches, the Air Force was shooting off rockets at Wallops Island. Wallops still packs rockets with a “wallop”, but virtually all its rockets are of the sounding variety. Sounding rockets make quick trips into the stratosphere or into outer space for research purposes then sail back to earth. You cannot miss a number of impressive satellite antennas and radio telescopes at the facility, including one GOES receiver that receives the bulk of the real-time field data for the system that I manage. I would have enjoyed a tour of the facility, but since it was a Saturday, the timing was not right. The Visitor’s Center though was quite impressive for a small museum, hosting an auditorium with a film narrated by Robert Redford, and large globe that acted as a projector for shows about the earth and the sun. The center also has a comprehensive set of exhibits explaining the research that went on at the facility and continues into the present day.

While we saw almost no sun and endured plenty of cold and miserable rain, our two-night journey into this wilderness was well worth the hassle of traversing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and the Capital Beltway. It felt good to commune with nature and since it is in such abundance on Assateague Island, we will doubtless return again, leaving refreshed in mind and body.

 
The Thinker

More adventures in weight loss

Since I officially started my latest diet on January 22nd, I have lost thirteen pounds. Seven weeks and thirteen pounds is close to a weight loss of two pounds a week. How hard was it? So far, not that hard.

There are lots of diet plans out there of course, but overall I think the current one I am on, Weight Watchers, is probably the best of those I have tried over the years. Any weight loss plan of course will work if you adhere to it. Unfortunately, most people will put the weight back on shortly after they take it off. I am not the exception either. I certainly did not intend to be a yo-yo dieter, but simple inattention and giving into the cravings of my body made the weight creep back up over time.

Truly, despite all the sweats that diets tend to give us Americans, taking off the pounds is the easy part. Keeping them off is the hard part. Can I successfully incorporate new eating strategies into my life for the rest of my life? It remains to be seen. Still, I can feel the weight coming off. Thirteen pounds amounts to two notches on my belt. I feel healthier and have more stamina. My blood pressure is already down into the normal range. I do not know about my cholesterol count yet. I had blood drawn on Tuesday and should get lab results soon. Since it typically takes six months for cholesterol levels to get back to normal, I probably have a way to go. I would prefer to avoid cholesterol-lowering drugs. Time will tell whether I will succeed there.

Why is a stodgy old diet plan like Weight Watchers working so well? I think it is mainly because I can choose what I want to eat. As I pointed out in my first post, it does not mean you can eat as much of what you want, unless you prefer low calorie, high fiber food. Clearly most of us losing weight do not prefer these foods; otherwise, we would not have gained the weight in the first place. Maybe once a week I will have a Lean Cuisine Spaghetti for dinner (5 points). I grew up on spaghetti dinners. So eating food I enjoy, even if in smaller quantities than I was used to, really does help. As Linda, our coach put it: “If it doesn’t taste good, don’t put it in your mouth.”

In hindsight, it is easy to see how I fell off the wagon. Throughout my weight gain, I never lacked for regular aerobic and anaerobic exercise. Granted I get little of it in the office, but I hit the gym regularly and really worked out. I deluded myself to some degree that if I exercised enough the weight gain did not matter. Of course, even if you exercise regularly, if you eat more calories than you burn, you gain weight. It is that simple. I simply chose to not pay much attention to the problem until my doctor gave me a wakeup call.

Weight Watchers has convinced me (it’s amazing how quickly we forget) that a few simple things take the pounds off: burn more calories than you take in, exercise regularly and systematically, track what you eat and use the discipline of a support group. If you can do these four things, you will lose weight. It does become much less burdensome though if you can mix in some of the foods you love (hopefully lower fat, lower calorie and higher fiber equivalents) with the healthier foods. If you chose not to do these four things most likely you will not succeed in losing all the weight you want to lose, and are likely to falter on your path.

The discipline of being weighed once a week in front of an impartial coach has an amazing effect. Simply put, it provides essential accountability. Since most of us have a hard time being accountable to ourselves, why not to a coach? Since you will not be the only one at the Weight Watchers class, you will also watch others lose weight too, and they are likely to encourage you in your journey. The social aspect of weight loss is critically important, and perhaps the most important part of succeeding.

I have also found that you can eat really tasty and nutritious food that doesn’t pack on the calories. One of my favorites is a Chicken Stir Fry. Our local warehouse club BJs makes a great chicken stir fry, loaded with tasty vegetables, spaghetti, chicken of course and garnished with soy sauce. It has 190 calories per serving. There are four servings in a bag, so if you have two servings you are getting only 380 calories and you have a huge plate full of healthy and good tasting food. Moreover, it is loaded with dietary fiber and is low in fat. Perhaps if you are salt sensitive the soy sauce is not good for you. Two servings are just six points.

There are many low calorie products out there, some of them are exceptionally good. Weight Watchers of course sells dozens of them, many of them mediocre but some seem too good to be true. Take their fudge bar. Amazingly, it is only one point but it is still quite chocolaty and actually tastes rich. If you have a sweet tooth like I do, it is manna from heaven. You have to be careful though that you do not subsist on a diet of Weight Watchers fudge bars. Your body really does need the dietary fiber from fruits and vegetables too, so you want to include healthy portions of them in your diet. They will fill up your stomach much better than a couple Weight Watchers fudge bars.

I will give you more progress reports in the weeks ahead. It drives my wife nuts at times because she has this thing against Weight Watchers. However, if the first thirteen pounds came off with such little pain, I do not see why I cannot keep going until I reach a healthy weight. I am about half way there already.

 
The Thinker

Death by Objectivism

Is Objectivism dead? Objectivism, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is a philosophy created and articulated by the writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, who died in New York City in 1982 at the age of 77. I became acquainted with the philosophy in my early adult years when I read her novel, The Fountainhead. It told the story of a brilliant but eccentric architect named Howard Roark. Much like Number 6 in The Prisoner, Roark lived life on his own terms. He would not compromise with this encroaching thing called the real world. I have to admit that for a while I liked the novel and the character, although Roark was so preachy he would put most ministers to shame.

I purchased but never finished Rand’s most seminal work: Atlas Shrugged. Not that I did not try. I plodded through it for several hundred pages then gave up. To call it a novel was charitable. Instead, it was a philosophical screed, which detailed Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. If Howard Roark was excessively preachy, John Galt was an Objectivist supernova. I suspect most readers were like me and simply could not find the patience to endure its 1368 pages. However, a few key intellectuals of the 20th century did make it through the novel and absorbed it whole cloth. Sadly for America, two of them turned out to be prominent economists. One was Milton Friedman, who won a Nobel Prize for Economics. The other and far more important one was Alan Greenspan, who until a few years ago was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve and very possibly the most influential monetary guru on the planet. Markets trembled with every nuanced word that came out of Greenspan’s mouth.

I can see the appeal of Ayn Rand and Objectivism with certain economists. Economists by nature are enamored by numbers are less enamored with squishy artifacts like religion. Rand, an atheist, gave voice to the secular capitalists of the world. They latched onto her key idea, immortalized in the words of the fictional Gordon Gekko and spoken by the actor Michael Douglas in the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street, “Greed is good”. The “greed is good” mantra, formally sanctioned by President Reagan in the 1980s has been the philosophical cornerstone of the last few decades. Its unchecked version called Objectivism has now been proven bankrupt, much like many of us Americans.

In short, Objectivism became something of a sanction to charge forward with the reckless accumulation of wealth by all means, fair and foul. It is a “Me First” philosophy that really could care less about anyone other than “Me”. According to Wikipedia:

Objectivism holds: that reality exists independent of consciousness; that individual persons are in contact with this reality through sensory perception; that human beings can gain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation; that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness or rational self-interest; that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in pure laissez-faire capitalism; and that the role of art in human life is to transform man’s widest metaphysical ideas, by selective reproduction of reality, into a physical form—a work of art—that he can comprehend and to which he can respond.

As a practical matter then, Objectivism is individuality gone amok, i.e. without boundaries. It does not care about the consequences of extreme selfishness. Embracing pure capitalism is more important than minor things like whether as a consequence we also wreck the planet, or impoverish whole other classes of people.

As we watch our economic house of cards dissolve I am also seeing, in part, the pure philosophy of Objectivism, articulated in policies by its rabid followers, proven utterly and catastrophically incorrect. This is to the detriment of nearly everyone, including Objectivists. For at its core Objectivism is in denial about the way things actually are ordered. It is in denial that we really are all connected to each other, and that what affects you in fact really does affect me, everyone else, the planet and even the universe. In fact, consciousness does change reality and when it does, it affects everyone else who lives because we too are inextricably tied to reality. Consciousness and reality are not wholly separate domains, as Rand postulates, but intimately connected. If you mess too much with reality by trying to change the way nature ordered it, the consequences can be dramatic and not very pretty. See it in global warming. See it today, for example, in Las Vegas neighborhoods where you can drive through neighborhoods where most of the houses on the street are in foreclosure.

Wall Street barons, worshipping the almighty dollar, emboldened by extreme forms of laissez-faire capitalism promoted relentlessly through the monetary policies of Alan Greenspan and by the Bush Administration, promoted policies that took our money and effectively threw it down rat holes. With a pure (or close to it) laissez-faire capitalism, where new financial instruments could be created without government intervention, all the predictable things happened. We were caught in our own greed and were purposely mindless of the cost our unchecked greed and unregulated financial instruments would have on the economy. In particular, extreme capitalists like Alan Greenspan, through policies like making money artificially cheap to borrow, created a financial chasm. We were encouraged to overextend our financial lives, living in the moment and remain largely heedless to the long-term consequences of our actions.

Fortunately for me, it did not take me more than a few years of pondering before I realized that Objectivism was unworkable. Little did I know though that this philosophy would gain critical traction among an elite number of economists who could actually put it into practice on a large scale. It turns out that when this is implemented the philosophy, rather than enabling self-actualization, has the effect of moving much of our national wealth to better-run countries overseas. Before Ronald Reagan was elected, the United States was the largest creditor nation. Now, we are by far the world’s largest debtor nation.

Our Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was recently in China. She deliberately downplayed our concerns about their miserable human rights record, but did speak up about the need for China to keep buying our U.S. Treasury bills. They have cash that we need to execute our economic recovery plan.

Atlas Shrugged should go on the shelf with the other lunatic books like Das Kapital and Mein Kampf that have proven unworkable and destructive to humanity and the world. Communism does not work. Fascism by Aryans does not work. The extreme capitalism articulated in Atlas Shrugged does not work either. Objectivists should never again be allowed to control the levers of our financial system.

Ayn Rand died surrounded by admirers with a big dollar sign above her bed. I kid you not. This devotion to unbridled selfishness even on her deathbed helped inspire men like Alan Greenspan. Instead, her life ultimately proves how meaningless the obsessive pursuit of self-interest actually is. It destroys rather than helps us see the connections between each other. It is the vitality of these connections between us that builds the kind of wealth that matters: peace, tolerance, mutual understanding, healthy relationships, harmony and love. These are the true measures of a healthy world and a healthy person, not the number of dollars in your bank account.

 
The Thinker

Bless her father for she has sinned

Way back in the 1960s and early 1970s, Sister Monica was principle and eighth grade teacher at my parochial elementary school in upstate New York. When I first knew her, she almost looked like a Talibani woman. Like all the sisters, she wore ankle-length black dresses, black shoes with black hose, a belt with beads and a crucifix on one end, and a habit so severe that you could not see a hair on her head other than on her eyebrows. After Vatican II, they literally had a change of habit, which got considerably smaller to the point where we could make out actual hair. Today, even modest habits are history. I doubt there is any way I could tell a Sister of St. Joseph from any other woman on the street.

Sister Monica had to deal with two hundred or so of us pupils who suffered from the sin of being, well, children. Yes, amazingly we had not mastered adult skills such as not squirming in our seats or talking in class. Sister Monica would permit none of these childish things. From our uniforms (pressed black pants, white shirts and a green tie for the boys, and really ugly plaid green dresses with a white blouse for the girls), the idea was to extinguish all signs of difference. Sitting in our squat and tiny desks, we looked like budding Catholic Dilberts destined to spend our lives in cubicles, which way back then had not yet been invented. Sister Monica took it as her personal mission to obliterate all signs of personality from us. She had two hundred plus students to deal with, dammit (not that she would swear). We were but sausages in her grinder. She had to turn us into good little Catholic sausages, educated but obedient. We were destined to be interchangeable gears for the betterment of society but far more importantly, good, dutiful and faithful Catholics. We were to be the type who went to mass every Sunday and never miss a Holy Day of Obligation.

In short, in Sister Monica’s universe there was virtually no room for either tolerance or deviation. Absolute conformity and obedience were required. Silence was required during class. If you had a question, of course, you first had to raise your hand and be allowed to speak. Being children, we tended to tune out a lot of her teaching. We fidgeted. We spent inordinate amounts of time sneaking peaks out the window, doodling, watching the clock and waiting for the liberation of recess or the final bell. If our attention ever wavered, she would call out to us in her sharp raspy voice. Her long, wooden pointer with its rubber tip was her constant companion. She would smack it down loudly on your desk to get your attention. We were there to learn and generally, that meant a lot of lecture, rote memorization and few questions.

It is hard for me to give Sister Monica her due, but I will try. In fact, she was a pretty good teacher in that it was hard to leave her class without having learned the material. I remember her primarily as my math teacher. By the end of the eighth grade, we were already doing algebra. Homework certainly was turned in on time and was promptly graded. Since she was so vigilant about students looking out the window most of us realized we had best pay attention. Moreover, Sister Monica liked having an audience. Her pointy stick was one way that she expressed her personality since with all that black garb on, there wasn’t much else of her to see.

Back in the 1960s, and in particular, in parochial schools, someone like Sister Monica had near absolute and unchecked authority. The only liberal aspect of Sister Monica that I can recall was that she was liberal at meting out punishment. I am sure a class full of elementary school children could be a handful. It was not natural for us to stifle ourselves or give the teacher our full attention.

A teacher certainly has the right to maintain order in the class. Sister Monica though was a big believer in spare the rod and spoil the child, and it was hard to find any infraction too trivial for her justice. Her preferred instruments for meting out punishment were two yardsticks held together. Her preferred location for executing sentence was her desk at the front of the class. Her instructions were simple: “Form a right angle.” There in front of the class the recalcitrant student (in my memory, always a boy) would receive a dozen or so sharp whacks with her doubled yardstick, sometime but not always inducing tears, but often involving a lot of wincing. If it was painful to endure it was perhaps more painful to repeatedly witness. Publicly meting out punishment also had a deterrent effect. I cannot recall ever being at the end of her yardstick. Yet for every student who endured her yardsticks, it was as if I could feel their pain. It made me angry but of course there was no way to express it. My own mother was much like Sister Monica, so I would find no sympathy at home.

Many of us got worse than Sister Monica at home. This was an age when, if your father beat your bums and back black and blue with his belt, child welfare workers (to the extent they existed) would generally look the other way; he was your father, after all, and society assumed he knew best. Perhaps some of the frequent victims of her yardstick grew inured, since many of them were repeat offenders. Yelling in the halls or in class, repeatedly looking out the window and arriving in class sweaty from running around too much during recess were typical violations that required swift justice.

As a child, I found her behavior hard to reconcile. While it was consistent with what I saw outside of the school, it seemed cruel and vindictive. Yet, the faith I was given told me we should look at clerics like Sister Monica with respect, if not something bordering on adoration. By contemporary standards, she would be fired on the first incident with the yardstick. Today, civil suits seeking damages for physical and emotional abuse might even succeed. Once in high school, when our bus rolled past our elementary school I found that I had to deliberately look away. It was thirty years before I found both the time the courage to examine my old haunt of a school. A haunt it remains to me, although the school has long been vacant.

As for Sister Monica, I assumed she had gone to her reward, or was close to going there. I did not think she was web savvy. I did not think I could find her, but last week filled with mild curiosity I left an inquiry on her order’s website. To my surprise, they provided me with Sister Monica’s email address! She is still affiliated with her order but is now semi-retired. I inferred her last name from her email address and Googled her. Google pointed me to a fairly recent online article where she is featured. There in glorious color on the World Wide Web was the now habit-less Sister Monica, much aged of course, heavier, but with much the feisty look that I recalled.

From reading about her online, I got the feeling she has mellowed quite a bit. She held the job of principal in a number of other parochial schools, helped developed curriculum for her diocese, and was involved in at least some charitable work running a food donation center. There are likely many layers to Sister Monica and perhaps I saw her least Christ-like layer.

Although I do not plan to email her, I do fantasize from time to time on what I might say to her. I would ask if she felt bad about the way she treated us. My suspicion is that she would say no. I would suggest to her that she should repent by asking forgiveness from those she hurt, including me. She would probably say these sorts of sins, if they occurred at all, are easily absolved in the Sacrament of Confession. I would reply that there are two types of forgiveness. God can forgive some sins but those against other people can only be forgiven by those who were hurt. If she were to ask my forgiveness, I would grant it. It might heal her soul, presuming it is troubled, which I doubt. Moreover, it may help me put these sad past events forever under the mattress.

Unquestionably, they affected me profoundly as a child and still somewhat as an adult. She likely affected hundreds of other students of hers over the years, and most I suspect have few charitable memories. I am no longer a Catholic for many reasons, but in part because I could not as an adult be a member of a religion that would look the other way while people like her abused so many children. I worked hard to be firm but tolerant parent, never raising a hand to my daughter and trying, but not always exceeding, to never to throw a deprecating remark her way.

Today virtually all schools, except in a few Southern states, are free of faculty-induced violence. This is particularly true of parochial schools, although in numbers they are today a small fraction of what they were in their heyday. This may be in part because Sister Monica was one of many sisters, as unfortunately there were many Catholic priests, who crossed the lines. I doubt her behavior gave her any qualms. She was probably instructed by her clerics to mete out corporal punishment. She may have witnessed it herself had she spent her childhood in parochial schools. It may have seen as natural as eating and breathing.

In the grand scheme of things, these sins were probably of the venial variety. No one died. Many bottoms may have gotten a bit red, but only temporarily. Sister Monica might have induced a blister or two, but she also succeeded in making us learn. As best I can tell none of my classmates grew up to be axe murderers. Still with me, my friend Tom who was also there and I am sure many others, she did leave scars, scars that do not always completely heal even so many decades later.

I imagine someday the pendulum will swing back and teachers may be empowered to mete out punishment again. I can only hope that if this happens, future parochial school teachers will retain nonviolent ways to discipline their pupils. Given the certainty of Catholicism about so many things, I am not entirely convinced those days are gone forever. Absolute power allows these transgressions to occur, and at the very least in Sister Monica’s case, the Catholic Church watched askance.

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 10: How to study

This is the tenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

As regular readers may know, I am back in the classroom. It has been about four years since I taught in a community college. I had hoped that certain things would have changed. A few things have changed. Four years ago, my classes were roughly half fellow white Anglo Saxons. Today the ratio is more like 40:60. This is indicative of the area where I live, which is multicultural and is getting more so. In particular, I am seeing a lot more people of who appear predominantly from the Middle East or South Asia. One thing that has not changed is that many of my students are still woefully unprepared for the reality of college.

This is reflected in their grades. About a third of the class will mysteriously melt away through the course of the semester. Sometimes it appears that they just cannot summon the will to attend class. (My class starts at 9 AM.) Others when they get back the first couple quizzes see the handwriting on the wall. You would think that they would withdraw academically and get a tuition refund. Most of them do not, they just sort of fade away and eventually earn an F.

Sometimes I think I am a poor teacher, but those who survive the class have the opportunity to assess me near the end of the course. My teaching style normally gets a B, but it varies from class to class. So I figure I must be an okay teacher although those who dropped my course probably would tell me otherwise. Other times I think that maybe the courses I teach are too hard. This semester I am teaching Computer Fundamentals. About half of it is learning the Microsoft Office suite and the other half conveys basic knowledge about computers and information technology. Many students have picked up significant parts of the Microsoft Office suite already. Granted, many of them have not experimented much with formulas and graphs in Microsoft Excel, but presumably, these things should not be completely new. Nor was the Web Page Design course I taught for many years that difficult. You learn some tags and syntax, you mark it up with an editor and you display it on a web server. In short, neither of my courses were the equivalents of organic chemistry or calculus.

The Computer Fundamentals class is required for most students, so it brings in everyone from math wizards to art majors. I can understand why an art student might be a bit intimidated by numbers, but surely somewhere in their education they got enough courses to have learned things like the order of precedence with mathematical operators and what a function does. Maybe they got it once upon a time. It appears they quickly purged it from their brains.

For most of those failing or flailing, I am left to infer that they just did not learn how to study. If this describes you, young adult, let this part time teacher provide you with the basics.

Rule Number 1: Study takes time. You must set aside the time required to read the material, do the homework and participate in group projects. Most students who actually want to graduate quickly learn they must budget their time. They plan their week in accordance with their homework, upcoming quizzes and examinations. Study does not mean just flipping through your notes at a Starbucks before the class.

Rule Number 2: Read the textbook. If your instructor provides Powerpoint and lecture notes, that is helpful. These things though do not substitute for a textbook; they supplement the textbook. So when your professor says read pages 100-150 before class next week, if you want to get a good grade in the course this is not optional. The professor’s job is to help you join the material you read in the textbook with the information he is providing. In any course, there is far more to learn than the time allocated to teach it to you in class.

Rule Number 3: Take copious notes in class. Most of my students do not even have their notebooks open. Why? When the professor is talking, you should be taking notes as fast as you can scribble them. If you do not understand something, you are supposed to raise your hand and ask questions. That is how you learn.

Rule Number 4: Restate what you have learned after class. Whether it comes from the textbook, lecture notes, slides or your class notes, if you really want to learn, you will take the time to restate what you have learned outside of the class, ideally shortly after the class. Typing it up or jotting it down in a notebook helps to cement knowledge in your brain. When you read a textbook, take the time to mark it up. Get out that yellow highlighter. Read that paragraph with care. If you don’t understand it, read it again. There is often one key sentence or a phrase in a paragraph that conveys the key idea. Highlight that and restate it in your notes.

Rule Number 5: Study in solitude. Many of my students have MP3 players jammed into their ears while they appear to be studying or sometimes instead of listening to me. For studying, listening to music is a bad idea unless the music is classical, or wholly instrumental. The key is it must be subliminal and facilitate studying, not distract you from it. When you study, you need to concentrate on the material, not on the lyrics to a song. Unless you have group study sessions with other students, you need a quiet place and a closed door to study. If you live on campus or even if you do not, a library is a great place to study, in part because when you are there you feel like you must study. Not only do you have most of the resources you need handy if you have to do some research, but it is relatively quiet and there are usually plenty of tables and alcoves available where you can study.

Rule Number 6: Prepare adequately for tests. Review all the relevant material the day before the test. Give focus on your notes where you restated what you learned. Ideally, try to make time an hour or so before the test to review again what you reviewed the night before. If time is of the essence, review the key points that are hard to remember or understand. These things typically make the difference between one grade letter and the next.

Rule Number 7: Practice, practice, practice. Many courses, like the one I am teaching, include labs. Don’t just do the labs in class. Do them again as practice. Most textbooks will have other examples at the end of the textbook you can try. I saw many of my students flounder with a Microsoft Excel quiz I gave recently. While they went through the labs in class, they did not cement the key pieces of learning by redoing their work outside of the course. Naturally, they were quite challenged trying to complete the hands on portion of the quiz because they had not cemented in their brains the fundamental skills.

Rule Number 8: Commit to your education. This probably should be Rule Number 1. An education is obviously not free but even if your tuition is paid for by your parents or a scholarship, you must make the personal commitment to give your study the time and attention it deserves. This means you will probably sleep less, party less, socialize less and goof off less. This is what you have to do if you intend to graduate. When I was a full time student and did not have a job, I typically put in ten to fourteen hour days six or seven days a week. The payoff will be the degree, which will hopefully offer you the chance for a more enriching, interesting and hopefully well paid life. No one said life would be easy. If you want a degree, you must earn it. Put down the beer bottle and pick up the textbook, your notebook and a yellow highlighter instead. Your future you will be very glad you did.

 

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