Sunday, December 30, 2007

A Night at the Symphony

I'm not a big fan of symphony music. I'm like your average Joe in that I enjoy Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Pachelbel's canon (in D!), and a few other popular pieces. I'm certainly no classical music aficionado. As I've mentioned before, I was exposed to Schubert, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and the like when I took piano lessons, but none of it moved me. In my adult years, I've tried getting into classical music by buying one of those 4-CD Greatest Classical Hits collections. I knew it was corny when I bought it, but I thought I should be able to distinguish Handel from Wagner. It didn't work.

The only classical piece I listen to with any frequency is Beethoven's Ninth. I don't know how many of you remember the short-lived CD era back in the mid '90s. After CD drives were introduced and before the internet took off, we could buy encyclopedic CDs like Bookshelf and Encarta that had loads of information. During that time, I bought a CD that explicated Beethoven's Ninth. I spent hours watching this CD.

Why am I saying this? Because last night, I we had a night at the symphony. I made dinner arrangements at a fancy downtown restaurant, bought four tickets to Beethoven's Ninth, and got a babysitter. Minette and Andy ruined my Christmas gift by sneakily nabbing the dinner check, but I managed to recover as we made our way to Benaroyal Hall. Our seats were terrible. As we watched some random Bach symphony from the 3rd tier, I was regretting not having sprung for better seats. During the intermission, Andy and Minette mentioned that they saw a row of empty seats in the middle of the tenth row, so we changed seats. We went from the worst seats in the house to the best seats in the house.

Then the Ninth started.

I experienced rapture. I experienced joy. In fact, part of the symphony was like an ode to joy. The music had me thinking only in flashing colors and whirling strokes. During those soaring moments, I was in the best place in the whole world, the envy of human kind. Experiencing the concert live is magical, especially in our perfect seats, but it's still invigorating to hear a recording. Here's my favorite part:

Friday, December 28, 2007

How Are Democrats and Republicans Different?

Before the Bush-Gore elections of 98, I never went out of my way to read about or discuss politics. Bush scared the shit out of me during the primaries, so I jumped in. When I was telecommuting in Indiana, we hired a nanny to help out with the twins. She was a new agey musician who was an avid Bush convert. I spent hours talking in circles with this bizarre woman, trying to find a common ground. There was none to be found. I thought Bush was corrupt and incompetent and the Iraq war was a disaster, but I felt like I was open to softening my views, especially if someone came up with reasonable arguments. She thought Bush could do no wrong and was one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- leader in the history of politics. I am not exaggerating. There was some serious hero-worshipping going on. As I've been delving into politics, I keep trying to find a common ground with those on the right. And I keep trying to figure out how right-wingers tick, asking myself what fundamental differences are between Democrats and Republicans?

Because I grew up Mormon, I started my life as a Republican. I voted for Reagan and the first Bush, but then something switched in me. I voted for Clinton twice (although I really liked Bob Dole), and now I refuse to vote for anyone aligned with the Republican party. I don't know if my way of thinking is scalable -- probably not -- but here are the fundamental differences between the two me's:

Republican Bob:

* I believed in objective reality on some level. There was always a truth to be found. God existed (or at least should have).

* I was certain of my convictions. In most instances, the convictions preceded the support of those convictions.

* I believed that an individual thrives best when society is set up with healthy moral restrictions. Too much individual freedom tears down the moral fiber of society.

* Life was good before the 60s, and then the dirty hippies came along.

Democratic Bob:

* I believe in a more subjective reality. I'm closer to a moral relativist.

* I distrust any conviction. I get more enjoyment out of looking at an issue from a different perspective than in defending something I believe in.

* I can change my opinion on some subjects from day to day. If you accuse me if lacking conviction, I may or may not disagree, depending on the circumstances.

* I still don't like the dirty hippies.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Great Movie Scenes: Paris Je T'aime

Wendy and I just watched Paris Je T'Aime, a movie first recommended to me by Dug, who has a way of recommending movies that makes you feel like a philistine if you don't see the movie. To keep my liberal arts college degree valid, I saw the movie soon afterwards, and then I just saw it again on video. Dug was right. It's worth seeing. The movie consists of 18 vignettes set in Paris. Each short movie is about five minutes long and directed by a different person.

My favorite was the last segment about an American tourist who visits Paris by herself. I love the way the short movie plays with -- and against -- the Ugly American stereotype. Her accent is hilariously bad, and she seems to lack the sensibilities to appreciate French culture, as evidenced by her frumpy tourist outfit and her claim that she doesn't enjoy French food as the camera zooms in on a plate of half-eaten hamburger and french fries. Near the end of the segment, her narration becomes more lyrical as she describes a simple experience that makes Paris come alive for her. It's beautiful.

What I like most about the short movie is its approach to loneliness, which is surprisingly difficult for directors to capture without falling into cliché or pathos. This segment captures the melancholy resilience of someone living her life alone.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Musings

I know you're supposed to have an angle when you write something. I should write about why Christmas stresses me out or why I love Christmas, but I'm not going to do that. I'm just going to let it flow. So here goes.

I love Christmas, but it stresses me out. For one thing, Christmas makes it so much easier to deal with Luke and Max. They get to open a Lego advent calender every morning, so instead of doing battle to get them dressed, I can say, "Go get your clothes on so that we can open the calendar." They run, and I get to stay in bed. Plus, whenever they don't want to do something they're supposed to do, I can bring out the Letter to Santa Claus threat. As in, "If you don't eat the rest of your noodles, I'll write Santa Claus a letter and tell him to give the bikes to someone else and bring the boys a little bag of trash." It works every single time. You may wonder why I refer to a "bag of trash" instead of a "lump of coal." Foresight. Here's how the lump of coal conversation would go:

Me: "If you don't eat your noodles, I'll tell Santa to bring you a lump of coal."

Boy: "What's coal?"

Me: "It's a bunch of little black rocks that you light on fire to stay warm."

Boy: "I want to big bag of coal for Christmas. And matches!"

This is also the first year that Luke and Max have a genuine sense of Christmas. Two years ago, their two favorite presents were the chewable box and the tearable paper. Last year, we had to remind them on Christmas morning that it was Christmas morning. This year, they're already having trouble going to sleep because they're so excited about the possibility of getting a red lightning bike (Luke) and a blue bike with a black seat (Max). There's an old Mormon saying that goes like this: The only thing more infectious than enthusiasm is chlamydia.

Christmas stresses me out for all the familiar reasons, and more. First, I've been buying my family members books since the early 90s, and I ran out of book ideas five years ago. So I buy books that are most likely either unwanted or duplicates of books from previous years. Then there are all the shopping hassles, wasted energy, and wasted money (express shipping, unwanted gifts, bad mall food). And then there's the odd sense that everyone is buying gifts out of obligation, but everyone keeps doing it anyway to be unGrinchlike.

And then there are the things that just didn't work out. Last year, I created a funny Christmas card that showed Luke and Max bawling their eyes out on Christmas morning. It was empirically hilarious. This year, I tried to be tricky by photoshopping my image into a family photo that I took, but it looked more creepy than funny. (By the way, one of you may have gotten two-thirds of a Christmas card. The post office sent me an apology notice with a sliced photo of Luke. If you didn't get a Christmas card, it may have gotten eaten.)

I suppose I feel about Christmas what Woody Allen feels about life: it's full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness — and it's all over much too quickly.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The True Meaning of Christmas

Whenever we read Christmas books to the kids, the boys wonder aloud who baby Jesus is. I'm not sure how to respond to this because we're not trying to indoctrinate the kids with any religious beliefs. We try to keep Christmas on a strictly commercial level, but baby Jesus keeps crawling into the picture. I suppose this is all right, but I feel like Max and Luke are little Christians at heart. Max in particular. Here's a conversation we had:

Me: "That's it, Max! I asked you not to throw the wash cloth, and you kept throwing it, so now I'm taking it away!"

Max: "I didn't throw the wash cloth. My body did!"

Me: "Well you need to learn to control your body better."

Max [angrily]: "I don't want you to take the wash cloth! Give it to me!"

Me: "I didn't take the wash cloth. My body did."

Max [without missing a beat]: "You need to control your body."

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Downside of Biking to Work

Wendy has been away all week on business. Weather problems caused her to arrive home at 5:00 am, and the boys promptly woke her up at 6:30. As we scrambled to eat breakfast, I was feeling anxious about making it on time to an important meeting at work. Wendy, bless her heart, decided that we had to make conditional plan right then in case something goes wrong with our original plan the following week. The details aren't important. Our discussion was interrupted dozens of times by the boys, who were excited by Wendy's being home, their upcoming birthday, Christmas, and everything else. It takes me an hour to ride to work, but the meeting was in 45 minutes. That's OK, I told myself. I'll ride fast. And I'll listen to music instead of Adam Bede, so I'll get that extra adrenaline rush.

I rode out of my garage/bat cave feeling angry at the unnecessary conversation and guilty for not finishing it. As I was flying down the hill, I noticed a car about to cross the intersection without stopping at the stop sign. My heart raced. The driver saw me and slammed on his brakes halfway into the intersection. We glared at each other. My look said, "You almost killed me!" His look said, "I stopped, so what's the problem?"

About five minutes later, something happened that feels worse than crashing into a car going 40 mph hour. A flat tire. When you crash into a car, it's exciting. It's momentous. Sirens! Flashing lights! When you get a flat tire, your heart sinks, and that's about it. You're left with a sunken heart. It starts when you feel the pebbles in the road a little too much, and you wonder if you have a flat. When you turn, the tire slides out, and you're sure you have a flat. You think, How bad is it? Can I inflate the tire and keep riding? 

That's what I tried doing, since I couldn't be late for the meeting. I pumped up the tire and kept riding. The tire was fine for five minutes, and then it lost too much air, so I stopped and pumped it up again. The next time it was noticeably flat a minute later and entirely flat three minutes later. Should I ride on rims? No, I needed to change the tire. 

At this point, I was angry at everyone. I shouted the shit word and pulled over. First and foremost, I was pissed at Wendy, who thought it was more important to make conditional plans than to let me leave on time. I was mad at myself for not just leaving when I needed to leave. I was mad at the person who called the meeting at 9 am. Who calls a meeting that early? An asshole, that's who. I was mad at the people who were walking by me and possibly thinking that I was inconveniencing them by changing the tire on the sidewalk. Inwardly, I dared someone to say something. Maybe this flat tire could turn out being momentous after all as I hurl someone onto the hood of a parked car. Sirens! Flashing lights!

I found the leak in the tube but couldn't find the corresponding foreign object in the tire. I did notice a couple of large tears, so I wanted to use the trick of inserting a one-dollar bill. I opened my wallet and found all twenties. I shouted the shit word again. I found a packet of cigarettes on the ground (have I mentioned how depressing cities are?), lined the inside of the tube with aluminum packaging, and and inserted the tube. Of course, I'm making it sound like it all went smoothly, but anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. I had a difficult time keeping the aluminum in place. I struggled to get the tire back on the rim. I struggled getting the wheel in place. In fact, I rode the last six miles to work with my tire rubbing, with each scrape adding to my feelings of hatred for the world.

I called into the meeting fifteen minutes late. No big deal. Relax, dude.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

My Great Golf Swing Has Gotten Even Greater

Yesterday, while I was outside a department store in a mall waiting for my parents to buy Christmas gifts, I picked up a long roll of wrapping paper and started working on my swing. One of the problems with practicing your golf swing with wrapping paper is that the club weight is off. A real golf club carries most of its weight in the club head, whereas the weight of wrapping paper is evenly distributed. Wrapping paper is also lighter and the grip has a greater circumference. These differences notwithstanding, I was able to make a couple of key adjustments to my swing.

First, I closed my grip, forcing me to snap my wrists at the point of contact, thus generating more power. What I may lose in accuracy I gain in distance. Second, I now begin the swing with my feet together, and I step towards the target, much as a baseball player would do. Again, I'm leaning towards power in the power-to-accuracy continuum, but I have nearly complete confidence in my accuracy. In my mind's eye, I was hitting 320-yard drives right down the middle of the mall, landing the shots next to the Santa Claus display outside Macy's.

I'll work on my chipping in Barnes & Noble.

Monday, December 10, 2007

What Would Freud Think?

Luke and Max have a new game they like to play. It's called The Penis Game. Here's how it works. One of the boys announces that his penis is gone, and his brother, who somehow represents the lost organ, jumps up and runs away. The fledgling castrato chases the brother/penis around the house and shouts, "Come back, penis!" To become whole, he must catch the brother and drag him upstairs to the changing table.

Got a punch line?

Friday, December 7, 2007

Bubble Burst Blues

I have three different intros to this whine-fest. Instead of acting like a decent self-editor and narrowing it down, I'll give you two and let you pick:

Intro 1: The Patriots are playing the Steelers this week. Since we're guaranteed that both teams -- winner and loser -- will complain about bad officiating, I thought it would be appropriate that I do some whining of my own.

Intro 2: One of the reasons I abandoned a somewhat popular blog to write this, ahem, less popular blog is because I didn't want to cater to an audience. I want the freedom of mind to pick subjects that no one likely cares about but me. And not only is the subject boring, but I'm going to complain bitterly.

So here we go. The housing market is crashing here in Seattle. Prices have already dropped 10% since July, pushing us back to 2006 prices, and the huge inventory of houses means that prices are going to continue to drop for some time, probably bottoming out at 2004 prices. We bought a house in 2005. Unless we're willing to take a loss, we're not going to be able to sell our house without losing money for years and years. That makes me feel trapped.

Here's the main reason this upsets me: Other people's financial irresponsibility is hurting my pocketbook.

The housing market has become too much like the stock market for my taste. If I want to invest in Wal-mart, that's my choice. If the market drops, I can deal with a loss of value, but I have a difficult time handling a decline in the housing market. I move around a lot, and when I move to a new city, I do not want to deal with a landlord. I want to feel relatively safe in buying a house. If I hang on to any house for five years or so, I think I have an inalienable right to be able to sell that house for at least the price I paid for it. Right or wrong (and pretty obviously the latter), that's my mindset. In the current housing situation, buying a house is no longer safe.

As is being testified before Congress, lenders have made it far too easy for people to buy homes. Unfortunately, in 2005, I had no idea how easy lenders were making it. I had heard of the multiple-loan situation in which buyers can't save enough money to make a down payment, so they take out multiple loans. This started as a workaround, but it became standard practice. The technique works well for people who have a good, steady income but aren't good savers. I also knew about ARM loans in which the buyer gets a low interest rate for a certain period of time -- usually three to five years -- and then the interest rate is reset when the term ends. This kind of loan makes sense for new buyers who know they're going to be earning more money in a few years or who know they'll be moving, refinancing, or paying off the loan. Then there are interest-only loans, which is another reasonable short-term option that's fine in a stable housing market. But I had no idea that people (many of whom had bad credit or unstable incomes to begin with) were combining these workarounds, putting hardly any money down AND getting interest-only ARM loans. And not just a few people. Lots and lots of people were doled out (or coaxed into) these crazy no-risk loans. And some people were getting these no-risk loans to purchase rental properties. Bleck.

The short-term effect on the market was predictable. Housing prices skyrocketed. A lot of people thought, Hey, I bought a house for $350,000, and a year later it's worth $400,000, so I can take out a loan on the appreciation -- free money! And if I buy a rental house, I'll have twice as much free money! People took out loans on their houses to remodel or buy other houses, which stimulated the economy and made people want to invest in the hot housing market by flipping houses. New constructions popped up everywhere. Apartment buildings were converted into condominiums.

The long-term effect on the market was equally predictable. Several things happened at once. In many markets, housing became unaffordable to most buyers, making it significantly less expensive to rent. The first phase of the ARM loans ended for a bunch of people, and they couldn't make payments at the higher interest rate. Since many people had hardly anything invested in the property, they could just walk away. And they did. A lot of them trash their houses before skulking back to someone's basement. Foreclosures joined the already crowded housing inventory. Flippers and renters saw where the market was going, stopped buying houses, and put their rentals up for sale. (The owner of the house next to us fits this profile perfectly -- she kicked out her renters when she could no longer borrow against her house, put the rental up for sale, and the dark house just sits there.) Buyers fear entering the housing market in the same way that investors don't want to buy an overvalued stock. And the mortgage industry came to its senses and tightened their lending practices, thereby removing potential buyers from the market. Pop.

The government had a hand in this too. I'm not sure who was involved or what the relationship was between legislators and the mortgage industry, but I do know that Alan Greenspan actually encouraged people to get ARM loans when interest rates were near an all-time low. Why would he say that? Someone had to be pressuring him, right? After 9/11, the recession deepened and the stock market was reeling, so politicians likely thought stimulating the housing market would jump-start the economy. If that was their intent, it worked. But the housing market got out of control, and the bursting bubble is probably going to plunge us into another recession that'll probably be worse than the one it pulled us out of.

If I had bought a house in the mid-90s, I wouldn't be bothered by this whole bubble burst. But the overinflated market put us in the position that the only way to buy a house to was to pay an insane amount of money for it. Even though we had 20% to put down on the house we wanted to live in, we were buying into a market artificially inflated by all the flippers, speculators, and creative-loan flibberdigibbets.

Of course, we're not planning on selling our house any time soon. And since the housing market is now frighteningly similar to the stock market, another crazy swing back up is inevitable. But I don't like it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Wire Prequels

I happen to think that The Wire is the greatest television show ever. I wouldn't argue with you if you said something like Seinfeld or Six Feet Under or The Sopranos or The Mary Tyler Moore Show is better, but if you try to argue that The Wire doesn't deserve consideration, I'll stab you in the throat with a shiv. If any of you haven't seen the show, I strongly suggest you give it a try. It's the only slam dunk television guarantee I can make to any friend. That's my spiel for anyone who hasn't seen The Wire.

If you have seen The Wire, check out these prequel clips on Amazon:

Young Prop Joe (beware of bad acting)

When Season 5 comes out, I'll subscribe again to HBO.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Doggone Seattle

There are two kinds of people in Seattle. No, I'm not talking about the cold/warm classification that pits chilly people who are friendly on the surface against area transplants. That dichotomy is simplistic, because it fails to account for slow drivers. What I'm talking about is kid people and dog people.

As is the case with most realizations, you undergo a series of experiences that leads to an epiphany. My first experience with Seattle dog people occurred a few months after we moved in. Only one person from the neighborhood came over to welcome us (well, two if you count the woman who wanted to see inside the house), and that person sold his house to "a nice young couple." When the new couple moved in, Wendy and I took the boys over to greet the new people, even though such visits apparently violate Seattle neighborhood by-laws. The man and the woman stood behind the screen door holding back their braying hounds while the four of us stood on the other side. As Wendy exchanged one-sided pleasantries, something else bothered me about the scene. At first, I chalked it up to the people being assholes, and the fact that I saw a big Notre Dame flag go up in the window a few weeks later confirmed by suspicions. Now, it's all so clear to me. They're dog people.

I know what you're thinking: What about people who own both kids and pets? Breeders with dogs. Simple. In Seattle, they still pick a side. Here's an example. Earlier this year, a pre-school Mom convinced her husband to host a Seahawks football party. The idea was to get the pre-school Dads together. Wendy RSVP'd me and committed to 7-layer dip, so I woke up early, made the dip, and went to this fabricated male bonding experience even though my beloved Colts were playing at the same time. This couple has twin girls the same age as ours, and they have a one-year-old boy and another on the way. Kid people, right? Not so fast. They have a dog that's one-quarter lab, one-quarter pitbull, and one-half mongrel. This dog spent the whole football game trying to coax guests into playing catch with a slimy tennis ball. The dog let out a couple of farts that were nasty enough to force a couple guys to leave the room and clear their eyes. Here's the clincher: When I saw that the Colts had won a nail-biter, I pumped my fist.

"What happened?" said the host.

"The Colts won," I said.

He turned to his brother and friend and said, "Funny how I keep seeing a lot of Colts fans this year for some reason..."

Dog person.