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.

July 2008
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