Our next car

The Thinker by Rodin

Ah car shopping. Ack! Car shopping! My wife and I hate it. That’s why for years we’ve talked about replacing one of our aging cars and haven’t done anything about it. But the law of diminishing returns hasn’t been repealed. Last year we spent big bucks to continually fix up our aging cars.

Nonetheless we continued to dawdle. That’s what we do. My wife Terri has a 9-5 job and works five days a week. Until recently I taught a class on Saturday mornings in addition to my day job. That left almost no time to actually go out and look for another car, which frankly suited both of us quite well. Terri believes weekends are for relaxing and doing much of nothing; the last thing she wants is to do something she loathes like buy a car. I wanted to avoid it too. If there is anything less fun than a root canal it is being harassed by over eager car salesmen.

For months we sporadically debated what we wanted in another car. New or used? New is always more fun, of course, but dropping $25K and doing the car payment thing is no fun. I like to pay cash, if possible, and skip the car payment thing altogether and we have the cash for a decent used car. Our last car, a 92 Corolla station wagon was our first used car. We avoided the badly dressed car salesman by buying it from a private seller via an advertisement in the newspaper. But the penalty was the huge hassle getting a registration and transferring titles. It’s been a good car but it is time for it to be retired. It can’t get above 60 mph without doing the shake, rattle and roll thing and more mysterious and loud noises seem to be coming from it every day.

Which car to replace? The other car is a 91 Toyota Camry sedan, my principle car, and I was sort of hoping to replace it, perhaps with something new like a hybrid (we try to be sensitive to the ecology and besides, we are cheap). But with new valve seals it is running better than it has in years and unlike the Corolla it is a solid car. So replacing the station wagon seemed the way to go.

But we still needed a station wagon. We simply won’t do the SUV thing: we hate them and we resent every one of those suckers we see on the road. A Camry wagon was our first choice, so we fired up our web browser. We quickly ascertained that finding a used Camry wagon was next to impossible. There are acceptable station wagons out there including Suburu Legacy and Loyale wagons but they were like the Corolla wagon: a wagon in theory but not one in practice, unable to store much of anything. Maybe this is why people buy SUVs. It’s plain people don’t buy them to go up gravel roads along the sides of mountains. In our neighborhood they are used to pick up kids at day care and bring home food from the Giant and that’s about it.

Minivans were the next option. Neither of us are wild about minivans. We are a family of three, not of six and it seemed obscene to have all that extra room and to not use it. Mileage was better than a SUV but not great. And they seemed so tall and boxy … we don’t like boxy.

Cars come in two types from my perspective: real cars and SUVs. SUVs aren’t real cars. They get half the gas mileage of a real car, they pollute disproportionately and they don’t have bumpers. Because they aren’t a real car they have a high center of gravity and tend to turn over a lot. Real cars usually have bumpers, and air bags and don’t require a ladder to get in the cab. They have to meet auto safety requirements.

Mostly I don’t notice cars. Fortunately Terri does and the 1997 Honda Odyssey impressed her. Until 1999 when the Odyssey became a real minivan it was something between a small minivan and a station wagon. It had doors on latches, not sliding doors. We did an Internet search and looked at Consumer Reports, which gave it thumbs up. On Cars.com we found two for sale down in Falls Church. We looked at one by a private seller over the weekend and liked it, but it was a bit too used and overpriced. We also stopped by a lot in Falls Church where another one was for sale that looked nicer and had fewer miles on it. The lot was closed so we couldn’t take it for a spin. We did take the first car for a spin and it was a good driving experience. It has a modest four-cylinder engine and will never be the first out the starting gate, but we could live with that. It also seats 7 but the seats easily disappear and lo and behold there is this really nice cargo space for that hauling. And it gets decent gas mileage.

Last night we went down to the Falls Church car lot and test-drove the other van. We put a deposit on it. I will take it to our mechanic to get it checked out on Friday. Perhaps by Saturday we can take possession of the car. There will still be “minor” matters like getting a permanent registration and selling the Corolla wagon. But hey, it’s a step. After dithering for a couple years we at least made a decision.

The place we bought it from too was kind of interesting too. No weird car salesmen to deal with. Just two guys and a lot at one of Falls Church’s Seven Corners. Low overhead, low key, reasonable markup, nothing to haggle over. Drive the car. If you like it let’s talk. The price was very fair based on our research and this car was clean off a lease and drove well. Clear title; free car fax history. We got good vibes from both the car and the car lot … Vantage Auto Imports, if you are interested: corner of Route 7 and Route 50.

The Camry will have to be replaced in a couple years. A smaller car to replace it will be appropriate. Perhaps then I will buy that Toyota Prius I had my eye on. If only it were available today as a station wagon…

We’re the Velveteen Rabbit

The Thinker by Rodin

I just started the book The Spiritual Tourist by Mick Brown. My thoughtful wife Terri, who understands I am going through a metaphysical phase, picked it up recently for me. The book is about a guy flitting like a butterfly from one out of the mainstream religious/spiritual experience to the next. He’s kind of like me, curious about these things but not willing to put his conscious mind on the back burner in the process. In the process he learns a lot from his journey. It will be interesting to see how it turns out. With a recommendation from Sting it should be a good read, right?

One observation of his right at the front of the book really struck me: what drives the desire for spirituality is angst: a feeling of anxiety or apprehension often accompanied by depression. While some may not like my Machiavellian analysis I do think it is anxiety that fills a lot of church pews. I am candid enough to suggest that is probably true in my situation too. The extent to which a religion succeeds may depend on how well it responds to the angst problem inherent our troubled souls.

A meme is a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. When considering religions I am often struck that most successful religions often have what seems to be the best meme. Christianity is a case in point. Although Jesus did not invent many of his key ideas, like doing unto others, his meme was planted into a fertile region at just the right time for it to take hold. The Jews were, of course, occupied at the time by the Romans (and curiously the Jews are now occupying the Palestinians, but that’s another windmill to tilt) and life wasn’t much fun under occupation and oppression. It didn’t help that Jews were considered weird in that part of the world anyhow. Then here comes Jesus peddling these new memes: all men are brothers, do unto others as others would do unto you, give no more thought to tomorrow than the birds do: live in the present, etc. Quite clearly billions of people believe in the theology of Christianity. But what I suspect lures them to it like bees to a flower is not the trinity, nor Jesus rising from the dead, but the memes that Jesus propagated. These are very infectious memes. They are like music. You listen to the meme and they are hard to resist. It’s a near perfect meme. Not only does Christianity offer hope for a spectacular life beyond this life, which is often full of suffering, but it gives us practices that inspire hope within us and help us to move forward during troubled lives.

And of course the same is true of other religions and spiritual practices. To some extent we can all deal with our angst by finding the religion that best matches our particular angst driven needs. In my case that’s why I’m a Unitarian Universalist.

Almost always the angst has the same underlying cause: mortality. We live knowing our physical life is finite and what comes after is the hard part. Some are comfortable with the notion that after death there is only nothingness and they are usually atheists. For most of us though that thought generates more angst. We must believe that there is something more past death, and that we are more than the sum of whatever good deeds we can produce in this lifetime. In my case I feel I am immortal. I’ve seen enough dead people to know that I am not immortal, but I feel like I am. Therefore my angst is balmed to some extent by well-documented cases of reincarnation where the doubt is beyond much dispute. If some people can be reincarnated, why can’t I? Maybe I have lived many lives before and will so again. Don’t I deserve it? Aren’t I special enough to reincarnate?

So today I am thinking of the Velveteen Rabbit story that I read many times to my daughter when she was growing up. You know the story; it is as infectious as any meme. It’s about a stuffed rabbit that belonged to a boy and was basically loved to death until its stuffing came out. Eventually the boy caught scarlet fever and worried that the stuffed animal might be carrying the disease, it was thrown out with the rubbish. The Velveteen Rabbit, of course, although it was not alive, very much felt like it was alive. It found meaning in giving comfort to the boy, loving that boy, and as it grew more and more ragged it grew in love. Once discarded though it was found by a real rabbit and presto change-o the Velveteen Rabbit became a real rabbit.

And that is I think what most of us hope for. And we must hope; it is not possible to get through life without hope for very long. Through life we find meaning and fulfillment in many ways, but hopefully through service to others and through giving and receiving of love. Even the most hardened atheists I know believe that love is real enough. We can’t see love but we feel its effects. So maybe, just maybe if we love hard enough, and well enough then presto change-o we change like a Velveteen Rabbit too. Like the phoenix we hope against hope that we have acquired in our lives enough of this spiritual stuff (call it love or whatever) to allow us to reincarnate again, or at least move on, alive in some sense and intact, into the a grander sort of future experience.

Let us pray we are right, for our sakes.

I’m a Karmic Facilitator!

The Thinker by Rodin

As you may know I teach courses in web page design at Northern Virginia Community College. It’s a part time job I’ve been doing for a few years as a way to keep myself busier and current on my industry. Sad to say as a federal employee I am not supposed to touch much computer code. We are paid to be project managers, or “Contracting Officers Technical Representatives” to use the government term. By this slim thread I seem to be able to hang on to my federal job. This means, for the moment at least, I can’t be contracted out because my work is inherently governmental. Given the Bush Administration’s push to contract out everything, I am not hopeful that this will always be the case.

Anyhow although I am supposed to direct work all day I am still expected to be “up” on all things in the IT (information technology) world. That one can’t be up on IT without actually doing the work doesn’t seem to faze our management. The way things work in government you can easily hold two or more totally conflicting ideas at the same time. It doesn’t work in Dilbert’s world but it’s SOP for the government. So I decided to teach. Partly I do it because it’s enjoyable, partly because I want to keep up on my industry in a meaningful way, and partly because even with 20 years of federal service I don’t believe for a moment that my talents and my job are not expendable. I’ve seen too much evidence to the contrary. I’m hopeful that if I’m downsized this strategy will keep me on my feet, or at least provide sufficient income so I’m not living in a mobile home.

I usually teach on Saturday mornings and teach two classes a year for sums that would amount to less than the minimum wage if I measured how much time I actually spent on the class. I am currently on the cusp of completing the current class on Advanced Web Page Design, and give a final exam tomorrow. The final project was due last Saturday. Naturally a couple students missed the deadline entirely and naturally they want to submit the project late. I could be hard nosed and yes I do penalize late project submissions but it’s the same pattern every semesters. Students have to push the envelope. If I haven’t put the grade in the campus computer they figure there is still wiggle room.

How does all this tie into karma? Karma, as regular readers here know is a force I have come to believe in. It occurred to me yesterday that as a teacher I cause a lot of karmic incidents. Whether it turns out to be good karma or bad karma depends on the student and me. I think I generated some bad karma for my students in the past, and perhaps I am generating more with my last minute students. But a class is literally and metaphorically a test. Can you make a certain benchmark? Do you have the skills and perseverance it takes to pass a class and to get a certain grade? There is not much ambiguity to it. You either master the skills you need to master, like reading, studying and doing the projects, or you don’t. A teacher is certainly a facilitator for mastering these skills but inevitably it comes back to the student. They have to summon up the right stuff inside themselves to get through the course.

Oh and it’s a roller coaster ride for a lot of them. And when it’s a roller coaster ride for them it’s also a roller coaster ride for the teacher. I’ve been accused by my own students of various faults, some likely deserved, some not. I don’t claim to be a perfect teacher. I try to improve my teaching with every class I teach. But inevitably I must make the judgment about what constitutes passing and what doesn’t. It’s never an easy call. My standards are fairly high and I don’t compromise them lightly to spare some students some bad feelings.

Last semester I had a lady who ended up failing the class. She came to every class dutifully. She hung out to the end. She turned in homework that was always wrong and never even came close to being right. I asked to talk with her. I tried to get her on the right course. But she was totally lost. She had barely mastered the keyboard, let alone the complexities of HTML. I had to flunk her. I didn’t like to do it but I had to do it. Maybe she’ll learn a lesson as a result. Maybe she’s not cut out for college or maybe she will summon the will from within to perhaps start at a more elementary course and work her way up.

So I cause a lot of karmic stress in my students’ lives. It’s part of the system but that’s part of what teachers are there for, I guess. The knowledge I impart is certainly an important thing for any student to get when they take a class. But the enduring lesson is whether they have the right stuff to keep focused and move forward despite tendencies toward laziness in many students, despite perhaps having to work a lot of overtime, despite having to juggle a spouse and/or a family. If nothing else my class provides a vehicle for them to figure out where their priorities really lie. Since I end up at the end of the semester with about half the students I started out with (many drop the class, or elect to audit the course and don’t bother to return) it appears that education is pretty far down their list of priorities.

Live and learn. Lesson taught regardless of grade.

On Iraq, I was wrong and right, but mostly right

The Thinker by Rodin

It is interesting to go back and look at my blog, along with conversations I have had online, prior to and during the war to see how my crystal ball was doing.

Where was I wrong? Well, so far at least the war with Iraq has gone quite well for our side in the military sense. The vaunted Republican Guard proved to be a weakling with one arm tied behind its back. Calling it a scared rabbit might be more accurate. Lots of Saddam Hussein’s most loyal troops simply left the combat field when the action got too tough and our bombs quickly obliterated many of the rest.

Overall Iraqis didn’t put up much of a defense against the American invasion. I was worried trying to take over Baghdad with its 7 million or so residents would prove to be a long and fought out guerrilla war. But we had overwhelming firepower on our side and most residents were too frightened to do much more than find a corner somewhere, hide, and pray to Allah for survival. I’m not complaining. A lot fewer people, including our soldiers, died because Iraqis didn’t have the stomach for much of a fight. But perhaps the real reason was that there is no nation called Iraq. Saddam forced one together but with Saddam gone maybe they realized they were just a large area of people of different ethnicities who didn’t much like each other and wanted it to stay that way.

Also, while things are still very tentative it looks like we might well be able to form an interim government in Iraq that actually commands some respect from its inhabitants. There are hopeful noises and Iraqis seem to understand they have to move on and establish a real government again. This is for the good. Perhaps, although the odds are against it, in the long term maybe a democratic government with staying power will emerge.

I missed some things entirely. The looting was entirely predictable but I never gave it much thought. The degree of looting shocked and horrified me. What does it say about a people that would loot their own museums of their national treasures and cart off even the wall receptacles as pillage? Was it a reaction to likely long term unemployment most Iraqis now faced? Did it mean that those calls to daily prayer and Iraqis prostrating themselves toward Mecca six times a day were insincere beliefs? Or was it just a wrenching poverty caused by years of sanctions, oppression and unemployment that caused people to go berserk?

Where was I right? Well, based on a month of so of searching, and based on interrogating those high level ex-Iraqi officials we could find, it appears that we aren’t going to find any weapons of mass destruction. Right now we are too busy celebrating our stunning victory to appreciate what this really means. The WMD issue was the reason that we went into Iraq in the first place. Or did you forget? The vitriol by the administration right before the invasion was amazingly high. According to our administration Iraq was on the brink of using these weapons against us therefore we had to invade in order to maintain a peaceful world. Iraq also probably had a nuclear weapons program and was close to developing a nuclear bomb.

All this appears to by hyperbolic piffle. In addition the links to al Qaeda were simply not there. That terrorist training camp in Northern Iraq, outside of Saddam’s control, was actively working to remove Saddam from power, not working with him to spread more terrorism. These Islamic fundamentalists were very upset that, among other things, in Saddam’s Iraq women had many more rights and could do things like attend universities. Clearly Saddam was an evil man, but there were some advantages for women and others because of his secular state.

In short the WMD as a catalyst for our engagement appears to be much ado about nothing. Either we knew these weapons likely did not exist and used them for a pretext for invasion, or our intelligence failure was immense. But also as I pointed out in my web log entry “Critical Thinking? Who needs it, we’ve got ideology!” all the conditions were ripe for a rush to judgment. We have an administration certain of what it believed and some disparities between the actual facts and their beliefs could easily be explained by their paranoia and ideology. Indeed before the war there were occasional articles indicating that the intelligence community couldn’t find the evidence on WMD, or links to al Qaeda that the Administration wanted. Colin Powell went before the Security Council and showed his proof. I heard from many a person I respect that this “proof” was concrete, reasonable and that perhaps there was something wrong with me for asking nagging questions about what was being presented. It is now clearer that I was likely right, and my critics were wrong. This “proof” was largely bogus and hearsay.

The international community was right on this one. That’s not to say that I think certain countries like France and Germany weren’t being unilateral and obstructionist trying to find common ground on Iraq. They clearly were, as was our own government. But the majority of the Security Council, looking at the evidence, looking at the assessment of Hans Blix and his team, aware that Saddam had hidden and obfuscated in the past, nonetheless seemed inclined to give the inspectors more time in the interest of peace. For reasons that don’t seem to be borne out by the facts we drew a line in the sand and let our hubris substitute for reasoned judgment.

Yes, it is good that Saddam is gone. It is entirely unclear whether we got our $90B initial down payment for this invasion. It hasn’t bought us any more national security because apparently there were no WMD. Nor were they likely to be used against us even if they had been found. We have succeeded in riling up the whole region. Our troops are being sniped at and in defending ourselves we are killing more Iraqis even though our war is supposed to be over. We can hope that our invasion doesn’t inspire more terrorism against us, but my view is that in the long term it will give those who might be inclined toward terrorism against us more reasons to give it a try. I don’t feel this helped our national security at all; it probably made it worse in the long run.

Why did we do it? I remain baffled by the whole thing. I just don’t understand why we went in there in the first place. Maybe it was about oil and American companies getting leverage in that region, although I personally doubt these conspiracy theories. If it was about getting rid of an evil and oppression then it is time to pack up our forces and move to plenty of other promising countries. A few that come to mind: Congo, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Egypt, Belarus (and a number of former Soviet satellite states), Burma … and I am sure there are more. But don’t hold your breath. Whatever our real motivation was these countries don’t have the little trigger that will make us go after them. It’s just everyday and ordinary oppression and brutality in these countries. Ho hum.

As for our war on evil, Saddam is gone but clerics who seem to have the support of the people seem eager to turn Iraq into an Islamic republic. It seems you can’t get rid of evil by removing people. Maybe evil is not amenable to short-term solutions. God forbid, maybe we have to send in the Peace Corps instead of the Marines. I bet the Peace Corps can do the job for a lot less than $90B.

I’m a fiscal conservative!

The Thinker by Rodin

Yes, as hard as it is to believe I, a good liberal, am a fiscal conservative! I realized this yesterday when I read stories of President Bush rushing to Ohio to push for his $550B tax cut, calling a few Republican senators like neighboring Senator George V. Voinovich of Ohio weenies for agreeing “only” to a $350B tax cut.

All these tax cuts are in addition to massive tax cuts made over the last few years. Those tax cuts were made to make the economy grow. They didn’t seem to do the trick so naturally we need more and higher tax cuts that will do the trick. How deep do we want to dig our own grave? The economy is not improving George. Maybe it’s because of the reckless way you are steering our economy? Well, duh!

Let’s look at what worked. Let’s look at your father who also fought a war against Iraq but failed on the economy. He lost reelection largely because he didn’t do what was needed for the economy and us citizens, who were sick of high unemployment. Bill Clinton came in to office. Did he cut taxes right and left to stimulate the economy? No, in one of those increasingly rare shows from a politician, Bill Clinton developed a spine and did the right thing. He got a marginally Democratic congress to approve tax increases that were needed to bring the government’s expenditures in line with its income. I don’t think a single Republican voted for them.

What happened? Maybe it was just coincidence, maybe it was all those low interest rates but Wall Street got confidence and the economy improved. It seems that not knowing from year to year how much money the government is going to borrow is bad for the economy. Business likes to have reasonable certainty about capital. We all know the rest. During Clinton’s eight years of pragmatic leadership the economy boomed, tax revenues poured in, deficits dropped and record surpluses emerged.

One would think Bush and his Republican party would learn from the experience but no, it’s back to cut those evil taxes while spending more and more. And let’s have faith in his, his father’s and Reagan’s voodoo economics that we can build a prosperous economy through deficit spending. This is Keynesian economics, for crying out loud. Bush and the Republicans are advocating the same sort of logic pushed by JFK. Is there role reversal here?

I’m a fiscal conservative. I am by no means anti-tax. I think taxes pay for us to have a civilized society and I think civilization beats the heck out of the alternative … look at Angola for a sterling example of the benefits of zero taxes. However I do believe the government should live within its means. Yes, I think we probably should have national health insurance and it will cost a lot of money. So let’s find taxes to make it a reality. But if we don’t have a political consensus to do it then it let’s certainly not borrow the money and spent it anyhow.

In just a couple years we went from record surpluses to record deficits. Unbelievable. Yeah, there’s a war on but even factoring in the cost of the war these deficits would still be in the stratosphere. It was those unwise tax cuts, George. But another $90B down payment to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction it apparently didn’t possess didn’t help either.

Hey, let’s all follow the government’s example. Here is real leadership for you. You have vital needs too. The United States needs to protect its national security. You need to protect yours. You need, for example, an armor plated SUV just in case of a terrorist incident. Don’t have the money now? No matter, charge up those credit cards to the max. No sense in being unprepared. Oh but wait a minute you also deserve a break today. You work too hard, poor dear. You don’t need that full time job. Cut your hours. Make it a 32 hour week instead of a 40 hour week. You deserve it.

That’s what Bush is doing to the nation. We are simply living beyond our means. If your income were cut you would probably feel it might be wise to cut back on frivolous expenses. Perhaps you would defer that armor plated SUV purchase, or maybe target more modest expenses like going out to dinner or the cable TV. You might look at used cars and a cheaper apartment. Not the US of A. We want it all first class! We deserve it! And if we don’t do it one of our neighbors across the channel will get that armor plated SUV and maybe pick a fight with us and then where will we be? Horrors! (Never mind we spend more on “defense” than the rest of the world combined.)

Enough! There is no free lunch, folks. It works the same way for the federal government as it does for the rest of us. Republicans are hoping with enough chants and incense their deficit spending will buy us prosperity, even though the evidence is scant it has worked in the past. This is about ideology; it is not grounded in much economics and it certainly isn’t grounded in the real world. Maybe in a way it’s just naked vote buying: give people a big enough tax cut and they’ll overlook those massive, record deficits they will have to pay with interest later. But maybe it is time for the government to go on a diet because its income will be lean until the economy improves. But hey we can’t go on a national “diet” while porking out every night with all you can eat specials at the Red Lobster.

You will get the government you pay for. If you want more government then cough up more taxes. If you don’t want more government, pay the price and drive on crappy and congested roads and let services lapse. But you can’t lower your income and keep spending for very long and not have problems pop up elsewhere as a reaction to it. We’re seeing it now in the form of a flat economy and a business climate full of uncertainty. And that’s because what purports to be our leadership is out on the quarterdeck drinking the evil rum of don’t tax and spend more instead of competently steering the ship.

Come 2004 we the citizens must sober up and throw these winos off the poop deck. We need new and sober management.

Why we must thrash

The Thinker by Rodin

Over the last year or so I’ve been reading a lot of metaphysical books. It’s a symptom of middle age, I suspect. With more of life likely behind me than ahead of me I naturally get a bit more curious about what, if anything, is the purpose to life and what happens after death, if anything. I’d really like to know what I was before I was what I was. Maybe I was nothing. Maybe I lived many different lives in both human and non-human form. I have no way of knowing at this point, but I’d like to find out.

Which is probably why the idea of past life regression hold some appeal to me. It might well be that if I did have a past life it was pretty sordid and I would prefer not to know little details like I was a weasel or an axe murderer. I doubt I could claim the sort of interesting past lives that Shirley MacLaine claims. The odds though were that if I have previous lives I probably was some sort of agrarian worker, since until recently hunting and farming were the occupations most of us were engaged in. In that sense this life should be pretty exciting stuff.

And it is in a way. I have come into this life with a sense of marvel at the world. Of course it can be filled with the most insane horrors, but it is also a deeply interesting time and place to live. I also feel like I have been fortunate to be born when I was born: 1957, at the peak of the baby boom years. I have lived in very interesting times. I was 12 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I remember the tumult here and abroad surrounding the Vietnam War, the impeachment of Richard Nixon, and the rise of computers and personal computers. I remember how frustrated I felt when as a teen I discovered ham radio but didn’t have the means to enjoy the hobby. The idea of contacting people all over the world in real time seemed very exciting. And now we have the Internet and the World Wide Web, which allow me to touch far more people in far more places than I could ever imagine.

We are early adapters in this household. I was the first one in the neighborhood with electronic friends, and by the late 1980s I had a number of good friends I met from dialing electronic bulletin boards. Some, like Frank Pierce, I still count as good friends. Neighborhood friends seem almost old fashioned. Terri’s friends now come almost exclusively from people she has met online. Last weekend she had a friend who is living in Warrenton, Virginia who she met online over for dinner. This weekend we have her friend Madge from North Carolina who is here for her third or fourth respite visit. In two weeks it is her friend Christy who will be hanging out here. It is likely that without this enabling technology of the Internet and World Wide Web none of these people would have come into our lives. We are richer having met them.

But at the same time we’ve lost something. There is less incentive to go to a neighborhood party or meet with old friends. Many of our old friends have moved or moved on. To some extent I have filled that gap in my life through the Unitarian Church I attend. Attending regularly and getting involved in religious education and being on committees expands my list of local friends. But it is more fun to find like minds on line that I can meet on my own schedule who share my own interests instead of talking to neighbors and meeting people the old fashioned way. My pal Lisa is a combination of online friend and local friend. It is good that she happens to live about ten miles away. We can do stuff together occasionally and talk about things that would bore my wife like, well, metaphysical stuff. Terri has almost no interest in it.

What was I before I was what I conceived? Arguably nothing: I didn’t exist. But increasingly I don’t think that was the case. I came into this life with a fairly unique pattern of behaviors and a certain outlook. I look for clues on who I might have been in a past life. There is no way to know for sure. Perhaps if I tried a past life regression I might feel I know, but there would still be no way to know if it actually happened or was some product of my creative mind.

A book I am reading at the moment though suggests it is possible to peer not just back into the past, but also into the future. “Past Lives: Future Lives” by Dr. Bruce Goldberg (who leaves a lot to be desired as a web page designer — get some professional to help you Bruce!) seems to be the book that started a lot of research into past life regression. This book though is pretty wild. Not only can he regress people into their past lives, but he can also let them see into future lives. He claims he has done this with thousands of patients over the past 20 years or so.

Since then past life regression through hypnosis has become almost hip, and that means there if there is some validity in it the flakes and con artists have probably taken over the field. Nonetheless there is an impressive number of hypnotherapists out there who will be glad to try to regress you into your past lives, for a fee of course.

I think I see clues about who I was before I was what I was in this life. I just don’t know what to make of them. Like most people my memories of early childhood are few and fragmented, but there are certain characteristics of me that have always been present. For the first 20 years of my life I experienced a recurring dream: falling from something high. I am not afraid of being close to an edge high above the world, but I am certainly a bit leery about it. It is possible I fell out of the crib as an infant. But this is more than that. Perhaps that was how I died in some previous life.

Other clues? Well, what am I on an instinctive level that is different than probably most people. I have already confessed to my feminine side. I have always been deeply non-violent. I witnessed quite a bit of brutality as a child. In particular witnessing it in places like a parochial school, largely handed out by the sisters, was very disturbing. My reaction to violence on pretty much any level is visceral. I won’t stand for it if I can do something about it. I simply cannot tolerate violence in movies beyond a certain level. I don’t care how good a movie is. If it is too gross I will avoid it.

In some ways I feel this life is payoff for other lives that were far more difficult and less interesting. It is difficult though sometimes to figure out what to do with this opportunity. The first 35 years or so was mostly about education and basic survival. Now I have the opportunity to self-actualize. I could write, which is what I wanted to do most as a teen. I don’t do much of it, unless rambling online journal keeping and technical writing is writing. I find some satisfaction in teaching. I find I often want to do so much in this life that it is hard to temper my needs to explore. I have a family that needs me, and a wife with many physical challenges. It can’t be all about me. I must look inward and find meaning and satisfaction close to home, as well as externally.

This life is about being physically comfortable and learning to rest as best I can. I am uncomfortable at rest but it is a skill I have to learn. This life is also about learning to set reasonable limits for myself but not climb too far or too fast. Patience and tempered judgment seem to be the skills I must acquire this time around.

My attitude toward death is evolving. For much of my life I was disturbed by the notion of my own mortality. I still am. It may be that I have largely succeeded in putting these fears in a box, to be wrestled with again when I am older and death is more tangible. Books on past lives offer a balm of sorts if nothing else. If true though they help shape meaning around my life that would otherwise seem sort of pointless. I can understand this life as being part of some larger journey. In that context knowing that death is a passage to something else, much like a caterpillar shedding its chrysalis and becoming a butterfly, sounds almost something that makes mortality an advantage.

At the sermon today at church the minister used this analogy and I think it works. If the caterpillar does not wiggle and thrash inside its chrysalis it cannot become a butterfly. Perhaps we all must wiggle and thrash in our own lives, as difficult and painful as it may be, in order to evolve as spiritual beings.

Maybe thrashing and mortality are good.

Color Expectant

The Thinker by Rodin

Why should the lack of diversity in a setting bother me?

This is one of those unsettling questions I have been asking myself for which I have no ready answer. It was triggered this time by a brief overnight foray into the Shenandoah Mountains with my wife. With our daughter Rosie in Canada on an extended field trip, we had an opportunity to escape to a B&B. Because we hadn’t done much planning in advance our selection was somewhat limited. We ended up in the Rose Room at the Cross Roads Inn, in downtown New Market, Virginia.

I knew where I was going and felt prepared. This is God’s country. Off came the antiwar bumper stickers that were now pretty pointless anyhow and might well cause a brick through my car window. The further you get from D.C. the more you feel the old South surround you. Maybe it is every highway seeming to be named after General Lee or General Jackson. Maybe it is grits on the menu. Maybe it is the churches every few miles on even the most remote roads. Or maybe it is the way the people become more and more Wonder Bread the further west you go.

New Market is not a large town nor does it have much in the way of diverse dining experiences. A frozen custard stand and a Godfather’s Pizza counter wasn’t quite what we had in mind for dinner. However there was the Shenvalee Country Club (a play on “Shenandoah Valley”, no doubt) down the street that offered casual dining and decent food. So we went there, although it was hard to find a parking space because we were dodging golf carts.

We were shown to a large dining room and elected for the buffet dinner. At $15.95 it was a pretty good deal: the food was better than average and the guy at the carving board was generous with the cuts of prime rib he was handing out. Our waitress was very attentive; I couldn’t take more than a few sips of coffee before she refilled my cup. And it certainly was a pleasant place with quiet and lovely green grass to look at outside the dining room window.

Still, I felt like I had hives. And it took me a while to figure out why. I was back in the 50s. I was in Leave it to Beaver Land. At first it was the lack of African Americans I noticed. But the more I looked around the weirder it got. There was no one of ANY color here at all. Not one of the hundred or so patrons. Not one of the waitresses. Not one person on the course or driving range. No blacks. No Hispanics. No Americans of oriental ancestry. Just lots and lots of WASPs, many right off the course, many with large nice white Wonder bread families in tow.

I only remember feeling this way once before, some seven years earlier when I was in Salt Lake City. Except actually I saw a little color there. There were a couple Native Americans hanging around the street corners in Salt Lake City. Otherwise it was Wonder Bread City: a whole city full of happy, prosperous, family-oriented white largely Mormon types.

At the Shenvalee Restaurant it was Jarhead City. Crew cuts were in. Most of the people looked retired, military or ex-military. Some of the golfers were reasonably svelte, but most were overweight or obese. On the other hand they all seemed to be good people. There were no crying brats. The kids were well behaved. The people were friendly.

So why was I getting a case of the hives? After all I grew up in Wonder Bread land too. Endwell, New York in the 1960s was just like this country club. Maybe people didn’t make as much money. But I was in tenth grade before I recall seeing a black person. There were no Hispanics. There were probably a couple Orientals but I don’t remember any. (I will note that in 2000 I returned to the area for a short visit and did find some diversity; the people who ran our hotel were Middle Eastern.)

I’ve been out of Kansas too long, I guess. The Washington D.C. area is nothing if not culturally diverse. Now I do live in a predominantly WASPish sort of community, but we do have at least a large smattering of people of color. It’s not unusual to go running and see some woman in a sari walking down the street.

And it’s not like I don’t generally hang around with my own race. I have African Americans here at work I work well with but at the end of the day we go back to our separate communities. The UU church I attend has exactly one black member. (Hey, at least the man heading the denomination is African American!) But I don’t feel I am prejudiced on the basis of race, sex or religion.

I do wonder though if I am prejudiced against my own race. Or maybe I am prejudiced against those with strongly conservative values who look like me. At the Shenvalee Restaurant I felt in the minority, but I also felt cloaked. Here I was a liberal, agnostic anti-war liberal in the midst of a group I perceived to be conservative, military, rich and overly Republican. Maybe that’s the issue and it’s not an issue of race.

Maybe. Or maybe it is also that I am “color expectant” now. It seems weird to me to be any place now where people of different colors and ethnicities are not intermingling. I would have bet that in the dining room of the Shevalee Restaurant there was not a Jewish person there either. I even wondered if it was a private country club that restricted membership based on race. I don’t know. It is probably not that kind of place but I suspect a person of color might have a hard time getting a membership there.

If I were colorblind then it would make no difference to me if 100 people in a restaurant were all WASPs. So I think I must be color expectant now. I want and expect people of all sorts and from all backgrounds to be wherever I am. And when I don’t have it, it seems as weird to me as it probably did when the first African Americans were bused to the local all white schools.

Am I showing some sort of reverse prejudice? Am I leaping to conclusions that I should not leap to? Your comments are appreciated.

My Feminine Side

The Thinker by Rodin

The good news is that I don’t feel the need to go Corporal Klinger on my family. I have no desire to dress like a woman. I spend no time in stores admiring feminine attire. I have no wish to own more shoes than Imelda Marcos. I am indifferent to a lot of things feminine, including flowers, kitchens, Martha Stewart and make up.

Emotionally though I am the woman of the family. I say this because lately I’ve been reading a lot of relationship books (a signal right there, I suppose). I am always puzzled when I get to the part where they talk about what women want from men. Why? It is because it’s exactly what I want from a woman. And because it bears little reality to my experience with women I’ve known intimately, which is 95% my wife. Nor does it bear much relationship to my sisters, who come across as independent and assertive overall. Some of my sisters are much more man-like than I could ever be. Not one of my sisters is the proto-feminine type. I don’t usually see them in dresses, or made up at all, or gushing over relationships, or getting weepy over receiving some flowers.

But the things I want in relationships seem to be exactly what women claim they want from their men. I want a deep level of connectedness on all levels. I want to spend time with my spouse: meaningful, connected time doing dopey things like taking walks, sharing how our day went, exploring how we feel about things, seeing movies regularly and perhaps eating out regularly. It’s not about me; it’s about us.

These things aren’t as high on my wife’s priority list and probably never will be. We are both fairly introverted but in retrospect she is likely to always be far more introverted than I could ever hope to be. She is happiest in quietness and solace. Give her a computer with Microsoft Word and a large hard disk and she will fill it up with her writing. The ideal weekend is one where the kid is away, the laundry requires little effort and she can curl up with her computer and her online friends. It’s not like we won’t go to a movie or a show every now and then but it takes persistence and a bit of serendipity for it to happen. She sees time as finite. When she has free time it should be HER time to fill in ways that make her happiest. Sometimes that is with me, but mostly her attention is elsewhere.

But this is not a wife-bashing screed. My wife Terri is being who she is and always has been and I married her knowing this was probably the way she always would be. But there have been other alarming things that make it difficult for me to fit in with my own gender. There’s my lack of interest in pretty much anything related to sports. (Exception: I can enjoy the Olympics.) I don’t like beer. I don’t like shallow relationships. Since most relationships between men are shallow I tend to gravitate toward having relationships with women instead. I do have an appreciation for geek culture so I have that in common with lots of men, not to mention my wife. So all is not hopeless with my sex.

Particularly with people I love, I am very nurturing. The reality was that I was the mother for most of Rosie’s childhood. It is only now in the terrible teens that Terri seems to be getting into this parenting business full swing. I was the one who usually kept Rosie fed, and changed, gave her baths, read her stories, took her to the playground, made her play dates and shuffled her to and from ballet classes. I didn’t mind at all. I felt it was not just necessary but it was my calling to infuse a sense of wonder, possibility and knowledge into my daughter. It was also neat to watch her grow up. It infused me with a sense of wonder too.

I often ponder if it’s not so much that I have a feminine side as I have a human side. Males in our culture are trained to be superficial and to stonewall when the pressures of life get too severe. And I certainly have learned how to do that from experience. But it never feels natural for me. I reserve for myself the right to be fully human. I am not always successful in expressing it, but I resent it when I feel circumstances won’t allow me.

Although I am not gay myself I often look on gay men with envy. Is it just coincidence or are gays usually the most talented people in any room? When I think of the openly gay men I do know they are passionate, creative, overwhelmingly alive people. I am sure even today it is difficult to be gay in our society but it seems that most gays have a gift that can only come from the liberation of being outed: the freedom to be themselves.

Meanwhile I assume I simply have a feminine side and that’s just the way I am. Since I am on a reincarnation kick at the moment it seems perfectly logical that if I have lived lives before, I probably lived most of them as women. Maybe this life is a gender experiment for me. If I get another one I will probably choose to be a woman again. It would feel more natural.

Home Alone

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s not often that I get a chance to be home alone for any extended period of time. Oh there are a few hours every now and then when the “girls” (wife Terri and daughter Rosie) go out shopping. And I confess I do enjoy my alternate Fridays off when Terri is at work and Rosie is at school. On those days I get up to seven hours at a stretch. But these are short duration experiences. And alternate Fridays are padded with stuff I have to do, like hit the supermarket, wait in inspection lines or get my locks trimmed.

This weekend was different though because I had more than 24 hours home alone. My wife Terri was at ConneXions, a convention for slash writers in Baltimore. My daughter Rosie was invited to a Unitarian Universalist church youth retreat in Chincoteague, Maryland. So for 24 hours or so there was just me, two cats (who thankfully largely left me alone), and Rosie’s pet fish.

It’s a weird but certainly not unpleasant experience to be home alone. After so many years of marriage though I feel a little bit like fish out of water. I don’t know really what to do. The complete freedom to do things on my schedule and have no pressing responsibilities makes me a bit giddy. But then I can’t seem to enjoy the experience. Even 24 hours is ephemeral. It would take a week or two to really see if I could enjoy it, or whether I would feel disturbed by it, or both.

I have learned that I don’t have a family so much as a wife and a daughter happily engaged in their own pursuits. Yes, we do love each other and are very much connected to each other’s lives. Terri and Rosie often seem to be best friends: they share a love of writing and Slash. Rosie and I have a bond that is more than a father and daughter sort of bond. We share passions for theater and the arts, and can have deep and meaningful conversations about life. But in what passes for our free time we are more apt to spend it doing things that interest us. Terri has her slash writing and her online slash friends. Rosie has her little coterie of girl friends, her writing, her interest in Wicca, and spells to try. And I have teaching (I teach web page design) in addition to my full time job to fill the hours. In addition I run a couple Internet domains including The Potomac Tavern.

So there are three of us, but when two of us leave the home becomes very quickly just a house. Our two elderly cats seem to sense the absence of excitement and find some remote spots and sleep. And I don’t want them in my face. They sense something is different and leave me alone.

The possibilities of how to spend my free time were rather endless. There were movies I could see that Terri wouldn’t want to see. I could venture into the city, or climb a mountain or two. But I didn’t. I don’t quite remember what I used to do when I was single and by myself. I wasn’t the bar hopping type. I was shy. There was work and the weekends.

I didn’t end up in some strip bar. I don’t know where they are and frankly, I don’t care. I’ve seen enough naked females and if I want to see more there is plenty of pornography on the Internet that is free and much more accessible. I didn’t see a movie either. Instead I was doing pretty much the same things I always do. I teach Saturday mornings so I taught, stayed late and tutored a student. I hit the grocery store because I’d have to anyhow. I did wander down to the Barnes & Noble. It would have been nice if my pal Lisa could have made it, but she wasn’t available. But I had just been there last week. Even the books looked stale.

So I stayed mostly at home, looked out the window, ran a couple miles, worked on stuff for my class, and then tried not to let it feel too weird to go to bed in a big house all by myself.

They’re back. Both are recharged. Terri communed with her friends. Rosie had a good time in Chincoteague and read to us her list of beliefs, an output from their workshop. And the cats are moving around and are in our faces again.

I wonder what I would do if I had a week or two all to myself. Am I still someone wholly apart, or am I now so integrated into something larger that I can’t really distinguish myself apart from it? Am I a fish out of water without intimates in my life? I don’t really know.

Doubtless I will find out again in time. Rosie is less than five years from college. Slash conventions will come and go and I expect my wife will attend more as opportunities and time allow. I will have to relearn how to be my best friend again.

On Karma

The Thinker by Rodin

I’ve been thinking a lot about karma lately. Karma is basically “as you do unto others, so shall be done unto you.” In short it asserts that there is no free lunch. If you go around messing up other people’s lives, yours will get messed up in equal measure. Many of us would agree that this principle is often true, but is it always true? And is there a time limit to karma? Clearly if you believe, as most people in the West assert, that we live only one life then when you die you may not have gotten back in equal measure all that you did to someone else. In this instance karma may not always be handed back in equal measure. Karma though is more often associated with the assertion that we have souls that go through multiple lifetimes, and we bring our karma with us from one lifetime to the next.

Like most humans I’ve done a lot of foolish and negative stuff that has generated a lot of bad karma. When I think back on some of it, I feel embarrassed that I was capable of such juvenile stuff. But while most of it occurred when I was a juvenile, I carried a lot of anger and resentment with me into adulthood.

I have come to believe in karma because in my experience it is just simply true. Lately though I’ve come to believe it applies just not to all people, but to human systems too, as well as any system that has any recognizable form of intelligence. One of the reasons I am opposed to war with Iraq is because it generates a lot of negative karma. Sure our intentions are honorable but in the process of trying to save people from tyranny we are killing a whole lot of them, and getting millions of others pissed off at us. If we as a nation assert that we know best and have the right to interfere preemptively in the lives of other people and countries then we are due to get our comeuppance. Maybe it will be more suicide bombers. Maybe it will skip a generation or two. I would like to think that it would happen only to those who supported this ill-advised war, but I’m not that naive. Working as I do in Washington DC I feel I am likely to be a victim at some point. Some dirty bomb won’t discriminate me because I attended peace vigils and put antiwar bumper stickers on my car.

I find trying to create good karma all the time a challenging task, because it is often at odds with my basic nature. For example I am not always in a pleasant mood and I often want to snarl at the person wishing me a happy day. I often feel insincere when I fake a smile, but it seems better to do that then unleash my real feelings. I wonder if it is possible to generate positive karma and always be true to you. Perhaps that is something I will learn in the second half of my life.

And there are times when I feel like “Hey, I’ve generated a lot of bad karma in my life, but haven’t I made up for it yet?” I often feel that way about my wife, who I love dearly, but who has many life challenges. Staying positive and supportive of her through long years of yo yo medical and psychological challenges is very hard. I know it’s no cakewalk for her either, since she has to deal with the effects first hand. For my wife these problems seem to increase with age, and that means I have to continue to rise to these occasions in more challenging ways. Haven’t we both had enough? Can’t the gods of fate say, “Twenty years of struggling with this stuff is enough. Go enjoy the rest of your lives.” It doesn’t look like that is going to happen.

If we have all lived many lives then perhaps I am getting my comeuppance for abusive or thoughtless behavior I created in previous lives. If so I must have been one hell of a bastard. I hope by the end of this life all is forgiven and in the next one life can be more serene.

At somewhere past the half way point of my life it is abundantly clear to me that one life is not nearly enough to attain understanding and wisdom. Although it is hard for me to grasp abstract notions like having a soul when modern medical instruments can’t detect it, perhaps the existence of a soul can be reasonably inferred. I can infer karma because I find it just happens. If it is clear to me that one life is not enough to work through all my bad karma then perhaps I can infer the existence of my soul through many lives.

As I suggested in an earlier entry, we are all in Purgatory. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to that notion, I do now believe in karma as a fundamental building block of my faith, such as it is. For me karma has now become self evident, the same way I learned not to touch a hot stove. Whether by design or whether by reaction I believe it also plays out on a macro level. As a society we simply must learn strategies to live in peace with each other. From my perspective violence is never the solution. No matter how painful it seems we must find nonviolent ways to resolve our problems, or we will continue to live through them over and over again.