Monday, May 29, 2006

Supporting The Troops

Today is Memorial Day. Over the last week or so, there’s been the usual outpouring of support and recognition military personnel, past and present, living, dead in the fullness of time, or killed in action.

Make no mistake. Soldiers recognize and appreciate that support. Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day are times not only for us to honor the men and women in uniform that came before us, but to celebrate our connection to them, and to receive those reminders that our society appreciates our sacrifices. That appreciation truly does help keep us going in the hard times.

We notice other things, too. Those of us currently overseas can’t see the bumper stickers, but we see them when we’re home. Those of us who visit Arlington National Cemetary notice the respect that tourists show on that hallowed ground. Organized efforts like Operation Dear Abby and smaller efforts from elementary school classes truly get to us when we’re deployed, and truly matter to us.

But we notice other things, too.

In San Francisco, the Board of Education is considering banning the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) from their high schools. The stated reason is to protest the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy – and, since it is San Francisco, that’s a believable reason, and one that I can respect. However, some of the supporters of the proposal believe that JROTC is “just an easy way for the military to get a foothold in public schools and encourage teens to enlist after they graduate.” (San Francisco Chronicle). San Francisco will have to pay for the protest, if approved – the Department of Defense helps pay the JROTC teachers, and the courses count for Physical Education credits. If they kill the program, they’ll have to pay full price for replacement courses. At any rate, I seriously doubt that the proposal would go very far were it not for parents’ fears that their children might choose the same career I did. You already know how I feel about that.

We notice when National Guardsmen and Reservists join us on deployments, and then return to find their jobs gone. Sometimes they get fired when they leave. Sometimes only when they get back. Either way, a lawsuit will get their jobs back – but not if their bosses manufacture excuses. The employers can document bad attitudes, missed work, low performance…especially subjective problems that the soldier can’t prove false. And then they can fire the soldiers after a few months, so they can hire someone who won’t be called away for weeks or months at a time. We notice when our brothers and sisters in the Reserves and Guard can’t find jobs – because they proudly included their military commitment on their application or resume. I’ll bet some of those employers have yellow ribbon stickers on their SUVs.

We notice how we are portrayed in movies, TV, books, and newspapers. We notice the little things – like misspelling ranks and titles in news stories. Since references for that are available through a brief internet search, mistakes show a level of concern. Mis-worn uniforms, incorrect patches and ribbons…a movie or TV producer could hire any decent NCO for peanuts and be sure of getting those things right. We notice bigger things, like the way enlisted troops are usually mindless automatons, obeying ridiculous unlawful orders with a lack of hesitation that would do credit to a Nazi. Or that officers are either warmongering fools or desk-bound bureaucrats – except for Our Hero who has to work around or actively fight his superiors to Do What Is Right.

We notice our representation in government, and how few congressmen have real military service in their backgrounds. We know the difference between an elected official that served as a grunt in World War II and one who signed up for the Guard but was never called up and rarely showed up for drills. We’re fixing this one ourselves – several Iraqi Freedom veterans are running for election this year. They’re running in both parties and on both sides of the question of the war. And they’ve got several incumbents very nervous.

We notice the nation’s overall level of sacrifice for this war. We know that in World War II, the country suffered through rationing of all sorts of foods to feed the troops, and coped with shortages of rubber and metal to arm them. We know that the sheer size of our forces drained so much manpower that women were pulled into the workforce, changing the economy forever. We know that the Vietnam War pulled over 8,500,000 men and women into the military – about 4% of our total population, enough so that everyone at least knew someone who went. Our forces right now are below 1,500,000, while the population has increased – less than half of one percent of the population are part of the current war. There’s no rationing…no sacrifices. Even taxes have come down. For the second time in our nation’s history (the first being Desert Shield/Desert Storm), the sacrifices of war are entirely on the shoulders of our men and women in uniform – and ther families.

Like I said before, we appreciate the support of our nation, in big ways and small. But think about us again next week, after the flowers have wilted and the flags have been put away. Think about us next month. Ask yourself – am I really supporting our troops? Or did I just buy a sticker?

My apologies to my family and friends – your support and love are unquestioned.

Statistics pulled from Office of Veteran’s Affairs and Wikipedia’s census entries.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Video Killed The Radio Star

Once upon a time, the most important characteristics for pop music stars were their voices and their ability to compose. You didn’t have to have both – you could sing someone else’s music, or compose for someone else’s voice – but you usually needed something special in one category or the other.

Physical attractiveness was useful, of course, but not critical. Cass Elliot was the butt of jokes about her weight…but nobody laughed while she was singing. Jim Morrison and Mick Jagger became sex symbols because of their musical talents – certainly not because of their faces. Yvonne Elliman, Steve Tyler, Alice Cooper, Phil Collins…some very popular singers are not merely unattractive, but downright ugly! Nobody cared all that much, since the closest you could get to them was the front row of a concert, and their sound was really your only connection with them.

Over the last 20 years or so, though, that has changed. Sure, the stars always worked to enhance their appearance. Some bands used their appearance to attract attention – KISS springs to mind. When MTV made pop music a video art form, though, appearance became more and more important. Since then, it has gotten worse. Madonna does some pretty good songs, but she’d have never made it without showing herself off. Brittney Spears and Jessica Simpson could probably lip-sync old Buddy Holly tunes and still be popular - in fact, that might be an improvement.

I think American Idol has finally finished the job, though. Clearly, an unattractive person is never going to make the final few rounds in Idol – he or she will be probably never even be a finalist, and will certainly not get the votes to stay til the end. And for unknown reasons (though my personal guess is that the U.S. has lost its collective mind), not only is Idol the most popular show on TV, but the winners and some of the more popular losers have truly become respected and popular musical stars. Since the recording studios can only really plug a certain number of stars, and since they like a sure thing as well as anyone, those manufactured icons of glitz are pushing aside other great singers – potentially better artists, but not able to make the cut on screen.

It probably doesn’t matter in the long run. The Recording Industry Ass. of America, with their “anti-piracy” attacks on their customer base, may well kill the entire industry anyway. But are karaoke singers writ large really supposed to be the future of music?

My apologies to The Buggles for the title of this entry.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Sleeping Peacefully

A week and a half ago, I spent the night in the hospital. No, it wasn’t an emergency – I was scheduled for a sleep study. Those of you who have had me as an overnight guest know that I snore. What you may not know is that over the last few years, it has gotten worse, to the point where I have woken myself up at times. Worse yet, my wife tells me that I actually stop breathing for seconds at a time, while my body struggles for air, until I finally start again with a gasp.

It doesn’t take much research online to discover that these are symptoms of sleep apnea. After several months of loving nagging from Rita (powered by her real worry that some night that gasp wouldn’t come), I finally went to sick call and got an appointment. I got there at 8:00 p.m. and watched a short video while the nurse wired me up – sensors on my forehead, my temples, my nose, my cheeks, my neck, my chest, and my legs. As if that wasn’t enough, the room was wired with a camera and microphones.

I was afraid that with all that gear on, I’d have trouble getting to sleep. My worries got worse when he told me I needed to sleep on my back – something I never, ever do. As it turns out, though, the written report tells me it took less than 17 minutes for me to get to sleep.

More surprising, I woke up still sleeping on my back. Even more surprising, I woke up wearing a plastic mask over my nose. The nurse told me that if they got a solid reading of apnea during the first half of the night, he’d put a CPAP mask on me for the second half to try to find out how much positive air pressure into my nose it would take to keep my throat from closing while I sleep. I just didn’t expect to sleep through the change! But sleep through it I did.

I got the written report yesterday. In the first three and a half hours, my breathing problems interrupted my sleep 436 times – that’s 126 times an hour. In the next four hours, with the mask, they slowly increased the pressure to knock out my snoring and “respiratory events,” and got them down to 4 per hour.

There’s an excessively long waiting list for appointments at the clinic, but in a few weeks I’ll be fitted for my own CPAP. I’m hoping for all sorts of benefits – more energy, a more even temper, better concentration – but I’ll settle for keeping myself breathing all night. Those of you who have hosted me overnight and were too polite to complain about the noise…you may notice a difference next time!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Tip Top

I’ve been reading another blog fairly often lately – It’s written by a waiter in a fairly high-class New York restaurant, who has some of the most amazingly rude and clueless customers. Of course, he also touches on events from his personal life, and his political opinions. He’s a pretty good read, definitely worth going back through the archives.

But reading that reminded me of something that has bothered me for years. Why is a tip always a percentage of the bill? My wife waited tables at Pizza Hut, once upon a time. A check there runs in the $10-$30 range, more or less and depending on the size of the party, so her tips should be average around three or four bucks a table. A friend of ours worked the tables at Bob Evans for a little while, where the checks are probably about that same range, maybe a little higher. Meanwhile, a waiter at Applebee’s, or Friday’s, or Red Lobster is getting tipped on checks in the $30-$100 range – call it an average tip around $10. Is he really working any harder than Rita, or our friend at Bob Evans? “Waiter,” the author of Waiter Rant, is getting tips on checks that probably range from $50 to $500…though that top end probably includes an expensive wine, and one does not usually tip for the full value of an expensive vintage. Still, he’s probably pulling in $25 or higher tips on a regular basis, and sometimes MUCH higher. Is it that much harder to carry a plateful of more expensive food?

While I’m at it, why am I tipping so high, anyway? Let’s go back to Rita and our friend at Bob Evans. A good waiter or waitress can probably handle 6 tables or more at a time. If they all tip correctly (15%-20% for normal good service, more for something special), that means they should be pocketing around 20 bucks an hour in tips. Of course, they don’t always have full tables…and not everyone tips at all, let alone correctly. That cuts into their average a lot – they’re probably lucky to get a quarter of that, which doesn’t quite meet minimum wage.

On the other hand, using those same guesses, the guy at Macaroni Grill is probably making $15 an hour, and Waiter is bringing down $35. And if people really did tip properly, you could double those numbers. Why am I tipping people at a rate that would be more than my own paycheck? And if anybody currently waiting tables is reading…how much do you REALLY make an hour? You can leave your answer anonymously – I’m not the IRS, I’m just curious.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a firm believer in tipping waitpersons. They really have to be bad to make me drop the tip to 10%...and it takes active rudeness to make me not leave a tip. I have no plans to change that, either. But it sure adds a chunk to the cost of the meal – enough to keep me eating at home more often…unfortunately for Rita, who has to cook!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Figures Don't Lie...

My son apparently developed an interest in the world around him, and has started watching CNN Headline News in the morning before school. That’s certainly not something I want to discourage…but it has the unfortunate side effect of forcing me to face the world before I’m fully awake. Ah, well, we all make sacrifices for our children, right?

Today, CNN was telling us about Congress’ recent approval to continue the Bush tax cuts, as they were modified last year. They posted a graphic showing the average savings for the cuts in various income brackets – taxpayers making $1,000,000 a year and up will save an average of over $42,000, while taxpayers making less than $25,000 a year will save only $9. There were two other brackets shown, but I was unable to locate them on – at any rate, they clearly indicated that the rich would be getting richer, while the poor gained almost nothing.

On further reflection, though, I’m pretty sure that’s misleading. After all, how much taxes are those poor people paying? Looking at the 2005 Form 1040A, I see that for a married couple with two kids making $25,000 a year, $22,800 of that is exempt from taxes. That’s the standard exemption plus the deduction for four dependents. The tax bill on that $2,200 remaining is $279. Then, of course, they get the Child Tax Credit of $2,000 to apply against that $279 – that credit doesn’t allow for negative numbers to be paid to the taxpayer, but it does kill that $279. In fact, for our family of four to actually come up with a positive tax bill, they have to make at least $41,000 – and then they’ll have to pay $4.00. Yes, that’s four dollars. Anything less than that, and they get back every penny that was withheld from them. And that’s not with any fancy tax strategies… that’s just the basics.

Note that I didn’t include Earned Income Credit or the Additional Child Credit – those programs actually pay the taxpayer above and beyond what they put into withholding, so any changes in the tax plan that let them keep more of that money count, for me, as a savings. But as far as I know, this plan didn't make changes to those programs.

Of course, not everyone is in a family of four. For a family of three, you have to make $29,600 (for a married couple with one child) or $33,700 (for a single parent with two children) to pay a single penny in taxes. Even a single parent with one child has to make $23,700 to pay any taxes at all. No wonder the average savings for incomes under $25,000 is so low…you can’t cut the price below zero!

I don’t want to play around with the other end of the spectrum, the folks pulling down a million or more a year. The top bracket is 35%, so they should be paying somewhere near $350,000 on that million (a little less – they get deductions and exemptions, too)…but we all know that various stupid tax tricks can reduce that number considerably, and I’m not familiar enough with tax law to make a reasonable guess on those numbers. But when you start looking at averages at the top of the scale, you run into the skewing that results from people at the extremes. The average savings in that bracket is $42,000 a year…but if nine multi-millionaires are saving $1000 a year (that’s a third of a percent of their tax bill), while one Bill Gates is saving $411,000 a year (on his billion dollar tax bill, so that’s one-twentieth of a percent), then that works out to that average of $42,000 a year, while still being an insignificant savings for all of them! (Yes, I made up the numbers for Bill Gates – I couldn’t find any numbers on what he makes from investments and capital gains, and I couldn’t properly account for his incredibly huge charitable donations. Replace his name with the multi-billionaire of your choice. Or do your own math, and tell me what you came up with.)

I didn’t check out the Fox News version of the tax story. Somehow, I suspect that they focused on the percentage savings for various tax brackets, showing how much greater a savings it was for lower- and middle-income people…while still being just as misleading. I think all news organizations that display statistics of any sort should be required to provide a full disclosure of where they got their numbers and how they did their calculations – they could post it on their web site, or whatever. I expect we’d see a lot less statistics. But since most people can't or won't do simple math anymore, the press can get away with whatever spin they want to put on the numbers.