Friday, November 28, 2008

Overwhelming Emotion from a Powerful Film

It seems that whenever I review a movie on this blog, I have a fairly easy time of commenting on it: the quality of the acting and the plot; the emotion of the soundtrack; whether it moved me to laugh or cry in a genuine way. In short, I am usually pretty good about putting down what I would like folks to know about any given film. Tonight, things are different. I'm having a very difficult time putting into words how I'm feeling after A. and I went and saw "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas." Many films are advertised as being "a haunting story" and fall short of the mark; this one will stay with me forever.

Put simply, I can only say that as I walked out of the theater at the end of the 90-minute film, I felt emotionally gutted.

The first hour or so of the movie laid out the basic parts of the story (and I'll try not to give too much away): German army officer gets promotion and command of a concentration camp; he moves his wife, eight-year-old son (Bruno), and 12-year-old daughter to a new home on the outskirts of the camp; son sees what he thinks is a farm on the back of their property; son goes exploring the area that he thinks borders the farm and meets a boy of the exact same age (Shmuel) living on the other side of the fence. Both of the boys have a great deal of innocence about them: Bruno doesn't understand why Shmuel doesn't have more children to play with and why he isn't excited about living on a farm, and Shmuel doesn't understand what has become of his family and why Bruno thinks that the numbers he wears on his pajamas are part of a game that everyone is playing.

Both boys realize that they are not supposed to be friends, but friends they become -- a friendship that grows from curiosity and an early distrust into genuine trust and concern for one another. Because of that friendship, Bruno -- in the last 30 emotionally-draining minutes of the film -- takes a completely unexpected step to help Shmuel find answers about his family and because of this is standing with his friend at the heart-wrenching conclusion.

I'll say here that I highly recommend this film and give it a five-out-of-five. The acting is brilliant, the children who play Bruno and Shmuel are amazing, and the musical score by James Horner is in my opinion one of the best he has ever produced. However, everything you may have heard on the television trailers about how this is a film that will stay with you for the rest of your life is absolutely correct. Everyone in the theater walked out without saying a word, and I didn't say anything at all in the car throughout the entire drive back home.

There is absolutely no way, short of having read the book in advance (which I hadn't), that you can be prepared for this film -- for what you see, for how it hits you, and for the emotion that is pulled out of you by the end. It will definitely make a lasting impression.

Beautiful Song for a Quiet Friday

A nice, relaxing day around the in-laws' house, so I really don't have much to talk about (I've avoided really getting my mind going today). Instead, I'll share another great video here: Chet Atkins and Don McLean performing a beautiful rendition of one of my favorite songs, "Vincent."

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Economy Comes-a Callin'

The growing economic slowdown finally hit home today -- A. called me as she was headed out of her office this afternoon to let me know that her boss had called her into his office and laid her off. Business there had gotten so bad that he really didn't have any choice in the matter; however, he was gracious enough to offer her a good recommendation if she needed it.

Naturally, this came as a shock, although A. wasn't nearly as upset as she might have been. She had been talking for a while about possibly adjusting her schedule so that she would have more time at home with the girls, and to give her more time to study for the LSAT (which she'll be taking in June). Additionally, we're blessed enough with the job that I have that we felt confident that we'd be okay if A. were to ever leave her job, so no great worries there either.

Having been through an extended period of unemployment last year, we're psychologically better able to handle things like this -- although having that kind of life experience is never fun, no matter how strong or better prepared it makes you. There is a blessing with all of this, though -- a job interview in the morning for her. Another company in the area had contacted her recently after having run across her resume, and a successful phone interview last week led to a request for an in-person meeting tomorrow. It's still too early to know what this position entails and whether it will allow her to use her education and previous work experience to great advantage, or when this job would even start if she is hired, but we are hopeful that this might be the silver lining in all of this.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An Evening with Christopher Plummer

This evening, Washington offered another great cultural event that I was fortunate enough to witness. Actually, one of Washington's great independent booksellers, Politics and Prose, continued their phenomenal series of nightly appearances by writers by hosting one of my all-time favorite actors, Christopher Plummer. Plummer, who recently published his memoirs and is in the midst of a tour promoting his book, entertained a very large audience in the store through a 45-minute conversation with XM (formerly NPR) host Bob Edwards.

He is an extremely humorous and charming man, and the stories he told about his early career in the theater and television gave but a glimpse of the great life that he has shared with us in his new book. He was also very gracious and took extra time speaking with every customer who went through the signing line, even posing for photographs with anyone who asked. There were many older ladies in the audience who were almost like schoolgirls waiting to see him, and many brought old keepsakes -- playbills, an original soundtrack for the "Sound of Music," old photos -- that they giddily asked him to sign. I was trying to picture my grandmother up there fawning over him!

A great event, and I'm looking forward with great anticipation to reading his book!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

A Moment of Reflection Before the Next Phase Begins

The election has ended; President-elect Obama is on his way to the White House; Senator McCain -- after a very eloquent and gracious concession speech -- is on his way back to the Senate. In terms of the historic nature of this event, it's incredible and something well worth celebrating.

During the time ahead, though, the political differences will be argued and both my fiscal conservatism and my social liberalism will be challenged from many sides. I really look forward to the debates ahead, and as a great lover of the game of politics I am looking forward even more to the palace intrigue that will begin at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Today, it is time to put partisanship aside and look at what the election means for the nation. Michael Gerson, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote what I feel is a very eloquent piece about where we are at this point in history. I commend it to you here today and hope that in the time ahead everyone focuses on the fact that it's not the R or the D behind a name that matters, but what we can all do for the country.

"Hail to the Chief"
By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I come to this moment of national decision with deep concerns about the next president. His victory is likely to unleash an ideological and vengeful Democratic Congress. In the testing of a long campaign, Barack Obama has seemed thoughtful but sometimes hesitant and unsure of his bearings. He promises outreach and healing but holds to a liberalism that sees no need for innovation. And as the result of a financial panic that unfairly undermined all Republicans, Obama has stumbled into the most dangerous kind of victory. A mandate for change but not for ideas. A mandate without clear meaning.

But a presidential election is more than a political choice; it is a moral dividing line. It involves not just the triumph of a majority but a transfer of legitimacy that binds the minority as well. This is a largely undiscussed topic in modern political debate: legitimacy. It is a kind of democratic magic that turns votes into authority. It does not require political agreement. It does imply a patriotic respect for the processes of government and a determination to honor the president for the sake of the office he holds.

In the past few decades, the magic of legitimacy has seemed to fade. Opponents of President Bill Clinton turned their disagreements (and Clinton's human failures) into an assault on his power. Some turned to insane conspiracy theories, including accusations of politically motivated murder. After President Bush's reelection, elements of the left began their own attack on his legitimacy, talking of impeachment while repeating lunatic theories about deception and criminality.

After a deserved honeymoon, the new president is likely to find that the intensity of this bitterness has only gathered. Because of the ideological polarization of cable television news, talk radio and the Internet, Americans can now get their information from entirely partisan sources. They can live, if they choose to, in an ideological world of their own creation, viewing anyone outside that world as an idiot or criminal, and finding many who will cheer their intemperance. Liberals have perfected this machinery of disdain over the past few years. Given the provocation, the same approach is likely to be turned against the new president by the right as well.

Barack Obama's first years may well be dominated by a recession and a swiftly arming Iran. Some conservatives will be tempted to take joy from his inevitable struggles; others to spin conspiracy theories from his background and associations. It will be easy to blame every emerging challenge on the faults and failures of an inexperienced young president. But it will be more difficult for me.

I remember the vivid days of possibility that follow a presidential victory. I happened to be in the Roosevelt Room in January 2001 just as the portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, heroic on horseback, was moved over the fireplace, where it hangs during Republican administrations. And I know that someone, feeling the same hope and burden that I felt, will be watching when Franklin Roosevelt is moved back to the place of honor.

There is a tremendous sense of history and responsibility that comes with serving in the White House. You gain an appreciation for the conflicted choices others have faced -- and for the untamed role of history in frustrating the best of plans. It becomes easier to understand a president's challenges and harder to question his motives. Ultimately, I believe that every president, and the staff he hires, feels the duty to serve a single national interest. And, ultimately, we need our presidents to succeed, not to fail for our own satisfaction or vindication.

This presidency in particular should be a source of pride even for those who do not share its priorities. An African American will take the oath of office blocks from where slaves were once housed in pens and sold for profit. He will sleep in a house built in part by slave labor, near the room where Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation with firm hand. He will host dinners where Teddy Roosevelt in 1901 entertained the first African American to be a formal dinner guest in the White House; command a military that was not officially integrated until 1948. Every event, every act, will complete a cycle of history. It will be the most dramatic possible demonstration that the promise of America -- so long deferred -- is not a lie.

I suspect I will have many substantive criticisms of the new administration, beginning soon enough. Today I have only one message for Barack Obama, who will be our president, my president: Hail to the chief.

Monday, November 03, 2008

What's On My Mind Headed Into Tuesday - Part 3

I'm running out of time before tomorrow's election and I haven't yet run out of issues to discuss, so today I'm going to focus on the two biggest things on my mind as I head into the voting booth tomorrow.

This picture from our family vacation in August shows MB and E. looking out at the ocean, but I've always thought of it with the added layer of looking out to the horizon. Tomorrow represents moving one step closer to the horizon of their lives -- their future. I know how I'm voting and I'm comfortable with my decision, but regardless of what happens tomorrow I'll do whatever I can as a parent to secure their future, their horizons.

And if Senator Obama does in fact win the election, then consider me a member of the loyal opposition for the next four years.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

What's On My Mind Headed Into Tuesday - Part 2

The next two things of concern to me headed into Tuesday's election...

1. Card check. Those pressing this legislation would rather have you focus on the misleading title, the Employee Free Choice Act, rather than on the fact that if passed the bill means anything but a free choice for American workers. Right now, the decision on whether to unionize is a two-step process: workers are first asked if they want to hold a vote on unionization, and if 30 percent say yes then there is a second vote on whether to unionize (a vote that is done by secret ballot). In this method, even if a worker doesn't want a unionized workplace, they can say they want to hold an election and then vote against it with their private ballot. Under card check rules, however, unionizing is moved to a one-step process where workers automatically vote on unionizing -- and it's done in such a way that their vote is public, and where they are open to pressure from coworkers and union organizers to vote for it. Proponents of the legislation say that it doesn't take away the secret ballot at all, but that is a flat-out lie.

Why is card check such an important issue for unions (and the Democrats they support with their contributions)? Quite simply, it is because unions don't hold the sway that they once did -- their membership rolls have been steadily declining, and the money they are able to obtain through union dues has also fallen. If card check is enacted, union rolls will go up, mandatory dues will increase, and organized labor will once again have vast pools of money to play with and throw at their candidates of choice. This is such a big issue for them, in fact, that a story in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago stated that organized labor intends to spend upwards of $300 million in this election cycle for candidates and to push this agenda.

What will this mean for businesses and workers if it passes? That depends on the company for which these men and women work, but in most instances it will among other things:
  • Mandate new benefit plans and salaries for workers (which, at least with the company for whom I work, will actually be much lower on both counts than what workers are receiving);
  • Dictate new job titles and levels of seniority that could be more restrictive than those put into place by management;
  • Make it more difficult for companies to expand and complete renovations or improvements to their workplaces because of being forced to adhere to union regulations on time-lines and contract bidding; and
  • Subject management to the whims of organized labor with regard to strikes and work stoppages.
The House of Representatives passed this last year, and it was only because the Democrats held fewer than 60 seats in the Senate that it didn't progress further. Obama has said he will sign any card check bill that makes it to his desk; McCain is opposed. In short, this bill could be disastrous for American businesses, and even though polls have shown that an overwhelming number of men and women don't like the idea and would be less inclined to vote for a candidate who supports card check, many politicians have very little backbone and are more worried about losing the financial support of unions than representing their constituents.

2. Reductions in the military. Last week, Barney Frank of Massachusetts announced his desire to cut the military budget by 25 percent, which translates to roughly $150 billion. That's a pretty ambitious goal, particularly since -- wait for it -- Congress just recently passed legislation calling for an additional 92,000 Army troops and Marines between now and 2013.

Things in Iraq and Afghanistan have not gone well, despite the success of the surge in recent months, and troops are most definitely stretched thin with their deployments. But is cutting the military budget the way to approach solving this problem? Remember, the Democrats are the ones who are the first to say that their votes against bills providing funding for the troops aren't a demonstration of their lack of support for the troops. If that's the case, then what would slashing $150 billion show them? And I wouldn't be too quick to say that it's money that would be allocated for weapons systems -- because in the long run, I have a strong suspicion that that will not be the case.

Senator Obama has denied that he plans on doing this, but given that if he wins he will have a majority in both the House and Senate with which to work, would he have the guts to buck his party and veto such a measure? Given his past record of bucking his party in favor of the national interest, I don't think so.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

What's On My Mind Headed Into Tuesday - Part 1

Four days out from the election, and I admittedly have some very great concerns about the direction this country may take over the next four years as a result of the outcome of Tuesday's vote. Regular visitors to my blog know that I try extremely hard to examine issues from both sides and not jump based on my conservative gut, and I have tried to do that in thinking through how I feel about this election. Over the next few days (and perhaps even several times each day), I'm going to lay out some of what concerns me and what will be on my mind as I head into the voting booth next week.

In this installment:

1. Single-party control of the government. I'll be the first to admit -- even as a conservative -- that the eight years of the Bush Administration overlapped with the 12 years of Republican control (at varying times) of the House and Senate have been a disaster. The party which came in on the heels of the 1994 Republican Revolution, whose leaders proclaimed that they were heralding the beginning of an era of smaller government, completely lost its way. Any surpluses which existed (side bar: the surpluses of the Clinton years were the result of Congress and the Administration working together; trying to give credit solely to Clinton is incorrect, since it takes both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to get legislation enacted) are long gone, and yes, spending has increased dramatically. The past year alone has seen falling GDP, rising unemployment, and the revelation that our national economy is much more fragile than we were led to believe (or than the experts such as Alan Greenspan even expected). The tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 did work, and revenue flowing into D.C. actually increased; it just couldn't keep pace with the checks the government was having to send out of D.C.

But is swinging the pendulum completely to the other side going to make things any better? I don't believe it will. Just as the Republicans during the past several years threw bipartisanship out the window, the Democrats since 1996 have done no better (even with Speaker Pelosi's pledge to bring both sides of the aisle together to work for the common good). And putting control in the hands of a party who I fear will ignore the members of its more moderate segment and throw the situation even further left will do just as much harm as the ultra-conservatives who have tried to guide the agenda since 1994. Any hope of "Washington coming together for the common good" is close to being completely gone for many years, and unlike the previous eras of Democrat control of Washington (the years when the Sam Rayburns and Tip O'Neills actually worked with Republicans) I fear that the hands of bipartisanship extended across the aisle will be completely withdrawn.

2. New taxes and wealth "redistribution." Ever since Senator Obama made his now-famous comment to Joe Wurzelbacher about spreading around the wealth to ensure that those behind him have a fair opportunity, folks are quick to throw around the word socialism. I'm not worried about what word is used to describe it, be it socialism or anything else, but I am worried about why the government feels it necessary to determine who I help and to what extent I help them. I used to consider myself middle class, but with the moving-target definition we've gotten of that lately (Is it $250,000? Is it $200,000? Is it $100,000?) I'm not so sure anymore. Depending on what number folks finally decide on, I may find myself suddenly (and quite unexpectedly) in the upper class.

My family and I contribute quite a bit to charity each year, and would in fact like to be able to do more. The reality is there are other financial obligations and debts that we must eliminate first. With increased taxes, how are we going to do that? It will take longer to pay down the debt, and we'll have less coming into our household that we can in turn give to those churches and charities that we choose to help. So point one: higher taxes will restrict our ability to give. And I have always believed that it is not government's responsibility to be the sole source of public assistance; the American people should take that upon themselves to help their fellow man, while at the same time recognizing that we should strive to give a hand-up, not a hand-out. It seems to surprise a lot of folks, but poverty also existed in the time of the founding fathers; however, mandating that the government address these problems was not something they included in the Constitution. They relied on the inherent good nature and goodwill of man to address these problems; why has it shifted so much in the 221 years since the drafting of the Constitution that we now expect government to hand us everything? Instead of giving candidates nearly one billion dollars for attack ads and staff salaries, think about what good we could have done with that money on the streets of our inner cities, our shelters, our food banks, and our charities.

Point two: even if we do ultimately fall into the category of receiving a further promised tax cut, I'm certainly not fool enough to ignore the fact that the taxes passed on instead to small businesses will hit us just as much as if we had more money being taken directly out of our checks. Sure, we may (hypothetically as an example here) have an extra $100 a month coming in, but that money will in turn have to go to our childrens' daycare expenses (increased taxes on them will drive up their fees), food (increased taxes on farms and food producers will drive up their overhead, and those costs will be passed on to us), fuel (the small, independent gas station owners will have to pay more and increase their portion of the gasoline cost -- as will we), utilities (taxes applied to companies providing our electric, water and gas services will increase our rates) -- and on and on and on.

(Side-bar: It really aggravates me when politicians and the American public rail on oil companies for what they term "obscene profits." For me, God love them for their success!! Why should we penalize anyone for working hard and achieving great success, whether they be a small business or a multinational? And I certainly think it's ridiculous to focus on the oil and gas industry alone: in 2005, per dollar of sales, the oil industry made eight cents of profit, and yet you never seem to hear that the biotech industry made nearly 20 cents profit per dollar, or that banks and lending institutions made nearly 18 cents per dollar. Even technology firms during that time made about two cents more in profit per dollar. Why aren't they being targeted for increased taxes? Why aren't the Democrats hammering them about windfall profits? My answer: it's not sexy to increase taxes on Microsoft, but it sure looks good to stick it to Conoco Phillips or ExxonMobil.)

Next installment in my pre-election series: card check and the military.