Ships that pass in the night… and all day long.

Hello? Is this thing on?

¡Ay, carumba! What a weekend! What a week! I fought for the last three days to finally find the energy to write. It’s been an uphill struggle.

I came out of the weekend tired and bleary-eyed and that mostly because I averaged about 5-6 hours of sleep a night for the 5th and 6th nights in a row… when I function best on 7-8. My batteries felt so drained on Monday morning, that I crashed out around 8am and slept until after 10am… getting to work toward noon. I missed two meetings at work that morning that I was asked, but not required, to attend. I ended the day doing some system administration work that had me on a live chat until 12:30am and 5 hours of sleep for the seventh night in a row. I made a conference call at 6:30am the next morning, but then missed a third meeting at 9am because I neglected to check my calendar.

Yesterday, I had no meetings. I also made sure to get to bed by 9:30pm on Tuesday night. The sleep was restorative but the whole day was an uphill battle. I almost dozed off by 9pm on the sofa last (Wednesday) night, so I turned in early once again.

Today, I got up feeling much refreshed… and figured out how to put my work calendar and e-mail on my iPhone. Take that, meetings! Then I got out to the gym, and almost missed another one! I got stuck in traffic between the gym and the office. Fortunately, I was able to download the Skype app onto my iPhone and figured out how to sign on while weaving through 30 mile an hour traffic. It wasn’t pretty, and very stupid, but I somehow was able to contact my counterpart 8 timezones away and we agreed to meet later in the day… which we did.

It’s not much of a victory, but I’ll take it. This week has been rather short on them, at least where meetings are concerned.

Native tribal consumers returned from the hunt

This past Saturday was a busy one, with much the day occupied shopping for clothes at a nearby Premium Outlet Mall. I was due for some new clothes; over two years elapsed since my last previous major shopping expedition. Pant cuffs started to fray. Rubber soles (or whatever they are made of now) began to detach from athletic shows. Waistlines no longer fit — I am still 26.5 pounds off my peak weight last October.

Looking back on my shopping habits over the last few decades, I see some patterns emerge, at least where clothes are concerned. Four phases are apparent to me:

  1. Exploration – Back in my late teens and early 20s, I purchased a lot of different styles of clothing, some of it really loud and somewhat tacky (some of the fashions of the late 80’s and early 90’s were definitely “of the moment” and other neo-hippie revivals were classics of youth culture, but sometimes look odd on someone over the age of 30.)
  2. Refinement – I began to get a sense of (what passes for) my own personal style in my mid-to-late 20’s. Brands and styles I liked were identified. My shopping began to become more organized.
  3. Replication – This is where I am now, in my 40’s. I shop for the same kinds of clothing that I have worn for years. I go back to places I have shopped before whenever I can.
  4. Replacement – I have seen my parents go through this more than once; things they want to buy just aren’t available at the moment. So, they are forced to find “new” things to wear that can be found in the current marketplace.

All that said, I have been buying jeans at The G@P for 15+ years now. Has anyone else noticed that they’ve gone slightly insane with their prices? I saw jeans at an outlet store that were listed at $50 on the tag and then discounted 20-40% at the register depending on the style. You get the 40% off if you want Straight or Boot cut jeans, but everything else is only 20% off. I’ve been wearing either “Easy” or “Relaxed” fit jeans for over a decade, and $40 for a pair of new jeans seems a little steep. The Straight cut jeans are too narrow through the thigh on me, and while the Boot cut fit better through the leg, I don’t like the slightly flared look (and I don’t wear cowboy boots.)

The Undertaking

Being a father for two years now is changing me in ways that I slowly discover. The behavior of children immediately generates emotions in me that did not used to exist. Some of these are obvious: I find myself a lot more sensitive to the sounds of children crying. Others are less so. I saw a Dad pushing a toddler around in a shopping cart the other day and the child was pointing and saying “Da! Da! Da!” with some excitement. Since that’s one of Baby G.’s favorite syllables, I suddenly felt a pangs of familiarity, compassion, and solidarity with this man I didn’t know.

One of the more unusual effects occurred to me in the last week when I started re-watching an old episode of the PBS series Frontline entitled The Undertaking after reading a blog entry on Necromancy Never Pays. The show is a meditation on dying and the preparations for death from the point of view of Thomas Lynch, an Irish-American funeral director at a family-owned funeral home and author of a book of poetry with the same name.

The episode has a strong personal resonance for me because Mrs. Geek’s Irish-American family operated a funeral home for two generations until sibling squabbles forced it to dissolve. I don’t get to see what it is like to live so close with the business of death and dying. There are still stories (so many stories) and a black sense of humor that still infects Mrs. Geek and her Dad. Seeing what the episode portrays about the day to day operation of funeral home provides visuals for me that I can tie to things that would otherwise be completely abstract to me.

The episode follows the dying days of several people including Nevada and Anthony Verrino, the parents of an 18 month old with a severe terminal genetic disorder.

When I originally watched this episode in October of 2007, Mrs. Geek and I were just starting our journey of adding to our family. I approached the story much how you would expect: as someone who soon hopes to become a father, seeing another couple with a child born ill and thinking “Oh God, please let our baby be healthy!” I felt fear and anxiety, and a certain amount of guilt for my “them, not me” reaction.

Watching it again almost five years later elicited an entirely different reaction. There was a lot of empathy; Baby G. is not that much older than Nevada and Anthony’s child and seeing them elicited many recent memories of what it is like to deal with a child that size. The surprise was how much tenderness I saw, in the way how they held their child and cared for him. Yes, there was sense of grim determination in the face of tragedy, but there was a lot of gentleness and love too that made it beautiful to watch. They love their child just as much as I love mine, and a love all the more precious because it will be all too brief.

I hope that Nevada and Anthony already have another child. I hope they love that child as much as their first. Parents able to give such love should not be wasted.

The Undertaking can be watched on PBS here or here.

Poverty and taxes

In the madness of the current election season here in the United States, I ranted a little bit on Facebook the other day about the current obsession with tax rates among the both the voting and political classes. It seemed concise enough to me that I should preserve it:

I believe the absurd tax fetish [on the part of the Republican party] is a proxy for a broader discussion that we are not having about the declining standard of living throughout most of the Western world. We’re caught in a demographic conundrum where the population bulge that fueled huge prosperity and relative ease for the elderly while they were working are retiring and expect everyone else to still pick up the tab for the things they can’t pay for themselves… as they did for their elders. The problem is that heath care costs as a percentage of the GDP have tripled since the early 1960’s and the average amount of money in an IRA if you are over 55 or 60 is less than $30,000. So, we are left with the equally unpleasant choices of taxing the hell out of the people who are working so that they can pay for the approximately 60% of Federal tax income that goes for entitlements for the elderly, or we can go back to a period before Johnson’s Great Society when the poverty rate among the elderly was 35% or more. One solution creates more working poor, and the other creates more elderly poor. Either way, the standard of living is declining because globalization is causing the relocation of low to medium margin goods and service production to where human back labor is cheap without providing the kind of open markets for high margin goods and services that we could produce in return.

The only thought I would add to this concerns the quality of jobs we create in the future. The majority (around 58 percent) of jobs we are creating in the United States are low wage or minimum wage jobs that only require a high school diploma. That’s a trend not likely to change in the immediate future.

This country came of age at a time (1880 onward) where mechanized agriculture removed much of the labor from farming, making farm jobs fewer and harder to come by. Fortunately, plenty of manufacturing jobs existed in urban areas existed and people moved from farms to cities in droves during the 20th Century. Simultaneous advances in technology and manufacturing practices turned those manufacturing jobs into relatively high wage opportunities in the middle of the 20th Century, creating a nation that had a rising standard of living for nearly everyone and and possessed a positive balance of trade at the same time (or, in other words, we were loaded and getting more so every year.) That began to end in the 1970’s when a) the cost of fuel and materials began to rise because nationalist and religious movements began to assert themselves that put an end to cheap fuel and b) some of our high wage competitors began out performing us because they aggressively invested in newer infrastructure and pursued better management techniques. It continued into the 1980’s and 1990’s when the the political order that had existed for much of the century suddenly broke down, making cheap labor available in several parts of the world for business investment by the United States for the first time ever. It will end when robotics and automation very likely remove much of the labor from mid-to-high margin manufacturing in the next few decades.

The two economic bases for employment in this country (agriculture and manufacturing) will be closed to high paying jobs in the next few decades. What happens after that? How will Baby G. or his children make a living?

I have hopes.

One of the things I notice about the new job is the 8-10 year old girl I see some nights around the office. She’s the daughter of one of the cleaning staff and she can be seen cheerfully following her mother as she makes her rounds. Seeing this, I know very little about the situation, but I find myself hoping that certain things are true.

I hope that this is merely a temporary arrangement; it is an attempt to fill a hole between the last available community summer program for the daughter to attend before school starts.

I hope that the family is working hard and paying bills even if two jobs are required and that this is an overlap of an hour or two before Dad gets off work and daughter can go home, at most.

I hope the daughter can see the dignity of doing honest but somewhat menial work and respect her mother for doing this for the family.

I also hope that the daughter can hope something more for herself and her future.

I hope there are are weekends off where the family can be together and everyone can enjoy some leisure time.

I hope that everyone here at the office treats the mother with common respect and decency, and that the daughter sees that too.

I hope that the daughter is doing well at school, and that her parents are pleased and encourage her in this.

I hope they all have a decent place to live, in spite of the God awfully high cost of real estate in this area.

I guess I just hope that despite all the uncertainties and vicissitudes of modern life and a sluggish economy, when everything seems so divided and the needs of the very wealthy few seem stacked against everyone else that this girl can grow up to make a decent living at doing something she likes in an America that will accept her for everything she is.

The Matrix has him

With Baby G. shortly turning two years old, we’re seeing him want to express himself and his own choices. He is still late in learning how to talk beyond a few words and an abundant amount of babble, so his ability to express has limits. Lately he’s taken more to pushing and pulling to get his point across, often dragging Mrs. Geek or myself one way or another to show us his desires.

One of his biggest desires is for the TV show “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” on the Disney and Disney Jr. networks. Yes, Mrs. Geek and I are bad parents. We introduced our child to the “boob tube” prior to the age of two, probably keeping him out of the top rank Ivy League schools. All I can say in our defense is that sometimes you need 20-30 minutes during the early morning to get yourself together without wondering what trouble little two year old fingers (and arms and legs and feet) are getting into. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse fit this bill rather well. This works so well that Baby G. now recognizes part of the menu sequence required to start the show “on demand” and knows that the TV remote has something to do with turning the TV on and starting his favorite show. In this, the vast advertising/entertainment complex has him.

Baby G. illustrated all of this on Saturday when Mrs. Geek’s cousin M. and her fiance R. decided to pay us a visit on Saturday afternoon. As soon as R. walked in the door, Baby G. decided that R. was his TV watching buddy. He grabbed R. hand and lead him to the sofa. He then grabbed the remote, handed it to R., and proceeded to climb onto the sofa, sitting down next to him.

He was not amused when the adults in the room had other plans.