Archive for October, 2004

The Thinker

Review: The Motorcycle Diaries

Before Che Guevara became a communist and revolutionary he apparently was an earnest medical student in Buenos Aires with a specialty in the study of leprosy. He had a promising medical career ahead of him, a girlfriend from a fine family and was seemingly on his way toward a good life. No one knew him as Che: he was Ernesto Guevara de la Serna.

The Motorcycle Diaries (in Spanish with English subtitles) details Che’s transformation from a young man from an Argentine middle class family into the beginnings of a revolutionary. It details his journey across South America with his good friend Alberto Granado. It starts out in Buenos Aires on the back of a chronically overloaded motorcycle with major exhaust problems. Che is 23; his friend Alberto is approaching his 30th birthday. Neither had ventured far from their native Buenos Aires and wanted to experience the breadth of Latin America before their mundane careers consumed them.

If it is adventure they were looking for they got plenty. Their overloaded motorcycle takes many a tumble into ditches and eventually falls apart. They are soon are flat broke. Alberto’s natural salesmanship finds them many places to stay for the night and the occasional company of the women they seek. But Che’s transparency and honesty sometimes works against them. Like two guys barely out of adolescence they spend much of the movie swearing at each other in a good-natured way; it seems almost to be a form of affection.

Eventually their quest to discover the real Latin America is realized and it is not often a pretty place. In bartering for shelter and food Che uses his skills as a nearly certified doctor to treat people. He eventually becomes appalled by what he sees. Very slowly as they wend their way through Chile, Peru, Venezuela and finally Brazil, Che experiences a political awakening. He comes face to face with migrants forced off their lands despite having lived there for generations. He meets people eking a living on the margins of many a brutal and capitalist economy. Eventually he ends up at a leper colony in Brazil. He develops a real empathy for the lepers, who live on an island on the south side of the river while their caretakers live in relative splendor on the north side of the river.

Che, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, is portrayed as a high spirited, often horny but an earnest and passionate young man. He seems to have an ability he does not really want to have: to be able to glom onto the suffering of those around him. What emerges is one man’s spiritual transformation.

The acting is uniformly good. But it is more travelogue than movie. It becomes a series of vignettes, almost like postcards on the places they visited on their long journey. The movie was clearly filmed on a shoestring. The cinematography is often choppy. It has a gritty and real feeling to it rarely found in movies of the Hollywood variety. Instead of glamorous and preened actors we get lots of real people in dirty clothes and bad teeth. All this dirt and filth seems obscene at times against the natural glory of South America. Perhaps that is the point.

This is a movie that makes no pretenses for greatness. It simply tries to capture the spirit of the young Che Guevara and documents the beginning of his enlightenment. His many revolutionary activities are not shown. But it does hurt to learn at the end of the movie that this earnest man of the people was hunted down and assassinated in 1967 with the help of our own CIA.

With the benefit of hindsight we should realize that the issues Che and other communists spoke to were very real. No one should be surprised that the oppression and poverty that ordinary people endured at the hands of oppressive governments and large corporations spawned men like Che Guevara. As I watch the rise of an oppressive corporate-ocracy right here in my own country and I see the middle class slowly disappearing this movie makes me wonder if we are breeding today new generations of Che Guevaras right here in our own country. Perhaps we will be smart enough to make our government one of the people again, instead of one that bends over backwards to meet the needs of the business world.

 
The Thinker

Taking Care of Business

It’s one thing to go to work to work. It’s another thing to go to work to work.

This week was a week where my team and I had to put our noses to the grindstone. Separated by geography (I have three employees here in Reston, one in Alaska, one in Oregon and one in Montana) we needed to come together in the same room at the same time and work. I wish it could have been interesting work, like designing a cool new web interface. Instead it was hard grunt work: putting together detailed project schedules that we could commit to for our projects for the remainder of the year.

It was work that we should have done about the time I arrived in February. I had no idea at the time this kind of detail was either expected or required. So we are playing catch up. It meant inhabiting a conference room from 8:30 AM until 5 PM. Everyone brought their laptop computers. We borrowed a big computer projector and threw up Microsoft Project on the big screen. And then we hashed through in laborious detail how we were going to finish our work.

Of course we had an agenda, but it was a bit too ambitious to put together plans for all our projects. So we concentrated on the ones that we had to finish or at least start this year. None of us are Microsoft Project gurus, which made the exercise frustrating at times. Meanwhile since we were all of course plugged in we were all reading our email too. The usual stream of requests kept coming in and we kept answering email and troubleshooting problems even while we hammered away at our schedules.

The pace gave us headaches. But the real headaches came when we reached those fuzzy areas that were hard to define. For example we needed to clarify a lot of requirements in a fairly short time frame with another team that likes to procrastinate. How to get them off their duffs when from their perspective we had been sitting on our duffs? Well, we had not been sitting on our duffs. We were working on things at the time that seemed a lot more important. We sent out exploratory emails wordsmithed by committee. We pondered whether we should CC certain people or not. There are lots of unwritten rules in our organization. There are lots of potential landmines. Sometimes we are criticized for not keeping people informed about what we are doing. Other times we get criticized for keeping people too well informed. We pondered the egos of various personalities who act as gatekeepers for getting our work done and tried to figure strategies that would move us forward. Only time will tell whether we read the tea leaves correctly.

The pace was frantic, the typing furious and the stress level was high. But there were other tensions. Generally my team gets along great, but there are occasional personality issues between members. I am not the most tactful person but I had to find tactful ways to move the conversation along and soothe feelings. Meanwhile I learn one of my team members is not happy in their position. The member is crucial to the success of the team so it’s not like I can just let him go. I can’t keep him and hire someone to replace him. The headache reaches the acute phase. I pop two Tylenol at lunch but the headache doesn’t recede.

I try to find some solace in the evening at home. But the headache is still there. I still feel the frantic pace of the day. The news that one of the members of my team is unhappy in their job weighs heavily on my mind because I feel in an unwinnable situation yet I am still responsible, since I am a manager. I have to figure it out. Then the phone rings.

My wife is across the Potomac River in Silver Spring, Maryland with my parents fixing their computer. My mother, age 84, has fallen in the bathroom and has hit her head. She is conscious. They call an emergency medical technician who recommends a trip to the emergency room. My wife, bless her soul, goes with them. I take my daughter to and from choir practice and fret about my Mom. I phone my sister. I send out emails to the family on the situation. I stay up late waiting for my wife to deliver more news and come home. At 10 PM she is still in the emergency room. Don’t wait up she says. Eventually I go to bed but don’t sleep well. At 1:30 I wake up and my wife is not in bed. I get worried. I can’t get back to sleep. I call her cell phone. I get voice mail. I try not to worry and to sleep but I can’t. At 3 AM she arrives home. I get the update: Mom is okay and they are back home. I manage a couple more hours of sleep but am up at 6 AM to send my daughter to school. Then it is back to the conference room for another day of schedule planning, mine-laden emails, and breaks of humor between my team to relieve the tension.

Wednesday is the night for my team to go out for dinner. Some members of the team bring family to the Italian restaurant we chose. We are very good for business: there are more than a dozen of us altogether. I order a glass of house wine. The persistent headache recedes. I am tired but the company is good. Two of my employees bring their young children with them. The babies move from lap to lap. Everyone laughs. Everyone eats a bit too much. As their leader I feel I need to say a few words so I do. I tell them truthfully that I am blessed to have such a wonderful and dedicated team. In spite of their own periodic personality quirks they are a terrific bunch of people. While few in number they are top notch. My words must have been good because they were heartfelt. I think they like me. But I beg off their plans to play pool. I head home, do my chores, crawl into bed and quickly drift off into a narcotic-like sleep.

Today at noon it was over. We put everything away. I was glad to leave early. Many on my team had a long day of flights ahead of them. I felt sorriest for poor Joe, who had to make it home all the way to Anchorage before he could crawl into bed.

But before we leave I am still not satisfied. We did a lot of work but I wished we could have done more. We are still behind the eight ball. We have our twice-weekly conference calls but this face-to-face time is very valuable and infinitely more productive. We must do this more often. We must get ahead of the planning curve. We are supposed to have plans ready by mid February for the work we want to do in 2006. So we must meet again. At least we have the freedom to choose the location. After some discussion we choose Denver. We’ll meet again there in mid January.

At home my weekend plans to be full of activities. In addition to teaching tomorrow, today was my wife’s last day at work. She is inviting her slash friends over for a party tomorrow evening, and two of them will camp out here for the weekend. It’s going to be a noisy place full of talk about the homoerotic fan fiction universe my wife inhabits. I won’t get much downtime. A long bike ride may provide some stress relief if the weather cooperates. I contemplate the mundanity of a few hours at the local Starbucks with a laptop and a wireless connection. Perhaps that is where I will find my escape … if I can squeeze in the time.

 
The Thinker

Missing Bubba

We all knew there was something disingenuous about Bill Clinton. He wasn’t quite what he appeared. While he didn’t have Richard Nixon’s shiftiness there was always the sense that there was a lot more to Bill Clinton than met the eye. What we saw was the tip of his iceberg. Only occasionally and with great reluctance would he reveal his seamy and complex underside.

Clinton was the master politician of his generation. While he spun in circles his first few years in office he eventually found sure footing then went into a fast sprint. Despite his personal scandal by the time he left office I (and 57% of the country) was genuinely sad to see him leave. I am even sadder now after four years of George W. Bush. Loathe him or love him Bill Clinton was one of us. You knew his tastes were as pedestrian as yours. The three hundred dollar haircuts and the omnipresent blue suits were a veneer. We knew it. The real Bill Clinton was a guy who could revel in a Big Mac, super sized fries and a giant Coke. He was an unwashed heathen and a sinner just like us.

Yeah, we knew. Here was a guy with an amazing intellect but who was still somewhere deep inside a wounded boy from a broken home. Our instincts told us that he had not quite surmounted these early problems but we wanted to believe he had made it anyhow. He certainly gave the appearance that he had overcome all the odds. After all he was twice governor of Arkansas, ran the National Governors Association, was a stellar graduate of Georgetown and Oxford Universities and a Rhodes scholar. Not bad accomplishments for a guy raised largely by his mother and around abusive men for much of his childhood.

While he was president you held your nose when you heard rumors of his personal life. But it was hard to hate him too much because Clinton brought results where many before him had failed. Clinton may have been part weasel but he was a damned effective weasel. He was and still is passionate and convincing. He is glib. He rarely reads from a prepared speech. It seems he has gift of on the spot eloquence.

Bill was and is a passionate guy too. Women were apparently just one of his passions. If Bill Clinton has a true love though it is not women, it is politics. His energy seemed boundless. He reputedly survived on a few hours of sleep a night. He was often up late reading and often up early doing more reading. He knew all sides of an issue because he had read all of them. He is a natural debater and can articulate with conviction any point of view he wants.

Bush tries to paint Kerry as a flip flopper. Clinton was the flip flopper to end all flip floppers. Clinton was a ruthlessly pragmatic person. He was not amiss to changing his opinions in a moment if it seemed public direction was going a different way. He realized that to effectively govern he had to be with the majority. So if he wasn’t he would often tune his positions to ensure he stayed with the majority. This of course drove the Republicans nuts because above all but ideology they value consistency. But Clinton cared more about actually getting things done than the feelings of those who could not deal with ambiguity.

And while Clinton was not amiss to helping out his pals and cronies he at least was sensible enough to do it discreetly. It did not become the focus of his administration. Instead he became one of these rare presidents who truly did his best for the country. He schmoozed, he backslapped, he persuaded, and he occasionally lectured but he got most of what he wanted. Under Bill Clinton the country moved from record deficits to record surpluses. He paid down the National Debt, the first president to do so in more than a generation. In eight years 23 million jobs were created. During his term we had the fastest and longest sustained growth in the economy in three decades. Family incomes reached record highs. He brought unemployment down to the lowest level seen in 30 years. But the economy was only the start.

He changed the welfare laws to keep able-bodied people from staying forever on the public dole. He protected nearly sixty million acres of forests from logging and put in place the most stringent air pollution standards in the nation’s history. He expanded Hope Scholarships and created Lifetime Learning Tax Credits. He made it possible for people to care for a sick relative and not lose their jobs. He reformed Medicare, signed the Brady Bill and reduced the share of federal spending as a percent of the economy to its lowest point since 1966. He was instrumental in both the Middle East and the Northern Ireland peace processes.

It’s a wonder that the Republicans could hate the guy so much. I think a lot of their hatred was because he was a damned effective president. As much as they loathed his weasel-like behavior they hated more he was so darned good at what he did. Even in the middle of some of his worst personal struggles he still did the nation’s business adroitly. While impeachment hearings were going forward he was not so distracted that he could not respond to terrorist attacks in Africa.

Despite his impeachment Clinton left a country markedly better and wealthier than when he had come into office. Where many talked results Clinton delivered results year after year. His track record is remarkable and probably unequaled since Franklin Roosevelt. It may well be that some of his success can be credited to others. Perhaps some of the economic growth can be attributed to our zealous Federal Reserve or the end of the Cold War. But only a partisan fool would deny him the vast majority of the credit. It was not just luck. He succeeded because he was relentless and utterly focused. If he could not get to his goal by one path he simply tried another path until he succeeded. His failures were large but they were few. His successes were voluminous.

I’d take him back as my president even if he had orgies in the Oval Office every night. At least I’d know that someone who could consider all sides of the issue and make an intelligent choice for the country was the president again. In these troubled times I would sleep a lot easier.

 
The Thinker

The Root of Human Conflict: Emotion vs. Reason

(Before there was blogging I created a little subsite off my home page called Deep Thought where I published the following essay. This was written in the autumn of 1997. I will probably come back and relook this entry at some future time. Enjoy.)

(Updated March 17, 2o14. Considering how many hits this post has gotten over the years, including recently, I’ve corrected some grammatical mistakes.)

Most people would probably agree that the polarity between the belief groups is the root cause of much of our civil strife. Most belief systems tend to assert the absolute correctness of their beliefs. This, of course, typically implies that other belief systems are either partially or fundamentally flawed.

Certainly one doesn’t have to look far to find examples of these conflicts: Palestinians vs. Israelis; anti-abortionists vs. pro-choice advocates; Communists vs. Capitalists (thankfully resolved, but at a horrendous cost); racists vs. non racists; and Ulster Unionists vs. the Irish Republican Army, to name but a few. Even when done without resorting to violence, the philosophical battles can certainly be vicious, as Washington D.C. certainly demonstrates.

What interests me is to examine these beliefs and see the foundations they rest upon. Most claim to rest on the highest of foundations (typically God itself, the ultimate trump card). And yet, these are also areas which are the most impossible to independently prove. Therefore, it seems curious to me that we invest so much energy defending beliefs which have no solid underpinnings. How could one expend so much of their time and energy to champion causes that are largely unproven and unverifiable?

The answer, as unpopular as it may be, is that most of us are born into a belief system that we wholeheartedly adopt and then propagate as parents. Why else would so many of us practice the very same religion our parents did? Christian parents instill Christian beliefs in their children. Muslim parents instill belief in Islam to their children. Humanist parents instill humanism in their children too. I suspect the main reason we speak with such utter certainty about these core beliefs is because they come to us, as children, from our most god-like source: our parents. By the time we develop the ability impartially examine our parents’ beliefs, it is largely too late to change our basic nature, which is now largely formed. These beliefs form the absolute center of who we are and are the basis for our behavior and personality. By the time we are grown adults these beliefs become extremely difficult, if not impossible to change. Often the cost of change is enormous emotional turmoil where it becomes difficult to believe in anyone or any idea again.

When I look for the source of our conflicts then, I begin by going back to when geography separated groups of humans could form their own divergent belief systems generally free of outside influence. As we traveled and propagated our species, it was easier for these cultural differences to cause problems. It does not surprise me then that in modern times we have witnessed barbarity on such an enormous scale.

But if one shopped for a belief the same way we shopped for a car, what would one look for to distinguish a quality belief from a silly belief? To me the test of a good belief is to examine it and see if it has roots more substantial than mere blind faith. Many faiths, for example, celebrate the virtue of love. God is assumed to be the source from which all love flows. I dispute this conclusion as a hasty and unthinking. My understanding of evolution suggests that love has always been a characteristic of our humanity. It certainly predates monotheism and even polytheism. Indeed, I think a convincing case can be made that love is most likely the manifestation an evolutionary trait of mammals which mammals use to help our species survive. It seems most probable to me that the roots of love are more in our animal past rather than our “civilized” present. Consequently I believe it is more likely that love is a product of our evolution rather than a gift from God. However, my belief that love has evolved, rather than having come from God, does not diminish at all its almost mystical powers on us humans, nor our need as human beings to both get and receive love to live happily and fully. I pick love as an example, but there are many more attributes of our humanity for which this logic should apply.

I assert our beliefs should evolve along with our increased understanding of our universe. At one time the notion of an earth-centered universe seemed perfectly reasonable, based on our understanding of the physical world. When Copernicus proved this was not the case, it was reasonable to abandon the notion. Copernicus’ equations describing how planets orbited the sun proved not entirely correct, but a better working model. The subsequent discovery that planets’ orbits were actually ellipses turned out to be more correct. Newton’s Laws and Einstein’s Theories of Relativity have brought us to an even closer understanding of our physical universe. I contend that beliefs which have a rational basis rooted on scientific understanding are inherently more viable than beliefs based on faith only.

It would be silly of me to claim I have discovered final answers, or to even claim with certainty that I am on the right track. I can only optimistically assert that my beliefs are a closer approximation of the truth that actually exists. I use aspects of the scientific method in judging a believe because when I do I find that my beliefs then have some substance to them. A belief that rests wholly on faith really potentially rests on sand, and the next scientific discovery can easily make them seem absurd. And it would indeed be silly to spend my life advocating beliefs that are untrue and may turn out to be counterproductive to humanity.

Perhaps because I am a software engineer by trade I have learned the value of abstraction. It is hard for me to look at any system without trying to abstract it to learn underlying truths. I see an enormous cost to human progress due to conflicting belief systems in our societies. To truly evolve our species must find a way to reconcile these conflicts. But after a while I see similarities in approach regardless of the beliefs being advocated. It is too tempting not to abstract these similarities and look for a more fundamental cause. And after many years I think I have found the abstraction that makes the most sense to me. Let me know if you agree.

I believe the root of humanity’s problems are not based on conflicting beliefs but rather our own struggle with reconciling reason and emotion. I suspect that the answer to our problems lies neither in emotion nor in reason, but in some place in between. What I search for, and what I believe we all really search for is a life in which we can be happy, productive and challenged. (Often this level of self actualization is not possible, and we simply must survive. This becomes an end in itself.) If we can create a space inside us where emotion and reason can reside in peace, then we may have found the basis for our own happiness and for a solution to much of our misery as a species.

I abstract further: I believe that almost all emotions are modern manifestations of our less evolved ancestors. They had to make complex choices in a difficult and scary world that would ensure their survival over the survival of other species. But their brains were not sufficiently rational to make these complex choices. Consequently emotional response became the ingrained default way to deal with difficult problems. And they in turn drove our system of beliefs. The root of our common law – our abhorrence of murder, our need for fidelity so that our children could survive to adulthood, even our need to feel hatred so we could internalize our feelings rather than take them out on other people and thus ensure our survival – has, I believe, its root in the raw emotions that come with being a human. These in turn came from the many species from which we have evolved.

To survive in the modern world we seek to find a place of peace between our emotions and our reason. But this is difficult because emotions and reason are by their nature often polar opposites. Our sense of reason suggests we must react rationally in all our actions and there is little in acting emotionally worth considering. Our emotions always lurk close beneath the surface and seem to have the upper hand over reason. It is hard to fight millions of years of evolution where emotions proved critical to our survival. When one is emotional, reason seems irrelevant. In fact emotion typically triumphs over reason and is the more powerful. It is little wonder then that statistically ninety percent of humanity claims to be religious. The appeal of religion is primarily emotional. Thus it appears to be far more natural to be religious than not, as it is more natural to be heterosexual than homosexual.

However because we are primarily emotional creatures this does not mean that living a wholly emotional life is either correct or desirable. For acting out of pure emotion can be dangerous too, and the use of reason is usually a better method of surviving today. And perhaps because reason typically works better in our modern and complex world, more of us today are drawn toward reason even though it conflicts with our emotions. This conflict often results in anxiety and inner turmoil. Both pure reason and pure emotion may be a form of natural narcotic which prevents the growth we really need as humans. And so we seek a restful place. The problem is that most of us chose either the extreme of emotion or the extreme of reason. To grow, what we really need is some place in between.

I believe one key to happiness is to understand that to experience emotions is to be human. Thus emotion should be experienced and expressed, but they must be tempered by the application of reason. Sanity and happiness come from understanding the forces and motivations of both and using each effectively to ensure your own happiness and the happiness of those you love.

So emote or remain logical as mankind has done for generations. Or I propose this new radical notion: find some happy medium in between that is right for you. But do so with your eyes open. Trust never wholly to either, but use the synthesis of both to find a place where you can live happily. And if you find that spot then you can begin a process that few humans take, because most people are trained never to leave one side or the other. Like the toddler taking his first steps, like the adolescent observing his parents as human for the first time you now have the opportunity to see the world with new eyes. Now, perhaps, you can change the world because you can affect the world as it is, rather than how others would choose you to see it. If your experience is like mine, your world will become new and the possibilities for your life, like those proclaimed for heaven itself, become as limitless as your imagination.

 
The Thinker

Speculations on the Soul

Regular readers will know metaphysics has been on my brain the last few years. Between reading books on quantum mechanics, pondering mystics and gurus and even watching a funky metaphysical movie I can’t seem to escape it. But I haven’t gone off the deep end. Seeing What the Bleep Do We Know? for example hasn’t had me rushing off to learn more about the Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. I prefer to make sense of fantastic things in my own murky, mysterious way rather than grab one of those prepackaged solutions off the shelf.

Today you get to go on my little roller coaster ride on the nature of soul, and why I think souls exists. Buckle up.

Ironically these thoughts come from being a programmer. To me trying to understand what software really is is very hard. There is no tangible difference between a CD ROM that is formatted or unformatted. Certainly a formatted CD-ROM with software on it can do some amazing stuff when executed by certain classes of computers and certain operating systems. But a formatted CD-ROM weighs no more nor less than an unformatted CD-ROM. The only thing that can be said about it is that its state was subtly changed. Using laser light a small portion of a track on a CD-ROM changes its properties from translucent to opaque. If an opaque value is read then a value is inferred differently than when it is translucent. A floppy disk works in a similar way, except the magnetic voltage of a spot on the disk determines the associated binary value. Neither the floppy disk nor the CD-ROM is really materially changed after encoding. Only its properties are changed so that when a spot is observed (by a recording head) a value is inferred. It remains the same “stuff”. The amount of matter before and after encoding should be identical, except for a tiny loss of matter resulting from friction imposed by the drive.

Now let’s think about our own brains. Neurologists can tell by looking at the brain of a child compared to an adult that there are fewer neural networks in the brain of a child. No surprise there. A child does not have as much experience written to his brain. A child is like a partially written disk. One might even say that upon birth a child is like a formatted disk with just the operating system on it. Over time and through experience a child’s neural network grows. Experience gets encoded. Paths are created in the brain to facilitate more and better memory recall. It’s like a computer in that it gets more software placed on it.

But software by itself is not meaningful. It is only when it interacts with external data and renders results for humans that it becomes valuable. Similarly a brain that knows the complete works of Shakespeare is not useful in itself. But when this knowledge impacts other people, perhaps through the performance of an actor, it takes on meaning.

Brain size reaches its peak around age four. Brain weight peaks out around age 5 and stays stable until you reach age 20. After age 20 the brain’s mass decreases by about a gram or so a year. Like a floppy disk the brain is clearly not indestructible. Over time neurons die, brain cells are replaced and new pathways are created. We constantly program and reprogram ourselves so that we can work more effectively in our environment. The state of our brain constantly changes, just as your computer’s hard disk constantly changes as you process work with it. Eventually though we get a permanent hard sector error that renders the media unusable and we die.

Is there a difference between your brain and your mind? I would say yes. Your brain is an organ that appears to be the center of control for your body and is the repository of your knowledge base. A computer’s brain consists of its hard disk and memory chips. What is your mind exactly? The mind is essentially the direction of will informed through the senses and through the experience encoded in our brains. The computer’s brain is its central processing unit. This is the thing that takes those binary 1s and 0s and manipulates the external environment. It allows the human to experience the work of the computer. Without the CPU the computer is nothing. The hard disk (brain) has no value by itself. But what is our mind really? There is no real answer. My answer begs the question. The mind is a gestalt: “A physical, biological, psychological, or symbolic configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that its properties cannot be derived from a simple summation of its parts.”

Which brings me at last back to metaphysics and my ponderings from the movie What the Bleep Do We Know? The mind, like software, is really virtual. And yet it seems to exists in some sort of medium. Our brain seems to be more than just a large hard disk because it seems the CPU is in there too. The brain’s CPU though is cranking away and providing a show … but where is it exactly? There is no spot in our brain that we can truly identify as our mind. We know if certain parts of the brain are removed or if it is injured enough that we will die. But there is no specific mind organ or gland unless it is the whole thing: the brain as a complete organ. And that doesn’t answer the question of where the mind is. But the evidence seems to be that the mind is not one spot in the brain. Which means it is either some larger thing, or it is not there at all.

We eat. Matter is broken down and energy is released. The energy from food is used to construct new things, like new blood and brain cells. But what is energy? It is not matter. At its root energy is the capacity to do work. And work is “physical or mental effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something.” Energy is the means to do that which matter itself cannot do. An apple sitting on a shelf cannot do anything. Something must be alive in order to do work. Matter must be transformed into energy for the accomplishment of something, for some act of work to occur and by inference for something to be alive.

We know from Einstein that E=mc2. Consequently matter is converted to energy all the time. The reverse is true too: energy is converted back to matter. I would argue that from the human perspective energy is virtual but matter is real. (It’s not that energy is really unreal, it’s just that we can’t perceive it as real because it is intangible to us. And it is intangible because it doesn’t carry a steady state.) You can measure energy but you can’t really contain it separated from matter. Energy in a battery is contained because of the properties of the battery’s matter. It’s a yin and a yang thing. To possess energy we have to see it in the context of its relationship with matter. Perhaps this is because to us only matter feels real and enduring.

Odd, this is the same as my analogy of the mind to the brain. The mind seems virtual because we can’t touch it but the brain seems real because we know it is there. So to me the mind – our minds – our consciousnesses — are in reality just energy. I think it must be a complex form of energy because we are complex compared to most life.

The laws of thermodynamics tell us that neither matter nor energy can be destroyed, they can only be changed from one form to the other. A log burned in our fireplace is not destroyed; its matter is transformed into heat. E=mc2 happens right in our fireplace. So if our mind is virtual and is nothing but pure energy, does it make sense to suggest that when we die our consciousness also dies? I don’t think so. It seems unreasonable and flunks my Occam’s Razor test. Yet that seems to be what a lot of us trained in the Western school of thought truly believe in our gut. If we didn’t then the anticipation of death would not be so universally traumatic. When our bodies die the energy wrapped up in keeping the body growing and maintained is released in the form of heat. And since the body can no longer sustain itself entropy asserts itself fully and our bodies decompose.

It may be that upon death that the energy that makes up our consciousness also changes form too. Or, since superstring theory suggests eleven dimensions, perhaps it just slips into one of these other higher vibrational dimensions that we can infer but not detect. It does this I suspect because it can no longer sustain the relationship with our host body that tethers it to our reality. If I am right we will all find out in time. If I am wrong no one will be able to argue with me about it after the experience of death. But there are enough psychics and mediums out there with decent track records not to be able to dismiss all of them as flakes.

That is why after so many years of pondering while I am still scientifically an agnostic I have a faith. While I do not necessarily believe in God in the classical sense I do believe in soul. I believe I have a soul. I believe that my consciousness is an aspect of my soul – my energy. It is intrinsically bound at present to the matter that contains my body. But upon my death it will be free to move elsewhere and perhaps inhabit some future body.

Time seems to be infinite. Space for all practical purposes is also infinite. I think this life is a breath in a much longer series of lives. And though it sounds corny to this agnostic I think we are all on a much larger spiritual journey. Its nature would take our breath away if we could but comprehend it.

 
The Thinker

Purple Pill Time

What was it? Was I more stressed out at work than normal? Did I get it from hitting the chili in the cafeteria a little too often? Did my appetite for Caesar salad become excessive? Perhaps I can blame the South Beach Diet? I am eating quite a bit differently than I was: a whole lot fewer carbohydrates and a lot more eggs in the morning. Whatever it was my stomach rebelled.

Even so I didn’t think I had something quite as ordinary as acid reflux. I got through 47 years without acid reflux so I darn well assumed I could get through 47 more too. I thought if I had stomach problems I would feel it in the pit of my stomach. Instead I felt something akin to a lump in my throat. I never felt pain. The lump I felt was actually below my throat in my esophagus. After eating something like a high protein bar it felt like the bar didn’t quite make it into my stomach. It felt like it was lodged there. I thought maybe the muscles in my esophagus weren’t working correctly. But if I waited a few hours the feeling went away. Yet if I ate anything else the feeling came back immediately and lingered.

My doctor prescribed “the purple pill”: Nexium. But the feeling of fullness wasn’t going away, at least not very quickly. So I went to see the Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. Yep, yep, he’d seen the same symptoms many times. But just to be sure he snaked a tiny little camera through my nose and down my throat. He showed me a full color picture of the opening of my esophagus. It was red and inflamed. Diagnosis confirmed. Stay on the purple pill. Keep my head elevated at night. Take liquid antacids after every meal. Don’t eat anything for several hours before bedtime.

So now wherever I go I bring the pink bottle of Pepto Bismol with me. It got noticed at the office. Acid reflux apparently runs in my building. One theory went that maybe it was something in the water. Or maybe my typically serene looking office mates were actually bundles of nervous energy. Perhaps I was a bit more stressed out in the role of manager than I thought I would be. So now I take my purple pill around 5 o’clock and swill two tablespoons of the pink stuff after every meal. Yum … not!

I want to go back to chili twice a week or so. I don’t like eating bland food. It is too much of a pleasure to give up spices. I want spaghetti with lots of sauce. I want slices of pizza. I want my Caesar Salad again, darn it.

This too shall pass, I hope. Another sixty days or so and perhaps I will (cross fingers) be back to normal. But maybe not. I have learned that my stomach has limits. Sometimes my body sends me messages I don’t want to hear. “Hello! Brain! Stomach here. I don’t like to complain but you aren’t listening to me. I’m an organ down here in serious trouble. Stop ignoring me and start treating me right! I don’t deal well with all that spicy and acidic food. You’ve got to give it up!”

No I don’t! I don’t want to! You can’t make me, stomach. I’ve suffered enough already. I’ve given up chasing after spicy women. In return all I asked was one small favor: I wanted to keep eating spicy food. Shouldn’t I be allowed to have one vice? It’s not like I smoke. I might drink two glasses of wine a year. You and the liver should be very happy.

But my stomach is not listening. Instead it is repeating the late Ann Landers: “Wake up and smell the coffee!” Middle age seems to be all about accepting limitations. I must eat less. I must exercise more (actually a lot more). I must embrace monogamy. And now I must not only eat less, but I have to enjoy less of what I still eat. It’s like nature is trying to get me to embrace monasticism.

Perhaps instead it is time to invest a little money in AstraZeneca, the makers of the purple pill. There must be gold to be made in the acid reflux market. A thirty-day supply of Nexium costs over $100. And Pepto Bismol doesn’t come cheap either. If I have to enjoy my food less and shell out big bucks to make my stomach happy then I might as well profit from it.

 
The Thinker

Are the United States a bad investment?

Back in February I wrote that the United States would be in a heck of a fix if foreign creditors decided to stop loaning us money. Now there is convincing evidence that foreigners are starting to see United States government bonds as chancy investments and U.S. stocks as poor investments.

Today’s Washington Post has an article titled Bearish on Uncle Sam. If it is not alarming it should at least be ringing a few bells. For example the article notes that a September 9th auction for $9B in long term U.S. Treasury Bonds failed to attract any international investors.

In addition U.S. stocks in general are looking a lot less attractive to foreigners. The Post reports that stock purchases by foreigners are down from $9.7 billion in July to $2.1 billion in August. Looking at just who owns our foreign debt should be sobering too. Since 2000 for example the undemocratic and totalitarian Chinese government has purchased $172B of our debt. But lately it has been finding more attractive places to invest its money, including many projects inside China. If one were to look at the United States Government as just another company, increasingly its stockholders are foreigners. The current total federal debt is about $7.4 trillion dollars. Of that “intragovernmental holdings” (the Treasury’s words for our debt held by foreigners) was about $3.1 trillion dollars. In other words foreigners own about 42% of the federal debt. In 1997 foreigners owned about 30% of the federal debt.

In the short term it is unlikely that foreigners will stop investing in the United States. But foreigners may well demand higher interest rates because they may see us as a country unable to live within its means. With federal deficits currently over $1B a day the cost of our borrowing money at all levels in the United States could rise markedly. In the longer term this trend is very bad news. If our country is perceived as living indefinitely off the future it may be perceived as a junk bond country. If the flow of overseas capital stops the government will still probably find the money to finance government. It will do so by offering higher and higher interest rates. And this will mean the capital needed by businesses for expansion will either dry up or also become a lot more costly. And that in turn will mean that inflation will no longer be a mild problem but a severe problem. Inflation will drive an economic downturn that will put people out of work and could slide us into a recession or worse.

The United States is skating on fairly thin financial ice. But except for us fiscal conservatives no one seems to notice nor care. They think, “It can’t happen here. We won’t be another Argentina.” Oh but it can happen here. If our levels of deficit spending continue into the stratosphere and our insatiable desire for cheap foreign goods continues at its current insane levels then the day of reckoning is much closer than it appears. What is needed is some good old-fashioned austerity and modest tax hikes. Leadership, in other words. Unfortunately I don’t see that sort of sober leadership happening regardless of who gets elected in two weeks. Both parties have sold to the public, almost as if it is a right, that we can have our cake and eat it too. Even Kerry is promising more tax cuts for the middle class, not less.

It appears we’d rather live in fantasyland. Most likely sometime in the next four years our day of reckoning will arrive sharply and painfully.

 
The Thinker

Selling Fear

For a left brained person like myself it is hard to understand how a couple weeks before the election, polls can show George W. Bush a few points ahead of Senator John Kerry. Kerry should be the obvious choice. In normal times he would be the obvious choice. But in this election the usual factors that would defeat an incumbent may not work.

When a president’s approval rating hovers in the mid forties (where Bush is at currently) his reelection is usually in deep trouble. When this happens independents will usually break for the challenger, not the incumbent. Any impartial observer of this election would have a hard time understanding how anyone could vote for four more years of George W. Bush. His record is a disaster, both domestically and internationally. He has created the largest annual budget deficits in our history in just four years, after taking over a surplus. On the jobs front he will certainly be the first president since Herbert Hoover to actually lose jobs during his term. Middle class jobs are disappearing and those that replace them tend to pay less. Health insurance costs are going through the roof resulting in more people without health insurance. Gas prices are at all time highs. Internationally we failed to find and kill the person who carried out the 9/11 atrocities, invaded a country that was no threat to us and managed to earn the disgust of much of the international community. When handing out political favors Bush’s rich friends always get top preferences. So how could it be that Bush could possibly win this election?

It could be the liberal media isn’t liberal at all, which is pretty obvious to me. It could also be that Kerry is an incompetent campaigner. The presidential debates dispelled that notion. Not only did Kerry win all three debates but also Kerry comes across as presidential and very sober. Unlike Bush, Kerry actually has realistic plans for dealing with our current problems. Perhaps the “liberal” label pinned on Kerry still causes independents to recoil in horror. I don’t quite understand it because I don’t see anyone, Republican or Democrat, seriously talking about getting rid of liberal programs like Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. But it’s pretty clear that if there were a median scale with 1 being very liberal and 10 being very conservative, Kerry might rate a 3 but Bush would be a definite 10. In other words Bush is much further from the mainstream than Kerry could ever hope to be. At least Kerry actually advocates fiscal responsibility. The Bush solution is to open the treasury vault wide to all of his cronies. There is no limit to the amount of tax money he is willing to give away to special interests that will lend him support.

So why is Bush even competitive? The only thing that comes to my mind is that much of America is still gripped by fear. Why shouldn’t it be? Since 9/11 it’s been an “all fear, all the time” administration. To ensure that we are always fearful the Department of Homeland Security makes sure we always know the current fear level. Simply go to the DHS home page to see how fearful the government wants you to be today. Oddly it has never gone below “elevated” so we should always be on our guard.

Fear is a powerful motivator. Upon examining my own motives my fear of terrorism was one of the reasons I began an active search for a federal job close to home. Working in L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. and having worked in the city on 9/11 I experienced some of the horror of that day personally. I was ultimately successful and now work three miles from the house at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. So if fear can motivate a left brained person like me it likely can motivate a whole lot of others too.

In retrospect we understand that the 2002 elections were won on fear that our nation was going to be rife with incidents of Islamic terrorism. We were told that only the Republicans had the maturity and judgment to deal adequately with such a grave national emergency. Never mind that the Democrats had backed the same antiterrorism legislation as the Republicans. Republicans in general and Bush in particular were utterly shameless in their pandering to our fears. And we succumbed. As a nation we wanted to suck our thumb and pretend our Big Daddy would make everything right.

In poll after poll while Bush gets poor marks on domestic issues he gets high marks on national security. So as long as Bush can persuade voters that terrorism is still a major national problem he can keep riding the coattails of our 9/11 fear. To some of us trusting Bush to do right on national security seems ludicrous. A president who preemptively invades another country that had no connection to our national security or 9/11 logically is not demonstrating good judgment. But apparently what is at work here is not a left-brain analysis but a right-brain reaction. Lots of people are right brain dominant and are ruled more by their feelings than by dispassionate logic. If I had to guess I’d bet there are a whole lot more left brained Democrats than Republicans.

I think my reaction to find a job outside of Washington D.C. was an entirely logical response to 9/11. I had witnessed the smoldering wreckage of the Pentagon on 9/11 firsthand. So my fear that I might be a future victim if I worked in the city was entirely plausible. On the other hand to think that we are protecting our national security by invading countries that pose no threat to us is illogical. Yet it was an emotional response that many could relate to. It said to the world “Don’t mess with the United States or we’re going to squash your country like a bug.” The reality of course was something completely different. We can win a conventional war against any other nation except possibly China. But as we seem to be demonstrating in Iraq we are unlikely to succeed in the securing the peace phase following the war. But terrorism generally operates outside nation states and breeds the most in countries that most closely resemble anarchies. Logically to win the war on terrorism we should be securing nuclear and chemical stockpiles and changing the conditions that breed terrorists. But that doesn’t have a whole lot of PR value. It doesn’t satisfy our need to see some concrete results. When we have bunker busting bombs blowing apart alleged terrorist bunkers we feel better. “See? We’ve destroyed an apartment complex in Falluja today harboring terrorists! We’re winning the war on terrorism!”

If the Bush-Cheney team can keep us in fear and if it succeeds in populating the meme that its strategy is actually making our nation safer it might win the election. So this election may come down to whether Democrats can succeed in engaging the left brains of voters. If we can do this we should be able to win this election. If we don’t not only will we lose but also we actually put our national security in a lot more jeopardy. When times are tough and scary we need to think clearly and with reason, not succumb to “feel good” emotional balms for our fears. Let’s hope we can disengage the reptilian portions of our brain just long enough to throw Bush out of office on November 2nd.

 
The Thinker

Courage Lads!

It is nineteen days until Election Day and the polls could not be closer. Whether you are Democrat or Republican it’s nail-biting time. If you are a Democrat like me it is not time to whimper or whine. It’s time to display some courage. It’s time to have some faith. It’s time to show we have determination, grit and spine.

I believe we Democrats are on the cusp of winning. I believe we will win the presidency and I am optimistic we will take back the Senate. But as with everything about this election it won’t be given to us on a silver platter. In spite of the train wreck that is George W. Bush’s presidency there are lots of poorly informed and very scared Americans out there. Many of these voters will vote their fears and not their convictions. It takes courage to change presidents and change policies in turbulent times. We must complete the sale now.

Don’t be complacent. At a minimum if you have extra bucks to spare, and even if you don’t give to some worthwhile candidates or political action committees. At this point I would not give any more money to the Democratic National Committee. There is not much more TV and radio time they can buy up in swing states. However, there are progressive candidates on the cusp of victory. Throwing some money into their campaigns can make a real difference. Winning one house of Congress is vital because a president without one house of Congress aligned with him is like a boxer with one hand tied behind his back. The Senate is the better bet. Redistricting in Texas that will likely let the Republicans keep control of the House of Representatives. Show courage by throwing money at Ken Salazar in Colorado, Joe Hoeffel in Pennsylvania, Tony Knowles in Alaska, Erskine Bowles in North Carolina or minority leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. All these people are in very close races and most are trailing their opponents by a few points, or are a few points ahead. All the races are volatile. We need a pickup of just one seat to retake the Senate. If you can’t make up your mind simply make a contribution to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and let them do the thinking for you.

Turnout is the key in this election. For many months groups like Americans Coming Together have been doing the grunt work for this election by combing likely Democratic neighborhoods for new voters and registering them. They are knocking on doors, making phone calls and arranging to get voters to the polls on November 2nd. They can always use more money so send them some dough. I expect that polls will be very crowded this year. Turnout rates may exceed 60 percent and may be as high as 70 percent. This may well be the most important election in a generation.

If you are feeling vindictive there is no better Republican to get angry at than House Majority Leader Tom Delay. The House Ethics Committee has thrice reprimanded him for his shady and arguably illegal practices. This was the same man who called the Department of Homeland Security to have them track an airplane full of Democratic Texas state legislative representatives. They went to New Mexico to avoid a quorum vote on an out of turn federal redistricting of their state. This is a man under whose leadership Democratic members of Congress have been deliberately and repeatedly kept out of policy-making deliberations. In the world of Tom DeLay, Democratic congressmen don’t deserve even to be heard. Richard Morrison is running against DeLay and he has a real chance of winning and sending DeLay back to a day job of being a bug exterminator. I’ve given Morrison $50.

If you feel passionately about putting Democrats in office then commit your time and shoe leather too. Your local Democratic party is likely looking for people to work phones or to knock on doors to get out the vote. But your part doesn’t have to be so direct. You can simply volunteer to get people to the polls.

As for the presidential race there is still a lot of ambiguity in the race. Yet I remain convinced that Kerry will win it. The October Surprise may be a surprise that boomerangs in favor of Democrats. Bad news from Iraq makes me cringe but it just continually vindicates Kerry’s contention that Bush is incompetently running the war.

The dominoes keep falling for Bush. Today alone was a day of very bad news. The Dow is down 100 points and fell below 10,000 again. Ten people were killed in Baghdad’s supposedly safe “Green Zone”. 28 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan are accused of manslaughter and conspiracy in the deaths of two Afghanis. The official federal deficit for fiscal year 2004 was higher than anticipated and came in at $413 billion, an all time record. Bush’s chickens have been coming home to roost for a long time, and there have been more and more arriving as Election Day approaches. And with the consensus that John Kerry clearly won all three presidential debates (and Edwards won the Vice Presidential debate) and polls now showing a dead heat we are clearly on a winning streak.

But there are other signs that Bush will be trounced on November 2nd. The Republican National Committee and the Bush Campaign appear to have abandoned both Michigan and Pennsylvania, effectively admitting that the Democrats will win those states. Most polls are now showing Kerry holding a narrow lead in Ohio. Surprisingly Kerry is within the margin of error of winning in Arkansas, assumed to be out of play for Kerry. Kerry is neck and neck in Nevada.

You can also get a whiff of the future by simply watching the inept Bush campaign. Kerry has gone strongly for the middle. Bush isn’t even bothering. He and Karl Rove believe that rather than reach to the center their only chance of winning is getting very heavy turnouts from his Republican base. But that won’t work since there are more Democrats than Republicans nationwide and polls show independents are clearly breaking for Kerry. Bush has decided that image is everything. He won’t allow even a whiff of dissent at his rallies. That is why they are limited to only ticketed Republicans who pledge to vote for Bush. Rumor has it that lately to get into some Bush rallies attendees actually have to submit an essay of why they will vote for Bush. Kerry is talking about things that matter to average folks like health insurance, protecting jobs from outsourcing, getting Osama bin Laden and crushing al Qaeda.

Courage lads! The broadsides are coming at us fast and furious from the U.S.S. Republican Party. Although the sound of those guns is hellacious and the noise deafening, their gunners are pretty inept and most of them aren’t hitting us. But their ship is taking on water. The mainmast looks like it is about to fall. But this is no time to be complacent. Let’s keep all those guns firing. Do your part by donating money and time. Do it quickly, do it efficiently, do it smartly. Talk to your friends and neighbors today with conviction, quiet confidence and not a trace of hubris about why things must change. In the process of finding our courage we will find that uncommitted voters will follow us. And on November 3rd we will feel hope and optimism again. Our country will once again be on the way to being on the right track. And I hope on that day you will join me in lifting a glass of your favorite spirit and celebrating our hard won victory won.

 
The Thinker

Covenanted

When you live in cyberspace can you find real community? Does having with a network of friends online amount to the same thing as a network of friends in real life?

For the last few years I have been puzzling over these thoughts. I have been wondering if my family’s social life has become too virtual. I was arguably the first. Back in the mid 1980s my Commodore 64 was hardly warm before I had purchased a 300-baud modem and was discovering electronic bulletin board systems (BBSes). It quickly became my favorite hobby. At first I was online to download software. But gradually I found discussion boards. I found connecting with people online fascinating. Suddenly my community expanded beyond family, established friends and immediate neighbors into a much larger and diverse set of people, many of whom seemed far more interesting than the people I bumped into in real life.

Back then the Internet was virtually unknown and certainly not available to the average person. Its closest equivalent in the mid 1980s was an online service called Compuserve. Unable to afford a service I found instead lists of local electronic BBSes put together by a man named Mike Focke and started dialing. When I got an IBM compatible computer I graduated to the much larger world of IBM compatible BBSes. While chatting on line with other people from the Washington area I started to care about silly things like whether PCBoard software was better than Wildcat software. One nice thing about BBSes though was they were local. Most of us were too cheap to pay long distance charges to chat electronically with people. So after some initial shyness I got a chance to actually meet some of the people I met online. To this day I maintain a core set of friends from those days including Frank Pierce, Angela Smith and Jim Goldbloom.

But those BBS days are gone for good. The Internet arrived in the home. The location of people on the other end of a conversation became irrelevant. This was both good and bad. I missed those BBS get togethers we had every 3 to 6 months, usually with the online gang from The Back of the North Wind BBS. I still hung out online but it wasn’t quite the thrill it had been. The BBS world slowly died out and in 1999 even the venerable The Back of the North Wind BBS shut down after 12 years of nearly continual service.

For my wife the Internet was a way to connect with people of a very narrow interest that she would never have met otherwise. Around 1999 she jumped into the homoerotic fan fiction (Slash) universe big time. She has been happy in that community ever since. She considers her online friends just her friends. While a handful live locally most are distant. And yet we have met many of them. On our recent trip to Canada we visited one of her friends in every city we visited. She’s very tight with her online friends and her world is certainly richer as a result. And while she has shared intimacies with people who in some cases live as far away as Australia we don’t know most of our neighbors. We know some of them because our daughter went to school with their children. We know our next-door neighbor but not the one on the other side. Those neighbors I haven’t met might as well be on the other side of the world. They don’t seem interested in me and I haven’t sought them out either. We are unlikely to interact at anything more than a superficial level.

My daughter’s friends are mostly people she knows from school or through Girl Scouts. They meet in person from time to time but spend much more time interacting in cyberspace. In that sense she is a wholly modern ordinary teenager. Instant messaging is her primary means of communicating with friends. When she gets phone calls it is often from a friend explaining why they can’t get online. And yet even she has her virtual friends out there who will likely always remain anonymous.

I sometimes feel hypocritical and tempted to declare that this sort of online life is unnatural and wrong. Yet it is not without its allures and benefits. For me in the 1980s and 1990s it was a godsend. It gave me a sort of a social life without leaving home. We had something of a social life in those days but it involved around our daughter and her friends. Through her friends we met her friends’ parents and sometimes we found things in common. But they were rarely meaningful relationships. The reality of those times was that they were packed with parenting chores. The computer offered brief escapes into a world populated with adults. There I could talk about things I cared about like politics at my convenience. No one wanted me to read the The Very Hungry Caterpillar at all! And I could do all this without leaving home. It felt good. I felt optimized.

This new way of making and meeting friends and lovers may be the way it will be from now on. Yet something in me still yearns for the traditional sense of community that I have largely spurned. So this year when my local Unitarian Church once again made the appeal for people to join covenant groups I decided it was finally time to try it.

A covenant group is a group of people who agree to meet regularly to talk. I asked our minister to assign me to a random group. I was hoping I might get into a group with people around my own age. But it seems in our church that covenant groups are largely full of people age fifty plus. Perhaps most people my age are too busy with the childrearing chores to attend covenant group meetings.

Yesterday I attended my first meeting. I actually know most of the people in my covenant group. I know them in the sense that I recognize their faces from services. Some of them I know by name because I have talked to them a few times. But I have largely not really talked to any of them. A covenant group provided a structured way for me to get to know them as people.

This particular group has been around for a year or so, but there were a few vacancies. I and another lady filled the vacancies. We met in a room in the basement of the church for about an hour and a half. We introduced ourselves. Since I was new I gave them a short biography, both professional and personal. And I unloaded on my problems of the moment: my ailing mother and my wife’s imminent job loss. And I learned about some of their issues and struggles.

Every meeting has a discussion topic chosen by the group. Yesterday’s topic was how we got to where we are with our religious convictions. Being Unitarian Universalists a lot of us didn’t have religious convictions. I heard more than a couple in my group confess to being spiritually vacant and left-brain dominant. There were more than a few ex-Catholics like me in our circle too. I confessed that while I spent much of my adulthood as an agnostic it didn’t quite fit anymore. In that sense I felt more spiritual than many of the rest of them.

Despite being the youngest in my group it was still an enjoyable experience. We may all be white middle class people but we are a fairly eclectic and interesting bunch. Our group includes a physician, a man working for the State Department, the manager of a childcare center and a number of retired people.

So although I have a busy life I have covenanted to spend one night a month for a year with these people. I am there to get to know them at something beyond a surface level. In the process hopefully they will get to know more than a little something about me. I have heard of covenant groups that blossom into tightly knit friendship circles. Only time will tell if that will happen with our group. But everyone in my group seemed to be nice, decent yet complex people struggling through their lives and their issues. Perhaps in some small way we will find an old fashioned sense of community. Perhaps in time I will grow to find more of my friends in my community and fewer online.

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