The Thinker

Retirement’s first year

Certain people get paid breaks during their careers. They are called sabbaticals. It’s basically an extended period of paid downtime, usually at least six months, to get away from a 9-5 job and recharge. It’s a privilege apparently given to a vanishingly few of us: ministers, scientists and professors for the most part. The rest of us don’t merit the privilege. The sabbatical depends on the idea that a change of scenery and intellectual focus will feed a creative mind and it will result in renewed energy and perhaps new ideas upon your return.

I could have used a few sabbaticals in my career. I think I would have been more effective in the workplace. Of course I didn’t get any of them. Some of us though have the privilege to retire well and in decent health at a reasonably young age. I opted for retirement a year ago. August 1, 2014 was my last day as a full time salaried employee. I retired at age 57 principally because I could. My federal pension was generous as I was under the old retirement system and I was highly graded in the government. In addition I had enough saved for retirement that it appeared I could reasonably expect to match my standard of living. It helped to have almost all my debts paid off too.

Still, retiring was a bit of a nervy thing to do. It ends badly for a lot of people. Often they discover they don’t really have enough money to have the sort of retirement they envisioned. Or they find themselves terminally bored, missing the contact they used to have at the office. I miss having the daily office experience, although at the time it was a mixed experience. I keep in touch with a few old colleagues, mostly on Facebook. However, most of them have vanished as a continuing presence in my life. I also miss having an office, just some place outside the house to escape to for much of the day. Of course I love my wife, but I wasn’t sure if I would like her as much when we were in each other’s faces so often.

So far I feel like I haven’t properly retired. For one thing, I haven’t stopped working. I don’t work full time, but I am doing some consulting that amounts to about twenty hours a week on average. It just depends on what inquiries come in through my professional website. This was by design. In spite of the pension and the retirement savings, I wasn’t confident that we could maintain our standard of living. Continuing to earn some money eased my financial anxiety. It also forced me to keep engaged in the work world, just in a different way than I used to.

When I wasn’t consulting my wife and I were busy remaking our lives. As regular readers know, the last year has been busy in spite of the fact that we are retired. That’s because we chose to relocate, and that decision started a whole chain of events. It meant selling our house in Virginia and moving to western Massachusetts. We sold the house in April and now we live in temporary lodgings in Easthampton, Massachusetts while our house in nearby Florence lumbers toward completion. It won’t be until we are in our new house and things are properly put away that this transition will finally be complete.

From last August through last March most of my time was doing basic fix up to our old house so it would sell. This meant what seemed like endless trips to the local Lowes, plastering, painting and minor construction jobs. Simultaneously we had to find a new place in Massachusetts. A neighborhood had to be selected, a house price agreed to and contracts had to be signed. It was all very tedious and often nerve wracking, but it worked out quite well. I went by our new house today and inspected the newly installed drywall, which is all screwed into place but awaits a lot of joint compound. We hope to move in during the middle of September.

As nerve wracking and expensive as the whole process was, it was still better than my old job. It had pretty much burned me out after ten years. The cast of masters I reported to had changed as well, and not for the better, giving me more incentive to get out. It did not take long after retiring to find that I slept better and was much less stressed in general. I discovered I have a natural sleep pattern after all (bedtime is around 11:30 and eight to eight and a half hours of sleep a night is what I need). I rarely got that when employed, except on the weekends. The crazy demands of my job and the frequently hellish commutes made it mostly impossible. I spent much of my professional life sleep deprived.

I rarely find myself bored in retirement, but I do find myself doing more of what I prefer to do and less of what I don’t like to do. I found that I like information technology too much to give it up. I try to stay current on the latest trends and to expand my knowledge, even though I am unlikely to need to know a lot of what I am learning. I used to feel guilty about surfing the web at work. It’s obviously not a problem anymore. I surf with abandon. Should I get bored I have Netflix streaming as a distraction. I also subscribe to a music streaming service. Together they provide a lot of entertainment.

Now that I’ve moved I find that I exercise more. I’ve taken up biking again and have enjoyed the many bike trails in our new neighborhood. I often walk in the evenings, generally for a few miles. I also enjoy learning about my new community. Finding new doctors, meeting new neighbors and connecting with a new religious community have proven to be growth experiences. Before the move I stayed connected to my community too. Right until the end I kept volunteering at my local Unitarian church. I also taught a class at a local community college. I am trying to teach here as well, but so far there have been no nibbles.

It does at times feel surreal to have relocated four hundred miles away. I had been living in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area for more than thirty-five years. I do miss some things from that area. In some ways I stay connected. I still read The Washington Post; I just do it online. At the same time I enjoy reading the local newspaper around here, pedestrian though it is compared to the Post. In the Daily Hampshire Gazette a big news story can be a moose found ambling through a suburban neighborhood. Routine content includes school lunch menus. I read the details of local town meetings where items like buying a new fire truck must get an up or down vote from the citizenry. They practice real democracy here in New England. It would not occur to The Post to publish this sort of “news”. It would be beneath them.

When you live in and around Washington D.C. you are deeply consumed by the minutia of national and international affairs. Who you know is important but what’s most important is what you do, which amounts to what power do you have over the government, which ideally involves control of policy or regulation. One of the first questions you are asked when you meet someone new is “What do you do?” In my last job I had a reasonably prestigious position. While that vanished with retirement, I find I simply don’t miss the authority or the problems I used to wrestle with. It’s someone else’s problem now. I’ve moved on.

I’ll try to come back to this topic in a year. I expect that my next year of retirement will be more settled and I’ll have a truer perspective of what it means and feels like to be retired. So far I have found that if you are reasonably confident that your financial house is in order and you are pretty good as distracting yourself with fun things to do, it is something to look forward to and not to dread.

 
The Thinker

Two more movie reviews

Mad Max: Fury Road

Believe it or not, I’m new to the Mad Max franchise. Post-apocalyptic Earth movies are not exactly my favorite genre, although with rapid climate change they are looking more plausible. Mad Max movies are almost as old as Star Wars movies. The first one was released in 1979. All of them have director George Miller in common, although in the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Miller had George Ogilvie as a co-director. Thirty years between films is a long time, long enough that you have to be pretty old to have seen the earlier movies. In Mad Max: Fury Road we get something of a reboot. Mel Gibson, mostly an unknown before the first movie made him a star, showed up in the next two, but in this version Miller wisely decided that Gibson was just way too old, so he cast Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky instead. When you settle into your chair, you had best buckle your seatbelt tightly.

With so many action adventure movies made and on the market, it would be hard to pick the wildest of them all, but Mad Max: Fury Road would certainly compete well for the top of this heap. There is hardly a moment of calm in the whole frenetic movie. Shot in the Australian desert like I believe all of the previous films were, poor abused Max is one of many simply trying to survive. It’s unclear why he wants to survive, given the horror of this world, its lack of water, and the penchant of its citizens for war and bashing each other’s heads in. Max is so busy surviving that he doesn’t have time to tell anyone his name, particularly not Imperitor Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a trusted confidant and commander of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe controls something of a dessert oasis where he sporadically releases deluges of water from his citadel for his dehydrated slaves. He also sends out war parties for his periodic battles. Sending out Imperitor Furiosa turns out to be a mistake as she is on a mission of escape to find the green land that she grew up in. Worse, she escapes with Joe’s prized and beautifully nubile five wives. Max comes along for the ride involuntarily because he is being tapped for his blood. Max manages to escape and joins Furiosa, while Immortan Joe follows in hot pursuit.

That’s pretty much the plot and while it’s not much of a plot it sure is entertaining as all get out. George Miller certainly knows how to direct action movies, and this one is definitely a tour de force of grit, gumption, violence, chaos and survival skills, all coherently packaged somehow in all its appalling horror. Most of us would prefer death to the lives that these people live, but not to worry, most will encounter death along the way. Part of the film noir of his franchise is this civilization’s ability to cannibalize auto parts from an older industrial age and create impressive and scary behemoths of belching automotive wonder, complete with a crazy guitar player on the lead vehicle channeling Black Sabbath as these battle groups move forward. It sure is weird and it sure is cool somehow.

In short, it’s a pretty compelling post-apocalyptic world, very well refined, but hard to turn away from. You won’t want to walk out of the theater during this movie, except possibly in horror or terror. Miller has lost none of his dubious gifts for this genre that he sort of invented. Having not seen the earlier movies, I can’t believe they are better. I think he has peaked and proven he is and probably always will be the master of this peculiar genre.

3.4 points on my 4-point scale.

Rating: ★★★½ 

Mr. Holmes

Mad Max: Fury Road played pretty much everywhere, but this surprisingly engaging lightweight charmer was only available at the local arts theater in Amherst, Massachusetts. Mr. Holmes of course is Sherlock Holmes, previously of 221-B Baker Street, except this Holmes is 93 and nearing the end of a 35-year retirement in a modest country villa where he occupies his time caring for bees. There’s no one left alive that you will recognize: Mrs. Hudson and Dr. Watson are long in their graves, and Holmes is barely holding on and quickly losing his memory. Holmes, played by the master actor Ian McKellen, has been driven to visiting Japan in hopes of a potion that will help him recover his fading memory. For he very much wants to write down the details of his last case before he dies, the one that precipitated his retirement.

Unsurprisingly, McKellen does a great job playing an ancient looking Sherlock Holmes. The minimalist cast includes Laura Linney as the dowdy widowed Mrs. Munro, the housekeeper, and Milo Parker as Roger, her son, who takes an unusual interest in Mr. Holmes and his story. The plot frequently goes back to the past. We learn of the unusual events of his last case and his connection with the son of a British diplomat of Japanese ancestry. And there is something of an extra case to solve that you will discover toward the end involving the bees that Holmes and Roger take care of. In fact, the movie has something of a cliffhanger ending that ties things up rather nicely.

In short, Mr. Holmes is pretty good sleuthing, although it’s quite different than the sleuthing you are used to from Sherlock Holmes. Much of the movie focuses on his mental and physical decline. It brings some humanity to a man that is portrayed as too logical and smart to have passions and down to earth failings. It’s surprisingly engaging yet understated and deserves venues in more popular theaters. Marketers must have correctly judged there is not much of an appetite for a small film like this in the American public. It’s their loss.

3.3 out of 4-points.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 
The Thinker

Donald Trump and the art of carnival barking

Sorry about delays in postings, Razor fans. I’ve been occupied this week by a family reunion. Aside from deaths and weddings, reunions don’t happen very often in my family. The last scheduled one was in 2000. This one probably would not have happened either if I had not taken the initiative last year to find a location and to prod my siblings. Our reunion at Chenango Valley State Park was good while it lasted, but it didn’t last long. The weather at the park near Binghamton, New York (where most of us grew up) over the weekend was oppressively hot and humid, uncharacteristic of the region. It meant sleep was difficult, particularly during many extreme thunderstorms and torrential rains.

While we arrived last Saturday, siblings quickly started peeling away beginning on Tuesday. I ended up leaving early too. My wife developed an ear infection on a trip of her own, came home and started throwing up. She was weak and worried she might be developing pneumonia. So I drove back on Wednesday. My wife is improving but not without a lot of requisite suffering.

So I’m back and catching up on the news that I missed at the park while I sweated and tried to keep mosquitoes from biting me. There were no lack of interesting current events, but the media for some reason could not stop highlighting the latest crazy nonsense coming out of the mouth of Republican presidential “candidate” Donald Trump. Trump has developed a knack for sucking the oxygen out of the room, much to the consternation of his fellow Republican candidates that wanted the privilege instead. Unfortunately, their idea of doing this is to bash liberals, the poor, environmentalists and the Iranian government, which is hardly novel. Trump’s approach is to be more outrageous than any of the other candidates, and by an order of magnitude.

Trump has figured out a way to outdo them all by saying outrageous things not just about Mexican immigrants (suggesting most are rapists and criminals) but also his fellow Republicans. Most recently he suggested that Senator John McCain was not a war hero because all he did was spend five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison. It’s all pretty crazy stuff, but it seems to be working in getting cameras and microphones to follow him. Republicans seem to like people that are outspoken to the point of being insane and foaming at the mouth. They also like candidates that make unrealistic promises, like Trump’s promise to build a wall along our entire border with Mexico, which he says wouldn’t be hard or expensive to do. At the moment Trump holds what is likely to be an ephemeral lead in the polls among self-identified Republicans.

I’m still puzzling over what Trump is really up to but I doubt it’s the presidency. It’s clear that he likes attention. He made his fortune in part by being brazen and outspoken. His crazy remarks are par for his course. This is a man after all, who at least says he believes that President Obama was not born in the United States. Wind Trump back twenty years when even then he was making motions of running for president and his policy solutions were very mainstream. Today he is wild and outrageous, which makes me suspect he is not being sincere. Perhaps he is impossible to accurately psychoanalyze, but in my mind there are two distinct explanations for what is spewing out of his mouth: he’s either running a parody campaign realizing in advance he won’t win and is just out for some kicks, or he is a secret Democratic party mole.

I personally lean toward the latter explanation, in part because Democratic administrations tend to be good for business. Much of his fortune is based on greasing the gears of government to look favorably on his skyscrapers and casinos. It’s hard to imagine that a man as successful as he is could be so blindingly stupid. For example, he needs those illegal Mexicans he rails against to wash the dishes in his restaurants and casinos, and doubtless employs plenty of them already. He’s probably not a progressive, but if he is sane then he’s more mainstream than he lets on. I say this based on his actions, not on his mouth. He may be worth the ten billion dollars he claims he is worth, but he has had many failures in his career. Indeed, he is hardly a self-made man. He got his start courtesy of his father’s fortunes. Many of his projects have proven disastrous for himself and his partners. I figure he simply doesn’t care what people think about him. His extreme wealth gives him that privilege.

But he can command the media’s attention, which means he can control the media playground. Most smart political observers think his popularity will quickly peter out and when it does to keep the camera on him he will launch a third party run for president. He has hinted at such. Since he is drawing Republicans to him instead of Democrats, a third party run would simply fracture the Republican base and the party’s chances of acquiring the White House in 2016. The outcome would look a lot like the 1992 election, when independent Ross Perot also fractured the Republican base, leading improbably to the election of Bill Clinton, when the overall dynamics would have favored George H.W. Bush’s reelection. In any event, his candidacy is not good for the Republican Party in general and for the many candidates vying for the nomination. If he is to represent the Republican brand through winning the nomination, he may be the death of the Republican Party, which first rose with the election of Abraham Lincoln.

If Trump actually believes the crap he is spewing then he is untethered to reality, which is just a polite way of saying he is mentally ill. He is not. He is crafty. He knows how to get attention. You can’t get attention by being conventional. The Republican Party of today is hardly conventional. Indeed, it is not even conservative. It is radical. It takes a certain skill to command attention in such an arena, but he has the advantage that with so many candidates the media cannot focus on any of them. He does know how to be a carnival barker. Trump has the skill and has used it successfully in his career. He has learned the art of showmanship, and it involves learning how to be heard. That requires being very loud in a tone and manner that is discordant because it draws attention. He is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Try not to hear that. This is how he sucks oxygen out of the room and draws attention to himself. It’s a marketing strategy. And in marketing you learn that any attention, even negative attention, is better than being ignored. At least you are talked about.

It works but it generally doesn’t work in achieving a lofty goal like being president of the United States. It might if the standards and expectations of the American voter have degraded as much as Trump might be hoping they have. If they have then we must really depend on God blessing America, because Trump would be a disaster of a president. It probably would not take both Republicans and Democrats long to impeach and convict him out of office.

 
The Thinker

Life in suspended animation

There’s siding on our house now. The plumbing is mostly in place, but no water is running and nothing like a sink is connected to the plumbing yet. A skeletal electrical system runs through the house, but also is not connected to any actual electricity. The floor of the garage is now concrete instead of sand. A gas fireplace is in its spot in our future living room. The gas line now comes up to the house but that’s as far as it goes. Two shower inserts are also in place. The rooms in the upstairs are sealed off from the attic. Most of the ducting is in place. But that’s pretty much all that the developers have done to our house over the last three months. No drywall is up. No insulation installed. Sawdust and debris litter the floors. Construction crews can’t be bothered to sweep or pick up stuff. Old soda bottles sit in the corners of our rooms to be.

It helps to be patient while we cool our heels eight miles away in a tiny and uncomfortable apartment in Easthampton, Massachusetts. The house was supposed to be done in about two weeks. The new estimated completion date is September 15. While we wait in an apartment with one window air conditioner and a few fans trying to keep us cool, our developers are busy working mostly on other houses. It’s pretty clear that we are not that important to them. Weeks go by sometimes without anything happening to our house. Sometimes there is a day or two burst of activity and then people and trucks disappear until some ambiguous future time when more return.

I’m not sure how this house construction business is supposed to go, but I doubt it’s supposed to go like this. The developer has his excuses, of course. It was an exceptionally cold and snowy winter and yet they were able to pour a foundation in February. In March when we visited a frame was up, along with a roof. By the time we arrived three months ago, Tyvek was covering the outside and the windows were in. Then weeks went by and absolutely nothing happened. They can’t say it was because there was still snow on the ground.

The real reason for these delays seems to be twofold. The developer has another project twenty miles south of us. There they can concentrate forces and work on many units at once. Whereas we are a single unit in a development that is already three quarters complete and with only forty houses altogether. So it’s more efficient and profitable to do those houses and keep us in suspended animation. In addition, their subcontractors are busy doing work elsewhere. I guess the housing sector is doing quite well. My guess is that they use low bidder contractors to eke out more profit on their projects, and they do the stuff that pays better first, so what slips must be our schedule.

Our new neighbors already know us by name. We attend their clubs, dinners and wine tasting events. Apparently our experience is common in this development, as most of their delivery schedules slipped too. So we are stuck in a tiny apartment in Easthampton with 80% of our stuff in storage. All we can do is cool our heels because getting angry doesn’t change the dynamics.

I guess this is the price you pay when a having a house built. The upside is that you can have the house built your way. The kitchen will be just the way my wife wants it because she designed it. The walls will have the uniform color of the walls in our last house: peach. And everything will be new and unlikely to need repair or replacement for many years. We just got to hang in there about two more months.

Meanwhile, there is all this free time. Much of it is spent sliding past each other in the hallway. In our tiny kitchen, it’s best for only one person to be standing at a time. Sound from the television can’t help but leak into my little study, because it is only a few feet away. So I keep the headphones on and hope to drown out the drone of my wife’s eclectic taste in TV shows. She watches stuff I would never watch in a million years, like pretty much anything on truTV, an absolute nadir of television “entertainment”.

Outside the kitchen window, the next-door neighbors offer something that is best considered entertainment. The guy works on his car endlessly, and has been tinkering with loud bass speakers in them since we got here. He does stupid and dangerous stuff. The other day I observed him trying to prime a small motorcyle engine by pouring gasoline into its carburetor then turning on the ignition switch. Some of the gasoline spilled onto the concrete and caught fire. Mental note: call the Easthampton Fire Department next time I observe this behavior. They shuffle off to work early. Around four a.m. they are outside our window conversing, car engines revving loudly. Once around two a.m. the husband and wife were on their back porch arguing loudly, presumably so they aren’t arguing in front of their kid. The neighbor above us got sick of it before us, opened his window and yelled at them to shut the fuck up.

At least I have time to thoroughly examine Easthampton. At one time I wanted to live here. Now that I am here: well, not so much. Florence (when we actually take up residence) will be a much better choice for us. In general roads are bad in western Massachusetts, but in Easthampton they are bad even by the standards of this part of the state. Only a major road will get an occasional resurfacing. Some of these other thoroughfares like Parsons Street and Ferry Street are full of potholes that have been filled in numerous times, making driving down the street teeth rattling. There are also lots of potholes the city can’t be bothered to fill in, and blocks where traffic cones block the axle-crushing ones. Months later they are still not filled in. I guess the residents like to keep property taxes down. In part to handle all the bumpy roads, I had my struts replaced.

Still, there is Mount Tom nearby. It’s not too hard to ascend the mountain in part because it’s not too high. The views of the Pioneer Valley up there are worth the climb. I’ve done it many times on my bike, with the best part the brisk ride downhill. There is plenty of time for biking in general, mostly to and from Florence where our house is. My excuse for biking there is to get the mail, but it’s also good exercise and gives me an opportunity to verify that little is being done on our house.

And there is my consulting, which amounts to about twenty hours a week. It ebbs and flows but keeps me connected to my profession. I take plenty of walks around the nearby Lower Mill Pond and amble through Easthampton’s modest downtown. Easthampton is a faint shadow of the showier and more successful nearby city of Northampton. The curious thing is that despite all the ruin porn, it’s definitely on the upswing. Businesses are moving back into some of it, principally to the old buildings along Pleasant Street. Others of these old brick buildings are scheduled for redevelopment. What you can’t find here in Easthampton is a really good restaurant, or a salad bar except in the Big E, its sole supermarket (and it’s a tiny but nice one). Except for downtown, most of the sidewalks and curbs are crumbling or have crumbled. If real prosperity is to happen here again, they might start by fixing these, but no one seems to want to pay for it.

Surely though we will move into our house one of these days and bid adieu to Easthampton. We have learned it’s best not to get our expectations up. So I expect a lot more bumping into my wife in this tiny little apartment in the months ahead.

 
The Thinker

Obama demonstrates he is the real grown up in the room

Our national government currently resembles a three-ring circus. Between carbon copy Republicans running for president on a platform of mostly hot air, pabulum from the so-called leaders of the U.S. congress and the weird rulings and opinions from our Supreme Court justices, a whole lot of nothing meaningful is happening in Washington at your expense.

There is thankfully one exception: we’re getting a lot of leadership from President Obama. And yesterday, the president tentatively scored a major win: a negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, in concert with four other major powers that participated in the talks. The agreement reduces Iran’s nuclear capabilities over the next ten years and Iran gets release from the crippling sanctions against the country. This will be done through unfettered inspections of its nuclear facilities and sealed commitments to reduce its uranium stockpiles.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the agreement was announced but I was also grinning. In his first presidential campaign, Obama had promised change we could believe in. It’s been hard to deliver a lot of this change given the relentless obstruction in Congress, but this agreement should it be realized certainly will be change I can believe in. This is the kind of change I voted for, and it’s meaningful change.

While Republicans fall over themselves to deny global warming, restrict a woman’s right to an abortion and make life increasingly miserable for the poor and the wretched, at least Obama has kept his focus long term. While CEOs do conniptions to show higher quarterly profits, our president has ignored the rhetoric of the moment and concentrated on what we paid him for: real leadership. And boy did he deliver yesterday!

Consider what would happen if “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” John McCain had been elected president instead of Barack Obama. It’s pretty clear what would have happened based on McCain’s own words then and over the last six and a half years. Negotiate with Iran? It would not have been an option. It would have been framed as negotiating with terrorists. It’s quite likely that instead we would now be hip deep in another long, ghastly and frighteningly expensive war with Iran. Bombs would be dropping. Our ships would be shelling Iran’s shores. Aircraft would be dropping bunker-busting bombs all over the country, and maybe outside of it. Our troops would be dying, and overstretched in the area, which is already rife with conflict. That region would be even more so with a major war in Iran and the Islamic State even more resurgent. Consider what would be giving up now if we were at war with Iran: support for the Iraqi government, and the Kurds and pretty much anyone else trying to contain the Islamic state, and that’s just for starters. Our attention on other threats in Asia and Africa would be largely nonexistent.

This new war, as awful as it would be, would be far more awful because it would set in motion a series of future wars. Rather than contain Iran’s nuclear might, it would unleash decades of future madness in that region. Iran, which already hates America, would find it hated us even more due to the war. It would be working that much harder to undermine our national security through its proxies. You don’t have to look far in the Middle East to see how the hate business propagates endlessly. Israel and Palestine are locked in an eternal war fought as lots of major skirmishes. Each action by Israel or proxies for the Palestinians simply set up the participants for the next one, and further inflames tensions, making it impossible for them to cool. There is no military solution to their problems, just as there is no military solution to the West’s conflict with Iran.

The difference is that unlike Israel’s relentless intransigence, the United States can affect real political change through diplomacy instead of war. Obama figured that out long before he was president. He realized that the most important thing was to stop the cycle of hate and paranoia, because this puts out the flames of war. He spoke openly to the Iranian people that change was possible. He said that Iran and the United States did not have to be eternal enemies. He said we could resolve our conflict through diplomacy, but only if both sides were earnest and passions could cool. To improve the odds he worked with an international coalition not just to maintain sanctions on Iran but also to work together to find a peaceful way to lift them through a comprehensive agreement. And amazingly with the help of two hard working secretaries of state (Hillary Clinton and John Kerry) and of course our international partners (which gave us credibility), they pulled off this agreement.

Of course there are no guarantees that Congress will approve this agreement. It will probably be rejected, but because it is not a treaty, Obama’s veto of their bill rejecting it probably means he will win. This is because Congress probably can’t muster two thirds majority in both chambers to overrule his veto. Of course it is fraught with lots of potential pitfalls. But it also significantly reduces Iran’s nuclear weapon making capability and brings Iran back into the international community. It eases tensions and allows time for Iran’s demographics to take hold. It is a country full of young people, and it’s likely as they age they will have much more liberal values than their current leaders. You can see this from the satellite dishes on pretty much every house of size in Iran today. Iranians are more than ready to embrace Western values. They are just waiting for the political climate to change.

You will hear the usual noise from the war hawks about why this agreement is actually a calamity and how we are selling out our values not to mention our national security. In reality, Obama is holding us to our values, showing that we are a nation that values peace and goodwill. This buys real national security because when people don’t have reason to hate you, something called real peace happens. Obama is showing that we can model what is best about our country to the rest of the world again, rather than assert what is worst about it. He is reminding us of a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s when this was the United States and we really were that shining city on the hill. We sponsored the United Nations. We rebuilt Europe. We built international coalitions to handle the Korean conflict. We fed much of the malnourished world. We were an awesome country back then.

To quote the late Hubert Humphrey, I’m as pleased as punch with our president. Obviously he is not a flawless president. I too have major concerns with some of his decisions as president. However, his focus on a long game and doing the intelligent thing rather than the emotional thing certainly garners not just my respect, but also my deep admiration and gratitude.

Thank you for being one of the few grown up leaders in our government, Mr. President.

 
The Thinker

Craigslist casual encounters weirdness: July 2015 edition

It’s a Friday in New England and thus a good day for my monthly sample of the postings on the Craigslist’s Hartford (Connecticut) casual encounters section. My guess is at best only 1% of these will get realized this weekend, if that much. But we humans like to dream big, so let’s see how big these dreams are this weekend.

My traffic tends to slow down in the summer, due to vacations or whatnot. This was true in June, with Google Analytics showing a total of 1,334 web page views. Significantly though traffic for Craigslist posts on my site was way up: at least 280 page views, or 21% of my web traffic. So this posting is for you fellow Craigslist fans, who are always curious to see what curated bizarre and unusual requests from the id I can find every month.

Surveying the first page of postings I find:

  • 33 men are looking for a woman
  • 32 men are looking for a man
  • 5 men are looking for a couple
  • 6 men are looking for a transgender
  • 2 women are looking for a man
  • 1 woman is looking for a woman
  • 3 couples are looking for a woman
  • 2 couples are looking for a man
  • 2 couples are looking for another couple
  • 3 transgender people are looking for men
  • 1 transgender person is looking for a couple

Let’s don our latex suits and dive into the cesspool:

  • Do you like your transvestite men in leather? This guy who actually lives in Vermont likes his leather, likes his bike and cruises New England regularly looking for pretty much anyone (man or woman) who wants to use him as his or her submissive biker “bitch”. He may be in leather, but he’s not much to look at. Amazingly, there are pictures of him at it with at least one guy, so you probably won’t be the first one on Craigslist to actually meet this “woman”. And you won’t have to wait long to contact him. His phone number is embedded in a picture. Happy cruising!
  • Life is coming up yellow for this Plainville man, or at least he hopes it will. He’s basically looking for a woman to piss all over him, and if you want he’ll return the favor. I’m betting he provides plenty of free drinks. There’s a dorky picture of him next to a Christmas tree to see what you will get, but if you don’t go blind from looking at it, you’ll probably feel an urge to run away instead. He wants to stay super clean so good news: urine is generally very sterile.
  • She’s 28, married and looking for another guy for sex only. The only thing that makes this post unusual is she’s quite flexible about your age. She’s willing to consider a married man up to age 50.
  • He’s not a real doctor and he lives near the border between Connecticut and Massachusetts, but I have to give him an A for effort for his “doctor/patient” fantasy. He must have taken a creative writing class. Anyhow ladies if you want to try this scenario with this pretend physician or just need to read something to buzz off to bliss with his post is at least worth a read. This poster will do too, ladies, particularly if you have fantasies about oral sex.
  • This 30-year-old woman from Mansfield wants to discreetly give head to a guy through a gloryhole. It must be at her house or apartment, because her husband will be in the next room and won’t know what’s going on. You must be completely quiet. If she is doing her work right would be pretty hard to stay silent, I would think. As for hubby, I would think the hole in the door might be a clue. No wonder she is “super nervous”.
  • Men, are you stupid and horny enough to leave two twenties somewhere and then rush somewhere else to meet a woman you haven’t met for some paid sex? This poster apparently thinks some men on Craigslist are stupid enough. He’s certainly right. Avoid this lady from East Hampton.
  • Hey, there’s potential glory for any of us older men with a still highly active endocrine system: there’s another post from a 20-something woman looking for age 50+ men like me. Also, likely the same woman is looking for her daddy in two posts.
  • Some men like to be used with a strap on. Good news: here’s a woman that wants to do it to her “slave”.
  • Ladies: she just wants to watch you get off by yourself.
  • This young woman from Meriden is looking for a woman for a short-term friend with benefits relationship. But goodness, from her detailed ad I think she’s interviewing potential marriage partners! Oh, and she’s sharing dozens of pictures.
  • In perhaps an attempt to increase interracial harmony this white couple (age 40) in a hotel in Hartford wants to hook up with a local black couple tonight, providing the male is very well endowed.
  • In a similar vein, here’s a senior couple looking for thin seniors only to mess around with.
  • This couple I think is the same one I mentioned last month because she is 54 and he is announcing that she will be available Sunday at the Hartford Art Cinema from noon to 4:30 PM. This is as likely as many men is going to get to finding sexual contact through Craigslist this weekend, so I’d go with this option guys. I doubt your minister will approve.
  • Hey straight men, if you so horny you don’t mind oral sex from both husband and wife, and you are age 30 to 45 and fit, then this 39-year-old couple from Windsor Locks will tag team you. But boy they sure do have some unusual and kinky requirements. After reading them you may figure out you aren’t as horny as you thought.
  • I guess this gay guy is flexible because he is willing to tag team with his bi guy friend with a woman or a couple. Some women though get off on watching two guys get off, so this may be a rare opportunity to experience it live. If you strike out with these guys, try these two guys.

There will likely be more in August.

 
The Thinker

Review: Almost Famous (2000)

Some years back I reviewed Dazed and Confused. I said it was a flawless rendering of the high school experience of my generation, who are now in our upper 50s. It wasn’t a great movie but it certainly was authentic.

Apparently it wasn’t quite the only movie of its kind, because I recently learned about and watched Almost Famous, released in 2000. This is a much more enjoyable though improbable romp into the world of rock music in the early 1970s, as seen through the eyes of fifteen year old first time Rolling Stones reporter William Miller (Patrick Fugit). Fugit plays an almost impossible not-to-hug teen. Fugit resembles and acts a lot like Tobey McGuire. Two primary forces shape him. First there is his mother Elaine (Frances McDormond), a single mother who teaches college and challenges her students with her unconventional thinking. She combines an interesting mixture of new age parenting with old-fashioned parenting. She sees potential in both her son and his older sister, but feels the need to be an obsessive helicopter parent too. This means a lot of questioning about their choices and too much distrust about their choices. Her concerns are somewhat dubious because they include Simon & Garfunkel, who she thinks are pushing a drug agenda. At the same time she challenges her kids to think independently, but won’t quite give them the space they need to act independently.

Early in the movie this becomes too much for William’s sister Anita (Zooey Deschanel). The moment she is eighteen she is out of the house, anxious to escape her domineering mother for her boyfriend and a life she hopes to create as an airline stewardess. She leaves something of a time bomb: a collection of vintage Rock and Roll records for William to discover. Discover them William quickly does, and he subsumes himself into the rock and roll revolution. Along the way he meets other hipsters, most noticeably Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who acts as something of a mentor into the world of rock and roll.

With Lester’s help, William learns some of the tricks of interviewing rock stars — not an easy thing to do when you are fifteen years old. His mother though is now willing to extend half a leash, so he gains her permission to hang out around a concert by the fictitious rock band Stillwater. There with the help of a local fan girl Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), William gets a backstage pass. Through a series of improbable events, the doe-eyed boy quickly gains intimacy with the rock band, and turns his access as a rock and roll reporter for Cream into a sight-unseen assignment for Rolling Stone magazine, which asks him to write a behind the scenes article on the band.

If the movie has an incredulous part, it’s what happens next. Perhaps due to her daughter’s rebellion, William’s mother lets him follow the band on tour, providing he makes it back in time for graduation (he skipped a lot of grades). William immerses himself in his assignment, and quickly becomes savvy navigating the personalities in and around the band. The guys in the band seem on the cusp of making a big breakout, but can’t quite seem to make it. They see William as their potential ticket to the big leagues of rock and roll stardom through his connection to Rolling Stone. William though seems doggedly determined to get insightful interviews and to hold to the journalistic standards, all while being included in the social life and mechanics of a band on tour. This means lots of late night parties, hanging out with a tight gang of girl groupies, drugs and sex. The curious thing is how William is sort of left alone. They sense his virginity and at least initially no one seems anxious to lose that precious part of him.

At least one real rock and roller makes it into the film: Peter Frampton, who plays the role of Reg. No matter, the film feels quite authentic and should engage you. Stillwater and its groupies form a reasonably complete sample of society at large. The band members have their quirks, personalities and egos, which are easily bruised. The groupies, all young women, make a sort of life for themselves through an uncommon intimacy with the band members. Penny Lane though is clearly someone special. Kate Hudson does a delicious and exceptional job of portraying her, who William quickly falls in love with. Of course band members’ affections for them turn out to be mostly superficial. They are simply using the girls, and Penny Lane is not alone. William keeps filing away observations and quotes on index cards while grabbing interviews when he can with the help of his portable cassette recorder.

What makes the movie memorable is the careful attention given to it, which adds to its feeling of eerie authenticity. All the characters have their interesting quirks too, which contributes to its plausibility. The only one who seems to grow in this movie though is William. Both band members and their groupies seem trapped in dysfunction. It makes for a hell of an interesting ride, and it is all done so very well. Like with Dazed and Confused, there is no real off note here. The quirks in its characters strangely enhance its plausibility. In short, it’s as authentic as Dazed and Confused, just a whole lot more enjoyable and watchable.

Almost Famous is sort of an almost landmark of a film: really well done, really authentic, quite hard to stop watching and yet very much a film about real human beings. Director and writer Cameron Crowe can take a big bow for this movie, and viewers overall seem to really like it. imbd.com gives it 7.9 out of ten stars.

I liked it too, particularly the frequently mesmerizing performances of Kate Hudson as Penny Lane, but also for the lesser seen roles, like Frances McDormand as William’s mother. Yet this is a movie principally focused on William. His mother is right in one respect: it was good to give him this opportunity to follow the band. William quickly turns from boy into man. In a few short weeks he gains a maturity that takes many of us decades to acquire, if we reach it at all.

In other words, the movie is really good stuff and well worth the two-hour investment of your time. 3.4 out of four stars.

Rating: ★★★½ 

 
The Thinker

Danger: white male

Since I’m a white male, I’m starting to think that maybe I need to be profiled and tracked. It seems like we white males as a class are pretty dangerous critters. Maybe we need a tag, neuter and release program. (Good news: I’m already neutered.) These days it seems like any one of us white males could go off like Vesuvius at any moment and probably take out a dozen or more innocent bystanders in the process. Of course we’ll use a gun, a semi-automatic one if we can get one. It makes killing strangers so much faster and lethal. Not a problem, according to the NRA and, hey, Buy American!

I know what you are thinking: “Mark, what the heck are you talking about? It’s the black males that are being tracked and profiled mostly because it’s black males that are committing most of these crimes. Why should a relatively prosperous, older, white guy like you be thought suspicious?”

Dear reader, it’s because it’s us white guys that are most likely to pop their gaskets and do crazy stuff. You know something is up when you encounter this statistic: white men make up 36% of the population but cause 75% of mass shootings. I may be out of the woods, as I am pushing sixty, living in Massachusetts and my testosterone levels are now officially low. If you are looking out for dangerous men though you’d be smart to profile us white guys. I can see it now: police cruisers driving around bowling alleys and American Legion halls and pushing around white guys in undershirts with rolled up shirtsleeves. Particularly when we are in our early manhood years, we can be teakettles on high boil without a ventilation hole. But it’s also possible we’ll go postal if we feel we are victimized, unloved or suffered one too many misfortunes. We are white men, after all. If there is supposed to be one privileged class in the United States, we’re it. After all, all but one of our presidents was a white guy.

It seems though that surging with testosterone and a sense of entitlement, psychologically we white men are more often on a hair trigger. I base this in part on my own personal experience. Ages eighteen to 22 were particularly challenging for me. My testosterone levels could not have been higher. There were times when walking down a hallway I would literally shake from another testosterone surge. I’d ache for the intimate touch of a woman (never forthcoming) the way an alcoholic craves that next spot of gin. I was reading arguably crazy and wacky books like this one and that one and kind of accepting them. Eventually my hormone levels receded to the point I realized I felt embarrassed that I even took those books seriously. (I’m wondering if Rand Paul’s hormones are still surging. I mean, Atlas Shrugged? Grow up!) To quote the musician Meat Loaf, I was “all revved up with no place to go”, just like Dylann Roof. I obviously did not go psycho but it’s not like the occasional psycho thought did not pass my mind. Sometimes they frequently passed through my mind. Lots of days I battled an inner rage masked by weak smiles and hiding behind books.

So if you want to talk about who’s likely to be a deadly and homicidal wacko, it’s hard not to single out us white guys. I think Americans tend to deny the obvious because there are so many of us. It also helps to be the sex and gender that basically runs most of the United States. I might add that as a class we aren’t doing a great job of it. It’s hard to imagine that any other class of people couldn’t do a better job of running the country.

And then there’s the stuff we do just to get attention. Of course there are the stupid jock tricks, puking our guts out, harassing women, drag racing on public streets, knocking over mailboxes and plastering graffiti, which is actually the more benign stuff. When it comes to the really wacko stuff though, white males are Number One. Take a look at this Wikipedia page of rampages in the Americas and sift through those that occurred in the United States. With a few exceptions, it’s us white guys going postal. Here are a few in the top dozen:

  • James Eagan Holmes, white male, age 24, killed 12 and injured 62 in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. He is just now coming to trial. (I blogged about this one.)
  • George Pierre Hennard killed 23 people and wounded 12 in Killeen, Texas in 1993. He was 35 and white.
  • Michael McLendon, white male, age 28, killed 10 and injured 6 in 2009 in incidents in three cities in Alabama
  • Charles Raymond Starkweather, a white male, age 19, killed 10 people at various places across the United States 1958
  • Michael Allen Silka, age 25, killed 9 and injured 1 in two incidents, one in Alaska and one in Alabama in 1984

I did find a few exceptions. James Edward Pough was black and he killed 11 and injured 6 in Jacksonville, Florida in 1990. Caril Ann Fugate was an accomplice of Charles Starkweather and was only 14 at the time. She holds a dubious record of sorts: the youngest woman to ever be tried and convicted for murder as an adult. Jiverly Wong is sort of white (Vietnamese) and a naturalized American citizen. At age 41, he killed 13 and wounded 4 in Binghamton, New York in 2009.

Anyhow, check out that Wikipedia page. It’s not hard to document that white men, most of them age 30 and younger, were responsible for most of these rampages. Dylann Roof’s recent racist rampage killed nine worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina black church. Guess what? He is a white male, age 21, and a social loaner that is convinced that whites are superior. He says black men are disproportionately raping white women, although there is no evidence to back up this preposterous claim. He also conveniently forgets to mention the raping that often was instigated by white slave holders on their black female “property.” This likely included our third president, Thomas Jefferson.

It’s likely that all men suffer disproportionately from the same tendency, so the roots of these rampages are more likely environmental than genetic. You rarely hear about a woman going postal, even though women tend to suffer more from mental illnesses. I have a number of logical guesses for why white men are usually to blame for these mass murders here in the United States. These include:

  • Expectations for white men are unrealistically high. They are expected to clear more hurdles more regularly than other men and women.
  • White men compete with other white men for social status. Most of us won’t be in the top 10%. It’s hard not to feel inferior or worthless if you are on the left side of the bell curve.
  • The male self-reliance myth that is mostly handed down from father to son, but is also part of the white male culture. When real life shows that we white men are as human, vulnerable and need help and meaningful connections from others like everyone else, it sets up a bad case of cognitive dissonance.

It all amounts to feeling disproportionately inferior and put upon, which can feed introversion and social disconnection. Eventually it leads to hurt feelings, and sometimes the anger we saw on Dylann Roof’s web site. In extraordinary cases it results in a rage so extreme it generates mass homicides of strangers.

It’s these myths imposed as things that white men must live up to that I believe are often triggering these men. Until more white men give up these stereotypes and these myths, more events like the one in Charleston are sadly predictable. Also predictable will be the sex, race and age bracket of the perpetrators.

 
The Thinker

Second viewing: M*A*S*H (the TV show)

When you are retired you often find you have time on your hands. Netflix streaming provides lots of content, but much of it is comfort content, i.e. stuff you have seen before. So I’ve slogged my way through all eleven seasons of M*A*S*H, mostly in microbursts, over the last few months.

For a show that began in 1972, it is still surprisingly good. “Good” is relative, however. In a time when most markets had four or 5 TV stations, you took what you could get. For its time, M*A*S*H was excellent TV. Today, it just rates as very good. Why is this? It’s because forty years later TV has gotten much better. This is due to the proliferation of cable and pay TV. While lots of dreck can still be found on TV, there is now so much excellent content on TV that it is excruciatingly hard to decide which ones merit your time. I’ve finished three seasons of House of Cards. While waiting for new episodes I have been watching Mad Men. Each episode of Mad Men sends jolts of adrenaline to my enjoyment system: it’s just so well done!

So M*A*S*H is comfort TV, although the harshness of that war would not normally make it something you would want to watch. There had never been a TV show that showed the reality of war before M*A*S*H. It showed life at a mobile Army hospital during the Korean War, and the crazy antics and horrifying things that happened there. Going through it again, I realize that I have seen every episode, not just once, but several times at least. I’m not sure when I found the time to see them so many times. I’m guessing it was when they were endlessly repeated on late night TV. Thirty plus years of distance has at least made me a more critical viewer. Some modern day reflections and observations:

  • The show is actually a reflection of the emerging values of its time (the late 60s and early 70s) than the time of the Korean War. Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper John (Wayne Rodgers) might as well be flower children with shorter hair. Their liberal and antiwar positions would have put them in the extreme minority in the early 1950s, and dangerously so. Both would have been children of the Great Depression but they are all flower power. The 1969 movie by Robert Altman provided the template for the show, and in 1969 the Hippie movement was everywhere, the Vietnam War was obviously a disaster and cynicism was rampant. It’s entertaining as hell, but it’s simply not an accurate reflection of the years it purports to represent.
  • You can sort of break down the show into three rather distinct segments: the slapstick/buffoon comedy years (Seasons 1-3), the serious comedy-light years (Seasons 4-7) and the extended mediocre denouement years (Seasons 8-11).
  • The first year is particularly hard to watch today. Its blatant sexism and the casual way women are treated as objects rather than people is actually hard to endure today, and this is good. We have evolved.
  • The second segment is actually the best part of the show. The horrors of war and the imperfect way its characters react to it is the heart of the show.
  • There are some good episodes in the third segment, but it’s perfectly okay to stop at the end of Season 7. Those last seasons will disappoint if you’ve seen the other seasons. The show feels played out, particularly since the show lasted eleven seasons and the Korean War lasted less than four years.
  • Alan Alda won a number of Emmys for his performance as the surgeon Capt. Hawkeye Pierce. I found myself having a love/hate relationship with both the actor and the character. I don’t think there was that much difference between the actor and his character, aside from the fact Alda is not a doctor. Alda must have been insufferably difficult to work with on the set. He dominates the show in frequently unhealthy ways, making it hard for other characters to shine. On the other hand, he’s really good, very intense and totally convincing. It’s not too surprising that Wayne Rodgers left after three seasons, sick of playing Harpo to Alda’s Groucho (in some episodes literally). McLean Stephenson must have felt the same way portraying Lt. Col. Henry Blake.
  • In spite of Alda’s overwhelming presence, most of the other characters do make their marks. Most notably is the maturation of Major Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit), the head nurse. For three seasons she played comic relief but in the second segment she becomes human, matures and deepens as a character. It’s lovely to watch and an excellent reason to stick around.
  • Who’s the better sidekick: Trapper John or B.J. Hunnicut? Seeing it again, I found Trapper more real and interesting. M*A*S*H would have been a much better show if directors had restrained Alda a bit more so Trapper’s character could shine. Mike Farrell is not really funny, but Wayne Rodgers certainly is. Rodgers was intense where Farrell was understated. It was a real loss when Rodgers left the show.
  • Who’s the more entertaining commander: Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) or Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan)? Henry Blake for sure, even though he was there for only its first three years. Stevenson was consistently hilarious but somehow grounded in the insanity going on around him. Harry Morgan is not a comedian at heart, and it showed. The show lost a lot of its luster when Stevenson exited stage right.
  • The series most memorable and adorable character is unquestionably Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), who was the only character that also appeared in the movie. He is an innocent thrown into a complex adult game that remains a good person with childlike tendencies. He’s cuddlier than his frequently present teddy bear.
  • Corporal Clinger (Jamie Farr) makes good comic relief but simply does not convince in any other role other than a Section 8 seeking transvestite. He should have been kept in a dress and probably let go after a couple of seasons.
  • Larry Linville as the one-dimensional Major Frank Burns was actually an excellent comedian. His character is so insufferable that it is hard to see this. I don’t think he ever won an award for portraying Major Burns, but he should have.
  • David Ogden Stiers as Major Charles Emerson Winchester did much to make the second half of the series worth watching. It declined steadily anyhow, but Winchester was certainly an interesting and quirky character.
  • Some of the sporadic characters are delicious, particularly Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) and Colonel Flagg (Edward Winter). Any episodes with either of them in it are worth watching, and in one episode they both appear together. Flagg is actually the funniest character in the whole show; he just appears so irregularly.

You have to be a die-hard fan to watch all eleven seasons, particularly the last few years of the show. If you are tempted to watch the show, cringe your way through very funny but hard to endure first season and stick with it through seven seasons if you can. By the end of the first season all the characters are well established. Certain shows are gems and worth watching if you don’t have the time or patience for the many episodes that endlessly repeat the same theme (war really stinks). These include:

  • Yankee Doodle Doctor (Season 1, Episode 6)
  • Tuttle (Season 1, Episode 15)
  • A Smattering of Intelligence (Season 2, Episode 24)
  • O.R. (Season 3, Episode 5)
  • Abyssinia, Henry (Season 3, Episode 24)
  • Welcome to Korea (Season 4, Episodes 1 and 2)
  • Change of Command (Season 4, Episode 3)
  • Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler? (Season 4, Episode 10)
  • Dear Sigmund (Season 5, Episode 8)
  • Fade Out/Fade In (Season 6, Episodes 1 and 2)
  • Major Topper (Season 6, Episode 25)
  • Point of View (Season 7, Episode 11)
  • The Party (Season 7, Episode 26)
  • Good-bye Radar (Season 8, Episodes 4 and 5)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Who? (Season 8, Episode 9)
  • The Life You Save (Season 9, Episode 20)
  • Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (Season 11, Episode 16 – the extended end to the series)
 
The Thinker

Letting freedom (and common sense) reign

It was just a year ago that I blogged about the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius decision. While not entirely unexpected due to its earlier disastrous Citizens United decision, this decision, which let a “closely held corporation” opt out of the birth control provisions of the Affordable Care Act, still felt like a kick in the groin to us progressives. June can be a very frightening month in the United States since it’s when the court’s most controversial opinions get released.

For 2015 though progressives have much to cheer about, and it’s the conservatives that are furious. This is principally because of two cases decided in the last two days that had seismic impact.

In case you just climbed out of a cave, these were King v. Burwell and Obergefell v. Hobson. In the former, a majority of the court said the Affordable Care Act could not be gutted because of the ambiguity of one section of the law that talked about state health care exchanges. In the latter, a closely divided court decided that no state could prohibit two people of any sex or gender from marrying, and that every state had to recognize same sex marriages issued in other states. In short, gay marriage was instantly legal everywhere in the United States.

If you are a progressive, this makes for a very good week indeed, but it gets even better. Almost ignored was Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. The ruling said that even if a housing developer did not knowingly engage in housing bias, it could still be subject to a civil suit for such bias. Apparently, ignorance of the law by housing developers is no get out of a civil suit free card, even though the plaintiffs were hoping it was.

So while the court’s decisions last June were mostly a fright show for us progressives, this year it is mostly a fright show for conservatives. It caps an excellent week for President Obama, who also resurrected his Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal by getting Congress to agree to special rules to enact it with an up or down vote with no amendments by either chamber. For progressives though this was the sour political note of the week. The TPP, or actually the TPA, sort of rose from the dead after we thought we had put a stake through its heart two weeks ago in the House.

Include into the melee the nine people brutally murdered by Dylann Roof last Wednesday at Charleston, South Carolina’s historically black Emanuel AME church in what but only a few of the craziest conservatives agree was a racist act of domestic terrorism. The tragic and horrifying event though had a special power in a way that its perpetrator did not intend. Just a few months after the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, the South seems to suddenly want to actually end it, just in spirit this time. The Confederate flag, even in the South, is no longer cool. Once South Carolina governor Nikki Haley spoke in favor of the removal of the Confederate flag from its special flag post at the state’s capitol, Republican politicians were practically jumping on top of each other trying to agree that Confederate flags everywhere needed to go to museums and stay there. States across the South are anxiously revisiting their previous pride about the Confederate States of America.

Despite Republicans controlling a majority of the state houses and governorships and the U.S. congress, their agenda is being beaten back. It’s not supposed to be this way and in fact in many ways it’s not happening. It’s largely not happening with their increasingly onerous restrictions on abortion rights, or voting rights, or on many other issues. But on some of the issues that animate them the most, like gay marriage and Obamacare, they got bitch-slapped something bad this week. They are furious but largely impotent. If you see someone foaming at the mouth these last few days, it’s probably a Republican.

Whereas progressives like me are kind of stunned by it all, but particularly on the court’s ruling on gay marriage. It’s not its decision that surprised me, but I am stunned by how quickly the nation and the courts evolved on the issue. I wrote in this post back in 2008 that I expected it would take a few more decades for gay marriage to be legal in all fifty states. In the court’s 5-4 decision today, it’s now legal in every state, just seven years later! To put this in perspective, it was just 11 years ago that Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage. This is a stunningly fast change. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority in Obergefell v. Hobson, was almost poetic in his writing:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

The 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution was the legal rationalization for the decision. It is also known as the “equal protection” amendment. Its citing was not a surprise, but using it as a justification was poetic as well. Here’s why: the 14th amendment was passed after the Civil War to protect the rights of blacks who were no longer slaves. The amendment can be thought of as the “equal means equal” amendment. The Supreme Court simply stated that its ruling was constitutional because otherwise gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals would be denied privileges available to others, which is both the intent and spirit of the 14th amendment. Progressives can feel giddy because had there been no Civil War it’s unlikely that this amendment would have been introduced at all, so it’s quite possible this ruling would never have been enacted. There probably would have been no constitutional rationalization for this decision otherwise, and conservatives would have won the day. In short, you can tie the court’s ruling on gay marriage as a very belated response to the insurrection of the southern states and the apartheid principles that Dylann Roof perpetrated last week.

In the case of King v. Burwell, the Supremes essentially undercut the premise of the self-proclaimed constitutional conservatives on the court. Constitutional conservatives believe that every law must be judged against the original intent of the constitution and it means exactly what it says and nothing more. No less that Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, explicitly undercut that rationalization. He wrote:

The combination of no tax credits and an ineffective coverage requirement could well push a State’s individual insurance market into a death spiral. It is implausible that Congress meant the Act to operate in this manner. Congress made the guaranteed issue and community rating requirements applicable in every State in the Nation, but those requirements only work when combined with the coverage requirement and tax credits. It thus stands to reason that Congress meant for those provisions to apply in every State as well.

Roberts and a majority of the court affirmed, as it has hundreds of times throughout its history, that when a portion of a law erroneously works against its clear intent, then the intent of law is what prevails. It was a ruling that faithfully reflected the will of Congress when the ACA was written, and a majority of the court thus held to the fidelity of the law.

For us progressives, this has been a week of largely good news. It is good news that gays, lesbians and the transgendered have the same marriage rights as heterosexuals. Equal now really means equal. We see it as an expansion of freedom. Strangely, conservatives only want to expand freedoms for those who look and act a lot like they do. Anything else is the overreaching hand of big government at work. Similarly, in the case of the interpretation of the Affordable Care Act, conservatives think that every law should be interpreted literally, whereas the Supreme Court reaffirmed that its rulings should be faithful to the law’s clear intent. These rulings were victories for common sense and for the spirit of the law and constitution.

What goes around though will come around. These court decisions seem to ping between favoring liberal and conservative wings, usually based on Justice Kennedy’s interpretations of the law and the constitution. So it wouldn’t surprise me if in a year from now I will be railing against the court again for their ill-informed judgments. For now though it’s pop the champagne time. Obergefell v. Hobson in particular is a landmark opinion of a scope and breadth rarely seen these days, and whose impact will be strongly felt for decades to come.

 

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