Monday, September 24, 2007

Happy Birthday to the King of the Jazz Age

I was scrolling through my e-mails this morning and ran across my daily literary message, The Writer's Almanac, produced by the same folks who put together "A Prairie Home Companion." It's a really interest daily posting of famous dates in literary history, typically the birthdates of world famous writers.

Today is the 111th birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of my top five favorite authors of all time. If you've never read any of his work, I highly recommend you do; I was first introduced to Fitzgerald when I read The Great Gatsby during my senior year in high school, and I haven't turned back. I've been particularly drawn to his short stories, including The Pat Hobby Stories, and I've tried to tackle several of his novels over the years. Ultimately, I'd like to finish all of them -- but his books are definitely not things that you should rush through. They should be savored and enjoyed slowly, like a good bourbon -- and the more times you go back and revisit them, the more you're going to find and the more you're going to carry away with you.

Equally as interesting as the tragedy found in many of Fitzgerald's stories, however, is the tragedy of his life. Even now, it's heartbreaking to read about how his life turned out, and how he spent his final years not as the celebrated novelist of the Jazz Age, but rather as a struggling screenwriter in Hollywood. And even after his death in 1940, the tragedy didn't end; when he was brought back to Rockville, Maryland, for burial, the Catholic Church refused to allow him to be buried in his family's plot in their churchyard because of the fact he had fallen away from the church over the course of his life. Instead, he was buried in the old Rockville Union Cemetery, and it wasn't until long after his death that the church changed its mind and allowed for Scott and Zelda to be reinterred in the St. Mary's churchyard (shown here and below).

I wasn't even aware that Fitzgerald had a connection to the area until a few years ago, and now from time I like to make the drive up to Rockville with a copy of one of his books and sit in the churchyard for a while. The photo at the top was taken on one of my first visits, and it's still one of my favorite sites to visit in this area. Had the Washington Post not run their little day-trip column back in 2003 that included the Fitzgerald family plot, I wonder just how many people would have known that hidden in their midst was a small marker to one of the largest personalities in American literary history?

So happy birthday, Scott. Break out the champagne, turn on the old Victrola, grab one of his novels, and throw yourself headlong into a time that -- even 80 years later -- still brings to mind thoughts of Long Island parties, New York dance halls, and people who celebrated the moment and left tomorrow for another time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An Evening with Alan Greenspan

* At the outset, let me give proper credit for this photograph -- it was taken by a staff photographer for the Daily Colonial, the school newspaper for George Washington University in Washington. I hadn't realized in advance that cameras were allowed (I would have had mine with me, were that the case), and the two pictures I took with my camera phone were absolutely horrid.

So here it was, 7:00 on a Wednesday evening, and I was doing something I never would have expected myself to do: attending a talk given by an economist, moderated by another economist. Of course, Alan Greenspan is no normal economist; he is the face of the fiscal successes and pitfalls this country has experienced for nearly half my life. I don't think that under normal circumstances I would have even considered attending this event, but the sheer volume of commentary elicited by the release of Greenspan's new book, The Age of Turbulence, gave me a lot of incentive to get a ticket a few days ago and crowd into the Lisner Auditorium at GWU (along with what appeared to be quite a few hundred other people who ranged from Administration and government officials to economics students and the just generally curious).

For someone who didn't pay much attention during his one college course in macroeconomics (doing enough to get a B in the class), the Greenspan event was half interesting to me -- the half where he discussed his life, career, and the presidents and other high-profile officials with whom he has interacted during his life. The moderator, Daniel Yergin (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, was much more interested (for obvious reasons) in Greenspan's thoughts on various aspects of American economic policies of the past 20 years and on the current fiscal situation, but he focused so much on this that he neglected to ask (with one exception) any of the questions submitted by the audience. In fact, to be such a "numbers guy," Yergin isn't good at telling time -- he said at the outset that he was going to discuss some background with Greenspan for 25 minutes (he ran for an hour) and then move to audience questions (which he didn't reach until he thought there were 15 minutes left in the discussion -- and then ran on for another 45 without asking them). Of course, when Yergin is commanding $40,000 in fees per appearance (according to his entry on Wikipedia), you can do whatever you want. As an aside, when you combine Greenspan's fee to Yergin's, you can see how much the sponsors put out to bring this event together.

Greenspan is definitely an economist's economist -- someone who said he spent his spare time as a 17-year saxophonist in a big band reading economics books, and who has his morning coffee while reading economic forecasts and global production reports -- and he definitely got more into the conversation when discussing interest rate changes and production numbers. I found his discussion of the presidents with whom he has worked over the years interesting, as well as his background and the brief amount of time he spent discussing his friendship with Ayn Rand. He also held to his longstanding view that he will not comment on current Federal Reserve policy -- and each time Yergin asked him a question about Bernanke and recent moves, Greenspan would smile and say, "No."

I was intrigued to hear what he had to say about the comment he made that the current war in Iraq was "a war about oil." That topic did come up, and the statement makes more sense when put in the context he gave. I tried to reconstruct his answer here (which I've shared on a friend's blog and on a message board to which I belong): He fully agreed that removing Hussein from power was the right thing to do, and that it was in fact all about oil. However, it's not about our control of the oil; for many years, Greenspan saw everything that Hussein was doing as a way of consolidating power and so that, ultimately, he would be in a position to make a grab for control of the entire Middle Eastern oil supply. Had that taken place, Greenspan said that oil could have easily gone to $150 or $160 per barrel, which would have had devastating consequences on the global economy. Removing Hussein was the only way to alleviate that economic concern, and so his thought that "it was all about oil" was from a global perspective. As far as the aftermath of the invasion and removal of Hussein, however, he's got big problems with the way the Administration has managed things.

All in all, it was an interesting and entertaining evening; after leaving, I even stood with a small crowd of people outside the auditorium and watched as he signed a few books and posed for photos with some overly-enthusiastic (and nattily dressed) students who looked like they were fresh out of high school and acted like Greenspan was their god. I'm glad I went, and look forward to reading his book (a signed copy of which came with the purchase of my ticket).

If anyone is interested in seeing this appearance, C-Span 2 will be running it over the next few days, and C-Span will be posting the video on their website as well. You can check it out here.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Football Season (Real and Imagined) is Underway!

Football season is finally here, and my Cowboys got things started off right with a 45-35 win over the Giants. Granted, the defense gave up more points than I would have liked, but a win is a win -- and the offense was clicking!

Also, week one of fantasy season is on the books (almost; I have a few players playing in the 49ers-Cardinals game right now), and the record may be 1-1 between my two leagues by the end of it. I'm still waiting to see how Dave and We Are the Night do before I can declare victory (or defeat).

Finally, kudos to Julie and her team, Footsies -- her first ever fantasy game, and she pulled off the victory. That, and her Bengals held off the Ravens -- a pretty good weekend for the rookie coach.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

I Feel Like I'm Being Watched

This sounds like an odd title, but after reading this you'll understand what I mean. For quite some time, I have been the one in our family to handle the bookkeeping -- paying the monthly bills, writing the checks, and reconciling the accounts. I'm so careful about it that I will sometimes check our accounts two or three times a week just to make sure things are in line.

So, imagine my surprise when I opened one account this week and saw a weird charge for less than $5. It didn't ring a bell, but at first I didn't panic; lots of times, if we stop at a service station to pick up a snack during a drive, it shows up on the account with an unusual title. However, having just been the victim of credit card fraud earlier this week (different account) and earlier this year (another account), I got really nervous and immediately jumped on the phone with my bank.

After about an hour on the phone with them last night, along with the company to whom payment had been made, it turned out that yes, in fact, I had been frauded. And when I opened the account this morning, there were several more charges posted or pending that weren't mine. Another 45 minutes on the phone with my bank, and a full fraud investigation has been opened, my old account has been locked and a new one has been opened, and I'm breathing a lot easier (at least for now).

I can't think of any times in my life where I've felt more vulnerable than when I feel like someone is watching me and (in a manner of speaking) rifling through my wallet, and I end up getting bitten at the end of things. I think it's absolutely pathetic that there's some (pardon my language) son-of-a-bitch out there who gets his (or her; can't be sexist about this) jollies by scamming and stealing and loading up on crap for their house or apartment while I (or anyone else who falls victim to this) am sitting at home or work desperately trying to stop the hemmorhaging and get things corrected. If it were up to me, folks that commit credit card fraud should be locked up for life -- none of this lightweight garbage in the way of sentences that's handed out.

A side effect of this is that I'm less inclined to want to help anyone, with the thought in the back of my mind always being, "What are you trying to do?" When this has happened in the past, and then I'm approached about making a donation or get a solicitation letter in the mail, I walk in the opposite direction or throw the letter unopened into the garbage. Yes, I realize I could send a check for these sorts of things, but going through this really makes me gun-shy.

And the check writing thing brings another angle into this. So many companies have gone out of their way over the years to make it possible to pay bills on-line. I've taken advantage of that, both for the ease of it all and because the turnaround time for processing the payment is much more immediate. Now, though, who the hell wants to do that anymore? Checks may be the only safe route anymore (if that can be believed), and I'm thinking I may just start hand-carrying my payments to everyone. I know that's not feasible, but it's worth dreaming -- can you imagine how some of these folks in other states would look at me if I walked in and said, "Good morning; I drove overnight from the East Coast to drop off my payment. See you next month!"

Let this be a warning to you: you're never really safe, even with all of the gizmos and security features that people develop every day. Somewhere, there's someon fast than they are at developing ways to beat them -- and when they're not doing that, then they're watching me and rifling through my wallet.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Two Sides of Pavarotti

UPDATE (9-8-07): As much as I enjoyed the rendition of "Miss Sarajevo" performed by Pavarotti and Bono (which was posted second below), I found an even better one today that's my new favorite. A surprising combination, but I think it's pulled off pretty well. Who would have thought James Brown could sound so good live, and that Pavarotti could handle R&B this well?

Luciano Pavarotti was the first great tenor that I can remember hearing as a child, and I can the beginnings of my love of opera to watching him and Beverly Sills performing on PBS. We've lost two giants of music in just a few short weeks; here are two perfect examples of how Pavarotti could play both sides of the musical fence.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Sunday Stew

Yes, I know that's a terribly trite name, but I wasn't sure that I could spell smorgasbord. Oh wait, I CAN spell smorgasbord! At any rate, today is going to be more of a hodge-podge of things rather than a single entry -- it's been that kind of weekend.
Yesterday, I took part in the draft for one of the two fantasy football leagues in which I'm involved. It was actually a nice change of pace from the stress of my other league, which operates on an auction basis; throwing out players for bid, trying to outbid everyone else for that key running back or franchise quarterback, and then having to participate in a second round of drafting players and -- if your roster isn't full at the end of that -- possibly taking part in a supplemental draft.

This one was much nicer; Commissioner Dave got a great group together for the Yahoo league, and I'm joined by teams with such great names as Footsies (Coach Julie), We Are the World (Dave) and Prime Time (Coach Kim). I opted for something representative of the area where I live and work and dubbed my franchise Beltway Bandits (insert lobbyist comment here.....).

At the end of the 15 rounds, I ended up with perhaps the best roster I've ever had in any league in which I've participated -- and while that's exciting for me, there's an extra sense of anticipation in this league due to the fact that limiting it to eight folks means that everyone has a great roster, and every week will have some ridiculously high scoring and terribly close games. As I head into opening weekend, I have the following weapons at my disposal:

QB - Matt Hasselbeck
QB - Jon Kitna
RB - Edgerrin James
RB - Jerious Norwood
RB - Steven Jackson
RB - Brian Westbrook
WR - Marvin Harrison
WR - Steve Smith
WR - Plaxico Burress
TE - Alge Crumpler
TE - L. J. Smith
K - John Kasay
K - Jeff Wilkins
Defense - Pittsburgh
Defense - Jacksonville

Let the games begin!
A. and I had a chance last night to leave the girls with my in-laws and head out for a mini date night. We opted to go see the new British comedy, "Death at a Funeral," and it turned out to be one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. I was surprised to learn that it was directed by Frank Oz (he of Miss Piggy/Yoda fame), and heading into the first 15 minutes I wasn't quite sure how funny the film would be, or how well Oz would be able to pull it off.

From 15 minutes on, though, there was no question about the level of humor -- and the nice thing is you don't necessarily have to be an afficianado of British comedy to get the jokes in this movie. There were a few sight gags, but the situations which develop, the great dialogue and the oustanding acting (from an ensemble cast that included very few people with whom I was familiar) made for a great time. Adding to the great atmosphere for the film was the fact that we went and saw it at the first "talkies" theater built in Roanoke, the Grandin, and the crowd -- while not terribly big; maybe 30 or 35 total -- was really into the film and laughing the entire time.

I've read a lot of mixed reviews on the film, and they seem to be split down the middle. Some reviewers say that it got only an occasional smile out of them, while others call it a laugh riot in the tradition of Peter Sellers or Monty Python. I thought Variety had one of the better reviews (excerpt):

"With a circus parade of mourning Brits and enough appalling circumstances to set proper Englishness back to the Dark Ages, "Death at a Funeral" pits decorum against sex, drugs and dysfunction. The winners? Auds who know you laugh hardest when you're not supposed to, and who appreciate the humorous qualities of embarrassment, blackmail and the twitting of the upper classes. Box office will likely be modest, but reaction will be strongly positive."

I give it four out of five stars, and the NOVA Dad critic's award. As a bit more of a teaser, here is the trailer for it:

Lastly, I've picked up my copy of the new book on Mother Teresa that has generated so much controversy and debate during the past several weeks, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light. For those who may not be aware, some of the letters included in this book reveal that she endured a period of several decades (up until the time of her death in 1997) where she didn't feel the presence of God at all in her life. Many people have said that her feelings on this are no different than the dark period experienced by many major religious figures throughout history, while others are arguing that continuing her work while feeling this way and proclaiming God's love for the poorest of the poor amounts to nothing more than living a life of hypocrisy.

I've read many blog posts and internet discussion group entries on this book, but have declined to offer any input until I've actually read the entire book and looked at the letters in question in the context of her entire life. My hope is to put something on here (maybe one entry, maybe a series) when I've read it, and possible engender some discussion above and beyond that which I've already seen.