Friday Pants Update

I’ve been getting a fair amount of crap about my goal of wearing these damn pants. Encouragement? No. Sympathy for letting myself get a little lax in the personal inventory habit? Not so much. Derision? A little bit, yeah.

Fine. BRING IT ON.

I deserve it. Whether it’s right and proper for me to eke so much public sharing mileage out of excess adipose tissue is debatable; I made a choice, is all, partly because that’s an established way to help one stick to goals, and mostly because I’m a joyful, life-loving kind of guy who has a good time shrugging his shoulders and wearing a goofy grin.

But some of the derision hurts. I don’t know what to say.

Still, like the boy in the Irish folk tale who throws his hat over the high wall because now he HAS to climb it, that’s where I’m at.

I might have made a mistake, too. These are pants that really should be worn by someone who dresses well, and that person is not me. Secondly, they’re not made to be forgiving, with “giving” being operative. There’s no stretching or manipulating; these pants are designed for a very specific waistline, like your ATM PIN; you can’t be off by one digit and get away with it.

Finally, they just may be made for a leaner man than I am meant to be.

But I said it so I’ll do it, and then we can discuss. I altered my habits this week, tried to get more active, ate carefully, drank plenty of water, increased my mileage, kept moving. The gap between closing and MUWAHAHAHA is smaller. Maybe aiming for the end of February was unrealistic; I’m pretty clueless when it comes to sizes and how clothes fit and what it takes to make them fit. Just trying to keep myself honest here, and enjoying having some sort of goal in the distance. The wall is not that high, I keep telling myself, and besides, as everyone knows by now, I really like my hat.

INCHES TO GO UNTIL CLOSURE: 3.

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I Can't Hear You

I listened to the State of the Union speech last night. I used to enjoy these, as acts of civic theater, although toward the end of the Bush (43) years I started to pass.

I thought it a good, powerful, clear stepping-up-to-the-plate moment for the President, although, again, theater. Still, I approved overall, even if I don’t see it making a difference, one speech.

This morning I started reading a critique of the speech by an “objective” source (i.e., a news wire sort of thing, can’t remember, not an op/ed) with general comments — how a spending freeze is sort of minor unless you look at military spending and entitlement programs, etc. Just going down the list, digging a little deeper, standard stuff. No untruths or even broad softening of the truth, just elaborating on how some things that maybe sounded inspiring might be harder than we heard.

And I found myself skimming. I didn’t want to read that this morning. You can’t handle the truth.

Jonah Lehrer had a great post the other day on this, on how we gravitate to what we want to hear and block out anything that contradicts our world view.

his is an old phenomenon that’s been exaggerated by new media trends. Partisan voters are convinced that they’re rational — only the other side is irrational — but we’re actually rationalizers. The Princeton political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels analyzed survey data from the 1990’s to prove this point. During the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the budget deficit declined by more than 90 percent. However, when Republican voters were asked in 1996 what happened to the deficit under Clinton, more than 55 percent said that it had increased. What’s interesting about this data is that so-called “high-information” voters — these are the Republicans who read the newspaper, watch cable news and can identify their representatives in Congress — weren’t better informed than “low-information” voters. According to Bartels, the reason knowing more about politics doesn’t erase partisan bias is that voters tend to only assimilate those facts that confirm what they already believe. If a piece of information doesn’t follow Republican talking points — and Clinton’s deficit reduction didn’t fit the “tax and spend liberal” stereotype — then the information is conveniently ignored. “Voters think that they’re thinking,” Achen and Bartels write, “but what they’re really doing is inventing facts or ignoring facts so that they can rationalize decisions they’ve already made.”

This makes sense to me, and surely cuts across the board, which is why I’ll stick with the theatrics of that speech and think of what it means, if anything, a little bit later.

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Something Old, Something New, Something About Plumbing

(same caveat, although the newspapers’ Web sites are coming along; soon. And you guys have read this sort of thing already, but anyway…)

*

I remodeled a bathroom last fall, which came as a surprise to everyone. This is an afterthought sort of bathroom, hidden in a corner of the house, tiny and (for the most part) unnecessary. It wasn’t on my list of things to remodel.

Because, of course, no such list exists, nor would I allow it to. I’ve always suspected that remodeling around the house would involve bending and tools, neither of which comes naturally.

But I was in a mood, a little restless and maybe foolishly optimistic, so I started slowly and then just did it. It was perfect for a novice, too; small and unused except by me, ideal for a little home improvement experimentation, no one else would have cared or even noticed if one day I came out, covered with dust and sort of wet, and announced:

“NO ONE GO IN THERE. EVER.”

I mean. I’ve probably said that before, anyway.

As it turned out, there was a happy ending. Over a couple of weeks I transformed that little area into a workable bathroom, admired by all. My wife helped; in fact, we made it sort of a marriage project, which came in handy when we had toilet issues. I’m not comfortable with plumbing. It’s a thing.

And when my wife, who actually enjoys plumbing, was trying persuade that ancient toilet to do what toilets should, flush and stop flushing, she asked for my help in loosening a stubborn bolt. Bolt loosening I can do, usually, although this one was tough, and as I was negotiating with it I realized that this toilet was one of those portable ones. Apparently not attached by any seal or hardware to the floor.

I tested this theory and I was correct; I could move it to the other side of the bathroom, in fact, which seemed wrong. Even with my limited plumbing knowledge, I was pretty sure toilets were supposed to stay in one place, and not just sit over a hole in the floor. Still, that appeared to be the situation. And I’ll admit that I was tempted to access my inner 6-year-old who breaks a plate and shoves it under the couch; I really wanted to move that toilet back to where it belonged and not tell anyone.

But I did the grownup thing, actually installed a new toilet (easier than I thought), and now I have this nice bathroom. New floor, new paint, new toilet. I’m still the only one who uses it, but you never know. It’s ready, just in case.

And now I have my own shower, all mine, ready for showering at a moment’s notice. It comes equipped with a prehistoric shower massage thing, a shaving mirror, and all of my various beauty products, which are limited, of course. There’s some shampoo. Soap. A tube of some stuff that I’m supposed to scrub my face with to help with dry skin, which I sometimes do when I think about it. This is at the urging of my wife, my daughter and my doctor, all of whom are female people and seem to be concerned about my skin.

I might be playing uncomfortably with gender stereotypes here. Still, when I imagine visiting a male doctor and bringing this up, I always envision a different scenario:

ME: I have this really dry skin.

DOCTOR: Right. So, any chest pain?

 

My skin is really OK now. Don’t worry.

And on the door of this brand-new bathroom hangs my New Year’s resolution. You have to keep them somewhere.

A Christmas present, a nice pair of pants my wife bought me and which, as it turned out, don’t fit. She had this crazy idea of taking them back to the store for a larger size, but I sensed a new remodeling project just waiting.

It’s all my fault. A lazy fall, bathroom aside. Sort of gloomy and sedentary, helped by lots of sugar and fat. Mr. Chuck has gotten a little flabby. Nothing serious, but I really like those pants and suddenly I had inspiration. Maybe it would help if you pictured me standing at a podium, my voice ringing out in JFK fashion:

“Our goal…is to send one side of these slacks to meet the other side, and return it safely to Earth.”

 

It helps that these pants hang there, mocking me when I step out of the shower, smirking and sarcastic as I dry off. “You WISH,” they say.

So I’m all set. A new bathroom. A new year. A new goal and a new pair of pants, which I intend to be wearing by March, all snazzy and with moist skin. And with a slightly used toilet in the basement, awaiting a trip to the dump, a reminder that “remodel” isn’t a dirty word, change is healthy, and when it comes to plumbing some things are supposed to stay put.

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I Want One That Irons

Farhad Manjoo, writing in Slate, makes the “computer should be just like a toaster” argument, although not in the sense that it makes, y’know, toast. But that it should feel and act like any other appliance.

An automobile is both much more physically capable and dangerous than a computer, and yet nobody has to understand how a car works in order to drive. Sure, we require people who are operating motor vehicles to receive special training, but the training is mainly about the rules of the road. Actually using the car—learning what the steering wheel, gears, and pedals do—is a five-minute process and does not require a lesson in internal combustion. And what do you need to do to maintain a car? Almost nothing: Load it up with gas and take it in every few months to a guy who makes sure it’s in working condition. When your car is in trouble, it doesn’t issue a slew of warnings for you to interpret; it just says “check engine” and expects you to get expert help. Compare this with all the hassles of maintaining your computer: backing up your data, defragmenting your drive, checking for viruses, making sure your files are organized properly, occasionally reinstalling your operating system because things have gotten too gunked up, and on and on.

I get this. We all get this. And he thinks he knows the company that will finally produce one, because they already have:

To be sure, this isn’t a perfect metaphor; most of a car’s maintenance is related to physical wear and tear, while we’re mainly talking about the software side of computing. So why should we expect Apple’s new tablet to set us free from all this? Because as Gizmodo’s Diaz points out, Apple already makes the one computer in the world that can be described as an appliance—the iPhone.

 

The new Apple Tablet, or something along the lines of what we’ll be expectimg.

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Apologia*

Clarence questioned the other day how I could be sure I knew more about the issue of health insurance reform in this country than any of my blog readers.

Because I just do.

Sorry. Making myself smile.

As I said in the piece, I had no way of knowing whether there was a bigger policy nerd reading my blog, actually; maybe so. But I know something about my readership, particularly the limited nature of it, so I was making a rhetorical assumption.

And with good reason, or more than one, which would be:

  • Decades of seeing up close and personal the nuts-and-bolts of hospitals and clinics, listening to doctors, and looking at records.
  • Being a self-employed, open-market purchaser of health insurance for 20 years, with only a couple of brief exceptions. It opens one’s eyes.
  • Just generally being interested in the subject and the politics of it, relentlessly bookmarking and reading people who study, research, write about and in some cases help implement the policies.

That’s the rationale for making an unsupported but intuitive (to me) obnoxious statement. As far as the rhetorical nature, it was partly to get your attention and partly my frustration with hearing and reading what I can’t help but hear and read. I can’t argue with the guy who says, “Keep government out of my Medicare!” We live on two different planets. Maybe in two different dimensions.

Nor can I really argue with people who say they’re opposed to a “government takeover of healthcare.” I mean, first of all, so am I. If by “takeover” you’re talking about Soviet-style medicine with poorly paid physicians and antiquated equipment. And you may be talking about that, although no one in government is.

And I can’t argue with a flat statement that “government” has no business getting involved with healthcare when sixty-percent of healthcare is run by the government.

I put those italics in there on purpose.

Medicare. Medicaid. Veteran’s. Government workers, including Congress and the President. Other odds and ends. Adds up to about 60%, sorry. We could talk about whether this is good or bad, but not whether it exists. For that, I plan on staying in my own dimension.

So that’s the reason. Frustration with unapproachable arguments. A passion for a dull and complicated subject. An attention-getting device. And maybe, in my fantasies, the possibility of provoking a thoughtful discussion when some reader who disagrees with my analysis, fears and predictions.

Because I could be wrong. After all.

But that’s not the discussion we seem to have these days about anything, and it makes me batshit crazy.

————

*”Apologia” might not mean what you think it means. I don’t want to make assumptions.

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Moon. Rocks.

Deadline is met today and the sun is out, so only a bit about “Moon.”

It sat on my desk for a week before I finally watched it last night, a free evening. It came and went through theaters in a day or two, it seemed, but I noticed and mentally made a note. Wandering through the video store, waiting for John to rent a game, I saw it on a shelf. No fuss, no big display, only a few copies.

And a great movie.

Well. Maybe not great. But if you think you might be interested in a 97-minute psychological study of a man on the moon, the sole staffer of a mining operation in the not-distant future, a film remarkable for the fact that I can’t in good faith conscience tell you anything about the plot, this is your movie.

Sam Rockwell does a very nice job. Kevin Spacey offers his voice as the sorta-sentient computer. It references “2001: A Space Odyssey” so completely that it feels like an adjunct, not a rip-off. There’s also a hint of “High Noon” (and also 1981’s “Outland,” which was essentially a remake), and (to me anyway) a strong sense of Sarte, but mostly it feels like a short story.

And I can’t tell you anything about it. Seriously.

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Resolved. Again.

Inside my clean, comfortable and recently remodeled bathroom hangs my only New Year’s resolution. I couldn’t help looking at the new year as everyone does, a good time to reflect and think about change, but mostly these were general things, and mostly I work on them. Generally.

But this was my goal. This was what I would strive to achieve and achieve it, dammit. It’s good to have one thing, or this was my thinking, and my one thing would be this.

This is a beautiful pair of pants, a Christmas present from my wife. Wearing them would require a special occasion or an attitude adjustment, but they’re really nice. She did good with these.

But they don’t fit. Fine in the legs and seat, too tight in the waist. Tight like not happening, not buckling, not zipping, not coming close.

Her reaction made sense; she’d take them back and exchange for a larger size, not a big deal, different pants are cut in different ways, etc. But that waistband was a gauntlet and a reminder that I’d been taking it too easy for too long. Sort of a dreary fall, weather-wise, maybe a letdown from a busy summer, consistent late nights and then holidays…there be some flab on Mr. Chuck. Perfectly acceptable for a man my age, and really about where I was two years ago after my effort to slim down, when I felt lean and meanish. Not mean in a bad way.

But flabby. And we all know that flab likes company and needs to be nipped before all we’re wearing is sweatpants, so this was my goal. By the end of January I’d be swishing around in these slacks, just looking for an excuse.

I don’t see that happening now, but I don’t let these things discourage me. I’m all for editing goals; it’s the journey, not the end, etc.

But I caught them sneering at me today as I stepped out of the shower. “You wish,” they said.

Just wanted it on the record, is all. My wife has a birthday at the end of February, and I’m wearing these pants, whatever we do. I look at the world and more and more I think, there’s nothing I can do about anything, but now I know. There’s a zipper with my name on it.

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Wonk With Me

I’m going to build this guy for you, right here, right now. I’m going to create him out of dust and return him when I’m through. I have my reasons.

He’s in his mid-50s, and middle management. Good job, 28 years, worked from the bottom up. Nice salary, not stunning, but very workable. Benefits are pretty good, all in all.

And then the job is gone, poof. Bought, sold, downsized, outsourced — there were rumors, then inklings, then suddenly that was it. Some severance. No more health insurance.

Two weeks later, he tries to stay busy, not to think about what he doesn’t want to think about. He’s got resumes out there, messages left. He doesn’t want to do what others do, give up, get depressed, pass the days with Oprah and bourbon, so he tackles those chores that have been hanging around for a free afternoon. Paints some walls. Repairs a fence. Tidies up. Lifts some firewood and frees up some plaque that’s been just hanging around, waiting for an opportunity to get loose and occlude a coronary artery. Blood flow to a part of his heart suddenly slows. That section of the organ begins to die. This hurts like hell.

How could this happen, you ask? Me too. I created a good guy. Exercises regularly. Never smoked. Eats well. Everything is done in moderation. Sort of the opposite of me.

My bad. Forgot to create his ancestors while I was at it. Genetics will mess with us.

Cardiac catheterization is full of surprises, including three arteries that are 90%-plus clogged with crap. No stent for this guy; he passes Go and heads for the OR, where they cool his heart to stop it, take sections of saphenous vein from his legs, and put in little detours for blood flow, avoiding the congestion and keeping traffic moving. He does OK, no major problems, and in six hours his hospital bill has gone into six figures.

OK. I’ll stop now. There are imperfections in this story, but I’m lazy; I could have covered those, too. I just wanted to construct a situation in which none of you good people could say, “Well, it was HIS fault…” because some of you seem to have a tendency to do that. Or maybe not you. But people I know. Hear, read.

And you know the rest. Retirement savings, house, chance of actually getting new health insurance, etc., all gone.

Sixty-percent of bankruptcies in this U.S. are directly related to medical costs. Surely some of those people did all the “right” things. You can’t blame them all, right?

For over a hundred years, people have been trying to fix this. That amazes me. Over a century, and that’s only if you trace it to Teddy Roosevelt. We do certain things as a group, as a nation — everybody has access to public education, as imperfect as that is. We get some nice roads, and some not so nice. We aim for clean water, sewer systems, electricity. We pay for it. We expect it.

But unlike everybody else in the freaking world, pretty much, we don’t have universal health care. Surely they can’t all be communists.

Yawn. You know all this, or you don’t care, or you have a peculiar world view, or you live in FOXLand. No need to explain. I’m so bored myself that only pretty good coffee is letting me continue right now.

Here’s the thing: I know more about this than you do.

(I’m guessing here; it’s possible you’re some sort of health care policy whiz, but I can’t imagine one of those reading this blog. Maybe, though. Still.)

This doesn’t mean I’m smarter; I just know more. I’ve worked in this industry for a long time, so have members of my family, I have a passion for it, I have an interest, I like to read about it, blah blah blah. It could be comic books; for me it’s health care.

And here’s what is going to happen, I’m real sure — we’re going to get universal health care, but we’re going to have to revisit the cliché first: We can do this the easy way or the hard way.

President Obama has said repeatedly, campaign and in office, that this isn’t about philosophy; this isn’t about the idea that health care is a right, although I’m pretty sure he feels it is. Like education and clean water. What it is about is economics. The system is broken, and eventually it will stop, and then talk about a public option and health exchanges and preexisting conditions will be moot. It will become an infrastructure issue, like water pipes and bridges. A critical mass will be reached, enough cars will tumble into the river, enough people will run out of water, pick your analogy; it will happen. And we will be SO BROKE.

The easy way you know. This is my world — I wave my hand and Blue Cross is now in the alternative energy field. We all have something that looks like Medicare, with gold-plated programs for people who want and can afford them, and bare bones for the least among us, but our friend up there isn’t living with his kids and working at Wendy’s. We pay slightly higher taxes and no premiums at all. We save LOTS.

Real world? No idea, except you start at the beginning and work from there. What do people, poll after poll, want the most when it comes to health insurance? Dump the preexisting condition clause. Everyone knows this. Republicans know this, which is why politics are going to get interesting here pretty soon. Because you just can’t eliminate preexisting conditions; people would wait to get sick before they buy insurance. People funny.

No, we have to go to Insurance 101 – Get everyone in the pool. Spread the risk. Mandate health insurance for everyone, subsidize the poorest, do everything you can to eliminate waste and inefficiency. See what happens, fix what doesn’t work. This is, pretty much, what the bill that the Senate passed in December looks like. If you simplify it a lot.

I know. I know. Still. The rubber is going to meet the road eventually.

That’s it. Felt like writing that, is all. I could give you 10,000 more words, lots of data, lots of proof. I could give you personal stuff, tell you what it costs to provide for a disabled child. And I’m sure you could give it back to me. Or you could scream about socialized medicine and tyranny and Hitler and death panels; scream all you want. I know more than you do, sorry. And although I have absolutely no idea how this will play out, and very little confidence in our bought-and-paid-for professional politicians, and suspect we will go harder than easier, I can add and subtract.

In the meantime, we have some very nice emergency rooms. Good luck.

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Noises Off (And On Again)

(Same disclaimer: Web sites are being revamped, so I’m posting columns here for the time being. For POSTERITY, of course.)

Years ago, an accomplished writer was given the assignment of drafting the pilot episode of a proposed television series. He thought about it, letting it play around in his writer brain for weeks, and finally got a call from the producer, asking about the script.

“I dropped it in the mail this morning,” he said, and then decided he should probably go home and write it. Which he did.

I love this story, for reasons you can probably imagine. Deadlines can be discipline or annoying, but there’s nothing like finding your face pressed against one to get the juices flowing.

The writer in question was Larry Gelbart, by the way, and the television show would be “M*A*S*H.” Its success is generally attributed in large part to Mr. Gelbart, who was its head writer for the first few years, and who died from cancer last September at the age of 81.

I was sort of inexplicably saddened by his passing, in the way we are when someone famous dies, someone who moved us or made us laugh. I was a Gelbart fan from way back, and why not? His credits stretch from writing for Sid Caesar in the 1950s to one of my favorite musical-comedies, “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum,” to Hawkeye and Radar, to the 1980s megahit “Tootsie,” and more. He was prolific and funny, a go-to guy when a project needed help, and a mentor to many.

And his words bounce around my head, I realized the other day, very specific words. They come from his 1977 Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Oh, God!” and they have a life of their own. It was a cute movie but nothing else, a showcase for George Burns, an odd bump in the career of John Denver, and an old device: God comes to earth with a message for humanity. Message delivered. Humanity won’t change much. Laughs ensue.

Still, at one point the Denver character asks God if He listens to our prayers, and this is what now floats through what passes for my brain:

“I can’t help hearing,” says God. “I don’t always listen.”

There’s nothing theological or even vaguely spiritual about these words (or the film, for that matter). They just strike me as true, for me and my time, my life and my limited attention span. There’s a lot of noise out there, and I can’t help hearing.

I try. Last fall, I made a deliberate attempt to back slowly out of the room, limiting my time on the computer, taking a break from writing, avoiding exposure to politics and anything that reeked of gossip. I tried not to listen, and instead I fidgeted. I took long walks. I washed dishes and cleaned counters, I emptied drawers and rearranged closets, finding lots of old pictures and a couple of shirts that were apparently once worn by some other guy.

“I’m divesting,” I told my wife, who gave me The Spouse Look and bit her lip, knowing me well and being nice. Good luck with that.

And I found out that listening is a skill but hearing is free (if getting a little muffled these days). As much as going all Thoreau might appeal to me, simple pleasures and planting flowers, it’s not practical and anyway I start to sneeze a lot.

So I hear stuff. Brett Favre is alive and well. Sarah Palin has a new job, nicer than that dumb governor thing. Harry Reid and Pat Robertson both erred on the side of opening their mouths and letting words fall out, giving Joe Biden a break. Apparently there’s some movie about space aliens in 3D.

There’s Haiti, a tragedy that still seems proportionately incomprehensible (as James Fallows has noted, imagine Katrina killing 1.5 million people, everyone in New Orleans and the surrounding areas, and you start to get the picture). We can’t help but hear.

And then there’s the messy business of late night TV, as Jay and Conan battle over millions of dollars and the right to talk on hallowed television ground, The Tonight Show, full of history and a program that seems remarkable for the fact that on any given night, roughly 330 million Americans ARE NOT WATCHING IT. Talk about proportion.

It seems I can’t block out the noise, then, no matter how many closets I clean. I can only screen, avoid, try to get perspective and stay away the best I can. I wish Brett the best of luck but I don’t really care. I tend to watch Jon Stewart late at night. I keep only half an eye on politics, so far I’ve resisted “Avatar,” and I’m grateful that the stupid things I say are mostly only heard by my dog.

And Haiti will be on my mind, along with the uncertainty of earthquakes and the helplessness of watching other people suffer while I’m free to waste time on dumb noise. I only hope God is listening.

*

(Of note: The above was written when the death toll in Haiti was estimated at around 50,000. Much, much higher now.)

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