Archive for January, 2003

The Thinker

20 Years in Club Fed: A Mixed Blessing

This week at a staff meeting my boss called me up to the front and presented me with a certificate and a pin. Apparently I’ve been employed with the federal government for twenty years. Instead of making me feel better, it just made me feel old and depressed.

Perhaps it’s not good to have these things happen so close to your birthday. I turn 46 tomorrow. But 20 years in anything is a long time. In actuality I left the federal government for about a year in 1987 and came back in early 1989. So while I started work in 1981 a few weeks before Ronald Reagan came into office, because I worked for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for a while my “service computation date” is 1981, plus fifteen months or so. Sometime last year, probably in May, I hit the 20-year mark. The government being what it is, it took this long for me to get the obligatory certificate and pin.

Perhaps it doesn’t feel like 20 years because I’ve moved around. I started out as a lowly clerk typist for what was then the Defense Mapping Agency. In 1981 we were in recession and even a lowly clerk typist job was better than where I was at: selling lawn and garden stuff for Montgomery Ward. My friend Tim Bagwell from those Wards days who suggested I come to work for DMA. As miserly as the GS-4 wages were back then, they look liked a king’s ransom compared to my wages with Wards.

Things obviously improved since then. By the end of 1981 I was working as a production controller in the Graphic Arts Department as a GS-5. It was sort of related to my degree, which had been in communications;I had just never really studied printing. It was the Wang 2200T “calculator” (minicomputer) that we had the piqued my curiosity about all things computer related and I was soon using it and an Apple 2 Plus computer to manage my work. Every one else was using index cards. I had sort of liked the one programming course I had in college in the 70s, but it was such a pain to deal with punch cards and wait hours for jobs to be run that there was not much “fun” in the experience. A “real time” computer was a different story.

I took a COBOL course and used it to get an entry level programming job one floor up. I never looked back. My only deficiency was the lack of a degree in the field. I finally took care of that in the last half of the 90s when I went back to school and got a masters degree in software system engineering. Now I hardly ever touch a line of code, at least on the job. I do mostly project management stuff, which is not terribly inspiring. It does however pay well.

After being laid off by the Democrats and having scrambled on a contract for three months to make ends meet I ended back in Club Fed with the Air Force. I spent nine years toiling in the bowels (actually the third floor) of the Pentagon. I made minor and major changes to legacy budget systems written in PL/1 but eventually got put on a number of “cool” projects using something called a “client/server” architecture. And I guess I did well. In 1997 when that organization royally pissed me off and I shopped my resume within Club Fed, I was quickly picked up by HHS and here I am.

Things being what they are I wonder how much longer I will stay in Club Fed. The work is not terribly challenging, but at this point the benefits are good and the steady income stream is something I can appreciate after so many lean years. The biggest reason for me to stay though is not the money, but the time off. For the first time in my life I have the leisure to do things. I can take substantial chunks of time off and explore other areas of life, such as teaching. So I am grateful for the income (I am a GS-14) and I have often been proud of my accomplishments over the years too.

But the trend to replace federal workers with contractors seems to only be accelerating. There are really no cost savings to this contracting out business any more, but it is political anathema to suggest it. Politicians like the illusion that the government is shrinking when in fact it gets more and more bloated every year. So I may be offered an early out at some point, although 46 is probably way too early for such an offer. And then what will I do? I do know that by age 56 I could retire with a full pension should I so choose. And I probably will.

So the 20-year pin probably is just causing more denial of age feelings. I am sure I have plenty of company. I am sanguine now about the cost of completely following my heart. I work now not so much for the joy of having accomplished something significant, but to pay bills and provide for those I love. The current trends suggest that work for me will continue to be less and less interesting. But at some point, probably after I leave federal service, maybe work will become inspiring again.

 
The Thinker

Terrorism or not?

Terrorism is a term being used a lot lately. It’s being used inappropriately in many cases.

Terrorism is “the unlawful use or threatened use of force or violence by a person or an organized group against people or property with the intention of intimidating or coercing societies or governments, often for ideological or political reasons.” The primary thing though is violence used to achieve political ends. It differs from war, I suspect, because most people consider the right of one country to wage war against another country as lawful, although I personally don’t.

Osama bin Laden is a terrorist. Little doubt about that. Saddam Hussein? The issue is a bit murkier. He did use violence against his own people to kill and oppress Kurds, other minorities and those who don’t like him. He has apparently used unlawful biological or chemical weapons, but I don’t know if Iraq ever signed that particular treaty. Mass murderer: most likely. Terrorist: dunno about that rap. Doubtless though we will hear Bush call him a terrorist in his State of the Union speech tomorrow. He may fill his own people with terror, but that is not the definition of a terrorist. He has been involved in no act of terrorism against the United States that we know about.

Yassir Arafat, terrorist or not? The difference between terrorist and freedom fighter gets very murky. His aims are certainly political, but his aim is a Palestinian state. Is everyone who takes arm to create a state for their own people a terrorist? If Israel is to lay this rap on him, why weren’t the founding fathers of Israel also terrorists for having done pretty much the same thing to the Palestinian inhabitants of what was then Palestine?

Drug dealers are often called terrorists when they kill people. Murderers yes. Mass murderers: sometimes. Terrorists, no, unless you count the thugs in Columbia who basically want an anarchy to run the country as one big narcotics manufacturing facility. By in large though drug dealers and narcotics distributors just want the large sums of money. Running a country doesn’t interest them.

This discussion hopefully raises another issue: what is so special about terrorism anyhow, as opposed to say, mass murder? For example what makes what happened in Oklahoma City worse than say, what Jim Jones did to his followers in French Guinea in 1978? The key difference is the act is political, but does that really warrant a more severe form of punishment and admonition? The big nasty sin seems to be to want to change a system of government through means of force of arms outside of a declared war.

But there are plenty of inflexible governments out there, such as, well Saddam Hussein’s where if a group if insurgents tried to use terrorism as a means to bring down his government we’d be calling them “freedom fighters”. So it seems the issue is the kind of government. If it is something like the United States then this sort of activity is terrorism. Otherwise maybe it’s okay and it’s freedom fighting.

I hope I’m not the only one disturbed by the sloppy and inappropriate use of the term “terrorist”.

 
The Thinker

A Neighbor in Hell

Does life have you down? Do you feel overwhelmed by circumstance and wish you could start over? I often feel that way, not because I really don’t like my life that much nor not love my family. But sometimes even when I think my own personal problems are overwhelming, I can take some comfort in knowing that for other people things can, and indeed often are, much worse. This is a perverse sort of comfort, but it does help me realize that in the grand scheme of things my problems don’t amount to a hill of beans.

Latest case in point has to do with a 14-year-old friend of my daughter who must, of course, remain nameless. Our daughter (thankfully) has been confiding in us that this girl, who I shall call “B”, has been cutting herself. These are not the sort of cuts from someone trying to take her life. She’s not bleeding from an open wound in the bathtub. But she is doing this and Rosie caught her at it at school, where B was using tissues to catch the blood. Thankfully Rosie is not stupid and immediately brought it to the teacher’s attention. The teacher immediately sent B to see a student counselor. Things escalated from there. B is now in the children’s psychiatric wing of a local hospital and will likely be in there for some time.

Because, you see, B’s family is dysfunctional. Her mother C is trying to hold the family together but it seems to be a lost cause. Because C is married to D who lost his job some months back and who also a world-class alcoholic in complete denial. C and D spent lots of time having arguments. D doesn’t think he has a problem even though he is staggeringly drunk most of the time. C is embarrassed to be seen with him. Naturally all the yelling, not to mention having a drunk father 24/7 is freaking B out. Fortunately her younger brother E seems to be largely immune from all this.

C has been trying to keep the family together on the belief that it is best for the children. But it is becoming apparent that some marriages can be so toxic that it is not best for the kids. B’s latest cutting tendency is no doubt a response to the rage and pain that she feels in her life but can’t control. B is in many ways an exceptionally bright and pleasant girl.

C needs to escape from all this once in a while … who can blame her? So she took off for a retreat with some friends. B immediately stopped taking her medications and D was too drunk to notice or to care. C gets called home prematurely from her retreat when the school calls. B is still in the hospital. C comes to visit, but B spurns C. B probably blames C for her whole family situation, not realizing that it is C who is doing her best in impossible situations.

All this, of course, while the family income is cut in half. Painful financial decisions will have to be made, like downsizing their life and perhaps selling their house. But the most painful of all, but perhaps most necessary of all, if for C to separate and divorce D. D may well end up on the street, homeless. He doesn’t seem to have a true friend in the world. Maybe D will hit rock bottom and go into recovery. It doesn’t look likely though.

Man, I want to pour a stiff one from just hearing about this! I can’t imagine living this scenario 24/7! My heart really though goes out to all of them. C is doing her best under impossible conditions. B is a 14-year-old kid who shouldn’t have had all this nasty stuff thrown at her at such a young age. And as much as I don’t like D being a drunk and wish he’d sober up, alcoholism is a disease, so I have sympathy for the guy and an addiction that is clouding his brain so much that rational thought is pretty much impossible.

We’ll see how this soap opera plays out. The good part is that C has now fully confided in my wife and my wife, bless her, wants to help out where she can. We might even host B in our house for a while. B might get better being in a normal family setting for a while.

As awful as this family’s situation is, there are other stories I know of personally that would make this one look like nothing. This is just the one I know about at the moment.

My life: I think I’ll keep it!

Read the last chapter | Read the next chapter

 
The Thinker

The True Size of Government

My agency is going through another one of its periodic, politically required, staff reductions. My agency is hardly unique. Cutting the number of federal employees has become the key metric for demonstrating that government itself is smaller. In 1996 when President Clinton declared the era of big government was over there were approximately 1.9 million of us on the payroll. This follows a downward trend that President Bush is only accelerating.

If government is getting smaller why does it still feel so big? Our office space has not shrunk, and I don’t pass rows of empty cubicles every day. The answer becomes a lot clearer when I look at who is now occupying cubicles of the departed. Their badges are not white. Their badges are pink. In my agency this means they are a contractor. It should not be news that the federal government has relied more on contractors and less on civil servants to get its work done. Indeed in my agency the political imperative to contract out is written into the performance plan of every manager. These contractors are doing work that previously was done by federal employees. Those in favor of a leaner and meaner federal government should applaud. But is the government really any leaner?

Clearly the cost of a federal employee is not a trivial expense. We come with generous leave allowances and decent health care plans. Those of us who remain often have other benefits, such as flexible work schedules and, increasingly, flexible work locations too. And no civil servant I’ve run into can candidly admit they haven’t seen fellow employees abuse the civil service rules and get away with it. Clearly some reforms are needed. I can report after nearly 20 years in the federal trenches that the stereotype of the lazy government bureaucrat is a rare exception to the rule.

One motivation for hiring a contractor instead of a federal employee is that they are expendable. Or are they? I found a curious thing when I arrived at my agency in 1998. Many of the contractors had been working for and supporting the agency longer than many of the federal employees. On those infrequent occasions when contract companies changed, the new contractor invariably picked up these old time contractors. Even more alarming from my perspective is that they often had sole subject matter expertise. If all our contractors were to leave tomorrow it is not even clear that my agency could even function in any meaningful sense. In the information technology shop where I work, many of us “feds” would be hard pressed to modify a line of code, and would be harder pressed to find it. If a contractor looks like a fed, talks like a fed, and squawks like a fed, isn’t it a fed? Clearly the Bush Administration doesn’t think so, and Congress shares this opinion. To admit otherwise would be to admit that government is not leaner than it was.

A leaner government should be able to squeeze more value for the taxpayer. As a taxpayer I certainly hope this is the case, but I am skeptical. Most of the contractors I encounter work on services contracts. While there are exceptions most of them work in-house. My agency provides them virtually all the standard services it would provide a federal employee. Their cubicle may be a bit smaller, but they use the same phones and copiers. When they travel, they use government travel services and get the same discount airfares. But there are a few things that are different. Some of them have to take leave on federal holidays. And work cannot be directly delegated. It must go through contracting supervisors, which can create lag times. In addition the contract can be performance based.

I do know that of those contracts I have seen that the billing rates have raised my eyebrows. I know there are indirect costs (such as the cost of the infrastructure) that must be added to my direct costs that make my official salary nowhere near my true cost to the government. But these are mostly services we provide to our in-house contractors. So it is tempting, though perhaps not completely accurate, to compare direct federal costs vs. contract billing rates.

If our contractors were federal employees I’d guess their average grade would be a GS-13 making perhaps $65,000 a year. Let’s add a generous 70% for other direct employment costs such as employer contributions to social security and amortizing costs for retirement then if they were federal employees they would cost the taxpayer about $110,000 a year in direct costs. This amounts to about $53 per hour.

How much is the government being billed by the contractor for these services? If you were to add 50 to 100 percent you would be in the ballpark. Ah, but contractors are disposable! Congress could come by tomorrow and wipe out the program they support and off they would go. But of course Congress hardly ever wipes out programs. So contractors stay. And their meters keep running.

The true size of government is hard to calculate. Statistics are hard to come by because it appears that agencies don’t want to collect this information. The Brookings Institution published a persuasive book called “The True Size of Government” in 1999 that argue as of 1996 there were in excess of 12 million fulltime federal employee equivalents. Even if the true number is half that amount, the true size of the federal work force is growing.

Federal employees keep retiring at a brisk pace, often spurred on by early retirement options provided by agencies desperate to make the latest politically motivated head count. Those who remain grow grayer. It is increasingly difficult for agencies to bring in new employees to replace them. It is a safe bet that domain knowledge is being transferred to contracting staff. This assumption means that large numbers of government contractors are in effect federal employees performing inherently governmental functions. And contracting agencies are likely making very nice profits.

As a federal employee I am concerned about this trend. Congress needs to examine the true size of government and think about what it means if inherently governmental functions are being done by those who are not federal employees. New and meaningful metrics on the true size of government are needed. As a taxpayer you should consider that increasing the number of federal employees might well be in your interest, provided they are coupled with meaningful reforms in the civil service system. Be suspicious of numbers you are hearing about how the size of government has shrunk. Most likely you are being sold snake oil.

 
The Thinker

Thinking vs. Feeling

It’s not easy being a feeling person. At least not for us INTPs*, dammit. I’m a thinker. My brain is constantly in analysis mode. As you may have noticed from this blog, I feel almost compulsively required to analyze anything. I assume that with sufficient analysis I can understand anyone or any phenomenon. Before I have to deal with someone or some thing, I really, really want to have him, her or it entirely analyzed. This way I think I can figure out the safe and predictable way of interacting with them, and perhaps use them in my short interaction time in a way that I will find most satisfying.

My wife is the same way. We both often wish there were a pill we could take that would slow our brains down. It’s not unusual for us, even though we are dead tired, to be lying in bed not sleeping. Our bodies our tired but our brains won’t stop racing!

But I am also intuitive. I instinctively grasp how others are feeling. But because I am introverted I tend to keep my opinions to myself, and not always trust my own intuition either. For me, thinking is dominant over intuition. Consequently I am the sort of person who knows, for example, if someone is attracted to me. In these cases I can’t act on the knowledge because I either my left brain doesn’t fully trust my right brain or I am looking at all the consequences of acting on the feeling.

One of my challenges in midlife is to try to turn off the thinking part and plug into the feeling part. Because I am intuitive I understand how people are feeling. But can I choose to react to people on the basis of their feelings without overanalyzing thing. It is difficult when someone asks me how my day is going to respond with “How are you feeling today?” It is hard to reciprocate a feeling with another feeling. Instead I want to be Mr. Spock.

Being a feeling person instead of a thinking person may well be a great advantage. For one thing I imagine it would be easier to turn my brain off. Also I suspect a feeling person has much greater influence over others than a thinking person. People’s perceptions of you are largely colored by how you respond to their feelings. By responding in a way that complements their feelings it is likely I’d have more friends and be a lot more popular than I appear to be. In addition it can be faster to get them to do your bidding (if that were my desire) or at least relate to them because I already “know” and don’t need to justify the approach through endless analysis.

My coping strategy for now is to deliberately try to turn off the analysis machine and to try to respond in a low level way to the feelings I sense. I listen for the emotional meanings of the words I hear, and read the implied emotions in the voice or in their body language. But I need to get better. Perhaps a book on Emotional Intelligence is what I need.

And so I ask all of you out in blogland what strategies you use to tune in to people’s feelings. Help out a die-hard introvert become a more comparing and compassionate human being, before it’s too late!

* This is how I am categorized by a Myers-Briggs personality test. See http://www.mtr-i.com/mb-types/mb-types.htm.

 
The Thinker

Polynesians: Mankinds Greatest Explorers?

While in Hawaii last month we stopped at the Bishop Museum, a sort of Smithsonian for all things Hawaiian. I didn’t expect to like the place so much and I wish I had much more time to explore it than we had. Both my wife and I were drawn to the part of the museum tracing the showing the spread of Polynesian people and culture across the Pacific. You can get some idea of the place by going to http://www.bishopmuseum.org.

Across one wall was a map of the Pacific Ocean tracing the migration of the Polynesian people across the Pacific hundreds of years ago. This much is known about them: they didn’t understand math and science in the sense that we do. And yet somehow they managed to explore and spread out across the entire Pacific region.

To help understand how this was possible we took the Planetarium tour and discovered that it was indeed possible to do a crude sort of navigation with longitude and latitude without sextants and resorting to math. By noting the angle above the horizon of the Southern Cross at various times of year one could infer latitude. And from noting where certain constellations rose at certain times of the year one could also infer latitude. It’s not known whether this was really the method by which these people determined where they were. But islands like Hawaii are so far removed from everything it seems impossible that these people could journey for thousands of miles in these large outrigged canoes and even survived. And yet they populated the entire Pacific region long before the rest of us discovered sailing ships.

Their canoes could hold a surprising amount of stuff, like dry foods and water. Fish was available off the side of the ship. Presumably when it rained they could get some fresh water. But spending weeks at sea on these canoes in waters that were doubtlessly often turbulent and occasionally dangerous seems hard for us to understand.

The origins of the Polynesian people seem to be from south Asia, principally areas like Indonesia. A slow eastern migration occurred. But what would motivate people to make these sorts of long and dangerous journeys with perhaps little expectation that they could ever find their way back home? Survival could be part of the picture. The races probably needed room to grow although it doesn’t appear they were ever overpopulated by modern standards. And certainly they got good at getting between local island groups, and looking for signs like birds to direct them to land.

But journeys into the unknown for thousands of miles is something completely different. What would keep them going if after, say, 500 miles, there was still no sign of land when they had only currents and their own canoe paddles to get them where they needed to go?

Doubtless many tried such journeys and failed but some obviously succeeded. I am trying to picture myself as a native of such Islands hundreds and thousands of years ago. My world would be pretty small. I would think the desire to explore would come mainly from boredom.

What adventures these trips must have been! In a way I am envious, feeling I am born too late. Today we think of trips to the moon or planets as adventures. But something on the order of Polynesians discovering Tahiti or Hawaii … this ranks right up there was one of mankind’s greatest adventures. One can admire Marco Polo, for example, for trekking across Asia. But there were people there already. For the Polynesians there was nothing but long and endless open water, with no certainties of anything.

It is hard for me to think of adventures and human history that are grander than what must have occurred during the human migration of Polynesia. And yet the story is largely unknown and untold and much of it must simply be inferred. It’s a shame that this history is lost; it may have been mankind’s ultimate adventure.

 
The Thinker

Getting comfortable with mortality

I suspect it’s a sure sign you are in midlife when you often ponder that there is less life ahead of you than there is behind you. I ponder the finiteness of life a lot these days, but in truth I’ve been pondering it all of my adulthood. I was hardly out of the house and on my own before I started seeing the hourglass that is my life in my mind. Mentally I’ve been watching the sand run through my hourglass of life for a long time. Sometimes I succeed in ignoring it. Sometimes I find it troubling. Sometimes I find it scary. At midlife the inevitability of death becomes more tangible. It is no longer a vague abstraction. It is not easy watching my own parents age. I am sure they are no more thrilled about it that I am. Every day with them seems more and more about beating the mortality odds. How, I wonder, do we enjoy life when we know it is finite and when the quality of life diminishes the longer we live? But perhaps the joy comes from the fact that life is finite. Having spent nine days recently in Hawaii I certainly came back renewed in spirit, at least for a while. But if I were to spend a thousand years in this Paradise, would it become meaningless?

I often feel paralyzed about where I should go and what I should do with my life. Ironically things were much easier when I was younger and struggling. In my 20s, for example, I had constant goals that needed to be achieved. Could we find the money to buy our own house? How could we afford to have a child? These sorts of problems focused the mind and made it easier to ignore the long-term picture.

It’s not as easy now. Ironically with many of my early goals met I now find I often have ample time and opportunity to do those things I’ve always wanted to do. Money is rarely a constraint anymore. I don’t have to struggle with mortgage payments. Except for this pesky thing called college, child-rearing costs are fairly fixed. I completed a graduate degree in 1999 and have taken up hobbies, like teaching, that get me out and help me explore new directions.

And yet I still often feel the impermanence of life, and I don’t like it. It would be easier, perhaps, if I weren’t watching myself enter a slow period of decay. All things considered I am fairly youthful for a man approaching 46. But I see age in my friends and me. I see it in my skin, which is not so elastic anymore, and in the occasional age spot that pops up and doesn’t go away. I see it in the gray that is slowly sneaking into my otherwise ordinary dirty blond hair. I feel it in the way that lethargy so often wants to envelop me. It didn’t use to be this way. Now I constantly have to force myself to exercise and to watch my weight. These are new struggles.

I am playing the delay game too, but I need to truly come to terms with my own mortality. I was at the Barnes & Noble over the weekend and skimmed a book by the Dali Llama on death and living a good life. His advice is to accept aging and death as a part of life and not to shirk from confronting the necessity of mortality. Death is the price we pay for the privilege of living. Shirking our mortality only makes living and dying that much more difficult.

It may be as Gandalf puts it in “The Lord of the Rings” books that it is how we choose to use the time we have given to us that really matters. It’s really, really hard though to know how to choose. I would like to be childlike again and give little thought to tomorrow. Real life though has wacked me on the head. I have learned to survive by confronting real life. I would like to move forward with the rest of my life with the enthusiasm of a child. In truth I may have nearly as much life ahead of me as behind me. And I would like it to be a quality life ahead of me.

I am not sure how I will come to terms with not just my mortality but also the mortality of people I care about. This is a journey none of us can escape. In a future entry I will ruminate on the meaning of life.

 
The Thinker

Racing Toward Armageddon

President Bush is enjoying a wave of popularity for being our leader on his “War on Terrorism”. Yes, it’s time for American to get tough, show its courage, not flinch, and stand up for all that is decent and fair, and unilaterally get rid of all terrorists in the world. While we’re add it let’s play patriotic songs and wave the flag a lot. Unfortunately I have bad news: if you thought the War on Drugs was a no win war, you ain’t seen nothing. This “War on Terrorism” cannot be won unless policies are changed. And Bush is racing away from anything resembling that.

The skeptic wonders why we should place all this trust in him in the first place. After September 11th Bush woke up from his foreign policy slumbers. Prior to September 11th he didn’t give much of a damn about foreign policy. He was saying the United States should let the world solve its own problems. There were plenty of intelligence warnings which if taken seriously might haven prevented the events of September 11th. It just wasn’t that important to him. It seemed that nominating ultra conservative judges, passing huge tax cuts and having month long vacations at his ranch were far more important. Trusting him as our commander in chief now is like trusting the captain who ignores the nearby pirate ship until after the pirates have boarded and killed a fair amount of the crew. It’s like trusting your cheating spouse not to cheat again. On what basis should we trust this guy now? The menace was there all along. That fateful day was hardly the first day terrorists have struck in our country. It was just the first day Bush realized it was a damned serious problem. In reality Bush’s failure to prevent the events of September 11th is serious grounds for his removal from office. He failed utterly to protect the nation from its enemies, the very thing he swore solemnly to do when inaugurated. He was asleep at the wheel. This beats getting blowjobs from interns on a scale of at least a thousand.

But on September 12th he turned into our General Patton. He tells us repeatedly that the safety and security of the American people are his top priority. But do you feel safer because of his war on terrorism? I sure don’t. And if it is so important now, why wasn’t it then?

The reason I don’t feel safer is because, as usual, Bush has a knee jerk response instead of a thoughtful and considered response. His war on terrorism is a reaction to a symptom, not a strike at the cause. All the guns and Special Forces in the world won’t stop terrorism. To do that you have to not just stop the terrorists already out there, but you have to prevent those who would become terrorists.

If you are very, very lucky you might be able to stop some terrorist incidents from happening. But the law of averages is working against us. Some more incidents are bound to occur over time. Incidents have happened, just not anything major in the continental United States. As much as we try to tighten them our borders are porous. Even with our superpower status we can’t really control the proliferations of weapons of mass destruction. Greed and capitalism is the ultimate human force. It certainly has kept us from winning the drug war.

If national security were truly his top priority then we need to rethink our policies. Most of these terrorists come out of the Middle East. Most of them come from ruthless puritanical countries we prop up, like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. So here’s an idea: let’s not support these regimes anymore. If our top value is truly democracy let’s put our money where our mouth is. Cut off the money to Egypt until it becomes a real democracy. Take our military might and our bases out of Saudi Arabia until they emerge out of feudalism too and grant human rights to its own women.

But the number one way to prevent more terrorism is even simpler: stop providing aid to Israel. By conservative estimates $3-$4B a year is provided in military aid by our country to Israel every year. If you add special appropriations, grants and loans that never get repaid it is easily in excess of $10B a year. Israel has no incentive to bargain for peace as long as we prop it up. Why give Palestinians their land back and solve a real injustice when Israel can occupy their land with American money indefinitely?

If we were to do these things, disgruntled citizens of Arab states would have to turn their attention on their own governments instead of us. If we were to stop funding Israel’s war machine 75% of the reason of why they hate us would go away.

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the notion of Zionism. In a perfect world the Jews should have a safe and secure homeland. However, their homeland was purchased at the cost throwning Palestinians off ancestral homelands they occupied for thousands of years. Zionism has become a weird sort of apartheid, financed by the U.S. Government. How very odd. The same things we condemned in South Africa we celebrate in Israel.

Will my ideas solve terrorism? Probably not entirely. Will they lower the temperature and perhaps get terrorists to shift their targets? This is much more likely. In the process we buy a whole lot more national security that we’ll ever get in this unending, bankrupt policy of having a never ending war on terrorism.

Instead Bush has us marching toward Armageddon. Look at what Israel is dealing with right now. The cost of its war and occupation is unending terrorism. The more they clamp down, the greater their military might, the more they try to sweep legitimate human rights issues under the rug, the more of their own people are killed. Instead of creating a more peaceful world for themselves they instead ensure only a more violent world. Their problem is a political one, not a moral one. The same is true with the United States and our national security.

If we should try to emulate a country, let’s emulate Switzerland. No one is trying to terrorize Switzerland because it is a benign state, offending no one. In 100 years Switzerland will still be around, peaceful, and keeping the world’s banks. Bush’s black and white view of the world means a huge gap exist between his view of the world and the way it actually it. But the world must be changed by dealing with the way it actually is. If you think I am nuts, try feeding your dog plant food and let me know how he does. My email box is always open.

 
The Thinker

Nervous Parents

It can be tough being a parent of a 13-year-old daughter. It can be even tougher actually being a 13-year old girl in 2003. So far though I think we are doing okay as parents. As an only child my daughter Rosie has certain advantages, including a lot more parental attention than most kids get. She’s also got two parents who while we are involved in her life, neither of us are obsessed over her life. We try to give her as much freedom as we think appropriate for her age and maturity level. But it’s hard to know where the sliding bar of parental control should be set on a particular day. I find myself sliding it back and forth between wanting to have more control and wanting to be hands off and to trust to her. Sometimes I do it right, sometimes I mess up badly. Part of this parenting business is learning how to deal with my feelings when I screw up. Letting go is new to me too, and it doesn’t come easily, nor is it fun.

While we have it pretty good I’m not naive enough to think it will be smooth sailing through the teenage years. I can watch my daughter’s friends and cringe for their parents. One friend of Rosie’s up the street has tried to commit suicide. She reputedly swallowed most of a bottle of Tylenol. Stomach got pumped, kid was back on the street knocking on our door a day later. We were aghast. If Rosie had done this she would be seeing shrinks and she certainly wouldn’t be allowed out of the house except for school for a very, very long time. This is a sign of a major crisis, not something to be swept under the rug. Here is a girl out of control with perhaps too much freedom who really doesn’t want the freedom she has. But her parents and nonplussed by it all. Somehow I suspect she will try something similar again.

Another of her friends, a very bright and energetic gal, is also subject to violent mood swings, takes a fist full of antidepressants every day and regularly sees a shrink. We hear rumors of long fights with her mother, who is kind and caring. But it doesn’t seem to matter. This girl runs on emotion and mood swings. When in a bad mood words aren’t taken to heart. I guess it doesn’t help that her father appears to be a drunk and is unemployed. I can see this kid in therapy for most of her life, if she is smart enough to stay in therapy.

Both of these two charming young ladies are friends bound together by some sort of complex toxic relationship they can’t get out of. They have run away from home once together already. Fortunately they were found a couple miles away a few hours later. We watched one get felt up by a boy in the park across the street (Terri called her Mom right quick), and have heard rumors of the other hanging out with dangerous boys. Both girls seem to have this notion that if they find a guy who likes them they will love them and be happy. They don’t see that their real anger and struggle is with their parents, and that boys are a balm they think will solve the parental problem, or at least make it easier to deal with. It doesn’t take an abacus to see pregnancy and venereal diseases in their future. Fortunately Rosie is something of a stabilizing influence on both of them. They hang out at our house so often I think just to have a semblance of a normal life. Whatever they want they don’t seem to be getting it at home.

And yet all is not well with my daughter. She’s feeling her oats. Chat room conversations get minimized when we approach the computer. I find links to online dating services in our browser. She has lots of web mail accounts. It would be easy to ban her from the Internet and we certainly could monitor everything she does online. But there are costs to this obsessive parental nosiness too. It can feed resentment and rebellion and make it hard to be heard on other issues. And we can’t keep the real world away from her forever. We can, and do, spend a lot of time talking about the consequences of her choices. She has a good a sex education as I can give her. Not only did she hear it from us (we talk about the emotional consequences of intimate relationships), and from school, but she has taken the official Unitarian Universalist Church sex ed course too. Ignorance will not be an issue for her, but will she have the grounding and good sense to take things slow? It is hard to ignore the call of hormones. And I don’t think they have quite kicked in yet. I expect from 14-16 things will be much wilder.

In the end the choices she makes must be hers to make. She should not be monitored 24/7. Trust must be placed in her, even if the trust is tentative and not wholly earned. She must learn through experience too. All the education in the world will not teach her how to deal with her feelings when a boy expresses affection for her for the first time, or pushes her intimacy buttons. We think we laid a good groundwork for her during her childhood by being open, communicative, discussing hard issues. Hopefully her failures will be few and she will learn her lessons quickly and move on. But fail she must because it is only through failure that the complexities of the real world are fully understood and properly processed.

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The Thinker

Contemplating Purgatory

I’ve been working with strange metaphors lately. I play these metaphors around in my mind. And mind you I don’t necessarily believe them, but I often do think the metaphor is interesting. I throw this latest one out to you: we are in purgatory.

Purgatory is a largely Catholic notion that after death an imperfect soul goes to some spiritual realm, not Hell by any means, not Heaven either, but some place where the soul can go to contemplate all the nasty things it did while on earth, find true contrition and eventually achieve perfection. This happens after final judgment, of course, and I guess you have to be Mother Teresa to go straight to view the glory of God. The rest of us have to wait. This is sort of how I remember Catholic theology from the 60s. Perhaps it has changed, but since Catholicism basically thinks theological change is evil, it’s probably still the Pope’s gospel. I, BTW, am not a practicing Catholic (much to my parent’s grief, I suspect, because I was raised as a devout Catholic). I’m not sure what I am. I attend services at a Unitarian Universalist church a couple times a month, so if I must affiliate with a denomination this one will do.

But I digress. Lately, applying Occam’s Razor, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that reincarnation is much more likely than not. This is because I think it’s impossible for most of us in the course of 80 years or so to absorb all the richness and complexities of life adequately. In addition it seems unlikely if we are spiritual creatures that we can get all our spiritual business done in such a short time too. It is also quite possible that this life is it, but the more I chaw on that one the less likely it seems and the more absurd the notion seems to me. It just fails the common sense test.

It may be, as the Hindus and Buddhists suggest, that our cycle of life is endless and there is no way to escape it, unless we master the concepts of The Buddha and detach from all materialism and then, as I understand it, enter Nirvana and escape into nothingness.

Clearly our existence is a mixed bag. It is full of wonderful joys and horrors that make Hell look like an improvement. It is strange that the same country that could annihilate millions of Jews (not to mention lots of other races and cultures) could also produce Beethoven. In short this world is what we make of it and it is as good as the sum of our collective actions. We can make it a paradise or we can make it a hell. It’s up to us, and how well we organize and how well we communicate our values and live by them. You might say it is something like a classroom, or a simulator even. If that is the case then “Life on earth IS purgatory” is a pretty good analogy.

Perhaps, as some of these metaphysical books I’ve been reading suggest, we choose the lives we lead and the bodies we inhabit in order to learn specific spiritual lessons. I remember thinking in my teens “I didn’t ask to be born”. But perhaps I did ask to be born and I need the kind of experiences I’ve had to evolve as quickly as possible from one form of spiritual being to the next. Perhaps I selected, or at least approved, the body and the life I choose to inhabit.

Admittedly this analogy gets hard to understand sometimes. Why would someone choose to be a victim of Nazi gas chambers? Here perhaps is where my analogy breaks down. But the motivations of a soul may be far different than that of the body. If we are immortal then the form of death doesn’t really matter in the long run.

 

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