ugly rumors

I was blindsided today by some ugly rumors at work. Though I have not mentioned all of it, things have been a little chaotic at Company O. over the last few months. I’ve changed managers. At the end of December, much of our division was split off into a new division. Immediately after the New Year started, the Senior VP in charge of our division mysteriously resigned. All this change has depressed the morale of many of my fellow employees — if only because we appear to be “at sea” instead of moving in a firm direction.

Things got worse today when I discovered that layoffs are being contemplated at Company O. this Friday. Since morale is already low among my co-workers, people I know are fearing for their jobs. This appears to be part of a periodic reduction in force that is happening to accompany some other business consolidation that’s going on. We don’t know if it is poor performers that will be let go, or whole departments. The rumors do say that the list has existed since before Christmas, however… but won’t be announced until Friday.

I hope I’m not one of the ones to go. This is not the best time for me to lose my job. As I mentioned recently, Mrs. Geek and I are trying hard to rid ourselves of some debt… and we don’t have a tremendous amount of money in the bank. Having one of us lose a job would simply complicate matters.

As far as my job performance goes, I feel like I’m in pretty good shape. I got a good performance review this year — plus two bonuses, a raise, and a change in title. In fact, that change in title has been slow to officially arrive and my manager took time today out of the blue to let me know that he was looking into that. I have a feeling that he wouldn’t do that if he knew I was being let go at the end of the week.

Still, keep a candle burning on Friday… I may need it.

some good music for Christmas this year

This Christmas was a good time for music — and I don’t just mean the holiday kind. I got two CDs this year: Want Two by Rufus Wainwright and Twentysomething by Englishman Jamie Cullum. I think both discs represent a return to an older, pre-punk sensibility when it comes to songwriting. From the tortured orchestral strains of Wainwright’s “Angus Dei” to the close of the disc with “Old Whore’s Diet” (supposedly a breakfast of old, ugly Chinese take-out he had after a night of debauchery), the complex pop songwriting tradition of Lennon/McCartney and Brian Wilson lives on in a man barely out of his teens. Cullum stylistically reaches back even further to the lounge jazz stylings of the likes of Bobby Darin, but with a definite sense of irony — where else can you hear Hendrix’s “Wind Cries Mary”, Porter’s “I Get A Kick Out Of You” and Radiohead’s “High & Dry” (along with a handful of inspired originals) rendered in smooth jazz forms on one disc? Discs like these are inspiration to me; with their complex arrangements and intertwining melodies, I am heartened to discover that there are artists who are still musicians first, not dancers, actors, or celebrities.

I also dug through my collection of DVDs to come up with some decent live music. The Rufus Wainwright disc above turned out to be an excellent bargain; it’s jewel case also contained a concert DVD of Rufus playing material from the CD along with older tunes at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium. While lacking full surround sound, the disc was a painful reminder of how long it’s been since I was out to see some good live music. I also recently purchased Norah Jones and The Handsome Band – Live in 2004. Shot at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Norah Jones and her band are a quiet wonder on stage — producing renditions of her better songs along with a series of eclectic cover songs that often featured special guests. Finally, I dug out a copy of Reverend Horton Heat: Live & In Color that I was given last Spring as a gift, but forgot. I’ve seen the Reverend live around three times… and this disc (with its DTS surround sound) was almost better than those shows because the audio was clear and unencumbered by the sounds of the drunk morons that usually surrounded me. The Reverend Horton is not the kind of artist you see interviewed in the mainstream media much — and the two short documentary bonus features about the Rev, Jimbo, and Scott were also very welcome.

All of this fills me with envy and awe. I feel envy because I want to make music again (flute, voice, something???) and awe… because I look at Norah’s band and Rufus’s band, each full of multi-instrumentalists and see how much talent and love they have for making music.

I got spanked

Mrs. Geek wishes me to (somewhat playfully) report that I showed what Steve Martin calls “big, dumb male” tendencies in discussing Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom. You see, I, like nearly every major news outlet, more or less started my description of Ms. Guilfoyle’s career with her stint as a lingerie model for Victoria’s Secret. Ms. Guilfoyle evidently used the money from modeling to pay her way through law school at the University of San Francisco — which I hear is a prestigious Jesuit institution. She then went on to become an assistant district attorney, only to gain some national profile with that “dog mauling” case that hit the national news wires a few years back. This is what brought her to the attention of Court TV, CNN, and MSNBC where she has appeared as a legal analyst.

In spite of her other achievements, I chose to describe her has simply a “former Victoria’s Secret Model” and “currently a legal analyst on Court TV.” I now consider myself spanked for violating the modern standards of Political Correctness in social discourse. I apologize for my incorrect phallocentric concentration on the visual and superficial.

In other news, I see that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston are splitting. As with the Newsom’s, I can only say: duh! I haven’t been avidly keeping up with the tabloid speculation regarding Mr. Pitt and Ms. Anniston but, I recall hearing mention of two things about their relationship: issues around having children (he wants now, she wants to wait) and time together (they’ve mostly been seeing each other on film shoots for the last few years.) Regarding kids, I have to ask “why didn’t you dicuss this before getting married?!?” As for the career, don’t they know better than spend so much time apart? Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward have been together for about 50 years, now… and they live quietly away from Hollywood. Certainly Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson appear to be going strong for 20 years and they have a definite quiet home life… ditto for Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw. Shouldn’t more Hollywood couples take a lesson from that?

I want to become a deadbeat

I happened to catch the Frontline documentary Secret History of the Credit Card last night via the Web. It scared me. It made me want to become a credit card deadbeat — someone who pays off his whole balance each month, denying credit card companies fees and charges — as soon as possible.

Among other things, the documentary reminded me why credit card companies are effectively legal loan sharks in this day and age:

  • A credit card company can raise your interest rates whenever they want with only 15 days notice.
  • There is no legal limit on the amount of interest a credit card company can charge — the industry-wide maximum today is around 30%.
  • There is no legal limit on the overlimit and late fees that a credit card company can charge on a monthly basis — some lenders are charging nearly $50 a month for each fee.
  • The minimum payment presented on each monthly bill is about 2% of monthly balance, meaning that paying a balance off using the minimum payment could take decades.
  • Finally, the U.S. Treasury Department seems loathe to curb lender abuses (through the Office of the Comptroller of Currency) and is discouraging state and local authorities from pursuing legal action against credit card companies for comsumer complaints.

Frankly, it all seems to border on the amoral. Is the credit card industry to become another example of the antagonistic relationship between upper level management who set the fees and the customers who ultimately pay their salaries?

Mrs. Geek and I are currently carrying rather large balances on two cards. One card represents the cost of our honeymoon in July. The other represents some consolidated debts incurred by Mrs. Geek during grad school — she used credit cards to make ends meet in the rather expensive metropolitan area where we live. We’re taking aggressive steps to reduce those balances (they’ll hopefully both be paid by this time next year.)

Still, I can easily see how it could all go so VERY wrong. If either Mrs. Geek or I got sick or lost our job, we might miss a payment or two, our currently very reasonable interest rates would go up, making our payments bigger, possibly forcing late or overlimit fees… and you get the idea. Things could easily spiral out of control.

Fortunately, neither Mrs. Geek or myself use credit cards as “free money”. We both have debit cards — the same as a check without the fuss. We don’t reach for credit cards unless we don’t have cash on hand to pay, or we’re getting something that we don’t want the other person to know we got… at least right away.

I hate owing anyone large sums of money. I think a lot of people used to feel that way, but don’t anymore. When did that change, I wonder? I don’t know.

choices in a marriage

I see from the major national news outlets that San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom and his former model/currently Court TV legal analyst wife K!mb3rly Gu!lf0yl3 Newsom are divorcing. The reason: he’s living nearly full time in San Francisco and she’s living nearly full time in New York. They claim to still love each other, but the distance is making their marriage impossible.

I was listening to comment on this turn of events on the radio while driving to work this morning. The range of opinions was interesting. Three people were on the air: a gay male host (who may or may not still be single after losing his long time partner to AIDS in the mid-90’s), a woman involved with a 400 mile long distance relationship with a man, and a married man. The host largely recused himself from the discussion. The woman felt that a romantic relationship, even a marriage, could survive over distances of thousands of miles. The married man took the opposite view, saying that distance in a dating relationship is one thing, but that kind of distance in a marriage is something else completely.

As I listened, I found myself siding with the married man. To me at least, marriage represents a level of commitment that creates three entities in the relationship between a heterosexual couple: a man, a woman, and the marriage. While the needs of the man and woman are an important part of the whole, their needs must in some ways be subordinate to the needs of the marriage. I find the tension that arises in the creation and maintenance of that arrangement to be part of the both the joy and the struggle of married life.

I tend to feel that an intrinsic part of being married is being with your partner on a day to day basis. You need to deal with any uncomfortable tossing and turning in bed at night. There is always that morning alarm when you both get up at different times. An evening meal is a wonderful thing to share. Choices about time, money, and career must be discussed and mutual agreed upon. In short, it is about taking in everything together.

Now, I do not necessarily mean that a marriage requires spending every waking minute together. I think that kind of time together is something that leads to insanity rather quickly. Mrs. Geek has her hobbies and I have mine. We treasure our time apart each in our own way, but only because we are secure in the knowledge that separation will inevitably end.

I do think that there is a threshold involved, however. Too much time apart forces two people to begin making more and more choices solely based on their individual needs rather than their collective needs. On the radio, the married man and the woman in the long distance relationship differed most on this point. She said that being apart five days a week made their weekends all the more special, fun, and romantic. To me, that sounds more like a very committed type of dating however — putting in “quality time” with your mate. I’ve always been a big believer in unstructured, “un-quality” time. If I just wanted “quality time”, I would only be a serial dater… not happily married.

The folks on the radio also spent some time debating the traditional gender role-related aspects of the situation. Will Ms. Guilfoyle Newsom be criticized for moving so far away from her husband to pursue career opportunities? Perhaps. Will Mr. Newsom be criticized for letting her go? If he isn’t, he should be — in a very specific way. I think it’s great that they both had great opportunities to pursue. I think that their choices were lousy, however.

Looking at my own life, I like to hope that I value Mrs. Geek’s career as much as my own because it is very important to her. So, choices made for our marriage need to be made with both our careers in mind. Balancing those needs is not always easy. Our recent discussions about the ins and outs of buying real estate rapidly involved other big issues like careers and children; those discussions often became not only “intense” but also “tense”. Yet, we both know that we need to make the choices that are right for our marriage as well as right for the both of us… and so we keep discussing until a decision can be reached that we are both able to live with.

To the soon-to-be ex-Mr.-and-Mrs. Newsom, I say (in my best American vernacular): duh! I think they’re both idiots. He should have been very clear about his political aspirations and recognized that such desires force one to be grounded in a particular place. He should have recognized that his wife-to-be did not want this, and looked elsewhere. Likewise, she should have been more clear about her career aspirations and been more sensitive to his. Moving 3000+ miles away for an open-ended unspecified period of time to pursue career goals when your husband can’t move is marital suicide in my book. I have the feeling that they were both more just “playing house” than being married… because marriage precludes the choices they made.

But hey, that’s just my two cents.

A New Years resolution of sorts

I’ve decided that I want to pursue a new second career during the New Year: tabloid headline writer. I don’t know if there is any money to be had in tabloid headlines, but someone has to write that banner line on the sleazy tabloid rag you pass in the megamart checkout line, right? Besides, I think sometimes things need to be done for the love — even the kitschy love of tabloid pop culture.

I find that writing a good tabloid headline can be a little tough. After all, I think that just anyone can come up with “Are Nick & Jessica breaking up?” or “Ben parties out while Jen sits home to pout.” Don’t you? Lines like that barely scratch the veneer of pop culture.

No, I want to produce something that gets closer to the pop culture marrow. I want a headline that will be endlessly debated in Internet chat rooms. I don’t mean just any old Internet chat rooms, either. I mean ones so thick with insider-speak that you can almost smell the microwave popcorn, Nacho Cheese Doritos, and stale body odor.

I have determined that I must discipline myself and practice in order to reach my goal. I’ve established a little daily ritual in three parts. I hope to do it as often as possible during the coming year… after which, who knows? Maybe I’ll be good enough to come up with eye popping lines ready for papers that even fish hesitate to be wrapped up in.

The first part of the ritual is just a basic cleansing exercise. A sort of little meditation, if you will. The idea is to give the mind a few stretching exercises to just limber up a bit. This involves repeating a few key tabloid headline words or phrases to generate a proper mind set. Some terms I like to use include “Herr Steinbrenner”, “slayfest”, “Wacko Jacko”, “JonBenet”, and “Bennifer”.

After these basic stretching exercises, I then move on to some basic headline composition. These headlines are of the sort you’d see almost anywhere… though perhaps I will try to add a personal twist to develop a personal style. Phrases like “Ann Coulter and Madonna Caught Thong Shopping Together!” and “Federline furious at Britney bombshell: ‘I Am Carrying Usher’s Love Child!'” fall into this category.

After creating four or five such headline catch phrases, I am no ready to begin the real headline heavy lifting. I try clear my mind, breathe deeply, and then see what pops into my glacial sense of calm. This morning’s efforts were rewarded with four lines:
“President Bush and Space Aliens Worship Together At Lacy Peterson White House Memorial Prayer Breakfast!”,
“New DNA Evidence Shows Bigfoot Killed Nicole Brown Simpson!”,
“Latest Pamela Anderson Breast Implants Actually Alien Embryos!”,
“Dead Sea Scrolls Prophesy Next Generation Low Carb Diet To Be Discovered Soon!”

I’m not sure I am where I want to be yet. I think I’m headed in a good direction, though. I’m giving myself the rest of year to see what I can do. We’ll see what happens.

What’s the matter with those mean red states?

You know those days when you get the mean reds? … The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?
– Holly Golightly,
Breakfast At Tiffany’s

I find myself wishing to talk to some Republicans lately. Not Republicans of the Bible thumping variety mind you, just some of your basic moderate, educated, professional, libertarian-leaning Republicans. I’m curious about their take on the state of their Party. I move in mostly Democratic circles, living in a “blue” state as I do. Given that the Republican party is going to begin its effective rule of the country for the first time since before the Great Depression in a few weeks, I’m curious to know what the new regime will be like.

I fear it will not be pretty. I happened to read Thomas Frank’s opus What’s The Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won The Heart of America on the plane back to the Land Of My Birth and after. It paints a pretty depressing picture about the future of the Democratic Party and blue state-type folks in general. If it is all true, I don’t think we can count on the Democrats winning back the Presidency for quite some time.

In the book, Frank attempts to explain why large groups of poor white folks in his home state of Kansas who were solid Democrats 75 years ago are fire breathing conservative Republicans today. Along the way, he shows how the Democratic Party has largely abandoned these people on core economic issues, allowing them to be bamboozled by Republicans using hot button social issues to vote against their own economic self interest. It makes for an interesting and compelling story.

Frank begins by dividing America into two economic groups: the “haves” and the “have nots”. The “haves” are essentially the middle and upper classes (everyone from CEOs to doctors, lawyers and other professionals) that stand to benefit economically from the widening between rich and poor that accompanied the last few Republican Presidential administrations. The “have nots” are the people at the other side of that economic divide (e.g. hourly wage earners and small farmers.)

Frank then shows how the politics of the “have nots” have changed profoundly in the last 100 years. Once social progressives, sixty years of social upheaval and liberal political correctness has left the heart of America profoundly enamoured with a mythic sense of moral order and personal freedom that evidently pervaded this country before World War II. Everyone agreed about the way things were “supposed to be” in those days, the idea goes… and the government or the culture wasn’t there to hem you in with a lot of regulations about what you could do or say. There wasn’t a liberal “expert” telling you something that contradicted your innate, humble common sense; it was just you, God, and your own personal destiny that allowed you to make your way and do well (or rather, well enough) in the world.

Enter the Republican Party. Once the bastion of the “haves” that the “have nots” should resent, the Republican party has allied itself with the “have nots” by cultivating a sense of “otherness” for liberals on social issues while completely ignoring the central economic issues that divide the two groups. We want that good old sense of order too, the Republicans say, and we’ll create it for you. We’ll oppose abortion and Janet Jackson’s breast on the Super Bowl halftime show. Don’t listen to liberals and Democrats; all they want to do is tell you in their preachy, self important, arrogant way how to live and use government bureaucracy to do it. None of us wants that. Frank then explains that Republicans tell “have nots” that Democrats have so bound the business community up in regulation that it’s kept America from being great like it used to be. So let us cut the red tape and cut taxes (more for corporations and the wealthy); you don’t want social programs, workplace protections, or environmental impact restrictions — they’re the tools that liberals and Democrats use to tell you what to do, what to believe, and how to live.

The consequence is an unholy alliance.Given that no one else has been doing much better for the “have nots” in the last thirty years, they join the Republican party in droves. They also volunteer for campaigns in droves and turn out on Election Day in droves. Republican election victory is assured.

This creates an internal sense of conflict in some of the “have” Republicans. Old school Republicans are more than not a pretty moderate, educated bunch — often educated at the very institutions that new school “have not” Republicans revile as “hotbeds of elitist liberalism”. They have a more nuanced view of the world than many “have not” Republicans and tend to take a much more moderate view on social issues near and dear to “have not” Republicans (e.g. abortion.)

Finance takes a back seat to ethics in the final analysis, however. The “have” Republicans stand to do even better on the backs of de-regulated, cheap labor of their “have not” Republican brethren. They can also win elections. By mouthing a few well-worn phrases about God and Family Values, even the most privileged, educated young “have” Republican can attract an army of dedicated “have not” followers to go door to door, make phone calls, and organize all Republicans to show up on Election Day.

Where is the Democratic party in all of this? Frank has nothing but disgust for the centrist policies of Clinton era Democrats. He argues that by agreeing with Republicans on issues like Free Trade and NAFTA, the Democrats sold out the “have nots” in order to chase after the more liberally minded “haves”. This pursuit Frank labels as largely futile; any “have” Republican is going to have to be poked and prodded pretty heavily on social issues by “have not” Republicans to jump ship and become a Democrat, especially when lots of money can be made. This approach is further weakened by the fact that it does not have any sort of popular “have not” movement behind it — it is merely an argument for better, more responsible government. That argument is one that Republicans ran on and lost on for decades. Other than that, Democrats are merely running on inertia.

Me, I can’t completely fault Democrats for this strategy. Frank’s analysis ignores a few inconvenient facts. The biggest is that the world of today is very different that the world of sixty years ago. Wage pressures from foreign labor in the quarter century following World War II were non-existent. Unions matured in this environment, and any attempt by government to preserve this wage bubble would only produce protectionist economic policy akin to mercantilism… which doesn’t work in the long run (just look at what the Japanese economy is going through these days.) Likewise, we’ve tried the “Big Government” social plan approach and it hasn’t worked quite the way we hoped. True, I think the Republicans takes a “prisons instead of schools” stick vs. carrot approach that is intolerable… but the old Democrat solution of more money and more regulation is also not the right answer anymore.

That aside, I tend to see Frank’s analysis as fairly accurate. The book was written before Election Day in 2004. The Republicans swept the Presidential election largely using the Kansas formula that Frank outlines.

The worst of all of it is that Frank’s book raises questions, but provides few answers. Where is the issue that can raise the standing of the Democratic party with a broader of the population? How can the Democratic party organize to run better campaigns?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. Perhaps, like Holly Golightly, I just have a case of the mean reds — only these reds are Republicans.