Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

A TALE OF TWO GYMS

exercise bike

I joined a gym a few weeks ago.

Physical therapy wasn’t an option after my two back surgeries – my deductible was $5,000, and problems with my right foot made it difficult to drive myself there and back the required three times a week.   The foot problem also means I cannot put any weight on the foot, which means walking is now out.

So I opted for the gym.

The nearest gym is less than a mile away.   It’s also only $10 per month.

Ten years ago, I went to a gym a few miles in the other direction.  It was over $100 a month, but was the only facility in the Lansing area that had squash courts.   Squash was my favorite activity for 35 years. I first played it in college.   In the UK and the African countries in which we lived, squash courts were ubiquitous. In the US, they are few and far between.   Sorry, but a racquetball court is no substitute!

“Planet Fitness” is the name of the gym.   It’s a franchise.   They are all over the country.   Although they don’t offer squash, racquetball or basketball, they are right up there with the (now) $125 a month gym, the Michigan Athletic Club (MAC), which caters for those at the other end of the social spectrum.

Planet Fitness (PF) has all the latest equipment for a first-class cardio and strength-training workout.   It’s open 24 hours, 7 days a week.   I don’t know how they do it for only ten bucks a month.

With the winter approaching, I’ve decided to ride one of their stationary bikes rather than venture out in the snow and ice.   Regular readers will remember that I fell off my bike recently in a KFC entrance way.   That is not going to happen now that I’m on a bike that doesn’t move, so to speak.   I will, of course, risk the KFC parking lot, Arby’s, Taco Bell and McDonald’s again when the nicer weather returns.

PF does well precisely because it is offering first-class gym facilities to financially challenged people.   The M.A.C. does well because it caters for the wealthy, who want to network with potential clients.   They represent two different worlds, the haves and the have-nots.

The two men who work the early shift at PF are both under-employed. One graduated from law school some time ago and is looking for a job; the other has a comparable degree that qualifies him to teach in higher education.   Neither has been able to find a job in their respective fields. Working at PF, they cannot be earning more than $10 an hour, which equals a take home pay of less than $400 per week.

So it’s not surprising that a similar division is taking place in the housing sector.   Houses under $150,000 in a good school district are selling rapidly – buyers make an offer on the house before they even see it.   At the same time, houses over $160,000 remain vacant for months.   This is inevitable when increasing numbers of people are earning $10 an hour.

The “have-nots” reflect an economy that is not doing as well as official figures suggest.   The 5.1% unemployment figure only takes into account those who are actively looking for a job.   There are millions more who have given up or taken early retirement.

There are, of course, areas around the country where the economy is doing well.

Washington, DC, is one such area.   The counties surrounding the capital of the United States have the highest per capita incomes and the highest house prices.   This is not surprising when you consider that the average federal government employee receives twice the national average private sector pay and benefits.

This also means that those in government are increasingly out of touch with the common people.   This partly explains how shocked establishment figures are by the success of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, two outsiders who have made socially unacceptable comments for which they are often attacked or ridiculed or both.

One example of government being out of touch with reality came last week.   The Obama Administration is offering businesses a $12,000 incentive if they hire new immigrants with a four-year degree.   This makes absolutely no sense when there are already hundreds of thousands of young Americans with four-year degrees and no job!   It only makes sense to those living in the alternate universe known as Washington.

Some will read this and think that Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton are the answer, the former being a fast track socialist, the latter heading in the same direction in the slow lane.   But the fact is that more government is not the solution.  Rather, it’s the problem.   Any expansion of government means higher taxes. In turn, this equals a greater burden on the private sector, where wages are already low compared to government.

The two gyms are not the only evidence of the growing gulf that exists in western societies.   Along the main road, which forms part of my cycling route, are a number of cheap fast-food outlets interspersed with the occasional high-end restaurant.   There are some in-between places, mainly all-you-can-eat buffets that are only adding to the nation’s health care bill.

Of greater concern are the “Cash Advance” stores, offering quickie loans to the desperate, who soon find an APR of up to 1,000% has been added to their loan.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) wrote a number of books that focused on the great divisions in Victorian British society.   A century and a half later those divisions are even greater, on both sides of the Atlantic.   What’s more, they are getting worse.

Whoever started PF was very perceptive – he could see which way society was headed.   The only way the gym can thrive selling $10 a month memberships is if increasing numbers of people are joining.

The way our economy is going, there will be no shortage of new members!

HISTORY IS BRUTAL

(Our youngest grandson, Leeson, who turns 2 in December, deleted this morning’s article. Here is an attempt at a re-write.)

Sword

Bernard Cornwell is an American novelist who has written dozens of books on English history. I’ve just finished his first novel on Alfred the Great, “The Last Kingdom,” set in the ninth century when the Danes (Vikings) were raiding England and wanted to take over the country. England at the time was more than one kingdom. The Danes conquered all the other kingdoms until finally only Alfred’s kingdom of Wessex, in the south and west of the island, survived. If the Danes had succeeded in conquering the last kingdom, they would have killed all the English males and there would have been no England.

It’s not surprising that Alfred is the only English monarch described as “the Great.” Without him, the country would not exist today.

The Danes at the time were ruthless. They still worshipped the pagan gods of Thor and Woden. Because they were usually victorious against the “Christian” (Catholic) English, they considered their gods superior to the Christian god. They were particularly fond of raiding churches and killing priests (churches had more money than anybody else).

Their favorite method of killing was beheading, a subject that has been in our news a great deal lately.

Coincidentally, the non-fiction book I was reading at the same time as Cornwell’s was “When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World,” by Hugh Kennedy, a far more challenging read. I remember having a problem reading Russian literature in my teens because I could not keep track of all those Russian names; believe me, Russian names are a lot easier than Arabic.

This book is set in the same time period as Cornwell’s. As in “The Last Kingdom,” there are plenty of beheadings, the preferred punishment for opponents and anybody the caliph did not like.

Having said that, the Muslim world was far more advanced than England at the time.

The Danes were still a problem two centuries later when Saxon King Harold took his troops north and defeated the invading Danes at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which was fought on the 25th September, 1066. He then had to rush south to fight the invading Normans at the Battle of Hastings. Harold lost the battle and lost his life. England came under Norman rule.

Beheadings continued. During the Peasants Revolt in 1381, the rebels beheaded any law students they could find. In turn, the rebels themselves were later beheaded by the royal authorities.

Henry VIII, in the sixteenth century, was fond of sending people to face the axe-man, including two of his wives.

The most famous victim was Anne Boleyn, his second wife. “Compassionately,” Henry sent for the best swordsman in France to come over and do the final deed, as he did not want his wife to suffer. A good swordsman could kill with just one swipe of the sword – an axe-man might need a few swipes, thereby prolonging the agony. Of course, if he had really been compassionate, he would have sent her into exile. He did not have the option of sending her to a convent as he had closed them all down.

A little over a century later, King Charles I was beheaded in 1649. A republic was proclaimed under Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell, in turn, was beheaded when the monarchy was restored but by that time he had been dead for well over a year!

Decapitation was the punishment for treason. It was reserved for the nobility. The common man had to endure being hung, drawn, and quartered, as was William Wallace, the famous Scot. The last English noble to suffer decapitation was in 1747. In Scotland, the last beheading was in 1889.

The French were still using the guillotine until a few decades ago. The last public execution was in 1939.  Interestingly, witnesses say that people would utter a word or two or blink their eyes after they lost their heads. Just for a couple seconds, that’s all.

As a child I often visited the city of Lincoln and loved walking around its famous castle. One high point in the castle wall is where public hangings took place until the mid-nineteenth century. Charles Dickens witnessed the last one. There was a pub across the street, which offered a perfect view of the hangings. It was called “The Hangman’s Noose” and did a roaring trade whenever anybody faced the actual hangman. Hanging had replaced decapitation as the preferred form of capital punishment over a century earlier.

The law followed the biblical guideline found in Ecclesiastes 8:11 (and elsewhere):  “Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.”

Typically, a trial was held within two months of a capital offence. Execution then followed within 90 days, after just one appeal. In stark contrast today, in the US, somebody can be on death row for over twenty years, making the death penalty far less of a deterrent.

Back to the two books: I recommend Cornwell’s book. It’s a good read. Kennedy’s is a more difficult read and is only for those who are seriously interested in the subject.

Because the two books include many beheadings, and because I have been reading them at the same time as beheadings have been on the news, I studied into the subject more deeply. The result is this article. I hope you found it interesting.