Monday, June 19, 2017

In praise of pickiness

Whether you call it "single" or "between relationships," I am at that fun little place called Not In A Relationship.  Kind of sucks.
What's even worse is the advice from the "smug marrieds."  Those people who have gone through life with a grand total of five minutes between relationships their entire lives.  They always trot out that trite line about "every pot has a cover" (what if you're a griddle?).  Or else they hand out the same three pieces of advice: "You need to get out more." (I'm in a male dominated field.  How much more "out" should I get?)  "Have you tried online dating?"  (Yes, I have.  Do you know how many online dating profiles are complete fabrications?)  And, my all time favorite: "You're too picky."
You're damn right I am.
Here's what "not picky" got me.  When I came to Brooklyn, I was 24 years old.  In other words, I was already staring down the barrel of spinsterhood.  Also, I was a BT, which meant that I was already getting "redd" to people deemed undesirable--not that anyone actually made these introductions.  So, I navigated the "single scene" knowing I had two advantages: 1. I was the youngest person in the room by about a decade and 2. I was the novelty.  I attracted attention, mostly from divorced men pushing Social Security eligibility.  If I dated even one man under 40, I would be surprised.  But hey, don't be picky.  Besides, I knew that within a year the novelty would wear off and I would lose the edge I had.
It was in this environment that I met Mr. X.  Sure, he was 55 to my 24.  Sure, he was overweight and not the most attractive specimen.  But hey, he had to have a kind heart to be giving rides to people and feeding stray cats.  And kindness was all that matters.  Besides, I shouldn't be picky.  After all, I wasn't particularly pretty either.  So we started dating.  And when he lost his temper and screamed at me, I overlooked it.  It was probably my fault anyway.  When I found out that he had been arrested for possession of a controlled substance, I overlooked it.  My past wasn't exactly spotless either, and past is past right?  When he tried to sodomize me during our engagement, I wrote it off as a misunderstanding.  I mean, he did stop when I called him on it.
Guess what?  My marriage to Mr. X was marked by his alcoholism, frequent emotional abuse, and eventually rape.  But hey, I made it down the aisle, and that was all that mattered, right?  I hadn't been picky.
I deserve so much better than that.  So do all singles who get that line thrown at their heads.  It doesn't matter why I reject someone's advances.  I'm allowed to set standards for myself.    There are far worse things than being single.  And being in a bad marriage is numbers 1-100 on that list.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Summer blockbuster season--survival of the tritest

Recently, I had the opportunity to see an incredible film about a woman who is a true American hero.  I am speaking, of course, about the biopic Megan Leavey. 
If you haven't seen this movie, I suggest you do.  Like right now.  It probably won't be in theaters much longer.  It opened eighth at the box office, despite an 82% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  One week after opening, it's down to a single screening per day.  The theater had less than 20 people in it.  But what do you expect for a film that was barely promoted and nobody's even heard about?  (I wouldn't have seen it either, but Thing 1 loves dogs.  And since the story was about a Marine and her bomb-sniffing dog--it was kind of required viewing.)
Why do certain movies end up in theaters for ages and others fade out or never even make it?  Why was a film based on the Roald Dahl classic The BFG only in theaters for a few weeks while Boss Baby lasts for months?  Why did the recent release of The Little Prince, an English dub of a French film based on the Saint Exupery story (one of my favorites, incidentally) not even make it to theaters at all?  One week before it was to open, Paramount pulled it, and sent it straight to Netflix.
My guess is we live in the land of the focus group.  Movie companies, competing with streaming services in a pinched economy (going to the movies for a family of four can easily cost $100 between tickets and concessions) will only put their marketing and distribution efforts into films with massive returns.  And right now, that seems to be mostly in big-budget action movies based on the interests of Gen-X and early Millennial males.  TransformersFast and Furious car chase films.  DC and Marvel superheroes (not my brand of geekery, to be honest.)  Most of the previews and theater screens seem to betaken up with some variation on one of these themes. 
But at least there is some hope.  I eagerly anticipated the release of The Great Gilly Hopkins, a film that should have made it (cast included Kathy Bates, Glenn Close, Octavia Spencer and Julia Stiles--not exactly names to sneeze at.)  Other than a few sneak previews, the movie never saw the theaters.  However, to my delight, it turned up on Netflix.  So did The Little Prince.  So will a hundred other films you never heard of or paid much attention to when they were in theaters, but start to look better after you binge-watched the newest season of Orange is the New Black and are wondering what else is on.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Breaking Anne--A Review

*Spoilers ahead!
One of my favorite book series growing up was Anne of Green Gables.  I loved the imaginative, ebullient, intelligent redhaired heroine and the other characters that populated her world: shy Matthew, practical Marilla, gossipy, generous Rachel Lynde, Anne's friends, including the loyal Diana Barry, and of course the cocksure Gilbert Blythe, enemy turned rival turned friend turned love interest (spoiler alert--she marries him.  They have six kids together.)  I read all the books and own the Kevin Sullivan miniseries.  So, naturally, when Anne with an E came to Netflix, I had to watch it.  Especially since it was created by Breaking Bad creator Moira Walley-Beckett.
BIIIIG mistake.  They took my favorite character and put her in Bizarro World.
Walley-Beckett wanted to focus on Anne (played by Amybeth McNulty) as the abused orphan, delving into her backstory to create trauma.  Fans of the book will know that Anne was orphaned in infancy and passed around to two different foster homes.  In the first, her foster father was a violent alcoholic.  In the second, her foster mother had twins three times in succession.  Both foster parents used Anne as childcare, even though she was a child herself.  After her second foster father died, Anne spent a few months in an orphanage until she was placed with the Cuthberts, who originally wanted a boy.  As a result of this level of neglect, Walley-Beckett wrote Anne as a broken character.  Rather than being the dreamer of dreams who must express ideas that are too big and beautiful to hold in, Anne talks and imagines to escape frequent flashbacks of abuse.  In this world, Mr. Hammond keels over from a heart attack while beating Anne.  In this world, the town of Avonlea shuns Anne for her orphan status.  Anne herself is no help in this regard.  Her energy is frenzied, as if she is afraid to stop talking or moving out of fear.  She comes off as less eccentric and more unhinged, collapsing to the ground in agony upon hearing that the Cuthberts wanted a boy.  While McNulty is a competent actress, she still struggles with the bad writing.
Aside from taking liberties with Anne's character, the writers also took many liberties with the story, making it as bleak as the iron-cold settings it was filmed against.  The main conflict of the novel was resolved within the first eight chapters, and the rest of the novel is a coming of age stories filled with many charming vignettes of Anne's growth.  Few of them survived the writing process of the series.  There was no playing the lily maid.  No walking the ridgepole of the roof.  No dive-bombing Aunt Josephine.  No liniment cake.  No accidentally dyeing hair green.  Instead, we are treated to the following:
  • Anne begging pennies in a train station (just to drive home that she was unwanted--we got that!)
  • Lifelong conservative Marilla Cuthbert attending a suffrage meeting (more up Rachel Lynde's alley)
  • Anne antagonizing the Cuthbert's hired farmhand (great way to make a first impression on potential foster parents)
  • Anne telling her classmates about Mrs. Hammond repeatedly trying to escape her husband's "pet mouse," who lived in his front pocket and got her pregnant with all those twins.  (Because what children's book is complete without marital rape?)
  • Gilbert becoming an orphan (It wasn't bleak enough already?)
  • Matthew attempting suicide (Completely out of character.  Matthew was not only a religious man, he was the sort of person who would work to his last breath.)
  • Aunt Josephine going from acerbic-tongued spinster to lesbian in mourning (While I don't mind the representation, I rather like the acerbic-tongued old lady.  Besides, why can't we have asexual characters if we're going to represent?)
  • Anne's first period.  (At least Marilla didn't go Margaret White on her.)
If Moira Walley-Beckett wanted to create a series highlighting the fate of orphans, home children and foster children in the late 19th century, fine.  I'm all for it.  Many of them did suffer abuse and neglect, and even under the best of circumstances were forced to be servants and farmhands while still children.  Just leave my favorite book out of it.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Latte with a side of poverty?

When I got my first job out of college, I predicted the economy would collapse under its own weight eventually.  This was in 2003.  In San Diego, where I lived at the time, both housing prices and rents were skyrocketing.  I had what would be considered a "good" job (eight-to-five, permanent, with benefits), and the best I could afford was rent on a converted shed and a 12-year-old rattletrap Honda that I somehow managed to keep alive to go back and forth to work.  Neighborhoods that had been considered unlivable slums only a couple of years earlier were becoming too expensive for even the middle class.  Many of my coworkers were buying homes over an hour away in Riverside County.  They were signing subprime mortgages (which, even at the young age of 21 I could see were a terrible deal) and encouraged me to do the same.
I wonder how many of them were able to keep their houses after 2008.
The Great Recession was almost ten years ago, and according to many economists, didn't last very long.  Great.  Only most people in my age cohort are cobbling together part-time service sector jobs and side stints as Uber drivers, sharing apartments, putting off marriage and having children, and not really enjoying any real prosperity.  The only costs that seemed to have dropped significantly is the cost of gasoline.  Housing is still unaffordable, and tuition costs have tripled since 1999.  We've even coined the term "jobless recovery" to explain it.  The State of The Union is Not Good once again.
And we don't get much sympathy from those who should know better.  The Boomers lived through the "stagflation crisis" of the 1970s, and their parents lived through the Great Depression.  Instead of commiserating with us, or fighting to make things better, all we hear is a lot of blame.  "It's the IPhones."  "It's the lattes."  "It's the avocado toast."
Right.  Because unless you can afford a house, you don't deserve happiness.
According to The Economist, the ratio of housing to income is still over 100 percent.  There was a slight drop after 2008, but not enough of one to be significant. 
But maybe we Millennials are wasting our money on high-end coffee and techno toys.  Lets look at, for example, an IPhone.  At first glance, $700 for a phone is a lot of money, especially for someone crying poverty.  And especially when many people get new phones every two years.  But let's break that phone down, dollar wise.  $700 over 24 months is less than $30 per month.  That's less than the cost of an electric bill, a week's groceries, or a dinner for two in a mid-priced chain restaurant.  Suddenly that phone looks a lot less expensive.
But what about those lattes?  A five-dollar a day Starbucks habit has got to be breaking into the bottom line.  First of all, unless you're buying a daily Frappucino, you're not spending that much.  A tall Caffe Latte is $2.95 plus tax.  So about $3 a day.  Multiply that by five days (assuming that this is purchased on the way to work), and that's $15 a week.  Over 52 weeks that comes to $780 a year.  The median housing price in the United States is $199,800.  Assuming the 20% down payment you need to save before you can even think about a mortgage, cutting the lattes will get you there in 51 years.  Given that the median life expectancy is 78 years, and assuming you start saving at age 18, you will buy that house when you are 69 years old.  Does it sound like a worthwhile sacrifice?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The other certainty in life

The big deal in Washington is Trump's hastily sketched out tax "plan," which seems like a way to move money away the government and back to the hands of the wealthy.  He would create a three-bracket system, eliminate almost all deductions (except charitable donations and mortgage interest), and cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15% (unless you're a home business--the you can kiss your home office deductions goodbye).
It's a good outline--for people who have money.
Now I won't deny that the Internal Revenue code as it stands is a hot mess.  However, the solution is not this.
Some people would like to put a "flat tax" into place, asking why the rich should pay more.  I'll show you a little math from the 2016 tax workbook:
The highest tax bracket is for incomes of $415,050.00, and these individuals pay 39.6% of their income in taxes.  Minus a $43,830.05 standard deduction, a single person earning the minimum for this tax bracket will pay $120,529.75 in taxes.  That's a lot of money, right?  They pay more in taxes than most people make in a year.  However, let's look at it another way.  Their post-tax income is still $294,520.25, also a lot of money.   Now let's look at an office worker making $30,000 per year.  Their taxes for the year are $4,040, leaving them $25,960 for the year.  That's still less than one tenth of the first earner.  Both of these individuals need housing, food, transportation and healthcare.  Guess who will spend most of the year counting pennies?  (Hint--it's not the first guy.)
Now, let's look at the Trump plan.  The first earner will see a tax bill that drops from 39.6% to 35%, meaning a drop in taxes from $120,529.75 to $101,437.45.  However, what of the $30,000 earner?  Depending on the bracket, this earner could either see a drop in the tax bill from $4040 to $3000.  Or, if this unfortunate soul is in the 25% bracket, that earner's taxes could go up to $7,500 per year--nearly double the current tax bill!
A fashion consultant once said that we should dress for the body we have, not the body we want to have.  So too with national policy.  We should demand policies that positively affect the lives we have, not act like millionaires in a temporary slump and allow policies that only benefit the rich on the odd chance that we find ourselves among their members someday.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Excelsior Scholarship--good intentions, poor implementation

The latest idea to come out of Albany is the Excelsior Scholarship--free college for anyone whose income is less than $100,000 per year, to increase to $125,000 by 2019.  Sounds like an ideal benefit--proof of New York's growing commitment to middle-class families.
It looks good on paper anyway.
The Excelsior Scholarship is little more than a raised cap on New York State TAP grants, with a catch.  The scholarship only covers up to $5,500 per year--which is not the full cost of CUNY tuition.  If you receive any other aid, the scholarship will only provide funds to bring the total to $5,500.  You have to work in New York state after graduation for as many years as you received the grant (which makes sense--it is taxpayer funded).  Recipients must earn 30 credits per year--a hardship for working students.  Also, the grant only covers four years, and is not offered to people with bachelor's degrees.  Since degree holders are not eligible for federal aid or TAP grants, this would have provided much needed assistance to people trying to enhance their skills to keep up with a changing world. 
This provides some assistance, but not much.  This is designed for people taking a traditional route through school--but state schools have a number of non-traditional students.  Students who are taking fewer classes to go to school around a job.  Students getting second bachelor's degrees because, whoopsie, the world changed; the economy's in the toilet, and that B.A. in liberal arts that was supposed to provide a decent living doesn't, and why didn't you get a degree in STEM you idiot.   Students who are taking more challenging degrees that take five and six years to complete.  Students changing majors because that math degree is harder than we thought.  Students taking a semester off because life happens and I got meningitis and couldn't finish the term.  And guess what?  All of them could use the grant, and almost none of them qualify for it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Meet Julia--an imperfect introduction

Over the years, Sesame Street has been a model of inclusion.  They showed college-educated African-Americans in the 1960s, a Deaf main character in the 1970s, death and birth of characters in the 1980s, a Spanish-speaking muppet in the 1990s, and responses to natural disasters and crises in the 2000s.  On Monday, Sesame Street took another step into introducing kids to a diverse, imperfect world with the culmination of their "Be Amazing" initiative: a felt and wire muppet on the autism spectrum.  Julia is four years old, is able to speak (mostly echolalia, which is a legitimate form of communication), loves her stuffed rabbit Fluffster, and flaps and bounces when she is happy.

I'm not going to discuss the accuracy of her portrayal of autism.  There will always be autistic people who share some of her characteristics but not others.  (I'm using identity-first language here, as this is the choice of many autistic people.)  Instead, I'm going to go into the other characters reactions to her.  It's not all bad, but it's not perfect either.

The Good:
  • Julia communicates in various ways, whether it's shuddering at the finger paint, using echolalic speech, covering her ears, and bouncing and flapping.  Alan, Abby and Elmo treat her communication methods as legitimate and respond appropriately.
  • Alan explains Julia's differences to Big Bird in a way that shows that they are a part of her, and does not attempt to remove or suppress her differences at any time.
  • Julia is shown to have talents of her own.  Her painting of Fluffster with wings is not only imaginative, but technically advanced for a four-year-old.
  • When Julia starts bouncing during the game of tag, Abby joins in, not because she's "being nice to the disabled kid," but because it looks fun.
  • When Julia shuts down due to the siren, almost no one gets angry or upset with her.
The Bad:
  • Although most four-year-olds, autistic or not, are not the greatest self-advocates, it would have been nice for Julia to have been able to advocate for herself more without having someone else "translate."
  • When Abby and Elmo explain Julia's differences to Big Bird, it comes off as being patronizing.  They sound as if they are saying, "yeah, Julia's weird, but we're her friends anyway."  This is particularly glaring to me because both characters are supposed to be a full year younger.  It makes Julia's differences stand out more.
  • Big Bird comes off as kind of a dick in this episode, particularly during Julia's shutdown during the siren.  He's an 8' 2" yellow bird whose best friend is a furry, brown, earless elephant, and he can't deal with Julia because she has sensitive hearing?  His comment about the siren not being that loud comes off as dismissive.  (And autistic people are supposedly the ones who lack empathy...)
  • After the intro segment, Julia is not seen or heard from again for the rest of the episode.  I'm hoping this is not the Very Special Episode about autism, and Julia is integrated more into the life of the Street as the series progresses.  I also hope that she has a part in storylines not related to her identity as an autistic muppet.
Overall, I'd give the episode a C+.  It was a fair, but not great beginning.  Let's hope that, as time passes, that Sesame Workshop is improves their portrayal, and Julia becomes a character in her own right.