The Thinker

A Mad Men retrospective

Eight years ago I wrote a retrospective for the TV series The West Wing, which lasted seven years on NBC. I am finishing the last season of Mad Men, which also lasted seven years. Mad Men appeared exclusively on AMC, a cable network, unless you include the many services belatedly streaming the show, including Netflix where I watched it. Netflix doesn’t have the last seven episodes available, however my wife has her ways so I am able to watch them anyhow.

Starting the series some months back I had to admit this was an unlikely choice of a show to hook me. It focuses on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. If you’ve been living under a rock, Madison Avenue is known principally for its advertising agencies. This was certainly true in the 1960s. Mad Men is a deep dive into this unlikely world, centered on Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the creative director for the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency. Sterling Cooper is filled with creative but deeply flawed people. Some like Draper also have natural good looks as an asset. Draper may be a creative ad guy but he is something of a wreck as a human being. Aside from smoking and drinking too much (typical of those with the means in the 1960s) Draper is also a chronic womanizer, constantly in and out of beds of principally very beautiful women, all while being married.

He is hardly the only one in the office to engage in these peccadillos. Most of his fellow partners are doing the same, and this includes the son of one of the founding partners Roger Sterling (John Slattery) who has a torrid on again, off again relationship with the office manager Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). It’s a world of directing work from the upper floors of tall Manhattan skyscrapers, suits, frequent dinners with clients and personality dramas. With the exception of Joan and Don’s secretary Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) who becomes a copywriter, women are invariably secretaries. Pretty much every man in the place has one outside his door. The women peck away at their IBM Selectric typewriters and answer the phone while waiting to find the right guy to marry, who is often their boss.

It’s a world of wooing clients, losing clients, making pitches to clients and tenuously trying to maintain clients while dressed in fancy suits, smoking too much and drinking too liberally, mostly from the bars in their offices. These men drink more than most sailors; it’s a wonder they can function at all. And yet producer and creator Matthew Weiner makes this world eminently watchable anyhow, despite the white shirts, shined shoes, and neatly trimmed and parted hair. You want to root for someone in this show but it’s hard, not because everyone is evil but because they are caught in a system that rewards deceit. Peggy Moss is the closest the series comes to such a character. As for Don Draper, he’s pitiable and thus hard to root for until you get his weird but compelling backstory.

What the show has going for it is top notch writing and directing, overseen by its obsessive creator Matt Weiner, as well as standout performances by actors who are frequently required to show their characters’ seamier sides. Equally impressive in this period drama was the attention to detail to the turbulent 1960s. Many events at the ad agency overlap with dramatic news stories, such as John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the moon landing. In a world where image is everything, everyone including the spouses tries hard to model their image while the story and camera takes us into their backstories.

There are lots of good characters to enjoy, but few you can feel sorry for. You can feel sorry for Betty, Don’s first wife played by January Jones until you discover she’s pretty insufferable herself. There’s the eager new exec Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) with his own Stepford wife back at home who, like George W. Bush, has to live up to the family’s expectations. It would take too long to list all of them, particularly when so many of them drop out to be replaced by others. There are crises both personal and business-related, sometimes at the same time. Don himself gets pulled more ways than Silly Putty. There are societal issues that creep into the insular ad agency world, including women’s liberation, racism, drug use, the space program and computers. From the first frame to the last, you really feel like you are living in the 1960s. I lived through these events, although I was a child at the time, so I can say it is eerily authentic. If nothing else, Weiner nails the 1960s and gives the viewer a largely accurate depiction not just of the world of advertising but of one of our most transformative decades. Much of the craziness we are living through in the 2010s has its roots in the 1960s, so the show helps you put today in perspective.

The show is principally centered on Don and Peggy, but more on Don than Peggy. Fortunately both Hamm and Moss prove up to mastering their roles. A closer inspection will find other things to admire. For example, the directing is outstanding throughout, and the transitions between scenes are often inventive and very clever, like the advertising world. I found excellence in places I did not expect. For example, Kiernan Shipka does a terrific job as Don’s daughter Sally across seven years of the series, and grew as an actress in the process. By the last season her role was mature and her acting was so good you could see her model both character’s mother and father mannerisms.

Mostly I was surprised that Weiner could make this sort of show work across seven seasons so consistently and with such uniform excellence. I really wanted to not like this show, as I find advertising reprehensible, but I was suckered in anyhow and kept spellbound for much of the series.

In my retrospective of The West Wing I said it was a classy show rarely seen on network TV at the time. Given that Mad Men was only shown on cable, its excellence and commitment to quality is a delightful surprise. It’s a compelling character drama and worth the investment of time, delight and heartache to watch all seven seasons worth.

The Thinker

2016 Republican Presidential Debate #3

I’m not much on Twitter but I decided that if I was going to watch the latest Republican Presidential Debate at least I could be trendy and live tweet it. Alas, it didn’t occur to me until shortly before it started. So unless you happened to follow me on Twitter you wouldn’t have known. (And if you aren’t following me on Twitter, why not? Follow me here.)

Those asking questions got dinged by a couple of the debate participants. The questions did not seem too bad to me and if the questions seemed unusually snarky then it’s because the candidates don’t watch much CNBC. I’ll agree the question on fantasy football was a bit silly, but most of the rest were actually fair questions. The questioners were not shy about pushing back with facts when the candidates steered away from toward their own versions of the truth. I’d like to see more of this in future debates. In fact, live fact checking should be a feature of debates, with check-ins from the fact checkers periodically so viewers could know when candidates are blowing a lot of smoke. So overall, I liked CNBC’s format, although I know I am in a minority.

Live tweeting the debate also gave me a great way to take notes, and I use them here as memory jogs. You can see all of them on my Twitter feed.

I didn’t like the opening question when candidates were asked about their weaknesses. This is another “When did you last stop beating your wife?” sort of question. There’s no good way to respond to it. You invariably pick some tiny little thing no one will care about and go with that, which always comes across as insincere. In any event, it takes enormous ego and chutzpah to run for president in the first place. Just by declaring your candidacy you are stating that there is something extra special about you compared to the rest of us.

You could tell Donald Trump didn’t like this debate any more than the last, mainly because he wasn’t allowed to dominate it. He looked sort of neutered and peevish. It would not surprise me if he invents a reason to opt out of these soon. He did manage to get off one attack on John Kasich, but only after Kasich had offered the opinion that many of his policy solutions were nonsense, which in fact they are. This immediately elevated Kasich in my mind, which sort of gave permission for others in the debate to speak moments of actual truth. Some of these moments were pretty bizarre. Ted Cruz, whose campaign is largely funded by moneyed business interests, said that principally the middle class was supporting his campaign. Carly Fiorina cried out about “crony capitalism” which she said was a result of corrupt government when it’s a result of policies championed by pretty much all Republicans since after Teddy Roosevelt to put the interests of the moneyed and businesses ahead of everyone else. That’s what caused our oligarchy.

Many of these candidates went into friendly la-la land when responding to questions. Ted Cruz basically said that Democrats were communists. Even Senator Joseph McCarthy would not have gone this far. Everyone said that Social Security and Medicare were failing systems but no one bothered to mention that Social Security would be solvent if the payroll cap was simply raised. No, benefits had to be cut and the retirement age had to be lifted. For many poor people whose life expectancy is about 70, this effectively means never even getting to retire. Some talked about reigning in government spending, but not one of them had the courage to say that you can’t keep cutting taxes and solve the budget deficit.

Certain words grated, like Chris Christie’s repeated declaration that the government was “stealing” your social security deposits. It was known from the start that the system was pay as you go system, not a lockbox system. The reason why it is under stress is there are fewer workers paying into the system than in the past, something that could be mitigated with immigration reform. These are the real causes of the actuarial problem; there was never anything nefarious about it.

Kasich again was the sanest person in the room but also its least photogenic. He looked grey, washed out and unattractive as well. I enjoyed watching Trump, particularly the violent way he turned his neck toward someone saying something he doesn’t like. Ben Carson looked so unanimated it’s a wonder why anyone would be enthusiastic about him. Ted Cruz bizarrely talked about how much he respected the constitution, even while he and his party worked hard to keep people they don’t like from voting. Jeb Bush had a hard time getting noticed or even called on. Trying to reproach Marco Rubio for voting so infrequently got him bitch slapped by an animated Rubio. Pundits said Rubio won the debate. I doubt that, but I do think Bush lost it by sounding petulant and insincere when he did talk, and by otherwise fading into the background.

No one asked the obvious question about Trump’s wall: even if you build it, how do you keep people from digging tunnels under it? It has been done for decades as a way to smuggle both illegal immigrants and drugs into the country.

Policy though did not matter as much as attitude, or maybe I should say sassitude. They were going for applause and that mainly occurred by berating the questioners or finding some other way to sound mean or pissed off. This record has been played too many times before. You would think even Republicans would be tired of it.

If Rubio “won” the debate, it’s only because he made himself look marginally better than the rest of the tired candidates and was more prepared with scripted comebacks. It’s an advantage of relative youth, perhaps.

Anyhow in less than two weeks we get to go through this whole tired scenario again. I’ll try to live tweet that debate as well as it helps to stay awake through it. They sure don’t make it easy.

The Thinker

The grownup in the hearing room

Did you watch Hillary Clinton’s testimony in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Thursday? Okay, most us did not, at least we did not watch all eleven hours of it. This includes yours truly. I did watch clip after clip online and the more I watched the more engrossed I got. I realized that Clinton did a Benghazi on the committee. It was a kind of charmed and karmic experience that did exactly the opposite of what the committee intended. It made Clinton look good, human and demonstrated she had both great leadership qualities and a great legal brain. It also demonstrated that she is grounded.

As for the members of the committee, at least the Republican ones, the longer it went on the more foolish they looked, as they became increasingly nitpicky. They endlessly plumbed topics that really didn’t matter, such as her relationship to their longtime political friend Sidney Blumenthal. They seemed certain that if they kept stroking those ashes there would be an ember there.

Eight hours of testimony, eleven hours of elapsed time essentially revealed nothing they hadn’t heard before. Three years earlier she had gone before the same committee and told essentially the same story. She spent a day and an evening essentially repeating herself while always responding in a civil manner to members of the committee that frequently sounded shrill and like loose cannons. At the end of it all, even the committee’s highly partisan chairman Trey Gowdy was forced to concede they learned nothing new and that the hearing was a waste of their time.

Meanwhile for those tuning in Hillary Clinton got eight hours of airtime that allowed her to demonstrate pretty convincingly that she would make an excellent president. She proved to be both measured and entirely unflappable, but also demonstrated that she was grounded and pragmatic. Many Americans saw perhaps for the first time a woman completely at odds with her stereotype. To some extent this included me, as I prefer Bernie Sanders to her for the Democratic presidential nomination. That’s still true after her testimony, but I no longer believe that she would not be a very capable president or couldn’t quite master the complexity of the issues she would be dealing with. Arguably there are few better jobs to prepare for the presidency than being Secretary of State, given that the secretary has an impossible and largely thankless job of trying to bring some sense of order to a world awash in political change. After trying to triangulate Israel and Palestine, dealing with a Republican congress must be relatively simple in comparison.

Americans watched her model a future president and watched Republicans devolve into the worst of their stereotypes, making them that much easier to loathe. She looked sensible; they looked like partisan fools. She looked mainstream; they looked extreme. She sounded pragmatic; they sounded obsessed bordering on deranged. She looked like she was tethered to Planet Earth; they looked like they were on a planet of their own.

They kept trying to frame questions so that they could not help but get the answer they wanted, going with a “When did you stop beating your wife?” meme. Reflecting their compulsive and black and white thinking, one congresswoman would allow no ambiguity in Clinton’s answer: yes or no. No yes but, no no but just an absolute answer that could be later used to prove she is a liar. And of course they asked the sorts of questions that go beyond reasonable. Can any of you remember what you had for dinner seven nights ago? Committee members expected perfect recall of events that happened years ago, as if Clinton were dictating a journal of events into a Dictaphone every fifteen minutes. As the hearings dragged on it just got more and more wacky and surreal. At some point you just had to wonder: how the hell did these people ever get into Congress in the first place? Exactly whom do they represent?

Yet Clinton remain largely unflappable and serene, driving in a contrast that got more marked over time until the committee looked more like a parody of a committee than an actual committee. For Clinton, the hearing essentially gave her eight hours of free airtime and drove in exactly the messages that she wanted to deliver as well as demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that she was highly qualified to be our next president.

Two days later, I get the feeling that Thursday’s hearing was something of a landmark, perhaps the most notable hearing by a congressional committee since the Watergate days, doubtless to be studied over and over again by academics and scholars as an object lesson on how not to hold hearings.

Clinton didn’t need to orate. She didn’t need to scowl or condescend. She just needed to be the grownup in the room. She was pretty much the only one.

The Thinker

Review: The Martian

Ridley Scott is one of Hollywood’s consistently great directors. His many credits include directing a few terrific and landmark science fiction movies. He first terrified us in outer space in 1979’s Alien, and then brought the story to earth in 1983’s Blade Runner. More than thirty years after Blade Runner, Scott proves he still knows how to direct a great space movie with The Martian starring Matt Damon as astronaut and botanist Mark Watney. This 144-minute film is unusually engrossing. If it were a novel it would be a page-turner.

Why is this? It’s because it’s a story of survival that we can all relate to and understand, even if we won’t be going to Mars. It’s also because Scott did a terrific job of casting. Matt Damon of course is a first class actor, but he plays a character that is very likeable and quite interesting. It’s a gritty story of man over nature, with nature in this case being the inhospitable planet Mars. Mars certainly is exotic and generally hundreds of millions of miles away from Earth, but it can’t support human life. Cold and without much of an atmosphere, it feels more desolate than the moon, which at least has planet Earth gleaming in its sky.

Watney gets left behind and is presumed dead after a massive sandstorm bears down on the landing site of the Ares III lander. The crew barely has time to get off the planet before the storm can tip over the lander. Watney himself might as well be dead and is “saved” only by being speared by an antenna, which limited the loss of air pressure in his suit. He can barely hobble into the Hab, a small weatherproof home placed on the surface. Watney must struggle to survive despite seemingly insurmountable odds, including a food supply that would run out well before another craft from Earth could arrive. Watney though seems reasonably chipper about his whole miserable experience, which is a good way to survive when there is no way to survive. As he says, “fortunately, I’m a botanist”. Using the crew’s excrement, Martian soil that is mostly sand and some raw potatoes from earth, he develops a tent that acts as his farm. He figures out how to use the hydrazine left on the surface to create a water supply for his farm.

It’s just fascinating to follow Watney’s journey. As you might expect there are lots of setbacks, and there are daunting technical challenges like simply letting Mission Control know he is alive. The Ares III crew though is on its way back to Earth, its commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) more than a little upset over Watney’s loss. So is all of the crew, but at least the Ares III is a very attractive spacecraft to dawdle home in. The trip home is a long one but there are nice views out its amazing windows and neatly done effects of living in zero G. The ship’s fare may be a bit pedestrian after a while, but if you have to travel between planets you will want an Ares III.

Equally as interesting as Watney’s fate on Mars is the reaction back on Earth when Mission Control discovers he’s alive. It’s Apollo 13 all over again, except this rescue if it can happen at all will take close to a year rather than a few days. Alas, the Ares III just can’t turn around; celestial mechanics don’t work that way. In fact, Mission Control decides to leave the crew in the dark about Watney. Watney though quickly becomes an unintended world cause. Millions may be starving in Africa but everyone including the Chinese want Watney to make it alive back to Earth and no expense will be spared. It’s just that no matter how they run the numbers no one can quite figure out a way for Watney to survive until a new craft can arrive. Among the many catastrophes is the loss of Watney’s farm after an initial success.

So the suspense is equally as much back on Earth as it is on Mars. Jeff Daniels plays Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA. Presumably the government is no longer overrun with Republicans because the space program seems to be flush again. Even Mission Control looks great, which is in contrast to the real Mission Control today with tiles missing from its ceiling. The Ares III crew is mostly Wonder Bread, but the NASA scientists working on this problem are at least diverse. Sean Bean plays Mitch Henderson, the flight director who soon rubs Director Sanders the wrong way. At least NASA gets to do what it does best again, which is to show amazing creativity and resourcefulness. There are some terrific smaller parts in this movie back at Mission Control, including Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Mars Mission Director and Donald Glover as astronomer Rich Purnell. Combine the terrific acting with great special effects and the movie becomes wholly engrossing. Screen time just flies by.

A number of academics have taken issue with some of the science. I found a few things myself, including the shielding issue that is not mentioned but which I once posted about. But this is science fiction and we can give the director some license because it sure feels real enough. In the man vs. nature movie, this one plumbs new territory and leaves you on the edge of your seat through most of it. All of this is done without any terrifying aliens coming out of the ventilation system. It turns out that a plausible suspense movie is much more gripping than the implausible kind.

Sure, bring the popcorn but you may find yourself too engrossed to enjoy it. This is a really terrific movie and oddly timed. This sort of movie would normally be summer fare.

3.5 out of 4-points.

Rating: ★★★½ 

The Thinker

2016 Democratic Presidential Debate #1

Am I the only one bothered because you had to subscribe to CNN to watch the first Democratic Party presidential debate live last night? As best I could tell you could not watch the debate on, at least not beyond a short free “preview” mode. You could watch it on, but you had to authenticate with your provider to get the debate stream, which meant CNN had to punch your ticket. My wife occupied the TV last night so I used the DVR to record it, but watched what I could online. With 15 million viewers just on CNN and lots more watching it online, the web stream stopped on me from time to time, which was frustrating. As for those too poor to afford cable or satellite TV, they were effectively disenfranchised. Debates should be made publicly available to all when they are broadcast. They should always mirrored on a C-SPAN channel and streamed on if nowhere else. In addition at least one broadcast channel in each market should carry it.

For those of us moneyed enough to watch the debate live, the first Democratic presidential debate was quite a contrast from the first two Republican debates. Civility ruled, and even friendliness was evident at times between candidates. Five candidates is also a much fewer than eleven or sixteen. Jim Webb had a point that he was hardly allowed to get a word in edgewise, but both Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee were also frequently marginalized too. It was mostly the Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders debate. Each got about half an hour of airtime, nothing to complain about in a two-hour debate. If there were ruffled feathers, it was mostly from candidates toward the moderators for cutting them off.

A lot of coaching and practice certainly helped. For Clinton, the practice was mostly an exercise in personality refinement. For Sanders, the “democratic socialist” senator from Vermont, it was getting up to speed on foreign policy, not one of his strong suits. For Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee it was mostly about introducing themselves to a national audience. Bernie Sanders was new to a lot of viewers, principally the African American audience. Clinton exceeded expectations and succeeded in looking presidential and polished. Kudos go to her makeup artist, who succeeded in subtracting about ten years from her face. At age 74, it was far too late for Sanders, but at least he did not have the expectation that he was supposed to look younger.

The most embarrassing candidate was clearly former senator and governor Lincoln Chafee, rarely known or seen outside of Rhode Island. Looks should never disqualify a candidate, but he not only sounded awkward, he looked viscerally awkward. And he was simply not prepared for tough questions. I felt sorry for him after a while because he was so outclassed by the other candidates.

Martin O’Malley modeled the happy white middle-aged Democratic candidate of forty years ago, the sort of candidate we nominated by default in the past because he looked so familiar and harmless. O’Malley is no John F. Kennedy but he at least radiated sensibility. Unfortunately, his record as Maryland governor was spotted at best, as was his tenure as Mayor of Baltimore. He was easy to smile at when speaking, but he seemed a bit milquetoast. There just wasn’t anything there that drew you to him as a compelling reason to prefer him to the others.

Jim Webb too was new to most viewers. A one-term senator from Virginia, Webb ran a surprisingly successful quixotic campaign for senate some years back. He resonates strongly with a part of the Democratic Party that has sort of slipped away: the moderate domestically but hawkish militarily type. I think Webb would probably be a pretty good general election candidate, as he may be the only moderate in either party running for president so he would draw independents like crazy. He has sterling credentials and a firm grasp on the commander in chief side of being president. Unfortunately, there is no party for moderates anymore. The Democratic Party though at least embraces moderates. The Republican Party simply spurns them.

As the debate dragged on not only did it become the Hillary vs. Bernie debate but the choice seemed to be pragmatic progressive (Clinton) vs. ideological progressive (Sanders). Clinton impressed me in the debate. She did not make me anxious to vote for her, but she did reduce my anxiety should she win the Democratic nomination. She deftly handled the mostly bogus controversies surrounding her, in one case with the assistance of Sanders. While Clinton was polished, Sanders was too. Eloquent and passionate, he seemed to be the only candidate on the stage that was just being himself. Most observers gave Clinton the edge in the debate, but Sanders raised two million dollars from people after the debate and Google was overrun with queries from people wanting to learn more about socialism. Sanders was not just passionate, but passionately convincing. His long career demonstrates an ability to correctly line up on the issues.

So it should make for an interesting campaign and I look forward to more debates. Clinton proved herself not to be the stereotype projected by her opponents. Sanders doubtlessly got a lot of interest from people who did not know what he is about. Webb, O’Malley and Chafee are on the way out to pasture; they just don’t know it yet. Clinton needs to keep her projection going forward and Sanders needs to see if he can develop a critical mass of progressives to overwhelm Clinton’s natural advantages, principally with blacks and women. It all depends on just how fed up the American people actually are in this election. If the polls are right, Clinton should make no assumptions about a smooth path to the nomination.

The Thinker

Tea Partiers: be careful what you wish for

Much has been written about Speaker of the House John Boehner’s recent resignation announcement. The news wasn’t particularly surprising to me. The only element of surprise to me was how long he held on.

Today being speaker means trying to govern when a sizeable and very vocal part of your own party actively wants anarchy instead. He’s been between a rock and a hard place since the Tea Party stormed Congress after the 2010 election. When members of the Tea Party threatened to introduce a motion to “vacate the chair” (remove him from his position as speaker) if Boehner failed to fight on a spending bill to keep the government running, Boehner decided to call it quits.

The Tea Party was essentially demanding that both the Senate and the President agree to certain cuts in government spending that neither would agree to in order for the government to stay open, i.e. extortion. Either they are convinced that this hardball approach would yield results hitherto unattained or they believed that shutting down the government is a necessary sacrifice to attain these ends. Compromise was simply not an option to these Tea Partiers, although our constitutional system by design moves parties toward compromise. No one branch of government is given all the power. To refuse to compromise is essentially anti-constitutional, and is arguably treasonous.

But the Tea Party, which supposedly is overrun with people who greatly respect the U.S. constitution, is demanding that the Senate and the president agree to all of its demands and won’t entertain the idea of meeting in the middle somewhere. All of its demands must be met or it will shut down the government indefinitely until they agree to them. Boehner’s resignation provided breathing space for a continuing resolution to keep the government open October 1. However, this merely postpones Armageddon because in November the government will run out of extraordinary means to avoid going over the debt ceiling. And the Tea Party in the House would prefer to let the U.S. government default on its debt for the first time ever rather than compromise on any of its demands.

One problem with being angry is that it becomes impossible to think clearly. And that’s what will happen if House Republicans allow the government to default on its debts. When this happens someone is going to get a haircut. Most likely it will be these Tea Partiers. The Treasury Department (or more likely the President) will have to decide which creditors get paid and which won’t.

The most vindictive way for the president to wreak revenge (and since he’ll be leaving office, there is no downside) would be to halt all federal payments to congressional districts represented by members of the Tea Party. This is playing hardball, something I suspect President Obama is too civilized to actually do. But it would ensure the end of the Tea Party almost for sure. All it will take is for one grandma in these districts to not get their social security check at the start of the month. Tea Partiers would be out of congress entirely after the 2016 election. It could possibly be the end of the Republican Party as well. It makes a certain amount of sense that those who represent people that want anarchy should be the first to experience its downsides.

In any event if the debt ceiling is not raised, some creditors would have to wait until revenue is collected to get paid. Maybe payments would be a first in, first out queue. More likely the president would prioritize payments favoring social security and Medicare and defer payments to troops, defense contractors and holders of U. S. treasury bills. In short, the power would move toward the Executive, weakening the hands of the Tea Party.

They don’t understand this, of course, and that’s because they are angry and not thinking clearly. Aside from higher interest rates that our creditors will demand in the future to fund our government, those most damaged are likely to be those who are pushing for anarchy. If it happens it will be an expensive lesson in governance, but perhaps a necessary price for the country to pay to elect men and women who will actually govern. And governing requires compromise.

If that’s what it takes to make the Tea Party see the light, bring it on I guess.

The Thinker

Reassembling our lives

The goalposts kept moving. Finally yesterday, three weeks after the date when our house was supposed to be completed, we actually staggered across the finish line. The finish line in this case was settlement. We were fortunate to be able to move into our house on September 24, which was good because after September 30 we otherwise had been either homeless or squatters. So it goes in the nerve-wracking business of buying a new house where completion dates are purely aspirational. Settlement dates came and went but eventually the necessary signatures were collected to add our property to a master deed, which meant we could actually settle.

9:30 a.m. yesterday found us in our attorney’s office where all the documents were ready. The odd thing about this settlement was that the seller was not present. In fact, the seller’s attorney didn’t show up either. He sent his paralegal who presumably had authority to sign their documents, but he would not show up until later that afternoon. And so we spent nearly as much time chatting with our attorney and his paralegal as we did signing papers. It was the first time we had actually met him and most likely the last as well.

There were the usual bizarre forms to sign. In one we signed our names three ways, with middle initial, with middle name spelled and with middle name absent I guess so they could have some assurance our signatures on the other papers were legitimate … but how do they know this one wasn’t fake? In another we agreed that if there were a clerical error we would not sue anyone. We signed one paper claiming a homeowner’s exemption. In Massachusetts the first $500,000 of your residence can be safe from creditors, but only if you take the time to sign the right document. Whatever. By 11 a.m. we were out of there with the usual cramped fingers from signing documents. Using pen and ink is so old fashioned — hadn’t anyone ever heard of electronic signatures? Also old fashioned were the stack of checks that would go to various parties, many for overpriced legal documents of dubious significance. Ever hear of bank-to-bank transfers fellas?

Monday we finally liberated our stuff from our storage unit. No more torrential rains that left a mini mudslide in our new backyard to allow the mover to postpone delivery. No more unexpected engine and brake problems to further delay things. My wife was fed up enough to find another mover instead. This mover delivered a very full twenty foot truck full of our stuff leaving us with a new house we mostly owned (except for a $30,000 mortgage from the credit union) and at least three times the boxes from the move from our apartment.

Which leaves us at the end of our long relocation journey, except for putting away all the stuff in these boxes. The piles of boxes are quite intimidating. But at least all our stuff has arrived. So far there has been little damage of note. So kudos to JK Moving. Expensive china emerged from our boxes with no breakage. Putting items away though assumes you know where you want it to go, and that’s not always intuitive. For our new house is not the same as our old house. It has more space in general but less space in certain areas. So everything has to be puzzled through. Our strategy is tentatively place items in certain places. When all the boxes are unpacked and are on the curb for recycling then we’ll probably have to go through everything again and figure out where we really want to store them.

The other hard part is remembering where you put stuff. I waste about an hour a day opening drawers thinking I placed an item in it, but not finding it there. This requires opening other drawers and if you are lucky finding the item after a couple of attempts. The kitchen at least is now wholly unpacked and I am remembering where certain common items like silverware are located. It’s all the other stuff, like the waffle maker or the measuring cups that are hard to find.

A new house takes some getting used to. Not only are rooms in different places but like a new car it has a new house smell to it. Our wood floors still smells of recently applied polyurethane. Our unfinished basement has a weird odor that I can’t quite place. It may be the insulation hanging in the ceiling or it may be the foam insulation along the perimeter and in the crevices. Speaking of insulation, the house is so weather tight and energy efficient that the designers were aware it would lead to indoor air pollution. So there is a special ventilation stack to ensure this doesn’t happen with blowers that come on periodically. Other noises take some getting used to, such as the icemaker in the refrigerator. It’s a house so solidly constructed that at least for the moment it does not creak or groan. When fans and the icemaker are not making noise, the house is eerily silent.

Two days later at best a quarter of our boxes are unpacked. There are so many things to reassemble, such as a china cabinet and various bookcases. Furniture is tried in various locations then gets moved somewhere else, in hopes of an optimal configuration. It’s hard to know what fits best until it’s all in place and you use it for a little while. Pictures and artwork need to be placed, but where exactly? Clocks need to be hung, floor lamps need to be screwed into a stack, carpet runners need to be placed and plastic and metal shelves have to be reassembled. At some point the house starts to feel like a home. It didn’t feel much like a home to me until Monday afternoon. That’s when the large pier behind our bed arrived and was reassembled. It’s amazing it all arrived undamaged. Suddenly my bedroom looked familiar again. No longer using the guest room furniture, things were right back where they used to be, just facing west instead of east. Our bedroom at least felt like home.

The complete home feeling will probably have to wait until some time after everything is put away and all the photos and artwork are again on our walls. For our house is missing something vital: a cat or two to take possession of the place. Until I see paw prints on the windowsill, I am changing the litter box twice a week and am vacuuming cat dander off the sofas, it won’t quite feel like a home. Cats don’t like change so there’s no point in getting a cat until everything is put away. I expect a new feline or two to arrive in our lives in November.

Meanwhile there is plenty more unpacking and rearranging to do, and more weeks of feeling lost in my own home until things settle in.

The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: October 2015 (Albany NY) Edition

This month instead of looking at postings in Craigslist’s Hartford casual encounters site, I’m going to look instead at Albany, New York’s site. Albany is a major city about ninety minutes by car (with a fair tailwind) to my west. Albany is also the capital of New York State. It happens to be situated about twenty miles from Schenectady, where I was born. Curiously with the lack of much in the way of FM news stations here in the Pioneer Valley, I listen to Albany radio quite a lot, more specifically WAMC at 90.3, the NPR station. So perhaps it’s appropriate.

First let me provide a report on my September Craigslist statistics. Google Analytics reports at least 162 web page views for my Craigslist posts in September. This is pretty low and may be the lowest number of hits since I started recording these statistics. I say “at least” because Google Analytics dashboard won’t show more than ten entries with “Craigslist” in the title, and I know these posts are read frequently via other media like newsfeeds. This is ten percent of my 1628 web page views for the month. So perhaps this Craigslist traffic trend has peaked at last. We’ll see in subsequent months.

Anyhow perhaps things will be fresher in Albany than they are in Hartford, Connecticut. No way to know without diving in. It’s the first Friday of the month so doubtless people have high expectations for their weekend. On the first page of posts I see:

  • 35 men looking for a woman
  • 47 men looking for a man
  • 5 men looking for a couple
  • 2 men looking for a transgender/transvestite
  • 1 man looking for multiple men
  • 3 women looking for a man
  • 2 women looking for a woman
  • 2 couples looking for a man
  • 1 couple looking for a woman
  • 2 couples looking for another couple
  • 1 transgender/transvestite looking for a man

And we’re off:

  • This 47-year-old man from Guilderland doesn’t understand that wanting to give oral sex to a young man is not a fetish. Symorophilia, now that’s a fetish. Anyhow, it’s too bad this man is only 47. If he were 60 or older, this younger man from Albany would be interested.
  • Now this is weird: this “horny housewife” is looking for two guys who are related to ravage her. Some examples include father/son, two brothers or uncle/nephew. I guess that’s keeping it all in the family, but what would mom say?
  • This couple age 29 and 31 want another woman to join them. What makes it kind of weird is that she probably won’t participate in any actual sex. Instead, they get to watch her slip bras and panties on and off while they get it on. Only if there is chemistry will things go further. It’s unclear how they will draw a woman in the first place if all she will do is repeatedly dress and undress. They might want to rethink their marketing strategy.
  • This sixtyish couple likes to hear other couples describe their most private and erotic fantasies. And that’s all they are offering: you type it up and send it email and they will read them and send back some of their own. They also want to hear your real life exploits.
  • Looks like my new hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts will be hosting a bunch of swingers early next week. Not sure why they are making people drive all the way from Albany and are having it during the workweek, but anyhow if you are a couple hit them up.
  • If you are a woman with too many panties or need some side income selling your used panties, contact this Albany man. He wants a long-term thing if possible, so maybe he’s planning to open his used panty museum.
  • Here’s a gay guy who has a foot fetish, so guys he will do all sorts of peculiar stuff to your feet and toes with his hands and mouth but he is not into men who used athletic socks or sneakers and you have to be available evenings and you got to send him your stats and shoe size.
  • No lie: this gay man from Schenectady is looking to be bottomed today in a bookstore with others watching. Schenectady police: please respond.
  • This woman is hoping to find her next husband through a Craigslist casual encounters post. Unless your standards are incredibly low, may I suggest OKCupid or eHarmony?
  • Cuckold couples: he wants to be your bull, but is he 46, 48 or 53? More than likely, it’s the latter.
  • If you are a woman who likes to be rimmed, here’s the guy you need. If you don’t know what rimming is, the picture will show you.
  • He’s a 55-year-old transvestite with erectile dysfunction, so that part is off limits. Otherwise guys, have fun!
  • This cat from Colonie will play with other women while her man is away in New York watching the Mets game. She’s 32, pretty and slinky and has some very explicit pictures but guys, just piss off!

There will be more next month when I may explore Boston.

The Thinker

Dear Pope Francis: you are half the way there

Presumably Pope Francis is now back in Rome and settling in after a whirlwind tour of Cuba and the United States. He’s a pope who is hard to dislike, perhaps because he comes out of the Jesuits. For a pope he is also suspiciously pragmatic.

He was not shy expressing his opinions while in the United States. Mostly they gave Republicans heartburn as he preached to them on subjects they did not want to hear: that poor people had equal rights, that income inequality had to be addressed and that global climate change was a serious problem. He spoke passionately of the refugee crisis affecting mostly Europe and asked America to do its part compassionately. He complained that corporations were not working in the interests of the people as a whole.

Democrats did not wholly escape his preaching. He spoke passionately about the family, but his idea of a family looked a lot like June and Ward Cleaver’s and seemed to exclude marriage for same sex couples. Still, overall it was refreshing to hear messages from a pontiff that were truthful and people-centric. Francis is a catholic in the apostolic and universal sense of the word. He even acknowledged that those who do not believe in God could be good people simply by acting as good people.

It’s not enough to make me return to the Catholic Church. It’s a lost cause in my case, as I don’t believe Jesus was God, and I don’t believe in miracles, saints and most of the peculiar beliefs of Catholics. I’m too left-brained. But his words as well as his actions (like having dinner with homeless people and riding in the back of a Fiat instead of a limousine) convinced me he is a much different pope, beloved as few will be, and acting in the spirit of Jesus. Pope John Paul II was much loved and is even on his way to sainthood, but Pope Francis’ appeal extends significantly beyond the Catholic faithful to much of the world at large.

I really tuned into his message on climate change. He introduced a small ray of hope into a problem that looks gloomy at best and catastrophic to humans and most species on the planet at worst. Perhaps some of his grounding on the matter came from outside the church. Before becoming a priest, Francis worked as a chemist. He earned the rough equivalent of an associate of science degree in chemistry in Argentina. Francis understands enough about chemistry to know that when you introduce too much carbon dioxide into an atmosphere, with no other changes to the system then temperatures will increase and it will affect most living species. He sees the obvious costs of our industrialization and acknowledges that the earth is finite and we cannot continue to exploit the earth’s resources so unintelligently.

What he did not acknowledge was that population growth is a major driver of climate change. Without an end to population growth and probably a long-term effort to reduce the earth’s population, climate change cannot be reversed. Humans drive almost all climate change because we all put demands on the earth simply to survive. The problem is much worse in industrialized societies because with increased standards of living we want more stuff, and this consumption also feeds climate change.

It’s not enough to practice “natural family planning” as a population control solution. The Catholic Church advocates refraining from intercourse during a wife’s fertile period and abstinence as the only non-sinful ways to limit family size. The rhythm method of course is chancy at best, which leaves abstinence as the only foolproof and sinless methods of birth control for devout Catholics. It makes it virtually impossible to be both a devout Catholic and an environmentalist. If you are familiar with Catholic theology then you know that using birth control pills, IUDs and prophylactics are sinful.

If Francis truly wants to take a concrete action to address climate change then simply giving Catholics permission to use these and similar forms of birth control would be a huge step forward. Of course in many parts of the world, people are too poor to afford birth control, so also stridently arguing that governments should make birth control universally available for free to all citizens is as necessary as giving birth control devices church sanction. Among the many benefits will be a reduction in abortions. Children never conceived cannot be aborted.

China’s somewhat loosened one child per family policy was effective at limiting its population growth, but at a horrendous cost. It meant forced abortions mostly of females and arguably wreaked a lot of psychological damage. It’s not hard to envision a time when climate change becomes so pressing that something like this becomes policy in most countries. While it may be necessary to do this simply to survive as a species, such policies would be the opposite of humane.

This doesn’t have to happen. With over a billion adherents, if the Catholic Church were to change its policies on birth control then it would do a huge amount in the medium term to limit population growth and subsequent climate change. It would be a humane step forward. Francis has the power to do this today.

I am not a praying man by nature, but I pray that Pope Francis will see the light on this and very soon. Our future, and the perpetuity of the Catholic Church may depend on it.

The Thinker

Shiny and new, but feeling ephemeral

Muscles hurting? Check. Sweating much of the day while I frantically move things from one place to another? Check. Feeling overwhelmed with this business of moving in general? Check. Feel like I am in real estate hell? Check, check, check.

But here we are in our new house on a prominent hill in Florence, Massachusetts with about a third of our stuff in it. The rest of it remains in a storage unit until a mover can get to it. While we are in the house, we still don’t own it due to some frustrating real estate settlement issues. I’ll have more on that in a bit. But the builder was nice enough to let us in, as they have done with other owners in the past when things were not 100% done and these snafus happened. We had to sign a “hold harmless” agreement and if we don’t settle by October 7 (it was originally October 1) we start paying rent of $100 a day.

We can be annoyed with our builder for his extended delays, something not unusual in the home construction business. But we can’t complain that they did a poor job constructing our house. The house is solidly constructed and the standards for its construction were very high throughout the whole process. We know because we had five months to watch the process. Our house sits in a 55+ community. It comes with a full but empty basement and a huge loft bigger than our old apartment. Also up there is a large adjacent storage room. The main level has a kitchen and living room of course, but we also have a sunroom in the back. The main level has two bedrooms, two baths and extra wide doors. It is highly energy efficient. We have gas heat when we need it and a gas stove too. The master bathroom includes a shower and a soaker tub, as well as two vanities. It anticipates a time when we might be aging in place and need to navigate in wheelchairs. The wood floors were not prefinished. They were installed untreated and stained three times with the stain of our choice, and lacquered twice. We have a two-car garage with the interior actually finished and painted. We have a deck made with plastic wood that will still look pristine when we are dead. We even have a sprinkler system built in that we can’t control, part of one that belongs to the whole complex. It comes on whenever the system figures our turf (landscaped in earlier this week) should be watered. The house definitely smells new and everything is pristine, clean and shiny. Of course there are some lingering issues and mistakes. They will be addressed in time.

I can’t complain about our movers. There wasn’t much in our apartment, but they emptied our apartment and placed its contents in our house in about two hours. I can’t complain about the boxes everywhere and the sheer work in putting stuff away, although I’d like to. There is much more of this to go. It will take a couple of months for our house to resemble the way we want it arranged. I should be thrilled with the new house experience and all this space but I am too exhausted to appreciate it at the moment. It’s going to take a while (and a couple of new cats) before our home really feels like one.

But I certainly can complain about our crazy settlement process, full of highs and lows much worse than any roller coaster ride you can imagine. What’s infuriating is that I did everything I could to mitigate problems and it wasn’t enough.

Settlement was supposed to be Thursday morning. We had been “preliminarily approved” the credit union told us, but the settlement papers had not arrived on Wednesday and calls to the credit union only resulted in being sent to voicemail. I had heard our house needed a final appraisal, but had not heard if it had happened. The appraiser was late filing his report and in fact it didn’t arrive until Friday, the day after settlement, and it was the preliminary appraisal. Late Friday the credit union found a problem in the appraisal that had to be corrected. Settlement was effectively delayed to some indeterminate time in the future.

Also Friday night came a major shock. The title insurance company our credit union is using requires our title to be free of exceptions and they were adamant about this. As we are technically a condominium, there must be exceptions, none of which affect the use of the property. All the other units have these exceptions and to leave them out would constitute gross malpractice by our attorney, subjecting him to legal jeopardy. If this cannot be resolved our whole mortgage may be in jeopardy. I tried to reach the credit union Friday night but while they were answering the phone, no one who could actually do anything about it was available and I was sent to – you guessed it – voicemail. So we’re living in suspended animation until Monday.

Our builder is not faultless either. Settlement did not happen principally because documents did not arrive from the builder’s attorney. He and his assistant are Jewish so of course they went off to celebrate Yom Kippur even though our settlement date was known more than a week ago. They simply let it slip and didn’t tell anyone including the builder who was clueless. The only good part of this was that the screw up allowed me to convince the builder to let us occupy our home. This was good because we had given notice on our lease and the movers were already scheduled to move us the next day.

We are feeling our way through this mess, none of it our fault. The worst-case solution seems to be to cancel the mortgage application. The mortgage amount is only $30,000. I can probably cobble cash and a personal loan to make up the difference. But of course that will take time too, and reduce our savings buffer. I’m guessing it won’t come to this.

So we wander a house customized to our specifications and wondering if it will really be ours, or if it’s all an illusion. Meanwhile we have to put stuff away and hang things on the wall and buy lots of stuff to make it livable.

And I ache. I spend much of my day in motion, lifting, stretching and moving. My calves are as hard as a rock. My shoulder muscles throb. What’s discouraging is that I was already physically fit and it still hurts. It’s too much all at once, and my aging body pushing sixty is complaining. My wife meanwhile spends much of her day in extreme pain due to chiropractic work that left the muscles attaching to her sacroiliac joint throbbing, with Percocets not quite taking care of the problem. I pick up a lot of her slack, of course. Stuff has to get done, and quickly. She needs rest, but moving households means she must move anyhow and that included cleaning up our apartment yesterday. We ache and snipe at each other.

At least we have utilities. DirecTV came yesterday and gave us a satellite dish. Comcast won’t give us Internet until next week but I was surprised to find a strong Comcast Wifi signal in the neighborhood. That’s a great relief. At least I have a tool to manage all this mess. My Internet phone won’t work with the Wifi. Otherwise everything else seems to work.

It will all settle down soon, but I fear there is more chaos ahead.


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