Doggone it

The Thinker by Rodin

There are cat people and dog people. Is it possible to be both? If it’s possible with any dog, it should be possible with Parker. Parker is our guest dog this weekend, a dog in a house that has always been for cats only, thank you very much. Only, we’re sans cats at the moment as our cat Arthur passed away last month. It’s likely we’ll be petless until we resettle in retirement next year. My daughter agreed to watch our friends’ George and Joann’s dog Parker. Parker, like most dogs, is very sociable. It seemed cruel to keep him home alone with a hostile cat. In addition, my wife is still grieving over the loss of Arthur. I thought having an animal in the house would be therapeutic for her. So we invited Parker over for the weekend.

Parker the guest dog
Parker the guest dog

Parker, as you can see, is 100% dog. He’s an English Setter Spaniel, something I would not know, as I can’t identify more than a handful of breeds. As dogs go, he’s an eighty-pound bundle of love. As I am considering a dog for companionship in retirement, a weekend with Parker seemed mutually beneficial. For me, Parker’s presence would help me figure out if I want a dog in my life. For a dog that dotes on companionship, it was good for Parker.

For if Parker can’t sell me on owning a dog, no dog can. We were impressed with Parker during a holiday party. He was the life of the party, happily going from person to person for attention. When he got a modicum less of attention than he felt he deserved he flitted over to the next person. Parker is a happy dog that excels in companionship. Most dogs do that, of course, but generally dogs fall into two types: the loyal dog that bonds with one and only one person (or with the family) and the indiscriminately affectionate dog. Parker is definitely the latter type, perhaps because he was a rescue dog. He will push his snout between your arm and waist to make sure you know he deserves your undivided attention. And his big brown eyes will stare deep into yours, lovingly, patiently, until you just kind of give him a hug, pet him and praise him. And then he will plead for more.

So there’s not much not to like about Parker. Still, for cat people this constant companionship thing is a bit overwhelming. There is devotional, like always going to church on Sundays, and then there is dog-devotional which amounts to “If I am awake I must be at your side.” Parker scampers up the stairs ahead of me. He anticipates walkies I don’t intend to give him. And particularly when I am eating something, he is totally enrapt watching me put food into my mouth and examining my plate. It’s because — and granted I am new to this dog thing — he is hoping I will share. Surely anyone who loves him as much as he thinks I do will share their plate, or at least some morsels, right? He is prepared to look at me with those bright brown eyes of his indefinitely until I give in. He’s got plenty of time and nothing else to do.

His attention mania is not necessarily bad, although it can be hard to type on the computer with that nose nudging me. However, dogs not only need love, they need services. Specifically, they need the outdoors for both #1 and #2, and they need it several times a day. And they need regular brushings. And teeth cleaning. And in Parker’s case, their ears periodically need to be nipped. And they often need their paws wiped before coming indoors and, if they were outside in the rain, you probably want to wipe their coat of most of the rain. They need nails trimmed and they need a human to vacuum up their excess fur. And most dogs need a deodorant or at least regular baths. They unfortunately smell of dog, an acquired smell perhaps, but not one I particularly welcome.

Me and Parker
Me and Parker

To this cat person, dogs in general seem kind of peculiar. With noses thousands of times more sensitive than ours, they are more smell-focused than visually-focused. Smells are their passion. Every dog’s urine must smell subtly different, because they are particularly focused on smelling fire hydrants and mailbox posts. Finding just that right spot to wee wee seems to be vital to dogs. I am guessing they are looking for an unused spot. Also vital is acknowledging the presence of other dogs, through general yipping. I’m not sure what they are saying exactly but I think it’s, “Hey, you’re a dog!” and the other dog yips back, “Hey, you are a dog too!” I suspect the conversation then gets into an extensive discussion on the virtues of the smells at their specific spots, and how the other dog better not be peeing on their spot. For humans like me walking the dog also gives us close encounters with dog excrement. I can’t say it’s interesting. I changed my daughter’s diapers because it had to be done. Spending ten years picking up dog poop doesn’t sound like a reason to own a dog.

I also suspect dog owners develop enormous biceps. A dog like Parker has quite a will, and he will lead me more than I will lead him. Parker can literally dig in his heels when necessary when he has found a particularly interesting spot to sniff. He takes great force to move. And he will happily run around me, leaving the leash wrapped around my legs. I assume dog owners develop an instinct on when to shorten or lengthen a leash.

But perhaps all the attention dogs require makes the relationship balanced. I can’t say that about the many cats we have had over the years. When they need to go I don’t escort the cat to their litter box. I do brush them from time to time, but it’s easy to forget and they don’t seem to mind. Granted, cats aren’t usually quite as much gluttons for attention as Parker, but some can be. Some prefer you leave them the hell alone, but will give you hell if you don’t feed them on time.

Dogs are not one-dimensional either, although I can see how it can seem that way. Parker is a love dog, but there are also excessively protective dogs. There are dogs that bark at the slightest provocation, and that includes when a speck of dust going past their noses. Some dogs whimper and whine, some expect you to feed them at five a.m. and raise hell if you don’t. And some dogs like to chew the legs of your furniture, the same way some cats like to shred your furniture. Paper-training puppies is reputedly a huge hassle and I imagine it must be challenging for a dog to learn how to time excretion to mornings and afternoons.

So I’m not sure about this dog thing, although I am willing to host Parker a few more times to find out for sure. It may be that I will prefer to do most of my walking alone with a podcast in my ear rather than escort a dog.

Today was yard sale day in our neighborhood. We brought Parker outside for part of it. It was clear to me that he was good for business, as dogs seem to attract dog people. People-friendly dogs like Parker are the equivalent to pushing around a baby in a baby carriage. Happy, healthy and attractive dogs like Parker are especially in demand. John, my financial adviser, is also a cat person. He was in my home consulting with me yesterday when Parker arrived for his stay. Parker went immediately to John and wedged his nose into his hand. “That’s one friendly dog,” John said, clearly impressed.

Yes he is. Which means that if I can’t get into Parker, I’ll just have to accept the sad fact that I am not a dog person. My loss, I guess.

Retirement options

The Thinker by Rodin

No gold watch upon my retirement, but likely an early afternoon party at work with sheet cake and punch in a conference room. This is sort of expected and it is nice. There is a lot of paperwork when you retire from the federal government, but perhaps the most onerous part of it is sifting through all the choices. Our retirement system has evolved over many years into a complex labyrinth. You almost need a degree in retirement management to handle the complexity of it all.

The hardest retirement decision is figuring out whether you can really afford to retire. That took many years of work with a financial adviser. Some part of the decision was made for me. Stocks did great last year, lessening my need to hang around. In any event, on August 1st I should be officially a retiree and a private citizen again, free to run for public office should I choose, and with no need to worry about accidentally investing in energy stocks.

Gone also will be certain benefits that come with being employed, like a health savings account. It allows you to pay for medical expenses with pre-tax dollars. It’s not so much the tax savings that I’ll miss, but having some system automatically paying most of our voluminous deductibles. A lot of this will now have to be done personally, involving time and hassle. Well, I guess being retired I should have more of it.

Except like most retirees, I won’t be quite retired. To start, I’ll teach two courses at the local community college, and likely two more the following semester. Something work-like but not full time work will be good to feel engaged and part of the world. But I don’t just want to teach again. I also want to learn. On my list of things to do is take a couple of courses, including one on how to write apps. I don’t know what kind of apps I will write in retirement. With luck they will bring in some income. I’m hoping to find an underserved and specialty market. If you only sell a thousand copies of your app, does it matter if you can get a hundred dollars each? The popular apps have been pretty much been written, along with dozens of variants of each. In any event with a pension and investment income, I’ll have a roof over my head and food on the table, so whether I succeed or fail writing apps doesn’t matter much.

This blog has satisfied my itch for writing. I am trying to decide if retirement will be the excuse I need to write something more creative and enduring, i.e. a book. We all have a novel in us. I probably have a lot of them. I just hate to write something that won’t be marketed. Since my daughter has an agent, perhaps I could shamelessly use her connection with her agent to get my novel read.

For me, retirement probably won’t be a lot of leisure. Rather it will provide a financial floor to explore pursuits that time, energy and the grinding business of maintaining a standard of living largely did not allow me to pursue. So, yes, there will be work but I am hoping it will be more part time work. I hope it won’t be something I get too passionate about. Passionate work can become wholly consuming, which might mean sixteen hour days happily sitting in front of my computer banging out code. I will need more time outdoors instead. I will want to have the leisure to take daily walks, perhaps with a dog on the end of a leash. I will want companionship.

For the next year or so a lot of my time will be consumed by the business of relocation. I’ve run the numbers and not only does relocation agree with me in midlife in general, but it’s a financially savvy move as well. This is true if you end up somewhere with an overall lower cost of living and with enough things to do to feel engaged and part of the community. I feel the need to be closer to nature again, as I was in my youth. I imagine something I haven’t done regularly in forty years: walking outside my house, looking at the night sky and seeing the Milky Way visible and splayed across the sky.

We’ve been studying western Massachusetts for a year now and the Pioneer Valley (Amherst/Northampton area) in particular. It looks like it has all we are looking for, although finding the right house will be a challenge. It helps to have zillow.com as a resource and when surveying potential communities to use Google Street Maps to get a reality check. Right now the city of Easthampton, Massachusetts looks particularly inviting. It is close enough to Northampton to be close to its amenities, but it is not overrun with students. There are five colleges in the Pioneer Valley, and some like the University of Massachusetts in Amherst have a reputation for problems with boisterous and drunken students. Choose your neighborhood with care, we’ve been warned. In general though crime is not a problem. The crime index for the area is incredibly low.

Easthampton is a very small city. Some would characterize it as a town or even a village. It has around 16,000 residents. It sits next door to Mt. Tom which offers convenient nature trails and scenic views from about a thousand feet above sea level. Easthampton is picturesque, just not as snooty or expensive as nearby Northampton.

We’ll go back this summer to focus on specific neighborhoods, but our brief tour of Easthampton last year was encouraging. It’s an old fashioned city with a small but real downtown full of local businesses. It comes with beautiful parks and even city managed cemeteries. After I pass this world, I think my ashes would be happy at Brookside Cemetery (assuming there are any remaining plots), overlooking White Brook and Nashawannuk Pond.

Easthampton is big enough to be a distinctive community with its own character, but not big enough to have be overrun by national chains. The are no Applebees in Easthampton that I can find, although there is a nice little breakfast place, locally owned and managed called The Silver Spoon that looks inviting based on reviews. You actually have to go to Northampton if you want to shop at Wal-Mart. Should I take an interest in local politics, it would be easy enough. The area’s less attractive areas, the cities of Holyoke, Springfield and Chicopee, are conveniently on the other side of Mt. Tom.

As for homes built for us retirees, there are a couple of condo communities, but only a couple. One in particular on the south side of the city looks very upscale. These condos are basically single family houses with a common wall. The condo fee takes care of pesky chores like shoveling snow and mowing grass. 55+ communities typically come with a master bedroom on the main level and accessible facilities built in. They anticipate the day when you will need to live on one level. It’s called aging in place, which sounds much better than aging in a nursing home. But they often have other levels as well, where guests can sleep and where my office will be located. As for nature, it is literally in the backyard. A bike trail is just blocks away.

The logistics of buying and selling our house are pretty daunting, as I have not moved a household such distances before. It will have to be done professionally. Fortunately our house is largely in shape to market and I’ll have time to work on it being “retired”. It’s clear that we can buy with cash from the sale of our house pretty much any house on the market in Western Massachusetts. So we’ll pocket a lot of equity, add it to our portfolio and hopefully use it to do more traveling.

The grandparent joke is, “If I had known how much fun it was to be a grandparent, I would have started as one.” I suspect retirement will be a lot like this. If you are fortunate to retire, you may be able to do it right. We’ll find out.

Will creationists ever evolve?

The Thinker by Rodin

I remember a time when science was cool. So does my brother Jim, who fifty years ago attended the World’s Fair in New York City (I was too young to attend). NPR had a story on it today. It included predictions by the late Isaac Asimov on what 2014 would be like, most of which were wrong.

Heck, back in the 1960s not only was science cool, but engineering was cool. We were building computers and rockets to the moon and beyond. Being the school nerd wasn’t wrong. A lot of people looked up to you. The nerds may have not attracted the hottest women, but they had the best job prospects. Back in the 1960s, evolution was widely accepted too, even by most southern Baptists. They mostly just shrugged at their cognitive dissonance, like most religious people do about all sorts of things, like their duty to help the poor while cutting their food stamps.

What went wrong? Now it’s seems to be cool to be ignorant. Perhaps I am being too kind. If you are ignorant, it means you just haven’t been informed yet about a truth. Today lots of people are informed, but dismiss truth. Evolution is a perfect example. Despite irrefutable evidence, evolution conflicts with their bizarre interpretation of the Bible, so they won’t believe it. Evolution is just a theory, they are told, and any theory can be wrong. And God’s holy word must be right. Therefore evolution is wrong.

It’s true that God doesn’t say in the Bible anything specific about the year the earth was created. But by reading the Bible backwards many of these self-professed Biblical scholars think they have figured it all out. Call it 6,000 years plus or minus a few. Of course even within these devout scholars there is a lot of disagreement on the date. Archbishop James Ussher puts the start of the world at 4004 B.C. Julius Africanus in 240 C.E. put it at 5501 B.C. A. Helwigius thinks the earth was created in 3836 B.C. Considering all the holy wars we’ve had it’s curious we haven’t had this one yet.

In any event, in just seven days, creationists believe Almighty God put it altogether. He did a masterful job of it, because who but the Almighty could possibly befuddle us with so many clues that prove just the opposite: that the earth and our universe is unimaginably old. Our planet is roughly 4.54 billion years old. The universe itself is 13.798±0.037 billion years old, which means the universe went through nearly two thirds of its life before our planet formed from the detritus of star stuff.

If you are a creationist though, you have to believe crazy stuff. Like Almighty God has a sense of humor because he left all these dated fossils around which through the science of carbon dating indicates many are millions or hundreds of millions of years old. The further you go back in time the less evolved similar species appear. Almighty God is the ultimate practical jokester but he’s doing it for a good reason: he is testing our faith. I guess to actually move mountains you first have to believe the ridiculous. Curiously not even Jesus moved any mountains. I guess he was distracted. In fact, none of our holy men seem to have these sorts of powers. The best they can claim are some highly disputed events that appear miraculous. Many of us are left to conclude those reputed weeping statues of Mary that irregularly produce tears have a lot more to do with condensation than miracles. This is the best the Lord has got?

I’ll grant you that there is plenty about science that we don’t know yet. Few scientists will state conclusions without qualifications of some sort. But as far as evolution is concerned, it’s definitely not a matter of opinion. It happens all around us every day. What is different in the last few centuries is that a lot of evolution is manmade. For there are two types of evolution: natural evolution and deliberate evolution. Natural evolution, or natural selection as Charles Darwin coined it, is what happens naturally over time. Tiny chromosomal changes are introduced randomly, and some of these changes make some within a species better adapted to the current environment. These species tend to thrive. If the earth were just 6,000 years old then we would not notice a whole lot of natural selection. But over 4.54 billion years there is plenty of time for these changes to work themselves out.

Deliberate evolution is perhaps better called unnatural selection. It happens when man decides to speed up an evolutionary process. We do this for many reasons, but mainly because the nature we have is not quite the one we want. The agricultural company Monsanto is in the evolution business. It works to selectively create new versions of crops that give their new crops advantages over other crops: higher nutrition, perhaps, or more resistance to predators. Mankind has practiced unnatural selection for a long time, long before Darwin coined the term natural selection.

There is not a species of dog today that did not evolve unnaturally, unless you count the wolf, their common ancestor. We preferred the gentler wolf as a companion and nurtured those that could adapt to us, and showed disfavor or indifference to the rest. Over time we bred all sorts of dogs into breeds with different characteristics and temperaments. We can pretty much select the dog best suited to us now. Ten thousand years ago we had no such choices. God had nothing to do with all the variants of dogs around us except perhaps inventing the wolf.

We evolve nature all the time, often not very intelligently. New antibiotics often breed resistant strains of bacteria. Using bug killers often unnaturally selects bugs that can resist these sprays. We breed cats, horses, all sorts of pets and plants. We created the mule: the sterile creation of mating a horse with a donkey. All sorts of species are evolving indirectly due to our impact on the environment. Many are going extinct as we take over their habitat. Due to climate change it looks like the polar bear will soon be one of them. As we throw toxins and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, some are better adapted to these changes and will thrive, or at least not decline as fast as other species. We are evolving our world at a pace probably never experienced naturally on our planet before.

So evolution is not some abstract theory. It is all around us and it happens continuously. Much of it is created directly or indirectly by our presence, but much of it still natural. You too can practice evolution. I practiced it by getting a vasectomy after having one child, thus indirectly showing preference for non-Caucasians. You can become a molecular biologist and work for Monsanto and practice evolution by inventing tastier tomatoes. Or you can get credentials in in vitro fertilization and create some cloned animals or perhaps a new species. Or you can just spray some Black Flag around your kitchen.

So let’s call a spade a spade. Everyone is free to believe whatever he or she wants. But those who believe that the earth was created in seven days some six thousand years ago are either simple incurious and ignorant people or, much worse, ignoramuses. One wonders why they don’t try to walk through walls. For to deny that evolution is real when it is something you can do yourself is, well, nuts. And if you can do it, surely Almighty God can, and did.

Mankind is not going to the stars

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m something of a space geek. It helps to have grown up during the space race. I still find the exploration of outer space fascinating. Our knowledge of the universe is growing by leaps and bounds. Hundreds of planets have been discovered, so many that it no longer makes news to announce new ones. Many of these planets look like they might support human life, although it’s hard to say from such a fantastic distance away. Some of us are waiting expectantly for someone to discover the warp drive, so we can go visit and colonize these distant worlds. Maybe it will be just like Star Trek!

It fires my imagination too and it excites the popular press as well. It all sounds so exotic, fascinating and Buck Roger-ish. The only problem is that almost certainly none of this will happen. We might be able to put men on Mars, but colonizing the planet looks quite iffy. Even colonizing the moon, as I suggested when Newt Gingrich was promoting the idea during his last presidential campaign, is probably cost prohibitive. Which means we need to keep our dreams of visiting strange new worlds in check. It won’t be us, it won’t be our children or grandchildren and it probably won’t happen at all. To the extent we visit them it will occur virtually, using space probes.

I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news but hear me out. We probably won’t colonize the moon permanently because it will be too costly to sustain it. It’s one thing to land a man on the moon, which America did rather successfully. It’s much more costly to stay there. For a sizeable group of humans, say ten thousand or so, to live self sufficiently on the moon is probably impossible. If it can be done it will take a capital investment in the trillions of dollars. My guess is that it would take tens of trillions of dollars, if not hundreds of trillions of dollars. It’s unlikely the moon has enough water that we could mine but if it does it’s likely very inefficient to process as it is wrapped up in moon dust. Otherwise water would have to be imported from earth at ruinous costs. In fact, colonists would have to import pretty much everything. Even if citizens of the moon could grow their own food and recycle their own water, manufacturing is likely to be limited. We might have a small scientific colony on the moon, like we do at the International Space Station. It probably won’t amount to more than a dozen men or women, and it’s likely to cost at least ten times as much as the international space station cost, since you have to move equipment and men a much further distance.

What about man colonizing Mars? It doesn’t seem out of reach. When the orbits are working just right, a spacecraft can transit each way in about six months. The cost of getting a pound of matter to Mars is likely ten to a hundred times the cost of getting it to the moon, which is probably cost prohibitive in itself. The journey there and back though looks chancy. It’s not just the possibility that some critical system will fail on the long journey; it’s the cosmic rays. Our astronauts are going to absorb a heap of radiation, the equivalent of 10,000 chest X-rays. It looks though that this is probably manageable. What of man living on Mars itself?

The good news is that humans could live on Mars, providing they don’t mind living underground. The atmosphere is much thinner than Earth’s, it is much colder on Mars than on the Earth in general and you can’t breathe the air and live. It’s true that by essentially burying our houses in Martian soil humans could be safe from much of it. Slapping on some SPF-50 sunscreen though won’t do the job. Anyone on the surface will have to wear spacesuits. So far we haven’t found a reliable source of water on Mars either. Colonizing Mars is within the realm of probability, but it is fairly low. Frankly, it’s a very remote, cold and arid place with nothing compelling to it other than a lot of empty mountains and valleys and swirling Martian dust, almost always in a pink or orange haze.

Colonizing distant moons and asteroids have similar problems: no suitable conditions for sustaining life as we know it, insufficient gravity, toxic radiation, frequently toxic chemicals and cold of the sort that most of us simply cannot comprehend it. Both Venus and Mercury are simply too hot to inhabit, and Venus is probably as close to hell as you will find on a planet in our solar system.

What about colonizing planets around other solar systems? Here’s where we need to fire up the warp drive of our imaginations because as much as physicists try to find exceptions around Einstein’s theories of relativity, they can’t. The closer you get to the speed of light the more energy it takes. It’s like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the mountain. To get a spacecraft with people in it to even 10% of the speed of light looks impossible with any technology we have or can reasonably infer. The closest star is three light years away, so even if this speed could be achieved it would take thirty years to get to the closest star. But it can’t be achieved. In fact, we’d be lucky to get to 1% of the speed of light, which would make a journey to Proxima Centauri a voyage of 300 years. Moreover, if some generations could make the journey, it is likely that our closest star is not inhabitable.

Perhaps we could freeze ourselves and wake up millions of years later at our destination. Maybe that would work. Obviously, we don’t have technology to do anything like this now. And given the laws of entropy, it’s hard to imagine any spacecraft that could survive a voyage of that duration intact.

What we need is a warp drive and a starship. But what we will really need is an escape clause from the theories of relativity and the technology that will allow humans to utilize it: a spacecraft that can slip through a wormhole or something. It’s not that this is impossible, but with what we know it looks impossible for us and will always be impossible. In any event there doesn’t appear to be any wormholes conveniently near Earth.

In short, we are stuck to the planet Earth. We’d best enjoy what we have and stop squandering the planet on which all human life depends. So far we are doing a terrible job of it.

For women to actually get equal pay, the sun must shine in

The Thinker by Rodin

The stay at home mom is now almost legend. Women are at the cusp of being a majority of the workforce. One reason may be that women earn on average 77 cents on the dollar that men earn. All things being equal, that’s a considerable discount if you are an employer. Why wouldn’t you want to hire more women if you could pay them less?

Few believe that the wage gap is entirely due to sex discrimination. Women after all have babies, and this can inconveniently take them out of the workforce for a while. When they rejoin the workforce, often it is in a new position that comes with an entry-level salary. This is unfortunate but is not illegal. Many conservatives will argue that this alone explains the wage gap.

Traditionally fewer women have had college degrees than men. Now women form the majority of college students, so that suggests this will change in time. Some professions such as in science and engineering have traditionally been unrepresented by women, and these jobs often pay more than jobs on average, which might skew the average salaries higher for men. Still, hardly anyone who has studied the issue will dispute the assertion that some of the pay gap is due to sex discrimination. The discrimination may not be overt. It may simply be women setting their salary requirements too low and employers discreetly pocketing the savings. It’s also hard to ask for a fair salary when you don’t know what a fair salary is.

A lot of people resent sharing their salary information. It’s not hard to see why, as one of two things are likely. First, others will discover you are paid a lot more than they are for roughly the same work, which might engender feelings of hostility and resentment toward you. Second, you will realize others are paid considerably more than you while doing the same work, and that’s embarrassing. Regardless, employers can and do use the confidentiality aspects of salaries to their advantage. To truly get equal pay for equal work, this has to change.

But how? Who is going to want to disclose their salary when it engenders feelings of shame or anxiety? On the other hand, how can women have confidence that they are getting paid equivalent to a man without some disclosure?

The tools to find out how much your market wage should be are rudimentary at best. The Department of Labor keeps statistics on wage rates for a variety of professions, but of course wage rates will vary substantially depending on where you live and the local cost of living. The statistics are also highly bracketed. What you really need to know is what does someone in my profession, hopefully at the same company and at the same location, with similar time at the company and similar responsibilities earn? Companies are under no obligation to provide this information.

One way of course is to demand what you consider a fair salary and if your employer does not agree to it to quit. It helps enormously of course to have another job offer waiting before trying this. But it doesn’t necessarily tell you if your other offer is fair either.

I have a potential solution to the pay gap issue. What are needed are independent third-party labor assessors that would collect and verify pay data. Here’s how it could work.

Each community would have one person designated as an occupational salary and benefits assessor. I’m not sure how many would be needed, but let’s say it’s one person for every 10,000 employed people. Ideally the person would be funded by non-profit agencies, but it would also be reasonable for the person to be someone guaranteed to be impartial, such as a government employee, perhaps an employee of the Department of Labor, either for the federal government or for the state and county government. Their task is to make sure that there are no major pay discrepancies in various local companies based on categories that are clearly illegal, such as by sex. Employees could schedule meetings with their labor assessor to input their salary information, or send them documentation electronically on a periodic basis.

These labor assessors would need credentials of course and they would be sworn to maintain the confidentiality of information provided by an employee. The employee would provide the assessor with pay stubs and other related information so the information could not be faked. This might include employer 401-K contributions, employer pension plans, a resume of their work history, evidence of their certificates, diplomas, SAT scores and GPAs. Of course it would also be important to know key information like age of the person, time in job, their gender, their race, the position title, a description of their duties, etc.

The assessor would take the information, verify it, and put it into a database that would anonomize the employee’s information. The assessor may even have the duty to audit a particular company, particularly one suspected of practicing pay discrimination. Interviews would be done off site and perhaps in the privacy of someone’s home if needed. Periodically, perhaps annually, the employee would be asked to update information regarding salary, position and current job duties. It might even require compelling the employee to provide the information. I realize labor assessors could also demand the information from the company, but there is the possibility that an employer might lie or inflate benefits. It is better to get the information directly from an employee.

Eventually this would allow an understanding of how employees in similar skills and positions are paid within the same company. Perhaps the information could remain confidential and the employer could be given some time to rectify pay inequalities that are discovered. If that does not occur the bulk information could be publicly disclosed and if not corrected legal action initiated. This would move the feelings of shame from the employee, where they do not belong, to the employer, where they do belong. It would likely reveal other pay disparities that are illegal: perhaps disparities based on race, age or handicaps.

Lacking any of this, it is hard to see how the situation will change. This is because pay disparities will be purely anecdotal in almost all cases, given the lack of information. Given the undeniable fact that women in general tend to make much less than men, such a system could fundamentally transform pay fairness in the workplace, as well as increase the standard of living for tens of millions of women across the country.

If someone has a better idea, I’d like to hear it.

Gaithersburg thirty years later

The Thinker by Rodin

Some places where you live will haunt you. Some you will cherish nostalgically. Some places will leave only vague memories. Some places you will live in for a long time and still never feel attached to it. Gaithersburg, a city on the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C., in Maryland’s Montgomery County was a place I called home for six years (1978-1984), five in the same apartment shared principally with a guy called Randy who kept his distance.

Gaithersburg was my transition place. It is where I transitioned from college graduate to someone with a career. It was a place where I pondered my single status and eventually left to live with the woman who would become my wife. It was a place that felt sort of comfortable because it was suburban and up north. It was also uncomfortable, because for a few years at least I was among the working poor there.

I had visited Gaithersburg briefly about ten years ago with my friend Tim. Tim and I had shared a year or so as retail drones at the local Montgomery Ward. Last Friday, I visited it again. As I toured the city and my old neighborhood, I had the not terribly upsetting feeling that I was visiting this “home” for the last time.

Maybe that’s the way it goes with places you live while in transition. By definition transition is transient, even if you stay there six years. Transition by its nature is also uncomfortable, and I was uncomfortable in Gaithersburg. It was a largely lonely and friendless time. It would not last forever. My brother Mike moved in and out of the area as he tried to complete school without quite the resources to do so. DC’s strong job market allowed him to accumulate some cash to buy more semesters in Blacksburg, Virginia. Once I had moved to Reston, Virginia across the Potomac my sister Mary and her husband came to the area. Much later my parents would also arrive too. None of them chose to live anywhere near Gaithersburg.

It’s good not to get too attached to place, because the apartment I lived in is gone. Apartments are ephemeral housing. It got the wrecking ball to put in upscale apartments and condos along East Diamond Avenue instead. The new apartments look terrific, and something I would not have been able to afford back then. They are also mostly not rented yet, but doubtless will be rented in time. Across the street is a MARC commuter train station. Likely there are convenient buses that will take residents to the Shady Grove metro station a couple of miles away too. It’s thus gotten easier to live carless in Gaithersburg, but most residents will still want one. The Sam’s Club, next to what was my old Montgomery Ward store, is a couple of miles away. The nearest Giant is probably too far to walk to.

Downtown Gaithersburg is trying to blend the tired with the new urban chic. Historic building includes many of the storefronts along Diamond Avenue that I remember, including the Diamond Drugs at the corner of East Diamond and Summit Avenues. New urban chic includes many three or four story apartments/condos with brick facades, and small businesses like Subway on the street level that now are prominent in this “downtown”. It’s not quite like Paris, but it is something of a third-rate imitation. Missing for now are some of the other urban amenities typically found in these places: a theater and upscale dining. Perhaps they will come in time.

Patches of this new urban chic don’t really blend in well with the tired and fading suburban houses just blocks away. It’s probably a step in the right direction for keeping the city’s coffers full. It was not needed to color up the town. Thirty years ago of course it was principally white. Since then, Asians have discovered Montgomery County in large numbers, and they are much in evidence in Gaithersburg. It’s not just the well-educated Asians that also have discovered the city, but the less educated ones as well. I found them inside my old Montgomery Ward store at the corner of Perry Parkway and North Frederick Avenue, looking like they were probably mostly from Pakistan.

Returning to my old store, where I survived at just above the minimum wage, was not in the least bit nostalgic, just sad. Tim and I were newly minted college-educated men without better prospects at the time. We were appalled by the low pay, high turnover and bad working conditions. We surreptitiously sounded out fellow disgruntled employees about unionizing the place. We never got too far. Management kept an eye on us. Tim went for other opportunities and I eventually followed him. I’m not sure I would be a federal employee without Tim’s help. He figured out how to do it.

In any event the same haunted and basically impoverished faces were still there, just with no Montgomery Ward logo facing North Frederick Avenue and the faces of its employees were almost all colored now. The store is now mostly split between a Toys ‘R Us and a Burlington Coat Factory. A Ford Dealership is renting the old auto bay. At least that still retains its original use. And you can rent trucks there now too. The lot of retail workers looked as shoddy and ephemeral as they were thirty years earlier, if not worse. In real dollars, the minimum wage buys even less today.

I wandered both stores, remembering what was, not really mourning it (Wards had its demise coming) but sad that these new retailers were no better than the Montgomery Ward that preceded it. In one sense they were better: they had more customers on a Friday afternoon than I remembered. The interior of my old store was mostly unrecognizable. The snack bar windows had been bricked up. Only two things inside looked familiar: the creaky escalators and the dropped ceiling tiles, many absent, laid some forty years earlier and that the owners couldn’t bother to replace.

You would think some stores would have survived thirty years. Except for the Diamond Drugs, not much remained. Retail comes and goes. You would think that McDonald’s might still be across the street, but it was now a Boston Market. The McDonald’s relocated across the street. The People’s Drug Store had long ago been converted into the ubiquitous CVS. Suburban Bank, where I had an account, is now a Bank of America. Only at Lakeforest Mall to the east did I find two retailers that had survived thirty years largely intact: a JC Penny and Sears. Sears though isn’t doing too well. It may not be there in a couple more years.

The Sam’s Club just to the north of my old store was new to me, but simply made me feel more depressed. The chain is Walmart’s answer to Costco; it doubtless had most of its employees surviving on second or third jobs, plus likely food stamps too. Fortunately, Costco has also come to Gaithersburg, and could be found a bit past Montgomery Village Avenue to the north. Doubtless the dour faced employees in the Burlington Coat Factory I noted were hoping Costco would hire them. Costco pays employees a living wage.

But the cost of housing certainly had to be more in real dollars in Gaithersburg than I remembered. I could rent a cheap apartment for $380 a month in 1979, and shared with two people it was sort of affordable, even though it still took nearly two paychecks just to pay my half of the rent. I had no idea where these workers lived now. It was probably best not to know.

Gaithersburg still felt transient. I chose to live in Reston because it at least felt like a destination. There were bike paths, ponds, lakes and woods. Gaithersburg was just more unevenly dense, a city by charter, but a place lacking a soul. The city appears to be hoping it can build one downtown. Perhaps it will spread up and down North Frederick Avenue, but it seems unlikely. Route 355 seems destined to remain forever a forty-mile long strip mall.

Feeling melancholy, I decided not to dwell there too long. Soon I was high tailing it down the interstate and across the Potomac toward home.

The real value of streaming music

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been watching my mad money grow to four figures. My mad money comes from a small online consulting business. The business is sporadic, which is fine because I don’t have much time for it anyhow. I use the money to buy stuff I would normally be too cheap to buy. At least that’s the theory. In practice I don’t buy much with it except the occasional meal or some show tickets. Most of it eventually goes into a bank account. I am paid via PayPal so for a while it stays in a PayPal account. If I want I can buy stuff on impulse with my PayPal debit card.

The truth is I don’t want much that I don’t already have. So I’ve been searching hard for stuff I might want. What I am wanting is not so much physical stuff but virtual stuff. That explains my propensity to buy theater tickets with this money. Most recently, I used the money to buy a streaming music service, mostly to see what that’s all about.

Streaming content is hardly new. The main purpose of the Internet these days apparently is to watch Netflix online. This kind of ticks off the ISPs, who would much rather we use their online movie services. This is causing a few ISPs to give preference to their traffic as opposed to Netflix, Amazon or the other services out there. Apparently they aren’t brave enough to compete on price. Movies of course are gigabytes of content, all streaming over high-speed networks. Music, on the other hand, is relatively small in size. It’s small enough that so far at least my employer hasn’t noticed that I’m listening to online music much of the day. This is a technical violation of the rules but, hey, I’m only sipping content because it’s music. I doubt the network police even notice.

It’s not that I listen to music at work to avoid work. Music actually makes me more productive. My office tends to be quiet, but when it is not it also helps tune out the noise in my vicinity. I avoid listening to music with words in it, as that can be distracting. Instead, I concentrate on classical music. Without voices to distract me, listening to music becomes a mostly subliminal experience. It helps me focus, so I actually get a lot more work done.

I also listen to streaming music at home when I expect to be in front of my computer for a while. At home of course I feel freer to experiment in non-classical genres. Any type of music at home helps me be more productive. That’s because I am usually not alone. Both my wife and my daughter tend to broadcast their lives somewhat. While I love them, I don’t need a constant stream of what’s on their minds. So streaming the music lets me tune them out.

So this is a service that is actually useful to me. Google charges $10 a month for its Google Music service. (There is a free service that is more limited.) I haven’t actually paid my first bill yet, as the first thirty days are free. This is good because even though it reputedly has ten million titles to listen to, I’m new to this streaming thing, and there are a few things I don’t like about Google Play Music. On my desktop it plays inside a browser, which is not the ideal way to play music. At least on my iMac, when I ask the computer to do something else the music will often stop for a few seconds because the CPU is busy doing something else. It’s like coming across a scratch in a record, for those old enough to remember playing vinyl records. That’s distracting. So far I haven’t found a separate media-streaming player, although there are apps for mobile devices that I haven’t tested. These should provide a more seamless experience. So I might well migrate to one of the dozens of other services out there. Google at least is unlikely to go belly up, which is why I started with it.

So I am finding real value to paying for a music streaming service. It makes me more productive and it allows me to multitask. My consciousness is focused on my task at hand in front of the computer. Subliminally though I am also appreciating the music. I add both joy and productivity simultaneously. Classical music is also great when I need to write creatively. It certainly helps when I blog, but when I write fiction it is especially useful. It unleashes parts of my mind that would probably not unlock, resulting I believe in better writing.

The real value of this service though is the virtually infinite variety of music that I now have access to. Like most people, I’ve tended to listen to a lot of music that I’ve heard before. Increasingly though I am just going with random music in a genre, particularly classical music, and let it subliminally affect my brain. This is revolutionary. It used to be that we tended to buy whatever the DJ decided to put on the air. Often if we had access to a good record store we could listen to CDs using headphones the store provided. Neither are good ways to expose yourself to divergent music. We can of course go on the recommendations of friends, attend concerts and listen to performers in jazz clubs.

We know that music affects the brain, usually in a good way. It seems to make new neural connections inside our brain. Listening to new music may help us live longer. It stimulates creativity and can certainly affect how you feel. And of course a lot of music is really interesting to listen to. Some of it is brilliant. Sampling a lot of diverse music allows me to decide for myself what new music is of interest to me. It allows me to appreciate artists I would have never heard before. In short, at $10 a month, it’s quite a bargain. Add in the power of Google’s music search engine, and its recommendation engine, and I am likelier to find music that I will really like. The more I play, the more I rate content, the better the experience should become.

I’m into musicals, so it is especially valuable here. I can hear virtually every version of Les Miserables ever produced, including the original French version. I can hear obscure musicals that are rarely staged. I can compare the 1939 version of Oklahoma with the most recently staged Broadway cast recording. What’s not to like?

Even with ten million recordings, Google Music is missing some content. There are a handful of Beatles songs, but that’s it. I understand I can get the Beatles through iTunes. It’s not a deal breaker for me. I am more interested in variety right now. I want to be taken places that I have never been to before. Google Music is essentially a vast record store with aisles extending so far away they fade into the distance. Moreover, I don’t have to go anywhere; I just have to plug in.

It looks like I found a good use for my mad money after all.

Review: Noah

The Thinker by Rodin

I was going to say this is a whale of a tale, but that would be a movie about Jonah. You may say to yourself after thirty minutes, water I doing here. You might also ask yourself what planet this Bible story takes place on because it doesn’t much resemble the Earth as we know it. Bible purists probably aren’t going to like it. The Muslims are being told not to see it. Atheists and skeptics will have a good chuckle wondering how any sane person could honestly believe this cockamamie story. And if the story of Noah, his ark and getting two of every animal species on it was not unbelievable enough, director Darren Aronofsky throws in some alien fallen angels that look like a cross between transformers and those rock critters from Galaxy Quest. At least they have cool glowing eyes.

Noah is some weird mixture of science fiction and fantasy, on some parallel Earth perhaps. This presentation should be enough to keep both devout and skeptic away. It is all done with such ponderous seriousness that you feel kind of guilty if you think the whole thing is really quite goofy. After a while you might react like I did which was, What the heck, I paid $10 to see this movie, so I might as well get my money’s worth and Just how did they convince Russell Crowe to play Noah? (Likely they waved a lot of money under his nose.)

Skeptics like me believe most Bible stories are myths anyhow, which makes it all the more puzzling that so many Christians believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. There are a lot of myths to choose from in the Bible, including the preposterous story of Jonah, but the Noah myth also refuses to die too. Christians though are likely to have a hard time with this interpretation. It goes far afield from anything in the Bible and leaves you with so many questions. For example, at the start of the movie the earth is pretty much a barren place: no water, no plant life to speak of, the descendants of Cain pretty much rule the known world, and yet the scrappy Noah, his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and his various offspring and adopted offspring (including Emma Watson as Ila and Logan Lerman as Ham) somehow get by, wear clothing, find food to eat in a barren world (what are they eating, the lichen?) and somehow drink tea too.

The earth sure is an ugly place, but since it is occupied mostly by Cain’s descendants, it sort of fits, because they are a wicked lot, so wicked they’ve developed some decent technology, not bad for 10,000 B.C. or so. Noah and his small family are pretty much what’s left of the good side of Adam and Eve’s extended family. It’s amazing they survived with all the marauding brigands running around. No wonder with all the stress that Noah is getting visions: the Creator is warning of catastrophic floods and wants him to build an ark to keep the animals safe until the evil can literally be washed away. It’s time for Man, Version 2 and that’s Noah and his family, except Noah seems to get his signals crossed. At least this is true once his ark is afloat. Noah gets it in his head that they are not supposed to procreate either: Earth must be left to the innocent and sinless animals. And then his adopted daughter Ila, supposedly infertile due to belly wounds, gets pregnant. (And it must have been a fast pregnancy, because didn’t the voyage last just forty days and forty nights?) Noah becomes convinced that God is telling him to commit some infanticide once she delivers. It must have been PTSD from building that ark or something, because Noah is really at loose ends.

At least some things make a little sense. Those fallen angels sure are convenient, as is the seed given to him by his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) from the Garden of Eden. The seed starts a convenient forest, which provides plenty of lumber to build his ark and the fallen angels provide a lot of grunt labor and help protect Noah and his family from the encroaching hordes of Cain, overseen by a “king”, Tubal-Cain played by Ray Winstone. Tubal-Cain sure adds some excitement because he becomes a stowaway on the ark somehow. Yeah, I know it’s not in the Bible, but artistic license is allowed, even with Bible stories. Noah’s direction by God to kill his grandchildren was left out too.

The result is that Noah is a WTF sort of cinematic experience, all so deadly serious but still sort of cartoonish and easy to lampoon. Most puzzling of all is how the producers sold investors on this preposterous interpretation. It must be doing well enough since it’s taken in $178M worldwide so far at a cost of $125M to produce. The question is: why? The acting is decent if not a bit over the top sometimes, the special effects are great but the story is, well, quite a head scratcher. At least we get an Old Testament God. This was the angry God before God Version 2 arrived in the New Testament, in new garments, and all universal and lovey dovey. I must say I like God Version 2 better.

Noah thus is best viewed for what it is: entertainment. The less you know about the Bible and his story the more you are likely to enjoy it. But your audience may be like ours: a handful of people who when the credits finally arrived were scratching their heads and wondering why we went to see this movie in the first place.

However, if you like mindless entertainment with lots of gaping plot holes and you take your Bible with a bit of science fiction (after all, Ezekiel saw the wheel, a UFO?) it might be worth your time. I suspect most of you will be like our audience: sheepishly walking out of the theater and hoping that no one we know saw us.

In short, Noah is a bit of a turkey of a movie, but a tasty one. 2.8 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★¾☆ 

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: April 2014 edition

The Thinker by Rodin

Spring has arrived in Northern Virginia, after one last snow event (not quite a snowstorm) on March 30. Flowers are coming out at last, and trees should belatedly start blooming any moment, along with probably toxic amounts of pollen. It seemed that all the snow and extremely cold weather had put a damper on my neighbors’ libidos, at least as judged by reading the Craigslist Northern Virginia casual encounter ads. For the most part there were lots of run of the mill ads, but little in the desperately strange and unusual category, which is my motivation for going there once a month. The other motivation is to get traffic to this site. There were at least 280 page views for my Craigslist posts in March, so it amounts to almost exactly ten percent of my traffic.

To get a sense of who’s posting for whom, I look at the first page and then count by various categories. There are 34 men looking for women, 43 men looking for men, 2 women looking for men, 3 women looking for women, 1 couple looking for a woman and 1 couple looking for a man. There are also 9 men looking for transvestites and 2 transvestites looking for fellow transvestites. So as usual it’s mostly a lot of horny guys, which means I’ll look past the first page to get a better sense of what “women” are looking for.

Anyhow, time to put on the dark glasses, tighten my chastity belt and head into that infamous Craigslist Twilight Zone. Warning: some links will take you to explicit pictures.

  • It’s not often you get senior citizens posting, particularly gay senior citizens. Today we have a 75-year-old man with three naked pictures of himself in Hybla Valley looking for, well, any guy for pretty much anything. Beggars can’t be choosers. At least he looks reasonably fit.
  • A 28-year-old woman from Fairfax is looking for her own gender. You don’t have to wait to see her naked in the spa, as she is open for business from the nose down in her selfie. She’s very clear she is looking for a woman, not some man pretending to be a woman, and she’s not willing to wait long. She also says: no pimps, no prostitutes and no perverts. This is obviously her first post on Craigslist and most likely her last as well if she’s going to have standards. Ladies, if you like women with broad hips and massive thighs, you’ll probably go for her.
  • A 27-year-old Asian guy is looking for a transsexual or cross dresser. His erection is only at half-mast, which makes me wonder if that prescription on the counter next to him is for Viagra.
  • Will curiosity kill the cat? A 40-year-old guy from the south side of Reston gets plenty of head from his wife and now wants to try giving it himself. He’s close to the Reston National Golf Course so perhaps you could swing by before your tee time. He doesn’t want a relationship but he does want to swallow whatever you have to give him. Somehow I’m betting this is not his first male-to-male encounter. White guys 35-55 only.
  • A 34-year-old man from Ashburn wants an older couple. You have to pick him up so I’m guessing he doesn’t have a car. What he does have is a full body shot and amazingly he’s in clothes and you can see his face. Nice goatee, dude.
  • Now this is different. Lots of guys are looking for guys, but this 44-year-old man from Centreville wants to find a guy into nylons. Sheer nude, grey or white stockings are his favorites. Guys with high arches are preferred.
  • Craigslist ads tend to be short, so if nothing else this 42-year-old guy gets some sort of award for a long and very specific ad. He’s looking for a “good girl” who wants to get in touch with her inner slut. In short, he wants to abuse you (with your consent) so when he is done you won’t know which way is up. It looks like he may tie you up as well, based on the photo with the ad. While he wants to do this to you, it’s important to know that he is otherwise normal. He’s basically just your normal guy with abusive fantasies running through his head looking for a consensual relationship. Kudos for laying it all out, but I doubt he will get any nibbles. Try fetfile.com or Washington’s Black Rose society if you are serious.
  • Couples, do you need a dominant “bull” of a man to take your wife to places she has never been before between the sheets? Lots of couples on Craigslist are looking for a BBC, and here’s a guy who qualifies and must work out in a gym twice a day because he seems to have nothing but rippling muscles. I assume those X-rated pictures are of him hard at work in previous encounters. No wonder he is particular. If I were the woman, I’d still insist he wear a condom. Make that two.
  • Here’s a married woman who wants to “play” but I think her idea of playing is to play with your wallet, since she says she likes “shopping”. An intimate picture of your nether region is required, but I think she’d prefer a picture of your credit card instead.
  • Here’s a woman who is obviously a Craigslist first timer. She wants a Salsa dancing partner. Boy is she in the wrong place!
  • So women actually do have casual encounters with men on Craigslist. Here’s proof because this 28-year-old woman from Woodbridge lost contact with her “breakfast club” buddy and wants him back! I am betting her mailbox is overwhelmed with false positives.
  • Here’s an unusual married woman whose husband is turning 40 and she wants his birthday to be memorable. She wants another woman to come on over, get in the hot tub and give him a full body massage. Don’t worry; she’s not the jealous type. I don’t know why but should any woman actually show up, I’m betting the wife is mysteriously absent.

So the guy into guys wearing nylons wins the award this month, but only by default. This month is not nearly as crazy as some postings in past months. Maybe next month the kinky hormones will be in more evidence.

Review: Groundhog Day (1993)

The Thinker by Rodin

The recent passing of director Harold Ramis finally nudged me to watch his perhaps most famous movie, Groundhog Day. I’m not sure what took me so long. My daughter was four when it was released and at her most adorable age. It was a year devoted to reading her stories snuggled on the couch, not to seeing movies in theaters, which required babysitters. Since then, it just hadn’t been on my radar.

I’m guessing most of you have seen the classic movie. If so you can certainly skip this review! Having finally seen it, I sort of want to kick myself for having waited so long. Groundhog Day is definitely something of a minor classic and ranks in the Internet Movie Database’s top 250 films. It’s not quite Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s not quite a perfect movie either. But it is strangely fun and satisfying, sort of science fiction and sort of religious too. It left me with a pleasurable buzz, similar to what I got from watching The Adjustment Bureau. For those of us who are writers, or pretend to be writers, this movie makes us jealous. We wish we had written this script, mostly written by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis.

Most Buddhist and Hindus believe in reincarnation. They believe that we reincarnate to resolve issues that we did not resolve in previous lives. At least Buddhists believe that it is possible to end this cycle of reincarnation and move on to a better state by achieving enlightenment. Phil Conners (Bill Murray) looks like he will be reincarnating forever. As a snippy TV weatherman in Pittsburgh, he manages to offend pretty much everyone, and is clearly hurting. He feels he has much more talent than he is given credit for. He hints to his management that he’s a short timer soon to be hired by stations with more money and mojo. He’s short with his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) and condescending to his new producer Rita (Andie MacDowell). The last thing this weatherman wants to do is go to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to “cover” groundhog Punxsutawney Phil’s highly staged prediction of more winter or an early spring. He’s done this many times and he simply loathes it and feels it is beneath him. It also requires him to travel the night before with Larry and Rita so they can be there in time for the big event. Phil wants to be left alone. Rita wisely puts him in a B&B while they stay at the local hotel.

You probably know the basic plot: poor Phil gets to relive Groundhog Day over and over again. A blizzard keeps him in Punxsutawney and downed communications lines makes phoning home impossible. He hates the city and would prefer a root canal to enduring another day there. The same events keep recurring at exactly the same time no matter what he does. A distant classmate he cannot recall finds him on the street and tries to sell him life insurance. A weathered homeless man petitions him for money on a street corner. A tray of dishes falls to the floor at the same time at the local diner. Perhaps worst of all is every morning he wakes up at 6 AM to the sound of Sonny & Cher’s song “I’ve got you babe.” If that’s not hell, what could be worse? Nothing he does can change the pattern of events. And he can’t get out of Punxsutawney. In short, Phil is in one of the upper levels of hell. Phil can, and literally does, kill himself many times and it makes no difference. Mean or nice, apathetic or angry, loud or mousey, he cannot escape reliving the same day over and over again.

That’s the science fiction part of the movie, albeit without a trip into outer space. He is stuck in some sort of perpetual time warp that no one else shares. The religious part is more subtle but if you believe in reincarnation, this story about reliving the same day over and over again until you fully address whatever your issue is, is an interesting variant on reincarnation. It’s unclear from the movie how many Groundhog Days that Phil actually experiences, but it seems that he tries pretty much every possible variation, so it must be in the hundreds or thousands. Like dying, he goes through stages of denial, grief and finally a grudging acceptance. Like it or not he is the seeming eternal witness to this day in Punxsutawney. Out of boredom more than anything else, he has nothing better to do than to minutely examine every aspect of this town. He spends a lot of his time trying and largely failing to seduce women. The good part is that with every failure he learns one more clue that helps him refine his pitch. And yet despite having the opportunity to refine his advances, it’s hard to get beyond first base. Eventually he concentrates on trying to seduce his new producer Rita. At least she doesn’t have much of an opinion formed about him. Yet he encounters similar roadblocks with her too.

In some ways Phil resembles Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life except ever so slowly his crusty behavior changes. He gains some empathy for the people around him, since he seems doomed to share the same day with them for eternity. Over time his hurt and anger morphs into gentleness and kindness. You know the movie can’t last forever or leave this plot eternally hanging. Phil will find his escape, in time. The result may leave you a bit teary eyed.

Not bad for a director known for in-your-face films like Animal House, Caddyshack and Ghostbusters. If you had been following his work and were expecting more of the same, you should at least not see this film coming. It’s amusing, heartfelt, annoying, grating, sincere and insightful all at the same time.

I’m glad I didn’t wait another twenty one years before seeing Groundhog Day.

3.4 out of four-points.

Rating: ★★★½