Why current marriage laws are immoral

The gods must be highly amused.

News items: At a press conference yesterday President Bush said in one breath “I am mindful that we’re all sinners, and I caution those who may try to take the speck out of the neighbor’s eye when they got a log in their own”. Then in the next breath he said, “I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman, and I think we ought to codify that one way or the other.” He and his aides are working hard to figure out a way to figure out a way to make sure those pesky, immoral homosexuals stay deep in the closet by outlawing gay marriages permanently through a constitutional amendment.

Not to be outdone, the Catholic Church, an institution rife with homosexual priests, significant numbers of whom are apparently also pedophiles, and whose leadership has spent the last 2000 years detached from anything resembling reality, had the gall to state on the very same day: “Homosexual relationships are immoral and deviant, and only traditional marriages can fulfill God’s plan for the reproduction of the human race.” As if, of course, the point of marriage is to make babies only. If that were the case my wife and I, who are both sterilized, should now be divorced. Clearly our marriage is now a moot point in the eyes of the Catholic Church, not that we were married there. (God forbid!)

Metaphorically I’d like to do the Monty Python fish slapping dance on both the President and the Pope. What can I say? When it comes to government or religion, apparently you have to abandon all common sense or you can’t get in the game.

Let’s examine our constitution which promises equal rights and justice for all. Just in case we didn’t get it from first reading, we subsequently ratified the 14th amendment to the constitution in 1868 known as the “equal protection” amendment which states: “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

In short the intent of our constitution is to treat all citizens equally. It obviously hasn’t always worked out that way, but that was the intent. Gradually though, as was clear from the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on state sodomy laws, states trying to discriminate against one class of people are finding they have no constitutional grounds to do so. And this just freaks our politicians out. That’s apparently their mission in life: to provide favors to one class of people at the expense of another class.

I’m trying real hard to understand what is so immoral about homosexuality. In particular I am trying to figure out why the government should care. I can understand why a backward, xenophobic religion like the Catholic Church would be up in arms against gay marriage. This is an institution which sees refusing to evolve as a virtue. No matter how wacky its thinking was 2,000 years ago, it needs to be faithful to it, is what passes for reasoning in this institution. But the government? Why wouldn’t it want to encourage gay marriages or gay unions?

What are the consequences if we have no civil unions or marriages for gays? One might be the myopic belief that by scorning gays for their sexual orientation they will see the light, the good fairy will come down, fill them with some sort of grace, and they will magically convert into happy, healthy heterosexuals. Soon they are living in the burbs like Ward and June Cleaver and raising little Wallies and Beaves. Fortunately, not one in a hundred homophobes believe this crap anymore.

So law by itself apparently can’t make homosexuals become heterosexuals. So homosexuals are going to keep being homosexuals even though it ticks off the anally repressed majority. We “moral” people can pray that all homosexuals will lead lives of celibacy and quiet contemplation instead of acting on their completely natural urges. This is one way for them not to be immoral and thus give us no offense. One could look at the Catholic priesthood as a positive example but apparently all that repression just makes the longing worse and encourages the sorts of deviations we seem to fear the most. Eventually human nature wins out and people couple with the gender or genders that turn them on.

By not allowing gay marriages and civil unions society in effect encourages homosexuals to sleep around. From a public health standpoint that encourages the spread of disease. One would think it would be intuitive that government would want to encourage people to have long term, monogamous and healthy relationships instead of lots of short term, sexual relationships. So I would think gay marriages or gay unions would be seen as a logical and moral response by society to encourage everyone to live in peace and respect the rule of law.

If we are hung up on the word “marriage” let’s purge it from the law. Traditionally marriage has been a religious ritual, not a governmental function. In a way by the government sanctioning marriage, it is violating the separation of church and state. In medieval times you didn’t need the government’s permission to get married, just your local cleric’s permission. Let’s have civil unions if people want the legal protections of marriage. Let religions sanctify these relationships in marriage ceremonies for those with religious inclinations.

Clearly I will never be a politician because this is plain common sense.

Bush Jumps the Shark

So has Bush jumped the shark? Or is shark jump sometime in his future? Or is the guy such Mount Rushmore material like that he’ll never jump the shark?

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “jumping the shark” goes back to the TV show “Happy Days”. It captured the moment when the Fonz (played by Henry Winkler) went from cool to ridiculous. This happened to the Fonz in some episode I never saw when he was apparently in a surfboarding contest and he … you got it.

In retrospect that was the moment he became ludicrous and he was no longer cool. The show didn’t survive too many years after that.

Now it is almost irresistible to pinpoint those “jump the shark” moments in the life of any celebrity. With Richard Nixon it was at Disney World when he proclaimed, “I am not a crook”. (He couldn’t have picked a more perfect place to make this announcement either.) We saw it with Bill Clinton when in a deposition he said, “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” (Or perhaps it was “I never had sex with that woman!”)

Admittedly with Bush the call can be a hard one. For example, on July 14th Bush inexplicably said: “The larger point is, and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region.” In case you were snoozing earlier this year, inspectors left Iraq not because Saddam kicked them out but because we warned the U.N. that invasion was imminent.

In retrospect I believe it will be shown that Bush jumped the shark on May 1, 2003. On this day he landed on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, somewhere off San Diego, emerging from a fighter aircraft in a flight suit. Pompously parading down the flight deck with a huge banner in the background that said “Mission Accomplished” Bush basically said we had won the war and there was just a little cleaning up to do. You know small things like bring civil order, turn on the lights, prevent looting and instill democratic values. Small stuff apparently. Just a few addendum to the nation’s checklist, hardly worth mentioning really!

Since that time more soldiers have died or were wounded in Iraq that occurred during the war itself. Last week, unfortunately, saw more American soldiers dying in Iraq that any week since Bush proclaimed “Mission Accomplished”.

The carrier episode, particularly in hindsight, was the defining moment. You can rest assured as this war of attrition drags on and on that you will see this video clip used endlessly against Bush in the general election next year. Michael Dukakis’s moment emerging from the turret of a Massachusetts’s National Guard tank has nothing on this wholly preventable photo op.

Forget about jumping the shark for a moment, talk about jumping the gun! He, or rather his staff should have known better. (Bush clearly isn’t the brightest light bulb in the house.) But I guess they couldn’t help themselves. Why did they do it? Was it to push the president’s momentary popularity up a couple more points? They should have had some inkling it couldn’t be sustained. The whole thing with the flight suit was also way over the top; it invited the criticism it received, particularly when we learned the carrier was within 50 miles of San Diego and was essentially doing a holding pattern just so the Commander in Chief could be seen landing on the carrier in a very hirsute fashion aboard a military fighter jet.

The message was: Bush is no wimp and will get the job done.

Except, of course, the job had just begun. What many of us believed going into the war was that the winning the peace was the hard part, not securing a military victory. With Saddam’s army a third of its size from the Gulf War, and with no allies for Saddam to turn to, and with us being the only superpower, the only question was how quickly we would win.

But it appears that Bush is a lot more wimpish that he let on. One need only look at the dodging he is doing on the bogus claim trumped up in his State of the Union speech wherein he said Iraq had acquired uranium recently from Niger. If nothing else the man has a talent for dodge ball. Let Tenet take the heat, no Condi’s assistant National Security Advisor (although inexplicably don’t make anyone resign), but certainly don’t expect Bush to personally take any responsibility. Clearly the buck passes at his desk. But this charade won’t last much longer because, well, he has jumped the shark. His sagging approval ratings certainly suggest it.

Harry Truman wasn’t afraid to dodge responsibility. Neither, for that matter, did Reagan on Iran-Contra or the mass murder of our marines in Lebanon. Maybe Reagan wasn’t held accountable but he knew to cut his losses and acknowledge responsibility.

Bush hasn’t learned that lesson and he is too pompous and full of himself to admit anything resembling humility. His balloon has burst but he is totally clueless that the air is rushing out.

Senior Space Cadet

I hardly know the lady. We’ve been working together off an on for a big project for a couple months. It became clear when the project started in earnest that she wasn’t quite there. I might have called her a space cadet except she is over 50. Even stranger, she is a senior civil servant, a grade GS-15, one grade higher than I am and as high as one can get in the civil servant system without becoming an executive.

She dresses immaculately and drives herself to work every morning. She parks on the street but seems oblivious to the tickets that accumulate on her car because she has forgotten how to feed a meter. She can find her way home well enough and on the surface seems to be doing her job quite well. But she will interrupt conversations with completely inane remarks. She attends meetings but rarely contributes anything. Originally not knowing any better we gave her plenty of action items. But they rarely got done. We do her action items now. She seems to have the ability to find her way to our meetings if they show up on her calendar. But she is there in body only.

She can be very lucid on certain topics like her daughter, but new information coming in does not seem to get processed. She can stop in the middle of a hallway and just stay there like a zombie. Her speech is often halting and she will repeat the same things over and over again.

She is more than likely mentally ill. I have been told it wasn’t that long ago that she was another high charging senior employee, fully earning her pay that likely tops $100,000 a year. Now I’m not sure she does anything resembling productivity. And it doesn’t appear that she has any idea that her behavior has changed.

If she leaves through a different entrance and needs to get back in she can’t find her way to the entrance. The guards take her by the hand and escort her to the main entrance. She couldn’t navigate her way to the building across the street to attend a meeting. When these events happen she doesn’t appear upset or anything. She just stops where she is at and if she stands there long enough she may turn around and go back to her office.

I hear she is divorced and lives alone. We all know about her college age daughter since that is her one topic of conversation. Much of the time she seems lucid and in the present. And then an inanity will come out of her mouth or she will stop where she is like a deer looking into the headlights of an oncoming car.

Presumably her supervisor has observed her behavior but it doesn’t appear that anyone is doing anything about it. It’s hard to know what to do in a situation like this. Employee actions and grievances are a laborious process that requires utmost respect for the employee and frequent redundant notices. But it’s not clear whether if her boss called these issues to her attention they would even register. Short term memory seems to be gone. I’m not sure she could add two numbers together.

The only thing I know is that I am covering a lot of her slack. At first I resented it and now I am sympathetic. She makes me feel the fragility of our species. In her case though she is clearly mentally ill but she doesn’t seem to know it.

How did it happen? I have no idea. One person suggested she might have had a mini-stroke that destroyed some part of her brain. It seems plausible. I am more concerned about what should be done about her problem. Right now those of us around her simply choose to note and not do anything about the problem. But one of these days the law of averages will catch up on her, and she will be hurt by someone, or herself, because she has lost a fair amount of her wits and her common sense.

There are lots of mentally ill people out there. I’m wondering if she is some sort of future street person. Hopefully her daughter has noticed her symptoms and is thinking through her issues. But if she doesn’t see parking tickets she probably is also ignoring creditors. Perhaps one day she will come home to find all her stuff on the street corner.

I have no lessons to derive from this. But it makes me aware of the fragility of life, and how I will be lucky if I can escape one of these common mental or physical impairments and keep my wits into my doddering senior years. I wish there was someone who could do something for this woman. I just don’t know who, nor do I know exactly what it is she needs.

The Rest of the Story

I try to keep this web log focused on my what I hope are interesting and perhaps even profound observations. I try not to put in it all the trivialities of life that I deal with on a day-to-day basis. But I thought maybe for a change I should fill in some of the gaps so you know just what it is I DO during the days and why this web log stays blank for days at a time.

I’ve been especially busy this week, although I did manage to take yesterday off as a day of much needed leave. But even on my day of leave I was busy keeping doctor’s appointments, shuffling my daughter to summer school, buying bulk items at the superstore and picking her up at a remote friend’s houses. I just didn’t have as many distractions, and for that I felt blessed.

My workdays start at 5:20 a.m. when the alarm clock goes off. I dress in the dark while my wife snoozes, eat a hurried breakfast and I am out the door by 5:53. I need to be at the Reston South Park and Ride commuter lot by 6 AM to catch a vanpool that takes me to work. We sail down the Dulles Toll Road and with luck and the wind at our back I am in my office at 6:45 AM.

This week though I had to relocate to a new office. We were abruptly moved to another building in February 2002 and since then we’ve been gypsies. For three months due to lack of space I shared office space with another guy. When a small office (no door) opened up I pressed my case and with some politicking I was able to inhabit it as long as the lady whose office it was (she was on a long term detail) wasn’t inhabiting it. It was a neat little office: I had a commanding view of the National Archives. I’m unlikely ever to get a better view in the remainder of my career.

But the lady is moving back and I had to relocate. The division that I work is currently scattered over three floors. Once upon a time we were all together in one place – imagine that! We were promised that we would be brought back together again, but strings of promises went unfulfilled. Now I hear that in about three months we’ll be consolidated back in the same area I just vacated.

But I elected to move upstairs to a nice cube along a window that had been long vacated and it seemed I had all the permissions. So Tuesday morning I moved up there only to discover someone else had plans for that cube. So I was shuffled to another larger area, with no window, that is pretty nice. But I also know it will be a transient place.

But if that weren’t enough no sooner had I moved into THAT space when I learned that my move was causing inter office political ripples of some sort. My boss wanted to know if I wanted to move back down to the sixth floor: several offices were vacant. I asked: if we’re moving back there permanently pretty soon would this be my permanent space? Well, no. So I opted to stay where I am and I’m still not even sure this space is semi permanent. But at least I am with my own kind. Room 702 is full of IT (Information Technology) folk. And knowing the way things work in our agency I could be where I am now for years so I might well be in my new permanent space, I just don’t know it yet. Clearly space management is not one of our organization’s strong suits.

As a project manager I shuffle a lot of projects. With a recent degree in Software Systems Engineering it would be nice if I did some of it. But no, my main task at the moment is honchoing an IT opportunity fair for the Department of Health and Human Services. So about 70% of my otherwise busy day is clogged with that: questions from vendors, watching our appointment and registration systems book up, attending meetings, holding conference calls and basically just trying to get other people to do things in a timely basis. What I really do is manage chaos (yes, I know that is an oxymoron but it fits). Ideally I like to get some exercise time during my lunch. But there was no chance for that on either Monday or Tuesday. And no chance to do it at home either.

Meanwhile, other projects are coming due. A long overdue assessment of some enterprise reporting solutions needs to come to a conclusion. So I spend time meeting with the testers and going over issues, pros and cons, and working on PowerPoint slides for my presentation on Monday. While trying to do that email streams in and the phone (once it was reconnected on Wednesday) starts ringing often. Usually phone calls are from vendors with questions about the IT Opportunity Fair. I am the casualty of the moment of the profit motive. As the new outreach coordinator (a position to which I did not aspire) every vendor smelling profits wants to talk with me. I really wish I wasn’t paid to talk to them because I got other crap to do which seems a lot more pressing.

In short there is almost no time for a respite. It’s go from the moment I get in to the moment I leave. And every day I have to sit and judge what I’m working on. What is really important today and what can I safely slack off on? I decided this week I can slack off on finishing the quotes I need to renew some service and support contracts. But that will hit the fan soon too.

The van comes by and picks me up about 4:30 p.m. I am usually home about 5:30. (And on Thursday I was drafted to drive the van; that meant long walks to and from the Department of Agriculture, where the van resides during the day.) But no rest for the weary for this parent. It’s usually something. One night it was take Rosie to see a doctor. The other night it was take her to church (both directions) where she is participating in a play. This usually means I grab a quick dinner by myself after I get home.

So when there is free time it is an hour or so in the evening to catch my breath. You’ll forgive me if I am not up to blogging; at that point I just need to veg a little.

Now I hope I don’t sound like I am whining. I am paid very good money and my days may be long but I have a good job and I tend to work pretty close to 40-hour weeks (although add on commutes and it is more like 60 hour weeks). I have time to attend to both my daughter and my wife and I’m grateful for this too.

Still, as busy as these weeks get sometimes, there is something about the awful franticness of it that invigorates me. I got home from work on Thursday close to exhausted but exhilarated in some sense. I wonder if a juggler gets the same thill when thrown one more ball and still managing to keep them all in the air. It is better to feel exhilarated I guess, than annoyed. Much of this sort of work is boring but if it comes fast enough I don’t have time to notice it.

So I’m recharging this weekend, or trying to. I will leave shortly to go running, but I have already spent close to two hours taking my daughter to the orthodontist and now she is at church again practicing for the play.

And that, as Paul Harvey would say, is the rest of the story.

Idea: Term Limited Marriages

At first glance this is probably going to sound nuts. To say the least this idea goes against our traditional view of society that a marriage should be “for better or for worse” and should last “as long as you both shall live”. But given that the average marriage lasts seven years and the divorce rate in this country is about 50 percent, it may be that most couples don’t take the commitment with the needed sobriety. Or it may also be that the system of marriage itself is wacked and needs some major adjustments.

Let’s just hypothetically say that when a couple went to the courthouse to get a marriage license they could check off the terms: 1 year, 5 years, 10 years or life. There could also be a checkbox: renew automatically or expire after term.

As an incentive to keep the marriage together, there would be legal penalties if the marriage ended early in divorce. Any attempt to leave the marriage prior to the expiration of the contract would require a penalty of some sort. But perhaps since healthy marriage is considered to be of a benefit to society, maybe there should also be government rewards for renewing contracts, say a $100 tax credit per year, payable upon renewal of the marriage contract.

If divorce occurs before the contract is up and one party is found at fault then the one “at fault” should perhaps pay a penalty of some sort to the government. As a working number let’s make it a civil penalty of $1000. If the marriage is dissolved by joint agreement with no “at fault” finding then both parties would pay the penalty equally, in addition to any regular fees required by divorce courts to process paperwork. Given the current divorce statistics this would mean a nice revenue stream for state and local governments.

So what is the upside? From my perspective it encourages spouses to actively work on their marriage and to address issues that might be causing a marriage to flounder. If marriage is for life then there is little incentive to work on relationship issues until some sort of crisis occurs. Then, if the behavior is not too egregious, perhaps it can be worked out in counseling or therapy. But knowing there is a deadline coming up when a marriage can terminate, both parties have reason to address their relationship issues seriously.

Admittedly children raise a layer of complication and I haven’t thought out those issues in any detail. Perhaps the law would state that if children result from the marriage then marriage contracts would renew by default, or that both parties would agree to binding arbitration on the matter of child custody. Clearly we want to encourage healthy marriages with children and discourage broken homes. (Hmm, suggesting that children of broken marriages must be go into orphanages might be quite an inducement to work on marital problems! This is just a wild idea; not one to seriously contemplate.)

Another upside is that if a marriage is just not working out it allows both parties to get out of it with a minimum of feelings hurt and no penalties when the term expires. “Well, we tried and gave it our best and it just didn’t work.” Both parties would then feel free to move on with life and grow in a direction they need to grow.

Admittedly I am a real “think outside the box” sort of person and I suspect if this idea were entertained seriously I’d be having bricks coming through my windows on a regular basis. But the idea holds some appeal to me. I notice in myself I want to continually dodge relationship issues with my wife; if nothing else something like this would force me to concentrate on the matter rather than let problems fester.

Your thoughts?

Our Emerging Post Ethnic Society

They’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain.
There’s hurricanes in Florida, and Texas needs rain.
The whole world is festering with unhappy souls.
The French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles.
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch.
And I don’t like anybody very much!

But we can be tranquil, and thankful, and proud,
For mans’ been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud.
And we know for certain that some lovely day
Someone will set the spark off, and we will all be blown away.

They’re rioting in Africa, there’s strife in Iran.
What nature doesn’t do to us, will be done by our fellow man.

– The Kingston Trio

Last weekend I sat down at watched “Gangs of New York”. I am not much one for violent movies and I’m sort of amazed I made it through this particular movie, since it is heavy on the violence. But at the same time it is a compelling portrait of mid 19th century life in Manhattan’s lower east side. The movie suggests that Five Points was the hot epicenter of this nation’s melting pot; and the major activity in that area was one set of ethnic gangs beating up other sets of ethnic gangs. The folks in “West Side Story” were playing with matches compared with these people.

Yes it was a difficult movie but somehow riveting and hard to turn off. But it did get me thinking and hoping that maybe in this country most of these ethnic tensions are behind us. I hesitate to declare victory too early but maybe, just maybe, we are finally figuring out how to live with each other despite our differences. This is a marked difference from much of the rest of the world.

It’s not like, God forbid, that we are living in one giant diverse multicultural neighborhood. Here in Northern Virginia we have our ethnic enclaves. The Vietnamese and Koreans are in Annandale. Hispanics have clustered in Herndon. African Americans are pretty hard to find here in Fairfax County, but you can find pockets of them along Richmond Highway in Alexandria, and here in Reston in places like Dogwood. We WASPs fill out much of the rest of the county, with heaviest proportions in the higher income neighborhoods like McLean and Great Falls.

So we are not quite yet a melting pot. But there are signs we are getting along with each other. I live in a bedrock, largely Republican bedroom community, an exurb of Herndon called Oak Hill. But it’s not hard to find people of different colors or ethnicities around here. African Americans are hardest to find, but there are lots of people who are oriental, Indian or Persian. What we don’t have a lot of are people with modest incomes. To own one of the many McMansions in our neighborhood, you can’t do it working at the Walmart. But in spite of some major cultural differences, we do have a number of similar values including a deep appreciation for the importance of education, commitment toward our children and safe and supportive neighborhoods.

As a federal employee I am surrounded by diversity every day. Among the federal employees I know in my agency, a majority might actually be African American. Among all the people in my agency (there are a lot of contractors) we WASPs are a distinct minority. But it doesn’t seem the least bit weird to me any more. As I ruminated in this entry it is seems weird now to be away from it.

I read a lot of news and I’ve been struck by the ethnic and religious conflicts of late. India vs. Pakistan is one such example. Inside Pakistan itself there was recently a huge terrorist bombing of a Shi’ite Mosque killing dozens of people. It is assumed that terrorists from the Sunni minority were responsible for the incident, mainly because the Shi’ites have been persecuting them for a long time. To put this conflict into terms we can understand, the difference between Shi’ite and Sunni is like the difference between Catholic and Protestant. Apparently there is still quite a ways to go before they can learn to coexist in peace and Pakistan is beginning to resemble Northern Ireland.

But of course the world is rife with ethnic and religious conflicts. We haven’t done the best job of managing these conflicts in our own country either. I think it is becoming clearer that we are getting better at learning to live with each other.

It occurred to me recently that while the melting pot metaphor is not really an accurate one for those of us living in the United States, we are a fairly unique laboratory (Brazil being the other one) where lots of ethnicities are learning to live together in peace. In fact, over time this may be our greatest strength.

As “Gangs of New York” makes clear it has not been a pleasant journey at times. Nonetheless it is fascinating to look at historical trends at work. By the time I pass on it is likely that Americans of European ancestry will no longer be in the majority and may not even be in the plurality. Current trends suggest that a hundred years from now if any ethnicity predominates in this country it is likely to be Hispanic. But just as likely is that there will be a rough mixture all of us.

I feel good for my daughter’s generation. She has known nothing but diversity since the day she came into the world, and she has learned to appreciate and respect the diversity around her. It is not just ethnic diversity that she has learned to respect, but religious and political diversity as well. Recently the Washington Post ran an article suggesting the post ethnic age was at hand. It may well be that to my daughter’s generation it won’t really matter what someone’s color, or ethnicity or religion is. We will all share enough of the same culture and lifestyle where these things will recede into the background. Instead perhaps we will live Martin Luther King’s dream where we will all be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.

If I could design the ideal America I would do my best to select equal numbers from all ethnicities and religions. No one group should predominate. In such a society we have no choice but to work through our problems together. I feel sorry for the Sunnis in Pakistan, who are very much a religious minority and will likely always be a religious minority. But I feel good about the diversity in our own country. When our soldiers fight in places like Iraq the locals are seeing a multicultural hue of colors, and people of all faiths and ethnicities. This in itself can seem like a threat to foreign eyes, but I hope it is also a wake up call of what the world can and should look like.

We are modeling the future of the world here and now in the United States. I hope we are getting it right this time.

Obsessed with Lord of the Rings

I first read JRR Tolkien’s trilogy around 1970. Like most people of a certain age and outlook I was blown away by it. It would be hard to name any book, or series of books, that I have enjoyed more or read as many times. I’ve gone through the trilogy perhaps 6 or 7 times, no small accomplishment given the size of the book. But for the last 15 years or so I’ve put it on the shelf and moved on with life.

My wife Terri happens to be a much bigger Tolkien fan than I, having practically memorized every word, not just of this series, but of the Hobbit, Silmarillion and Tolkien’s obscure works. I sometimes refer to her as Virginia’s resident Tolkien scholar and it would perhaps not be an overstatement to award her the title. If she was to attend a Tolkien convention and participated in a Tolkien trivia contest I am confident she would take away the gold medal.

We were both excited when Peter Jackson back in 1998 announced he was going to produce movies from the books. We were one of the first people to find lordoftherings.net site and voraciously kept up on all things related to the movie. When the first movie was released in December 2001 we were at the first Friday night showing, having purchased our tickets weeks in advance. When the second movie came out I was so obsessed I actually had to go see it on my day off, alone, the very day it came out: a 10 AM showing.

I’ve read various surveys that suggest it is the best book of the 20th century, as voted by the people. If you haven’t read Tolkien you can’t appreciate how detailed the work is. It is like viewing the Sistine Chapel. It is just overwhelming with richness and consequently for a pure fantasy it is very believable.

And yet as I reread portions of the book at age 46 I am finding myself more and more critical of the books. It is not that the richness, detail and density of the books are any less appealing. No, what I notice now having put the books aside for so long is that, while the books are seamless and interlocking like a vast puzzle, Tolkien is not much of a writer.

Let’s be plain. Except for the hobbits and Gandalf, which he seems to know innately, the dialog leaves a lot to be desired. Yes, it’s a fantasy but even in a fantasy novel no one would talk the way some of his characters do in such a stilted and awkward language. Moreover a lot of his characters are very one dimensional. Aragorn, the man who is to reclaim the throne of Gondor, seems superficial at best. We learn little about Legolas or Gimli or what makes them tick. Eowyn, one of the few women to appear in the book is hopelessly love struck when she meets Aragorn; as my wife put it she’s the first “Mary Sue”. Eowyn is the person that Tolkien invented so he can fall in love with his own character. As a good Catholic, I guess JRR had to ruthlessly suppress any homophobic feelings.

JRR also leaves a lot to be desired as a poet. Much of his poetry is poor and stilted.

But all this is just to point out that the books, while magnificent, could have been so much better had Tolkien been a more gifted writer. If, say, Sinclair Lewis could have written these books, the result might well have been the best book of all times.

Which leads back to the movies: I’ve found two types and only two types: those who hate the movie and those who love them. There is no in between that I can find. My brother Tom and sister Doris are in the “hate” camp. I have to respect their feelings, although I don’t agree with them. The movies certainly are a bit of a departure from the books.

The movies though excel in a lot of ways. As you recall my critique of the books were that Tolkien wasn’t able to imbue much character into his characters. This is where a gifted director can step in and lend Tolkien a much needed hand. In the process Jackson has had to change a few things to make the books fit the medium of cinema. This has infuriated much of the “hate” crowd for whom Tolkien must be pure and unadulterated. How could Glorfindel be replaced at the Ford with Arwen? Well, it’s a pretty easy choice, really, if you are making a movie. (It also really, really works: it means much more that a woman, Arwen, is saving Frodo that some elf lord, Glorfindel, who will quickly disappear from the story.) Movies have to connect on an emotional level. So far Peter Jackson has made the right choices in deviating from the sacred script and has actually improved the product. But in reality these changes have been quite minor to those of us in the “love” crowd, whereas they appear as huge, gaping tears in the essential nature of the plot to the “hate” crowd.

But what I like most is that Jackson brought the characters alive. Aragorn is now someone who is no longer a wooden character, but someone I deeply care about because I can see his human frailties. Boromir actually comes across as a complex person with a decent and honorable side. Gandalf, as portrayed by Sir Ian McKellan, is just wonderfully deep. Even the evil creatures such as Saruman are imbibed with personality and depth. All this and great special effects, first class directing, and wonderful production values; what is there not to love?

So I haunt almost daily theonering.net to catch the latest details of what is going on with the movies, which isn’t much. I’ve reread the Return of the King to anticipate the movie. I am anxiously waiting for the Extended Edition DVD of The Two Towers to be released in November so I can see all the stuff they had to leave out to squeeze the story into only three hours.

We Tolkien fans will owe a big debt of gratitude to Peter Jackson and his whole talented crew when this is all over for turning flawed books into a spectacular movie. All my life I have been waiting for the Rings books to be properly turned into cinema. I am delighted at how well Peter Jackson has done the job. He is obsessed with turning out a first class product. I can appreciate the books but now I have something equally as valuable: the movies that fill in the details that are missing in the books simply because Tolkien did not have the talent to put them in.

If you haven’t read the books, they are a must read, in spite of the minor flaws. The movies should also be enjoyed and savored. I will die a happy man. I don’t ask much from life other than to see Lord of the Rings done right on the screen. This wish has come true.

Why Bush will lose in 2004

As I opined a few entries ago, Bush will lose the election in 2004. When I offer my opinion to people, most of them, particularly the politically savvy ones, think I am nuts. Even in liberal Massachusetts if the election were held today Bush would trump over his highest Democratic competitor, John Kerry.

Yet the election is not today, it is 16 months from now. All one really has to do is look at current trends and project them forward. One has to look very hard to find any trend that will favor Bush 16 months from now. One event that might change the dynamics would be another 9/11 type incident within a couple months of the election. This might cause a rally around the flag sort of event. Or it might well not. Any event like this will also expose vulnerabilities, for which Bush’s leadership can be held accountable.

It’s a fact that Bush won in 2000 because the Greens did not vote Democratic. Had Nader voters switched to Gore there would have been no Florida problem to deal with. That is unlikely to happen this time. It is possible, but unlikely, that the Democrats will nominate someone so unpalatable that Bush will look good by comparison. One can look at Nixon vs. McGovern in 1972 for such a parallel. But most likely whoever the Democratic nominee is, Democrats will line up solidly behind him (and it will be a him), which will leave, as always, the independents to choose sides.

Bush will also likely have a huge fundraising advantage. But this was true in the 2000 election too and at best it evened the playing field for him. It will translate into a few percentage points, if that. Money can buy attention but it can’t directly buy votes.

Now I challenge readers to look at all the other national issues and find one that will boomerang in Bush’s favor.

The economy is the big albatross. It is possible that a recovery is underway even now and that we don’t see it yet. That may well be the case but a recovery was underway for his father before the 1992 election and his father lost reelection. The real problem though is not the economy so much as the unemployment rate. Just yesterday the government said it went up three tenths of a percent, to 6.4 percent. If this rate were to hold Bush would be the first president since Herbert Hoover to leave office with more Americans unemployed than were employed at the start of his term. It is not unrealistic to expect unemployment numbers to gradually edge down, particularly if the economy does pick up steam. But employment always is the last thing to recover during a recovery and it won’t be anywhere near the 4-5% level that Clinton left.

Moreover the unemployment rate is artificially low and masks the reality out there that is quite different. The reality is that millions can’t find any work and have become “discouraged” workers so aren’t counted any more. The rest who are discouraged, but don’t have enough financial resources to fall back on, are underemployed. This is a lot of people and it is unlikely they will be voting for four more years of it. Tax cuts are meaningless when you don’t earn enough to get taxed. You just want to eat regularly, be able to afford to see a doctor, and not have to worry about living on the street.

Our government is a mess too, but this is rarely something the electorate focuses on. Nonetheless it will only help the Democrats. Political ads showing us going from record surpluses under Clinton to record deficits under Bush will gain prominence as the election approaches. Tax cut after tax cut weighted heavily in favor of the rich will also be impossible to ignore. Huge increases in new spending on top of all this tax cutting will seem very unwise. A prescription drug benefit for Medicare, welcome as it is for seniors, is being created with zero thought by our leadership on how to pay for it; it will seem to be the financial folly that it is. On top of this we’ve mortgaged our futures, widening the crisis for the soon to retire baby boomers. Bush’s prescription is more of the same. We learn he will propose new tax cuts every year. That will look pretty foolish next spring to be cutting taxes yet again with $500B annual deficits.

The war on terrorism is unlikely to improve. Actually it is likely to get much, much worse. In Iraq we currently have over half of our Army occupying the country. It won’t be going anywhere, for years. So there is no way we can invade Iran, for example, without abandoning Iraq. It also means that if we take action against rogue states like North Korea the Air Force is going to have to do the job because we won’t have sufficient troops to win that war and occupy countries. In reality our forces are now stretched very thin. But even worse our troops in Iraq are already getting very demoralized. It is impossible to tell friend from foe. We need more peacekeepers but let’s face facts: they’re not peacekeepers. If they were peacekeepers they wouldn’t be dressed in full battle attire and being sniped at all the time. Since Bush went out of his way to piss off our traditional allies in Europe and elsewhere we can hardly expect these countries to feel obliged to send troops to help us keep restore some semblance of order. The most likely reaction will be “you made your bed, now lie in it.”

Bush could reinstate the draft, but that would be the kiss of death politically. Why? Because Bush has sold America on a “have your cake and eat it too” philosophy. We can win the war on terrorism, but it won’t be your kids who will get killed against their will, only the volunteers. He has not asked for any unwilling sacrifice and won’t get any. People are promised they can keep driving their SUVs and their kids can keep going to Ivy League schools. Recruitment for the armed services is already down and large numbers of reserve forces will be eligible to go home in the not too distant future. It’s unlikely they will opt to reenlist and spend a few more years in the heat, sand and chaos that is Iraq. In fact, when all those military ballots from Iraq are counted we’re going to find out that our troops will be voting heavily Democratic.

In 2004 Americans are going to be in a nostalgic mood. The Clinton years were very good years in retrospect. Clinton asked in his first campaign “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” In 2004 the same question can be asked and the same answer will be apparent.

Winning back the presidency is one thing; winning back the Congress is another. That will be much more difficult and may well not happen, because redistricting by state legislatures has redrawn districts that are heavily partisan. But there is only a 12-seat difference in the House and a couple seats in the Senate. It is not beyond the realm of possibility.

So long George. Four years of you was more than enough.

Continue reading “Why Bush will lose in 2004”

Must see movies for progressives

We all have our own ideas about what constitutes a great movie. For me a great movie must not only be well done, well directed, well acted but it should force you outside your box and expand your mind in the process. Two movies that fit that mode ended up in my DVD collection this weekend. I didn’t seek them out but when I was browsing the DVD aisle at the local Best Buy, there they were and I picked them up without hesitation.

If you haven’t seen either of these movies do yourself a favor and pick them up. You won’t go wrong. Neither are perfect movies but they speak to a larger theme and in doing so make them landmark films, in my opinion.

The first is “The Cider House Rules”, released in 1999. It won Michael Caine a Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Dr. Wilbur Larch, the doctor of an orphanage in Maine in 1943. Caine is the big name; there are no others in the movie although Tobey Maguire would use this movie as a springboard for more mainstream movies like “Spiderman”; and Charlize Theron would soon become a sought after actress. The film can at times be a little overbearing because it rarely strays from the main point of the novel by John Irving. Homer Wells is an orphan who is trained by Dr. Larch to be a doctor. Dr. Larch sees a side of life that is rather ugly but he holds together an orphanage full of abandoned children with perseverance, dedication and more than a few escapes into dream worlds aided by ether, which he self administers. In 1943 abortion is illegal but he performs many abortions routinely for the many ladies who ends up at his doorstep. Homer constantly questions Dr. Larch’s pragmatic approach to such things while in the process becoming a physician without a license. Eventually Homer abruptly leaves the orphanage for a year as an apple picker and lobsterman, discovers his own morality can be plenty squishy (such as when he bangs Charlize Theron’s character, who is married to a pilot).

The film doesn’t have many flaws. The only flaw of note is that Tobey Maguire is probably not the best person to play Homer Wells. He plays Homer with the same sort of happy go lucky expression on his face, and a gentle nature; I would have preferred someone who could better express the complexities of the role better. But the whole rest of the movie really works well. The kids in the orphanage are heart breakers, particularly Fuzzy, the poor kid perpetually in an oxygen tank suffering from bronchitis. Each kid is a well-defined and complex character somehow deftly directed by Lasse Halstrom. The music by Rachel Portman is outstanding. The lessons it imparts about the moral squishiness of real life are relevant enough and done occasionally in an overbearing manner, but mostly it just works real well. Like all of my favorite movies it has a great ending scene that is somewhat predictable but starts the tears flowing anyhow. I won’t spoil it for you in case you haven’t seen the movie.

“Dead Poets Society” arrived ten years before “The Cider House Rules”. I hated Robin Williams as a TV actor but I loved him from his very first movie, “The World According to Garp” when I realized he could act as well as be funny. In Dead Poets he plays John Keating, a poetry teacher at a very repressed, very upper class boarding school somewhere in the Shenandoah Mountains. Professor Keating had once been a student at the school some years back. Since escaping from the school it is obvious that Keating somehow became a fully alive and liberated human being, and he returned to the school in part to open the minds of these cookie cutter upper class boys whose parents largely expected them to grow up to be lawyers and doctors.

John Keating is a role that Robin Williams was born to play. It’s hard to imagine anyone else who could have played the part as convincingly. In the process of trying to open and liberate these minds, he succeeds a bit better than he expected. Eventually, of course, he and the establishment butt heads. There is more than a bit of moral squishiness in this movie too, but again it has one of these movie endings to die for.

Both these movies will always be in my permanent collection. If they aren’t in yours then I suggest you watch them. I bet in time they will be in yours too.

Both films were nominated for Best Picture and lost. In both cases I think the picture that won was not nearly as good as either of these pictures. “The Cider House Rules” lost to “American Beauty”, a lovely and quirky film. “Dead Poets” lost to “Driving Miss Daisy”.

Howard Dean for President

No, Dean is not my ideal Democratic presidential candidate. He doesn’t even come close. The current crop of candidates, frankly, offers pretty poor choosing. I’m not a big fan of Al Gore but even old boring Al would be a better choice than any of those running for president. Someone like Hilary Clinton would be ideal but she won’t run, and has ruled out 2008 as well. So we Democrats will have to pick from one of the announced candidates, and a fairly sorry lot they are overall.

Democrats always have a few “you have GOT to be joking” sorts of candidates. Al Sharpton wins this one hands down. But many of the rest aren’t much better.

Sadly also in this category is Dennis Kucinich, a former mayor and now Congressman representing the Cleveland area. Dennis has a real problem: mainly he comes across as a very annoying, the sort of person you would never invite to a party. Unless American voters have a real sense of humor he can’t get elected and he is so far to the left he’d be lucky to win his own district.

Then there is the inside the beltway crowd, trying to distinguish themselves but in general being spineless standing up to President Bush.

There is Dick Gephardt, under whose sterling leadership the House of Representatives actually lost Democratic seats in 2000 and 2002. As a consequence (although he won’t admit it) he resigned as House Democratic Minority Leader. No one is really sure why he is running or what he figures his appeal is, but it’s not the first time he threw his hat into the ring. Sorry Dick but your record speaks for itself and you are as exciting as milquetoast. Next!

John Kerry is hoping that some of the Kennedy mystique will rub off on him because he knows Ted personally and hails from Massachusetts. Besides, he is tall and square jawed. But he voted for war with Iraq even though he should have known better, although he now claims the Administration fed him bad information.

John Edwards is, like Kerry, a junior senator. He hails from North Carolina which is good politically because a Democrat who can’t carry some southern states is unlikely to win the White House. But he also voted for the war in Iraq and he really hasn’t distinguished himself very much. Most of his money comes from trial lawyers. Maybe he’s hoping a close resemblance to John Ritter will win him some votes.

Joe Lieberman ran, and lost, with Al Gore. Joe voted for the war, of course, but has a much larger problem: in many respects he is a closet Republican. Arguably that might be an asset in this election but he doesn’t offer much in the way of vision. If the Democrats were to be pragmatic and look for a centrist candidate he would be an obvious choice. That may not be the way to win the White House this time though. One strong point with Joe is that he is an excellent debater. He wrapped rings around Dick Cheney; consider what he could do with George W.

Bob Graham is my #2 choice. He voted against the Iraq war and understands the real terrorism problem, i.e. it’s Al Qaeda, stupid, not Saddam. As a former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee he knows just how badly this war has been portrayed. Arguably he could win his own state (he has never lost an election) and he is a strong centrist candidate. But he comes across as more than a little goofy.

Carol Moseley Braun lost her last election to a Republican. It’s unclear why she is running. It’s nice to have a woman and a black running and she is reasonably liberal, but she really has nothing to distinguish herself and generates no discernable passion from voters.

That leaves Howard Dean. I would like to be more passionate about the guy. Hopefully in time I will be. I tend to like what I see but I also see some warning flags. He is a moderate Democrat who appears to the liberal wing. He has balanced state budgets many times, even during challenging economic times. He made universal health insurance available to virtually all residents of his state. His singular claim to fame (and perhaps his downfall) was pushing for a civil union bill in Vermont. Doubtless the Republicans will make hay of it if he is the nominee. He was passionately against the war in Iraq and is very passionate about engaging this country again in the international community, and ending our one sided isolationist approach toward the rest of the world. What I think will happen if he is the nominee is that people will discover a fiery but determined centrist democrat who leans enough to the left to bring in those people who are passionate on those causes. But he is a guy who speaks his mind very plainly and sometimes says inappropriate things.

I’ve actually given his campaign some of my money. We’ll see how he does. If he picks up steam I will probably give him more money. I like what I know of him, but he has yet to make me an enthusiastic supporter. He just seems to be the best of a rather poor crowd of candidates.