Monday, March 10, 2008

An American Dream -- 2 -- Chapter 15

[To give a taste of the novel, this Chapter details some of the issues confronted. This is still unedited, so forgive the typos, etc.]


The Christmas season had taken control over almost every element of the box store at which Tommy worked. Management wanted shoppers to forget all of the things of the world that might cause people to stop and think before they agreed to buy things. There was to be no mention of Hurricane Katrina, the War in Iraq, or even the Tragedy of 9/11 anywhere in the store since any of them might cause some people to worry. Instead, a world of absolute happiness was the order of the day.

The floor decorations department had long before been reduced to a single person who directed floor personnel as to how he wanted this mannequin or that table displayed. His main goal was to push certain merchandise that management wanted displayed prominently. If, for example, one shirt made a higher profit than another, then it received center stage in the display.

Tommy watched the process over the years while he was there and frequently felt a twinge of disgust at the items he had to push onto customers over those items he felt the customers might really prefer long term. Still, he swallowed his own thoughts as he touted the superiority of this item over that other item.

Floor displays, which he also had to manipulate, received a similar treatment. He accented those items he was told to emphasize over those items he believed were better.

While driving home one evening he felt particularly repulsed by one display he had been forced to prepare. He held an internal argument as he drove that resulted in a predictable result. “I was just doing what I was told to do,” he concluded. “That’s my job.”

Alice noticed her husband’s discontent when he arrived that night.

“Tommy,” she said over dinner. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he snapped back at her.

“I know something’s bothering you,” she offered.

“Nothing,” he said as he looked into her eyes.

She dared ask one more question. “Tommy. Is there something I should know?”

“No,” he responded. One word, one syllable was all he would offer to console his wife.

Deciding not to arouse the beast, she finished her meal without another word. Whether she chose to refrain from pursuing the topic from respect for his privacy or from fear of his response she could not have said at that point. She only knew one thing in particular. If she wanted some form of peace to exist, she had to back away from a topic that he defined as out of bounds. She watched him finish his meal and a thousand thoughts went through her mind. She assumed from the timing of the situation that whatever was bothering him might come from some problem at work. His wall of silence made her feel impotent. She could neither help him solve the problem that plagued his thoughts nor comfort his distress.

For his part, what had begun to irritate his thoughts was to what point in life he had come, not to mention the other elements of dreams and hopes he had seen either slip away or be taken from him. Before the sawmill closed, he understood his place. He understood his position in the mill and in life. There seemed to be a clear pathway he could follow without questions. The products the mill offered to sell were solid and durable, like he assumed was his position. After the mill closed and he took his current job, in whch he neither helped to produce anything nor felt the products he sold had any resiliency. Clothes were soft and not as durable as they had been before. He felt as if he had become some cog within a giant wheel, doing only what was assigned from somewhere above, without consideration of either human satisfaction in either the sales or consumption or in the durability of the product. He knew that the next season would force him to display and sell other designs than he currently sold. He knew the fluidity of merchandise and techniques for display would change.

His work life reflected daily life more each day, he felt, and the result was a sense of eternal instability. Would he still have some position tomorrow, or would he be like last season’s vogue, gone and forgotten? In his world, position depended upon productivity, tracked on daily charts. His fear was simple -- he would be passed by another. He would lose what definitions of self worth had been left to him within the corporation and within the world. More of his hopes would lie beside the road of life unable to compete with the new stresses which seemed to constantly evolve.

Maybe that was why he had gone to Lila’s apartment -- he wanted, maybe felt he needed, to redefine himself as a man, and he only understood one way to do such. His failure in the effort further fueled his feelings of helplessness and emptiness. What did he truly have that he could call his own? All of the material wealth of his labors of life amounted to very little in real terms, and all of that wealth was kept only by the most tenuous of efforts. Any extreme of life could easily find him stripped of even that little bit.

These issues Alice did not fully understand. All she knew for certain was her husband seemed to be stressed by work.

Had Tommy wished to discuss with his wife the causes of his fears, she would have tried to understand them. Yet that discussion could not occur. It was not so much he felt his wife could not or even would not understand. He, simply enough, could not express any fear he had, afraid that such a confession might diminish him in her eyes.

Alice watched the disintegration of her life’s partner with increasing alarm. She ached to cry out to him that he should share the burdens that weighed so heavily upon his shoulders with her; yet she also knew that if she ever expressed such a knowledge about his burdens he might feel lessened in her eyes. Wrestling with how to steer through the white water rapids, she felt helpless. A movement in one direction might capsize the craft, while another movement might. . . .She did not even dare to consider the alternative.

Her natural instinct was to protect those around her whom she loved. Yet her husband had never allowed that instinct to extend toward him. He was afraid that such an effort by her might engulf him within a wall of weakness that he could never allow. The man was to be the absolute and unquestioned master of the house, and there was never to be allowed any hint of weakness in that levee, no matter how false the pretense might really be.

The wife could little more than try to stand beside the husband and await what might happen. Then the wife might be allowed to intervene. Decisions might have been made in the past that reverberated into the future, but only then might the wife have an impact. At least that was how they had been raised to believe, and how they had lived their lives thus far.

The boat Tommy bought after the trial overwhelmed her thoughts every night as she tried to fall asleep. Questions of why he had bought it and why he had not discussed the purchase with her before plagued her. Was it his attempt to escape the pressures of his work? Was it an attempt to escape her? Was it an attempt to recapture something from his past youth? Was it an attempt to begin something new?

These questions did not leave her thoughts. They became her daily and nightly companions. Whenever she mentioned the boat, Tommy would become almost violently defensive and dictatorial. He made the decision to buy it and that was all that could be said about it. But the more he protested any questions about the boat, the more Alice began to suspect that maybe it meant something more than she understood. When the monthly bills arrived, though, she felt increasingly she deserved some answers.

One evening, after Tommy arrived home and after dinner, he assumed his favorite position before the television. Alice gathered the various bills and the check book. She presented the collection to him with a single question, “How can I pay these?”

Tommy looked at the bills for a brief moment and seemed to dismiss them. Actually, he felt the fear he had so long suppressed. The material worth of his life had come into a point of seeming finality. His debts could exceed his assets, and he knew it. Not that he did not labor honestly for his pay, or that his normal expenses exceeded what he could afford. What caused the problem was his simple desire to have one thing he could call his own. The boat. The payments, the taxes, the insurance, ran the debts beyond what he could reasonably hope to afford. The one thing he wanted, he could not afford. This realization drove him into a frenzy.

“These belong to you,” he snorted, throwing them on the coffee table.

Alice slowly gathered the bills into a neat stack and stared at them, not him. “They belong to us.” Her words were almost as weak a sigh sent into the night’s wind. A wish, a hope, sent outwards but with little hope for relief.

“Humph!” He left the room towards their bedroom without even glancing back. “Good night.”

Sometimes decisions are made at moments that possess neither emotion nor energy. A nearly silent voice inside Alice’s head echoed her husband’s words. She sat holding the envelops and knowing there could be no answer other than what her husband had already rejected. He would need to swallow his pride, allowing his help mate to do what she could if their marriage was to survive. If he continued to refuse the obvious, then she might have to take another step in order to save her very home.

They had finally come to the point where belief and reality collided. No longer could long held belief hold sway over reality. A new definition had arisen. The pressures of facts were overwhelming the old beliefs, forming a sense of chaos not known by either person before. A new paradigm of life had to be formed, and those who refused to see the new reality would be doomed to failure and frustration.

Alice did not see her position as cosmic in any sense. Instead she saw her situation as typical of other women who had been forced into the job market from pressures beyond their control or understanding. What she failed to observe -- or maybe chose to fail to observe -- was she joined the ranks of so many other women whom circumstances had seemingly placed into this position. The situation seemed so obvious. The rising costs of monthly bills exceeded the monthly income of the husband. Many elements contributed to the rise, for example, the rising price of oil which raised the price of gasoline and electricity and the transportation of commodities, or the rising tax burdens from the various governmental agencies who doled out contracts through a secret bidding process.

What ever the cause, and Alice did not want to know the truth about such, all she knew or understood was her life would not remain the same. It could not. Changes had been forced upon her and her life that she could not fight, no matter how hard she might believe in what had been before.

Alice’s father provided the family income and her mother offered support, and acceptance of her own husband’s decisions about all things dealing with finances. When she married Tommy, Alice expected the same pattern to control her life. This was the pattern she expected to leave to her own children in time. The lay off from the saw mill and the unexpected expenses from a legal defense challenged her ideals with a harsh set of realties.

Nothing was any longer what it had formerly seemed anymore.

If one belief was false, then could not other beliefs be false as well?

The thought scared her to her core. She found herself thrust into a realm of unknowns she had never imagined possible. Her husband demanded one action. She knew the result of his decision, based upon what they had held as a belief for so long, could only lead to a crisis situation. If she chose to pursue another course of action, however, disaster might be avoided. Even more specifically, to what degree did she owe her actions to her own needs over those of her husband? His decisions were based upon a pride he had inherited. Did she owe her husband’s pride her own destruction?

While these questions rushed through her thoughts, another thought came forward. Jesus was very specific when He spoke about the sins of the father and the son. Alice knew her sins were her own and the sins of her husband were his own. At what point should her own eternal needs determine her actions?

Alice never suffered the violent abuse some men inflict upon their wives. Tommy never struck her in violence, nor even demeaned her verbally. She heard from various people how some men subjugated their wives in various ways, and she began to wonder if maybe, in his own way, her husband was not trying to do the same to her. He wanted her to only stay at home, or maybe do some volunteer work for the church at most. She was to be totally his, in heart, mind, and soul.
Was that not a type of abuse?

She did not consider herself as only a piece of property owned by her husband. If she was nothing more, then she could never hope to share in what Jesus offered. He offered His message to everyone. She knew she was a living being who wanted -- needed -- to share in what He offered.

Had Jesus offered only hopelessness in this world? Or had He proposed that every person should be treated and should act as an individual who answered ultimately to God for his or her actions?
For her part, Alice did not want to go to the extremes of analysis that circumstances seemed poised to force upon her; however, she was capable to do such.

Her decision to take a job and to accept the consequences of her decision crept slowly into her thoughts as she rinsed the dishes. As she placed the final pan into the drainer, she knew what she must do. The problem left to her was to explain her actions as actions of love. She respected her husband and his beliefs, but she knew his beliefs no longer provided what her family needed to sustain itself.

Laying a kitchen towel over the dishes, she stopped to think for a moment what was really happening in her life. She loved and respected her husband and her children. She wanted their love and respect in return. But was that return of love and respect really important to her, and, if so, why?

Alice began to question her right to be loved and respected by those people around her. Had she ever really done anything of particular note that warranted such? Could she ever do anything that might merit such?

She felt more alone than ever before as she began to try to evaluate her own life against an assumed balance of an ideal. True, she had never done anything to embarrass her family. Even during the trials of her husband as he faced the consequences of his decision to shot the intruder, she stayed by her husband’s side. Always she had portrayed nothing but solidarity for her husband and family, no matter how she might have felt internally.

When she remembered that terrible night when Tommy shot Jonathan, one question lingered in her thoughts. Did he shot the intruder from self defense or from fear? The trial was over and he would never be asked that question in a court, but Alice felt it might hold the answer to a great number of other questions. Chief among those questions, as she thought about their increasing debts, was his refusal for her to take a job. Was he afraid of what might happen if his wife did something that might make her feel a sense of some self worth? Did his own sense of fear or pride stand in the way of her doing what she believed was best for her own family, or even for herself?

Ideas cascaded through her when she at last released the gate. Moments from the past flooded her mind as she tried to sort through them to some conclusions. Somewhere in time past she had lost something precious. In her efforts to satisfy everyone around her, she forgot how to satisfy herself. When she began to think about that loss, she almost immediately began to question whether she had a right to question it as a loss at all. Was she not fulfilling the roles of life assigned to her from birth?

Through the kitchen door she could hear the television. She knew her husband would have the remote control nearby as he sat in the same spot as every other night. Lost in the sheer escapism, he would act as if nothing had happened that might change his life. A war in some distant land would mean his home was secure from threat, and any threats nearby would be considered fraudulent. He was in his castle and he was safe.

His wife, however, began to understand just how delicate that sense of security really was. She could open the kitchen door and see a scene of domestic harmony she knew well. So long as she did nothing to rock that boat, her life could follow the path her husband chose for her as well.
Alice clinched her upper arms with both her hands as she closed her eyes. Around her were the items she had secured for her kitchen over the years. The latest set of pots and pans still glistened, hanging on a rack Tommy built long ago. The walls were only a few shades darker than when he last painted them. The cabinets were still serviceable, though they were beginning to show their age as well. It was a kitchen she could bring a friend into but might hesitate to use to impress a stranger.

She ran her hands a couple of times up and down her arms, yet still feeling a sense of dissatisfaction. One was a lonely number, but one was all she really had left.

With a sigh, her hand pushed open the door inviting her to return to his reality. Designed by her husband, the world of escapism defined where she might live.

Sitting beside the man with whom she shared her life for so many years, she glanced first at the television and then at him. When he asked her what was wrong, she could reply nothing of substance.

“Just a little tired tonight,” she muttered.

He seemed not to hear what she said. He told her what had happened only moments before on the “reality” show.

Alice dutifully responded, “Okay.”

The television played its role as entertainer for a while before Tommy decided he would go to bed. His wife watched him leave their artificial world as he left for his world of dreams.

When he was gone, she scanned the room and noted several items, asking herself, “Are these the treasures stored in heaven for me?”

A late night news show announced its headlines with the statement, “After more than three months, there are at least 6,500 people from New Orleans still unaccounted after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and there are still more than 400 recovered bodies unidentified.” The music began and the credits started almost immediately. She stared at the screen, unable to absorb the numbers. Fortunately for her, a series of commercials followed the show’s opening. She had enough on her plate, as the saying goes, without seeking the problems of other people to occupy her thoughts.

Her hand reached for the remote control. Alice punched the buttons which brought the local religious channel, recognizing the scene at once -- an older movie’s rendition of Jesus and Mary Magdalene as she was chased by a crowd who wanted to stone her for adultery. He had already asked the crowd about who among them was without sin, and the crowd had disappeared.

“Woman,” Jesus said. “Where are they who would condemn thee?”

“No where,” she responded. “My Lord.”

“Then,” He replied. “Neither would I. Go and sin no more.”

The particular version of the movie did not matter any more that the actors chosen to perform the parts to her. The roles, Alice knew, outstripped the actors anyway. What mattered in the movie was the message rather than the particulars.

When Alice watched such movies, her focus was upon the element of forgiveness and love displayed from the Bible. She did not interpret any of the actions as confronting existing social norms. Nor could she readily see her situation as confrontational either. She saw a need that she could fulfill, not understanding how it might challenge her husband’s definition of himself, and not understanding the rationale behind his obstinacy. There was no broader cosmic purpose or drive within her efforts or her desires. She merely wanted to do what she hoped, what she believed, was best for her family. The sacrifice would be totally within what she thought proper for a wife and mother to do -- pitch in and help when needed. There was no desire for some professional career; she merely hoped to earn an extra paycheck.

Tommy, however, took her insistence as an assault upon his position as husband and breadwinner for the family. She confronted him on the traditional lines of his definition of family and his interpretation of social structure. He was the male while she was a female. Males decided; females obeyed. The structure was simple and time proven in his world. Questions of equality did not exist. She was to be his “help mate.” Only.

Such a role no longer fit her. Alice began to ask the question, “What about me?” She began to wonder if her thoughts and feelings and needs really mattered to her husband at certain times. Or did his own desires trump everything else? Did his fears and worries alone matter, leaving her own human frailties to mean nothing more than dust that might shook from the feet when leaving a town?

Alice watched the remainder of the movie through the crucifixion before she departed for bed. When she saw her husband sleeping soundly, she felt a combination of emotions that involved love and fear, hope and disgust. All she really understand as she slid into the covers was she was glad she could sleep alone, even with him in bed as well.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


The so-called Compromise to continue funds for the Iraq Occupation should be seen in its true reality. The Democrats totally buckled under. There was NO Compromise.

Oh, I understand the logic behind it, but I propose that if Congress ONLY sent one Bill with a deadline attached repeatedly to George, and he kept Vetoing it, only one question would be left. Who is supporting the troops and who is not.

As for the Compromise of a raising of the monimum wage I offer the follwoing.

Where is the so-called Compromise?

The recent Supplemental Funding Bill included a raise of the Minimum Wage from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour phased in over two years.

Using information from the US Census Bureau, the following may be said.

1. Following the ten year cycle between 1996 and 2006, annual inflation rate has been about 2.546%. Assuming a similar rate for 2007 to 2009, the higher minimum wage would only be about 29 cents in real purchasing terms. (This assumption could be slightly deceptive since gasoline prices alone have doubled between 2004 and 2007)

2. Current minimum wage places a single earner at about 53% of current poverty level, meaning a second full time job would be needed to edge over the poverty level.

3. Only about 2% of all workers currently receive minimum wage rates.

4. Kansas has a minimum wage rate below the mandated Federal level, while Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South Carolina have no minimum wage level. The Great Plains States generally have only the Federally mandated minimum rate (North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas) and three western states (Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming). Five other states (Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, and New Hampshire) also use the Federal minimum.

The House Democrats especially have been calling the Supplemental Spending Bill a compromise, but that seems a hard show to sell. Politically, those states which trend Republican will resent the raise in the Wage Rate and might vote accordingly. Secondly, the few workers who will receive any benefit are going to still have no voice in government, nor any assurance of a future raise hike.

Meanwhile, an unpopular war continues and American and Iraqi lives continue to be lost.

So, Where is the so-called Compromise?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Time to React

Wordsworth wrote, "The world is too much with me" in the 19th Century. What might he have written in the 21st Century?

There are so many levels on which one might react today that it seems overwhelming.

On the one hanrd, there are many petitions to Austin and the horrible deal that Ric Perry made with the Devil called the Trans Texas Corridor. On another hand, there are the various Anti-Iraq War petitions to Washington.

Knowing that no matter where I send a petition -- whether Austin or Washington -- the "elected" representative will ignore the petition does not help.

The Cancer is too much with us.

The desire for material gain and control holds fast in both Austin and Washington.

For example, consider the air we are forced to breath in the DFW region. Both Joe Barton and Perry have accepted money to either block passage of Legislation that might restrict polluters or have enabled legislation to allow polluters to run amook.

Logically, such actions do not make any sense. Consider the human factor first and then the economic factor.

The human factor is that thousands of people are struck annually in the DFW area with respiratory problems -- some fatal. Even Barton's own brother died of lung cancer and when he comes to the region he has to restrict his stay or else be transported back to the Hospital to prepare him to leave the area again. But still he takes the money and . . . .

The economic factor is harder to argue on specifics; however, consider those thousands who have to seek medical help annually. They take time out from work, they tie up doctors, they press medical insurers, etc. Is all that worth a few thousand dollars of bribe money Joe or Ric?

So now Perry proposes a Trans Texas Corridor, and will veto any Legislative action that seems to threaten it. But does he care whether the people of Texas want his fantasy? He accepts the bribes and continues onward.

The TTC will make air pollution worse. More cars will exhaust more pollutants at every Toll Plaza -- not to mention how much tolls will inflate everything, from visiting Grandma to buying an egg. So what if more people die from air pollution or starvation -- Perry got his bribe.

Aren't you glad he cares about Republican family values?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Someone asked me why TXU might be bought out, so here goes . . . .

TXU may be bought by a consortium of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR) and Texas Pacific Group (TPG). Both are private equity firms that use leveraged buyouts, and TPG specializes in rapid turnarounds and recapitalizations.

Although there have been various target purchase prices quoted in the various news medias, the price of about $44 billion seems to be the most plausible, at least it is what Reuters is reporting.

KKR was founded by Jerome Kohlberg, Jr, and his two cousins Henry Karvis and George R. Roberts in NY in 1976. TPG was founded by David Bonderman, James Coulter, and William S. Price III in 1992 in Fort Worth. Bonderman was associated with Henry Bass as a Chief Operating Officer prior to TPG. Notably, Kohlberg, Bonderman, and Coulter have contributed (2006, for example) to various Democratic efforts locally and nationally. Kravis donated to Republicans and Joe Lieberman.

TXU has entered into a new phase of operations. For example, in 2006 their operating costs have risen by 46% while their income profit has risen only 35%. Based on their Sept 30, 2006 reports, their total assets are $25 billion but their Net liabilities are $23 billion, leaving a tangible asset of just shy of $1 billion. For those who are interested, in January 2000 TXU stock price was about $18 per share and has risen to about $60 per share by February 2007.

For an explanation of why these groups might want to buy TXU a possible analogy can be drawn from what has transpired with Arlington Telecable. The cable system in Arlington has changed hands several times in recent years, with each buyer using a leveraged buying system that incurred increased debts -- costs passed onto customers with each new owner. The current owner of Arlington Telecable is Comcast. In leveraged buying, the most common practice is to establish numerous loans from several financial institutions, frequently using current assets of the targeted company as collateral.

The buyout offer would only be likely to occur when Austin removed the encumbrance -- such as it was -- of the Public Utility Commission (ending 12/31/06 I believe). This permits there to be no oversight over any utility company in the state, placing them into a free market posture. Fluctuations would be driven by demand of the product provided and by the competition of other similar providers. In the Conservative Ideology, such competition should tend to drive prices downward; however, such frequently does not always occur, especially when the number of competitors are significantly reduced (for example, the effect of WalMart on local pre-existing stores, which tends to drive the price upwards locally while still highlighting spot product at cost or below cost rates to entice customers once local competition has been dissolved).

The new bankruptcy laws allow for corporations to dodge many old debts -- like employee retirement funds. (Personal bankruptcy , however, is more difficult to pursue and you would still likely retain old debts.)

A very possible scenario might entail some future date for TXU to be declared bankrupt, especially if the holding company had amassed large debts to secure TXU, allowing employee pensions to be lost -- like Enron. However, since TPG especially initiates resales rather rapidly,a process similar to Arlington Telecable might be also possible, with succeeding companies buying it and incurring more loan debt at each new acquisition. When and if these increased debts would no longer be borne by the customers (by going to alternative suppliers), a bankruptcy would be very likely.

TXU has amassed a large amount of public relation negativity -- especially over the possible 19 new coal fire power plants -- which can not be quantitatively measured as to its long term impact; however, TXU has also warned that rolling blackouts and complete blackouts are to be expected in the near future if these power plants are not built. As seen in California, rolling blackouts can be manufactured at will and without justification of equipment failure or high demand. The citizens of California paid tremendously high taxes to get the blackouts stopped.

TXU has already begun a process of trying to hold customers into a period contract relation -- for example, a $25 instant refund on your next bill if you agree to a 24 month period of fixed prices. TXU has numerous other plans, but all seem to tend toward the holding the customer into a long term contract situation. Their expectation might be that within two years, they will be able to crush the competition and then freely float the rates they charge. (A similar situation happened when the telecommunication corporations were allowed free market status -- going from numerous providers to a very few survivors, mainly those with vast assets before the competition began.)

In previous years TXU has experimented somewhat in overseas operations, for example Royal Scotland Light and Power,which had substantial oil reserves based in the North Sea. However, the management and productivity and profit were so poor that the investment was dumped at a loss.

Both a hostile takeover or a buyout remain very possible. It could result in a relatively quick profit for some people while leaving an increasing debt burden on investors and customers.

Now some Representatives in Austin are beginning to get nervous. KKR and TPG will not agree to limiting the number of new coal powered factories or decreasing pollution emmissions, nor to holding TXU (which will be split into three separate companies) for longer than five years. Add to this that hours before the announcement of the deal, the exercise of options spiked 150%, causing the SEC to consider and investigation of insider trading.

TXU, KKR, and TPG announced that eventually local customers would have a decrease of between 8 and 10% in their kilowatt /hour rate. However, with reporting their $2+ Billion profit for the last quarter, some Representatives in Austin are pointing out that TXU would still have higher rates than many of its current competitors even with the deduction.

As I said, some will get richer, but not the customers.