Location: Round Rock, Texas, United States

I maintain: a good sense of humor; a belief in hard work; and eclectic tastes in food, art, and politics.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Social Change and Violence

Election day in November 2005 presents an opportunity to examine how our society attempts to make changes in social contracts. Some states in the U. S. Do not permit easy changes to state constitutions, reasoning that the laws already incorporated should not be changed with every social fad or political season. Other states permit easy changes and place voters in the position of change agents, although social and political activists are usually responsible for the changes proposed. In Texas this year, there are nine (9) constitutional amendments on the ballot. Most are of minor status and could have been handled without amending the state constitution, but some are more significant or at least controversial in their intentions. The law of unintended consequences will determine to what extent the voters will live to regret their votes on some of these issues after their implementation. Of course, the most controversial one in Texas is an amendment that defines marriage as a union of one man and one woman, and the amendment has been named the "anti-gay marriage amendment." The Klu Klux Klan held a rally in Austin prior to the vote and the anti KKK numbers were much greater than the KKK group. The KKK members were demonstrating in favor of the amendment, which could have caused a backlash against passage of the amendment. Early results show that Austin voters went against the amendment by at least 60-40%, while it seems to be passing statewide by an even larger margin. Threats of violence between the KKK and other groups never materialized, partly because the local authorities placed a high priority on a substantial police presence. For better or worse, the ballot box has been used again to defuse a potentially explosive issue, although one should note that this issue may now be subject to the law of unintended consequences. Future disruptions may flow from the actions that may flow from this vote.
Compare the social change that is expected to occur as a result of the voting today with the violent protests sweeping France over the past two weeks. While it is true that the pressures for change are not identical in either country, and it is also true that the U. S. Does have violent protests, it nevertheless remains true that the French seem to have a proclivity for violent social change demonstrations. Some of the French populace would no doubt feel superior to other cultures because of their traditions of liberty, fraternity, and equality. Some trends may be easy to explain. The French revolution was a violent upheaval, and one that removed one regime by the most brutal means. Many other French citizens were also killed during the revolution. Furthermore, consider the famous novel Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and its chief characters, Jean Valjean and Policeman Javert. To some extent, modern France is still imbued with some the same instincts. There are policemen in France who are tough and there are some who might be Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers). Yet, because of having suffered through two world wars in the twentieth century, France has been trying to both regain its past glory of the empire and also trying to live out their pretentions of being the ideal democracy with justice for all groups. No one should criticize the French for their attempt at social justice, but the instances of violent social change during the past decades shows that their leaders are perceived as weak when facing challenges that require the use of force. Maintaining order is one of the first and most important requirements of democratic societies, and attempting to provide social justice in some utopian compromise between violent activists and law-abiding virtuous citizens often proves to be beyond merely difficult.
The French seem to be finally using force to reduce the violence, and one hopes they succeed without further damage to the social contract which most French citizens continue to desire. The U. S. Society is not in a position to lecture the French, not is the converse true. Still, the U. S. Despite its occasional protest with some violence, usually manages to achieve social changes without extreme disruptive activity. Is the picture really that clear in the U. S.? Could the peaceful activities become more violent in the U. S.? Only the law of unintended consequences can answer that question, and for now, the law is not talking to us.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Last Friday, a drag show was held at a local coffee shop in Round rock. The coffee shop, Saradora, has been frequented by a diverse clientiele ranging from local pastors to wannabe or former 60s hip people. Apparently few people in the community knew about the event, with the exception of a small group of very hip and cool persons. Then the Austin newspaper published a story (on Saturday) describing the event and wondering how it would play in the "conservative community of Round rock." For Austin, this would have been no big deal, but for RR, well that would be another matter. The reactions were quick and predicatable. The local TV stations found it necessary to send out crews to fim the outside of the coffee shop and find pictures of some participants (photos or amateur film?). More newspaper stories were printed about the event, this time coming from the columnists who write in the manner of local wits, humorists, or lighthearted commentators. The predictable finally happened when a local pastor of a large Baptist church said that he had enjoyed the coffee shop previous, but neither he nor any of his church members could patronize a business that would cater to the gay community, especially when the event was a drag show. Leave those in Austin seemed to be the official sentiment. So now what will happen? The owner of Saradora says she has not plans to have another show, but she wondered why there was a big fuss anyway.
This type of event brings up the question of whether the gay community truly does try to stick it to the straights or whether the religious right goes out of its way to amplify any acitvity's importance by overreacting such as was done (apparently) in this case. While most religious leaders still condemn gay lifestyles, unofficially, most church members seem to be willing to permit a kind of live and let live attitude exist. Most citizens seem to want gays to enjoy equal rights in some kind of small d sense, while being ambivalent as to whether gays or gay marriage represent a real threat to the social fabric. Gays say they want equal rights and protection under the law, especially with respect to property laws and protection for their preferred partners in medical, legal, and social contexts. Yet, gay activities such as drag shows have been permitted for many years in major cities in the U. S. Not only San Francisco, but New Orleans (of which little can be said at present) has probably been the capital of female impersonators as entertainers for many, many years. Most citizens of the U. S. were unaware of such events, but also mostly did not care so long as it was restricted to a few areas of a few cities. This brings us to the current question. That is, do gays deliberately push their beliefs in the face of their most serious antagonists? Anti-gay activitists are not merely right wing conservatives, and while most citizens would prefer that the issues either go away or recede from the front lines of the news, even the most level-headed fair-minded individual will ultimately resist being pushed into a corner by his opponents. Where are we in that continuum? It is not easy to say, but at least we now have more than one area in Texas to look for female impersonators aka entertainers, albeit a good deal of chutzpah might be required to join in the festivities. While we have gone beyond La vie'n rose, we should remember that the French have lived with these themes for many years and look how they have progressed. Oops, with the current and recent antiFrancophile attitudes, this analogy comes to a dead end. C'est la vie and c'est la guerre.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Moving Pains or Moving Gains

Moving involves such great sorrow, hard work, and unpleasant events. Most of us have moved many times during our professional lives, but for those of us who have not done so recently, a move from one residence in one state to one in another state seems so much more like torture than it did during all the previous moves. One could always use the old cliche about being older, but that seems so hackneyed itself and seems so inadequate to create the true level of discomfort that has been encountered by the mover. Why do people move other than for a change in careers or positions? Recently, a new category of mover has been created--an evacuatee, meaning a person or family forced to move when their entire city or community has been devastated by an act of nature such as a hurricane (e. g. Katrina). Others move for reasons ranging from retiring to a more desirable location to locating in a less expensive area to living near other family members. Of course, several myths must exist to permit the movers to present a favorable picture to their friends and colleagues at the old location.
One of the myths is that by leaving the old location, old baggage will be left behind and a fresh start will be made in the new location. Perhaps this myth has some truth, but the mover usually carries some baggage with himself/herself and the new start will be influenced by the old baggage despite one's best efforts. Another myth is that it is possible to move to a less expensive area. The truth here is that costs are reallocated among the various household categories. For example, income taxes may be less but property taxes will be more. Sales taxes may be lower, but utilities and local fees will be higher. Another myth is that in the new location there will be so many new and interesting activities and events that all of the old activities will be forgotten. Again, there may be some element of truth in this assertion, but what usually happens is that many people seek out the same types of activities as before. If one enjoyed going to theater performances (local or professional shows), then that will be a desired activity in the new location. If one enjoyed golf, that will be desired in the new location. If one enjoyed swimming, walking, or tennis, that means the same choices will be made in the new location. This could continue for some time with a listing and partial debunking of myths, but has the answer yet been obvious as to why people move? I think not, and the real reasons are not the same as the formally stated ones.
Do people have a desire for new challanges? Do people actually desire the opportunity to meet new people? Do people actually desire the need to learn the local "ropes" in a new city or community? Do people actually need the stimulation of being forced to confront new rules, routes, and customs? Many people making purely domestic, as opposed to an international move, would not want to admit to these given motives. Perhaps there is some generalization here that would not always hold up to scrutiny. Yet, upon careful examination of the moving situation it seems that some of these unstated (often) motives may be stronger than usually recognized, and may be more important than those given earlier. The evidence, indirect though it may be, seems fairly strong. Why would people subject themselves to the torture of moving from friends, subject themselves to the hard, hard work of packing and moving, and why would people pay the extra money involved in a move (not those caused by company transfers or moves)? It seems clear that some strong desires for new challenges must exist within some people's psyches. Only some illogical reasons and rationalizations could explain the moving activity based on the myths mentioned above, despite their obvious appeal and widespread usage by the modern movers. Or is it all a dream, played out on a stage by some poor players, hoping to wake up and still be in their own old comfortable bed?

Thursday, March 10, 2005


Reunions are a fact of life, but apparently are not viewed by all with the fuzzy and warm feelings usually associated with such events. A recent column (unnamed intentionally) contained some critical remarks about the need to attend reunions, but made the point that the fact of attending was rather unpleasant for many people. Because I am currently charged with and heading up a reunion for a 50th reunion, the comments gave some particular meanings to me. Furthermore, just in case I had missed the point of the article, one of the members of the class actually called me and explained his indecision about whether to attend or not. He said, " I want to attend, and I don't want to attend, if you know what I mean." In fact I did seem to understand his dilemma with further explanation, and I passed on to him my blessings as he tried to make a final decision. Perhaps it would be good to ponder the reasons for such ambivalence regarding reunions.
First, let it be said that for those who tend to participate in reunions regularly, there seems to be a genuine joy in seeing old friends and acquaintances (not enemies perhaps). Sharing laughs and telling tales of earlier times and incidents seems to provide a measure of carthartic pleasure for most people. So on the positive side, we have the good vibrations and pleasant sensations from merely seeing, talking to, and possibly hugging old friends. Second, there is the element of curiosity involved in attending reunions. Many, if not most people, enjoy hearing about the advantures of classmates, especially the exotic ones that have occurred in distant parts of the world. Furthermore, many people seem to be curious about how well other classmates have fared in the race and chase for fame and fortune. While some cynical members may feel slightly less successful than the beautiful and wealthy classmates who return, overall it appears that most are primarily interested in just what and how their classmates fared in facing the challenges of making a life for themselves. Third, most people enjoy going to a different location, usually a hotel or resort in another city. They are able to let their hair down and talk about themselves with no family members (sometimes) present to remind them of the nuts and bolts of life.
Now, let us consider some reasons for the negative vibrations associated with attending reunions. First, there are the obvious feelings of knowing that the slim and beautiful young thing (handsome for men!) that described you years ago is no longer correct. Many women are no longer sweet things, and men may be fat and bald (not that these are all bad). So, physical comparisons tend to add a note of sadness to reunions. Second, despite the good feelings about the success of ones classmates, there are the inevitable invidious comparions to those whose fortunes have been so much better than some others. Human nature seems to dictate that some this activity will take place in such settings. Third, there are the travel and expense concerns for those who are in poor health or who have financial constraints. While most people are able to overcome the financial ones, the fact remains that for some the concerns are real and must be given some weight.
How should one evaluate and assess the benefits and costs as listed here? It is also true that there are other concerns in addition to those mentioned here, but it seems to be a matter of ordering ones priorities. If you assign a high weight to the accolades of your peers (classmates), then your priority for attending will be quite high. If you assign a low weight to what others feel or think about you and your career (successes/failures), then your priority for attending will be low to zero. Most people probably fall between the obvious choices of yes and no decisions. Yet, for each individual there will be some enjoyment of various activities in a reunion so that if a variety of activities are included besides the Saturday night dance and banquet many will assign a high enough priority so that attending seems to be the obvious decision. Thus, reunions may engender seconds thoughts in some, and may evoke negative feelings for others, many classmates will find the opportunity to meet and visit with old acquaintances to good to pass up. These members will attend and they will enjoy themselves, because they understand that each life is interesting if the story is told well, and they understand that those who have survived so far have some implied obligation to do something deceased members are absolutely unable to to. This is the stark and sober reality that drives reunions and makes it possible for many attendees to enjoy another of the episodes in life when you may step back in time and out of your daily routine of today, even if only for a brief moment of innocent pleasure.



Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Musings on Life's Events

The variety of phrases used to describe the human condition is quite remarkable. They range from earthy ("life's a bitch") to ephemeral ("life is fleeting") . Many colorful expressions abound to express the frailty or shortness of life in galactic time, e. g., "too soon old, too late smart." Of course, the one eternal problem of aging is to elevate one's understanding of life and events that occur based on one's experiences and studying, while avoiding the tendency to becoming a cynic.
Apropos of nothing in particular, the Ken Burns special on Jack Johnson was pretty much what might have been expected, with one glaring difference. By including quotations from Jack Johnson himself, one could see a man who was facing the world that was mostly arrayed against him, but Johnson seemed determined to resist the attempts to completely characterize him as any other person. In one part of the program, Johnson is responding to either a question or a comment about his lifestyle and wild ways of behaving. His justification was quite touching in noting that life is not certain and playing it safe might not be safe. He says (more or less): " may is shot in the leg and dies, while another man is shot in the head and survives!" What an amazing perspective from a man who was soon to become a nonperson as soon as he lost the title of heavyweight champion.
Golf is something like the above comment. Some golfers can have great shots and end up missing putts and losing either holes or strikes. Other golfers can have bad drives or second shots, but with a lucky putt or two can win the hole or save strikes and win tournaments. Golf is said to teach humility--if it does not teach it, it clearly will illustrate the effects of fate or luck in life and golf. Last weekend, Charles Howell III hit a shot at the last hole that hit the cup and could have stayed in for an eagle, possibly winning or tying for the lead. The golf fates saw that the ball flicked back out and went into the water, giving a penalty stroke. Howell made a nice recovery, but was only a gracious loser in the process (he was very humble and gracious!). Perhaps that is why the French (if I may quote them here) have the saying, "c'est la vie." Or in Spanish, there is a similar saying, viz, "asi es la vida."

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Seasonal variability and mean temperatures

It seems that a change in the weather is coming tonight, and apparently none too soon for those who love cold weather. Even those who do not like cold weather are ready for colder temperatures because they believe that the winter will be worse unless the early winter is cold enough, whatever that might be. Even meteorologists fall into this way of thinking about some facets of the weather that might be "normal seasonal variability." Also, today's news on one of the networks originated from Minnesota, and of course the story included the obligatory view of those residing in Minnesota that it needs to be cold to give us a change to suffer appropriately. While colder (and adverse) weather means money for some people and businesses, the usual result of colder weather is that it becomes the topic of conversations. Which then reduces its importance in inverse relationship to the number of times a particular aspect of the weather is discussed in groups of two or more people. Probably most of us have our own preferences and pet peeves about the weather, but mine is somewhat easier to pinpoint. For me, as for those in Minnesota (I suspect), enduring the harshest weather is bearable as long as I can receive credit for having survived something. What causes the weather to seem unbearable is when someone, usually a local weather person who seems to be especially untrained in statistics, starts off by use of the term "the high for today should be," as if there is some kind of imperative involved. What seems to happen is that these people can never understand the simple difference between averages (means) for a day, means for the high, and means for the low temperatures. For example, if the temperature is 50 degrees F., and the average mean is 40 degrees F. For the day, you can count on the fact that some weather person will say that the high should only be 40 but at 50 we are above what we "should be." Actually, if the high mean is 50, and low mean is 30, and the daily mean is 40, we might be at the exact mean temperature that could be expected. But expected in statistical terms is not the same as "should be," because expected can fail to occur because of the daily variability that is always associated with the means that are computed and maintained by the weather service firms, government or private. While this may seem to be picking on a straw man, it actually reflects a general belief that something called "reversion to the mean" will always take place. While it frequently does happen that over time the averages seems to be achieved many times, there is only the theory that says the averages will revert to the mean by either having lower minimums or higher maximums, or whatever type of variability is required to reclaim the mean. So the next time you hear the local weather person, who seems to have some simple comments to explain a common phenomena called the weather, remember you are probably listening to some minor facts laced with numerous theories regarding those facts. Why weather persons might as well be academics with their heads in the clouds, or was that the ivory tower? That's 30.

Monday, January 10, 2005