Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama Swings the Pendulum to the Left

A couple of years ago, my wife gave me a key fob with an LCD display that ticks off the days until President Bush leaves office. At the time, the day seemed so far off, I couldn't bear to look at it. Today, I see that it says "75" and we can be assured that the new president will not carry on the Bush legacy.

Barack Obama's victory over John McCain did not occur simply because the Republicans ran a poor campaign (although...Palin? Seriously, what were you thinking?). The victory is really about a philosophical message that ran out of steam and never lived up to its promise. I can't help but think that what happened to the Republicans over the last 28 years was not unlike what happened to the Democrats between the 1930s and the 1960s. The country was solidly Republican all through the 1920s, but Herbert Hoover's inability to deal with the Great Depression forced the country to try something more radical by electing Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It can be argued that the flurry of new legislation that FDR pushed through Congress never really did anything to end the Depression, but that was beside the point. FDR's confidence, energy, and charismatic charm gave people hope and strengthened the perception that the USA was still a great country with her best years still ahead, and perception can go a long way in motivating people to bring that vision to reality.

The New Deal philosophy of FDR carried on even during the 1950s. Despite having an enormously popular two-term Republican president, many of the once radical concepts from the 30s, like Social Security and strong labor unions, were by then commonly accepted as normal birthrights. It wasn't until the administration of Lyndon Johnson that the wheels fell off of the New Deal train. If FDR's programs were a flurry, Johnson's New Society was a blizzard and the country was fatigued by the onslaught of social change. Rising budget deficits, difficulties in the economy, and a war that was going on too long and consuming to much in national lives and treasure made Lyndon Johnson one of the most hated men in America. His own staff could not put together one public event that was not heavily peppered with protestors and hecklers.

Johnson saw the writing on the wall and chose not to seek another term. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey chose to run in his place. Although he was a decent man and a fine public servant, he couldn't distance himself from the Johnson policies that he had supported for so many years. The New Deal was old and not looking like much of a deal anymore. Americans swung to the relative calm of the Republican Party.

Had it not been for Watergate, Nixon could've led the country into a period of new conservatism, but it was not meant to be. The torch was instead picked up by Ronald Reagan, an actor who could sell a new vision of America just as easily as he sold Borax on Death Valley Days. Reagan inherited a country in a deep economic crisis from President Jimmy Carter, the Democrats' version of Herbert Hoover. Reagan proposed a new approach to government through lower taxes and spending cuts to balance the budget. He cut taxes, but lacked the will to cut spending, creating even greater deficits than before. With the exception of a few boom years in the middle of his presidency, he left office with the economy in much the same condition as he had found it, but as with FDR, this meant little. Reagan made Americans feel good about themselves again. He saw the world through the lens of an MGM Andy Hardy movie, and he was charismatic enough to sell a large chunk of the country on the same delusion. As I said, perception goes a long way.

The 1990s were boom years, fueled by young entrepreneurs who believed in the conservative philosophy that Americans could build their own future without government handouts. The last decade of the 20th century saw the fulfillment of the Reagan philosophy, even though it was presided over by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Clinton was the best Republican the Democrats ever produced, balancing the budget, reforming welfare, and stimulating an economic boom like none seen since the Industrial Revolution. And then came George W. Bush....

While Clinton was conservatism wrapped in a palatable humanist coating, Bush 43 was hardcore conservatism wrapped in an incompetent boob. While he started with some good ideas about lowering taxes and reforming education, he was soon in way over his head with 9/11. Instead of strengthening our borders and relentlessly pursuing Osama Bin Laden, George W. chose to exploit America's fears by getting them to sign off on his personal adventure in Iraq to prove to his father that he could finish the job Bush 41 couldn't. More wasted American lives and treasure. The balanced budgets were gone, the surplus turned into a huge deficit, and Osama Bin Laden was still free after more than seven years.

And while the Republicans continued to talk about smaller government and lower taxes, they signed off on a nearly trillion dollar nationalization of America's major financial institutions, just so their corporate fat cat friends didn't have to go down with the ship they so carelessly drove into the iceberg. The message didn't add up to reality. We could no longer ignore the little man behind the curtain. The emperor truly had no clothes.

So now the pendulum swings once again to the left. I can't say whether Barack Obama will be a great president or not. His inexperience leads me to believe that there will be many bumps ahead. But Obama was able to motivate a large number of young Americans to get involved in the political process. He made them believe in a future that looked more like what they wanted it to be rather than what the Baby Boomers created for them. And perception goes a long way.

Friday, October 24, 2008


I just saw the trailer for the new Ron Howard movie Frost/Nixon, and I think it looks pretty good. Here's a link if you want to see it. This film was originally supposed to come out in June, but I guess the studio thought it would get lost in all the superhero stuff that was out at the time. I can't wait to see it, even though Frank Langella sounds like he's doing a Sean Connery impersonation rather than one of the 37th President of the United States.

Watergate was the first major national event that I was aware of as a kid. Vietnam had already been going on for some time before I was aware of it, and the war was already winding down by the early 70s. But Watergate hit like a thunderclap in the summer of '72 and just kept building over the next two years. I was seven years old when it started and nine years old when Nixon resigned, so I wasn't able to follow all the twists and turns of the drama. All I knew was that something important was happening during my lifetime. My parents could talk about where they were when Pearl Harbor was bombed; maybe I would be able to talk about Watergate. In retrospect, I had no real perspective on it at the time. It appeared that the President had done something wrong. In my mind, he should be punished and be done with it. I didn't understand all the chattering over it. Eventually Nixon resigned, and I wondered why it took so long.

A few years later, I tried to watch the Frost/Nixon interviews to finally get the whole story from the horse's mouth, so to speak. I was about 12 at the time and thought I was now mature enough to follow it. But the early interviews were about his time in Congress and as Vice-President, and I lost interest before they ever got around to Watergate.

When I took journalism in high school, I thought it might be a good idea to read All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. I was fascinated at how the book read like a suspense novel with Woodward and Bernstein slowly peeling away the layers of deception and cover-up. It got me excited about a career as an investigative reporter...for about two weeks.

During the 80s, documentaries started popping up about the Watergate Era and I finally started to understand what exactly happened. The release of the tapes also allowed for a clearer sense of "what the President knew and when he knew it." In the 90s, after Nixon passed away, I finally got around to reading Woodward and Bernstein's book The Final Days, and I developed a stronger sense of sympathy for the man and his tragic trajectory through history. I've since read a great deal about Nixon and Watergate. I even suffered through Oliver Stone's cockeyed movie.

When the play Frost/Nixon hit Broadway, I wanted to see it but knew that wasn't really practical, so I did the next best thing and read David Frost's sort of companion book, titled Frost/Nixon: Behind the Scenes of the Nixon Interview. This is a fascinating account of the verbal sparring that went on between Frost's people and Nixon's people and how much was at stake for both men in regard to the interviews. Frost is quick to point out inaccuracies in the play, which I appreciate. I hate watching a docu-drama and wondering what is real and what is creative license. Most importantly, the book illustrates the internal struggle Nixon fought as he was pressed to reveal more about himself. A part of him wanted to come clean, but the old, reserved, secretive Nixon resisted. His ultimate breakdown on camera is moving and speaks volumes about the man.

I can forgive Richard Nixon, at least where Watergate is concerned, because ultimately he only hurt himself. The election would've been a landslide in his favor anyway, so the break-in was completely unnecessary. He hurt other people, of course, but they were willing servants who would've suffered even worse for their guy. Watergate, to me, is a compelling drama whose reality is palatable, unlike our modern day tragedy of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. President Bush's transgressions created unforgivable pain and suffering for thousands, none of whom are Bush or his family.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Singular Joy for the Lonely Athlete

Tomorrow afternoon (Saturday, October 4th), a section of York Road in Towson, Maryland will be blocked off for a parade featuring local Olympic participants, primarily Michael Phelps. Phelps grew up in the neighborhood where I currently reside, so I guess it makes sense that the locals would want to have a parade in his honor running alongside the streets and schools where he spent his youth. I was momentarily tempted to wander down to the end of my street and take a gander at the proceedings, but I quickly lost interest.

I'm not sure what it is, but I can't get all that worked up about athletes who participate in individual sports. I enjoy watching them compete during the Olympics simply to see the competition, but I have no burning interest in the individuals themselves, even one who once lived so near to where I live now. I've never fallen prey to the cult of personality that surrounds a Bruce Jenner or a Mary Lou Retton or a Michael Phelps. I've flogged my brain about this and the only answer I can come up with is that their achievement has no connection with me whatsoever. These athletes found a sport that they excelled in, pursued that sport passionately, and were able to achieve recognition in that sport. Bully for them! But what does that have to do with me? Why should I be excited because they've achieved fame and fortune? It's not changing my life one wit. I just don't feel the buzz.

On the other hand, I do somehow get wildly excited about football, for example. I live and die with the ups and downs of the Ravens, nervously squirming in my seat during the entire game, cussing them out when they make a bad play, and screaming with joy when they score a touchdown (a truly remarkable event for the Ravens, believe you me!). Two years ago, when we were on a roll that culminated in a 13-3 season, I was chugging that purple Kool-Aid like water and walking on air (that is, until the playoffs). So why can I be so caught up in football and not so much with individual sports? I guess there truly is no "I" in "team."

For some reason, because a group of individuals come together to struggle for a common victory, I feel as those I am also a part of that team. I am the proverbial "12th man." Sure, I'm not out on that field or providing any input into the outcome of the game, but I'm still there. I follow every injury of every player, I choke up at every human interest story the local media can drag out (forget the national media saying anything about the Ravens), and I praise or curse the coaching staff depending on their actions. In my mind, I am a Raven, and I'm sure all fans of all team sports have that same feeling.

With individual sports, it's just that one person out there, doing his or her best with no outside help. I know, I did no more to help the Ravens have a 13-3 season in 2006 than I did to help Michael Phelps win 8 gold medals this summer, but the fact that there are 11 guys on the field, and 41 others on the sidelines, gives me the sense that I am a team mate as well. Watching the lonely runner or swimmer or skier reinforces the sense that the athlete's thrill of victory or agony of defeat is truly a singular experience. Therefore, any parade for such athletes is not a shared experience of joy, but simply a large number of people supplying additional joy for one person. I'm afraid I have so little joy for myself, I can't afford to give it away to those who already have more than enough.

Monday, September 22, 2008

High Risk Means No Risk For Those at the Top

My mind is still reeling as I ponder the potential ramifications of the recent shake up in the financial markets. Not only will this bail out cost more taxpayer money than I can possibly imagine, we have effectively nationalized our financial system. While the Republicans rail against a national health care system, President Bush showed no hesitation in spending hundreds of billions of dollars to buy up a load of worthless holdings from major financial institutions which were thought to be too big to go under. Everything Mr. Bush does sends the same message: If you are rich, we will always extend a lifeline; if you are poor, suck it pal!

So what got us into this horrible mess? As with any financial mess: greed. When you couple greed with a regulatory system that is antiquated and disinclined to intervene, you have a bomb waiting to go off. Having worked for a major investment firm for many years, I know that the layers of regulation regarding financial institutions are deep and complex. But just like our complicated income tax system, there are always those who can circumvent the system if they really want to. Fortunately, I happened to work for a company that believed in running a tight ship, but I was also aware that many of the regulations we followed were created in the early 30s in response to the Stock Market Crash of 1929. A few extra precautions were put into place after the next big crash of 1987, but surprisingly little was done during the 90s when financial institutions grew by leaps and bounds.

The proliferation of employee-funded retirement plans and the feeble interests offered by bank instruments pushed millions of Americans into stocks and bonds. Investment firms grew exponentially during the 90s, not necessarily because of their investment genius, but simply from market penetration. The flood of money into the markets in turn spurred on these markets to ever greater heights. The more people wanted in, the higher the value of stocks went, which drew even more people in, which drove stock prices even higher, and so on. By the late 90s, you could invest in just about anything and it would make money over the short term. Investment firms made money by staying open, basically.

I worked as a lowly cog in one such investment firm during the 90s. While the investment managers and administrative bigwigs treated themselves to lavish raises, bonuses, and stock options, us worker drones were given annual raises barely above a cost-of-living increase and year-end bonuses that were the monetary equivalent of Chevy Chase's Jelly-of-the-Month Club bonus from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. Granted, I was not working the trading desk or directly effecting any influence over our investment products, but I was a part of an army who took care of the shareholders' daily needs and made sure they were happy. And in an environment where any boob could make money in the stock market, the major deciding factor for most shareholders was the service they received. But that was always discounted by the people in power. It was their brilliant financial minds that drove their success, or so they thought.

The bubble burst in 2000. The markets dropped and no amount of trading finesse could create gains. Mutual fund managers who were once given rock star treatment by the financial press were suddenly vilified by the shareholders. Some slunk away into oblivion to pursue "other opportunities." Still, those who remained continued to receive ample raises and bonuses each year while my colleagues and I either received less or were laid off. Those who suffered most were the shareholders and the middle-class employees.

With the stock market suffering, the next area of exploitation became the housing market. Home buyers had already been benefiting from a decade of low-interest-rate mortgages, but avarice created the highly risky sub-prime mortgage. Any reasonable thinking person would know that you don't talk someone of limited means into an adjustable rate mortgage. The introductory rate they receive at the beginning is probably the rate they can afford. Once the adjusting kicks in, they are priced out of their mortgage. Secondarily, because the initial rate is so low, home buyers convinced themselves they could pay more for a house than they once would simply because the low interest rate made the monthly payment reasonable. Of course, that monthly payment was the highest - not the lowest - they wanted to pay. Raise that adjustable rate a few ticks and suddenly they were on the verge of default.

The banking piranhas who pushed these loans knew all this of course. They knew these people would be sucking wind in a year or two, but every new mortgage meant a commission. They had to keep making those commissions. If the suckers were out on their ear in a year or two, that was their dumb luck. I can't really argue that point - those who don't read or care to understand the fine print should be held accountable. But when an avalanche of bad debt comes crashing down, everyone gets hit, not just the poor saps who took out the mortgages.

Of course, that's not quite true. The bigwigs who ran these financial institutions into the ground with ridiculous risk - those same bigwigs who received enormous salaries and bonuses during the run up - are now bailed out by Uncle Sam. We, the taxpayers, have to pay for the greed of those who already had too much. In return, we get a load of bad holdings that will likely never amount to anything. Lucky us.

So the risk/reward message I preached to so many shareholders for so many years, and the warnings I carefully laid out for them that high risk investments may lead to big losses, don't hold true anymore - at least for the ones at the top. They take all the risk they want and if it blows up in their face, the taxpayers bail them out. No accountability for those who finance the campaigns of Congresspeople.

It's estimated that this financial bail out may cost $1 trillion. And a national health care plan would be too expensive? Oh right, that's for the poor people. They don't count.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Where's the Love for the Ravens?

I'm becoming increasingly irritated with the national media's coverage of the NFL. They tend to treat it like a TV series where you have a handful of main characters (in this case, The Colts, The Patriots, The Cowboys, Last Year's Super Bowl Champs, and whatever team Farve is currently playing on), the semi-regular guest stars (usually The Steelers, The Eagles, The Seahawks, and maybe The Jaguars), and the bit players and extras (the remaining 23 teams). The Ravens are akin to a slab-bound crystal meth addict on an episode of CSI.

Case in point: The Ravens beat The Cincinnati Bengals 17 to 10 in their season opener Sunday in front of nearly 71,000 fans in M&T Bank Stadium. We're starting the season with a new head coach, mostly new coaching staff, a re-vamped offensive line, and a rookie quarterback who was meant to be a third-stringer until two weeks ago. And we won! So I'm watching Football Night in America, and instead of focusing on this Cinderella story, the ex-jocks in the glass cage can only rant about how poorly the Bengals played, as if they had money riding on the game or something. They literally did not mention the Ravens at all except to say "Flacco Who?" The Number 18 First Round Draft Choice, you big boobs!!!!

I realize that The Bengals are a crappy team and there's a lot more football down the road, but you can a least throw a bone to a team that struggling to rebound from a 5-11 season. Besides, no matter how well we do, the national media seems to take some sadistic glee in ignoring us or downplaying our success. Back in 2006, when we had won our first four games in a row, I was still hearing more about Tony Romo and he hadn't even taken his first snap as a starter yet. They had already elevated him to the calibre of Manning and Brady before he had done anything. Such is the nature of star-making from the likes of NBC and ESPN. The hot-and-heavy bromance that John Madden has for Tony Romo is truly distasteful!

When I was a kid, I loved to watch the Olympics on ABC because they always did those up-close-and-personal segments showing how some poor family in Podunk, Iowa hauled their kid to the skating rink at four o'clock every morning and ate Mac N' Cheese for eight years so they could afford to buy her proper skates and outfits. I loved that stuff because it showed the true sacrifice of the underdog with a dream. The overcoming of adversity to rise to the top. We don't seem to care about that anymore. We just want to see people who are automatically winners through birth or connections or dumb luck. Those struggling for greatness are viewed indifferently by the media. They'd rather play sicophants to those who are already on the top than seek out the true human drama in the up-and-comers.

The Ravens are going through a come-from-behind transition right now. I understand that former coach Brian Billick and some of the hot-headed veterans on the team created a reputation for The Ravens being the east coast version of The Raiders. But John Harbaugh is working hard to change that image, and he has a lot of rookie players who are buying into his mission. The low number of penalties in yesterday's game point to such a change. Why can't the media jump on this story as it's unfolding rather than take the wait-and-see attitude as they are prone to do? I suspect, even if we miraculously pull out enough wins to get a wild card slot in the playoffs, Bob Costas and the boys will still be wringing their hands and wasting air time over Brady's knee rather than saying anything nice about Baltimore.

Friday, September 5, 2008

And Now the Red Team's Turn...

After watching Senator McCain's speech last night, I can understand why he went with Sarah Palin as his running mate. He needed someone with a personality to breathe excitement into his campaign. While Governor Palin bowled the Convention, and much of the viewing audience, over with her dynamic, well-crafted attack on the Democrats, McCain stumbled awkwardly along, barely reaching a decibel level higher than normal conversation, and rattling off the same ol' anti-Democrat catch phrases that we've heard a million times. As McCain was shouted down by protestors, the whole event reminded me of Hubert Humphrey's acceptance speech in 1968. A simple, decent politician trying mightily to set himself apart from the current president, but constantly counterpunched by those who won't let the public forget why we want the current administration out in the first place. Given the over-the-top security measures taken at such events, I was amazed that protesters got anywhere near the hall, but I'm happy they did. Free speech is not dead yet.

I've had mixed emotions all along about John McCain. I believe he is more of a true public servant than Obama, can connect with a broader cross section of American than Obama can, and has greater life experience as preparation for the job. I was fully ready to break with my Democratic brethren and vote for him until he named Sarah Palin his running mate. I suddenly had Bush-Quayle flashbacks. For all her personality, I just can't see her running the country. Of course, after George W., I think our republic can withstand a trained monkey in the White House, but I would still worry about having the Governor of a sparsely populated state running the entire country -- not such a small consideration given McCain's age.

Another issue in the negative column for me is McCain's lack of ideas and inability to convey a clear vision for America's future. I'm so tired of hearing things like, "I will cut taxes; Senator Obama will eliminate jobs." This Republican concept that raising taxes automatically destroys job creation has never been proven. Bill Clinton raised taxes in the 90s and we saw one of the biggest economic growth spurts in our history. In fact, historically, the stock market has done better under Democratic presidents than Republican ones. It's just like that old 80s rant about how Democrats were "tax-and-spenders." Reagan proved that the Republicans were "don't-tax-but-keep-spending-anyway-and-run-up-a-ridiculous-deficiters." Finally, Clinton took the bull by the horns, raised taxes enough to pay off our debts, and then made difficult budget cuts to balance the budget. All the while, 22 million jobs were created during the Clinton Era. George W. Bush cut taxes, but how many jobs have been created during Mr. Bush's watch?

Ultimately, the Republican rhetoric is tired and doesn't hold up to scrutiny. They keep saying McCain is a maverick, and I would love to see him prove it by attacking the President and the Republican status quo outright. What the hell? You already have the nomination. But, alas, he will continue to bend himself to the will of the current policies and sound like George W. Part Two. I don't know if that's going to fly with the bulk of Americans.

The one new wrinkle which I found intriguing this week was how the Republicans out-Democrated the Democrats by embracing the working class. From the way McCain and Palin rattled on about helping ordinary folks, you'd think they had morphed into Mondale and Ferarro. Again, I think it's all smoke and mirrors. Just as President Bush has pandered to the Bible Belt Christians by wearing his born-again status on his sleeve, all the while helping big business and squeezing the very people who faithfully voted for him, McCain and Palin are trying to play against Obama's elitist persona to snatch up working class voters who are afraid Obama doesn't quite understand them. I too believe that Obama is more comfortable with the Starbuck's crowd than those at Joe's Diner, but I can't for a minute believe that a McCain/Palin administration is going to do anything substantive to help working families get decent health care or relief from high prices.

So there we are. If a Biden/McCain ticket was available, I'd have no problem voting this year. John Adams feared for our republic if we developed strong parties, but it was inevitable, and this is what we've wrought. Instead of electing the best possible candidates from both parties, we get these oddball combos that don't add up to very much. Regardless of which side wins, I'm not looking forward to the next four years.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama Live! - The Change Tour

Like most people in the U.S., I watched Barack Obama make his acceptance speech in front of 75,000 people in Denver's Invesco Field. After watching my beloved Ravens lose yet again in their last pre-season game, I was primed to watch another painful display that takes place in a stadium.

I'm not entirely sure why Obama insisted on choosing such a grand place to make his acceptance speech rather than simply doing it at the convention hall like all other presidential candidates have. Some said it was to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. It is remarkable that in less than half a century we have gone from separate water fountains to having the first African-American presidential candidate nominated by one of the major political parties. It still felt awfully showboat-y to me. I'm sure some Republican pundits will liken the scene to one of Hitler's rallies. I won't do that, but every time I heard the audience cheer, I was waiting for the words "Seig Heil!" to filter through.

Now don't think I'm comparing Obama to Hitler in terms of their political positions, or that I expect Obama to be some evil dictator or anything. I'm more concerned about the cult of personality that surrounds Obama. He so charming, smooth, and articulate, you can't help but be mesmerized. He's got the same "it" factor that Reagan and Clinton had. However, unlike Reagan and Clinton, he doesn't appear to have the political saavy to navigate Washington.

I thought his speech was about as good as he could have made it. He addressed his critics who find his "Change" mantra too vague by laying out some specific policies he wants to initiate. He offered an olive branch to the Republican Party by outlining points of agreement both sides have on the issues of abortion and the energy crisis. He picked on McCain a bit, but not in a belligerent way. All in all, it was a speech presenting an earnest man with an earnest mission to bring the country together and improve the dismal state we find ourselves in.

That's wonderful. I wish I could believe it. I just feel that there is a certain piety about Obama that will be his undoing. In his acceptance speech, he mentioned the men and women of our armed services who are fighting not for red states or blues states but for the United States, implying that he wants to focus on our country as a whole and not a country divided by political polarities. And yet, on the previous night, Obama pulled out that horrid expression, "taking back America." Take back America from whom? The Republicans? Aren't they Americans too? This expression has been used by both parties whenever one or the other is out of power, and it sickens me whenever I hear it. We are all in this together and we must find common ground. After all the speechifying is over, I just hope whomever becomes president can remember that.

Ultimately, I still think that Obama will end up like Jimmy Carter if he becomes president. He's too certain of his ideas to work with Congress. I think he will get stonewalled, the country will roll along aimlessly for another four years, and he'll be out. For all his cult of personality, I don't think he can articulate a vision for the U.S. that everyone can rally behind.

So, now we get to hear what the Republicans have to say for themselves. Just like the Democrats at their convention in 1968, the Republicans won't have too much to crow about. All they can offer is a shaky promise that McCain will be better. Given McCain's unimaginative views presented so far, I can't believe their arguments will be convincing. This is going to be another depressing election.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Who Are These People?

No, this isn't a blog about Seinfeld.

My Aunt Mildred died a couple months ago, and her daughter sent some old pictures to my mom that my aunt had in her possession. I told my mom it might be a good idea if I scanned them and saved them on a disc for her in case the originals got lost or damaged. She agreed and gave me the photos, which I searched through to make sure I knew who everyone was (I wanted to add captions to the photos as well). Most of the people I recognized as very young versions of family members, but I came across one shot that made no sense to me. Here it is:

This was taken at an old beach resort on the Eastern Shore of Maryland called Betterton. The town still exists, but it is no longer a resort. Once upon a time, before there was a Bay Bridge for automobile traffic to cross the Chesapeake Bay, people from Baltimore would take a steam ship to this sleepy town to escape the summer heat. After the Bay Bridge was built, people drove to the larger Ocean City and the resort business of Betterton died off. Anyway, here was this picture amid all the family photos with two guys clowning for the camera. Now, I believe the chubby man on the far right is my grandmother's father, Fred Frampton, and the woman next to him, partially obscured by the two goofy guys, is my Aunt Mildred. But why did we have a photo of these two unknown characters.

"Who are these guys?" I asked my mother.

"Oh, I think they were friends of my grandfather," my mom replied.

I accepted that answer as the best I could get, but days later, when I set about scanning and photoshopping all the pictures my mom gave me, I couldn't help but ponder this particular one. What were these guys' backgrounds? What did they do for a living? How did they know Fred Frampton? Who's the little boy next to them, laughing at their antics? Is that little boy still alive? I'm not exactly sure when this photo was taken, but I'm guessing the 30s, based upon the clothes and the general look of things in the photo.

Old photos fascinate me. The original intent of the person taking the photograph was undoubtedly to capture the friend or family member in the middle of the shot, but as time goes by, the really interesting parts of a photo are all the little details in the background. When you look at this photo, just seeing the signage and that gasoline pump in the background, you know this is from a much older era. The world doesn't look like that anymore.

And I love how people dressed back then. Given the fact that this is Maryland in the summer, it has to be at least 80 degrees there, but the men are wearing long pants, hard shoes, and hats. Granted, everything is light colored and probably cotton, but nowadays everyone would be wearing shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers or sandals. And those folks didn't have a nice air-conditioned room to go back to. They had to stay in the creaky barn of a place they called the Betterton Hotel. I stayed there once or twice as a little kid during the waning days of the resort, and it felt like living in a haunted house. The place was so remote, the room was completely black at night when you turned the lights out. I would fixate on the tiny spear of light seeping through the old-fashioned keyhole from the hallway. It was a lifeline of safety until I finally fell asleep.

But getting back to the two jokers in the picture, I guess they will be a family mystery. They look like they may have been fun to have around, or maybe they were insufferable attention-grabbers who thought more of their humor than everyone else did. Who knows? The past is so permanently closed to us.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Football is Back!

Football season officially starts for Baltimore tonight as the Ravens play their first preseason game against the New England Patriots tonight at 7:30, and I can't be more excited! Not that preseason games are all that interesting, and we all know that the Patriots will beat the pants off us, but I still love watching football and rooting for the Ravens no matter how bad they play. I tried to settle my burning football itch this summer by watching the Orioles, and when they were winning early on, I have to admit I felt like perhaps I might become a baseball fan. But as the weeks dragged on and the Orioles slipped further and further below .500, the early goodwill faded away and now I can't bring myself to watch a complete game anymore. Plus, I started to remember why I never liked baseball all that much: there's too many games! How can any one game or any one play matter when you have to play 165 freakin' games per season? In football, everything matters because there are only 16 games to prove yourself, and each playoff game has to be a win or you're out.

I know most people discount preseason games. They say they don't mean much and they don't count for anything. I don't subscribe to that mentality. I suppose if your favorite team is the Patriots or the Cowboys or the Colts, the preseason is meaningless because you already know you have a team full of seasoned pros who will sail into the playoffs no matter what. When you're a Ravens fan, these "meaningless" games give us a chance to see if there are any new gems in the mix who might take us to the promised land, because the Ravens always seem a few steps away from being great. That goes double for the offense.

Of course, we long-suffering Ravens fans can never count on the coach or GM to make the correct assessments from these rookie tryouts. I remember the summer of 2005, when we had already suffered through two seasons of the struggling Kyle Boller as starting quarterback, and we had just acquired Derek Anderson. While Boller and Anthony Wright showed that they were both still the bumbling twins, Anderson looked like a real quarterback. I was so excited that we might finally have a true starter in our midsts. Of course, our "offensive guru" Brian Billick saw things differently, cutting Anderson from the team and sticking with his boy Kyle. Last season, while we were still struggling and Anderson was becoming a shining star with the Browns, Billick gave one of his long-winded explanations about why he had to drop Anderson, rambling on incoherently about other priorities and such nonsense. The man could never admit a mistake, regardless of how many he made. We may not have Anderson this season, but thank God we don't have Billick this year either.

We've put our faith in an untested coach with John Harbaugh. I like Harbaugh as intensely as I hated Billick because he is the anti-Billick. He's honest, straight-forward, and not at all flashy or egotistical. His focus is on team-building and tough training camps. He's not going to pamper his veterans and put up with the thuggish attitude issues that have plagued the team in the past. If it costs us some of those high-priced prima donnas in the process, I say so be it. We're building a team for the future, and I don't mind if we lose a bunch of games this season so long as we weed out the dead wood and put together a cohesive team.

Along those lines, I'm encouraged to read about how well some of our draft picks are doing. I would love for running back Ray Rice to play great and give us the chance to dump that flake Willis McGahee. I don't know why Billick and GM Ozzie Newsome were so willing to take on players who were problem cases for other teams. They're just distractions. I hope Harbaugh will kick him to the curb. I also hope that Troy Smith and Joe Flacco give us a reason to have faith in them as our quarterbacks of the future. I like Kyle Boller as a person, but I just don't think he has what it takes to be a starting quarterback. Another Billick mistake we need to correct.

I know I don't have any profound insights on the subject of football, but I've watched enough ESPN to know that those guys don't know any better than I do what's going to happen. They base their opinions on how teams played the previous season, and in the NFL, most teams never look like they did the previous season. Between the draft, free agency, and the salary cap, few teams can maintain any continuity. As much as I hate the Patriots and Bill Belichick, I have to give them credit for having a consistently strong team year after year. I think it all starts with a team mentality, and that no one player is bigger than the team. That's an attitude I think Harbaugh will bring to the Ravens. Billick was all about star making, including for himself. I've had a bellyful of that and look forward to the Ravens becoming a team that Baltimore can be proud of, not just because of wins, but because they play cleanly and professionally. Time will tell, and I'm so glad that time starts tonight.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Did the World Ever Look This Good?

When I was a kid in the 70s, gazing at these ads from old National Geographic magazines, I thought something horrible had happened to make the world so much less interesting than it was in the 40s and 50s. To a certain extent, I think the 60s did drain an awful lot out of our collective aesthetic. It's as if people stopped trying. Clothes got uglier, interior design got uglier, architecture got uglier. A complete, mass hypnosis which caused a total rejection of everything aesthetically pleasing.

But more to the point, I think when advertising shifted away from commercial art and placed a greater emphasis on photos, we lost the romantic interpretation of the product/service. Modern advertising shows you (more or less) what something really looks like. Advertisements like this showed you what you wanted that product/service to be. It was wish fulfillment. Sure, it may have been slightly deceitful, which is probably why advertisers moved away from it, but it sure made whatever they were selling look far more appealing.

A cruise to Hawaii is pretty exotic to begin with, but just look at how elegant this cruise is. All the people look so sophisticated. They all know which fork to use and have read the latest bestsellers and will be attending the opening night of the latest Rodgers & Hammerstein musical when they get back to "The City." Mighty appealing to some Joe who just a few years ago was slogging through the snow and mud of the Ardennes, went to college on the G.I. Bill after his discharge, and was just beginning to work his way up at a leading insurance firm. The high life was just within reach, which was more than his old man could say.

And that picture at the top of the ad. Can't you just hear the dialog like an old MGM movie:

"Oh Brad, isn't it just grand? Who would've thought that a country girl from Iowa like me would win a trip to Hawaii just by sending in some box tops? Then I meet a man who went to Harvard and has ancestors who came over on the Mayflower. Now we're in love and after we marry, we'll live on your pineapple plantation and raise beautiful, sun-kissed children. It's more than my heart can stand!"

"Sheila darling, I must come clean. You're far too beautiful and lovely to be deceived any longer. I'm not the man I told you I was. I don't have a wealthy family, or a pineapple plantation on The Big Island. I don't even know where Harvard is! I'm just plain old Brad Grant from Fort Lee, New Jersey. After scraping together the money for my passage, I barely had enough left over to buy this lavender dinner jacket. I intended to work the ol' Brad Grant charm on some rich, widowed socialite and marry her for her money. How was I supposed to know I'd meet and fall in love with the greatest dame in the whole world. I'm a cad, Sheila, and I wouldn't blame you one bit if you slapped my face and walked out of my life right now. But if you do stay with me, I promise to change. I'll make you the happiest woman in the world!"

At least that's what went through my head as I stared at this ad in the basement of my house on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Celebrate the Fourth!

Next weekend, my hometown of Dundalk will kick off their annual Fourth of July festivities with a parade from 8:30 a.m. to noon on Friday, July 4. Here's a quick glimpse of what that looks like:

After the parade, you can head over to the Dundalk Heritage Fair which runs July 4, 5, and 6. There's food, rides, and two stages of continuous entertainment. You can find out more about the activities at the fair here. Here's a sample of what you can expect:


Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin Dead at 71

I'm at the age where all my childhood influences are beginning to die off. I hate to sound morbid, but after losing Kurt Vonnegut and Matt Helm author Donald Hamilton last year, I'm bracing myself for the days when the cast of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible start dropping off (Leonard Nimoy will count for both shows, and Martin Landau will count for M:I and Space: 1999, two best uses of the colon ever). Anyway, hearing about George Carlin's death this morning on the radio gave me that same twinge in my gut whenever I hear of the passing of someone who meant a lot to me. I felt it just last week when I learned that my Aunt Mildred died. She was 95 and went peacefully, so it was not a heart-wrenching experience, but I still flashed on all those happy Christmas evenings we spent at her house after the orgy of present opening and food gorging was over. I still stuffed my face with her delicious Chex Mix, which was way better than anything found in a box.

George Carlin seemed to be on every variety and talk show around back in the late 60s and early 70s. He appeared to me as this hip hybrid of old-style stand-up comic and hippie. He had long hair and a beard, but also wore a suit and performed tightly constructed comedy bits. In the summer of '72, my brother brought home his comedy album FM & AM, and I could see a transition taking place. He appeared on the cover in a funky knit shirt, blue jeans, and boots, looking every bit like the hippies I saw downtown. The content on the album was a 50/50 split between straight, five-minute routines and more observational humor sprinkled with four-letter-words. Fortunately, my parents were open-minded enough to allow me to hear this material at 7 years old because I think it gave me an insight at a young age into the hypocrisy and complexity of the world I would soon be an adult in.

I had an easier time understanding bits like the Hippie-Dippie Weatherman than the material about sex in commercials or the birth control pill, but it felt like an education. I was too young to appreciate the humor, but I felt like I was being introduced to a world I hadn't yet experienced. I even tried to educate my friends by reciting these routines verbatim; a practice that got my friends and me in hot water with some of the parents in the neighborhood.

Not much later, my brother brought home Class Clown, and it was obvious that George Carlin's transition away from traditional stand-up was complete. Instead of creating abstract premises with improbable characters, he was talking purely about himself, exploring every detail from his Irish-Catholic background to making swallowing sounds into the microphone. Of course, this album also contained the Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, which caused such a furor and got Carlin arrested because he performed the bit in front of an audience that included children. I thought this was hilarious at the time because I was listening to this material with my family and I was not horribly warped by the experience. In fact, Carlin never seemed dirty to me. The dirty jokes my friends told at school seemed far worse because those jokes only existed for the sheer shock value of saying something sexual or scatological. Carlin's routines used four-letter words to shed some light on our own human condition and how up-tight we are about ourselves as a species.

Someone said this morning that Carlin was a "gateway" comedian for him, and I have to agree with that. Carlin certainly changed the way many comedians crafted their acts, and he in turn opened people up to seeking out comedians that had more to offer than lame jokes about "these kids today" and impersonations of James Cagney ordering at the McDonald's. My brother and father starting bringing home albums by Redd Foxx, Cheech & Chong, and Richard Pryor. The Pryor albums were so rough, my Mom had to draw the line at allowing them to be played in the house. My Dad would buy them on 8-track tape, and we would listen to them in his Mazda RX-3. Huddling in that car during a cold, winter night laughing our heads off at Richard Pryor is one of my fondest memories. Yes, the language was harsh, but the language was not the joke. The language simply amplified the power of the joke, which often dealt with racism or relationships or politics. It was real and human and dead on.

By the time Carlin released Toledo Window Box, my interest in his comedy began to wane. He would later admit that drug abuse was beginning to control his life at this point, and I think it shows on this album. It's less focused and feels like he's treading over ground he touched on before. In fact, I didn't pay much attention to George Carlin until the 90s when he seemed to re-invent himself once again. Moving past the observational humor that had become passe by that point, he became almost an other-worldly person who commented on the oddities of our world from arm's length. The commentary was even more biting because he had given up on trying to appeal to a particular audience or align himself with a political position. He just blasted from all angles with no concern about how he was perceived. It was truly ballsy material performed at a time in his life when he could have coasted on his old routines. Always pushing the boundaries right to the end.

If any younger folks wonder why us middle-aged cranks think people like Adam Sandler or Dane Cook are lame, they should give a listen to the old material of Carlin or Pryor. When you're lucky enough to grow up listening to geniuses like that, you get spoiled.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Pause That Opresses

No one knows when or how the giant Coca-Cola machine arrived in Hallowood. It just appeared one sunny spring morning behind Earl's Filling Station outside of town. Although it drew quite the crowd of gawkers for the first few days, most people round here just came to accept it as a conversation piece. Something to put on the sightseeing brochures and postcards at the post office. We didn't see much point in making a fuss, what with us being rather tolerant folk in these parts. In fact, Earl kinda liked the shade it provided against the afternoon sun and how it prevented cars from rolling out of his lot and down the steep cliff just beyond his service bays.

The first sign of trouble occurred when some of the boys from the high school decided to pull an end-of-the-school-year prank and climb the soda pop machine. That would've been innocent enough, but then they got bold and tried to get a Coke out by shoving a hubcap from Mr. Granger's Buick in the coin slot and pulling on the lever. Wellsir, a green bottle about the size of the Gas & Electric Building downtown tumbled out of that red box and rolled right on down that steep cliff. Damn near took out the overpass on Route 12 and didn't stop rolling 'til it hit Bessie McCoy's barn. All that churned up soda blasted the cap clean off and through the trunk of a 200-year-old maple tree. The barn was completely covered in sticky liquid that's been drawing flies ever since. The cows still won't give milk.

Then the elf-head came. Seems this elf whatchamawhoozits was trapped in the bottle for a hundred years and now threatens to drown us in Coca-Cola if we don't obey his every command. A few of us tried to escape, but the cars and buses were cut off by the green ooze which crept in and sealed off the town. Now we must dance and sing and tell the elf how much we like his hair or he'll drop his giant bottle of Coke on us.

If anyone out there can hear me, dear God, send help!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Big Daddy Syndrome

I caught a little bit of that cherubic nincompoop Glenn Beck last night as I was flipping around the channels. He was chastising President Bush for making such a wimpy energy speech, imploring Congress to lift the ban on offshore drilling. Mr. Beck felt that, instead of asking Congress, Mr. Bush should simply make an executive order which allowed the drilling and send out some oil men pronto to start bringing up the crude. He couldn't understand why the President wouldn't do such a thing. I don't know. Maybe because we don't live in a dictatorship?!!

Mr. Beck feels that the President has to act quickly to preserve our way of life. And what way of life is that? Fat-assed scoccer moms carting their fat-assed rug rats around in gas-guzzling SUVs to soccer practice or ballet lessons and then hauling them over to KFC or Burger King for fat-filled crap because "they don't have time" to cook a proper, nutritious meal? Perhaps instead the children could stay home and learn to play on their own and the parents could learn to cook a healthful meal and everyone then could sit down for dinner and engage in that lost activity called "conversation." You remember conversation, dontcha Glenn? It's what people used to do before jackasses like you decided that it was better just to shout over people instead of listening to them.

Our way of life is not about crass consumerism and wastefulness. We are a country of laws. America is The Constitution. It's a system of checks and balances where all three branches of the federal government struggle together to set the law of the land. Our forefathers purposely made our system slow and cumbersome so that no rash decisions were rushed into law or that no one person or group would gain too much power.

I'm so sick of people who get nervous during hard times and want some big daddy to swoop in and quickly fix everything. We got nervous after 9/11 and allowed George Bush broad latitude to address the terrorist issue. What we ended up with was a quagmire in Iraq. Whenever people cave in to fear during difficult times and allow one person broad powers to fix their problems, you give rise to people like Adolf Hitler.

Personally, I believe that offshore drilling is a necessary evil in the short term to address our oil needs (even though the oil won't hit the market for years). The use of shale is also something I can't understand why Congress has chosen to block. Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) I have some issues with because of the risks of spills transporting so much oil over such a broad expanse of treacherous territory. One major spill could seriously damage that whole region for many years to come.

Of course, Mr. Beck's answer to the ANWR issue? "Sorry polar bears, sucks to be you!" Well Mr. Beck, we're still not so sure about how this vast eco-system fits together. The demise of polar bears could be a signal that our own demise is not far behind. Of course, Mr. Beck is one of those conservatives who scoffs at global warming without offering any counter evidence to discredit the theory. I think he's so fixated on believing that his current lifestyle cannot be disrupted that he is compelled to dismiss any evidence to the contrary. As the commercial says, Mr. Beck, life comes at you fast.

But getting back to my point, I don't disagree with his point that more domestic drilling must take place. My beef is with this notion that the president should be given expansive powers whenever there is a pressing issue. Mr. Beck's reasoning is that Congress is in the back pockets of special interest groups and don't answer to the will of the people. And a spoiled rich guy from Texas does? And what exactly is the will of all the people in the U.S.? Apparently, whatever Mr. Beck believes it is, because after all, he speaks for the American people and everyone who disagrees with him is from some "special interest group."

When did the state of conservative commentary go from George Will to Glenn Beck? I guess during the same time that the state of cooking shows went from Julia Child to Rachael Ray. Getting the same uninformed opinion from a TV commentator that I can get from a drunk at the local bar is not good television people!

So if no one can tell Glenn Beck why President Bush gave the speech he gave rather than issuing an executive order, I will try to explain it to him in simple terms that he can understand (hopefully). First, Congress creates the laws, not the president. Second, as a former governor, Mr. Bush understands the concept of state's rights. He would not want to impose offshore drilling on Mr. Schwarzenegger anymore than he would've wanted it imposed on him when he was governor of Texas. So instead of mobilizing drilling crews and charging into the ocean, he made a measured and thoughtful speech about his views on new energy policy which I'm sure he hopes will sway not only Congress, but the governments of the states involved, and maybe even the majority of the American public. It's the way the American system of government works, Mr. Beck.

God, I can't believe I'm defending George Bush.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


In still more bad news from U.S. automakers, General Motors announced that they were shutting down four plans that primarily produced trucks and SUVs. It would be nice if these carmakers would do their employees and shareholders a favor and start operating with some long-term vision rather than chasing short-term profits. For those of you under 35 years old, don't think this is anything new. We've had this rodeo before.

Even after the oil embargo of 1973-74, when people had to sit in lines for hours to fill their tanks and maybe even get turned away once they finally reached the pump for lack of gas, the American "Big Three" automakers continued to build gigantic, gas-guzzler, V-8 powered cars for the masses. Meanwhile, German and Japanese companies like Volkswagon, Honda, Toyota, and Datsun (now Nissan) quietly introduced small, economical, and dependable compacts to a very grateful market. My father traded in his Ford Comet for a Mazda RX-3 in 1974, causing a bit of a stir in the neighborhood. His olive green coupe with the barrel-shaped rotary engine was quite the novelty sitting next to the Impalas, Bonnevilles, and Torinos on the block. While it wasn't as fuel efficient as some of the other imports, having a car that still got over 20 miles to the gallon highway was a revelation, and the smooth-running rotary engine produced far more horsepower than your typical four-cylinder putt-putt motor of the day.

There were lots of innovations being bandied about at the time from solar to electric to bio-fuels (sound familiar). Still, most Americans were leery of giving up their cushy land yachts and, once OPEC started getting the price they wanted, the oil started flowing again and the furor died down for a few years. But in 1980 when gas jumped from around 60 cents a gallon to one dollar a gallon, that's when most Americans had had enough and raced to the foreign car dealerships for the latest Tercel or Corolla. The shockwave was permanent and caused The Big Three to shut down auto plants across the country, particularly in Detroit, and lay off thousands of workers. As a teenager growing up in Dundalk, Maryland, where we had a once thriving GM plant, the lay-offs were devastating. The laid-off workers survived, re-trained, and moved on, but the psychological damage to the once proud community was permanent. And as I saw those little, efficient sub-compacts zip around the streets of Dundalk, I couldn't help but think this could've been avoided if they had only heeded the market change five or six years earlier.

And it wasn't only the blue-collar autoworkers who were affected. The shareholders also had to suffer the impact of this boom-and-bust business approach. Chrysler was nearly driven out of business altogether in 1979, saved only by a federal government bail out. They quickly shifted to building smaller cars (the much-maligned K-Cars being their first foray into front-wheel-drive efficiency), and eventually stabilized. Ford and GM also scrambled to jump on the front-wheel-drive bandwagon in the early 80s, and they too started to see a turnaround.

By the mid-80s, virtually all new cars were front-wheel-drive and the vast majority carried four- or six-cylinder engines under their hoods. The once standard V-8 was relegated to a handful of sports cars and trucks. Little wonder gas prices started to drift back down below the dollar mark by the mid-80s. It seemed we had learned our lesson and adjusted. I even recall reading an article by veteran auto journalist Brock Yates in 1991 where he chastised Chevrolet for having the nerve to build Caprices since it was not socially responsible to encourage people to drive gas guzzling cars.

By the mid-90s, while I was working for a large investment firm, I started to see more and more trucks and SUVs popping up on the parking lot. I was bewildered as to why young, white-collar suburbanites would need such big ugly vehicles as their everyday transportation. The response was that they were so roomy and good for carting their rugrats around in. I didn't see why a Taurus wouldn't fit the bill just as well (and burn less fuel), but I knew there was something else at work here. They bought them because it made them feel rugged. It was manly to drive a Yukon. It was wimpy to drive a Caravan. SUVs made them feel like masters over all those turds in their Honda Civics. They were truly Kings of the Road.

Of course, the American automakers would not disagree with them. This was easy profit since they already had the truck chassis designed and rolling off the assembly lines. All they had to do was slap on a cushier interior and a flashier body shell and their target market was sold. Who cared if they drank gas like water? Gasoline was cheaper than bottled water in the 90s. Still, all I could think was "We thought the same way in the 70s and it bit us in the ass." Didn't we learn anything from that horrible decade? Oh, that's right, we Americans don't bother to look at the past. History is for pussies! Each generation is smarter than the last and will always do everything better, right?

About 10 years after I read that commentary by Brock Yates on how Chevy was committing a sin by building Caprices, I read a commentary where he defended all those soccer moms who loved their SUVs and chided those tree huggers who thought they should give them up because of their poor gas mileage. He cited the same excuses that my co-workers cited a few years earlier: they are some roomy, so versatile, so...utilitarian. I guess wasting fuel was no longer a sin, eh Brock? Great writing on Cannonball Run, btw.

So here we are with gas near $4 a gallon and those magical SUVs have suddenly lost their charm. Once again, the new big automakers of Honda, Toyota, and Nissan foresaw the end of the SUV boom five or six years ago and started introducing cute, affordable sub-compacts like the Scion and the Yaris. Honda even brought out the popular hybrid Prius long before GM or Ford ever thought of one. Now Ford is scrambling for survival and GM is closing plants. Chrysler is practically irrelevant in the auto industry. Maybe its not enough to pander to the market in search of the next quarter's profits. Perhaps it's better to anticipate the future, show that future to your target market, and convince them that its a future they need. Of course, when you choose to ignore your past, you have no skills for forecasting the future.

Monday, June 2, 2008


It looks like the Democratic primary season will come to its long and tortured end tomorrow with elections in Montana and South Dakota. Presumably, Barack Obama will finally get the required delegates needed for the Democratic nomination, but Hillary Clinton claims she can win the popular vote for her party's nomination. The fiasco with the Michigan and Florida primaries has put the whole process in question, since these two states are deciders in any national election. All of this chaos leaves a divided Democratic party that is uncertain whether or not it can win against a solid veteran like John McCain.

The only logical way for the Democratic party to launch a successful campaign this fall is to have both candidates on the Democratic ticket. Given Obama's lead in delegates, he is the logical Presidential nominee, and with Clinton as Vice-President, the voters will get more or less what they wanted. I'm not so sure that's what the candidates want, however. Two big egos with significantly different approaches and constituencies, I'm sure neither feels that one can chart his/her own individual destiny with the other in tow. But that's the only way the Democrats can haul in the votes needed to win. Just as John Kennedy had to swallow his contempt for Lyndon Johnson and put him on the ticket to bring in the (then) solidly Democratic South, Obama desperately needs Clinton's strong showing with blue collar workers and Hispanics. With Clinton as the presidential nominee, she could bring along some moderate Republicans as well, but I believe she's too divisive a figure to win the whole shooting match, even with Obama as VP.

After the debacle that has been George W. Bush's presidency, a vast majority of Americans are screaming for change. What kind of change, no one really knows. At least there's no clear consensus. Everyone's idea of change is different, and with a candidate as ambiguous as Obama, he can represent everyone's concept of change at the same time. People can impose whatever hopes and dreams they have on him because he hasn't been around long enough to stand for anything specific. Clinton, on the other hand, has a long track record and, to most people, she's neither fish nor fowl. Too liberal for many Republicans; too conservative for many Democrats. Even women are divided about her, as many young woman prefer the youthful exurberance of Obama over someone they associate with their mother's generation. Overall, I think Obama has the slight edge.

But I'm still uncertain about Obama. He has a tinge of Jimmy Carter about him. I'm afraid he might sweep into the Oval Office believing that he has a mandate and piously assume that he will be able to push through whatever legislation he wishes without resistance. As history has taught us, Congress never responds well to that approach, usually dragging their feet and stonewalling just to prove a point. It's especially bad when presidents attempt to push too many bills at once. I'm concerned that the old-timers in Congress will laugh at Obama's inexperience and turn him into a lame duck before his first term is even over. After a couple years of no change, the public will turn against him.

This is particularly bad with regard to Iraq. When Richard Nixon tinkered around with the Vietnam War and didn't move quickly to bring the troops home, the war was no longer the Democrats mistake but his own, and history has branded him with that legacy. Not that I necessarily advocate a quick withdraw from Iraq, but I believe that if a future President Obama cannot make some effective changes in the situation in Iraq within his first year in office, it will be as much his war as it has been President Bush's.

And what about McCain. I still think the Democrats can pull themselves together and convince enough Republicans to go along with them on the Change Train. I see John McCain as Hubert Humphrey in 1968 or Bob Dole in 1996: honorable public servants who have done a great deal for their country, but simply ran at the wrong time. Because there's really something bigger in play right now, and that is the generational change occurring in the country. After more than two centuries of old white men running the country, there's an underlying yearning for a woman or an minority to take the reins. It didn't seem likely that a woman and an African-American male, both offering remarkable credentials, would become viable candidates in the same year, thus making the choice for the Democrats all the more difficult. A Democratic ticket offering both could resolve that conflict, and make one heck of a statement to the world that we have truly moved on.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


When I decided to do my first blog almost two years ago, I was determined not to do a blog which consisted only of disconnected ramblings and updates on my mundane life. I wanted a blog which had a particular point of view, a theme, a clear framework that readers could recognize. That’s how my blog “Once Upon a Toy” came to be. Focusing on childhood memories and my current hobby of collecting and customizing action figures, the blog is a fun outlet for my fragmented recollections and a way to show off my collection. Unfortunately, I’ve been running out of material lately and haven’t been posting as often as I used to. I’ve even resorted to posting off topic items because there is a great deal of things I’d like to talk about which don’t fit neatly into the theme of “Once Upon a Toy.” That’s why I’ve created “nealblog,” to voice whatever stuff is floating around in my head. I don’t know whether anyone will read it or care, but if at least one person finds it interesting, that’s better than writing it in a private journal.

Here’s a sample of my thoughts. Last Sunday, 60 Minutes did yet another piece on The Millennials, that generation of young adults born during the 80s. They talked about how this group, over indulged by their Baby-Boomer parents and rewarded for every meager gesture, have entered the working world with a sense of entitlement and are not interested in following the rules of Corporate America. Those old farts on 60 Minutes love to examine how different the younger generations are and how they are going wrong. However, this particular subject fascinates me because I noticed this unique generation gap myself a few years ago and thought perhaps it was just my Gen-Xer self turning into a grumpy old man.

One of the points made in the segment was that Millennials, or Echo-Boomers as they are also called, place their friends, family, and personal happiness above any commitment to a company or career. That’s hardly a new concept. Their parents, the Baby Boomers, promoted their own anti-establishment ethos, believing that they could smoke pot, drop acid, have casual sex, and listen to rock and roll all day while still maintaining the comfortable, middle-class lifestyle they were accustomed to. Of course, the horrible hangover that was the 70s taught everyone that this was a lie. Those who did not end up in jail, in rehab, or dead, cleaned up their acts, got jobs, and became the eager beavers of the 80s. Those of us in the Gen-X crowd, who watched our parents struggle through the hard economic times of the 70s, were only too willing to buy into the dress-for-success, power tie corporate philosophy, believing that financial security was the only true path to freedom.

At the same time, we weren’t entirely made of stone. As technical advancements allowed employees to work completely in front of a computer or over the phone anytime, anywhere, much of the office formality entrenched in the corporate world seemed a bit silly. We quietly worked within the system to institute “Casual Fridays,” greater leave flexibility for illness or family issues, telecommuting, and more social activities at work to lighten the mood and break tension. By the end of the 90s, my working world looked a whole lot different than when I entered it in the late 80s. These changes are taken as birth rites by the Millennials, but we had to fight for them.

My first encounter with this new generation came in 2003 when the company I worked for did a mass hiring of entry level positions to meet the sudden growth we experienced after the 2000-02 recession. At that time I was a training/quality control specialist, and I found myself surrounded by young college grads born between 1980 and 1982. During the training phase, I found these new reps to be bright, friendly, and eager to develop a team dynamic. Once they got on the floor, however, their approach to work was just as bewildering to me as I was to them. Up ‘til then, I had used a mixture of stern words and pats on the back to convey the message that, while you made mistakes that needed to be corrected, we understood that this was part of the process and were there to help you succeed. Previous reps appreciated this treatment, respected my experience, and often came to be my friends. The new reps couldn’t understand my criticism of them and some even were indignant. When I pointed out a mistake, I would hear, “But I did what I was told.”

“But you did it wrong and it needs to be corrected.”

“But I don’t understand why I have to go back and do it again when I did what I was told.”

“You may think you did it as you were trained, but it’s wrong and it needs to be corrected.”

“Well, there must be something wrong with the training class because I’m sure I did this right.”

And on and on. Some reps even went to my supervisor to criticize my treatment of them. My supervisors usually backed me up (I was doing my job, after all), but it did create an environment where the senior people were questioning the appropriateness of our behavior rather than holding the new reps accountable for their performance. Ultimately, I became lost in this new atmosphere and felt forced to leave a company I had devoted 14 years of my life to because my style, which was so gratefully applauded just a few years before, was now out of step with the new people’s liking.

The Millennials are also becoming known for their transient attitude toward jobs. There is no longer any stigma attached to moving from job to job when one becomes uncomfortable. I believe that’s also something that the Gen-Xers started first. I was considered unusual for staying in one place for as long as I did. The jury is still out on whether such an attitude will help or hurt our economy. In my opinion, such behavior creates a work force that is a mile wide and an inch deep. Without experienced lifers who have a sense of a company’s history, where the bodies are buried, and what mistakes were made and should never be repeated, you have a revolving door of employees who require constant training and offer mediocre service because of their perennial inexperience. Also, there is no insight, no new ideas worth pursuing, and no long-term picture. Just a drifting juggernaut with no particular destination.

I’m inclined to believe that this self-indulgent view of career will not last much beyond the current decade. I know the Millennials want to avoid making the sacrifices their parents made (a feeling all young people have), but once they reach the point where they want to have kids and raise a family in the lifestyle to which they were accustomed as a child, they may have to face and accept those same sacrifices. At least the Baby Boomers had parents who warned them of such challenges. The Baby Boomers themselves, it seems, never provided such warnings for fear that they would damage their children’s psyches. But we’re already looking at tough economic times with spiraling oil and gas prices which in turn are driving rapid inflation and economic stagnation. With a scenario not unlike the scenario the country faced in the late 70s, it’s not too difficult to see our free-thinking Millennials changing their I-tune and becoming people more like their parents. Only this time, they’ll probably lose the power ties.