Friday, June 26, 2009

Car Trouble

In the past month, my 1995 minivan has broken down twice at really bad times. My radiator ruptured while I was performing my duties as designated driver at a friend's bachelor party. And this week my alternator belt snapped while I was in the middle of a funeral procession. I've put about $800 into the van recently, which is pretty crummy seeing as how I'd be lucky to get $2000 if I sold it.

It dawned on me today why my van is such a piece of crap. When I turned 16, my parents bought me my first car. This was mainly so I could drive my sister and myself to school, as my Dad's office was way across town. That car was a 1973 Buick Century, puke-green in color. It had a 350 cubic inch engine (this is before they started calling 'em 5.7 liters), a vinyl top, an AM radio, and got just under 10 miles per gallon... highway (luckily, gas was bout 80 cents then). It didn't even have shoulder seat belts. The trunk could have transported at least three dead bodies, in addition to the full-size spare tire. My Dad paid $1500 for it.

Fast forward to today, and do the math. In 1985, that car, which was indisputably a clunker fit only for a teenage boy who was destined to wreck it (and I did), was 12 years old. My minivan is currently 14 years old. Moreover, if you use the Rule of 72, you figure that if inflation has run 3% since 1985, the value of the dollar has been cut in half (72 divided by 3 yields 24 years time for prices to double). So when I was 16, driving a junker, I had a car 2 years newer and worth probably $1000 more in today's dollars than I do now. THAT explains it!

As much as I like to complain about my car, I wouldn't have it any other way. If somebody were to give me a brand new Ferrari outright, it still would have to drive 4.5 miles in traffic to and from school each day and sit all that time in an unpaved parking lot. My property taxes on the minivan are $43 a year. My insurance bill is tiny. Obviously, there's no payment. And because I don't make those regular "normal" car expenses, we are free to take summers off, to travel a little, to give, and to save, and to otherwise not be "normal" in other ways. It's like Dave Ramsey says: "If you'll live like no one else, later you can LIVE like no one else." That's a helpful thing to remember when I'm fuming over the repair bills. And when this one dies, it'll be right back to another clunker.

End of an Era

It's a big week in history. The death of Farrah Fawcett marks the end of the 1970s. The death of Michael Jackson marks the end of the 1980s. And today, I single-handedly put to death the 1990s. I bought a new brand of running shoes for the first time since Bill Clinton was "that new guy."

My first pair of Asics 2000-series shoes were the 2010's. I have followed with a new pair pretty much every 500 miles (for me, a little less than once a year, on average). I have loved them all, except for the 2030 model, which they radically redesigned, and which led to a severe case of plantar fasciitis. But Asics went back to the 2020 last with the 2040s, and they have made only minor changes ever since. I think I've worn every incarnation except the 2050. I somehow came in mid-season and wore the 2040 twice. Today I went in to replace my 2130s.

Let me digress and tell you about my running shoe store, The Extra Mile. It's a tiny hole in the wall in downtown Charleston, owned by two local runners, Mike and Patt Loggins. I've bought pretty much all my Asics there. My team has given me a gift certificate to the same store at the end of every season. When I walk in, it's like being Norm in the old series, Cheers. The owners call me by name, and know my brand and my size. They ask about my team and my running. I respond by asking about their triathalons. They give me a 10% discount for being such a loyal customer (and for sending hundreds of high school athletes their way over the past 15 years). I pay with my gift certificate, and usually also pick up a pair of running socks (I also only buy the exact same socks every time). It's like kabuki theater. No surprises, just how I like it.

Well, today I was flirting with the idea of doing something different. As a runner, I've had more comebacks than Madonna. About 8 weeks ago I got off my butt and got serious about my running again, and things are just starting to round into shape. My first day back it was a struggle to run 3 miles in 25 minutes. Now I'm to the point where a steady 40-minute run is a "recovery" day. This week I even did a set of half-mile repeats up a steep bridge, getting faster every rep (if it were not for a great training partner, I would have bonked on the last one). I'm determined that THIS comeback will last longer and be more consistent than some of the others, so I thought I might make a shoe change to commemorate the new, "masters level" (age 40+) Larry. But I got to the store and Mike and Patt were not there. They had some stranger running the place. No, "Hi, Coach." No, "How's your team?" No, "Same old Asics nine-and-a-halfs?" Just a blank stare and "May I help you?" Well, I chickened out.

So the new guy (who it turns out is a pretty new local coach) vanishes into the back and returns to report that they don't have my size in stock. So I'm stuck. After trying on a few different brands, I settled on the New Balance 769s. Like it or not, this conservative is getting change! Tomorrow, I'll wear them for a regular Saturday bridge run (no repeats this time, just steady over and back). The old 2130s will take their place in the rotation of grass-cutting and weed-eating shoes. (And when we work together in the yard, my oldest son will be wearing the retired 2120s, and his little brother the 2110s.)

Now don't get excited--this is not the start of a trend. I'm keeping the same haircut and the same barber. I'm still refusing to listen to any music written in the past 20 years unless it's by somebody I know. I'm not watching TV, seeing any movies nominated for Oscars, or otherwise embracing entropy. And I'm not trading in the minivan for a sports car... yet. I was blessed enough to get my trophy wife on the first try. So I suppose this is my midlife crisis. I'll report later if the shoes make any difference on the run.

Michael Jackson

Well, yesterday was a bad day for celebrity deaths: Farrah Fawcett died early in the day, and Michael Jackson died last night. Poor Farrah (and Ed McMahon); their passing will forever be overshadowed by the MJ media orgy. (Little-known-fact: C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame and Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World, died on the same day that JFK was shot and killed. Needless to say, the first two didn't get front-page coverage.)

First, a quick word on Farrah. I was just a bit young to have the famous poster. And I never much watched Charlie's Angels. I certainly didn't ever tune in to the various Lifetime network chick-flicks where she played various kinds of abused women. But I do remember the hair. Very, very nice hair.

As for Michael Jackson, I know it's easy to riff on what a weirdo he turned into. 1990s MJ was a freak-show, and nobody wants to admit to actually ever thinking he was cool. But if you are 40-ish, and you can remember rushing home from school to catch the MTV debut of the Thriller video, you have to admit that deep down, you liked Michael. I was never on the bandwagon, and actually felt like he was a little overrated--kinda like an NBA star who plays in a time when the league is weak. I was perturbed that the Thriller album won more Grammys than the Beatles, and also that it sucked up all the awards for 1983, beating out my favorite album of all time, Billy Joel's An Innocent Man. But even for a non-fan, it was obvious that his music was something special. I find it interesting that all the retrospective shows today are repeating the same four videos over and over: Thriller, Billy Jean, Beat It, and Bad. A few are showing brief clips of little Michael spinning around during the Jackson Five days, but otherwise it's 1984, all the time.

What happened after that--the cosmetic surgery, the Neverland Ranch and all the various pedophilia allegations, the baby-dangling, the marriage to Lisa-Marie Presley... those are footnotes. I don't doubt that over the coming weeks we'll learn that his heart attack was related to an overdose, whether intentional or accidental (much like Elvis, who only made it to 42). And then we'll have some obligatory homages at the various music awards shows, and then there will just be songs played on classic rock stations. The art, of course, will live on. But the artist will, except for a few die-hards who will update the wikipedia page, be forgotten.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Observations on the Beach

I know this isn't the most original topic, but I noticed a few things on the beach yesterday. Notably, that most adults don't look very good in bathing suits (myself included). My wife says pretty much every time that we go that she'd love to have Land's End outfit everybody at Folly Beach. (She also says every time that after seeing who isn't ashamed to wear a bikini, she feels a lot better about how she looks in her modest suit... and she DOES look great!)

Anyway, here are a few observations: First, if you go to the guarded swimming area in the county park, people are uglier. This is a function of demographics--people with small children use the park, and they are not only older (and in the case of women, post-pregnancy), but also likely have less time for themselves to spend in the gym. If you're a 20-something hardbody, you're probably up at one of the unguarded surf spots. Interestingly, as your kids get older, you may actually get better looking (like Ann, who has dropped 25-30 lbs and gotten in great shape). But there's a brief window there before the other ravages of middle age sneak in, and you merely look "pretty good for a 40-year-old."

I also notice that men, in general, look better (or less bad) than women. Part of this is fashion--guys pretty much wear board shorts. If there were some old, fat guys in speedos to pair up with the women who really shouldn't be in string bikinis, that might even out. But what I notice (and I'm speaking as a guy here, so I could be wrong), is that there are very few guys who look like fitness models, but there are also not that many that make you want to avert your eyes. There's a lot of space between those two extremes of guys who look "average," with maybe some love handles or a lack of muscle tone. But "average" for a guy doesn't look that bad.

Women, on the other hand, have a very few supermodel-types (although they apparently don't come to Folly Beach), a few more who look "not bad" to "pretty good," and a large group of ladies who really ought to wear less-revealing suits. Seems like the average woman is less attractive than the average man... or at least further down the scale of what our society tells us is attractive. No wonder so many women have body issues.

I'll go a step further. Within the very small stratum of genuinely good-looking, fit women, there are only a couple of divisions: there is (1) my wife, (2) girls too young to drink, (3) girls with tattoos. Pretty much, if you see a lady who looks decent in a bathing suit who is over 21 and does not have body art, introduce yourself, because that's Ann. I think pretty much everybody under 35 these days has some sort of tattoo. I'm rather glad I'm too old for that. Several of my family members have them, and many of the ones I see look alright (and obviously, I wouldn't be seeing most of them except at the beach). But it's not my favorite style.

Anyway, that works out well for me, because when I look up from my book, I see only one girl that really interests me. Fortunately, she's not so superficial--I figure I fall into that pretty large category of forgettable males on the beach (in the sub-category of scrawny guys with crew cuts). But one thing is for sure--my local beach is not exactly Baywatch territory.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Gamecocks Top 10!

Not sure if anybody but me noticed, but my USC Gamecocks placed 6th in the NCAA outdoor track and field championships. Put that in perspective--if USC had finished football season ranked #6 in the AP poll, or had made it into the Elite 8 in the NCAA basketball tournament, that would be HUGE.

USC track coach Curtis Frye may be the best coach in SC that you've never heard of. The Lady Gamecock track team owns the ONLY national title in school history, and track is one of the few programs in Columbia that ever cracks the top 10. Moreover, Frye is considered one of the best hurdle coaches in the entire United States (most impartial observers place him at #1, having coached Allen Johnson and Terrence Trammell to Olympic medals, plus numerous collegians to great success--almost 2/3 of USC's points at NCAAs came from hurdlers).

Just like in football, though, the Gamecocks' biggest drawback on the track is the amazing strength of the SEC. There are just too many big fish in our pond. The SEC had 4 of the top 10 teams (Florida 2nd, LSU 5th, USC 6th, and Arkansas 9th), plus UGA at #11. So the best USC team in school history, and the 6th-best team in the nation, couldn't even win a conference title.

Go Gamecocks!

Monday, June 1, 2009

More Controversy

I've had an idea rattling around the empty space in my head for the last week, and would like to noodle it here on the blog. But I've been worried a bit to take it up, because it's such an incendiary topic, and I really, really don't want to be misunderstood. Ever since the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, there has been an undercurrent of thought about Affirmative Action--both her position in the Ricci case, in which a white firefighter was denied a promotion based on an exam because not enough minorities passed the exam, and also about whether or not her own qualifications should be viewed through the prism of Affirmative Action (henceforth abbreviated "AA"). But taking up out-loud thinking of AA opens all sorts of doors to being called racist, so I want to tread very carefully.

I have a few related thoughts about AA, largely based on my own personal experiences. I attended, and teach at, an elite, expensive, private prep school. Both as a student and as a teacher I have seen AA at work, both by my school, and by colleges in evaluating our students. But I also spent my first 5 years of teaching at an inner-city magnet school, with a student body that was 85% minority and 65%+ on the free lunch program. Into that mix of anecdotes I stir my study of history, as something of a specialist on 20th-century America. And the outcome is a conflicted mess. For a better treatment of how messy the racial spoils system has become, here's an article by one of my favorite thinkers, Victor Davis Hanson.

Let me begin with my first observation: I think there IS definitely a place for a properly-constructed form of AA as a means of leveling the playing field where there is (or has been) genuine disparity. It bothers me not a bit that last year my cousin (who teaches at one of the poorest inner-city schools in our town) had a minority student from a poor family who got a full ride to Georgetown, even though my former (white) student with very similar qualifications didn't even get in (she's at Davidson, so she came out OK). "My" kid's family gave her every advantage--money, opportunity for foreign travel, private school, an Ivy-league pedigree. The other fellow had to overcome numerous hurdles to get where he is. If I'm on Georgetown's admission board, I would favor him, too.

But secondly, and most importantly, I don't think that RACE should be the deciding factor in AA. It ought to be a more holistic system that evaluates individuals, not groups. I see this all the time at my prep school. We have some wonderful minority students who get into some great schools, and even get scholarships, because of the "diversity" they bring to campus. But some (not all) of these kids are of the same economic and social class as my Davidson kid I mentioned above. A couple of examples come to mind--there was a young lady I coached several years ago whose parents were West Indian immigrants, both professionals (lawyers, I think). She was a great student, who wound up choosing Columbia over Yale. It bugs me that Columbia was able to check a box for "diversity" by picking her, when other kids of modest means didn't get in. Even President Obama falls into this category--his dad was a Harvard-educated immigant, not the son of a sharecropper. He was raised by his white, middle-class grandparents, went to private schools, and then winds up occupying a "diversity" slot at elite universities. I'd rather that slot go to an inner-city kid (black or white, or whatever). Or a hillbilly kid. Or the son of an Asian immigrant.

But there's another wrinkle, too. That one is generational. President Obama is 8 years older than me. Judge Sotomayor is 14 years older than me. I'm not sure how much older than me Justice Thomas or General Powell are (20?). But I'm 40, and I entered elementary school in 1975. In 1975, All in the Family was cutting-edge TV. Doctor King had been dead less than 10 years. Even a child of dark-skinned immigrants (like Obama, or Powell) really would have had hurdles to overcome that I wouldn't. And certainly a southern black kid whose family history included slavery, sharecropping, etc. would have walked a very different path than me. His parents may have actually endured the hoses in Brimingham or the beatings at Selma, or at least been denied service at the front door of a resturant. I don't think it's necessarily fair to criticize people over about my age for being the beneficiaries of AA... in our childhood (and even in our young adulthood, if we're old enough), there were legitimate vestiges of discrimination that needed to be combated.

But fast-forward to the present, and that brings me to a third point. Times have changed. Nothing is a better indicator of that than the election of Barack Obama. As recently as 20 years ago, some would have said such a thing was impossible. Interracial dating and marriage is no bid deal now. I have a friend my age whose interracial marriage almost splintered his extended family 20+ years ago (on both sides). Now, Hannah Montana can have Corbin Bleu as a boyfriend on the Disney Channel, and no one bats an eye. (And that's a very good thing!) President Obama has two daughters roughly the same age as mine. Even if he had never been president, or even a senator, I think it's fair to say that if our girls were competing for the same slot in a university, you couldn't plausibly claim that my child had the advantage. Indeed, the reverse is more likely true.

Finally, there's an issue of culture and behavior which is related to class and economics that I'm not sure what to do with. Pretty much all of my friends who happen to be minorities are just like me in terms of class, culture, and family values. They are married, educated, have jobs, take their kids to little league and dance lessons, save for retirement, refinance their vinyl-siding homes when rates fall. Their kids and mine could be treated the exact same from this day forward, and no one would even blink. But my cousin's students often come from communities in which not a single person is married, nor plans to be. Part of me says that those kids need a hand up to escape their circumstances. Then the hard-hearted part of me replies, "why should we, as a society, reward bad decisions?" It's just as unfair to the middle-class black guy who puts his kid in a good school (whether by paying private tuition or buying a house in a good district) and helps with homework for 12 years to have his child leapfrogged at admission time as it would be for me.

So where does that leave me? If I could design my own AA program, I would say that for anyone under the age of say, 35 (just to be safe), race-based preferences are a thing of the past. Instead, we should follow Dr. King's advice, and judge people by the "content of their character." That judging can take into account legitimate social disadvantages based on class or economics, and should. Any takers for this new system?