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The Thinker

Between states

It took many more boxes. Toward the end it took a quick trip to our local Public Storage for a few extra boxes. It took many more boxes and many six packs of packaging tape. It took takeout from the local Silver Diner for breakfast on the day of the move, since our kitchen was all packed up. It took me following behind the moving crew after they emptied a room with a vacuum and/or a broom. It took a large trash bag to toss stuff into. For the moving crew, moving us out of our house took about nine hours, and it involved disassembling lots of furniture, wrapping our furniture in blankets and packing tape and moving awkward pieces of furniture down a harrowing flight of stairs. For my wife it took a trip to a retinal specialist.

There are times when I feel like I married a Calamity Jane. It happens with such regularity that I’ve come to anticipate her medical surprises at the worst possible moment. The other shoe is always ready to drop in my house, so naturally it happened on the night before we were to move four hundred miles. Cooking dinner was not an option the last night in our house, so my wife used the event as an excuse for fast food. On her way back from the Arby’s, her cornea tore, obscuring most of her vision in that eye. So for her moving day was partially spent at a retinal specialist’s office. As emergencies go this one went pretty well. She was seen right away and they did laser surgery on the spot. In two to three weeks she should be back to normal, assuming some other sort of minor emergency doesn’t happen before then.

So it was up to me to supervise the moving crew. Mostly they could be left alone while I fretted over events I could not control. Still, if you have to move yesterday turned out to be the perfect day for it. Temperatures hovered near seventy. Our trees were flowering and spreading petals on our lawn. The sun shown pleasantly through the trees and fluffy cumulus clouds adorned the sky. The doors were flung open while three white guys and a very big moving truck did their thing. Slowly the house that I inhabited for twenty one years emptied. Toward the end we were reduced to sitting in lawn chairs on our deck communicating with our smartphones. (The cable equipment had been returned to Verizon around noon.)

The red stuff went first, by which I mean boxes with red packing tape. They will go into our apartment in Easthampton, Massachusetts so must come off last, thus had to go in first. The rest of it is destined for a storage unit across the Connecticut River in Hadley, Massachusetts. Sometime in July or August when our house is finished, all our possessions will be reunited in Florence, Massachusetts. Eventually all the boxes will be emptied and recycled. My incessant dreams of boxes and packing tape will recede.

For now though we are playing our parts in a well planned time stream. For two nights we are inhabiting a bedroom at my sister’s house in Columbia, Maryland, about an hour away. Sunday morning will find us driving to Massachusetts in separate cars (yes, it’s okay for my wife to drive), and we will begin two nights in a hotel in Holyoke. Monday will find us at our apartment but without furniture. We need to meet the cable guy and get all the internet plumbing working. Tuesday we will meet the movers in Hadley and wait hours while they dump most of our stuff into a storage unit. Then we will follow them to Easthampton and watch them dump the rest into our apartment. We’ll also see our new house which should have a roof on, pick up the key to our mailbox, and discuss electrical connections with the builder.

By the 28th we’ll be back in Northern Virginia one last time. My wife has two doctors’ appointments, one with the retinal specialist. But mainly we will be there to settle on the purchase of our house, which means a few hours more cleaning our now empty house and hopefully meeting our daughter one morning for breakfast as well. On the 30th we’ll make one last trip back to New England, all obligations settled and home for real.

Meanwhile we are literally between states, two wayfarers trying to close one door in our lives while simultaneously opening another.

 
The Thinker

Not quite ready for Hillary

To no one’s surprise, Hillary Clinton is planning to finally confirm that yes, she is running for president in 2016. This will happen probably via a Twitter post tomorrow that will link to a video of her announcement. Officially she’s been undecided, but given all the backstage machinations going on within the Clinton camp it’s been obvious for months if not years that she was going to run. Thence she will be off on a listening tour. She has learned from previous campaigns that she does better when she is not giving speeches and when she is seen as relatable.

I hope I am not the only one out there feeling underwhelmed. It’s not that I can’t support her for president, particularly since there is not a sane Republican running for president. Hillary for President sounds about as exciting to me as a bowl of mushy oatmeal for breakfast. Maybe it’s good for me but most mornings I don’t want to eat it. I’m not sure who I am looking for, but it’s not Hillary Clinton.

For most on the Democratic left, the choice would be Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA), who will soon be my senator. I could get behind her of course if she were going to run, which she is not, even though I doubt she would be an effective president. She has been quite clear about not wanting to run for president. Hillary is not quite without competition. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is running, some say in the hope to end up on her ticket. Former Republican governor of Rhode Island and Democratic senator Lincoln Chafee sounds like he will be running. And former Virginia senator Jim Webb sounds like he might do the same.

O’Malley is definitely politically left but is otherwise uninspiring. Lincoln Chafee is virtually unknown outside his tiny home state. Jim Webb is an intriguing possibility. He was a decent if unconventional senator, without much in the way of accomplishments for his six years in the senate, but with lots of interesting ideas that succumbed to the usual partisanship. Webb seemed happy to leave after a single term. However, Webb likes to flit from thing to thing. Flitting with the presidency is his current thing. He would be the closest thing to a non-controversial and mainstream candidate that the Democrats could nominate. Hillary brings baggage.

With Hillary I think: Is this really the best we can do? Perhaps so. Hillary hits all the right demographics. She is broadly popular, particularly among women. She is well known and won’t surprise us. We know all her dirt and in particular we know all of her husband’s dirt. We have seen her as First Lady, senator, candidate and secretary of state. As First Lady she was seen as uppity and controversial. As a senator she learned to be toned down and conventional. She also made some really bad calls, such as voting for the Iraq War resolution. As a candidate in 2008 she ran an overly scripted, haughty and very flawed campaign that was as exciting as, well, my bowl of morning oatmeal. Her only real political success was as our Secretary of State. That’s not a bad asset to bring to the presidency. Like it or not, foreign policy will occupy much of the next president’s time. It’s not something that voters will care much about.

What does she bring to a campaign? She brings an I’m not one of those nutty Republicans, pretty much any of whom with the possible exception of Jeb Bush are unelectable. Mostly she brings the undeniable fact that she is a woman with a serious chance of winning her party’s nomination. Seeing the mess so many men have made of the presidency, we’d like to see a female in that post in the hopes that she would bring more pragmatism and common sense to the office. Certainly the tone would be different, wouldn’t it?

Perhaps but tone doesn’t change much. The power dynamics will not change much when Obama exits stage right and if Clinton enters stage left. The senate has a decent chance of returning to Democratic control in 2016, but unless there is a huge wave election for Hillary the House will stay with the GOP. Districts are too tightly gerrymandered for a switch there. Democrats really have to hope they can win sufficient power in key states in 2020 when the next census takes place. Any first term for Hillary Clinton would look a lot like Obama’s current term.

So electing Hillary certainly won’t solve the gridlock in Congress or change the overall political dynamics. It would not surprise me if Republican misogyny toward Hillary replaces their obvious racism toward Obama. Clinton would certainly do her best to keep the status quo in place: no major changes on the Supreme Court or changed to entitlements. In that sense her presidency would feel comfortable. The biggest political problem today is actually within the Republican Party. They don’t know what they stand for. The libertarians and Wall Street Republicans loathe the social conservatives and visa versa. The party refuses to come down to earth and wants to chase bogeymen and impossible goals. Just like modern Christianity bears no resemblance to the religion Jesus founded, today’s Republican party bears no resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s vision of the party. It’s become impossibly twisted and bizarrely out of the mainstream.

A vote for Hillary is really a vote for more of the same, which is not necessarily bad given that with the reigns of power Republicans would likely be doing insane things like turning over our national parks to the private sector. However, there is nothing compelling about her candidacy, nothing to inspire voters other than she is a woman, and no coherent and inspiring message to rally around. The power of such a message should not be discounted. It provided a mandate for Barack Obama in 2008 and both a Democratic House and Senate. Real change happens when people have a strong motivation to vote, not just for a candidate, but also for candidates supporting a distinct and credible platform.

Given Clinton’s cautious nature, we are likely to see more of her 2008 campaign. It is likely to be carefully scripted and stage-managed. It will be a cautious and focus group tested campaign rather than a bold one. If Hillary were a man instead of a woman, would any of us vote for her with the same interest and enthusiasm? I doubt it. She would be another milquetoast Martin O’Malley, but much more centrist and likely less inspiring.

So I’m not ready for Hillary. I probably never will be. I can’t see myself voting for any of the crazy Republican candidates. If she wins the nomination she will likely get my vote. Unless she can demonstrate a passion and a compelling vision I’ve never seen from her I’ll probably dutifully vote for her. I just won’t feel inspired doing so.

 
The Thinker

Many partings and many boxes

How do you leave one life and start another? It involves lots and lots of boxes and lots and lots of money. And it involves lots of little goodbyes. And maybe it involves saying au revoir, which is not so much a forever goodbye as a temporary goodbye. Some part of me suspects I will be living in the Mid Atlantic again.

That’s not in the plan. The plan is to retire to Massachusetts. Yes, we constantly get sideways looks: you are supposed to move south when you retire. Yet my parents didn’t. They moved from Florida to Michigan. We really don’t know anyone where we will be living except for Craig and Roger. Craig is the realtor that sold us on Northampton when we spent two nights there a couple of years ago and asked to look around. And Roger is a client of mine across the Connecticut River in Amherst, who introduced us to Joe’s Cafe in Northampton where the pizza is so legendary it’s hard to get a seat.

We move in part because we can and in part as an act of love. For thirty years of marriage my wife has complained about Northern Virginia. Finally with retirement I can fulfill her wish to escape the whole area. I am dubious that the climate there will agree with her. She is very weather sensitive. Weather changes seem to trigger muscular pains, headaches and even sinus infections. Maybe there will be less of that up there, in part because the seasons are better defined. Here spring often lasts about a week then feels like summer, but then it may revert to spring for a few weeks and occasionally will even revert to winter. It’s a schizophrenic place to call home, but for however short spring turns out to be, it is beautiful. I doubt we will find such an intense spring further north.

With about a week to go until the moving van arrives, all semblance of our home is gone. Pictures are off the walls. Boxes occupy floors and stuff closets. Some boxes are still to be assembled. Most of these boxes have been used in moves before. When we put out the word that we were moving, it wasn’t hard to find people with boxes to unload. Some came off FreeCycle, but many came from friends at my church. Thanks to a general decluttering that started six months ago, boxing is straightforward. We spend a couple of hours a day at it. There actually is not much more to do. Most of the rest must wait until the very end.

Boxes must be carefully loaded, sealed and marked, for we are not moving once but twice. Most of our property will go into a storage unit. Stuff to fill out a bedroom, study and a living room will go into an apartment in Easthampton, Massachusetts. We’ve come up with a system: transparent wrapping tape for the long term storage boxes, red masking tape for the short term stuff that will go into the apartment. We have a 10×20 foot storage unit reserved. So the long-term stuff will have to be unloaded into it first, then they will move the rest into our apartment. If we fill up the 10×20, there is a cage in the basement of our apartment complex that can take the overflow.

Moving has made me appreciate the value of money. It neatly solves lots of complex problems. However, it takes a pile of money to actually move, at least if you are moving four hundred miles. It’s not something you are likely to try yourself with a U-Haul. The cost of transporting, loading and unloading all our stuff will be around $5000. Money gets you a storage unit rental, and writing four figure checks in advance gets you a place to stay for a few months. The Internet also vastly simplifies the moving process. You can scope out neighborhoods and services from afar. It’s hard to remember how we did this stuff in a pre-Internet age.

Some stuff about moving remains as much of a hassle as it has always been. I can change my address electronically now with the post office, but it still takes about as much time as if I went there in person and filled out a form and it costs you $1.10 to do it online. All our various service providers need notification that you are closing or establishing services and for the most part you can’t do it online. Take Verizon, our Internet and cable provider. Their website tries to do pretty much everything online, but you can’t disconnect your service online, not that this is obvious. I looked and looked but there was no way to do it. It took some searching to figure out what I had to really do: call them on the phone, but only during regular hours. They sure don’t want to make it convenient for you to stop giving them money.

The same was true of our Washington Post subscription, the water company and many others. The sole exception was Dominion Power, where you can stop service easily online. Of course, you don’t get a human very easily when you call these providers. You get an automated telephone tree instead, and it involves listening to boring pronouncements and eventually being put into a queue. A recording sincerely tells you that they are sorry that you have to wait. So you wait and wait and hear bad music. You wish just one provider would state the truth: “Your call is not that important to us. You are being put in a queue because we are too cheap to hire sufficient human beings so that your call can be quickly answered.” Instead, they all lie saying they care when they clearly don’t. I spent one morning doing nothing but waiting for what turned out to be hours to talk to agents.

The hardest part in leaving is not being in a call queue, boxing crap or writing large checks but simply saying goodbye. It’s not that I dislike saying goodbye, but it’s that each goodbye inevitably invokes feelings of sorrow at parting and stokes feelings of regret and that you are making a big mistake. We discussed having a goodbye party, but it was one more thing that we would have to schedule and coordinate and there would be more emotions to process too. Instead, there are lots of little goodbyes. Some happened six months ago when I retired. People come by after services to shake my hand and wish me goodbye. At a board meeting last night there was card, cake and goodies for me. My covenant group will be taking us out to dinner on Monday night.

I go to places and wonder if it will be for the last time. If it is the last time, should it matter? Yesterday I went to the local BJs to pick up a few things and realized I will probably never be back inside that store, where we have been members for 25 years. There we have bought literally tons of stuff as well as emptied our checking account. There will be BJs and Costcos in Massachusetts as well; different faces but it will be largely the same experience.

I deal with all this by trying to tune it out. It is too much. As with the feelings of giving up the perks of my job when I retired, I simply have to let it go at the appropriate time. We will doubtless be back here many times. My father, sister and daughter all live in the area. It’s just that next time we will be in a hotel, or in someone’s bedroom. There will be no home to come home to, but there will be no daunting traffic to navigate either. So there is some joy as well as sorrow that will come with moving. Once all the hassle of multiple moves is over our new life is likely to be much simpler, less costly and far more convenient.

Still, the Washington region has defined roughly half of my life. It’s going to be hard to let it go. Which makes me wonder if I’ll be living here again someday. Should I lose my spouse, will I have incentive to stay in New England? Or will I like lots of aging adults simply choose to be closer to family? If so then I will be back. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, it’s time to pack another box.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: April 2015 edition

This will be my last monthly survey of Northern Virginia Craigslist casual encounter section. A month from now I will be living in New England. Western Massachusetts (where I’ll be living) has a very lame Craigslist casual encounters section. But I’ll be an hour from Hartford, Connecticut and ninety minutes from Boston. I might survey this section for these cities for future posts. It’s a cheap form of entertainment for you and it’s an easy way for me to garner hits without sweating too much at the keyboard. These posts garnered at least 175 web page views in March, about a hundred less than in February and amounted to just ten percent of web traffic. So I may have mined this Craigslist meme for all it’s worth, which may be a relief to some of you looking for weightier content. I’ll see how it goes.

Surveying the first page of posts tonight I see:

  • 46 men looking for a woman
  • 24 men looking for a man
  • 5 men looking for a couple
  • 8 women looking for a man
  • 1 woman looking for a woman, which appears to be a post warning that the referenced ad is a fake
  • 4 transgender people looking for a man
  • 2 couples looking for another couple

And now for the naughty bits:

  • Linda Lovelace lives … or at least has been reincarnated. This youngish woman of an unspecified age is going retro (early 1970s) when the braless look and halter-tops were in. If you don’t know what Linda was known for, let’s just say she claimed her clitoris was deep down her throat. That should be enough for you to know what she wants to do with a man tonight, and she wants her man very wide between his legs. I suspect this is another bogus ad, but who knows? Maybe she is into erotic asphyxiation.
  • Couples, what’s the point of having a threesome with just any man when you can go with a reliable source? This 48-year-old man from McLean claims to have done this many times, and misses his FWB couple and actually prefers to be the extra male. He does have some competition tonight, such as this 42-year-old Scot from Arlington, so be selective couples!
  • As a 50-plus man, I can understand the appeal of a “sugar babe” half my age if I were independently wealthy. But how much sugar should a 48-year-old woman be worth, particularly when she spells sugar “surgar” and can’t complete a grammatical sentence? Men: give her Splenda instead.
  • He’s a 28-year-old man from Gaithersburg wanting to buy women’s used panties, the messier the better. He’s open to worn bras as well. He’s either into female pheromones or, more likely, he’s so unattractive that this is the closest he can get to intimacy with a woman, which is pathetic. He is willing to trade just in case you are a woman with a similar kink.
  • Men seem to find infinite ways to have their M4W ad stand out on Craigslist. Usually it’s the unappealing dick pic. This six foot one inch guy of an indeterminate age is going for the mentorship angle. It probably won’t work but he must figure it’s worth a try.
  • Faked incest ads are still in evidence this month. Here’s a 24-year-old “son” looking for his freaky “mom”. He is looking for a woman over age 30. So it’s okay if your mom was 7 years old when she had you? What’s up with that?
  • She’s 31, married but attracted to her gender and wants to work out her feelings through dirty texting only.
  • He’s from Montgomery County, horny but doesn’t want to get past third base. He’s willing to pay you for your time. What’s with not wanting to score that home run? Most likely: fear of erectile dysfunction.
  • This is weird. He’s a 42-year-old guy from Centreville looking for a guy, but he’s got a girlfriend. He wants to deep throat you wearing his girlfriend’s nylon panties and he wants to do this in your car in a parking lot near where he lives. He’s not only weird; he’s weirdly particular. And there are seven pictures of him wearing various colors of his girlfriend’s panties. He pretty much gets all the colors of the rainbow.
  • It’s a 23-year-old surfer dude from Woodbridge who hasn’t been laid in two years. Ladies, check out his Beach Boys approved picture and catch his wave!
  • She’s a 33-year-old African American “pillow princess” from Manassas. Basically she and her boyfriend want to have a threesome with a woman. She wants to get dirty with you but screwing her man is out, although a blowjob is maybe okay. However, if you do it she’ll probably be upset and pout. So it basically sounds like she is not ready for this, so find another ad instead ladies.
  • If you are a woman looking for a woman tonight, go for this extremely cute 19-year-old from Ashburn. Most men would willingly undergo a sex change operation to have one encounter with her. Even weirder: the ad looks legit.
  • Craigslist ads are often baffling and this one from what looks like a black woman who is never having sex again but wants to give oral sex is one of the most baffling tonight. She either has a phobia against her own genitals or has a terrible yeast infection. Or she’s high as a kite. I’m going with the last one.
  • Married men looking for a bit on the side ads tend to overwhelm this Craigslist section. They all want a single woman who can host and are desperately advertising for her. Finally, a 41-year-old single woman from Alexandria has an ad just for you horn dogs. Doubtless her email inbox is overflowing and may be crashing her email server.
  • Speaking of dogs: men, are you submissive? Would you like to be her dog? Prepare to start howling for her moons. Good doggy!
  • A married 42-year-old BBW female exhibitionist with her husband’s consent seeks a single male voyeur. She is looking for erotic modeling requests, hopefully outdoors. If you are hoping for more, it looks like this is as far as you will get with her.
  • A group of older and mostly married bikers is looking for one woman. Basically they are only interested in making sperm bank deposits into your mouth.

For me the woman looking for a man to be her dog wins the award for the most bizarre and disturbing ad this month.

 
The Thinker

Review: Cinderella

My last movie review was a review of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In that review, I noted that there were two actors from Downton Abbey in the movie. It looks like during offseason the younger Downton actors are also booking joint gigs. That’s certainly the case with Disney’s live action version of Cinderella now in theaters. We get two young Downton actors in this movie: Lily James (“Rose” from Downton Abbey) as Cinderella and in a big role reversal from her utterly adorable portrait as Daisy, the kitchen maid/chef we also get Sophie McShera as Drisella, one of the stepsisters.

It should go without saying that you don’t go see a movie about Cinderella expecting any plot twists. You certainly get none here, but you do get a somewhat kinder and gentler version of the tale. Cate Blanchett gets to chew up the scenery as the wicked stepmother, but she seemed sort of wicked-lite to me. Mostly you get a rather upbeat version of Cinderella that moves along at a surprisingly brisk pace. There’s hardly another nasty person in it. The closest is Stellan Skarsgård as the Grand Duke, whose only crime is looking out for the best interests of the kingdom. And that would be that the prince needs to marry an actual princess, for the good of the kingdom.

Granted, most red blooded men would be happy to trade money and protection for the slinky and gorgeous Lily James, who must wear size zero dresses. With beautiful brown eyes, moist and pouty lips and of course long flowing blonde tresses this Cinderella would turn any prince’s head no matter how many cinder ashes are on her clothes or in her face. Besides, she takes to heart her mother’s dying advice: always be kind and have courage. She has to draw on a deep reserve of it after both her parents die and her stepmother quickly turns her into a servant. Yet sweet, dopey and innocent Ella can’t seem to be mad at any of them even when (bet you didn’t see this coming) her stepmother won’t let her go to the prince’s ball.

It’s not entirely clear why I went to see this movie. My adult daughter really liked it, which was something of a surprise as she is a feminist. The whole “I can only be complete with a man” and worse “I can only be fully complete if I marry a prince” memes should make any feminist retch. Well, it’s the magic of Disney I guess. It being Spring Break week and discount day at the cinema, we had a decent crowd for a Wednesday 1 PM matinee. It was perhaps 50% girls under age 8, 40% mothers attending to girls under age 8 and a few oddballs like my wife and I just looking for something halfway decent to see in early April when the movie pickings tend to be slim.

If nothing else Disney knows how to do fairy tales. More typically it has been delivering animated fairy tales. Having plumbed that for pretty much all the profit possible, making live action versions are now a big part of their business plans. Thankfully, at least with Cinderella they do a good job of it. What’s not to like about the handsome, kind and dutiful Prince (Richard Madden), except when he is hunting an elk in the forest (where he first runs into Cinderella, of course) that the ever kind hearted Cinderella does not like to see hunted? The king (Derek Jacobi) is similarly kind hearted, as is pretty much everyone except Cruella, I mean the wicked stepmother. The wicked stepmother is there mainly to keep the adults in the audience awake, and Blanchett gives a fine but not unexpected performance. Among the minor parts we get Helena Bonham Carter as the fairy godmother.

It’s all so clean, sparkly and well done. There are no rainy days in this kingdom. The temperature seems to hover around seventy during the days. There is no mud from horse drawn carriages in the streets. The only thing dirty in this movie, and it’s just a smudge really, is Cinderella, who often sleeps next to the fire to stay warm. If there is a surprise in this movie, it’s its director: Kenneth Branagh, yes that Kenneth Branagh, the Shakespearean actor and director with memorable films like Henry V. How Disney snared him, or even considered him as a director in the first place, is something of a mystery, but it’s a good match. Branagh makes this well loved but predictable story not quite memorable (since you know the plot) but largely entertaining in spite of its lack of originality. Disney should consider him for more work like this, since it’s hard to get these factors right.

Branagh hits all the notes that make little girls sigh and swoon. Adults may sigh and swoon a bit too, given that we were young girls and boys once too. There’s nothing to criticize about this movie as long as you can forgive its utter lack of any originality. It’s sweet but not saccharine, strangely heartfelt yet absurdly surreal and it can take even us jaded adults back into a more innocent age in our minds, at least for a little while. The only thing that would have made this better would be to pull it off with a new plot, but then that would be a different story.

Enjoy the lack of surprises but also enjoy the way it so perfectly pulls all your strings as well. It’s the difference between hearing Beethoven performed by your high school orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Branagh has made Cinderalla high art.

3.4 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

 
The Thinker

Indiana tries the “freedom of religion” ruse

States are starting to learn that while they have the power to legislate against people they don’t like, it’s generally not a good idea to use it.

The latest case in point, of course, is the State of Indiana. Its governor Mike Pence recently unwisely signed into law a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”. It essentially gives both individuals and businesses the “freedom” to tell someone they don’t like to piss off in the name of their freedom of religion. Interviewed Sunday, Governor Pence poorly tried to defend the law. He claimed it was misunderstood, and that it was virtually the same as a 1993 federal freedom of religion law with the same name.

The federal law was never intended to allow organizations to discriminate based on freedom of religion. However, the Supreme Court has had some interesting interpretations of the law. In 2006 it ruled that the law did not apply to the states, so it is curious that Pence would use the federal law to defend his state’s law. And in 2014 it ruled in the case of the Affordable Care Act that it allowed “closely held corporations” to not include contraceptive coverage in their employee health insurance plans. Presumably this logic was okay because earlier in its widely reviled Citizens United decision, the court decided that since earlier courts had declared corporations were people then corporations could not be prohibited from giving unlimited sums of money to political campaigns because free speech could not be constrained.

At best, Indiana’s law is distantly related to the federal law. Indiana’s new law is allowing anyone including any corporation, business or institution to declare that its religious freedom gives it the right to deny service to anyone that it finds violate their religious beliefs. This is in effect anything they choose to declare as a religious belief. The primary targets of the law, as documented by the photos of bigots behind the Governor Pence when he signed the law, are anticipated to be gays, lesbians and transgender people. Essentially the law is a license to discriminate collectively by both individuals and non-governmental organizations under the guise of freedom of religion.

The howls of protest were immediate and appear to be unrelenting. Angie’s List is one business threatening to move out of the state. Apple CEO Tim Cook decried the law in a Washington Post editorial today. Connecticut won’t let its employees travel to Indiana because it doesn’t want to even indirectly be associated with their bigotry. The NCAA is wishing it had time to move the Final Four playoffs to a different city. These are just some of the most notable responses to the law. There are plenty of others easy enough to find if you scan the news.

While Indiana is hardly the only red state to pass a law like this (Arkansas recently enacted something similar, and is getting a backlash), the track record for these laws suggests only foolish states would pass laws like these. You may recall that Arizona passed its own version of this law a few years back, to howls of protests and a huge loss of business. Eventually, they saw the light and repealed the law. It’s not hard to predict that within a few weeks Indiana is likely to do the same. No matter how right they think they are in their convictions, the national scorn and more importantly the loss of economic opportunity in the state will force a change of heart. Right now there is talk of an amendment to the law, which probably won’t change its substance or satisfy any of its critics.

In general, red states seem to be continually refighting the Civil War, just via its state legislatures, and this Indiana law is the latest skirmish. It all comes down to one thing: they think certain “better” people have license to make the “worse” people miserable. Their successes are principally a result of the tacit or explicit approval by the Supreme Court when these laws come up for review. One recent success was the court’s overturning of aspects of the Civil Rights Act that required federal approval of voting laws in principally southern states. The rest of America, and actually much of the south itself, has rejected bigotry. The reason many southern states haven’t caught on is because voting districts are so heavily gerrymandered that the citizens cannot speak with sufficient force.

Aside from the obvious bigotry, what drives most of us nuts about Indiana’s law is that these legislatures don’t understand that your freedom of religion does not give you the right to restrict other’s freedoms. Freedom doesn’t work that way. In fact, this is the antithesis of actual freedom. If you can allow a baker to not sell a wedding cake to a gay couple because it is against his religious beliefs as he interprets it, the same baker could refuse to sell one to a mixed race couple using a similar rationalization. A closely held bus corporation could say that their religion requires blacks to sit on the back of the bus, or to not allow any blacks on their buses. God is telling them so! “Freedom of religion” could selectively trump any sort of public law, which would render these laws unenforceable. Yet a law must apply uniformly or it is not a law. Instead it becomes no more than a hope that everyone will play nice.

Certainly freedom gives everyone the right to be a bigot. No one can control what you believe, although law can regulate your actions. Employers cannot discriminate in employment based on lots of criteria including sex and race and that includes closely held corporations with deeply religious CEOs like Hobby Lobby.

What’s clearly going on is that freedom of religion is being used as a proxy to effectively change laws that otherwise could only be changed via a process of law. If we really want to deny blacks their voting rights, it has to be done legally. And our Supreme Court apparently believes onerous voter ID laws are constitutional exercises in the legitimate power of the state because it’s not 1960 anymore. It thus effectively legalized bigotry in that instance.

In reality, no state or jurisdiction has the right to pass any legislation that exempts anyone from uniform application of the law. It’s so important we created a constitutional amendment specifically to require this: the 14th amendment. Legally it is clear: the 14th amendment specifically applies to all the states, which means that if a state grants the freedom to one group to effectively oppress or discriminate against another group, it is not just a violation of the law, it is against our constitution.

It is this bedrock principle that the vast majority of Americans are recoiling against in this case, and justly so. “Freedom of religion” here is simply a ruse. Indiana is in the process of getting its butt collectively slapped by fair-minded Americans. I for one won’t visit Indiana or spend one dime there until their disgusting law is repealed.

 
The Thinker

The endless battle of the bulge

There is some good news, somewhat anecdotal, on the relentless war on our waists. The other day food conglomerates Heinz and Kraft announced they would merge, forming a new company, Heinz-Kraft. It’s unlikely that these companies would be merging at all except that their sales are down. These kings of processed foods like macaroni and cheese and Velveeta are finding that profits are falling with their sales. They hope that by merging they can reverse the trend, or at least find cost savings to prop up profits even as processed food sales seem to be receding.

If I were a stockholder in either of these companies, I would be buying more of their shares, not selling them. When forced to choose between what I would like Americans to do (eat healthy food) and what they are likely to do, I think the great expansion of the American gut is ultimately going to win. Of course there are plenty of Americans who eat healthy, as evidenced by the sales at stores like Whole Foods. Most of these customers though were eating healthy before they started shopping there. They are shopping there I believe principally because it is more convenient, and they get more variety at places like Whole Foods. They are also understandably paranoid: about processed foods, about genetically modified foods and want to live in good health to at least 100. Good luck to them on this quest.

I am not at all convinced that those of us who are principally Heinz and Kraft consumers will change our eating habits. Dieting is certainly doable, but only a relative few of those who do diet will manage to successfully make the lifestyle changes to keep the weight off. I am one of many people who have yo-yoed over the years. Dieters are great at taking the weight off. Keeping it off is the only trick they haven’t mastered.

So why is it? Dieticians have their own ideas, but I suspect most dieticians don’t really understand the problem because they don’t experience it. I think most diets fail for cultural reasons. But also, it’s almost impossible not to encounter temptation. One can of course choose to resist temptation, but it’s much easier to do so when the temptation is not constantly in your face.

Alcoholics go to AA meetings regularly, or at least try to. It’s unlikely though when they drive down the street that they will pass a package store on every block. Of course in some states it’s not too hard to find a package store on every block, or what seems like every block. Florida comes to mind but there are many other states like this. Unsurprisingly, if you are an alcoholic you’ll have more luck staying sober in states where package stores are relatively rare. It’s easier to resist temptation when you encounter temptation less often.

If you are a consumer of processed foods, avoiding temptation is virtually impossible. If you grew up eating healthy then temptation is less of an issue because you do not crave these foods, so you can pass down a strip blissfully immune from the lure of pizza and burger joints along your route. If you picked up the habit over the years then going down the street is like having a package store on every block is to an alcoholic. Of course the danger is not just your local strip. It’s your local grocery store as well where Kraft and Heinz stuff most of the aisles with products. It’s at the quick mart, it’s at the vending machine down the hall at work or school, and it’s at the airport, the train station and pretty much anywhere you go. Unhealthy food is everywhere and it’s relatively cheap.

If you can manage to unlearn the habit of eating this stuff, you can find salvation. As noted, few manage to do so in the long run. It would help to live a cloistered life, but even if you manage to do so, you also need to cut yourself off from the larger world. Madison Avenue will make sure that ads are calculated to make you give in to temptation. It’s no wonder then that few Americans succeed in permanent weight loss. For what you really need is the superhuman ability to resist temptation and it turns out that we are only human.

For most of our history, mankind has been hunter/gatherers. We foraged for food. We killed local animals for meat. Foraging is built into us. To survive foragers preferred food sources close to where they were living. So if there were berries to eat across the stream, they were more likely to be eaten than to travel a dozen miles for something else. Survival depended on expending calories wisely. This is so engrained in us that today we unconsciously select food choices close to us. So if there is an unhealthy food option a block away and a healthy food option two blocks away, when we get hungry more than likely the unhealthy option will win. Location tends to win. Meanwhile Madison Avenue keeps refining pitches to us via various media to try newer and tastier foods. So maybe we find that we prefer Papa Johns pizza to Pizza Hut, so over time that encourages Papa Johns to build a store near you, increasing the likelihood that you will prefer unhealthy food. In short, most of us are caught up in au unhealthy food cycle that will become virtually impossible to break. Hence, most diets fail in the long run.

Eating of course is also a highly social activity. No one would come to a party where no is food served, and they don’t come to eat healthy. We will tend to emulate the eating habits of those around us simply to fit in. So if other members of our family are eating unhealthy then we are likely to do so as well. But we’re also likelier to do so if our friends and neighbors do as well.

So breaking this cycle looks pretty hopeless. One way to increase the odds that you will break the odds is to hang out with people that eat healthy. Of course, there’s some likelihood that they won’t let you into their club because you aren’t skinny waifs like them. And they won’t understand your craving for a Ding Dong when they naturally select stalks of celery to munch on.

What can be done but probably won’t happen in this country is we could tax unhealthy food. We could also use zoning to limit the number of unhealthy places to acquire food, recognizing that these places are essentially public nuisances. One offshoot of the Affordable Care Act is that restaurants of a certain size are going to have to list calorie counts on their menus. This is a small step in the right direction, but resisting temptation is much easier when temptation is not in your face, or it costs extra to indulge in a temptation. Social engineering does work given time. It has dramatically reduced smoking rates over a couple of generations. However we have to find the moxey to put into office politicians that will do these things. Given that campaigns are increasingly funded by the very rich whose wealth often depends on you maintaining your unhealthy eating habits, this approach is unlikely at best.

Which is why it would be foolish to bet against Heinz-Kraft. Hold on to your stock and maybe use your capital gains to shop at Whole Foods instead. As for me, I’m sadly betting that in this Battle of the Bulge, our bulge is going to win out.

 
The Thinker

Affording retirement and running the numbers

I’m a bit anal about money. It probably comes from being a child of someone who lived through the Great Depression. So our retiring last year was a leap of faith. Of course being anal about money, I spent some time with our financial adviser basically to hear him tell me we could actually afford to retire. I retired, but didn’t quite believe it could last, particularly when we started spending thousands of dollars fixing up our house to sell it. The money going out far exceeded our retirement income.

April 29 is our settlement date, but will be important for another reason. On that day for the first time since at least 1981 I will be debt free. That’s because with settlement I won’t own a house anymore and thus won’t have to sweat the mortgage payment. Never mind I never technically owned it. I never got the mortgage balance to zero, although the balance is now under $20,000. With settlement the loan balance will be paid off. We expect a check for about $440,000, which will probably sit in a high yield checking account for a few months. Then it will go to purchase the next house.

We have no car loans and our home equity loan will be paid off at settlement. So we’ll be living totally debt free, assuming we don’t take out a mortgage on the next house. That’s our goal although we will probably draw from other savings to pay cash for our house to avoid a mortgage. Over the years we refinanced our current house twice, so our mortgage payment has lately been under $1200, and that includes escrow for property taxes. $1200 a month is very cheap housing in Northern Virginia, particularly since the next owner of our house is paying $505,000. Even with 20% down he will likely have a monthly mortgage payment in excess of $2500. Mortgage payments will hopefully soon becoming a distant memory for us.

No mortgage payment frees up a lot of cash, which is a good thing for many reasons. One reason is because when you are retired, you live on less money than you used to. To enjoy the same standard of living, you pretty much have to pay off your mortgage. Until recently I wasn’t confident that we could actually do it, and it has made me nervous. Now it’s becoming clear that we can actually retire without sacrificing our standard of living. More money will still go out for a while. Simply moving our stuff will cost us close to $5000. There will be settlement fees with the new house, perhaps a couple of thousand dollars. And there will be one time costs with moving into a new house, which mostly involves window treatments. Toward autumn though these should be in our past as well. With time I hope we can recoup these major one-time expenses.

I do know that when we move to Massachusetts we’ll be spending far less to live. Moving to “Taxachusetts” is supposed to be just the opposite, so much so that Massachusetts is frequently cited as one of the most expensive states to live. In our particular case, most of our income is my pension. Massachusetts won’t tax this income. Running the numbers today I quantified the savings: about $380 a month. These savings essentially continue until we are dead. Assuming we live 30 more years and never move out of Massachusetts, that’s $136,800 we can spend on something else.

With a new house under construction, we’ll be renting for three to four months. We’ll be paying $975 a month to rent a two bedroom, one bath apartment in Easthampton. Rent is not the same thing as a mortgage and since we are renting month to month we have no legal commitment beyond the end of the month. The landlord takes our rent and pays for the apartment’s upkeep as well as its property taxes. As a percentage of our monthly income, $975 will be hardly anything and much less than we pay to live in our current house, when you add in the other expenses like lawn care and water.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. We will eventually move into our house paid for with cash, but houses have expenses too. Our property taxes will be more, $15.80 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation, last time I checked Northampton’s property tax rate. We’ll pay more in property taxes in Massachusetts than we do in Virginia, about $1300 a year more. Property taxes alone should cost us around $620 a month, which is as much as a mortgage payment in many places. Since we’ll be in a condominium, we’ll pay about $350 a month to the condo association, compared to $62 a month we pay now to our homeowners’ association. However, the condo fee includes exterior maintenance, so I won’t have to worry about having the money to replace the siding or the roof. Electricity and water are likely to be more expensive as well, although many houses install solar panels and often get credits from the power company for putting electricity into the grid.

So there’s no way yet to fully quantify our net savings by relocating, retiring and selling our house, but it is likely to be substantial. I don’t expect that we’ll have more money to spend as retirees than when I was working and making more money. That will become clear in time. With a relatively fixed income it will become important to track expenses against a budget and regularly adjust our lifestyles accordingly. Not all costs can be anticipated. But it looks like on April 30 we will not only be debt free but retired both in body and spirit.

 
The Thinker

Review: The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

This movie answers the burning question: what do the actors of Downton Abbey do off-season? I can’t say what all of them do, but the film will answer the question of what Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess) and Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley) do, which is do movies together, well, at least The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Wilton is principally a British TV actor. Maggie Smith’s career needs no introduction. She inspires in most admirers a sense of awe with her amazing and seemingly reflexive acting. She can broadcast more meaning from a single stare or a turn of the head that many actors can do in the course of an entire movie. Like the late Robin Williams, Smith can make even a mediocre movie memorable, which helps in the case with The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I suspect men who see the movie will share my opinion about its mediocrity. Most women who see it will probably be like my wife, who was crying at the end. In short, at the risk of showing gender bias, I strongly suspect that this is principally a chick flick.

It’s also a movie for old folks. With a few exceptions, the entire cast is sixty plus, and in most cases seventy plus. As such while the movie certainly has its comic moments, the subtext is that going from old to ancient is not an easy process. Each of these senior citizens deals with the problem in their own way. For example, there is Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) who won’t let the fact that she is turning eighty keep her from a career buying fabric in India for her company. She has a knack for finding great stuff, stuff that will prove highly fashionable, and for getting it at discounted rates. For Muriel Donnelly (Maggie), her job seems to be to give up control. She and her much younger business partner Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) run The Best Marigold Hotel in India. Sonny is an energetic young man anxious to prove his business acumen, which is why he and Muriel start the movie in San Diego seeking venture capital from hotel moguls. But mostly the movie takes place at their hotel. Aside from the staff it appears to be populated with white, 60+ Americans and Brit ex-pats who check in but never seem to check out. The clientele is so stable that Sonny and his fiancé Sunaina (Tina Desai) do a daily roll call every day by yelling their names from the open-air lobby, mainly to see if their permanent guests are still alive.

This is a movie with several tracks that clumsily intertwine. One is Sonny’s desperate need to prove his business acumen by creating a second Marigold Hotel. The other is Sonny’s jealousy. He suspects that Sunaina actually prefers their flashy friend Kushal (Shazad Latif) because he is smarter and more entrepreneurial. The rest is a conglomeration of issues with many white people aging. These include Douglas (Bill Nighy), who is technically married and estranged but loves Evelyn with a dopey puppy love that would be cute except he is seventy something. For the women there is the eye candy of Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) to stalk. And there is a fair amount of aging infidelity, of the heart if not of the body, between these aging seniors. Happily the older men are of an age where they fall for personalities not good looking older women. Judy Dench and Maggie Smith are great actresses, but both are packing on the pounds they try to hide behind large blousy dresses.

So it definitely helps to be a much older person to appreciate the movie. For a weekday matinee our theater was surprisingly full, and virtually all of them were senior citizens. This is not surprising due to the day of the week, but also because there are not a whole lot of movies out there marketed for seniors. So this movie is a special treat for them, and something they can relate to instead of another superhero movie featuring impossibly gorgeous people in their twenties. So kudos, with some exceptions, for at least giving us a cast where character is more attractive than looks. With the exception of Gere, none of these seniors will win a senior beauty contest.

Sonny makes for an amusing and energetic if somewhat frantic co-owner. He provides decent entertainment for any of the under fifty crowd that shows up. Filmed principally in India, it of course must have a Bollywood element, which means there must be singing and dancing in it somewhere. Most of it happens at the wedding at the end of the movie. It makes for an interesting amalgamation of Hollywood and Bollywood.

But principally this is a relationship movie, which is what makes it a chick flick. A lot of the pairings don’t make a whole lot of sense to this older male, and overall it seems to be much ado about nothing. However, it at least fills a rarely filled niche of decent movie for the seventy plus crowd. Its basic message: your old but you’re not dead. Enjoy life in whatever way you can while you still have it. And just because you are much older doesn’t mean you won’t encounter a lot of heartache along the way, not to mention new opportunities for love and personal growth.

Both Maggie Smith and Judi Dench though provide plenty of incentive to see the movie regardless of its targeted market. Like a fine wine, these actors age well on camera. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not a great use of two hours, but it’s a pretty good use of the time. In general, the older you are the more this movie is likely to tickle your fancy. If relationship movies are your thing, go for it. How nice to get through a movie without anyone dying from a gunshot wound.

3.0 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

Ducks in a row

Houses are not really sold until closing. That’s something I am beginning to understand in my gut after our house was “sold”, i.e. put “under contract”. A real estate contract is actually a highly conditional contract that gives the buyer plenty of reasons to later opt out. These typically include a satisfactory home inspection, a termite inspection and a radon test. No house is perfect, of course, and home inspectors are paid to find stuff.

The home inspector for our house sure found stuff, stuff we would have never noticed in a million years and stuff that really didn’t matter. A handrail we added for support on the stairs to the basement had pickets too widely spaced in this inspector’s opinion. A really stupid child might fall through somehow and hurt themselves. So Elias, our handyman, is busy adding these redundant railings to preclude any such thing, although we are pretty sure the buyer is a single guy. He also noticed a vent missing from a room in the basement and wrote that one up too. And lots of other stuff. But we could get rid of the contingency just by reducing our sales price $7000, the maximum price to fix these “defects”, which included a pool of water from snowmelt in our backyard too he felt should require us to regrade the lawn. Apparently, someone had not informed that the buyer the house was 30 years old, not brand new. I guess if you are a home buyer, you have every incentive to shoot for the moon.

We fought back of course and figuring we had the better bargaining position (given that we had two full price contracts to choose from) told him we wouldn’t fix the swale or tear up the stucco ceiling to add a vent that really wasn’t needed. And we crossed our fingers he wouldn’t walk away. He didn’t. The rest of it we can fix up for another $1000. So that contract contingency is satisfied, as is the radon test. The termite inspection will come in time but that has never been problem. Which leaves the appraisal. The appraiser may tell the buyer that he paid too much for our house, so he should pull out of the contract, or negotiate a lower price. I doubt that will happen.

This is the downside of owning a house. The mortgage interest deduction is nice, but a house is a second child that never stops going to college. It means you don’t have to sleep on the street, providing you can keep up the payments for thirty years. To translate its value into hard cash you have to jump through these flaming hoops, the next one more daunting than the last. But increasingly it looks like we will get through them all with only minor burns, but not without ingesting a lot of antacid.

So now we are here back in Western Massachusetts looking at a hole in the ground. It’s not any hole in the ground, it’s our hole in the ground, what will be our next house, a condominium in a 55+ community which is actually a single family house. As holes go it looks pretty good and that’s because the foundation is laid. Moreover, despite the freezing temperatures and most of the snow unmelted the land is reasonably graded. What’s missing is all the rest that makes a house a home, like a frame and a roof, but that will come in time. We have to be ready for that time, which is why we are here not only pondering our frozen concrete filled hole in the ground, but shuttling around Western Massachusetts talking to vendors about stuff like floors, lighting, cabinets and appliances. Gas or electric appliances? Which of the hundreds of chandeliers we looked at today will hang from our foyer? Hallway lights in the ceiling or on the walls? The builders need to know these details, not immediately, but they must be planned for, and now is the time to figure out these details.

Then there is the minor matter of living somewhere until the house is ready. There are plenty of places to rent out here after our house is sold near the end of April. Unfortunately, almost all of them require a yearly lease, so we have to spend time calling around and scouring Craigslist for sublets and month-to-month rentals. It’s a hit and miss process, but we found a renovated apartment building in Easthampton that will work, only because it is nearing completion. The investor-landlord need tenants in an otherwise empty building. New carpet and appliances make it appealing, but the neighborhood is a bit sketchy. An auto repair shop is across the street and down the street are many old Victorian houses, some somewhat dilapidated. It will do for the four months or so we need temporary lodging. The good part about paying rent is you don’t pay a mortgage, or property taxes, or for the general property upkeep. Owning a house in many ways is a foolish thing to do. The owner is willing to cut us a deal just to start to get the building occupied.

It’s unclear where all our possessions will sit in the interim. There are the usual storage facilities out here and we visited a few to discover they can’t take our stuff, at least not yet. Check with them a week or two before we move up, they tell us. We’ll have to find something. For now we take it on faith that it will somehow work out.

When not occupied with these logistical maneuvers, I ponder this major life change we are about to make. I know I will miss many things about Northern Virginia, where I spent the last 31 years. I will leave behind a daughter, the bulk of my friends, a whole network of doctors and  various other professionals, and many pleasant memories. There’s really no going back. It’s a big gamble that life will somehow be better up here in Massachusetts, and it’s harder to believe two days from spring when the temperature here is below freezing, the winds are gale force from the northwest, piles of snow are everywhere and killer potholes pocket virtually all the streets. If it had been just me, I’d probably not have chosen to live here, but of course it’s not just me. It’s also my wife, who hates Northern Virginia and needs a colder climate. It’s what we could agree on. I know that it will take a long time to feel this place is my home, and not just another way station in life.

Selling our house though will be a gigantic relief. It’s been a money pit and a constant hassle. I’ll be glad to finally cash in on that asset, which may mean no mortgage at all for the new house. A new house will buy us, at least for a time, a respite from worrying about infrastructure. Then perhaps retirement can genuinely begin.

All it requires is getting all our ducks in a row. After much work they are at least all moving in the same direction. That’s progress.

 

 

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