Archive for November, 2004

The Thinker

Engage

Right on! That’s what I thought, anyhow, after reading an article in today’s Washington Post about psychiatrist Gordon Livingston. After 33 years of listening to people tell them about their problems he finally decided to talk back in the form of a book, “Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now“.

Most of the heartbreak of life, he says, comes from ignoring the reality that past behavior is the most reliable predictor of future behavior. Good intentions aren’t a substitute for good acts. Sweet nothings mean nothing. Just do it.

I confess I am losing patience with those who spend their lives whining about the bad things that have happened to them over the years. It’s not that I don’t have some empathy for their problems. I have plenty of it because I went through many of those miserable experiences myself. I do know that dwelling on my problems never solved them. If anything it just made me worse. It was when I stopped dwelling on my problems and figuratively stood up, rolled up my sleeves and engaged the world that things started to improve. I haven’t looked back.

Now clearly this is not something everyone can do overnight. Therapy and antidepressants have their part. But they are only part of the solution to happiness. The other part is to engage the world. It doesn’t matter so much how you engage it as it matters that you just engage it. Life happens through living: through engagement. It withers like a parched garden when you do not engage. This is a truth of life borne out by simple experience, and stated so unambiguously by Gordon Livingston. If we are a garden we make our own rain. This rain though does not come from us directly but through interacting with others. Engagement is essential to our growth and our mental health. It’s really that simple.

I think I can finally say that I’ve cleared my midlife crisis hurdle. It has lasted about ten years, which is about nine years too many. And maybe I was one of these people that needed ten years to get through my stuff. But I know it didn’t happen by staying in my little mental black hole. It happened because I decided the only one I could change was myself so I had better get busy.

Resolution began with graduate school. That consumed three years of my life with no difficulty. And it was a good but very exhausting experience. I discovered that I had the perseverance and smarts I thought I had. It positioned me well in my career. I rode my degree and my work ethic to more interesting and better paying positions. But it was not enough. I was still mired in midlife muck.

It seemed with every couple steps forward there were steps back. I put on weight that I shouldn’t have. Taking it off was yet another difficult and time consuming chore but it focused me. Meanwhile around me members of my family went through mental health crises and physical traumas. Dealing with it drained and depressed me. But I never wholly gave into despair. As best I could I kept fighting it and moving forward.

I discovered that the only one I could change in my life was myself. There was no point in wasting time or energy trying to solve problems that I could never own. My wife has her own issues. I wasn’t helping her any by taking ownership of them. She has to take ownership of them. The same was true with my daughter. She is an A student pulling C’s. I can offer her support but I cannot change her either. She has to feel the impact of her decisions. It’s her life, not mine.

I have learned that you can love someone with all your heart and soul but you cannot change them. You can only choose to be pulled into the gravity of their problems, or you can choose to stay above, weightless and in orbit, yet nearby.

Instead I started to use my time in more meaningful ways. I attended services at my Unitarian church regularly even if I couldn’t get my wife out of bed to come with me. I started teaching in my spare time. I ran the church web site for a couple years. I thumbed my nose at society, which seemed to be saying to me that I should only have friends in the context of my marriage. I found my own friends. If I found someone interesting in the course of life I engaged with him or her. And it turned out I found the hers often more interesting than the hims so be it.

I have chosen to step outside the boundaries of what is expected of me. I’m not sure why I was in bounds in the first place. No one was holding a gun to my head. Perhaps I felt I should do what was proper, whatever that meant. Now I do what brings me some satisfaction. That is not to say that I spend my days in reckless hedonism. Rather I spend my days in ways that give me the most personal satisfaction.

So I no longer watch television. I want to engage with the world, not watch images of it pass by on a phosphorescent tube. I blog because I find it fun. It gives me an excuse to write, which I enjoyed so much growing up. If it engages a few friends and others who arrive serendipitously via search engines so much the better. If I cannot find a friend to see a movie, or if my wife is not interested I go alone. While I wait for that day when my wife decides to exercise again I am off on my bike on 20 or 30 mile trips alone.

Maybe it’s a tad myopic of me. Maybe it is selfish. Maybe, but I don’t care anymore. I am in command of my own life again. Life will continue to have its ups and downs. The downs will doubtless change me but suffering is an inevitable part of life. But suffering doesn’t last forever. If things are good then the day is a blessing: I am free to make the most of the day given to me. Good or bad as long as I engage in the experience of the day at least I will feel fully alive.

 
The Thinker

Long Live the Cinema Arts Theatre!

I just love the Cinema Arts Theatre. I love it not just because it is an arts theater showing lesser-known films. I love it because it is mostly everything the modern movie theater experience is not.

The theater is located in Fairfax, Virginia about ten miles from my house. It is not at all convenient for me to patronize. I have to cross through dense Fairfax City and wade through a lot of traffic lights to get there. It has no easy on ramp to an expressway. At best it is about a 25-minute car ride for me to get to the theater. And exactly where is it? It’s tucked into a corner of the Fair City Mall, near the intersection of Little River Turnpike and Blake Lane. It sits next to a Marshalls, perhaps the tackiest and most ugly store on the face of the planet. (Marshalls makes a K-Mart look upscale.) Parking can be problematic and usually involves walking at least a thousand plus feet.

So why do I patronize the place? First of all they have the smaller movies that only sporadically show up at the local megaplexes. Movies like The Motorcycle Diaries or What the Bleep Do We Know? are typical fare for Cinema Arts patrons. The movies I have enjoyed at the Cinema Arts Theatre include My Big Fat Greek Wedding (long before it became a hit), Fahrenheit 9/11, Whale Rider and Secretary. Every one of these movies was worth the cost of admission. I can’t say that about movies at my local megaplex. In general it seems that the more the movie costs to make the less likely I am to enjoy it. Van Helsing, which we saw at the Fairfax Town Center Theater, was a case in point. So far the movies at the Cinema Arts Theatre have never failed to disappoint me.

In fact the new Fairfax Town Center Theater is exactly the sort of megaplex I now avoid when possible. On the surface it would seem to be a great place to see a movie. It has a dozen screens, each with stadium seating. There is a Ben & Jerry’s right across the street. Its concession area is huge. It even offers a “Director’s Hall” that offers reserved seating for certain popular shows (at a premium, of course).

But I hate it. Not only do they boost up the ticket and concession prices, their movies typically pander to the lowest common denominator. It is a megaplex focused on teenagers and young adults. Like many theaters these days if you arrive early to get a good seat you will be relentlessly assaulted with twenty minutes or more of commercials. And that’s before the trailers. I feel marketed, manipulated and forced to endure advertising against my will. And if that weren’t enough they charge premium ticket prices.

The Cinema Arts Theatre though has six screens. It has a single concession stand, not one stretching for city blocks. It does sell popcorn and drinks, but there are other things behind the concession counters including cookies, brownies, blondies, Italian mini cakes, gourmet sandwiches, smoothies, ice cream bars, and bottled drinks including Snapple and Nantucket Nectar. Clearly it markets to more refined tastes.

All its theaters are of modest size but there is still ample legroom and places to put your drinks. You do get advertising before the show, but it is the less obnoxious type done with slide projectors that are easily tuned out. And as for the trailers, chances are you won’t be seeing these trailers at your local multiplex. Months ago they were showing trailers for A Very Long Engagement. I am already sold. Even if it shows at my local multiplex, which seems unlikely, I plan on seeing it at the Cinema Arts Theatre.

At the local multiplex you have no idea who is running the place. You have the usual number of minimum wage teens behind the concessions stand and collecting tickets. Not so at the Cinema Arts Theatre. For better or for worse the owners Jim and Mark are often in theatergoers’ faces. Before the first screening of Fahrenheit 9/11 they were in front of the screen asking theatergoers their political preferences. (Not surprising it was a pure Democratic crowd.) Recently when I went to see The Motorcycle Diaries I was not surprised to find Mark, one of the owners, asking us our opinions on the trailers. He would poll us after each trailer. Should we get this movie or not? We let him know.

Would this ever happen at a multiplex? Not on your life. But Jim and Mark care intimately about their customers. They are always getting feedback and trying to tune their movies toward their customer’s preferences. They even have their own film club. If you go to their web site it’s a snap to get added to their weekly newsletter.

The bad news for fans of avant-garde and lesser-known films is that with so many new screens out there they are feeling some serious competition. The controversial film Kinsey, for example, currently being picketed by conservative Christians, made its local debut at the Cinema Arts Theatre. But since the reviews have been relatively positive it’s showing up at places I usually shy away from like the Fairfax Town Center multiplex. As a result the long-term viability of the Cinema Arts Theatre is in doubt. I will do my part by patronizing it regularly and encouraging my friends to see movies there.

The Cinema Arts Theatre offers not quite the small town theater experience of my youth, but it is certainly a different sort of place to see lesser known and quality films. I hope it can find a profitable niche. But I worry that the ravenous maws of American capitalism will at some point consume it and spit it out. For those of us who want a little something different at the theater this would be a travesty.

 
The Thinker

Prayer won’t solve the priest shortage

News Item:

Pope John Paul on Friday called for a national day of prayer to boost priestly vocations in the United States, where sexual abuse scandals have hit already shrinking numbers of priesthood volunteers.

“No one can deny that the decline in priestly vocations represents a stark challenge for the Church in the United States, and one that cannot be ignored or put off,” the pope said in a speech to American bishops visiting the Vatican.

“I would propose for your consideration that the Catholic community in your country annually set aside a national day of prayer for priestly vocations,” the 84-year-old pontiff urged.

Umm, a challenge for the United States Catholic Community? I don’t think so. What it represents is a challenge to the so-called leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. It will take a lot more than prayer to put more priests in American churches.

How bad is it for today’s American Catholics? Between 1965 and 2002 the number of seminarian students dropped 90%. 15% of parishes in the United States today have no priest. There are 350% fewer ordinations of Catholic priests in 2002 compared to 1965. There are 45,000 priests in the United States today, but it is projected there will only be 31,000 in 2020, despite a projected increase in the Catholic population during that period. As for Catholic religious orders they will soon be virtually nonexistent in the United States.

As bad as the problem is it could feel a lot worse than it is. Why? Because American Catholics increasingly can’t be bothered to go to Mass on Sundays. In 1958 74% of American Catholics attended Mass regularly. In 2000 the number went to 25%. You can bet if they can’t get their hineys out of bed to listen to yet another droning Mass with the same catatonic words and same boring songs they likely aren’t going to confession regularly either. (Not that Father John likely has the time to hear everyone’s confession anyhow.) Most likely their association with the Catholic Church is attending Easter and Christmas services, if that. The Catholic Church will be lucky if these American Catholics in name only decide to even marry in the church. One reason: the wholly insane policy that to marry a non-Catholic in the Catholic Church the non-Catholic spouse must promise to raise all children to be Catholics.

In short the Catholic Church in America is becoming increasingly irrelevant to American Catholics. There are likely lots of reasons why this is so. But with American priests in such short supply the laity is likely feeling more and more detached from their parish priest. If a parish is lucky enough to have a priest at all, the poor priest is likely wrung ragged. He’s probably delegating right and left. It helps to have sisters and brothers to assist but these orders are having recruitment problems also. From the 180,000 sisters in the United States in 1965 there were only 75,000 in 2002. Brothers went from 12,000 to 5700 during that same period.

It’s likely that Father John is not doing much in the way of pastoral counseling. If he is fortunate he will have deacons and perhaps some lay ministers to help out. Those who remember when the church was more flush with priests are likely to feel very short changed.

And the Holy Father’s brilliant solution to the problem? Have a yearly day of prayer. That will do the trick!

Unless the Holy Father wants an American Catholic community in name only it might be time for him to wake up and smell the coffee. It might begin with some old-fashioned market research. The number one way to solve the priest problem would be to allow women to become priests. But no Catholic who understands their church truly believes that this will happen in their lifetime. In fact Catholics will be lucky if it comes to pass in 500 years. But just why is it that fewer men want to join the priesthood? My guess it’s probably not because they object to wearing dark robes or even their miserly pay. It’s probably because they realize the celibacy tradition in the Roman Catholic Church is stupid and unworkable.

It wasn’t always this way in the Catholic Church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church most priests have always been free to get married. In fact most are married. Until the Middle Ages most Roman Catholic priests were married too. Then slowly things changed. Even today there is no direct requirement from the Pope or in Vatican law that I can find that requires priests take a vow of celibacy upon ordination. Rather it is a tradition. Before ordination bishops will require priests to step forward and solemnly warn them that if they do so:

You ought anxiously to consider again and again what sort of a burden this is which you are taking upon you of your own accord. Up to this you are free. You may still, if you choose, turn to the aims and desires of the world. But if you receive this order (of the subdiaconate) it will no longer be lawful to turn back from your purpose. You will be required to continue in the service of God, and with His assistance to observe chastity and to be bound forever in the ministrations of the Altar, to serve who is to reign.

Every year hundreds of priests come to the inescapable conclusion that celibacy is unworkable for them. The honest ones resign the priesthood and maybe earn a few wetbacks selling their services at Rent-a-Priest. (It’s got a shopping cart! I swear I am not making this up.) The dishonest heterosexual ones (and there are plenty of them) get their relief on the side, in secrecy and likely in shameful circumstances.

I feel sorry for today’s American Catholic priest, caught between the stark reality of the way the world actually is and their so-called leadership. The Vatican seems to have no inclination to bend even the tiniest degree toward policies that would clearly help the institution survive in the future. It’s pretty clear that apostle Peter, the first “Pope” was a married man as were many of the Popes through the Middle Ages. Even today it is possible for a married Catholic priests to get ordained. They just have to start out married in a different denomination. There aren’t many of these examples but it shows just how silly and hollow this tradition is.

In reality the Pope is destroying the Catholic Church in America slowly and methodically. And he will have no one to blame but himself for such pointless and obstinate behavior.

 
The Thinker

Six Figures Ain’t What It Used To Be

Sometimes life’s milestones go almost unnoticed. In filling out the paperwork for my car loan this week and totaling up my income I discovered that my income alone was now just barely in the six figure range.

So why don’t I feel richer?

I always figured that if I were making this kind of money that my life would be a heap more upscale. Maybe I’d be driving a Lamborghini, but if not that at least a Lexus. Instead I have this lovely brand new but modest 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid. This hardly screams midlife-crisis babe-attracting-magnet mobile.

With a six figure income isn’t it time to get a McMansion with a three car garage? We seem content with our modest three bedroom single family home. The McMansions are all over the place in my community. It would not be out of our reach for us to trade up to a grander house. But the truth is I don’t want a McMansion. My income is now in six figures but apparently my neighbors have much deeper pockets. They have the McMansion, three cars in the driveway and a wife who stays at home and drives the children to ballet classes. But not everyone can be an executive vice president. Where do these people get the money? Am I underpaid at $100K a year?

Perhaps I could buy a vacation home, weekend getaway or timeshare condominium. But I don’t want any of them. I don’t want to spend my weekends driving somewhere to have some stolen moments in the country. I don’t want the hassle of maintaining another piece of property. I can hardly keep up the one I have. And I doubt that even on six figures that I could really afford two mortgage payments.

While I no longer struggle from paycheck to paycheck I find that my experience with poverty and struggling to make ends meet for so many years still controls my behavior. I cannot be reckless with money. I largely practice pay as you go. I won’t carry a credit balance. I typically buy used cars and keep them until they are just short of falling apart. (This new car is the exception, but even so we put $10,000 down.) As for style, I have none. I have no sense of fashion. Blue jeans and T-shirts supplied by technology vendors account for much of my wardrobe. My daughter says I need a visit from the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy folks. I have no idea how to be hip. Worse, I have zero desire to be hip. I am comfortable being indistinguishable from the crowd.

Still I have noticed the income creep over the years. A family vacation in Hawaii a few years ago would have been unthinkable at one time. It probably cost us $7000. It was paid for by extra paychecks and by dipping into savings a bit. I hardly noticed the cost. Similarly this year my wife elected to get some cosmetic surgery. The operation cost us $6000 or so. We paid for it out of savings and paid ourselves back within a few months.

Such things are helped by having low housing costs. Our mortgage payments are about $1500 a month. At one time the payment seemed obscene, but now new residents have a hard time renting a decent apartment for that kind of money. We have been fortunate in the timing of our housing decisions.

I spend money in places and in quantities I didn’t before. I give a lot more money to charity not just because I can but because I want to. And I gave thousands of dollars to political candidates and political organizations in the last election. It was too bad I didn’t get a better return on those investments.

So I’m certainly not complaining. Poverty sucked. Some part of me continues to be scared that I will be impoverished again. On some level I realize this is foolish. I have 401Ks, mutual funds and hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity that can be tapped in emergencies. It gets easier to spend money with every large or frivolous purchase. But I still feel the need to horde my money. I pay myself first but I often wonder why. Am I afraid to live the larger life? Or am I simply comfortable living in the trappings of a modest life even though our financial reality suggests more expansive possibilities?

I don’t know. But I often feel I should be more financially savvy. Trading up to a bigger house would make a certain sense at this stage in my life. Perhaps the class of my neighbors would improve (not that I have many problems with my existing neighbors). Perhaps the Rotarians would ask me to join. Perhaps I would feel what it would be like to be “in” or at least a member of the somewhat moneyed crowd.

But overall I sense that passing this particular milestone doesn’t mean that much anymore. There are plenty of other people in my fortunate boat and we are all trading up. This means that prices are going up, which means that my income doesn’t mean as much as I think it does. I’m doing well. I consider myself fortunate. But I still can’t see coming up with $24,000 a year to send my daughter to Sidwell Friends School, something she’d like us to do. I can’t see buying her a car when she gets her license. Although we have money set aside for her education I can’t see her in a preppy private school somewhere when a public university will do just as well. All these things still feel beyond our financial reach, or at least don’t seem prudent.

Perhaps I’ll do it if I ever reach the $200,000 milestone.

 
The Thinker

The Slimy, Icky Business of Car Buying

The last straw was when the air conditioner went out. I was fifty miles out of Raleigh heading back to my Northern Virginia home when the compressor died. If it had been a good day it would have been no big deal. But it was a hot and sticky day and it was interstate driving all the way home. With no AC I had to travel with the windows open. Yet I sweated like a pig anyhow. I had to make frequent pits stops for bottled water. The road noise actually hurt my ears. I arrived home a stinking mess with my shirt soaked in sweat.

The 250 mile drive home was a piece of cake compared to trying to get my 91 Camry fixed. It lingered for four weeks in the shop. Replacement parts repeatedly failed and had to be replaced. After three weeks the shop finally determined that the compressor clutch had failed. A new compressor would cost $700. I had already invested about $600 trying to solve the problem. Eventually I found a used compressor online and had them install it. It cost about as much to fix up the car so I could have cool air as it was worth. It was time to buy another car. I had finally exceeded my tolerance level for automotive problems.

Overall the Camry remains a great car. It may be a bit oxidized and scratched. Rust may be encroaching in a few spots. But it still runs well. I haven’t been as good as I should have been keeping it washed, waxed and polished. But it has been extremely reliable and could probably go for another 60,000 miles. I just don’t want to nurse it through its next 60,000 miles. I want a car that just offers basic and reliable transportation.

Hybrids are an up and coming technology. Although my neighbors in their gas guzzling SUV behemoths may not give a damn about the environment, for some reason I cared about it enough to put my money where my mouth was. A small hybrid car was all I needed to carry me the three miles or so to work when the weather didn’t allow me to bike it. My next car would spend a lot of its time in Northern Virginia traffic running errands. I would be driving it alone 90% of the time. Our 97 Honda Odyssey would suffice for transporting teenagers and larger items when needed. So a small fuel-efficient hybrid made sense.

So I got on a Prius mailing list to get on their waiting list. I waited and waited and was glad the used compressor was still working. Meanwhile my father finally got his Prius and I took it for a test drive. While a nice car I found that it didn’t accommodate my 6’2″ frame and long legs very well. Driving it actually hurt after a while. I had to keep my foot at 45 degrees to the accelerator and my thighs were touching the bottom of the steering wheel, even after it was adjusted up. However it was otherwise a surprisingly roomy car and a hatchback to boot. It pained me to have to say no to this hybrid.

My wife suggested trying the Honda Civic Hybrid. We took it for a test drive. It was noticeably quieter and had a smoother ride than the Prius. But its back seat was comparatively cramped and batteries behind the back seat kept it from being used as a hatchback. But overall it was an impressive car. And although we were in no particular hurry it was readily available.

Naturally the dealership where we got our test drive wanted us to buy it right then and there. We firmly said no and went home to consider our options. In other words we mostly went home and forgot about it since that’s what we do in our family. But both the Toyota and Honda salesmen kept calling us trying to close the sale. I just didn’t want to pay their inflated prices. (The Toyota salesman wanted to order one for us. No discounts at all, naturally.)

We discovered that our credit union offered United Buying Service. I did some inquiries to find out what it would cost to purchase the Civic through their service. We bought our Camry through UBS many years ago and it seemed to be the way to go. The UBS price was reasonable. Only I felt sorry for the guy at the Honda dealership who gave us the test drive and kept calling us. Once we had decided on the Honda Civic Hybrid I felt I should give him a chance to meet the UBS price.

In retrospect this was probably a mistake. Buying the Camry through UBS had been such a pleasant experience. We had none of the high-pressure sales techniques usually found in car dealerships. But when we walked into our local Honda dealership yesterday to try to close the deal with Sodik, our salesman, it was back to the “let’s see how much money we can squeeze out of them” salesmanship I grew to loathe during my car buying experiences in the 1980s.

There is this protocol to car buying that seems sacrosanct. Wildly inflated prices are offered and the expectation is you want to drive away with your new car today. It seems impossible to buy any car at a dealership without mud flaps, pin stripes and security packages. They wanted to charge for dealer preparation fees and transportation charges and they want you to ignore the dealer charge backs they were getting. But at least this time I had my UBS purchase certificate. I told them they could meet the price or I could leave. We spent a lot of time twiddling our thumbs while Sodik went back and forth between us and the sales managers behind the counter. Surely we would pay $450 for an appearance package? Surely we would not. Okay, let’s split the cost in half: $225 for the appearance package. But I don’t want the appearance package. Can’t you just order me the car I want? Eventually they met my UBS price after considerable wailing and gnashing of teeth. But I did agree to pay $150 for the appearance package since even the UBS dealership said all the cars came with it. Cost so far $19,829.

Of course it’s never over until it’s over. There are options available and a lady came by to let us know we could get 5 CD changers, all season floor mats and even a cargo net for the Civic’s tiny little trunk. I bit for the security package for $399 figuring it might pay for itself in reduced insurance premiums and passed on the rest.

Then it was upstairs to the guy with the green eyeshades. There were extended warranties and paint sealants available too. Surely I would want them. He had never sold a hybrid, he told us, without the extended warranty, since it was “new” technology. I said there is a first time for everything. He gave us a jaundiced eye but eventually put the order together. Add sales taxes and titling fees and my $19,829 car now cost $20,922.78.

I’m still wondering if I got a good deal or not. Why am I paying $40.46 for a “Dealer Business License Tax”? But anyhow it’s done, except for the pesky matters of getting a loan (we put $10,000 down), adding insurance for the car, the property tax stickers, our special clean fuel license plates (which lets us drive with one person on I-66 HOV lanes), selling the Camry and, oh, actually taking possession of our new car. We do that tomorrow evening after the security package is installed.

Despite the friendly but aggressive salesman and despite the gleaming Honda showrooms I still find I have almost no interest in my brand new car. I don’t find myself lusting for my first drive in it. If I had any of these feelings they went away after the slimy business of buying a new car. I should have just used the buying service and avoided the hassle altogether. I should not have felt sorry for a salesman who gave us a test drive and kept calling us. Now I feel unclean.

I hope if I ever decide to buy through a dealership again that the car buying process will have improved. But the quintessential car buying experience in America must include high-pressure salesman in dazzling suits and endless shuffling back and forth to sales managers.

Next time I’ll use a buying service for sure.

 
The Thinker

A Lesson in Leadership

Management is a blessing and a curse. I’ve experienced a lot of the downside of management recently. Perhaps that is why it was such a pleasure to experience the upside this week.

To be fair I shouldn’t have much to complain about. My employees, geographically scattered though they may be, are all terrific. Each gives 150% or more of themselves than most employees, and all but one are civil servants. Most of the time I don’t need to direct them. If something needs doing they just take the initiative and do it. This week for example one of my employees volunteered to sift through a user requirement document, pick out the requirements that were meaningful to my team, work them into something we can use and organize them into a meaningful engineering specification. I didn’t even have a chance to ask if anyone wanted to do this grunt work. She just jumped in there with both feet.

I have another employee, a super geek type, who routinely goes way beyond the call of duty. His job is mostly investigating emerging technologies. I frequently find that he has visited the local Barnes & Noble and returned with some dense computer books on things like web services or current practices in software testing that he bought with his own money. But he digs into the not so interesting stuff too. He’s passionate about high technology but is still disciplined enough not to let the high tech stuff interfere with the routine work that has to get done. And all my employees are this way.

But still management often feels like navigating a minefield with a gauzy bandana tied over my eyes. I expect eventually I will step on fewer mines. But it has been a rough first nine months at times. I don’t feel all that great when I learn that I’ve inadvertently stepped on some toes in the organization. Nor do I like discovering I made a mistake by doing work traditionally done by others. And these are just but a few of the mistakes I have made. There were times when I wondered if I should have stayed working for Health and Human Services. I should take some comfort in knowing that many of these issues predate my arrival. Perceptions about my team, good and bad, formed years ago. It doesn’t help that we are geographically separated and rarely meet in person. Consequently inferences get made based on words heard over speakerphones or in snippets of email. There is no body language to read.

For whatever reason there have been long standing bad feelings between my team and another team. I didn’t quite understand the depth of the animosity until recently. I have been groping for a way forward. But this week when the team leader of the other team came to town I had an opportunity to sit down with her and work through some of these thorny communications issues. It was valuable face time. I learned the history of frustrations from her perspective. I went through some of the issues on my team that contributed to the problem. Simply airing the issues in a business-like manner was enormously helpful. We put a plan in place to get the key people together (via teleconference of course) and resolve these issues. It involves first acknowledging the problems of the past then putting them behind them once they have been vented. Then we hope to move rapidly forward because we have issues that need to be settled soon. Neither side can afford any more bad feelings. As a manager I have the duty to get past them so that we can do our work.

This was also the week that my user group came to town. The group had been formed twice before and had failed both times. All this preceded my arrival. In past groups there had been personality issues and presumptions of empowerment on issues that did not exist. For six months we had been working through tedious but necessary issues of creating a new group charter and getting executive sponsorship. Finally we got around to picking members for the group. Most had never met each other before and I only knew about half of them, and all superficially. I delegated most of that work to the chairman of the group. We spent weeks preparing for the meeting. We worked through agendas several times. The list of issues, many of which needed quick action, was very daunting. To hedge my bets I beat the organization looking for a professional facilitator and finally found one. My chairman and I met with her before the meeting and outlined our needs carefully. Would all this preplanning make a difference this time?

8:30 AM on Wednesday found us all meeting each other for the first time in a conference room. I had packets of material on the table prepared for them, and table tent tags with their names on them. But I had no idea if this combination of a dozen people would actually be able to work together. Would it become yet another toxic team experience? Was it the gods, the good preparation or just blind luck? For whatever reason we all quickly bonded with each other. When I suggested we all go out to dinner that night everyone enthusiastically agreed. I realized that I too was getting this management stuff. Social engineering had become an important part of my job. If I couldn’t relate to these people as people then I figured our team was doomed. Over dinner at an Italian restaurant we relaxed, joked, traded our life stories and basically discovered we enjoyed each other’s company. I had no more worries about my new team. We had jelled. One guy even came over and put his arm around my neck. I was both surprised and flattered.

But could we get through our daunting agenda? Fortunately our facilitator Cheryl was with us every step of the way. It turned out she didn’t have to do that much facilitating, but she let us know when we were getting long winded. I had no one to take notes so I tried to take them myself. This was hard to do when I was doing a lot of the speaking. Cheryl took up the slack. She captured ideas on large pieces of paper that were being continually stuck and restuck to the walls of our conference room. In the evenings she assembled formal notes of the day’s events in electronic form. I was free to do what I needed to do: engage in conversation and lead the team where it needed to go.

Having a terrific facilitator was such a blessing. We had focus, we had organization, and we were liberated to do what we did best. I kept a close watch on the clock and made sure we were meeting our expected outcomes for each segment of the meeting. I led many of the discussions. When I made suggestions they were largely listened to seriously. But it is hard or impossible to effectively lead if the elements are not in place. But this time they were. With our excellent facilitator Cheryl, careful preparation, a good bunch of people and everyone’s commitment to excellence we ended our meeting today on time and with our goals accomplished. We formed the sub-teams we needed, set out agendas for future meetings, made some tentative decisions and worked through thorny issues of how we would work together in the future.

I figure this is about as good as it gets in the leadership business. The days were long, but the people were fun to be with. It was terrific to feel so organized, empowered and to lead a team in the direction I wanted them to go. And I know I led the team because they followed me with great enthusiasm and with a genuine sense of commitment.

I felt pumped and energized. From out of nothing we created something very important to our little universe. I don’t think this team will fail like the other teams have. We will move forward with confident strides and with genuine respect for each other.

 
The Thinker

What Spirituality Means to Me

This was the topic of my covenant group meeting last night. It seemed an odd topic to spend ninety minutes or so discussing in a church basement.

Being Unitarian Universalists we all had different ideas of what spirituality meant. Many UUs are spiritually vacant. This is after all a denomination that attracts the unchurched and the left-brain dominant types. A typical UU congregation might be a quarter to half full of atheists, agnostics or people with no particular belief in God. So asking a UU what is spirituality might be like asking someone blind from birth to describe colors.

Nonetheless many UUs are spiritual in their own way. Upon reflection I realized I probably was a spiritual creature, just not in the traditional sense of the world. For me spirituality has almost nothing to do with religion. But for most Americans I suspect it is impossible to not talk about spirituality without mentioning religion.

When I am spiritual I generally feel a sense of utter peace, an absence of worry and contentment. I am intimately plugged in to a larger reality that I can neither name nor describe but which is still absolutely real. The cares of the physical world seem to leave me. I feel not just at peace, but I often feel a subtle or even overt joy. I often feel a sense of wonder, and sometimes I sense the fantastic. I hesitate to call this God. To me it is simply that which is normally not perceived.

I have occasionally had spiritual feelings in churches. But it hasn’t happened in any service that I have ever attended. Yet I have felt moments of it inside cathedrals. Some years ago when I took a group of religious education students to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in Washington DC I felt spiritual. Cathedrals are radically altered spaces designed to skew reality and suggest the supernatural. Their gothic arches, their spires, their stained glass, their darkness, their votive candles, their people whispering their prayers, their polished floors and their intricate statues had the effect of making me feel spiritual. I am sure they are designed that way. There is a certain majesty to a cathedral that is difficult to match elsewhere. It is hard for me to feel the real world when in every direction the effect is surreal, ornate and majestic.

As marvelous as cathedrals are they are not nearly as spiritual to me as nature in her finest. Once or twice a year I arrive home to see a spectacular sunset displayed in all its finery with my house as the foreground. It awes me that such exquisite beauty can be a result of such complete randomness. In my travels the beauty of Hawaii is so far unsurpassed. But I have felt similar feelings in other places I’ve visited. Some examples: the Canyon de Chelley in Arizona and watching a plethora of stars arranged against an obsidian background from the back of a cruise ship far out in the Atlantic. But I have also felt spiritual at certain moments during a long and sustained bike ride, with the wind whistling in my ears and coursing through my nostrils. I feel almost attached to the nature around me.

The most spiritual moment of my life so far came from witnessing my daughter’s birth. She was delivered Caesarian section in a cold operating room and pulled out feet first from my wife’s steaming womb. I was humbled. I was awed. I was scared. I was joyful. I was crying. And I loved her with an intensity I have never felt before or since and we didn’t even know each other.

But was this spiritual or just a wash of emotions? For me her birth brought home to me the miracle of life and reproduction. I hesitate to say I experienced God, but I can say it was brought home to me what an amazing place our universe it.

I find spirituality in strange places sometimes. I find it in my cat, who sits now contentedly on my lap and purrs. He too is a miracle. Through him I realize that other species see and react to the world in their own unique ways. When I pet him I realize that not only does it feel good, but also that we truly love each other. We have a mutually supportive relationship.

I often feel like we are seeing at most .001% of reality. We have senses but they are extremely limiting. We cannot see infrared or ultraviolet rays but they are real enough. Most of us are only dully aware of the other life around us, or how utterly pervasive life is on all levels. My backyard is in many ways a botanical wonder, not because I have a huge and diverse garden but because it is such a complex system of its own. On one level it is just a lawn. But on another level there a thousands of species, plants, insects and animals living back there, all mutually dependent on each other for survival. Occasionally I may roll in the grass. But what a different perspective the universe must be to a centipede crawling through my lawn. I wonder what the grub experiences pushing its way through my soil. I wonder what it must be like to be the blacktop on my driveway when the rain falls on it. To get through life we generally tune out such thoughts and think them nonsensical or pointless.

To some extent I think even the rocks in my soil are alive. I just see them living on vast cosmic timescales. Over millennium they too move. I wonder what it is to be a rock under the ground, and to feel the moisture of the soil and the rain permeate it or move around it. I wonder just what life is anyhow. I think it exists on so many different levels but it is only the prison of our own existence that makes it hard to see.

I feel this connectedness of all things. I think on some level we all do. I feel a universe that is alive and multidimensional across space and time. When this connectedness permeates me as a presence, when I feel in touch with its harmony and vibration that’s when I feel spiritual.

That’s what spirituality means to me.

 
The Thinker

The Ugly World of Grover G. Norquist

Grover G. Norquist is the founder of Americans for Tax Reform. He has made it his mission to radically reduce the size of governments. Norquist is not talking about cutting a little fat here and there. The cuts Norquist is talking about would make even a die hard Libertarian blanch. He wants to shrink government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” (2000). He also actually said the same year:

Cutting the government in half in one generation is both an ambitious and reasonable goal. If we work hard we will accomplish this and more by 2025. Then the conservative movement can set a new goal. I have a recommendation: To cut government in half again by 2050.“(2000)

So it should be no surprise that Virginia has come under into his scope. And of course he has to take dead aim. From today’s Washington Post I learned:

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist has begun mailing to Virginia residents a “Least Wanted” poster that features the state lawmakers who voted for a $1.5 billion tax increase during the 2004 General Assembly session. The poster and an accompanying letter urge the ouster of the representatives in the next election.

In Norquist’s book if there is anything worse than Democrats raising taxes then it is Republicans raising taxes. Earlier this year the Virginia legislature (currently dominated by Republicans) modestly raised taxes. The sales tax in Virginia, one of the lowest in the country, went up half a percent for most goods. Our tax on cigarettes, the lowest in the nation, went from 2.5 cents per pack to a still extremely modest 20 cents a pack. A few other minor tax increases also were enacted into law. I was one of the many people shocked that our Republican legislature agreed to the tax increases. But I was not shocked in a bad way. I was shocked that our Republican legislature actually did the right thing.

Since the economy went sour Virginia had been on increasingly precarious fiscal ropes. It spent its surplus pretty quickly. It either denied teachers raises altogether or gave them tiny increases that didn’t keep up with the cost of living. Funds for new road building pretty much dried up. Even funds to keep the roads we currently have maintained were reduced. Tuitions at our public universities went through the roof. But despite all this obvious pain and the fact that the dollars could simply not stretch anymore to cover even basic services, I still bet that our legislature would forego tax increases. After all many of our newest members had come into office decrying even the idea of a tax increase.

But unlike the Federal government there was no printing press the Commonwealth could use to crank out new money. With its accounts in precarious positions and projected deficits looking increasingly ominous in 2004 our legislature finally figured it out. Apparently money doesn’t grow on trees. Apparently if we want to fund services we actually have to pay the market cost for them. And apparently the citizens of the Commonwealth consider such things as roads, prisons, public safety and education to be essentials of state government, not frills. The cuts had become tangible and painful. Even here in Fairfax County state cuts to education caused real problems. Classroom sizes increased. With raises given out in such a miserly fashion our teachers were shopping around in other, better funded school districts. Vitally needed plans to widen highways like I-66 were dropped. The pain of budget cuts, abstract to many taxpayers, became quite tangible. And sufficient numbers of us pressured our legislature to take the obvious steps needed to fund basic services.

So some Republicans did a very brave thing: they voted in the best interest of the state instead of their own short-term interests. They looked at the growing red ink, weighed the likelihood of an economic recovery and modestly ($1.3 billion in all – hardly more than what my county spends on its school budget in one year) raised taxes. You could hear the sighs of relief across the Commonwealth. As the Washington Post also reported most people did not even notice the tax increases. It felt as painless as it was.

Such genuine bravery by our Republican colleagues though must have really raised the hair on the back of Norquist’s neck. Now he and oxymoronically named Virginia Club for Growth are busy sending out their mailings of Virginia’s Least Wanted politicians. They want these Republican scalps. They feel badly burned.

Never mind that business leaders across the state, who know true growth from a faux growth, were the first ones to call for the tax increase. Businesses don’t like to pay taxes anymore than the rest of us. But they also know that a good, sound economic infrastructure doesn’t just happen. It requires mutual collaboration between businesses and government. If the roads are not there then their employees are wasting hours in traffic instead of working. And their deliverymen are squandering corporate money burning hydrocarbons in stop and go traffic instead of efficiently delivering the goods. And they know that if the schools near their businesses are not top notch then the top tier employees they need are going to try to work some place where they are.

Norquist and his minions see none of this obvious synergy. Their mission has nothing to do with reality: it’s all about ideology. They feel that taxes are too high, government is too big and they don’t like it. With their meat cleaver like approach they simply don’t give a damn about whom they hurt. If we have to release half the people in our prisons to cut the government size in half, so be it. If public education has to go down the tubes, it’s not a problem. They apparently feel that mothers should home school their kids anyhow, or parents should place their children in private schools. At its root this so-called “Club for Growth” it’s all about rampant, Ayn Randish “objectivism” selfishness.

They don’t care about the detritus that would result from their actions. They just want the money. Never mind that if the world were ordered they way they want then when they need to be hospitalized that there likely wouldn’t be enough nurses around to take care of them. Here’s a clue Norquist: if people can’t get a basic education then they won’t be positioned to go into nursing school. Instead they’ll be living on the margins, probably in poverty and filth. And amazingly roads don’t build or maintain themselves. The companies that maintain the roads actually demand to be reasonably compensated.

I have seen your ideal future. I found it in the Philippines in 1987. It is a society with almost no middle class. There are the rich (few in number) and there are the voluminous poor. Without the tax base to support it there are few constraints against businesses or people. So they throw their raw sewage into the rivers. They drive around in dilapidated cars, if they can afford them at all, spewing unfiltered exhaust into the air. Without a public education system their children don’t end up in parochial schools. Instead, the children run around on the streets getting into petty crime and grubbing for money. Survival for a woman often means surrendering her body to strangers for pesos. Survival in general there means markedly lower life expectancies, polluted air, polluted waters, long hours of work, and little likelihood of moving out of poverty.

This is the kind of state and country I would live in if you and your friends had your way. It would be an uglier, more divided, more crime ridden and thoroughly awful sort of place. The fact that we don’t have this society is because after thousands of years of trying it and realizing the noble-serf thing didn’t work, we became enlightened. We chose to be a civilized society and give more of our money in the form of taxes, not just to maintain a common infrastructure, but also to ensure that every person has an equal opportunity at life. And because ordinary people do have an equal chance we have a vibrant economy and a generally healthy, happy and prosperous society. Progressive taxation has been a win for everyone, even you and your Club for Growth. Without this government directed progress that you disdain you would most likely be scraping by for a living, not pressing for insane and radical cuts to our government.

Thankfully Virginians are becoming enlightened again. But you are not. You and your kind have devolved into some sort of bizarre medieval groupthink. When I see a brave people like Virginia State Senator John Chichester speak out for modest tax increases — simply to ensure that Virginia stays a state with some class — I feel more inclined to vote such Republican. Why? Because I vote for politicians who are grounded in the real world. You are not in the real world. You inhabit some sort of bizarre fantasy universe. I expect that when campaigns start again in earnest I will be doing something unusual: sending money to my Republican friends in the state legislature who showed genuine courage and leadership in voting for needed tax increases. Any self-serving twit like you can act in their myopic self-interest. But increasingly Virginians see you and your kind as part of the lunatic fringe. Thankfully we have a tradition of fiscal responsibility in our state. I don’t think that we’re going to let you and your kind devolve us into another Louisiana or Alabama.

 
The Thinker

Is Bush Channeling Captain Kirk?

Captain Kirk and President Bush -- Two of a kind?

The first episode of Star Trek aired on NBC Television on September 8th, 1966. The man who would become the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush, was 20 years old. I don’t know where he was on that particular day. But I have to wonder if the 20-year-old George W. Bush tuned in to watch Star Trek. I also wonder what he thought of the show. I wonder in particular what he thought of Captain James Tiberius Kirk of the USS Enterprise.

I mention this because I have been wondering if George W. Bush has been channeling James T. Kirk. The more I think about it the more sense it makes. The future Captain/Admiral James T. Kirk was born, according to his creator Gene Roddenberry, in Rivertown, Iowa. In one of life’s little irony’s William Shatner recently visited the town. But spiritually Kirk is no farm boy from Iowa. James T. Kirk is a Texan through and through.

James T. Kirk is also obviously a Republican. After all he did not command the USS Progressive, or even the USS Constitution. Kirk commands the USS Enterprise. A deeply pragmatic and lusty man, Kirk believes in drinking deeply from life and taking big chances. If he were to wear a hat you can bet it would not be a ten-gallon hat, but the twenty-gallon variety.

I imagine the 20-year-old George W. Bush in the family den watching Star Trek. I imagine him feeling hamstrung by his demanding parents. I imagine him fantasizing about how wonderful life would be like if he were in charge and were free to do things his way. I wonder if James T. Kirk mesmerized him. After all nothing fazed Kirk, not even phaser fire. “I can do it!” was his motto. Time after time he did indeed do it. With the help of Hollywood hacks you could bet there would be a Corbomite Maneuver in almost every episode. Good ol’ American guts and determination won the day pretty much every week.

Of course at the time the United States was embroiled in Vietnam, a debacle that in time proved its pointlessness and futility. But in 1966 we still believed we would win the war. After all at that time the United States had never lost any war it had engaged in. It was just a matter of time before the Commies would be put in their place. Watching Star Trek the parallels were obvious. The Klingons were the Russians and the Romulans were the Chinese. In a way the anxiety of the 1960s permeated the scripts for Star Trek. James T. Kirk showed us that the United Federation of Planets/America could triumph every time. With sufficient determination, spittle and daring Kirk (occasionally helped by Spock, Bones or Scotty) would win the day. It was five years of course after Star Trek went off the air that the Vietnam War finally devolved into our sad little exit from the roof of our embassy in Saigon.

The United Federation of Planets had this lofty idea called the Prime Directive. As you probably know it prohibited UFP members from interfering with the culture of a planet. It also prohibited giving emerging civilizations any inkling that there was this large, friendly, Republican cosmic government out there keeping the universe safe from Klingons, Romulans and assorted galactic nasties. Clearly the Prime Directive irritated Kirk. Time and time again he ignored it or gave it lip service. Prime Directives were good in theory but made for boring TV. Shows had to be wrapped up in sixty minutes, minus commercials. If my memory serves me right the only time Kirk was truly put in his place was in the episode “Errand of Mercy”. In that episode the cosmic overlords told the Klingons and the Humans they had to play nicely with each other or they would get permanent time outs.

Most likely watching Star Trek with his fraternity boys was a whole lot more interesting than getting Gentlemen’s C’s in history at Yale. Granted being president of Delta Kappa Epsilon and hanging out in the secretive “Skull and Bones” society must have fatigued the man. But I bet the fraternity found time every Thursday night to watch the chronicles of James T. Kirk and crew.

What would James T. Kirk have done as president? My bet is that he would do pretty much what George W. Bush has done. Kirk was never one to study the details of an issue. He left those things to Mr. Spock (Condoleeza Rice?) who was his prefrontal cortex. When he needed someone to confide in he looked to Dr. Leonard McCoy (“Bones”, Dick Cheney?), an older father figure type. But mainly Kirk acted out of instinct, cleverness and bravado. He sliced and diced his way through galactic politics and struggles. It all came out well in the end thanks do his gambling spirit, his sense of daring do and the scriptwriters.

One thing Kirk didn’t like was anyone questioning his judgment. He had a crew full of yes men. (Let’s also not forget the yes women in short skirts. In “Mirror, Mirror” he even had a whore, er a “Captain’s Woman”.) Everyone on the good starship adored and respected him. No one questioned his judgment. They knew Captain Kirk could pull them out of any predicament, no matter how wild or how poor the odds. Similarly the Bush White House is staffed with loyalists who ruthlessly hold to the message of the day and give unflinching and unquestioned support. This works well because the Bush White House does not tolerate dissent anyhow. You were either with or against Jim Kirk and you are either with or against George W. Bush. The red shirts died regularly but his closest advisers of course remain unscathed.

Alas, if the real world were only more like Star Trek. If only every nasty problem could be fixed in sixty minutes. If only cleverness, ingenuity and good ol’ Texan spunk could solve every problem. Captain Kirk has evolved into a mythical American legend. But he must embody traits we consider to be endemic to the American people. It seems like we have put the spirit of James T. Kirk in the White House. I suspect the good liberal Gene Roddenberry is spinning in his grave at the irony of his accomplishment.

 
The Thinker

The Message of the Youth Vote

Young adults, who seem to vote in fewer and fewer numbers in recent years, reversed course significantly in the 2004 election. At first blush the statistics don’t suggest very much. In 2000, the youth vote made up 16.4% of the total vote. In 2004 the youth vote was 18.4% of the vote.

But a look behind the statistics tells a different story. It’s not a matter of percentages; it’s a matter of turnout. In 2000, 16.2 million votes were cast by young adults. In 2000 this number rocketed up to 20.9 million votes. Do the math. That’s means that in four years nearly 30% more youth went to the polls than in 2000.

But it means more than just this. In 2004, 4.7 million new youth voters went to the polls. These are 4.7 million new voters out of a total voter pool of 115.9 million voters. Put another way, 4% of the voters in 2004 were new youth voters. Kerry captured 54% of the youth vote (compared with 48% of the youth vote for Gore in 2000.) Overall the youth vote added 3.51 million votes for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 compared with 2000.

The statistics only looked bad at first blush because turn up for all groups was up substantially this year. But among all the groups that voted the youth vote grew the most. Arguably it was because they had the furthest to rise. But perhaps they turned out in such force because they had such a stake in the election. It’s unlikely many of the older voters will have to fight America’s wars against terrorism.

The question now becomes whether this was a one-time event or whether we will see in future elections more and more young voters. And toward which party will they tilt? It is unlikely the evangelical vote will vote more red in 2008 than they did in 2004. But the youth voted more Democratic in 2004 than in 2000. If this is a trend then the youth vote might well decide the next presidential election. And since the youth vote tends toward the Democrats it might be premature for Republicans to think they have a permanent lock on any branch of government.

Only time will tell if the youth vote will continue to grow faster than other voting groups. But young adults are picking up the voting habit. For young adults voting is becoming mainstream. Having done it once it is reasonable to think they would be inclined to do it again. If they carry their Democratic leanings into midlife and beyond the country’s future is blue, not red.

 

Switch to our mobile site