Sunday, December 26, 2004

When she cooks, she COOKS

She seemed so rational until I saw her in the kitchen.

She had given a few hints, of course. The first time she drove me around Baltimore, she let loose a sudden outburst of profanity as if we were about to die.

“What!? Where?! What’s going on?!” I asked, my head swiveling wildly as I looked for the onrushing projectile.

I don’t remember what innocuous situation prompted her overplayed alarm. We both attributed it to the fact that she lived alone and usually drove alone. She had a born and raised tendency to be dramatic. Consciously or not, after that she became much more restrained in the car. But then...she cooked.

I did not grow up in the company of passionate cooks. The food was good, but the kitchen was a fairly placid place.

Not anymore. The stove is no longer aging gently, polished and scrubbed. Its burners are rimmed with blackened lava. The oven has seen more flame than a busy dragon’s lair and disgorged more edible treasure. But at what human cost?

Cooking used to be the busy but rational preamble to eating. Only the duration of the hum would change with the size and festivity of the meal.

Not anymore. Shrieks of genuine anguish have become routine. The crash of dropped or thrown pans no longer brings me at a run.

Ah, but the food...things I used to cook for myself, things I thought were pretty creative, nutritious and tasty now seem like plaster models of food. And yet she’s nice about it. I’ll start to throw together something for dinner. It won’t be outright toxic, but it won’t be inspired. Rather than sweep it off the counter with one grand, dismissive gesture, she’ll just say something like, “Well, that’s good, but how about adding this and sauteeing that, and a pinch of this here?”

I don’t ask anymore why I didn’t think of that. Each of us brings different strengths to the cooperative endeavor of life. Would she lose her creative powers if restrained in any way? Maybe things would be more placid, but she wouldn’t be the same. The experiment does not seem worth the risk.


I heard some military personnel in Iraq interviewed the other day. One of them said the only way he can deal with the horrors of seeing people mangled and killed is “not [to] think about it.”

Clearly the strain of trying to reconcile all the issues raised when people start killing each other over ideas is too much clutter in the mind when one is on the front lines.

Just after 9-11-01, I tried in my clumsy way to stir up some sort of alternative thinking regarding the use of force and whether it would really bring an end to terrorism, or even much respite from it. I deliberately did not include people who served in the military, because they had already agreed to follow orders. I knew from observing my father’s experiences that the military does not like to hear constructive criticism from within the ranks. So why agitate people who were already going to have to follow questionable orders? The people to reach were the people poised to give those orders.

Unfortunately, the decision makers in this country are as unreachable as the super-classified spooks in their undisclosed locations. Write to your congressman and you just get told why they’re going to do what they were already going to do before you contacted them. Try to reach anyone higher than that and get even less. Catch a government official out in public and they’re too pressed for time to give you more than a handshake or a wave, and maybe a catch phrase or a greeting they hope is relevant to you. When they do have the time, it’s somewhere else, and for someone other than you.

Okay, it’s hard to run a big country, especially by committee, the way we do. George Bush was right. It would be easier if he was dictator. Not good, but easier. And hey, what he is does have the letters d, i and c in it.

Meanwhile, the military personnel are developing the detachment necessary to keep killing and cleaning up after inconclusive battles. Some of them are cracking a little under the strain. Others are shuttering their minds, controlling their feelings, for now. It’s turning into a real war. Survival strategies are developing.

Vietnam gave war a bad name in this country for many years afterwards. The pointlessness, the death, the maiming, the mental and emotional scars actually seemed to dull our taste for violence for a few years. By the 1980s we were well on the way to recovery, though. So you could theorize that the Vietnam casualties died for our sins, to alleviate our need to pursue conflict. The casualties we suffer now may have to serve the same sad purpose, because we cannot be permanently cured of the desire to fight each other to the death over our disagreements.

If you find the part in the Gospels where Jesus said “Go forth and kick some ass,” let me know where it is. But then he just ended up nailed to a cross. What kind of example is that? You don’t smite any evildoers that way.


If Life=Time and Time=Money, then Money=Life. So if you earn less than someone else, your life is worth less than his. And anything on Earth or in the area of outer space we can currently reach is only worth whatever dollar amount we can set on it.

The Life-Money value actually goes beyond salary. For instance, military personnel fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan might not be lavishly paid, but the investment backing them up adds to their monetary cost, and therefore to their value. The individuals become vulnerable to destruction, but their role is valuable, or at least valued.

When I was a senior in high school, my counselor asked me, “What is success?”

“Success is being able to do something you love for a living,” I said.

“Bullshit,” he said. “Success is money. Go out there and make as much money as you can. Get a good job.”

Of course I rebelled against his analysis. In so doing I explored it from the underside.

Old Smither had a point. Success is, in fact, money. But I was right too. If you are making a living at what you love, you are getting it to produce income. That’s money, the measurable unit of success. If satisfaction happens to trot along beside it, so much the better. Maybe Smither was just feeling extra cynical that day. He was a pretty crappy guidance counselor, but he was probably pining for that better job. We all have bad days at work, some of us more than others.

An archaeologist I met warned against getting stuck in “golden handcuffs.” Archaeology. Now there’s a big-bucks occupation. But he loves field work and challenges himself with the strain of doing a job where every mistake gets brutally punished by an uncompromising jury of peers.

“When you dig a site you only get one chance to do it right. You can’t put it back and start over. Things are lying where they lie,” he said. “You have to remove them meticulously and document them exactly, because no one else will ever see them as you found them. Archaeologists are a bitchy bunch. It’s much worse than food or the arts.”

He feels like a success, worn-out jeans, grimy fingernails and all. How many people will actively care about the lives of aboriginal New Hampshirites from 12,000 years ago? You never know what may seem interesting or important. It doesn’t hurt to know. And it’s good to know that the person in charge of finding out really cares about his work. He’s making enough money to live. Money. That’s success.

Retirement income is a different story. It’s one thing to maintain life when one is young, healthy and relatively mobile. But humans are the only creatures that retire. Everything else, animal or vegetable, works until it dies. It just doesn’t work quite as well toward the end.

Someone once said of me, “I don’t think he wants to have money.”

Nonsense. I love having money. Money is time. Money is freedom. Money is power. But the selfish pursuit of maximum income is as powerful a destructive force as uncorrected ignorance. When they link up, it’s apocalyptic.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Creche Bang Boom

I’m sorry. The Little Drummer Boy just bugs me.

Think about it. Here’s a woman who just jolted along the dusty road on a donkey on the last day of her pregnancy. She gave birth in a stable. Now some well-meaning kid wants to beat a drum for her newborn in the middle of the night.

What they don’t even tell you is that right behind him was the guy whose only talent is making armpit farts.

For Mary, it was a long, long night.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Customer Service

I used to think I was a people person until I spent some time around them. Now I find I get along much better with cats, wild animals, impersonal natural forces and inanimate objects.

Not that I don't try to solve people's problems for them as best I can. People are all right. I just don't invest a lot of personal warmth in the outcome. Still, the service they get from me will always be reliable to the best of my ability. Once they're out in the field they will value the precisely chosen or repaired gear they got from that crusty churl in the shop more than some ill-matched piece of industrial flotsam provided by that charming fellow they'd love to invite to dinner.

I can be antisocial and still be socially responsible.

I beg your pardon

Someone took offense to me today.

I certainly meant no offense. That’s not to say I won’t offend with calculated precision when I feel like it. But I hate to offend by accident.

Every time this happens it reminds me that not everyone who offends me means to. I’m combative, regardless of my actual competence or incompetence in combat. My first reaction to perceived attack is the strongest defense I can muster. But it may not be appropriate. I have not really become slower to anger over the years, just slower to lash out. Sometimes.

It’s tricky to hop out of yourself instantly in order to view a situation from both sides. But you can even ascribe a combative motive to the exercise. By understanding your opponent you can more accurately tailor your counterattack. Or, if you’re charitably inclined, you can use their point of view as a basis for forgiveness. You’re better off either way. The faster you learn to do it, the more quickly you can make the appropriate action

Some people simply won’t accept an apology. Those are most distressing. All you can do then is get some distance between you and hope that time brings them peace. And suppress the urge to flip them off for being such thin-skinned ninnies. I said I was sorry, @$$#0!=!

Thursday, December 16, 2004

What the Dickens?

That Scrooge, what a lightweight. There he was, acting like a hard-core capitalist who could make Ayn Rand say, “I want to have your baby.” Then he had one lousy night of regret and death fear and turned into a big, fat socialist marshmallow. So all that talk about letting the poor die was just macho posturing. Ayn says “forget it, what was I thinking.”

Monday, December 13, 2004

Insurance versus Care

Health insurance is not health care. Health insurance is a bet between you and an insurance company that you are sicker than they think you are. You can’t possibly win that bet. Either they are going to suck large amounts of money out of you for services never rendered or you are going to suffer the torments of injury or disease for the slim satisfaction of getting some of your money back.

My wife and I are paying for health insurance, so now we can only afford to be seriously ill. Even then we’ll have to meet a steep deductible first.

In my experience, medical savings accounts are useless to people who might need to take a high deductible policy to keep premiums down. We can hardly find the money for any savings after paying our living expenses and premiums, let alone special savings earmarked for medical expenses. When I did have a medical savings account, if the money was deducted from it to pay its own annual fee, that did not count as a legitimate expenditure, so I paid a tax penalty on it.

I did not bother with health insurance for a number of years, because the premiums made no sense. I put the money directly into savings. If I got sick, it was there. If I didn’t get sick, it was still there. That made sense to me. If I needed to go to the doctor, I went and I paid for the office visit.

Certainly if I had a serious problem I was in trouble. Legends abound of patients without insurance left to stiffen on gurneys in hospital hallways. In fact, the insurance agent who finally scored with me told me that the hospital could take my house if I came to them uninsured. Not only would I go down, but my wife would be left homeless.

Marriage does not define my relationship with my wife. We cohabitated devotedly. Marriage is simply convenient one-stop shopping to have a couple’s bond legally recognized. I suppose we could have written up a contract that provided a similar level of legal protection, but we would basically have been reinventing marriage. Our personal bond is for while we live. Marriage is for the survivor, really.

So I forked over. Now, with Christmas barreling down on us, a big, honkin’ quarterly payment is due, at the same time as a mortgage payment and a property tax bill. Ho f–king ho ho ho. And I haven’t been to a doctor since my ill-advised checkup shortly before we got approved for this so-called health plan six months ago. The results of that little foray, hardly life-threatening in themselves, earned me an automatically higher premium and the exclusion of the complaint in question.

Health insurance is not health care. It is just another reminder that people who don’t meet a certain financial threshold are disposable. But let’s not change a thing. Let the market rule.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

This Land is My Land, Period

This land is my land,
go get your own land.
I’ll do what I want
while you go pound sand.
From the former forest
to the dirty water,
this land belongs to only me

As I was building
my ribbon of highway
I cut some trees
that got in my way.
I know they weren’t mine
but that is okay.
Nobody needs them anyway

CHORUS: This land is my land,
go get your own land.
I’ll do what I want
while you go pound sand.
From the former forest
to the dirty water,
this land belongs to only me.

I tore a camp down
and built a castle
because I’m rich
and I’m an asshole.
Because I built it
in front of you,
my house is now your only view


When I expanded
my lakefront palace,
I dredged the lake bed
with my big phallus.
I built a swim beach.
I paid a large fine.
I could afford it, so it’s mine.


When we’re done building
we’ll save a state park.
See, on the map there,
that little green mark.
Then all you deadbeats
can go and play there,
‘cause you don’t own as much as me!

This land is my land,
go get your own land.
I’ll do what I want
while you go pound sand.
From the former forest
to the dirty water,
this land belongs to only me!


I got a speed boat,
I got a jet ski.
I like whatever
my money gets me.
Don’t see pollution.
My beer still tastes fine.
You go get yours and I’ll get mine.

Woody’s wonderful tune is infinitely expandable and verses are fun to create. Go nuts. I did.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Recent American History

And so the 1970s turned into the 1980s and the economy boomed because millions of people suddenly qualified for their first credit cards.

And the 1980s ended in a recession when all those bills became due.

And then in 1992 Bill Clinton was elected president and he and Al Gore were young and played rock music during their campaign and everybody decided they were tired of being poor and they’d gotten ahead of their debts a little, so they got their credit cards back out. Consumer electronics had gotten really interesting. And the economy boomed.

And America ran its consumer debt up and Clinton ran his zipper down and eventually his term limit ran out and the Republicans ran against his sexual record and we got a president who decided that if the American consumer could live on credit, the government should be able to do the same.

And then we got attacked by a group of people who don’t even seem to like each other much, let alone us, and the debtor president led us to war on the installment plan.

Now, as always, experts line up to predict the future, hoping that at least one of them will end up looking smart.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Weapons Culture

Humans do like to kill each other, don't they?

Weapons fascinate us. Over the millennia the human race has devoted millions of hours to weapon development. We have industries devoted to manufacture and museums devoted to study and remembrance.

People who love weapons often express it in sensual terms. Some of them acknowledge the weapon's primary purpose, that of injuring and killing other human beings, while others slide past that aspect with a soft focus. The dead fall out the bottom of the frame, leaving the victor standing in view, sweating, panting slightly, weapon hanging slack.

It's mostly a male trait, but not exclusively.

The violence may be intimate, one on one, or orgiastic, with multiple partners all at once or in quick succession.

Yes, it sounds sexual. Men can fight and kill much more tirelessly than they can copulate. The blade of steel stays stiff until forcibly broken. Maybe if men were better in bed they'd have less time for fighting, and less inclination. But then again, probably not.

Having been a weapon fancier myself I can view it from both sides. Obsession makes a shelter from other reality. The devotee can judge everything by how it measures up to the yardstick of one kind of performance. When the penalty for failure is permanent elimination it is easy to convince yourself that you've found the true measure of a man. Why wait for natural forces to cull us when we can cull each other?

It's easier to take a life than to get one. Why try to understand what you can more easily destroy? Why try to understand much of anything except the technology and biomechanics of combat?

Why indeed? Some people find the simple life of killing and dying suits them perfectly. Then those of us who choose differently have to figure out how to deal with the incorrigibly violent. We have to cultivate skills of violence in order to defend ourselves, or hope that we can retreat, or accept death as preferable to fighting.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Fear and Hope

It takes a lot more strength of character to do the right thing when you do not expect to be rewarded in heaven. An awful lot of what is packaged as moral behavior just makes sense for a friendly society. Don't steal stuff. Don't lie. Don't cheat. Don't disrupt other people's relationships for your own selfish gain. Take a critical look at what looks like an easy gain, to see who might be getting burned by it. It isn't necessarily tainted. Just take a second to make sure.

You don't have to be conspicuously doing good all the time. Just don't do bad.

Have a sense of responsibility toward those who will follow you. Maybe there's a heaven. Maybe there isn't. Argue that on your own time. Just don't stink the place up unduly while you're here.

All that's needed for good to triumph is for bad people to do nothing.

In laziness and lack of ambition lies the salvation of the world. Sit down, put your feet up and make a difference.


The trick is to cut each other slack without letting each other slide.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

My Mechanic

Our cars run our lives. We depend on them to keep us connected to society. They transport us to all our obligations and pleasures. So the people who keep them running for us hold considerable power.

Those of us with marginal finances can’t afford to buy bad work or get ripped off by a dishonest or incompetent mechanic.

I drive the better part of 40 miles to get to my mechanic. I found him when I really needed honest, sufficient work, and I’ve gone back ever since, because he always provides. No one else has matched his integrity and accuracy.

Rich is a brilliant diagnostician and a wizard at repair. The car may not end up as the factory intended, but I know from my own work in the bike and cross-country ski business and as a consumer for more than 40 years that the factory doesn’t know everything. In fact, manufacturers are often the least reliable authority on their own products. They’ll only tell you what’s wrong with it when the federal regulators hold a gun to their heads.

If only his personal habits matched the purity of his customer service ethics. He will not last much longer at the rate he guzzles alcohol and sucks cancer into his lungs with nearly every breath. You might wonder why I entrust my car to someone I have seen slurringly intoxicated. He was not always that way. I monitor the problem. Meanwhile, his work record is still far better than most other mechanics I’ve been to.

His hands look like those of an artist as they pass over his work. Whatever he does to himself, he cares about his customers and his work more than his health. He is consumed. He will give it everything he has, as long as he has it. The lesson is to be honest to others, be fair.

He’s a successful small business owner. I’ve been going to him for 15 years. The business is killing him, because he cares so much, but in the meantime he offers a matchless refuge for drivers in need. He can’t keep a helper because they can’t match his skill, dedication and friendliness. One or two have come tantalizingly close, but they never last. Maybe he's harder to get along with as a co-worker and boss than as a customer. In any case, he ends up working alone. And he puts in the hours.

Some people are early risers. When they have a lot of work they get up extra early. Others slide toward the night. Rich is nearly nocturnal now. He found that he ended up working late even if he came in early, so now he just comes in late.

“Fuckin’ phone’s always ringing during the day,” he says. “I couldn’t get any work done anyway.” He swigs more beer, followed by a mouthful of Jack Daniels. I don’t know what to say. He has me by the car. We’re all dying of something. The best thing we can offer each other is good company while we live.

The last mechanics I trusted this implicitly were Rick Cline’s boys at Sports Car Specialties in Gainesville, Florida in the 1970s. They were another nocturnal bunch. I’m sure their wizardry was fueled by a lot of alcohol and a few other things. But they did work magic on my Spitfire and any other car lucky enough to come into their orbit. Rick could be seen by 11 a.m. most mornings, a fist shoved deep in one trouser pocket, a coffee cup clenched in the other fist, a cigarette protruding from between two fingers. He would squint at the floor, sip, puff, sip, puff, slowly coming to life after a night in his machine shop.

Rick’s was a racing shop. Rich has no such ambitions. His calling is to minister to the regular driver. His motto is “Driven to keep you rolling.” He lives it and will probably die by it. I fully expect he will be found dead at work or die while driving home. I don’t know what we will all do then. Just pay more and expect less, I guess. It’s normal, most places.

Billable Hours

Because we try, as Americans, to let everything be market-driven, the pressure is on everyone to make every minute pay. Can you figure out how to get paid for almost every waking minute? Wow, how about every sleeping minute?

Most of us can’t figure out how to make nearly every hour a billable hour. The problem is that people with little money are deemed worthless in a market-driven society. If it hasn’t happened to you, consider yourself lucky. It has happened to most of us, some more than others.

Americans are riven by conflicting forces. The union movement gained momentum in a period when the American capitalist ruling class was exploring ever more flamboyant leisure habits as industrial production methods generated unprecedented fortunes. The contrast with the life of the working stiff was too obvious to hide.

With a few concessions, the wealthy owners created – albeit grudgingly and gradually – a working class with leisure. But, by continuing to let money work its magic, the overlords and the underlings have waged a seesaw battle ever since, the privileged trying to maintain privilege and the grunts trying to retain some measure of a humane schedule and a chance at some recreation of their own.

Fortunes are not maintained simply by sitting on a stack of money. A wealthy person must either tend his own affairs or hire someone to tend them. So even the rich person has to make sure that money keeps coming in. Of course the more money you have, the easier it is. Money attracts money.

This magnetism can work in reverse for the poor schlump who doesn’t know how to corral the stuff. Look how many big lottery jackpot winners end up back in debt hell within a couple of years. Their money ran off to play with other people’s money and never came home. The adept business person knows how to separate fools from money without a single pang of conscience. In a market economy, the losers feed the winners and die off.

What makes this predation less obvious is that the losers seldom die immediately. They go somewhere else, find something else to do. Perhaps some of them even hit the mix right and prosper the second or eighth time around. But some of them end up living and dying on park benches.

Most of us do not end up with either extreme wealth or extreme poverty. Take nothing for granted, of course, but the daily grind is made of small decisions. Our need for billable hours may be the strongest driving force behind our deteriorated physical condition. It also leads to the American addiction to work.

Work is an acceptable addiction. It’s even praised. Work hard, save your money and you just might get a few years to slow down and contemplate beauty, or rebuild your battered physique before you get dumped in a grave. Maybe you’ll score big-time and get to lighten up well before old age. Whatever you do, don’t slow down before you hit that financial finish line.

No one’s paying you to exercise unless you are a professional athlete. Your school-child games have become another form of career placement. If you don’t earn the right to be fit, you’d better forget about it. We need you at work. If your work hours leave time for any other activity, you probably ought to think about a second job. Keep those hours billable. It’s not easy come, easy go. It’s hard to come by and easy to piss away. And the less you have, the faster it drains.

To choose another path in such circumstances is to die for a principle. Yet that is what you must do. All around you are people who have made that choice obvious, whether they are military personnel who have agreed to risk death as they hunt and kill the nation’s enemies or the fanatical attackers who kill themselves for the sake of killing others. What is less obvious is the constant string of losers in the marketplace who have chosen to try to spend their time a little differently, accepting the market death that comes from voluntary surrender.

Anyone who chooses a job less lucrative or a craftsmanship level higher than merely adequate has chosen market death. Basic costs spiral upwards, health care is for those who can afford it, more willing strivers shoulder their way in and bolster the company’s bottom line. The fool who chooses quality time may well discover how high a price tag it carries. Yet still some of us try.

Do we deserve the scorn, derision and neglect of the addicted workers? Do children raised by such people simply have unrealistic expectations of what is possible in life?

Good fortune is like a thunderbolt, striking a few, unexpectedly. But lightning strikes certain places more than others. People can put themselves in the way of a strike by going to where it strikes most often. Yet even in those places the electricity does not flow all the time. Let the dreamers gather in hope. They may simply live their lives in obscurity, watching the voltage illuminate others while it passes them by. When living your dream, be prepared to die chasing it.