Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Value Of a College Education

What is a college education worth? I don't mean monetary-wise; there are numerous studies showing that just having the piece of paper in hand is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in future income over a lifetime. I mean otherwise. Did college help develop your mind or your character or your spirit? If you maintain that this is not what college is for, well, 'twas not always so. Joseph Epstein has a fascinating chapter in his book Snobbery (see the link on the side panel if you're interested in the book) in which he that holds that the development of character and leadership were once the purpose of a university education:

Many of the privileged who went to the better colleges in the first six decades of the twentieth century did so without any vocational aim in mind; already well-connected, they had the businesses of fathers and fathers-in-law and uncles and friends of classmates awaiting. Harvard, Yale, Princeton was not for them a resume item, an entree, an open sesame, For them the doors were already open. George Herbert Walker Bush did not go to Yale College because he was hoping thereby to get a job. He went to Yale College because he was George Herbert Walker Bush, and Yale - and Harvard and Princeton and a few threadneedle Ivy colleges - was the sort of place that families such as the Bushes (and Alsops, Achesons, Harrimans, Roosevelts, and the rest) sent their sones, with daughters going to Radcliffe, Vassar, Smith, and Wellesley.

They went there, as earlier they had gone to the various Choates, Grotons, Andovers, St. Paul's, and Exeters, as part of a general program in character building. At such institutions they were to learn, presumably, that wealth and privileges had their responsibilities. Intellectual brilliance counted at these schools for less than leadership, artistic understanding for less than the development of a sound character.

We've come a long way baby, as the old commercial used to say. These days, a college experience is more likely to teach you how to drink beer until you puke and that Thomas Jefferson was a racist. I wish I could say that it was better when I went to school some twenty-odd years ago but I can't, really. I learned next to nothing of consequence at college. I suspect (as does Epstein) that few do. I'm no expert since my college experience was quite a bit different than most. I started late, attending a few classes at the community college here and there in my mid-twenties, not starting full-time until I was twenty-seven. I owned a condo and worked a full-time job simultaneously so, obviously, the "college experience", those extra-curricular activities that are now held to be so important for our tender young folk, was something I had no time for. I worked, I went to class, I studied, and I slept, for nearly five years until I graduated at thirty-one. I courted my wife at the same time but she too was deeply involved in school - she was working on her PhD at the time - while also working. As a result, the latter years of our courtship consisted of getting together on Sundays - the only day of the week we both had free during this period - at the Georgetown University library and then maybe grabbing something to eat before I dropped her off and we started the whole weekly routine over again the next morning. It was a grind but I'm glad I did it and I'm glad I did it then. There is no way I'd have the energy to do it at this age.

So what did I learn at school? Like I said, not much. I graduated with a business degree with a concentration on information systems. The information systems courses I took were heavy on theory, light in the extreme on practice. We studied from texts, taught by instructors who were full-time professors with little practical experience, and I aced all my classes. And I understood, upon graduation, next to nothing about information systems. I was likely more confused about the field coming out of school than I was going in. I reasonably concluded that this was knowledge beyond my grasp. Sure I aced the courses but that was from sheer memorization. Actually understanding the material was a different story. When I started my first job in the field I was filled with dread that I'd fail; that all those years of grinding were for naught and I'd end up back where I started, waiting tables.

I had the same dread when I entered school - or, I should say, when I left the community college and began attending George Mason University. For some reason I had it in my head that this was a huge jump in intellectual competition, that those attending a university must be the best and the brightest. What is more, I thought, the vast majority of these students had come straight from high school, where they had also undoubtedly shined. As for myself, it had been a decade since my high school days, and high school for me consisted of beer, parties, and rock and roll (girls figured in there too but during my teen years I was deathly afraid of girls, and the prettier I found them, the more scared I was. But I spent more than a little time thinking, hoping, and fretting about them.) I rarely went to class and only barely graduated. I was also, as I walked into my first university classroom, well aware of the fact that even in my schooling previous to high school, I never had to really apply myself. Could I compete in this environment?

Motivated by fear, I found I could. That motivation would get me up at 3:00 a.m. any day that I had a test. I'd study at my kitchen table, drive to school, hit the library as it opened and study some more, go to class and open up my notes and books, and shut them just as the instructor was handing out the test. Thus did I make it through school - by sheer memorization. I forgot it all by nightfall. But memorization was all most instructors asked of you - just regurgitate back to them what they droned on about in class. Critical thinking, skepticism, argumentation, any views that went against the accepted orthodoxy - all this was absent from my college experience. They spit it at you, you spit it back, and all was well with the world.

Of course, this meant a number of my university courses were boring to a degree that bordered on torture. Mind-numbing boring; world-beating boring; boring raised to a level of grandeur. This was the point of my life in which I was intellectually inflamed by political ideas. I mentioned in one of my Bill Buckley memorial posts that during this period I'd read National Review from cover to cover. I'd study each George Will column like I was preparing for one of those tests. I was wearing out my copy of Keeping The Tablets, and memorizing passages from Burke's Reflections. I was more intellectually stimulated then than any other period of my life. So what did I do? I took some political theory courses. And what did those instructors do? Best I can tell, they tried their very best to kill my interest in political ideas dead, without any hope of resuscitation. It was about at this time when I realized that what I was learning at school was mostly nonsense, and nonsense taught by people who were, for the most part, mediocrities.

I had one outstanding professor during my time at GMU: Walter Williams, who taught me introductory macro-economics. It was a survey course with some three-hundred students in it but Professor Williams was utterly delightful while teaching us some fundamental truths. You may know of Walter Williams - he is black, conservative, writes a syndicated column, appears occasionally on television, and is a sometime substitute for Rush Limbaugh. He gave me ten dollars once because I had the best grade in the class on one of his tests - he said excellence should be rewarded. Funny, wise, always interesting, he laid a foundation for us of basic economic facts that stay with me to this day. I remain indebted to him.

But that's it. I had no other instructor other than Professor Williams who made even the slightest impression on me. Check that - I still remember a few who made a terrible impression on me. I remember one English professor who would, out of the blue, let out blood-curdling screams in the middle of class. I'm sure he explained to us his deeply thought out reasons for doing so but I can't remember what they were. The whole class hated him. What a boob.

I remember vividly walking out of my very last class at Mason. It was a night class, during the summer. I was walking to my car in the cool of the evening and all of a sudden I felt free. Free at last. I had hit, during the previous semester and the final two courses I took that summer, a wall. I was at the point where I was not sure I could continue. After five years of working full-time and attending school full-time, including summers, I wasn't even sure if I cared about graduating anymore. If I had not just gotten married, I might not have. Having done so, I really have to say that walking through the parking lot that night was one of the happiest moments of my life. Pure, almost giddy, relief.

Part of the relief - a big part - was the realization that from that day on I could read what I wanted to read. I had little time for pleasure reading the previous few years and I ached for it. For that is where I received my real education - through books and magazines. I attended George Mason University but my education came - and comes - each night when I lie down on the couch and crack open a book.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is There a Conservative In The House?

You're probably getting tired of reading my rants against the political class - I'm getting a bit tired of writing them - but the D.C. crowd just provides so much fodder that it's hard to ignore them. I promise I'll get off this kick, and hopefully by the end of the weekend, but for the time being, rant I must.

I mentioned in a post quite some time ago that conservatives no longer have a home in the Republican party. This week bolstered my case beyond dispute. On both the farm bill and the war supplemental bill, the majority of Republicans voted along with the Democrats - the House overriding Bush's veto in the first instance, the Senate passing the bill with veto-proof numbers in the second. Both bills are loaded up with goodies for the folks back home - more money stolen out of my wallet and yours. At least the bulk of the war supplemental was necessary, in order to fund the troops, but the $307 billion farm bill is an utter disgrace. For all those who praise bipartisanship, this is what it looks like in practice - thievery. Give me gridlock and a do-nothing Congress any day - that at least limits the damage. From the Washington Post:

Since the amount of the subsidy for 2009 is tied to recent record prices, farmers could reap a windfall if prices drop suddenly.

"I don't think many people on the House side who voted for the farm bill realized there were $16 billion in potential higher costs in there," said Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Charles F. Conner. "The budget exposure is tremendous."

A blog item posted Monday by the agricultural magazine Pro Farmer described the new program, known as Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE), as "lucrative beyond expectations," and said it is a "no brainer" for farmers to sign up for it.

The Agriculture Department estimates that subsidy payments to corn farmers alone could reach $10 billion a year if prices -- which have been $5 to $6 a bushel -- were to drop to $3.25 a bushel, a level seen as recently as last year.

Nice industry to be in! How many other industries have such state-mandated guarantees? Prices for your product go up, you make a bundle. Prices for your product go down, you make a bundle. The only people hurt are the American consumer, in the form of higher food prices, and the American taxpayer, who pays for this largess. Oh, right, these people are one and the same - you and me.

I could go on and on as this is only one aspect of this disgraceful piece of legislation. There are plenty of places to look on the Internet if you want to further explore the dirty details of this bill but I'll end by returning to my original point: conservatism is a dead letter on Capital Hill. The Republican party has thrown in the towel and gone native, and the carnage coming their way this November will be well-deserved. They have betrayed the conservative principals on which most of them ran and were elected. Good riddance to them.

The Real Agenda?

Rep. Maxine Waters of California let the cat out of the bag the other day, perhaps revealing the real agenda of Senate Democrats - the nationalization of this country's oil industries. Watch this video clip. The socialists are coming folks - hang on to your money, your property, and your freedom.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


The stunning hypocrisy of the U.S. Senators on the Judiciary committee was on full display yesterday when they hauled up the chief executives of some of the largest oil companies to explain why oil and gas prices are so high. "Where is the corporate conscience?" asked Dick Durbin. One might ask Durbin where his own is. These politicians know full well that oil and gas prices are high due to a shortage of supply. Yes, there is some speculation in the market right now but there would be no speculation if there were no shortage. And what is the main reason for this shortage? The handcuffs that these very Senators have put on the oil companies. No drilling allowed in Anwar, no drilling off-shore, no nuclear plants. Instead, in order to appease the environmental lobbies, they funnel tax-payer monies into the ethanol boondoggle, causing farmers to switch their fields from other grains to corn, corn grown not for food but for subsidized ethanol. As a result there are now world-wide food shortages, shortages which cause higher food prices for everyone and contribute to the deaths of the helpless poor in third-world countries. And the good Senators ask "where is you conscience?" The unmitigated gall! "People we represent are hurting, the companies you represent are profiting," Patrick Leahy said, apparently unaware that profits are the lifeblood of the American economy and without them there will be no further advancement in alternative or more efficiently-produced energy. There were calls once again yesterday for punitive 'windfall profits' taxes on these oil companies, as well as a move to sue OPEC (!!) for not supplying more oil. Yeah, Senators, that'll fix everything. What a bunch of clowns.

What did you have for dinner last night? Barack Obama wants to know.

"We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times ... and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK."

"That's not leadership. That's not going to happen." - Barack Obama

Give a liberal enough time to pontificate off-script and he will always show his true colors. Barack Obama indicated last week that, if elected president, he will consider it his business to regulate what type of car you drive, what you eat, and at what temperature you set your thermostat. Oh, he might check with the European Union first to get their okay, but that's called leadership.

The cradle-to-grave nanny-statism of the left is virtually complete. They would, if they could, turn us all into dependent wards of the state, regulating our lives from the time we throw off the layers of blankets each morning in our government-controlled sixty-six degree homes, until we turn off our environmentalist-approved fluorescent light bulbs each night as we climb into bed. If some new drug is discovered that can regulate dreams they will no doubt encroach on our non-waking hours too. My fear is that many Americans are so used to the state stepping in and taking control of their lives they just assume it's the government's job; they've already been seduced into dependency and simply shrug off any further violations of their freedom. If Obama is elected he will have pretty solid majorities in both houses of Congress. In such a case, given the mind-set of the Democrats, and given that a weak and craven Republican party is all that would stand between them and the implementation of their agenda, you can be pretty sure that another large chunk of the salami we call freedom will be lopped off. For instance, the ability to choose your own doctors and level of health care. The glories of state-run health care are on the horizon, which will move us one step closer to liberal paradise. Unfortunately, the right to state-run health care, given the examples in Canada and England, is the right to be put on a waiting list; to be refused that extra test, the one that might alleviate your worst fears; to be treated in filthy, run-down hospitals and clinics; and by doctors not of your choosing.

There is another aspect of Obama's comment above that interests me (scares me?) "[A]nd then just expect that other countries are going to say OK." Here we have once again the liberal fear that other countries might not approve of how we live. Its the product of academia in this country, the one that considers most Americans to be unsophisticated rubes, unlike those with-it Europeans, who are the be-all and end-all in the academic's eye. Obama thinks like these insulated people. His "cling to guns and religion" comment a few weeks back in San Francisco, comments he thought were private, is more evidence of this attitude. Obama doesn't really have contempt for the rest of us - it's just the way we are, we couldn't help it, just as, according to him, his own white grandmother is a product of her environment and the Reverend Wright a product of his. It's all very understandable to Obama and his crowd. But not to worry! We are not lost. We are redeemable, in Obama's eyes. All we need is his shining example to see the light. Obama-mania, with its tendency towards the Führerprinzip, its impulse to regulate behavior for the good of the state, puts me in mind of nothing so much as this book. Read it, and ponder its message, before November.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Notes on the Week

A few thoughts that have been rumbling through my mind this week:

  • Whatever your opinion on same-sex marriage, the California Supreme Court's decision to overturn the state's ban on it has to be troubling to you if you are at all concerned about democracy and representative government. Sixty-one percent of Californians voted to implement the ban in 2000 - a landslide, in other words. The people had spoken, emphatically. Along comes the Supreme Court on Thursday and, by a majority of one, undoes the will of the people in a single stroke. Which would be fine if the issue was within their jurisdiction. But, of course, there is nothing whatsoever in the California state constitution dealing with marriage in any form; nor were there precedent rulings indicating a right for same-sex couples to marry. In other words, the California Supreme Court had no jurisdiction here. So they did what courts do these days - the made up a right, the majority performing what the dissenting justices called 'an exercise in legal jujitsu' in order to arrive at their decision. This decision, of course, recalls the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, whereby the courts step in and hijack normal constitutional processes. Prior to that 1973 decision, 50 states were coming up with their own laws regarding abortion; some were restrictive, many others less so. But it was being done through the proper channels, the state legislatures. Roe v. Wade invalidated them all, dreaming up a heretofore unknown 'right to privacy' which encompassed abortion, a right which the justices had discerned, in their sacred wisdom, among 'penumbras, and emanations.' Roe v. Wade radicalized the whole abortion debate, and it continues to this day. The vast majority of Americans are perfectly willing to accept and obey laws passed by their elected representatives, even if they disagree with them. They are less willing to do so when courts set themselves up as mini-legislatures and override their decisions. Over the past decade, the states have been busily coming up with their own arrangements for same-sex partnerships, but the courts have other ideas. The California Supreme Court, with this unconstitutional decision, has guaranteed the same-sex marriage debate will be further radicalized in a fashion similar to Roe v. Wade. If you're of the opinion that same-sex marriage should be legal and you don't really care by which method it was made so, I'll issue my normal warning: just wait until a new issue arrives and you're on the other side. This decision has shined a spotlight onto what is one of this nation's most serious problems - runaway courts. They are a threat to the American republic.

  • The November election will be the first in my life in which I am older than the average voter, and it shows. I was young but I remember the 1970s: I remember the double-digit inflation rates; the double-digit interest rates; the oil shocks; the gas lines; the Soviet ascendancy; the Jimmy Carter malaise. And therein lies the problem; most don't remember. Most Americans, especially the young ones to whom the 1970s are just a page in a history book, are economically ignorant. When presidential candidates talk to them about 'fairness', it all sounds good to them. By fairness, these candidates mean higher marginal tax rates at the upper income levels; higher capital gains tax rates; windfall profit taxes on evil oil companies; and other such productivity-killing measures. These are all 1970s ideas, all tried and failed, miserably. Now, I don't think Obama can be elected. The West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Michigan primary results - all the states Obama must win if he is to be elected - show that he has huge problems with blue-collar white voters, the very type of voter who might find the war-hero, straight-talking McCain palatable. But then I didn't think Boss Clinton could be elected in 1992 either. So, a successful political prognosticator I'm not. The markets are clearly worried about Obama and the 'fairness' measures he is running on. They also know that the Bush tax cuts expire in a few years if action is not taken, and a Democratic-controlled Congress matched with a Democratic president is unlikely to take that action. If we get close to election day and it appears that Obama could win, I am seriously thinking about cashing in - selling all my investments and getting 100% into cash. If Obama is elected the markets will certainly take a hit. I'm positioning myself to get out quickly if need be.

  • The energy and commodity booms continue, even in the face of a U.S. slowdown. It makes one wonder whether the old economic measures are still valid. Previously during a slowdown (though we are NOT in recession, no matter how much the media would like the public to believe we are) one would expect energy and commodities to take the hit along with the consumer: with less consumer demand you'd get less demand for oil, gas, steel, materials, etc. But we're in a global expansion now and it seems the fortunes of the American consumer no longer dictate the fortunes of the commodities markets. China and other Asian countries continue expanding impressively; so too India; Brazil is booming; Mexico and other Latin American countries are also on the upswing. So the markets, and especially certain segments of the markets, can continue to rise while the American economy struggles. Along with the need for energy and materials, these countries are also eating better, hence the boom in agriculture: if you invested in corn, wheat, rice, and other grains a few years ago you'd be pretty near rich right now. The stocks of the fertilizer, equipment, and seed companies - Potash, Monsanto, Mosaic, Deere, for instance, have all gone parabolic. So too the companies that ship these goods to market, the railroads and dry shipping companies. Because these expanding economies need infrastructure, steel is also booming, and as a result so too is coal - you need coal to produce coke which is needed to produce steel. There are also new clean coal technologies being rolled out that make coal attractive as an investment. So a good investment strategy continues to be to buy the companies dealing with energy and commodities. I wouldn't chase these stocks though; they're pretty risky at this point. All the good news is priced in. Any bad news and they could tank, and fast. I'd wait for pullbacks on stocks I don't own; I'll ride the ones I do, watching carefully for any change in conditions, or sentiment.

  • Speaking of energy, how about Bush going hat-in-hand to the Saudis this week, begging them to increase oil production? Their response was basically to tell him to take a hike; they'll do what's good for them, thank you. What an unseemly episode. May I make a suggestion, Mr. President? Rather than prostrate yourself at the feet of the Arab princes, how about this: the next time some idiot politician like Barack Obama calls for 'energy independence', schedule a prime-time speech. In this speech, tell the American public we will never achieve 'energy independence' - that is a pipe dream. The most we can do is to become less dependent on foreign sources of energy, and the only way to do that is to increase our own energy output. That means we must drill in Anwar; we must drill off-shore; we must exploit the oil sands territory; we must build nuclear plants; we must increase coal and natural gas production. Solar and wind can be in there too but we shouldn't subsidize any of these endeavors; we should simply take the handcuffs off and let the markets work. Let the most efficient man win. The environmentalists will scream but I think (I hope) that tide is beginning to turn. With energy prices at current levels, the average Joe is beginning to understand that these anti-global warming initiatives are counter-productive; they contribute to rising oil prices and a slowing economy. They are all for a clean environment but when it comes at the expense of real people, their jobs, and their wallets, they begin to think twice. Add to that that most of the measures being proposed, including John McCain's outrageous cap-and-trade program, while killing the economy, will do little to reduce global warming. Add to that that the latest data show that the earth has actually been cooling over the past decade, not warming, and that sunspot activity has actually been decreasing for quite a number of years, and the whole global warming argument begins to crumble. Bush should put all this into a speech and begin to educate and illuminate to the American people the issues and alternatives. Are you listening, Mr. President? Mr. President? Hello......

Saturday, May 10, 2008


We watched Atonement last night, the movie version of Ian McEwan's extraordinary novel. I've mentioned the book before in this space. I can't claim any expertise in this area because I read very little contemporary fiction, but I will state, for what it's worth, that Atonement is one of the finest novels I've ever read. The only other recently published novels - and by recent I mean in the past fifty years - that I recall affecting me in a similar way were Edwin O'Connor's The Edge of Sadness, and John Williams' Stoner and Augustus. I've read four other McEwan books and, while all fine, none match the breadth and scope of Atonement. It is McEwan's tour de force.

It is always a difficult thing for a movie to live up to a masterpiece of literature. It's rarely been done. The problem is that movies are a visual medium. The stories they tell are told primarily in pictures and actions. Words and dialogue are secondary. There is a maxim in screenwriting that dialogue should be used only when the writer cannot convey what he needs through pictures; show, don't tell. Now, movies have never been monolithic in this way. Certainly there are excellent movies that rely heavily on dialogue for their success. One need only think of the screwball comedies of the thirties. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Most movies rely on action, events that drive the story. Words simply fill in the blanks. That's why, when transferring a book to a movie, it's much better to start off with a second-rate novel, or pulp fiction, or any book where events take precedence over the character's inner thoughts. Think of The Godfather.

Great literature, on the other hand, exists primarily in the mind of the narrator and the characters. It is an internal medium; the heart of the story is conveyed through thought, and words. The action, the actual events that pull the story along, is often secondary. What we look for in great literature are insights into the human heart; revelations about human nature; and, of course, the quality of the prose. Take this passage, chosen nearly at random, from Atonement:

He would have to speak to her soon. He stood up at last from his bath, shivering, in no doubt that a great change was coming over him. He walked naked through his study into the bedroom. The unmade bed, the mess of discarded clothes, a towel on the floor, the room's equatorial warmth were disablingly sensual. He stretched out on the bed, facedown into his pillow, and groaned. The sweetness of her, the delicacy, his childhood friend, and now in danger of becoming unreachable. To strip off like that - yes, her endearing attempt to seem eccentric, her stab at being bold, had an exaggerated, homemade quality. Now she would be in agonies of regret, and could not know what she had done to him. And all of this would be very well, it would be rescuable, if she was not so angry with him over a broken vase that had come apart in his hands. But he loved her fury too. He rolled onto his side, eyes fixed and unseeing, and indulged a cinema fantasy: she pounded against his lapels before yielding with a little sob to the safe enclosure of his arms and letting herself be kissed; she didn't forgive him, she simply gave up. He watched this several times before he returned to what was real: she was angry with him, and she would be angrier still when she knew he was to be one of the dinner guests. Out there, in the fierce light, he hadn't thought quickly enough to refuse Leon's invitation. Automatically, he had bleated out his yes, and now he would face her irritation. He groaned again, and didn't care if he were heard downstairs, at the memory of how she had taken off her clothes in front of him - so indifferently, as if he were an infant. Of course. He saw it clearly now. The idea was to humiliate him. There it stood, the undeniable fact. Humiliation. She wanted it for him. She was not mere sweetness, and he could not afford to condescend to her, for she was a force, she could drive him out of his depth and push him under.

How do you convey a passage like that to the screen? Answer: you can't. A master director could perhaps convey something close, something approximate, but it must be changed, altered in some way to fit a different medium. And still, some things will be missed.

And that is the story of Atonement, the movie. It seems to get everything right, but still, somehow, something is missing. The movie is extremely faithful to the book; all the main events, those necessary to the successful telling of the story, are there. The character of thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis is played extraordinarily well by Saoirse Ronan; she makes us believe the crucial point about the character, Briony's "sense of obligation, as well as her instinct for order", along with her passion for stories, for make-believe. For without that, the story Atonement tells would fall apart. Briony's crime would seem far-fetched otherwise. But we believe this Briony, as portrayed by Ms. Ronan, is capable of it.

The movie also gets the eighteen-year old Briony, played by Romola Garia, right; the casualties of the war have jolted her out of her books, and plays, and fiction, and into the real world. She understands how monstrous her actions were, how much harm she has caused. The other main characters, Cecelia Tallis and Robbie Turner, are played perfectly by Keira Knightly and James McAvoy. The scenes of the Dunkirk evacuation are memorable, worthy of an epic. The scene in the hospital where Briony holds the hand of a French soldier who's had half his head blown off, is extremely well-done, and is essential to our understanding of Briony's transformation from young fabulist to adult realist. She gains humanity in our eyes here.

But it is all too late; her actions can never be undone. In the denouement, Vanessa Redgrave plays Briony as an old woman. She talks to the camera. She knows she is dying, and she is aware that her sin as a thirteen-year old girl has defined the rest of her life, and other's lives, and is what must be atoned. But the crucial moment when she tells of the fate of Cecelia and Robbie falls flat. It's not really a fault of the movie makers. It is simply another of those moments that a movie cannot do justice to. In the book, this moment felt like a punch in the stomach - it knocked the wind right out of me. In the movie, if feels like an afterthought, a wrapping up, and the emotional sting is gone. Unfortunately, as well-done as it is, that can fairly be said of the entire movie. Read the book instead.

Friday, May 9, 2008

On Turning Fifty

I recently turned fifty years old. For some, the event might prove troublesome, provoking a bit of existential grief, perhaps a few dark nights of the soul. It could even lead to, God forbid, a "mid-life crisis", a term I surround with quotes since I believe it is a modern concept used to justify what previous generations termed "asinine behavior." I could buy a sports car, leave my wife and take up with some young babe ("good luck", I can hear her saying), or perhaps quit my job, move to some Caribbean island, and take up surfing, and justify it all by claiming I was going through a "mid-life crisis". The rest of the world would nod and say, "well, yes, it's too be expected. He just turned fifty, after all."

None of that for me thanks. On the contrary, I find myself, at fifty, to be more content than ever. I am of late what I can fairly describe as serene. I wouldn't describe myself as deliriously happy - and that's a good thing. I have no desire anymore to live at the extremes of any emotion, good or bad. I suppose I once had as much teenage angst as anyone, but, if so, it's been so long I couldn't hope to describe what it felt like. I was once madly in love with my wife, and I mean madly. During the first few months of our life-long love affair (I hate the word 'relationship') lo so many years ago, I often couldn't eat or sleep; the tuning fork inside me was pitched high and vibrating at an alarming rate. If you had asked me at the time I would have told you I couldn't be happier. Now, I'm not sure that same emotional state would make me happy - more like miserable. Truth be told, I'm fairly certain I could never again reach such a feverish state, and thank goodness for that. (I should state now, less you misunderstand, that I still love my wife very much, but deeply, not madly. Deeply is better, at least at this age. Funny how that works.)

So I'm content, which I'm sure you're all thrilled to hear - I know you were worried. As for my own worries, I have a few, as, of course, we all do. My chief one regards how long I'll be allowed to hang around this mortal realm; how long until "the distinguished thing" (as Henry James put it on his death bed) arrives. This is not a new concern; it's rather long-standing, in fact. My dad died at sixty-three; his dad at fifty-two; his dad at sixty - not a great track record, so you can perhaps understand my being slightly preoccupied by the matter. On the other hand, my mom is seventy-three and is in terrific shape: still active, healthy, and happy. Her dad lived well into his eighties, on his own, in his own little apartment. He shopped for himself, cooked for himself, and took the bus to the racetrack a few times a week. So, clearly, I'm hoping I take after my mom in this area. (Actually, it would good to take after her in all areas - she's one in a million.) Whatever comes, I try to put off the inevitable for as long as possible: I quit smoking twenty-three years ago, I hit the gym each morning, I take a two-mile walk each day after lunch, and I eat sensibly, as sensibly as possible while still enjoying the food - a good meal is one of life's finer pleasures and I'm not ready to give them up completely. As for drinking, when I was younger I used up my quota; mine and a few other people's. But now I'm a virtual tea-totaler. I drink a few martinis and about twelve beers a year. Considering the recent studies showing that a few drinks a day is actually good for you, I'd probably be better off drinking more.

Anyhow, I'm hoping I can live into my eighties or even nineties. Even if I'm so fortunate, how long can one be active? I suppose there are people in their eighties who lead active lives, but clearly most have slowed down considerably by that point. For myself, I'm hoping I can be active until the age of seventy-five. Upon retirement, which I think is still about six years away so long as my investments hold up, I'd like to start travelling again, particularly to Europe. We'd hopped across the pond fairly regularly from 1995 until 2001. We spent a week in London in 1995, four days in Rome and a week in Florence in 1997, eleven days in Paris in 1998, and fourteen days in Salzburg, Vienna, and Venice in 2001. The 9/11 came and we decided to take a break for awhile. And then we got the cats, Bubba and Biscuit. Bubba, my best buddy, is gone now, but we still have the little Biscuit boy, and that presents a real problem for taking long trips out of town. Biscuit is scared of the whole world except for me and my wife, so whoever takes care of him when we're away always reports back that he won't get near them and he refuses to eat. As a result, whenever we're away from him, even for just a long weekend, we feel guilty - especially me. While I'm off enjoying myself, I picture Biscuit hiding underneath the bed, starving, wondering why we abandoned him. As a result, my own enjoyment is diminished. Silly, I know, but nonetheless true.

Anyhow, long trips to Europe are off until Biscuit is gone. He's six now so if he lives until he's, say, fifteen, that means we can begin taking long trips around the time I'm sixty. I hope I'm still eager to travel by then. I've been immersed in Joseph Epstein's writings (see the side panel under "Books I've read in 2008") for the past month, and he claims he lost the urge to travel once he hit a certain age. I hope that doesn't happen to me. I love travelling and we were getting better and better at it. I love even the preparation for it, the research and the reading involved beforehand in order to get the most out of the trip. I'd study travel guides, histories, and maps, of each of the cities we were about to see. Then I'd create an itinerary for us for each day, keeping the last couple of days in each city free so we could free-lance. There is no feeling so free as being in a strange city, on your own, where no one knows you, cut off from your familiar surroundings. Many people find this intimidating; I find it exhilarating.

Until then, as I started this post off by saying, I'm content. I can read, watch movies and sports, take the occasional short trip, spend time with family. I seem to have recovered my golf game last year, so I'm taking pleasure in the sport once more after three or four years of frustration (I realized, due to back problems, that I'd begun to sway in front of the ball by the time I'd reach impact, protecting my back. As a result I kept hitting weak little fades, or (horror!) nasty shanks. Once I realized what I was doing I concentrated on a single swing thought - keep your head behind the ball - and presto! The ball was going long and straight again.) I also like trying new things, learning new things. I've become a student of the stock and commodities markets, which I'm hoping will pay off down the line. I'm blogging now, of course. I've written two screenplays - both of which I'm not sure of the quality of, though I think the second one has potential. I haven't done anything with them though; they both sit gathering dust while I work out my next story in my head. Of course, not everything works. I tried to learn the guitar a few years ago but it was a dismal failure - it would take years of constant practice and I just don't have the patience. So, too, was my watercolor adventure: I'd look at my finished product and think of a comment a character in one of Peter Devries' novels once made. I paraphrase but it was on the order of, while he didn't have anything against modern art, he did think one should see some progression in the arrangement of the paint from the artist's palate to the canvas; you should be able to distinguish them. Well, with mine, it was difficult.

But the key, for me, is to stay interested, keep trying new things, and keep new finding ways of looking at old things. I'm a bit of an old thing now myself, but, as I begin my second half-century, I'm not quite spent yet.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Windfall Idiocy

Now Obama is calling for a windfall profits tax on oil companies. Talk about your retrograde liberalism. Hasn't the idea of a windfall profits tax been discredited by now? It's been tried before, in the 1970's, and economists will tell you it - like most liberal ideas - only exacerbates the problem it purports to solve. A windfall profit tax on barrels of oil above $80 would cause oil companies to retreat from investment in new resources, thereby lowering future output, thereby lowering supply, thereby raising the price of gas at the pump while lowering return to stockholders, thereby lowering oil company profits, thereby....well, you get the picture - it's a nasty spiral downwards in which everyone ends up worse off. Whatever temporary revenues the government gains from a windfall profits tax would soon be eliminated due to the tax penalty imposed. We'd end up with artificially higher oil prices due to decreased supply, and less profit for the oil companies to invest in order to increase supply, and, ironically, less revenue for the government. It's simple economics, folks, which Obama is apparently ignorant of. That would not be surprising - I wouldn't trust most politicians to run a lemonade stand. The only other possibility is that he is aware of these basic economic facts but is engaging in populist demagoguery in order to get elected. Neither possibility is attractive in a presidential candidate, especially one who, if elected, would have a working majority with the imbeciles on Capitol Hill. Please, please, please, don't elect this man.