Random thoughts running around my brain, Part 2

It helps to write an occasional topic-less post. Seinfeld was always fun to watch, and it was a show about nothing. So it’s okay to have a post that is the same way from time to time, like this one, where more random thoughts running around my brain make it to electronic paper.

  • Who do I really admire? Those who can refrain from overeating on Thanksgiving. That requires willpower I do not have. All I can do is limit the damage, which means lots of protein (eggs) with breakfast, exercise (a two and a half mile walk, in my case) and try (but not always succeeding) not going for seconds. The best way for me not to succumb to food temptations is to keep them out of my house. On Thanksgiving, like the cornucopia, they overflow in abundance and I am sucked into their vortex.
  • As frequent readers know, my wife and I are now proud owners of a new 2011 Subaru Impreza. It’s my wife’s first “new” car just for her. She can have it. I drove it for the first time yesterday. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I just don’t like it. She chose a manual transmission. It took a full minute for me to remember how to start the car (press down on the clutch, then turn the key). It’s been at least five years since I drove a stick and it now seems unnatural and bothersome. It did not shift particularly smoothly and because its pistons are mounted horizontally instead of vertically, the car feels like it wiggles sometimes, particularly when shifting to higher gears.
  • Subarus are just so chick cars. I had heard this, but thought it was just a stereotype. It is not. This became clear to me when I spent some time reviewing the glossy Subaru Impreza brochure my wife brought home from the dealer. Every page is meticulously designed to appeal to women, not men. All the photographs and illustrations are ever so carefully arranged photographs to carry a common woman-orient theme. Woman driving Subaru with dog in the window. Happy families. Women in jeans, model thin, in tight blouses running on lawns. Women lounging on the grass in front of their Subarus. Subarus parked in front of art galleries and coffee shops. On every page comforting female words: made to last, affordable, efficient, smart investment, built for living, stability, control, economical (well, maybe not at 23 mpg), agile, dog-friendly. What they won’t say: Subarus are just not sexy cars, they are practical and reliable cars. They ooze ordinary. If this is my wife’s midlife crisis mobile, she should have gone for something sexier rather than a car so relentlessly practical. I tend to buy practical as well, but Subaru make it a fetish.
  • With the purchase of the Subaru Impreza, our oldest car is now just six years old. I think this means my lifestyle is finally catching up with my income. I’m glad to be driving my Honda Civic Hybrid again, instead of a boxy, oversized Honda Odyssey I never liked.
  • Just why was it that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Democrats? It’s like they have a death wish. Democrats rescued Wall Street, which now vilifies them because of consumer protection laws designed to keep them from doing the same stupid things again. Democrats kept a nation from collapsing into another Great Depression, saved our banks and financial institution, and kept our car industry and the huge ecosystem associated with the car industry. They even gave enormous tax breaks to business, just like Republicans. With friends like Wall Street, who needs enemies? While most Americans are struggling, businesses are enjoying record profits and refusing to use their profits to hire Americans. If Wall Street had any lick of sense, they would be promoting Democrats, not pillorying them. If I were President Obama, I’d say enough is enough and every day call attention to these record profits that are not being used to put Americans back to work. Heck, if they won’t hire Americans, I would campaign to raise taxes for big businesses. A populist campaign would also be a compelling 2012 campaign theme.
  • There’s a new Harry Potter movie out and I just don’t care to go see it, not even in IMAX. In fact, if I do see it, it won’t be in IMAX. My eardrums and neck still hurt from my last IMAX movie experience.
  • I am sick of being middle aged. The cardiologist keeps playing with my heart medications and giving me twenty-four hour Holter monitor tests. In spite of the surgery I had earlier this year, I still have foot and thigh nerve problems. Sitting is a painful endeavor and physical therapy hasn’t really made the problem go away. I cannot stand all day and earn a living. Ouch and more ouch.
  • And speaking of middle age, one scary statistic from this news report jumped out at me: “The poll finds that two in five men between 45 and 65 having problems with sexual functioning. Only 19 percent of female boomers say the same. For both genders, less than half received treatment.” That explains the overwhelming number of drug ads for sexual dysfunction. If only the magic blue pill also made older men actually want to have sex. Women, would it be too much to ask you to diet and exercise? Yeah, I know, you want us men to do the same thing.
  • I’m getting used to having a stepmother. She is old fashioned, so I addressed her by my father’s last name, which she liked. There is a lot to like about Marie. My dad chose well. My guilty thought of the day: I may like her better than my late mother. Perhaps this should not be surprising given that she did not have to raise me, so she comes with no baggage. Anyhow, my father and stepmother graced us with their presence and appetite for Thanksgiving, and showed us pictures of their honeymoon in Switzerland, which we watched on our high definition TV.
  • Speaking of Thanksgiving, the cat enjoyed the occasional scraps of turkey we threw his way last night. And he is being very useful making a rug of himself on my lap as I blog.
  • It makes so much of a difference to teach a higher-level class. The material is more interesting to teach, the students are awake and interested, and they are just interesting people in general. I will miss teaching them when class ends in a few weeks. This is why I got into teaching part time. Unfortunately, when you teach in a community college, you are much more likely to get a class full of students who would rather be somewhere else and would just as soon tune you out.
  • When I feel despondent about the state of the world, it helps to facilitate the youth group at my church. They are such a wonderful group of engaging, thoughtful, sensitive and humane youth. Perhaps with future leaders like these we are not necessarily doomed as a species, although I sometimes think we deserve to be. I hope to blog more about them in the future.

White Christmas

Our unofficial snowfall from the storm that began a week ago was twenty-one inches. The storm set a December record for recorded snowfalls in the Washington D.C. metropolitan region. Typically, if we get massive snowfalls they arrive in February, often at inconvenient times like Presidents Day Weekend. Many of us Washingtonians were caught with our snow pants down this time, counting too much on global warming and figuring our rarely used snow shovels would carry us through whatever mild dusting we could get.

In the last week, the snow has not so much melted as collapsed under its own weight. It is now about half its size. A snowplow finally came down our street on Monday, threw some sand on the streets but could not be bothered to actually plow to the curb. Since then, it has retired to wherever snowplows go. While this approach keeps our taxes low, it also means that to get your car onto the street you must shovel six feet or more into the street. I knew there was some point to all that weight lifting I was doing. Shoveling snow turned out to be excellent cardiovascular exercise. My arms were stiff as a board three hours later, but my back was intact and I felt only winded. Our street is still a mess of half cleared pavement and packed ice and snow. Driving down the street is like driving over a washboard.

The upside is the first genuine White Christmas in my thirty years of living in this area. The streets are mostly clear of snow but at least a dozen inches of snow solidly cover the ground, and most roofs are still covered with snow. The snow looks likely to hang around through the New Year.

In many ways once the frantic rush of holiday preparations are behind me, this is the best part of the year. At work, so many people are on leave that the building is half (or more) empty. I walk largely alone down darkened corridors, even in the afternoon. The usual hundred or so emails that clog my inbox are down to about twenty. Work feels more like a vacation. I find time to do things I don’t usually have time for: reading back issues of IEEE Computer and slogging through a book on software testing. For me, these sorts of activities are almost fun. It is far more interesting than budgets, supervising employees, reviewing travel authorizations and working on requirements. Now I too join the vacationing crowd, with plenty of leisure at home until I return to work on January 4th.

The presents under our tree were fewer this year, in part due to snow that made shopping the last week before Christmas a living hell. I tried on Christmas Eve to make a final run at a Barnes & Noble. I should not have bothered. Cars were queued a dozen long waiting for a free parking space. Heaps of snow occupied other parking spaces. Still, our Christmas was cheerful enough. There was ample time today to enjoy the first DVD in my new set of Horatio Hornblower episodes.

Mostly this holiday season I am struck by how fortunate I am in a time when so many people are hurting. I am in my peak earning years with little likelihood of unemployment. Even if unemployment were to strike, I have ample money and decent job skills that should see me through bad times. Overall, we are doing exceptionally well. Most of the medical issues that bedeviled my family and me are behind us with a few exceptions. One that still bedevils me is the tarsal tunnel in my right foot. This hopefully will be solved on January 14 when I undergo tarsal tunnel surgery along with nerve release surgery from this guy at Georgetown University Hospital. Then I get to enjoy a couple weeks at home recuperating, where my largest problem will be keeping the stitches on my ankle from rupturing for three weeks. Whatever work I can do will have to be done at home. Our cat Arthur will be quite happy.

Until then, I look forward to leisure and clearing the detritus out of our house and off my desk. I hope your holidays are happy too.

Snow day

We have a foot of snow so far, and the snow is still coming down frantically. It is hard to see out my northern facing window. No plow has bothered to come down our street. Only a few cars are even bothering to try to drive through the snow, and they are only the ones with four-wheel drive. If I got a newspaper this morning, it is buried under the snow somewhere. I dug out one lane to the street and there was no newspaper to find. I guess I will have to read it online.

Blizzards do have certain advantages. They tend to focus the minds of us Northern Virginians, which means we make frantic dashes to stores to stock up on snow shovels, milk, bread and toilet paper. What’s with the toilet paper? Isn’t that why we invented Costcos, so we could stock up in bulk? I have enough in my basement to see me through February, at least. This focus on essentials of course meant gridlock in general yesterday, and this was before a flake of snow fell on the ground.

So the actual blizzard now underway is somewhat anticlimactic. Life becomes pretty simple. You stay indoors, hope the power stays on, and start digging out once the storm passes. All those busy plans I had for today are blown away. I was supposed to give a final exam today. The exam was all prepared, but I was unprepared for the campus closing. What do you do in this case? I wrote the dean, who said in her thirty-six years in academia she has never seen this happen. What you do is (with the dean’s permission) make up a policy on the spot. So I am giving my students the options of getting their grade based on their work so far (since grades are due by Tuesday) or taking the exam later and maybe getting an incomplete. If I know my students, they will all opt for skipping the exam altogether. This is fine with me. The end of the semester is always the hardest. Students want to begin recess. Professors like me are sick of our students and all their little quirks and hassles. These include disputes over grades and homework, belated requests to take quizzes later and dubious excuses like they had to go out of town because grandma or Uncle Fred passed away. It is all suddenly moot, thanks to the blizzard. Post some grades online and the semester is over. Let the holidays begin.

Except, of course, I am behind on holiday shopping and this blizzard puts me even further behind. The Christmas cards were frantically assembled yesterday. Now stamped, they have no place to go. Meanwhile, I try to think about what to give my wife and daughter, who have pretty much everything they could possibly want. How much better am I supposed to make life for them? But for a day or two, no worries. We will be landlocked and even the 7 Elevens will be closed. For the moment, worrying is moot. Instead, you sleep in late, eat leisurely breakfasts and have as sex with your middle aged spouse as frequently your middle aged bodies will allow.

Still, this blizzard is exciting because of its timing just six days before Christmas. It virtually guarantees a rarity here in Northern Virginia: a white Christmas. Bing Crosby was right: “Just like the ones I used to know”, but it was oh so long ago when I was living in upstate New York. Around here, a white Christmas is something you enjoy once a decade if you are fortunate. “White” counts if there is any snow on the ground, so some dirty and gunky snow in a parking lot counts, even if it is mostly melted. I have counted as “white” Christmases where there was just a dusting of snow on the grass. This one however will be truly white. There is no way that all this snow can melt before Christmas, not even with global warming. The ground will be solidly covered on Christmas Day. Considering what a crappy decade this was, thanks to Mother Nature we will be leaving it behind on a high note.

So instead of frantically grading exams and posting grades, I will help put up the artificial Christmas tree and assorted holiday decorations. Chipmunks Roasting on an Open Fire will go on the stereo to regale us while we hang the ornaments and string lights. One difference this year: we are having a more ecologically friendly Christmas. The incandescent light strings are out: the new very efficient LED light strings are in. They festoon our front porch and soon will adorn our Christmas tree as well.

Also later today will come the smell of frantic baking as my wife and daughter roll and bake gingerbread cookies. For me this is good news, as I don’t like gingerbread cookies, so I likely won’t eat any. This in turn is good for my waistline during this perilous gastronomic time of year. I may have time to wrap the few presents I have bought and place them under the Christmas tree as well. In addition, there is always belated vacuuming and bathroom cleaning to be done. For a day, I can be a domestic god.

We have tickets to see Young Frankenstein tomorrow at The Kennedy Center. It is unclear whether the roads will be passable enough to get there for our matinee show, or if it will be put on at all due to the weather. In any event, there is nothing that I can do about it. Mother Nature will decide. It has rendered all else moot.

Since our power lines are buried underground, I expect the power and the heat to stay on. This, the chance to blog and surf the web indiscriminately, and putting up some Christmas decorations will keep me happy. In fact, I will be much happier than if the blizzard had not arrived at all.

Let it snow.

Loaves and fishes

Our minivan has been sitting a bit closer to the road recently. For a change, it is full of cargo: non-perishable food and donated clothing. In fact, our dining room is currently more of a pantry, full of boxes and bags of food including the perishable variety like bags of potatoes and onions. This food and clothing is not for us. We are doing fine. It is for the hungry, the malnourished, the homeless and the displaced.

I would like to take credit for all this laudable charitable work but I had little to do with it. My life is full of matters that are more mundane. They include my full time job, teaching part-time and, oh yeah, writing a blog entry a couple of times a week. This is not to say I do not also give to charities. I write checks to charities all the time as well as contribute 1% of my salary to the Combined Federal Campaign. Periodically, but especially when the money is flush, I give back some of it to the community by sending checks to charities I care a lot about, but rarely enough to actually visit. Some of these charities include House of Ruth (a shelter for abused women in Washington D.C.), So Others Might Eat and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. When disasters happen, I am one of the first to send three figure checks to places like The American Red Cross. I am sure my cash is greatly appreciated but my contribution is rather abstract.

Engaging in charitable work first hand takes a tougher soul. It takes someone like my wife. Her motivation might come from remembrances of hard times growing up and now has the means to give back. Nonetheless, for most of our marriage she was content to let me write checks to charities and sleep in late on Sundays. Lately though she has had something of a midlife renaissance. She has become a one-person force of charity.

It all started one Sunday at her Buddhist temple. When it came time for announcements, she stood up and asked why the temple was not doing any charitable work in the greater community. Everyone sort of looked at each other. No one had really raised the question before. When that happens, the onus often comes back to the questioner to do something. So she did. She knew that many of the local food banks were doing relatively well, so she cast her net a little further out. Using the power of Google, she soon found places like Community Touch in Fauquier County, Virginia. Soon she was dialing them up and asking, “What can our temple do to help?”

A week later, she reported back to her congregation but for the most part they still looked at each other with blank expressions. Then she brought a plastic box with her to services put it in the Sangha Hall with a sign above it saying “Donations for the poor”. Every week during announcements, she persistently brought up the issue of helping the poor.

Transitional Housing at Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia
Transitional Housing at Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia

At first, just a couple items trickled in. When the pile got high enough, she would drive out to one of her selected charities and deliver the goods. What she found often appalled her. In the Shenandoah Mountains, she found a food pantry with only a few cans and boxes on the shelf. At Community Touch in Bealeton, Virginia she found that The Clara House Food Pantry was nearly bare too. The following Sunday during announcements, she reported back again to the congregation on her first hand observations. Slowly, donations started to increase. Most Sundays she would haul back donations to our house.

By July, it was clear that my wife had found a new calling. One of her deliveries coincided with one of my days off, so I volunteered to drive up to Bealeton too and visit Community Touch. I spoke with the director. I took pictures. I asked questions. In part thanks to my wife’s work, their food pantry was now much better stocked. I examined the Victory Transitional House, a large ranch house with multiple kitchens and numerous rooms. It housed some of the area’s homeless families. Each family had their dedicated pantry space and their own rooms. Slobs were not allowed. People had to follow certain rules including keeping their room and the common areas clean. Outside was a playground for the children.

One of the kitchens at Community Touch
One of the kitchens at Community Touch

When we visited at midday, the place was quiet. Most of the homeless were not jobless, and were either at work or looking for work, while the children were in day care or public school. This is the changing face of homelessness in America today. While many are out of work, many also remain employed, although they may have traded full time jobs for scattershot part time employment. Many of the homeless got this way through a series of unfortunate events. Expensive medical issues cropped up. They became exacerbated because they could not afford health insurance. This was often manifested in an inability to show up at work. At best this meant they kept their jobs but took home less money. In some cases, they were let go. Their landlords were largely unforgiving and, living paycheck to paycheck, within a few months they were out on the street. Some lived in their cars. Some live in the woods in and around Bealeton in small Hoovervilles. The fortunate ones end up at places like Community Touch where at least for a little while they can try to get their lives back in order.

When you spend time at places like Community Touch, you hear stories. You hear about the homeless man sitting outside a Food Lion, and the nice people working there who bought him some food and drove him to Community Touch. You find out that he took a bus from Baltimore to Richmond because he heard there was work, ran out of money, tried to thumb his way back to Baltimore only to find himself sitting on the concrete, homeless and hungry. This man was fortunate. Many others are not so fortunate. They can be found in the woods or scrounging garbage bins at local 7 Elevens.

Charitable work does tend to peak during the Holiday season, which explains in part the mountains of food and clothing now occupying our minivan and dining room. It culminates this weekend. My wife, my very own force of nature, has many people from her temple meeting tomorrow and hauling their donated items to Community Touch. In Bealeton they will meet others including people from The True Deliverance Church of God, who run Community Touch. Using their many donated items, they will assemble Thanksgiving dinners to go for the homeless and hungry of Fauquier County. Many turkeys have already been donated by local food banks and are being cooked en masse tonight. She and many members of her temple will be there to help.

Most of you are familiar with the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Many devout Christians believe Jesus somehow fed an unexpected multitude with a single loaf of bread and a fish. At least when Jesus is not around, it works this way: someone like my wife stands up inside their community, poses the question and then largely by herself start to address the problem. Those inside the community at first feel hesitant because they are used to the way things have always been. However, if like my wife she persists, and she does so with a generous heart they find themselves drawn into caring about the poor too because they know and care about her. And so one loaf and one fish multiply into a van stuffed with food and donated items which might have otherwise gone toward evenings out and buying an Xbox. Moreover, a dozen people from a Buddhist congregation venture sixty miles into the wilds of Fauquier County to work with people of a different faith they do not know. They help them feed the unfortunate who live among us, but whom for the most part we choose to ignore. As a result, at least some of the hungry are fed. Moreover, new connections occur between people that likely would never have otherwise met. The circle of people who care about others unlike themselves grow. The social fabric of our society mends itself a bit. Love and compassion spreads a bit.

I know that people who would otherwise go hungry or be malnourished will soon have a full belly, thanks to my wife standing up in her congregation and leading them with humanity forward toward a larger fellowship. I am blessed to be married to such a warm, caring and compassionate woman.

Are 1000 posts enough?

Back on March 31, 2006, some three years after I started my blog, I posted my 500th post. Today, August 28, 2009 I have reached another major milestone: my 1000th post. That’s a lot of posts! Moreover, each post was edited four times prior to publication. The average length of each post is currently 1,114 words. In short, this blog has been an endeavor requiring a huge amount of my time and talent. Overall, it has been fun to blog these many years, and gratifying to know based on comments received (often years after the post) that at least some of my posts have provided insight, discussion and amusement.

In March 2004, I started metering the blog with SiteMeter. Since then, SiteMeter has recorded over 250,000 visits and over 343,000 page views. Yet, it is clear that the majority of my visitors do not stick around. They are brought here by a search engine and typically leave soon afterwards. However, a few do stick around, but exactly who they are is mysterious since unlike many blogs, I receive relatively few comments (636 to date).

By some measures, I have more regular readers than ever. Feedreader says I have 42 readers, and I am sure I have others who are subscribing via email. I also have 15 people following me on Twitter. Yet overall, browser based traffic around here has dropped. Whereas I used to average 200 to 300 page views a day, now it is closer to 150.

Some of this may because content is moving away from browser-based HTML into newer forms of syndication like RSS. Part of this is also likely due to it being summer, when traffic typically dips. Some of it is also likely me. Inspiration comes less often now. Most of my best posts are five or more years in the past. The result is while I am still pleased with the quality of my writing, the content tends to not be as fresh or as interesting as I would like it to be.

So there are times when I feel throwing in the towel. Perhaps I have said nearly everything worth saying in 1000 posts. For now I will keep plodding away, adding to the some 1,113,000 words I have posted since December 13, 2002.

However, I could use some inspiration. If you appreciate the blog, or read the blog regularly, this would be a good time to leave a comment reassuring me that my words are still worth reading. I would hate to shut down this long-standing blog, but its time may be nearing an end. Whether it ends, dear reader, may depend on your feedback.

In any event, thank you very much for reading!

On the movable walkway called life

As you may have noticed, one consequence of being born is that you eventually must die. It may seem unfair, but that’s just the way it is. We are all prisoners in our own unique time stream. We step onto our time stream (we assume) at birth, although some part of it begins at conception.

Yes, our life is undoubtedly a time stream. It is like one of those very long movable walkways that you find in large airports that carry you inside or between concourses. Its speed is constant. During the time you stand on the walkway, you stay in one place while things move around you. Eventually the walkway ends and the journey stops. We get off the walkway when we die but while we are on the walkway, we are its prisoner.

Unlike the movable walkway, we are not entirely sure how we got on it in the first place. The walkway behind us is quickly shrouded in mist and the walkway ahead, except for the first couple of feet, remains a dense fog. However, we can look to our left and our right and enjoy our limited view.

Unlike walkways in airports, this walkway is very wide. In fact, we cannot see either of its sides. Yet we know we are on the walkway because things are happening all around us. Suns rise and set. Seasons pass and return. Things that looked shiny and new last year lose their luster this year and in a dozen years are often dysfunctional or obsolete. Trying to find the edges of the walkway is as futile as trying to sail off the edge of the world. Space and time curve all around us. We cannot see the curve but we sense it is there. We feel its truth: that we are a singularity in a matrix called space-time. Ephemeral things, some alive and some not surround us. They are often beautiful. At its best life resembles a magnificent kaleidoscope. We often feel like we are sitting in a theater and our life is unfolding on the screen.

It is natural to wonder what happens when the movie that is our life ends. Are there credits? Were we really its producer and director, or just the unknowing actors? These may be impenetrable questions, but sages and common people have pondered them for time immemorial. The atheist believes that when our movie comes to and end, the lights go out and we are simply nothingness. The theist believes there is a producer. Some believe there is a producer and director. The producer is called God. The Christians call the director Jesus. The Muslims call him Muhammad. The Hindus believe there are many producers and directors and they often slip between their roles. Some of these directors coach us more than they coach others. The Buddhists think that like the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz, when you pull back the curtain you find another human like yourself (perhaps yourself) at the control directing the special effects. The agnostic doesn’t know if there are producers or directors. He does not exclude them but has a hard time trusting what he cannot see. The humanists are unconcerned about how we got on the walkway or where it will end, but is only concerned about the state of the walkway right now and how we can all live more happily in the present

In general, the longer you stay on the walkway the more you feel the past fade. You see the collection of things you have surrounded yourself with disintegrate before your eyes. You watch people, many of them loved ones, mysteriously drop off the walkway altogether, particularly as they age. The more you witness these events, the more certain you become that your walkway will end for you too at some murky time in the future. A relative handful finds the walkway very annoying. They take their own lives, figuring wherever they end up, if anywhere, is less painful than the present.

How should you spend your time while you remain on the walkway? This too is a topic of great concern for the people on the walkway. Some people are much more concerned about the next walkway. They advise that we should spend much of our time on this walkway preparing the next one. For theists there are generally two walkways that occur after death: one toward heaven, glory and salvation and the other toward hell and misery. To the Buddhist, our walkways sort of cycle backs on itself. They are confident that after death we are quickly deposited into another walkway. While our memories of our last life will be erased, we will carry our personalities and predispositions into the next life. Nirvana is the act of getting off the time stream altogether. Meditation and living simply are the keys. Enlightenment is the goal. You reach nirvana when you have achieved full enlightenment. Then they assert the carousel finally stops, you can dismount, exit and see what, if anything, is real.

Sometime in my early 20s, I remember being profoundly shaken that I was aging. Before entering adulthood, old age was so far enough away that it was abstract and hence nothing to worry about. Grabbing the reins of adulthood made me feel that life was in reality fleeting. Now in my 50s, I still feel the steady passage of the years. It feels like I am at the bow of a ship heading into the wind. The wind tears across my face but the infinite sea ahead is as mysterious and impenetrable as ever.

Strangely at age 52, while I remain leery of death, it no longer seems as fearful while at the same time it feels more tangible. I now accept that I am born to die and that’s just the way it is. It is natural to be inquisitive about dying and death, but to be obsessive about it the way I was in my twenties now seems a great waste of my life’s energies. Whatever movie I am in, it is not a bad movie and it gets more engrossing as the years pass.

Today, it feels more natural to be in the moment than to peer into an impenetrable far future. I see progress in myself and in my life. Some part of me longs for the immortal feeling of youth again, but some other part of me is also glad it is in my far past. I am more comfortable, more ordered and find more meaning now than I did thirty or forty years in my past. I feel grounded, but not rooted. My feelings will probably continue to change as I age, but right now, I accept life for what it is. I accept that it must end and feel that embracing the present is the healthiest thing for me. The movable walkway is my home, so I had better enjoy it and take care of it as best my limited skills will allow.

Unitarian Universalists invade Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City is one of the great cities to arrive at by air. You descend over the tops of the Rocky Mountains. You feel like your plane may scrape one of the summits, and then gently descend into the Salt Valley. Even in late June you can still see some snow on the mountains. The city unfolds around you as you approach from the south. Out the window I watched the Great Salt Lake glimmering in a setting sun. Unlike the busy hub of Atlanta where I had left, Salt Lake’s airport is rather serene in the evening. It is also unusually close to the center of the city. A few volunteers with the Unitarian Universalist Association greeted me as I descend toward baggage claim. They noticed my Serenity T-shirt and giggled. They should have known I was a UU just from the T-shirt. A shuttle to my hotel awaited. Fifteen minutes later I was at my hotel, the Little America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City on a warm and dry Tuesday night.

Salt Lake has grown up since 1996. The Salt Palace Convention Center is still there but the mall across the street has been torn down. Condominium skyscrapers are going up in their place. Some of these buildings are so high that they tower over nearby Temple Square, a sort of Vatican City for Mormons. All this construction suggests that mammon may be Utah’s real religion. Yet within a block or two of the convention center there are plentiful vacant storefronts. Utah, like much of the west, is hurting in this economy. Still, the city seems to be shrugging off hard times and building for a boom they have faith will arrive eventually. Its leaders are thinking strategically. There was no light rail system back in 1996, but it has arrived in 2009. I can pick it up at a stop a block from my hotel, but it is better to walk the five blocks or so to the convention center for exercise.

Preparing for the Banner Parade at the UUA General Assembly, Salt Lake Ctiy

Unitarian Universalists from across the world have arrived in Salt Lake to occupy the city, or at least its downtown. The plentiful Mormons are happy to have our business, and seem a happy bunch in general. I know I am not in Northern Virginia when I cross the street at a crosswalk in the middle of the block and the cars actually stop. In Northern Virginia or DC such a brazen act would likely get you run over. Their economy may be close to being in shambles, but the people of Salt Lake City never forget their manners. Even the tough looking types will offer a pleasantry when you pass them on the street.

The UUs tried to string a five story high banner from the convention center, but it didn’t quite work. “Standing on the side of love” is the theme of this General Assembly. One of the ways we are standing on the side of love is by standing up for marriage equality for same sex partners. In this reddest state in the Union, this could be dangerous. Salt Lake City though is a tiny dot of blue in an otherwise deeply red state. It has two versions of a city paper and a progressive Democratic mayor. Perhaps this is because the city, white as Wonder Bread back in 1996, is now becoming a tad Pumpernickel. African Americans can be seen unloading baggage at Salt Lake City airport, and Hispanics can be found as hotel maids and working at the local Wendys. Perhaps the whites of Salt Lake City no longer wanted these jobs.

A few of us representing the Reston, Virginia contingent of Unitarian Universalists manage to meet up Wednesday night in the exposition hall at the Salt Palace Center. As this is my first General Assembly it is both exciting and comforting. I am very much at home, with or without members of my church, for we speak a common language and share similar values. It has gotten to the point that I can spend five minutes or so with anyone and tell with an eighty percent probability whether they are a UU or not. The normal signs would be a hybrid automobile and a Darwin fish on the rear fender, but in person you can often tell from the way they look – it’s a certain crease around the eyes. There are other clues, like the chalice that many are wearing as jewelry. The flaming chalice is the symbol of Unitarian Universalism.

Still, there is a big difference between attending a service at your local church and being in the presence of four thousand other UUs at an opening plenary session and service. Frankly, I found it a bit overwhelming. The plenary session started out with a banner procession. Each congregation has a banner and they paraded around the enormous room with their banners to the great applause of fellow UUs. While the vast majority of UUs are centered in the United States, we had UUs from Africa, Europe and the Philippines in attendance also. Outgoing UUA president William Sinkford delivered a report to the membership that I found surprisingly stirring. You might think a relatively small faith like ours might not have made much of an impact these last eight years, but you would be wrong. From opposing the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to being at the vanguard of marriage equality, to our outreach to the Muslim community, UUs have made great strides under Rev. Sinkford’s leadership. We also have had two unwitting martyrs. A new association president is to be voted in later this week. The campaigning is hot and heavy on the convention floor. Should we choose a Hispanic man or our first woman as president? Either one, like the African American Bill Sinkford, would demonstrate that our largely white congregation is becoming more inclusive.

It is not often that you attend a worship service with four thousand people. Only the pope gets bigger venues. The service, which followed the plenary session, was both stirring and moving. Hearing our signature hymn, “Spirit of Life” sung in four different language (including Hungarian) was touching, as was the “Passing of Peace” where we offered peace to the people sitting around us, in some cases going more than a few rows back. The service had the theme of atonement. Unitarians were one of the religions selected to help “civilize” Native Americans after they were sent to reservations in the 19th century. In retrospect, this was a great injustice. We made a public apology and had our apology accepted by one of the native tribes. There were few dry eyes in the house.

The exhibition hall showed me the amazing diversity of UUs. There were booths for pretty much every conceivable variation of UU you could imagine, from the humanists, to the Buddhists, to the UUs who think Jesus was divine, to the polyamorists.

Ironically, UUs are still largely silent about the polyamory community. If they are going to stand up for love, why not for those who want to love more than one human being at the same time? Right now we are being largely silent. I imagine this will change in time too. I spoke to the polyamorous UUs and told them I couldn’t figure out how they could juggle more than one loving relationship at a time. They are certainly charting a brave new frontier in love.

Today I attended three seminars, but by far the most interesting was the Theology for a Secular Age course, part of the UU University series. It is being taught by the minister of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City, the Rev. Galen Guengerich. He may be the best speaker I have ever had the pleasure of listening to, a man of great learning and insight. The seminar resumes tomorrow at eight a.m. so I must be to bed early. I don’t want to miss a word!

Tomorrow will be another day of fellowship and learning.

Blogging at 35,000 feet

Well, this is cool! I am blogging from 35,000 feet. Granted, the first 10,000 feet are still not Wifi accessible, but perhaps that will change too. For $12.95 I can buy myself about three hours of high speed Internet access, at least on selected Delta flights. Other carriers are probably offering similar services, or will be soon. Moreover, the quality of the service is as good, if not better, than what I get at home via our Cox cable service. The times, they are a changing, and not always for the worse.

I am on my way to Salt Lake City to attend the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Having been a Unitarian Universalist since 1997 or so (and in spirit much longer, I just didn’t go to services) I figured it was about time to attend a General Assembly. This is an annual meeting where UUs from across the country come together and discuss denominational business. It is supposed to be a lot of fun and very interesting. Look for posts on the GA during the week. I will not exactly be alone since other members of our congregation will be in attendance too. When you are surrounded by thousands of UUs, you are never really alone. Of course most will be strangers to each other, but we are all the same in spirit. I am hoping it will feel a bit like coming home to the home you never quite had. I figure that if Muslims are expected to make one pilgrimage to Mecca, perhaps UUs should make at least one trip to a General Assembly too. I hope to learn a lot, but also to clarify for myself just how down the UU rabbit hole that I want to go. Thus far my association has been more tangential than dedicated and has consisted of participating in a covenant group and teaching religious education.

This trip is also unique in that it is something I am doing by myself. I travel quite a bit by myself, but so far it has all been business related. My wife, a Buddhist, had no particular interest in attending. Here I am age 52 and this is the first vacation that I have ever done on my own. It is sort of like being single again, at least for a week. There is no family to visit on the other end. There is also no spouse and/or child to drag along. If I get overwhelmed by the intensity of it all, my hotel is a few blocks away. I can distress by computing from my hotel room or hanging out at the pool. I strongly suspect that I will have no problem finding ways to fill my time. The typical problem at these General Assemblies, I have been told, is trying to do too much. There is simply too much going on.

I mentioned to a colleague where I was going and she said “what is Unitarianism?” I am amazed that in 21st century America so many people have not heard about Unitarians or Universalists. There is often at least one UU church in any community of a significant size. There have even been Unitarian presidents of the United States, although at the time they were not known as UUs, but stuck usually said they were deists. Thomas Jefferson was a Unitarian, at least in spirit. If you are curious to learn more about Unitarian Universalism, feel free to check out the association’s web site, or my tag archive on the subject, or just keep reading. To the extent I have time to blog this week, I will be posting my thoughts on the General Assembly.

Unitarian Universalists are basically religious liberals, without a professed creed, with their roots in Christianity but who are for all practical purposes not Christian. Some UUs consider themselves Christian and a UU service definitely has a church-like feeling to it. Most UUs would consider Jesus to be a great teacher, but only a few think he was divine. It is a sort of “none of the above” religion, where no creed is required for membership, where you simply come as you are, hang out in fellowship, try to do good things, and work toward tolerance and social justice. Perhaps a majority of UUs are like me: officially atheist or agnostic. We also have pagans, wiccans, Buddhists, gays, bisexuals, transgendered, the polyamorous and pretty much any type of odd non-denominational faith you can think of. In general UUs are a tolerant bunch.

We are also overwhelmingly Caucasian. If there is one deficiency in my religion, this may be it. I expect the General Assembly to resemble a Republican convention. My wife rightly points out that her Buddhist temple is very multicultural. In some ways I am jealous. I am also hopeful that over time UUs will become more culturally diverse too. Our current president is African American, but that will probably change this week as we elect a new association president. Unfortunately, I am not one of the delegates, since each congregation only gets four votes. I am sure whoever we pick will be someone of a similar vein to Rev. Sinkford.

However, I don’t give myself too much grief about being part of a “white” denomination. The congregation is so white, not because it tries to exclude people of different colors, but because its roots are European, and Europe is predominantly white. It was imported into the United States where it flourished and where mostly white people lived. Just as certain southern Baptist associations are overwhelmingly African American and it is okay, it is okay that UUs are overwhelmingly white. We do have two African Americans in our congregation, so we are not exactly pure white, and a few Hispanics and Asians too. Those of color whom we attract tend to be comfortable among whites. UUs also tend to be intelligent and overeducated. This can be daunting to some.

So I look forward to a week of fellowship, learning and song. While I do not particularly enjoy being away from family, it is not a bad thing to have a week to myself to do things that interest me far away from home. It helps me figure out who I am and where I want to go as a person in this next phase of my life.

The last time I spent any time in Salt Lake City was in 1996. Back then I remarked how Wonder Bread the city was. Perhaps in the thirteen years since it has become more culturally diverse. In any event, given that Utah is overwhelmingly white I suspect that most UUs will feel at home there. Given our religious and political liberalism, we may give the local Mormon population something of a shock. I hope I am there to witness any fireworks.

The Agony of the Feet, Part Two

I am feeling a bit like Peter Pan these days. Peter Pan was the only male I knew who regularly wore green stockings. I understand that during the Middle Age, men also wore stockings. These days though men who wear stockings are either getting in touch with their feminine side or suffering with vein disease. In my case, it is the latter.

The agony of my feet, which I described more than four years ago, never totally went away. In recent months, it has gotten considerably worse. It was manifested in numbness in my right foot (on a good day) or a constant aching and burning feeling in both feet (on a typical day). More recently, it has sent me scurrying to various physicians (podiatrists, neurologists and vein specialists) to see if I can do something about it. I now know that since I have varicose veins I have vein disease. Vein disease means that the veins in your leg have a hard time returning blood from your feet to the heart. It affects many Americans sometime in their lives, more as people age, as you might expect. In the typical case, your legs feel heavy and mostly unconsciously, you spend a lot of time with your legs propped up on chairs and stools. In the latter stages, walking becomes painful and even sitting with no pressure on the feet still hurts. I seem to be approaching the latter stages.

After doing some fancy tests, my neurologist also confirmed I have tarsal tunnel syndrome. It is like carpal tunnel syndrome, except it applies the feet. I also have neuropathies at various places in both feet as well as possibly in my leg and spine. This means that certain nerves are not doing a good job of communicating with my brain. These too are common with age. In many cases, people simply ignore them.

What to do about these conditions? That is still being triaged by my team of doctors, so the extent to which I can find relief is unclear. Vein disease never goes away, however removing veins from the leg usually results in more blood pressure in the remaining leg veins, often alleviating symptoms, at least for a while. Legs in the vein though are not limitless and the veins cannot be restored to normal functioning. At some point you either have to deal with a lot of discomfort or pain or do what I am doing: wear thigh high compression stockings and hope they relieve the symptoms. These compression stockings essentially provide more pressure to the feet and legs making it easier for veins to do their job. This results in less blood pooling in my feet and legs and, I am happy to report, a lot less misery during the course of my day.

Of course, these taupe stockings I now wear are hardly a fashion statement. Fortunately most of the time they are easily hid underneath jeans, but there are certain times of the year when wearing jeans is not desirable. Nor are they terribly comfortable to wear, feeling at times like vices on my legs and itching my thighs. I suspect in time I can get used to them, but I do not want to. Putting them on is quite a challenge and can leave me sweating because they require a significant amount of agility and force. If vein surgery means I can ditch the stockings I am all for going ahead with the surgery.

My mother had varicose veins. To my knowledge, she never had any veins removed, although she probably should have. In her last days in the nursing home she was, like me, wearing these Jobst compression stockings. Varicose veins seem to be largely heredity, but are often manifested by too much standing or stooping. She did plenty of that chasing after my seven siblings and me. She often said we gave her grey hair. It is more likely we gave her the varicose veins.

For now, these support stockings are a relief more than a burden. As annoying as they are to put on and wear around, they beat going around all day with tired, aching and burning feet. As my vein specialist suspected, they are also identifying the root of my foot problems. It appears that my poorly functioning veins are at the root of my tarsal tunnel syndrome and probably helped create my neuropathies. As best I can figure out, because of my suboptimal veins, my legs and feet have suffered from high blood pressure for years, and this has been wearing on the various nerves, bones and tissue in my legs and feet. I still have some numbness in my right foot but I am hopeful that it will recede as vein pressure in my legs improves.

My point in whining about this is mainly to draw attention to vein disease. If you have varicose or spider veins, or find yourself habitually propping up your feet, or your feet regularly feel tired, or worse, numb, aching or burning you should not do what I did and largely ignore the problem until it becomes acute. Rather seek early medical attention so you can avoid neuropathies as you age and problems like tarsal tunnel syndrome. I wish someone had drawn it to my attention. I have been dealing with it so long I assumed everyone propped their feet up after walking for a while. If you spend prolonged hours at a desk or in front of a keyboard, you should also consider footrests for your feet. A combination of these strategies may make your life livable again.

Socialize your money and join a credit union

So I am at the Gold’s Gym listening to a Marketplace Money podcast. I am hearing all the details of the new credit card law freshly signed by President Obama this week. The law was certainly overdue, given the egregious ways banks lately have been unilaterally raising interest rates, changing credit card terms and tacking on usury fees.

To me the whole credit card debate was moot. I like millions of other Americans do not worry that much about my credit card interest rate or fees. Why? I get my credit card through my credit union. Its credit cards work just as well as the banks’ credit cards, but with better rates and less volatility. I don’t worry that much about my credit card interest rates going up or down because my credit union has no financial incentive to shaft me. This is because when I put money in the credit union, I become part owner of the credit union too. Credit union management is not going to want to tick me and the other members off that much because if they did I can petition that they be replaced. A credit union exists to serve my interests, not theirs.

Now, if I had an account at a bank, like Bank of America, I would merely be a customer. Bank of America would see me as a profit center. It would have every incentive to squeeze every possible dime out of me. Banks nationwide are trying to make up for declining profits and bad loans by squeezing their customers. Investing customers’ money is not very profitable anymore, but they can make customers pay more just so they can use money. Hence, the higher fees and interest rates on credit cards, as well as many other loans they may offer.

For about a quarter of a century my wife and I have put most of our working capital into credit unions. Would I close a credit union account and go with a bank instead? Hell no, not unless I had no other choice. I haven’t worked in the Pentagon since 1998 but I still belong to its credit union. In fact, my relationship with the Pentagon Federal Credit Union has deepened since I left. I not only have savings and checking accounts with them, I also have a personal credit card through them. My wife and I also have our home equity loan with them that we can draw on up to $100,000.  Our credit limit has remained unchanged even with all the financial uncertainty. We also have our mortgage with Pentagon Federal. The only downside is that I no longer want to visit a branch office, since it is twenty miles away. However, I can get my money out through no-fee ATM machines where I work or one a mile from my house. If I have checks to deposit, I just mail them in. It costs me a postage stamp and a couple days.

You may be thinking, “Credit unions are all right for you, because you work some place that offers a credit union. What about the rest of us?” In many communities, you still qualify for membership in one or more credit unions. Check it out. I live in Fairfax County in Virginia. Down the street is a local branch of the Fairfax County Federal Credit Union. What are its qualifications for joining? You simply have to live in Fairfax County.

What are you losing by joining a credit union as opposed to a bank? These days, you lose virtually nothing. Both banks and credit unions are fully insured, just by different institutions. (In fact, credit unions have been markedly more stable than banks during the current financial crisis, probably because they are better managed and more risk averse.) Some communities may not yet be served by a public credit union, so you may have little other choice than to put your money in a local bank. You may also have to drive out of your way to get to a credit union branch office. Banks can now offer brokerage services, although some credit unions have separate companies that also offer brokerage as well as real estate services. Bankers though have proved to be poor brokers, as witnessed by the recent stock market collapse. Most credit unions now offer services that you used to have to go to a bank to get, such as mortgages and home equity lines of credit. After more than twenty-five years of using credit unions, I can state that their checks, ATM and credit cards work just like the banks’.

For many of you, the only question may boil down to: do you want to socialize your money? You are not really socializing your money, but credit unions are similar in concept to a food cooperative. When you join a credit union, you are taking a philosophical stand that you should get maximum value for your money. You are betting that by pooling your money with others you will all make and save more money than you would at a bank, which these days is a very safe bet.

Here is how I look at it. Credit unions like banks really should not be where you put your long-term investments. Yet, some part of your money needs to be invested for the long term. Most of us do this through 401-K accounts through our employers, but many of us also need brokerage services so we can buy stocks, bonds and mutual funds. Long term investing is a different problem than having financial instruments to take care of our ordinary financial needs. Savings and checking accounts, credit cards, loans and mortgages are now just commodities. A credit union though offers a way to keep much more of your money while having access to all these financial instruments. My credit union, for example, does not charge any checking account fees, nor does it assess a charge for sending me a paper bank statement. If I use the right ATM, I do not have to pay for the privilege of withdrawing my own money either. I have no idea how much money I am saving compared to the bank you may be using, but I bet it amounts to hundreds of dollars a year. If you can too, then why would you want to give this money to a bank? Wouldn’t you rather do something else with your money?

Particularly in these turbulent financial times, if you have access to a credit union, consider joining. I expect your experience will be like mine and you will be wondering why you waited so long.