Archive for May, 2009

The Thinker

The Agony of the Feet, Part Two

I am feeling a bit like Peter Pan these days. Peter Pan was the only male I knew who regularly wore green stockings. I understand that during the Middle Age, men also wore stockings. These days though men who wear stockings are either getting in touch with their feminine side or suffering with vein disease. In my case, it is the latter.

The agony of my feet, which I described more than four years ago, never totally went away. In recent months, it has gotten considerably worse. It was manifested in numbness in my right foot (on a good day) or a constant aching and burning feeling in both feet (on a typical day). More recently, it has sent me scurrying to various physicians (podiatrists, neurologists and vein specialists) to see if I can do something about it. I now know that since I have varicose veins I have vein disease. Vein disease means that the veins in your leg have a hard time returning blood from your feet to the heart. It affects many Americans sometime in their lives, more as people age, as you might expect. In the typical case, your legs feel heavy and mostly unconsciously, you spend a lot of time with your legs propped up on chairs and stools. In the latter stages, walking becomes painful and even sitting with no pressure on the feet still hurts. I seem to be approaching the latter stages.

After doing some fancy tests, my neurologist also confirmed I have tarsal tunnel syndrome. It is like carpal tunnel syndrome, except it applies the feet. I also have neuropathies at various places in both feet as well as possibly in my leg and spine. This means that certain nerves are not doing a good job of communicating with my brain. These too are common with age. In many cases, people simply ignore them.

What to do about these conditions? That is still being triaged by my team of doctors, so the extent to which I can find relief is unclear. Vein disease never goes away, however removing veins from the leg usually results in more blood pressure in the remaining leg veins, often alleviating symptoms, at least for a while. Legs in the vein though are not limitless and the veins cannot be restored to normal functioning. At some point you either have to deal with a lot of discomfort or pain or do what I am doing: wear thigh high compression stockings and hope they relieve the symptoms. These compression stockings essentially provide more pressure to the feet and legs making it easier for veins to do their job. This results in less blood pooling in my feet and legs and, I am happy to report, a lot less misery during the course of my day.

Of course, these taupe stockings I now wear are hardly a fashion statement. Fortunately most of the time they are easily hid underneath jeans, but there are certain times of the year when wearing jeans is not desirable. Nor are they terribly comfortable to wear, feeling at times like vices on my legs and itching my thighs. I suspect in time I can get used to them, but I do not want to. Putting them on is quite a challenge and can leave me sweating because they require a significant amount of agility and force. If vein surgery means I can ditch the stockings I am all for going ahead with the surgery.

My mother had varicose veins. To my knowledge, she never had any veins removed, although she probably should have. In her last days in the nursing home she was, like me, wearing these Jobst compression stockings. Varicose veins seem to be largely heredity, but are often manifested by too much standing or stooping. She did plenty of that chasing after my seven siblings and me. She often said we gave her grey hair. It is more likely we gave her the varicose veins.

For now, these support stockings are a relief more than a burden. As annoying as they are to put on and wear around, they beat going around all day with tired, aching and burning feet. As my vein specialist suspected, they are also identifying the root of my foot problems. It appears that my poorly functioning veins are at the root of my tarsal tunnel syndrome and probably helped create my neuropathies. As best I can figure out, because of my suboptimal veins, my legs and feet have suffered from high blood pressure for years, and this has been wearing on the various nerves, bones and tissue in my legs and feet. I still have some numbness in my right foot but I am hopeful that it will recede as vein pressure in my legs improves.

My point in whining about this is mainly to draw attention to vein disease. If you have varicose or spider veins, or find yourself habitually propping up your feet, or your feet regularly feel tired, or worse, numb, aching or burning you should not do what I did and largely ignore the problem until it becomes acute. Rather seek early medical attention so you can avoid neuropathies as you age and problems like tarsal tunnel syndrome. I wish someone had drawn it to my attention. I have been dealing with it so long I assumed everyone propped their feet up after walking for a while. If you spend prolonged hours at a desk or in front of a keyboard, you should also consider footrests for your feet. A combination of these strategies may make your life livable again.

 
The Thinker

Extreme makeover

Being fifty-something like me definitely has some drawbacks. Things I used to take for granted, like going a day without some aches and pains are now exceptions rather than the rule. When you are middle aged, every day you are playing a game of whack-a-mole with your health. Solve one problem and others unexpectedly pop up. In my case, I recently learned I had vein disease (in other words, my varicose veins are becoming a problem), a few neuropathies in my legs and feet, and tarsal tunnel syndrome in at least my right foot. On the good side, I weigh twenty-one pounds less than I did in January, my blood pressure has stabilized and I am hopeful my cholesterol level has dropped to normal levels.

Most likely if you are my age you are also dealing with medical issues. That does not necessarily mean that you have to look your age, particularly if you have $16,000 burning a hole in your pocket. Courtesy of London’s Daily Mail, I learned about the curious case of Janet Cunliffe, age fifty. Janet decided that she wanted to look like her daughter Jane and spent at least ten thousand British pounds to make it a reality. See if you can pick out Janet from this photograph with her daughter.

Janet and Jane Cunliffe

Janet and Jane Cunliffe

If you guessed that daughter Jane, age 28, is the woman on the left (as I did), you would be wrong. Jane is on the right, and mother Janet is on the left. Thanks to this rather extreme case of multiple plastic surgeries spanning more than a decade (as well as a lot of exercise and dieting) Janet actually looks younger than Jane.

Janet does look great but she seems to be a textbook case for why beauty is skin deep. From the Daily Mail story, it sounds like Janet has issues way beyond wanting to look unnaturally young. She divorced one husband then spent eight years in Spain in a dysfunctional and angry relationship that ultimately went nowhere. Eventually she returned to Great Britain into the welcoming arms of, well, not a husband or ex-husband, but her daughter Jane, who put her up and became something like her best friend.

In those distant pre-plastic surgery days, Janet used to be a redhead. Like many women pushing forty, she had sagging boobs, droopy eyelids and wore a size fourteen dress. All those trips to plastic surgeons resulted in the removal of puffy eyelids, uplifted and enlarged 34-DD breasts, a nose job, lips puffed up with collagen as well as blonde hair extensions. Perhaps the new Janet has become the Janet she always imagined herself to be. Perhaps this will allow her to become the attractive, anxiety-free twenty-something woman she wants to be some three decades after the fact.

I don’t think this is going to happen. Like me, she is still a fifty-something adult. If she is fifty, she is likely in the midst of menopause and is dealing with other medical issues that great plastic surgery cannot cure, like age spots. Selective skin bleaching might help with the age spots, but it will not fool a suitor for long. Last I heard, there was no plastic surgery for the bane of aging women: sagging necks. However, her plastic surgery, in addition to costing lost of money, has resulted in at least one complication. One breast implant ruptured. Janet though saw the incident as an opportunity to go from a pair of 34-C’s to a dynamic duo of uplifted 34-DD’s. It also meant she had to shell out another twenty five hundred pounds.

On the plus side, Janet now weighs a lot less than she used to, is eating healthy food and claims to feel better about herself. Perhaps by doing so she can retard many of the effects us middle-aged adults have to contend with. Beauty though is skin deep, which means ultimately she inhabits a middle-aged body like me. If she is not dealing with various aches and pains like I am, I would be surprised. She is chasing the illusion of immortality and youth, but an illusion it remains. Instead, she is setting herself up for more falls and grief.

I assume Janet wants to look younger in order to attract a suitable mate, someone who is less angry than her last boyfriend or better than her first husband. Janet should be careful though because she is likely to get a man attracted to the body she projects, which may be far removed from the man she actually wants.

Call me cynical or envious, but I cannot help but wonder if Janet would have been better off spending those ten thousand pounds on a good psychotherapist instead. She started her body sculpting adventure a decade ago. Had she invested the money in a psychotherapist instead, she might now be celebrating her tenth anniversary with a man who truly does cater to her physical and emotional needs. I suspect she would have gotten much better value for her money.

 
The Thinker

Socialize your money and join a credit union

So I am at the Gold’s Gym listening to a Marketplace Money podcast. I am hearing all the details of the new credit card law freshly signed by President Obama this week. The law was certainly overdue, given the egregious ways banks lately have been unilaterally raising interest rates, changing credit card terms and tacking on usury fees.

To me the whole credit card debate was moot. I like millions of other Americans do not worry that much about my credit card interest rate or fees. Why? I get my credit card through my credit union. Its credit cards work just as well as the banks’ credit cards, but with better rates and less volatility. I don’t worry that much about my credit card interest rates going up or down because my credit union has no financial incentive to shaft me. This is because when I put money in the credit union, I become part owner of the credit union too. Credit union management is not going to want to tick me and the other members off that much because if they did I can petition that they be replaced. A credit union exists to serve my interests, not theirs.

Now, if I had an account at a bank, like Bank of America, I would merely be a customer. Bank of America would see me as a profit center. It would have every incentive to squeeze every possible dime out of me. Banks nationwide are trying to make up for declining profits and bad loans by squeezing their customers. Investing customers’ money is not very profitable anymore, but they can make customers pay more just so they can use money. Hence, the higher fees and interest rates on credit cards, as well as many other loans they may offer.

For about a quarter of a century my wife and I have put most of our working capital into credit unions. Would I close a credit union account and go with a bank instead? Hell no, not unless I had no other choice. I haven’t worked in the Pentagon since 1998 but I still belong to its credit union. In fact, my relationship with the Pentagon Federal Credit Union has deepened since I left. I not only have savings and checking accounts with them, I also have a personal credit card through them. My wife and I also have our home equity loan with them that we can draw on up to $100,000.  Our credit limit has remained unchanged even with all the financial uncertainty. We also have our mortgage with Pentagon Federal. The only downside is that I no longer want to visit a branch office, since it is twenty miles away. However, I can get my money out through no-fee ATM machines where I work or one a mile from my house. If I have checks to deposit, I just mail them in. It costs me a postage stamp and a couple days.

You may be thinking, “Credit unions are all right for you, because you work some place that offers a credit union. What about the rest of us?” In many communities, you still qualify for membership in one or more credit unions. Check it out. I live in Fairfax County in Virginia. Down the street is a local branch of the Fairfax County Federal Credit Union. What are its qualifications for joining? You simply have to live in Fairfax County.

What are you losing by joining a credit union as opposed to a bank? These days, you lose virtually nothing. Both banks and credit unions are fully insured, just by different institutions. (In fact, credit unions have been markedly more stable than banks during the current financial crisis, probably because they are better managed and more risk averse.) Some communities may not yet be served by a public credit union, so you may have little other choice than to put your money in a local bank. You may also have to drive out of your way to get to a credit union branch office. Banks can now offer brokerage services, although some credit unions have separate companies that also offer brokerage as well as real estate services. Bankers though have proved to be poor brokers, as witnessed by the recent stock market collapse. Most credit unions now offer services that you used to have to go to a bank to get, such as mortgages and home equity lines of credit. After more than twenty-five years of using credit unions, I can state that their checks, ATM and credit cards work just like the banks’.

For many of you, the only question may boil down to: do you want to socialize your money? You are not really socializing your money, but credit unions are similar in concept to a food cooperative. When you join a credit union, you are taking a philosophical stand that you should get maximum value for your money. You are betting that by pooling your money with others you will all make and save more money than you would at a bank, which these days is a very safe bet.

Here is how I look at it. Credit unions like banks really should not be where you put your long-term investments. Yet, some part of your money needs to be invested for the long term. Most of us do this through 401-K accounts through our employers, but many of us also need brokerage services so we can buy stocks, bonds and mutual funds. Long term investing is a different problem than having financial instruments to take care of our ordinary financial needs. Savings and checking accounts, credit cards, loans and mortgages are now just commodities. A credit union though offers a way to keep much more of your money while having access to all these financial instruments. My credit union, for example, does not charge any checking account fees, nor does it assess a charge for sending me a paper bank statement. If I use the right ATM, I do not have to pay for the privilege of withdrawing my own money either. I have no idea how much money I am saving compared to the bank you may be using, but I bet it amounts to hundreds of dollars a year. If you can too, then why would you want to give this money to a bank? Wouldn’t you rather do something else with your money?

Particularly in these turbulent financial times, if you have access to a credit union, consider joining. I expect your experience will be like mine and you will be wondering why you waited so long.

 
The Thinker

The wearing of the green

Something very odd happened last month. For the first time in sixteen years of living in our house, we got through April virtually dandelion-free.

Truly, it was weird. One year ago, as happened for the previous fifteen years our lawn was engaged in the vital business of growing dandelion seeds and spreading them all over the neighborhood. That’s what it did. One sure sign of spring here on Emerald Chase Drive were the yellow dandelion blossoms carpeting our backyard. Neighbors looked out of their rear facing windows at our lawn and scowled. Because you see, their lawns were perfect with never a dandelion. They could feel their property values plummeting because they happened to live next to us, the dandelion king. How long, they probably wondered, before we put a rusty truck on concrete blocks on our front lawn?

It was not like I never tried to get rid of my dandelions. I made all sorts of valiant efforts but it was like trying to get rid of all the cockroaches in a house in Florida. It appeared to be impossible. I brought a spreader and put out the herbicide at the appropriate times of the year. I filled up my sprayer with weed killer and walked my third of an acre spraying at every weed I saw. I periodically dug up the more egregious weeds by their roots. I limed it at what I thought were the recommended intervals for my soil acidity. None of this worked. My backyard was not intimidated. It knew it could outlast me.

Last year as the dandelions emerged for the fifteenth time I vowed two things. First, instead of hiring a lawn service, I would mow my lawn myself for a change. I would use the money I saved by cutting my own grass to hire a lawn care firm. I figured I needed a professional. For the dandelions were hardly my only lawn issue. There were all sorts of strange weeds out on my back forty. Moss was growing on northern facing slopes. Tree roots were tripping me as I mowed. Still, I was skeptical that a professional service could do much to control my crazy yard.

In my quest for a better lawn, I was not interested in polluting the Chesapeake Bay too. So I found an environmentally friendly lawn firm and opened my checkbook. The person on the other end of the phone told me that fixing a lawn like ours was “a process”. In short, do not expect to see much in the way of results the first year. Once a month or so they came by, did mysterious things to my lawn and left me with bills. I could never see much of a difference.

Now spring is here. In just one year, I have gone from the worst lawn in the neighborhood to having one of the best. I was shocked, surprised and for a while actually giddy. I never liked the weeds and dandelions, but I never lusted after a lush, healthy green lawn before until rather suddenly I had one. It was like I was living in a new neighborhood. I traversed the length of my extensive backyard and could not find a single dandelion peaking through. The grass moreover looked vibrant and healthy. Even the numerous bare spots where giant dandelion patches were last spring were filling in.

Our new lush green lawn was no doubt assisted by many plentiful spring rains. These were the best kind of rains: gentle soaking rains that spanned many days. Moreover, the weather was neither too hot nor too cold, making for ideal growing weather. I now take uncommon pleasure now simply walking out to the curb to retrieve the mail. For the first time since I have been in the house, I want to walk around on my lawn in my bare feet. The grass tickles my feet. I want to find a reclining lawn chair and sit under the tree in our front yard. I want to feel the grass caress the skin between my toes. I want to reach down, not necessarily to pick up a drink, but so my hands can leisurely ruffle through my lush, green grass.

Now that I have a showcase lawn, I feel this urgent desire to keep it a showcase. Despite the expense, I am going to keep the lawn care firm forever. I am now of the opinion that maintaining a nice lawn is one of the cheapest ways to maintain the value of your house. What potential homebuyer could not help but be enticed when they see our house surrounded by our verdant and well manicured green pasture?

As for me pushing the mower, one year was enough for a while. Even as I type, I hear the noise of our lawn crew. To put the crowning touch on our masterpiece, I now need to do is buy a ton of mulch and throw it under and around our trees, shrubs and garden. That should suffice for outdoor exercise for quite a while. Sadly, we have been deficient in the mulching department as well.

I realize that even though our lawn care company is environmentally correct our new and improved lawn is somewhat artificial. Yet, I will continue to invest considerable time, attention and money in my lawn. I want a lush lawn like this forever! It is one of these subtle pleasures that only a prolonged absence can make you fully appreciate. For the first time since I have lived in our house, rather than fretting over my lawn I now plan to spend my leisure hours actually enjoying it. It is a somewhat subtle but wonderful feeling.

 
The Thinker

A Republican worth memorializing

No question about it. Republicans are in the doghouse, for reasons I outlined recently. Even prominent Republicans like Tom Ridge, former secretary of Homeland Security, who could probably wrest the Pennsylvania senate seat from new “Democrat” Arlen Specter, prefer to just so no. The brand is badly tarnished. You have to look hard to find Republicans worthy of admiration.

You might expect that if I were to memorialize a Republican, I would memorialize former New York state representative and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, who passed away recently. There is no question that Kemp had a distinguished career, which included being Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 election. Kemp was certainly a decent man but I will let others memorialize Kemp. Instead, I wish to draw your attention to Robert B. Choate Jr., who passed away on May 3, 2009 at the age of 84. Choate was a Republican. Today he would no longer fit inside the much smaller tent that is today’s insular Republican Party. Choate was more of the Rockefeller type of Republican, a wing that has virtually been purged from the Republican Party.

Choate inherited most of his wealth from his father, who published a newspaper. In spite of being a Republican, he was a progressive in the best sense of the word. In the 1950s while traveling overseas, he contracted hepatitis. During his convalescence, he read the memoirs of civil rights leader Walter White. The book transformed Choate’s life. Through the memoir, Choate learned just how horrible poverty actually was. He vowed to do his part to reduce poverty. He was a major force in Washington for the hunger lobby and worked closely with organizations like Citizens Crusade Against Poverty. Because of his Republican credentials, during Richard Nixon’s term in office, he was appointed to work with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. There he led a groundbreaking study child nutrition in America.

What he discovered appalled him. In many cases, he learned that children had enough calories, but lacked basic nutrition. He quickly focused on breakfast cereals. He discovered that most breakfast cereals had plenty of sugar but little in the way of the nutrition required by a growing body. Today’s Republicans would leave this as a problem for the free market to solve or ignore. Instead, in 1970 Choate directly took on the nation’s cereal manufacturers. Choate coined the term “empty calories”, which defined foods high in calories but with little nutrition. Of the sixty cereals he studied, he found 40 of them were full of empty calories.

The cereal industry protested, but his doggedness was effective. Within years, cereal manufacturers added nutritional labels to their cereals. Today we take food labeling for granted. Yet without Choate at the vanguard, we might still be ignorant of the calories and lack of nutrition in the many packaged products that we eat.

Call him Mr. “Empty Calories”. His term has stuck with us these last forty years. It is almost impossible to discuss nutrition in America today without using the phrase. America is clearly in the grip of an obesity epidemic but thanks to Choate, we at least know why. Essentially, we are eating a lot of crap that our body doesn’t need. Moreover, because the food we eat tastes good but does not fill us up, we want to eat more of it, which means that our waistlines keep expanding.

Americans at last are starting to heed the advice that Choate promulgated nearly forty years ago. In the last decade, we have seen an explosion of supermarkets emphasizing organic foods high in nutrition and taste. While it is easier to find nutritional information for groceries, for the most part we do not have the same information about the food we eat in restaurants. I suspect if Choate were alive today that he would be pressing Congress to have restaurants disclose the nutritional information of their dishes.

Choate, a mere citizen activist, transformed America. Americans today live longer lives, but in many ways due to our poor eating and exercise habits, our quality of life has deteriorated. I am hoping I will be one of those Americans that take Choate’s advice to heart. For many of us who do, we can look forward to long and healthy lives, giving us many decades of an extended quality life to enjoy.

Many people are concerned about choosing life, but fewer are concerned ensuring our quality of life. For that, we can thank Robert B. Choate.

 
The Thinker

Review: Havana Nocturne

Cuba lies just off the Florida Keys but for most of us, it might as well be in Outer Mongolia. It is technically illegal for American citizens to visit Cuba unless you have a certain status (journalist, politician or, more recently, if you have family in Cuba). While it may be technically against the law to visit Cuba in practice there are no sanctions for doing so. You just need permission to catch a flight through another country. The Cuban government is anxious to part you from your nice, fat American dollars.

This February, the Cuban Revolution turned fifty years old. From reading Havana Nocturne by T.J. English, this is truly remarkable. For much of its history Cuba was the prototypical banana republic, run by all sorts of figurehead presidents and dictators, many of whom were actually at the whim of capitalist masters in the United States. This fifty-year reign of socialism was possible only due to Fidel Castro and his dictatorship. In truth, he remains one of Cuba’s many dictators, often ruthless but at least unique in that he does not appear to be corruptible. It is remarkable that his state has survived so long, although having complete control of the army, the police and a network of spies obviously helped. It is unclear if Cuba’s socialism will long survive Castro’s death.

From reading Havana Nocturne, I learned that Cuba’s communist state was a commensurate result of the egregious corruption that preceded it. For decades, U.S. presidents and Congress have railed against Castro and his communist state. However, as English makes clear, Castro was made possible through the unenlightened policies of many U.S. administrations. FDR, Truman and Eisenhower all placed their hopes in various Cuban strongmen, even though they knew they were corrupt and the Cuban people were getting the shaft. Time and again in Cuba, our capitalistic impulses overrode our common sense and democratic principles.

For those enamored with unfettered capitalism, Cuba in the 1950s was an ideal laboratory. The results were not pretty. The United States was very concerned that its sugar and other companies on the island remain unfettered; we did not worry about the costs of these policies on its people. We largely looked the other way while strongmen like Fulgencio Batista opened the doors wide to the Mafia. In the 1950s, Cuba in general and Havana in particular became thoroughly corrupt. Mafia interests built huge resorts and casinos that resulted in graft in hitherto unseen scales. Batista was on the take and squirreled away millions in Swiss banks, but Cuba in general was awash with graft. The Cuban military and police ensured that the people went along and secretive death squads silenced most opposition.

Tourists, principally American, were largely mindless of the corruption. They were attracted to Cuba like moths to a flame. For those longing from an escape from the neo-Puritanism of the 1950s, Cuba was their refuge. John F. Kennedy was among the prominent politicians who came to Cuba and indulged his wild side with lavish, Mafia-financed sexual orgies. Pretty much any eccentricity or kink could be satisfied in Cuba in the 1950s. Whores were plentiful and cheap. Live sex shows were bountiful and in classier places were part of large stage shows catering to hundreds of tourists at a time. Even homosexuals could find some tolerance for their lifestyle in the red light districts in and around Havana.

All this was made possible by the Mafia, which saw Cuba as its parasitic state. The notable mobster Meyer Lansky acted as something of a Mafia CEO for mob interests in Cuba. Taciturn by nature but ruthlessly ambitious, Lansky was the primary catalyst that turned Havana into a Mafia run empire. He made sure that all his cronies, even mobsters he did not like, had their share of the Havana action and its profits, which at the time seemed potentially limitless. His goal was to create a state the Mafia could corrupt and control indefinitely. Until the Cuban Revolution finally undid it, he found in Batista the means to realize his vision.

Those fascinated by the underworld will find much to enjoy in this meticulously researched history, which explores how the Mafia so successfully exploited Cuba. The result was a 1950s version of Sodom and Gomorrah. Every imaginable vice was available in Cuba, for a price of course. Las Vegas had but a shadow of its vice. Cheap tourist flights to and from Havana brought in people who seemed to have limitless interest in gambling, boozing, floorshows, dancing and whoring. In spite of its corruption, Havana of the 1950s was often classy. Its gambling casinos were unrivaled in size and usually included ornate showrooms that booked the top stars, including Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. The Mafia fascinated Sinatra. He even purchased a share of a Mafia run resort hotel.

Though the setting is principally in Cuba, English explores the many mobsters in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, their personalities, connections, feuds and rivalries. While most mobsters were more interested in money than violence, some had few qualms about killing others to advance their interests. Lansky was amazingly successful at getting mobsters to cooperate. They realized all could prosper if they could get along. Lansky’s low-key nature was the key to making this large criminal enterprise work.

For such pragmatic businessmen, greed was the mob’s eventual undoing. The Mafia eventually allowed their empire to grow too large and too corrupt. Since their success depended on Batista’s henchmen to keep the Cuban people in check, the larger the corruption grew the more the Cuban people resented it. As English makes clear, Cuba is communist today largely due to the egregious corruption of the 1950s in Cuba. Fidel Castro, his brother Raul and fellow revolutionaries like Che Guevara found a country ripe for revolution and sick of exploitation by foreigners.

It seems likely that Cuba’s experiment with socialism will end with the Castros. Based on its history, it is likely to return to its banana republic status, with another succession of strongmen and corruption. Perhaps though this time it will be different and U.S. administrations will be more focused on its people than exploiting the country and its people for its abundant resources.

T.J. English performs a valuable service by meticulously exposing the details of this period in Cuban history. It is a time that predates a middle-aged man like me. Without this book, these details would be lost to history. Since they have now been captured for posterity, perhaps both the United States and the Cuban people will not revisit these mistakes in the decades ahead.

 
The Thinker

Review: Ragtime (The Musical)

This seems to be my weekend for patronizing the arts. It started on Friday with seeing Star Trek (on an IMAX screen) and concluded today with a hop into the District of Columbia to see the musical Ragtime at The Kennedy Center. Ragtime premiered on Broadway in 1998. My wife and I saw a touring version the following year at The National Theatre. Seeing it once and enjoying it so much was ample reason for seeing it again, but I doubted a production eleven years later could match the Broadway touring version. I was wrong. This production is better.

When it premiered on Broadway, Ragtime received mixed reviews, won a host of Tony awards, survived 834 performances, and finally closed in early 2000. People tend to either like Ragtime or loathe it. I am in the former category and consider it a great musical with a compelling progressive theme. In fact, it is one of my favorite musicals. It remains something of a one hit wonder for composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. I liked Ragtime so much I bought the CD to their subsequent musical, Seussical, which was a dreadful disappointment. Ragtime though is filled with mostly glorious music and delightful lyrics. Moreover its story (which is based on the 1975 book by E.L. Doctorow) is compelling, if at times a bit preachy. If, like me, you liked the musical Les Miserables, you should see Ragtime too.

Ragtime illuminates the early 20th century for newer generations by introducing prominent historical characters of the time like Booker T. Washington, Andrew Carnegie and Emma Goldman. It throws us into the vexing social issues of the time including immigration, poverty and the rise of labor unions. Mostly the story revolves around a family in New Rochelle, New York who go by titles (“Father”, “Mother”, “Younger Brother” and the like) rather than names. It is a musical about the clash of cultures and the slow dance cultures must make to get to know each other. While the blacks were freed, segregation and injustice was still an unfortunate fact for African Americans. Colehouse Walker though becomes something of a black success story by playing this seductive new music called ragtime in Harlem honkytonks. Despite the strict segregation of the time, through a series of events their lives intersect. This begins improbably when Mother discovers that a local washwoman gave birth to a son but buried it in their garden. Yeah, this is pretty unlikely, particularly when the infant is found alive, but it does make for an interesting story, particularly when it forces Mother to stop being a stereotype and confront the messiness of human life for the first time.

If you have not seen the musical, there is plenty to enjoy, but I think you will find this special staging available in The Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center especially luminous. A few scenes were apparently trimmed but none that mattered while the staging itself underwent a radical facelift. In this staging, we have a stage with three levels rather than many sets continuously going on and off stage. The Kennedy Center reputedly spent a hefty $4.5 million to stage the musical yet often went with props as metaphors. Colehouse Walker’s piano is an acrylic shell, and the Model-T that figured so prominently on Broadway is just a frame with suggestive tires.

What it lacks in lavish staging this production makes up with exquisite singers, many of who also happen to be first class actors. Back in 1999, I was wowed by the troupe that came through. This cast easily beats the original touring company in both singing and acting. The only thing that worked better in the Broadway version was the giant swing that careened periodically across the stage whenever Evelyn Nesbit was on stage. In this production, we see her parodying her testimony at the “Trial of the Century” in a Vaudeville show. She sits on one scale of justice while bags of money weigh down the other scale.

Both Father and Mother look a lot younger than they were in the touring version and have better voices. Mother, played by Christiane Noll, did a great job. I particularly enjoyed her chemistry with Tateh (played by Manoel Felciano) during their lovely song “Our Children”. She also stood out in her soliloquy song (and in my opinion the best song of the musical) “Back to Before”. I was wiping away tears after she finished that song. The principal part in the show belongs to Colehouse Walker Junior, played by Quentin Earl Darrington. Darrington, like Noll, proves he has just the right ability to combine powerful singing with first class acting, although he does seem a bit old for the part. My vote though for most outstanding performance during the show is to Jennlee Shallow, who plays the pivot part of Sarah, the woman who carried Colehouse Walker’s son. Her face is amazingly expressive, positively radiant when in the presence of Colehouse, and yet sinks to the blackest of despairs during her signature song “Your Daddy’s Son”.

Given the musical’s budget it is not surprising that there are no bad actors in this staging. Bobby Steggert feels visceral in the part of Younger Brother. I liked the Broadway Emma Goldman a bit better than Donna Migliaccio’s performance. However, in this staging Emma is mostly found in the rafters rather than on the stage, which makes it harder to establish her presence. The orchestration was top notch but not overpowering.

While I did not see the show on Broadway, the touring version I did see has to have been comparable to it. Consequently, I have to think that The Kennedy Center produced a show at least as good, if not better, than which appeared on Broadway. If you are a fan of the musical, this staging should not be missed. Unfortunately, this production closes May 17th.

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The Thinker

Review: Star Trek (2009)

Nearly six years ago I said that Star Trek was dead and we should just move on. I have moved on to shows like Firefly and the re-imaging of Battlestar Galactica. I still have yet to see Star Trek: Nemesis, released in 2002 and probably never will watch it.

The funny thing about Star Trek though is when you think it is dead it is resurrected. It is understandable why the attempt is made: it has proven to be a huge moneymaker for Paramount, which bought Desilu Studios that produced the original series, and is now just a division of Viacom. Millions of Trekkers have not exactly disappeared, just sort of were burned out. What was needed was something to make us care about Star Trek again. What was needed, frankly, was a clean divorce from Rick Berman, who reinvented Star Trek in the 1980s and who shaped its many reincarnations. In this latest Star Trek movie released this weekend, labeled simply Star Trek, we have director J.J. Abrams to inject the brand of testosterone that was sorely needed in the franchise. His idea was to take us back to the beginning. Just how exactly did James T. Kirk become a starship captain anyhow? How did he meet Bones, Spock, Scotty, Uhura and the rest of the gang?

To make it work Abrams had to do a bit of reimagining himself. It is not cool to mess with the Star Trek canon. Granted there have been gaping holes in the canon before but messing with some things will not do. To make Star Trek exciting though a reimagining was necessary, so Abrams essentially created a hole in the space-time continuum so that two versions can now peacefully coexist. Yes, this is all for the good. I won’t give away too many plot points, but let’s just say that in this newest version Kirk’s predecessor, Captain Christopher Pike doesn’t end up a vegetable in care of The Talosians.

Instead, this version of Star Trek is what the 1960s version probably should have been if the budgets had been much larger and much better special effects had been available. Everyone and everything about the original series is improved by many orders of magnitude. If you go back and see the original series, many of the ancillary characters were more stereotypes than people. Scotty, Uhura, Chekov and Sulu showed up in most episodes but we learned little about them. In this movie, Abrams fleshes many of them out rather substantially, particularly Uhura (Zoe Saldana). I never gave a damn about them in the original show, but based on this movie I want to know a whole lot more, especially about Lieutenant Uhura.

For a Trekker, this movie is a great gift: tremendously fun and entertaining, gloriously well acted, and full of tension, adventure and romance. Frankly, all the principle characters are far more interesting and engaging than they were in the TV series. Leonard Nimoy has a small (and necessary) role in this movie but thankfully, none of the other stars from the original series appear. I am so grateful that William Shatner was in no way associated with this movie. Chris Pine, who plays James Tiberius Kirk as a young adult, portrays all of Kirk’s cockiness without Shatner’s dreadful overacting. Pine is terrific and brilliantly cast, but so are all the other principle characters. I never was a Dr. McCoy fan, but casting Karl Urban (he played Eomer in The Lord of the Rings movies) as Bones was brilliant. Zachary Quinto would be an unlikely choice for Mr. Spock but frankly, he outdoes Leonard Nimoy, who was by far the best actor from the original series.

We saw the movie in IMAX. For those of you wondering if you should spend the extra money: save it. The camera is always in motion, which means that in IMAX the film is mostly blurry, but on a much bigger screen. The bigger screen also makes it harder to follow. Moreover, our IMAX theater figures that to get the total IMAX experience you have to hear it at ear piercing volumes. My ears will take a few more days to recover and hopefully I sustained no permanent damage. There is no lack of action in this incarnation so hold on to your armrests for it is going to be a wild ride.

I remember feeling the odd man out when I went with my family to see the Harry Potter movies. They were okay, but nothing special, but then I did not know all the characters. So I wonder how much of this movie will be appreciated by those who are not Trekkers. It feels more like a work for its fan base than for the Star Trek neophyte. Even for a Trekker who understands the long back story, it can be challenging to follow the plot points.

The movie also strains credulity because it brings together many of the characters (including Kirk, Bones, Uhura and Captain Christopher Pike) before Kirk even decides to join Starfleet. I am not sure what they are all doing out there in rural Iowa, but someone picked Iowa as a place to build starships, but not in a hanger, mind you. Bringing them together in Iowa though does tickle Star Trek’s enormous fan base. It is fun watching Kirk try to proposition Uhura, or to be caught while he is trying to bed her roommate. Other plot points make little sense. For reasons I won’t get into Kirk ends up on a very cold planet where he encounters, of all people, the elder Mr. Spock, who lives in exile but is not too far from a Starfleet outpost where we find a young engineer named Montgomery Scott. I also decided that I want to be a Romulan because they age very well. Eric Bana plays a Romulan named Nero who looks exactly the same age although twenty-five years have elapsed. Perhaps it is because of all that time inside his starship meant he did not have to worry about ultraviolet radiation.

Even if you are not vested in the Star Trek universe, you will still have a great time, but you may feel like someone watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show and wondering why the audience is acting out certain scenes. Just why is it so important that Spock and Kirk to have such a deep friendship anyhow? Is there anyone in the first world who has really managed to tune out Star Trek? It seems hard to imagine. Regardless, even if you have little affection for the original series or are just a casual Trekker, you will kick yourself if you miss this latest incarnation. It looks like preproduction is already underway for a sequel.

Of all the myriad Star Trek movies over the years, including some of the best ones like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, this one sails well above all of them. Prepare to be engaged and to have a stellar good time. Memo to the producers: please rush the sequel.

3.5 on my 4.0 scale.

 
The Thinker

A Tale of Two Cities

This post has been running around my brain for a few weeks. It is a tale of two cities. No, not Paris and London, the two cities that Charles Dickens wrote about in his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities. This is the tale of Tallahassee, Florida and Boulder, Colorado. I have been to both. It would be hard to find two cities where the fitness levels of its residents diverge so much.

Okay, in some ways Tallahassee and Boulder are similar. Tallahassee is the larger of the two cities and the state capital. Boulder has around 90,000 residents. Tallahassee has around 160,000 residents, but as city sizes go, they are not that dissimilar. Both are college towns. Tallahassee has two colleges of note: Florida State and Florida A&M. Boulder has the University of Colorado at Boulder. Both are in the United States, but otherwise that’s about all the similarities worth noting.

I became acquainted with Tallahassee in 2007 when life finally took me there for a few days. I even blogged about it. There are possibly other cities in or around the Gulf Coast where the residents are more obese, but it is hard to imagine such a place. Tallahassee must be something of a Mecca for endocrinologists and Glucophage manufacturers. Its population appears to consist mostly of adult diabetics in the more advanced stage of the disease. Not that its many obese residents actually appear to be treating their diabetes. First, most of them appear too poor to afford treatment outside of an emergency room. Second, where would they find the health food? The eating choices in Tallahassee seem to be largely limited to the greasiest of the greasy joints. Burger King is the most predominant grease joint in Tallahassee, but in reality, it is just one of many. Within a quarter mile in Tallahassee you can find the following greasy spoons: Dominoes, which is next to the Taco Bell, which is across the street from Moe’s Southwest Grill, which is next door to Firehouse Subs, which is adjacent to Momo’s Pizza and Shane’s Rib Rack. Across the street is a Papa John’s Pizza. A little further down the street you will find Qdobo Mexican Grill and, of course, a Burger King. If you need groceries, there is exactly one Winn Dixie on the southern and predominantly African American side of town. Winn Dixie, Circle K and Albertsons have close to a lock on the grocery business in Tallahassee. Good luck finding a Whole Foods. There are none.

If it were not for the college students, the situation would appear far worse than it is. Those out of towners help, but cannot begin to hide the extent of Tallahassee’s obesity problem. Why is obesity so bad in Tallahassee? It likely has a lot to do with the relatively low average income of citizens in the city. Thanks in part to massive farm subsidies, we have made grain and sugar artificially cheap, which means that it costs little to eat the wrong food and proportionally a lot more to eat healthy, if you can find healthy food at all. Healthy food is not easy to acquire because I paid careful attention while I was there and found nothing resembling a health food store. The culture of the city though seems to be saying, “It’s okay to be morbidly obese and to eat junk. You’re just like everyone else.” If I were a health insurance provider, I would redline the whole city.

Boulder, Colorado on the other hand is its polar opposite. If there is a healthier (and more environmentally correct) city in the country, I would like to know about it. I doubt it exists. Having spent many pleasant days in Boulder in the company of my brother and sister in law, I find much to like about Boulder. Obesity is not unknown in Boulder but it is hard to find. That is because the city’s culture seems hardwired toward healthy eating and exercise.

Fast food can be found in Boulder, but it can be challenging. There is one Wendy’s downtown close to Pearl Street. Otherwise, you have to travel to the edge of town. There are three McDonalds in the city, and a few more along its edges. If you want a supermarket, you had better prefer organic supermarkets because they are far more plentiful. There are six Whole Foods markets in Boulder alone.

Don’t move to Boulder and expect to be a couch potato. It is not allowed. I think they must have citizen organizations that hunt for couch potatoes and make them work out. Boulder takes exercise seriously; it is practically a commandment. It is not just that you live right next to the Rocky Mountains and there are abundant hiking trails within easy walking distance. In Boulder, it seems like there must be an ordinance requiring its citizens to get regular aerobic exercise. Its citizens take their obligation seriously. When I have been in Boulder during a snowstorm, my brother pointed out that plowing the roads was scattershot. However, the bike trails, which are numerous, were plowed. The residents of Boulder have their priorities and snow removal on roads is second to removing snow from its biking trails. They do not seem to mind biking in freezing weather or even in the snow. Instead, they put studs on their bike tires and peddle to their destination. Or they may snow ski. Or run. They do not seem worried about twisting an ankle by running through the snow, even on the mountain trails where a slip could be fatal. Whole families can be seen walking around neighborhoods at night just for the exercise.

My latest trip to Boulder in March suggested to me that a certain percent of Boulder residents are, well, insane. I should mention that this does not apply to my wonderful brother, his wonderful wife and her adorable daughter. They work in exercise, daily if possible and particularly on the weekends. Fifty or sixty mile weekend bike excursions are par for their course. It could be that, or snow shoeing, or hiking, or long walks or most likely of all, some combination of all of these. Frankly, I admire their healthy attitude and wish some of it would rub off on other members of my immediate family here in traffic clogged Northern Virginia.

Nevertheless, there are significant numbers of Boulderites who exercise the way addicts mainline crack. I saw some of them on the last Sunday in March when my brother drove me up to Fort Collins. I thought it was strange when in thirty-degree weather we kept passing packs of bicyclists traveling on the shoulders of major thoroughfares, at times even crowding out the vehicular traffic. We passed dozen of packs on the way to Fort Collins; some of these packs consisted of a hundred or more bicyclists. My brother told me that many were biking to Fort Collins and back, which is a nice little jaunt of a hundred miles or so.

He also told me of a neighbor who after returning from one of these marathon hundred mile plus rides quickly rushed off to the swimming pool. Why? Because he was competing in a triathlon so now he had to swim a few miles too. This probably meant he also had to run a dozen miles or so too.

Doubtless, he was but one of many Boulder residents also planning to compete in a triathlon, so I expect the swimming lanes at the local pools were congested. Good luck to them but isn’t doing this level of exercise consistently maybe just a wee bit insane? It is to me. Granted there is nothing wrong with it, if your body can handle it, and it is certainly magnitudes healthier than eating grease at the plentiful fast food joints in Tallahassee. My last trip to Boulder though convinced me that it is possible to overdo exercise. Some small but sizeable number of Boulderites have gone off the deep end.

I am considering Boulder as a place to retire. I suspect it would not take too many weeks of living in Boulder before hundred mile bike jaunts would become second nature to me too. I would hardly be unique, just one of the crowd. I do know one thing: despite some folks in Boulder who may be exercise obsessed, it is a great place to live, if you can afford its real estate prices. I would definitely rather retire to Boulder than to Tallahassee, although on my pension I could live like a king in Tallahassee. In Tallahassee, I am convinced I could gain weight just by breathing its air.

 
The Thinker

Review: W. (2008)

It is hard to find Oliver Stone movies that do not deserve to be on someone’s A List. W., which attempts to chronicle the life of President George W. Bush, may be one of the few from this noted director to deserve to be ranked somewhere between the A and the B List. It is not a B movie, as plenty of money was spent on it and it has overall good directing and acting. Still, it does not measure up. If there is a definitive movie on George W. Bush, it has yet to be filmed. This one, filmed and released while Bush was still president, feels more like a made for TV movie.

I finished W. thinking, “This movie probably misses who George W. Bush is by a fairly wide mark.” As regular readers know, I loathed him as our president. Moreover, his kind (conservative Republicans) tends to give me the hives. The only Bush I know is the one I saw on TV or heard on the radio. Even so, I am plenty skeptical that the George W. Bush played here by Josh Brolin comes close to portraying George W. Bush the actual man.

W. could almost be classified as a satire, because Brolin portrays Bush as someone who is probably even more inept than he actually is. In the movie Stone seems to be using Bush as his little Voodoo doll, pricking it to see if anything will bleed. From the tone of the movie, it is clear that Stone loathes the guy. He has lots of company there. The movie often feels jumbled together, throwing actors who resemble people we know too intimately (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Rove and Powell in particular) into tightly choreographed scenes that collapses the eight years of his presidency. It attempts to explain George W. Bush but left this viewer more confused than ever.

As portrayed by Stone, Bush has serious daddy issues with his father and 41st president of the United States, whom he calls Poppy. Poppy is constantly bailing out junior, who both needs Poppy and wants to be free of him. The movie makes innuendos that I am not sure are backed up by fact, for example that Bush impregnated a woman before marriage and that Poppy arranged for the abortion. The movie also suggests that Bush resumed drinking after the crap in Iraq got too deep. Granted, Bush’s behavior these last few years has gotten more incoherent, but that could be due to other things than picking up the bottle again. Perhaps like Ronald Reagan, these are signs of early Alzheimer’s.

Likely part of my reaction to W. is my wish to forget about the man. Bush himself may be retiring quietly in Dallas, but principles from his administration are still regularly annoying us. Specifically former Vice President Dick Cheney, creepily portrayed in the movie by Richard Dreyfuss and Karl Rove (portrayed by Toby Jones) refused to leave the national stage just because their administration was finally out of power. The last eight years still makes me feel queasy from time to time; so reliving them in this 129-minute movie frequently had me wanting to reach for the Pepto Bismol.

The movie frequently moves back and forth on the timeline. Bush comes across as dangerously naïve and gullible. I could be wrong, but I doubt the man was quite as naïve and gullible as he is portrayed. Stone suggests that Bush’s infatuation with Evangelical Christianity was due to his simpleminded nature and a way to separate himself from Poppy, who adhered to a dry and milquetoast Episcopalianism.

Nor are Brolin and James Cromwell (who play’s Bush’s father) convincing as younger versions of themselves. Trying to emulate W’s fraternity days at Yale, Brolin looks like a 40 something guy pretended to be in his early 20s. Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush looks too young. Ellen Bursytn as Barbara Bush looks too thin and seems too nice. Scott Glen as Donald Rumsfeld looks even creepier than the man he portrays (if that is possible). There are many actors in the movie that I suspect exaggerate the people they portray. Not that they necessarily do a bad job with their portrayals. Jeffrey Wright looks a little young to portray Colin Powell, but he carries himself with conviction. Thandie Newton (portraying Condoleeza Rice) portrays Rice as superficial and disengaged.

If the movie is an attempt to explain Bush to the world, then I think the movie leaves the viewer more confused. Bush comes across as someone who does not know who he is or how he fits into his large dysfunctional family. His personal savior is not so much Jesus Christ as Karl Rove, who latches onto Bush early in his career and tries to mold him into the image of someone who can meet the emerging demographics that Republicans need to capture.

Stone must have a fatal attraction to politicians, since he has also made movies about John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Still, overall W is disappointing considering Stone directed landmark films like Wall Street, Platoon and Natural Born Killers. If he had to make the definitive movie about George W. Bush, he should have waited another decade so we could appraise the man more dispassionately.

3.0 on my four-point scale.

 

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