Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Interview

Kim Jong-un might want to reconsider his position on the release of "The Interview." For a deranged despot, he seemed a pretty likeable fellow. In fact, the actor portraying him was darn good in his role.

The movie itself is another story. It was destined to be one more in a long line of very forgettable movies good for a momentary laugh and then quickly headed for extinction. But not now, not after it became the center of an international imbroglio.

Maybe the masterminds behind this story were not the desperate government of a tyrant but the publicity gurus at the studio. Maybe, this was all a brilliant plot by Sony to give life and length to this film. Maybe there is a movie to be made about the secret tale behind the movie that wasn't and then was.

Or maybe Kim Jong-un just hadn't gotten a chance to watch the picture, and made a hasty ill conceived decision.  For only $5.99 he can get it on demand and let us know what he really thinks. We'll be awaiting his review.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Car Talk

For those of us who choose the path of car ownership rather than the universe of leasing, there is that moment in time when a determination must be made if too much is enough. When the mathematics of caressing a vehicle makes little sense and we bid adieu to an aged companion. Such was the dilemma recently before me.

First let it be known that I am not a car person. I do not anthropomorphise my cars, do not assign cute names to them, do not grow attached to their peculiarities and am genuinely aggravated by their peccadilloes. Unlike my wife, who still chastises me for demanding she release her death like grip on her 1989 Saab in 2004 when the rust was omnipresent, the push pins holding up the sagging interior ceiling were unsightly and there was water cascading in the car during rainstorms from the imprudently named sun roof, there is no sentiment coursing through my veins in regard to my automobile.  My actions are motivated only by financial considerations.

I am cheap. For those of you who know me well, or even know me a little, the sentence immediately preceding this one was unnecessary. Unsubstantiated rumor has it that I will travel far and wide for a free meal and that I never met a handout that I could refuse. Of course, I am that person who can be found at every food and beverage tasting in the supermarket. So when our 2005 Volvo with 110,000 miles on it began to make ugly sounds in its front right quadrant, the question of the necessity of medical intervention was raised.

The Volvo ranks only second in terms of elder statesmen among our vehicles. The 2002 Audi, with its omnipresent check engine warning, with its fan that makes its own determinations as to whether and when it wishes to operate, with its heating system that long since decided it was done providing us a service, with all of this seeming to hasten its demise, still continues to exist. We do not lightly discard those items we call ours.

But the noises emanating from the Volvo caused me consternation. The grating sound made it seem the problem could be somewhat ominous. Like a wheel about to fall off the car and wander on its own intended path down the highway. And when our mechanic was asked to investigate, the number $800 was suddenly part of the conversation. And worse, the noise could not be duplicated. This forfeiture of cash related to replacing old and worn out brakes. Deep breath in, cash out, new brakes installed.

When the offending noise resurfaced within a day or two of our taking possession of the car, it seemed only logical to have it addressed. After all, once the $800 was expended, there was no point in not getting this right. Over another $1000 was then removed from my wallet so I could become the proud new father of struts and shocks, although this seemed not like a reference to a vehicle but rather to (a) how the mechanic was walking around with my money and (b) how I had responded to this intrusion into my piggy bank.

Thus, over the course of 10 days, I had much spilled milk to cry over. But, as we all must do, I rationalized that this expenditure was well worth it when amortized over the expected remaining life of the car.

Yesterday was two days after I retrieved the Volvo. My wife and I agreed how much better it was handling, confirming the mechanic was prescient in informing us that the difference in the ride would be most noticeable. Early in the morning I drove this new and better version to a doctor's appointment and was then scheduled to return home to pick my wife up. Even more surprising than the improved handling of the car was the fact that its recent habit of flashing the check engine light at me was nowhere in evidence.

So, happy was I, at least in the car sense, as I headed back to our apartment. That feeling ended very abruptly.

As I was making a left hand turn at a light, mere blocks from my destination, I had an unrequested and unexpected companion knocking at my right passenger door. A car, operating at what I will swear at the time of my deposition was moving at excessive speed towards me, announced it wanted the space I was occupying in the middle of my turn. The result was that my right passenger door was significantly damaged, the right front wheel and tire were now facing inward rather than forward, and the compartment housing my right front light was smashed into a thousand little pieces. Green oozed from underneath the car, declaring to me that the antifreeze was antifrozen. What else was happening in places unseen was most certainly quite extensive. I surmised the great likelihood was that the puddle of green I was seeing was actually my money being spit out.

The vehicle was undriveable. As I sat in stunned silence, my first call was to the mechanic, advising him of the car's sorry state of affairs and making arrangements, if the car was not totaled, for him to undertake its resurrection. By the way, I mentioned, if it was not too late, could he back out the $1800 in charges on my card since I had received scant benefit from his undertaking. I could barely make out his response in my semi-coherent state, but I am quite certain that he did not tell me to peruse my next statement for credits.

I should end my story there, but for the sake of full disclosure there is a bit more to my tale of woe. Immediately upon arriving home, the insurance carrier was contacted. I provided chapter and verse of what had transpired (I could only guess that, much like "The Affair", my version of events would have a very different flavor from that of my "attacker") and was informed that the carrier would have the car moved from the lot to which it had been towed, to another lot of the carrier's choosing. There, the post-mortem would be undertaken.

Frazzled and more than a bit harried, I was driven by my wife to my office in my mother-in law's car, after we first dropped my mother-in law at her physical rehab appointment. Before I even arrived at work, there was a call from the carrier. It seemed the lot to which the car had been towed was refusing to release its possession without a signed release from the police. The form for this, the carrier was told, had to be obtained at the police department.

My wife called the local constables and explained our recent circumstances. Yes, she was told, the form had to be filled out. No, it could not be faxed or emailed. Yes, I had to appear at the police station to pick up the form if I was the registered owner of the vehicle.

So, we left the office, returned to our apartment, picked up the requisite papers, and arrived at the offices of the police. I spoke to the person in  apparent charge. "What", he asked me, "are you talking about? There is no form needed. This was not a police tow, but a private tow." With that, the lieutenant picked up the phone, called the lot where the car was stored, and advised that I was now able to pick up my vehicle.

I suggested to him that it was my belief there was some kind of scam going on. I announced that the lot was reluctant to release the car as it would be receiving storage fees the longer it kept my car in its clutches. My comment was not met with understanding but with more than a bit of indignation.

Approximately four hours after I arrived at the intersection of going home to pick up my wife and no you aren't, I appeared at my office, ready to start my work day. As I sat there I thought my Volvo actually deserved a name for what it had put me through. However, because I am a gentleman and do not want to offend my suddenly all too human transportation device, I will leave its moniker to your imagination. All I can tell you is that its not pretty.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Common Folks

Every day, President Obama awakens to a world filled with serious problems. Ebola, terrorism, racism, torture, unemployment, incarceration, ISIL, Putin, al-Assad, Hamas. Attached to each word, to each name is a seriousness that evokes very deep emotions. Each one occupies the President's thoughts, and collectively they define the space in which we all reside.

President Obama is nothing if not precise and very careful in his response to each crisis that is laid before him. His greatest strength lays in his intelligence and his ability to express our worries, our fears and our hopes in clear and powerful terms. He is the polar opposite of his predecessor, who appeared to intentionally perpetuate the image of himself as a simple man by speaking often in a comically inelegant manner.

Yet, there is one word that has bridged the gulf between George W. and the current holder of the highest office. One word that each of these men called upon again and again. One word that seemed jarringly inappropriate in the context of the moment but has arisen, over and over. One word that unites two men with such different political philosophies and ways of communicating their thoughts. That one word is "folks."

In response to our emerging national conversation concerning the recognition that we are very far removed from a post-racial society, President Obama spoke of the ongoing problem relating to black "folks." It struck a discordant note with me and I wondered how often he had called upon that word in different contexts, for it forever seemed to pepper his conversations.

The answer is a lot.  A recent article in BuzzFeed found that word appeared at least 348 times during President Obama's news conferences. It determined that for every 10,000 words uttered in these settings 7.3 was that one congenial, non-threatening, non-confrontational word. Folks.

The runner up in the use, or over-use, belonged to George W. Bush, but his reliance on that term paled in comparison with the current record holder, being less than half as prevalent. That is not to say that the former record holder did not cause some significant consternation with the application of this word.

Whether it be in reference to Al Qaeda as "the very same folks that attacked us on September the 11th" or as Islamist fascists as that "extremist group of folks",  it was not an uncommon turn of events for President Bush to somehow refer to the people who had, in his opinion, led us directly into what may arguably be the most ill conceived conflict this country has ever entered into, with a word that we perceive to have no malevolence attached to it.

And if the use by President Bush was somehow startling in its juxtaposition to the gravity of the issue, it seems President Obama has amplified and expanded its application.

It was reported that during the second of the  2012 Presidential debates, Mr. Obama used the word folks on 17 occasions,on subjects as diverse as gun control: "automatic weapons that kill folks in amazing numbers"; illegal immigration: "deport folks"; and the murders at the Libyan embassy: "I know these folks killed."

In a recent interview on "60 Minutes" President Obama spoke of the strategy to be utilized in confronting the then newly emerging terrorist group, ISIL : "We've got to get Arab and Muslim leaders to say very clearly.These folks do not represent us. They do not represent Islam". During that same conversation he defended his failure to arm Syrian rebels against Bashir al-Assad contending it was not correct to assert that if "we had given those folks some guns two and a half years ago, that Syria would have been fine."

Perhaps the President's most well remembered, and some would say tortured use of that word came in August of this year when he responded to allegations of CIA abuse of prisoners by stating "we tortured some folks.". This seemingly far too casual reference even led to the creations of a twitter hashtag "#wetorturedsomefolks."

Yet the use of this word is not confined to the most virulent of situations or aggressive foes. Years before, in discussing those who opposed passage of his proposed health care plan, he stated that "some of those same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought Medicare in the past.

A recent Wall Street Journal article reviewed the range of circumstances to which this word affixed in a July, 2014  press conference: " The president used the word “folks” eleven times, referring to a variety of groups including workers, critics, healthcare-seekers, the Border Patrol, the general public, the Central Intelligence Agency, Africans, and potential Ebola victims."

So, what conclusions can be drawn from the President's reliance on one innocuous word? Is it intended to humanize Mr. Obama, who has often seemed distant from both the electorate and from those in Washington who clearly find him remote and unapproachable? Is it meant to reduce the level of fear or concern that attaches to the most seemingly dangerous of adversaries or circumstances? Or is it merely the natural tendencies in his language, a word that both he and President Bush find easy and comfortable in their conversation?

It is hard to discern what motivation lies behind the constant use of this word. If meant to make the President seem less an intellectual elite and more a common man, I would suggest that it has failed to achieve its purpose. If it was a way to reduce anxiety in the public as to the toxic level of our enemies, I do believe that hyperventilated language can exacerbate (see the recent dialogue regarding the Ebola quarantine) and that common relatable phrases, in limited dosage and in proper context, can minimize anxieties. If it be only a term of comfort, that assists this President, and the one before him, in making each of the pressing issues of the day a little less personally cumbersome, then I can appreciate why this word has become so prevalent in presidential speech.

But whatever the rationale, "folks" has become a term that jars my senses a bit and troubles my soul. For me, it has lost its meaning by becoming a generic. It no longer strikes me as a term of informality or closeness, but rather as a word that makes me stop and lose context of what comes before or after.

I would merely ask the President to follow the sage advise of Porky Pig that was the punctuation mark at the conclusion of each of his episodes.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014



Is morality flexible? Is torture acceptable in the right circumstances?
There is much discussion today on how imminent the threat or how successful the "enhanced interrogation". If we perceived the chance of another 9/11 as extreme and that the result of the torture would be to stop it from transpiring would this excuse our actions?

Can our code of what we as a government are permitted to do not have absolutes? Can we say that no matter the level of our fear or the certainty of what shall be uncovered,  there is never justification for torture? Or are there always moments when moral absolutes crumble in the face of reality?

Leadership comes with a responsibility, a mandate, to demonstrate to our citizens and to the world those qualities that make them, make us, examples of what is right. Of what must be done, even in the most difficult of times. Especially in the most difficult of times.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Modern Day Racism

There are multiple levels on which the perpetuation of wrongs committed upon blacks is ongoing. Educational and employment opportunities are but a mirage in many communities. Incarceration is merely the next inevitable step in the lives of far too many. Decent housing, access to basic social services, even the opportunity to vote are often scarce or denied.

The signs of innate prejudice and overt racism are evident when a seemingly innocuous situation turns dangerous for a person of color. Shoot first and ask questions later is the standard. We have been conditioned as a society, and remain conditioned to see danger lurking at every moment, on every street corner.

The emotional upheaval that follows the recent events in Missouri and New York is small solace for lives that are so compromised by our treatment and our prejudices.

It is an ongoing national tragedy and disgrace.