Archive for May, 2003

The Thinker

Wanted: Democrats with Spine

Where have they gone? I’ve looked everywhere for them but they are like hunting for that four leaf clover. Not that they are completely gone, but the ones with spine seem to be isolated to what some would call the lunatic fringe of the Democratic party. There is, for example, Al Sharpton, whom no one considers a serious presidential candidate. There is also Dennis Kucinich, another marginal Democratic presidential candidate with almost zero chance of winning even the primary in his own state. Lastly there is Vermont Governor Howard Dean whose spine is somewhat flexible because he has a serious plan to address the health care crisis but at best gives halfhearted criticism of our unwise war against Iraq.

Love them or hate them the Republicans have spine. They don’t wait for the ball to be served and if they do get the ball they wham it back at their opponents. Today’s Democrats mostly try to avoid hitting the ball back. They are always looking over their shoulders and checking their polling numbers, afraid to say something that will lose them any points and afraid to offer a clear and compelling vision to the current Republican madness.

Case in point: in the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They supposedly followed Bush into war against Iraq because they believed Bush when he said Iraq had these weapons and they could easily be targeted against the United States. Never mind that the evidence wasn’t there and the whole idea was preposterous. They were too intimidated to do much other than shut up and raise a limp hand when the war vote came up. But one would expect that after the fact when no weapons were found that they would be holding Bush accountable. But no. Weeks go by, months go by and a few brave Democrats say maybe we should hold a hearing or so but most blithely assume we’ll eventually find them. Could there be any doubt what would happen if the situation had been reversed? Suppose just for a moment Gore had gotten into office and had waged the same sort of war against Iraq on such flimsy pretenses. Is there any doubt that Republicans would be calling for special hearings, task forces and perhaps even special prosecutors to get to the bottom of what they would characterize as a scandal? Hell, there would be impeachment hearings.

But on the economy the Democrats have also been mostly silent and ineffective. The role of the Democratic Party seems to be mostly in staying together so that the latest obscene tax cut is merely in the troposphere instead of the stratosphere. $330B, as reported in today’s Salon, would have paid for health coverage for every uninsured person in America and for millions of teachers and child-care workers. This would have increased our productivity and put people back to work immediately. Instead the bulk of the money goes to the richest Americans. If this were the first time maybe it would be excusable, but this is tax cut #3 from Bush where the rich people are laughing all the way to the bank.

One would have hoped after the 2002 mid term elections that the Democrats would have gotten a clue. There was no reason why we could not have taken back control of the House and the Senate. Instead, we got a Republican congress. What have the Democrats done to hold its leaders accountable? Not a thing. The first to go should have been Terry McAuliffe, head of the DNC. Hey, he said he would bring us a Democratic Congress again. He didn’t. He should have been so out of there. Someone with more leadership should have taken his place. Bill Clinton would have been ideal for the job. Although it is unlikely he would have taken the job, he would know the right people who could do it. No changes in the DNC though. No changes in Senate leadership. Nancy Pelosi took over for Dick Gephardt as House Minority Leader when he decided to run for president. That was hopeful but yes there was Nancy saying how proud she was of our president on Iraq and how she supports our troops. Nancy of all people has become politically correct.

All this and polls suggest only one in four Americans believe that Bush’s tax cuts will do anything to stimulate the economy. A majority of Americans also believe we should get the hell out of Iraq and let the Iraqis solve their own problems. There are natural opportunities here to rally Americans around a Democratic base. But don’t hold your breath.

The good news is that Republicans are their own worst enemies and are, as usual, vastly overreaching. Their chickens are coming home to roost too: the economy sucks, the war was won quickly but the peace in Iraq is illusionary, Afghanistan is still a vast anarchy as is most of Iraq and the war on terrorism is going fitfully at best. Our foreign adventures will doubtless become quagmires. The federal government’s fiscal house is a mess. We’ve managed to piss off most of the international community.

The opportunities are everywhere. A centrist Democrat stressing compassion, moderation, fiscal responsibility and a realistic health care plan for all Americans should have every advantage in 2004. But they won’t do it running behind Bush. He or she must stand tall, be unafraid, and simply tell the people the obvious truth about Bush and his disastrous administration.

 
The Thinker

Outsourcing Madness

News item: 150 federal workers rally at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D. C. to protest zealous efforts to “outsource” their jobs to the private sector.

I had no idea about this rally. I suspect if the word had gotten around there would have been a lot more people at the rally. But hey, it’s a start.

It’s the same everywhere in here in Fed World. Today in my vanpool those who work in the Department of Agriculture were noting their “All Hands” meeting today. The primary discussion of course is outsourcing. How many of these good and hard working federal employees, many of whom have been employed for dozens of years, will still have a job in a year? How high do you think their morale is while this process is underway?

Maybe the way to keep their job in this economy is to surrender and to find out what contracting agency will fill their jobs and apply to them. At least they’ll have the requisite experience for the job. Anyhow, if airline employees can be continually downsized why not federal employees? What is sauce for the goose is good for the gander after all. Umm, all this IS good, right? Taxpayers are going to get a great return for their tax dollar right? Think again.

In the process of moving from federal employee to contractor they may give up some of those little fringe benefits they took for granted, like more than a week or two of vacation a year, or health insurance, or a 401-K plan. But at least maybe they will be employed, although for likely far less than they make now. These new contracting executives will need their Mercedes Benz and their cushy offices. That will require the usual deal: charge the government more than the true cost of federal employees but caveat it with “Hey, if you don’t need them they can be easily terminated”, take 50% of the margin for “overhead” and give the rest, or less, to the employee. Federal employee numbers go down. Bush can claim he has reduced the size of the government and made the government more lean and efficient.

Now I’m certainly not saying that some contracting doesn’t make sense. It would make no sense to have civil servants build B-1 bombers. It didn’t make much sense 20 years ago when I started working in the government to have civil servants cleaning restrooms or maintaining an agency’s fleet of automobiles. There are jobs that are so generic that there is nothing the least bit “federal” about them. The crux of the matter is whether a job is “inherently governmental”. Over the years as the politically inspired outsourcing pressure has increased the line between what is inherently governmental has gone from dubious at best to outright silly.

The latest example that I read about is this attempt by the Department of the Interior to outsource grants management specialists. What does a grants management specialist do? Their job is to ensure that when the federal government doles out the dollars to accomplish some mission on behalf of the federal government that the money is used according to law. But apparently the Department of the Interior thinks “Hey, we can hire a contractor to see if our contractors are doing the job correctly.” This is lunacy. What the hell is more inherently governmental than this?

But outsourcing is just one example of dubious management in the federal government. The Bush Administration, like those before it, is convinced there are too many supervisors in the federal government. The solution is to reduce middle management and “flatten hierarchies”. In my agency we’ve become so flattened that management has basically no idea what I actually do and no time to monitor my work.

No, I am not kidding. I wish I were. We were reorganized recently. Of course we’re not going to get any new people to replace those who left because in addition to flatting hierarchies we want to give the appearance that the federal government is not growing too. My new supervisor is a GS-15 who was given the job in addition to his previous job of being the information technology security officer for the agency. What is he actually doing day to day? Think he’s managing the people below him? Think again. Mostly what he does is spend 80% of his time working on some departmental security initiative that keeps him out of the office or unavailable to manage during that time. This is what his bosses are telling him. So he has almost no time to know what any of us are doing.

In short the hierarchy has been flattened so much that accountability has been squeezed out! There is no time to manage people and balance the resources and work among us. But in reality my boss, through no fault of his own but simply through circumstances, really has no idea what I do beyond “project management”. When it comes time to do my employee evaluation, assuming he actually has time to read my accomplishments, he will find out what I did for him last year. Hopefully it will be in line with what he would have wanted me to do in the first place, if he had the time to tell me, which he won’t. He won’t have time to even think through the problem in the first place.

In reality there is no accountability in my organization. I come to work and do my job but I could just as easily sit at my desk and play solitaire all day because it is unlikely anyone would notice. In fact I do come to work and put in a solid day’s work, but even so I have no idea whether I am doing good or bad. My performance evaluation criteria are so generic it bears little or no resemblance to my effort. There is no clear expectation of what I am supposed to be doing in the first place. I just keep doing what I’ve been doing and perhaps naively volunteer to take on new tasks from time to time feeling I should be a “team player”. These new tasks generally show up as a result of talking with people or from phone calls.

One would hope that our executives would understand the dichotomy of what they expect from their managers. In short they expect the impossible. If you tell my manager to spend 80% of his time doing something other than his job, which has supervisor in the title, then he is not going to be able to manage us. If in addition you flatten hierarchies so much that even if he had the time he wouldn’t be able to manage our time effectively then the obvious conclusion is that you need more managers, not less. If a manager can’t manage the people under them then they can’t hold them accountable and employees’ productivity is likely being squandered.

It is time to acknowledge the obvious: you get the government you pay for. We’ve collapsed hierarchies too much; we need to add managers, not subtract them. We need not just figurehead managers, but real managers, trained in actual management who read books by Jack Welch. And our executives need to set their managers free so they can actually manage their people in alignment with organizational goals.

And as for outsourcing, it based on the notion that just about any task can be neatly packaged and handed off and doesn’t require any real governmental oversight except for remembering to renew the contract when it comes up. No one will admit that, of course, but that’s the naked reality.

That’s not management, folks.

 
The Thinker

Why Didn’t We First Secure Iraq’s Nuclear Sites?

At the moment at least Americans seem to be giving President Bush a pass for his little oversight of sending in our armed forces to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction that aren’t there. According to this article in Saturday’s Washington Post, Americans seem to be inclined to overlook the whole reason why we went to war with Iraq in the first place because, well, we found lots of mass graves and Saddam Hussein turned out to be a really bad guy — like we didn’t know that already.

You know, of course, that had something similar had happened when Bill Clinton was in office there would be investigation upon investigation about how our intelligence failed and why we went to war when our facts were wrong. With Republicans in control of all branches of government don’t hold your breath. But it is very discouraging that even my fellow Democrats can’t be bothered to hold Bush accountable for what is at best faulty intelligence and what is at worst a bold faced lie to Congress and the American people about the essential facts about Iraq.

I suspect in time as our occupation continues to falter this will resurface as an issue but for now there is no political traction to it. What is more compelling to me at the moment though is how the United States dawdled and failed to protect known nuclear sites in Iraq. By the time these sites were investigated their contents was largely looted and carried off. If weapons of mass destruction was truly the issue, why didn’t we first go in and protect these sites? It is pretty clear that while Saddam was in charge these sites were at least secured and given the enmity between Saddam and al Qaeda there was zero chance that any nuclear materials would fall into the hands of terrorists. But during the anarchy unleashed at the start of the war these sites were quickly pilfered. If I were a terrorist organization I’d be looking for an opportunity like this to easily acquire these materials. It now appears that through bungling the United States may have facilitated a process by which terrorists could easily get their hands on nuclear materials.

This excerpt from today’s Washington Post tracks a WMD team for a week and includes this harrowing account:

On April 10, the day after Hussein’s statue tumbled out of its boots on Firdaus Square in Baghdad, Allison was dispatched to two of Iraq’s most important nuclear sites. One was called the Tuwaitha Yellowcake Storage Facility, where the International Atomic Energy Agency keeps track of tons of natural and partially enriched uranium. Close by stood the forbidding berm walls of the Baghdad Nuclear Research Center, where Israel bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981 and the United States bombed a Russian-built reactor 10 years later. Between them, the two facilities entombed most of Iraq’s former nuclear weapons program.

Just that morning, according to U.S. and U.N. sources, the Vienna-based IAEA had sent an urgent message to Washington. The twin complexes at Tuwaitha, the message said, were “at the top of the list” of nuclear sites requiring protection of U.S. and British forces.

A Marine engineering company had found the sites abandoned a few days earlier. The captain in command reported looters to be roaming the compounds. Allison’s task was to measure the radiation hazard.

“We couldn’t get close because we were receiving too high a dose” of radiation, Allison recalled. But the team found disturbing signs, even from a distance. The door to a major storage building, one of three known jointly as Location C, stood wide open.

Deal’s personal dosimeter warned him to leave the scene, but first he shot a few seconds of videotape, by reaching his hand with the camera around the doorframe. The jerky images showed office debris strewn alongside scores of buried drums. Those drums, and others nearby, were supposed to contain 3,896 pounds of partially enriched uranium and more than 94 tons of yellowcake, or natural ore.

Looters had plainly been inside. At a minimum, they had exposed themselves and their families to grave health risks. More ominously, they might have taken some nuclear materials with them.

“There were also containers of what looked like medical isotopes on the ground,” Allison said. “We backed off because we didn’t have the capability to deal with radiation that high.”

Before Team 3 could complete its survey, Allison received a “frago” — a fragmentary order — to leave at once. Tuwaitha was at the center of an unresolved dispute between the Bush administration and the IAEA, which monitors compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and Bush’s advisers were divided among themselves. Until it had clear instructions, the headquarters for U.S. ground forces in Iraq wanted nothing to do with the site.

Standing under the desert sun with an Iridium satellite telephone at his ear, Allison raised his voice in angry protest at orders to leave the nuclear center unprotected. Eventually his superiors agreed to allow Marines to stay. Allison’s report later that day said that even so “the maneuver commander did not have sufficient forces to secure both sites.”

“I hope somebody has done something,” Allison said, recounting the story some time afterward, “because a lot of that [material] is just laying around.”

Tuwaitha was not Team 3’s last brush with nuclear chaos. On April 24, two weeks later, Allison received orders to survey a warehouse holding the disabled machinery of Iraq’s former nuclear weapons program. The Ash Shaykhili Nuclear Facility was a kind of boneyard for bombed reactor parts, broken vacuum pumps and heat exchangers and gas centrifuges rendered inoperable by U.N. inspectors.

Allison’s assignment was to focus on an underground facility at the site. Whatever U.S. intelligence suspected there, sources in Washington said it was enough to place Ash Shaykhili in 11th place on the priority list of Iraqi weapons sites to be surveyed.

When Team 3 arrived, it found a nightmare unfolding.

The warehouses already had been “completely destroyed by looters, all burned up,” Allison recalled. He saw charred pieces of what looked like equipment for electromagnetic isotope separation. A damaged glove box had been tossed in a scrap metal pile.

And the looters were not finished. Scores of civilians still swarmed the site, wrenching and cutting prizes away and loading them onto wheelbarrows, cars and trucks. They paid almost no attention to Allison’s small team.

“There was no security anywhere to be seen,” the team reported later that day. “Local civilians were in the process of looting and dismantling the facility when the team arrived, and remained during the entire exploitation. Site Survey Team 3 only had adequate security for force protection for team members.”

Seated on a folding canvas chair, recalling the scene in an interview eight days afterward, Allison raised his eyebrows and shook his head.

“If there was something there” to reveal an undeclared Iraqi weapons program, he said, “it was long gone.”

One would hope that such accounts would trigger a congressional investigation. But don’t hold your breath. I guess we just have to wait and see. If terrorists got this material and turn it into a radiological weapon we’ll probably eventually find out, to our sorrow. Whatever material is there appears to be gone, and no one can find it. Before the war it was at least centrally stored and guarded. Now it is scattered about Iraq and it will be dumb luck if none of it ends up in the hands of terrorists.

 
The Thinker

Personal growth through relationships

Maybe this is a “no duh!” but this observation snuck up on me today when I least expected it. But it seems that we grow as a person by how well we manage the relationships in our lives.

For many people there is not much to manage. Maybe they have great social skills, or are highly compatible with those people in life they come in contact with on a daily basis. Then there are the rest of us for whom every relationship is a challenge and a potential minefield.

For me a good example is my spouse. In a couple months I will have had her in my life for twenty years. Yes, it does boggle my mind – where did all that time go? Soon for half of my life she will have been there. Not surprisingly we complement each other and in other ways we are polar opposites. It is not the things we share in common that are ever the problem. We can talk about computers, or the virtues of certain classical music and we rarely disagree. Even when we do disagree we are always respectful toward each other. There are no hurt feelings if she prefers Bach and I prefer Beethoven. During those times life and our relationship are serene and we are filled with a pleasant and happy glow from finding such joy in each other.

Then there are the differences. There’s the rub all right. I am a classic introvert in the sense that I keep my feelings largely bottled up. Terri says she is an introvert and no doubt she gets a lot of her pleasure inward rather than outward. But when it comes to expressing feelings, she must express them. For example, when we drive anywhere she will make loud and rude (sorry dear) comments about every act of bad or inconsiderate driving she encounters. Those of you who drive in the DC area know that this is about one every 15 seconds. If she tries to shut up, she gets upset and develops headaches. Expressing her feelings RIGHT NOW is her safety valve because her inner teakettle is always close to boil.

It is true I don’t usually want to hear her observations since I have heard them ad nauseum for nearly 20 years. But she could no more stop expressing her feelings than the Niagara River could reverse its flow. It is a pull like gravity. So whether I want to hear it or not I will and I am left to either try to cope with it or stuff cotton in my ears. Maybe this is why we don’t go on cross-country car trips. No, to me life is much more serene when I refuse to get upset about every transgression on the road. There are too many of them anyhow and getting upset about them wouldn’t improve my day. But that’s how I think and that’s how I deal with this little daily annoyance. But Terri cannot NOT get upset.

So it’s a good thing we mostly drive separately I guess. What matters though is how I (and she) cope with behavior from each other that tends to drive us crazy. Yelling at each other is one solution. I’m not good in that department since I am an internalizer, but it works for lots of couples. Their tactic: get out those angry feelings, kiss and make up, then go through the cycle again the next time. I am really good at keeping it all bottled up. But eventually there comes a time when I can’t keep it bottled up anymore. I don’t usually start yelling at her, but I might opt to hide in another part of the house, or take a sudden trip by myself, or sometimes I even say “Can you PLEASE stop shouting at your computer! It can’t hear you and you are driving me CRAZY.” (BTW, this doesn’t work. It just makes her more upset.)

Allegorically we are two bulls thrown into a tight pen together. We can’t often get out of the pen. We have to learn to live with each other or we have to give up and get divorced. I am sure the latter option has crossed both our minds on numerous occasions.

In my family divorce is something we don’t usually do. We don’t tend to be quitters when the going gets tough. We figure we’re supposed to hang in there, although we don’t know why and yeah, maybe it is kind of stupid come to think about it. Why be miserable? Curiously in Terri’s family divorce is the modus operandi. It’s because her parents got divorced, her aunts and uncles have been through strings of marriages, and her own brother has shuffled through a number of wives that Terri doesn’t want to go down that route. If we can stay married to each other, I think she thinks, then she can prove she’s got the “right stuff” and they don’t. Or maybe she really does love me enough to put up with all my eccentricities. Who would have thunk?

Every relationship is unique, but a common thread among my friends is that they both love and loathe their spouses at the same time. And while they are at it they have similar mixed feelings about neighbors, coworkers, bosses, friends and acquaintances.

My recurring fantasy is that somehow, magically, my wife is transformed of these habits of hers that sometimes drive me crazy. Twenty years have been full of ups and downs and I’ve enjoyed a lot of those years with her, and some years drove me up the wall. Wouldn’t it be great if she were up ALL the time? If we complemented each other perfectly? Yes, life would be perfect. Or maybe not.

Because life is about change. If things aren’t moving, alive and vital is it life at all? I recall my teenage years (1972-1975) when we lived in Ormond Beach, Florida. Every day was pretty much the same: sunny and hot, afternoon thunderstorms. The Spanish moss hung limply from the trees every day. There was not much to do and no place to go. It felt like creeping death. I was so glad to grow up and move out of that town, not because I don’t like my parents but because it was so terminally dull and so always the same. One could look forward to death living there.

So maybe challenging relationships are all about inner growth. Maybe it is about spiritual growth. And maybe that’s why it’s so hard and can be so rewarding, because you learn your true character through adversity. Of all the challenges in my life though, including child rearing and getting a midlife graduate degree, none come close to the challenge I have fully loving and accepting my wife for who she despite differences that often drive me to distraction.

Variety is the spice of life, but spice adds flavor and is not food. It is the daily relationships that are the foods that truly nourish our souls, although it may not seem that way. Like the cat eating the same cat food every day, it’s not much to look forward to. Learning to fully love and appreciate those we take for granted is, for me anyhow, the most challenging problem in life.

Hillary escaped by climbing Everest. That was easy.

 
The Thinker

Our next car

Ah car shopping. Ack! Car shopping! My wife and I hate it. That’s why for years we’ve talked about replacing one of our aging cars and haven’t done anything about it. But the law of diminishing returns hasn’t been repealed. Last year we spent big bucks to continually fix up our aging cars.

Nonetheless we continued to dawdle. That’s what we do. My wife Terri has a 9-5 job and works five days a week. Until recently I taught a class on Saturday mornings in addition to my day job. That left almost no time to actually go out and look for another car, which frankly suited both of us quite well. Terri believes weekends are for relaxing and doing much of nothing; the last thing she wants is to do something she loathes like buy a car. I wanted to avoid it too. If there is anything less fun than a root canal it is being harassed by over eager car salesmen.

For months we sporadically debated what we wanted in another car. New or used? New is always more fun, of course, but dropping $25K and doing the car payment thing is no fun. I like to pay cash, if possible, and skip the car payment thing altogether and we have the cash for a decent used car. Our last car, a 92 Corolla station wagon was our first used car. We avoided the badly dressed car salesman by buying it from a private seller via an advertisement in the newspaper. But the penalty was the huge hassle getting a registration and transferring titles. It’s been a good car but it is time for it to be retired. It can’t get above 60 mph without doing the shake, rattle and roll thing and more mysterious and loud noises seem to be coming from it every day.

Which car to replace? The other car is a 91 Toyota Camry sedan, my principle car, and I was sort of hoping to replace it, perhaps with something new like a hybrid (we try to be sensitive to the ecology and besides, we are cheap). But with new valve seals it is running better than it has in years and unlike the Corolla it is a solid car. So replacing the station wagon seemed the way to go.

But we still needed a station wagon. We simply won’t do the SUV thing: we hate them and we resent every one of those suckers we see on the road. A Camry wagon was our first choice, so we fired up our web browser. We quickly ascertained that finding a used Camry wagon was next to impossible. There are acceptable station wagons out there including Suburu Legacy and Loyale wagons but they were like the Corolla wagon: a wagon in theory but not one in practice, unable to store much of anything. Maybe this is why people buy SUVs. It’s plain people don’t buy them to go up gravel roads along the sides of mountains. In our neighborhood they are used to pick up kids at day care and bring home food from the Giant and that’s about it.

Minivans were the next option. Neither of us are wild about minivans. We are a family of three, not of six and it seemed obscene to have all that extra room and to not use it. Mileage was better than a SUV but not great. And they seemed so tall and boxy … we don’t like boxy.

Cars come in two types from my perspective: real cars and SUVs. SUVs aren’t real cars. They get half the gas mileage of a real car, they pollute disproportionately and they don’t have bumpers. Because they aren’t a real car they have a high center of gravity and tend to turn over a lot. Real cars usually have bumpers, and air bags and don’t require a ladder to get in the cab. They have to meet auto safety requirements.

Mostly I don’t notice cars. Fortunately Terri does and the 1997 Honda Odyssey impressed her. Until 1999 when the Odyssey became a real minivan it was something between a small minivan and a station wagon. It had doors on latches, not sliding doors. We did an Internet search and looked at Consumer Reports, which gave it thumbs up. On Cars.com we found two for sale down in Falls Church. We looked at one by a private seller over the weekend and liked it, but it was a bit too used and overpriced. We also stopped by a lot in Falls Church where another one was for sale that looked nicer and had fewer miles on it. The lot was closed so we couldn’t take it for a spin. We did take the first car for a spin and it was a good driving experience. It has a modest four-cylinder engine and will never be the first out the starting gate, but we could live with that. It also seats 7 but the seats easily disappear and lo and behold there is this really nice cargo space for that hauling. And it gets decent gas mileage.

Last night we went down to the Falls Church car lot and test-drove the other van. We put a deposit on it. I will take it to our mechanic to get it checked out on Friday. Perhaps by Saturday we can take possession of the car. There will still be “minor” matters like getting a permanent registration and selling the Corolla wagon. But hey, it’s a step. After dithering for a couple years we at least made a decision.

The place we bought it from too was kind of interesting too. No weird car salesmen to deal with. Just two guys and a lot at one of Falls Church’s Seven Corners. Low overhead, low key, reasonable markup, nothing to haggle over. Drive the car. If you like it let’s talk. The price was very fair based on our research and this car was clean off a lease and drove well. Clear title; free car fax history. We got good vibes from both the car and the car lot … Vantage Auto Imports, if you are interested: corner of Route 7 and Route 50.

The Camry will have to be replaced in a couple years. A smaller car to replace it will be appropriate. Perhaps then I will buy that Toyota Prius I had my eye on. If only it were available today as a station wagon…

 
The Thinker

We’re the Velveteen Rabbit

I just started the book The Spiritual Tourist by Mick Brown. My thoughtful wife Terri, who understands I am going through a metaphysical phase, picked it up recently for me. The book is about a guy flitting like a butterfly from one out of the mainstream religious/spiritual experience to the next. He’s kind of like me, curious about these things but not willing to put his conscious mind on the back burner in the process. In the process he learns a lot from his journey. It will be interesting to see how it turns out. With a recommendation from Sting it should be a good read, right?

One observation of his right at the front of the book really struck me: what drives the desire for spirituality is angst: a feeling of anxiety or apprehension often accompanied by depression. While some may not like my Machiavellian analysis I do think it is anxiety that fills a lot of church pews. I am candid enough to suggest that is probably true in my situation too. The extent to which a religion succeeds may depend on how well it responds to the angst problem inherent our troubled souls.

A meme is a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. When considering religions I am often struck that most successful religions often have what seems to be the best meme. Christianity is a case in point. Although Jesus did not invent many of his key ideas, like doing unto others, his meme was planted into a fertile region at just the right time for it to take hold. The Jews were, of course, occupied at the time by the Romans (and curiously the Jews are now occupying the Palestinians, but that’s another windmill to tilt) and life wasn’t much fun under occupation and oppression. It didn’t help that Jews were considered weird in that part of the world anyhow. Then here comes Jesus peddling these new memes: all men are brothers, do unto others as others would do unto you, give no more thought to tomorrow than the birds do: live in the present, etc. Quite clearly billions of people believe in the theology of Christianity. But what I suspect lures them to it like bees to a flower is not the trinity, nor Jesus rising from the dead, but the memes that Jesus propagated. These are very infectious memes. They are like music. You listen to the meme and they are hard to resist. It’s a near perfect meme. Not only does Christianity offer hope for a spectacular life beyond this life, which is often full of suffering, but it gives us practices that inspire hope within us and help us to move forward during troubled lives.

And of course the same is true of other religions and spiritual practices. To some extent we can all deal with our angst by finding the religion that best matches our particular angst driven needs. In my case that’s why I’m a Unitarian Universalist.

Almost always the angst has the same underlying cause: mortality. We live knowing our physical life is finite and what comes after is the hard part. Some are comfortable with the notion that after death there is only nothingness and they are usually atheists. For most of us though that thought generates more angst. We must believe that there is something more past death, and that we are more than the sum of whatever good deeds we can produce in this lifetime. In my case I feel I am immortal. I’ve seen enough dead people to know that I am not immortal, but I feel like I am. Therefore my angst is balmed to some extent by well-documented cases of reincarnation where the doubt is beyond much dispute. If some people can be reincarnated, why can’t I? Maybe I have lived many lives before and will so again. Don’t I deserve it? Aren’t I special enough to reincarnate?

So today I am thinking of the Velveteen Rabbit story that I read many times to my daughter when she was growing up. You know the story; it is as infectious as any meme. It’s about a stuffed rabbit that belonged to a boy and was basically loved to death until its stuffing came out. Eventually the boy caught scarlet fever and worried that the stuffed animal might be carrying the disease, it was thrown out with the rubbish. The Velveteen Rabbit, of course, although it was not alive, very much felt like it was alive. It found meaning in giving comfort to the boy, loving that boy, and as it grew more and more ragged it grew in love. Once discarded though it was found by a real rabbit and presto change-o the Velveteen Rabbit became a real rabbit.

And that is I think what most of us hope for. And we must hope; it is not possible to get through life without hope for very long. Through life we find meaning and fulfillment in many ways, but hopefully through service to others and through giving and receiving of love. Even the most hardened atheists I know believe that love is real enough. We can’t see love but we feel its effects. So maybe, just maybe if we love hard enough, and well enough then presto change-o we change like a Velveteen Rabbit too. Like the phoenix we hope against hope that we have acquired in our lives enough of this spiritual stuff (call it love or whatever) to allow us to reincarnate again, or at least move on, alive in some sense and intact, into the a grander sort of future experience.

Let us pray we are right, for our sakes.

 
The Thinker

I’m a Karmic Facilitator!

As you may know I teach courses in web page design at Northern Virginia Community College. It’s a part time job I’ve been doing for a few years as a way to keep myself busier and current on my industry. Sad to say as a federal employee I am not supposed to touch much computer code. We are paid to be project managers, or “Contracting Officers Technical Representatives” to use the government term. By this slim thread I seem to be able to hang on to my federal job. This means, for the moment at least, I can’t be contracted out because my work is inherently governmental. Given the Bush Administration’s push to contract out everything, I am not hopeful that this will always be the case.

Anyhow although I am supposed to direct work all day I am still expected to be “up” on all things in the IT (information technology) world. That one can’t be up on IT without actually doing the work doesn’t seem to faze our management. The way things work in government you can easily hold two or more totally conflicting ideas at the same time. It doesn’t work in Dilbert’s world but it’s SOP for the government. So I decided to teach. Partly I do it because it’s enjoyable, partly because I want to keep up on my industry in a meaningful way, and partly because even with 20 years of federal service I don’t believe for a moment that my talents and my job are not expendable. I’ve seen too much evidence to the contrary. I’m hopeful that if I’m downsized this strategy will keep me on my feet, or at least provide sufficient income so I’m not living in a mobile home.

I usually teach on Saturday mornings and teach two classes a year for sums that would amount to less than the minimum wage if I measured how much time I actually spent on the class. I am currently on the cusp of completing the current class on Advanced Web Page Design, and give a final exam tomorrow. The final project was due last Saturday. Naturally a couple students missed the deadline entirely and naturally they want to submit the project late. I could be hard nosed and yes I do penalize late project submissions but it’s the same pattern every semesters. Students have to push the envelope. If I haven’t put the grade in the campus computer they figure there is still wiggle room.

How does all this tie into karma? Karma, as regular readers here know is a force I have come to believe in. It occurred to me yesterday that as a teacher I cause a lot of karmic incidents. Whether it turns out to be good karma or bad karma depends on the student and me. I think I generated some bad karma for my students in the past, and perhaps I am generating more with my last minute students. But a class is literally and metaphorically a test. Can you make a certain benchmark? Do you have the skills and perseverance it takes to pass a class and to get a certain grade? There is not much ambiguity to it. You either master the skills you need to master, like reading, studying and doing the projects, or you don’t. A teacher is certainly a facilitator for mastering these skills but inevitably it comes back to the student. They have to summon up the right stuff inside themselves to get through the course.

Oh and it’s a roller coaster ride for a lot of them. And when it’s a roller coaster ride for them it’s also a roller coaster ride for the teacher. I’ve been accused by my own students of various faults, some likely deserved, some not. I don’t claim to be a perfect teacher. I try to improve my teaching with every class I teach. But inevitably I must make the judgment about what constitutes passing and what doesn’t. It’s never an easy call. My standards are fairly high and I don’t compromise them lightly to spare some students some bad feelings.

Last semester I had a lady who ended up failing the class. She came to every class dutifully. She hung out to the end. She turned in homework that was always wrong and never even came close to being right. I asked to talk with her. I tried to get her on the right course. But she was totally lost. She had barely mastered the keyboard, let alone the complexities of HTML. I had to flunk her. I didn’t like to do it but I had to do it. Maybe she’ll learn a lesson as a result. Maybe she’s not cut out for college or maybe she will summon the will from within to perhaps start at a more elementary course and work her way up.

So I cause a lot of karmic stress in my students’ lives. It’s part of the system but that’s part of what teachers are there for, I guess. The knowledge I impart is certainly an important thing for any student to get when they take a class. But the enduring lesson is whether they have the right stuff to keep focused and move forward despite tendencies toward laziness in many students, despite perhaps having to work a lot of overtime, despite having to juggle a spouse and/or a family. If nothing else my class provides a vehicle for them to figure out where their priorities really lie. Since I end up at the end of the semester with about half the students I started out with (many drop the class, or elect to audit the course and don’t bother to return) it appears that education is pretty far down their list of priorities.

Live and learn. Lesson taught regardless of grade.

 

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