Archive for November, 2011

The Thinker

A place called Oak Hill

My memories of November are typically memories of darkness and dreariness. Here in Virginia it means minimal daylight, with the sun approaching the horizon around 4:30 in the afternoon. It’s generally not cold enough to snow, but the weather patterns usually blow in moist air, which fills the skies with dark cumulonimbus clouds. Rain, when it falls, comes softly, often as a mist, and rarely with the intensity of summer-driven thunderstorms. The ground is awash with decaying leaves made slippery and soggy from the rain and drizzle.

This year is the exception. 2011 is the November of my dreams. We’ve had some days of dreariness, to be sure, but more typically days of brilliant blue skies, gentle breezes, low humidity and delightfully cool but not cold temperatures. The air starts out crisp in the morning; often a sheen of frost will be found on the tops of the cars. Then it turns into a day of sunny autumn splendor with temperatures sometimes making it into the sixties. The trees have only recently passed their peaks colors. The air feels unnaturally pure. It is hard not to roll down the car windows and let it fill your nostrils, consume you lungs and let it give your cheeks a rosy autumn hue. Instead of being a downer, this November is an upper. It is invigorating and is encouraging me out of my cloisters and into the neighborhood.

Oak Hill, Virginia

I have been on many walks around the neighborhood this month and all of them have been welcome. Aside from reveling in a natural form of exercise there is also the peaceful and content feeling that comes from traversing well trod paths and streets, and to do so largely absent the mosquitoes of spring and the oppressive heat, humidity and shrieking cicadas of summer.

I live in Oak Hill, Virginia, which is an unincorporated place that got an official name when a post office with its name was built in the late 1990s. If your zip code is 20171, you live in Oak Hill. Many of its residents have no idea they live in Oak Hill. If pressed they will substitute Herndon as their location, although we live outside its town limits. Oak Hill is a bedroom community, with some apartments, a few condominiums and townhouses, but mostly single family houses, virtually all of which are part of some homeowners’ association. Fifty years ago the area was largely farms. Community life such as it was could be found around small nearby hamlets like Floris and Hattontown. There were considerable numbers of African Americans living in Oak Hill then, and the younger ones trekked to Floris to attend the colored school there. (The schools were not desegregated until 1964.) We didn’t mean to, but we upwardly mobile overwhelmingly white middle class people pushed them out, thoughtfully aided by well moneyed developers who made them offers they could not refuse. Their houses came down. Dense townhouse and McMansion communities went up in their place. The cows left for greener pastures and houses were plopped down on top of them. Oak Hill was made safe for an upwardly mobile middle class. No white flight here. It would more accurately be called black flight, but this is never newsworthy when that happens.

Horsepen Run

Horsepen Run

Most of the nature that was here was pushed out with development, but not all of it. Some of it can still be found along Horsepen Run, which flows next to my community. The path is not long, but it is bucolic, particularly when there are enough recent rains to make the run actually run. You can easily spot the nearby houses through the trees, but it is comforting to know that civilization is so close by. The trees rustle in the wind, but less so when there are fewer leaves to rustle. Occasionally you will spot a deer peeking through the foliage, and sometimes they will appear boldly on the path.

Oak Hill may contain what’s left of Norman Rockwell’s America. With the largess of the federal government nearby, and plenty of beltway bandits as well along the nearby Dulles corridor, us residents generally don’t have to worry about unemployment. There are doubtless foreclosed homes in the community somewhere, but I cannot find any. Thanksgiving finds many of the homes planted with an American flag on the porch. Some of the more creative homeowners have creative autumn decorations on their houses or trees. A few spent Thanksgiving hanging Christmas lights and sticking plastic candy canes into their lawns. My two and a half mile constitutional this afternoon found my community seemingly untouched by the economic downturn. One of the few signs is spotting an extra homeless man on the sidewalks next to the local CVS. On Black Friday, residents not in the malls were outside enjoying the weather. Friendly dogs bounded around the front lawns. Leaves were raked and stuffed into bags. A few kids played hopscotch on their driveway.

There is no place like home, I guess, but to us harried professionals home often seems more a place to sleep before trudging back to the office. Home and neighborhoods often get overlooked because they are seen so often. Thank goodness then for beautiful November days, a long four-day weekend, and the opportunities for long walks through the neighborhood. In reality, it would have been harder to pick a more perfect neighborhood. It feels like the comfy glove that it is. It is mostly an illusion, a result of the confluence of capital and the energy of homeowners. Yet it all its surreal-ness it remains the beloved place we call home.

 
The Thinker

Give ‘em a real holiday

I don’t know if you have noticed, but real holidays have been slowly disappearing. It’s getting almost impossible to find a holiday that is, well, a holiday. If you are thinking that a holiday is the same thing as having a paid day off during the week to shop, Madison Avenue blesses you. If you are thinking a holiday is a day where you stay home and your employer pays for it, and everything that represents the hassle of normal life pretty much shuts down then, like the Grinch, you have some idea of the true meaning of a holiday. A holiday is a day when life generally stops. It’s like being retired for a day. It’s a mental health day.

It’s hard to believe but this is the way it used to be. On Memorial Day during the decades following the Civil War, when it was better known as Decoration Day, the only work-like activity was decorating the graves of civil war soldiers and with about 700,000 of them there were plenty to decorate. The big event of the day was watching the parade down Main Street, but that was about it. If you felt ambitious, maybe you went back home and roasted some ears of corn or hamburger steaks on a grill in the backyard. Our Civil War seems almost trivial compared to the twenty million or so who died in the First World War. No surprise then that Veterans Day (when it was better known as Armistice Day) was also often a day for quiet contemplation and for expressing genuine gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy due to our veterans. Veterans Day might have also been focused around a parade down Main Street, where the populace would applaud or take off their hats as proud veterans marched past.

Today, most employers do not even give the day as a holiday. World War I is so 1919. The last American soldier that served in the Great War died a few years back. Instead, pretty much all our holidays have been co-opted to honor our real national religion: capitalism. Even Martin Luther King has been used by Madison Avenue as an excuse to sell stuff in what is otherwise a dead retail month. King did move mountains, but his legacy now is principally about moving mountains of mattresses, sheets, pillowcases and appliances.

Supporting this seemingly insatiable need to shop are millions of retail workers, who are virtually the worst paid people in the country. (Migrant workers may be worse off.) With a few exceptions, if you work retail not only are you working inconvenient hours, you are likely not even making close to a living wage. In fact, you are likely a part timer because few retail stores want to hire you full time. Then they might have to pay you benefits or overtime, which are expensive. If you haven’t compared the cost of living with retail workers’ income, you can trust me on this: you cannot earn even poverty line wages working retail. If you support yourself working retail, even with two or more jobs you are probably eligible for food stamps.

If all this were not enough for retail workers, then there are your hours, which are likely to be constantly shifting. If you work part time for our largest retail employer (Wal-Mart) expect to be batted around like a ping pong ball. You may work forty hours one week and four hours the next. Expect to be straightening store shelves at 2 a.m. and maybe back for more at 6 a.m. You may even be locked in the store overnight.

You sure would appreciate a real holiday where for just a couple of days a year you can just zone out while someone else helps pay your bills. But apparently even a couple of holidays a year are a couple too many for retail workers. Thanksgiving is no longer sacrosanct. That’s right, retail worker. No turkey with stuffing for you, not that you could afford turkey anyhow with organic turkeys going at $4.09 a pound this year. Better to keep your Thanksgiving meal modest: maybe a dozen Krispy Kremes for dinner instead. You will need all that sugar because increasingly Thanksgiving has become just another shopping day, which means retail worker drones like you will be hustling in the aisles and at the registers. Black Friday is giving way to Black Thursday.

With so many scuzzy retail chains out there, it is hard to pick from the worst of the worst, but any retail chain that is open on Thanksgiving is, by definition, among the worst of the worst. These include Wal-Mart (opening at 9 PM), KMart (open Thanksgiving for the last ten years straight), Old Navy and BooksaMillion. I know about BooksaMillion personally because my daughter had the misfortune to work there for a year. There they were on Thanksgiving at 9 AM as usual, fluorescent lights all ablaze and the parking lot virtually empty. This was of course some years ago. Today, increasingly you are thinking that even on Thanksgiving there will be some stores open at the local shopping center. If it’s BooksAMillion, you can practically count on it. And if you are an employee working on Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving dinner means bringing some substandard turkey loaf to heat up in the microwave in the break room during your doubtless too short break.

Here is what should be open on Thanksgiving: gas stations, hospitals, hotels, homeless shelters, police and fire stations and that’s about it. You say you need to run down to the local Food Lion on turkey day because you need an extra jar of turkey gravy? Too bad for you. You should have thought about that by Wednesday night. It’s a holiday, stupid! It’s a day to spend with people who are important to you or, if you prefer, a day to vegetate at home with a bad turkey loaf roasted in your oven in an aluminum container, instant potatoes from a box and some gravy from a package. If you can muster any such feelings because if you work retail, it’s a day to be thankful. Instead you may be at some register somewhere or prepping the store for opening at midnight on Black Friday. See, only privileged people with money to buy stuff get to have holidays. For retail workers, be glad to have a crappy job. At least you have flexible hours, if flexible means hours at the convenience of your employer.

Perhaps as part of any reforms coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, one of them will be laws to redefine holidays so they resemble, well, holidays. Imagine how much more blissful we could be if we all knew that on a holiday we would get the day off (or at least be compensated extra for it if we could not). Imagine if most holidays were like Christmas (which is doubtless itself under retail attack) and life just sort of stopped. Who could not use more mental health days? I know I could, but from my retail days I know who could use them even more: the millions of suffering, hassled, stressed and underpaid retail workers of our country. I say we need a law to shut down all retail stores on Thanksgiving by law. Give everyone including our retail workers a real holiday with pay on Thanksgiving.

 
The Thinker

The last exam

I like to blog but increasingly it is getting hard to find time to indulge. My plate is normally piled pretty high with life during any week. I like to keep busy. For example, I teach a class on Tuesday night. That takes time and preparation but I consider it fun, in spite of the fact that it chews up part of my weekend and makes Tuesdays a sixteen-hour day. And there are lots of other things that keep me busy, including the usual: a full time job, various onerous and not so onerous duties around the house, exercise and other volunteer activities.

Blogging requires leisure time, and at least this week it has been largely nonexistent. This is because in addition to teaching a class, I got to sit in the classroom this week. I got to be a student again, which in this case meant cramming a semester course into three days. Speaking for middle age people everywhere who encounter this: Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!

The course in question is this one. I won’t identify the vendor except to say I got to take it locally in nearby Fairfax, Virginia, and the view from the 11th floor of this office building is impressive. Taking the course and hopefully passing the exam was challenging, in part because I am a middle aged dude, grad school is more than a decade in my past, and those old studying and cramming skills have atrophied. There is no denying it: I am just not the student I once was. Perhaps I have become a bit soft, or maybe it is just general laziness. I wish my mind were as supple and capable of absorbing knowledge as it used to be. Hunkering down at age 54 has become really hard to do.

“Why am I doing this?” I kept asking myself. The training was not required and I suggested it to my boss, in part because I had an employee take it and she found it useful. I am not required to get a certain number of continuing education credits every year, but when I had to in the past getting the course certificate was good enough. But certain courses demand more. They demand that they monopolize your life for the time you take them. This course was a three-day course, but it essentially packed in a semester course into three days. It came complete with a high stakes professional exam at the end that had to be shipped to Great Britain for official scoring. I won’t know for a week if I passed. I can say that it was one of the hardest exams I have ever had to take, and that includes the SAT. Some of my classmates were sweating bullets. Their jobs literally depended on passing the test.

Fortunately, the instructor coached us heavily. When you have a course book with more than three hundred pages, there is no way to read it in three days. She knew what to have us focus on and what could safely be ignored. She had us bookmark certain pages and underline key phrases. Even so the course was incredibly briskly paced. Moreover, it came with plenty of homework. Except for some few hours of poor sleep, the course consumed your life for three days.

I was lucky because my boss did not demand that I take the exam. But once in the class my darned sense of professionalism and pride kicked in. How could I shamefully audit the class when everyone else was sweating it? And who knows, maybe I would put the material to use, in spite of the fact that I am rapidly approaching retirement age. Mainly the peer pressure got to me. So I jumped in headfirst and hoped I would make it to the other side of the pool, which looked so far away.

It all felt and was quite daunting, but I know twenty years earlier it would have felt much less so. The course’s pace made my heart beat faster. My hand raced to keep up with the notes I was taking. Very soon my head started throbbing because the fire hose of information just kept coming at me. At the end of the day I staggered home only to find a stack of homework that had to be done, notes to be reviewed, highlighted and terms committed to memory, and my mind fatigued and numb. Perhaps it was psychosomatic, but I started to develop cold symptoms. They were really stress symptoms. I was like a Ford with 200,000 miles on it, rarely driven faster than sixty miles an hour suddenly being asked to drive at 120 miles an hour for a hundred miles.

Even with all that preparation and coaching, when I took the practice exam I managed to squeak by with only one point. We quickly reviewed it and our mistakes, and then were given the real exam that was considerably harder than the practice exam. I won’t know for a week or so if I passed. I’m guessing I probably passed, but likely just barely. If I were twenty years younger I might have scored twenty points higher. But those days are sadly behind me. The CPUs in my brain have slowed down over the years. Indexing all that material left some broken links and filing the material was a slow process. The more supple minds around me, principally brilliant students from India and China, seemed to handle it with equanimity.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will be the last exam I have to take in my life. If I have to take another, I should get some sort of handicap for age. Perhaps I needed the same class to be a day longer and not quite so hurried and harried.

For now much of my week remains a cloud of intensity and mental pain that has passed, I hope for good.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

While almost everyone I know intimately has seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), often repeatedly and occasionally in costume, I never saw it. I have seen snippets of it over the years, and even knew songs from it (“Time Warp”) but had never sat down to watch it. Certainly in 1975 it was unlikely I would have found it at a local Central Florida theater, as it was found in eclectic venues if at all. But even if I were interested in a movie about a transvestite transsexual from (the planet of, go figure) Transylvania, I might not have gotten in, as I could still have been sixteen at the time and for sure neither of my parents would have taken me to see it.

Thirty six years later and at more than thrice my age then I finally found the time and interest to watch it, although the DVD still sat next to my TV for a few weeks. Even thirty-six years later, I am still not interested in transvestite transsexuals from Transylvania, but I can see how this B movie quickly developed a cult following. It was the first of a kind movie, even though today seeing guys in drag and transsexuality are not unknown themes in movies. In 1975, homosexuality was barely acknowledged and even good liberals were anti-gay. A movie with Tim Curry in fishnet stockings that as Dr. Frank-N-Furter “swung both sides of the aisle” must have fried the brains of nearly everyone who was not in the queer community, and that includes former stoners and flower children. I imagine the reaction of these at the time to the movie was largely a dazed and slack-jawed look.

In 2011, there are still plenty of uptight people who would be dreadfully offended by The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Then there are the rest of us for whom the movie viewed with fresh eyes is now not particularly shocking but is a lot of fun, at least until the movie is about halfway through. A forty-five minute movie would have been too short to show in theaters, of course, so it had to be padded and filled out, mostly with inanity. So the movie may be appreciated best if stopped somewhere in the middle.

While it lasts, the movie still gives one helluva a kick. This is because for a bad movie it is done so very well. Director Jim Sharman does a great job with the casting, and fills the movie with a near ideal cast of bizarre misfits all of whom are obviously enjoying themselves. Bizarre does not apply, at least at first to Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), a nerdy Republican couple who announce their engagement shortly after attending the marriage of Brad’s best friend. Just in case you don’t understand how straight-laced Brad and Janet’s friends are, the farmer and his wife from American Gothic frame themselves in the church door.

The best part of The Rocky Horror Picture Show is probably the musical part. Yes, it’s a musical and a pretty darn good one at that, with great dancing, choreography, catchy tunes and fun lyrics. The music helps you forget how tedious the second half of the movie becomes. Seeing people in drag and fishnets, however, quickly loses its shock value, at least in Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s castle that, by the way, doubles as a rocket ship.

There is not much plot to this movie. Brad and Janet serve as convenient stereotypes for straight-laced America, and Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s job is to quickly break through their inhibitions. Curry, of course, is great as Frank-N-Furter. Just as Faye Dunaway monopolized Mommie Dearest, Curry comes at us with all cylinders firing, and apparently a half dozen extra as well. What’s amazing about the movie is how well it works, until like a fireworks festival after the first fifteen minutes, at some indeterminate point about halfway through it loses all its shock value. That’s when this campy movie moves from a fun B movie into a tedious one. The only question after the “Meatloaf” is served is how to wind down this weird movie. I personally cannot get enough of a young Susan Sarandon on screen in a bra and panties. That kept me watching until the end.

I’m not sure if it could have been done, but there might have been a way to make the last half of the movie sparkle as much as the first. Perhaps it would have required another gimmick, like having the castle invaded by Bible thumping Christians holding bright silver crosses. The movie’s energy comes from the conflict between puritanical and unrestrained behavior. Once past, it becomes like a soufflé that goes flat.

So I’ve finally seen it. Since I usually rate movies I feel I should rate this one as well, but won’t. Rocky Horror is, quite frankly, a bad B movie, but oddly a lot of fun for the first half of it with plenty of memorable songs to hum afterward. When it works, it works brilliantly. When it stops, you can use the excuse of that super-sized cola to pay an extended visit to the men’s room. And you would be wise to do so.

 
The Thinker

Processing Petrina

I found myself sleeping poorly on Monday night. I tossed and turned for hours and when I stumbled into sleep I returned to the same dream I could not escape. My name was Pete and I was coming out, not as a homosexual, but as a transgender. I was going to become Petrina.

This would be a strange dream for me to have, since I am quite comfortable being a male. I have from time to time acknowledged my feminine side, but it has never manifested itself as an obsession or even a mild concern. I don’t read Vogue. I don’t secretly (or overtly) dress up in my wife’s clothes. I don’t dress in a subtle or not so subtle feminine manner. The only reason I was dreaming I was Pete becoming Petrina is because earlier that day the real life Pete (not his real name) in my life told me confidentially he was divorcing his wife, moving into an apartment, and was planning to spend the rest of his life as a woman. He would soon announce himself as a she, and she would be Petrina. In fact, he already had his name legally changed.

I do what I often do when confronted with one of these minor shocks in life. I breathed in sharply. I found myself blinking rapidly. I also found myself a little slack jawed. It was one of those few times in life I was truly at a loss for adequate words. It was hard to know what to say. I could not give empathy because it was outside my experience. I could not offer a handshake or a hug, in part because I see Pete only a couple of times a year and the news came via instant message with details in a private email. “Congratulations,” seemed a bit weak, as he was in the process of renting an apartment and divorcing a wife of more than thirty years, a woman who was presumably completely blameless in this matter. “I’m sorry,” seemed weak too because Pete had been struggling with being a woman in a man’s body all his life but like so many in the transgender community had kept it deep under wraps. Yet there was potential great good about moving to a healthy space where he could openly be a she.

In retrospect, there were signs that if I were paying more attention to them might have triggered the thought that Pete might really be Petrina. There is his long and clean hair that went halfway the waist. There is the soft voice, the gentle nature and the nearly flawless complexion for someone in their sixties. No wonder I liked him because I am gentle by nature and about as far away as you can get from the masculine, beer-drinking NASCAR-watching male stereotype.

Then there were the months he spent off the job for reasons that were not explained but were at least partially spent in a hospital. I thought he had been battling some terrible disease, like cancer, that he wanted to keep private. It sounds like he spent his whole life suppressing his feelings and confiding them in no one, knowing that doing so would only breach unbelievable pain for others, a problem a woman seems better able to understand. The conflict apparently came to a boil after many decades where the choice became quite simple: he would either become a she or he would end his life. After so much time he simply had to be publicly the she he was on the inside.

That’s why I was sleeping poorly. Because I really liked Pete, it was easy to imagine myself inhabiting his world, now that I knew he harbored this private pain for so many decades. As my brain wrestled trying to live inside his body, I could feel nothing but an overwhelming and relentlessly painful disconnect of the soul and spirit. How could anyone endure this pain for even a day, let alone decades? And yet even with the burden of such pain, where did he find the strength come out? He doubtless has many friends and a social and familial circle that extends into the hundreds. He is asking all of them to make a big leap of the psyche, and see him as a her, not to estrange themselves from her and knowing that probably most of them will anyhow. The vast majority of us simply cannot look much beyond our sexual orientation. It frames so much of our lives and the assumptions we make interacting with someone. How can we not resent in some way a man who falsely presented himself as a man? How can we not feel some level of visceral distrust?

What Pete has done has changed everything in his life. It is like a neutron bomb exploding, leaving everything living dead but structures still standing. At the price of estranging himself from almost everyone who he has known and loved, what he receives is only the ability to openly be the gender he is on the inside, not the sex he is on the outside. To reconcile the difference in the months and years ahead there will be hormone treatment, lots of psychotherapy and sex change surgery. Peter will be Petrina, but will Petrina find the acceptance of herself in society that she also craves? Or will society mostly look, if not run, the other way?

Petrina will be the third openly transgender person I have come across in the workplace. My first experience back in the 1987 left me completely flummoxed and tongue-tied. I feel ashamed now of how badly I reacted back then. I did my best to avoid her, although she apparently never underwent the surgery. The second occurred in the early 2000s when John became Georgina. I did not handle that change very well either. In part this was because Georgina looked ridiculous as a woman, perhaps because she was six foot two inches tall and retained the shape and stock of a male.  I thought of Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H. In her case though I simply could not make the mental transition. In my eyes, John became John in a dress, not Georgina. The Georgina rendition seemed false. Again, I dealt with Georgina probably like lots of us ordinary people do, by minimizing my contact with her simply because I could not process the feelings and felt intensely awkward about the whole transition.

With Petrina, my relationship is far closer than it was with Georgina. Because it was, I think, some part of me could empathize. I could feel some of the pain that she felt. It both overwhelmed me and made me feel deeply sad. This time though I could process it better. I could feel for the person. And I knew that this time, at last, I could handle it without shirking Petrina and without smirking. At last I could reach out in sympathy and friendship. And I vowed that at least this time I would not be one of those who when she came down the hall ran in the other direction. In fact, I have vowed to treat Petrina no less well than I treated Pete, and to reach out to her in kindness and compassion, as one human heart who has known his share of turmoil to another.

I ended our IM conversation with, “I am so glad you told me about this, Petrina.”

 
The Thinker

I’m hip with Hipmunk

Every once in a while you come across a site where you want to slap yourself on the forehead, bellow a Homer Simpson “Doah!” and wonder why it is that no one has done this before. There are so many travel search engines out there but until now no one has thought to simply lay out your flight options on a nice easy to see timeline. Someone finally got around to doing something that should have been obvious but that none of us saw until now, and has done it very smartly.

Move over Travelocity, Expedia and Orbitz. Goodbye Kayak and the dozens of other travel search engines out there. Hello Hipmunk.com, which made finding the right flight and hotel for our upcoming trip to New Orleans a breeze. While not a perfect travel search engine, it excels at usability. It won’t show you flights by Southwest, for example, because Southwest won’t expose their flights to any travel search engines. And it probably won’t find those island hopper or third world carriers that show up on obscure search engines like AirNinja.com. However, if your needs are modest, Hipmunk.com is the obvious travel search engine to use.

Hipmunk.com has a Joe Friday “just the facts, ma’am” approach to travel searching. Keep it dirt simple. For flights, it asks where you want to leave from, where you want to go, the day of departure and a return date, if you plan to return. Smart controls minimize keystrokes and time needed to enter the information. It does not even bother to ask about the time of day that you want to leave; instead it just quickly renders a nice convenient horizontal timeline with the early morning hours on the left, late night hours on the right, and rows of horizontal bars showing various flight options along with connecting cities airport codes, if any. There is one click flight sorting depending on how you want to see results. The default sort, by “agony” is fine for most of us. The agony score is based on a number of factors including price, stopovers and flight duration. Because flights are shown in a timeline, at a glance you can see how much time you have to catch a connecting flight. A thirty-minute layover in Houston, for example, may simply be too short a time interval to chance, however much in theory it shortens your time to get to your destination. Knowing the connecting airport at a glance is also very helpful. Connecting in Atlanta is much more problematic than connecting in Charlotte, for example. If you need more details, click on the flight for a pop up dialog box with flight details.

Hipmunk also does very intelligent hotel searches. In my case, I am planning a cruise out of New Orleans. I first did some research to find out where the cruise terminal is in New Orleans. Fortunately, it is close to the Latin Quarter, so we could pay a visit, however brief, to New Orleans’ most touristy district. Clicking on the hotels tab, Hipmunk assumed I was interested in a New Orleans hotel, since I chose that as my flight destination. It also assumed I wanted a reservation for the date of my arrival in New Orleans. The search was automatic. It ordered hotels based on their “ecstasy” factor, a number based on price, location and reviews. Since the map interface was Google Maps, I zoomed in on the Latin Quarter. Place your mouse over the location of interest and you get a convenient pop up box with the rating, the cost per night, a summary of tripadvisor.com ratings. You also get a small picture of the hotel. Click on the hotel and it expands to a larger pop up box where you can read recent reviews from tripadvisor.com. Tabs in the window let you see the hotel’s amenities and rating factors about the neighborhood, including the vice score and a score for food availability. To book the room, just click on the price shown and a new window opens up with the booking service offering the room for that rate. Again, it is hard to make it a simpler or faster process. In minutes I selected the hotel with the price we wanted and had booked the reservation.

Hipmunk’s deficiency is that you can’t use it to find rental cars, or make train reservations, find travel bundles, or vacation packages. Perhaps those features will be added over time. Or perhaps it is best not to try. Hipmunk’s genius is doing what it does very easily and intuitively.

Hipmunk is probably most useful for the frequent traveler who needs to see all travel choices quickly at a glance, needs options when there are flight delays but lacks information or time, or when they need to make a smart hotel reservation in a hurry. For vanilla travel, particularly within the United States, it is now the obvious travel site to use. You will still want to check Southwest as well, if that’s an option, because Southwest often has the lowest rates.

If you have a smartphone, both Android and iOS apps are available.

 
The Thinker

How to unoccupy Wall Street

There is no sign that protesters occupying Wall Street and other cities are going away. Police are just one of many groups baffled by these groups: seemingly disparate communities of people intent to live 24/7 outside in urban environments, making homes in cheap plastic tents, sleeping in sleeping bags on cold concrete surfaces, and using local McDonalds for bodily necessities. For the most part they are a peaceful lot, although a small subset of the protestors occupying Oakland caused some minor vandalism at the Port of Oakland. Mostly the protestors seem to be communal and ad hoc. It is the ad hoc nature of these protests that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect to those who oppose them. “What do they want?” is the common complaint, but answers from the representatives of the 99% are elusive. They oppose the power of corporations and big banks, and the increasing wealth of the superrich, but there are no list of demands, no spokesmen, and no figurehead. Instead the protestors and the protests seem to be wholly organic.

It’s unclear what caused the movement to come together now, when conditions have been bad for years. Moreover, it is nebulous as best how it will end. Police are trying the usual tactics of coercion and intimidation. Marches tend to be sporadic and ad hoc, which often violates some local ordinance where protests have to be planned. This gives police the justification to lobby tear gas, use pepper spray and try other group dispersal tactics. Protestors generally handle these indignities well. Neither Jesus nor Martin Luther King would find much in their behavior worthy of chastisement.

I suspect at this point even the police are wising up. These Occupy movements are fed by general discontent, and they fade away only when the source of the discontent fades. A robust economic recovery that lifts all boats does not appear to be on the horizon. If anything, Congress seems intent to do everything possible not to solve our underlying economic problems, and Republicans see growing income inequality as good. A cold winter may shrink the number of occupiers temporarily, but is unlikely to stop protests altogether. Even if it does, they are easy enough to restart with crowd-sourcing technologies on Twitter and Facebook.

Authorities can try using increasingly heavier hands. After all, it worked before. During the early days of the Great Depression, about 46,000 former World War I soldiers unable to find work and their families occupied Washington D.C. They wanted Congress to give them immediately cash payments for their service certificates. The Bonus Army got the attention of Congress and the White House, but not in a good way. General Douglas McArthur used two regiments of cavalry to clear Washington of protestors. Yet, protestors were eventually successful. In 1936, the Bonus Army got their bonuses. Members of the Bonus Army also received preferential hiring for positions in the Civilian Conservation Corps. The ruckus helped sweep Franklin D. Roosevelt into the White House in 1932.

While the number of actual protestors at Occupy events is relatively small, at least at the moment a plurality of Americans are sympathetic to their cause. With approval of Congress at nine percent, Americans overall feel disconnected from their government. The Occupy movement is a direct result of this disconnection and frustration.

The problems that Occupy movements are trying to address are institutional and devilishly hard to solve, which suggests these movements are not going to go away anytime soon. Congress is largely refusing to consider their requests. This makes perfect sense because our political system has been engineered by time and money to enfranchise those with money and those that are highly partisan. The result is a Congress elected from congressional districts drawn so politically extreme that moderates and ordinary people in the middle are institutionally disenfranchised. Moreover, the disenfranchisement will be permanent unless things change in a fundamental way.

Those looking for hope will not find much. We recently finished the 2010 census and partisan state legislatures are doing again what they have always done: drawing Congressional districts that are highly partisan. There are a few brave exceptions. California and Arizona are now required by law to draw nonpartisan districts. It seems to be working in California, but the jury is still out in Arizona. In any event, two states out of fifty changing course is hardly a trend, and typically congressional districts are redrawn only as a result of the census held every ten years.

Something resembling real change is simply not possible for another year, which is when the next congressional elections are scheduled. Even then the odds of any real change are rather small. The decentralized nature of Occupy events is a direct response to this actual disempowerment.

A prequel to the Occupy movements could be seen with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. In the ruling, the Supreme Court broadened the ability of corporations and entities with money to influence government. Virtually everyone except major corporations and those in power panned the ruling. We reacted viscerally to the notion that a corporation is the same thing as a person. Before we had tolerated it, but with the ruling broadening it, slowly a critical mass formed. This event plus the way we addressed the Great Recession to favor Wall Street formed the catalyst for a new and broadly popular movement.

It will take a new people-oriented Congress in 2013 to really address these inequities. Whether we get this kind of Congress is problematic but it is possible that despite our highly partisan districts the 99% will speak with a strong enough voice where a new dynamic can emerge.

At a minimum, a few constitutional amendments would be in order for this new Congress, with dubious prospects that they would be approved by three fourths of the states. In the first, the constitution must be amended to specify that only people and not other entities can contribute to campaigns for political office and that Congress can restrict the amount of these contributions by law. In the second, states would be required to create congressional districts that are contiguous and nonpartisan, to be overseen or perhaps even created by federal judges in these states.

A constitutional amendment cannot address income inequality, but a Congress that actually represents the people rather than the wealthy and the political extremes could choose to pass laws that help address these issues. It’s my belief that these steps, and only these steps, will truly end these Occupy protests.

 

 
The Thinker

Life among the landlocked

I wonder how many workers in Los Angeles who live on one side of the sprawling metropolis would book a room in a hotel on the other side for three nights to attend a conference because they didn’t want to deal with the traffic.

I’m guessing not many LA’ers would consider this possibility, even if they could do it on their employer’s dime. Perhaps they would have done so in the past, but move over LA. Your city no longer holds the title for having the worst traffic in the United States. Perhaps due in part to malaise from the Great Recession, the Washington D.C. area now holds the dubious title of having the nation’s worst traffic. And here in the D.C. area, considering the hassle of getting from my house near Dulles International Airport to my place of business for the week near Baltimore-Washington International Airport (a distance of about fifty-five miles) the answer was clear: better book a hotel room.

That’s how bad the traffic is around here. Unlike Los Angeles, which at least has plenty of ways to get from point A to point B, in the Washington area if you need to get from, say, suburban Virginia to suburban Maryland you are largely limited to the Capital Beltway.  This usually means getting in a frequently congested queue of slow moving cars many miles long.

I drove to the conference from my house on Monday morning, leaving about 7:30 AM. I arrived ninety minutes later. This is actually a pretty good commuting time, considering it was in the thick of rush hour. I was helped in part because the bulk of the commuter traffic in the morning is from Maryland into Virginia. This is because Virginia has more jobs than Maryland, so Marylanders queue up on the outer loop of the Capital Beltway and on I-270 to get to Virginia. Many of those Maryland commuters were commuting to Tysons Corner in Virginia, so there were the usual clogs of cars on this road to tediously slog through. For me, because there were no accidents on the inner loop, the beltway was not a bad bottleneck, although it was slow in spots between Bethesda and Silver Spring.

This is what you do if you are a Washingtonian with a car. You are on a road that was designed to be an expressway. Instead, you stop. You go a little. You stop. You go some more. Sometimes you creep for miles at five to 20 miles an hour. Then you stop some more again. And you go some more again. Many of the spots where this will happen are predictable, but on any given commute you know there are guaranteed to be a few gotchas, i.e. bozos involved in wholly preventable traffic accidents. Often Type A drivers cause these accidents. We are overrun with Type A drivers in this area because we are all here to make our mark on the world. We live on overly caffeinated coffee and work crazy hours. One in ten of us are lawyers.

So traffic is just another battle we must win. So we dodge and weave crazily in traffic and then crunch someone’s fender. Since the traffic is already bumper-to-bumper, this just causes a huge queue of cars to stop for miles behind the accident. The service vehicle often becomes a victim too. Crazy Washington drivers being who they are, they have few qualms about driving on the shoulder when convenient, in the process blocking the service vehicles.

So of course I opted to stay in the hotel. While most of the congestion and/or mayhem happen during rush hours, there is no accounting for the time of day for these events. Tuesday I witnessed a ten-mile backup on I-95 approaching Baltimore from the south. Fortunately I was going the opposite way. (I had to teach a class in Virginia that evening, so I left the conference early.) Some jackknifed tractor-trailer was responsible for blocking four lanes of traffic. The usual. And speaking of “the usual”, as I made my way from Baltimore back to Virginia there was the usual creeping traffic on the outer loop near New Hampshire Avenue and approaching the American Legion Bridge, then more in Virginia. In Virginia the beltway is being “modernized” to put in HOT (High Occupancy Toll) lanes and this construction is squeezing the already squeezed commuters on the road. These HOT lanes are basically expressways for the obscenely rich. But that’s okay in Virginia because the rich are basically in charge anyhow and god forbid we spend public money to make the beltway faster for the 99%. The very idea!

Spending three nights in a hotel fifty miles from home actually made a great deal of sense. I saved huge amounts of time (at least three hours a day) by not commuting even if it meant being deprived of the company of spouse and feline. Yet the experience seemed so ridiculous, to be so close to home and yet to sleep in a hotel. It was the only practical alternative because taxpayers around here apparently are masochists. Instead, we regularly pave over what we have, and very occasionally adding a lane or two. In general traffic moves much better in Maryland than in Virginia because they spend much more on transportation. You can see it on Route 29 with all the new interchanges. Even so these modest improvements are not enough, and in Maryland they just result in less gridlock than in Virginia.

Today, at the conclusion of our conference, I contemplated yet another stop and go largely unpredictable commute home on the Capital Beltway and decided I just couldn’t endure it again. Instead, even though it was further and probably a half an hour longer, I drove to Frederick, Maryland and then across the Potomac River at the far north Point of Rocks Bridge. At least I could move. At least, except for some congestion on I-695 (Baltimore’s beltway) I could move at highway speeds. At least there was some predictability of when I would get home. Had I tried the beltway, there was probably a five percent chance I would still be sitting in traffic somewhere. I just didn’t want to deal with the possibility.

I do hope that when I retire I can retire somewhere with much better traffic. You know, some place like Los Angeles.

 

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