Monday, July 24, 2017

Marriage Vows

I know it is common for couples today to compose their own wedding vows. When my wife and I married 54 years ago, we never thought of writing our own vows. In our innocence we accepted the traditional words. In turn we said:

I take you for my lawful wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

I take you for my lawful husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.

That was all we said. I then placed a ring on my bride’s finger “as a sign of our marriage vows.” Although it was followed by a Mass, the actual wedding was a brief ceremony taking no more than five minutes. I still have the little wedding pamphlet from that day, and I notice that the priest did not even say, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” It was our brief vows that made us man and wife.

The pamphlet included an introduction that provided the basis for the simple vows. Reading it today I can honestly say that I was not aware at the time of the awesome significance of the words.  I realize now that the words represented an ideal that would not be easy to attain.

This union then is most serious, because it will bind you together for life in a relationship so close and so intimate, that it will profoundly influence your whole future. That future, with its hopes and disappointments, its successes, and its failures, its pleasures and its pains, its joys and its sorrows, is hidden from your eyes. You know that these elements are mingled in every life, and are to be expected in your own. And so, not knowing what is before you, you take each other for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.

Truly, then, these words are most serious. It is a beautiful tribute to your undoubted faith in each other, that, recognizing their full import, you are nevertheless so willing and ready to pronounce them. And because these words involve such solemn obligations, it is most fitting that you rest the security of your wedded life upon the great principle of self-sacrifice. And so you begin your married life by the voluntary and complete surrender of your individual lives in the interest of that deeper and wider life which you are to have in common. Henceforth you belong entirely to each other; you will be one in mind, one in heart, and one in affections. And whatever sacrifices you may be required to make to preserve this common life, always make them generously. Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy; and perfect love can make it a joy. We are willing to give in proportion as we love.

No greater blessing can come to your married life than pure conjugal love, loyal and true to the end. May, then, this love with which you join your hands and hearts today, never fail, but grow deeper and stronger as the years go on.

I doubt that I read those words back then, or even that I would have understood their full significance if I had read them. It would take a lifetime.

Best wishes to my grandson Michael and his fiancĂ©e Christine who will be exchanging vows this coming weekend. 

Maybe the best depiction of the exchange of vows can be found in the final scene of the award winning 1946 film, The Best Years of Our Lives. It ends with the simple wedding ceremony of a sailor who after losing both his hands in the war, returned home to find that his childhood sweetheart was still in love with him. Click on this link for the brief video. 


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Connecticut Pension Reform 2017

Pensions: The Elephant in the Room

In Connecticut the Governor and the State legislature have failed to come up with a balanced budget despite the constitutional requirement to do so by the end of June. Faced with this impasse the Governor has sought wage and benefit concessions from the various public service unions. If the unions will not agree, the Governor is threatening draconian cuts in state services, as well as new tax increases.

Although the full details of the “concessions” package have not yet been released to the public or the legislature, it would appear that the unions are being asked to accept a kind of hybrid pension plan for new employees as well as modest increases in member contributions to the pension plan. In return for these and other concessions, the Governor has offered a no-layoff pledge and an extended employment contract that will effectively tie the hands of his successor for the next five years.

However, there are steps that the Governor could have taken over the past seven years that would have reduced the pension liability without violating any union contracts. There are many employees who participate in the State’s defined benefit plan who do not belong to unions.

First, elected officials do not belong to unions and do not have contractually binding pension benefits. The Governor himself could have elected seven years ago to opt out of the pension plan and contribute to a 401k type. A few years ago a mayor of Bridgeport chose to participate in the State’s pension plan rather than the city of Bridgeport’s. When he left office and returned to his former post in the Board of Education, his mayoral salary dramatically increased his pension benefit.

Secondly, political appointees do not belong to unions and have no contractual right to be in the State’s plan. They could also contribute to 401k type plans. On taking office seven years ago the Governor appointed a number of state legislators to six-figure posts in his administration. As part-time legislators their salaries and potential pension benefits were modest, but it only took three years in the Malloy administration to triple their average pay for pension calculation purposes. These appointments added millions to pension liability.

Third, judges do not belong to any union and there is no contractual requirement for them to participate in the State’s Pension plan. This is another area where the Governor has dramatically increased Connecticut’s pension liability. One of the Governor’s first appointments to the bench was Andrew MacDonald, a close Stamford friend and long-time legislator. His appointment to the State’s highest court guaranteed him a six-figure pension and not the modest pension that would have come to a legislator earning about $35000 a year. MacDonald’s appointment was just the first of many where Democrat politicians were given judgeships that would give them six-figure pensions.

A couple of years ago Governor Malloy nominated two Democrat lawyers to serve as judges at a starting salary of $154000. Both men were 66 years of age and immediately became eligible for a full pension of 66% of their pay when they retired at age 70. For serving just four years they would have been eligible for a pension of about $100000. How would it have been possible to fund such a pension? It would take $2.5 Million dollars earning 4% to provide $100000 per year income.

The obvious unfairness of these pensions led to a public outcry and the legislature quickly changed the pension formula for new judges. Unfortunately, the change only applied to new judges. The two lucky lawyers were grandfathered in. Their appointments added about $5 Million to the State’s pension liability.

Fourth, high salaried administrators and doctors employed by the State University do not have union contracts. Their existing vested defined benefit plan benefits could be frozen, and future contributions could go into a 401k type plan. Doctors at the UCONN Medical center have been the top pension recipients for years.

Finally, it would be easy for legislators to remove themselves from the defined benefit plan. They all could participate in a combination of Social Security and 401k plan just like the ordinary citizens they are supposed to represent.

I am not suggesting that anyone lose already vested benefits. I am just suggesting that existing benefits be frozen or vested. For example, a legislator who has already served for 20 years would still be eligible for a pension of 40% of his or her legislators pay. Benefits for future service in any department of government would depend on the amount and value of 401k contributions.

The State employs actuaries to calculate the pension plan liability. It should be easy for them to calculate how much the State’s liability would be reduced if the pensions of all non-union government employees were frozen at current levels. I recommended such a study to my state representative earlier this year but I doubt if anything will come of it.

The Governor has asked union members to make concessions; he has asked towns to assume part of the cost of the growing pension liability; he has threatened significant cuts in education, health and other necessary social services. Yet, in seven years he has never suggested tweaking the pension benefits of high salaried political appointees, judges, and UCONN administrators. Millions dedicated to fund pensions for political fat cats cannot be used for the poor and needy.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Film Noir Favorites

Poster for "Where the Sidewalk Ends"
Film Noir, a classic film style of the 40s and 50s, is noted for its dark themes, stark camera angles, and high contrast lighting. Film Noir films tell realistic stories about crime, mystery, femme fatales, and moral conflict. Most of these films were considered as low budget “B” movies in the forties and fifties but many are now regarded as ground-breaking suspense classics with great acting performances.***

I was only eleven years old in 1950 but still remember going to the movies every Saturday afternoon. Hardly anyone had a TV back then and the movies were still the favorite form of entertainment. My friends and I would take the bus that stopped at the corner and travel by ourselves to the various local movie houses in Queens. We never thought of venturing into Manhattan. 

Tickets usually cost 25 cents for the first run premier theaters and only 15 cents for less well-appointed second run establishments. In any case, for the money we were treated to a double feature preceded by five color cartoons, a newsreel, and often a short subject. For the price of admission, we could stay in the theater as long as we wanted and see the films over and over. It was a great treat and it never occurred to us that our parents might have welcomed the opportunity to get us out of the house all Saturday afternoon.

The double feature would usually consist of an “A” film or headliner and another film referred to a “B” film because of its lower costs and production values. Today, many of the so-called “B” films are now considered to be film classics while many of the “A” films are practically unwatchable.

Recently, a local man donated his 3000 DVD collection to a local senior center that for want of storage decided to sell them for a dollar apiece. I took the opportunity to buy up a number of favorite films especially those that are usually called film noir, a French expression that derives mainly from their dark subjects and settings.

Below is a sampling of eight powerful film noir films that my wife and I recently enjoyed watching again. They feature some of the leading stars of the era and were done by craftsmen who really knew how to gain and hold an audience. In addition to being good stories they also provide a real window into the past. I put up this post mainly for my older grandchildren so that if they watch them, they might realize that long ago their grandparents were teenagers sitting in dark theaters watching real life dramas of human love, desire, and wickedness.

I like to use the DVDs since they often come with commentaries and other bonus features but most of these can be streamed free from sources like Netflix or Youtube.

Where the Sidewalk Ends: Directed by Otto Preminger, this 1950 crime drama stars Dana Andrews and the beautiful Gene Tierney who had co-starred a few years before in the classic “Laura”, also directed by Preminger. Andrews played a bitter, angry police detective who finds himself in a jam. This film is classic film noir with stark, stunning black and white city nightscapes, and a haunting musical score.

Criss Cross: Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo play star-crossed lovers in this classic 1949 heist drama directed by “noir” specialist Robert Siodmark.  Dan Duryea plays the sleazy villain. One critic calls this film the second best film noir of all time. Lancaster was one of Hollywood’s greatest male stars and this performance was among his best.

 Dangerous Crossing: Jeanne Crain stars in this dark and devious conspiracy driven suspense thriller from 1953. Crain, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars ever, played a new bride setting out on a transatlantic honeymoon cruise. But when her husband vanishes, she discovers that not only can’t he be found but also that no one on the ship has any evidence that he was even booked on the cruise.

He Ran All the Way: John Garfield and Shelley Winters star in a gripping hostage drama from 1951. Garfield had a meteoric rise to stardom during the forties, but this film turned out to be his last since he died of a heart attack at age 39 shortly after its completion. In what some consider to be his best performance Garfield played a hoodlum who takes a family hostage after a botched robbery. Filmed in stunning black and white by the legendary cinematographer, James Wong Howe.

Human Desire: Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame star in a 1954 tale of love, lust, and greed directed by Fritz Lang and based on a story by Emile Zola. One of the characteristics of a film noir is the presence of a femme fatale, and Grahame was one of the best. The tense opening montage of a speeding locomotive sets the tone for the whole movie.

Pushover:  This 1954 film stars Fred MacMurray as a police detective who falls for a gangster’s woman who he has under surveillance. The beautiful Kim Novak makes a great femme fatale in her screen debut.

Vicki:  Jeanne Crain searches for the murderer of her glamorous sister Jean Peters in a tense police drama from 1953.  Richard Boone, who later starred as TV's Paladin, plays a creepy cop who turns up everywhere.

Drive a Crooked Road:  Mickey Rooney, the diminutive star of so many Hollywood musicals, turns in a strong dramatic performance as an innocent garage mechanic who is lured by a beautiful customer to join a gang of bank robbers in this 1954 suspense thriller. Diane Foster plays the alluring femme fatale.


***This post is dedicated to Judy from Maspeth.