Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book Review - My Grandfather's Son

I’ve just finished reading My Grandfather’s Son, Clarence Thomas’s autobiography. It is certainly the most inspiring autobiography I have ever read. The short version is that Clarence Thomas was born a desperately poor black child in Jim Crow-era Georgia and grew up to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. In his speech after being nominated by George H. W. Bush, Thomas stated “only in America…” After having visited numerous countries on every continent of the world except Antarctica, I firmly believe this is true.

There are many aspects of this book which deserve mention, but the one which stands out most auspiciously is the degree to which Thomas comes to believe that, perhaps more than any other ethnic group, black people in America ought to be conservative. To Thomas, it becomes self-evident that the conservative virtues of self-reliance, hard work and determination are truly the only way for black people to improve their lot. Further, the type of nanny-statism offered up by the left only serves to undermine those very virtues and trap black people in a state of second class citizenry.

As young boys, Thomas and his younger brother came to live with their grandfather in Savannah after their parents had divorced. “Daddy,” as Thomas called him, was an illiterate, hard working, irascible man who took it upon himself to impose an austere regimen on his new charges. Though ostensibly a Democrat, Daddy’s temperament and philosophy were profoundly conservative. He worked his fingers to the bone on their farm and delivering fuel oil in a beat up old truck, and wouldn’t be happy accepting anything from anybody that he didn’t earn. He worked hard to instill these virtues in the Thomas brothers, often to their great consternation.

Thomas, who attended Holy Cross and Yale Law School in the 60s and early 70s, was initially a Black Panther-admiring radical, as all young black men of the time were supposed to be. Starting slowly at Holy Cross, however, and over a long period of time, Thomas began to see things through the prism of his grandfather’s experience. He came to realize that the solutions offered up by the left to solve the black underclass problem were exactly the wrong remedy. He saw how policies, from racial preferences at his own schools, to welfare in Savannah, sapped his friends and colleagues of their determination and relegated them to poverty on the government dole.

I think about Thomas’s grandfather, and wonder what he would have thought of Barack Obama’s online election-year vignettes, The Life of Julia, describing all the wonderful benefits that the Federal Government can bring to a person throughout his or her life. I think he would have been appalled.

Reading the book, it makes me wonder two things. First, it makes me wonder why there aren’t more black conservatives. The argument which Thomas makes – vindicated by his very existence – is so compelling that it makes me wonder how to get the story more widely read. It might make people scratch their heads a bit and wonder.

Second, it makes me seethe that Thomas is so vilified by the left. It makes me think that many parts of the left, far from being open-minded and liberal (the old kind), are narrowly dogmatic, irate that a black man might dare hold views antithetical to the party line. In their words and deeds, they constantly subject him to a “high tech lynching,” to use Thomas’s own words. It is loathsome.

Sadly, a good part of the end of the book is consumed by the Anita Hill affair. It is a shame, but I suppose it had to be. Thomas needed to have his public say about the whole thing. Thomas makes a reasonably compelling case that Hill was acting in bad faith for political reasons. Whatever the truth, it tarnishes an otherwise uplifting and educational story.

Even though you’ve got to slog through the Anita Hill affair, Thomas’s story is quite simply incredible. I urge you to go read it, and pronto.

PS: I am off to purchase that other autobiography with an eerily similar name, penned by a famous American black man, Dreams from my Father. Check back for another review coming soon!

Note: Since this review has political overtones, I will double-post it in Polartics.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Fed Index

This is part III of a series.

I’m confused.

As of this writing in July, 2012, news from around the world is uniformly bad. It’s moderately bad in North America, where US unemployment stubbornly prevails; it’s slightly less bad, though still bad, in Asia, where creeping wage inflation and declining exports are putting a damper on once-booming markets; and it’s grievously bad in Europe, where years of Greek, Spanish and Italian drunken profligacy are threatening the banking system and sending whole governments reeling toward insolvency.

Economic distress being nothing new, what, you ask, is so confusing about that?

Well, only that the single most accurate indicator of recent economic health has taken a rapid and dramatic surge to the upside. This indicator is so potent that, looked at in isolation, it would seem that the world has been magically cured of all its economic cancers, boils, infections and toothaches at once. It says that we’ve regained our collective mojo. That we can breathe a sigh of relief, and get back to drinking, gambling and buying Hummers. That, finally, dogs and cats can live together in harmony under one roof again.

What has led me to such great optimism?

Federer won Wimbledon. More, he is once again ranked number one. The world is back to normal.

There was a time, from approximately 2003 to 2008, when the world could do no wrong. The promise of capitalism was being fulfilled at every turn. From the Chinese peasant family who could buy its first air conditioner because its father landed a job assembling Ipods, to the family in Millburn, NJ who bought a house in June, only to find that it had doubled in value by October, to the lanky Australian backpacker who found he could stay on walkabout for 36 months because odd jobs were so easy to land around the globe, the world’s population was drinking deeply from the draft of a beer called Good Times.

And on the tennis courts, there was a man who could do no wrong. His name was Roger Federer, and he was unlike anything anybody had ever seen before. His feet were so agile and his shots so penetrating that he could beat his foes into ragged, whimpering submission, all without ever breaking a sweat or messing up his own hair too much. His mastery of opponents was all the more inconceivable because he made it all look so preposterously easy.

But then came the fall of 2008. Ironically, it came in the fall of 2008. The world crumbled and Federer crumbled. The levels of global financial and emotional distress were matched only by the dissonance of the shanks from Federer’s errant forehands and gasps from crowds as his balls landed fifteen rows deep at the otherwise hallowed grounds of Melbourne, Roland Garros and, uh, Flushing Meadows.

This was not the Great Depression, though, and for several years the world’s economies showed flashes of brilliance and periods of sustained recovery (see here, and here). Federer, too, showed his resilience, occasionally besting the overpowering Nadal and the grinding Djokovic.

But since the beginning of the financial crisis, we have yet to experience a period free from worry. Something has always been buggering up the works. For some reason, companies refused to hire actual people, even though they were flush with cash as early as 2009. Financial markets continued to be roiled by lack of transparency and fears of overvalued assets on bank’s balance sheets. More recently, declining tax receipts have put various governments in the precarious position of not being able to borrow at low enough rates to keep them solvent. Uncertainty prevailed throughout.

Similarly, though RFed occasionally wowed us with his sorcery, the true test of the completeness of his game – his world ranking – never recovered. First he lost the number one spot to Nadal, who had finally prevailed at Wimbledon of all places. Soon enough, the Djoker passed him too. Federer fans were despondent, and not just because they were unemployed and had to sell their Hummers to the scrap dealer.

Recently, though, the man himself has begun to declare his intent, and the belief in his own ability, to regain the world number one ranking. He worked hard on his one-handed backhand, which had taken a beating from Nadal’s nasty lefty topspin forehand. He tightened up his pinpoint serving, which had already been the best in the world. And he seemed to regain the single-minded focus required to hit his mysterious shots without peppering his play with a shank here and a flub there. He was getting older, so the thinking went, and he wanted to go out on top. Plus, he wanted his young, growing daughters to have the pleasure of seeing him hoist a grand slam cup.

And so it all came together over the last fortnight at Wimbledon. I’ve been fooled by Federer’s success before, thinking that it signaled a true turnaround. But this time it’s different. Since the beginning of the Fall, Federer has won grand slam tournaments, but never while beating the world’s top player along the way. In each case, he (only) beat Murray, instead of Nadal or Djokovic. And, he has never gained the number one ranking back.

Until now.

So that’s why I’m confused. The Federer Index is once again at an all-time high. But if you read the newspapers, it seems the world is still a mess. The two are all out of whack.

There can be only two solutions to this seeming paradox.

First, it could be that the Federer Index is not actually a very good indicator of the world’s economies. I find this impossible to believe. The connection is just too close. The ups and downs match too perfectly. I’ve charted the two trends on the same graph below, with Federer’s ranking on the right axis and the world economy on the left. As we know from reading New York Times science articles, correlation equals causation. Therefore it must be the case that the economy is on the mend.

So the second solution is that the world’s headlines are just wrong. Europe is not, in fact, headed for a fiscal cliff. The unemployment rate is somehow being measured incorrectly in the United States. And Asia is still hard at work making widgets for the rest of us. As for all those Hummers? Maybe they’re just all being hoarded out in LA.

Well, I don't really know, so I am going to go have a beer and enjoy the summer – you should too!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Big Boxes

The original set of the television show Weeds was a reasonably well-to-do southern California hillside housing tract with wide streets, sprinklered lawns and rows of generously proportioned, virtually identical houses on lots not much bigger than the footprint of each house and swimming pool. One overhead shot of the neighborhood is enough to convey the producers’ comedic disdain for such homogeneous modern living. It’s not an uncommon theme in Hollywood; classics such as Edward Scissorhands. American Beauty, and most compellingly, The Truman Show were in no small part satires of suburban life.

The credits for the first three seasons of Weeds opened with various scenes of daily life in this little slice of Utopia: joggers running along the mid-morning streets; children getting off the schoolbus; businessmen, all in a row, in shirts with no ties, cellphone pressed to ear, leaving the local Starbucks to hustle to work. The scenes are overlaid with Malvina Reynolds’ classic song “Little Boxes”, whose lyrics and tempo impart a perfect rendition of the satire while the credits roll. It’s all very satisfying, and makes for the perfect setup for the edgy, quirky comedy that follows.

Not to change the subject on you, but after many years’ hiatus, I’ve started playing squash again. Unfortunately, squash is not a country club sport in New Jersey the way it is in some other locales. So that means I have no natural venue other than my infrequent forays to the Yale Club in NYC.

Fortunately, Lifetime Fitness has opened up a new facility with squash courts in an office park not far from my work. Now, for those of you who may not be aware of these phenomena, Lifetime Fitness centers may be the most perfect monuments of suburban absurdity ever sculpted by the hand of man.

First, they are simply ginormous – each Lifetime Fitness facility is 110,000 gleaming square feet of fitness glory on a scale that makes your old gym look like George Costanza’s package after a swim in a cold pool (“Shrinkage!”). Second, these places are adorned with the kind of excess you’d think reserved for one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces: interior and exterior swimming pools with three story slides for the children; climbing walls; basketball gymnasiums; rows upon stacks upon rows upon stacks of sparkling fitness equipment and gear, all surrounded by acres of brightly lined parking lots.

Most important, though, are the people. Carted by the hoard to this exercise Shangri-La in their identical SUVs and BMWs (in the one, a female, the other, a male), clad in skin-tight Lycra, ruddy-cheeked and earnest, they seem completely unaware that they might be acting out some version of a Hollywood satire. Those businessmen leaving the Starbucks in the Weeds opening might be rushing off, not to work, but to their local Lifetime Fitness.

I’m reminded of one particular section of the Weeds opening every time I drive into my local center. An aerial shot shows a street with about eight homes. The garage doors of all eight houses open at once, the same SUV drives way too fast out of each driveway and, one after the other, onto the road and off somewhere – probably the local school – the kids wouldn’t take the school bus anymore, of course.

That’s what the entrance to Lifetime Fitness looks like - there are so many damn people driving so fast on these little roads that it would be comedic if it weren’t so tragic. If you don’t believe me, here’s a clip from my last visit:

Now, if you want to be satirist or even a cynic, Lifetime Fitness is a pathetically easy target, especially when it comes to making fun of the bulked-up middle aged men who go there to lift weights and admire their muscles in the ubiquitous floor to ceiling mirrors. As a sometime blogger who regularly has trouble composing his next sentence, I am reminded of the famous literary quotation often attributed to William Shakespeare -- “this shit practically writes itself.”

But no, that is not my purpose today (or maybe it’s only a portion of my purpose). I am actually here to tell you that life is not quite so grim as I’ve made it sound. You see, if you are capable of turning off your robo-cynicism-generator, Lifetime Fitness is actually quite fun. Once you’ve freed yourself and ventured into the hubbub, the fun comes in a cornucopia of colors, flavors, scents and visceral emotions.

Most compelling, as I’ve mentioned, are the people. Lifetime Fitness is a bounteous feast of people-watching. I’m convinced that what makes the people watching so interesting is partly the skin-tight Lycra. As if acting out yet another Hollywood fantasy – this time the 1970’s sci-fi B-thriller – everyone has discarded the old baggy cotton sweats for form-fitting garb – garb which, more often than not, glistens with sweat. Finally, in the temple of exercise that is Lifetime Fitness, it doesn’t matter what one’s body shape; Lycra is the answer.

Now, I’d like to think that I am above it all. Alas, I am but human. I do my fair share of peeking about. But that’s not the fun part. The fun part is watching everyone else try not to get noticed while checking out everyone else.

Sometimes it’s as easy as watching someone choose the correct Stairmaster from the countless rows. The properly chosen venue is somewhat behind and to the side of the one that the hot chick is on. One cannot be directly behind her, or it would be obvious that the only reason for such placement was to watch the churning of her buns as the Stairmaster churned its own ineluctable progression.

In the busy corridors, people walk with their heads lowered, eyes often on the ground until another walks past, at which point a quick glance is not uncommon. If the scopee is particularly well-configured, she (or he) might even merit a full turning of the head after the scopee has passed by entirely, followed by a checking of the Blackberry to hide the indiscretion.

The most prolific scopers and scopees are youngish – 20’s mostly – and presumably single. Older folks are generally more secure in both their bodies and their outlook. They walk down the hallways with their chins up, saying hello, often with a touching carelessness about a bulge here or even a spare tire there.

The only exceptions to these generalizations are the men with muscles. Men generally come to Lifetime Fitness for one of three reasons: athletics (basketball, squash, etc.), cardio, or weighlifting. Women generally come only for cardio. The men who come to lift weights are different from everyone else insofar as they spend as much time looking at themselves as they do other people. They’re also generally not as subtle when it comes to looking at other people. You can tell they may be trying to be subtle, but most times it doesn’t work. A few will even be brash about their scoping, often as they simultaneously flex something. I don’t think I know many women who find this attractive, but I guess there must be some.

As a place for exercise, Lifetime Fitness is already flush with rapidly beating hearts and freely flowing endorphins. All this human interaction just gets it all flowing a little bit faster. And that’s the great thing about Lifetime Fitness. You can get a runner’s high just walking down the hallway. If you just let yourself enjoy it, and don’t worry about what you look like in Lycra, it can be damn fun.

In addition, the company has done a superb job of staffing. Upon entering the facility, you’re checked in by a greeter who beams a wide smile and makes idle but wildly enthusiastic chit chat. They’re the kind of people who you’ve seen introducing a ride or tour at Disneyworld. My cynical reflex often makes me wonder whether people like this are really good actors, or if they’re just congenitally happy because of some brain anomaly.

Honestly, I don’t know, but it works. The greeter sets the stage, and from there on it’s impossible to do anything but enjoy yourself. There are so many things to do, and so many people to watch, that it’s impossible to remember that you’re just a bit player in a Hollywood satire. Modern life, it turns out, ain’t so bad.

Watch this Youtube video of the intro to Weeds:

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same,
There's a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same
And there's doctors and lawyers
And business executives
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
And they all play on the golf course
And drink their martinis dry
And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business
And marry and raise a family
In boxes made of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same,
There's a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Favorite Quotes

Heard a new one from Bill Buckley, so here's an update on my favorite quotations:

  1. Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag and begin slitting throats. - H.L. Mencken
  2. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. The next and most urgent counsel is to take stock of reality. - William Buckley

Friday, February 10, 2012

Travel Notes from India

• India is many things: vast, crowded, loud, dirty and colorful. But in the end, it’s mostly just heartbreaking. It is simply impossible to avoid the soul-crushing poverty which surrounds you at every turn. Coupled with the vastness, the crowds, the noise, the dirt and the color, it can quickly become overwhelming. Each time we ventured out into the madness, Teresa and I were forced back into the safety and comfort of our hotel after only a few hours.

• The Palace Hotel in Mumbai is spectacular. The architecture is fittingly inspiring. If there is a single criticism I might have about the place, it is that there is too much help. Low labor rates in India mean that luxury hotels can afford to staff their premises liberally. As a guest, every move you make is met by a staff member inquiring if he can help out in any way. While these queries are delivered with a smile and a truly genuine friendliness, it can become irksome if, for example, you simply want to relax alone by the pool for a few minutes. But this is a quibble. The rest of the experience is a marvel (assuming you stay in the old hotel; we did not visit the tower).

• The intersection of modern commercialism and poverty is disturbing. By modern commercialism I really mean plastic coke bottles. Indians are not wealthy enough to worry about whether things look tidy. I think this is because most people have more pressing concerns than sweeping up the street (like figuring out where their next meal is coming from – GDP per capita is about $4,500 per annum, half of China’s and less than one-tenth of the US’s). Unfortunately, Indians are just wealthy enough that all of the corner bodegas are stocked to the brim with plastic coke bottles. As there are no trash cans anywhere, all those plastic bottles end up in the street or in the field or in the alley. The whole country is a garbage pit. I don’t think the Indians even realize it. I remember that the United States had a similar problem halfway through the last century, although smaller by an order of magnitude. We solved that problem with the TV commercial of the crying Indian (Native American Indian! - remember him?). I see the beginnings of a similar cultural campaign in India today. Occasionally you’ll see a billboard entreating people to throw away their trash. Unfortunately, there are no trash cans!

• As a rule, Indians are friendly people with beautiful smiles.

• Certain taxi drivers still call Mumbai Bombay. Chennai (Madras!) is pronounced with a “ch” sound at the beginning, not an “sh” sound.

• From what we saw, Islam seems to coexist with other religions reasonably peacefully in India (at least in the middle and the South, where we were). We saw some signs of discord – security at our hotels was extreme, for instance (the Palace was severely attacked back in 2008 if you remember). But there were no other, outward signs of strife with fundamentalist Islam. Newspaper articles concentrated on India’s civic and commercial interests, not suicide bombers. Things may be different in the far Northwest, but in Mumbai and Chennai, the 30% of citizens who are Muslim seem basically peaceful. Still, Teresa and I both felt threatened when we visited crowded Muslim mosques. We did not feel this way when we visited Hindu temples. I cannot decide whether this threatened feeling was a figment of our own imagination (being post-9/11 Americans…), or whether Muslims actually looked at us differently than Hindus.

• Delhi Belly is real. ‘Nuf said about that.

• There’s no madras in Madras. I think all the madras fabrics in the world are in Fairfield County, CT and Nantucket.

• At one mosque in Mumbai, an entire family with four kids, moms & dads and maybe even aunts and uncles silently, and weirdly, started to surround Teresa and me. They obviously didn’t speak English, and it was impossible to understand what they were doing, but they seemed friendly enough. We looked over to realize that one of the group was taking a video – they just wanted a video of them being with the Westerners. They got the shot, nodded their heads with big genuine smiles and moved on. Very weird. Needless to say, there weren’t very many Westerners among the crush of humanity at this particular mosque.

• India must be seen to be believed. Put it on your bucket list.