Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Hmmm-Y Thing About Him Is... Well, you'll have to read it. (Sweetie's Hunk of the Week, 61)

Today's Hunk began with a mystery, as you'll see. The 61st Hunk of the Week is...

Taylor Kitsch!
(Write that down, Sweetie!

You Don't Know Him Without You Have seen "Friday Night Lights," which is the TV show IMDB says he's on. Then again, if you're Sweetie, and you're asked about him, you will get this exchange:

Me: Who's your Hunk of the Week? (Yes, this is a topic of conversation in our house. But it is a topic which is preferable to the topics we otherwise discuss, because the topics we otherwise discuss are things like "It's going to cost $1,200 to repair what the kids did to the car this time" and "The Boy's room appears as though it should be featured on Hoarders.")

Sweetie: He's Taylor... Kirsch? I don't know.

Which would lead a husband to think to himself "How could someone pick a Hunk whose name she doesn't know, on a TV show she (supposedly) doesn't watch?"

I say supposedly because Sweetie watches a lot of shows secretly. Sweetie denies watching these shows, but I know she does, because our DVR records them, leaving an electronic clue that doesn't exactly required Monk to solve the mystery. I'll turn on the TV and look to see which of my shows might have taped, and realize that none of them taped, and that instead, daytime soaps and weird dramas on CBS and things with Lifetime-y movie sounding names and, above all, "Shows about women who murder their husbands" have taped. And I'll say something like:

Me: How'd these shows end up taping? (That, too, is preferable to other actual topics of conversation we have around our house, topics like "You have to help The Boy redo his financial aid application for the third time," something we both hate doing because when the kids sit down to fill out paperwork, they get amazingly angry. I pointed out to Sweetie that the amount of anger and pain our kids feel doing paperwork on the computer can only be explained by our computer shooting out "Eyeball Stabbing Beams," so now, when they have to do it, behind the kids' back, I pantomime a kid being attacked by Eyeball Stabbing Beams as he/she works on the computer. It's really quite funny, but that doesn't make up for how frustrating it is to help an angry teenager fill out his financial aid forms.)

Sweetie: I don't know how they taped. I don't know... [Leaves room in a hurry.]

And I'm left to wonder if our TV is opting to tape shows for Sweetie on its own, and if so, why the TV tapes so many shows about women killing their husbands. And if not the TV, then why Sweetie tapes so many of those shows. Then, I decide I'd rather not know the answer to either of those questions.

Align Center
A question I would like to know the answer to is How someone can be the Hunk of the Week when Sweetie doesn't know his name, so I googled Taylor Kitsch -- jot that name down, Sweetie!-- and found pictures like the one at the right -- all the pictures are on the right today, or most of them, because that's how I loaded them up and it's Saturday and I worked 23 hours over the last two days and frankly, I'm too tired to delete them and start over, so just deal with it --

I found pictures like that one at the right, and thought: Hmmm. I wonder if that has anything to do with Sweetie liking him without even knowing his name.

I checked the other images on the page, and found more, only they were more of the "kind of like that first picture only more filled with abs, like the one at the right.

And as I went on -- and as you go on in the pictures here, you'll see -- they got more abs-y.

But that still doesn't answer the question of how Sweetie knew about him in the first place.

Does she just do random searches during the day, spending her entire day googling various words and phrases in hopes of finding some dreamy guy with a washboard stomach and perfect hair?

Probably. Let's move on.

Thing That Makes You Go Hmmmm About Him: Sharp-eyed readers will note that I've added an extra m to the Hmmmm, which you might think means that Taylor Kitsch (make a note of the name, Sweetie!) is extra-hmmmmy.

But he's not. I just mistyped it and again, I'm too lazy to change it. Not as lazy, it seems, as Sweetie, who just not long ago said this to me:

Sweetie (holding up empty cereal bowl at the table): Would you put this in the sink for me? Because you love me?

I put it in the sink for her -- and did it because I love her. Sorry, ladies: I'm off the market.

Taylor Kitsch's Hmmmy Things are that he's starring in Battleship, the movie, coming in 2012. Here's the plot of that movie, direct from IMDB:

A fleet of ships is forced to do battle with an armada of unknown origins in order to discover and thwart their destructive goals.

It's not automatically clear what Taylor Kitsch's (got it, Sweetie?) role is in that movie; it may be that the game is played on his stomach.

Battleship is, I believe, a movie based on a board game -- not one of the four I brilliantly suggested be made into TV serieses -- only it's not, exactly, because according to one site, it's a battle between battleships, okay, but it's in space and there's aliens and it'll be kind of District 9-ey, and I imagine that was the exact pitch for this movie: "It's a battle between spaceships, okay, but it's in space, and there's aliens, and it'll be kind of District 9-ey."

Remember, on Seinfeld, when George said their TV show would be "about nothing," and the executive asked "Why will people watch it?" and George said "Because it's on TV!"

Ever get the feeling that every executive in Hollywood looked at each other at that moment and said "Exactly!" and just gave up, right then? Because between reality shows that are just "Point the camera at people" and now a documentary that's just four sets of baby films, and Battleship: The Movie That Has Nothing To Do With The Game You Outgrew When You Were Eight, it certainly seems to me like the guiding ethos of Hollywood is "You'll watch it because it's on a screen."

But just to reinforce that, Hollywood -- not content to trust that we'll watch something because it's on a screen -- Hollywood does two other things to guarantee we'll go. First, they put Taylor Kitsch in it, because if we're going to watch two hours of someone yelling, in dramatic, Shatner-esque tones "You've sunk my battleship!" (ignoring that it's in space and can't sink, because we've got to get that line in there), if we're going to watch that, then we at least have to promise that the movie will be filled with people like Taylor Kitsch, whose body seems to have been created by computer technology. Seriously: look at the latest picture to the right.

How does he have muscles in his

And secondly, Hollywood guarantees we'll go see it by calling it Battleship. If they called it Space Fleet Battle or something, we'd all skip it and stay home and watch those Women-Murdering-Their-Husband shows we "happened" to tape. But name it Battleship, and, apparently, everyone in the entire worlds says "Hey, I once played that game at Grandma's on Thanksgiving, only the pieces were missing so we had to use a Lincoln Log for one of the ships, and also I didn't get any pie," and we go see the movie.

Familiarity breeds box office, so naming a movie after something we (presumably) loved, or remaking a movie, is guaranteed to get people into the theater. That's why you're getting Taylor Kitsch Stars In That Thing You Kind Of Remember, and that's why you're getting The Nightmare On Elm Street instead of a new horror movie, even though a new horror movie, Paranormal Activity, proved that people will go see something if it's high quality, even though it's unfamiliar. Hollywood knows that you hate new, so they just give you stuff you remember.

If that trend continues -- and it will -- Hollywood will start re-using star's names. They'll remake the celebrities, and take new faces but give them old names:

"You loved Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, but they're old and decrepit now, so here's Pretty Woman 2012, starring the New Julia Roberts (Kristin Stewart, renamed by Hollywood) and the New Richard Gere (Taylor Kitsch) in the movie you loved 20 years ago -- but remade with a couple of now-timely jokes! We even mention Twitter!"

What I'm saying, in a nutshell, is that the Hmmm-y Thing about Taylor Kitsch is that he's responsible for ruining entertainment and destroying creativity, forever. He may not like me saying that, but as the old saying goes, If you can't stand the heat, don't get cast in a picture that's loosely based on a boardgame, and also quit making my wife have fevered dreams of you during the day when she's supposed to be thinking up creative sandwiches for my lunch the next day.

That's an actual old saying, you know.

Reason I Assumed Sweetie Liked Him: Here's the picture Sweetie downloaded on our computer desktop to name him her 61st Hunk of the Week, and embarrass me if I took the laptop to seminars:

Nothing like sitting next to a judge and opening up my computer and having that greet us both. (Also, I've run out of right-placed pictures, so we're back to the center-placed pictures. Happy?)

Looking at that picture, I could see immediately what Sweetie liked about it. See, I've got this pair of cargo shorts that I loved, and wear all the time. Or, that is, I wore them all the time, but then this year when I got out the summer clothes and put them on for the first time, I realized that they no longer fit -- I'm sure that sitting in my closet on the shelf all winter shrunk them through some combination of heat or humidity or dust or something, in a process that's completely unrelated to Doritos...

... but anyway, I can't wear those shorts anymore (stupid clothes-shrinking closet!), and had almost forgotten them until I looked closely at the picture and saw that Taylor Kitsch had the exact same pair of shorts on!

So that's when I solved the mystery! Sweetie must have gone looking for a pair of the shorts for me to replace the ones that... shrunk... and stumbled across a picture of Taylor Kitsch, by accident!

And then, judging from our browser history, she must have stumbled across 173,022 other pictures of Taylor Kitsch!

By accident!

Actual Reason Sweetie Likes Him: Here's our exact conversation:

Me: Why do you like him?

Sweetie: He's got a gorgeous body and gorgeous hair...

Me: Okay.

Sweetie: And I just want to run my fingers through it...

Me: Okay...

Sweetie: And.

Me: [Leaves room quickly.]

Point I'd Like To Make About Sweetie's Actual Reason For Liking Him: I left the room, but I'm pretty sure she went on talking for about a half-hour. And none of it mentioned shorts.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Solitude is a happy kind of loneliness. (The Rum Punch Review)

Sweetie this morning was reading the paper while I was trying to think up clever things to say on Twitter, and she gave me this piece of news:

"Lost," she said, "Is going to wrap up the series without answering all the questions."

My first reaction to that was to cover my ears at the mention of the Lost series, as I'm watching it on DVD and I'm only up to Season 4, despite making what I can only describe as heroic efforts to get caught up. If you ever want to know the meaning of the word Pervasive, try to avoid hearing spoilers about a pop culture phenomenon; at one point, they had a cast member from Lost come on Web Soup to talk -- and since when is Web Soup supposed to be relevant? (At one point, too, they talked about it on the local news, as a group of local college professors -- professors who obviously did not deserve tenure and are no longer taking education seriously -- did something purportedly academic related to Lost.)

My second reaction was to say So what's the point been? then, and briefly get incensed about "creative" types in Hollywood -- people who I thought had a whole story to tell but were obviously just making it all up as they went along. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if you're going to pretend you're not making it all up, if you're going to pretend there's a pattern to this all and you've got the whole story worked out in advance, then, for God's sake, actually have the whole story worked out in advance. Don't get to the end and say Well, I can't figure out what to do about Ben, so let's just leave some loose ends hanging.

My third reaction was to think that loose ends hanging is not necessarily a bad thing... if that's the point of what you're trying to do, and if what you're trying to do has a point in the first place.

Sometimes, loose ends hanging = creatively bankrupt/overtly trying to be artistic. (a la The Sopranos ending.) Sometimes loose ends hanging is just a giveaway that you didn't really have a plan in the first place (a la The Star Wars movies, and Lost), and sometimes loose ends hanging is the only way to end the book, it seems.


That's the thought I had upon finishing, and then thinking about, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano.

Right off the bat, I will tell you that Solitude passed my primary test for whether it's a good book or not. That test is whether, when I finish the book, I feel the need to just sit and contemplate it for a while, or whether instead I immediately go on to reading something else.

If I finish a book and set it down and just sit there and think, for a while, letting it all settle in and permeate me, then it's a good book. If I finish a book and instead reach for the next one on the stack, or in this case "next in line on the Kindle," or go to grab a magazine, or turn on the TV, it's not such a good book.

I finished Solitude yesterday afternoon. I left work early yesterday, at 11:30, deciding abruptly to take a half-day off of work because I was amazingly, astonishingly, frustrated with 98% of the people I work with -- so frustrated that it made more sense to take an unscheduled half-day-off than to try to muddle through the rest of the day and risk saying something I would regret to someone I shouldn't say regrettable things to.

So I went home, and I ranted instead to Sweetie for a while, and when I ran out of steam, I found out that Mr Bunches had gotten a tick on his foot that morning, and we weren't sure how a tick got into the house in the first place, and we weren't sure if Mr Bunches would now be at risk for Lyme Disease, whatever that is, and that took a lot of my work-based-frustration away as I focused on that for a while. Then, I settled the Babies! down for their nap, and I ate lunch, and the combination of a salami-and-salt&pepper pickle-and gouda cheese sandwich, with Ramen noodles, calmed me down, and I settled in for an afternoon of reading: nearly 1 1/2 hours of uninterrupted (almost) reading, a rare luxury.

Because of the circumstances under which I finished the book, Solitude will be one of the only books that I can remember exactly how and when I bought it, and read it, and finished it. That's something new, too, because I read books now almost exclusively on my Kindle, which means that I can buy books anywhere -- making the circumstances of buying the book part of the experience of reading the book.

In Solitude's case, I bought the book on a Friday afternoon while sitting in a parking spot outside the building where I used to work nearly 20 years ago. That is, I used to work there 20 years ago; I didn't buy the book there 20 years ago.

I'd had to go to Milwaukee for a deposition that day, a fine, sunny-but-chilly Friday, and I got to the location about a half-hour early. It was only then that I realized that the building was the one I'd worked in as a temp back in the summer before I went to law school, back in 1995. I'd spent that summer temping at a computer network company, and as I pulled up this particular Friday and realized where I was, I remembered clearly how I'd sometimes on my lunch hours back then walked over to the river and sat to read paperback books while I ate lunch, or walked a few blocks over to the musty used book store I'd bought most of my books from back then.

Because I was a half-hour early, and because it was the day that Sweetie gives me my allowance, I had both the time and the money to do some book shopping -- but only because I had my Kindle; if I'd had to get out and go find a bookstore I'd have never been able to do that. But sitting there a half-hour early for my mediation session, and with no clients to meet (they live in another state and were going to attend by phone), I had some time to kill, so I pulled out my Kindle and went shopping.

Solitude was actually my third choice that day; as I browsed around (and downloaded two free books that I'd never heard of before, because, hey, free books), I first looked at The Infinities by John Banville, and thought about that one for a while. Then I looked at The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald, and thought about that one for a while.

But then I pulled out my collection of book-review clippings. When I read a review of a book I think I might like, I clip out the review and keep it with me. I used to just write down the name of the book and the author, but then, months later, I'd look at that name-and-author and sometimes not recall what the book was about, and not recall what it was I thought I'd liked about the book. So I take the whole review with me and just stick it into the notebook I carry with me at almost all times (I have it with me every time I don't need it, and almost never when I need it.)

I came to two reviews of Solitude: one I'd clipped out when I read it, and one from another magazine that Sweetie had clipped out for me when she'd read it. She'd read the review and given it to me and said "I thought this book would be one you'd love."

Both Sweetie and I thought I'd like the book, and that counted for a lot. So I went and read the summary and on an impulse clicked Buy and had the book.

Both Sweetie and I were right. The Solitude Of Prime Numbers is a book I would love, and I did love it.

The book starts out with Alice, as a young girl, heading off to a ski lesson. We learn that Alice doesn't like skiing, and there's a mishap involving warm milk, fog, and a spill that injures her leg.

The focus then shifts to Mattia and his sister, Michela. Michela is autistic -- it seems, although that's never spelled out -- and Mattia may be, but less so. Mathematically inclined and a good brother, to a point, Mattia suffers mostly in silence the problems created by his weird-acting sister, but one day, having both been invited to a birthday party, Mattia makes the decision to leave Michela in a park while he attends the party himself. Regretting his decision, he goes back to the park, and [SPOILER ALERT! REALLY! HONESTLY!] Michela is gone.

From those two events -- a skiing accident and leg injury, and a bad decision made by a child too young to really know better -- Mattia's and Alice's lives are propelled forward through society (in this case, Italian society). But while they move through society, they never seem to really be part of it. Alice briefly gets to join the popular girls' group at the school. Mattia gets recognized for his mathematical brilliance. They get jobs and Mattia graduates from school and they interact with their families and friends, but never really join in.

They are, as Mattia thinks of them later in the book, prime numbers -- they are numbers divisible only by 1 and by themselves, numbers that do not mesh easily with other numbers and that have their own unique properties, for good or for bad.

And they are, in a bit of foreshadowing as Mattia thinks, twin primes -- prime numbers that sit tantalizingly close together, but not next to each other; prime numbers never touch, and that's a lesson we, the reader, learn too late as we follow Mattia's and Alice's path: Alice, invited to be part of the popular group, is told she must pick out a boy to kiss. She picks out Mattia, who then attends the party where Alice is supposed to kiss him (or more), but they don't -- because Alice leaves it up to Mattia, and Mattia, having taken charge once in his life to terrible effect, appears to have resigned himself to drifting along for the remainder of his time, not interacting unless someone does it for him.

After that initial date at a party -- a date where everyone except the two realizes that Alice and Mattia in fact complement each other perfectly -- Alice and Mattia's story unfolds in jumps of years; they hang out together in late high school/early university. They drive around and they kiss when Mattia graduates college. And, as that happens, other things happen, too: Alice's relationship with her father worsens and then gets better. Alice, while visiting her dying mother, meets a handsome young doctor with his own well-hidden inner turmoil and marries him. Mattia becomes a professor and solves a math problem.

Through the story, the driving force behind the plot is a sort of will-they-or-won't-they, but not in the teasing Ross & Rachel (or Sam & Diane or Maddie & David, for you older readers) way; there's nothing coy or sexual about the potential Alice-and-Mattia relationship; it's apparent that they're perfect for each other, maybe -- because they may not be perfect for anyone. They're too damaged, maybe, to be around anyone for very long, throughout most of the book, and as a reader, I found myself wanting them to get together, to be in love and spend their lives together, not so much because it would be a romantic conclusion but because it seemed the only way to fix them, to give them some happiness.

I wanted that because sadness permeates Solitude in a melancholy but pleasant way. It's not the desperate, anarchic sadness Kurt Vonnegut injects into his books. Instead, its the sadness of regrets that can't be undone -- the sadness of tiny decisions with immense repercussions, decisions made in the space of a few seconds that alter, irrevocably, the course of a life time -- decisions often made by people not equipped to make them, with incomplete information to work with.

Mattia recognizes those instances, late in the book, realizing that he's in one -- for the first time in his life, maybe, realizing that the choice he's about to make will profoundly alter his life in ways he cannot anticipate. It's a moment brought on by a heady exhilaration of several moments: he's solved a major problem, he's had sex for the first time, and he's heard from Alice for the first time in years -- all in the span of about 24 hours -- and then he's meeting Alice and nearly dies in a car accident, and flush with that emotion he looks around him and realizes that this is another one of those moments -- those moments that pop up and are often only recognized in retrospect, but this time he knows it's there and he must decide.

The sadness of those moments is often what sticks with us. I can remember, when I was a kid, being on vacation with my family in St. Louis, visiting relatives. We had gone, for the morning, to a nearby park to play before that afternoon going to visit Grant's Tomb. At the park, my Uncle Mark had teased me, and I was not (and am not) a person who takes kindly to teasing. I'd gotten mad -- ferociously mad -- and when it was time to leave, I'd refused to leave the park and go back to my aunt's house so that we could go to Grant's Tomb. I made a huge scene, arguing with cousins and uncles and brothers, refusing to go and refusing in particular to go with my Uncle Mark. When he'd tried to pull me by my arm to go -- he's about 4 years older than me -- I'd grabbed a stick and tried to hit him with it.

The end result was that I eventually went back to my aunt's house, later than we'd planned. We didn't go to Grant's Tomb that day, and I don't know if that was because I'd made us late or if plans simply changed; I was only about 7 and don't remember all the details.

But I do remember the argument, and my refusal to leave, and my upset at that, and I do remember that I never saw Grant's Tomb, and the sadness of that moment, in its own small way, has always stuck with me. It wasn't a life-altering moment, or I don't think it was, but it was a sad moment that has never left me. 34 years later, I can recall details of that morning with a clarity that amazes me, considering that I have difficulty remembering today what I did yesterday.

We don't remember the happy moments like that, not as easily, and I don't know why that is. I don't understand why we're wired to store away, automatically and indelibly, the saddest things in our lives, but have such difficulty remembering the happy times. I live in fear, sometimes, that the truly happy moments of my life -- my wedding, the day the Babies! were born, moving into our new house, things like that -- will fade away, and I'll be unable to recall them, and be left only with the sad moments.

It may be that sad moments stay with us because they change how we think and feel and act, while happy moments just reinforce what we were already doing. Who makes dramatic changes in the way they act after they've just had a great day? Nobody. But when terrible things happen, we vow to do something differently, or our bodies and minds react to the terrible things by making us act differently, even if we don't know it or want it.

Solitude packs many such moments, sad moments that stay with us and force new actions: the moment Alice decides to ski off into the fog. The moment she asks Mattia if he wants to kiss her. The moment Mattia doesn't say what he's thinking as he shows Alice the job offer from a foreign college. Some of those moments have significant results; some may not, as we're not told. But they all carry with them a greater or smaller sadness that adds up and multiplies and bursts through the characters in the book -- even secondary characters like Mattia's parents or the photographer Alice works for carry their own burdens of sadness -- and it's that sadness that needs to be alleviated, that sadness that I, as a reader, kept hoping would be fixed by Alice and Mattia being together, breaking through the barriers each has -- reaching across the gap separating them as twin primes, and finding each other on the other side of that gap, and, while maybe not riding off into the sunset in a convertible with "Just Married" scrawled on it, at least realizing that there's something of happiness out there for them.

The book again and again draws close to that line -- getting almost too sad and then providing a break from it -- before at the end providing a kind of second shove forward that at first seems like a major plot twist -- but it quickly becomes clear that it isn't so much a plot twist as the final kick of a long-distance runner who sees the finish line: Alice thinks she has some information for Mattia, and summons him back to Italy, leading to the near-car accident and Alice and Mattia reuniting after 9 or 10 or more years separated by emotional and physical distance.

The final few chapters are almost heartbreaking: Mattia visiting his parents for the first time in years, Alice wanting to call her father, the two of them meeting at the house where Alice has recently separated from her doctor husband. In fact, strike that almost. They are heartbreaking -- even without knowing how they end up, as I read them, I was overwhelmed with the emotions the two characters (who seemed real by that point) were lugging around.

When I talk about the sadness, I don't mean that in a bad way; the book is sad in a necessary way -- sadly enjoyable the way a sad song is sadly enjoyable, too, regardless of your mood. If you're in a good, happy mood, you can listen to a sad song and enjoy it for what it is -- letting the sadness of the song pull forth muted emotions and memories of sad times that you can examine and think about without danger, enjoying the pleasant mood while knowing there is a counterpoint to that mood. If we never were sad, we wouldn't know when we are happy.

And if you're sad, a sad song is more than necessary: It's like a mold: shaping and fitting your emotions into something recognizable and more-easily-handled.

The sadness in Solitude is like that: when I read it yesterday, in the comedown from my frustration and my concern over Mr Bunches, the troubles of these fictional-but-real-seeming characters served to put my own into perspective. I may have problems at work from time to time, but I don't have the kind of gaping chasm in my life that Mattia must find a way to navigate. And when I read Solitude over other days, when I was in a better mood, I was able to enjoy the sadness of other people's lives because it was not my own.

Solitude ends, as I hinted at, by not so much ending as trailing away. It has both an ending and a not-ending: The final passages of the book put a close on the story that we've just read, without ending the story. There's no hint of a sequel or a to-be-continued, and that's appropriate, because the story of Alice and Mattia -- or, better, the Story of Alice-And-Mattia -- has ended, while Alice's story, and Mattia's story, has not. It's almost as though we've seen an episode of the Alice And Mattia Series, a self-contained story that may go on, but watching one episode tells us a complete story in and of itself.

At first, I found the ending somewhat frustrating: what's the point been, I wondered -- and then I wondered why it had to have a point, at all. Do books have to have a point? Or can they just tell a story and let us decide what the point -- if there is one -- is?

Or maybe they all have a point but the point is dependent on the reader's perspective -- the My Aunt's Dog Theorem again: whatever Giordano's point is, it's not my point.

My what's the point been question had another meaning, too: I wanted to know the point of Mattia's and Alice's life; having grown to like them as characters and wanting their stories to end happily, I wasn't sure, at first, that they had -- and again, not a "happy ending" resolving itself into a fairy castle, but a happy ending that would mean, for these two, that there was a reason to smile at the next day again.

I finished the book -- and I didn't close it and look at the cover, the way I used to before I read on a Kindle. I clicked the Kindle off and set it on my bookshelf and lay on my bed, with Sweetie napping beside me and the sounds of the Babies! filtering through the monitor we have into their room -- a quiet movie playing in the background, and Mr F rumbling around, not yet asleep in his own nap. I listened to the sounds of the afternoon neighborhood around me, sounds I almost never hear because I'm at work in the afternoon generally, and I looked up at our motionless ceiling fan and just pondered the book for a while, thinking What's it all about, then?

And today, I'm still asking that -- but in a better way. Giordano's sparse, spare writing -- the book is a fast read-- had created characters that came alive and whose lives I could almost see, as clearly as I could see my own, and they've stuck with me, today, the way all those sad moments in my own life stuck with me. I'm sitting here today, back at my office, with the images of the end of the book in my head: what Alice was doing and thinking, what Mattia was doing and thinking, and I'm wondering what was it all about then?

I don't know, yet, what it was all about. But I do know that it was a fabulous book, one that I imagine I'll keep on imagining for years, letting the sadness of the book settle in and become a permanent fixture in my life -- something that will change, irrevocably, the way that I act in the future, in ways that I can't foretell now, but which I hope will lead me to the kind of ending-and-beginning that the book itself contains -- one that takes all the previous sadness and reveals it, in the end, for a kind of happiness after all: pain can end up showing us that we still feel, and anger can reveal the depths of emotions that we still carry, and, in the end, solitude is a happy kind of loneliness.

That, I think, is the point of The Solitude Of Prime Numbers, or at least the point I'm going to say it has for me: That the sadness is a kind of happiness, that in the way each of our lives is unique, we are each a prime number - - alone, but never far from someone who is like us and who truly understands us, too. That person may be living in Italy while we are teaching at a foreign college, or she may be sleeping next to us while we read a book she clipped a review of for us. The key is to recognize that person, and to recognize those moments when that person needs you, and you need them, and, at those moments, to reach across that gap between you and share a little bit of the sadness, spread it out and open it up and in doing that, turn it into something better.

Read more Rum Punch Reviews by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

No time for chat! (3 Good Things From 5/4/10)

It's 6:57 a.m., so I've only got about 3 minutes to post my 3 Good Things from yesterday. And, to make it tougher, yesterday, every single person at my job annoyed me so much that I ended up taking a half-day off to avoid... well, I don't know what I avoided, but I'm pretty sure I avoided something. And then, to make things even worse, the kids at Panera screwed up the order again. I don't know why I keep going there.

No time for explanations; It's 3 Good Things: The Speed Round.

1. Sweetie's Egg Salad Sandwiches for dinner.

2. Watching, with Mr Bunches, the Phineas & Ferb episode where Phineas & Ferb make the Perry The Platypus Inaction Figure

3. I finished The Solitude of Prime Numbers.
(Review to come.)

And the song: 127 Down, 10,823 to go: "Love Is A Stranger" by Eurythmics:

Rum Punch Reviews: Table Of Contents

The Rum Punch Review is a book review that goes beyond I like it or I don't like it to review, holistically (as Dirk Gently would mis-use the word), a book -- I'll cover how I found out about the book, what I think about the way I bought it, what it reminds me of in life, how it fits into pop culture, and more. It's the most authoritative, most informative, most rambling book review you'll ever read.

(Oh, I'll also tell if I liked it.)

Books Reviewed So Far:

Virgin Territory, by Patrick Dilloway
Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three.

The Infinities, by John Banville.
Part One.
Part Two
Part Three.

ROOM, by Emma Donoghue
Part one
Part two
Part three.

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Part one
Part two
Part three
The wrap-up: my response to two comments.

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy, by Joe Sergi.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers
, by Paolo Giordano.

Last Night In Twisted River, by John Irving.

Jimmy Corrigan, by Chris Ware:
Part 1
Part 2

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O'Farrell
Part 1
Part 2

Chronicles Of The Lensman, Vol. 1 (by E.E. Smith)
Part 1
Part 2

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Winners Are...

As you know -- if you ever look at the things in the sidebar to the left, for example, leaving comments on any of my blogs qualify you for a bimonthly drawing to win a copy of one of my books.

There are three winners today:

First, the winner of the latest drawing is Abbie, of Abbie Turned Normal fame. Abbie, you get your choice of a free copy of one of my books

--- I've got four, and you can find them all here --

so email me at "thetroublewithroy[at]" to let me know which one you'd like and where to send it.

Second, the winner from the last drawing -- Petri Dish -- hasn't yet picked out the prize, so Petri, do the same.

And third, I'm a winner, because last Friday I finally found Pancakes on a Stick and I've been living off them since then.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

I never actually had any days as a new-age hippie. But I like the music. (3 Good Things From The Weekend)

My life is so busy most of the time and, as Sweetie remarked, there's not many times that are just quiet and peaceful. So I picked out 3 Good Things that were also quiet times from the past weekend...

1. Friday Night After Groceries: We were low enough on groceries that I decided to take the Babies! Friday night for the weekly shopping instead of waiting until Sunday. We got home about 8:45, and I put Mr F and Mr Bunches to bed right away. Sweetie was tired, so I told her she could go to bed, too. Then I put away the groceries myself, listening to music, and afterwards, with the house quiet and more-or-less to myself, I sat downstairs and read quietly for about 45 minutes.

2. Saturday Afternoon Before The Babies! Got Up From Their Nap: Most of Saturday afternoon was kind of noisy -- the Babies! were up and romping around in their room and had to be settled down, Middle was around and pestering before she went to work, and I had music on while I did some writing and reading. But about 4 p.m., before I got the Mr F and Mr Bunches up from their nap, I took a few minutes to on the couch, music off, Sweetie reading off to the side, and just sat.

3. Swinging, Sunday Night:
After dinner, yesterday, I took the Babies! to the park to wind them down; they had the devil in them all day yesterday. After playing on the tornado slide, and then building sand castles to smush, and then trying to go play in people's yards, we settled in to swing for a while. I got Mr Bunches started -- he likes to swing on his own -- and then settled Mr F in on my lap. We just swung there, watching the cars go by, nobody talking, for about 10 minutes.

126 Down, 10,824 to Go: In that peaceful mode, and hearkening back to my days as a new-age hippie, here's a song that's comtemplative and moody: Celestial Soda Pop, by Ray Lynch:

I'm going to show you the giant: The Complication Tax Affects More Than Just Your Wallet (But It Affects Your Wallet, Too.) (Publicus Proventus)

The Complication Tax is responsible for everything bad in the world -- including Goldman Sachs and the Arizona immigration law.

I've decided to talk about the Complication Tax today because of the understanding I came to this afternoon.

As I sat down a little while ago to write this, looking back on the things that stuck out in my mind this week, three things happened.

First, Mr F and Mr Bunches got into a fight upstairs in their room when they're supposed to be napping, and I had to go upstairs and break it up, and make Mr Bunches put his pants back on, and give them both a couple of cookies, and put their mattresses back in order since they'd turned them over and stacked them to make for better jumping-on-the-bed, and

... and second, I thought back to yesterday, when I'd taken Middle to look at used furniture for her upcoming move to a new place to live, and while at the St. Vincent's I'd let Mr F and Mr Bunches each get a couple of old toys there. The woman had rung us up by putting the toys on a scale, and then announced that we owed her $3.62. I had no idea how she came to that total, but I didn't care: $3.62 isn't an amount to quibble over when Mr Bunches and Mr F were happy with their new toys (a metal top, and a Fisher-Price castle, if you must know.)

With those two thoughts in my head, and my sock a little damp from where Mr F spilled my soda on it, I walked back down here and ran through, in my head, all the topics that I could discuss today: Goldman Sachs. Immigration. Oil policy. Taxes. Abortion rights.

And a thought sprung into my head: The Complication Tax.

We all pay the Complication Tax -- both directly and indirectly. We pay through the nose to the Complication Tax.

But we never gripe about it. (And, as usual, by we I mean you.)

My Twitter feed is full of griping about other stuff, ranging from deranged ramblings about President Obama to... something about time-traveling, I don't know. On the air, callers to radio shows (I listen to both conservative and liberal talk radio shows, and then mix in some sports talk, too) gripe about everything under the sun... except the Complication Tax.

It's only natural that they don't gripe about the Complication Tax, because they don't know about the Complication Tax. Which is strange, because the Complication Tax is all around us and overbearingly large and affects pretty much every single thing that we do, from the moment we get up until we go to bed at night. It probably affects us in our sleep, too, but it's hard for me to tell because I'm asleep.

I only realized the Complication Tax existed recently, but once I did, it was impossible to miss. Imagine it this way: Suppose you were born into a world where there is a giant standing next to you, constantly. This giant is hundreds of miles tall and wide and in fact blots out a good portion of what you see and do and is always looming over you... but he's always been there, so you don't even notice him.

Then one day, someone says "Hey, who's that giant there?" and you look closely at the giant for the first time, and then you can't stop noticing the giant, and you start to wonder if maybe life wouldn't be better without the giant there.

I'm going to show you the giant.

The Complication Tax is the increase in costs and time and expense and hidden fees and charges and problems that we all live with because it's too complicated not to.

It's that simple.

And that enormous.

The Complication Tax is all the time and trouble and money that we wouldn't spend if we had the time and energy to go to the trouble of not spending it.

The $3.62 I paid-- rightly or wrongly -- for the toys yesterday was a Complication Tax. My cell phone bill every month is a Complication Tax. The cost of the pants I buy at Wal-Mart, the price I pay for DirecTV, interest rates on my CD and my mortgage... all Complication Tax.

The simple fact of the matter is that we no longer understand our economy, and we no longer understand even our own personal economies, and instead of trying to understand them, we simply shrug and say Close enough and pay the Complication Tax, one way or another, and get on with our lives, passing dumb laws like Arizona did, or paying more for something than we should, or otherwise ignoring the reality of how complicated and busy and thus more expensive and frustrating our lives are.

Life has gotten too complicated, and that's costing us money, directly and indirectly, money we're willing to pay because we look at this complicated life and cannot possibly uncomplicate it, and so we just pay it.

I will give you examples, from my own life again. Consider my cell phone bill. I pay $162 per month to my cell phone provider. That includes two cell phones and my Internet access at home. I strongly suspect that I'm overpaying, mostly because I keep seeing ads on TV for cell phone plans that are less expensive than mine. I have a note, in fact, next to my computer, that says Cricket $40. That's a reference to an ad I saw that promises wireless internet, unlimited access, for $40 per month. The cost of my internet right now is $60 -- only it's actually more because I pay service charges and taxes on that amount.

So why don't I change cell phone providers? Because of the Complication Tax. First, I've had troubles with Internet access in the past, some of it not so good. My internet now is reliable; it's not the fastest, but it doesn't go out. I'm reluctant to switch to another Internet provider only to find out it's not as good as the one I have.

That's a real concern in our complicated lives: With all these options, how can I tell which one is really best? When I switched from cable TV to satellite TV, I did so because my cable company -- Charter -- was so bad I couldn't imagine anything would be worse. But even then, I overlapped: I had DirecTV installed but didn't disconnect the cable, not for about a week, so I could try out DirecTV.

I don't want to have two internet providers -- so I stick with the one I have even though all around me are lower-priced offers. I'm paying the Complication Tax, and in more ways than one, because not only do I not know whether another provider will be better, I don't know when I can get out of my current contract without paying a fee; I have three phone lines billed to my cell plan, and I recently had to upgrade the Internet access, which I'm pretty sure committed me for another two years. There's a disconnect fee of $170, I think, so I could cancel my cell phone plan, but I'd have to factor in the $170, and then figure out how long it would be before I'd be breaking even to decide whether it's worth it to switch...

... and that's complicated. So I don't do it, and I overpay for my Internet.

I also apply the Complication Tax in other ways. I'll stick with cell phones. My cell phone bill is hard to decipher. It's about 5 pages long and it's got three different sections but the sections overlap a bit, too, so I don't like to read it. I know, though, about how much it's supposed to be, and so I told Sweetie "If it's more than $165, let me see it. Otherwise, just pay it." That means that -- don't read this next part, Verizon-- Verizon could overcharge me a buck or two each month and I would not notice it; as long as they don't go over $165, I won't even know it. So Verizon could make about $36 extra from me each year simply by knowing that about me.

Think that can't happen? In Wisconsin, the barely-alive Department of Consumer Protection found 3,600 consumers overcharged by a company which initially said it wouldn't refund the money unless the consumers complained.

Moving away from cell phones, here's another trap I fell into -- for a while. I have, at last count, a zillion kids, it seems. So I tend to buy the big packages. When I'm at the grocery store, I look at the bottom shelf and find the multipacks of paper towels, cookies, eggs, etc. And when I see pizzas 3 for $10, I tend to buy 3 -- not knowing whether I can get one for $3.33 or whether I must buy 3 to get the deal.

Even sneakier, not long back, some sellers realized that people like me exist, people who will buy the biggest box of graham crackers because we assumed it was cheaper per cracker to buy them that way -- so they raised the per unit price on the big packages, making it more expensive to routinely grab for the bottom-shelf big items.

That, in turn, forced me to think more at the grocery store... when I can. I found myself stopping to look at these pizzas, and those pizzas, trying to work out in my head whether 3-for-$10 was better than $2-for-$7, which seems easy until you realize the pizzas are different sizes. And it's never easy to do that math when Mr Bunches is trying to climb into the freezer and Mr F is heading off to the cookie aisle. So sometimes I just pay the Complication Tax and move on.

The Complication Tax comes up in other places, too: One movie theater Sweetie and I like to go to has ticket prices that require an advanced degree to work out. They begin with two "base" prices, but then add an amenity fee which ranges from nothing to $3.00 depending on the day and time of show. The 'base' ticket price is for matinee, or evening -- and the amenity fee changes based on time of day, too. So is it cheaper to go see this movie at this time or that time? Who knows?

These are all microeconomic examples; these are ways that I pay the Complication Tax on an individual level, every day -- and there are more examples, ranging from magazine subscriptions to the decision whether to eat in or dine out. (You may think that's an easy choice if made based on money alone, but if so, then you didn't see that KFC $10 Challenge Commercial:

Once I saw that, I stopped to think about whether it really makes sense to home-make every meal. On a dollars-and-cents scale, maybe it doesn't. But it seems like I should be, and Sweetie should be, cooking... until you stop to think about it and wonder whether you're not paying more and spending more time and generally increasing the frustration level of those around you because you're trying to cook a meal while Mr Bunches is running through the kitchen almost getting burnt, and The Boy doesn't have time to eat before rugby practice...

... and you shrug and pay the complication tax, one way or another.

Those are, as I said, microeconomic examples of the Complication Tax. But it affects us in major ways, too, in ways that we can't hardly comprehend (and by we, I mean you. I've noticed the giant, and I'm edging around him now.)

As a result of the Complication Tax, you have less information than ever, about the cars you buy, about the credit you use, about who is lending you money, about... everything.

Including immigration
, which I'll get to.

One of the things I spend my days doing is poring over mortgage papers, the thick stack of documents that accompanies a real-estate closing these days. A colleague of mine said that when he started in the business, decades ago, we didn't have all this paperwork. Back then, he likes to recall, there was a note, and a mortgage, and a payment schedule.

That's all changed, now. Now, when you go to a real estate closing, you get an inch-thick stack of papers that spells out everything from your (not as great as it sounds) right to rescind that transaction to the odds that your lender will transfer the loan to an affidavit swearing that if you're not who you swear you are, you'll do something to fix the lender's problems.

All of those were added, along the way, as various government officials tried to help first the borrower, then the lender -- regulating and then de-regulating and then re-regulating mortgage lending, and allowing complexity after complexity to creep in and make things harder and harder for anyone to understand, and as they got harder to understand, more laws were passed that required more information to be given to make sure that everyone understood what was going on... even though it was clear that everyone didn't understand what was going on, and I see the results of that every day, in a parade of people through my office who have a mortgage loan they never read the paperwork for, who signed everything that was put in front of them without being told, really, what any of it was and without understanding most of it.

That is the Complication Tax at work on a large scale. The government deregulated the lenders, and the lenders multiplied and split up their investments, and they formed holding companies, and we allowed different kinds of lenders to spring up -- do you understand the difference between a national bank, a state bank, a credit union, and a mortgage bank and an investment bank? -- and all those banks began competing against each other and trying to make money in a sometimes-regulated, sometimes-not landscape, large banks shouldering aside smaller banks and all of them making more and more complicated types of investments, investments and loans that ultimately were nobody's responsibility, because nobody understood them...

... even though we have a wealth of regulations and required disclosures and information provided to the borrowers, who are, after all, the people expected to understand what they're doing with their money. If you've attended a real estate closing, you know how well that works: A title company employee who has never read the paperwork and is not your lender or even anyone involved with setting up the loan goes through and makes sure you sign each page, offering cursory explanation (if any, at all) and then sends the papers off to the lender, sending you on your way with a set of unsigned copies, and it all takes 20-30 minutes, for a loan of several hundred thousand dollars spread out over 30 or 40 years.

Tucked into those papers are fees and interest rates and escrow disclosures, and the borrowers may or may not understand those -- with the likelier bet being may not, because most people are not very economically sophisticated and these are sophisticated tools, these financial instruments. And tucked into other papers are loan applications and credit scores and underwriting, reviewed (maybe) by lenders who make the decision to lend the money -- but without any intention of holding the loan, so that it's sold in a package with other loans to a lender who doesn't know the borrower or the area and hasn't seen those disclosures, and that buyer packages the purchase with another loan and sells portions of them off, and now you've got a lender who doesn't know the borrower and a borrower who doesn't know the lender, and the lender has 30 million loans and can't pay attention to them all, plus, they're not really in the mortgage business, there in investing, so a servicer has to step in to handle all the details of the transaction, and that servicer doesn't have a stake in either end of the deal; they get paid no matter what and they don't lose money if a house is sold at a sheriff's sale, and they don't sleep in their car in that event, either...

... and the Complication Tax, that imperturbable giant, swallows up those fees on the HUD-1 closing statement (and do you even know what that is? Some judges don't) and swallows up those late fees and swallows up the lawyers' fees and adds it into the prime rate and the government writes a $356 billion check -- that's $356,000,000,000 -- and then says oh, it only cost $89 billion -- that's $89,000,000,000 -- and that's complicated, too, so we shrug and put the closing papers into the closet and pay what the servicer tells us to pay, and go on Twitter to complain about income taxes that may go up... without knowing whether the yield spread premium that wasn't explained to us by the title company is going to cost us more than all the income taxes we'll pay in our 40s, combined.

Do you know what a yield spread premium is? Probably not. I didn't until recently.

A yield spread premium is, as simply as I can put it, money a mortgage broker gets for getting a higher interest rate on a loan. It's money the lender pays a mortgage broker for getting a borrower into a specific --usually higher-interest rate -- loan.

That makes my first point: A yield spread premium would not exist if mortgage brokers did not exist, and mortgage brokers exist in part because the mortgage market is too complicated; almost nobody just calls a lender and borrows money any more. Instead, mortgage brokers shop people around and find a lender willing to give them a deal, maybe finding lenders who the borrower wouldn't have known about -- but what does that matter, when those smaller lenders all sell the loan to Chase or Wells Fargo anyway?

The yield spread premium is disclosed to borrowers, who pay it no attention because they're told it's not something they are paying. They're told the bank pays this, and so they pay it no attention -- the money paid to their loan originator -- and they don't know the real price, which is that the yield spread premium costs them more money in interest; the broker is being paid for getting them into a higher-interest loan than they'd have gotten if they simply called that lender themselves.

So the borrower - who thinks they're paying nothing -- is actually paying a higher interest rate. How much higher? It varies. Take a hypothetical, though: Consider someone who borrows $200,000 to buy a house. If that person pays over 30 years at a 5.5% interest rate, they'll pay $511,010 over the life of the loan.

If that person pays 6.0% on the loan, just a miniscule half-percent higher, the total paid off is $539,595.47 -- or $28,000+ more over the life of the loan. That's an extra $1,000 per year, more or less, that you're paying because you let someone else do the work for you, and because complicated banking led to yield spread premiums and mortgage brokers and disclosures that nobody understands.

If President Obama suggested we all pay an extra $1000 per year in taxes, there would be a revolution. When your mortgage broker slips one past the goalie, you thank him and keep your complimentary pen.

The Complication Tax allows us to get ripped off in phenomenal ways. Bernie Madoff's victims were victims, in part, of the Complication Tax. They didn't understand that 10% returns, on average, for investments, aren't common. They didn't understand the complexities of the market and the way investments can or should be handled. Instead, they had a simple investment and a simple return: Give Bernie Madoff your money and you'll get 10% back. So they taxed themselves right out of retirements and taxed him right into prison.

Remember Enron? Remember the employees who lost everything because they had all their 401(k) plans or whatever retirement plans were (hypothetically) offered by Enron invested in Enron stocks? Why'd they do that? Because they believed in their company? Or because it was simpler? What's in your 401(k) plan? When was the last time you even checked anything out about it other than the bottom line. When was the last time you bothered to read the business page and then went to check the allocation of stocks and bonds in your retirement plan?

How long until there's another Enron -- only this time, among all the people who haven't looked at their 401(k) plans, ever? The Complication Tax may just tax away your retirement, too. And you'll let it, because you trust the regulators to keep track of the investment banks -- investment banks run by people who were just regulators or who will be the next regulators, regulators who themselves don't understand the complexity of the deals they're regulating, any more than the people investing in those deals understand them. Ask yourself how could Goldman Sachs cheat all those investors? Weren't some of them at least more sophisticated than me? But they didn't understand, either -- did they? (If they did, why'd they invest in the products? Are they ignorant, or merely stupid?)

The Complication Tax is going to take a chunk of government money and time trying to unravel what Goldman Sachs, and maybe some others, did, but we'll lose interest and get confused by it before they're done, and we'll be on to other things, like misunderstanding health insurance and immigration-lawing ourselves into higher costs of living and greater expense.

One reason, I think, why the modest health care reform bill passed was that Obama -- the most serendipitous of presidents since FDR lucked into World War II to help fight our way out of the Depression -- benefitted from health insurers opting to raise their rates by incredible amounts, causing many people to look themselves in the mirror and wonder whether they wouldn't someday want the government to help them pay for their insurance, too, and support the bill. But the debate over the cost of the health care reform bill and over health insurance itself missed the boat-- diverted by the Complication Tax, that mild-mannered but indomitable giant.

Health insurance is a complicated thing best examined by looking at my experience with dental insurance not long ago. Sweetie and I got dental insurance for the kids because we had to have it, we thought -- to help pay for dental care, and because, more importantly, dentists who hear you have insurance will bill you for the work. If you don't have insurance, you pay up front. So we got dental insurance, paying about $80 per month for it, mostly for the privilege of saying to dentists "We have insurance," so they'd bill us and we could decide when to pay, rather than having our toothaches decide.

After a year or so, though, I looked at the bills and how much we were paying and what was covered and came to a realization: I was paying $1000 per year on dental insurance, and I was paying all the not-covered amounts, plus copays, and that was pretty expensive, too, and I did some math, and realized that the amount of covered work in the prior year was actually less than $1,000, so that if I just took the $80 per month and put it in the bank, then when the time came for the trip to the dentist, I'd have the savings ready to pay up front, and wouldn't be double-paying. I wouldn't be paying my insurer and then not getting the coverage, anyway.

Why don't we do that with health insurance? When I recently had to arrange for some care for Mr F and Mr Bunches, I asked a few times how much we were covered for under our plan. The insurance company gave me some upper limits, but wasn't able to say what the deductibles were. Then, when I asked at the provider's how much it all cost, they said "It'll be covered by your insurance; it's set up that way" and it was explained to me that the providers talk to the insurance company about how much they'll need, and the limits are set up that way, and they're all fine with that... but I don't know how much it's costing, period, and I don't know if I'd be better off not having my boss pay my insurance premiums, but giving me the money instead, so that I could invest it and have it ready to just pay up front, instead of paying the insurer.

(Don't let that discussion distract you from the fact that ultimately health care is a right and should be free or at the worst based on ability to pay.)

I don't know how much my boss pays for my insurance. I don't know how much my provider charges my insurance company. I don't know how much of a profit my insurer makes off of me, or my provider. And, really, I don't want to. I don't want to do that math all the time and figure out which insurance company offers the best benefits at the best price. So I just pay the Complication Tax and move on.

And that brings me to immigration, which is itself a Complication Tax issue. I told you, the Tax is a giant and it affects everything, and Arizona passed its unconstitutional law because of the Complication Tax -- because we don't know how much stuff costs to make, and we don't know whether we're better off with immigrants coming here, or better off shipping stuff to China to be made, and we fear that people are taking our jobs even though it's completely ridiculous to argue that someone who doesn't speak the language and only just arrived here in this country is really competing with us for jobs -- that person isn't posing any risk to my job as a lawyer -- but all of those issues are complicated, and we don't want to really deal with them. We just want to gloss over them, ignore the giant that's standing next to us, and move on.

Consider: We don't really know how many illegal immigrants there are in the country. We don't know, either, whether that many people would really flock here if we just opened up our borders, do we? Do we suppose that everyone in every country would just come here? They'd all pack up and leave their Mexicos and Phillipines and Taiwans and Kenyas and move to America if we just said "Okay, come on in."

But without knowing, really, how many people are here illegally, and how many people would really come here if we just opened the borders, we decided it's too many, and so we spend a lot of money policing the borders and a lot of money debating just how dumb and racist Arizonans are (pretty dumb and pretty racist, it seems), opting to do that instead of getting basic information that might help us decide how to allocate those resources...

... and whether to allocate those resources. What would be the cost of not policing illegal immigration? What would open borders do to wages and jobs? It's taken as a given that opening the borders would reduce wages and be economic disaster, but nobody ever stops to look at the other factors in that equation.

Like this: Immigrants typically are not skilled workers. So we would be getting a lot of unskilled workers, and Americans are not generally competing hard for unskilled labor positions. How many unskilled positions are available in the country right now? You don't know, and I don't know -- but there are unskilled jobs open, jobs that employers need filled and which are not being filled by the current pool of workers.

Or like this: Isn't it possible that a flood of workers will increase our growth? By adding more workers to the labor pool, and paying them, you are creating more customers for services and goods we produce. Even if the money is "sent home," isn't that going to help create demand for our exports?
I don't know for sure -- and neither do you, and neither does anyone. We just close up the borders and spend money because that question is a complicated one, and it's easier to say Border patrol.

But we know that when there is competition for jobs, even among unskilled workers, that wages rise. That's proven by Wham-O, which recently moved back here from China, citing the fact that it was cheaper to produce their products (plastic toys) here than in China -- even with our higher wages. China, in fact, is becoming too expensive for some manufacturers. They're running out of workers -- and who's to say that China won't be the next destination for immigrants, as workers from Vietnam, or India, or Africa, try to relocate there to take advantage of what are relatively higher wages?

Will China be more immigrant-friendly than the US, in order to keep a manufacturing base there?

We don't know the answer to that. But we do know that Arizona really got tough on illegal immigrants. We don't want to ask the complicated questions, because life is complicated enough as it is, and we've made it more and more complicated every day: complicating it by deregulating and by regulating and by not discussing how we should set up our health care system and by not analyzing whether we're overpaying for our cell phones. Our society has grown from a local-agrarian-based country to a high-tech organism that is so interrelated with other countries that a volcano explosion halfway around the world can kill off businesses on our west coast, and in the process, we've added layers upon layers to the information that a person would need to know to really understand the world around us -- from knowing what taxes are levied on our cell phones to knowing how our mortgages work to understanding whether or not Goldman Sachs really did rip us off to figuring out whether there are even enough illegal immigrants in the country to worry about...

...and we don't know any of that. Because it's complicated and the giant has always been there, so we don't even notice it anymore, if we ever noticed it. We gripe, instead, in our myopic way, about things that don't matter or things that barely touch on the real issues.

We complain about Obama raising our taxes -- but don't call our banks and demand a refund of that yield spread premium, and don't even bother looking at the taxes on our cell phone bills or airline tickets or gas pumps.

We fret about how much health insurance policies will cost our hypothetical future selves -- while being unsure what our premiums are now and what they even cover.

We complain that illegal immigrants are taking away jobs and drugging our kids, but we don't know how many there actually are, how many there would be if we didn't bother policing them at all, or whether there might not be an economic benefit to an influx of cheap labor that would draw manufacturing back here and improve our standard of living.

We don't even know, in the end, how much a movie ticket will cost at a given time. That's the society we live in -- a society where we have access to virtually any information we want right at our fingertips, a society where our cell phones will answer questions for us, a society where we quite literally know almost everything there is to know...

...just not the important things.

And that's costing you money, that ignorance. It's costing you, and me, and all of us, money, every day.