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.

Criswell Predicts…

I can see the future. My amazing ability happens to be limited to our war in Iraq, our war on terrorism and the 2004 elections but I see it nonetheless. I’d like to think my ability is remarkable and soon I’d have a TV show on the SciFi Channel next to John Edward but there is no magic about it. It’s not hard in the least. All you have to do is look at facts on the ground, look at our history, look at geopolitics and it becomes a no brainer. I am disturbed (but not surprised) that what is obvious to me is not obvious to what passes for leadership in this country.

My first prediction is easy: our occupation of Iraq will turn into a quagmire. Some of you might be saying, well, it’s already a quagmire: duh! Quite right but I had predicted this before we invaded in the first place. I never doubted we would win a military victory, but I never believed we could win the peace. The only question now is how long we hang in there before we throw in the towel. The reality will be a lot like Somalia, only over a much longer time. Our troops will continue to die from sniper fire in a long war of attrition. Our desire to enforce a peace will mean little freedom of movement for Iraqis who consequently will continue to be unemployed and suffer greatly. It will resemble more and more the West Bank with endless checkpoints and military patrols. This will in turn build resentment that will feed on itself, resulting in more attacks, more resentment, more skirmishes. If we had used our brains instead of our brawn we’d be trying to get the United Nations to come in and take over for us. But that won’t happen of course because it might mean we’d have to admit we can’t take on the world unilaterally. Eventually, probably about a year after Bush loses the 2004 election, we’ll withdraw. The Pundits will call it “Iraqization” but effectively we will slowly withdraw and let the country return to the anarchy it effectively has right now. But hey, Saddam won’t reimerge, or will he?

Why is this prediction so easy to make? Just go a thousand miles to the east and look at what we are doing in Afghanistan. At least there we effectively limited our occupation to Kabul and got mostly foreign troops to do the police work. But there simply wasn’t the will to really make a genuine peace and there won’t be the same will in Iraq.

Next prediction: the roadmap to peace will fail. Again this is an absurdly easy prediction to make. I wish it would succeed but it can’t. There are lots of reasons but perhaps the biggest reason of all is that the Palestinians have no means other than persuasion to get groups like Hamas to stop terrorism. The Israelis, of course, insist that the Palestinian police force can go in and root out these terrorists. But of course there are a zillion Israeli checkpoints so what little remains of a Palestinian police force cannot get from place to place. But effectively there IS no Palestinian police force. Virtually all their police stations have been destroyed by the Israelis. The Israelis are the only real power on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They have the best trained police force in the world and they can’t stop all these acts of terror either. And yet Israel and in fact our own government says, with a straight face, that Palestinians themselves can stop the terrorism.

Not going to happen. Because even if Palestinians were armed to the teeth like the Israelis they would still have the same problem. You can’t make a terrorist stop being a terrorist through force of arms. The best you can do is through a police state limit the damage. But of course there is something in the human nature that the more you oppress a group the more determined they are to show they still have power. Suicide bombings didn’t just happen. They were a direct result of all other forms of resistance not working. Peace marches didn’t faze the Israelis in the least. They just kept building more settlements and bulldozing more Palestinian dwellings. So nice try Bush and Powell; and I’m glad that Bush at least came out for the idea of a Palestinian state in principle. Unfortunately that’s all it will be because the dynamics of the conflict will not change. To truly change the situation Israel would have to end the occupation and remove its settlers, and then it would have to endure years of terrorism anyhow. It would have to give up other things it doesn’t want to give up, like 80% of the water it takes from the Jordan River. But eventually with a lot of international aid the problem would grow less severe over time. This is not a tradeoff that will ever be made in my lifetime. One cannot get Israelis to accept the notion of withdrawal and continued, though declining terrorism. It would be seen as defeat. But over ten years or so it would largely solve the problem.

Prediction Number Three. Bush loses in 2004. Yeah, I see the poll numbers. But he isn’t doing as well as his father did at the same point in his presidency. Reuters has him at 57%, so he is approaching levels of popularity he had before the war started. For some of the factors that will cause him to lose, see above. But the real reason he will lose will be the economy. Yes, it might improve but two million lost jobs cannot be erased between now and Election Day. Iraq will continue to be a quagmire that will slowly sap his popularity. The budget deficit will demonstrate he is utterly lacking in financial management skills. People are scared at the unaffordability of health insurance and want it, but he doesn’t have a clue and it is anathema to his ideology. On Election Day 2004 it will be a no brainer. Will we better off than we were in 2000? Not a chance. Do we feel more secure and safe in spite of 9/11? Nope. Is our country headed in the right direction? Not with historically high deficits, lack of national health insurance, obscene giveaways to the richest people, and a continued degradation of our environment. I’d like to think that in addition to losing reelection we’ll get a Democratic congress again but that is much less likely. The $200M war chest Bush is creating for his reelection will narrow the margins. But four years will be enough and we’ll be fed up enough to vote in numbers large enough to throw him out; it’s not like he came into office with a mandate in the first place. Enjoy clearing brush on your ranch in Texas, George. That seems to be something you can do well.

Morning in America (Again): How the Democrats Won in 2004

I’m old enough to remember the election of 1980. It wasn’t a great time in our country. Inflation, interest rates and unemployment were high. At age 23 I eeked out a living a little above the minimum wage at a Montgomery Ward. We had hostages in Iran that looked like they would never be released. This was an inescapable news story even bigger than O.J.’s trial. It turned Ted Koppel into something of a celebrity. Every night at 11:30 after the late news he hosted yet another special report: “Day 333: American Held Hostage”. A bungled raid by our military to liberate the hostages failed spectacularly. The national morale was near rock bottom.

In the midst of all this a presidential election was held that put a genial B movie actor and former California governor into the Oval Office. In the midst of a sour national mood Ronald Reagan had a message that fell on receptive ears: it’s morning again in America. Let’s shake off the national gloom. It was a great message that connected with the voters. It won him an overwhelming victory in 1984 despite the fact that the economy wasn’t really doing all that much better. Reagan was about attitude and spirit. We latched on to that spirit. Arguably it began the ascendancy of the Republican Party after decades of being in the political basement. Americans don’t seem to like to be in a gloomy mood for very long.

If it worked in 1980, it can work in 2004 but this time for the Democrats. A lot of the same factors are present. We have no hostages in Iran, but we do feel fearful. In spite of our overwhelming military and economic power, we don’t feel all that more secure and we feel vulnerable to forces we’re not sure we can control: such as one crazed fanatic or a suitcase bomb. We don’t have sky-high interest rates, we have rock bottom interest rates, yet we have learned that either extreme brings its own dangers. We now fear the deflation demon as much as we feared 18% mortgage rates in the early 1980s. Unemployment is statistically lower than in 1980 but many of us know the statistics are lying. The unemployment rate has been recalibrated to be more politically correct. We know that the true unemployment rate is much higher and that huge numbers of “discouraged” workers aren’t counted but would be employed if they could just find a job. We know that the length of time people spend unemployed has roughly doubled, and that to survive thousands of people are taking large wage cuts. Others cannot find employment in their field anymore and are working at relatively unskilled jobs at half or less than what they used to earn. We have all this plus a grinding war in Iraq that increasingly looks like a pointless quagmire.

Let’s face it: our national mood is depressed. Having our tanks roll into Baghdad had a short cathartic effect but, like a cup of coffee, the buzz soon wore off. Because our nation feels depressed our economy is in the doldrums too. Even tax cuts don’t seem to cheer us up.

Bush will have little to run on in 2004 but the fear factor. He’ll run on it because he and Carl Rove ran the Republican Party on it in 2002 and they will hope it will work again. But 9/11 is a receding memory, and Bush’s chickens have come home to roost. The economy is unlikely to turn around markedly before the next election. Even if it does it is unlikely we’ll come close to regaining the number of jobs lost during this administration. Poll after poll suggests that national red ink scares voters. Weapons of mass destruction turn into weapons of mass deception; Iraq shows all the signs of being our next Vietnam.

A Democrat with a positive message can win using Ronald Reagan’s approach. Here’s how.

First state the obvious: our fears of terrorism are vastly overblown. That’s not to say they aren’t there, but the likelihood of any individual American being a victim of an act of terrorism is virtually nil. Even on 9/11 when we lost 3,000 souls, that was 3,000 out of 300 million. We lose many magnitudes more citizens every year in automobile accidents. One is more likely to be a victim of terrorism, small as it is, if you live in Washington or a major city. For most Americans neither your life nor the lives of anyone you love is not in jeopardy from terrorism. If you are living in small town America you are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than to die from terrorism.

Second, point out where the real problems lie with national security. It’s not in Iraq, it’s in organizations like al Qaeda, and it’s in vulnerable nuclear research laboratories in the former USSR and in Eastern Europe. For the tens of billions of dollars we spent trying to obliterate Iraq we could have secured a lot of Russian nuclear facilities and made our country a whole lot safer. Point out that Bush has done hardly anything in this area; in fact he has cut this funding.

Third, advocate positive changes that can reduce the likelihood of terrorism. Advocate a Marshall plan for the Middle East where we work to improve the standard of living of the people. What if we rebuilt every destroyed Palestinian home crushed by an Israeli bulldozer as a starter? Don’t you think that would be very positive toward America, show true retribution and genuine concern for a people? Don’t you think it would sap a lot of the energy that creates terrorists in the first place? Wouldn’t this in effect buy us a lot of long-term national security? It’s cheaper than another Iraq-like war.

On the economy advocate what Americans already believe: that deficits are bad and the latest tax cuts have been reckless and unnecessary. Americans now believe in national health insurance. Too many people are uninsured and costs continue to spiral out of control. People will pay for it because with it they will have peace of mind.

But mainly what Democrats need is a message of moderation and hope. We need to say loudly and clearly: we refuse to live in fear any longer. We will take pragmatic steps to ensure our national security but we will not be slaves to our fears. We will not let this country become a victim of 9/11. We will not let terrorists destroy our spirit. We will be a party about pragmatic, progressive policies that uniformly helps all Americans, not just the richest.

That is how to win the White House and how to take back Congress in 2004.

Weight Loss = Hard Work

It’s not easy being lean. I’m thinking it is unlikely I will ever be lean again.

Something happened to me over the years. I think I ate too much and didn’t exercise enough. I joined the majority of Americans who are overweight or obese. I didn’t intend it to be that way, of course; it just sort of snuck up on me.

I first discovered that I could gain weight in my early 20s. A couple times a week I bought milk at the local High’s store in downtown Gaithersburg, Maryland. The Entemann’s pastries were right there and they sure tasted good. So I’d bring one home. And one day I weighed myself and was shocked to find I had put on some weight. I exited my teenage years a healthy 180 pounds (I am 6’2″). And suddenly I was 200 pounds.

Solution: eat less and exercise more. Basically I wasn’t exercising. I never got in the habit. So I took up running, starting with mile runs around the local high school track and working up to mile and a half runs four to six times a week. I was really out of shape and it took a long time before I could run and not feel winded. But I did lose weight and got back to 185 pounds or so, and I was more careful about what I was eating. Mostly though I was more concerned about exercising more than eating less.

And for more than 20 years I have been running and exercising regularly. So why am I not a skinny thing?

Those of you have met me would probably not call me overweight or obese. And yet technically I am. I should not get above 190 pounds, and I’m probably somewhere around 195 pounds. And I’m having a hell of a time staying where I’m at. It’s been hard work. It continues to be hard work. It’s a continual war I fight with myself. Emotionally I want the satisfaction of those lovely high fat foods. But my forebrain says I don’t want to in my 50s and having coronary artery disease. Every day is another skirmish with the Mr. Hyde lurking inside of me.

Back in 2001 I hit a new high: I was at 223. Bill Clinton and I had something in common. I had been overweight for years and years and though I still exercised I must have been packing on the calories. But I figured I was still running and thus healthy.

To some extent I think my overeating was facilitated by the excellent and cheap lunches conveniently available at the Ford House Office Building cafeteria. Those steak and cheese subs were hard to resist, and I would often throw on a chocolate chip muffin for dessert. I rationalized it by having a light dinner. It didn’t help that my personal life was in a great deal of stress in the late 90s. Eating became one of the few pleasurable things in life. It was agony to pass a Dunkins and not grab a donut or two.

Nonetheless I lost the weight at least twice before. In the early 90s I got to around 205 and brought myself down to 190, mostly through a lot more exercise. But then slowly, incrementally, the weight came back on.

It took me years to summon the energy to do anything serious again about weight loss. But my joints were beginning to notice the effects of my weight. My knees were hurting and the tendons in my foot were often inflamed. But one day, perhaps as a result of being on antidepressants, I suddenly had the will again.

Like most dieters I looked for a recipe for weight loss. For a while diet and exercise worked fine. I was losing a pound a week by eating salads for lunch and a bowl of cereal for breakfast, plus putting in a lot of time on the elliptical machines at the health club at work. I got below 200 and felt like cheering. And then I stopped losing weight. For weeks I hoped things would improve and I didn’t change strategies. I continued eating sensibly, and I still peddled the metal machines hard and burned off those calories. What the hell was going on?

I stumbled on the Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet and tried that. Carbohydrates, according to the book, can be evil because they boost blood sugar and make you hungry for more food. So eggs or Egg Beaters for breakfast, a lean salad for lunch, and a modest (sometimes more than modest) dinner with carbs in my “reward meal”.

It worked, sort of. I lost maybe half a pound a week. But it was tough. I weighed myself every day to a tenth of a pound. I kept meticulous records. And I did it. I got to 190. One day I weighed myself and I was 188.8.

It’s been all up since then. My goal was to get to 180, the weight I had when I was married. But it wouldn’t work. This diet wasn’t working anymore.

My pal Lisa told me about her trainer Jason and his emphasis on building muscle mass. I went to see him and tried that approach for a while. But … I hovered between 190 and 195. Using all those weight machines helped I am sure, and maybe I have become more lean. I just wasn’t losing weight.

I finally went to see my doctor. What was going on? Why couldn’t I lose more weight? He didn’t have an answer but when he did say that where I was at, 195, was on the high but acceptable level. Maybe that’s where my body wants me to be because it is the right weight for me now.

So I’ve been maintaining it through a LOT of exercise and a LOT of modest eating. I’d like to lose more but I don’t know how.

Oh wait, I do know how. I’m sure I could do it. But it’s a question of how much pain I want to endure. I could increase aerobics to maybe 60 minutes at a time. But in the process I have to give up something: more time. And that’s the crux of the matter at the moment. Time is a limited quantity. I am fortunate I can exercise at work; it would be much tougher to do it in the evenings with all the distractions going on then. My days start at 5:20 and it is over 12 hours later before I stagger home.

What am I doing now? I exercise, with aerobics, 4-6 times a week. Most of the time I am on the elliptical machine, but I still run periodically. Every other day at the health club I add on weight training. In a week I can go through pretty much every machine they have. I do weight levels that would astound most people. I leg press 150 pounds, for example, and I do 125 pounds on abdominal machine.

Eating? A bowl of cereal for breakfast (all those eggs worried me), and usually something fairly lean but tasty for lunch. I like the broccoli and beef down in our cafeteria: a small portion, no rice. And for my midday treat, one or two Special K treats (90 calories each). Then a fairly large, but not obscene dinner.

All this diet and exercise though and here I am: 195.

Yes, I am sure my evening meals could be better. But they are not obscene calorie fests, and they usually start with a big salad.

On weekends my strategy is two meals a day: a large breakfast and a medium to large dinner. If I get hungry I’ll have a slice or two of cheese. I work out at least one day on the weekend too.

It’s something about being middle aged, I think. It doesn’t help that I sit at a desk most of the day, but the midday break at the health club burns a lot of calories. I am sure I could add more exercise on weekends: bike trips, walks etc. Mostly I just do the standard routine.

The good news is that my weight is stable and while technically overweight I am just barely overweight. Still, it’s discouraging. It’s quite a bit of work for me just to maintain my present weight. I must burn calories much more efficiently now. My health is excellent: I pass physicals with flying colors.

But if I set a goal why can’t I make it? It is discouraging. I watch what I eat very carefully now. Some days I do really good, some days I feast more than I should, but I am conscious of every mouthful and the consequences. If I eat more than I should one day I usually eat less the next day.

I’m lucky I have something that works, and I am glad I got rid of the gut and my love handles are largely gone. But I don’t understand why my body won’t let me be lean again.

What strategies have you used that have worked, particularly in the long term, at keeping weight off?

Will my daughter be gay? And does it matter?

My daughter Rosie is a very unique child. I guess parents could say that about every child; every person has a unique set of chromosomes. But she is still very unique and to some extent I plead guilty (as does her mother) for encouraging these influences. Neither of us are homophobes even though I can’t claim to have known a whole lot of openly gay and lesbian people. Since age 7 or so she’s been going to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston and met a number of gay and bisexual people there, including our last minister, Gretchen Woods, who is lesbian and has a life partner. Some of her girlfriends appear to be bisexual or lesbians, although at age 13-14 one must take such assertions with a grain of salt. She often seems more comfortable around the GLBTG (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) crowd than the future mothers and fathers of America crowd, which is most of her middle school. She isn’t in high school yet but she has already joined the Westfield High School Gay-Straight Alliance. That’s my girl!

Rosie is 13 and claims she doesn’t know if she is heterosexual, bisexual or lesbian. That is a sensible approach I guess: keeping her options open. Her mother seems heterosexual enough, although over the last few years Terri has hung out rather heavily among a crowd of women who are largely gay or bisexual as part of her adventures into the Slash Fan Fiction universe. Through her Rosie has come in contact with many an adult role model, and many a dysfunctional adult from this community.

It must be tough to sort it out but I image by the time she is off to college she’ll have figured out exactly where she fits on the Kinsey scale. I have never believed that one can become gay through environmental influences. It is possible that environmental influences are stimulating thoughts in that area that might not be stimulated, or might occur later in life.

Lately though I’ve been wondering if I might have a gay or bisexual child on my hands and if so how I would react to it.

Unquestionably I love Rosie and would support any healthy relationships she forms. Most likely at her age she is likely to have a healthier relationship with her own gender than with a boy anyhow. I’m not that anxious to have her start dating boys and she seems to be in no hurry either. Her one “boy” friend that I have met is a geeky, awkward young lad about her age who seems as much in a club of one as Rosie. I am completely comfortable around Eric, perhaps because he reminds me so much of myself at that age: a bit brazen and unorthodox but generally not the most popular guy on campus.

Intellectually if she were to announce tomorrow “Mom and Dad, I’m a lesbian” I don’t think I would have a problem with it. I would know that there is nothing I can do about it; I might as well argue that her hair color isn’t brown. I know and respect the person she is and sexual orientation is such a minor part of the whole person.

Emotionally though I would have some issues to work through. Trying to understand myself, I think it has something to do with genetics. The notion of someday having a grandchild bouncing on my lap seems appealing. But also there is the notion of dynasty: I’d like some part of me to be passed on to future generations. I realize of course that in a genetic sense Rosie is only half me, so the whole notion is somewhat fallacious and outdated. Some of my siblings have chosen not to have children, and they seem comfortable with it. I would probably grow comfortable with never being a grandparent in time too.

It may be pointless and selfish to wish for things like this. Having gone through the child rearing experience I know it is a difficult road in the best of circumstances. Rosie might well turn out to be heterosexual, choose to get married and still choose not to have children. It might also be possible, given the rapid advances in human reproductive technologies, that she could have a genetic offspring even if she married another woman.

I’m not sure where these phantom worries come from. Frankly I didn’t give them hardly any thought at all until a few weeks ago. And I’d like to put them way into the background where they belong. But they have come out of the closet, so to speak. And it appears I will have to wrestle with them even though really there is nothing I can do to change Rosie from the person she will be. I will have to deal with my feelings regardless.

And regardless I will always love Rosie from the depth of my soul and appreciate the full human being she is, and the unique adult she will soon become. If I’m enjoying her this much as a teenager I will enjoy her even more as an independent adult.