Archive for July, 2008

One Woman’s Trash …

So my girlfriend is moving in with me at the end of the week (oh yeah, I’m feeling a whole lot of ‘YAY!’ and just a little bit of ‘(gulp)’), and I was at her apartment yesterday waiting for a couple of guys from the Housing Works charity organization. They were going to pick up some furniture that she needed to get rid of and couldn’t manage to sell.

Apparently, Housing Works only caters to high-end hard cases because they wouldn’t take any of her items that weren’t in top-notch shape (one of the guys scoffed, “We usually don’t take anything Ikea”). But everything needed to go, so I gave them each $20 and asked them to take whatever they didn’t want and put it on the curb downstairs.

As soon as they left, I noticed they had left a few big items, so I reluctantly started to move them downstairs myself, starting with a rather cumbersome bookshelf.

When I got to the lobby, I noticed this group of Asians hanging around my girlfriend’s stuff on the curb, examining it closely, even sitting on the entertainment center. They backed away as I approached, worried that I had come to reclaim the items. I tried to explain that they could take whatever they wanted.

“And there’s more, too, coming,” I said, putting down the bookcase. “Even a TV.”

They didn’t seem to speak much English, but they nodded and grinned enthusiastically. I went back upstairs, hoping they had understood me.

When I returned about five minutes later, struggling to maintain my grip on my girlfriend’s heavy TV, I saw that everything but a wobbly glass coffee table had been taken.

“I guess they understood,” I thought, and set the TV down on the ground as gently as I could.

I went back upstairs, picked up the VCR and DVD player and all of the remotes, and immediately headed back down.

Sure enough, the TV was already gone. And there wasn’t a soul around.

‘Where the hell are these people coming from?’ I wondered. I mean, I knew people liked free shit, and I didn’t really think the furniture would last until the morning, when the NYC trash department would pick it up. But the speed with which her stuff was disappearing amazed me, almost as if i were watching a magic trick.

It was then I turned my head and noticed, sitting near the back of a neighboring sushi restaurant, a group of about six or seven Asians, all with their heads pressed up against the glass, staring at me (or more accurately, at what I had just put down on the ground). They were presumably workers at the restaurant on their lunch break, and they all grinned again when they saw me look their way, a few of them giving me the thumbs up sign.

I couldn’t help but laugh. It made me almost giddy, seeing how much these unwanted items had made their day. It was better than giving to charity. I was getting tired, but I decided to go upstairs and make one more trip, bringing down a ten-year-old microwave. One of the Asians, this one dressed in a white kitchen outfit, greeted me and looked at the machine.

“It works?” he asked.

“It works,” I said, and he took it from me, and walked back into the restaurant, his co-workers waiting for him.

Just another quintessential New York moment.

Ageism may just be the -ism that matters most this election …

Many of my liberal friends and family (and since this is New York City, that means basically everyone I know) believe there is no way Barack Obama will win the presidency this fall. Partly, they feel conservatives will at the last minute find or fabricate some scandal that torpedoes Obama’s campaign (tho I can’t imagine how to top Reverend Wright), but mainly they are convinced that America is just not ready to elect a black man to the top office in the land.

Now, I’m not about to deny or underestimate the prevalence of racism in this country. I’m pretty sure it has a lot to do with why recent polls show this contest remaining close (With George W’s incompetence, a nasty economy and an unpopular war, almost any Democrat not named Hillary or Barack would likely have a double-digit lead).

But I’m making the call now that it will be McCain’s age and not Obama’s race that ends up mattering more and giving the White House back to the Democrats. The Arizona senator turns 72 this week, and I’ve noticed several occasions during this campaign where he is looking and sounding at least that old.

People who disagree will obviously point to Reagan as evidence that old age doesn’t matter, either in terms of voter perception or performance in office. But remember, Reagan was still in his 60s when he was first elected as President; i believe if he hadn’t built up such goodwill in his first term, people would have been much more critical of his health and state of mind during his reelection campaign. And in terms of performance, well, there’s still a lot of debate about when exactly Reagan began suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

McCain walks and talks like a man in pretty good shape, and he has certainly handled the grueling campaigning schedule well so far. But he’s had a tough life, and there are moments when you can really tell how old the guy is, and it makes you wonder if he’s up for the most stressful job in the world.

The gaffes so far have been minor – slip-ups of the tongue, some general misspeaking – nothing that can truly be called a senior moment. But his health has been an issue – the latest example being a biopsied mole on his face, which raised fears of skin cancer recurrence. And he looks absolutely lost in front of a teleprompter (I’m not sure if you can chalk that issue entirely up to age, but that’s how I think a lot of viewers will regard his scripted speeches).

The rubber will hit the road when McCain and Obama go head-to-head in the debates. Obama isn’t the greatest debater – he often strays off message and gets caught up in reeling off facts and stats – but the stark difference between Obama’s health and vitality and that of McCain will come through crystal clear through the magic of live high-def television. I guarantee you at some point McCain will stumble and bumble through an answer, spend too much time searching for a name, and the implication will be obvious: He is not fit for the job of U.S. president. The late night jokes will run rampant, and McCain will not be able to slough it off by trotting out his 95-year-old mother or using self-deprecation.

That may not be a fair response; I know I forget things and do my fair share of stumbling and bumbling, and I’m almost forty years younger than McCain. But that’s the thing with -isms: They have nothing to do with being fair.

Hating hypocrisy …

I can’t stand hypocrites. (Of course, I’m pretty sure I have some hypocritical beliefs, and I can stand myself, so I guess that makes me a hypocrite twice over).

But seriously, a little consistency when it comes to opinions is all I ask for.  Unfortunately, hypocrisy is everywhere. So before numbness to its existence permanently sets in, I wanted to express my outrage at two examples of hypocrisy that strike me as particularly galling.

1) Pro-choice folks who believe prostitution should be illegal (usually feminists).

It’s simple: If you believe as I do that a woman should be able to do with her body as she wishes, then you cannot believe that prostitution should be illegal. If the fetus is fair game, then certainly the vagina is.

Laws already exist that protect women from abuse, or underage sex, or forced prostitution, or any of the other crimes typically associated with solicitation. If you legalize and regulate the act – as has been done in parts of Nevada – you can actually cut down on many of those tragic stories.

2) Governments which run lotteries (or in the case of the federal government, tolerates them) yet outlaw other forms of gambling, most notably online poker.

This one is also self-explanatory. It is criminal that the federal government and most state governments ban many forms of commercial gambling yet sanction the use of state lotteries, which is certainly one of the worse bad bets in all of gambling history (the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot are 1 in 146, 907,162the odds of dying by ignition or melting of nightwear: 1 in 1,249,356).

it is particularly aggravating when governments target poker or other gambling games that are a mix of skill and chance. Poker is practiced by millions and millions of people all over the world – and it is at least as American of a tradition as baseball and apple pie. The game generally tends to be played by higher-income, higher-educated people, unlike the lottery, which appeals disproportionately to down-on-their-luck, desperate folk (just like OTB horserace betting – another government-approved activity) .

Once again, if the fear is underage gambling, or addiction, regulation could help address those issues, while legalization would also bring in much-needed tax revenues and remove much of the potential for criminal or fraudulent activities associated with the sport.

Ok, that’s enough ranting for now. But before I end, i just also wanted to say how sad I felt when i learned today of the death of Randy Pausch, the ‘Last Lecture’ Carnegie Mellon professor who died last week after a long battle with pancreatic cancer. I saw him on Oprah a while back, and he gave me a bit of the initial inspiration for that story I hope to start working on sometime soon. If the way he approached life and death can’t motivate me to follow my dreams, I’m not sure what can.

Pessimism doesn’t pay …

My dad is an eternal optimist, one of those turn-lemons-into-lemonade people. And yeah, it sometimes annoys the living shit out of me.

I am, after all, an in-the-long-run-we’re-all-dead type of guy, a devout half-empty man (I’d call myself an eternal pessimist, but I don’t believe anything lasts forever :) )

Clearly, if optimism is a genetic trait, it skipped a generation. In my life, I fear the worst. It’s what I do. A headache is a brain tumor. A bumpy plane ride, a crash landing. An abandoned suitcase, a ticking bomb. A lover’s quarrel, a relationship killer.

For a long time, I believed pessimism – in addition to providing the most efficient route to being pleasantly surprised – was also the more appropriate mindset for the modern world. You look around and see the Earth in peril. You see bad things happening to good people, and good things happening to bad people. You see a holy war in the Middle East that never ends, and social security reform in the U.S. that never begins.

You would think that this year, especially, pessimism would be the way to go, what with the U.S. economy teetering on collapse (I put the odds of a multi-year recession at about 50 percent, and of another depression at 10 percent).

But I’ve recently decided that dad was right all along. Pessimism doesn’t pay – literally. And here’s why:

1. Pessimism can actually help lead to the worst-case scenario…

Phil Gramm took a lot of criticism recently for suggesting the American media and public should stop whining about the economy, but negativity can absolutely contribute to, prolong, or intensify a recession. That’s why economists pay such close attention to consumer sentiment surveys – psychology matters. People who think the economy is turning south will act more cautiously, spending less and saving more, which ends up causing more weakness and creating a vicious circle.

A negative outlook can be self-fulfilling in other areas of life as well. I often find that people who dread bad things happening avoid taking the positive proactive measures that could prevent those things from happening, and even at times engage in destructive behavior that increases the likelihood of a bad outcome.

2. However, the worst-case scenario rarely happens…

This weekend, Congress decided to pass a housing bill that helps homeowners facing foreclosure restructure their mortgages and stay in their homes. The bill also has provisions to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored private entities that handle more than $5 trillion in mortgages and helped create the current mess by making loans that should have never been made in the first place.

In an election year, the housing bill was a political inevitability, and probably an economic necessity as well since Fannie and Freddie are indeed too large to fail. The bill has some decent aspects to it, such as the regulation forcing lenders to be clearer about the true costs of a mortgage, and it could help stabilize the moribund housing market.

But the bill is also a travesty because it encourages future risky behavior by reaffirming and institutionalizing the idea that the government will always be there to bail you out. As a recent article in The Economist noted, a government bailout is about privatizing profits and socializing losses, which sucks for people like me who continued to rent partly because I thought the market was overheated, and yet as a taxpayer will end up paying more than a fair share of the bailout costs.

The bill may be a bad one, but it also proves the point that in life, people facing dire outcomes can often rely on the support of loved ones, like friends and family (or a generous government), to help them avoid a bad situation or at least make a bad situation more manageable.

So usually, all that worrying and pessimism accomplishes nothing except for perhaps, say, preventing someone from buying a home in Manhattan that likely would have almost doubled in value by now (pessimism may not pay, but bitterness is groovy)!!!! …

3. And if the worst-case scenario actually does occur, you probably have other things to worry about … or you have nothing to worry about because you’re dead.

My grandfather always said he would never buy stocks because of what happened in the Great Depression. Meanwhile, for the rest of his lifetime, America never had another depression, and the stock market rose by thousands and thousands of percentage points. He basically guaranteed he’d never be rich just so he wouldn’t be desolate.

That’s why I tell almost everyone who has at least ten years to invest to put a nice chunk of their money in stocks or mutual funds. In the long run, the market should be one of the best places to put your money. Yeah, at some point, the American empire is going to come crumbling down, and/or the world will end, but you’re going to have a lot of other concerns if that happens.

I mean, if this current situation does become economic Armageddon, do you think that shoebox of cash under your mattress is really going to do much good? If the economy has gone to hell, those dollars probably won’t be worth much anyway, especially if this time inflation ends up being part of the problem. Sure, that money may buy some loaves of bread for a few more months, but life is still going to suck…

And the same is true in other areas of life. I mean, what’s the point in worrying excessively about nuclear weapons or terminal cancers when being correct basically means you’re dead???

As I see it, pessimists will always be right because eventually shit happens and everything good ends, but in the meantime, the optimists will be having all the fun. So i might as well bring my half-filled glass of lemonade and join the party.

Bubbling Black Revisited …

Time for a short self-congratulatory post (For if I don’t do it, who will?).

Right before the Fourth of July, I wrote that the price of oil was a bubble waiting to be pricked and nearing a short-term top. In the past three weeks, the price of oil has fallen by about $20 bucks a barrel, or almost 15 percent, a huge move by any standard. In terms of daily closing prices, July 3rd ended up being the exact top.

I also correctly pointed out the main reason usually cited for the fall-off: Decreased demand due to a weakening economic picture, particularly in the U.S. and Europe. I also believe the fact U.S. government officials have been speaking out against an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear production facilities has helped. I do not think any of George W’s jawboning about offshore drilling, nor Congress’ subsequent investigations into oil market speculation, had any real impact.

However, I wouldn’t start planning to buy that new SUV just yet. I am a bit concerned that we didn’t get that last parabolic move in the price of oil that I thought we’d get. Bubbles don’t typically fizzle out; they tend to pop in dramatic fashion. So I still believe another big move higher, one that potentially busts through July’s high of $147, could be forthcoming.

In other words, this is one hot-button election issue that won’t be going away anytime soon.

If Obama was an alien, that would explain a lot …

So last Tuesday Larry King interviews Barack Obama and then three days later, he does a show debating the existence of UFOs. It’s fucking nutty. (King, who i just found out has done these shows for years, apparently wants to be the first broadcaster to interview an alien).

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think we’re alone. The universe is infinite, so it’s kind of tough to imagine we’re the only planet in it that sustains life. It also stands to reason that at least some of that life would be more evolved and intelligent than us Earthlings, and thus could possess the means to visit and study our planet.

Certainly, these old dudes who came on King’s show last week and swore that they’ve seen UFOs sounded quite convincing – much more persuasive than the skeptics King threw out there (but isn’t that always the case when true believers face their skeptics).

The pro-UFO guys basically said that alien spaceships have been disarming nuclear weapons during tests performed since the 1940s. Two of these men were former military people involved with the tests, and one of them claimed to have seen taped footage of one such instance before it was confiscated by the government.  They believe there’s a huge conspiracy being perpetrated on the American people (The French, apparently, have no problem admitting UFOs exist).

Here’s why I still don’t buy it:

  • The American government is mostly incompetent. I love me a good conspiracy or two, and am a profound believer in power’s corrupting forces, but the current administration couldn’t even produce one single secret cache of weapons of mass destruction to try and justify the Iraq war. The CIA and FBI could barely communicate with each other when it came to 9/11. Examples of Washington’s incompetence and mismanagement exist everywhere, so it would be highly presumptuous to believe that the government has somehow managed to keep a tight lid on the existence of UFOs for more than 60 years.
  • Ostensibly, we’re spending billions and billions of dollars to try and find life on other planets (without success so far). Doesn’t seem to make much sense for our government to also withhold knowledge of visiting ETs at the same time, unless of course you think our space exploration program is just a conspiracy as well (which is of course the beauty of a good conspiracy theory – they’re impossible to disprove cuz true believers will always just claim more conspiracies.)
  • Everyone has a camera nowadays. Even telescopic cameras are widespread. We should be drowning in photographic evidence of visiting spaceships. Instead, most of the rather meager stuff that’s out there looks really inconclusive or has been proven as fake.
  • Many believers point out that the flying crafts they’ve seen are using some sort of hovering, anti-gravity, supersonic technology that doesn’t exist on Earth (and certainly wasn’t even in the realm of possibility 50-plus years ago). If that’s the case, why aren’t those superduper spaceships also using some sort of stealth technology (which exists on a basic level even in our primitive world) that would make them invisible to the naked eye, radar, and lens (On the other hand, I guess that could explain the lack of pictures :-) )
  • Finally, and most importantly, I haven’t seen shit.

I’ve always said I’d gladly believe in god if I could witness some biblical-like voodoo – burning bushes, parting seas, plagues of boils, etc. It’s not like I don’t want to believe there’s a purpose and meaning to our lives. I just want some proof.

Similarly, it’s not like I wouldn’t want to find out aliens have been watching out for us and trying to keep us from nuking each other to kingdom come. I’d welcome that truth, even if it did blow my mind a bit (just please don’t be like the dudes from “V”).

Alas, until aliens grace me with their presence or a glimpse of one of their cool vehicles – or at least until I see one of them chatting it up with Larry King – I’ll remain one skeptical Earthling.

Positively Posthumous …

My mom’s mom was far from the best person in the world (This is not the grandmother I discussed a couple weeks ago). She held grudges and often spoke ill of others, including family. She was racist. She belittled and insulted my grandfather, only becoming the dutiful, loving wife after he had a massive stroke and lacked the capacity to resist her will. Coulda-beens and shoulda-beens, what-ifs and if-onlys tormented her soul, and she let that bitterness infect the way she interacted with the world.

I knew all this well, and yet when the time came to give my grandmother’s eulogy, I merely skirted these negative qualities, passing it off with a line like, ‘My grandmother in some ways taught me as much or more about how not to live as how to live.” The rest of the speech focused on her sense of humor, her vitality, and what is still – for me – the most relevant and core aspect of her life, the enormous love and support she showed me and the rest of her grandchildren.

I felt somewhat uncomfortable portraying my grandmother in such a positive light, when I knew the story was a much more complicated one. But speaking of the dead, when the full truth may not be all that heart-warming, is a tricky and delicate issue.

For instance, I took offense to many of the obituaries for Senator Jesse Helms, which glibly tried to explain away his strict segregationist philosophies (not to mention a number of his other hateful beliefs) by declaring them typical for other Southern white men of his generation. Unbelievably, some of the stories almost seemed to praise Helms for sticking to his guns while most of his colleagues eventually became more enlightened.

But it’s not just the way we gloss over the flaws of the dead that betrays the truth; we also tend to exaggerate their strengths as well. A recent example: Heath Ledger. I know he was a pretty talented actor, and from what I’ve read, a very decent fellow.

But being sad about troubled young actors and mourning the lost promise isn’t enough for our celebrity-crazed culture; we need to lionize them in the process.

So it’s no surprise that reviews for the new Batman movie and Ledger’s performance in it as the Joker have bordered on the hyperventilatingly positive (The AP called it an ‘epic that will leave you staggering.’ An Arizona paper called it ‘tantamount … to Michaelangelo’s David’).

I saw the movie this past weekend, and it was a decent B- at best, nowhere near as good as the fabulous Batman Begins. The plot was convoluted, the pace dragged and the climax disappointed. I have to wonder if critics in their reviews of the movie as a whole weren’t somehow influenced by Ledger’s premature death.

Now, Ledger did give a great, entertaining performance, about as nuanced and layered as you could expect for what is, in essence, a one-note (i.e. ‘fucked-up crazy’) cartoon clown villain.  But is it worthy of the multiple calls for a posthumous Oscar nomination? Too early to say for sure, but my guess is there will probably end up being at least five more impressive supporting actor performances before the year ends. Plus, I’m not sure if there’s ever been an Oscar nomination for an acting role in a comic book movie.

Posthumously giving an award nomination to a guy who probably wouldn’t have received it had he been alive certainly isn’t the worst crime in the world. It’s actually a nice gesture. But it isn’t exactly the truth either.

Writing Exercise #2 …

So the other exercise in my writing class last Thursday was to start a scene in which two characters each have a different part of an object, which can’t work without the other part (e.g. shoe and a lace), and neither one wants to give up their part. Here was my work, ‘as is’ …

——————————————————————————————————–

“HUH?” Don bellowed, the sound booming through the closed bathroom door into the bedroom.

“I’m not coming in there,” his wife responded, without taking her eyes off the television screen. God, how she would miss Jay Leno. Right then and there, she vowed once again to stop watching the show when that tall frightening Irish guy took over as host, conveniently forgetting how she had made a very similar promise in Carson’s final days.

“HUH?”

“I’m not coming in there,” she repeated in a quiet speaking voice, knowing full well that even in the best of circumstances he’d never hear her from that far away. With the TV on at a pretty loud level, and his hearing aid missing the battery snugly encased in her left fist, the low volume of her voice was nothing more than a way to torture poor Don. A prop in an Abbott/Costello routine.

He can wait, she thought. Why in God’s name did he need to hear anything while he was doing what he was doing. It was bad enough she could hear the grunts – and even worse, a faint whiff – emanating from his epic bathroom struggle. He should be thankful for any sensory deprivation he could get.

“Please, hon, I asked for the new hearing aid battery. I can’t hear what you’re saying.”

Oh, whatever, she groaned, and relented – as both of them knew she would (this was not the first time they had played this game). She struggled up on the bed, waiting for Leno’s monologue to end. “OK, I’m coming,” she said, and only now did she begin to raise her voice. “But for the love of God, please spray in there.”

Writing Exercise #1 …

As mentioned in my last post, I’m posting my writing exercises from my first night in the fiction writing course I’m taking. I dont think they’re bad given we only had ten minutes to complete them. I did sneak in a little bit of revising during some slow moments in class, but otherwise I am posting them ‘as is.’

For the first assignment, the teacher gave us three random sentences he co-opted from NPR’s Web site and asked us to write a short scene using one of the sentences. I’ve bolded the sentence I chose. I’ll post the second exercise in my next post.

——————————————————————————

I had a forkful of fettucine alfredo in my mouth, and I wasn’t quite sure I heard her right at first. I was immersed in the process of eating, in that phase of dinner where I was operating on sheer instinct, where breaths were merely an option, with my head focused on the plate in front of me and my movements picking up steam with each bite. I slurped up one of the remaining noodles hanging from my mouth, wiped with the back of my hand a bit of cream that had gathered on my lips, and looked up at her.

Man, just how old was that picture, I wondered, the one she had had the nerve to upload as an accurate representation of her present self, the self that was now bubbling and spilling over the wooden chair across from me. If the answer couldn’t be measured in years, it certainly could be in pounds.

“Excuse me, what you’d say?”

“I just asked you what you thought of my dress. I just bought it the other day and I’m not sure how well it fits,” she said, flashing a shaky smile that revealed her lack of confidence in the answer.

“It’s beautiful.” I swallowed a bit of noodle. “I noticed it the second I saw you. Where’d you get it?”
Her smile became a bit larger, the edges of her teeth appearing. Then she lowered her head, her cheeks reddening, obviously embarrassed by my compliment, but also wholly believing it as well. And I noted to myself, I may just get lucky tonight. You see, one of the things that lying does is, it may not have a lot of ethical virtues, but it has a lot of functional virtues. Especially when you’re a serial dater.

The Producing Class …

So as I see it, in this world, you are either a producer or a consumer.

Obviously, everyone does both to a certain extent, just as everyone is probably a little gay, but in the end, you lean mostly one way or the other. You’re either adding to society or taking from it (and having children doesn’t count cuz you’re just as likely to raise a bunch of consuming monsters as you are the next Leonardo da Vinci).

Me, I’ve been a consumer my whole life.  Nothing wrong with that, per se. It’s not as noble as producing something of value, but just like the famous need the fawning, the world needs consumers, too. And I’m damn good at it. Books, movies, TV shows, cars, food, music, computers, skyscrapers, video games – I gulp and chow them down like no one’s business.

But before I go, I wouldn’t mind evening out the scales a little bit, adding a little producing yin to go with my consuming yang. Leave my mark on the world, so to speak.

Alas, writing may be the only skill (such as it is) I possess that will allow me to do that, so starting this blog to get back into the habit of writing was step one in what I hoped would be a committed attempt to do some honest-to-god producing.

And it was with a similar intention that I enrolled last month in a fiction writing course. I was a bit skeptical that it would be a) good or b) helpful, but my first class was Thursday night, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

When I first realized who the teacher was, I feared for the worst. He looked like a kid (am I that old that I’m now using this phrase in a negative manner??). He may have rambled a bit at times, but overall he was poised, funny, intelligent, knowledgeable, and his thoughts were organized, his initial lessons insightful.

That’s not to say I’ve discarded all reservations. It’s clear a lot of the value from the class will come through sharing work with other students and hearing their critiques, and I’m not quite sure how well that’s going to go.

The students are certainly a motley bunch, just the kind of people you’d expect to encounter in a relatively inexpensive adult writing class. You have the one-time teacher pets who love hearing the sound of their own voice and can’t stop interrupting (or wait, was that me?). You have those wannabe professional critics who love expressing their displeasure at a piece of literature even when that’s not the point of the exercise. And you have those people who just seem a bit off, in a way you can’t exactly place, but that you worry may involve an extensive criminal record highlighted by repeated stalking convictions. But now I’m being glib and obnoxious. I actually liked most everyone, and I’m excited to see how the class goes.

My favorite part of the class were the two writing exercises. Both times after the teacher gave us our assignment, I totally panicked, worried that I wouldn’t think of anything to write in the allotted 10 minutes. But eventually the words started flowing, and I ended up fairly proud of the results, especially given the time constraints. It was the first time in a long time that I could see myself taking this journey somewhere interesting.

This little rush of confidence will surely fade, but all I know is that for a while, I was doing some honest-to-god producing … and it felt pretty good.

P.S. I was too shy to share the work in class, so I figure I’ll give myself a blog-writing break and post the exercises this weekend on the site. Here’s exercise #1 and here’s exercise #2.

Ah, perfection … it comes with a price

So the other day I was talking to a softball teammate who’s about to get married, and we were discussing why more and more people in their 30s and 40s – at least in New York – seem okay with the prospect of staying single. I know that many of these older bachelors and bachelorettes want children and I’d have to think that few of them relish the prospect of aging without a constant, dependable companion and lover. Yet they can’t seem to find the one worth taking the ultimate plunge.

My friend and I pretty much agreed this phenomenon stems from the fact that people were waiting later and later in life to marry, and by then it’s often too late. You see, the older people get, the more set in their ways they get, the more likely they feel their way is the right way, and the more unwilling they are to make the compromises necessary for a healthy marriage. And given how different men and women are to begin with, that increasing inflexibility becomes a deal breaker.

I’ve seen this happen time and time again in relationships, as trivial complaints and issues snowball into insurmountable obstacles that eventually threaten the love and attraction that initially existed. Heck, I’m 34 and still single, so I wonder if I’m falling into the same trap.

That’s why I try to remind myself what I’ve often told others in my life who I know really want to fall deeply in love, get married and start a family:

Nobody is perfect. And that, alas, also means you and me.

So don’t settle just for the sake of settling, but be careful you’re not searching for something that doesn’t exist and would be extremely boring even it did. Rather, learn to live with others’ imperfections. Try to understand why they exist. And one day, you may just find beauty in them.

You can’t force compassionate capitalism (or ‘My BuschInBev is fine. How’s your pikken?’)

As a native St. Louisan who always feels some sort of odd civic pride whenever those clever beer commercials end with a dude intoning ‘Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, Missouri,’ I know I’m supposed to be upset about the recent acquisition by Belgium-based InBev. Yet I can’t muster any passion over the loss of the historic brewer and one of my hometown’s few remaining independent corporate behemoths (TWA, McDonnell Douglass, Ralston Purina all bit the dust long ago).

I mean, I know what’s eventually going to happen, and it’s not going to be pretty for St. Louis.  The brands will stay and the distribution network will remain mostly in place, because that’s the value in A-B, but nothing else will be sacred. Oh, InBev is saying all the right things about keeping the breweries open and the U.S. headquarters in St. Louis and all the jobs secure, but at some point the cost cuts will come, and then they’ll come again and again. At first, it will be easy targets like those Anheuser company perks (e.g. free cases of beer for employees) but eventually many jobs will be lost.

Cost-cutting, outsourcing, consolidation, restructurings: They’re all just part and parcel of the global economy nowadays, a competitive necessity. Of course, this means a lot of hard-working Americans are left in a lurch through no fault of their own, a fact which not surprisingly attracts a lot of attention from politicians in the midst of an election season (and a slumping economy, to boot).

Even less surprisingly, the politicians’ overall response to the situation has been woeful. You have short-sighted initiatives like fiscal stimulus checks and oil drilling hype. You have even more damaging scapegoating, with calls for increased protectionism and prosecution of short-sellers.

The best thing in Washington may just be the unending partisan bickering, which isn’t helpful but at least results in some good ol’ fashioned gridlock.

Alas, it’s going to get worse as the presidential candidates find success in appealing to the lowest common denominator. When the economy is weak, populism sells better than sex. But it won’t really solve anything.

You can’t force capitalism to be compassionate, especially when national borders no longer serve as a major barrier to economic development. Raise taxes or limit executive compensation or increase labor protections and businesses move overseas.

Even worse is when the government tries to get into the business of capitalism, as the result is bound to be a disaster like the sickening developments with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-sponsored mortgage lenders that will eventually require billions of dollars in a taxpayer-funded bailout.

I wish I had better answers, but this is not an easy dilemma to solve. How do you enjoy the productivity benefits of capitalism and open borders and yet maintain a desired level of societal stability and income equality (or at least not obscene disparity)?

My advice: Focus and invest a lot of money on education (and re-education of displaced workers).  Create tax incentives to encourage ‘good’ corporate behavior, like investment in local factories and workforces, as well as development of new technologies that could solve some of the nation’s problems (e.g alternative energy).

And perhaps most controversially, spend some money on programs designed to convince Americans that the lowest possible price isn’t the only thing to consider when making a purchase. The emerging ‘green’ industry has shown that consumers are willing to pay more if they think their dollars are making a difference so maybe, just maybe, compassion and capitalism can mix … as long as it’s not forced.

Fireflies and Mondays …

Ah, Mondays. Always such an unpleasant beast, a day only meant for enduring and muddling through in the best of circumstances, but sometimes gearing up for the workweek feels particularly difficult. I’ve just finished a relaxing weekend and I’m struggling to find my motivation mojo right now.

My weekend was enjoyably capped yesterday by my adorable three-year-old cousin’s birthday party, followed by a few fun sets of tennis with my brother, all done under perfect midsummer weather and in a Riverdale park that brought back memories of my Midwestern suburban upbringing.

It was the fireflies, really. Nothing signifies carefree childhood nights in the middle of a St. Louis summer like the presence of those luminescent creatures, and they were out in full force yesterday. I’m not a religious person – something I’m sure I’ll expound on at some point as the topic often goes hand and hand with questions of mortality – but there is something majestic, magical even, about a little nothing beetle that has evolved to exhibit such an impressive power. They don’t bite or sting or even buzz loudly; in my (undoubtedly human-centric) view, it’s as if they exist for no other reason than to provide a beautiful background and a bit of mood lighting for romantic late summer evening walks.

Maybe I just still have high oil prices on my mind, but watching the fireflies also made me wonder why we haven’t somehow harnessed that process for our own use. Did a little research and it turns out we do actually use the firefly’s chemical enzymes to search for life on other planets, to detect bacteria and even cancer cells in blood and urine (and to create the common glow stick, so it’s nice to see the firefly is also enhancing the drug-fueled trip of your average clubgoer).

I found myself reading a lot about the firefly (family name, Lampyridae) and the science behind the luminescence. As usual, science once again proved its limitations as an adequate substitute for good old religious mysticism (not to mention, childhood wonder). Frankly, some of the magic disappears when you find out fireflies use their light mainly for catching chicks and getting some action, and that the females of certain firefly species mimic the lighting pattern of other species in order to lure an unsuspecting male and then eat it.

Kinda sounds like some of my Mondays.

A few of my favorite things …

So the IPhone is out today and I’m itching to get my hands on one (even though I’d rather stay with T-Mobile, which has awesome customer service, especially when compared to my nightmarish memories of AT&T Wireless). I’m going to wait a bit to get the phone to try and avoid some of the launch madness, but the device certainly has strong potential to end the year as my favorite thing of 2008. In the meantime, I decided to share some of the stuff I’m really enjoying right now, as well as some of the things that are on my nerves.

THINGS I’M LOVING

  • Bowling Buddies (Facebook game)
  • Swingtown
  • Jeopardy! (the game show)
  • New York Times Magazine Crossword
  • Nilla Cakesters
  • Tennis and my Dunlop Aerogel racket
  • Word Twist (another Facebook game)
  • America’s Got Talent
  • My balcony
  • BUZZ! trivia game
  • Fresh Direct Heat and Eat Meals
  • Prospect of a roomie
  • Blogging
  • The St. Louis Cardinals’ grit
  • Zomick’s Egg Challah
  • Not having a car

THINGS I’M NOT LOVING

  • Daily headaches
  • Complacency on Wall Street
  • The comics on Last Comic Standing (awful, all)
  • The summer movie schedule so far
  • The New York rental market
  • The slow pace of The Yiddish Policemen Union
  • People, usually telemarketers, who hide their caller ID
  • Biggest Brain Pro (Facebook game … was really hoping to stay retired)

THINGS MOST LIKELY TO BE BEST THING OF 2008

  • Rock Band (video game)
  • The Dice Game
  • IPhone 3G
  • Obama
  • Marshmallow Fluff
  • Lean Cuisine Pizzas (esp. BBQ Chicken)

Linkgasmic …

The Internet is making us lazy, shortening our attention span, dulling our senses.

We still read, but our eyes glaze over anything more than a couple of paragraphs (140 words or less please).

We still listen to music, but now download a single onto our IPod one day and forget about it the next (how quaint the concept album now seems).

We still have friends, but now often substitute brief, vacuous messages or a ‘Second Life’ for physical contact and real intimacy.

Face(book!) it, we’re becoming Twitter-ized. (If only the Internet hadn’t made me so damn lazy, I’d trademark The Twitter Generation).

Yet despite all of the Web’s negative influences on society and human behavior,  the Internet remains the greatest invention of my lifetime, and I can barely imagine living without it anymore.

The other night, doing research on why we treat dying humans so much worse than dying animals, proved once again why the Interweb is so fucking great. I started with a relatively simple search on Yahoo and ended up lost in a fascinating – often only tangentially related – linkgasmic maze of stories, personal blogs, government sites, message boards, news articles, research reports and literature analysis.

I figured it’d be interesting, using Firefox’s library tool, to give you a brief recap of my hyperlink adventure (obviously leaving out the parts where I got sidetracked into watching some porn).

I knew I wanted to somehow incorporate Dylan Thomas’ ‘Do Not Go Gentle …’ poem in the headline for my post so I did a Yahoo search and visited a poetry site which included the full poem and a cool audio reading, as well as a number of other poems about aging. One of my favorites was ‘Affirmation‘ by Donald Hall (I love the line – “To grow old is to lose everything”), though I wasn’t sure what it all meant so I did another search and checked out this Yahoo Answers page.

Then it was on to the main subject. I did a search on ‘putting animals to sleep pain’ cause I wanted to see if indeed the process was as painless as I had thought. I read an ‘Ask the Rabbi’ site for one viewpoint and explored a couple related questions. I then checked out a more negative article which stated that the sight of the needle and the injection of lethal drugs causes animals way too much anxiety and pain. Next, it was off to a somewhat grisly report on lab rat euthanasia. And finally, I read the official stance from the Humane Society.

Next, it was time to research human euthanasia, and I started at the Wikipedia entry, where I learned more about some of the rather reasonable reasons people are against the practice (not the least of which was the fact the Nazis gave it a pretty bad name), which challenged my preconceived notion that it was all about religion.

The Wikipedia page led me to a message board discussion on the ethics of doctor-assisted euthanasia, where one of the responses mentioned the Nancy Crick case, which shows just how complicated the issue is (Crick said she was suffering terribly from bowel cancer and eventually killed herself, but apparently the problem was not cancer – none was found in the autopsy – but potentially fixable damage caused by previous cancer-related surgeries).

Reading up on the Crick case led me to the questionably named Compassionate Healthcare Network, an anti-euthanasia site that informed me of Oregon’s Dignity with Dying Act. It actually pointed me to some not-so-distressing stats regarding that particular law as well as one absolutely fascinating story of a woman putting the law in practice. The author notes that while the woman in the story lay dying, her brother read from William Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality,’ …

… which led me full circle back to reading about poetry on aging. Of course, Wordsworth wasn’t a big fan of materialism and instead got turned on by ‘splendor in the grass’ and ‘thoughts … too deep for tears’, so I’m going to guess he wouldn’t have been a big fan of the Internet. As for me, I absolutely love ‘Intimations’, but damn, it’s long! Who’s got time to read all those words?? :-)


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