Ten years later

The Thinker by Rodin

One of the benefits of writing a blog that’s been around a really long time (this one started in December 2002) is that you occasionally get to go back and look at posts made a long time ago and compare it to where you are in the present. In July 2005 I tried imagining my life in 2015, then ten years in the future. I did it as part of a topic discussed by my covenant group. At the time, the exercise had me breaking out in a cold sweat. Then, at age 48, the idea of being 58 seemed pretty scary.

It’s not quite ten years later but it is more than nine years later. So it’s time to see how good a prognosticator I was back then.

  • I wanted to be in good health at age 58. I have subsequently learned that good health is relative. In some ways I was in worse health in 2005. I did not know I had sleep apnea back then, and even back then my sciatica was starting to make my life miserable. I’m surely no younger; in fact I am about a decade older. I take medications I never took then, but overall I am in less pain and healthier, much of it due to modern medicine. However, most of my chronic problems, like sciatica and sleep apnea, were problems that I had to figure out. No physician had diagnosed them. I had to persist and keep trying. So you can be in better health as you age, but you have to take ownership of your health and you must make it a priority. Don’t assume doctors can figure it all out for you. At best they see your problems through a gauzy curtain.
  • I wondered if I would be retired. The answer is yes; I retired in August. Back then retirement seemed very scary. How could I feel good about myself if I wasn’t doing something I felt was important to society? It turns out at least so far it’s not an issue. I am just as busy, if not more so, being retired and I have much less stress. Jobs can kill you particularly those jobs that come with lots of responsibility. A well-planned retirement where you keep engaged in stuff you like is a great blessing. I am fortunate to have started mine comfortably and long before most people do.
  • I thought if I were retired I might take up something like golf. I still have no desire to do so, in part because age has not made me more agile. But this is also because I did not expect to be so busy in retirement. That may change after we relocate. I still have goals to do more physical activity. So far in retirement that hasn’t been the case, but I have been actively fixing my house. I don’t sit in a chair as much and move around. As for golf, I’d prefer to take up mini-golf instead.
  • Would my Mr. Hyde come out? Would I do something perverted or weird like exposing myself on street corners? I’m not sure where this fear came from. The answer of course is no. In many ways the lower testosterone levels that come with age in men is a blessing. It makes it easier to stay rational and stay out of newspapers and jail cells.
  • I was worried about losing my youth. Well, you either lose it or you die. Given the alternative, losing your youth is pretty good. I didn’t have youth at 48 and I have less of it at 57. The funny thing about aging, at least for me, is you age so slowly that it doesn’t bother you very much. I still think I look pretty youthful, at least for my age. I realize it is part self-deception, or maybe even total self-deception, but as long as you think it’s true you can get through life more happily. I obviously am not attracting any younger babes, but I wasn’t at age 48 either.
  • I thought both my parents would be deceased. Thankfully, my father is still alive. My mother, however, died some months after I wrote the original post. My dad is 88. He might make it to 98. I know he wants to. Both of us aren’t counting on it. But life will go on, assuming I survive to 67, even with the passing of my father. Death is not so scary anymore; it is a path I am becoming familiar with.
  • I wondered if at 25 my daughter would be out of the house. The answer is (as of today) no. As of tomorrow: yes. The movers come tomorrow and we’ll be official empty nesters. More about that, probably, in a subsequent post.
  • I figured there was a good probability that some sort of calamity would affect me. This was in part due to witnessing 9/11 as I worked in Washington when it happened. No nuclear bombs have gone off unexpectedly near me. I may be unduly paranoid, but I still think Washington will suffer something like this in my lifetime. But experience with real life suggests I worry too much. Overall society works, just imperfectly much of the time. Bad stuff happens but a lot of good stuff that doesn’t make the press often does too. More good stuff than bad stuff must be happening, because we are still here, the money is still green and I am in a retirement zone.
  • I was worried I’d end up hating my job. That did not happen, but it did wear me out. I felt like a juggler with one too many balls in the air wondering how long it would be before I dropped one. Things changed, it got increasingly stressful and I realized I didn’t want to do it anymore. Today, I am glad I retired and happy that someone likely younger and more agile will pick up the work and probably do a better job than I did. I also realize I did quite a good job overall considering the minimal resources I was given.
  • I was worried about insolvency. It’s curious what happens when we worry about the things that bug us the most. I took a lot of steps to make sure it didn’t happen, and mitigated a lot of risk through various insurance policies, including an umbrella insurance policy. It also helped to move into my peak earning years. When my daughter got out of college, I could finally save gobs of money. I can’t see insolvency happening unless there is some widespread breakdown of society. And if it happens, we’ll do better than most.

Overall, there was value in thinking about things that made me break out in a cold sweat back in 2005. Instead of fearing them, I was drawn to grapple with them. Fears and reflecting on them made me think through what is really important to me. In that sense, the exercise was valuable and it succeeded.

Life at 57 for me is quite sweet. Life at 58 I expect will be even sweeter.

Selling Fear

The Thinker by Rodin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Return of McCarthyism

The Thinker by Rodin

Those of us of a certain age remember the Red Menace: communism. We were told endlessly that communism was bad. It was evil. It was definitely un-American. The Red Menace was everywhere. The Soviet Union was the primary menace but China, though smaller, was even scarier. Back then being a red state was not a good thing. It meant it was a communist country. A global map showed most of Asia swallowed up in red, along with Eastern Europe, Cuba and swatches of Africa. Only a fool would admit to being a communist. But during the 1950s even the whisper that you might have communist sympathies was enough to cost you any chance of employment in this country. Communists were scary, mysterious and (we believed) evil to the core. They had not a dash of humanity in them. They must have eaten little babies for breakfast and raped their own mothers. They were our boogeymen.

And there certainly were good reasons to be scared of communism. Russia had, after all, taken over Eastern Europe after World War Two simply because it could. Like America it had massive missiles with nuclear warheads. Their missiles were pointed right at us and could annihilate large parts of our country within an hour. Cuba was communist and it was just across the Florida Straits. Communists were trying to win control of places like Nicaragua and El Salvador. It clearly was an important national security problem. But communism was also perceived to be a direct assault on our way of living. The truth is in our country capitalism is as important as democracy. Communism was about ending capitalism. It was the threat to capitalism that truly freaked us out.

But for some whipping up our concern about communism was a means to a different end. Fear of communism became a means to push other goals that had nothing to do with communism but had a lot to do with controlling us. The symbol of those paranoid times was Senator Joseph McCarthy who professed to believe that our government was full of communist agents. McCarthy cast innocent people right and left as communists. McCarthy became one of the most powerful people in the United States. Even legendary FBI Directory J. Edgar Hoover feared the man.

Fortunately on June 9th, 1954 McCarthy was exposed for the fraud that he was by Joseph Welch, the chief attorney for the U.S. Army. “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” Welch asked him. McCarthy finally became the investigated, was censured by the Senate and died in 1957 of hepatitis, likely caused from alcoholism.

I’m sad to say that McCarthyism is back. It is not in quite as virulent a stage today as it was in the 1950s. But here it is fifty years later and its presence is now unmistakable. Communism is no longer the boogeyman. Terrorism has become the new boogeyman.

Just as it was with communism, terrorism is a serious threat to our national security. But even while it remains a serious threat it is not the overwhelming threat that the Bush Administration paints it out to be. In fact compared to the Cold War, the War on Terrorism may well be but a fairly minor skirmish. The Soviet Union had the capability of completely destroying our country. Al Qaeda does not. And like the Cold War there are limits to the amount of paranoia and associated power grabbing a reputedly free country should tolerate.

It was George W. Bush who unapologetically set the tone to the War on Terrorism: you are either with us or against us. As simple minded as this policy is at least in the beginning it was applied only to other countries. Now it is being applied to Americans. If we make the wrong choice on November 2nd we are apparently giving aid and comfort to the terrorists. It seems Osama bin Laden is secretly rooting for Kerry-Edwards. No less than our Vice President suggested exactly this. On September 7th, 2004 Dick Cheney told us:

“It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we’ll get hit again, that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.”

The implication is clear. If you don’t vote for Bush-Cheney you are aiding and abetting terrorists. If you love your country and want to see your kids alive you must vote Bush-Cheney.

But it’s more than this. Bush-Cheney has become the “All Fear, All The Time” administration. Terrorism is its one trick pony. Keeping us scared is about the only leverage it has left over us. By keeping us scared it appeals to the worst in us, instead of the best in us. By keeping us scared it is harder to notice the 800,000 or so jobs lost during this administration, or the net loss in income due to inflation this year, or the outsourcing, or the vanishing middle class, or our increasingly polluted skies and water, or our crumbling infrastructure. By keeping us scared and by asking Americans to put their trust in this administration they are asking us to turn a blind eye on just how poor a job they are actually doing protecting our country.

The fire and brimstone coming from this administration reminds me of the endless fires and ash belching from Tolkien’s mythical Mount Doom. It is covering the land and turning us into nastier people. Instead of being free spirited Elves we are behaving a lot more like Orcs. It is making us suspicious of our neighbors and paranoid about anyone claiming to be Muslim or in my case, a Democrat. It is saying that dissent is un-American. I got a whiff of it a couple months ago when I was asked to either support my president or leave the country.

Fortunately every four years we Americans have a chance to put in new leaders in the White House. John Kerry and John Edwards have become the new Joseph Welch and Edward R. Murrows. (They weren’t the first. Howard Dean beat them to it.) Thankfully through the presidential and vice presidential debates they are allowing Americans to understand how the fear mongering and hubris from this administration have been substituted for reasoned judgment.

It’s one thing to be scared, it’s another thing to be controlled because we are scared. We should be scared about aspects of our War on Terrorism. We should definitely be scared that due to this adminstration’s incompetence so many nuclear stockpiles across the former Soviet Union remain so poorly secured three years after 9/11.

But we should not be scared of boogeymen. Saddam Hussein was a boogeyman. He certainly was a threat to his own people. But since the Gulf War he was no threat to his neighbors. He was contained correctly and competently for about a billion dollars a year by presidents Bush Sr. and Clinton through sanctions and no fly zones. We will not be safer because the FBI has the power to check our library records. We will not be safer because the president claims the power to put even our own citizens away without a trial indefinitely in the name of national security.

Kerry and Edwards say that if elected they will never lie to us. Arguably on some level all politicians are liars. But clearly they could not come close to lying to us the way this administration has repeatedly lied to us about Iraq. Joseph McCarthy would approve of the Bush team’s tactics. To respond, on November 2nd we must become Howard Beale. We must say unmistakably that we’ve had it up to here with reckless fear mongering and we’re not going to live in fear anymore. We will insist on leaders that can tell us the truth because we are grown up enough and can handle the truth, mistakes and all. And perhaps although the world will remain a dangerous place we will refuse to spend our lives needlessly traumatized. Bush and Cheney have become like abusive, power controlling husbands. And we have allowed ourselves to be the traumatized wife. Instead of paralyzed by our fears we must move forward toward the future sanguine of the risks of our age but not overcome by them. Perhaps we will find the simple determination to live our lives wide eyed, fully, yet unafraid.

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