Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Thoughts on Tomorrow's Big Nuptials

When Charles married Diana I was 11 years old and more than eager to wake up early and see the festivities.  I have always loved weddings and certainly one of that magnitude was an extremely exciting event for me.  This was like a fairytale - a real prince was marrying his new princess.  What could be more beautiful?

Or maybe not.  Being a member of royalty doesn't guarantee you a happy marriage in the real world.

Will I watch the wedding of William and Kate?  Chances are if I'm awake I will turn on the news and take a gander.  I'd like to see the procession (horses!) and her dress.  I don't have any intention of hanging on every word.

So many thoughts have gone through my head about this wedding, about why we care so much, and about the future of the monarchy that I really had to blog about it.  I have a few different topics on my brain.


Is this wedding a fairytale?  I keep hearing it referred to as such.  Let's stop for a minute and consider what a fairytale is.

In essence a fairytale is a made-up story that incorporates some kind of enchantment or mythical creature, often incorporating some kind of moral message.  Young girls favor stories of young women - some of whom are already princesses and some who are in poor and helpless - marrying princes. We have to remember there  are other types of fairy tales as well.  Some tell stories of revenge.  Some tell stories of abandonment (think of Hansel and Gretl).  Some are stories that end with disappointment and loss (like the original Little Mermaid).  Not every story is going to end with the phrase, "They lived happily ever after," but all too often it's what we expect.

Were Charles and Diana a fairytale?  In 1981 Charles was in this thirties and the Royal Family was looking for Charles to settle down respectably and continue the bloodline.  Diana was a good choice.  Although not of royal blood (I would guess royal spouses are harder to find these days if you don't want to keep inbreeding) she was of noble blood with plenty of royalty in her background.  She was a starry-eyed young virgin who was naive enough to believe Charles was marrying her for love alone.  She was the perfect spouse for Charles because she was so easily molded into the wife the royal family wanted her to be.  Her obvious sweetness made her the darling of the media and the masses.

There were no enchantments in that marriage, but certainly a few manipulations.  Diana never had the happily ever after she sought.  I suppose there was a moral to the story though.  She matured, came into her own, and demanded the life, the love, and the respect she deserved.  She learned a hard lesson in marrying Charles and I think the Royal Family learned a lesson as well. 

Are William and Kate a fairytale?  I don't know what enchantments might have been behind their courtship (I would assume none), but it seems far more conventional than your typical royal engagement.  They went to school together.  They dated for years.  They became engaged.  It bears more resemblance to the peasant way of doing things than it does to that of a romantic story or even of a typical royal betrothal. 

I suppose there are those who would argue that the fairytale lies in the fact that she is a commoner.  She is not only not royal, but she isn't even noble like Diana.  There is something ordinary about her. 

How ordinary is she really?  The press makes it sound as if she came from a very humble background.  Her parents own a party rental business - so commonplace.  However, her parents' business is a million-dollar business.  She is not poor by any means.  Remember she attended the same schools as William.  Her bloodlines might be unimpressive, but if she can afford to attend the same boarding school as royalty, she's not doing so badly.  If some girl from a council estate who had a very slim chance of ever rubbing shoulder with William suddenly met him and won his heart, I'd say it was a fairytale, since there would have to be some kind of magical intervention for that to take place. For William to marry Kate?  Pretty typical.

One thing does make for a nice story though.  I learned recently that Kate was badly bullied by a group of girls at school when she was in her early adolescence.  It was so bad she had to switch schools.  I'm sure most young women of her generation dreamed of marrying Williams, so she can really laugh at those bullies now. Go Kate!


Why are Americans so obsessed with the British monarchy? We fought a war in order to rid ourselves of that monarchy. When the Constitution was drafted, the authors wisely did away with inherited titles. Everyone has the same opportunities in America (in theory anyway). Your bloodlines are not as important as the work you do. These are some of the core values this country was founded on .

Still we love the monarchy.

As stated in the previous section, kings and queens and princes and princesses are the stuff of stories and legends. Americans have come to venerate royalty because it seems exciting and romantic and glamorous to us. Kings and queens really do exist in the flesh – today! Wow!

I once saw a magazine in a doctor’s office that was devoted to royal watching. It was quite a revelation to me to know that there are Americans out there who are so obsessed with the British royalty that they watch their every move. They don’t just care about Charles and William and Kate and Harry. They know every royal aunt, uncle and cousin for three generations. The magazine tells of their histories, their relations to the Queen, their life stories. We see them at various charitable and family functions, impeccably dressed and correct in every form of etiquette. Most of it is pretty boring, but the attention given to these people is impressive.

I’m someone who can’t stand tradition just for tradition’s sake. I believe the world needs regular shaking up. Despite this, I still can’t avoid feeling a sense of awe when seeing these people. They inhabit a world that is nothing like mine. They still live in a world where people dress for dinner and eat off china that might have also served Queen Victoria. They attend events that probably existed in medieval times. They can trace their ancestry back to the beginning of the last millennium. What do we have in the United States that even compares to this?

On my first visit to London I visited Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. Of course at the Tower I had to see the crown jewels. Prior to entering the room that houses the crown jewels you go into a room where they show you a video of Elizabeth’s coronation. The ceremony consisted of her being presented with the crown, scepter, and orb that were the symbols of her position. Then I went into the display room and saw that crown, that orb, and that scepter. I imagined just how many kings and queens over the centuries had been presented with these same symbols. In Westminster Abbey I saw the coronation throne and again felt the stories of the centuries in its history.

I compared this to a presidential inauguration. The inaugural traditions are the same, but there is nothing passed on from president to president. I always imagined that they used the same Bible for the ceremony. I had believed that Obama swore on the same Bible was George Washington. I was a little surprised to find out that he swore on the same Bible as Lincoln, but no other president other than Lincoln had sworn on that Bible. There are no symbols of office passed on. We have the National Archives, which houses our most important documents like the Declaration of Independence (back to the idea that we threw off the monarchy) but nothing than be passed on from leader to leader.

The wedding of William and Kate also provides a certain fascination for Americans because our culture is so wedding-obsessed. I admit to being someone who loves weddings (and no that doesn’t make me any less of a feminist nor does mean I was a bridezilla at my own wedding) and so I do have an interest in seeing how this one comes off. In our culture we tend to associate weddings with romance and happily-ever-after, so this wedding is going to be seen as one of the most romantic gestures ever. Plus, it’s like an episode of Platinum Weddings on steroids. What will people do when tradition reigns supreme and money is no object? William and Kate have stated their wedding will not be quite as extravagant as Charles and Diana’s, but I’m sure it will be quite over-the-top by the standards of most normal American weddings.

It’s not important for me, but it could be fun to see. If I wake up early enough, I’ll watch it, but I’m not setting an alarm for 4 AM.

What next?

The British aren’t as interested in their monarchy as Americans are. They don’t care that much about this wedding. Like the American colonials, they’re sick of the Royal Family growing fat on their taxes. The British monarchy doesn’t really do much except act as official figureheads. I give them credit for being actively involved in the military. Leading your people into battle on the field is something American politicians don’t do. The Royal Family does do its traditional duty in military leadership – for what that’s worth. Queen Elizabeth worked as a mechanic during WWII. Beyond that, they really don’t serve much of a function. They preserve a tradition – and tradition doesn’t always have a place in an evolving society. They want to get rid of the world Americans crave.

The house of Windsor has seen more than its share of dysfunction in the last century. As it desperately tries to hold onto its power and prestige, the modern world interferes around it.

Nothing drove home that point more than the movie The Queen. I really saw how Queen Elizabeth is a woman caught between major family scandals.

At a family dinner in recently years the topic turned to Princess Diana and how if it weren’t for Wallis Simpson, she would still be alive. After all, if King Edward had not insisted on marrying her, the line of succession would have gone to him. The whole mess with Charles and Diana never would have happened. Of course if the line of succession had been different, Charles would not have had the same pressure to marry, or to marry a certain type of woman. Charles would likely have just been Camilla’s lover until she divorced and would have likely quietly married her at some point without anyone but serious royal-watchers knowing or caring. Diana would just be some random noblewoman that no one but her peers would really be aware of, although she might have gained fame as a philanthropist. I’m sure she would have married some rich businessman after spending enough years single to be old enough to have a more realistic grasp on marriage.

I think of the abdication of Edward VIII as ancient history, but he was Elizabeth’s uncle. He was alive when I was born and his wife lived long enough for me to be aware of who she was. His actions must have had a very strong influence on how Elizabeth has tried to handle the current scandals and affairs and marriages. In The Queen Elizabeth remarked that her father, unprepared to handle the stress of being king (reflected in The King’s Speech), died a premature death, placing her in a position of power before she felt ready.

I’m sure that in centuries past, none of this stuff would have shook the foundations of the Royal Family to the ground this way. Thanks to the nonstop news media and information-hungry royalty fans, the dirty laundry is aired in public in a way it never has been. Once upon a time kings and princes had women by the truckload and scores of mistresses. Now suspicions of a single infidelity set fingers wagging. The public seems so hungry to believe that royalty will engage in the true, faithful love of storybooks and romance novels. Tabloid reporters are hungry to catch them in the act. A king can’t just have a mistress, buy her an apartment or country house, and then quietly spend time at her place while the queen attends to palace matters. People hold him to a higher standard. Royalty has to marry for love and be faithful to that love.

The happy ending of William and Kate is yet to be written. They had a much more conventional courtship. Unless his father abdicates (and some say he will) he is not going to sit on the throne for a very long time, so there is little pressure for him to marry and produce another heir. He and Kate had a long courtship where they met the way most commoners meet – at school. They fell in love in college, moved on with their real lives, had their ups and downs, and decided they cared enough to make it permanent. It seems like a wise and mature way to go about it. Kate is likely painfully aware of what she’s in for thanks to the tragic story of her late mother-in-law. She made the choice to sign up for that life, so she must be determined to handle it. She has spent the past few years devoting her life to William.  Let's hope she can keep that up.

I wish them luck. Maybe the family will find some peace.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Fitness Buzzword I’m Sick Of

What the heck is a “core”?

Well, I know it’s the part of an apple you eat around and toss. It’s also the part of the tomato you cut out. It’s the ball we believe is at the center of the earth and it’s made of iron and nickel.

Do we have a body part called a core? If so, what is it?

According to my Core Rhythms DVDs, the core is the band of muscles above the hips, front and back: Rectus abdominus, obliques, and the erector spinae muscles.

Kevin’s P90X DVDs has a core workout that seems to involve the entire torso as it contains exercises like pushups, which also engage pectorals, biceps, and triceps.

Certain faddish exercise classes I have taken (whose name I will not mention for fear of offending its devotees) are obsessed with the word “core” and seem to focus mostly on the front of the body: rectus abdominus, obliques, hip flexors, and some hip adductor and abductor. The back muscles are hardly engaged at all as much of the work is done lying on the floor.

The idea that one must engage the abdominal muscles in order to stabilize the trunk is hardly a new concept. Everyone from powerlifters to ballet dancers have known this for centuries. My ballet teacher in college used to call the belly the “power button” while exercise instructors have always started classes with the command, “Abs are tight.” In order to hold your spine straight and tall through an exercise, we must engage several muscles. Although it can be helpful to strengthen individual body parts, we have to remember that real life movement integrates all body parts as a whole. To remember to engage one’s abs is one way to insure optimal integration.

I suppose that’s why these “core” statements drive me crazy. It’s very easy for an instructor to say, “I will make your core stronger,” because there is no one set definition of a core.  Your core is stronger? How? Which muscles are you referring to? In what measureable ways are they stronger? Is there any scientific evidence that one method of working these muscles works better than any other? Are you strengthening your core at the expense of other muscles? For example, if you are working mostly lying on your back, how do you address the imbalances in your body as you address your anterior muscles while resting the posterior muscles?

Core has become a marketing tool, a gimmick. It’s one I find almost insulting. Rather than talk about muscles and the ways they can be strengthened, we talk about “core” which sounds sort of new-agey and unthreatening and unscientific. That seems to make the term less intimidating for the supposedly uneducated masses (especially women who are supposed to be threatened by muscle talk). It also takes away a certain responsibility from those selling core workouts. If there is no universal definition of core, no measurable way to gage core strength, then whoever is selling you exercises doesn’t have to deliver much.No one has to back up any claims of improving core strength when core is so esoteric and undefined.

Does a specified core workout work your trunk stabilizers better than any other workout? The truth about muscles is that they all function the same. If you work a muscle to fatigue, eventually it will grow stronger as long as you fatigue it consistently. Your muscles don’t know if you are using a dumbbell, a kettlebell, a band, a weight stack, or some spring-loaded contraption. It just knows it is being worked. Some exercises will work it harder than others. Everything about your muscles – the size, the shape, the length, the flexibility – are all mostly determined by genetics. No amount of core instruction will turn an endomorph into an ectomorph. You won't get six-pack abs if you don't do some serious adjustment to your diet. 

Rather than worry about your core, worry about making sure your workouts are balanced (don’t sacrifice your very important back muscles because you feel your abdominals are the be-all and end-all of your workouts). Consider the functionality of the moves you do. How much of your entire body are you using?

Are you unsure about how integrative your workout is? I have one piece of advice: stand up! Isolating muscles while lying on the floor or sitting on a weight machine is not going to incorporate your whole body. If you are standing up, all of your muscles are working to keep your body erect, plus you are working against gravity.

Now if I could only eliminate the word “toning.”

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Who Will Make the Sacrifice?

The national deficit is rising. State deficits are rising. I’m not a math expert, but I understand why it happens. The government spends more money than it collects.

There are two solutions. The first is to collect more revenue. The other is to stop spending.

The most palatable solution for your average shmoe is to simply spend less and not raise taxes. It seems so simple. No one wants to pay more taxes, so let’s just cut everything.

Everyone has to make a sacrifice. We all agree that sacrifices must be made. The problem is that everyone feel s that everyone else needs to make a sacrifice. “Don’t make me give up my benefits or pay taxes. That’s for the people who don’t deserve what they get.”

In Wisconsin the governor decided that the highest income residents of the state were making too much of a sacrifice. They needed a break, so he gave them a giant tax cut. The next thing he knew he was faced with a giant budget shortfall. No one said the wealthiest state residents should consider giving up their tax cuts and pay the taxes they had been paying all along to redress this deficit. No. Instead the governor said, “Let’s make it harder for public employees to make more money or receive more benefits.”

Are public employees worthy of what they receive? Do they deserve benefits? Do they deserve the right to protest against their employers if they feel they are being paid or treated unfairly? The government of Wisconsin would say no. Non-government employees say no. It seems the belief is that is they don’t deserve it. Their jobs are expendable. They are underworked and overpaid. Let’s make them sacrifice so the rest of us don’t have to pay taxes.

How many of you would want their jobs ? Could you be a teacher? Could you be a social worker? Could you be a psychologist in a state-run mental hospital? How would you feel walking a mile in those shoes? What makes you think government service jobs are so easy that they’re not worthy of the pay you think they receive?

Throughout US history it is has been the taxes on the wealthiest that have built our infrastructure and our services. This seems unfair from a purely economic standpoint. Why is one group paying for the services for everyone? As the government has begun to offer more benefits and more services, it seems even more unfair. It almost seems like justice to put more tax burden on the middle class. It is the middle class that is at risk for having a catastrophic event cause them to become dependent on government assistance. It is the middle class that wants the best public schools. As for the lower classes, they obviously aren’t working hard enough, so they really don’t deserve anything, right?*

But let’s look at it from a less selfish standpoint. Everyone uses the infrastructure – rich or poor. Everyone benefits from an educated populace. Taxing the top tier of wealth in society has never resulted in a shift of wealth. The rich can pay taxes and still be rich.

How much money does anyone realistically want? If you have multiple homes, travel first class around the world, have a designer wardrobe, a garage full of high-end cars, and the knowledge that you will never want for any of the basics in life, how much more do you want? You live in a country that allowed you to amass wealth because of the freedoms it granted you. Why not give back? How much worse off would you be if you paid your fair share? You may benefit as much as the poor lazy slobs you claim are sponging off the taxes.

Corporations are now moving overseas to avoid paying any taxes at all.
American companies with American leaders are now ceasing to be American. These are companies that generate billions of dollars and yet they refuse to give any of it back. They don’t want to support the country that gave them a home. The CEOs will tell you they have no loyalty to their country. Their loyalty is to their profits and their shareholders. I suppose there is nothing morally wrong with that. Corporations are entitled to make as much legal profit as they like.

What I would like to know is why those of us who question this system, who say this kind of unchecked capitalism might not be ethically sound, are considered un-American? If I say I think it’s wrong to leave the country to avoid paying taxes, then I’m an evil socialist/communist who hates America. Somehow it is un-American to question companies who will say outright that they have no loyalty to America at all.

So no one will pay taxes. The top 1% of wealthholders will avoid paying taxes at all. The middle class doesn’t want to pay for the people they believe to be freeloaders, knowing that they might be a few paychecks or medical bills away from being freeloaders themselves. In an effort to make the budget balance, the Americans who need their services cut the least, will be the ones who suffer the most, the ones who have the least amount of power: children, the elderly, the disabled.

So even though all of us agree that something needs to be done to save this country, who out there is willing to make the sacrifices needed to do it?  Many a patriot has said he will lay down his life for his country.  Who among us will be a little less dramatic and lay out some cash?

*Just wanted to check that you read the sarcasm in that sentence.