Category Archives: Navel-gazing

Popping the Bubble

Fire Hydrant

Perhaps.  But you could say the same thing about Hillary Clinton.

Last night, I was watching election returns in a restaurant with some friends in the Upper East Side.  It was a little before 9:00: early returns put Trump and Clinton about even.  We had just paid the check.

“Do I want to see the 9:00 projections?  No, I don’t.” I told the group, and left.

I headed down Second Avenue, got a Citibike, rode it across the Queensborough Bridge to Long Island City, and got a G train home.  The ride cleared my head.

But I’ve had a bellyful of this election, and I didn’t want any more.  When I got home, I finished some paperwork—studiously avoiding anything that even smelled like a news report—took a shower, and went to bed.

And now it’s 5:09 Wednesday morning, and I still don’t know who won.

But having lived through a few Presidential elections, I can tell when my preferred candidate is about to lose.  It’s not that I think Trump is a great guy.  But we need a new direction in this country, and Clinton, as far as I can tell, will continue the policies of her predecessor and keep us limping along for another few years.

I actually bought a copy of Stronger Together, the Clinton campaign book, to try and understand where she was coming from.  While the description of our problems in the first chapter is spot-on, the solutions she proposes are either vague, ineffective, or will make the problem worse.  I realized just last night that the vague policy prescriptions are a feature, not a bug: if you don’t put forward specific policies, people won’t be able to object to them.

Yesterday, I discussed the vote at some length with my son.  He voted for Clinton.  His reactions to events were almost the opposite of mine: Clinton’s private e-mail server, which hit me like a punch in the gut (she’s disrespecting her office and the American people!), seemed a bit of abstract technological trivia to him.  And Trump’s offhand remarks, which struck me as the mark of a man given to running off at the mouth, hit my son like a punch in the gut (how dare Trump even consider messing with a woman’s right to choose?).

In any case, it’s time to pop the bubble.

Trump won!

My sense of ‘a candidate about to lose’ was off this year.

There may be hope for us, after all….

Gender

When I was very little, I learned the concept of what I now know as ‘gender:’ people are male and female, boys and girls, men and women.  I was really young when I learned this concept, so young that I can’t remember not knowing it.  And along with gender, I learned some other concepts, which I never really thought about until much later:

  • Essentiality: A person must have a gender.
  • Binary states: One is male or female: there is no other alternative.
  • Mutual exclusivity: A person must be male or female. One cannot be both at the same time.
  • Immutability: One cannot change one’s gender.  (One can impersonate the other gender, but it isn’t the same thing.)

I learned all of this just by observing the world around me.  So far as I know, my parents never had to explain this to me, nor did I have to explain it to my son when he was little.

So now we’re facing the onslaught of people who believe that requiring men and women to use different bathrooms is somehow evil: you’re denying people their basic human right to a comfortable place to pee!  We’re told that we have to look out for the transsexuals, who need to go to a bathroom that does not correspond to their physical gender.

Since this is ludicrous on its face, it’s actually pointless to argue logically against it.  Ayn Rand said, ‘Don’t bother to examine a folly—ask yourself what it accomplishes.’  Nevertheless, to establish that the issue in question is a folly, it is necessary to argue against it:

  • Yes, there are some (very few) transgendered people who have issues with using one restroom or another. But there are many more maladjusted but otherwise normal men who enjoy peeping at women’s private parts.
  • There are also many more non-transgendered people who have no question about which restroom to use, but are nevertheless uncomfortable with public restrooms. I used to be one of them, and I got over it as I got older.  It isn’t the responsibility of the world at large to furnish me a comfortable place to pee wherever and whenever I need it.

And what does this accomplish?

  • It raises what seems on its surface to be an affectation to a ‘protected class,’ where to even identify it is to be discriminatory.
  • It’s another way to get people who disagree to shut up for fear of offending someone. (Remember that liability makes cowards of us all.)
  • It’s another effort to erase the distinction between men and women. But this difference has been part of our nature since the beginning, and has been integrated into every human society to date.  It seems pointless at best and dangerous at worst to try and eliminate it.

None of this means that men and women shouldn’t have civil equality.  Men and women should have the same rights before the law and in commercial transactions, including receiving the same pay for the same work (this last has, in fact, been the law in the US for over 50 years).

But underneath it all, men and women are different.  That difference is to be respected, admired, cherished, and enjoyed.  To deny, disparage, or deprecate it is to deny reality.

In Another Time…

In Back to the Future, Part II, Marty McFly traveled from 1985 to yesterday, 21 October 2015, to look in on his future family and possibly save his own son from a life of crime.  The subject has been done to death in the media this week, but I can’t resist plucking at a couple of the less-noted details of this fictive future.  I’m immensely relieved, for example, that double neckties never caught on.

Double Necktie

The movie also imagined that we would essentially be taken over by the Japanese.  When it came out in 1989, Japan was making ‘all the best stuff,’ but they’ve since wilted, perhaps victims of their own success.

We’re also not too far from 2019, the time frame of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Running Man.  The notion of America as a poverty-stricken police state doubtless seemed laughable in 1987, but as 2019 approaches, the laughable seems to be becoming all too real.

The other day, I was watching The Hunt for Red October, the 1989 movie about a Soviet submarine captain who wanted to defect to the United States.  It was a cool movie back then, and still holds its own 26 years later.  But I’m compelled to believe that if Red October happened today, the American leadership would probably bend over backwards to return the sub to the Russians, and probably the captain as well.  Either that, or help the Russians to sink it.

And then there’s Tony Manero, the John Travolta character from Saturday Night Fever.  Back in the 1970s, it wasn’t outlandish to get an ordinary sort of job out of high school, and make a modest living at it.  But the little hardware stores that used to be a fixture in Brooklyn–and pretty much everywhere else–are going the way of the dodo.  And there was his boss, who paid him on Monday so he’d have money all week.  Sensible, but hopelessly quaint.  It’s hard to imagine Tony Manero working for Lowe’s.

What’s the Point?

It’s been a rotten week.

At work, I got into a pointless argument: pointless because I should have known that I couldn’t win, regardless of the merits of my position.  But I persevered anyway, and lost. And I wasted another week on a project that’s already horrendously late.

A few weeks ago, my office sent out a pile of drawings.  I spent a day and a half checking the technical details of the drawings, making sure everything was correct. This week, the client noted that half the drawings identified the wrong location in the drawing title.  It’s not a real problem: the drawings are a work in progress anyway, and everyone understood what the correct location was, but it’s still just stupid.

I’ve been so busy with real engineering issues that I haven’t had time for the more routine items, like… sending out invoices. But if I don’t do that, I won’t get paid.

The other night, I was watching the evening news when a commercial for Chase Private Client came on.  The happy couple invited their banker to their retirement party, and the banker said he’d be ‘honored’ to join them. I fought the urge to throw my remote control through the TV screen: I bank at Chase; they’re falling-all-over-themselves polite when I go there, but are practically useless; I fully expect to retire in a coffin.

And last night, I found myself watching the recent James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.  One of the things that makes James Bond stories work is that Bond’s bosses are always on the side of rightness and justice.  But in Quantum, we learn that the corruption goes all the way to the top.  What is the point of serving Queen and country, when Queen and country are in bed with the villains?

It seems the entire country is becoming unglued.  We’re trying to make Ukraine and Syria safe for democracy while neglecting our own borders.  After fussing for years about the deficit, Congress has abdicated its Constitutional responsibility to manage the nation’s debt, by abandoning the debt ceiling and authorizing the Treasury to borrow whatever it needs for a set time period.

And someday soon, perhaps within the next two years, the hammer will drop, and my family and I will be trundled off to a FEMA camp, or be killed by marauding street gangs, or starve to death in our apartment.  Or maybe New York will be obliterated by an errant atomic bomb.  (Growing up in the 1960s, with the notion that the Russians could toast us with scarcely a moment’s warning, was nowhere near as bad: I had the sense that both the US and the USSR were run by responsible adults.  Today, I’m not so sure.)

Meanwhile, I’m running myself ragged, scrambling to meet deadlines, and having less and less to show for it.  Maybe I could prepare for the oncoming disaster, but I don’t have the time or the money or the energy.

Stuck Overnight

Yesterday at noon, I was racing to finish the task I was working on at an out-of-town job site.  I had a flight that would leave at 2:40, and a party back in NYC that I wanted to attend.

After some finagling, I had it.  I had achieved a milestone in the task I had before me, but still had more to do.  I told my colleague at the site that it was a wrap for me for the day, and that I should be able to finish the task in my office, but I might return next week.

A muffled boom of thunder sounded overhead.

Two minutes later, my phone rang: a recorded announcement that my flight had been cancelled.

The machine gave me the option to connect to an airline agent.  The agent helpfully informed me that there would be no other flights that day, and that the next available non-stop would be at about the same time the next day.  I rebooked.

I had stayed at a local hotel up the road from the job site.  I called them up and reserved a room for another night.  It was quick and painless.

The rental car was another matter.  I rummaged around my e-mails and found the telephone number for the airport office.  I was forwarded into the rental company’s monster voice-recognition computer, and what would have been a thirty-second conversation with a person: ‘My rental number is “xxx” … I need the car for one more day, at the same time….  Got it?  Thanks!’ turned into five minutes of automated hell.

I’ve learned to roll with the punches when things go wrong on a business trip: sometimes I believe that God is looking out for me.  If I had finished my task at noon, as I had planned, I would have gotten the call while I was en route to the airport.  I would have been really angry, would have booked into a hotel near the airport, and probably have ended up accomplishing nothing.  As it was, I invited my colleague to lunch, went back to my task afterward, and got most of it done.  There’s still some clean-up and tweakage, but the heavy lifting is done.

*          *          *

We finished late, and I headed to a Wal-Mart after dinner to find something to wear the next day.  (OK, I could rinse out my socks and underwear and use them again, but it had been a long day.)  I got:

  • Wrangler shirt from Bangladesh;
  • Fruit of the Loom colored T-shirt from El Salvador;
  • Russell briefs from Vietnam (didn’t they used to be the enemy?);
  • Dickies work socks from Pakistan (I had to look around on the package to find this).

But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Meanwhile, Beyond These Borders….

Earlier this month, I went to a professional conference in London.  One of my immediate observations is that while the US has been in the economic doldrums for the last few years, much of the world has dusted itself off and gotten back to work.  The presentations at the conference are about new and bigger infrastructure improvements going on in cities all over the world… except in the US.

What happened?

On the first day, one of the presenters told the story of the Docklands Light Rail, which was built to revive the disused Docklands to the east of London.  The system opened in 1987 as a two lines that ran single cars.  It was enormously successful: today there are seven lines that run 2- and 3-car trains.

Meanwhile, Detroit has been puttering about with the idea of a Woodward Avenue light rail line.  They were going to build it, and then they decided to run buses, and now construction has begun on a line expected to carry about 1 million passengers/year when it opens in 2016.  (The Docklands, in its first year, carried 17 million, and now carries five times that.)

To be sure, there’s an obvious difference: the Docklands are just east of central London, a dynamic business district that is thirsting for more space.  The Woodward Avenue line is in… Detroit.

But the Docklands story was one among many.  What are we doing wrong?

One easy answer is: Obamacare.  All across the US, employers have been cutting staff and hours in an effort to escape the law’s mandates.  Meanwhile, people all over the country are getting sticker shock over the insurance premiums they now have to pay themselves.  Not exactly a recipe for a booming economy.

But the problem is broader than that….

Who Killed JFK?

Honestly, I don’t know.

Last Friday was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, and last night, my wife and I watched a History Channel presentation about the assassination.  While they did a good job of presenting the facts of the events, the program was driven by statistics of what people thought about the assassination.

In the process, one of the most significant events of the 20th Century is turned into a parlor game: CIA operative X did it from the grassy knoll with a sledgehammer.  At the end of the presentation, we were back where we started: another demonstration of the impotence of facts and reason.  (There’s a reason for this that goes beyond the JFK assassination, but it’s a subject for another day.)

I was two years old when JFK was assassinated, so I don’t remember what happened.   But there is an event of similar dimensions that occurred in my adult life: 11 September.  There are many similarities in the two events, particularly in how the government acted to get its official version of the story out and suppress alternatives.

But there are essential differences:

  • The official story of the JFK assassination is at least plausible.  Some years ago, I watched a documentary of an effort to reconstruct the trajectory of the ‘magic bullet’ that struck both JFK and Texas governor John Connally.  The effort succeeded.  On the other hand, while I can believe that the Twin Towers would collapse from being struck by airliners, it strains the imagination that they would fall into neat little piles.  Moreover, 7 World Trade Center was not struck by airplanes.  It sustained damage that should have left it standing.  But it, too, collapsed into a neat little pile.
  • The Warren Commission that investigated the JFK assassination believed they had gotten to the truth of the matter.  I don’t know what the 9/11 Commission thought they were doing, but it wasn’t the same.
  • From the official explanation, it follows that the assassination of JFK could not have been avoided.  The President was protected with the normal security measures of the time, and it seemed implausible that someone could accurately shoot and kill the President in a moving vehicle.  But the coming events of 11 September cast their shadows beforehand, and yet we did nothing to forestall the events.
  • The assassination of JFK led to some changes of policy direction, but all of these were within the realm of normal politics.  11 September led to the unfolding police state.

A Foul Mood

I was in a foul mood last week.  I think I was on the edge of coming down with a cold, and I was teaching a class, so I had to be bright and chipper through the workday, only to come home and want to just drop into bed.

But beyond that:

  • It seems inevitable that Bill deBlasio will be our next Mayor: so inevitable, in fact, that I didn’t bother to cast an absentee ballot (more on that later).  He promises ‘a break from the Bloomberg years.’  I take that to mean a break from low crime and competent city administration (except for the snowstorm a couple of years ago).  Meanwhile, he promises to fight the good fight to reinstate the ban on large sodas.  I remember the ‘bad old days’ of the 1980s.  It didn’t bother me so much back then, as I was in my 20s and felt pretty much indestructible, but now I’m worried.  Moreover, deBlasio is a community activist, with no experience running either public or private enterprises, other than his own office as Public Advocate.  And we all know what happened the last time we elected a community activist to executive power….
  • Across the nation, the reality of Obamacare is seeping in: that if you’re not covered by your employer, you’re required to pay out of your own pocket for health insurance.  In NY, many of the requirements of Obamacare were already state law, so premiums in fact may be going down a few ticks.  But elsewhere, premiums are skyrocketing.  And then there’s the thought that, if you live in one of the states without a state insurance exchange, you’ll have to go to healthcare.gov, and tell it all your personal secrets.
  • One of the items on the ballot this year is a state Constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling.  I used to think that casinos were cool, until my wife and I went to Las Vegas and got bored with it after about an hour.  (I also can’t bring myself to wager more than about $10 at a clip on a game I know is rigged in favor of the house.)  The modern casino is a factory performing the industrial process of separating patrons from their money.  The particularly galling thing, though, is that the state wrote up the description to play up the benefits of casino gaming (more money for schools! whoopee!), rather than a more neutral description, as that way people would be more likely to vote ‘yes.’

I attend a professional conference the first week of November.  For the last couple of years, I made it a point to cast an absentee ballot, but was just too busy over the past few weeks.  But the election seems a lost cause anyway.  Tomorrow (Tuesday) is the first day of the conference.  I was going to be a tourist today with my wife, but we’re both feeling rotten.  At least I can catch up on some paperwork.

Adios, Barnes and Noble

I’ve been reading ever since I was a little kid.  It feels almost as natural as eating.  A while back, while riding the subway, a little girl saw me reading something funny and laughing.

“He’s reading, and he’s laughing,” the little girl remarked to her mother.  Her mother shushed her, as if it were a remark not to be made in polite company.

I guess that for the people in the girl’s life, reading was a difficult chore, and not something to laugh about.

And for much of my life, I would go to a Barnes and Noble bookstore to pick up something to read.  In the 1990s, I would often spend a lazy Saturday at Tower Records followed by Barnes and Noble.  I would pick up something on computers, on how to meet women (not that the advice in those books ever worked), or a remaindered war novel.

There is a Barnes and Noble two blocks from my office.  I was last there two years ago, on a weekday.  I felt guilty for browsing when I should have been back at my desk, working.  On the main floor was a display of the Nook e-book reader that they were selling.

Shooting themselves in the foot, I thought.  An essential part of the joy of books is holding them in your hand, sampling, selecting.

And then I bought my tablet.  It doesn’t feel the same as a book, but it’s close enough.  The words go down good.  But the browsing experience is not the same.  I choose my books now by recommendations or comments that I read in the newspaper or a blog.

This morning, I got an e-mail from Barnes and Noble, offering me 20% off one item.  Alas, I will not take them up on it, although I’d love to.

I simply do not have the time.

When Did We Become Such…

One of my weaknesses is silly cat pictures and videos.  Alas, I’m allergic to the critters, but I still enjoy watching them.  I visit the Lolcats section of I Can Has Cheezburger frequently: like most sites, it seems an echo chamber, in which every item posted gets overwhelmingly favorable reviews.

And then I came across this:

The production values aren’t so hot, but it’s charming.  I was tickled.  And then I saw:

Thumbs down = 951; thumbs up = 549

How could this be?

Most of the negative comments were in the vein, ‘how dare these people let the cat loose in their car.’  But the circumstances are clearly benign: the cat is embroiled in what (to him) is a new adventure, the car is going very slowly, and the environment in the car is clearly very calm.  It’s something that I would have had no problem with when I had a car, if I weren’t allergic to cats.  (If I were on the highway, in a tearing hurry, probably not.  But on a lazy Saturday afternoon, with my wife and kid in the car, why not?)

I was surprised by the vehemence of some of the comments.  Some comments on this video on other Web sites wished ill on the human family in the car for maltreating the cat and creating a road hazard.  Clearly they don’t deserve to live.

I wonder what motivates these complainers.  Is it a genuine concern for animal welfare?

Or are they just jealous that the Russians in the video aren’t afraid of their own shadows, as we seem to have become?

Stupid Me

Usually, when it’s time to return from a vacation, I’m overtaken by the feeling that, while I’ve been having fun, it’s time to go home.  So we come home, and I go back to work at least somewhat refreshed.

But not this time.

And it’s my own fault.

When I was booking out airplane tickets, I wasn’t sure how our plans were going to develop.  I knew we’d be starting in Barcelona, but I wasn’t sure what would happen afterwards.  When I booked the tickets to Barcelona, I noted that the return flight would start in Barcelona, change planes in Madrid, and come back to New York.

“Aha,” I thought.  “That gives me some flexibility.  If I want to, I can return from Madrid.”

WRONG!!!!

I ended up paying an outlandish amount at the Madrid airport to be able to return today.  If I had known, I would have done something that seems to me even more outlandish: gotten up early this morning in Madrid, taken the train to Barcelona, and gotten on the plane to fly back to Madrid.

Moral of the story: when they say, ‘no changes without a penalty,’ they really mean it!

The episode reminded me of the unhappier aspects of my childhood: as I was one of the smartest kids in class, the other kids were always ready to make fun of me for any little mistake I’d make.  Haw-HAW!!

So now I’m back in the Big Wormy, having busted my vacation budget by my own stupidity, with piles of work to do, and it all needs to get done by the end of the month.  Not that I’ll have peace and quiet to get it done: there’s a whole Marx Brothers movie of stupid interruptions waiting in the wings.  And to top it off, the air conditioning in my office was not working when I left, and I sincerely doubt it will be working tomorrow.

Finally, the following item showed up in my e-mail:

LegalZoom Vacation Suggestion

What planet are these people on?

Why Is This Time Different?

In 1979, when I was finishing high school and starting college, I read Howard Ruff’s How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years.  I was aware of inflation, was starting to understand what it meant, and I remember a few perilous months in early 1980 when the price of gold shot up, and it seemed at one point that the economy might go off the rails.

Now we face the same problems as back in 1979, only worse.  Howard Ruff has updated How to Prosper.  But we got through the last thirty years in mostly decent shape.  There was no hyperinflationary collapse.

Why is this time different?

More specifically, the bad things that we feared at the end of the 1970s never materialized.  Why should I worry this time?

Two thoughts:

  • In 1979, we were still a productive country.  The Chinese were not in the business of manufacturing anything and everything for export.  There were still many businesses that were run in the interest of providing whatever goods or services they purported to provide, rather than making this quarter’s numbers.
  • In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President.  Much has been written about how he turned the country around and made us prosperous again.  But he didn’t balance the budget, and indeed, first brought us into the era of huge deficits.  Reagan was every bit as inflationary as his predecessors, if not more.  But there’s one difference:
    • Under previous Presidents, inflationary spending went everywhere in the economy, and consumer prices went up along with everything else.  When the price of bread and gasoline go up, people get angry.
    • Under Reagan and subsequent Presidents, inflationary spending got directed into the investment markets.  Consumer prices still went up, but nowhere near as quickly as before.  But the stock market and the real estate market shot up.  When the prices of houses and stocks go up, people are happy, as they think they’re getting richer.

In 1979, we had margin for error.  That margin has been relentlessly squeezed out over the last 30 years.

Yes, it’s different this time.

Better Late Than Never

The last month has been a blur.  I pretty much missed the holidays: too much work, and when Christmas finally rolled around, I could hardly get out of bed.  We didn’t have a Christmas tree, and after New Year’s, I had working weekends with 22-hour workdays.  But last weekend was more or less normal, and my wife is still putting up with me, so it can’t be all bad.

Just after New  Year’s, someone introduced me to last year’s Duran Duran album, All You Need Is Now.  It is a pitcher of icewater in the desert of allegedly popular music.  OK: it’s a blast from the past, but what makes it so good?

I usually trip over myself when trying to write about music, so forgive me if this is a little clunky.  But Duran Duran’s music–when they’re not trying to be something else–speaks of a place of achievement, where logic and reason carries the day, where things work.   It makes you want to set aside your pains and complaints and go out and accomplish something.

And for that reason, the title track, ‘All You Need Is Now,’ is my belated Song of the Year for 2011.

Retro-Rockets Day

It rained all day today; the high temperature for the day was 69 degrees after midnight, and then it got colder through the day.  That means that today is officially Retro-Rockets Day, the first genuinely cool day of the year.

I started using that expression to myself in high school: I got genuinely lazy during the summer, and when the first cool day arrived, generally some time in late August, I knew it was time to get out of my lazy summer orbit and prepare for school.

Many years ago, I worked as a subway conductor.  When the first cool day came around in August, my immediate reaction was to pull out the cool-weather uniform (long-sleeve shirt and jacket), perplexing most of my colleagues.  Even though my work didn’t really change with the seasons, I was still happy to see the first hint of fall.

Alas, I don’t have the luxury of lazy summers anymore, but I still celebrate Retro-Rockets day, at least within my own mind.  It’s better being productive when you’re not fighting the weather.

Windy

During the storm last weekend, the old song ‘Windy’ by The Association came to mind.  I remember it as a happy song from my childhood; I think one of our music teachers had the class sing it once.

Yesterday, while Googling around, I discovered that I have misunderstood the song for all these years.  Apparently, it’s really about a drug dealer.  And all the clever but flawed references to meteorology were actually references to a drug dealer and  the effects of his (her?) wares.

I doubt that I’ll ever be able to ask the songwriter’s intent, so I’ll go by the music.  There is music of druggies and music of achievement.  ‘Windy’ is definitely the latter: it is propulsive, energetic, and has a real melody.  So I’ll believe that it’s a song about a pretty girl who enchants the beholder and doesn’t take crap from anyone.

And if you still want to believe that it’s about a drug dealer, I guess that’s your privilege.  It’s still a free country, at least in that respect.

The Big 5-0

When I was four years old, something happened–I don’t remember exactly what–that led me to consider the fact that I would ultimately die.  I fretted about it for a couple of days, and then realized: people live to be 100, right?  100 is way more than four, so I have lots of time left.  I then set aside contemplating my own mortality for a long, long time.

Today is my fiftieth birthday: I’m halfway there.

I thought there was something witty that I was going to write about this, but now that I’m here in front of my keyboard, I’m drawing a blank.  Perhaps I’m getting flaky in my old age.

Anyway, it’s been an interesting first half, and as I sit here in the morning contemplating the day ahead, the second half should be interesting as well.

*          *          *

Last night, our alleged leadership came to an agreement on the debt ceiling.  I’m not sure I like it, but that’s a subject for another time.  In any case, the immediate emergency has been forestalled.

Letting the Phone Ring

The phone just rang a moment ago.  I checked the Called ID: an 866 number.

I let the phone ring.  After the fifth ring, it stopped.

In another time,  I looked at Caller ID as a convenience, and the thought that I might not answer the phone because of the incoming number seemed, well, cowardly.  If someone calls me with something unpleasant, I would take the call and face the music.

But now 95% of the calls on my landline phone are junk.  Sometimes, I’ll pick up and hear the other end of the call disconnect.  Or I’ll get an announcement from a machine.   My response is to blow into the phone.  A person will stop, believing that the line got noisy.  When the voice goes yammering on about how I can save money on my mortgage or get out of debt or whatever, I hang up.

If nobody speaks, I suspect that the machine has called me, and will now connect me with a representative.  If no voice comes on in two seconds, I hang up.

It turns out to be very rare that there’s actually a live voice at the other end that has placed the call and is waiting for a real answer.

My son has suggested that I ditch my landline phone and just use the cell phone.  He may have a point.  But having a home phone number always seemed to be part of the basic package of being an adult in this society, and I’m not quite ready to let that go.

But in the meantime, if it’s from a toll-free area code, or a place where I don’t have any relatives, I won’t answer.

OK, it’s cowardly.  But it works.

Up in the Air

The other night, I found myself watching Up in the Air on the tube.  The movie, featuring George Clooney as a traveling ‘career transition counselor’ (i.e. telling downsized employees that they’ve been fired) resonates with me at the same time as it bothers me.  Is this what American business has come to, that the hot new field is helping other businesses destroy themselves?

In my own business, I’m busy: that’s part of why I don’t post here as often as I’d like to.  But I’m compelled to wonder how long it will last.  And I watch George Clooney do demolition, one downsizee at a time, as he wonders about being his own happy life of air travel being demolished as well.

About halfway through the movie, my wife came home and changed the channel.  “Thanks, Ducky,” I told her.  “You saved me from myself.”

*          *          *

Quickie Update: I did not need to wait for the rest of the summer for the Daily News to raise its price to match the Post.  It only took one week.

A Pause That Refreshes

It’s been a long time since the last time I did this; too long.  It has been several years, probably even before I got married in 2001.

This morning, I’m pausing in the middle of my morning ride, pulling out my electronic thingie, and writing.  In 1999, the ‘thingie’ was a Psion Series 5; today, it’s an LG smartphone, which is far more capable, but the Psion had a much better keyboard.

I’m hot and sweaty, but the endorphins are flowing: I’m feeling good.

Back then, I would write about my latest strategy for finding a girlfriend.  The strategies never worked, but writing them down seemed to help at the time.  Now, I worry about the economy.  We’re in deep trouble, and nobody seems to want to address the real problem: that real productivity has moved out of the country, and what has come to replace it (finance, entertainment, education, health care) doesn’t generate the real value to provide jobs and support the government benefits that we set for ourselves in richer times.

But enough of that: I’m at the top of Prospect Park, the downgrade is calling, followed by a cool shower and lunch.

I’ll have to do this again sometime soon.

Bailouts

About 20 years ago, my parents gave me a bailout.

I had gotten divorced and was broke, and had moved back to New York City.  My job here paid better, but I still had a pile of installment debt from when I was married.  So one day, my parents sent me a check for $5,000.  It didn’t totally wipe out my debts, but it put a big dent in them, and I was able to better balance my books going forward.

I ultimately got completely out of debt, and then… I fell in love again, and got married.  And one hates to say ‘no’ to one’s beloved.    My new wife is more reasonable about money, so it wasn’t the crisis it was the first time, and things stayed under control.  But I got further into debt when I went into business for myself.  Today, I still am in debt, but I’m working to pay it back.

What can we learn from this?

  1. Bailouts work if the bailout has actual value behind it.   My parents bailed me out with actual money they had in their checking account.   (OK, it’s fiat money, but it represents the savings of my parents, who didn’t have to borrow to send it to me.) When the Feds bail out banks and insurance companies with money they don’t have, it merely kicks the can down the road… and turns it into a bigger can.  And ultimately someone who has real value (i.e. the rich) will have to really bail us out.
  2. Bailouts don’t change behavior.  You may be chastened by having received a bailout, but the feeling will wear off, and given the same circumstances as before, you’ll be back to your old tricks.

Marriage and Deficits

I like being married.  I’ve been married and single, and for me there is no comparison: my wife brings me peace and happiness, which means more to me than the do-whatever-I-want freedom of being single.  But for an individual, one always has a choice.

As a society, we’re stuck with having a government, whether we like it or not.   But is it too much to ask that my government act like responsible adults?

My wife, like many wives I’m sure, asks me for stuff.  Most of the time it’s perfectly reasonable, but sometimes she asks me for things that we can’t quite afford.

Sometimes I’d really like to get her whatever-it-is, and sometimes I’m not sure it’s worthwhile.

When I was married the first time, I tried to tell my wife , ‘no,’ and she would just make my life miserable.  She thought we were rich, and that my resources were really infinite.  So after some tension, I would give up and buy whatever it was, until I really ran out of money and credit.  And then we got divorced.

My wife today is more fiscally responsible.  Sometimes I do stretch to buy something if I think it would really make her happy.  But I can tell her, “I’d really like to do this for you, but to do it would mean that I’d have to borrow and pay interest,” and she understands. And it works: although I’m still in debt from starting my business, it’s getting paid off, and I’m putting money in the bank.

In other words, we deal with money like responsible adults.

Meanwhile, our leadership seems to be unable to exercise even a little self-control.  Most of what our Federal government spends money on is fixed by law: Social Security, Medicare, interest on the national debt.  Only a small portion can be readily tweaked from year to year.

So if the government isn’t raising enough revenue from taxes to cover its expenses, then it needs to raise taxes or cut expenses.  We all know that from managing our personal expenses.  And sometimes, in our personal lives, being responsible means telling someone dear that they can’t have what they want, at least not now.  Anyone with a spouse and/or children knows that can be unhappy.  But if you’re responsible, you know that a little unhappiness now can work out better in the long run.

But our leadership seems incapable of making hard decisions.  One can’t raise taxes, even if it’s prudent, because someone on the other side will say that it’s better to cut taxes, and enough people will believe him because nobody likes to pay taxes.

And entitlements are called–with good reason–the third rail of politics.  President Bush, back in 2004, had a reasonable idea with privatizing Social Security.  But even he could not kiss the third rail without getting badly burned.

The same drama plays out for New York State, stumbling from one crisis to another, with some faction of the legislature believing that the money will always come from somewhere.

When will they grow up?

Knowledge by Proxy

Sunday’s New York Post brought the story that Governor Paterson was seen in a New Jersey restaurant, being affectionate with a woman not his wife.  The governor asserted that it was a business meeting, but it didn’t appear that way to a reasonable observer.

I’m disappointed.  Not because the reporter didn’t get to the bottom of the governor’s relationship with the woman, nor because it’s yet another example of the stupidfication of the news.  Shortly after Governor Paterson replaced the previous governor, he reported, as a pre-emptive strike to the gossip columnists, that he had had affairs in the past, but the past was past, and he was now having a happy, or at least functional, marriage.  And now that seems in doubt.

But why should I care?

After all, if the governor cheats on his wife, she is the only real victim of the event, and it’s her decision as to how to handle it.  It really doesn’t affect the rest of us.

Well, maybe.

I expect my leaders to have integrity and a sense of personal honor.  Now I can’t follow the governor around and watch him make all his governmental decisions.  And even if I could, I wouldn’t necessarily be able to observe his actions and determine that he had handled every situation honorably.

But I can observe how he handles what is, for many of us, a deep personal commitment.  If he behaves honorably with respect to his marriage, I’m more willing to believe that he will handle his executive responsibilities with honor.  It’s not foolproof, of course, but it’s a useful indication.

But then again, he works in Albany.  What should I expect?

Relationships

“Why would you want to be in a relationship?” my son asked me.  “You can’t do what you want.”

I considered his remarks as I went out with my wife this afternoon to the Museum of Modern Art.  Left to my own devices, I’m not much of a museum-goer; when I was living alone in the early 1990s, and I had a free weekend, I would go to see a movie and prowl the bookstores for a couple of hours.

But if all doors stood open, and I had the choice of doing what I wanted to do by myself or going to the museum with my wife, which would I choose?

It isn’t even close.

Things go much better with a  companion.

Health Care/Integrity

When I wrote my last entry, about three months ago, I had written some brief observations about the proposed ‘health care reform’ legislation, and said that I would write more about it shortly.

Three months later, the legislation has passed the House and is now under debate in the Senate.  The Republicans hate it, but since the Democrats have 60 of the 100 seats, how the Republicans feel about it doesn’t matter.

Basically, the scheme is that all Americans will  be required to carry health insurance that meets certain standards, either on their own account or through their employment.  If they don’t have a satisfactory plan, they will have to pay a penalty to the Feds.

In addition, health insurers will not be able to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions.   That sounds really nice, but we already have a rule like that in New York, and one of the main effects of it is to make health insurance preposterously expensive, as it encourages normally healthy people to wait until something goes wrong before buying insurance.  I once priced health insurance on an individual direct-pay account for my family: it cost over $2500/month.  I was able to make a better deal than that, but it’s still very expensive.  Most assessments of the new legislation concur that it will raise health insurance  costs for most Americans.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem to do anything to actually contain health care costs, other than to cut Medicare reimbursements, something that has been on the books for several years, but is always overridden by Congress so that it has no practical effect.  And the heavy lifting of actually providing coverage for people who legitimately couldn’t afford it is accomplished by expanding Medicare and Medicaid.

I would have understood, and even supported, a measure that would bring a Canadian-style system to this country, complete with measures to contain costs, as long as such a system did not preclude one from purchasing health care with one’s own funds or private insurance.

But we can’t do that, because we want to have our cake and eat it too.

*          *          *

Friday night, I watched the movie Kate and Leopold with my wife on the tube.  (Silly question:  when I ultimately get a flat-panel TV to replace the big heavy Sony in our bedroom, will I still call it ‘the tube’?)  In the movie, Leopold, the Duke of Albany, is transported from 1876 to 21st-Century New York City to great comic effect.

What’s so funny about a guy from 1876?  He speaks contemporary English; his dress is overly formal by our standards, but not too outlandish.  But what makes Leopold funny is that he has what seems to us as an exaggerated sense of integrity and honor.

He speaks the truth when we in the 21st Century would issue jaded cynicism.  He is asked to promote a product, and when he discovers the claims made about it are false, he flatly refuses.  Most people today would either go forward with the promotion (one has to earn a living, after all), or make an exaggerated show of refusing (you see, people, I have integrity!).

Perhaps integrity and honor have beome anachronisms….

Why I Resent Summer

I never liked hot weather.

  • When I was a kid, I never really liked summer camp, but the absolute worst was when we had a day at the beach.
  • One of my mantras in my early twenties was, “Hang on baby, September’s coming.”
  • When I got divorced, I surprised both my lawyer and my ex-wife’s lawyer when I proposed that, after Thanksgiving and Christmas, which we would share, I would get to see my son for the cold-weather holidays, and my ex-wife could see him on the hot-weather holidays.
  • To this day, I still celebrate Retro-Rockets Day, the first genuinely cool day in late summer as a harbinger of things to come.

Until a few years ago, I accepted summer as part of the human condition.  More recently, I’ve become resentful with the hot weather, and annoyed with the TV weather reporters who make it seem so wonderful that it’s broiling out.

And now, I understand why.

Up until about 2003, my life slowed down for the summer.   Ultimately, some years after the divorce, my son moved in with me, but spent much of the summer vacation with his mother.  Work slowed down, too: ten years ago, I would commonly take a summertime Monday or Friday off as a vacation day, as everything was under control and there was nothing I urgently needed to do until the next ‘real’ workday.

But not anymore.  In particular, work doesn’t slow down anymore.  Business doesn’t have an off-season.

Futzing with the Wayback Machine

I like to buy MP3 files from Amazon.  I grew up buying music at record stores, and I resist the idea of paying $15 a month to listen to ‘my music.’  But sometimes a song will cross my mind, and it’s cool to be able to look it up and, more often than not, download a copy on the spot.

The other day, the Billy Joel song ‘All for Leyna’ crossed my mind.  The song came out when I was coming to the sad realization that my high-school sweetheart was not going to be the love of my life.  The lyrics resonated with my situation at the time, the imagery at the beginning was clever (‘She / stood on the tracks / waving her arms / leading me to that third rail / shock….’) and ‘Leyna’ was close enough to my sweetheart’s name for, well, rock and roll.

Listening to it now, the pain is gone.  My wife brings me peace and happiness, and my ‘Leyna,’ such as our ‘relationship’ ever was back then, is long, long gone.  I downloaded the song, listened to it for a few times, and moved on to other things.

My wife wants to travel to Greece this fall.  I considered the matter with some trepidation: ‘Leyna’ is Greek, and I went to some considerable effort back then to learn the language.  But now my wife wants to learn some Greek in preparation for the trip: uh-oh.  While in the city the other day, we bought a guidebook and an elementary Greek text.

To my pleasant surprise, that didn’t bother me either.  Most of my recollection of the vocabulary is gone, but I think my sense of pronunciation is still there.  I suspect that I’ll probably have a bigger reaction if I should ever have to write Z80 assembly code, yet another language that I learned at that time.

Am I allowed to want? and other soggy sagas

For the last couple of weeks, my flaky Internet connection at home got even flakier, to the point where it was up for only a couple of hours in the middle of the night. “Call the cable company and complain,” my wife told me.

But then I’d have to dig up their phone number, and the account number, and wait for twenty minutes on hold, and then they’d tell me, “We’ll get right on it,” and then I’d probably have to call again. It was easier to simply live without it. Pointless Web surfing is a bad habit, except that I can’t update my blog.

A couple of days ago, the connection came back up: I guess someone else complained.

* * *

All of that is rather pointless, except as introduction to my current funk. If my mother saw me writing this post, and read the title, she’d knock me upside the head. “Stop your self-pity,” she’d tell me.

*     *     *

Yesterday afternoon, my wife called me at the office: there’s was a concert in Prospect Park, and she wanted to see it. As I read the description, it was a performance of music from the movie Powaqqatsi. I was mildly interested, so I agreed.

We got to the Prospect Park Bandshell, paid our admission, and I saw that we had a choice: we could sit on seats in the bandshell, or spread out beyond it, on the lawn. This is good, I thought: I had brought a ground cloth, and we could stretch out and relax, since the performance was not due to start for another hour.

Instead, my wife pulled me toward the bandshell, to the second row behind the seats that had been cordoned off for VIPs. I really didn’t want to sit in an uncomfortable metal folding chair for four hours, with no legroom, hemmed in by crowds so that it would be a major production to go to the can, but I’m the good husband, so I went.

Worse, I hadn’t brought my computer, or anything to read. But my wife had brought a play that she was studying for one of her classes, so at least I could read over her shoulder.

Powaqqatsi is one of a series of three movies about life and (although those responsible will jump up and down and swear otherwise) how modern civilization is screwing it up.  There is no plot, no dialogue, not even any visual references to specific places: we’re somewhere in Asia or Africa or wherever, but we can’t quite tell where. The visuals are a series of mostly dreary images from these exotic locales, of people doing the little things they do to keep their world going. These are interspersed with images of our modern world, chosen and edited for ugliness.

This is accompanied by grinding music that is somewhat related to the visuals, occasionally echoing the sounds that would have been present during filming, but mostly just grinding. Sometimes, the music evokes a feeling of triumph, but there is no triumph on the screen.  In fairness, the live music was the best part of the production.  It would have been stirring if it had been presented by itself, or with better visuals.

Perhaps the real art of Powaqqatsi is that it causes a group of people to assemble themselves, experience it, and feel edified.

*     *     *

And while I was writing the previous section, the Internet connection at my house went down.  About an hour later, it’s up again.  I had better finish this quickly….

I went to Powaqqatsi by default: it was my wife’s idea.  But if it was my decision, what would I have done?  I probably would have wanted to watch the tube for a bit, and then go to sleep.

But  what do I really want?  If all doors had stood open, and I weren’t tired after a long work week, what would I want to do?

Alas, I really don’t know….