Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Adventures in Retirement, Part 1

March 31, 2009 marks the one-year anniversary of the beginning of my retirement. On that day in 2008 I received a call at home from a supervisor at my last employer (who will go nameless because no one really cares anymore, although they used to remind us to never leave home without one of their credit cards) who blithely informed me that I had been "displaced" from my job and I would be unemployed in about four weeks. The term "displaced" is one of those euphemisms people dream up to assuage guilt, despite their best efforts to pretend they don't feel it, when they do something stupid or immoral or cowardly, much as "put to sleep" is euphemism for putting an animal to death, because it sounds so tranquil and peaceful and temporary, which it isn't.

In an instant I transitioned from the "working" phase of my life into retirement. But truth is, I had already retired mentally from my job a couple of years before I got that phone call. In the previous five years my job as a computer programmer had changed from an interesting, fulfilling, and engaging occupation to a demoralizing, aggravating parade of meaningless, pointless and valueless tasks, mandated by some disconnected and disinterested upper-level manager and cascaded down through the layers of bureaucracy until to got to my immediate manager. My last five managers were venal, small-minded, petty, self-serving cretins, totally free of integrity, for whom I had absolutely no respect either personally or professionally. Their main purpose in life was to protect their own asses from any consequences of their overwhelming incompetence and to transfer as much work from their tasklist onto anyone else's. Some of my co-workers were interesting and intelligent people, but so many more were clueless and marginally skilled, and covered up their lack of talent by ingratiating themselves to their management, raising ass-kissing to a way of life. Quite a while ago I had disassociated myself from this endless, depressing treadmill of working hard, accomplishing little and not being valued or respected, and was just going through the motions of my daily job. Everything was compounded by the advent of outsourcing, where very intelligent, competent and skilled people I enjoyed working with were let go in favor of illiterate, incomprehensible, and annoying "offshore staff" half a world away, who were brought on board not because they were talented or capable in their tasks or had anything of value to bring to the workplace, but solely because they worked cheap.

I worked from home and rarely had to make an appearance in the office, which also allowed me to transition into a pre-retirement mode of thinking. There were entire weeks when I would do absolutely nothing related to my job, other than log onto the remote network and answer some emails or take some telephone calls. The system was such that I could appear to be working without doing a damned thing, and I occupied my work hours at home doing things that I really enjoyed, such as writing or caring for my rabbits, or even taking a two-hour afternoon nap every day.

Now you might want to ask, didn't you feel guilty about accepting a paycheck every two weeks for doing nothing at all, or doing things completely unrelated to my job? And the answer is hell no, I couldn't care less about guilt. Guilt is for suckers, and as a recovering Catholic I have had my fill of guilt. If they were going to pay me for doing nothing I was going to accept it with a crisp thankyouverymuch and without the least bit of regret. Maybe if I had some respect for the company or the managers inflicted upon me, I would feel a teeny bit remorseful about scamming them for more than a few years. But in fact I don't, and I went out of my way to waste and squander as many company resources as I possibly could. They were unworthy of respect, and got none from me.

So after essentially two years of not working, my transition to retirement was pretty much seamless and uneventful. Very little had changed for me, on a day-to-day basis. I had read somewhere when people retire from their job they are traumatized by the sudden lack of meaning and structure and purpose to their lives, and flounder around for a while all depressed because their work and the routine it imposed meant so much to them. I think people who base their lives and their sense of self-worth on something as arbitrary and ephemeral as a job are pretty pathetic, and they miss out on so much of what is rich and meaningful and important about existence. Why would anyone want to waste so much of their time and their effort making someone else rich? Or battling the faceless, impenetrable wall of an insensitive, unfeeling bureaucracy. Or even worse, dealing with the feckless, random vicissitudes of something called "corporate culture," a total waste of time and effort if there ever was one.

Luckily prudent financial planning and discipline have allowed me to maintain my lifestyle without a regular paycheck, and with a little bit of luck I should be able to continue that for the foreseeable future. Of course the economic disaster which has struck this country has negatively impacted me, but so far it has been manageable and has not required me to make a lot of changes in the way I do things. I have been extremely lucky up to this point, and I regret nothing. My life removed from daily employment has been highly enjoyable and a very liberating experience, allowing me to devote time and energy to things I really love and value, and which make a real, not imagined, difference in the world. I keep hearing that baby boomers such as myself would be miserable in retirement without the time-consuming distraction of work and the so-called "meaning" it adds to life, and to that I say BULLSHIT! Take it from me, retirement (so far) has been great. I wish I could have done it thirty years ago.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Just Birds

They were just a couple of birds I noticed hanging around my back patio about three springs ago. Just two of many hundreds of them out there - mostly diamond doves, sparrows and tons of pigeons. I didn't even notice them at first, they blended into the background so well. What I did pick up on first was their short, high-pitched song, just a simple, unobtrusive "peep" kind of noise. Eventually I connected the sound with the birds and began to see them more and more.

They were a mated pair and they looked exactly alike, almost like twins. They also looked very much like cardinals, except instead of bright red they were a medium brown color, with short bills and a little bit of black coloring on their faces. I haven't figured out exactly their specific kind - someone suggested they might be a bird called Pyrrhuloxia, but I looked them up on Wikipedia and they don't look exactly like the picture. They seemed to live mostly in the olive tree in the back corner of my yard, but I did see them every so often flying into the trees on the elementary school property over the back alley from my yard.

As time went on they became frequent visitors to my back yard and patio. I have a habit of feeding the wild birds in my yard. I can't help it - if any animal shows up in my yard and they appear hungry I have to feed them, and believe it or not I go through about one hundred pounds of bird seed a month. All the birds in my yard have learned quickly that there is bird seed to be had on the back patio and most of them - especially the pigeons - have become quite fearless and brazen in regards to their regular feeding. In fact the second I come outside they start flying down from the telephone wires to perches closer to the patio, and if I start to open the plastic bird food bag they swarm onto the patio, running up to a couple feet away from me. I put the seed on the ground and the crush is on - I've had literally a hundred pigeons, and other birds, happily gobbling down the bird seed I supply for them. Since the pigeons are crazed hogs and push the smaller birds out of the way in their frenzy to gorge themselves on as much seed as quickly as possible, I put a second, smaller pile of seed down on one corner of my porch. That way, the sparrows, doves, and my two visitor birds can have a chance to get some food too.

Eventually my two brown birds got quite used to eating on the patio and every time I came outside, they would swoop in from the olive tree and make their "peep-peep" noise until I fed them - and I would feed them each and every time, I could not resist. Through the spring, summer, fall and winter, they would always be out there, always as a pair. Every spring they would make a nest in the olive tree and have a pair of babies, who would timidly hide in the potato bush near the patio while their parents ate the seed. I got so used to seeing the two little brown birds, and would always look for them when I was out on my patio.

So, when I found the dead, mangled body of one of the two brown birds in the back of my yard yesterday morning, my heart sank to my feet. I could not believe how sad and upset I was. I picked up the lifeless body, still warm, and noticed the feathers torn away from its neck and the three puncture wounds on its front, most likely from a cat. My neighbor's four cats have appropriated my property as their own, and while I love them a lot and they are basically nice cats, they still are cats and are driven by instinct. They saw an opportunity to be a hunter and one of them took it. I find it hard to get angry with them, since they are just being cats, but they are fat, sassy and well-fed and did not need to kill anything for food. It did look like just a blood killing, done for no other reason than it could be done.

I have not seen the other adult bird since that time. My yard is strangely, eerily quiet without their little "peep" calls to each other. I know they are just birds, two of hundreds out in my yard, but to me they were so much more. They were little sparks of life that I could count on seeing every time I went onto the back patio. They were just birds, but I miss them.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Two Boxes of Bunnies

I went to the local animal shelter this past Monday, to pick up a bunny to bring into the rescue agency with which I volunteer, Brambley Hedge Rabbit Rescue. BHRR is a non-profit organization which rescues, shelters, rehabilitates and finds homes for unwanted domestic rabbits. I have been a volunteer since January 2001 and my affiliation with them continues to be one of the best experiences of my entire life. We get the majority of our shelter bunnies from other agencies, where owners surrender them and we take the ones which may not be immediately adoptable and require some additional care. The rabbit I picked up that day is a white bunny with long hair, that was labeled as difficult to handle and cage protective. I picked it up and was able to carry it around with no problem. I think he will be okay.

However when I was picking that bunny up, two women were there filling out paperwork for surrendering some rabbits. I overheard one of them say that they just found a couple of boxes of rabbits on their property. Really? That has never happened to me. One of the shelter workers walked by with a large, beat-up looking cardboard box and I was able to look inside. More than a dozen young rabbits, all sizes and colors, were just piled on top of one another, looking around in fear and confusion. They bumped and jostled into each other, struggling to maintain balance and get air. I learned later that there was one small rabbit on the bottom of the pile that was overheated from the car ride and crushed from the weight of the other rabbits on top of him, and was near death. Luckily he survived.

I've been in animal rescue long enough to have a clear understanding of the level of evil in this world, and the capacity of humans to inflict misery and cruelty on innocent and defenseless animals seems limitless. What kind of vile, twisted excuse for a person first of all allows the uncontrolled breeding of rabbits, and then when the problem gets to be too much for their walnut-sized brains to deal with, they merely package their problem up in a box like so much trash, dump it on someone else's doorstep and then walk away with complete impunity. Where is the justice in the world when people can commit acts of such swinish ignorance (apologies to the swine of the world) and are not required to take any responsibility for their stupidity?

Two boxes of bunnies. 30 rabbits. 30 beautiful little faces. 60 wide, trusting eyes. 60 ears which swivel to hear any sound. 30 wiggling noses and 30 cottonball-tails. 30 innocent lives brought into this world by some moron too stupid to be even dimly aware of the consequences of their actions. 30 innocent lives thrown into an already overworked, stretched-beyond-capacity system. 30 very uncertain futures. Still, organizations like BHRR continue to do everything they can to help stem the tide of grotesque ignorance and inhumanity which seems to get worse all the time. Sometimes I get so discouraged. Until I realize we are there to help in any way we can.

The bunnies need us.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Where's MY Million-Dollar Bonus?

The shrieking and righteous indignation over the AIG bonus payouts have been echoing far and wide across this great land of ours, and not without good reason. Apparently AIG rattles its metal cup and begs for taxpayer money with one hand, and shells out $160 million dollars in "retention bonuses" with the other. Ostensibly intended to retain top talent at whatever it is they do, these bonuses had the curious (and not exactly unexpected) effect of paying a ridiculous sum of money to people who were responsible for nearly running the company into the ground. Only in America can you be compensated with an obscene amount of money for being a completely incompetent f**k-up.

So I started thinking, how can something this absurd happen? I mean, you can't make stuff like this up. What kind of bizarro universe would you have to live in if the stupidest idiots get paid the most for screwing up the worst? Eventually I came to the realization that our system of capitalism is at its very core responsible for the Alice-in-Wonderland economics we have been witnessing of late. Capitalism happens to be the best economic system the world has come up with yet, but it has some very glaring and major pitfalls. It all revolves around the free market system; that is, if you perform a task or manufacture something, what you earn depends on what the market is willing to pay you. In the majority of instances this paradigm is pretty reliable, but it does engender some ridiculous, nonsensical and grossly injust situations. For instance, why do school teachers get paid so little, but a no-talent cipher like Kevin Federline, the ex-Mr. Britney Spears, gets paid $10,000 just for showing his miserable mug at some big party somewhere. Why is it that policemen and policewomen, who put their lives on the line for total strangers each and every day, get paid so meagerly while baseball player Alex Rodriguez signs a contract for a quarter-billion dollars for playing a game part of the year?

So again, how do things like this happen? Because our economic system is filtered through the prism of our popular culture, which for some unknown reason values the contributions of Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods much more highly than those of teachers, nurses, or cops. In fact, Woods and Jordan get paid astronomical sums of money because they CAN! The capitalism system allows that to happen. You would never see something like that happening in Communist Cuba. Capitalism is about the only economic system ever created which would allow, and in fact encourage, contributions to be valued far outside any reasonable reckoning. Free market can also mean, "whatever the market will bear." Capitalism has run pretty much unfettered in the U.S. for centuries and when it's compounded by a celebrity-obsessed culture (where celebrities become rich people and rich people become celebrities for no other reason than because they are wealthy), it's easy to see how the accumulation of wealth becomes an end to itself. This nexus of celebrity and capitalism is also fertile breeding ground for a strange kind of parasitic life form exemplified by Paris Hilton; that is, someone with absolutely no value or redeeming qualities whose sole claim to celebrity is her proximity to family wealth. And with that comes an entitlement to indulge in whatever obnoxious, outrageous behavior they want to, since rich people and celebrities are different or somehow better than everyone else.

And lest you think I am unfairly picking on professional athletes, the same can be said for movie stars, rock musicians, and others who found a way to ride the capitalist gravy-train to stratospheric heights. In truth I am extremely unimpressed with athletes of all kind, and still maintain that any nurse, teacher, police officer, military person or firefighter in this country performs services of much more value on any given day than Jordan or Woods or any other athlete has ever done in their entire careers.

But without capitalism we would not have the high standard of living we do in this country. Capitalism fosters initiative, hard work, and enterprise. The lure of immense wealth entices people to invent and create, to make things better, to strive for the next level. But its dark side also brings greed and avarice. Capitalism by its very nature inevitably creates a class system, a "have" and "have-not" culture. Rampant capitalism coupled with a celebrity-obsessed culture creates ridiculous things like what we have now, where one percent of the population controls over twenty-five percent of the wealth in this country. Under what circumstances would that be considered healthy or fair? But anti-capitalism, also known as communism, has been a total and undeniable failure, as exemplified by Cuba, the former U.S.S.R and North Korea. Socialism keeps sputtering along in Canada and various European countries, but seems to be the most effective on a small scale, not in a country the size of the United States.

Back to the subject of bonuses: truthfully, I can't even imagine getting a million-dollar bonus. I wouldn't know what to do with that massive amount of money. What does a person have to do to be awarded a bonus of a million dollars at the end of the year? I can certainly see if a medical researcher finds a cure for cancer or blindness, they most definitely deserve a huge bonus, to be sure. But most people barely make a million dollars over the course of a lifetime. And what is it these Wall Street titans do? Create a lot of phantom wealth that only exists in the ledgers of accountants. Slice and dice a whole slew of bad mortgages, mix them up with some good ones, package them up as mortgage-backed securities and sell them to other greedy parasites as sure-fire, no-risk moneymakers. Then create ridiculous things like credit-default swaps which act as insurance policies against things that supposedly will never happen, but doggone it, did in fact happen and brought down Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, hobbled AIG to the point of collapse, and rattled the entire U.S. economy, once the undisputed powerhouse of the entire world in all of history, to its very foundations. So what do we do to fix things? Dole out bailouts in the form of trillions of dollars of taxpayer money, which we very well might never see again. And then give the financiers who are most directly responsible for this fiscal catastrophe huge, nonsensical bonuses.

This is where capitalism has landed us, surrounded by the fruits of our labors and also the poison of our greed. An astonishing, almost inconceivable amount of wealth has been both created and destroyed in this country over the past decade or so. Everyone is feeling the effects, and our lives have been profoundly, unavoidably changed in the past six months. Capitalism is the most viable, resilient economic system ever created, but it also has levied an extremely heavy price that we will be paying for many many years into the future.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Farewell, Battlestar

Last Friday, March 20, saw the series finale of "Battlestar Galactica" on the Sci-Fi channel. This was an event of seismic proportions for anyone who considers themselves a fan of science fiction on any medium - television, movies, print. Anticipated with a fervor usually reserved for six-year-olds a couple days before Christmas, it was a watershed event for me which still reverberates several days later.

What was it about this series that grabbed the imaginations of myself and several million other normally level-headed (give me a break, okay?) people with a vise-grip for four fragmented seasons? First and foremost, "Galactica" was a great story, expertly told. It was, in all instances, a character-driven drama, and had all the elements of great stories told in other settings: morality, mortality, the meaning and purpose of life, love and loyalty, ambition, delusion, guilt and redemption. The setting, in intra-galactic space, was at the same time, fundamental and irrelevant to the story itself. The story could well have been set in an urban, post-apocalyptic wasteland or the American West of the 1800s. The whole story pivoted around a desperate group of survivors of an overwhelming catastrophe being relentlessly pursued by a race of powerful, seemingly indestructible enemies with nothing short of genocide in mind.

As many writers have pointed out much more skillfully than I can, "Galactica" was the perfect drama for a terrifying, inverted post-9/11 world. How can you battle an enemy that looks exactly like you? Who can you really trust when you view everyone you meet with suspicion and uncertainty, because they could very well be a robot and you would never know it, until it's too late? How can you fight against an enemy when death is meaningless to them? In the "Galactica" universe these enemies simply download their consciousness into another, identical body and they are ready to go again. They are, in effect, the ultimate suicide bombers, who carry out their deadly missions with the complete assurance that they will come back again as good as new, with all their memories intact and ready to pick up again right where they left off.

One of the elements of genius of "Galactica" was that it was constantly keeping us off-balance and putting unexpected twists and turns on their increasingly complex world-view. In the "New Caprica" story arc, which spanned seasons 2 and 3, the parallel with the U.S. occupation of Iraq was uncomfortably obvious: the humans settled on a planet only to be discovered by the Cylons and invaded. The humans then became the insurgents, battling against a superior occupation force and using any means at their disposal, including suicide bombings, to fight back. The occupiers also had no problem using torture and imprisonment to force their rule on the humans. Abu-Ghraib, anyone? The story arc ended with the insurgents fighting a costly war against their oppressors and escaping back into space where their enemies resumed their pursuit. In the end religious beliefs fracture the Cylon nation into two parts, and the humans form a very uneasy, suspicious alliance with some of their former enemies.

Again the question comes up, why do I care so much about a television program? When I was much younger I was obsessed with "Lost in Space", but I was like 14 years old at the time. What is my excuse now, 40-some years later? Maybe it's the appeal of an excellent story, first-rate production values, and incredible actors working at the top of their games all coming together in a finished product that is much more than just the sum of its parts. "Galactica" grew on you, there was something about it that make you think about what you saw days after watching a program. I was not an immediate fan of the miniseries when it debuted in 2003. I watched it and thought, well that was strange, that wasn't anything close to what I expected. I would tune in occasionally through the first season of the show, but did not watch regularly by any means. Slowly but surely, I was pulled into the "Galactica" universe and by the middle of season 2 I was hooked.

The characters were so fully-formed and brilliantly acted, and the writing gave them plenty of opportunities to turn them into people you genuinely cared about. The series was ultra-realistic, with no sleek, designer "bridge" where all the action took place. On "Galactica" there were no phaser-pistols, talking computers, or matter transporters beaming people all over the place. The guns shot regular bullets and people communicated on huge, clunky old phones. While there were a few nods to the science-fiction lexicon we have all come to understand and accept - artificial gravity on all vessels no matter their size, faster-than-light travel, to name a few - the hallmark of "Galactica" was its granular, fundamental realism that made you think, yes this could actually happen, this could be real. And that might be its greatest triumph.

Now that "Galactica" is over, I feel like something meaningful and good has gone. The finale was by no means perfect - some long-sought answers to important questions were provided, but other matters (particularly the true nature of the resurrected Kara Thrace) were glossed over. Series finales must be the most difficult programs to create because you're almost assured to anger and annoy some segment of your loyal viewers. The "Seinfeld" finale was almost universally reviled, and the ending of "The Sopranos" is still being debated as either brilliantly creative or cowardly cop-out. The finale to "Six Feet Under" was in my opinion as close to a perfect end to a series as I have ever seen. But maybe we are to provide some our own answers when a story ends, in ways that are most meaningful to us. "Battlestar Galactica" was a great ride for over 5 years, and it holds up very well on repeated viewings. We will be thinking about some of those questions for years to come. For those of us willing to take the journey, it was a singular, richly rewarding experience that will most likely not be repeated anytime soon.

Meghan McCain Can't Get No Satisfaction

I was trolling through CNN.com a while ago and came across this revelatory bit of prose about Meghan McCain, daughter of John and Cindy. In it, she invites the world to ponder the gross injustices visited upon her social and dating life by her father's failed presidential bid:


If the reader would prefer not to be enlightened on that particular topic (and believe me I would totally understand) then let me just summarize and say that Meghan seems to think the unholy nexus of Secret Service coverage, incessant media scrutiny and general post-election weirdness have all come together to have a severe dampening effect on her attempts to get her freak on. And while I have no doubt that her dreams of a multi-orgasmic Saturday night (or Friday night. Or Thursday night. Or Monday afternoon, for that matter) have been adversely affected, I would submit that it's due less in part to the aforementioned inconveniences, and more to the fact that she is the daughter of a supremely creepy, loathsome old geezer and a poorly-constructed Cylon skinjob.

In fact Cindy McCain has always made me think of what the first Cylon skinjobs must have looked like when they were built long ago on pre-nuclear-attack Caprica, before their creators got serious about quality control. I can imagine the scientists looking at her rolling off the assembly line and saying, "Whoa - this one doesn't look right, what the hell happened?" or "This one isn't going to fool anybody." It is against this unenviable backdrop of an icon of overwhelming creepiness and the genetic equivalent of a cheap Gucci knock-off that Meghan McCain finds herself trying to make sense of the nuclear wasteland of her social life. I was going to say "sex life" instead of "social life" but doing so would tie that concept back to a member of the McCain family, and I still cannot bring myself to do such a thing.

Not to say that I'm completely unsympathetic to young Ms. McCain, not at all. Back when I was her age I too was relentlessly bemoaning the fact that I wasn't getting laid every twenty minutes. Now, not so much. Also, you can't entirely blame the child for the fact that their parents are completely and utterly repellent and vile. Just because you're related to someone doesn't mean you're responsible for them and have to continually apologize for their general ickiness, I know that from my own freak-show of a family. To her credit, Meghan did have some unpleasant, if totally accurate, things to say about the execrable Ann Coulter, whose very existence continues to be a festering canker-sore on the butt of humanity. You can read that lovely little screed (and it is worth reading) here:


If all this indicates to you that I have way too much time on my hands and I should be worried about more important things, then I am guilty as charged. However, as our economy wiggles its toes over the edge of the abyss, it would give me a modicum of comfort if I knew that John McCain's daughter would have it off, at least once more, with some unwitting and slightly disinterested sperm donor.