Archive for November, 2003

The Thinker

Modern Technological Miracles

I am in Michigan again, but this time my wife Terri and daughter Rosie came with me. (You may recall that last month I came up here by myself to help nurse my Mom through a difficult hospitalization and recovery.) We plan to sit down tonight with my parents and my aunt and uncle for a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

We drove to Midland from our home near Washington DC in about ten hours over two days. We’ve done this trip many times before since my parents moved to Midland in 1989. But I was struck by how the drive was both the same but so much different this time, thanks to technology.

For one thing, we never owned a laptop computer before, so we never had one to bring with us. Terri used most of her bonus money to purchase a laptop computer. It’s a neat computer which suffers from one fatal flaw: it appears to be defective. But she so wanted to bring a computer with her to Michigan that she delayed returning it for a defect free computer until we got home from this visit. Since the problem was that it was hard to get it to turn on sometimes, she has basically left it on all the time. It was the last thing to be put in our minivan for the trip north.

In the past the ten hours of driving would have been very tedious. When Rosie was really young it was especially a challenge to keep her amused. She quickly got bored with the books and games we provided. It meant lots of rest stops to give her a chance to run around. Now that she is 14 her tastes are somewhat different. A laptop computer in the car provided her a perfect entertainment device. Built into the computer was a DVD drive, so any of our many DVDs could be played. Her mother and I didn’t have to listen to the noise either because she had headphones that plugged into a port on the computer. She watched a number of movies on the way up, and we didn’t have to entertain her at all. She kept herself amused. When she wasn’t watching movies on the laptop, she could work on her writing with it, or listen to her music that she had copied to the laptop.

When she got bored with the laptop I had an opportunity to play with it myself. One of our projects for the trip was to work on our Christmas cards. What better opportunity to put together a family newsletter than while rushing up I-75.

Battery life would normally be a constraint for a laptop, but was no problem on this trip because of a power converter we purchased that that plugged into our otherwise unused cigarette lighter. Except when the car decelerated or wasn’t producing enough RPMs, the laptop ran off the car’s alternator. In fact it fully charged the battery before we arrived at our hotel near Pittsburgh.

Business men and women have been using laptops on the road for years, but we haven’t used one before. Our hotel offered high speed internet for $10 a night. We declined that option, but did use the phone in the room to dial up to a local Earthlink number and connect to the internet. So a few hours after leaving home I was able to check my email and surf my favorite sites from our hotel room.

Cell phones are another technology we have finally adopted. Both Terri and I have prepaid cell phones that we otherwise rarely use. Both came with us. I realized that our cat sitter didn’t really need to know the hotel we were staying at. It was simply a matter of making sure she had our cell phone numbers and we were instantly available. It is true that my phone for some reason could not pick up a signal where we stayed near the Pittsburgh airport, but Terri’s phone worked fine. All along the turnpike and into Michigan our cell phone signal was strong. While passing through Toledo I took advantage of it to call my parents to let them know when they could expect our arrival. A concern about getting a prescription refilled was speedily answered when my Dad called me back on my cell phone with a list of potential pharmacies at which we could stop.

All of this is really not that remarkable these days, but from my perspective it all seems both magical and amazing. One of the reasons I didn’t like driving long distances was my fear of getting stuck on the road in the middle of nowhere. With a cell phone this fear has largely receded. We can get help conveniently should we need it from the safety of our car.

As I noted there were a few technology glitches. Terri’s new laptop is defective and will have to be replaced, but it was functional in a marginal sort of way for this trip. The power converter from our engine to the laptop made annoying sounds when it wasn’t getting enough current. But traveling by car with a family doesn’t have to be a chore anymore. We are enjoying the fruit of twenty years of steady progress in the personal computer and electronics revolution. These really are modern day miracles, but most of us don’t appreciate them.

It occurred to me while driving that within a few years it will be not only possible, but affordable to travel and always be online. With increasing numbers of high speed wireless internet providers out there, and with options like Wi-Fi hot spots we should be able to find a last minute deal on a hotel reservation as we approach a city, determine if there are traffic delays on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in real time, or even do something as mundane as read our email while in the car. In Rosie’s case she could stay on AOL Instant Messenger while chugging down the thruway.

We’ll be always connected all the time. I guess this is a good thing and if it isn’t hopefully we will always have off buttons on these devices. When we were in Yellowstone National Park in August I was struck by how inaccessible the park was, both geographically and electronically. Most cell phones did not work in the park because there were no cellular phone towers. If you needed to make a call you usually had to queue up at the pay phone in the lodge. But even when I was in range I noticed that my cell phone was very smart, and noticed that I was in a different time zone and changed the time accordingly.

As Paul Simon sang, “These are the days of miracles and wonders.” I am enchanted.

The Thinker

America has lost its soul

I hate what Bush and the Republicans are doing to my country. I feel like I am living in some sort of foreign land that superficially seems to be American but has had its soul sucked out. I live in a meaner and more divided country where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the powers that be believe in their hearts that this is good. The powers that be have become the moneychangers in the temple to whom Jesus alluded.

There was a time when I felt we were all in this together. We were one nation and one people. Now, thanks largely to Bush and his Republican cronies, I feel like we are one nation very much divided. The oligarchy is now firmly in control and big business owns the country.

As if we needed more examples to see it, the new Medicare prescription drug care bill is a perfect case in point. As this chart points out the effect of the new law will be to pay only a modest percentage of seniors’ total drug costs. But this bill does little to restrain drug prices from rising. Instead of using the buying power of the federal government to purchase Medicare drugs, it creates numerous buying groups. The effect is to prop up the drug company prices (as if they were hurting for revenues in the first place) and add even more burden on the taxpayers and senior citizens. Not surprisingly the drug companies were big donors to Bush’s presidential campaign, and to the campaign coffers of those putting together this legislation.

Meanwhile, the rape of our government continues. Voters are bought off by modest tax cuts that create unheard of levels of deficit spending, burden them and their children with future public debt, but actually put the bulk of the money in the hands of the richest Americans who need it the least. The energy bill likely to be passed by Congress hands billions of tax dollars to already rich energy companies. It throws more money on research into technologies, like ethanol, that are have repeatedly proven not economically viable. Our Environmental Protection Agency goes out of its way to make it easier for polluters to pollute. Here in the Washington area it looks like once again we will get a waiver so we don’t have to seriously address our regional air pollution problem. I guess the growing numbers of people with asthma don’t yet constitute a majority of citizens locally. The Congress is saying in effect: screw their lungs and let’s keep buying those Hummers to exacerbate the problem. Oh, and speaking of Hummers, MS-NBC recently ran a story that indicated Hummers, as well as most SUVs or luxury cars, can now be written off as business expenses by the self employed. Yes, take a tax credit for making the air more polluted that necessary!

Overseas we squandered our good will and sympathy through obnoxiousness and ignorant foreign policy based on ideology instead of an impartial appraisal of the facts. Much of the money for our unwinnable war in Iraq goes to support companies that funded Bush’s 2000 election campaign. (Example: Haliburton charges the U.S. Army up to $1.70 a gallon for gas in Iraq, when it is locally available for 4-15 cents a gallon.)

I don’t understand why Americans can’t see how our country is being so recklessly pillaged. Our skies are dirtier, our water more polluted, our military is overextended, our nation is less safe, more Americans lose health insurance every day, three million new unemployed have been created in three years and we are bought off by tiny tax cuts which are quickly taken from us in the form of higher local taxes.

Meanwhile, as Bush’s poll numbers finally plummet the Massachusetts Supreme Court decides that homosexuals in the state should be allowed to marry. It’s a great decision, but the timing is disastrous. Now instead of focusing on the mess Bush has made, the 2004 Election will focus on the “immorality” of gay marriage. Republicans will be beating their religious base to pass constitutional amendments to forever keep gay people from enjoying the same partnership rights as heterosexuals, even though the idea is deeply evil and wrong. They intend to make the next election focus on reasons why we should discriminate against people in our own country because it distracts us from the mess they made of the last three years.

There is hope that Americans will sober up by the next election. But Californians apparently haven’t arrived there yet and that doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country. They replaced a governor with an actor whose first act was to increase the state’s financial problems by repealing some unpopular taxes. Way to go Gov. Fiduciary!

What hope there is comes from Americans starting to realize that they are not better off than they were in 2000, and likely won’t be better off for the foreseeable future. As we start to sober up we have begun to realize we will have to invest a little of their own money to change the country. Howard Dean believes if he can get two million Americans to send him $100 he can retake the White House and win an election where he is not tainted by special interest money. Let’s hope he is right.

The Thinker

My 7th Inning Stretch

Are you a pruner or a stretcher?

As you know when you prune a bush or a tree you do it either to restrain growth or to direct growth in desirable ways. It strikes me that most people go through life actively pruning themselves. Often once they reach adulthood they try to keep themselves exactly the way they always have been. The world may change around them, but they always want to be, and be seen, as the person they were.

For these people growth, change and age are things to fear and to be denied as much as possible. I frequently link these types to conservatives. But in some ways I am also a pruner. I’ve found a hairstyle I like, for example, and I can’t see changing it. Perhaps this is because I am pragmatic and my hair will otherwise look like a bird’s nest. Or perhaps I am more than a little intimidated with the thought that people might perceive me in a different ways if I were to change my hair style. I notice I am also somewhat compulsive about taking care of my body. I try to maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly. God forbid that I spend more than an hour in the sun without sunscreen. Some part of me sees myself as an aging but well oiled machine that might keep working forever as long as I keep everything running in optimal condition.

To continue the pruning analogy, sometimes pruning is done to ensure growth is channeled in certain directions and not in others. Low hanging branches are pruned around the trees in our yard to facilitate mowing and leaf collection. We don’t necessarily want that one branch to extend over the house and come down in a windstorm, so off it comes. People do the same thing. Marriage is a typical example. If we married folk have non-monogamous feelings we try to prune that part of ourselves but we allow those parts of us that want to have a closer relationship with our spouse to grow. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Often we go back and repeatedly prune the same portions of ourselves over and over again. If it happens too many times it is reasonable to ask if we are denying growth that really should happen. Maybe we are meant to live a life in multiple marriages or relationships, but we actively fight these impulses through self pruning.

Without pruning the bush continues to grow. But even with the pruning the growth never really stops. New twigs spring out periodically and will grow. The roots of the bush continue to grow to some extent because they are not seen. It is the part above the ground which is artificially shaped to make it appear a certain way. So it may be that we restrain the growth manifested in our conscious behavior, but subconscious needs and desires continue to grow.

Plants can’t prune themselves. But people can. This is one of the things that make us truly distinct from most other species on our planet.

I’ve noticed that there are some people who don’t believe in pruning. I will call them stretchers. I suspect these people are fairly few and far between. Stretchers take life one day at a time and spend a fair amount of time pushing themselves into new areas of exploration. They stretch themselves to encompass a wide variety of experiences. The underlying philosophy, if there is one, seems to be that this is both natural and good thing to do.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time observing people around me and I’ve come to admire the stretchers. I do so, I think, because I need to stretch myself more than I do and these people are fine examples. My friend Lisa, for example, is fully exploring her metaphysical side. She is open to ideas that I consider somewhat dubious at best and hokey at worse, but that hasn’t stopped her from investigating astrology, paranormal experiences, body charkas, healing touch and psychics. Her husband, for his part, has taken up boating and skiing for his midlife stretch.

My friend Renee seems to be taking an outward directed stretch instead of an inward one. She’s working on doing the midlife career switcheroo, and has gone back for a second master’s degree so she can work eventually at a non-profit agency and help out somewhere, probably in the developing world. She has also engaged herself in politics, an area I gather she never really dug into before, and is actively promoting justice and democracy for Palestinians and people in the Arab World in general.

For myself I am trying to stretch in new directions too. But it doesn’t always work. Grad school was a big stretch for me, but that experience is now four years behind me. It had the effect of moving me to where I needed to be, and to give me the self confidence that to some extent I was lacking. Since then I’ve tried teaching (which I’ve enjoyed). I’ve also tried coaching and mentoring, not in the area of sports, but with young adults. I have taught a Sunday school class and now I am a youth advisor at the UU church.

I’m not sure I’m doing enough stretching because I often find myself back in the pruning mode. But I’m working on it and will continue to work on it. For me this effort seems almost an imperative in midlife. It seems to be a way that I can cope with my aging and my mortality. I have to feel engaged. I have to feel in charge of my life. It is how I find meaning.

I’m not sure where this is going. If I were a bush, I might well be a large and shaggy looking thing when the whole process is over. But hopefully I will have explored and learned a lot more about life and myself. A life, particularly my life, seems a terrible thing to waste. I don’t know what awaits me, if anything, after death, but the growth imperative seems to be a part of life, and I need to fundamentally embrace it.

The Thinker

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

It was with both some excitement and nervousness that my wife and I went to see the movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” yesterday.

Over the last few years I’ve worked my way through about half of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, on which this movie is based. I’ll make it through all of them eventually. Most O’Brian fans I’ve met think every one of the series of his books is of such high literary quality that they all deserve Pulitzers. Generally I’ve found every other book to be a huge hit, and the other one usually leaves me yawning. The less than stellar books often deal with a morass of tangled political problems in obscure regions of the world 200 years ago. In other books, such as the very first book, the obscure nautical terminology gets so high and deep that even someone immersed in the Navy would have a hard time figuring out what O’Brian is talking about. O’Brian liked to show off his microscopic detailed understanding of the early 19th century. If you are into obscure details about 200 year old sailing ships then you will welcome the detail. If not you will find the books dense and at times irritating: too much information!

On the other hand when O’Brian is good he is really, really good. Of those I’ve read the one that really knocked my socks off was book six, “Desolation Island”. O’Brian fans would say you have to read them all in sequence to appreciate them. I would say if you have to pick one of the books to take for a spin this is the one to pick up. It packs in one book just about everything you could want in a naval story: intrigue, romance, ferocious battles at sea against high odds, visits to obscure islands in the middle of nowhere, spying and all those little but human details that add so much depth to a story. This one, for example, has to do with a prisoner ship that Captain Jack Aubrey has to sail to Australia. Disease breaks out shortly after the ship sets sail. The pacing is perfect and the novel becomes almost impossible to put down.

With books like this it is easier to forgive O’Brian’s frequent lapses into obscure naval and political events, or his often long and rambling sentences, or chapters the length of some novellas, or the often meandering way he writes when it often seems he is saying nothing at all. When I read him I often wish he had worked from a clear outline.

O’Brian created perhaps the most compelling character ever created. No I’m not talking about “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, the captain. Aubrey often comes across in the book as a fairly shallow fellow. It is the surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin, who has me buying and reading the next book. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a character in any novel or set of novels with his depth. He is one of the most complex characters ever created. He is at once a brilliant surgeon living a hundred years ahead of his time, a counter spy, Irish, a papist, a scientist, an entomologist, a humanitarian, and a man deeply caught up in the passions of the human experience.

So I had trepidations about seeing the movie. Could it live up to the books?

And the answer is no. However, the movie does fairly well capture the essence of the books without necessarily putting it into context. Russell Crowe portrays Jack Aubrey more like Patrick Stewart portrays Captain Jean Luc Picard. In fact, I kept thinking Patrick Stewart could have done a better job with the part, except perhaps he is too old for it. This Captain Aubrey is some sort of weird synthesis between Captains James T. Kirk and Jean Luc Picard. Almost wholly missing from Crowe’s portrayal of Aubrey is Aubrey’s wild and childish side. In a port Aubrey could be a hellion. But we don’t see him in port.

Paul Bettany is perfectly cast as Dr. Stephen Maturin. It is Maturin, not Aubrey, who is the real heart and soul of the books. Bettany does Maturin just right. Admittedly for a novice it can be a bit hard to understand why he has this fascination for insects, birds and mammals. My wife thought it was almost ludicrous when the good doctor chooses to operate on himself, but those who have read the books know this is par for the course. Maturin is a Renaissance man without a streak of hubris.

As for the rest of the movie, it is likely that 19th century naval life has never been captured so convincingly. The chase and battles with the French ship Acheron are first rate and capture the grit and terror of engagements at sea in an unforgettable manner. I knew Peter Weir, one of my favorite directors (“Dead Poets Society”) would have the right stuff. It is hard to believe that naval ships in that time were populated largely by teenagers and young adults. This story is true to the facts. Near the end of the movie Aubrey leaves one of his lieutenants in command of the ship while they board the Acheron. His voice hasn’t even quite broken.

My understanding is that the producers are hoping to produce many sequels. I hope they succeed so the characters can be fleshed out in more detail on film. There is nothing in this movie, for example, that hints at Maturin’s work in counter intelligence. Nor do we have any glimpse of Maturin or Aubrey’s deep passions for women, or how they wrestle with the loves of their lives: Diana in Maturin’s case, and Aubrey’s frigid wife Sophie in the other. Based on this movie I will definitely see the sequels. Moviegoers at least got a taste of Aubrey and Maturin. Now they deserve the whole enchilada.

The critics were right in that Russell Crowe does tend to chew up the scenery. But Paul Bettany manages to shine in spite of the spotlight on Crowe. These two, who worked together recently in the movie “A Beautiful Mind”, are perhaps a pair that will work well together in many future movies.

So now that I’ve had my Aubrey/Maturin film fix I can look forward with even greater anticipation to the release of “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” on December 17th. Only 31 days to go — not that I’m counting.

The Thinker

The Reagan Wreckage

I hope it is not just me who thinks the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project is going too far. This group has taken upon itself the ambitious task of naming at least one notable landmark in every state for the ailing former president. But that’s not all. No, they want more. Much more. They also want one notable landmark in every county in the country too. Advocates are already pressing for a Reagan Memorial on the Mall. Can’t the man die first?

In the eyes of Republicans of course Reagan is their hero. Consequently he must be our hero too. One reason he perhaps looms so large in the imagination of Republicans is that really there weren’t that many great Republican presidents, so beggars can’t be choosers. It is unlikely any Republican president will ever match Lincoln’s legacy. But since Lincoln, the pickings for Republicans have been slim. The Great Depression occurred on Hoover’s watch. (Hoover and Jimmy Carter have a lot in common: presidents who were in power in troubled times that were largely beyond their control, but who managed to excel as leaders and statesmen more after they left office than when they were in it.) Eisenhower is the best of the bunch since Lincoln; he knew how to balance a budget and run a country. Nixon of course, was the biggest embarrassment of all time for the Republican Party. Ford was a transition president. One term presidents don’t qualify as legacy material, as Bush I found out although he was one of the better ones.

Clearly the current Bush is running hard to meet and exceed the Reagan legacy and, unfortunately, he is doing a great job. He’s created deficits far larger than Reagan achieved, and Reagan created deficits on a magnitude never seen before.

I wonder if the people supporting this project were asleep during the 1980s. I certainly wasn’t. I was a newly minted civil servant. Although I had no exposure before the bizarre workings of government, things quickly went beyond comical to ludicrous. I worked at the Defense Mapping Agency at the time and remember being just astounded by the amount of money being thrown at our agency. When it came to defense spending, Star Wars was just the tip of the iceberg . We literally couldn’t find enough places to spend the money. Much of it went to create systems way beyond their time to move maps produced on paper to digital maps. I was part of a massive reengineering effort at the time. I remember business trips for hush hush requirements sessions with defense contractors as they tried to automate our enterprise business processes. I’m not sure whatever happened to these systems, or even if they got off the ground. I do know when I left in 1987 they weren’t operational. But there was no let up in the defense money pouring in. I am sure we did our best to prop up the share prices of bloated and wasteful defense contractors. (The Meese Commission, which was charged to look into waste and fraud in federal agencies, gave our agency high marks. This was a source of considerable amusement to us at the time, and another sign that the Reagan Administration had lost touch with reality.)

The downsizing of the federal work force was another constant started when Reagan took office and has continued ever since. Early in my career I was fortunate in the sense that I was working in the Defense Department, and that put us largely off limits. But by the 1990s, downsizing had hit DoD too. About the time I left the Air Force my office was being looked at to be A-76’ed (referring here to Circular A-76, otherwise known as the “let’s fire feds and replace them with overpaid contractors” Executive Order.)

We seem to have forgotten just what a wreck Reagan made of the government. Defense money was squandered for bombers costing billions of dollars and for laser satellite systems that were supposed to shoot down enemy missiles from space (but never did). The Savings and Loan fiasco also happened on the Reagan watch. In an attempt to make banks compete, the Reagan Administration let S&L’s invest in all sort of murky investments that caused S&L’s and banks to fail all across the country. The U.S. taxpayers bailed out these mistakes to the tune of over $100B.

And then there were the cast of bizarre characters populating the top ranks of government. As one example, we had Anne Burford Gorsuch, at the EPA, whose idea of improving the environment was to decimate the agency, and who set the sterling example of chain smoking in her office. And of course who can forget Energy Secretary James Watt, who showed his sterling political skills by saying he had the perfect staff because “I have a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple”.

Meanwhile, we had Reagan involving the CIA and our military in all sorts of banana republics. We invaded Grenada because a few Marxists were running around. We funded what amounted to government terrorists in a civil war in El Salvador that killed and terrorized thousand of people for more than a decade. We did similar operations in places like Guatemala and Costa Rica. Reagan approved a brilliant strategy of providing “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan with shoulder-launched Stinger missiles. These same freedom fighters, of course, are today’s Taliban and many of the weapons we supplied are now being turned against our forces. Reagan also cozied up to Saddam Hussein and sent no less than current Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld to Baghdad to make nice and to offer U.S. military aid. And then there was the plainly illegal but under the table shenanigans that Oliver North directed from his office at the National Security Council in the White House. Lets also not forget the hundreds of marines killed by a terrorist bombing in Lebanon for which Reagan assumed “full responsibility” but naturally didn’t pay a political price.

Arguably Reagan did change the shape of government. Before he took office most of us thought of the government as an institution by and for the people. Reagan portrayed the government as a somewhat evil institution not to be trusted. His “legacy” continues today to portray the government this way. He embraced supply side economics that led to the largest deficits in the history of our country, during either peace or war.

Is this the stuff of legacy? Apparently. Because here in Washington the Reagan Legacy Project has been very busy. First National Airport was renamed to Ronald Reagan National Airport. Those of us who remember Reagan were very puzzled by this. He hated Washington and couldn’t wait to get away from it for extended vacations in California. Why name an airport after him next to a city he loathed? But there was also the Ronald Reagan Building at Federal Triangle, which has the dubious honor of being the most expensive federal building every constructed, busting its budget numerous times (all that marble gets expensive!) The Reagan Building may well be a fitting landmark to the man. As a president who gave us the largest deficits of all time, it is fitting to name the most costly and badly managed federal construction project after him.

Will Ronald Reagan make it on Mount Rushmore? Rest assured the Reagan Legacy Project is working hard on this endeavor too. But also be confident of this: history will judge Reagan as a lesser president, not a great president. Naming so many things after him and putting him on Mount Rushmore won’t change the facts. He was a nice guy but a disaster of a president. Fifty years from now his name will only evoke snickers.

The Thinker

In trying to build a more perfect child, some mistakes were made

This parenting business is turning out a lot differently than I expected.

I thought I had an enlightened approach. I recognized what I thought were critical mistakes my parents made raising me, and tried to mitigate those mistakes in raising my own daughter. I also acknowledged the things my parents did right with me, and tried to emulate those. The result, I thought, would be a better human being: kinder, gentler, more grounded, lacking most of the fears and foibles I experiences growing up.

I was naive. I think I set my expectations a bit too high.

This is not to say that my 14 year old daughter Rosie doesn’t knock the socks off of me. She continues to wow me, impress me, and at times infuriate me. But what scares me is just how much she is like her mother and I.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. I took, I thought, very reasonable steps to make sure this outcome didn’t happen. In my parents’ universe the perfect child would have been very devoutly Catholic, devoted, loving, intelligent, made their way successfully in the world, and confidently overcame obstacles. (Of course their answer may be different; I am projecting here.) Mainly we succeeded, except in the Catholic part. My goal was to let my daughter Rosie come to her own judgments and decisions and to be her own unique person, and certainly not a clone of either my wife Terri or I. To some extent I would measure my success by how much she wasn’t like me.

Maybe I should have raised her Catholic. Instead I raised her as a Unitarian Universalist. I felt around 1997 that she needed to be in touch with a religious community. UUs were about as far away from Catholicism as I could get and it was a religion that spoke to me. Rosie fussed about the Sunday school but over time she grew to really like that particular church experience, made friends inside the church, sang in the choir, and even participated in some plays put on by the church. By exposing her at a tender age to somewhat controversial things, like our minister who happened to be a lesbian, I hoped to broaden her perspective a bit.

One of my complaints about the way I was raised was the near complete lack of sexual education that I received. The little we got was, of course, filtered through the bizarre thinking of the Catholic Church. I grew up somewhat relationship impaired. I hadn’t a clue about human sexuality and was too scared and shy to do much to change the situation. What sex education I got was from the public library (goodness, I would have never had the audacity to bring those books home!) But that was hardly a substitute for understanding the intricacies of close, intimate human relationships. Reading a driver’s manual is no substitute for driving experience. So I enrolled my daughter in the UU’s “Our Whole Lives” sexual education course, which filled in all the gaps missing in my sex education and, for that matter, the highly sanitized version served up by our politically correct public school system. Yes, she got to explore feelings about sexuality, discuss relationship issues, look at condoms, learn about homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender people. I wanted her to be sexually enlightened.

I was of course projecting my adolescent experiences upon her. As a result some things happened that I did not expect. One is that I may have thrown too much complexity about the world at her too soon. As a consequence I suspect she wanted to dawdle in childhood and disclaim a lot of the responsibilities that come with age. But mostly I didn’t want her to have the same fears and phobias my wife and I had growing up. I wanted her to be different.

But in so many ways she strikes me as the perfect union between my wife and me, carrying forward both the best parts of us and (gulp) the worst parts too. It’s like her emotional radar subconsciously picked up a lot of our worst stuff and brought it forward into her life as things to work on.

One thing I’ve noticed is that my daughter is very much of an internalizer. If she were a poker player she’d be one of these types who keeps their cards very close to their chest, and waits until the optimal moment to reveal her hand. Unquestionably I am that way and I’ve been working hard to change that aspect of myself. But I sure didn’t want her to be that way. But I guess I must have been projecting that aspect of myself all along, and she picked it up. I guess we can’t really hide our fundamental selves, and the subconscious sifts through the facade and gloms onto it.

Both my wife and I are intelligent and creative types, so it is not surprising that she is also very intelligent and creative. She sings, she writes incredible prose for her age, she acts (she has a part in the local production of “Scrooge” next month), she even has a lot of talent as an illustrator.

I have from time to time discussed my feelings about life, about our country, about politics and she seems to have picked it all up, wrapped her core values around them, and now is convinced that anything foreign is good and anything American is bad. She wants to study and live overseas. She thinks Virginia is a backward state full of bigots and people who can’t see beyond their noses. Okay she may be right there, but the reason is because she picked it up from me, not because she independently arrived there by her own reasoning process. At least that’s what I suspect. So she was listening to me and taking me serious all along. What a surprise!

Neither my wife nor I are the most organized people in the world. I tend to be the more organized of us and get the bills paid on time and remember to put money away for her college education. But I still have problems confronting many of the things that need to be confronted. Hedges go untrimmed too long. I tend to let small problems become big problems before I tackle them. My wife strikes me a lot more disorganized than I am. But to be fair, she’s not nearly as bad as some people I’ve met. Our house is reasonably clean and there is not usually a stack of dirty dishes in the sink. But she is very much the one day at a time sort of person. She rarely looks or worries too much beyond next week. Rosie seems to have picked up that side of my wife. Homework done at the last minute, even if it is of poor quality, is perfectly acceptable in Rosie’s universe. I have tried to get her to see that in four years, if she can pull good grades, she has the privilege of going to college. It is only now that she understands this reality. But trying to engage her gears to actually make it happen is a difficult process that she is still working on.

I project my desire to see her in a career that she loves, and hopefully not living from pay check to pay check or homeless on the street. This comes from having lived the Bohemian life for a few years in the late 70s and early 80s. It wasn’t any fun. The national unemployment rate hovered above 8 percent and there were few jobs for recent college graduates, particularly for us liberal arts majors. It was a stressful way to greet adulthood. I’d like her to avoid all that.

But I also know that the most meaningful lessons often come from adversity and failure. So I have to steel myself and let her fail from time to time, so she can learn those lessons too. And I also know that if I make things too comfortable for her then she is likely to be dysfunctional as an adult; and won’t be able to cope with real life when real adversity does strike.

I’m certainly not declaring failure. Overall Rosie is doing quite well and I am pleased with her, and love her more than works can express. Rosie will I am sure in time make her own unique way in the world, and her mother and I will have a few moments, or perhaps a few years, of nervousness and heartache in the process. I certainly had good intentions to try to keep her from enduring unnecessarily misery. I often wonder if because her life is so well provided for by us, if that is in itself some sort of handicap.

She is an adult in the making, but at this instant she seems more like a weird conglomeration of my wife and me, both the good and the bad aspects, than some sort of 21st century model citizen I was hoping for. Perhaps I need to give her another 14 years. In some ways she is an improvement. She doesn’t seem to have that innate shyness that her mother and I have, although she has picked up quite a bit of our introversion.

But I feel somewhat chagrined that my master plan for her seems in such tatters. I can take pride in knowing that she has successfully avoided many of the major pitfalls in life that trip up kids her age, such as smoking, drugs and (I hope) sex. I just hope I haven’t made life too confusing a morass for her. It’s a complicated business and getting more complex every day. I’ll try not to judge my value by how well my daughter does, but some part of me wishes I could turn back the clock and try a few different strategies. But I have to deal with who she is now, and much of her personality and character was formed long ago. I now need to hold my breath, project confidence in her ability to navigate through life, and wait to see what pops out of the oven.

The Thinker

Report on my November Dean Meetup

This Wednesday was Dean Meetup night. Mother Nature did her best to keep me away. Severe weather made my trip home from work a half hour longer than usual. That left me little time after getting home and find something to eat before rushing out to the 7 PM meeting. The Chantilly public library was not available this time, so our host moved the meeting to the Centreville Library instead. This is quite a bit further from my house. The rainy weather and early darkness exacerbated the traffic problem. It took me 35 minutes to make the drive. You would think that with eight lanes of traffic and limited intersections there would be enough room to accommodate traffic on Route 28, but it was almost all stop and go. I arrived a couple minutes late to the meeting, when I had hoped to arrive a half hour early to help set up!

The meeting was quite similar to my last and first Dean Meetup in October and had about the same number of people: 40-50 altogether. There were however some exceptions. The buzz throughout the meeting was on Dean’s comment two days earlier that “White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us and not them, because their kids don’t have health insurance either and their kids need better schools, too.”

Several people, including many die hard Dean supporters found his remarks offensive. I thought it was a poor choice of words. What Dean was saying was that for Democrats to win, Democrats had to be more inclusive, and that includes bringing in under the tent people who lean Republican. This makes a lot of sense: many people who vote Republican in the south are Wal-mart workers and live from paycheck to paycheck with no or little benefits. Health insurance is something they cannot afford. Dean’s rivals of course jumped up and down on the remark and tried to imply Dean is a racist, which he isn’t. It was just a stupid remark. Dean can do that on occasion. I sometimes wish he were as careful with his choice of words as Bill Clinton. On the other hand Bill Clinton usually seemed stage managed; Dean comes across as someone who genuinely says what he believes. It is that personality and energy, I pointed out, that is largely responsible for his popularity. He’s not part of the buffed and pampered Washington elite.

There were more people who were undecided or leaning between Dean and Clark at this meeting than the last. The pros and cons of each candidate were discussed at some length. I’m not sure we convinced any Clark supporters. A couple people left early figuring they had heard enough.

One encouraging sign was the presence of an African American family. A young son in the family, about ten years old, was a big Dean fan and waxed eloquently about his favorite candidate.

We also wrote letters to swing voters in Iowa. I wrote two letters to two women at the same address, so I wrote each differently and expressed my opinion that Dean was something truly different. About 80% of the attendees were at their first meetup. Those of us who had been to one before knew what to do and started working on our letters while the debates continued.

One area of contention was whether Dean should foreswear federal matching funds. This is the Bush strategy. With no opponents in his primary Bush has already amassed $170M in contributions from fat cat Republicans. In the last quarter Dean collected $14.8M, a new record, but Dean’s average contributions were less than a hundred dollars each. It is clear that Dean’s support comes from average working people, not fat cats. Even so we will need a lot more people to come close to matching the contribution that Bush will so easily raise. I voted to go without matching funds. It’s not that I don’t believe in public financing for campaigns, it’s just that as long as someone can opt out to their advantage, our campaign shouldn’t be put at a disadvantage.

One person asked how the campaign would reach out to African Americans and other communities. Dean has drawn his support from mostly white and liberal people. Our hostess, Geri, said that it was up to us, not the Dean campaign, to make these connections. She suggested we take up the issue and involve more of our African American friends. This is what is really unique about the Dean campaign: it is genuinely people powered. People don’t follow instructions laid down by Joe Trippi at campaign headquarters. At best Trippi and Dean set broad goals and communicate them through their web sites and web logs. Issues get thoroughly thrashed through by his supporters on his Blog for America web site. I find it remarkable that Dean would let his supporters make his decision on whether to forego matching funds for his campaign.

In the month since my first meetup a few things are becoming clearer. A month ago Wesley Clark was a phenomenon and a worry. Now his luster has been dimmed quite a bit. Clark is still playing catch up, and Dean Supporters have proven to be committed to the man and his cause. I spoke with a very nice lady I saw from the last meetup who lives in my neighborhood. She says instead of spending $30 a week at Barnes and Noble, as she used to do, she contributes this money to his campaign instead. I said I pretty much send him $50 every month when I pay my bills. When a special solicitation comes out I tend to send more. I haven’t added it up but I suspect I’ve given the Dean campaign at least $300 so far.

And so we in the Dean Camp continue to move doggedly forward. We are aware that Howard Dean is not the perfect candidate, but he does offer the personality and creative ideas that we expect from a winning candidate. We do hope though that Howard learns to temper his remarks a bit. There is still a year to the election and Dean can’t afford too many more major gaffes. We’ve got to win this one and take back our country.

You can help by learning more and perhaps contributing to Dean at Dean for America.

The Thinker

Our Coming Failures in Iraq and Afghanistan

The United States will not prevail in Iraq, and likely won’t prevail in Afghanistan either. Both are noble endeavors to try to remake the world into a saner and more peaceful place, but both efforts are doomed to fail. The underlying reason that we will fail will be our inability to understand the complexity of both regions of the world. We acted out of instinct and prejudice instead of knowledge and wisdom. Consequently we will fail, and the failure will change the nature of our nation profoundly.

There is a power greater than our armies and navies, greater even than our nuclear weapons that we conveniently overlooked. This is the power of the human will. Whichever side in a conflict has more of it will eventually win the conflict. In truth our country does not have the stomach for a prolonged conflict in Iraq. Bush gambled it all on the expectation that a quick victory over Saddam would put Iraqis in a mood to accept American ideas and American values for a future state and that opposition to the occupation would either not materialize or be easily squashed. This is the fundamental flaw that in time will be understood to be the reason we lost, but which this administration plainly cannot see. It is blinded by its ideology.

The truth of course is that while most Iraqis were glad to see Saddam gone, they had no interest in being tutored and mentored by Americans in how to set up and run their own country. Iraq, of course, is the cradle of civilization. While America was thinly populated by natives, they were setting the standards for education and commerce for the rest of the world. Even today Iraq is in many ways at the forefront of the Muslim world. Compared to countries around it, it is teeming with educated and bright individuals. Women live lives markedly better and participate more in society in Iraq than those in other Muslim countries, including Kuwait.

Iraqis are not children who need to be tutored in how to run their own country. Somehow they managed to construct all those hospitals, power plants and schools by themselves. If their infrastructure is now a bit shabby, it is the result of more than a decade of sanctions and our war, not because they are incompetent of managing their own country. They are not emerging from some third world society. The literacy rate is 58% (vs. 10%-20% in Afghanistan). 93% of children attend primary schools. Per capita income is $2171 per year. By American standards this is not high, but for the region is it very respectable. For example Egypt’s per capita income is $1530 per year, and we have been subsidizing and “mentoring” Egypt for decades.

In short, the United States is acting in a very condescending manner toward the Iraqi people. This is building resentment that is translating into resistance against their occupation because Iraqis are a proud people and used to doing things by themselves. Moreover the United States is demanding that Iraq change its long established methods. As this Marketplace Report demonstrates, Iraqi businessmen are leery of our American style contractor-subcontractor system where they must pay to participate. It’s as if everyone there drives on the left and we are requiring them to drive on the right.

Imagine if we had a Saddam Hussein running our country for the last thirty years. We would probably be very grateful if Canada sent in its army to oust our oppressive leader. But it wouldn’t take very long before we’d say, “Thanks, we can take it from here.” According to an independent Zogby poll of the Iraqi people this is exactly what most Iraqis believe and want. Some of the findings include:

– Only two in five (39%) said that “democracy can work in Iraq,” while a majority (51%) agreed that “democracy is a Western way of doing things and will not work here.” Shiites – who suffered the most under Hussein and who make up the majority in Iraq – are more evenly split about democracy (45%-46%), while Sunnis are far less favorable.

– Asked about the kind of government that would be best for Iraq, half of all respondents (49%) said they preferred “a democracy with elected representatives guided by Sharia (Islamic law).” Twenty-four percent prefer an “Islamic state ruled by clerics based on Sharia.” Only one in five (21%) preferred a “secular democracy with elected representatives.”

Three out of five made it clear that they wanted Iraqis left alone to work out a government for themselves, while only one in three want the United States and Britain to “help make sure a fair government is set up.” Two out of three Iraqis – and seven in 10 Sunnis – want U.S. and British forces out of Iraq in a year.

What to expect in the future? It’s not too hard to figure out, but the longer our army occupies the country the more resistance against us will increase. This should not be surprising. Those who have a vested interest in having America out of Iraq have had time to network and to bring in the skills and arms needed to sap the morale of our Army. Not surprisingly a Stars and Stripes poll of our forces in Iraq found that half of our troops there describe their unit morale as low. As attacks increase expect these numbers to go up. 49% of those surveyed said it was unlikely they would remain in the military when their term of service ended.

The logical thing to do would be to declare victory and leave. Our mission was to defeat Saddam. We have done that. It might made sense to keep an air base in the Iraq regardless, just in case Saddam does try to make a come back. That way he could be quickly taken out again. The people of Iraq might well descend into internecine conflicts when we leave, but that is the likely scenario in any case. If a government there does not command the respect of those it governs, it will not work. And any government in place that is being overseen by the United States is unlikely to be supported by the Iraqi people. Read Riverbend’s blog for more background.

In Afghanistan we can hope that a new government with a new constitution will emerge, but the likelihood is that while one will be put in place it won’t work in the long term. Afghanistan is a country created by the British. It has no unique national identity. Rather it is a collection of ethnic and tribal areas. If it makes sense for these tribes to affiliate they will, but indications are that ethnicities will want to manage their own affairs and centralized government is unlikely to work in the long term. The Russians tried to occupy Afghanistan and failed spectacularly. If Communism can’t be made to work there, American style democracy is unlikely to work their either. All we can really do is try to strike at al Qaeda and Taliban elements where we can find them. But most of these elements are now in Pakistan, not Afghanistan; it is a safer place for terrorist at the moment and generally protected from our military forces.

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors as casualties and costs go through the roof and as Americans grow tired of a conflict with no clear exit criteria. Eventually we will declare a weak victory and leave, but no one will be fooled: we will have had our hands burnt and will be unlikely to indulge in such reckless military adventurism for the foreseeable future.

It is a shame, but not surprising, that pretty much all the Democratic candidates except Dennis Kucinich say we have to stay the course in our war in Iraq, despite the obvious evidence that our strategies are fatally flawed. Yes, we should feel a natural obligation to finish what we started, but we should not blind ourselves to the reality that we are unlikely to be able to actually finish what we started. We need to limit our attacks on those who aided and abetted the September 11th attacks only. Anything else will be seen as more American imperialism and likely to inflame more hatred and bad feelings against us. In the end that is counterproductive to our national security.


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