Archive for June, 2010

The Thinker

The dangers of deficit fever

Why study history? After all, many people (particularly students) find history boring. However, there are excellent reasons for studying history. By observing our actions in the past and their effect we can predict with a fair amount of confidence whether they will work again. For example, based on our experience during the Great Depression, cutting spending lead to less economic activity and prolonged the Great Depression. Lesson: the government should keep spending in ways that stimulate the economy until a recovery is sustainable.

So what are we doing as we just begin to emerge from the Great Recession? Why, we are cutting spending! With history as our example, we now know that we are almost guaranteeing a double dip recession. Moreover, what we are cutting suggests profoundly stupid choices. It appears that whenever we finally emerge from our economic doldrums and near double-digit unemployment, our status of still being a superpower will be problematical.

It is easy to look at countries like Greece, which is in the midst of a terrible deficit-driven crisis, and figure we need to buckle down ourselves. Greece is buckling down, largely because it had no choice. Here is what austerity is also bringing in Greece: a sharp and marked drop in standards of living, a rise in already high unemployment rates, and credit that is hard to get and when available only at usury rates. There is also a lot of civil strife. Students, pensioners and government employees are marching in the streets. Rioters have already killed some people and damaged considerable property. Greece is on the edge of anarchy.

However, here in the United States both our “welfare state” and our total debt as a percentage of GDP is a fraction of Greece’s. This suggests we are in no danger immediate danger from excessive debt. In fact, as financial markets now look shaky again, even more money is flowing into U.S. Treasury bills. So our country is still seen as a safe haven for money, and our debt is seen as good debt, at least compared with other investments. Unlike in Greece, only a small percentage of us retiring at fifty-five or sixty are retiring on a pension. Most of those retiring are retiring only because they lost their jobs and no one will hire them.

Having lost their jobs, they have far less money in their pocket, so they are spending less. When people spend less and earn less, governments collect less in the way of taxes. For the most part, state and local governments cannot raise taxes enough to make up the difference, so they must cut services instead. And since states and local governments have little in the way of bloat, essential services are being cut. Firefighters, police and teachers that thought they had steady jobs are finding themselves unemployed. Here is a real trickledown effect. Because they have less to spend, retailers receive less and perhaps cut their workforce, or reduce hours. When retailers sell less, they need less from wholesalers who also cut jobs. When wholesalers need less, producers and manufacturers make less so they cut jobs. So the economic effect keeps trickling down, exacerbating unemployment, reducing tax revenues and extending our economic doldrums.

Moreover, our supposedly precious children are getting inferior educations. They are stuffed into classrooms with more students, lose opportunities for extracurricular activities and in at least 120 school districts have four-day school weeks. We will depend on their income in our own retirements, but it’s hard to understand how. By teaching them less today, they will likely be behind children in other countries. All these negative effects are because we are now alarmed over short-term deficits that it appears we can comfortably sustain over the short term.

If you have trouble starting your car, you might pump the accelerator hoping the engine will start. The same is true with our economy. What you don’t do is the moment it sputters to life stop giving it gas.

Deficits remain important in the long term. However, Republicans don’t seem to understand that raising taxes is a viable way to solve deficits. If deficits are truly more important than anything else is, then raising taxes has to be on the table. Otherwise, keeping taxes low is more important than deficits, which is the philosophy they have traditionally embraced. It is also important to get spending in line with revenues. But first things first. First the economy has to be vibrant enough so that economic activity reduces unemployment and drives wealth. When this happens, tax collections also increase, reducing deficits.

Unquestionably, we waste and misdirect much of our tax dollars. Our spending on war in Afghanistan is an egregious waste of money because it is a lost cause. A lot of the money given to the Afghan government instead lines the pockets of its largely corrupt Afghan officials. It also goes to pay off warlords who look the other way so our supply trucks carry cargo safely to remote locations. Aside from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, huge amounts of money are wasted within the Department of Defense. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agrees. There is also huge waste in the Medicare system. Some of these expenditures, like building aircraft engines we don’t need, do feed American families. However, but they don’t go to buy things we need to make our country stronger and safer.

It’s pretty clear what we do need to do.  We need to create jobs for the unemployed that will leave us with a stronger country. Jobs provide money, but also feed faith in the future. You don’t get there by laying off teachers, policemen and firemen. These are our first priorities, which is why it makes no sense for Republicans (and one turncoat Democrat) to kill a bill that keeps them employed. You also get there by building and rebuilding bridges and roads, funding innovative research for the 21st century and by investing in the educational needs of all our citizens, activities that are underway but where more money is likely needed. You don’t get there by cutting off unemployment benefits because people have been two years without a job. All that does is breed poverty and homelessness. However, if a chronically unemployed person at least has a check coming in, maybe he can pay his rent and buy food and clothing. That money stimulates a lot of economic activity.

You also raise taxes where it makes sense to do so. Aside from the poor economy, what is feeding the deficit? Mostly tax cuts that we gave to the richest Americans. These are people who can certainly afford to pay more taxes and in some cases genuinely want to pay more taxes. These huge tax cuts drove the problem that caused our deficits to explode. Certainly now is not the time to raise taxes on middle and lower income people, but those who can afford to pay more in taxes certainly should, particularly when richer Americans historically have paid much higher tax rates and still maintained a great standard of living.

Perhaps to achieve fiscal solvency it will be necessary to extend retirement ages or cut benefits in social programs like Medicare and Medicaid. These cuts become much more likely though in a hampered economy. I know my lifestyle would take a severe hit if I lived on half my income. The same is true with our government. A thriving economy will be the engine that creates this wealth again, as it did under Bill Clinton.

We need to spend more to get this economy moving again, even if the debt numbers look scary in the short term. Just as importantly, we need to spend wisely, investing on essentials like education, our state and local governments, and our infrastructure. Doing so prepares us for the economic challenges of the 21st century. To narrow the deficit, we need to repeal tax cuts given to the rich. At the very least, we need to redirect wasted money from places like Afghanistan into useful activities, like maintaining basic services for our citizens. What we do not need is what we have now: a panicky and foolish Congress that cannot see that their version of austerity is just another word for continued recession, unemployment and our quick descent into a second world country.

 
The Thinker

Our Afghanistan folly

So General Stanley McChrystal has been fired by President Obama for remarks to a Rolling Store reporter that disparaged he and top officials. General David Petraeus will assume his duties as the top commander in Afghanistan. Obama is expecting that Petraeus will succeed in Afghanistan like he “succeeded” in Iraq.

There is no question that Petraeus made a bad situation much better in Iraq. However, it is premature to call Iraq a success. Bombings, ethnic and religious-driven murders continue daily in Iraq, albeit at a reduced level compared to the height of violence in 2006 and 2007. Its government remains shaky at best, corrupt and unable to provide many basic services, including dependable electricity. With luck, something resembling a real and stable government may eventually emerge.

We won’t care. Once the last American troops leave Iraq, it will become just a bad memory. Of course, we don’t really plan to wholly exit Iraq. The 50,000 troops that remain are there primarily as catastrophe insurance. Fifty thousand troops won’t help much should Iraq devolve into a large scale civil war, but if used strategically they might prevent a fragile country from devolving back into a civil war. At least the level of violence is down in Iraq. However, this is largely due to our withdrawal. It’s harder to work up a dander when the people you hate the most are no longer patrolling your neighborhoods and killing your friends and neighbors.

Iraq and Afghanistan have vastly different cultures and climates, but they do share some similarities. Both have a history of corruption, shaky governments, foreign occupations and playing pawn in larger superpower conflicts. The success of the otherwise reviled Taliban was in part due to their ability to inject something like rule of law in a country that rarely had it before. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan quite qualifies as countries because there is not enough commonality to bind together the ethnic factions into something resembling a nation. Nationhood seems only possible during dictatorships like Saddam Hussein’s or when inflicted by repressive local powers like the Taliban. Resistance to foreign occupation is the major uniting factor among these disparate tribes. Loose federations are a more natural fit than strong centralized government, when they work at all.

So given this history, what can we expect in the way of accomplishments in Afghanistan from the wonderful General Petraeus? It’s not hard to figure out and we are seeing it unfold already. First, the government (to the extent it exists) will continue to be corrupt. Petraeus really cannot do anything about that. Second, the level of violence and our casualties will be directly proportional to the number of our troops in the country. Third, and this is really what matters the most, anything we do to bring about a stable government will at best have a very temporary effect.

Since the country has no history of strong and effective central government, in all likelihood the Afghanistan we imagine will never evolve into it. Yet, without an effective central government, any hope we have that its government will, by proxy, control the Taliban for us is just not possible.

Petraeus will try strategies similar to those he used in Iraq. Those strategies have had mixed success. Some of the local Sunni militias that he sponsored felt betrayed when the U.S. withdrew, leaving them outnumbered by larger groups of Shi’ites out to wreak revenge. Expect Petraeus to say that we cannot start to bring troops home in 2011. President Obama seems to already be tacitly agreeing, saying that people are getting too wrapped up around dates. In short, the groundwork is being prepared for an even more extended American occupation. On the surface, this is kind of nuts because our war in Afghanistan is now our longest war. In a few months, we will be beginning our tenth year of war in the country.

This strategy is something akin to making a basket from center court on a first try. It is theoretically possible, but the odds are maybe one in five hundred. Why is our strategy doomed? There are too many risky variables.

  • First, the vast majority of Afghans see us as hostile occupiers, not friends. Why would you take advice from your enemy?
  • Second, corruption is everywhere and deep seated. Our military is contributing to it by giving payola to warlords there to move supplies in.
  • Third, the strong central government we crave has never really existed in Afghanistan before. If it can be created at all, it will take decades to achieve, not eighteen months. Still, this throw from center court might be worth taking if it could be attempted at a reasonable cost, but it is already proving ruinous. Since 2001, we have spent around $280 billion just on our war in Afghanistan.
  • Fourth, the Afghan army is even less coherent than Iraq’s army, rife with the usual corruption and frequently absent if not wholly indifferent soldiers.
  • Fifth, the American people already realize the war is lost, and don’t support it.
  • Sixth, if it can work at all, it will likely take decades and trillions more dollars. We have neither the money nor the time.

At best, Petraeus will stabilize the situation for a short while. However, in the end he cannot possibly achieve the goals Obama laid out. He will be exceptionally lucky if he can succeed just to the extent he did in Iraq. No general, no matter how committed and brilliant, can lead a people or a country to a place they do not want to go.

President Obama is a smart man so he should be smart enough to realize his strategy is doomed. Afghanistan has trapped many a political leader in a box. He will be just another and it may in retrospect be seen as his most unwise action as president.

We need to cut our losses and just get out.

 
The Thinker

Tips for proselytizers

I am probably like most people. I do not like being proselytized to. I realize that it is a free country, which means that anyone can proselytize to anyone else. Since I react to it like someone with a peanut allergy to a nearby peanut butter sandwich, I have incorporated techniques to minimize proselytizers in my life.

For example, I almost never answer a knock on my door anymore. If I feel motivated enough, I may actually look through the little hole in my door to see whom it is. If I don’t know who they are, the door stays shut. Only once did I need to hear from some stranger knocking on my door. He let me know I left my car’s lights on. Otherwise, it has been a steady stream of people wanting to sell me stuff. Sometimes it is relatively benign, like a Girl Scout out selling cookies. Often it is someone working on some campaign. However, about twenty percent of the time, someone wants to sell me salvation.

One key way to recognize proselytizers is that they are usually dressed up. They often work in pairs as well. Jehovah’s Witnesses are particularly easy to spot because they wear dark pants, a white shirt, a dark tie and are often also on bicycles. They are clean, short haired (if a man) and well groomed, sort of like Mr. Rogers, but without the cardigan sweater. They are also usually carrying copies of The Watchtower. Mormons also tend to dress when knocking on doors. One thing is for sure: no one on my block knocks on doors dressed fancy, unless they are coming to your house for an upscale party. Dressing up in my neighborhood is like wearing a sign that says, “I am a proselytizer.” Maybe jeans and a T-shirt would be a more effective way of getting that foot in the door.

Some years back, I expressed my opinion that leaving “Are you saved?” pamphlets and related literature on car windshields was also an incredibly ineffective way to get converts. I would be amazed if one in a thousand of these little pamphlets actually brought someone into a church. Maybe spending all that money to grab one or two souls is worth it to some. To me, this approach seems a giant waste of time, money and newsprint.

Some of the devout are beginning to understand that their well-meaning tactics work poorly at best and counterproductively at worst. One of them is Jim Henderson, chronicled last year in an episode of This American Life. Henderson seems to acknowledge that traditional tactics for saving souls no longer work very well. He is taking something of a secular approach toward proselytizing. This has involved inviting atheists and people of other faiths to come to church and see what turns them on and off. He is also making friends with the unsaved without the expectation of converting them to anything. Henderson and his group take a long-term approach. After all, today it is almost impossible to find people who have not heard of Christianity or Jesus. Many of them have already have chosen faiths, or are comfortable with their lack of faith. Their prospects are often as plugged into the media and Internet as they are. They know what you believe and can anticipate your sales pitch. Apparently, salvation doesn’t mean as much to them as it does to you.

Henderson’s non-proselytizing proselytism may be the wave of the future, although the ultimate outcome may be different than he expects. While the hazy goal may be new saved souls, what is really happening is real dialog between believer and non-believer wherein the unsaved become a peer, not a candidate for salvation. In the past, proselytism succeeded in part because it was forced on the heathen. For example, Spaniards colonizing the New World had no problem slaughtering any native on the spot who was not enlightened enough to accept their faith. I guess they figured they were otherwise doomed to hell. Such tactics no longer are allowed. People, or at least the grown adults among us, choose their faith freely. Since ringing doorbells and missionary work is less effective these days, there seems to be little choice but neutral but meaningful engagement. Today, proselytizers have to live with and behave like the natives to win their respect. Through friendship, which usually cannot be faked, they have a chance of converting them. The problem with this approach is that by living with the natives, it becomes difficult not to empathize with them. You may find yourself losing your faith rather than winning any converts.

People who do embrace a faith outside of their own were probably inclined toward the faith all along, and needed a catalyst to set things into action. I turned out to be an accidental proselytizer. I am a Unitarian Universalist, and as a people with our own peculiar faith, we abhor proselytism. When my friend Renee and I started to work on social action projects, we used my Unitarian church to stage a number of community events. She attended another non-denominational but inclusive church not too far removed from Unitarian Universalism. Over time, she went there less but acquired more exposure to my church. My church turned out to be familiar territory because (and I did not know this at the time) she was raised a Unitarian Universalist. It turned out I facilitated her return to a faith where she had always felt closely aligned. I suspect she became estranged from it when her parents divorced.

I think that most proselytizing fails because people are generally comfortable with their current faith or lack thereof. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is their motto. However, during periods of great crisis, if the right person enters someone’s life, their emotional vulnerability might persuade them to make great personal leaps. This is why there are no Salvation Army churches, unless you count their local canteens. If you are a hopelessly drunk, drug addicted, or are in the midst of other wrenching personal problems, you are probably relatively friendless as well. A relative stranger might be able to offer a path toward recovery by embracing their faith.

What they are embracing though is not likely to be Jesus or the Bible, which may come later. What they will embrace instead is a caring and inclusive community of people who at least appear to care about them. Whether Jesus is or is not a path to salvation will probably matter much less to them than whether they can call you a friend, and whether your friends embrace them as well. The need to feel loved is universal. What feels meaningful is a human-to-human, not the wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount, or the promise of some hazy afterlife where they will be blissfully happy for eternity.

In short, the wise proselytizer will not proselytize at all, but will simply love generously and with an open heart. You will not have to read the Bible to them to convince them. It is likely to happen very slowly if it happens at all. However, with sincerity and perseverance, one day they may feel exceptionally close to you in their heart. Then, unprompted, they may ask to know more about your faith, or ask you to take them to a service, or simply show up for a Sunday service at your church.

Their decision will likely be based on how they feel about you as a person and your integrity, not on your faith or holy book. The faith you seek to give them will likely be an independent discovery that will occur many months or years after they start attending your church.

 
The Thinker

Review: Solitary Man (2009)

Hey, Gordon Gekko got old.

Those of us of a certain age will remember the 1987 movie Wall Street and actor Michael Douglas’ notable portrayal of the Wall Street financier Gordon Gekko. Gekko uttered the immortal line, “Greed is good”. In Solitary Man, Gekko is back, sort of, except he changed his name to Ben Kalman but he is otherwise not that different in spirit from Gekko. Instead of working insider Wall Street deals, Ben owns a huge number of car dealerships that he made successful with many memorable car commercials and aggressive marketing practices. At least he did before he started cooking the books of his dealerships. Ben narrowly avoided prison, but managed to lose his fortune and estrange himself from virtually everyone who loves him.

Frankly, Solitary Man is a challenging film to watch because Ben is such an intensely unlikeable character. There are few things more pathetic than a sixty-something man wasting much of his energy trying to pick up women half or more his age. Ben is supposedly turning sixty, but the actor is actually sixty-five. Douglas may have some features of classic handsome gentlemen, but to me he simply looked old. When not trying to seduce women who could be his granddaughter, Ben is obsessed with resurrecting himself in the car dealership business. Unfortunately, he burned too many bridges and has become toxic.

Solitary Man is a compelling if hard to watch portrait of a big shot who became a has-been and who cannot accept the fact that he will never be a big shot again. Ben sees himself as the younger, suave and convincing car salesman that he used to be who can persuade pretty much anyone to do anything rather than the aging, graying and shamble of man that he is. The dichotomy causes a wrenching disconnect which means that every day he descends a bit lower into his own personal hell. It is painful to see a man Ben’s age repeatedly try to pick up young women, lie to people he should love, or to pass himself off as some sort of college kid when invited to a college mixer. Because he was tasked with escorting his stepdaughter to an interview, Ben ends up back at the college where he graduated and where the campus library, thanks to a generous endowment when he was successful, now bears his name. While back at his old Alma Mater with his nineteen-year-old stepdaughter, he figures, why not seduce her as well? After all, it worked with her mother and her daughter is much younger and thus far more desirable.

What Ben is really chasing is his own mortality. When he learns he has a heart condition, he prefers denial and almost immediately begins bed hopping. His one acknowledgment to his heart problem is downing an 81mg baby aspirin once a day. He wants to keep living the life he knew twenty years earlier, even though he now inhabits the body of an old man. While the wreckage is not pretty to watch, I must say Douglas does a remarkable job of convincingly portraying this mess of a man. Toward the end of the movie, his sole friends are an estranged buddy from his campus days Jimmy Merino (Danny DeVito) and maybe his ex-wife. It’s unclear why either of them would want anything to do with him. I sure wouldn’t. Send him to a Salvation Army shelter and make him listen to sermons for his supper. Yuck.

Expect a dispiriting movie but at least Michael Douglas still has “it”. He can play a creep quite convincingly. The whole cast is solid as well. It is unclear whom this movie appeals to and thus how the producers found the money to make it. It is definitely not a teen flick. For us middle aged adults, a story about someone our age chasing lost youth is a downer as well. Douglas is surrounded by a cast of mostly memorable supporting actors including Susan Sarandon as his ex-wife, DeVito, Jenna Fischer as his daughter and two ex-West Wingers: Richard Schiff and Mary-Louise Parker. I had forgotten just how stunningly feminine Mary-Louise Parker is. Speaking of middle-aged fantasies, she is my female fantasy of the moment. Sorry, Jewel Staite.

A subject this dispiriting but well done is not often portrayed in Hollywood, so you should not necessarily give the movie miss a miss if you have the opportunity to see it. You may feel the need to watch parts of it between your fingers, or shout at the screen, “You are being such a damned moron, Ben!” Being middle aged myself, I am not necessarily inoculated to the lure of a much younger woman either. However, seeing Solitary Man is something like marriage insurance. If I feel the need to make a fool of myself with younger women, perhaps I can remind myself that I might behave like Ben Kalman, or maybe worse.

If you have the stomach for this kind of movie, it’s well done. 3.3 on my 4-point scale.

 
The Thinker

In honor of Fathers Day

In honor of Fathers Day, this father is taking the day off.

However, keeping with the theme of Fathers Day, here are three father related blog entries worth your time if you haven’t read them.

 
The Thinker

Please don’t call or write

Not you personally, dearest blog reader. You are always welcome to leave a thoughtful or respectful comment on this post or any other.

I am talking about all these businesses, organizations, random people on the Internet and web sites that want me to invest my precious time and/or money in them. You know who you are. You should be ashamed.

Here is a recent example, but it is one of many. Back in January, I had tarsal tunnel surgery at Georgetown University Hospital. The surgery was preceded by a few visits to doctors down there. Three weeks after the surgery I was back at the hospital for a post-surgical evaluation. Overall, the experience at Georgetown Hospital was good, as I documented. Over the next couple of months, my relationship continued. The hospital and various physicians services associated with the hospital sent me confusing and belated bills for their professional services. Grudgingly, I sent them checks for the inflated costs of their services. At that point, I assumed our relationship was over until the next time, if ever, I needed Georgetown Hospital. Since the hospital is more than twenty miles away and a huge hassle to get to, I will obviously prefer physicians and facilities much closer to home.

But no. Based on one outpatient surgical operation, a few consultations, and a follow up visit, Georgetown Hospital has decided I must be very interested in supporting the mission of the hospital. I figured I was already supporting them by giving them my business, which between my co-pays and payments by my insurance company probably came to more than $10,000. Ah, but Georgetown Hospital is a non-profit hospital. So surely, I would like to be called on the phone and encouraged to contribute to their fund so they can improve Georgetown Hospital, provide fancier doctors and even more innovative services?

Surely not. Why would they even think this? Yet, there they were using my phone number that I gave them so they could contact me on purely medical matters to hustle me for donations.

Georgetown Hospital is not unique. The same week I also got a phone call from the George Mason University Alumni Association, asking me for a contribution to their Alumni fund. As with Georgetown Hospital, I confess I had a good experienced with GMU. In fact, GMU is an excellent school. I spent three intense years there getting my graduate degree. I got my degree in 1999.

I am sure some students have plenty of time to enjoy university life there. Not me. Between my full time job and two classes a semester, I was hustling and exhausted most of those years. I had no time to use my student rates to take in a basketball game at the Patriot Center or attend a performance at their then new Center for the Performing Arts. Call me old fashioned, but somehow I think between my tuition and state subsidies they should be able to balance their books. They shouldn’t have to hustle alumni like me for donations. Believe me, I gave in blood, sweat and tears as well as tuition for three years. By the time I got my degree, I felt like I had been repeatedly run through a wringer. It took a few weeks for the fog to lift from my brain and discover there was more to life than rushing to and from class, burning the midnight oil, working on group projects as well as being a dutiful employee, father, husband, lawn mower and chief bill payer. Apparently, if I join their Alumni fund I can go to homecoming and mingle with strangers over dinner and cocktails at their alumni events. No thanks. However, they keep calling me every year like clockwork.

Maybe I was just being dreadfully naïve, but no one told me that when I signed a petition on a web site I was also going to be endlessly marketed to, mostly by left leaning political organizations since I tend to lean left. Many of these sites send me more than one copy of the same email, perhaps because they have different email addresses for me. Here is a sample of some of the emails I received in the last twenty-four hours:

  • Erin Hill of ActBlue sent me two copies of the same email. She wants me to download their mobile app so I can give them money more conveniently and thoughtlessly.
  • Stephanie Schriock of Emily’s List wants me to know crazy congresswoman Michele Bachmann said President Obama is a felon for convincing BP to set up a $20B fund for those impacted by the Deep-Horizon Oil Spill and thus (not sure how she made this connection) I should contribute right away to Emily’s List. If I had to donate $20 every time Bachmann said something outrageous, I would be bankrupt!
  • Change.org says over 4,000 people today will die of preventable pneumonia so I must sign their petition right away. I guess yesterday it didn’t matter as much.
  • Common Cause wants me to know that they are struggling to prevent a takeover of the government by corporations but it won’t happen unless I send them money pronto because, I guess, they are the only organization working on this issue. I thought they were smart enough to know that corporations already own the government.
  • Democracy for America wants me to sign a petition to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell right now. Do not pass Go and do not collect $200, but by all means give them $200, or more if possible.
  • The Democratic Governors Association needs $150,000 right now but not necessarily all of it from me personally. I am not sure how I got on their list as I never gave them a donation before but they sure are persistently clogging up my email box. Hate to tell you this, DGA, but I am not really concerned about the political affiliation of any governor except here in Virginia because I don’t live there.
  • MoveOn.org who I stopped giving money to six years ago because of their vendetta against Fox News wants me to rate ideas for reducing corporate influence in government and, of course, give them money.
  • Amnesty International needs me to expose “the darkest hell hole in Burma” and send them money otherwise, I guess, they can only expose the hole in their underwear.

The other day I got a call from some campaign volunteer from some candidate I had never heard of asking me to volunteer and/or cough up some bucks for his campaign. WTF???

Here’s what I have to say to all these folks: don’t call me, I’ll call you. Furthermore, just stop marketing to me. Stop selling my email address to any tangentially related cause. Most of these causes are certainly worthy. Who cannot agree that we need better government, need to deal with global warming, empower women as politicians and reach zero population growth? Who could be in favor of torturing political prisoners except, apparently, George W. Bush and those who ran his administration? I agree with all these things, and more. Just reading, responding and debating these daily emails would leave no time for eating, working, sleeping or going to the bathroom. I feel like a heel sometimes, but the vast majority of these emails go directly into my digital trashcan unread.

Sometimes I also get actual snail mail letters. The Virginia Democratic Party wants me to volunteer and of course send them money. The same is true with the Fairfax County Democrats. While I prefer Democrats over Republicans, some Virginia Democratic candidates are substandard. I doubt I want to help these substandard candidates be elected. I am much more inclined to give directly to a candidate that I think shows real potential. Perhaps in retirement I will have the leisure to add a couple of these causes to my life. I’m not there yet. While it’s true I don’t have small children to deal with anymore, I do have a demanding job, a house that needs constant maintenance and obligations that often take me out of state for a week or more at a time. Like most Americans, I am busy. My major leisure activity is this blog. I can’t be a slave whose life is devoted to trying to address every pressing issue of the day. You think I’m going to spend my weekend attending a rally you put together? You think I am suddenly available to drop into D.C. to knock on some congressman’s door or shout something on the steps of the Capitol? Are you nuts? Who has that kind of time and leisure except the out of work bums of D.C. and the homeless? I guess I should include the probably pampered children coming from six figure families who get subsidies from their moneyed Moms and Dads to live full time in D.C. pouring out their passions on these causes.

So sorry. I wish I could care about stuff as much as you want me too, but I can fit only 1% of the solicitations I get into my schedule and pocketbook. Don’t take it personally. Meanwhile, would you at least extend me the courtesy of not selling my email address, stop calling and writing me relentlessly for money? Would you just leave me alone please? I’ll be in touch when I feel strongly enough about your issue to find both the time and money to give. Moreover, if you suspect that my association with you has been only tangential, then assume I don’t want a phone call as well.

Thank you very much.

(P.S. Yes, I have and do continually click on those unsubscribe links, but it doesn’t seem to matter. I usually become mysteriously resubscribed some time later, or end up on someone else’s list. It’s a never ending battle.)

 
The Thinker

Burning Jesuses and other signs of the Apocalypse

Perhaps there is a good reason why Muslims get so upset with depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Of course, devout Muslims, or at least the Sunni sect, generally consider any depiction of their prophet to be blasphemous. Perhaps Muslims were far thinking. Because if they had an idolatrous statue of Muhammad, it too might have suffered the recent fate of a 62-foot “Touchdown Jesus” statue, which was destroyed by lightning on Monday in Monroe, Ohio. It just would both blasphemous and horrific if a 62-foot statue of Muhammad suffered the same fate.

"Touchdown Jesus" in better days

The quirky statue was a landmark in front of the Solid Rock Church of Monroe, Ohio. It both puzzled and entertained residents and travelers on nearby I-75, but no longer. Only a steel frame now remains. Flames created by lightning striking the statue consumed the structure on Monday. Perhaps parishioners can take comfort in that it was never quite a proper statue, as it depicted Jesus only from the torso up. This Jesus appeared to be a giant, because he overshadows his own crucifix. I guess resurrection of the body can do that to a savior.

God must be pissed because according to that secular rag, The Washington Post, there have been a host of burning Jesus statues in recent years. The city of Golden, Colorado, which I visited twice last week, has a 33-foot Jesus statue. Lightning blew off one of Jesus’ arms back in 2007. Perhaps the largest well-known statue of Jesus, the 133-foot Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio de Janeiro, suffered the indignity of having Jesus’ eyebrows and fingers singed in a lightning strike in 2008.

You would think that Christians everywhere might be reading something into these events. Jesus must have really been sending a message when actor James Caviezel, who portrayed him in the 2003 film, The Passion of the Christ, was actually struck by lightning while making the film. Most likely devout Christians read his survival as Jesus letting us know that he approved of the Mel Gibson version of his life, because he let Caviezel live. Or perhaps Caviezel was technically dead for a short while, then brought back to life by Almighty God. Wouldn’t this be a miracle in itself? Praise the Lord!

As for burning Jesuses, the co-pastor of Solid Rock Church, Darlene Bishop, is glad Jesus took the hit instead of a nearby women’s shelter. So in a way Jesus does save, or at least may have saved the lives of abused women living in and around Monroe, Ohio. However, we do know that lightning tends to find the most direct conductive path between cloud and ground, and this tends to be the highest metallic structure, which was likely the Touchdown Jesus. While the statue’s steel infrastructure kept it strong, it also made it vulnerable to lightning strikes. So perhaps its destruction by lightning was preordained.

Or perhaps this event could have been avoided had the statue been constructed using sounder engineering principles. For example, the statue could have had a convenient lightning rods protruding from Jesus’ outstretched arms. I guess that would have been unaesthetic. Still, given the $300,000 cost of the statue and the $400,000 cost of the amphitheater, both which were destroyed, a couple nearby lightning rods would have been a sound investment. One hates to think how much tithing may now decrease at the Solid Rock Church with its main recruiting tool just an ugly frame of steel.

All these burning Jesuses could be signs of the Apocalypse. I am starting to think maybe the Apocalypse is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, since many of those thinking the end is near are often the same folks who also do not believe in global warming. If the Apocalypse is just around the corner, then what’s the point? Drive those Hummers! Flick those cigarette butts out the window as well. You might let some Jesus statues burn as well.

For those looking for them, signs of the Apocalypse are now easy to find. We have what appears to be the worst manmade natural disaster unfolding in all its oil-stained glory in the Gulf of Mexico. We have a Negro as our president. We have Greece, where democracy first flourished, quickly devolving into poverty and near anarchy in a debt-induced death spiral. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have formed a joint government in the United Kingdom. Arctic sea ice is receding to levels never recorded in our history books.

So I started thumbing through my Bible. 2 Timothy 3 gives signs so that we will know the end of times:

“Men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, self-assuming, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, disloyal, having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, betrayers, headstrong, puffed up [with pride], lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God, having a form of godly devotion but proving false to its power.”

This sounds like a few Tea Partiers I know, including Rand Paul. Maybe I should be scared. Maybe God is trying to tell us something, and burning Jesuses as well as all those periodic sightings of weeping Madonnas are just confirmation.

I will be watching warily to see which next statue of Jesus draws God’s wrath. Just between you, me and that good Mormon Glenn Beck, I don’t think that owning gold is going to get me admitted into heaven. Time for me to repent, perhaps for the sin of thinking our world is a rational place. It probably would be, except for all us humans.

 
The Thinker

Cardiac care

I prefer to live under the delusion that I am indestructible and can stay forever young. This is delusional as I am 53. Anyhow, just in case I might be incorrect, I have been practicing some preventative strategies. For example, I have been eating healthy and for more than thirty years, I have been getting regular vigorous aerobic exercise. I get annual physicals and endure the indignities of colonoscopies and prostate exams. I apply sunblock more or less religiously before going outside in the sun. I largely abstain from caffeine and alcohol; drugs and cigarettes go without saying.

It all worked rather well until the last few years when various hitherto unknown health issues surfaced. These included various foot and nerve ailments and, more recently, a heart condition. Surgery and physical therapy have done a lot to help my foot and nerve issues. Now I struggle with periods of light headedness and occasional episodes of shortness of breath, likely caused by my irregular heartbeat.

Alas, there is no instant cure for an irregular heartbeat, nor is a cure a given. For the last few weeks I have been taking 25mg of a beta-blocker called Metoprolol to see if it will reduce my irregular heartbeats. To find out, in a couple weeks I get to wear another twenty four hour cardiac monitor and hopefully the results will show improvement. Based on how things are going my cardiologist will probably adjust my mediations again then repeat the cardiac monitor in other few months. I am getting the feeling that I have a condition that I will have to deal with for life, and that I will be ingesting Metoprolol or something like it every day until I die. It appears my delusions of indestructibility require modern medicines unknown to our hearty pioneering forefathers. In short, I am not exactly a triumph of natural selection but rather modern medicine.

Some part of me wonders if I might actually be healthier if I weighed more. It is true my blood pressure and cholesterol levels were higher when I weighed more. However, neither did I have an irregular heartbeat. It wasn’t until I dropped twenty pounds and lowered my blood pressure that these heart issues became manifest. Nor did I have fainting spells when I weighed more, perhaps because I retained more fluid when I had more fat. My blood pressure is now predictably in the normal range, but often borders on the low range. And since I had a fainting episode that put me in the hospital, I know my blood pressure can get dangerously low. So now I am encouraged to raise my blood pressure, at least a bit. I am one of a small number of Americans who are actually encouraged to add salt to their diet to help me retain water and thus raise blood pressure. So I sit here at 35,000 feet on a flight between Denver and Washington DC sipping Bloody Mary Mix to make sure I get a generous allowance of daily sodium.

To reduce the likelihood of fainting, I have been advised that I should avoid all diuretics, which includes not only alcohol but also caffeinated products. It’s good that I have tended to follow my teetotaler of father’s example. It is likely the absence of these products kept me from fainting for the first 53 years of my life. Yet chocolate is one diuretic that so far I have chosen not to give up. I am not sure that life is worth living without regular doses of chocolate. Chocolate helps make a lot of life endurable.

Still, two hospitalizations in three weeks as a result of experiencing low blood pressure symptoms have left me wary. Three weeks ago, I nervously boarded my first airline flight since my fainting episode. Oxygen levels and air pressure in general tends to be lower at 35,000 feet. I had visions of myself gasping for breath and then passing out on the aircraft, with no way to get to a hospital if I needed one. Fortunately, this was a specious worry. Today I am flying home after a week in Denver. However, perhaps because Denver is much higher in altitude than San Antonio, I have been experiencing some worrying symptoms. The mile high city has never has before made me feel this way before in many, many other trips. I also find myself occasionally hyperventilating. Today, for example, I started hyperventilating in the shuttle I took to the airport, perhaps because the driver did not turn on the ventilation. At the airport I also found myself often breathing deeply, as I waited through two and a half hours of flight delays. I assume some combination of my new heart condition and periodic vasovagal symptoms are at work, in spite of the beta blocker that I am on.

While beta blockers are supposed to help smooth out irregular heartbeats, like all drugs they have side effects. One effect I am already noticing is that they are lowering my heart rate, which probably triggers the hyperventilation. After all if you need oxygen and your heart will not beat faster, all you can do is breathe more deeply to compensate. I also notice that when working out, I can no longer push my heart rate much above 120. This means it is harder to do intensely aerobic or anaerobic exercises. I am not sure I could sprint for more than thirty seconds while on this drug. On the other hand, beta blockers can have some positive side effects. They can reduce or eliminate social anxiety and stage fright. They can also reduce the fear/flight response. Soldiers who face combat are sometimes given beta blockers.

Hopefully these drugs are helping me. At least at 300 feet above sea level (where I spend most of my life), I have noticed a marked improvement. But apparently it will take some time to find the right combination of drugs to travel with impunity again. I find this disturbing.

My hope is that some sort of drug and exercise regime will at some point have me feeling like normal all the time again, so I can go back to believing I am indestructible, with a little chemical help. It appears that like most fifty-something adults, I will need to redefine “normal”. So like many others my age, while I make slow progression toward a healthier and more normal future, it is likely that it will be a future that will never quite be what it was.

Looks like I’m mortal, dammit.

 
The Thinker

Three movies reviewed

Valentine’s Day

Uh oh. I should have suspected trouble since this movie was directed by Garry Marshall, the famous producer of such popular but dubious TV shows as Laverne and Shirley and Mork & Mindy. Marshall has made a career of producing and sometimes directing not just TV shows but also movies that you can usually tell merely from the title will never end up on anyone’s A list. In fact, most won’t end up on anyone’s B list. In that sense, Valentine’s Day is true to form.

You don’t have to watch more than ten minutes of Valentine’s Day before you realize that Marshall is either deliberately or subconsciously imitating a much better multi-relationship love move, Love Actually. In Love Actually we have the frame of Heathrow Airport and one character that is tangentially related to all the other love relationships that the movie explores. In Valentine’s Day we have the frame of the Hallmark holiday and a florist named Reed Bennett (Ashton Kutcher) who because of the holiday is oh so frantically busy delivering flowers. At least thinks he is starting the day off right by proposing to his girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba). Morley was apparently caught up in the moment because she accepts. However, she soon realizes (like her part in this movie) it was a mistake, but not before Reed has broadcast the news. This actually sets the tone rather well for the rest of the movie because neither Reed nor the various supposedly lovesick people he interacts with all day seem particularly lovesick. In fact there is a lot of bubble gum love in this movie but virtually nothing you would recognize as the real thing. Not surprisingly, since it was directed by a guy known for sitcoms, it feels like a 125 minute sitcom, which in fact it is, just minus the laugh track. Unfortunately, some got suckered into paying $10 or more per ticket to see this movie.

Marshall does attract some surprising talent, including Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah and Julia Roberts, all cast in bit rolls in a movie rife with them. I have to wonder if Julia Roberts’ career has peaked given that she accepted a role in this mediocrity. Even Shirley MacLaine gets a part in his movie. In Love Actually it all somehow worked. Here it all falls flat and makes you feel kind of embarrassed even watching. In short, this movie will be an excellent candidate for the 2010 Razzies.  Avoid it unless, like me, you are on a four hour flight and there is nothing else to do. However, trust me, you should still avoid it. Do the crossword puzzle in the in-flight magazine instead. It will be a better use of your time. Oh, and if you haven’t seen Love Actually, go rent it.

2.4 on my 4-point scale.

Robin Hood

There is a lot to like about Ridley’s Scott’s interpretation of Robin Hood. I am not necessarily talking about Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, both excellent actors. I am talking about how well Scott rendered the 12th century. It matches well with my understanding of the times. There is lots of grime, mud, horses, swords, halberds and armor. The ships look period. London looks like what it should look like in the 12th century: a shadow of its current self and probably not the sort of place you would want to visit. Nottingham is nothing special, just a village in arrears to King John with Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow) the local nobleman, patron and something like a mayor.

What doesn’t work? Well, as usual in order to make the movie more marketable, a lot of history was rewritten or stretched. It is true that King John ascended to the throne upon the death of King Richard the Lionhearted, which is depicted early in the movie. Our understanding of history back then is necessarily fragmented. As for Robin Longstride, a.k.a. Robin Hood (played by Russell Crowe), he is mostly likely a myth. So perhaps it is okay to suggest that Robin Longstride became the adopted son of Sir Walter Loxley and he slipped unnoticed by the villagers into the role of Marion’s husband. (Marion is portrayed by Cate Blanchett.) To make the movie more interesting, Robin has to interact with King John personally and let him hear his populist heresy. In this movie, Robin becomes something of a personal thorn in King John’s side.

Are there problems with the movie? Yes, but they tend to be minor. Overall, the film is well cast, well realized and engaging. Russell Crowe is a great actor, but I am not sure he is the best fit for Robin Longstride. Being in their forties, given the times portrayed both he and Cate Blanchett seem old for their parts. Granted, people aged a lot more quickly back then. In 12th century England, famine, disease, poor nutrition and lack of dental hygiene killed most people before their forties. Also, the epic battle on the beach at the end of the movie is a bit too melodramatic, with an Eowyn-like scene right out of The Lord of the Rings. However, should Crowe and Blanchett wish to do more Robin Hood movies, the movie does set them up well, because we get only one scene of Robin and his merry men stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

While Crowe may not be perfect for the movie, he is competent. It is Blanchett who, as usual, shines brilliantly and rescues Crowe and perhaps the movie altogether. In short, Robin Hood is a good movie to enjoy in spite of some minor flaws.

3.2 on my 4-point scale.

Children of Heaven (1997)

You probably won’t be able to see the obscure movie Children of Heaven unless you did what I did: rent it from Netflix. I would have never known or watched it had my sister not added it to her Netflix queue and gave it a thumbs up. Filmed in Iran, this makes it an exotic movie by American standards. No one bothered to create English voiceovers (although curiously there is a French voiceover), but at least there are English subtitles available.

I am not sure why it got a thumbs up from my sister. The story is very simple: a poor Iranian family living in what I assume is the working class area of Tehran are in arrears. They rent a small one room apartment. The mother is having a difficult pregnancy, which makes the father short tempered. They have two children, Ali (the older) and his sister Zahra, both in grade school. Zahra’s shoes are inadvertently lost by Ali. Since their father is abusive, Ali is too scared to tell him. Since they have no money to buy Zahra new shoes, they make do with a complex arrangement wherein she wears Ali’s sneakers to school in the morning, and he wears them in the afternoon when his school starts. This often makes Ali late for school.

Salvation is hoped for in the form of a race that Ali enters. The third place prize includes a new pair of sneakers. Feeling desperate, Ali doggedly decides that he will come in third despite by wearing his largely shot sneakers and hundreds of other contestants. I won’t tell you whether he succeeds or not. I will say that it is interesting as a depiction of Muslim life in Iran, where the religion and culture may be a lot different but the problems are largely the same as everywhere else.

As for why Ali and Zahra are called children of heaven, perhaps I need to consult a Muslim or an Iranian because I am clueless. They struck me as ordinary children. They certainly are obedient and for child actors both do better than most. If there is some larger message in the movie, it was lost on me. It is a very simple story with no larger meaning that I could discern. Since it is neither bad nor good, I will leave it unrated.

 
The Thinker

The shock

So I am sitting in a conference room in Lakewood, Colorado. My laptop is purring away and I am enmeshed in the business of making money. But since I have internet, I have GMail open in a tab in my browser window. When I checked it periodically, it was full of the usual drivel, which are mostly various political campaigns and organizations grubbing for money or asking me to sign a web petition.

This time the subject of the email nearly gave me a heart attack. In big capital letters my father was announcing he was getting married.

I have nothing against marriage, being married nearly a quarter of a century myself. What you do not expect is that your father, after fifty-five years of marriage and who will turn eighty-four this autumn would be getting remarried. While certainly not immoral or illegal, it feels deeply unnatural. It’s like snow falling in Miami. If something bizarre like this ever happens to you, you will probably react a lot like I did. You sort of sit around dazed for a while not comprehending the news and wondering if this is some sort of late April Fools joke.

Once the initial shock wore off, I found that I was overcome with a mixture of feelings. There was a vague sort of happiness for my father. After all, who doesn’t want their parent to be happy, particularly in old age? There was also a touch of concern. Just how well does he really know this woman anyhow? Then there was my selfish side manifesting itself. If he dies married to her, will she inherit everything? Would his estate eventually end up with her children and grandchildren? There was also a touch of anger: how dare this woman come between me and my father! Maybe he would be happier being married, but the chances are his marriage would perturb our close relationship. Would she control him to the point that my relationship with Dad became wholly superficial? There was also amazement: why on earth would anyone want the hassle of getting remarried at his age? Does he want to be sexually active in his eighties? I had never broached the subject, of course, but I sort of assumed at age eighty plus, even if the desire was there, the ability to perform probably wasn’t. And there was a certain amount of relief. When it is his time to leave this planet, I won’t necessarily need to be at his side for days or weeks at a time watching him slip further and further into the void. His new wife will have the bulk of the duty.

That my father wanted to get married again was not in itself a surprise. My mother was hardly resting in her urn in the cemetery five years ago before he was checking out the many available widows at his retirement community. In fact, within months of my mother’s death, he had proposed to a woman a floor below him. She liked my father, but she just wanted to be friends. So friends they were. Yet I suspect that much of my Dad’s interest in her was the wan hope that friendship might eventually yield love. Of course, it never did.

Years passed and he finally figured out that he was wasting time. Otherwise, he seemed very happy. Unlike me, he is naturally affable and sociable. In a retirement community of thousands, it seemed he knew everyone’s name. So I wasn’t too surprised when he started dating Marie. Maybe I should have put two and two together when over the winter he took her to California to meet his sister, but I didn’t. I finally met her a few weeks ago, but I assumed she was just a girlfriend, some arm candy. She seemed nice enough, but I hardly had a chance to form more than a superficial impression of her. And now my Dad and this Marie woman are going to get married! They are scouting for a new apartment in their retirement community. I am warned there will soon be furniture to excess. Maybe this is as close as I will get to my share of his inheritance.

In truth, my father has been undergoing a late life renaissance for a number of years. Overall, I have been impressed with his ability to squeeze so much joy from this time of life. He was also fortunate to be a reasonably healthy and mobile male in a community where the men his age had mostly died off. If they had not died off, they were on their last legs. Still, I figured when I am his age, I might be principally dwelling on death. Instead, he is reveling in life in his retirement community, joining clubs, ushering at church, and even taking up square dancing. The square dancing thing took me for a jag. I come from a family of Dilberts with no hand eye coordination, but here he was with a Square Dancing for Dummies book, a weekly practice session and soon he was dancing with the dames.

I keep wondering, how will he surprise me next? Will he take up smoking, even though he never put a cigarette to his mouth? Will he start drinking, although the closest he came to drinking was sipping communion wine? Marie is apparently Irish. The good news is that means (unsurprisingly) that she is Catholic, still an important criteria for a spouse for my devout Catholic father. The bad news is that the Irish in general have a propensity for booze. So there might be plenty of alcohol at their wedding, date TBA. And he will probably be dancing for joy whilst my siblings and I are likely to be hanging on the sidelines and queuing up for carrots at the vegetable tray.

And then there’s his wife to be, my future (and the word is so hard to say aloud) stepmother. Here I am at age 53 and the last thing I expected to happen to me at my ripe age is in a new relationship with a stepmother. Should I call her Mom? I don’t think Marie would expect me to, and I hope she does not because Marie is probably all I will be able to muster. Thus far “Mom” has been reserved only for my biological mother (may she rest in peace) and my mother-in-law. I call my mother-in-law “Mom” only because I know she likes to hear it and she thinks of me as her son, somehow. I haven’t the heart to tell her I don’t think of her as my mother, never have and never will. However, I am pragmatic enough to realize that calling her “Mom” does do a lot for maintaining a harmonious relationship with her.

Stepmother?

For the most part my siblings have not weighed in on this impending nuptial. I suspect most realize what I do: there nothing we can do about it anyhow and if we tried to interfere it would only generate bad karma. So if it makes Dad happy in his golden years, why not give him our blessing? So I will, but not without stifling some of my negative feelings.

I am not the only relative feeling some shock. My niece posted yesterday on Facebook, “My grandpa is ENGAGED?!?!?!?!” Exactly! It’s like the earth decided to rotate from west to east all of a sudden. Whether this remarriage is ultimately good, bad or indifferent, my boat is being rocked. I don’t have to like it, but I have the feeling I best get used to the turbulence.

 

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