Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On Charity

Halloween is a good time to discuss Social Security, because Halloween is the best metaphor for Social Security. I hear Republicans promise privatization and I hear Al Gore talk about a lockbox, and it drives me nuts because both are misrepresenting the system's purpose. You're not supposed to collect your money.

Halloween is cyclical charity. When I was a kid, I rang your doorbell on Halloween and you gave me candy. Tonight, your kids will ring my doorbell and I'll give them candy. In 10 years, my kids will ring somebody else's doorbell. And so it goes.

People grumble about Social Security "running out." That's not how it works. Your money doesn't go into an account somewhere, to be kept safe until you turn 65. That's what an IRA or a 401(k) or a plain old savings account is for. Social Security is just that — social. It means that, for society's good, your contribution will be distributed amongst society's members. And one day, somebody else's money will be distributed to you.

You'll probably pay longer than you'll collect — just as you'll stop trick-or-treating when you turn 14, but you'll keep handing out candy forever. Maybe that's unfair, but it's not supposed to be fair: It's supposed to favor a specific portion of our population whom society has deemed worthy of special attention. Our goal isn't to be fair. Our goal is to be kind and to be just.

I wish Republicans would stop talking about privatization. No discussion of Social Security should include the phrase, "my money." Let's stop pretending that it isn't charity. The worst part of that charade is that it presumes there's something wrong with charity, or that charity shouldn't be a part of responsible government. Both are foolish — and complaining about what Social Security does with "my money" is every bit as small-minded as complaining about the inconvenience of buying candy for Halloween.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Next Generation

The Associated Press carried this newsflash about Democratic superstar Barack Obama:
WASHINGTON -- Sen. Barack Obama acknowledged Sunday he was considering a run for president in 2008, backing off previous statements that he would not do so.

The Illinois Democrat said he could no longer stand by the statements he made after his 2004 election and earlier this year that he would serve a full six-year term in Congress. He said he would not make a decision until after the Nov. 7 elections.
In other words, less than 2 years into his national career, Obama is prepared to abandon the first promise he gave his constituents. That's the kind of integrity I like to see from an aspiring president — but more importantly, he sounds like the perfect candidate to supplant the Clinton reign. Democrats should be ecstatic.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Closed Mind

I hate musicals.

David Mamet, who won a Pulitzer Prize for playwriting, insists that an audience's interest in drama operates on the question, "What happens next?" I agree. Plot is paramount and it relies on momentum, and you positively bludgeon that momentum to a standstill when you insist on repeating every frackin' line of dialogue 4 times and having the chorus echo it twice more.

And does every line have to be sung? The best musicals have some lovely songs; but in between those songs, the narrative is tortured with mostly abysmal, frenetic stabs at melodicism. I'll give you 10 to 1 odds that a halfway decent singer could improvise a random diatonic melody for just about any Gilbert and Sullivan soliloquy and no one would recognize the difference. If you've got a song to feature, that's terrific; but if you're scripting melody "just because," then you can stop wasting my time and just tell the damn story.

But none of that is why I walked out of Pirates of Penzance last week. I walked out because casting a 53-year-old man as Frederic and having him woo a 14-year-old Mabel is just flatly disgusting. I can appreciate that community theater groups have limited resources. I've watched men play women and women play men, and I can accept a 53-year-old man playing a 21-year-old character — but when that 53-year-old man wraps his arms around an adolescent girl and they start making eyes at each other, that's quite enough for my stomach.

To hell with political correctness, and to hell with enlightenment, and to hell with sophistication. To hell with broad horizons. Maybe I'm supposed to feel ashamed because my small mind couldn't look past reality to appreciate the artistic intent — but to hell with that, too.

Friday, October 06, 2006


I'm submitting three letters of recommendation with my law school applications. Law schools are terrified of attrition and they want assurance that prospective students can handle the coursework — so I'm triangulating my assault, to establish that fact from three different perspectives.
  • The first letter is from a professor. He's a mentor with whom I studied for six semesters, so he can certainly attest to my character and capacity as a student.

  • The second is from a close friend who is currently a third-year student at Suffolk Law. Under most conditions, I wouldn't expect that a friend's approval would carry much weight — but in this case, she's uniquely qualified to answer their question. They want to know whether I can handle the coursework; she knows me, and she knows the coursework.

  • The third is from a professor at Harvard Extension, from the last class I took. Granted, she only knew me for a semester; but on the chance that some admissions officer notices my Jazz Composition degree and wonders whether I can hack traditional scholastics, hopefully this will plug that hole.
From what I've read, recommendations are the fourth factor that law schools consider — after your LSAT score, your GPA, and your personal statement. I also know enough about admissions to know that, while an exceptional recommendation can boost your chances, admissions officers are accustomed to reading boring, interchangeable recommendations that rarely affect their disposition. So maybe I shouldn't worry myself; but at this point there's nothing I can do about my GPA or LSAT score, so it makes sense to concentrate whatever effort I have on the factors I can still control.

Speaking of which, that question of control is my only caveat: My Harvard professor asked me to write my own letter for her. She explained that she does this for two reasons: it gives her a sample of the student's writing, and it prevents her recommendations from sounding too cookie-cutter. I understand both — and after asking around, I've discovered this is relatively normal. Lots of professors have students write their own recommendations.

I know this professor. She's smart and she's dedicated, and she isn't lax and she isn't lazy; so I don't for a moment think she's trying to cut a corner. Nevertheless, I'm ambivalent. On one hand, I don't like imposing on people for favors; so if I'm doing most of the lifting, then I suppose it takes off some of the weight. But still, it seems unethical. Letters of recommendation are supposed to be something more than political advertisements stamped with a tagline, "This message was approved by" — and in an environment where professors claim that the most widespread problem in scholastics is plagiarism, I question the wisdom of having those professors sign their names to recommendations that are prepared by the students who request them.

But if that's the norm, then so be it. I can steer an ethical course in drafting the letter, and that's exactly what I'll do — and then, God willing, I'll be admitted to law school, at which point my ethical hand-wringing will become positively ironic.