Saturday, January 30, 2010

Taxes are done [Bryan]

I finished our taxes today. I like to get them done, and done relatively early. I was pleasantly surprised at our tax return, which might facilitate some much-needed home improvement projects. Anyone know how to tile a floor?

Anyway, that $800 stimulus tax credit is kinda nice. People keep telling me that the powers-that-be in Washington are licking their lips to raise taxes. I haven't seen it yet. If anything, taxes were way down for us this year.

Friday, January 29, 2010

...and me [Bryan]

In response to Ellie's question below, I should say that I have been watching "reality shows" all my life -- the NBA, NFL, NCAA, etc. You get more drama, backstabbing, childishness, and sniping in those shows than anything you find in The Bachelor or Survivor. Who can forget Adrian Dantley feuding with Frank Layton? Who can forget Ron Artest charging the fans during infamous Pistons and Pacers "Malice and the Palace"? Who can forget Karl Malone's strange contract negotiations or his constant disappearance every year during the playoffs? Who can forget Jim McMahon mooning reporters before the 1985 Superbowl? Who can forget Denis Rodman and Madonna? Who can forget Bobby Knight heaving a chair in anger across the court? Talk about train wrecks and people not knowing what will make them happy!

At the same time, you get all the skill and passion that is put into a reality show such as So You Think You can Dance. So, sports combines the best of both types of reality shows. You get the unfathomable treachery and backstabbing of the Survivor-like shows, and the drama and skills of the dance shows. Perfect combination, I say.

Now, who is playing/feuding tonight?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reality TV and Me [Ellie]

It’s a little known fact that early in our marriage Bryan and I were “Survivor” junkies. We watched together religiously every week, discussing and predicting, dissing and praising. We wondered why people would ever choose to put themselves through such physically and emotionally grueling trials. Surely the mere chance of winning the prize money couldn’t seem worth the vast scale of public humiliation? Slightly embarrassed about our low-brow obsession, we kept it to ourselves. We didn’t think any of our noble friends shared our passion. We were in the reality show closet. Our initial passion spent itself in a few seasons. We quit watching,and now we look back on those days with disdain.

For years, we thought ourselves beyond such childish pursuits. We looked down our noses at each new season of “Survivor” and at each new reality show clamoring for our attention. We were annoyed by the burgeoning field of shows, each seeming more seamy than the last. The whole idea of “The Bachelor,” for instance, evoked my special feminist ire, and not only because it reminded me too much of my own mental calisthenics over polygamy. I did find one show that I felt justified in watching during that time. Feel free to guffaw, but I loved (then and now) “Dancing with the Stars.” The “Stars” part may be a misnomer, but I liked watching it. Dance was a big part of my life growing up, and I loved having visual access to dance studios and performances again.

Fast forward to two years ago. Bryan was teaching every Monday night, and it was my laundry night. I faithfully watched “Dancing with the Stars.” Bryan still wasn’t home by the time “The Bachelor” started, immediately after “Stars” on the same channel. I still had laundry to fold. Gradually, out of boredom and mild curiosity, I started watching and quickly found myself hooked.

Maybe it’s that I have an addictive personality. Maybe it’s that I find it impossible to turn away from a train wreck. I’m not sure what it is, but I find these reality shows fascinating. The closest I can come to pinpointing their appeal for me is to state the obvious--that their contestants are NOTHING like me. No one would want to watch my life on TV, and I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t either. I sometimes become bored writing in my own journal. I try to make sensible, logical choices. I am routine-oriented. I try to avoid all drama in my relationships. This would make for a very bad show. No, these Bachelor and Bachelorette and Survivor contestants are compelling to watch because they are train wrecks. Just as my son Andrew can’t get enough of the car crash clips Bryan brings up for him on You Tube, I can’t get over watching these people crash their lives. There’s a reason these people are still single; they seem to have not a clue of how to make themselves happy. I honestly have no idea why they behave as they do, so hearing them explain it in their earnest, just-between-you-and-me, commentaries seems to me like an opportunity to learn the ways of an alien species.

I’ve always found dysfunction fascinating. Before reality shows, I think it must've shown itself in my craving for tragic literature. The sadder the ending, the better I liked the story. I can only guess that it’s because I’ve always been cocooned in the stability of my own life—both when I lived with my parents, and now. I have to wonder if I would find these reality shows so scintillating if my own life had been more turbulent. I certainly know the opposite is true—if the contestants were more like me, I would never watch them.

Anybody else have a reality show confession?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rock Band [Bryan]

An interesting critique of Rock Band and Guitar Hero from the music critic of the New Republic. Interesting because, well, who among us has not been fascinated by pretending to a rock star in these games for a few moments?

Granted, I think the author needs to relax a bit. But two criticisms that are raised seem about right to me. First:
What’s troubling about Guitar Hero and Rock Band is not the presence of competition in the context of music, but the terms of that competition: the values--or more accurately, the non-values--the games promote. The games measure performance almost entirely by two standards: speed and flash (accomplished by use of a whammy bar on the play guitars). The more notes you hit on the games’ buttons and the more rapidly you hit them, the higher your score, the richer you get, and the more girls who thrust their gargantuan digital breasts your way. The imaginative power of the notes or the chords underneath them matter little; what counts most is the notes’ quantity and speed. The music best suited to these games--the outrageously stupid big-hair arena metal that Spinal Tap first parodied twenty-five years ago--is and always has been blandly hyperactive and formulaic. It is music as grotesque as the games’ porny electronic girls in the indiscriminate robot frenzy they are programmed, like Rock Band players, to enact.
Second, is the author's brutal but accurate take down of so-called Classic Rock, the most overrated genre of music since twelve-tone serialism.
For another thing--and this is the main failing of music games, and it is a significant one--they have the insidious effect of glorifying classic rock, a music with an already bloated reputation that is founded on its very bloatedness. In the games’ absorption with technical prowess, speed, flash, grandiose show, and fakery, they not only affirm the enduring allure of classic rock to kids and young adults, especially males; they also advance its tyranny. People like me who have kids of video-game-playing age no doubt get many things wrong about these games, and chief among the errors of our age group, I think, is inflated generational pride in the 1970s-style arena rock that Guitar Hero and Rock Band promote to our descendants--kids who might otherwise, and perhaps more appropriately, use their after-school hours to nurture interests in music of their own. The games reassure us that our aftercomers are our heirs.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Excavation [Ellie]

Subject: The recovery of the missing identity of a Caucasian female of child-bearing age, hair light brown, eyes hazel, height 5’2”, weight unlisted.

On my Christmas list this year were: a food processor, a dressy jacket, a blender, a CD of the opera Carmen, and a storage ottoman that was to act as a more attractive toy box. Mostly mommy gifts. What I opened on Christmas morning from Bryan? A laptop. A tiny, zippy purple one. And with the laptop a gift certificate to Caribou Coffee and four hours of free time to write.

Surprised hardly covers what I felt. I was barely aware of the tears that slipped down my cheeks as I contemplated why on earth he’d bought me something so extravagant—so beyond our typical gift-giving protocols. Because we buy gifts in hope, I knew the laptop reflected how he saw me, or more accurately, how he would like me to be; how I was when we met.

We’ve been talking a lot about who I am or should be or once was lately. With our last child (according to the current plan) turning one next month, my days as a full-time stay-at-home mom are winding down. I never thought it would seem so brief. We’ve been teasing the kids that Mommy is trying (again) to decide what she wants to be when she grows up.

It seems that the question now facing me is, do I return to who I was before children, as if this period of my life were just a blip in a smooth forward trajectory, or do I begin from scratch to create a new Ellie? Not that three decades of memories and baggage make it easy to start from scratch. Do I resume life as a middle-aged middle school teacher? Do I again take up the role of English major? Or is there something other and never-before-considered that will make me truly happy? (Is the search for one-true-job as quixotic a pursuit as seeking one-true-love?) Do I even want to pursue a career, or do I just want a job that will bring in a little extra income to support my real vocation of mother? In the same position I was in at the end of high school, I feel less certain of the answers now than I did then. I think, in general, that feeling less certainty—about everything—is the change these past sixteen years have wrought on my life.

I know that Bryan would like this zippy purple laptop to perform an excavation. He would like it to dig out the overachieving, intense, virginal English major he fell in love with. There are parts of her I too would love to recover. I’d like to recover her vocabulary, for instance. During my parents’ last visit I had to be reminded that adults don’t refer to it as “going potty.” Yet there are many parts of her I am happy to have left behind. I’m happy to say that her door-slamming tantrums and utter self-centeredness are largely a thing of the past. Still, I’m stuck looking back while trying to foretell what will bring me happiness in the future when all I really want to do most days is survive the present.

Would anyone like to tell me what I should do with this purple laptop and the rest of my life ahead of me?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ayn Rand and Me [Bryan]

A few years ago, I read The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I thought it was a great story at the time, captivating and inspiring. I enjoyed every minute of reading it. To be sure, Rand captures a grain of truth in that book: you need to have the courage to be true to your ideals.

I eventually came to conclude, though, that Rand is both seriously confused and morally corrupt. Her world-view is based on a delusion, namely, that people are to be seen purely as individuals. People succeed alone, and since they do not owe anybody anything, they can rightfully claim as theirs everything that comes their way. No thought of "giving back" to the community need trouble their great minds. Successful people create their own success; they stand alone, as gods among sheep. This is taken to the logical extreme in The Fountainhead as the hero, Howard Roark, rapes the heroine, and we are all supposed to cheer this on as the actions of a great man.

I reject this sort of individualism. Everybody who is successful stands on the shoulders of others. Whatever success I have had in life is largely attributable to my parents, my wife, my schools, my teachers, my friends, my doctors, and so forth. I depend on others to grow my food, to build the roads I use to travel to work, and to develop the research the drives society. I have also been lucky in many ways. I have been relatively healthy, born into many opportunities. To deny this is, frankly, to lie. I simply must affirm that my success is not mine alone. And, because I have been given much, I too must give.

My belief in this area connects strongly to the Mormonism I was raised in. Indeed, Rand echoes Korihor, one of the great villains of the Book of Mormon, who claims that "every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime." Since you owe nothing, you can do anything. You can "go Galt" and turn your back. There is nothing here about putting the needs of others before your own. There is nothing of humility, or of gentleness, or of selfless service. As an article recently put it, "Ayn Rand's defining characteristic was hatred — for government, other people, and the very concept of human kindness."

So, what was it about me that so enjoyed this book? Is there a part of me that wants to be so independent? To break the bonds of society? To see others with contempt?

Substantive Year [Bryan]

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting post today assessing Obama's first year. Go read it. I think he is largely right, although I would quibble with some of the details. It has been a fairly impressive first year, especially considering the unbelievably difficult context he inherited and the unprecedented obstructionism from the opposition party. I remain optimistic about him, although I have been stunned at the (unjustified) vitriol that has been hurled his way.

A Better Proposal? [Bryan]

If we don't like the current health care legislation, the question is, What would be better? Nearly everyone, as far as I can tell, agrees that insurance companies should not be able to block people who have preexisting conditions from buying insurance. People often lose insurance through no fault of their own. If such people then get sick, they are doomed to bankruptcy or even death. This is a big problem. So, what to do? Let's imagine a system.

First, let's say we simply pass a law saying the insurance companies are required to accept people regardless of any preexisting conditions. This solves the problem. And, suddenly, you've also created a sweet deal for people. They can wait until they get sick and then buy insurance! Yippee! If this were to happen, though, insurance rates would skyrocket since only sick people would be getting insurance. Money would be going out to the sick people, but none would be coming in from the healthy people. It would be like letting people buy car insurance after they got into crashes. So, what to do?

Well, the answer is a law which says that everyone needs to buy insurance -- no free riders! This mandates that healthy people buy into the insurance market. With this, the pool of insurance buyers expands, and, with healthy people putting money into the system but not (yet) taking it out, insurance costs are reduced for everyone. Yippee! But wait, not everyone can afford to buy insurance. People shouldn't be forced to buy something they can't afford. So, what to do?

The answer is to help people buy insurance. First, you give them something of a "voucher" (subsidy) that they can use to help purchase insurance. The subsidy exists on a sliding scale, so that, as your income increases and you are more able to buy your own insurance, the amount you receive decreases. Second, you create an "exchange" that will allow people without insurance, and small businesses, to comparison shop for insurance in an easy and efficient way. In the exchange, people can compare costs, benefits, and consumer feedback, all in one place. This increases competition and reduces health care costs.

Suppose, then, that we want to help people with preexisting conditions to get covered. We have imagined a proposal that would seem to work: (1) insurance companies are banned from denying affordable coverage to customers based on preexisting conditions, (2) individuals must buy insurance to increase the insurance pool and guarantee that healthy people are paying in, and (3) government provides help for people to then buy insurance with subsidies and an exchange.

Wouldn't it be great if we had this proposal instead of the crappy legislation that Obama and the Democrats have proposed? Oh wait, I guess that is the plan. Maybe it is not so bad, after all.

Notice that if we do something that everyone thinks we should do (help people with preexisting conditions get coverage), and if we want to preserve a system of private health insurance, then it seems we have little choice but to accept something like the proposal made by Obama and the Democrats. Of course, we could also solve this problem by a single-payer system (like Canada and France), where the government takes over health care costs as a public service. There is much to be said for that, but this option may be too disruptive, and it is politically impossible anyway. So, again, if we want to preserve private health insurance, and if we want preexisting conditions covered, we don't really have much of a choice. This is what has to be done.

If somebody wants to send me a different, workable proposal, I'm all ears!

Friday, January 08, 2010

Loving Without Complete Understanding [Bryan]

One of my favorite movies is A River Runs Through It, based on an excellent short story of the same name by Norman MacLean. The story deals with the beauty of fly-fishing, which is one reason I enjoy it. The other reason is that it talks about the difficulty in helping those that are struggling. Throughout the film, various families try, and fail, to help their struggling and wayward members. The film ends with a tragic death of a son, heavily involved with alcohol and gambling, who had refused all assistance. As the movie concludes, the father (a pastor) is gives the following sermon to his congregation:
Each one of us here today will, at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question. "We are willing to help, Lord but what, if anything, is needed?"

It is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us...
I want to be of use to the humanity. I really do. I would be my brother's keeper, I would learn the healer's art, and so forth, as it says in the hymn. I have found, however, that this is not so easy. Tragically, more often than not, we simply don't know how to help those around us. Most tragically, those who often elude our assistance are those we are closest to. We often think we are helping, but really aren't. More often than we would care to admit, we just make things worse.

People are often "weirded out" at our attempts at helping them. Our offers to help send different messages to different people. Some will love being helped, others will take it as a message that we think they are incompetent and weak; some people will really want our aid, others will find it degrading; some people will trust us as we lend a hand, others will be suspicious of our motives. The fact is, such people are not always wrong in taking things in a negative way (our motives, for example, are often impure).

An example: Yesterday, it snowed about six inches in Columbus. We have an older neighbor, a very nice man, that lives across the street. He lives alone and has had some heart trouble recently. After shoveling my driveway, I thought for a moment about shoveling his driveway. I went back and forth in my mind about it. "Would it make him uncomfortable if I shoveled his driveway?" I asked myself. I decided to do it, hoping that he would like being helped. The minute I started shoveling, however, I heard a snow blower start up in his garage. I looked over and it was my neighbor. I heard him call out, "Thank you," in a way that I interpreted as, "Thanks, I can handle this, now go away." I wasn't sure what to do. We chatted for minute, and I left leaving his driveway partly shoveled, feeling like he wanted to take over. Here is the thing: I am not sure I read interpreted this situation right at all. Maybe he was grateful and wanted to come help, and then was saddened when I left. Maybe he was getting ready to plow his driveway at that point anyway and was just surprised to see me there. Maybe I made him uncomfortable and he hurried out to try to stop me. I just don't know.

The only thing we can do, I suppose is follow the advice of Norman MacLean, speaking through his pastor father. "And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us, but we can still love them. We can love completely, without complete understanding."