Archive for November, 2009

The Thinker

Fathers are necessary

Polls indicate that a majority of Americans believe the word “marriage” should be reserved for a legal covenant between two people of opposite sexes only. Curiously, polls also show a majority of Americans are comfortable with two same sex partners having all the privileges of marriage as long as they don’t call it marriage. What is the difference anyhow?

As best I can figure out, same sex couples figure the difference is like having “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites. Calling a legal relationship a different name when it is the same in every other way but the sex of the participants in their eyes suggests that their relationship is not as worthy of sanction as those between two people of opposite sexes. It’s like getting a silver medal when you earned the gold. For many heterosexuals, I think what really makes “marriage” a special word is that traditional marriages come with the potential of parenthood and this is special enough to make the distinction unique.

Not any more, obviously. My wife is a friend of a lesbian couple and one of the wives is pregnant. Naturally, she did not invite a male to have intercourse with her; a willing donor provided semen, which she obtained from her local sperm bank. Most kids get only one mother. This one will have two, which is twice as much of a blessing, I guess. What is noticeably absent though is the father. Does the absence of a father deprive the child of something important? For that matter, does the absence of a mother also deprive the child of something important? Do two mothers equal one mother and one father? Do two fathers equal one mother and one father?

These were questions I didn’t know I was struggling with until last night. After our traditional Thanksgiving Dinner featuring a potpourri of friends and family, the topic of two same sex parents came up. At our table were many of my wife’s friends from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. I was washing dishes and minding my own business but listening to their conversation. As it turns out, I am perfectly okay with gay marriage. I think any two people of legal age who want to get married should have the privilege. They can have “I’m married” stamped on their foreheads if they want to and I would have no problem calling them Mrs. and Mrs. Jones or Mr. And Mr. Smith. Where I have some hesitation is when it comes to two people of the same sex raising their own children together. Is it a good or a bad idea?

Before I knew it, I had joined the conversation and stated an opinion that for me seemed almost right wing. Since the topic was in the context of two women, I said I thought the presence of a strong father figure was important for raising a healthy child. The same is true with a mother, of course. As proof, I pointed to the District of Columbia where black fathers living at home are almost an extinct species. Single mothers are raising the vast majority of black children in D.C., sometimes with the assistance of their grandmothers because the fathers long ago abandoned the mother. In D.C., a black child is lucky to see his real father on occasion, and even luckier if he is actually providing child support. Many of these youth have no idea who their father is, or if they do, their only memory of him is a distant one.

What is the impact of being nurtured without a strong father figure? Arguably, at least in D.C., it is devastating. How many of these youths who are currently doing drugs and getting involved in gangs would be doing so if they had a father in the household? It is hard to say for sure because I doubt there is much clinical research. I do think it is reasonable to assume that the incidence would be much lower.

I have not had the privilege of having a son, but I do have a daughter. I do know there are plenty of studies that suggest the presence of a strong father figure is a critical factor among those girls who grow into leadership roles as adults. I am not entirely sure how much of my daughter was shaped by my presence and nurturing these last twenty years, but it must be a large amount. How could it not? How would my daughter be different if my wife had been a lesbian instead, had been in a gay marriage, had been artificially inseminated and raised her with her loving partner of the same sex? Would something important be missing from my daughter as a result? Perhaps I overvalue my role as a father, but my guts says yes: a good father is necessary in raising happy and healthy children of any gender, as just as it is important for a child to also have a nurturing mother.

Obviously there are many bad marriages out there. There is no guarantee when two people get married and have babies that they will have the right stuff to raise their children into healthy, sane and productive adults. My suspicion is that children raised in dysfunctional marriages are probably healthier without that stress. With roughly half of marriages dissolving, one would have to assume the odds for children in traditional marriages are at best 50/50. Many, many factors influence children throughout childhood and adolescence, but it would seem obvious that parents are their primary influences. The health of the marital relationship should correlate closely to the likelihood of raising mentally healthy and fully functional children. That seems to be true on my block, where I spent the last sixteen years. The adult children who are now doing best tend to be from families with strong and nurturing parents. The struggling children seem to be from those that were rife with marital discord.

Like it or not, children will inculcate behavior modeled by their parents. My question: is there is something critical about having parents of the opposite sex to raising healthy children? Today, gay and lesbian couples no longer have to feel like parenting is off limits to them. What we do not really understand yet is what the long-term effects of children being raised by same sex couples will be. A correlation is made harder because there are so many bad traditional marriages out there too. It appears that even though I have some concerns that children raised by same sex couples may be missing something important (although I am not entirely sure what it is) it is happening nonetheless, and social scientists over the coming decades will have an opportunity to study its effects.

It could be that a child is raised by two people of the same sex will do just fine if both are positive and nurturing influences in their lives. They may grow up to be more tolerant people than they otherwise would be, which sounds like a good thing. Sons though may need to observe and pick up crucial male bonding behaviors from their fathers. It may be that the absence of this factor makes them less functional in society compared with others raised in traditional marriages. The problem is less acute for girls, since the number of men in gay marriages raising girls is much smaller.

I do know that in the District of Columbia, we seem to be raising an angry and dysfunctional generation of young men and women. There may be many factors causing this horrendous outcome, and poverty is certainly one factor, but the lack of strong and healthy male authority figures in these households is obvious. The problems in these communities were not nearly as bad when there were more intact marriages among African Americans. To me it seems reasonable to infer that if this can happen among African Americans, it can happen within any ethnic community.

The example in D.C. suggests to me that when it comes to parenting, we should proceed with caution. Our children should not necessarily become victims of a vast social experiment because newly liberated gay and lesbian couples also want to raise their own biological children. We do not fully understand the nature of nurturing, but I strongly suspect is not solely a feminine or a masculine thing. The masculine element exhibited in the role of a father seems to also be critical, for both boys and girls.

The cry to save the word “marriage” may at its root be nothing more than an inchoate feeling among many of us that we are playing with dynamite. The lessons in D.C. and many inner city communities ought to be red flags for us to think through the consequences of our actions before plunging headlong into them.

The Thinker

Act of conscience

Recently I went back and reread parts of the New Testament to make sure they were still correct. Yep, that part in there where Jesus says not to judge others lest you be judged is still in there. Also still in there is the parable of the Good Samaritan. There are many instances of Jesus talking about universal brotherhood.  Overall, Jesus comes across as a pretty inclusive guy, walking among the sinners and heathen alike and treating almost everyone with universal love, brotherhood and respect. As best I can tell, the only ones he ever really got upset with were the moneychangers at the temple in Jerusalem. He called them “broods of vipers” and other nasty terms. Even as he hung on the cross dying a miserable death, he asked God to forgive his enemies.

How then did the church that he founded some two millenniums later devolve into snippy episodes like this:

In an interview published Sunday, [Rep.] Patrick Kennedy told the Providence Journal that [Bishop Thomas J.] Tobin had barred him from receiving communion and instructed priests in the diocese not to administer the sacrament [to him] “because of the positions that I’ve taken as a public official.”

Bishop Tobin seems to have a personal vendetta against Representative Kennedy, because on October 23rd he publicly admonished Kennedy.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) “is irresponsible and ignorant of the facts” about the Catholic Church’s views on health care reform and “continues to be a disappointment to the Catholic Church and to the citizens of the State of Rhode Island,” said Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the diocese of Providence in a statement released Friday in response to an interview conducted with Kennedy.

What drove such a high authority of the Catholic Church to deliver this sort of stinging public rebuke? Apparently, Kennedy sees a wee bit of inconsistency because the pro-life Catholic Church would rather see health care reform fail altogether than allow any health plan in it to cover abortion services. Mind you that neither the House nor the Senate envisions spending any federal dollars to cover abortion services. Proposed bills (at least prior to the Stupak-Pitts amendment in the House) merely allowed health insurance companies to cover abortion services with their own premiums, as many do now. The Catholic Church opposes any legislation that maintains the current compact. When asked by a CNS reporter of his response to the Catholic Church’s position, Kennedy apparently had the audacity to say:

I can’t understand for the life of me how the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social justice issue of our time where the very dignity of the human person is being respected by the fact that we’re caring and giving health care to the human person – that right now we have 50 million people who are uninsured.”

“You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life saving health care?” said Kennedy. “I thought they were pro-life. If the church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health care reform because it’s going to provide health care that are going to keep people alive. So this is an absolute red herring and I don’t think that it does anything but to fan the flames of dissent and discord and I don’t think it’s productive at all.”

For those who follow the ins and outs of the Catholic Church, the bishop’s position is nothing new. What is new is the vendetta Bishop Tobin appears to be waging publicly and personally against Patrick Kennedy. It’s like an episode of The Prisoner. Kennedy has become an “unmutual” so he must be shunned, or at least denied Holy Communion within his diocese, as well as publicly admonished. Mind you, Kennedy is not being denied communion because he is an abortion provider, but because his votes as a public official are at variance from Tobin’s interpretation of Catholic theology. Kennedy’s uncle, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, was also threatened periodically by his bishop for his liberal positions on abortion rights. At least in Senator Kennedy’s case, it appears that while there was a lot of saber rattling, at no time was Senator Kennedy publicly denied communion. It appears that on some level his Massachusetts diocese recognized that the good that Senator Kennedy did because of his position and influence somewhat mitigated positions he advocated that were at variance with current Catholic theology.

It’s unclear exactly what Bishop Tobin expects to accomplish with his actions. It is possible, although unlikely, that Patrick Kennedy will have a change of heart and advocate policies and positions fully in line with Catholic theology. If he does, they will likely not align with the values of the very progressive state of Rhode Island that he is supposed to represent. In fact, Kennedy might have to look for other employment next November, because it is unclear if he toed the Catholic political line whether he would survive reelection.

Certain Catholic bishops are more authoritative and outspoken than others, and Bishop Tobin appears to be one of the egregious cases. It is disturbing, but not surprising, that he would make a public case out of Kennedy. Kennedy makes an easy example that perhaps can be used to keep others in line, or at least mum, perhaps creating a deterrent effect.

I hope Kennedy remains true to his convictions. If there is an authority higher that the Catholic Church, it is the right of individual conscience. For most people raised Catholic, the idea of leaving the church is heart wrenching. If Tobin is going to continue to single out Kennedy in a vindictive way, I hope he has the courage to leave the Catholic Church for a religious community where his freedom of conscience is embraced, not debased. Actions after all should have consequences and it was Tobin who acted first with his edict prohibiting Kennedy from receiving communion. If I were in Kennedy’s shoes, I would not leave this one unchallenged.

If he does leave the church, Kennedy may discover, as I did, that it was an action long overdue. In my opinion, any church that requires you to violate your own conscience is unworthy of your time, money or participation. I am confident that if Jesus were present among us today he would agree wholeheartedly because that is the Jesus that I have found in the Bible.

The Thinker

Google’s Chrome OS aims to drive a stake in Microsoft’s heart

You may not have noticed, but Google seems hell bent on a strategy that it hopes will ultimately kill Microsoft Windows. Many have tried but so far, none have succeeded in toppling the behemoth desktop operating system. Google’s ultimate success in toppling Windows will depend in part on its success convincing people to move their data from their desktop computers into “The Cloud”.

For those of you who are not terribly tech savvy, “The Cloud” refers to the Internet in general, but more specifically to the many data servers attached to the Internet that hold personal and other data for us. You may already have much of your personal data in the cloud and not know it. For example, if you use GMail (Google’s email service), your email is hosted by Google somewhere within its cloud-computing infrastructure. Chances are even Google would have a hard time telling you exactly where your email is stored. It is probably redundantly stored among its hosting centers. Redundant hosting helps ensure that your data is always available.

In fact, there are plenty of vendors outside of Google enamored with “The Cloud” and Microsoft is among them. For example, recently Microsoft announced a stripped down version of its Office Suite for The Cloud. You may not even have to pay to use it, providing you are okay with its limited features, advertising and trust that Microsoft will forever store your personal data. Microsoft is playing catch up. Google has offered Google Docs (its version of a web-ified MS Office) for years. It too is not as feature robust as the Office Suite, but it has certain nice to have features and in most instances is free. Because it exists in The Cloud, it also allows easy sharing of documents and spreadsheets among multiple parties.

If Microsoft’s killer product is Windows, Google’s killer product is not necessarily its search engine, but its ability to maintain a highly available and scalable Internet cloud. These things do not just happen. They require many years of work, research and refinement. The reason cloud computing took off slowly is that building such an infrastructure is hard. Google did it first but there have been other leaders in this field, including Amazon. Amazon, in addition to its ability to sell you pretty much anything online, has been a cloud computing innovator too. It takes a different tack by offering businesses very cheap computing resources on demand.

It takes a while for cloud computing to work up a head of steam, but Google is getting there. For example, the City of Los Angeles will be letting Google host its email services using a commercial version of its GMail service. Whether this will be a stake in the heart of Microsoft Exchange remains to be seen. Exchange is Microsoft’s pricy but widely used business-class email server. It is a complex beast requiring many skilled specialists to keep it going. With email seen as a commodity, cloud services like GMail seem a logical way for a business to save a lot of money.

Even the Department of Interior, where I work, is rethinking email. It is seriously looking at cloud computing as a replacement for its mixture of Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes email servers. Its goal is to complete a department-wide transition by the end of 2010, which seems ambitious to me. It is possible that a year from now when I am sending work related email it will be through a hosted service like GMail rather than Lotus Notes.

It’s a little known fact, but far more email is transmitted across the Internet than web pages. (This may be due to ninety percent of email traffic being spam.) Consequently, a company that can grab a majority of the email market is well positioned to drive the future of the Internet. GMail and Google’s ubiquitous search engine are two feet into the enterprise space that may eventually kill Windows. The next part of Google’s strategy is to control the desktop. What Google is hoping to do is make desktop computing obsolete. If you store all your personal stuff in The Cloud and it is always highly available then what is the point of a big, bloated operating system like Windows, particularly when Windows can take many minutes just to boot up and costs a lot of money to set up and maintain?

To help sell this vision, Google has released its own web browser called Chrome. It’s big selling point is speed. It reputedly renders pages ten times faster than Internet Explorer and is even faster than Firefox, my browser of choice. Its market share is currently quite tiny, and is likely to remain such for the near future. For many people with high-speed Internet connections, faster rendering of web content is very much appreciated. While I like Firefox, it can be slow at times, particularly when you press the back button. If Chrome can do away with such annoyances, I might have a compelling reason to switch browsers.

Google’s strategy for killing Microsoft has two parts: selling people on netbooks and its promised new operating system called Chrome OS. If you are unfamiliar with the term netbook, it is small (generally portable) computer optimized for interacting with the Internet. It deemphasizes storing documents on the netbook. Instead, data is stored in “The Cloud” where presumably it lives longer than you do. To succeed, Google needs to convince you to trust it to not only always retain your data, but to keep it secure and highly available at all times. While Google suffers from widely scattered service problems such as a recent GMail outage, overall its track record is very good and getting better. The Facebook generation seems to be comfortable keeping its data in the cloud. Chrome OS then becomes little more than a very lightweight operating system for Netbooks. It would boot up very quickly, unlike Microsoft Windows. Presumably, Chrome would be the browser of choice for its speed and a virtual desktop operating system as well as an integrated web browser. The netbook becomes really nothing more than a portal for allowing you to interact with all your data in the cloud as well as surf the web.  In some sense, it is a Back to the Future operating system, where netbooks essentially become fancy terminals.

If Google can convince us that desktop computing in the 21st century is for Luddites, then the handwriting in on the wall for Microsoft Windows. Microsoft can try to offer its own netbooks and cloud-computing infrastructure, but it is clearly years behind Google. Nor can it offer a compelling reason for us to stick with the Windows brand in a network-computing world. Why pay for an operating system and software when Google Chrome OS would be (presumably) free, as well as most if not all of its hosted applications? Making Chrome OS available would also encourage software vendors to create their own applications that run under Chrome OS. The result could be an application-centric Internet realized through quick and response web-based applications using Chrome OS.

To the extent you believe in Google’s vision, you may wish to start selling your Microsoft stock for Google stock.

The Thinker

Loaves and fishes

Our minivan has been sitting a bit closer to the road recently. For a change, it is full of cargo: non-perishable food and donated clothing. In fact, our dining room is currently more of a pantry, full of boxes and bags of food including the perishable variety like bags of potatoes and onions. This food and clothing is not for us. We are doing fine. It is for the hungry, the malnourished, the homeless and the displaced.

I would like to take credit for all this laudable charitable work but I had little to do with it. My life is full of matters that are more mundane. They include my full time job, teaching part-time and, oh yeah, writing a blog entry a couple of times a week. This is not to say I do not also give to charities. I write checks to charities all the time as well as contribute 1% of my salary to the Combined Federal Campaign. Periodically, but especially when the money is flush, I give back some of it to the community by sending checks to charities I care a lot about, but rarely enough to actually visit. Some of these charities include House of Ruth (a shelter for abused women in Washington D.C.), So Others Might Eat and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. When disasters happen, I am one of the first to send three figure checks to places like The American Red Cross. I am sure my cash is greatly appreciated but my contribution is rather abstract.

Engaging in charitable work first hand takes a tougher soul. It takes someone like my wife. Her motivation might come from remembrances of hard times growing up and now has the means to give back. Nonetheless, for most of our marriage she was content to let me write checks to charities and sleep in late on Sundays. Lately though she has had something of a midlife renaissance. She has become a one-person force of charity.

It all started one Sunday at her Buddhist temple. When it came time for announcements, she stood up and asked why the temple was not doing any charitable work in the greater community. Everyone sort of looked at each other. No one had really raised the question before. When that happens, the onus often comes back to the questioner to do something. So she did. She knew that many of the local food banks were doing relatively well, so she cast her net a little further out. Using the power of Google, she soon found places like Community Touch in Fauquier County, Virginia. Soon she was dialing them up and asking, “What can our temple do to help?”

A week later, she reported back to her congregation but for the most part they still looked at each other with blank expressions. Then she brought a plastic box with her to services put it in the Sangha Hall with a sign above it saying “Donations for the poor”. Every week during announcements, she persistently brought up the issue of helping the poor.

Transitional Housing at Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia

Transitional Housing at Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia

At first, just a couple items trickled in. When the pile got high enough, she would drive out to one of her selected charities and deliver the goods. What she found often appalled her. In the Shenandoah Mountains, she found a food pantry with only a few cans and boxes on the shelf. At Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia she found that The Clara House Food Pantry was nearly bare too. The following Sunday during announcements, she reported back again to the congregation on her first hand observations. Slowly, donations started to increase. Most Sundays she would haul back donations to our house.

By July, it was clear that my wife had found a new calling. One of her deliveries coincided with one of my days off, so I volunteered to drive up to Bealeton too and visit Community Touch. I spoke with the director. I took pictures. I asked questions. In part thanks to my wife’s work, their food pantry was now much better stocked. I examined the Victory Transitional House, a large ranch house with multiple kitchens and numerous rooms. It housed some of the area’s homeless families. Each family had their dedicated pantry space and their own rooms. Slobs were not allowed. People had to follow certain rules including keeping their room and the common areas clean. Outside was a playground for the children.

One of the kitchens at Community Touch

One of the kitchens at Community Touch

When we visited at midday, the place was quiet. Most of the homeless were not jobless, and were either at work or looking for work, while the children were in day care or public school. This is the changing face of homelessness in America today. While many are out of work, many also remain employed, although they may have traded full time jobs for scattershot part time employment. Many of the homeless got this way through a series of unfortunate events. Expensive medical issues cropped up. They became exacerbated because they could not afford health insurance. This was often manifested in an inability to show up at work. At best this meant they kept their jobs but took home less money. In some cases, they were let go. Their landlords were largely unforgiving and, living paycheck to paycheck, within a few months they were out on the street. Some lived in their cars. Some live in the woods in and around Bealeton in small Hoovervilles. The fortunate ones end up at places like Community Touch where at least for a little while they can try to get their lives back in order.

When you spend time at places like Community Touch, you hear stories. You hear about the homeless man sitting outside a Food Lion, and the nice people working there who bought him some food and drove him to Community Touch. You find out that he took a bus from Baltimore to Richmond because he heard there was work, ran out of money, tried to thumb his way back to Baltimore only to find himself sitting on the concrete, homeless and hungry. This man was fortunate. Many others are not so fortunate. They can be found in the woods or scrounging garbage bins at local 7 Elevens.

Charitable work does tend to peak during the Holiday season, which explains in part the mountains of food and clothing now occupying our minivan and dining room. It culminates this weekend. My wife, my very own force of nature, has many people from her temple meeting tomorrow and hauling their donated items to Community Touch. In Bealeton they will meet others including people from The True Deliverance Church of God, who run Community Touch. Using their many donated items, they will assemble Thanksgiving dinners to go for the homeless and hungry of Fauquier County. Many turkeys have already been donated by local food banks and are being cooked en masse tonight. She and many members of her temple will be there to help.

Most of you are familiar with the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Many devout Christians believe Jesus somehow fed an unexpected multitude with a single loaf of bread and a fish. At least when Jesus is not around, it works this way: someone like my wife stands up inside their community, poses the question and then largely by herself start to address the problem. Those inside the community at first feel hesitant because they are used to the way things have always been. However, if like my wife she persists, and she does so with a generous heart they find themselves drawn into caring about the poor too because they know and care about her. And so one loaf and one fish multiply into a van stuffed with food and donated items which might have otherwise gone toward evenings out and buying an Xbox. Moreover, a dozen people from a Buddhist congregation venture sixty miles into the wilds of Fauquier County to work with people of a different faith they do not know. They help them feed the unfortunate who live among us, but whom for the most part we choose to ignore. As a result, at least some of the hungry are fed. Moreover, new connections occur between people that likely would never have otherwise met. The circle of people who care about others unlike themselves grow. The social fabric of our society mends itself a bit. Love and compassion spreads a bit.

I know that people who would otherwise go hungry or be malnourished will soon have a full belly, thanks to my wife standing up in her congregation and leading them with humanity forward toward a larger fellowship. I am blessed to be married to such a warm, caring and compassionate woman.

The Thinker

An Evening with Don McLean

Popular musicians often fade into undeserved obscurity. Don McLean, who wrote American Pie, is one of these musicians. Most Americans know him only for American Pie, a brilliant 1971 song interweaving an irresistible tune with delicious metaphorical lyrics. American Pie is arguably the definitive coming of age song for his generation. In fact, a Billboard poll ranked American Pie fifth among the top 365 songs of the 20th century.

Unlike other popular musicians whose lives were cut short, at age 64 Don McLean is blessedly still among the living. I can report that his voice is still quite fine, as I heard him perform last night at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. He and his band delivered a satisfying show full of favorites, his most brilliant (though lesser known) tunes, as well as various collections of folk tunes, not all of which he wrote. In short, McLean is a living American musical icon who now plays in smaller venues but who has lost almost none of his talent.

I know many people who have reverent feelings about Bob Dylan. I certainly respect Bob Dylan’s talent and like McLean, he can still draw in crowds, although he too often plays in smaller venues. Like McLean, Dylan’s lyrics can often be mysterious and metaphorical, but arguably, McLean has a better voice, is a more accomplished musician and is more inventive than Dylan. To me there is genius to be found among the few artists that combine great lyrics with a memorable tune. In my opinion, McLean is the contemporary master of this genre and American Pie is just one example of many for aficionados of this genre to savor.

Not all of McLean’s songs are full of imponderable lyrics. Many are quite ordinary. At his best, McLean is an expert at plumbing the depths of the human soul with music. What makes McLean almost unique is that he is poet that can consistently wrap music around his stunning poetry. Take for example the lyrics to one of his lesser-known but brilliant songs that he performed last night, Magdalene Lane:

Magdalene Lane is the red light domain
where everyone’s soul is for sale.
A piece of your heart will do for a start
but you can send us the rest in the mail.

For we have our own families to feed
and we can’t let them starve just for you.
Well, we’d rather not watch while you bleed
so come back in an hour when you’re through.

I went to hear McLean last night not for American Pie, but for lesser-known but arguably better songs like Magdalene Lane. This song, a sort of marriage of poetry and music is excruciatingly hard to find in any venue. Moreover, at 64, McLean still has the vocal range to carry it off. He joked about his age between sets. “A lot of you came here nervous. You were wondering, ‘I heard him in 78. Does he suck now?’” The answer, thankfully, is not at all. While his face is lined, his hair is now mixed with gray, and his belly broader, as the fortieth anniversary of American Pie approaches, McLean still has it. It is harder to say the same about Bob Dylan. His lyrics may be as imponderable as ever, but his age is showing in his voice, which is becoming increasingly gravely. McLean has some issues hitting the higher registers and may change the music a bit to accommodate, but otherwise he is the same gifted musician who gave us American Pie in 1971.

And speaking of American Pie, McLean is savvy enough to know that he has to play the song at any venue, so he gave us the full rendition, not the clipped version that you hear on the radio, as well as invited the audience to sing along in the choruses. He has doubtless sung the song a thousand times. Both he and his band must be sick of it, but he delivered like a trooper, including a last reprise of the first verse. It was shortly followed by his other required song, the much more introspective Vincent, which sketches the meaning of the life of the artist Vincent van Gogh. Most Americans are not familiar with it, but to a Don McLean fan, it is a must-be-heard-live song. Who can resist with lyrics like these?

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflecting Vincent’s eyes of China blue

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist’s loving hands

Don McLean performed one other lesser-known hit of his last night. It is perhaps the most romantic song written in the 20th century, and a choice at eclectic weddings and, as he joked, playing in elevators near you: And I Love You So.

And I love you so
The people ask me how
How I’ve lived till now
I tell them I don’t know

I guess they understand
How lonely life has been
But life began again
The day you took my hand

It’s hard not to cry and impossible not to give your spouse a kiss after hearing this song.

If you have a chance to see Don McLean, do not assume he is washed up. Buy the tickets and celebrate the occasion. I did not learn about his performance until Friday night and I could still find two tickets for my wife and I. Even living legends like Don McLean cannot live forever. And if all you know of Don McLean is American Pie, you will probably be delighted to discover a brilliant musician whose artistry is so much broader than this one hit song.

You can find out if he is playing near you by going to his web site.

The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 12: The Basics of Investing

This is the twelfth 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.

Way back in Lesson 2, I covered the fundamentals of personal finance. I hope you used the intervening two and a half years to make yourself financially solvent. Good news: if you are not carrying a credit card debt, you are doing better than many Americans. Your net worth may hardly be in the positive numbers but at least it is positive. Even if you have student loans, providing it has helped you get a decent paying job, this is good debt.

You may be young but you might also have the feeling that old age is going to visit you someday. When it arrives, you know you would not prefer living in a cardboard box under a freeway. You know that to avoid this fate you need to start investing money now, although you might not have a whole lot to invest except for the spare change inside your sofa. Most likely you kind of resent having to save anything at all, but you know that like taking vitamins its one of these things that prudent people do. Where to start? Buy a share of Wal-Mart stock? Open a money market account? Buy gold on the assumption that its value will stay steady during inflationary times? There are an infinite number of choices and it’s so darn confusing!

I can make it easy for you: start with your employer’s 401-K plan. Why? Start there because if your employer offers a 401-K plan they will often match your contributions up to a certain percent of your salary. In other words, it’s free money. It’s true that except in cases of dire emergencies you cannot take out the money before retirement, but you still get to invest more money than you can contribute. In short, you should contribute as much money as you possibly can into your 401-K or similar plan, particularly if you get matching contributions.

Start contributing today and never, ever stop until you are fully retired. This is the golden rule of investing: start early and contribute regularly. Do not contribute a fixed dollar amount. Contribute a percentage of your income automatically with every paycheck. Your income should naturally rise as you age so at the very least you want your contributions to rise proportionately. It is never to late to start investing but the multiplicative factor for starting early is mind-boggling. Starting early means that you have more time to invest and your money has more time to grow. Give until it hurts. Give until the financial pain is just short of excruciating. As your income goes up, try your best to put a greater percentage of your income into retirement funds as well. There is an additional piece of good news: the IRS pretends your salary is your actual salary less your 401-K contributions. In other words, you end up paying less in taxes because you “earn” less. The net effect is you have a little more money available to put into your 401-K than if the money was taxed up front.

If your employer does not offer a 401-K, or even if they do, you can still open an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). In 2009, you can contribute up to $4000 and write it off your taxes, at least if you place your money into a “traditional” IRA. You can also choose a Roth IRA. The difference with a Roth IRA is your contribution is not subtracted from your income for tax purposes: you pay the tax upfront but can withdraw it later tax-free. With a traditional IRA, you pay the taxes on the income much later when you retire for the privilege of paying fewer taxes now. If you can swing it, because younger people tend to earn a lot less than older workers, the Roth IRA is the better deal. As you age you might want to open a Traditional IRA because then you are likely to be taxed at a higher rate than you will as a retiree.

The general guidance for investing is tried and true and fairly well known. In the very long term, invest in stocks or stock funds as history shows that overall they will provide higher returns. In the medium term, buy bonds. In the short term, stick with savings, checking and money market accounts for their liquidity and safety.

What else should you save for? Many smart young people find plenty of incentive to save for their own digs. They would prefer being tied down by a mortgage instead of renting a U-Haul every few years and moving all their possessions. They also have expectations that if they own property, it will appreciate, and their net worth will grow. (The mortgage interest deduction is also a nice tax break, although you may find the cost of maintaining your home can eat up the tax break.) Obviously, you don’t invest this sort of money into retirement accounts. Where to put it depends on how long you think it will take you to buy some property. Most likely, you don’t want to put it into some sort of stock-oriented mutual fund because there is likely to be too much volatility in the stock by the time you need the money. The safest bets are savings and money market accounts, but they produce almost no interest. A good choice looking several years out would be a well-rated corporate bond fund. Also consider a fund that buys Ginnie Mae bonds. Ginnie Mae bonds actually help homebuyers like you buy houses. There is risk of losing money, but it is very small, along with decent potential of above average market returns.

Okay, you are thinking. Where do I buy these sorts of funds? In addition, which ones are good and which are bad? Unfortunately, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors among investment firms and brokerage houses, which they gleefully help create. Real return is hard to figure out, given that returns are rarely guaranteed and many funds charge fees to buy and sell funds. Many funds come with certain minimums and contribution requirements. Billions are spent to shape your perception that firms like Vanguard and T. Rowe Price are smart places to put your money. You would be right to be skeptical.

If you want, you can be your own broker. You can in theory send a check to places like Ginnie Mae or the U.S. Treasury and they will send you bond certificates back. This is too much hassle for most people. When in doubt I go to the most trusted and unbiased source I know: Consumer Reports. I think any smart consumer should subscribe to the magazine, but you can also spend a little money to get access to their online web site. Periodically they rate various categories of mutual funds. Their ratings are not necessarily sure things, but they are good, unbiased bets.

Ultimately what you need is a personal financial advisor. Most likely, that will have to wait until you have enough income to also afford a financial advisor. Banks and brokerage firms will want to sell you their financial advice. Be wary because most likely they put their bottom line ahead of yours. When I finally had enough money to get a personal financial advisor and I chose someone local who was listed on the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors web site. My personal financial advisor makes recommendations to me. I do the actual paperwork to make them happen. He never gets a cut of my earnings, only a flat fee for sound and unbiased advice.

Until that time comes, it is probably a sound strategy to be your own financial advisor. You can supplement your knowledge not just by reading my advice but also by reading some of the many popular books on investing available at your local bookstore. By following the established investing rules I outlined, you are likely to do nearly as well as the financially sophisticated anyhow. The truth is there is always risk in investment, as well as rewards, and no financial guru is always right, not even Warren Buffett. Some approaches will prove to be luckier than others in the short term, but time seems to even out the playing field. Sticking to traditional rules should serve you well until you have the time and money to get your own personal financial advisor.

The Thinker

I believe consciousness is eternal

Over the years, I have sporadically tried to explain my theology or lack thereof. It has resulted in arguably weird posts like this one. Last night I tried again at the occasion of another monthly meeting of my covenant group. The topic of the month was big questions. We started with one that will usually draw a different answer from every one of my fellow Unitarian Universalists: Do you believe in God?

My bet is that most Americans can answer that easily. Ninety percent or so will say yes and the other 10% will say no. Many of the ninety percent though will put asterisks next to their answer. The whole question though is very hard to answer because you first have to ask: what kind of God are you asking about? Paternal? Maternal? Non-sex specific? Singular or polytheistic? One that listens and responds to your prayers or one that is absent? A God that cares about you in particular? Or a very removed God who has hosts of angels, archangels, sub-archangels and other intercessors that handle prayers from relatively meaningless people like me?

My forebrain may be too developed because I could not give a definitive answer. I remain sort of the agnostic I decided I was some thirty plus years ago. I neither believe nor disbelieve in the paternalistic God that I was introduced to by my Catholic parents. I can say that I never particularly felt the personal presence of God. For me, attempts at prayer are like radio waves; they bounce off the clouds and come back to me. When the Magic 8-Ball replies, to the extent it replies at all, it says “Reply hazy, try again.” I do feel spiritual at times, for example, when nature reveals itself in all its majesty. The experience is very mystical when it happens, but doesn’t feel like God is tapping me on the shoulder saying, “See, here’s all the proof you need that I exist.”

No doubt to some I am being unforgivably ambivalent, but I have developed a certain comfort in my murkiness. I know many people feel the presence of God and I think that’s fine. I don’t mean to say they are deluding themselves, but at the same time I cannot take their testimony with whole cloth when it is not my experience nor the experience of millions of others, including Mother Teresa. I take some comfort in physics, which is slowly peeling away God’s mask.

I suspect God’s existence or non-existence is just one of these questions that is impossible to satisfactorily answer. I do not think there is any definitive answer because we can only perceive what we can experience through our very limited senses. Moreover, our lives are relatively short.

I have read enough about quantum physics to feel strongly about a few things. What I believe is eternal is consciousness: mine and yours. I think consciousness is eternal and like energy itself cannot be created or destroyed. So I very much believe in the soul. I see my soul much like a driver and my body like a car. My body’s brain is like a steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedal. I use them to move my body through life. At some point in the future the car will refuse to start. At that point my body dies. However, my soul, the driver, is still around. Perhaps at that point I exit the car and look around the car lot. I pick out another car and use it (the new body) to continue to experience the universe.

This is really not as crazy as it sounds. String theory may be a theory, but it is a very well developed theory with lots of sound empirical evidence. What science does teach us is that energy is never destroyed. It is merely transformed. If string theory is correct then we also know that everything is irrevocably connected to everything else. Buddha understood this 2500 years ago. It also essentially means that individuality is an illusion.

So who or what are we then? I think what we are is a singularity: a point in space-time (or perhaps more accurately, a time-series in space-time) where an infinite matrix of superstrings intersect and it is different from some other point. So you might say we are both individuals and we are all part of the same thing. What is unique about living is that it provides the illusionary experience of individuality. We may prefer this illusion, similar to the way that some people prefer chocolate.

To the extent that I can formulate a belief in God, it is just the suspicion that I am not separate from God, but intrinsically a part of God and God is a part of me. It’s not a question about being separated from God. How can I be separate from something I am already a part of? I am irretrievably part of everything and plugged into the universe as are you.

I am consciousness. You might say I am a thought racing around the mind of God. Each of us is a thought of this larger collective being. A thought is both permanent and transient. We may only think a particular thought in one moment, but the thought is stored in collective memory. It is always retained. That thought is my consciousness and is what I call the eternal me.

Where we came from, I don’t know. I don’t see the point in speculating. As Bertrand Russell once pointed out, if everything is caused by something else, then something caused God, which begs the question and points to the fallacy in the argument. Consciousness exists because I experience it. I think it continues after death and I choose to call this eternal part of me my soul. I suspect I live multiple lives and inside this consciousness I call myself time simply does not matter. It does not matter how many lives I have experienced or will experience. However, I do think that it is this experience that feeds the consciousness. Perhaps over many lives we do grow in understanding and maturity.

I believe in consciousness because I feel it and ultimately I can only trust what I feel. I can look at science like string theory to support parts of my beliefs, but I also recognize that because the universe is immensely complex so our understanding of reality is going to be poor at best too. If “I think, therefore I am” then “I feel there is an immortal part of me, therefore it exists” is also valid. At this point in my life, it not only feels right, but it need be no more complex than this.

The Thinker

Election 2009 postmortem: Much ado about nothing

One thing I know: CNN will not be calling me to be a talking head. I would not tell them what they want to hear. For the pundits and prognosticators trying to interpret the tealeaves from last Tuesday’s elections pretty much have it all wrong. The election says nothing about a resurgent Republican Party rising from the ashes. It also says nothing about an emboldened Democratic Party extending its majorities. Trying to read national trends into these few and widely scattered election results is, frankly, much ado about nothing. It’s pointless to even bother. There is no “there” there.

Pundits and prognosticators of course want the results from these scattered elections appear to be more than they are. That works for them. They make their livings through spin. If they wrote columns or got a spot on CNN as a talking head saying that the election really changed nothing and says nothing about how the public is really feeling about Democrats and Republicans, who would invite them back? As for politicians, what else did you expect them to say? Of course Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee is going to crow because the GOP picked up two governorships. Of course, Democratic National Committee Chairman (and my current governor) Tim Kaine is going to point that at the national level Democrats picked up two house seats, including a seat that has been in safe Republican hands since the 19th century. Both are going to claim their party has the momentum.

In Virginia, Governor Elect Bob McDonnell won by double digit margins over the Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds. It is true that when Virginians elect a Democrat for president they tend to pick a Republican for governor shortly thereafter, and visa versa. So what? This election had nothing to do with Virginia’s trends. McDonnell won because Creigh Deeds was a poor candidate and a terrible campaigner. We Virginian Democrats had to sift through three poor offerings and oddly enough, Deeds was the least objectionable. First, there was Terry McAuliffe, a former DNC chair who had zero experience in Virginia politics and whose only expertise was in schmoozing and raising money. Then there was Brian Moran, who stood so far to the left that even I could not vote for him. More importantly, with his stands on the issues there was no chance that he could win a statewide governor’s race in this purple state. Finally, there was Creigh Deeds, a middle of the road Democrat who turned out to be milquetoast and ran one of the worst campaigns in modern Virginia history. He hardly inspired Democrats like me to vote for him and I did so only grudgingly. After all, he spent the last few weeks of the campaign bashing a public health insurance option in the misguided belief this would woo independents, who happen to want a public option.

There was not much there for Democrats to like, so they hardly felt driven to the polls. On the other hand, there was the handsome Bob McDonnell who despite his very conservative leanings pragmatically steered toward the center where the Independents were. He connected with independents with a campaign driven by moderate promises and a no new taxes pledge. It is not surprising then that in my purple state many Democrats stayed home while Independents had every reason to vote for McDonnell. Nor is it surprising that his big win had coattails, and helped Republicans increase their majority in the House of Delegates. As for disgruntlement at Barack Obama, according recent polls, Obama’s approval is at 51% in the state, which is close to the vote he received a year ago from Virginians. In short, the election was about state-issues, not national ones and had nothing to do with feelings about Barack Obama.

In deep blue New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie won because the incumbent John Corazine did not keep his promises. In fact, he broke many of the ones that mattered most to voters. He was to use his Wall Street acumen to solve the state’s budget crisis. Instead, in part to address the economic crisis, he ended up raising taxes and the expected property tax cut never materialized. No wonder voters were pissed. Then there was the minor problem that he carried the stink of corruption wherever he went. Christie too seemed to be emblematic of corruption. However, when an incumbent has approval ratings in the thirties, even in a deep blue state his chances are poor, so Christie won.

The lesson for Democrats from these two gubernatorial races is that if you want to win, you should nominate compelling candidates like Mark Warner and Jim Webb who can appeal to both Democrats generally and Independents specifically. Whoever you nominate should have integrity and not carry the whiff of corruption. State Democratic parties need to do a better job of encouraging good candidates to run. In both New Jersey and Virginia, voters sensed what they were being offered was sweet smelling manure.

On the national level, one should also not read anything into the two pickups made by Democrats in special elections. The seat in California was a given for the Democrats because the district had an eighteen point Democratic registration advantage. The much talked about NY-23 special election was a one of a kind election with dynamics that changed constantly. Arguably, the Glenn Beck wing of the Republican Party shot themselves in the foot by backing a strong conservative in a three-way race. This led the moderate Republican to drop out and in a very unusual move endorse the Blue Dog Democrat instead. While it is true that a Democrat has not held this seat in more than a century, one cannot read that much into this election because of the unique dynamics of this race. After all, it is but one of 435 House seats.

The 2010 elections will likely result in some Republican House and Senate gains, as historically this has been the case when Democrats control the Congress and the White House. It is way too early to say how the election dynamics will unfold. Democrats in Congress can do much now to lessen the likelihood of losses a year from now by passing legislation that Americans want, like health care reform. To maintain their majority, Democratic voters need a reason to feel energized in 2010. Meaningful health care legislation, climate legislation that truly addresses the global climate crisis, and significant steps to reduce unemployment will probably help. The 2010 elections are no more likely to be a referendum on Barack Obama than the 2009 elections were. As is always the case, these races will reflect primarily local issues. When fielding new candidates, Democrats should promote and fund candidates that will speak to the needs of ordinary people. In 2008, voters voted for change. They still want change. They are just having a hard time generating enthusiasm for politicians wedded to special interests.

As for the 2009 elections, the sampling size was too small to draw any reasonable inferences about national trends. Those who do either have an agenda or they are deluding themselves.

The Thinker

Thoughts on Buddhism, Part One

Since my wife recently became an official Buddhist, I thought it was time to start learning a whole lot more about Buddhism. Since there is a Dummies book for just about everything, I have been reading Buddhism for Dummies, which is a surprisingly good introduction to Buddhism. I am about half way through the book.

While I expect to remain a Unitarian Universalist, I am finding nuggets I about the religion that I think are just brilliant. What I really like about Buddhism is that it grasps the central problem of human angst. It also has practical advice on how to address it. Our central problem is quite simple: we are aware that we are going to die someday, and our awareness of our death terrifies us.

How on earth (as opposed to heaven) do you deal with this knowledge? Since we are self aware, it is entirely natural to ponder death and its meaning, if any. It doesn’t take much pondering before you realize that death is both inevitable and inescapable. It is also completely natural to not to want to accept this reality. It is somewhat unnatural to deliberately orient a religion around our impermanence.

I am agnostic on whether Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) actually achieved enlightenment or not. Like all religions, Buddhism requires some measure of blind faith. There are many thousands if not millions of living Buddhists who will claim that they have achieved enlightenment through various Buddhist spiritual practices. Enlightenment sounds like a worthwhile endeavor, not to mention a really cool experience. Whether Buddhists have acquired genuine enlightenment, or are deluding themselves, or are charlatans I cannot say. In any case, even enlightenment does not absolve you from death. Buddha was very clear on this. It is one of his fundamental truths: material things are by their nature impermanent, and living things most of all. So you too are impermanent and therefore must die someday. Therefore, the wise human lives his life fully cognizant of his or her impermanence and its implications and orients their behavior around this truth. This may not be surprising but Buddha was the first person to frame a philosophy of living around death, and this was some 2500 years ago.

Having accepted this, Buddha then wrestled with the next question: why do we suffer and what can be done to relieve suffering? His answer in brief: we suffer because we crave attachments to worldly pleasures. We do not understand that our selfhood is really a delusion. Suffering ends when you are freed from desire, or put more simply when you accept that there is really no “I”, just “we”. When you understand this intellectually and emotionally you experience enlightenment, and your suffering ends. When you make this leap, you understand that relationships are what really matter. Thus, you can use your time on what really matters: living, practicing compassion, learning dharma (Buddhist teachings) and spreading enlightenment. In spreading the teachings of Buddha, you help minimize all human suffering.

Another reason to like Buddhism is that some 2500 years later it still feels empirically correct. It has needed no updating for modern times. This feels true despite all we have learned in the meantime.  To me, this is amazing. While theologians still argue about how many angels can fit on the head of the pin, or whether we need Jesus as an intercessor to experience God, or whether there is or is not a heaven, Buddhism offers grounded answers to life’s incessant questions. It does so by turning around our angst-filled questions about life. It’s not about whether you are saved or not saved, whether you are living in accordance with God’s murky laws or not, it’s about your suffering as well as the suffering of all other human beings on the planet. We as we exist in this life are what matters and collectively we are all capable of reaching a place where suffering ends. We don’t have to die in order to escape our suffering altogether. In other words, we can sort of have heaven here on earth, at least for ourselves, and potentially for everyone.

Buddhism does not necessarily deny the presence of a divine force (except possibly to suggest we are divine if we understand our Buddha nature). Instead, it draws our attention square on where it belongs: to the human, our nature, and our joint suffering as a species. In short, it is a human-centric religion, not a God-centric religion. Moreover, because humans today are largely the same people physically and spiritually that we were 2500 years ago, the enlightenment Buddha allegedly found still works today as a solution today. It is not a formula for happiness based on some absent deity’s assumed wishes, but a formula for genuine happiness based on our 46 unique chromosomes.

Admittedly, Buddhism is a hard sell, particular in our secular and increasingly materialistic world. It may have been a much easier sell when human lived more uncomfortable lives. While we may be more comfortable, I doubt we live less tormented lives than we did 2500 years ago. We still struggle with weighty issues that probably make us at least as miserable as we have always been. We may have fancy distractions like cars and computers, but they rarely leave us any happier. Buddhism offers solutions that appear to be grounded in our human experience, not in reading God’s murky tealeaves.

I am still parsing my way through what are arguably the mystical aspects of Buddhism. I am trying to figure out if these aspects of Buddhism perturb its essential message. It seems curious to me that while Buddhism acknowledges our mortality, many if not most Buddhists also believe in reincarnation. They take steps in this life to ensure that their next life, if any, places them closer to enlightenment. This might be due to a Hindu influence on Buddhism, since the religion was born in India. Hinduism of course has reincarnation as a fundamental tenet. Some sects, like Pure Land Buddhism (which my wife subscribes to) sounds very much like Christianity, as it is premised on the promise that all those who have absolute faith in Amida Buddha will achieve enlightenment and will find rest in the Pure Land.

I will provide more thoughts on Buddhism later.

The Thinker

30 Years of Breakfasting in America

Has it been thirty years already since the rock band Supertramp released its album Breakfast in America? Apparently. The album, originally released in 1979 as a 33 1/3 RPM vinyl record, came emblazoned with the now iconic picture of a waitress posing at the Statue of Liberty. It sold over eleven million copies worldwide. Since then, it has morphed onto CD (infamous picture still intact) and now is playing digitally  in MP3 players everywhere, including mine.

Breakfast in America cover art

Breakfast in America cover art

I would like to say I took the album for a spin recently, but that would date me. No, it came off my MP3 player where I most recently enjoyed it while pressing metal at my local Gold’s Gym. It really doesn’t matter. At three decades old, Breakfast in America is still going strong. Few would characterize the album as the best example of a rock album out there. However, if some aliens from outer space press me to recommend one album from the thousands that are out there to best represent rock and roll, Breakfast in America it would be. In spite of the band being British, it feels and sounds quintessentially American.

Perhaps it wins some sort of award for the most hits on one album. Breakfast in America came with four Top 40 hits and embedded themselves into our collective memory: the title track, “The Logical Song”, “Goodbye Stranger” and “Take the Long Way Home”. In 1980, the album won the Grammy for Best Recording Package, beating out fierce competition from Led Zeppelin and The Talking Heads.

Why did Breakfast in America succeed where so many others failed? It was hardly Supertramp’s first album; in fact, it was their sixth. For a rock album, it does have a unique sound, since it is rife with an unusual instrument: the Wurlitzer Electric Piano. Supertramp also emphasizes the harmonica and saxophone, hardly the sorts of instrument typically associated with rock bands. Despite some of the odd choice of instruments, it is unmistakably rock and roll. It succeeds, as best albums do, by fusing together a combination of good vocals and instruments with clever little song vignettes to which most people can readily relate.

For me the best song on the album is “Goodbye Stranger”. It brilliantly marries cleverly arranged rock music with the narrative of a handsome drifter. He moves from woman to woman, breaking their hearts and then abruptly moving on. But hey, no hard feelings. “Tried to see your point of view. Hope your dreams will all come true.” This is preceded with some devastating lyrics, which point to a likely handsome but vainglorious and empty man afraid of aging and commitment, and who is probably part misogynist to boot. “And I will go on shining. Shining like brand new. I’ll never look behind me. My troubles will be few.” Most women can relate; the dating pool is full of superficial men like this guy. Many men can relate too, in an uncomfortable way, for we may have modeled this man’s silly playboy-like behavior at times in our lives. A nice ending touch to the song is the way the guitar strums like a motorcycle accelerating into the sunrise.

For the most part the album is rife with songs like this. The title track “Breakfast in America” portrays a guy disappointed that he has a second-class girlfriend. He dreams of the dazzlingly curvy and buxom girls in California, while obsessively dwelling on how overwhelming ordinary is his own girlfriend.

“The Logical Song” may be an ode to the village idiot. It portrays someone totally confused by modern life who yearns for the innocence of childhood and cannot quite grasp why he is being molded to be logical, practical and cynical. Society is far more complex than he can fathom and he yearns for someone to give him a simple explanation of just who he is.

“Take the Long Way Home” appears to portray a star (a fellow rock star perhaps?) that thinks he is more popular and talented than he is. Most of those around him are not fooled, including his wife and neighbors who see him as flawed and vainglorious. His solution is to escape to the city, intoxicate himself with mesmerized fans while finding marital satisfaction elsewhere. But what happens when the applause stops and the fans fade away?

Other songs are arguably as good as those that hit the Top 40. The opening track “Gone Hollywood” is a good case in point and speaks to the empty feeling of despair of those drawn to Hollywood’s glare but who cannot seem to make it in that culture. “I’m in this dumb motel near the ‘Taco Bell’ without a hope in hell. I can’t believe that I’m still around.”

“Oh Darling” is something of the antithesis of “Goodbye Stranger”. It tells of a man drawn to love a woman who appears to be several points above him on the attractiveness and intelligence scale and knows it. He feels drawn to smother her with love but it seems it might be pushing her away in the process. He seems to understand that she will look for satisfaction elsewhere.

“Lord, Is it Mine” is a song about someone trying to find the personal presence of God but is not quite connecting. Instead, he keeps finding himself endlessly careening around in this messy place called reality where there are no ready answers and God seems distant at best and wholly absent at worst.

Not all the songs on this album necessarily make a lot of sense, but they are all worth listening to. “Just a Nervous Wreck” is a great rock and roll song, but the lyrics are a jumble of confusing metaphors. “Casual Conversations” is a song about an estranged couple with communication problems that are still in a relationship for no appreciable reason. It reminded me of “Overs” from Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends album. The closing track “Child of Vision” described the disillusionment of a follower who realizes his role model is squandering his life.

I am still unclear why this particular album struck so many of the right physical and metaphorical chords. The lyrics are often good, but not outstanding. It is in the fusion of music to lyrics where it seems to reach greatness. Most rock and roll aficionados cannot imagine not having Breakfast in America in their collection. They would no more depart with it than their copy of the Beatles’ White Album. Amazingly, it still feels both fresh and relevant. The angst articulated by the band may be late 1970s, but we still wrestle with the same very human issues that underlie these songs today.

I know Breakfast in America will always be in my rock and roll collection, right next to others I consider iconic, including Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick and Pink Floyd’s The Wall (also released in 1979). Perhaps some of these nuggets will enrapt distant future generations too. Breakfast in America may prove to be on that short list of rock albums that will be immortal, particularly if the aliens get a hold of it.


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