Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tis the Season

The first hurdle of the end of the year holiday season is passed. The guests have returned home. A sizable portion of the leftovers has been eaten and we didn't have to resort to turkey pancakes. Black Friday has come and gone. I have managed to steer clear of the hordes that have descended on Michigan Avenue. The lights are lit on the Magnificent Mile. The big tree that looks like something out an impressionist painting with its blurred lights is in its place at the Hancock Center.

Larry the Doorman finally called one wrong when he assured me that we'd get a few flakes of snow before Thanksgiving. He still has a better average than the television weather geeks and Phil the Groundhog, however. The temperature is trending downward, though. Extended weather outlooks predict highs in the 30's and some wet snow later this week. Looking out the windows on the 14th floor, the green and red lights are signifying the Christmas season at Navy Pier and silently proclaiming, "Come! Celebrate the season! Spend money!" The skies have been an end of the year gray quite a lot recently. November ends and December begins this week.

I went to the grocery store to pick up cat food and cat litter and various assorted necessities of life today and the Christmas Carol Muzak was in full bloom. What this means is that now, not only do we have to worry about dropping those pounds we picked up while gorging ourselves at Thanksgiving, but we have to worry about what to buy for those nearest and dearest to us as Christmas presents. The pressure is on.

In between Christmas parties and planning for those trips to be with families over the holidays, we have to agonize over what to buy so we don't look like people who don't really love their loved ones. How many times have I heard, "Oh you don't have to buy me anything, really." or "Let's just agree not to buy anything this year." Still, there are disappointed crestfallen faces on Christmas morning if some people get cool stuff and others do not. So not buying is out of the question.

Then there is the unspoken, "Is this present good enough?" This accompanies the agreement not to spend too much on presents. Did you get something that is equally as cool as what someone bought you? Is your present so far over the top that the other person will be embarrassed that they didn't get you anything nice? How do we reach an equilibrium where each person receives a gift that is neither too lame nor too nice, and everyone feels okay about what they got and what they gave?

These are the real traditions of Christmas in America. This is a country where the economy revolves around selling so much stuff during the last quarter of the year that most of the rest of the year sales can go flat and the economy still keeps chugging along. This is the real tradition that keeps us going back year after year buying stuff that we shouldn't have, stuff that we really don't need, but stuff that keeps the economy chugging along. Somehow it has wormed its way into our psyches and made itself a part of our collective neuroses.

For now I can divert my attention by the fact that the Bears are down to the Vikings 24-7 after the first half. Then, I must invevitably turn my attention the fact that Babs bought me an expensive and really cool leather coat for my birthday. Can't afford to give a really lame Christmas present this year. Wouldn't want it to look like I don't love her as much as she loves me. After all, I'm an American. Love=Money spent. It's a Christmas tradition.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Haven't Done Your Holiday Shopping? Buy Buy Now.

A couple of days ago Gail Collins, in the New York Times, stated that the U.S. fiscal year is currently divided into two seasons, Baseball and Shopping. Of course she also told us that Oprah Winfrey's current wealth has been measured at trillionedy billion dollars. Using this figure as a benchmark, the accounting team of R.D. and Associates assures us that the current U.S. National Debt is 17.2 gazillion dollars, and of that 17.2 gazillion dollars in debt, 19.56% times Pi divided by the square root of two, is held by the Peoples Republic of China. (Not to be confused with the Peoples Republic of Mao would have approved of some of us becoming gazillionaires if we were attaining the money from the American Capitalist Pigs.)

This state of affairs reminds me of one of my favorite movies of all time, Americathon. In this movie America is deeply in debt and owes so much money to a Middle-Eastern Hebrab oil-rich country, that the U.S. is in danger of having the whole country repossessed by the oil interests. Seems the only company in the country that is turning a profit is a running shoe manufacturer and is owned by the Indians. The movie was made in the 1970's and nobody had yet foreseen the boom in Indian-owned casinos. Nobody as yet had foreseen the prospect of China going capitalist and buying up all of those U.S. government securities, not to mention buying huge stacks of U.S. dollars to keep the value of the dollar high on the international market while keeping the Chinese currency low in value. At any rate, it seems to be the Chinese we have to worry about foreclosing on the mortgage and taking over the country.

In the movie, Americathon, a telethon is held to raise the money to keep the U.S. afloat and the Indians step in to keep the Middle Eastern oil interests from taking over. In 2009 reality, the Chinese may threaten to take over and the only ones who could save the country might be Oprah and Wal-Mart. I can see it now, the U.S. is bought up by Oprah and Wal-Mart. In a power move, Wal-Mart assassinates Oprah, manipulates a hostile takeover, and the next thing you know there is no longer a democratic state. The Presidency has been replaced by the "Greeter in Chief," sort of like the Russian head of state. Everyone knows Putin really runs that place.

That's not what I really wanted to talk about, though. What I really came here to talk about is Shopping Season. Yes, it is Shopping Season already. Baseball season, after all, has been over for, what, 3 or 4 days now. (You know, the Extended Playoff, Extended World Series Season for television broadcast, complete with Designated Hitters, and accompanied by steroid pumped home run hitters, making somewhat less money than Oprah Winfrey, but somewhat more than the GNP of a small third world nation.) At any rate, shopping season is upon us. Mickey Mouse told me so, and Disney cartoon characters do not lie and they are good for the economy.

Last night was the official kickoff of Shopping Season in Chicago with the "Festival of Lights Parade." Mickey Mouse came riding down Michigan Avenue on a float that looked like the Water Tower (The one thing downtown that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and currently a big tourist draw, though not nearly as big as Mickey Mouse) and shot off fireworks. As Mickey went by the Christmas lights came on on Michigan Ave. Mickey proceeded down the entire length of the Magnificent Mile turning on lights, spewing fireworks from his float, and bringing the good tidings of great joy that Shopping Season brings. Yup, Shopping Season has definitely begun.

I believe the official motto of Shopping Season this year is "Save our economy. Buy lots of stuff." This has been endorsed by the Council of Economic Advisors. Of course they also endorse selling naming rights to the White House and Congress. These are soon to become the Coca-Cola Congress and the Pepsi Presidency. At present, no corporation worth its salt wants to invest in the naming rights to the Supreme Court. Just not sexy enough. Although, if you ask me, the idea of a Victoria's Secret Supreme Court might just add a little pizazz to a very stodgy institution.

Not to be outdone, a religious alliance has gotten onboard with the emphasis on the importance of Shopping Season, while still stressing the religious underpinnings that brought it about in the first place. As it turns out a group of religious scholars have recently found a previously unknown book of the Bible, The Book of Accountancy. Quoting from this Book of Accountancy, none other than the Pope himself has urged us to "Go forth and shop in abundance. I have seen the plastic and it is good. I have seen the black cards made of carbon fiber and they are even better. Eat for the food is aplenty. Drink for the time for celebration is here. Spend your fill for the long winter cometh and the New Years Day hangover is imminent, and the Super Bowl shall endeth and Spring Training it cometh...."

Well, at any rate, boys and girls it is the Shopping Season, known in some areas as Spending Season. It keeps the nation afloat. It keeps the populace happy and sane. Go spend scads of money and be content. In the meantime, all gifts and cash should be sent to "The Real Rex Ray," c/o Views From the 14th Floor. Think of it as salvaging the nation. See you on Tuesday.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Writing For Money, Writing For Fun

As a teacher, I usually take my summers off and do other stuff. They send me paychecks anyway. They take money out of my check when I'm working and send it to me in the summer so I don't starve or get evicted or have my lights shut off or anything. The other stuff is usually stuff that I would really rather be doing than teaching history to teenagers. Sometimes it's training for a marathon. Sometimes it's a music project. Sometimes it's just laying around reading and doing crossword puzzles and annoying my wife who has to work year round and resents layabouts.

Last summer I decided to write a mystery novel. Not having to work all day, I slept late, wrote a bit on the novel every day, and in the late afternoons I would switch gears and write this blog. Not having to work all day, I also managed to find time for running and biking along the lakefront, and the usual tedium like housework, laundry, and grocery shopping. It was a good life. I got about 40,000 words into said mystery novel and Views From the 14th Floor was blossoming.

Then came September and school teacher that I am, I had to go back to work, shaping little minds and lives. What happened then was that, well, I had to work most of the day. I got home and there was pressure to work out at the gym or run along the lake, or the alternative-"Get fat!" Then I had to work on the novel and blog as well. Weekends brought house cleaning, grocery shopping, and errands galore. It got busy.

What actually happened was that I went to work, came home, worked out, and generally found that I only had time for one writing project. As it turns out I'm quite attached to my blog. I usually blog. The novel has been suffering. It advances slowly in fits and starts, on rare weekday afternoons, and occasional weekends. I'm still not past 50,000 words and it is now November. Something has to give.

I honestly considered giving up "Views From the 14th Floor" altogether, or at least until the novel is finished. I may yet have to do that. In the meantime I have come to the decision that I must cut back on blogging and give specific days to the novel. I am changing my modus operandi to a 3 day a week blog. Beginning next week Views will be written on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. I will be working on the novel on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Sundays are a day of rest.

It wounds me greatly to have to cut back on this forum, but let's face it, I do not get paid a penny for doing it. I do it because I like it. The novel is fun too, but in a different way and it takes a great deal more thought and work. It has the possibility of a monetary payoff, and another reward in the form of "Wow I didn't know you could do that," from friends, family, and self. The novel must have its day. If it works out, I have an idea for a second already to begin.

After I reached age 50 I learned to play guitar, write the musical accompaniment to songs, and run a marathon. Now I'm involved in another marathon. Writing a full length book is a marathon. It is not something to be undertaken lightly. You have to pace yourself and keep plugging away, just as you do when you run 26.2 miles. Short stories are a piece of cake. They come in a burst. Novels come a little bit at a time over a long period of time. My research tells me that publishers want 100,ooo words for a mystery novel. I'm almost halfway there, and the tale keeps unwinding. Twists and turns develop. They have to be resolved. The mystery has to be solved. The characters' lives keep developing. I have to spend some time with it, thinking it through, letting it all happen.

The bottom line is that this novel needs to be finished in first draft form by the time next summer arrives. One year should be sufficient. That necessitates that I take my life in control, and that means more novel, less blog. I appreciate the regular readers and I will continue to be here. I just won't be here every day, as I have for quite some time. Heidy ho boys and girls. Life moves on.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Having a Bad Day

I had a really bad day today. Teenagers running amok in the halls screaming and yelling. A rash of gang tagging showed up in the locker area on the third floor. Kids openly wearing gang colors inside the school and daring teachers to say something about it. It was one of those days when working in a school in The Back of the Yards you really wish you were one of the lucky ones who gets to work at a nice college preparatory school in a neighborhood where kids aren't busy shooting other kids.

In addition, I'm feeling my mortality today. I have two brothers, one 69 years old and one 64 years old. My oldest brother recently went through back surgery and prostate surgery. My other brother, the 64 year old one just today had surgery for a cranial aneurism. The surgery went well, but they had to delay it for months because of weight and high blood pressure issues. My younger sister has diabetes. My older sister complains about back pain. Everyone is getting old. I went to the gym and worked abs, did weights, and ran 4 miles today. No back problems, no prostate problems, no high blood pressure, no cholesterol issues, no diabetes. Not yet anyway. I'm actively fighting it all.

Still, knowing that your siblings, not your parents, are old and having health issues makes you feel old by association. The time of graduations and weddings is past for siblings and their children. Graduations and weddings are for grandchildren now. One begins to wonder how long before the funerals begin, before close relatives and friends begin to fade from the scene one by one. I intend to fight it, kicking and screaming. I plan to live to be a hundred years old. I plan to see my fiftieth wedding anniversary with Babs. Who will join us at that ripe old age?

I was driving home after school today and was stopped and made to turn around by the police. There was yet another incident on 47th Street with herds of cop cars accompanied by fire trucks and paramedic vehicles. Couldn't see what had happened. Cops weren't talking. Just told me to turn around and find another route to the Dan Ryan. Another shooting? A hit and run? Who knows? I had a bad day. Someone else obviously had a much worse day.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Dow Jones Positives and Unemployment Negatives, They're Both Up.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 10,400 today. The big guys are saying that the recession is over. They're partying on, passing out bonuses in the form of stock options, and presumably breaking out the corporate jets once again. The trouble is that the unemployment rate has reached 10.2%, the highest it has been in a long time. For the Republicans out there who want to bash Obama, the last time the unemployment rate was that high was in 1983, when it reached 10.4%. That was during the reign of Ronald Reagan, the demi-god of the right.

I really think that the bigwigs want to put a positive spin on this to make themselves look good, and while my stocks are doing better, I certainly haven't recouped everything I lost when the stock market values went down the crapper. To illustrate a point, I was in a taxi riding down Michigan Avenue two nights ago and we were on the Magnificent Mile. I looked up and lo and behold, there were three burned out lights in the Neiman-Marcus sign. Unless one wants to go to Barney's, Prada, and the high end shops on Oak Street, there is nothing in the world that represents high end conspicuous consumption more than Neiman-Marcus, better known in some circles as "Needless Markup." Yet this high end bastion of plenty for the wealthy does not replace the burned out bulbs in its big honking neon sign? Are they suffering so? What will the ladies in furs and gentlemen in their Italian designer suits think when they discover their favorite store full of overpriced crap has fallen on such hard times? Will they now find it to be declasse? Where will they go to use their AMEX black cards?

Further, if big companies such as this are suffering and cutting corners on the eve of the busiest selling season of the year, what can we expect from others? Or is it the case that the wealthy are having to cut back as well. Can we expect to see former Neiman-Marcus shoppers in J.C. Penney's? Will they surreptitiously make trips to Target, or even K-Mart? Will the lure of a "Blue Light Special" reach all the way into the stratosphere of finance?

What next? Will Mercedes-Benz dealerships be reduced to offering 0% financing and free oil changes? Will Chase, Citibank, and Bank of America find themselves offering free toasters to bring in customers? (Well maybe espresso machines in many neighborhoods.) Will fleece become the new fur? Will Armani be reduced to designing more comfortable gym shoes?

This is a brave new world boys and girls. The multi-billionaires are at risk of becoming only billionaires. the People accustomed to making 7 figures in a year may be reduced to 6 figure salaries. Oh my God, the horror! And true to the principles of trickle down economics, the 6 figure guys may lose their jobs and be reduced to searching for jobs that only pay $80-90K/year. The middle managers may be your next barrista at Starbucks.

We have come full circle now, boys and girls. Those on the lower end of the economic spectrum are in full-blown unemployment mode. Those who find jobs often find that the best they can do are low-paying service sector jobs that are part-time. They represent the underemployed who do not find their way on to the list of fully unemployed. Then there are those who have been looking for work for so long that they have given up altogether, another group that typically does not show up on counts of unemployed. These are in addition to the 10.2% of officially unemployed.

Got a good idea about how to create some jobs? Write your Congressman. Call your President. Invest some cash if you have it, in a startup. There are not enough temporary jobs at Christmas, stocking shelves and running cash registers, to employ everybody that needs a job in this country. They don't pay enough to meet most people's needs, and these jobs only last until January anyway. We are in serious need of long-term solutions. Otherwise a lot of people better start planning to emigrate to one of those third world nations where all of our jobs were outsourced. I don't think China wants us. They have enough people of their own, and a lot of Chinese people are poverty-stricken and in need of serious employment.

For myself, I'm wondering if there is money to be made in low-cost neon sign replacement. That might go a long way toward supplementing my teacher's retirement when I finally have enough years in the system to retire, sometime around age 75. Then I won't be dependent on the possibility of national healthcare. Medicare is already there for people who are older than dirt. Remember Bill Clinton? You know, the guy who had sex with bimbos in the White House? Well, for all of his foibles, he once said something very wise, as regards this current situation, "It's the economy stupid."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Where Has All the Middle Class Gone?

This morning I read in the Chicago Sun-Times that "the share of male workers with good jobs, defined as those with health care, retirement benefits, and wages that add up to at least 60 percent of the median household income, dropped from 46.5% in 1979 to 31.3% in 2008." I was shocked and appalled. The median household income in the U.S. was just over $50,000 in 2007. This means that less than 1/3 of all employed men in the U.S. make at least $30,000/year and have health care benefits and a retirement program.

Let me expand on that thought. If a man is making less than $30,000/year, and he does not have health care benefits or a retirement plan, it is very unlikely that he will A) be able to afford health care on his own, or B) be able to afford to put money into an IRA or other retirement plan after bills. Suffice it to say that most of those men who are married have spouses who also work. In all likelihood they still do not meet the median income measure at $50,000, have a formal health care plan for their family, or have a voluntary retirement plan beyond Social Security. This is the documented case for over 2/3 of American men.

Where has the middle class gone? Well let's look at some facts. The approximate percentage of American men with at least a B.A. degree is 30%. What we are talking about here is the fact that the percentage of men with "good jobs" is just about equal to the percentage of men with college degrees. That is to say that "good jobs" to be had without a college degree are practically non-existent. The age of the man with a high school diploma and a factory job that paid a middle class wage are gone. The middle class is shrinking. More families are struggling. We are in danger of becoming like those third world nations where a few wealthy people live a good life, but huge numbers of people live in dangerous poverty in slums. (See Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, or Colombia.)

Part of the problem is that the profit impulse has sent large numbers of those factory jobs overseas where companies can get the job done for a lot less money. Part of the problem is that we do not value simple labor and pay for it in a reasonable fashion. Part of the problem is that we do not value education enough in American to invest in it in a way that gives appropriate skills to all. Part of the problem is that the portion of the population with a good life is just plain greedy and they will not invest their windfall, via taxation, philanthropy, or other such to see to it that the population on the lower end of the spectrum is taken care of. (Kind of a "I got mine. Get your own, kind of mentality.)

Truthfully, 90% of the income in this country is in the hands of 10% of the people, and 8% are middle class people like myself. 2% are disgustingly wealthy beyond belief and actually hold the majority of that 90% of the income. And all of this that I am talking about has not even factored in things like race and ethnicity. All of the above is more or less true for white people. Can you imagine how skewed the income and good life statistics are for African-Americans or Mexican-Americans?

I'm not sure what the answer is to this problem. I do know that A) we have to develop some jobs that pay a reasonable wage, with benefits for those without a college degree B) those who do not go to college need to get some training beyond high school C) we need to redevelop industries at home instead of shipping them all overseas (We cannot support a nation that is based on the service sector.) D) the leadership of our nation in Washington D.C. and various state capitals needs to put together a brain trust to address this problem. Mr. Obama, you said, "Yes we can." Now let's see those words put into action. Nothing less than the American way of life is at risk.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

An Eye For An Eye And A Life For A Life

On November 10, 2009 John Allen Muhammad, the so-called D.C. sniper, was executed by lethal injection. He maintained his innocence of all murder charges to the very end. I don't believe him, but I don't believe he should have been put to death at the hands of the state either. A life in prison is good enough. As long as he was off the streets and posed no danger to the public at large, that was certainly good enough. I grieve for the victims and their families, as I grieve for anyone who dies prematurely. Life is short, and it is precious.

I am not a religious man and that makes life all the more precious to me. I do not believe that there is a life beyond that physical time on Earth. To take that life away from someone is an unspeakable crime, whether the taker of the life is an individual involved in crimes against his fellow man or the state, seeking retribution and punishment. For those of you out there with a religious bent to your life, the Book of Exodus tells us that God gave Moses the basic laws engraved in stone. There were 10 of the commandments God told us all to live by, and one of those laws was, "Thou shalt not kill." This commandment did not say, "Thou shalt not kill, unless you are the state punishing a horrible criminal who is guilty of unspeakable acts." It said only, "Thou shalt not kill." I believe this implied universality.

Further, my studies in religion show that all three of the major monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, accept the Genesis and Exodus stories. It's part of all three faiths. Not one of these religions says it's OK to kill another human being. Jehovah, Yahweh, Allah. Doesn't matter what you call him (or her or it), God says no to killing. As for the other major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, I don't believe either of them condone killing, certainly not Buddhism. So let's get this straight, here and now, there is not a major religion in the world that says killing is OK, not for any reason. (So how come so many so-called religious people are out there punishing the infidels by killing them? An argument for another day boys and girls. Today we are talking about capital punishment, an instrument of the state.)

I have compiled a list of the nations that practice capital punishment, and as it turns out most of the advanced nations, those that are industrialized, have the highest standard of living, and have the highest levels of educational achievement, have outlawed capital punishment as a barbaric practice. Capital punishment is overwhelmingly practiced in poor and authoritarian countries, and if I might add, in conservative Islamic nations. Yet there are three nations that are in the advanced, industrialized nation category that still practice capital punishment. Those nations are China, Japan, and the United States of America.

Truthfully, China falls into a category of nations practicing capital punishment that have repressive communist governments, including North Korea and Vietnam, both on the border of China proper, and similar in culture and methods for keeping the populace under control. All three make the top ten for executions in the year 2008. China, by far, outstrips the rest of the planet. There were fewer than 6000 state sponsored executions on the planet Earth last year, but at least 5000 of those were in China. That is to say that 83% of all executions on the planet Earth were in a country that holds approximately 17% of the people. Even if you support capital punishment, these statistics are really out of whack. What's wrong with this picture?

For the record, the U.S. comes in at number 5 in executions with 37 last year and Japan comes in at number 10 with 15. The rest of the top ten is populated with conservative Islamic nations and Iran and Saudi Arabia lead the way, coming in at numbers 2 and 3 respectively. So why are the U.S. and Japan, the nations with the #1 and #2 economies in the world and with the most advanced technology in the world and with two of the highest standards of living in the world, traveling in this company? Once again, what is wrong with this picture?

There are those who believe that capital punishment is a deterrent to violent crime. Don't think so. I think we all need to face it. Capital punishment in America is about retribution. It is not about deterrence. It falls under the heading of cruel and unusual punishment and in any thinking sense should be outlawed as a violation of the basic tenets of the U.S. Constitution. I cannot speak for the Japanese. They have their own issues and I do not profess to be an expert on them. For the rest, what we have is obvious repression for political and religious reasons, plain and simple. For the religious, I have to remind you, "God does not approve of killing." For the political, history has shown that you cannot continue to rule by threats of imprisonment and death forever. The people will rise and change this eventually. I simply want to exclude the U.S., my home country from this "Hall of Shame." I do not believe a nation as great as this one should be traveling in the company of repressive regimes that rule by force.

The Top Ten Hall of Shame for Executions in 2008:

1. China-5000

2. Iran-346

3. Saudi Arabia-102

4. North Korea-63

5. United States of America-37

6. Pakistan-36

7. Iraq-34

8. Vietnam-19

9. Afghanistan-17

10. Japan-15

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Of Wars Both Cold and Hot

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the falling of the Berlin Wall, an event that marked the end of an era, The Cold War. Tomorrow is Veterans Day, a day that honors soldiers who have served this country in wars both cold and hot, but initially began as Armistice Day, a day remembering the end of "The War to End All Wars." Both events are worth remembering. Both events signal the end of something that cost a great many lives because of political differences in the world.

The Cold War was, in many ways, one of the most brutal, protracted military engagements between two nations in the history of the world. While the two main combatants, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., never really went to war with one another, they fought from 1945 until the late 1980's or early 1990's. They fought through proxies in Vietnam and in Afghanistan. They fought through spy games around the globe. They supplied arms and monetary support to 3rd world nations around the globe. People suffered, people died for nearly 50 years because of the argument over capitalism vs. communism. If you hadn't heard, the capitalists won. The communists oppressed their people, and imprisoned and killed the dissenters. The capitalists merely stole from theirs, and kept a great many in poverty, but that's another story.

It is incredible to me still, that the great conflict known as the Cold War came to a screeching halt not in a hail of bullets, not in a nuclear holocaust, but without a shot being fired, as the communists gave up and the people celebrated on the symbol of the East-West Divide, the Berlin Wall. Communist governments one after another simply ceased to exist without civil strife. New governments were built. The iron curtain was put away, and East and West Germans became, just Germans. Soviet Communists became Russians once again. As the old order crumbled, nations that hadn't seen self-determination in decades and decades once again became sovereign.

The armistice at the end of World War I, however, ended only after the first "Total War" in human history. Millions of soldiers died of trench warfare, poison gas, machine guns, bombs, and ugly disease. Millions of civilians died of starvation, disease, and unrestricted submarine warfare. It came as the result of global competition for colonies, wealth, domination, and empire. At the end, Woodrow Wilson had a vision for the future, a future without war, and where nations had the right to determine their own fates.

Armistice Day was set out to remember the end of that great tragedy that was World War I, in the belief that we could avoid further conflicts, in the belief that technology had reached a point where war was unthinkable. Sadly, the end of World War I sowed the seeds of World War II and even more people died in more unthinkable ways. World War II sowed the seeds of the Cold War. Now we find ourselves remembering all veterans, not just those who fought the war that was supposed to end all wars.

In our ignorance and humanity we have not found a way to end wars. They go on and on. There is always another big one. Now the war de jour is the war between radical Islam and the Western world that they believe threatens their way of life. There are yet more casualties every day. One day, we will have a day commemorating the end of the Crusades, Part II. Until then we have Veterans Day to remember all soldiers, from all conflicts. Take a moment and remember that The Cold War ended when a whole group of people simply tired of the whole thing and realized the stupidity of the conflict. They simply stopped.

Now if the radical Islamists could be made to see the futility, the stupidity of their condemnation of everyone not just like themselves. If they could be made to see the economic sense of ending war, the benefits to be reaped from a peaceful interaction with the rest of the world, regardless of culture, belief, or way of life. If our own government could be made to see that we cannot possibly pound everyone who disagrees with us into submission. Trying to do so simply costs needless lives on both sides. Until then, we have Veterans Day.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reunions, Good and Bad

Reconnecting with old friends is an odd experience when you haven't seen them or spoken with them in twenty or thirty years. Last year I went to a forty year high school class reunion. Yes, I did graduate from high school in 1968, and consequently from college in 1972. I was a part of the hippie anti-war lefty movement. We all had a great deal of hair in those days, and most of it was on our heads, not coming out of our ears or sprouting on our backs.

At that point I had never been to a class reunion and for some reason the fortieth intrigued me. I agreed to go. Babs and I packed our bags, hopped in the Mini, and off we drove to Jacksonville, Arkansas, "Home of the Red Devils." First of all, I was a little put off by the fact that the only class reunion I'd ever attended was being held in a VFW Hall. Forget any political ramifications from the fact that I'd been an anti-war protester during Vietnam. It was just a little seedy. That's all. Concrete floors and drinks from plastic cups. I've come to expect a little more.

Then when I began interacting with all of those people I once knew forty years ago, I couldn't believe how many fat old people were impersonating people I went to high school with. Babs and I looked positively young and chic in contrast. Of course there were one or two notable exceptions to the fat and frumpy run of old classmates. These were the women who had somehow failed to age like the rest of the crowd, and in some cases looked a great deal better than they ever did when younger. I believe we are talking about the cosmetic surgery crowd here. The very best faces, boobs, and butts that money can buy.

Then the really disappointing thing was that most of these people were just plain-assed boring. All they seemed to be able to talk about was their kids and grandkids. I couldn't give a good two cents about all of those people's kids and grandkids. Never met them. I wanted to talk about what people had been doing with themselves for the last forty years and apparently the only thing they'd been doing was reproducing and seeing to it that their offspring reproduced, not a lot more. Didn't anyone go around the world? Didn't anyone see cool stuff? Didn't anyone do cool stuff? Apparently not. Babs and I left early.

This past weekend an old friend from the late 70's showed up in Chicago. He and I once did live improv shows together in bars in a group known as The Traveling Medicine Show. He also contacted another friend from the Traveling Medicine Show who it turns out had been living in Chicago all along and while I knew he was here, I didn't know where. Turns out his name is very common in the Chicago telephone book and I really didn't feel up for calling every one of them and asking if each and every one of them was the one who once was in an improv group called the Traveling Medicine Show. The three of us got together. Old friends. Old drinking buddies. Old artistic mates.

When Dan and Chris and I were in our twenties, we were actors. We were all young, thin, artistically inclined and could charm the pants off a crowd or an unsuspecting young lady. Thirty years later, we're all in our fifties. Everyone has put on weight. One still has all his hair and it hasn't really turned gray. One of us has hair on the front of his head,but a huge bald spot on the back of his head, and the whole shebang has turned gray. One of us has virtually no hair on top of his head at all. Can any of us still turn the head of an unsuspecting young lady? Only if the young lady is a waitperson anticipating a big tip for flirting with the geezers and giving them good service. I personally suspect that when young women smile at me it's because I remind them of their father.

Man we had some stories to tell. We were all once actors. One of us still does some acting occasionally, when he can find the time away from the demands of family and making a living. The impulses are still there, though and when you put us all together everyone is on, competing for attention, for conversational time, for ego strokes. Put too many actors in a room together without a script or a director and it can get anarchic and ugly at times. This wasn't really ugly though. I got to see people who were actual friends, not people I accidentally knew because we were from the same hometown. We had things to tell one another, about cool stuff we'd done and seen and experienced. Okay, one of us did bring pictures of his two daughters and bragged about them, but it wasn't the only thing he had to talk about. There were divorces and new relationships and trips to Europe and parts unknown. There were shows we'd done and people we'd met and a million stories to tell and a sense of wonder that somehow we'd all managed to survive all the stupid crap we did when we were younger.

I guess the moral of this story is that "You can never go home again, literally, or figuratively." And not all reunions are created equal. There are people with whom you have never reunited for a long time because you really had nothing in common at all. And there are those with whom you have never reunited because you were all just very busy living life to its fullest. For a good reunion, I'll take the latter anytime.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Of Oversize Classes and the Company Line

I was sitting in a meeting with the Principal of my school yesterday, and today as well, and I found myself thinking about something I read in the Chicago Sun-Times last week. It seems a recent study by psychologists in California found that bosses who feel incompetent are more likely to bully subordinates. The study says, "If people feel incompetent and they happen to be in a high-powered position, that's when the aggression kicks in."

I cannot possibly say that this is the case with my current Principal or others I have worked with in the past, but I do know that as a teacher who has actively worked with the teacher's union regarding possible violations of the union contract I have regularly been subjected to bullying, browbeating, and endless lectures (as if I were some ignorant willful child) that make my eyes just glaze over and my ears tune out until the tirade is over.

One of the most consistent sources of friction between teachers and Principals is the size of classes. It is no secret that when you have too many kids in a classroom it becomes difficult to teach any of them. Teachers spend far too much of their time in a too large classroom dealing with discipline issues rather than doing any real teaching. There is a point of diminishing returns as the classes get larger. Smaller class sizes yield better results. Research supports this. Money concerns cause reasonable people to deny this.

It is no secret that public schools are dependent on public funding sources and the amounts available to pay for those schools and their staff are always in short supply (unless you are one of the lucky ones in a wealthy suburb or in one of the elite urban schools where the best and brightest are admitted to prepare them for a university education). It becomes inevitable, then, that the pressure to cut costs comes from on high to the middle managers, and in this case that means school principals. They are under pressure to employ the fewest number of teachers possible to educate the largest number of students possible, and in the process to preach the company line. This usually involves the above mentioned bullying of the union delegate in the school and any other teachers who dare question the wisdom or legality of decisions made regarding numbers of students in the classroom.

Over the years I have been told by school administrators that "A good teacher can control a classroom and get good results with 40 students in a room." Really? In what universe? The common argument in Chicago, vis-a-vis the union contract is "Although the contract says no more than 28 students in a classroom, 28 students times 5 classes daily is 140 students. As long as the teacher has no more than that 140 students they can have 35 students in one class while having 23 in another class. The realities of programming students sometimes dictates compromises on this issue." This argument comes from administrators who spend zero time in a classroom with 35 kids, trying to teach something.

What has happened is that the teachers and administration have become an adversarial pair, not unlike two competing political parties, and they constantly jockey for position. What gets lost in the process is what's good for the students. A teacher may actually need to spend some extra hours from time to time without worrying about whether they are getting paid for every minute. An administrator needs to acknowledge that stuffing as many kids as possible in a classroom is unconscionable. It does not meet the needs of the students. It makes the already difficult job of teaching children even more difficult.

There is much ado about failing schools and bad teachers. "No Child Left Behind" gives lip service to addressing the needs of those schools and their students while doing absolutely zero about realistically addressing those needs. Until policy makers are willing to admit that children in public schools have needs that will require hiring enough teachers to do the job, we will continue to have children graduating from high school who do not have minimum basic skills to compete in a 21st century economy. Until policy makers admit that money must be committed to this purpose, the middle level administrators and teachers they supervise will continue to be played off against one another and the losers will continue to be the students who go to these schools.

What our public schools often need is a few more caring individuals to work with the kids in smaller classrooms. What our public schools do not need is another MBA to run the system with an eye toward slashing budgets and making the schools operate more efficiently, as though the schools were another corporate entity. At the public schools of America our product is the future of our nation. I think that is a product worth investing in.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Real Rex Ray

Anyone who has read "Views From the 14th Floor" over the course of its existence this last year, and it has been almost a year now since its inception, knows that I have listed myself, the author, as R.D. Ray. If you pay close attention today you will notice that I am officially coming out of the closet. No, I am not gay. I am no longer going by R.D. Ray. I am labeling everything I write henceforth by the name that was given on the day I was born, by my very own mother. That is to say that I am openly acknowledging that Rex Ray is my name and it is I who writes each and every one of these posts. (And yes it is true that the Reverend R.D. and Liberal Man are fictitious emanations of my somewhat twisted mind.)

There are a couple of reasons that I have used R.D. Ray over the past year. For one, I have delusions of grandeur from time to time and I didn't know if I wanted the masses out there to know who this guy was who was writing this incredible stuff and posting it for all to read. Had to keep the rabid fans and stalkers to a minimum. The other reason was that every time I have tried to get an e-mail address or declare a domain in internet land, there has been a problem. It seems there is this guy in San Francisco who is a pretty famous artist and he calls himself, you guessed it, Rex Ray. As it turns out I purchased a calendar with 12 months of Rex Ray art on it. Pretty cool, but hey, I'm Rex Ray.

I recently reconnected with an old friend who I did improv with in the late 1970's and he told me that he had tried to find me by Googling me. Turns out he couldn't find me because this other fake Rex Ray is dominating Google as regards the name Rex Ray. What kind of crap is that? I was born with this name. I did some research and it turns out Rex Ray is not really this guy's real name. He chose it as a pseudonym because he saw a vaporizer in a Colorado Springs thrift shop and the brand name was Rex-Ray. (They, too, are not legitimate.) He thought the name sounded cool.

What I can tell you is that the only real Rex Ray in this mix is sitting at a MacBook Air writing this at this very moment. I was born Rex David Ray at St. Joseph Hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas on October 6 in a year long, long ago. My mother had a thing about a singing cowboy named Rex Allen and thought he was really cute. She gave me that name and the middle name David because my father's middle name was David and his father before him had the middle name David. I am the real deal boys and girls. Artists in San Francisco are usurpers who borrowed the name without permission. Small appliance makers, well I'm not sure where they got that name, and little do I care.

As a result, I have endured a great deal of crap over the years. In elementary school I was "Tyrannosaurus Rex." In Junior High I became "Sexy Rexy." Then I became "Oedipus Rex." I grew up down south where a great many people have two names, i.e. Billy Bob. People constantly asked me what my last name was, "Rex Ray what?" A great many people over time have felt it necessary to inquire what Rex is short for. It's not short for anything. It is just Rex. It's Latin. It means "King." Get over it.

Then after I became a grownup, a lot of people began to acknowledge that Rex Ray sounded like a movie star's name, and I had to admit that I had done a little bit of acting, but it was not a stage name. It was actually the name given to me by my very own mother. My wife, Babs, assures me that this is a name that speaks of fame and I should not shy away from it. (Oh and Delacorte Press will be publishing her book, Slouching Toward Adulthood, next October.)

I've had a great deal of angst over name issues in my life. I've had a great deal of angst over identity issues, and have subsequently re-invented myself several times in my lifetime. The bottom line here is, though, I have nothing to hide here. I am a teacher, a writer, a world-wide traveler, and a real man who shares his experiences and insights via "Views From the 14th Floor." I am "The Real Rex Ray."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tea Party Republicans and Democratic Victories

There have been strange goings on in Upstate New York recently, and as a lifelong Democrat I have to cheer. The Republican Party is self-destructing there, and it is showing signs of being a nationwide trend. The right-wing extreme is in full attack mode and not only are Democrats targets, but so are Republicans who are judged to be too liberal in the minds of the right wing orthodoxy.

This latest uprising in the Republican ranks began when John McHugh a Republican Congressman from Upstate New York was nominated to serve as Secretary of the Army by President Obama. (Who's reaching out and trying to be inclusive here? Could it be that Socialist, Stalinist President who is much maligned by the Palin-Beck extreme right-wing of the Republican Party?) At any rate a special election was called to replace Mr. McHugh, in a district that hasn't elected anything but Republicans since somewhere back in the Ice Age.

In the ensuing dogfight over the Republican nomination Dede Scozzafava won the nomination. Her opponent, one Douglas L. Hoffman, couldn't accept losing to a Republican who he thought was way too liberal, so he decided to run in the general election as a Conservative Party candidate. It seems Ms. Scozzafava supports gay marriage and abortion rights, and disagrees with some points of the party line as regards economics. She was heartily endorsed by the Republican Party and its National Chair, Michael Steele. She was attacked from the extreme right by the Palin axis.

In spite of the fact that Ms. Scozzafava was the legitimate Republican candidate, Mr. Hoffman was endorsed by fellow Republicans from the right-wing extreme, Sarah Palin, Dick Armey, and Tim Pawlenty. In recent polls it was becoming apparent that Scozzafava was in 3rd place in a 3 person race, and was not going to win. She gracefully withdrew. At this point, despite the fact that he was running on a Conservative Party ticket, Republican National Chair Michael Steele, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich threw their support behind Douglas L. Hoffman.

As a result, Ms. Scozzafava has endorsed the Democratic candidate for the Congressional seat, Bill Owens. The Republican Party is in total disarray. They are under siege from elements of the extreme right, led by Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and assorted members of the right-wing lunatic fringe. The net result in Upstate New York is that it is altogether possible that the Democrat will win a Congressional seat that has been Republican since the fall of Rome at least.

Nationwide, the Tea Party Republicans have begun to move in this manner against anyone judged to be on the wrong side of what they perceive as right, be he Democrat, Republican, or Independent. They have visions of taking over control of the Republican Party, but what they are actually doing is splitting the Republican Party and forcing more moderate elements of the party to vote for Democrats. The upshot here is, "Good news for continued Democratic domination of politics nationwide. Bad news for anyone not of the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party." There are just not enough serious right-wing nuts in America to sustain a party dominated by the Tea Party sorts and Sarah Palin.