Archive for the ‘Opinion Pieces’ Category

My Year in Review

Monday, January 17th, 2011

How can it be that I’ve not written in so long? Surely sloth has something to do with it, but so too is my slow process of digestion. Those of you who’ve been reading my blog know that for the last year or so that I’ve been celebrating my 50th birthday. I’ve been savoring new experiences, drinking in some adventure and, yes, to carry the metaphor a little too far, suffering from the inevitable hangover. Today, I turned 51 and now I can look back, see what I can recall, make some sense of it and try to figure out where I left my car (or “Doug” if you’re partial to The Hangover instead of Dude, Where’s my Car?).

My 50th birthday activities actually started before I turned 50. Back on October of 2009, I traveled to China with a friend of mine. Tom thought it would be cool to immerse ourselves in another language and Mandarin in Shanghai won out over Arabic in Morocco. Shanghai was, literally and figuratively, a trip. I wrote about it back then.

A few months later, the celebration changed venue to Iceland. I ventured to Reykjavik in July 2010, shortly after the summer solstice. This meant that my friend, Rich, and I could start a round of golf at 10pm and finish it at 2am with plenty of daylight. (Which we did). We also spent time on snowmobiles and glaciers and geysers and waterfalls and walking through areas described in 1,000 year old Icelandic sagas.

After Rich left, Barry joined me and we rode over the lid of Iceland. Not in comfortable cars, no, we rode motorcycles. And no, we didn’t ride on well maintained easy trails; hell no, we rode the nasty trail full of treacherous sand, numerous river crossings and way too many kilometers between gas stations. And speaking of running out of fuel in the volcanic desert, we didn’t make life easier for ourselves by bringing the right fuel for our camp stove; hell no, we had the wrong stuff and had to eat cold freeze-dried food. And no, we didn’t die in the desert; hell no, we had a satellite phone and called for Search and Rescue. Manly men occasionally do something right.

I didn’t write about Iceland because Barry was doing such a good job of it here. Maybe he or I will finish the story someday.

My final 50th birthday adventure was spent with my good friend, Oscar. I traveled to Florida in early January and we went huntin’. Yep, shot ourselves some little birds (quail). Tasty critters but you have to eat half a dozen to get a decent meal out of them. Given that I’d only shot a gun (of any kind) a couple of weeks earlier, I surprised myself by shooting two birds with my first two shots. By the way, the best part of hunting quail is enjoying the dogs (the pointers and the flusher).

So, metaphorically, where is my car? What did I learn from all this?

First, some simple stuff:

– Anyone under 40 should be studying Mandarin. It’s a good thing the language is really not that hard. Yes, you have to master the 4 tones, but then it’s just a lot of vocabulary.

– The Icelandic vikings only kidnapped good looking people.

– When riding through deep sand in a volcanic desert, avoid the well-worn trail. Blaze new tracks through virgin powder, sit back in your seat and let the bike go where it wants to go. Will it to stay on course, but don’t fight it.

– If you aim a shotgun carefully and squeeze the trigger slowly – you will miss every time. Let the gun become part of your arm. Point to the target and shoot without thinking too much. Just don’t shoot the dogs.

I think these are damn fine lessons to take with me into my 51st and subsequent years. I should be satisfied with them. I guess, though, if I had to add one more I’d say that I learned a lot about frailty and robustness in friendships.

Each of my fellow adventurers was a friend of mine. Tom and Rich were roommates of mine 30 years ago. In my travels with them I could sense ways that we’ve grown apart and may never recover the intimacy we once had. I could, however, also sense the original bonds the drew us together and allow us to remain friends after all this time. Barry has been a friend for only 6 years, but I know that there’s no one whom I’d trust in more when riding through the desert or crossing a swiftly flowing river. As to Oscar, we might have different interests and opinions about many things, but he is my brother.

For every Tom, Rich, Barry and Oscar there are numerous Johns and Joes and Jasons (and probably some Jennifers and Juliets) with which I’ve lost touch. I mourn these lost friendships; most were victims of simple neglect.

So, if I had one last lesson to highlight, I’d say that, for my 51st and subsequent years, I vow to better tend to my friends. As Chauncy Gardner said, “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.”

On Courage and Heroes

Monday, May 31st, 2010

A few weeks ago, I attended an off-road motorcycle class. After a few preliminary basics, we started learning some basic skills: climbing hills, descending hills, hopping over obstacles, riding through slippery terrain and, most importantly, lifting up one’s bike after you’ve fallen down. After two days of camp, I’d fallen down 3 times, once resulting in a nasty bruise to my leg.

What struck me most about the class (other than 500 lbs. of motorcycle falling on my shin) was how challenging it was. Some of the skills (e.g. hopping over 6″ tall obstacles or riding through river rock) were downright scary. While I waited in line for my turn to come, my mind raced through all of the bad things that could happen. And these weren’t simply idle worries; bad things did happen. I remember hopping over a 6″ obstacle (a stack of 2×6’s) and accidentally gunning the throttle. As I raced towards the fence, I knew that I needed to release the throttle, but that meant loosening my death grip on one of the few things that were holding me on to the bike! Somehow, that time, I managed not to fall.

For the most part, I managed to overcome my fears. I took on most of the riding drills and emerged mostly unscathed. After my nasty fall, however, I did choose to skip some of them (e.g. hopping a 9″ obstacle).

Ok, now, imagine this experience 1000 times as intense. A soldier rides slowly down a street in Baghdad or Fallujah knowing that an IED might be buried up ahead. How can anyone do that?

Another soldier is riding on a troop carrier and someone tosses a hand-made grenade into the vehicle. The soldier quickly picks up the grenade and tries to toss it over the side. It explodes before he has the chance, but his actions save the lives of his squad. How could he do that?

I think the image of the war hero as a fearless warrior is inaccurate, at best, and disrespectful, at worst. John Rambo rushing into battle without regard for his safety and no fear of death exists only in Hollywood. I believe that real life heroes are much more human and acknowledging their humanity makes their deeds all the more heroic.

Much of what the military does to train its soldiers, including the mindless repetition of tasks in boot camp, is to provide them with the right instincts to do the right thing at the right time. Athletes, doctors,  and pilots all train to achieve the same goal. A linesman falls on a loose ball. A surgeon clamps a bleeding vessel. A pilot  pushes down on the stick if the plane is stalling.

Fear is a natural response to danger. Our brains are programmed to recognize threatening situations and to run, if possible. Racing towards an obstacle is not natural. Grabbing a grenade is counter to our inborn survival instincts.

For me, the essence of heroism is what happens in that brief moment when, pondering action or inaction, fight or flight, someone quickly makes the decision that yields the greater good even at the price of personal sacrifice. I imagine a millisecond of total awareness when the decision is made, amidst fear and amidst the barrage of a trillion neurons all shouting “NO!”. 

It is hard to imagine such moments. I’d like to think that I would do the right thing, especially if it came down to defending my family or myself. Could I do the same thing to defend my country or the interests of my country or, more mundanely, to take a hill that my commanding officer told me is important to take? I don’t know. 

So, on this Memorial Day, I don’t think about the John Rambos (if they even exist). I think about the millions of soldiers, both friend and foe, who’ve faced the ultimate moment of truth and have made the right decision in spite of all the obvious reasons not to.

Tea Party Dogma

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

There’s something that fundamentally bugs me when when I listen to Tea Party folk. Partly it’s the whole “squishiness” of the movement. Disaffected moderates stand next to white supremacists in an organization whose only consistent message seems to be “anger”.  At another level, though, there’s a theme I’ve heard coming from TP folk that strikes a dissonant chord in my brain. What bugs me is their complaint that the US government (mostly via the new healthcare bill) is exceeding its constitutional bounds. They advocate a return to minimalist government as described in the US Constitution.

So what is bothersome about this? Well, I have a visceral reaction to the notion that a small set of fixed rules, written in a flawed language, can possibly capture everything which its author(s) intended. I believe that one of the structural advantages of Christianity over Islam is that the Bible is understood to have been written by imperfect humans whereas the Qur’an is supposed to be the literal transcription of Allah’s words to Muhammed. The former approach leaves us a lot of wiggle room. When Corinthians says, “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak…” and, “And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.” Christians (well, many of them) treat this in a historical context and don’t insist that it applies today. When reading surah 2:228 with regard to the rights of women how are we to interpret Allah’s words that “the men have a degree over them”? Does that still apply today? Fuzziness and being open to interpretation can be a good thing.

So, who gets to interpret the US Constitution? Can’t Obama simply say “the commerce clause is the basis for the healthcare bill”? How about Congress? The answer, of course is “no” in both cases. The Supreme Court gets to decide what’s constitutional. Right?

Well, right away we have a problem. Nowhere in the Constitution does it describe the process of judicial review. Let me state this another way, the Constitution does not subject laws to a constitutional test.  And yet, judicial review is an accepted part of our political process. Congress makes the laws, the Executive branch enforces them and the Judicial branch subjects them to constitutional review. How did this come to be?

Well, if you read the Federalist Papers and some history books, you learn that many of the initial 13 states practiced judicial review and that many of the founding fathers were in favor of it (not all, some were against). Finally, in 1803 (Marbury v. Madison), the Supreme Court struck down a law, declaring it unconstitutional and formally established the concept of judicial review in the US.

Understand, then, why the Tea Party logic is problematic. It declares the US Constitution to be the basis for deciding what powers are vested to the Federal Government, but that document alone does not subject federal laws to constitutional review. Only a broader reading of the Constitution and an 1803 opinion of the Supreme Court require laws to comply with the guidelines of the Constitution.

Once we get past that knothole, the Tea Party folk run into another problem. The Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of constitutionality, has repeatedly interpreted the commerce clause in a very broad fashion allowing the Federal government to greatly expand its powers. In 1964, the commerce clause was used to justify the Civil Rights act. More recently, the commerce clause justified the preeminence of federal drug laws over state laws (even when drugs never cross state lines).

Will the TP folk stop complaning about the healthcare bill if, ultimately, the Supreme Court rules it constitutional? I bet not. They would probably complain about activist judges on the Court and claim that they’d made a bad decision.

Sigh. You can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to base your arguments on the US Constitution, you can’t then complain if your interpretation of the Constitution is judged to be wrong. Once the Supremes have decided against you, you are simply wrong. The Constitution doesn’t subject the opinion of the Supreme Court to a popular vote. You can disagree with them all you want, but as far as the Constitution is concerned, you are wrong.

By the way, as a point of semantic clarification, conservative Supreme Court behavior is to respect precendence. Since the Supreme Court has previously interpreted the commerce clause in a broad way, it would be considered judicially liberal to reject precedent and to now consider it narrowly. So what the TP folk are really asking for is for the court to behave in an activist fashion in order to re-interpret the commerce clause.

Hey, you know what else is not in the US Constitution? The fillibuster. So when the TP folk complain about the process that was used to pass healthcare legislation, understand that the process would not have been necessary if the Senate had followed the process set out in the Constitution and allowed a simple up-and-down vote. What they’re really complaining about is that the Democrats used deplorable tactics to overcome the deplorable tactics employed by the opposition.

So, I get it: the Tea Party folk are angry. Bank bailouts, deficit spending, terrorism, etc. – plenty of stuff to be scared and angry about. But to hide behind the Constitution? Please.