Archive for May, 2004

The Thinker

A Tribute to Robert E. Simon

Sometimes giants do walk among us.

In 1984 I moved from Gaithersburg, Maryland to Reston, Virginia solely because I wanted to live in Reston. Earlier that year I had attended a science fiction convention in Reston. While the convention was not memorable, the time I spent in Reston was. Here was a planned community that was done right.

It was the architect Robert E. Simon who, at age 50, used the proceeds of the sale of Carnegie Hall in New York to buy what was then called the Sunset Hills Farm in Northern Virginia. He purchased 6,750 acres to create this unique planned community. This community he decided would be unlike anything done before. It would be a community that would be affordable to all income types. It would allow people to live close to where they worked. When housing was built the lots would not first be cleared of trees. Rather, housing would be built around the trees. Every resident would be within walking distance of a village center where they could buy the necessities of life. And neighborhoods would be connected to each other via trails that would wind their ways through the woods.

Beginning with the creation of Lake Anne Plaza in 1964 the community slowly blossomed. In the mid 1980s the rest of the world finally discovered Reston. Since then there has been no turning back. Reston has become a city with a cosmopolitan feel and a large, vibrant downtown. The Reston Town Center (what amounts to downtown Reston) is something of an oxymoron because there is no town called Reston. In fact there is no city called Reston. Reston is just a place in the middle of Fairfax County. It is wholly unincorporated. But there is an organization, the Reston Association, which ensures that Robert E. Simon’s vision for the town is maintained. The Association can be something of a pain to many residents but it has proven its value. Reston is now a very chic place to live. All those covenants and attention to detail have paid off in property values that are markedly higher than the areas around it. Although it was part of Simon’s vision to create a planned community affordable to all income ranges, I found in 1993 that I could no longer afford to live in Reston if I wanted to also live in a single-family house. Now I live in a nice neighborhood three miles down the road. But it is no Reston.

I miss Reston and I still feel it calling to me. Someday I hope I can go back and live there again. This nostalgic feeling returned this weekend when I (literally) got off my rear end and peddled up to Reston. I’ve been reacquainting myself with a bike lately. Last Thursday I biked to work. I’m finding biking is a convenient way to get the exercise I need. It is also beneficial to the environment. My employer, the U.S. Geological Survey sits at the southwest corner of Reston. It was one of the first employers of note to arrive in Reston. It sat largely by itself on a wooded campus when it opened in 1973. Now it is surrounded by high tech office buildings sporting a mixture of clean industries all very much in line with Simon’s vision for the community.

While I often pass through Reston on my way to somewhere else, and make regular trips to shop in Reston I haven’t really seen Reston in a long time. With my bike I am seeing and appreciating Reston anew. In doing so I feel both nostalgia and a deep hunger to live in Reston again. Yesterday I biked through an apartment complex where I used to live in the south side of Reston. I then biked down the trail that connected my old apartment building with the woods behind it. You can travel for miles on some of these trails and hardly see a house. Instead you feel the presence of nature all around you. I found it intoxicatingly delightful. It was hard to believe I used to take this for granted.

Today I felt more adventurous and biked all the way to Lake Anne Plaza where the community began. When I had first moved to Reston in 1984 my wife and I lived in an apartment complex across the street. We walked around Lake Anne many times. The community of Lake Anne has aged, but it is still a wonderful place. Townhouses, condos and a few single-family homes hug the shores of the lake. Ducks wander along the boat docks looking for handouts. A huge fountain perpetually blows water into the sky from the middle of the lake.

And there sitting on the bench by the dock is a bronze statue of Robert E. Simon. And as I sat there resting my keister on the bench who should amble on by past his own statue but Robert E. Simon himself. You see about ten years ago Bob Simon decided to spend his last years living in Reston. He walked by his statue without giving it a glance and invited a small group of friends waiting for him to join him in a pontoon boat tied to the dock. At age 90 he is stooped but walks around without a cane. He was relaxed and laughing as he piloted the boat out of the dock and into the lake.

This is not the first time I have seen Bob Simon in Reston. I have seen him a couple of times at the church I attend, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston. While I don’t believe he is a UU, he has attended forums we’ve put together on the Middle East. As best I can tell he sits there otherwise unrecognized by us inhabitants of his community. He lives nearby in the Heron House, a tall dozen story high condominium that overlooks Lake Anne. I am sure he is a fixture both in bronze and in person on Lake Anne.

I wish I visited Lake Anne more often. And I wish today I had the presence to go down and introduce myself to him. I would have liked to thank him for his vision. But also I would like to thank him for leading by example. I am sure Bob Simon is one very rich man, but he chose to spend his last years as an ordinary citizen, enjoying the fruits of his labor. Reston is not a perfect place. It has become more commercialized than I suspect he would have preferred. And it can be expensive to live there. But it is still very much an oasis for the human soul: a place where one can live in some reasonable harmony with nature and feels its presence all around you.

Thanks Bob.

 
The Thinker

Therapy for Everybody!

I’ve been seeing a shrink about a year now to work through a few issues. In my family we’re no longer ashamed to be seen associating with mental health therapists. “Licensed clinical social worker”, “psychologist”, “psychiatrist”, even “psychotherapist” are words that now easily roll off our tongues.

It never occurred to me I would ever need or even want to see a shrink of my own. It seemed sort of unmanly somehow. Real men, women and children from normal and healthy families (and I assumed I fit in those categories) didn’t need mental health specialists. This is what passed for my reasoning. I figured I was supposed to struggle through my own stuff alone. That was an intrinsic part of the human experience.

And I guess I could have kept struggling alone. But at some point the suggestion came for me to see my own shrink. I found in a strange sort of way I was looking forward to it. For a while I sat through sessions wondering just why I was there. I pictured myself as the one in the family fully grounded in reality. The only therapy I needed was fuzz therapy: my cuddly cat Sprite all curled up on my lap looking up at me with his adorable Bambi-like eyes.

I thought therapy was reserved for people with real issues. For example, I figured if I had compulsive hand washing problem I needed to consult a shrink. I seemed to navigate fine through life. It was true there were aspects of my marriage and family situation that seemed pretty topsy-turvy at times. Yes, occasionally the stress level got pretty high, but nothing more than I could handle. I was an immovable rock. The high seas could crash against me as much as they like but I was (I thought) fundamentally unchanged. I could handle it.

Still when the wife told me to go see a therapist I figured she must see something in me that I did not quite see. So off I went. And now every couple weeks I sit in a room with a guy about my age and a diploma with a PhD in Psychology on his wall. We talk about my life and the answers to life’s persistent questions.

I still don’t understand what this therapy business is doing. I am not usually aware of any real changes in my thinking or behavior from one session to the other. Basically I just sit there in the cushy chair and talk. And mostly he listens. Occasionally he throws in a suggestion, or repeats back to me what he is hearing. This often means I have to restate my words several times. And then we move on to the next topic. Sometimes this is in a structured way, but often in an ad-hoc sort of way. All this for $130 for forty five minutes. I’m glad I’m not earning my living as a Wal-Mart greeter.

But anyhow this therapy stuff seems to be working for me. Maybe it is just coincidence, but I seem to be getting better at managing my problems and my own life. Things that used to annoy me don’t seem to annoy me as much. I seem to be a pleasanter person than I remember being. My wife and daughter seem happier to see me, and I am happier to be with them. And I keep going back and talking to my shrink. I sometimes I wonder why I am still there shelling out money.

It seems like everyone I know beyond a superficial level is doing therapy these days. Those who aren’t getting it I bet often secretly wish they were, or would if they understood its value. I’m starting to believe that in our complex world pretty much anyone — no matter how well ordered and happy they consider their life to be — would be better off in therapy.

I’m trying to figure out what is really happening in therapy. Am I really getting better because I spend my time talking to a guy with a PhD in Psychology? Is this better than, say, talking to my minister? I don’t think it hurts that my shrink has all these lovely professional qualifications. But I’m also starting to suspect that with a little training we could all be pretty competent therapists.

For me the value of therapy is simply that I can unload the stuff running around my mind. It has to get spoken, heard, repeated back and probed. It doesn’t mean as much (for me apparently) to analyze it in my mind. It’s only when these feelings are articulated, expressed and heard that the feelings derive meaning. Then they appear in a place that I can grab on to them and actually tackle them. In other words the simple act of sharing them with another safe human being is in itself therapeutic.

In less complex times I think our friends, family and neighbors were our therapists. Many of us still do this of course. But increasingly intimate family connections fray upon adulthood. In my family we are all geographically separated. I have one sister about an hour away. Everyone else I will probably only visit by buying plane tickets. Yes, we do have email to keep in touch but unloading on family is inherently risky. Family members more than anyone else really know you. They know what buttons to push to trigger devastating emotional damage. I’m sure my birth family wouldn’t do it deliberately, but might they might do it inadvertently. So I’m not anxious to unload too much on my family. As for neighbors, they live too close to warrant the exchange of intimate information. I can’t risk the whole block knowing my private life. As for friends I can’t think of any friend I have who I’d really want to exchange my most intimate stuff. Even with my wife I find I have certain thoughts and feelings I don’t want to share with her. But with a therapist I have a safety valve. I have that necessary but missing mental health link. And that by itself makes the difference.

So I say therapy for everyone. If it were up to me we’d all have individual therapists we would see on a regular basis. I realize there are cranks out there in the mental health world. It’s important to spend some time checking a number of therapists out before settling on one you are comfortable with. Even if it is just a trusted friend you can confide in, I think it is in the nature of human beings to need to confide and unload your thoughts with someone. Those of us who try to deny this need probably do so at our peril.

 
The Thinker

Return of the 17-Year Cicadas, Part Two

Memory can play tricks on you sometimes. As you may recall from this entry my memory of the 1987 return of the 17-year cicadas was not a happy one. Thankfully this time around the memories are somewhat more pleasant.

For one thing in 1987 I lived in Reston, Virginia. There are some great things about Reston. One of the greatest is that when they build developments they don’t unnecessarily cut down the old trees. So in 1987 we lived in a townhouse surrounded by established trees, and tall trees at that. They don’t get much taller here on the east coast than sycamore trees. Sycamores lined the back of our property and towered hundreds of feet into the air. It was rumored they were a hundred years old and planted back when Reston actually was a town called Wiehle (since dissolved). In addition there were plenty of fir and other deciduous trees near my house. So the cicadas were everywhere and they were absolutely deafening. I understood this anew today when I went running on a path in our neighborhood by a creek with an old established little forest. There were places where you could not hear what someone was saying six feet away from you with all the cicada noise.

But in our new neighborhood cicadas are not too bad a problem. Rolling back the clock I realized in 1987 our neighborhood was in the middle of development. My house was then about a year old, but the land had been torn up. The first thing the developers did was tear down all the trees. Cicadas probably emerged in 1987 but there were no trees worth climbing. So they likely either died rather quickly or found a nearby forest and habited there. Since the cicada eggs are deposited on the leaves of trees, the new and maturing trees in our development were largely spared. In a few generations, probably after I am dead, they will return in force to my neighborhood.

Even so they can be surprisingly loud. They start as soon as there is daylight. It begins with a low and gentle almost metallic like hum that greats me around six a.m. when I groggily retrieve my newspaper. As the day progresses and particularly when the sun is out the hum disappears and it turns into a persistent whine rising to a crescendo and then falling. Here near my house the cycle takes about six seconds. But it varies from spot to spot. On the running trail in the woods it was every three to five seconds. I wonder why it varies from place to place.

I am hearing two distinct noises. About thirty percent of the noise comes from summer sounding cicadas. I assume it’s the 17-year cicadas that provide the server-room like hum. But I am puzzled by the noise of the summer-like cicadas because it is not summer, and we don’t usually get the summer cicadas until late July.

I also remembered black cicadas. But my memory must have been faulty. These cicadas are universally brown, except for their beady red eyes. Now that I am steeped in cicada trivia I realize that if they land on me they won’t be biting me. I’ve been landed on at least once so far. 17 years ago though I had to deal with a panic stricken wife. This time my wife has coping strategies. Her main strategy involves basically not going outside until they’re gone. If she absolutely has to go outside she’ll pick spots far away from the trees as possible. This also works for me since last time I came close to serving divorce papers.

Only in the last couple days have I noticed the cicadas getting in my face. They are now flying everywhere. I am glad I have my car windows closed because I’m sure they’d get in otherwise. My drive home means a couple of them will run into my windshield.

My office is on the fifth floor and overlooks a number of tall and established trees. From a vantage point I did not have in 1987 I can see what is going on. A week ago I was watching droves of cicadas slowly climbing the trees. Now I see them flitting between the trees. It can be hypnotic to watch them at times as they constantly and awkwardly move from tree to tree. Each is looking no doubt for a quick insect-like roll in the hay. Their mortality rate is already surprisingly high. At the U.S. Geological Survey where I work the trees are old and established. In the morning the sidewalks are often littered with the bugs. By the afternoon most are gone. I assume this is a result of the landscaping crew coming by with the brooms and the leaf blowers.

It’s a real change of pace, that’s for sure. I live in suburbia partially to escape the city noise. But now there is no escape until dusk. Only then do the cicadas seem to finally call an end to their lovemaking and settle down. In a few weeks they will be dead and gone. I suspect it will seem strange to take a walk in the woods and find it so quiet again.

They will be back again when I am 64 and then again when I am 81. Almost certainly I will be dead in 2055, but perhaps I will survive to 98 to hear them for a fifth time. By that time I may feel nostalgic. I hope my hearing aid will work. These long passages between cicada generations are perhaps the creepiest thing about them. I can’t help but realize they mark major passages in my life. Ask not for whom the bells tolls, ask for whom the cicada tolls. I hope if I am dead in 2055 that my daughter, then 65 years old will hear them, mark her own passage of time, and relive her own somewhat poignant cicada memories.

 
The Thinker

Racing toward environmental disaster

What an irony. There was a time when the Republican Party was known as the environmental party. Teddy Roosevelt alone created five national parks during his tenure. More recently it was Richard Nixon that created the Environmental Protection Agency. But these days it is getting hard to find Republican environmentalists.

Oh sure there are plenty of Republicans who say they are for the environment. But most of them are liars. Try to find a Republican in Congress that is for the Kyoto Treaty on Global Warming. Know of any? Despite polls like this that say 61% of Americans are in favor of the United States abiding by the Kyoto Treaty Republicans in the Senate will let it come up for a vote, well, when hell freezes over. The new carpet was hardly tacked into place in the Oval Office after Bush’s inauguration when Bush yanked U.S. support for the treaty. Instead Bush advocated a voluntary plan that he said would lower the amount of carbon dioxide emissions produced in our country. Not surprisingly this voluntary plan is working about as well as Governor Bush’s wonderful plan for saving the state of Texas’s air quality. Instead of making the air 20% cleaner in Texas the laws Bush advocated actually made it easier for polluters to pollute and to hide the evidence from the law. As a result of this insightful plan in 1999 Houston’s air quality actually was worse than Los Angeles’s.

Kyoto of course is just a small part of a much larger attitude of contempt toward the environment. Republicans stopped giving much of a damn about the environment during the Reagan Administration. It started with a slap in the face to environmentalists when Anne Burford Gorsuch was appointed to the EPA. She had no experience in protecting the environment. But she had worked hard as a member of the Colorado legislature to fight the EPA that was insisting that Denver comply with the clean air laws. (No lie, she was part of a clique of state legislative representatives self named “the crazies”.) For such a sterling accomplishment this chain smoking 38-year-old woman became EPA administrator. There she spent most of her time making sure it did everything but protect the environment. When not trying to cut the EPA’s budget and coming up with an enemies lists of civil servants she managed to suspend a ban on the disposal of hazardous liquid waste in landfills. Outraged Democrats eventually forced her out under pressure. William Ruckelshaus, the first EPA Administrator, replaced her. EPA employees were so grateful to have her gone they cheered Ruckelshaus’s return.

Throughout the Reagan years the environment was always on the back burner. It was much more important to have cheap gas. Although Bush 41 was relatively kind to the environment his son was not. Bush 43′s attitude seemed to be to beat Anne Burford Gorsuch at her own miserable record. Just a few samples of the Bush 43 environmental wreckage to date:

- Bush delayed until 2015 rules that would reduce soot and smog levels, likely leading to 60,000 premature deaths a year.
- He opened waters off the states of California, Florida and Texas to oil drilling despite protests from the governors of these states, including his own brother.
- He allowed the corporate superfund taxes expire, thereby shifting the burden to the taxpayer instead of the polluters.
- He cut the EPA’s enforcement budget, leading to 13% fewer inspections in 2002 alone.
- He allowed the return noisy, smoke spewing snowmobiles to the pristine Yellowstone National Park.
- He allowed new coal fired power plants to be built around national parks, thereby decreasing visibility in the parks.
- He consistently under funded budgets for the maintenance of the national parks.
- He sought sweeping changes to the Endangered Species Act that has reduced the number of protected species.
- He allowed logging in some of the few remaining old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest.

For over twenty years we have seen a consistent and reckless pattern of antipathy and even hostility toward the environment. Since Bush 43 the gloves seem to be off. A recent EPA decision that will require off road diesel vehicles to comply with Clean Air Standards is the one major exception to a legacy of environmental wreckage.

Most Americans understand the connection between their living choices and the environment. But Republicans are living in denial. That so many species become endangered or extinct annually doesn’t seem to bother them in the least. Never mind the fact that we may need this biodiversity to ensure our own survival as a species. Some of our most promising pharmaceuticals have come from biologically diverse places like pristine tropical forests. When given a choice between growth and the environment growth wins every time. If it looks politically costly to diss the environment, they’ll invent a proposal like the badly named “clear skies” initiative that gives the appearance of doing something but exacerbates the problem. All recommendations that don’t conform to their mental model of how the world should work are the result of bias and bad science.

The fragility of our environment and the interdependence of all living things slide off them like water off the back of a duck. In their minds growth can be sustained forever. Cheap land will always be available. Wetlands are never as important as property rights.

It’s not like we have another planet readily available we can inhabit after we consume this one. Earth is our only possible home. If it becomes our toxic playground we will be the cause of our own extinction. The earth deserves our respect and our survival instinct should require that we provide it. If Republicans were as concerned about family values as they claim to be they would realize that leaving a vibrant ecosystem is the best present they can give their posterity. Instead they pass along values of wanton and reckless selfishness that may kill us all.

 
The Thinker

Van Helsing: A Review

The recently released movie Van Helsing reputedly cost about 160 million dollars to make. The movie stars X-Men hunk Hugh Jackman as the legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing. It looks like it spent nearly every dollar of its costs on special effects. The result is two hours and twenty-five minutes of nonstop action. The special effects come at you so fast and furious that it is hard to keep up with what passes for a plot.

This seems to be the trend these days: to let special effects substitute for a substantive plot and decent acting. Oddly enough the only substantive acting in the whole movie came from the monster Frankenstein (played by Shuler Hensley), for whom I actually felt some empathy. As for plot, I don’t mean to say that Van Helsing doesn’t have a plot but it’s hard to follow with all the special effects. After wiping out Dr. Jekyll, this immortal Prince Valiant Van Helsing is summoned to the Vatican. He is quickly dispatched with “Friar Carl” (played by David Wenham, or “Faramir” in the Lord of the Rings movies) to Transylvania. There for some reason I quickly forgot (because it truly doesn’t matter) he must keep Dracula from finishing off the Valerious family. Rest assured the producers went to great lengths to throw more Dracula, Frankenstein and black arts imagery at you that you will see in a dozen vampire films. Transylvania seems to be a place that is perpetually snowy and never lacks a thunderstorm or a full moon. The movie is visually stunning. The problem I have with the movie, like so much of what is turned out by Hollywood these days, is that it has no soul.

It was probably designed to be pure entertainment. In that sense it succeeds very well. Still, pure entertainment can be fun and memorable. The Indiana Jones movies come to mind. When I see this much money spent on a movie whose sole purpose is to separate me and millions of others from my hard earned money, only to find out it is like a soda that quickly goes flat and is forgotten, it is hard not to feel disgruntled. Is it too much to ask a little more for a $6.50 matinee ticket and three hours of my time?

This is a movie that bears every mark of being scientifically created to draw in the maximum number of theatergoers. The producer’s logic must have been something like this: We have to bring in the teen market and as many of the 20 and 30 somethings as possible. Let’s do Dracula then and let’s add one real hunk of a guy (Hugh Jackman), one exceptionally cute gal with her bosom constantly in the camera lens (Kate Beckinsale), one evil but somewhat charismatic dude (Dracula, played by Richard Roxburgh), one comic relief character (David Wenham). Then let’s wrap enormous amounts of special effects into it, throw in a few lines of humor and let’s call it a blockbuster.

For all that effort though it feels like an obscene waste of money. Granted the movie will probably prove profitable. Through last weekend the movie had earned about $85 million dollars. Add overseas revenues, DVD rentals and sales and shareholders will be happy. But it’s a shame to spend so much money for something that will have no enduring value. It won’t win awards for anything, except possibly most over the top and pointless special effects.

The movie could have been a real drama that genuinely terrified you or gave you new insights into vampires. We could have actually felt something for the characters. Instead everyone just goes through the motions. We don’t care. We came to see spectacle. We get spectacle. But there is no meat here. It is cartoon violence. It is utterly vapid.

If you want to turn off your mind for a couple hours from the distractions of real life Van Helsing should do the trick. If on the other hand you’d rather feel like you’ve seen a real movie, as opposed to a special effect extravaganza you’d better pass this movie up. May I suggest The Ladykillers instead? This is a fairly fluffy movie too, but it is a quirky movie that I guarantee you will remember. Van Helsing will likely leave you feeling like you’re another victim of the Hollywood marketing machine.

 
The Thinker

Texas: Unitarian Universalism isn’t a Religion

It seems that the state of Texas (or at least its comptroller) think that a religion is not really a religion if it “does not have one system of belief.” Therefore, we Unitarian Universalists are not really a religion, and we should be taxed liked any other entity in Texas.

Oh really? This is news to the hundreds of thousands of us who are UUs in America. I imagine presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Unitarians of their age, are rolling in their graves.

Here’s what the UUs believe: each person has the right to decide for himself or herself what they believe. We don’t claim to have the answers. We don’t feel people need to be coerced or persuaded. We are one of a very few number of religions that does not require the profession of a creed as a condition of membership. We celebrate all religions and think there is some meaning and value in all of them. But above all we believe in the individual right of conscience. We welcome all. You can believe in God or not. You can believe in multiple gods. You can be agnostic or pantheistic. A lot of UUs are multireligious. For example we have wiccans in our church who practice regularly in a sacred circle they created out in the woods on our church property. They also attend services. We usually celebrate Christmas, and not just because our roots are in Christianity. We also celebrate major Jewish, Hindu and Muslim holidays. We have been known to do Buddhist meditations from time to time too.

I taught a “Neighboring Faiths” religious education program at my church one year. We taught emerging teens about the various faiths in the world. But we did more than just study them. We sought them out. The places of religious worship we visited included a Jewish temple and the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (Catholic) here in Washington. We attended a predominantly African American Pentecostal Church. (It was an amazing experience to witness a service of continuous, almost rapturous song and heartfelt emotion.) And we watched a Mormon church service. We even had frank discussions with their children in religious education after the service. We are not a xenophobic religion. Ours is a religion of free association. We realize that not all people are comfortable with our approach, but it is our approach. It’s what we’ve been doing for as long as we’ve been Unitarians and Universalists.

Each UU church arranges their services as they like. But most Christians would feel at home in a UU church. At our church we sing songs from hymnals. We sometimes even sing about God in our hymns. (Sometimes we may sing about the Goddess.) We have sermons. We light a flaming chalice at the start of each service, symbolizing our belief in independent thought. We even pass around the collection plate.

Newsflash to Texas: there is a lot more to religion than having one system of beliefs. You would think the Texas comptroller would at least bother to look up the definition of the word “religion” in the dictionary before painting with so broad a brush. There are other definitions for religion including “A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.” UUs have no institutionalized system of beliefs. Another definition includes “A set of beliefs, values, and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.” We don’t specify beliefs, but we do have values we espouse in our Principles and Purposes. We don’t have a founding father or mother figure but we do have some people of whom we are very proud. In addition to ex presidents we can include Charles Darwin (who articulated the theory of evolution) and Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross) among distinguished Unitarian Universalists.

The good news for UUs is that at the moment the courts are on our side. The bad news is that for some bizarre reason (probably because in Texas, as is so often the case, the normal rules of thought don’t seem to apply) the current Texas comptroller is refusing to give up.

Oh what an odious message it will send if Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn ultimately succeeds. She likely won’t if it ever reaches our U.S. Supreme Court. But if she succeeds it would render our freedom of religion pretty meaningless in this country.

If ignorance is not a sin, it should be.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
The Thinker

The Poly Future?

Goodness! Gay couples will be able to get legally married in the State of Massachusetts on Monday! The usual caveats apply to these marriages and civil unions. They likely won’t be recognized once couples cross state lines. The so-called Defense of Marriage Act ensures that the federal government won’t recognize the relationships for tax or beneficiary reasons. It also gives other states permission to thumb their noses at same sex couples. And even in liberal Massachusetts, orthodox religions like the Catholic Church will be looking down their noses at same sex couples. And these marriages may prove to be temporary. A subsequent Massachusetts constitutional amendment might make them null and void.

Still, the tide is turning toward acceptance of gay marriages and civil unions. Buried deep inside this Newsweek poll is the information that a majority (51%) of Americans now support either gay marriage or civil unions, versus 43% who oppose all legal recognition. This suggests that proposals to create a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriages by any state are likely to flounder.

So naturally those of us on the bleeding edge are asking: What’s next? I think we can rule out marriages between people and animals, or with minors. Meanwhile there are plenty of gray areas to be worked out on the same sex marriage business. For example, if a person born male, has surgery and hormone therapy to make them look like a woman and they choose to marry another man is this a legal marriage under the Defense of Marriage Act? Or take the opposite case: this new woman decides to marry another woman. Is that a legal marriage because she has male DNA? The possibilities and permutations seem endless. Given we have fifty states, plus commonwealths and territories, plus federal law, plus city ordinances the combinations of what is and is not legal is in many cases almost impossible to figure out. It also raises a broader question: just what is sex and gender anyhow? What used to be so black and white is now full of shades of gray.

But if all this weren’t confusing enough another community is coming out of the closet: the polyamorous. If you aren’t familiar with polyamory, you have plenty of company. In brief the polyamorous believe they are hardwired to engage in committed marriage-like relationships between three or more people at the same time.

I’ve been tracking the polyamory issue for years. I’ve done so partly out of curiosity and partly because I have some tugging in that direction myself. I’ve never understood the logic that life should be so constrained that I should be allowed to have only one committed relationship at a time. A lot of human hearts, mine included, are not necessarily bounded by exclusivity. I can’t see why if I found someone else whom I loved and it were okay with my wife and with my new partner we couldn’t all live happily ever after. Our Declaration of Independence (an historical document, but not a legally binding one) insists that the pursuit of Happiness is an inalienable right given to us by God.

And clearly we could do this but it entails some legal risk. Since I live in Virginia if I made love to another woman while legally married, even if it were with my wife’s consent, it would constitute adultery. In theory I could be prosecuted and even go to prison. Naturally as a law abiding citizen I would like my behavior to be lawful, so I would feel an inclination to lobby my state legislature to make polyamory legal. Why single me out for discrimination if I am polyamorous?

It’s a good bet that since there are federal laws against polygamy they won’t be liberalized in my lifetime. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t already an active polyamory community already out there making its case. A polyamory newsgroup I read occasionally pointed me to this article. It seems that the religion I practice, Unitarian Universalism, is already poly friendly. I was aware of this fact, but only dimly. I am not aware of any openly poly triads/quads in my church. But across the Potomac at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Silver Spring the local poly community apparently has found a nice home for itself. While I don’t know how many are UUs, the church is nice enough to allow polys to use their facilities for regular potluck dinners and meetings.

It turns out there is a large network of polyamorists across the country. I haven’t been able to quantify the numbers involved but my guess is that they number in the hundreds of thousands of people. Polyamory.org provides basic information for those inquiring about the lifestyle. And there seem to be many local groups that allow poly people to come together. Locally the Chesapeake Polyamory Network is available and seems to have potlucks not only in Silver Spring, but here in Northern Virginia too. They appear to be incorporated as a not for profit organization, hold regular board meetings and host regular events. It seems that lots of polys embrace non-traditional religions. There are a lot of pagans and wiccans in the movement. But as I have not actually attended any poly events I can’t speak with much authority.

Should polys be allowed to marry? My sense is that while there are lots of examples of long term and stable poly relationships that short-term relationships are more the norm than the long-term relationships. I guess I have to qualify what I mean by short term. We are talking here about months or perhaps a year or two, rather than days or weeks. I would bet that the percent of such relationships that endure ten or more years is fairly small. Since the likelihood of the relationship enduring a long time is fairly remote, I can see why the government might be leery about promoting poly marriages. On the other hand why should the government discriminate? With the average marriage lasting seven years, and with society becoming more comfortable with sanctioning gay marriage, why pick on the polyamorists?

If I did love someone with the same degree of feelings I have for my wife, certainly I’d want him or her to have the same rights and privileges that my wife has. I would want to include them in my health insurance and I would like them to be a beneficiary when I die. I know I am a good person at heart. Why shouldn’t society endorse my individual pursuit of happiness?

I have a feeling that once the gay marriage issue is settled, or possibly long before then, we’ll be hearing a lot more from the polyamory community.

 
The Thinker

No Slots for DC

I guess since I am technically not a DC resident I should just butt out of this issue. But a proposal to put a slot machine emporium in the District of Columbia in Northeast Washington along New York Avenue really upset me.

The suggestion comes from Pedro Alfonso, CEO of Dynamic Concepts. This is the same wonderful guy who along with his partner (and former D.C. Council Member) John Ray tried and failed to get DC to allow Riverboat gambling on the Potomac River. Thankfully this proposal is likely to fare about as well. But there are no sure things and corporate money can change a lot of minds.

Granted, much of Northeast Washington, particularly the long stretch along New York Avenue is a pretty depressing place. It needs urban renewal. Currently it is populated with lots of warehouses, cheap motels and burger joints. It’s a truck and commuter route for many Marylanders, and looks as unsafe as it is. It stretches through an area of the District known for its extreme poverty. An MGM Grand Casino Hotel would probably be quite a change for this area.

The logic for this proposal seems to be: give tourists the option to spend more money while in D.C. When they get tired of the Smithsonian they could venture up New York Avenue to satisfy their gambling fever. It’s a lot closer than Atlantic City. Gambling is hard to find in the area. Virginia has off track betting but even most Virginians have no idea where to go to place their bets. Maryland is also considering (and reconsidering) proposals for slot machines at racetracks. So, the logic goes, why shouldn’t DC get on the gambling bandwagon? After all it has its own lottery, as do all the neighboring states. Tourists could inadvertently help fund DC schools when they visit the slot machine emporiums. And we DC area people already know that DC doesn’t get enough in the way of tax money from the U.S. government as it is for the services it provides.

DC residents are already big fans of the DC lottery. They might well prefer the convenience of slot machines instead of waiting to see whether their lotto number came up. And the prevailing wisdom is that choice is good. People can choose whether or not to gamble, but they don’t have that luxury with most other taxes.

I don’t care how nice the gambling establishments are and how many jobs they provide, slot machines are a bad deal for not just the government of D.C. but also for its people. The proposal calls for the district to keep 25% of the revenues, by itself a pretty niggardly amount. But in reality the proposal would do little to add to the prosperity of DC residents.

Here’s what would probably happen instead. The working class people of DC, many of whom already live on the margins and paycheck to paycheck, would be inclined to gamble away their salaries instead of using them to pay for food, shelter and life’s basic necessities. I know that sounds prejudicial, but this is what will happen. Everyone knows it. Since the odds are stacked heavily against the gambler anyhow, the real people who will suffer will not be the gambler, but the spouse and children who depend on the gambler’s income.

Just say no. Would DC invite prostitutes to move into the blocks around New York Avenue as a way to provide jobs and tax revenues? (There are probably some already there, but they certainly weren’t invited in.) Should they give special discounts to package stores and burger joints to build in this area? Gambling is just another vice and for most gamblers it will just lead to poverty.

New York Avenue could certainly use some urban renewal. But this is not the way to go about it. Instead of gambling parlors, slot machines and casinos DC should consider tax breaks to bring in major retailers like Giant Food, Safeway and Target. Many DC residents don’t have the retail options the rest of us take for granted. They pay high prices for mediocre food and drugs. This would help working families stretch their dollars and feel more like mainstream America. I can’t think of any community that would encourage family values by inviting the gambling industry into their town.

Let’s hope the DC Council’s palms don’t get greased on this one. For the citizens of the District, more gambling is a lose-lose proposition.

 
The Thinker

Return of the 17-Year Cicadas

They had almost receded from my memory. In 1987 I had never seen anything like them.

Okay, I misspoke. I had seen things like them. I spent my teenage years in Florida. Cockroaches – big, black shiny cockroaches that skittled across floors at warp nine and crunched underfoot when you stepped on them – infested and doubtless still infest Florida. It didn’t matter how clean your house was or how many times you called the exterminator. Roaches were lurking somewhere near you. They were ready to make their presence known and disgust you at the most unwelcome times. Aside from the usual places like the kitchen, closets, cupboards and bookcases, I even occasionally found cockroaches in my shoes. I carried them around for hours at a time only to remove my shoes and find them smooshed or crawling out. Ick. Double ick.

Worse than the cockroaches in Florida were the palmetto bugs: veritable flying cockroaches. The etymologists would argue they were nothing like cockroaches, but they were the about the same size and black and icky. But these critters would zing at you from the lawn or a nearby bush when you entered or left the house. They could cause a cardiac arrest in a guy wearing a pacemaker. I am sure part of the reason I moved up north again after graduation was to get away from all the disgusting crawling things in Florida. (That and there were better paying jobs up north.)

The Washington area has its share of cockroaches, but you have to invite them in. I’ve never seen one in my house. Except for the autumn plague of cave crickets in the basement we are amazingly vermin free. They amuse my otherwise sweet cat Sprite. He enjoys spending his days waiting for them in the basement. When he finds one he slowly rips out their legs one by one then watches them die a painful death. He thinks it’s good sport. I’m sure if he could talk he’d express surprise that he actually hurt them. “I was just playing, Daddy,” I’m sure he would say.

An occasional bug that has slipped through our defenses will get inside our house. A mouse temporarily took up residence in my garage over the winter but wisely never tried to move in closer. That’s the way we like it. Nature belongs outside. Inside is sacred, bug-free and human friendly sanctuary.

So while I was somewhat used to icky things, I had pretty much tuned them out in 1987. I had lived in the Washington metropolitan area almost a decade by that time. And then they arrived. We called them the 17-year locusts. But they weren’t locusts. They were 17-year cicadas. Yes, since 1970, long before I arrived they had been hiding in the ground. In May 1987 they decided to emerge. Their life spans may be short (about a month) but during that time it was like living an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

I remember a lot of mixed feelings. First it was curiosity … there sure were a lot of bugs around … and what were those things littering the sidewalk? Later the feelings became all jumbled up. I felt disgust by the sheer number of the things. I felt amazement at the same time that so many critters could occupy the same space at the same time. I also felt helpless because the noise of millions of cicadas was deafening day and night. Even in the house we could hear them. It was like I had a semi parked outside my window with the engine running. And of course I felt on guard whenever I was outside. I couldn’t walk anywhere without these hissing black bugs about an inch long jumping at me, or staring at me with their beady little red eyes. Lastly I felt panic because my wife Terri is bug phobic. A spider on the wall will freak her out. And here she was surrounded by bugs jumping at her, hissing at her, screaming at her. It put her in high panic mode. And that meant I had to be in panic mode too because when she was panicking she made my life hell. It’s amazing I didn’t file divorce papers.

They were everywhere except (usually) indoors. Cicadas may be disgusting creatures, but they are not smart. They didn’t mind getting stepped on. They didn’t understand windows. They just loved to try to jump through them. This would cause periodic taps on the windows that became difficult to ignore. And they had a talent for fouling up machinery. On the Dulles Toll Road the toll machines kept breaking down as their innards filled with cicadas. Back then we were too poor to afford a car with air-conditioning. For my wife that meant driving in summer-like weather with the windows rolled up. But lord how the bugs tried to get in anyhow. They seemed to love air vents. For years afterward there were cicada wings in our car’s air vents we couldn’t dislodge.

Finally they died rather spectacularly and haphazardly, leaving their ugly black carcasses all over the lawns, roads and sidewalks. I repeatedly went out with a broom to sweep those things off my sidewalk and off my car. For weeks afterward the lawns were dark with decaying cicadas carcasses until finally they disintegrated. The regular summer cicadas were something of a relief. They used to annoy me but suddenly they seemed so … quiet.

And I had almost forgotten all this. But cicada stories are everywhere in the papers. The bad memories are returning. Somehow here it is 17 years later and they are about to start this cycle again. I saw them pupating on the grass and on the walks on my way to work: whitish little things with immature wings. Not a hiss nor a screech out of them yet but I know in a matter of days not only will we see them but hear them too. And the nightmare will begin again.

I tried to explain to my daughter what was going to happen. But words don’t really suffice so I stopped trying. This is something she will have to experience to get. To me it will be another hellish four weeks or so. I have been told though that I have the wrong outlook. I should marvel at nature in all its bizarre and ill-timed glory.

I’d much rather marvel at them from a distance than have such a personal encounter with so many of these insects again. Please put them on a documentary on the Discovery Channel instead. That’s as close an encounter as I want with these critters. 17 years wasn’t long enough.

Read the rest of this entry »

 
The Thinker

Fire Rumsfeld

There are times when I wonder if our president has taken up the bottle again. There has to be some explanation for why on Monday President Bush publicly told his embattled Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “You are doing a superb job.” It’s either the bottle or Bush took some dubious advice from his political adviser Karl Rove. Rove doubtless has been reading the latest poll numbers. While a recent Gallup poll found Bush’s approval rating at a historical low of 46%, Americans seem to be cutting Don Rumsfeld some wholly unearned slack, probably because they don’t read beyond the newspaper fold. An ABC News-Washington Post poll reported that 69 percent of Americans thought Rumsfeld should not resign over the prisoner abuse issue. But the same poll also showed that a majority of Americans claimed to be upset about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American forces. Perhaps Bush is hoping to ride on Rummy’s coattails? If so I predict it will be a short ride.

So Rumsfeld is doing a superb job. Apparently then incompetence is seen as commendable. It makes me wonder what sort of egregious acts it would take to get anyone in this administration fired. It is clear that Rumsfeld, along with Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were the architects behind our disastrous invasion of Iraq. They convinced Bush there was a bogus connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. But that was only just the start. They got an apparently very gullible President Bush to believe that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction that did not exist. They convinced Bush, to use his own words that Iraq was a “grave and gathering threat” against our national security. It was Rummy among others who told Bush to lift his middle finger to the United Nations and Europe, to put multiple asterisks next to our participation the human rights conventions and to disclaim some altogether. Human rights? There’s a war on they argued. We’ll do what we think we need to do to get the information we want and worry about the detritus later. So suspects get to hang out indefinitely in our prisons and detention camps, never get charged with a crime and apparently sometimes subject to abuses the Red Cross calls “tantamount to torture.”

Having sold Bush on the war they then went out of their way to screw it up badly. The good stuff came rather quickly. Saddam Hussein’s government collapsed in a few weeks. This was no surprise since his army was pretty much a shell anyhow. Although we have lost over 700 service men and women this number is rather low from a historical perspective. And eventually we found and captured Saddam Hussein, although it had no effect on bringing peace to this tortured country.

The rest of it has been thoroughly botched. It was Rummy and Wolfowitz who put together their own “Office of Special Plans”. Its mission was to find intelligence linking Saddam to al Qaeda that wasn’t there, so they substituted innuendo from flakes for facts. As for special planning, they came up with a special plan all right: perhaps the most incompetent war plan ever put together. Their generals said 250,000 to 300,000 troops were needed to properly occupy the country: they gave them 130,000. As for post war plans they had none other than the rosiest of scenarios: we’d be greeted as liberators and democracy would instantly flourish. It was a war that was to be run on the cheap. Initial cost estimates were that the United States would only have to contribute $2B-$3B toward reconstruction. Iraq’s oil revenues would pay for the rest.

So here it is 14 months later and Iraq is in anarchy. Basic services for Iraqis are worse than they were before the invasion. Our soldiers die needlessly every day because they have lightweight armor vehicles and lack bulletproof kevlar. We pay inflated prices for contractors of dubious worth who it turns out are not subject to U.S. law. We create a “Governing Council” that doesn’t govern but includes flakes like Ahmad Chalabi who hadn’t lived in Iraq in thirty years and is wanted in Jordan for embezzlement. Instead of tearing down the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, we stock it full of suspects. Many of these people are innocent and were taken out of their homes and from the arms of their screaming families in the middle of the night. Then we perpetrate on these victims abuses that prove we are at best a milder version of Saddam Hussein.

Elements of al Qaeda, which were not in Iraq before the war, are now in the country, helping the insurrection and beheading innocent American civilians. Meanwhile over in Afghanistan, our attempt to stabilize the country flounder. The Taliban is resurgent and is taking over provinces again. Other warlords are getting uppity again and refuse to recognize Ahmed Karzi as the leader of the country. Osama bin Laden seems to have migrated to our erstwhile ally Pakistan, which won’t give us permission to send in our troops to search and destroy him. While Pakistan continues to teeter on the very of its own anarchy and civil war, its forces deploy in Northwest Pakistan to try to battle al Qaeda then give up.

Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz should be fired. They should have been fired long ago. The way out of this debacle is not clear but new management is sorely needed. There aren’t many people that would win the respect of our soldiers at this point. But perhaps if Colin Powell became Secretary of Defense a strong message would be sent that a real grown up is in charge of the Department of Defense.

 

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