Thursday, February 26, 2009

Silver Lining to Obama Tax Plan--Maybe My Husband will Slow Down

"Pet projects," "pork," "earmarks." They all equal the same thing, and Pres. Obama's new budget, passed in a flash without giving the public a chance to squeal, is larded with them. A piece in the New York Times says "Taxpayers for Common sense, a watchdog group, counted more than 8,500 'congressionally designated projects' in the bill and said the cost of these earmarks totalled $7.7 billion, up 3.4 percent from last year." Among those is $173,000 "for research on asparagus production in Washington state." That's not nearly as much as the $1.5 million "for work on grapes and grape products, including wine." Cheers!

At the same time, our sainted President proposed punishing the "wealthy" not for the wealth they have so much as for the money they're working to earn. If you're putting in lots of hours, and your business brings you $125,000 a year--less than the salary taxpayers pay most politicians, by the way--your taxes go up and your itemized deductions get slashed. A real incentive to entrepreneurs, eh?

Another New York Times article explains Pres. Obama's attempt at "fairness--" Currently, if you itemize deductions (like charitable contributions, educational expenses or mortgage payments), the higher your tax bracket, the more deductions you can take--since it's determined by your bracket. But Obama's newly "fair" plan caps deductions at the 28% level, even if you're in the 35% category--and he's raising the top bracket from there to 39.5%. That's federal income tax only; then there's FICA (social security tax); then we add on state and local and property and sales taxes.

I'm bristling. If the government makes its tax rate progressive, why shouldn't the guy paying a bigger percentage of his income get a commensurate deduction? If everybody paid the same percentage of his income, then the deduction can be that same rate. Why isn't THAT the fair way to do it? Why should people who make more have to give up so much more proportionally? (Under a flat tax rate, of course, the more you earn, the more you do pay in actual dollar amount.)

Because there's this class-envy tax system that justifies its progressive nature with the idea that people don't need above a certain basic amount in order to live, and so the government is entitled to take more of the rest of what they earn. "You can afford it," is the shrug. "We who work hard, too, but are paid less, can't."

Gosh, isn't this economics 101? Certain jobs have more value in and to society, and those jobs are rewarded with more pay. People earn what the market determines they're worth. The fewer the people qualified and available to fill a job, the more an employer/corporation is willing to pay. Unless the real underlying agenda is to "level the playing field" into socialism or even communism, the market determines salaries.

Remember when candidate Obama told Joe the Plumber we need to "spread the wealth?" Do you think Bill Gates has enough to spread some to me? Frankly, I'm glad Bill Gates has a social conscience, and is spreading it to suffering Africans and many other charitable endeavors. I'd feel creepy taking a handout from somebody just cuz he's made a lot more money than he needs to live on. But doing the same thing on a societal level is a lot easier. It's much more sterile when earned money is coerced from the well-to-do and transferred through a bureaucracy.

There's also the obvious idea that taxing something discourages it. Tax income, you discourage working. Or encourage hiding it. That's why when tax rates go down, government revenue goes up. Economics 101. I would have thought the president might have had advisers who've taken the course. Guess not.

Obama's also taxing utilities and companies if they aren't as environmentally friendly as the government determines (anyone smell a new bureaucracy?) and the cost of that, he expects, will be passed to consumers (that's you). But wait! You'll be able to pay these increased expenses from his new "Making Work Pay" tax credit that will provide $400 ($800/couple) --unless you're uber-wealthy, earning more than $75,000.

If you're a low-wage worker, you don't pay much tax anyway. President Bush shrank the rate for the lowest brackets to 5% from Clinton's 10%. But if you earn a lot, and most people still harbor that American Dream and strive to--you are the new enemy. Tax the rich, so much that they'll have to cut back their employees, defer new start-ups, postpone innovation, and have to live like regular folk.

I heard someone call into a radio show and say in a mocking fake-sympathetic voice, "Aww, those poor rich people! They'll have to get their house cleaned once a week instead of three times!" Yeah, and those poor house-cleaning workers. They'll lose their jobs.

But if you ever read The Millionaire Next Door, the best-seller by Thomas J. Stanley and William Denko from 1998, you know that the people who got rich didn't win a lottery, and didn't inherit Daddy Warbucks' estate (anyone remember Little Orphan Annie?). Most rich people plodded their way to prosperity, living frugally, putting away money bit by bit, building up businesses by hard work and clever ideas. That's why they're the millionaires next door. Of course, even with the housing plunge, being worth a million-dollars isn't that unusual in most major cities. A million dollars won't buy you a comfortable condo in Manhattan, where the monthly association fees often equal the mortgage payment. One piece of good news is it's not so odd to be in the eeeeevil group, "the wealthy" anymore. The middle class shrank because people moved up (I know a great book that covers this).

But let's look at the silver lining. With the new tax plan, President Obama is at least forcing people to evaluate their lives. Why put in all those extra hours of work when so much more of its yield gets taken? Maybe this is a blessing, and even my workaholic husband will see that getting no sleep and depriving himself of lunch to save money is too big a trade-off for the scorn of a tax system that considers controlling Mormon crickets in Utah ($1.2 million) an urgent need.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama Address: No Surprise. Jindal Response: Ditto.

Well, another evening when I didn't watch TV. We don't have one.

So I read a transcript of Pres. Obama's address to Congress, and listened on radio to Gov. Bobby Jindal's response.

The first impression is that they sure sounded alike. Both filled with platitudes; both lacking policy specifics.

Certainly the president's 53-minute oratory contained more verbiage than Gov. Jindal's 15 minute overly-animated reading. And there were some notable contrasts. But none different from what you'd expect.

Pres. Obama did an admirable job of anticipating his critics and ambushing their concerns. Like this at the top of his speech: "As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President’s Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government – I don’t. Not because I’m not mindful of the massive debt we’ve inherited – I am. I called for action because the failure to do so would have cost more jobs and caused more hardships." Pretty slick.

Obama didn't really have a mantra in his redundant, plodding speech (implied: "We'll fix it"), but Jindal was tiresome in his repeated spin-off of "yes we can," "Americans can do anything!"

Obama seemed to agree: ""The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth... What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more."

Obama tried but couldn't hide his intention to spend America out of recession, justifying his $787 billion stimulus package by offering what his constituents expect--jobs, chastising but still assisting banks and auto-makers, and offering big programs for energy re-direction, education, and health care. Then he back-pedaled: "I’m proud that we passed the recovery plan free of earmarks, and I want to pass a budget next year that ensures that each dollar we spend reflects only our most important national priorities." The stimulus looks like the Dem's spending dream, everything they'd normally have to take months or years to push through. If they're not exactly "earmarks," many provisions sure smell of pork.

I actually took the president up on his boast of transparency and visited the oversight website he mentioned, I watched his intro video and--gasp--perused the 407 page stimulus package bill . What I noticed was lots of defining language, but also--bounteous grants offered for all sorts of unspecified programs. For example, communities may apply for "any project or program that is included in a strategic plan..." (p. 289). But in order to assess these applications, the stimulus package requires the Secretary to create "An Inter-Agency Community Assistance Working Group." The feds also have to provide back-up for these communities in implementing their programs--sounds pretty bureaucratic and complicated to me.

There's $15 million set aside to restore "historically black colleges" (p. 53), $450 million for repairs on Indian Reservations (p. 54), $1.2 billion for state youth activities (p. 58), $2.1 billion for Head Start programs (p. 64); these barely scratch the surface.

Truth is, reading the legalese riddling the bill is confusing. But I recognized clearly the billions of tax dollars now designated by law for expenditure. I'm amazed such a sweeping appropriations act could have been constructed in such a short time, and I'm incredulous that legislators could have read and understood it before they voted on it.

But back to Pres. Obama's address tonight. At the conclusion of his speech, the president reached into his satchel of stories to feature Ty’Sheoma Bethea, a student from a broken-down school in Dillon, South Carolina, who with others exemplified, among other virtues, "a willingness to take responsibility for our future and for posterity." What had she done to earn this ambitious designation? Shed written for President Obama's help, with the plea that her classmates are "just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change...we are not quitters."

I do hope Ty'Sheoma succeeds, but I hope she has the gumption to do it on her own initiative, without relying on taxpayers for salvation.

I don't mean to give Gov. Jindal's response short shrift. Though I support his underlying message to empower individuals rather than government, I was distracted by his early personal stories that smothered his point and made his response start more like a campaign stump speech.

I was glad he addressed lack of faith in the Republican party, acknowledging, "In recent years, these distinctions in philosophy became less clear -- because our party got away from its principles. You elected Republicans to champion limited government, fiscal discipline, and personal responsibility. Instead, Republicans went along with earmarks and big government spending in Washington. Republicans lost your trust -- and rightly so."

Perhaps his best dig to the Obama stimulus was this: "Who among us would ask our children for a loan, so we could spend money we do not have, on things we do not need? That is precisely what the Democrats in Congress just did. It's irresponsible. And it's no way to strengthen our economy, create jobs or build a prosperous future for our children."

Though I think most Americans understand Gov. Jindal's point, I fear they might be too busy scrambling to grab some of Pres. Obama's stimulus money to think about it.

Monday, February 23, 2009

"Shame" Penn "Milks" the Oscars for Extant "Equal Rights" for Gays

Did you watch the Academy Awards? Me, neither. Well, I saw Hugh Jackman's opening song-collage and thought, "eh." With my criteria for films of no violence, no suspense and no slapstick, I hadn't seen any of the contenders for awards. Plus, I had better stuff to do with three-and-a-half hours on a Sunday evening.

But I asked someone who did see the Oscars about it, and he told me (among other things) that Sean Penn's nod for "Milk" was unexpected, and that "Milk" also won for Best Original Screenplay. He said the show ignored politics and the expected kudos to Barack Obama, except when Penn called him "elegant." I decided to check out his acceptance on You Tube.

I realize that Sean Penn won Best Actor for his portrayal of one now considered a standard-bearer for gay rights. But I was surprised at the venom with which he "shamed" those on the prevailing side in a California election: "...I think it's a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame, and the shame in their grand-children's eyes if they continue that way of support. We've got to have equal rights for everyone..." His voice was cracking.

OK, I realize he means "equal rights to marry whom one chooses." But everyone does have equal rights, including to legally marry a person of the opposite gender, and he has equal restrictions, too (from marrying a child, from marrying one already married, from marrying one's sibling, etc.). Everyone also has equal rights to make personal commitments, live with whom he chooses, pledge love, and organize (no pun intended) his sex life.

Then I decided to watch the acceptance speech of Dustin Lance Black, who grabbed the statuette for "Milk's" Best Original Screenplay: "The story of Harvey Milk gave me hope that I could live my life and one day get married..." (Am I to assume this person I've never heard of before could

He continued, "If Harvey had not been taken from us...I think he'd want me to say to all the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight...that you're beautiful, wonderful creatures of value, and that no matter what anyone tells you, God does love you and that very soon, I promise you, that you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours [sic]."

I agree. Every person is a wonderful creature of value, loved by God, with equal rights federally (across this great nation of ours)-- except for lots of stuff that varies by many different kinds of status. For example...It's great there's no military draft at the moment, but even now men age 18 (and not women of any age) have to register. Here in my community, free anonymous AIDS tests are being offered--to black people only. In nearly every public establishment, rest rooms are segregated by gender. And I notice that my national phone company has some nifty offers going--to new customers only. Or look at all the rewards Obama's stimulus package gives to only defaulting homeowners--discriminating against the financially responsible.
Meanwhile, I was catching up on my "mountain" of newspapers-to-be-read, and while savoring the delight of my favorite section, New York Times' "Style," I came across two articles that suggest public homosexual coupling is already ho-hum. One, from the December 21, 2008 (okay, I'm way behind) "Vows" column, celebrated the marriage of Jeff Weinstein, 61, and John Perreault, 71, shown embracing in a one-third-page color photo, as Rachel Peters, a Provincetown, Mass. Justice of the Peace, smiles approvingly.

Mr. Perreault, in case you're not a New Yorker, "was an art critic at The Village Voice and then The SoHo News, and his nude portrait by the painter Alice Neel is part of the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art." Mr. Weinstein is "an arts and culture commentator," formerly an English lecturer at San Diego State University, and also a food writer.

The reason why I'd clipped this story is because I'm doing a book on marriage as the combination of opposites, and here was a couple described in the story as "a study in congruent contrasts." One is "tall and gingery," the other "short and dark." One "is a slow burner" while the other's "a live wire." One, "a people person," the other "more of a loner." Why do you need two sexes to have "opposites"?

Well, you don't need two sexes to have opposites unite. But you need two sexes for legal marriage, government's sanction for sexual coupling that theoretically could (and usually does) include the creation of society's future generation.

Jeff and John, who love each other, made a lifelong commitment in 1977. They worked during that time to gain benefits for their partnership accorded married people, successfully advocating for employee health benefits at The Village Voice in 1982. They've apparently enjoyed a close and mutually rewarding relationship for 32 years.

I found the article about their ceremony touching: "Mr. Weinstein and Mr. Perreault wept while reading Walt Whitman poems to each other," after which they moved matching friendship rings from their right to their left hands. I wish them well. "John continues to surprise me," Jeff said of his new "spouse." "I still don't know what's deep inside him. And I still want to know."

I'm not going to touch "what's deep inside him." I really don't want to know. Because plenty of men have close bonds with other men, even the love and commitment that long-term friendship can bring. Even sharing an abode doesn't necessarily imply any kind of hook-up. Plenty of people room together--and become best friends and confidants--but wouldn't dream of a homosexual liaison.
The only thing clearly different between those relationships and Jeff and John's is the physical attraction and expression that's part of Jeff and John's connection. It is that aspect that causes Mr. Perrault and Mr. Weinstein to declare their devotion and live together rather than just meet up for poker, or to peruse museums and sample gourmet restaurants. Or even to have a lively intellectual interchange via phone, email or in-person chats.

Now comes the question: "But the difference between platonic and romantic cross-sex relationships is sexual expression, too. Why should straights get the perks of marriage, and gays not?" Answer: because straights had the word 'marriage' first--and always used it to mean the combining of physiologically opposite genders sexually, the outcome of which can be vastly consequential.

Note two aspects to that answer: 1) "...physiologically opposite genders..." Men and women are different in every cell of their bodies. They fit together in a way suggested by anatomy. 2) "...the outcome of which can be vastly consequential." Male-female sexuality enables the creation of new human beings who require nurturing and support until adulthood. The permanent joining of parents for the upbringing of offspring is of crucial importance to society.

The second article I clipped from The Times' "Sunday Style" section (February 15, 2009) is a "Field Notes" column, "Of Course You Can Have It All," about gays' wedding (and commitment/civil union) ceremonies. What struck me is the insistence that two men or two women pledging their lives to each other is identical to opposite sexes marrying.

For example, Berkeley, CA (surprise!) residents Tina Cansler, 31, a college student, gave her partner, Katie Krolikowski, 35, a biology professor, a solitaire diamond ring, spurring "close family friend" Kim Smith to host for them "a traditional engagement party" which, she said "is completely appropriate" given "that it is the same kind of relationship as if a man and woman were to get married."

Berkeley resident (yes) Cortney Bucks, 29, also presented a diamond when she got on one knee and proposed to Stacy Thompson, 31: "Politically and cathartically it was important to us to have all the things men and women have in preparation for their marriage," Ms. Bucks declared. "I kept thinking, 'Why shouldn't we, why couldn't we have it all?"

May I respond, Ms. Bucks? You can have all the accoutrements of traditional marriages--the ring, the bended-knee, the blow-out reception, the fabulous gowns--but you can never have "it all" because "it" is the combining of male and female. That is marriage. And unless the term is re-defined against citizens' will (remember, you can't make "table" into "chair" without losing all specificity, which is what definitions are all about), "marriage" is all we've got to describe cross-sex permanent commitment.

The issue is about semantics, but semantics are crucial. I don't mind if two men or two women want to make their lives together, or want to get engaged or want to call their relationship anything they want. I don't mind if they receive benefits that nowadays unmarried heterosexual live-togethers do. I'm actually glad when gays and lesbians maintain stable relationships, because commitment brings mature behavior, which is good for society.

But I want to protect the definition of marriage, because without it, there's no term at all for that unique combining of male and female, the only means to create children, and the best way to raise them.

So, Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black, enjoy your gold Oscars. Keep assuring audiences that God loves them, and that they have value. But don't use the positive, noble-sounding term "equal rights," as a euphemism for "eliminate marriage as the world has always known it."

I promise you, Sean, Dustin and "all the gay and lesbian kids out there tonight," right now, federally, you have equal rights... across this great nation of ours. The folks who voted in Proposition 8 in California don't hate you. They're just feeling defensive about the "marriage" they know and hold dear.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Scammed Out of Your Life Savings? Government Owes You

Apparently I haven't had enough of the Madoff madness because I just had to express my pure astonishment at a quote from this article in today's New York Times, from a woman at a Town Hall meeting of Madoff creditors: "This is a human tragedy, and we should be getting help from the government like any other victims. I lost my entire life savings that I worked for my entire life."

Help from the government? Because you voluntarily put your money with somebody obviously not vetted properly--to get the most return--who scammed you? I know you worked your entire life for those savings, lady, but don't you think taxpayers (who work their entire lives) have better things to do with our money than to pay you for your bad choices? Your sour investment is not a "human tragedy" like Hurricane Katrina or the attacks of 9-11.

But as expected, the government will come to the aid of investors, with up to $500,000 available from its Securities Investor Protection Corp. While that amount may be less than lost by most of Bernie's victims, it will at least insure that those of limited worth won't be left penniless.

What galls me is that woman's sense of entitlement. Such a quick reaction: Think, "human tragedy," and immediately, "government owes me." By the way, though Bernie confessed to Ponzi-ing $50 billion, so far the claims from 2,350 wronged customers only total about $1 billion, according to court-appointed trustee Irving Picard. Yes, it's a human tragedy, but when you work your entire life, sometimes you find out the most valuable things in it are free.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Smash-Me-Bernie" Madoff: I've had Enough

My Bernie Madoff fascination has fallen off with the sharpness of Tuesday's Dow. Not only am I bored with the redundant aspects of his perfidy, but the scope of stories grow more sinister and gruesome by the hour. With the second suicide (William Foxton, 65-year-old Order of the British Empire who'd lost an arm in combat, shot himself in the head last Friday) and ripples of ruin made all the more pathetic by emerging facts about Bernie and Ruth and their collusive shenanigans, the soap opera charm has vanished.

Anger is setting in. I'm only angry at Bernie, whose liberal politics were exposed only by my husband, for what he did to others. But his newly-poor victims are justifiably seething for their own and their families' sakes. That's why the big hit (pardon the pun) of the current New York Toy Fair is the "Smash-Me-Bernie" ceramic doll, with its pitchfork-wielding devil's body--that comes with its own mini sledgehammer for that crushing blow. Phoenix's ModelWorks company makes dolls to order with specific likenesses, and when its honcho Graeme Warring made a Bernie in sympathy for a friend's losses, a fad was born.

My only comment about the doll: Bernie's likeness is too complimentary. He looks sweet rather than menacing; youthful rather than worn. His hair is golden, rather than gray and mostly hidden by a dark baseball cap. And while he may appear to be the devil to his investors, his usual black trench coat is just about perfect--the trench, in khaki a businessman's staple, has gone spoiled, rotten.

Yes, I'm finally tired of Bernie. He makes Jews look bad and has turned the norm toward suspicion in a world that could use some honesty and trust. Good riddance to bad rubbish, as they say. But somehow, I don't think I've read the last of him...

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Unless You're a Photo Nut, Skip This Post

I'm an avid photographer. I figure if life is worth living, it's worth remembering. Well, most of the time.

So, to my family's fatigue, I snap photos of what we do together. If we're on a vacation, I'm recording it all; I download these moments and relive them on my slideshow screensaver with great delight. My middle daughter, to my heartbreak, will allow herself to be in one or two photos during an entire trip away. If she sees me raise camera to brow, she puts forth her open palm to block out her face. I must have hundreds of photos of "the hand," ruining my reminiscences of family gatherings.

Though before going digital in 2003, I'd lug my Nikon D60 with Nikkor 28-200mm lens with me everywhere, since then I've become spoiled by the "throw my camera in my purse" joy of a Kodak DX7590 with 10x optical zoom. It does away with carrying a separate video camera, recording my daughter's performances and our family by the pool--limited only by the size of its SD card. I love that I can control the flash, deciding when I want natural light (just don't open it) or fill (an easy button on top). It focuses smoothly and accurately.

But, it's only 5 megapixels, and it takes FOUR SECONDS between pressing the shutter and taking the picture. I've lost way too many photos that way. Cute expressions on toddler nieces just won't wait that long.

I've been looking to update for a long time. I even bought a Kodak P712, 7.1 megapixels and 12x optical zoom. But I hate it. I didn't know that it has an automatic flash; in order to override it, you have to go deep into menus. I don't have time to do that when the groom and the bride are being hoisted on their chairs at a wedding. Also, that camera has a jerky zoom; when I see a photo, I want to just go there; I don't want my zoom to keep moving in too close after I've stopped pressing it.

So it's been several years since I've bought a camera, since nothing's been made that addresses my needs. My husband, who hears my muttered curses while I wait the four seconds between pressing and shutter release, keeps urging me to buy a replacement that's faster. I keep looking for a toss-in-my-purse mega-zoom cuz I won't return to the lens-toting or changing of an SLR.

I thought I'd found it when I came upon the Nikon P80. With 18x optical zoom, a flash I can control, 10 megapixels, compact size--all the specs united to send my heart a-flutter. Then, when Costco put it on sale in a package with case and SD card, I caved.

I read the manual carefully and last week went out with my husband to the Skagit Valley to view the flocks of snow geese and swans that over-winter in the barren tulip fields and other farm-y expanses. Snow geese congregate in enormous white masses, commonly 50,000 or more. Trumpeter swans' white swaths are fewer birds, but they're fatter and far grander when they fly. A swooping raptor can set them into a magnificent tizzy.

It was a frigid and mostly overcast day, but being out in the open fields was energizing. We followed the course suggested by a newspaper article on the geese, and indeed, there they were, gathered in a formidable line just closer than the horizon. That wasn't good enough--we went on the proverbial wild goose chase, seeking to come close and watch their group ascent.

Not to be. But I tried out my new camera on fluttering birds on a nature preserve pond, views of Puget Sound, winding trails bordered by pink-branched bushes just barely budding. I saw two enormous eagle nests, and some herons flapping across the sky.

The photos are dark, their elements blurry. I can't figure out how to turn off the auto-view that pops up when I want to keep shooting, showing me the photo I just took. I am not happy with this camera. Every picture I took--outside!--needed editing. I'm headed back to Costco. And my husband, once more, will start his nagging for me to find a new camera--or stop muttering.

The Virtue of Thrift: Target as the new Personal Trainer

Last night my son was doing a homework assignment that required a list of ten virtues. He had nine--all the usual ones including self-control, perseverance, loyalty, honesty--but was stuck for the last. He asked me, and within a tenth-of-a-second I replied, "thrift."

He asked for a definition, and off the top of my head, I said conservation and management of resources so as to avoid waste. I don't know if that's even close, but that's the way I live. I scrape the last smidgen of peanut butter out of the jar, reuse tin foil three times at least, and plan the meals I serve around what's on sale. Not much different from most Americans, probably. Well, all right, my friends do occasionally call me "cheap."

But today, with our morning newspaper came an advertising supplement for Target. I already shop there, though toiletries come from Dollar Tree, and I only buy their clothes for my kids when they come on sale (I wear their "hand-me-ups"). Target, however, is trying to position itself as the substitute for all the services and pleasures that before the downturn, cost more somewhere else. On the front of the supplement is a smiling red-headed boy serving breakfast in bed to, assumedly, his parents-- "the new room service," with a faux newspaper on the tray, headlined "Stocks down."

We're then taken through a series of vignettes that hawk accoutrements for "the new commute" (bicycle, $80, helmet $15, messenger bag $16); "the new renovation" (toss pillows, $18 apiece, fabric refresher spray $4.50, photo frames, $6); "the new family game day" ("Connect 4" game, $15, pack of batteries, $9.79); "the new personal trainer" (work out tank top $19, hand weights $6 each); "the new spa trip" (mascara $6.39, terry robe $20, Olay moisturizer $22); the new restaurant (salmon fillets $8.99/24 oz, basic dinner plates $5/ea, 200 Bounty napkins $2.50); "the new coffee spot" (Mr. Coffee $20, sandwich cookies $1.89, dishwasher liquid $4); "the new barber shop" (hair clippers $15, bath towels $5); and "the new water adventure" (toddler swimsuit $10, sunscreen $5.24, cheese snacks $1.39).

Now, all these "new" experiences aren't new to me and probably most others, but I must say, there are a few really good deals listed in that list (Target? Need a spokesperson?), and a few things old cheapo me wouldn't ever pay for. My "new personal trainer" (who I never had) knows I work out in a cast-off t-shirt (why sweat in a $19 tank top?) and the moisturizer for my "new spa trip" is hotel mini-sized giveaways from my husband's business travels.

And that's my point--Americans know the value and the virtue of thrift already. That's how Target stays profitable. Still, it is rather clever for them to hook new customers by suggesting they're the reasonable replacement for upscale, expensive habits. This is the capitalist system at work, the real stimulus our economy needs, rather than a thousand pages of "pork and earmarks" that must be paid for through extraction from already-smarting taxpayers under penalty of imprisonment, that will probably curse future generations as the national debt.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

George and Abe--Demoted by Presidents' Day

This morning I went to hear my husband speak at an event for Presidents' Day sponsored by the DAR. I happen to be a DAR (Daughter of the American Revolution) as my mom's lineage goes back to the 1600s and the family homestead in Linville, VA in the Shenandoah Valley. I visited it a few years ago, and spent an afternoon in the historical library there, engrossed in their local history logs.

It was peculiar to be in a group today where my presence notably reduced the average age--but at the same time, the ambiance was dignified, sincere and uplifting. DAR officers wore panels of gold lapel pins striped down their chests. A lady wore a DAR scarf, one that I own, since the organization effectively gains donations by sending out "gifts" (the polyester scarf, address labels, imprinted note pads, calendars of historic places) and tugging on the purse by way of the guilt.

I must say, there's no downside to the DAR, whose patriotic members devote their energies to glorifying our history and educating our youth to its importance. The event today featured the Cornucopia Orchestra, white-haired musicians in sprightly red vests who serenaded us with nostalgic marching tunes, early-century pop songs and a tribute to each branch of the armed services. As the distinctive military tunes began, the conductor stood at rigid attention and offered a formal salute to the ladies and gentlemen who stood in the audience for recognition. I had a lump in my throat.

And I full-out blubbered as the entire audience sang along to "God Bless America." The strength of feeling for our nation was truly stirring. My husband addressed widely-believed lies about church-state separation, government rescue of financial woes, and moral decline. He also described the fascinating history that showed the "forgotten" presidents between 1880-1900 Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison and McKinley) in an extremely positive light--when the gross national product lept 250% and an economic downturn was handled correctly (by a Democratic president) by a refusal to allow the federal government to mess with the free market by bestowing favors on one segment of the nation over another.

I'm glad we could give these Presidents their due, but still, something's amiss. When I was a kid, only two presidents in particular were hailed yearly, two monumental individuals whose contributions and talents changed the shape of our nation: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In the weeks leading up to Feb. 12, Honest Abe's warted profile was seen in every classroom, and on his birthday itself, education and commerce paused. Back in school on Feb. 13, we began feting George Washington, climaxing in our salute on his birthday, the holiday February 22.
Ask a kid now to name George or Abe's birth dates, and you'll get a blank stare. All the presidents are now equated--George with The Worthless One; Abe with, oh, John Tyler (who's #6 on US News' "10 Worst Presidents" list). I think we ought to restore the two birthdays to their rightful places, and stop assuming that just becoming president means you're automatically deserving to stop the economy for a day.

Not that Presidents' Day liberates anyone other than schoolkids and postmen. Stores have huge sales (especially this year!) and entertainment emporiums from movie theaters to go-cart lots compete for bored kids' allowances. While teachers relax, those with white hair gather to sing patriotic songs and learn about heroic history.

Here's a suggestion: hold "President Bees" around the country--competitions where children show off their understanding of our nation's history and leaders. And make sure we remember the proper birthdays of the larger-than-life figures our nation was blessed to enjoy, rather than merely that all those White House guys are to thank for a three-day holiday the second weekend in February.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Cilantro: Creation of the Devil

Finally, I am vindicated for my aversion to cilantro. On the front page of Friday's Wall Street Journal is an article legitimizing my complete disgust with being even within inhaling distance of what the article headlines as a "fetid barb of green."

I am convinced it's genetic, this abhorrence for the slightest whiff, much less the teensiest taste (ugh!) of the loathesome leaves. My daughter and son share this disgust with me; my husband, who chows down on cilantro-laden Thai food (certainly never made by me!) with gusto, passed his fondness for the herb to our other daughter.

Little did I know that Facebook cilantro-bashing groups proliferate; that cilantro antipathy causes psychological problems (University of Washington student Natalie Sample, of Mexican descent, is quoted in the article as feeling "guilty" for "letting my heritage down"), and herbal hostility inspires haikus of hatred.

Uh-oh, I feel one coming on:

Eager for curry
Waitress here with steaming plates
Stench wafts and smile dies

Apparently the cilantro-loving gene is dominant. Cilantro production is up, $30 million of it produced in California in 2007, compared to $17 million in 2000. Or maybe there are just a lot more Mexican restaurants. A study did show that identical twins shared this garnish-fondness, while just 42% of fraternal twins did.

Philadelphia cilantro-neuroscientist Charles J. Wysocki says repugnance comes from an inability to detect the chemicals in the herb's smell that please enthusiasts. So it could be we who are disgusted are also faulty. But I don't think it's just the smell. Sometimes, when the putrid odor is overcome by other ingredients, I discover its terrible tang ruining what would have been a delightful dish. If it weren't for those stealth shavings masquerading as parsley.

And those who enjoy this woeful weed just don't understand the strength of detestation for those of us who despise it. They laugh when we spit it out and ask restaurant servers with exaggerated urgency to "hold the cilantro." The article recounts one home-delivery recipient who "threw a burrito across my living room because, despite my specific order, it was packed with cilantro." Packed. Makes me nauseous just to think about it.

What to do? Just don't invite me over if you're cooking with any. And if we're out and I discover some finely diced leaf, just stop laughing as you watch me pick every last speck of it out of my food.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Who needs $500,000 to live?

I'm sitting in tomorrow morning for my husband as he wings his way home from giving a speech in the snowy climes of Alaska. Despite Juneau being called "the banana belt" of that wintry state, he reported to me the temperature outside was 10.
Meanwhile, in the name of preparedness, I've been catching up on my "mountain," ie the pile of newspapers I haven't had time to devour. At its zenith was the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times, where I found a headlining article relevant to the venomous debates about capping the salaries of highly-paid corporate executives. I can understand the reasoning that if a company is so desperate as to take taxpayer "stimulus" funds, it ought not to use those funds to fulfill stratospheric salary contracts for its Chief Executive Officers.

I'm one of those people to whom $500,000 looks like a jaw-droppingly large amount of money. As mentioned in previous posts, I was raised in modest circumstances and cannot bear to spend even a tiny bit more than necessary for anything at all.

So Allen Salkin's piece "You try to live on 500K in This Town" immediately brought a smile--must be a joke! And then shock. Not over the lavish expenditures the 500K guys consider necessities, like $35,000 for three fancy dresses the matron must wear to charity balls. Not even for the $4 million summer place in the Hampton's, with its yearly mortgage of $240,000. These are the kinds of things easy to dismiss as expendable playthings the wealthy could cast off without pain.

What blew my mind was that out of the $500,000 this hypothetical New York CEO earned, almost HALF of it, right off the top, goes directly to Uncle Sam. Federal and local taxes, social security and medicare leave this married parent of two with $269,000, before sales taxes are added in. Before the mortgage payments and home association fees, before transportation or food or clothes or insurance, the government has already become by far the single greatest expense. In other words, even a highly-paid exec ostensibly in "the private sector" works to pay the government nearly half his time.

It almost seems ironic, then, that the government should kick in to keep his company afloat--so he can pay it.

We must remember that government is an "it" and has no money of its own--just what it coerces under penalty of imprisonment from its citizens. Perhaps you're thinking that the uber-rich have lots of smart tax guys working for them so they can connive their way out of paying taxes. I won't argue with that.

But I'll answer it. First, "lots of smart tax guys," don't come cheaply. That exec has to pay plenty to his accountants and lawyers, who may average $200-600 per hour. That money gets subtracted from what he's got available--and goes to support other professionals who keep their jobs (and their secretaries' and assistants') by helping him. In the end, tax laws are so complicated that what the CEO saves in taxes is likely a wash with what he has to pay out to his accountants. But he's supported several more families with that money.

My second response to the notion that our $500,000 exec might be saving on taxes through sharp legal maneuvering is that if he does, and gets to keep more of his earnings, others still benefit. It's like a mini stimulus. Because our wealthy guy is bound to do something with his money beside just hoard it like Scrooge McDuck inside his home. He's going to either buy things, like fine clothing or vacations or restaurant meals, or he's going to put it in financial institutions or investments that will then make loans to others and give the CEO a return for letting them use his money.

Either way, even though the CEO collecting $500,000--or more correctly--$269,000--may be earning what appears to be an astonishing amount, he ultimately gives other people jobs and income with it. The NY Times piece describes his kids' tutors, the nanny, the car and driver. They earn between $45-125,000 annually, each. He assuredly donates some to charity, and even if it's an opera guild or an art museum, it's something that increases quality of life.

And, not unimportantly, he earns that money because somebody thinks he's worth it.

Some entity was willing to pay that much money for his services, for his expertise. He probably was an early star, went to business school, then took a series of lower and middle-level positions and finally did some magic with a company. Or, perhaps he came up with a fabulous product or idea--Bill Gates and Meg Whitman come to mind--and carried it into mass popularity and profitability. What small businessman doesn't dream of leading his company into big bucks and himself into a $500,000 salary?

The article ends with another extravagance the wealthy can afford--frozen hot chocolate at Serendipity: $8.50 per cup. Now that has got to go.

Serendipity frozen hot chocolate recipe created by Serendipity 3 Restaurant.
(Recipe from

6 half-ounce pieces of a variety of your favorite chocolates
2 teaspoons of store-bought hot chocolate mix
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups milk
3 cups of ice
Whipped cream, Chocolate shavings

Chop the chocolate into small pieces. Place it in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Stir occasionally until melted. Add the hot chocolate mix and sugar. Stir until completely melted. Remove from heat and slowly add ½ cup of milk until smooth. Cool to room temperature. In a blender, place the remaining cup of milk, the room-temperature chocolate mixture and the ice. Blend on high speed until smooth and the consistency of a frozen daiquiri. Pour the frozen hot chocolate into a giant goblet and top with whipped cream and chocolate shavings.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Well-Deserved Honor, Litter, and Rushing to "Shopaholic"

On Sunday night, our synagogue community had a festive dinner honoring a young couple named Judith and Elie, who, over the last many years, have been instrumental to our delightfully thriving congregation in many ways.

They're known for their extreme "chesed," or kindness without expectation (for them, not even a thought) of repayment. They open their home to Jewish travelers passing through who need a place for Shabbat. The husband is the "gabbai," or MC of synagogue services. (the translation for that word is usually "beadle," but I'm not sure what that is...someone who beads? Just joking).

And together with a few other dedicated congregants, they've spent hundreds of hours working with experts to help set up an "eruv" or boundary around our community, an unbroken enclosure largely defined by power wires and steep inclines and existing walls that designates us together as one "domain" so that we can carry within it on Shabbat.

To the unaware, it seems rather weird, but keep in mind that Shabbat is all about emulating God's ceasing of creation--which then gives us a day to celebrate the world as it is, to enjoy family, to engage in spiritual rather than physical advancement. One of the types of "creative activity" we pull back from is commerce, the essence of which is transporting stuff from one domain to another.

Having an "eruv" lets mothers push strollers and carry infants to services and to visit friends nearby; it lets me carry a kleenex in my pocket as I walk the 2.7 miles to our synagogue in the frigid weather that causes a runny nose. And, most importantly, the eruv allows my husband to carry a bag for collecting litter.

Now we get to the point: Over the course of his trek to shul, my husband collects bags and bags of garbage. Each week. As he passes the park, he empties his bag in a trash can, and keeps collecting until he arrives. On his way home, he tidies the other side of the street.

This week after hosting some dear friends for lunch, we decided to walk with them the ten-minutes between our homes. After a rainy morning and a slate-dull day, the sun had finally slunk beneath the cloud cover for its final rays, casting a golden light on the dampened foliage. It was runny-nose cold, the kind when you keep your hands tucked in your pockets, and dip your cheeks beneath the upturned collar on your down jacket.

But not my husband--his left hand held a white plastic bag, and his right was free to grasp tossed water bottles and beer cans, coffee cups printed with wizened words, and their ubiquitous lids and straws. Walking by a school, my husband filled his kitchen can liner and two other supermarket plastic bags he found before encountering a bin to dump the heavy contents. A bourbon bottle, the remains of a bashed campaign sign, several glass juice bottles and various other detritus made his haul rival Santa's bulging stash.

What was I doing? I was on the look-out, pointing when I spied a a saturated kleenex, mud-filled soda can, half-buried packing peanut or soggy notebook leaf. Why didn't I pick up that yukky junk? On other occasions, I have. But dressed in Shabbat clothing on that shivery day, when I could converse with friends rather than fill a plastic bag with sludgy husband was getting great exercise.

Why is all this remarkable? Because after he stooped and retrieved and shook slugs and stale beer out of cans; after he carried and dumped and refilled and got mud caked in his shoe-ridges; after a day depositing what must have weighed, all-told, more than two hundred pounds into trash receptacles...the NEXT DAY, those same streets were once again ripe for clean-up.

Fresh fast-food cups, new latte-discards, more tossed Coors cans and doughnut boxes and paper napkins. There they were, in our residential neighborhood, by the side of the road. Again.

Tonight we went to a screening of "Confessions of a Shopaholic," a contender for worst movie of the year. I didn't know as we drove that I'd soon say "get me out of here" at four particularly painful points during the unbearable film--the hype touted a hilarious romp through designer stores with which every woman identifies, if even in her fantasies. I was excited to be going to the screening, but we were late, and I wanted to be sure to arrive on time. Couldn't we just drive a tad faster?

Actually, no. My husband saw a MacDonald's cup and swerved. "Just grab that," he commanded. I unlatched my seat belt, thrust open the car door, lunged for the cup, which still held ice and orange soda. No trash can in sight; I got to hold it.

But we were late! And I'm into shopping! OK, my haunts may be Dollar Tree and Big Lots instead of Prada and Gucci--but a girl can dream! Must I rush into the screening holding a dirty cup?

No worries, I got to put the cup into the broken cup-holder while I dashed out after second swerve for a crumpled bag, cast alongside the park. And that is all there is to the story--another day, another bag of trash plucked from the side of the road.

But as long as we're talking about shopping, I'll let you in on the best birthday gift I ever gave my husband: his first "gopher" litter-pick-up tool. Along with it, I bought an orange reflective vest, to wear when he's refuse-cruising at night. I purchased some inch-and-a-half-wide reflective tape, and from it cut out the letters of his first name, which I glued to the chest-pocket area; on the back, I cut out and affixed the words, "Help me pick up litter."

That is not my husband in the photo, btw. But he does use that "gopher" every day except Shabbat, on which he tries to do things a little differently, grasping his booty with his bare hands. As for the vest, well, for the shopaholics among you, I think you just might be able to find it right the thrift store.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"He's Just Not That Into You"

Because I can't countenance movies with violence, suspense or slapstick, when I'm invited to the screening of a romantic comedy, the answer is ...when do we leave?

"He's Just Not That Into You" is just the sort of film I enjoy, and the pre-release hype was exceptionally effective in piquing my interest.

(I was only slightly hesitant since I'd just seen "New in Town," a romantic comedy that put a fish-out-of-warm-water [in this case actress Renee Zellweger as Miami exec Lucy Hill] into the bitter chill of a New Ulm, MN winter. The predictable romance with union rep Ted Mitchell [Harry Connick, Jr.] is as cheesy as the yogurt produced by the Munck food factory Lucy comes to downsize. A must-miss.)

"He's Just Not That Into You," on the other hand, was smart, sassy, and its romantic set-ups on-pitch. Not that my blessed life ever resembled any of the five or six women and just as many men that form the web of characters seemingly seeking vastly different things from their relationships. And what an attractive web this is: Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Lane, Scarlett Johansson plus many more equally alluring young adults.

Does everyone want love? Implicitly, deep down inside, yes. But in the pairing process, do guys want sex and girls want commitment? Definitely.

I enjoyed the New York Times' article on "Into You" director Ken Kwapis, who has been married 18 years to writer Marisa Silver, his co-director on "He Said, She Said." That was a film where each spouse directed half the story about a almost-committed relationship from the point of view of his/her own gender. "Into You" is similar, with one character, who runs a bar, advising a lonely patron about the harsh realities of male communication, and one of the stories about a couple at the "fish or cut bait" moment. There's also a shaky marriage where trust is an issue, and the self-destructive bottle-blonde who wants what she can't have. Throw in a couple cute but faltering ladies never called by skanky, selfish guys and like that sliced kids' book with differently-composed head, body and feet you can rearrange into any combination, you've got pretty close to all the possibilities any romantic comedy ever offered. All in one movie.

The good thing is that with so many relationships going on, each with a plausible core, and with so many quirky and vulnerable people, you're never bored. In fact, writers Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein avoided typical chick flick cliches so assiduously that the movie's website offers a giggle-worthy short portraying each of the top ten romantic comedy devices not in the film--using "Into You's" three cutest male stars for all the roles.

Still, there are plenty of cliches to go around. And of course, nobody in the film ever has any connection to religion (not even in either of two weddings shown), and there's no church given even the nod of a quick scenery shot. In addition, the product placements are just too obvious--with Crest Whitestrips so prominent that after our screening, samples of the tooth whiteners were given out as souvenirs.

Also, no normal, happy marriages earn even a mention, and there's only one person on camera who appears to be over age 35--and even he (Kris Kristofferson) is alone. Finally, if a Martian gleaned his view of earth life from this movie, he'd get the idea that gays make up about a third of the population--and invariably are in advisory positions to all the clueless straights around whom they hover.

Still, this movie met my criteria for an entertaining evening out. My sorority daughter, upon hearing I was on my way to the screening, responded, "Awwww! I wanted to go see that!" And I'm sure she, and every chick who ever settled into a velvet seat with a box of popcorn, will, too. A nice diversion, providing me some juicy fodder for the book I'm writing, and another reminder of why I'm so glad I'm married to the man I am.

But no matter your romantic situation, "Into You" leaves a lot more to chew on than a few kernel-husks stuck in your teeth.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Scoring on Procrastination

Yes, that's Albert Einstein, sitting at his cluttered desk, in a 1955 Life Magazine photo. He got a lot accomplished.

Here in Seattle, it's gorgeous out; the sun is shining--but I need to be working. I have a deadline. Can't sit outside now.

So, I just took an online survey about my procrastination. You, too can take it here. It only cost me about 18 minutes. Now I get to write to you about it.

It's redundant; it asks the same five or six questions in oodles of ways. Are you a risk-taker? Do you ponder your choices? Is your work boring? Is short-term gratification irresistible? Interestingly, I noticed my answers varying depending on the phrasing of those same questions.

One of the questions is, oddly, "do you procrastinate?" Well, here I am, surrounded by reference material, half-finished chapters cluttering the bottom of my computer monitor, reduced. Yes, here I am, writing about taking a procrastination survey. Umm, do you think I chose "very characteristic of me," "characteristic," "neutral," or not characteristic?

Truth is, I only procrastinate on the one big project on which I'm afraid to fail. Probably reflects my underlying fear that I'm really not as good as I'm supposed to be...that old "I may seem to be competent and successful, but I'm really a fraud" syndrome. Well, intellectually, I know that's not true, but emotions trump logic every time. So I take quizzes and write blog posts and run to classes and volunteer on projects.

My score on the survey was 66 out of 100, "above average procrastinator." Nice to be above average in something.

When you get your score, the helpful folks at the University of Calgary Haskane School of Business offer "tips" to help you overcome your above-averageness. Like goal-setting (been there, done that), routines (got plenty) and stimulus control. That's the bugaboo. I can always find something that needs doing first. Since I have a home office, you can imagine how neat and clean my house is. I collected the dust bunnies right after my deadline became pressing. The laundry is done; the darning too. You know you're procrastinating on something when all the buttons are sewn on your sweaters.

OK, now I must actually work. I've got everything I need all around me: I should be inspired by Einstein, surrounded by the accoutrements of genius. Truth is, once I get into it, I find my topic and research fascinating; it's the writing I fear. But when I start, I can usually keep going for awhile. Till I look up and see what time it is, get that cup of coffee and, hey, is that the sun still shining out there?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Deadline? When?

The thought-spur, if not the action-impetus, was an article in the New York Times Personal Business section yesterday. I was reading it lying in bed debating how long I could tarry before casting off my down comforter, and heading toward my closet to dress for the 2.7-mile trek to synagogue services.

The piece: "Read this Today, or, If you Prefer, Tomorrow," was about procrastination.

It started off well enough, suggesting that not only is procrastination universal, but it can be beneficial. An Ottawa professor thought a little staring out a window or taking a walk could be "just what we need."

But then the truth came out: Procrastinators embrace "irrational, self-defeating delay." The professor, Timothy Pychyl, must be over my shoulder: "How often have we said, "We'll check email, it'll only take a minute,' and three hours later we're still on it?"

DePaul University Prof. Joseph R. Ferrari classified us procrastinators into three categories: arousal, avoidance and decisional: "The arousal types are thrill seekers who say they need the adrenaline rush that comes from waiting until the last minute." Check. But I always got those term papers in, even though I was typing as the sun rose and stapling them while running into class.

"Avoidance procrastinators put off hard or boring tasks to avoid being seen as failures." Check. I am writing this post instead of my book. Double-check.

"And decisional procrastinators are chronically indecisive in every part of their lives." Not usually. That's my daughter, though--ignore something and the decisions get narrowed for you.

What to do? Deadlines certainly are a help for me. I'm afraid to displease as well as to fail. The article suggests also to break tasks into manageable parts; to formulate them concretely rather than abstractly; to eliminate distractions ("like moving an email icon to make it less visible..." fat chance I can't find it!). There are those of us who use all the tricks and then spend time thinking up more.

But if these don't work, watch out. Procrastination could portend something lugubrious and deep: "It could be a symptom that you're leading an inauthentic life."

Really, I know those avitars in my virtual world aren't real. And oops, the editors waiting for my pages must be at lunch right now. Hmm, let me just check my Facebook...