All the Others Are So Much Easier to Bear

We are all a number of different people at the same time. There’s who we think we are, who we want to be, who we want others to think we are, etc. Sometimes these things are aligned but most of the time there are differences between these various parts of ourselves. It is these differences that lead us to form friendships. We all have the need to reveal who we really are and a need for acceptance of that person.

A close friend of mine feels that technology is changing the nature of friendship. She feels that things like Facebook and Twitter are removing the impetus for people to interact face to face, and that losing this interaction makes friendships less meaningful.

When Facebook launched in 2004, I was 34 years old, married and living with my wife in an apartment we owned. I suppose that I was not in the target demographic for Facebook. I was old enough to have grown up in a time in which you didn’t keep people informed of everything you thought or did. I was also (and still am) happily married, so tracking down old lovers was not of interest to me. I don’t need to be on Facebook for business reasons. In sum, I can’t think of a single good reason to get on Facebook while I can think of plenty of reasons not to (including old lovers trying to find me).

Even though its not for me, I do believe in the possibility of friendship through Facebook or Twitter or other social media. A friend is someone you can tell what you really think, reveal who you really think you are. The only consequence of social media is that maybe the boundary between you private and public self is breaking down. Is this a bad thing? After all, wouldn’t we all be better off if we could live our lives as openly and honestly as possible? I think maybe it could be but I also wonder about unintended consequences of all this. I continue to stay off Facebook.

It Seems Simple

As has been continually reported, albeit not comprehended, the biggest problem with the US Federal budget is that even if it was decided that all discretionary, non-security spending be eliminated, the budget could not be balanced. This is important because the current debate in the US Congress about whether to cut spending by $61 billion, as advocated by the Republicans, or by $10 billion is almost meaningless. The real debate needs to center around the proverbial third rail of US politics, namely entitlement reform.

What I don’t understand, is why is this subject so taboo? As others have pointed out, the two major entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare were established when life expectancy for men and women in the US was much lower than it is now. Men now live approximately eight years longer and women approximately six years longer than was the case in 1965 when Medicare was created. The difference is more pronounced since 1935 when Social Security was created, with men living approximately 15 years longer and women 16 years. It is clear that circumstances have changed since those laws were passed.

Measures have been taken on Social Security. The age at which a qualified person can receive full benefits has increased in steps up to 67 for those us who were born after 1960. This is reasonable but insufficient. When Social Security was established, people on average didn’t reach 65. Now will all live with the dream of ten to fifteen years of retirement. I don’t want to have to work past (or even up to) 67, but I assume that I won’t be able to draw full Social Security benefits until I pass 67. For younger people, retirement is so far away and so much less interesting than their current lives, I can’t imagine that many of them will balk at the age of full Social Security benefits being pushed back from 67. After all, you can still retire at any age; this just affects getting Social Security benefits.

With Medicare, the eligibility age is still pegged at 65. I’m not sure what sense this makes. Why can’t Medicare eligibility be pushed back as Social Security eligibility has? I’m not advocating changing benefits for those who are already receiving benefits or even for those who are close to receiving benefits (60 years old +). But what about people in my age group, people who are still more than twenty years away from qualifying for Medicare. Tacking on a few years isn’t really going to affect me much at this point.

Part of the solution with both of these programs is changing the eligibility age. Why can’t this be done? Who is going to object to this? Both parties are waiting to make a proposal on entitlement reform, no doubt waiting for the other party to go first so that they can criticize. (It’s always easier to destroy than create.) But what exactly is at risk? Normally, a logical point of view on an issue like this is unattractive to conservatives, but this is an idea that they conceptually support. (Republicans with nothing at stake in this like Governor Christie of New Jersey have already weighed in on this.) As this could lead to a real solution in the structural problems with the federal budget, why isn’t anyone taking the lead?

I’m sure someone could tell me what I’m missing. I’m just puzzled and wondering; what don’t I understand?

Nothing Can Fix Me

Nothing can fix me. It’s too late. I’m too old. Do you ever feel like that?

As you get older, things become clearer. The good part of aging is that you gain wisdom about things. It used to bother me when my parents would give me advice on something and their basis for the advice was that they were older and they knew the way things were. It seemed a pretty flimsy basis to me. As I have grown older and interact with younger people I see that there are things you understand just from having been around longer. Sometimes things are so clear to me that I can’t understand why the person I’m talking to can’t see it. Someday they will.

The bad thing that becomes clearer as you get older is that who you are starts to solidify. This is not a problem with the good qualities that you have but it is a source of frustration with regards to the things about yourself that you’ve always wanted to change. When you are younger, you always think that there will be time to change. Nothing is forever. I will only do this job for a little while until I pay off my school loans. I will live in this little apartment now until I have enough money to move into a bigger one in a nicer neighborhood.

The biggest surprise to me as I get older is how little personalities change. When I was growing up, I just assumed that my father had reached the level of adult maturity in which you take on the responsibilities of adulthood because you want to, not because you have to. Maybe I was naive, but I assumed that adults no longer wanted the things that they may have wanted when they were younger. I assumed that raising a family was not a burden but was a joy. My father didn’t care about what he had had to sacrifice because what had replaced it was more desirable.

In my twenties, I kept waiting for this maturity to arrive. I kept waiting to not care about the joys of my youth; video games, science fiction and fantasy and watching sports. Two decades later and I still love those things. I still love my freedom. I have been married for over a decade but in many ways I’m still the same person I was back then. Sure I’ve gained knowledge and wisdom but at my base, I’m almost the same.

This sameness is a burden when I make the same mistakes over and over. The things I fight about with my wife are rarely new things. Instead they are variations on the things that have been problems for years. I’ve often reached the point of giving up and just accepting that I can’t be any other way. I think people reach that point a lot from a physical standpoint. You try for years to get back into shape and you are not successful so you decide that you are at your new normal size. You accept what you are. This can also happen to us from a mental standpoint.

Still, I retain hope that I can change. I have been successful over the last couple of years in changing myself physically, shedding some weight and getting down to what I vaguely remember was my college weight. Now I am also working on changing mentally. My goal in this is not some hazy past ideal but progress towards to a hazy ideal that we all carry around inside, how we would like to be if we only could. Maybe we can. I need to believe that I can change and that things don’t have to be one way just because that’s how they’ve always been. We’ll see.

Just So I Understand

I just want to make sure I have this straight. The unfunded liabilities in the pension funds in various states, including Wisconsin, increased over the past few years due to an economic crisis brought about by greedy speculators on Wall Street, which caused the stock market to collapse, lowering the value of those funds due to their investments in corporate stocks. In order to remedy this, states are exploring options, including being allowed to declare bankruptcy, in order to reduce these obligations.

Is It Just Me or Is It Hot In Here?

Among the unpleasant things being done by the majority in the House, the systematic effort to portray climate change as a debate or even a hoax has to be the most disturbing. It makes me wonder: In what world is rhetoric more powerful than science?

Full disclose: I am not a climate change expert. Unlike the climate cranks, I don’t pretend to be an expert. My evidence for climate change, and our contribution to it, is based on the near unanimous consensus of the scientific community. When I go to the dentist and she says that I have a cavity, I believe her. Why? Because she’s an expert and identifying cavities is part of her expertise. No doubt if the Tea Partisans didn’t believe in cavities then the majority in the House would be making noise about a global conspiracy among dentists.

I know that conspiracies are fun to think about. I’ve devoted hours to reading about the Kennedy assassination. (I believe in the Lone Gunman Theory.) I’ve enjoyed movies featuring shadowy cabals that secretly control everything. The problem is that there is precious little evidence of massive conspiracies, at least of those powerful enough to have a significant impact on our lives. Still, we love our conspiracy theories and the Republicans are more than happy to serve one up on climate change.

The question becomes who stands to benefit most from talking about climate change? On one side you have scientists who are hamstrung by having to use evidence to support their findings. The climate cranks would like us to believe that all these scientists are taking part in perpetuating a massive hoax on a gullible world. But for what end? Money and power are the usual reasons that people try and cook up a conspiracy. These scientists have no political power and surely it would be more lucrative to side with the people with the deepest pockets in this conversation. (Hint: The giant corporations who generate the most pollution.) Still, the scientists put their faith in the scientific theory.

Now power and money would seem to be exactly what the climate cranks are getting out of this. The elections in November granted power to a bunch of new climate cranks, many who benefited from campaign donations from other parties who also benefit from denying our role in climate change. Which seems more likely? Are a bunch of scientists making this all up in order to gain, I’m not sure what? Or are a bunch of people who directly benefit from being allowed to continue to pollute, funneling money into the pockets of people who have the power to make the laws of the United States?

To be fair, some climate scientists may be guilty of hyping the immediacy of the dangers of global warming. (Of course, they may not be.) To invalidate the science on this basis is as silly as invalidating a diagnosis from a doctor who gave you six months to live when you actually survive nine months. That the planet is warming is the consensus of the scientific community. If some scientists think the danger is more immediate than others it only means that, unlike the politicians who can be certain about things without evidence, the scientists understand theories are only really proven when something happens.

Is This Part of the Performance?

Last weekend we went to MoMA PS1 to see “Laurel Nakadate: Only the Lonely”. Ms. Nakadate is a performance artist who works in photographs, videos and feature-length films.

I’m never sure when I see the work of a performance artist where the performance ends and the viewing of the work begins. At “Only the Lonely” I couldn’t shake that I was part of an ongoing performance, like I would show up in some future Nakadate performance. The presence of Ms. Nakadate only added to the feeling.

The themes of Ms. Nakadate’s work seem to be voyeurism and loneliness. In one work, Ms. Nakadate, behind a camera, walks into the bedrooms of three women and suggests that they strip to the their underwear. Even though Ms. Nakadate’s voice can be clearly heard, the suggestions combined with the repeated reassurances that the girls are pretty builds up to an uncomfortable feeling that you are watching something that you shouldn’t.

Most of the walls in the exhibition are covered with photos of Ms. Nakadate crying, part of a series in which Ms. Nakadate took pictures of herself crying everyday for a year. While the photos made me wonder how someone could cry that much, my wife made a good point: “There’s always something to cry about.” Indeed, there is.

Not everything in the exhibition is as affecting as the videos of the three women or the crying photos. In “Love Hotel”, Ms. Nakadate is filmed in various Japanese hotels, which are used for discrete assignations, simulating the sexual acts she would be performing if only her lover were there. The soundtrack of the film is “Angel of the Morning” and as great as that song is it is not enough to make the video work. Then again, the audience not really knowing what the point often seems to be part of performance art.

On the whole, I recommend “Laurel Nakadate: Only the Lonely.” Her videos of dancing with middle-aged men to “Oops, I Did it Again” and of celebrating “her birthday” with three middle-aged men are interesting and worth seeing. Plus, MoMA PS1 is suggested donation so you can pay what you want.

The Words Had All Been Spoken

The thing that every writer strives for is to depict something in such a way that the reader feels exactly what the writer meant for the reader to feel. If the writer is lucky then there is something universal in what he or she has written and the reader not only feels or understands what was written but recognizes that same thing in his or her own life.

One of the things that is important to me when listening to music is the feeling that I understand what the singer is singing about. One of the reasons that I became a Springsteen fan in the mid-Eighties was that I could identify with his songs. It seems strange now that I, as a fifteen year old, could find common ground with a person twenty years my senior, but it spoke to me. As you can see from the blog’s title, it still speaks to me. As I fifteen year old I understood wanting to change my clothes, my hair, my face. As an eighteen year old I understood the feeling of being two different people, of one part of me doing things that I don’t understand. The connections have continued over the years and it’s what draws me back again and again.

Now, I admit that’s its possible that Springsteen doesn’t really have any insight. Maybe I changed and now view my life through the ideas in Springsteen’s music. That could be valid. I do believe that language can determine how we think about things. For example, does desire really behave like fire, or do we just think it does because the two words rhyme? Flames of desire, consumed by desire, my heart is on fire. If you really think about the feeling of desire, is it a burning feeling? (A burning thing?) Or is it a cool ache that won’t go away? I’m not sure.

At any rate, it may not make a difference if we change or if some things really are universal. Even when we talk about universal we really don’t mean universal, we really mean something that a critical mass of people identify with. Even if that critical mass seems large, it is still a minority of us who connect to it.

At any rate, the reason this is on my mind today is because of “Late for the Sky”. Sometimes songs pop into your head and you’re not sure why. In this case, the most recent episode of “Men of a Certain Age” pushed Jackson Browne to the forefront of my mind. That episode featured “These Days” and it made me realize that I hadn’t listened to Browne in some time. I listened to his greatest hits and again was struck by “Late for the Sky”.

I’m not great at deciphering what songs are about but “Late for the Sky” pretty clearly appears to be about the end of a relationship. Browne couldn’t have been more than twenty-six when he wrote that song but everything in it is really on point. “You never knew what I loved in you/I don’t know what you loved in me/Maybe the picture of somebody you were hoping I might be.” It’s hard to believe that at twenty-six, Browne could have seen so clearly what it is that can drive people apart. If you’ve ever been in a relationship that crumbled then you will recognize plenty in Browne’s masterpiece.

The connection I have with “Late for the Sky” and with countless other songs is part of the explanation of why I feel the need to write this blog. Maybe there will be something in here that someone will read and it’ll explain something in their life that they couldn’t quite understand or articulate. I think its a worthy goal, maybe the most worthy goal of any person who practices art.

I Believe Even If I Don’t Understand, Sort of

There’s no shortage of wisdom in “Bull Durham”, not just about baseball but also about song lyrics and the way to wear a garter. Crash Davis also talked about one of the cornerstones of sports, superstitions. At one point, Mr. Davis informs Annie Savoy that if a baseball player believes that he’s playing well because of something he’s not doing then that is why he is playing well. Everyone knows not to mess with a streak.

When I was growing up I used to love to hear stories of the superstitions of various players. I’m sure I had my own when I played sports growing up although I can’t think of any of them now. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve given up superstition when it comes to sports. I’m am always on the lookout for the next lucky hat or lucky shirt or lucky place to stand to watch John Terry miss his penalty kick. (Up against the pantry doors.) I am vigilant about the jinx and the reverse jinx. Rationally I know that nothing I do will have any effect on the outcome of a sporting event that I am watching but I won’t tempt fate. An unscientific poll of my sports-watching friends indicates that they feel the same. (Sample poll question: What did you do differently to cause United to lose in Rome? Jerk.)

So why does sports lend itself to these odd behaviors? I don’t have the same beliefs in other parts of my life. I enjoy schadenfreude, but I won’t bet against my team. I’m not sure how much I believe in God, but I am pretty sure that if he exists then he knows when I lose faith in my team, way down deep inside, and I think it may disappoint him. I won’t go so far as to pray for an desired outcome but I won’t discount divine intervention. (For example, I am convinced that God thinks John Terry is knob.)

So why do we believe these things? Athletes can be excused. After all, they are undereducated, overpraised boy-men who are clueless off the field of play. In order to impose order on chaos, they need their rituals. But I don’t need them. I know there’s no power in the universe that can affect the outcomes of sporting events. Still…

You Can Go Home Again, But Why Would You Want To?

I have now lived most of my life in places other than where I grew up. As the years go by, I feel less and less of a connection to my hometown. Downtown only has a few of the same businesses as from when I was a regular patron. Even the movie theater has a different owner, and seven more screens. There is a new mall outside of town and the old mall is gone. My high school is now the middle school and my grade school is now used for something else. Even my parents have relocated to a different neighborhood. Still, its not really all these things that make it feel so strange in my erstwhile hometown. The strangeness comes from how different I feel from the people that are still there.

I have no idea if this is normal. From a very young age I was aware of the fact that I wasn’t like most other people in my town, especially my family. I was also aware, early on, that I didn’t want to be like these people. Of course I wanted to be accepted by my family and the people I interacted with, but I wanted them to accept me on my terms. I believed that there was something better that could be found somewhere else. I couldn’t express what it was but I was certain that it existed.

My biggest fear growing up is that I would never leave my hometown. I was worried that I’d end up in a job that I hated, married to a woman that I had to settle for, raising children that I felt obligated to have. Now I didn’t escape the job issue but I did get out of my hometown and did marry the woman of my dreams and we did not have any children. The life I live now may have been unusual if I’d stayed but in New York you can be anything.

So I became someone that my parents didn’t understand. I became the type of person that my parents never liked. If I wasn’t their son I’m sure they wouldn’t like me. Even as their son, some days its a close thing between like and dislike. My going back home is a reminder of why I was so anxious to get away. My family is a reminder of what I never wanted to be. I’m sure my parents know how I feel and there is an uneasy detente between us, neither side wanting to say or do the wrong thing.

I go home less and less as the years pass and I’m not sure if things will ever change. Maybe I need to accept that I will never be the child that my parents want. Maybe I need to not have a chip on my shoulder about it. I decided long ago that I would no longer make decisions based on what they wanted or thought was best. But if you can’t be yourself when you go home then why bother?

Change the Conversation

Don Draper, ad man, once said “If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation. The liberals in the US Congress have spent two years upset with what the conservatives have been saying but have not been able to change the conversation. In the wake of the results last November which changed the Democrats from the majority to the minority in the House, there are signs that they may be trying to change the conversation. In his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama started to try and change the conversation. The biggest problem, however, is the arrogance of the liberals which may make changing the conversation impossible.

We liberals are convinced that if we could just have a calm, honest discussion about issues then people would be convinced of our viewpoint. We think of ourselves as being about facts and that the other side is about emotion. After the violence in Arizona, one of many incidents of gun violence in Arizona in January but the only one which featured a member of Congress, there was talk about increasing civility in political discourse. This appeals to the Democrats because they are tired of losing the debate, which they feel has been argued with emotions and not facts. If only they could calmly explain to the American people how their ideas are the correct ones then public opinion would change.

The problem is that for some reason people don’t like to be condescended to. In my own experience, I’ve tried to calmly explain to my conservative parents exactly what is right about my ideas and wrong about their’s and the result is always annoyance and anger, on both sides. My parents have accused me of condescension for over twenty years and I’ve not been able to sway them on any issues. Maybe if I could wrap myself in the flag and accuse them of being un-American in their beliefs then there would be some movement.

I think this may be the way for the Democrats to go also. I know that they are loathe to stoop to the tactics of their opponents, convinced as they are in their own superiority. The problem is that this attitude is a turn-off for people outside of the urban areas of the United States. It’s all well and good to live in New York secure in our superiority and certain that we know what’s good for all those rubes in the red states. The problem is that all these rubes can vote and the evidence indicates that they don’t like being called rubes. My parents are solidly working class and I’m pretty certain that they have never voted for a Democratic candidate for President. Aligning themselves with the liberal elite is unthinkable.

So the liberals should change the conversation. We may believe that we really know what’s better for everyone but even if all of our ideas are better, no wants to hear us talk about them. We are all so busy congratulating ourselves on how clever we are that we haven’t noticed that there are a lot of people that are sick of us. Matt Taibbi warned that by labeling the Tea Party supporters as lunatics and crazy people that the Democrats were underestimating the power of their ideas. The proof was delivered in the ballots. Sometimes its not enough just to be right. The liberals should change the conversation now if we want to have the opportunity to prove that we’re right.