Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The College Search

Knowledge is good.
My wife and I took our son Jack to have a look at the University of Georgia last weekend.  It was our first stop in what is sure to be an exhaustively thorough search for the perfect school for our first-born child.  As with everything pertaining to his life so far, we go overboard. 

We never took our eyes off Jack when he was little, just to guard against the possibility that as a two-year old he might steal our car keys and drive into a pond or that he might disable the childproof lock on the cabinet under the sink and eat a whole box of Calgon. Since everything is a new experience with your first-born, hovering (or helicoptering) is how we parent. By the time you get to your third child, you most likely have relaxed your standards considerably.  My ten-year-old son Alex?  I regularly have him drive to the store to buy groceries and beer. 

So anyway, Jack, Shannon, and I are all experiencing the college search for the first time.  Things sure have changed a lot since I performed this ritual thirty years ago, that's all I can say.  I think I applied to six schools and visited none.  I could not begin to tell you by what criteria I chose the schools I ultimately applied to, either.  I may have met with my school's college counselor for an hour or two, at most.  Perhaps he/she supplied me with a list of names that matched the academic record I had patched together.  I have no idea. 

By virtue of the fact that I was a Virginia resident and had familial connections to the University of Virginia, I ended up there, at the school that had always been my first choice.  Had Virginia turned me away, I would have matriculated to some other school having never visited it or having made anything more than a cursory attempt to learn anything about it.  My mother was never going to drive me all over the place trying to help me find the best place for me, so I never even suggested it.  Maybe other parents did that back in the early 80s, but I do not think my experience was abnormal. It just wasn't as competitive or complicated then as it is now.

That's me.  Think there was any doubt as to where I was going to college?
There now exists an entire industry dedicated to this process.  College coaches, test prep, advance visits... it goes on and on.  Perhaps it was the advent of what is known as the "Common Application" that is responsible for the complexity that now characterizes what was once a pretty straightforward process. Ironically, what was intended to streamline the process has in fact made it infinitely more complicated.

At one time each school had its own application, with unique requests for information.  Given the laborious nature of the application process, students limited themselves to a manageable number of applications.  Most schools now accept that Common App, greatly reducing the amount of work that must go into the application process. The unintended consequence is that this streamlining has made it easier for seniors now to apply to many more schools and it is this explosion in the number of applications that has made the entire process much more stressful.  It is not uncommon for seniors today to apply to 15-20 schools.  With schools receiving so many more applications than they did a generation ago, they have become more selective and, as a result, more expensive  Scarcity and cost go hand in hand. 

Colleges and universities have used this perceived scarcity to their economic advantage.  Tuition costs continue to defy reason, rising 6-8% per year every year despite a twenty-five year stagnation in wages.  Some are calling college costs the next great bubble, but people have been predicting that college costs cannot keep going up for as long as I can remember.  $50,000 per year for college?  Really?

So, it is against this backdrop that we have joined the fray.  Shannon and I agree that the whole process is absurd, yet we feel compelled to play the game.  Some of the blame can be attributed to the competitive nature of parenting.  In trying to make sure that we give our children every conceivable advantage, we have gone around the bend.  We have bought into the myth that acceptance into the "right" schools can ease the road that our children will later trod and so we exhaust ourselves and our children in trying to position them as attractive applicants.

Ironically, studies show that any earnings advantage that the graduate of a prestigious school may have upon entering the workforce disappears by the fifth year.  An Ivy League graduate may have an initial advantage over the Podunk U. graduate, but that Ivy Leaguer must display his/her aptitude if he/she wants to maintain the earnings advantage that the Ivy League diploma accorded him/her. Talent will always trump potential.

Perhaps the most nonsensical aspect of this whole exercise is of trying to find the "best fit" for your child.  Try this.  Ask ten people if they enjoyed their college experience.  Unless you happen to query someone who was denied admisson to the school of their dreams, the answer you will get is that college was great and that they have no regrets about the choice they ended up making.  The question is an entirely subjective one yet we try to use quantitative analysis to predictively answer it.  Since most people attend only one college, they have no frame of reference with which to second guess themselves.  How could I know if Vanderbilt would have been a better choice for me than Virginia?  Even if I could answer that question, it would only be with the benefit of hindsight.  I certainly couldn't say beforehand with any certainty that I would like Virginia better than Vanderbilt, but that's what we are attempting to do with our children. It's a fruitless exercise. I chose Virginia because I hoped it would be the best place for me. Thankfully, nothing in my experience there did anything to change that opinion. That's the way it probably will be with your child. They will be happy wherever they end up. Sure, we can steer our kids away from small single-sex schools if they tell us of a preference for a large, coeducational one, but our parents could too and they didn't need $3000 college coaches, test prep tutors, and on site visits to be able to offer that insight.  Our kids will end up where they end up.  If they have special talent, it will not go unrecognized in the workplace.  Now, if you will excuse me I need to go make a million dollars so that I can afford to send my three kids to college.


 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs 1955-2011


It's over, so now it begins.

Just one day after Steve Jobs' successor introduced Apple's latest version of the iPhone, Steve Jobs did what he always encouraged all of us to do: he let go. The curtain that for years cloaked the seriousness of his medical condition has been drawn back to reveal what we knew was the probability but dared hope would not be the outcome. Thus ends an almost-decade old fight with an insidious cancer that spares no one, not even Steve Jobs.  His death at age fifty-six leaves a void that the public and most certainly the investment community has worried can never be filled, leading to the question of whether Apple can remain a great company without his direct involvement. While we can argue that he got more out of his fifty-six years than most people would get out of double that number, we are left with the unanswerable question of how much more he would have done with more time. That perhaps is the reason for the very personal grief I feel at the passing of a man who was a stranger to me but whose creations are as much as part of my life as is my own family.

Steve Jobs knew me even if I didn't know him. He probably knew you, too. He knew what we wanted before we did. He understood that existing technology and the software used to harness it was hopelessly complex and he sought over the course of his life to demystify it. He urged us all to let go of our fear of technology and of old ways of thinking about form and function. He encouraged us to "Think Different," to share his vision of technology as a tool for all of us. In this he was spectacularly successful.

His message didn't resonate with everyone, of course, but the good news is that every day more and more people come to understand the simple genius of his vision. Jobs never thought of a computer as simply an appliance or a tool, like a lamp or an iron or a hammer.  Aesthetics always mattered to him.  Steve Jobs reached out but never catered to people who thought otherwise.  He understood that while a hammer is just a hammer, a computer could be much more than a beige box full of circuits and wires. To fully appreciate an Apple product you had to share Steve's view on the role of technology in our lives.  His goal always was to make technology work for us simply and elegantly and never for us to be its slaves.

It was Jobs who first grasped and commercialized the enormous potential of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) and the mouse. Prior to the mouse, computers responded only to typewritten commands that required mastery of the various programming languages like Fortran and Cobol. Too hard.

Huh? This is hard.


This is not.
The Graphical User Interface and the mouse brought point-and-click to computers and accelerated  acceptance of the idea of a computer as a tool for everyone.  Making technology simple to use, elegantly.

I was impressed by the power of his convictions, the unwavering confidence that he had in his visions of the future. He bullied the world into seeing things his way.  The press termed his ability to convince anyone that anything was possible the "Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field."  It was another mark of his greatness, for how can anything be possible unless someone first believes that it is? The tragedy of many of history's great artists–and make no mistake, Jobs was an artist–is that they did not live to see their greatness celebrated.  The silver lining to the Jobs' tragedy is that he did live to see his greatness appreciated and that the accolades he garnered drove him to ever-greater levels of achievement. He never appeared eager to cash in on his fame, rarely granting interviews and famously having a prickly relationship with the media, but I do think he derived tremendous satisfaction from proving people wrong.  That his ideas achieved commercial success seemed incidental despite that success serving as the most tangible measure of validation. He was destined for greatness, that much is certain.

How many potentially great ideas have died in the stampede of the herd mentality?  The pressure in society to conform is almost unbearable. It takes an incredible amount of confidence to believe in an idea when no one else does. Steve Jobs had that confidence and the world is a better place for his ability to row against the tide. He articulated this view most famously in a 2005 commencement address at Stanford University: 
"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."
Whether or not you think Apple is "insanely great" and even if you have been able to resist the gravitational pull of Jobs' "reality distortion field," your life was changed in measurable ways because you lived in the time of Steven Paul Jobs.  He wasn't afraid to "Think Different." What a great legacy. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Unjustifiable Justice

I followed with interest last night the execution in Georgia of convicted murderer Troy Davis.  Not morbid interest, but more like disgusted interest.  I am the first to admit that I am no expert on this case. I am sure that there are facts that I am unaware of, but even those facts would not change my opinion that Mr. Davis' execution is a societal failing.

Davis was convicted in 1991 for the 1989 murder of a Savannah, GA police officer and was sentenced to death.  Twenty years ago!  For twenty years this man languished in a legal limbo, using the various avenues at his disposal attempting to have his conviction overturned or his sentence commuted. Yesterday he exhausted the last of his appeals.   

The Troy Davis case has increased exponentially my skepticism regarding the purpose of  capital punishment.  As a younger man I accepted the concept of vengeance. I saw the world as black or white, right or wrong, guilty or innocent.  Experience has changed my oversimplified view. Whereas I once parroted the views of others whose opinions I valued, I have learned that in life curiosity and skepticism are wise companions.

According to the news, Davis was convicted of murder despite there being no physical evidence, no DNA, no gun that placed him at the scene or tied him to the shooting.  Additionally, several witnesses who testified against him have since recanted their testimony, saying that their statements had been coerced.  In view of these facts, I think the authorities should have viewed his conviction with some skepticism, yet the Georgia Department of Corrections rejected his offer to take a lie detector test, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected his plea for clemency, the Supreme Court denied his motion for a stay of execution, and the White House issued  a statement saying that "it is not appropriate for the President of the United States to weigh in on specific cases like this one, which is a state prosecution."   In a case such as this one, where "reasonable doubt" existed, would it have not been more prudent to proceed with caution?  After all, Davis had sat on death row for twenty years.  Would another few months have made a difference while authorities reviewed the facts of the case and interviewed those who recanted their testimony?    

I am not liberal when it comes to crime but the pedestal upon which the capital punishment advocacy has placed its argument–deterrence–seems poorly built to me.  Murder has not been eradicated from society so I can only surmise that fear of death is not a consideration for those who kill.  I understand the logic behind the belief that those who take life should forfeit their own, but our legal system is not sufficiently perfect to make it an errorfree operation.  I find it beyond ironic that some of the same people who are strident in their opposition to abortion are among the most vocal advocates of capital punishment.  How does that make any sense?  Is not a life a life, regardless of how that life is conducted? 

Texas Governor and Presidential candidate Rick Perry is one such person.  Writing in the September 15 edition of The Washington Post, Robert P. Jones reported that "Perry’s identification as a strong supporter of “a culture of life” and what he called the “ultimate justice” of capital punishment, however, raises some potentially thorny questions about the meaning of being “pro-life.” In campaign season, the question is whether American voters, especially voters who identify as “pro-life,” are going to raise concerns about why Perry’s position doesn’t represent what some Catholic theologians call “a consistent ethic of life,” opposition to both legalized abortion and capital punishment. A quick foray into public opinion, however, seems to indicate that Perry may be facing little pressure on this front for at least two reasons."  Opinion polls indicate that Perry's view is fairly widely-held.


If just one innocent person has been wrongly convicted and executed, then the death penalty, in my opinion, should be abolished.  Sadly, the fact is that many persons have been wrongfully executed.  Yet, Ol' Sparky continues to serve. Perhaps a parallel scenario will illustrate the tragic absurdity of this. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is tasked with determining the safety and efficacy of new drugs that are submitted for approval. Such approval comes only after years of research, development, and clinical testing convince the FDA that the new drug offers the promise of life extension and other benefits that cannot be gotten anywhere else. If, during clinical trials, heretofore unknown side effects are discovered that result in patient mortality, the FDA halts the trial and rejects the drug application.

The death penalty, through the concept of deterrence, also offers the promise of life extension by protecting potential victims from future crimes committed by convicted murderers or by causing those who might be inclined to murder to reconsider.  Convicted murderers are the "patients" in the clinical trial of the death penalty.  When an innocent person dies as the result of imperfect jurisprudence, are not the legal system's flaws exposed as fully as are a drug's flaws in the drug approval process?  Should not the trial be halted so as to protect future "patients" who may be harmed by it?  Of course it should.  Why then isn't it?  Because vengeance is the real motivation behind the death penalty, not deterrence.

If vengeance is the reason, then the death penalty's rationale is questionable.  If life is a gift from God, then is it not up to God to determine when that life has run its course?  Certainly, those who murder overstep their bounds in this regard, but do we not compound the error by killing those who kill, especially when the decision to execute comes after thoughtful deliberation by supposedly enlightened people? 

While life imprisonment imposes on society certain economic consequences, should justice have a price?  It seems to me that life in prison is both a worse punishment for the convicted and a better alternative for society. How many convicted people have later been exonerated and given back their freedom?  Thousands.  How many convicted and then executed people have gotten back their freedom when their innocence was later discovered?  Zero. 

Criminals owe a debt to society. If the cost of housing and feeding a prisoner is $50,000 per year, I see nothing wrong with putting these people to work in the service of the state.  They might not like it and critics will claim that such work does nothing to rehabilitate but, if given a choice, I'll bet death row inmates would choose roadwork over lethal injection, especially if they are innocent of the crime for which they were convicted. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Is This Any Way to Run a Country?

Is political civility gone for good? Apparently. It's a terrible trend and one that has greater ramifications than just hurt feelings. S&P's recent downgrade of the U.S. was necessitated by our national debt, but the trigger for the downgrade was not the agency's belief that we will be unable to pay our debts but rather  the inability of our elected officials to put aside their political differences long enough to do us all some good. Our Congress has become an adult kindergarten, full of tattlers and name callers. 

The debt ceiling talks were a national embarrassment. Leaders from both sides stood each day before the microphones and disparaged the other party, declaring that it was the other side's unwillingness to yield that was the problem. We citizens don't want our Congress to play the blame game, we just want results.  Like parents say a million times to their children, we don't care who started it, we just want it to stop.

What is the genesis of this national legislative gridlock? In my opinion, it is the negative campaigning that has become an entrenched part of the election process. The candidate who survives the electoral inquisition goes to Washington scarred, having had his/her reputation assaulted, his/her character demeaned, and his/her motives questioned. Who wouldn't take personally such personal attacks, especially when truth is secondary to tone? Negative campaigning is as old as campaigning itself, but our national fascination with scandal has spurred candidates to new levels of unethical behavior.

"According to a recent bipartisan survey commissioned by the Project on Campaign Conduct, voters are not overjoyed with today's political candidates and their campaign tactics."

Highlights from the Survey
Of those surveyed:
59% believe that all or most candidates deliberately twist the truth.
39% believe that all or most candidates deliberately lie to voters.
43% believe that most or all candidates deliberately make unfair attacks on their opponents. Another 45% believe that some candidates do.
67% say they can trust the government in Washington only some of the time or never.
87% are concerned about the level of personal attacks in today's political campaigns.
                                                 ThisNation.com; "Do Negative Campaign Ads Work?"

Almost 90% of respondents "are concerned about the level of personal attacks in today's political campaigns."  Ninety percent!  There is almost no topic on which 90% of American can agree, so this result is meaningful.   Elections should not be about selecting the candidate who seems "less bad," but that's what they have become.

  
 
For more than two hundred years, political discourse within the House and Senate has been governed by certain rules first put down in the Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Known as "Jefferson's Manual," it is prescribed reading for all incoming legislators. It describes not only the rules of parliamentary procedure but also the decorum that must accompany legislative debate. Jefferson wrote that "it is very material that order, decency and regularity, be preserved in a dignified public body."  I daresay that he would be very disappointed with our current Congress.

Ryan Rhodes gives President Obama an earful.
Earlier this week in a town hall meeting in Iowa, President Obama sparred with prominent Tea Party member Ryan Rhodes.  During their sometimes heated exchange "Rhodes shouted out that the president's calls for more civility in politics had little chance of coming to pass after 'your vice president is calling people like me, a Tea Party member, a 'terrorist.'"

A "terrorist"? What is wrong with people? Joe Biden shouldn't be so cavalier with that word, saving it instead to refer to this country's real enemies.  It's completely inappropriate. In a 2009 speech to Congress on his health care reform bill, Obama was interrupted by Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, who shouted "You lie!"  It was an extraordinary breach of decorum and it horrified his fellow legislators. 

Is this any way to run a country?  Differing ideas should spur creative solutions, not animosity. Democracy cannot function without cooperation and mutual respect.   This breakdown in decorum has its genesis in the slanderous campaigning that is so prevalent today.  It should be outlawed. 
 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Entitlements Primer

Today's word is "entitlements."  What exactly are we talking about when we throw this word around?  It is in the national interest for all of us to have an understanding of our federal government's entitlements program, so let's take a look.  Join me, won't you?
Entitlements are "the kind of government program that provides individuals with personal financial benefits (or sometimes special government-provided goods or services) to which an indefinite (but usually rather large) number of potential beneficiaries have a legal right (enforceable in court, if necessary) whenever they meet eligibility conditions that are specified by the standing law that authorizes the program. (emphasis mine) The beneficiaries of entitlement programs are normally individual citizens or residents, but sometimes organizations such as business corporations, local governments, or even political parties may have similar special "entitlements" under certain programs. The most important examples of entitlement programs at the federal level in the United States would include Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, most Veterans' Administration programs, federal employee and military retirement plans, unemployment compensation, food stamps, and agricultural price support programs."
– Paul M. Johnson, "A Glossary of Political Economy Terms"
The underlined section is meaningful because it illustrates the difficult job the government has in controlling spending or even in making budgetary forecasts. Entitlement programs are open to all who meet the eligibility criteria but since there is no way to know in advance how many people that will be in any given year, it is impossible to forecast precisely how much money will be needed. As open-ended programs, they also are exempted from the annual appropriations review to which all non-entitlement expenditures are subjected.

According to Johnson, a professor of Political History at Auburn University, "since the middle 1980s, entitlement programs have accounted for more than half of all federal spending. Taken together with such other almost uncontrollable (in the short run, that is) expenses as interest payments on the national debt and the payment obligations arising from long-term contracts already entered into by the government in past years, entitlement programs leave Congress with no more than about 25% of the annual budget to be scrutinized for possible cutbacks through the regular appropriations process. This very substantially reduces the practicality of trying to counteract the ups and downs of the overall economy through a "discretionary" fiscal policy because so very little of the budget is available for meaningful alteration by the Appropriations and Budget committees on short notice."

When the pie on the right is bigger than the pie on the left, that's a problem.

For 2011, Congress approved a Federal budget of slightly more that $3.8 trillion dollars.  About 65% of this year's budget will be spent funding entitlement programs and paying interest on our national debt. Social Security is the largest of the entitlement programs but there is debate as to whether it actually is an entitlement.  Workers pay into Social Security over the course of their careers, entrusting the government with a portion of their retirement savings.  Since the government merely holds those funds for our eventual benefit, many believe that the program should be stricken from the list of entitlement programs.   Medicare and Medicaid are the other two biggest entitlement programs. Together, these three programs currently account for more than 70% of all entitlement spending.  As the Boomer generation ages, these three programs' costs to the federal government will continue to rise.  


 Knowing this, one quickly sees the trouble Congress has in addressing the issue of ever-increasing entitlement spending.  The Social Security program was enacted in 1940 and the two health care programs have existed only since the 1960s but over time all three have become  the sacred cows of public policy. Any politician will tell you that endorsing the idea of cuts to the two health care programs or changes to Social Security is the surest way to get voted out of office. Yet changes to these three programs is exactly what has to happen in order for our country to have a chance at budgetary balance and deficit reduction.  Everyone has an opinion on the efficacy of the government's other social programs (Head Start, School Lunch, Welfare, Food Stamps, Pell Grants, Veterans Programs, etc.) but these programs are comparatively small.

Florida and Missouri recently enacted mandatory drug testing for all welfare recipients.  Florida Governor Rick Scott defended this action, stating that "It's not right for taxpayer money to be paying for somebody's drug addiction. On top of that, this is going to increase personal responsibility, personal accountability. We shouldn't be subsidizing people's addiction."  While I agree with this and find it hard to believe that this hasn't been law until just recently, I understand that the cost savings effected by kicking drug users out of the welfare program will provide only minor budgetary relief.    

Giving such people handouts is emblematic of our government's failure to be accountable for the money it spends, but drug use by welfare recipients is not the big problem.  President Obama's health care reform offers up some cost savings in the two plans, but opponents are dubious that such savings will ever be realized.  Americans–all Americans–have to face the fact that the sacred cows of entitlement spending are going to have to be sacrificed on the altar of budgetary reform in order for our country to regain and maintain its financial footing.  Kicking the dope smokers out of the welfare program is not enough.

 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Camp

My wife and I drove to North Carolina last week to pick up our ten-year-old from camp.  I spent a few years at Camp Sea Gull in the late 1970s and it was fantastic.  I even was invited to come back as a counselor and for some boneheaded reason did not.  Big mistake.  Unfortunately, Camp Sea Gull is just too far away for us to send our boys there, so we have found various camps for them—and my daughter—in the North Carolina mountains.  

Camp Sea Gull 1977
Alex, our ten-year-old, went for two weeks this year to Camp Rockmont just outside of Asheville. This was his longest time away from us but thankfully none of our children are prone to homesickness or separation anxiety.  If ever there was a prototypical camper, Alex is it.  We joked with him that he would love camp because he could go two weeks without brushing his teeth, taking a shower, or even changing his t-shirt.  We were kidding of course, but knew that if he could get away with this horrible hygiene trifecta, he would.
Your shirt is looking a little crusty, buddy.
Alex has a fascination with weapons. He has fashioned homemade slingshots, bows and arrows, and spears. With his ingenuity, I have no doubt that he would have survived the Alamo. He can turn any stick into a gun and can recite from memory all of the various guns that are available for use in "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare." It's a little frightening actually, but we figured that he could indulge himself in riflery and archery at camp and satisfy this curiosity of his.

Ready, Fire, Aim.
During his time at camp we got just two barely legible postcards from him. Clearly, Alex was not missing us too badly. By the penmanship, it appeared as though they were written while Alex was was in the middle of a bull riding lesson. From what we were able to decipher it seemed as though he and camp were getting along just fine. He made reference both times to his love of something called "the blob, a camp phenomenon that did not exist in my day. When I was a camper the Blob was a schlock horror film that we watched on Movie Night.
The Blob then.
The Blob now.











When we arrived at camp to pick him up, I got bitten by the camp bug.  Hard.  Seriously, is there anything as fun as camp?   If you are a kid, what's not to love?  Pancakes with a whole bottle of syrup every morning? Why not?  Twenty pieces of bacon?  Pass 'em over. Swimming, camping, ziplining, blobbing, sailing, hiking?  Yes please. Going to bed with filthy feet?  Who cares? For parents, camp now is something of a throwback,  a window into our own  more adventurous, less electronic, childhoods. Summer camp undoubtedly is one of childhood's best rites of passage.  

As I looked around, certain that I would see some parents I knew, I noticed that we all had that same wistful look that to me said, "Boy, I'd love to take a few weeks off from this adult life and go back to camp.  I hope these kids understand how great this is."  I think this nostalgic undercurrent has fueled the popularity of parent-child camps that are en vogue these days. Why not?   I, for one, am dying to try out the Blob.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Are Random Acts of Kindness Really Random?

A fellow named Forrest Gump once pondered one of life's basic questions: 
"I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze. But I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

Is there a grand plan for each of us?  Are the events of our lives predetermined by a higher being?  Or, as Gump wondered, is life just one giant random walk, with the plot being made up as we go along?  It's a fascinating question. I am sure that you would not be surprised to learn that there are entire schools of thought devoted to this concept called synchronicity, first articulated by Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung in the 1920s. 
"Synchronicity is the occurrence of two events that are not linked causally, nor linked teleologically, yet are meaningfully related. Once, a client was describing a dream involving a scarab beetle when, at that very instant, a very similar beetle flew into the window. Often, people dream about something, like the death of a loved one, and find the next morning that their loved one did, in fact, die at about that time. Sometimes people pick up he phone to call a friend, only to find that their friend is already on the line. Most psychologists would call these things coincidences, or try to show how they are more likely to occur than we think. Jung believed they were indications of how we are connected, with our fellow humans and with nature in general, through the collective unconscious." 
                                                                                            – Dr. C. George Boeree

It sounds as though Dr. Boeree is describing what in "Star Wars" parlance is known as "The Force," doesn't it?  Simply put, synchronicity is the result of two seemingly unrelated events producing a meaningful consequence.  I go back and forth on the idea of synchronicity because I believe that those who claim that everything in life is predetermined are absolving themselves of the consequences of their actions.  If everything is predetermined, how can we be blamed for the mistakes we make?  However, believing that all life is chance would imply that one does not believe in God and I certainly don't want to do that. There is, after all, very little upside in disavowing a belief in a supreme being and lots and lots of potential downside.

Do things happen for a reason?  Ask my friend Angie Godfrey and she will tell you that they do.  Here's her story, as related in a Facebook post this morning:


There's more. 
So I told her I wanted to take her home and she let me. Her and her mother lived alone in an apartment behind 7-11. Her mom has a degree but lost her job almost a year ago to layoffs. She then found out she had a tumor in her foot and can't walk very well. She is still living in the apartment but they are getting evicted next month. She is still waiting on disability but with the issues now she may not get it for a few more months.
Angie, who has had her own struggles but is grateful for the help she once received, has put a human face on suffering that for many of us is an abstract concept.  You may not see it, but it's happening.  The teenage child of a college-educated parent is dumpster-diving for food in America?  How can we proclaim the greatness of this country when people like this routinely fall through society's cracks?  How can we send billions of dollars in aid to other countries each year yet ignore the suffering of our own citizens?  Certainly there are people in this country whose problems are of their own making, but there are also people like this woman and her daughter, beset by misfortune and caught in a vortex of suffering not of their own making and from which there seems to be little chance of escape.

Until Angie decided that she needed a V-8. 

Is it synchronicity that it was big-hearted Angie who saw this girl and not some other, less compassionate, person?  Is it synchronicity that I visited with Angie last weekend for the first time since we were 7th graders and that I have this blog and can use it to spread the word of Angie's good work? It would appear that these seemingly random occurrences have turned out to be "meaningfully related."

Synchronicity.

We are not hard-hearted but many of us do not know how to get involved or are distrustful of any big organization's efforts to effectively allocate our donated resources. We all know that government-administered programs are supremely wasteful and inefficient.  We do not necessarily want credit for our generosity but we do want to know that our good intentions are not being squandered. When we can get right at the problem, when the abstract concept of human suffering is crystallized for us as Angie has done here, we do get involved. Included in the 49 responses to Angie's post are offers of financial assistance, lodging, food, clothing and school supplies. Angie humanized the abstract and her friends have responded in overwhelming fashion. 

She is working hard to help this family.  She is organizing a car wash to raise funds for the rent on an apartment she has a lead on and she has talked to her boss about hiring this woman part time to do some accounting. She collected some money and went to get the power turned back on at the place where they currently live.  She is doing the heavy lifting. She is paying it forward.  Apparently, these people have nothing, not even a bottle of ketchup.  Their needs are immense.  

Her email address is agodfrey6@yahoo.com if you are interested in helping.  Synchronicity.  

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Reunion Crashing

As I have written before, reunions are my thing.  I love 'em.  I can't get enough of seeing old friends, so much so that this past weekend I traveled to Virginia Beach to attend the reunion of a high school graduating class that I was never a part of.  I'll explain.

I was going to be a member of the 1981 graduating class of First Colonial High School, having attended elementary and junior high school with those who did graduate.  However, my mother in her infinite wisdom decided that a change of venue would be of great benefit to me, so in the ninth grade I packed up and took my act to boarding school in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

With the benefit of hindsight I have come to understand and appreciate the boarding school experience, but the forced separation at age 14 from my childhood friends and all that was familiar was tough. I still saw my pals during the summer and over school breaks, but the interaction was not the same as it had been.  I wasn't part of the gang anymore, instead becoming the guy who used to be but no longer was "one of us."  I suppose it didn't bother me too much at the time because I was at the age where I was making new friends and was too busy figuring out who I was to be introspective.

The gang.  Tommy Pedicone, Page Ewell, David Ford, me, D.R. Ford.
After eighth grade I never lived fulltime in Virginia Beach again.  Boarding school, college, and life afterwards took me to Colorado, Washington, D.C., and eventually here to Lexington, Kentucky, but never back to Virginia Beach. As time passed, I found myself increasingly curious about the people with whom I had shared my early years.  After all, it wasn't that I had chosen to lose touch, but without school as the common bond, the old social system fell apart for me. I didn't lose track of everyone, just most of them. 

I suppose some in my position would have just gone on with their lives, never looking back, but that's not who I am.  I thought about my old friends and wondered about their lives. For years I toyed with the idea of crashing a First Colonial reunion, thinking that would be where I would see the most people and get myself back in the game. I went so far as to call my buddy Page Ewell to secure a wingman commitment from him.  I don't think he ever thought I was serious. 

Enter Facebook.  I know Facebook isn't for everybody but it has worked for me.  Thanks to my unique name I have to be among the most easily findable persons among Facebook's 500 million registered users.    

"Seward Totty, Seward Totty...oh yeah, I remember that guy!" Boom!  I am Facebook dynamite.

Seward and Page. Then.
Page and Seward. Now.
It was Facebook that got me back in the game, if only in a virtual sort of way.  As great as this social networking is for finding people and as much as I have enjoyed knowing that I once again had a connection to these people's lives, it wasn't enough.  The reunion.  I still needed that reunion. 

When I got word this spring of the upcoming 30th, I floated with the organizers the idea of making an appearance and was delighted to get an positive response.  The setup seemed perfect. Rather than a structured event staged by the school and held in the gym, this instead was organized by a few members of the class and was to be held at a local bar/restaurant. That little bit of encouragement was all I needed.

So, last Friday I hopped a plane and flew to Virginia Beach to visit my mother and also to take care of this reunion business. As he had promised, Page signed on as my wingman and, thanks to Facebook, I didn't have to go in stone cold.  I knew how people looked and knew some of their stories.  Still, I was nervous. I rarely make it back to Virginia Beach anymore and it had been 35 years since I had seen some of the people I thought I was going to see.  I was about to answer some questions that were almost half a lifetime in the making.  Would it be all that I hoped?

Damn right it was.  It was great, it was cathartic, it was the best wayback ride I have been on in a long time. Of course, you don't just pick right back up with people after a few decades' absence, but it was a great start. We laughed, we told stories on each other, and I had more than a few people remark that they didn't remember me being so tall.  I was happy to learn that my reputation as the class clown had survived the years intact.

I saw my pal David Ford for the first time in at least two decades.  As kids, we were inseparable until one day we weren't anymore.  At some point we had reached a fork in the road and he had gone one way and I the other and that was it.  Thankfully, those two roads merged again last weekend  in Virginia Beach, just a few miles from where we grew up together.

David Ford, me, Terry "Shotwell" McPherson, Page Ewell.
Not everyone I hoped to see was there.  Not everyone who was there was someone I knew, but I made a lot of progress on the mental checklist I have been compiling since about 1978. I am happy to report that if the quality of one's life can be measured by the friendships we make along the way, well then I have been and continue to be mighty lucky.  

Monday, July 18, 2011

Procrasta-Nation

The United States is a nation of procrastinators.  Is there any doubt about this?  It's only human nature, after all, to avoid dealing with unpleasantness.  Two unfolding events should make this clear to everyone.  At the same time, however, we also are a nation that excels at crisis management, which is precisely where our national predilection for procrastination lands us time after time.

Look at the current events that are dominating the national and sports headlines right now.  The National Football League is in a work stoppage, the owners having locked out the players over a disagreement as to how to share the billions of dollars in revenues that professional football generates each year.  In reading the paper, it would appear that both sides are stubbornly locked into their positions, unwilling to concede most of the minor and none of the major points to the other side.  However both sides know that a work stoppage that lasts into the regular season is financial suicide, so a deal will of course get done in time for the players to report to training camp and for the season to start on time.  The alternative is unthinkable and both sides know this, even if for the sake of negotiating leverage they hope that somehow the other side doesn't.


Because there is still time to reach a deal, there is little reason for either side to give in to the demands of the other.  Only when time runs short will the talks get serious.  Until then, each side is only too willing to give pessimistic interviews to the press, hoping that the negativity and fear of backlash will force the other side to cave. The other side is using the same tactic.  This is posturing posing as negotiation, with both sides using the media to try to gain public support.  


The same scenario is playing out in Washington over the debt ceiling issue.  Both parties know that a default is unthinkable, yet both sides are trumpeting default in the media to try to wrangle some concessions from the other side.  There are no compelling reasons to strike a deal until a deal has to be struck, and as unsettling as this stalemate is to the rest of the world, this is the way it works.  Why agree to anything when there still is time to try to wait out the other side?  It's political poker and is as old a negotiating tactic as there is.

Think about it for a minute.  Who doesn't wait until the last minute to deal with life's unpleasantries?  I think we can all agree that wrangling over money is absolutely one of life's less pleasant undertakings.  If you can find me one person who starts working on next year's taxes on April 16, I can find you ten million who don't.  How many of us have picked out and/or bought a cemetery plot or even made more than a first pass at putting together a will?  It is rare the person who proactively tackles the responsibilities that make life more of a chore.

So fear not America.  There will be football on Sundays this fall and our elected representatives will come to an agreement over the issue of our national debt ceiling.  Heck, they may even figure out a way to put off for a few more years the real discussion that needs to be had —forcing our government to spend only what it is able to take in, because if there is anything that we are as good at as procrastination, it has to be buck-passing.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Choices, Choices...

My friend Page Evans recently penned a piece in which she described doing something that she really didn't want to do but was afterwards glad she did.


As middle age sneaks up on me, I find myself confronting situations like hers all the time.  To do or not to do?  It is easier to stay at home than it is to fight the crowd, pay the price, and incur the hassle, but which choice makes life more enjoyable?  Depends on your perspective, I suppose.  Because my father died early and I felt that I had gotten a bad deal genetically, I used to be the guy that wanted to do everything.  If there was fun to be had, I wanted to be in the middle of it. I just about wore out my poor wife Shannon with my harebrained schemes and last-minute travel ideas. However, that guy has gone missing.

My perspective has tipped in favor of staying home, being low key, doing the things that require the least. I find that I have to remind myself  that I (we) should go and do while I (we) can because at some point I (we) won't, but my desire to be a part of it all has been pounded by the dual realities of declining vigor and fiscal restraint. This change is not necessarily a bad thing because with it has come the realization that, even with less time now to do all the things I want to do, I do what I want and don't worry that my life is less full because of the things I may miss.

Every year my friends in Virginia ask me if I am going to the Kentucky Derby. Every year I say no.  However, they ask a reasonable question. The Derby is indisputably the one thing for which Kentucky is most famous. I live an hour from Louisville and my wife's family is in the horse business.  Why not be part of the spectacle when the sports world focuses its attention on the Commonwealth for the two minutes and change that it takes to run the race? 

Look at all those people. Agoraphobia alert!
Why not indeed. I suppose I would if my affinity for racing matched my love of pro football.  I mean, who wouldn't go to racing's equivalent of the Super Bowl if it were held every year in your back yard?  Racing, however, baffles me and I am sorry to say that I have never fallen in love with the sport. As for the Derby, standing in a ten-minute line to use the rest room is too much for me. Being jamfu-ed in with 100,000 people for an entire day is too much for me. Sitting for hours in traffic is too much for me.  I have been to the Derby a few times and it was exciting, but not so much so that I feel like I have to go every year.  I went and experienced it and now can check it off on my "Things To Do At Least Once" list. 

I don't know whose list this is but I checked off #5 already.
On the other hand, when six years ago it was announced that the Rolling Stones were going to play a stadium show in Charlottesville, it took me all of two seconds to decide that it was something I wanted to be a part of despite knowing that I would have to drive six hours each way, that traffic would be a hassle, and that the crowds would be enormous.  Same set of issues, completely different outlook.  Since it was something I wanted to do and I am the boss of me, I decided to ask Shannon for permission.  Choices. 
   
One of aging's benefits has to be the realization that we come to grips with who we are and what makes us happy.  It's okay to slow down.  Staying home has definite appeal. I look forward to working in the yard, or to watching a movie with Shannon and any of our three children who can bear to spend that time with us. I prefer smaller groups, more intimate settings, less noise, less hassle. Now, I am not a hermit and I'll still have the occasional throwback throwdown, but I am less willing to pay the cover charge for such youthful pursuits. Waking up at 5AM with a my head in a vice and a mouth full of sand is not something that interests me any more. Not that often, anyway (I didn't want this article to be devoid of all credibility.)

Okay, may be I do stuff like this every once in a while. 
My Mod Squad uniform.  I think my hair did look like this for
real at some point in my life. 
The older I get the less willing I am to deal with the logistics of "live" anything–concerts, sporting events, worshipping at the 10,000-seat mega churches that appear to be the future of organized religion. Uh-Uh. Heck, even "live" shopping is an unattractive option when you can order online and get free shipping. Maybe I should blame 50-inch High Definition television for my seeming laziness, but for a lot of things the virtual reality of Hi-Def beats the actual reality.  I am open to new experiences but am less inclined to repeat those that don't do it for me.  And that's okay.






Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Tiki Torched



Tiki Barber, who retired from football while at the top of his game, has witnessed the implosion of his public image in the past year. Most of it is of his own doing, but the latest setback is a stunning example of unsportsmanlike conduct by the media.  


A star running back and all-time leading rusher for the New York Giants, Barber retired from football in 2006 at the relatively young age of 32 in order to pursue a media career. Telegenic and articulate, Barber had the tools and looks and every network competed for his services.  He chose The Today Show as the vehicle to transport him to stardom in this next career he had chosen.  It looked like he was on his way. 

Funny thing, though. The broadcasting career never really took off. Success had long been Barber's constant companion, so this flop was a stunning personal setback for him. After having been mentioned by some as the possible eventual replacement for Matt Lauer, NBC declined to renew his contract in May 2010. This occurred about a month after The New York Post revealed that Barber was, after eleven years of marriage, leaving his then-pregnant wife and mother of his two children. The Post also reported that Barber was romantically involved with a former NBC intern named Traci Lynn Johnson. 

Uh oh. 

Thus began the unmaking of Tiki Barber. 

Tiki and his college sweetheart/wife Ginny during happier times. 


Subsequent to this disclosure, Barber went into hiding.  Literally. Last fall, however, he emerged and announced his intention to return to the NFL. The interest in his story and this unlikely comeback garnered him some coverage in the past week's Sports Illustrated. In the article Barber detailed his efforts to elude the media while it focused on him, his failed marriage, and his supposed infidelity. Specifically, he stated that he and his girlfriend hid from the media in the attic at the home of his agent, Mark Lepselter. 


"Lep's Jewish," Barber told Sports Illustrated. "And it was like a reverse Anne Frank thing."

Frank's story is of course well known. In trying to elude Nazi persecution, the Frank family hid for two years in the attic of an office building in Amsterdam before being discovered in August 1944. 

Upon publication, Barber's comment immediately drew reproach. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, had this to say:
"Holocaust trivialization continues to spread and finds new ways and expressions that shock the conscience," Foxman said in a news release. "Tiki Barber's personal behavior is his business. But our history and experiences are ours and deserve greater respect than being abused or perverted by Tiki Barber.
"The analogy to Anne Frank is not funny, it is outrageous and perverse. Anne Frank was not hiding voluntarily. Before she perished at age 15 in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, she hid from the Nazis for more than two years, fearing every day for her life. The Frank family's experiences, as recorded in Anne's dairy, are a unique testimonial to the horrors of the Holocaust, and her life should never be debased or degraded by insensitive and offensive analogies."
 I'm sorry Abe, but really? I suppose that you were compelled to issue some sort of statement, but this? I'm a historian and know very well the suffering of the Jewish people during Hitler's attempt at the "final solution." Your reaction, and the ensuing media focus on this non-story story, is just too much. 



The media, of course, jumped all over this.  "Cheating Husband Dares to Compare Himself to Anne Frank."  "Tiki Barber, You Are No Anne Frank!" Now those are headlines!  You would think that Barber had proclaimed that the Holocaust was fictitious. Not the case at all. He was not attempting to "trivialize" the Holocaust or insinuate that his situation in any way resembled Frank's other than the fact they that both hid in an attic. That's it. That's all.  He was not claiming persecution, or equating his circumstance to that of the Frank family.  Really.

Lepselter, being the good agent and with a balanced perspective, came to the defense of his client/houseguest with an attempted dose of sanity. 


"In a world where nothing surprises me, where things get completely blown out of proportion, this only adds to the list. All Tiki was saying to Jon was he was shedding light on going back to that time when he was literally trapped, so to speak, in my attic for a week. Nothing more, nothing less.
In this country we hold our freedom to speak above just about every other liberty that we enjoy. Unless what we say offends someone, that is. These days, that means that someone, somewhere is going to be offended by anything you say.  Just about everyone agrees that "political correctness" has zoomed way past its originally intended target, but I suppose that there is no way back from here.  Do you think it will ever again be socially acceptable to refer to handicapped persons as cripples or retards? (Actually, even "handicap" is now a derided term.)  Of course not.  And we shouldn't because those ARE demeaning and offensive terms.  However, when people who live in this country complain that only speaking English is a swipe at our country's other cultures or that public displays of Christmas or the Nativity demeans other religions, we are out of control. The "Law of Unintended Consequences" has claimed another victim.   Tiki has been torched by the media.





Thursday, May 26, 2011

Converted

I have been converted.  I see the light.  I speak the truth.

Chiropractic medicine is not pseudo-medicine.

Two weeks ago, while playing a few holes of golf with my 15-year old son, I did something to my back.  It didn't seem like much, just a little tweak. However, I decided to quit after three holes because it was tightening up and because I had some sod that I needed to get rolled out before it died. 

Big mistake. 

By the time I finished the yard work, it was dark and I had turned into an 85-year-old man with acute spinal trauma.  I was miserable. I loaded up on ibuprofen and crawled (literally) into bed, which is where I stayed for most of the next twenty-four hours.  If you ever have had a lower back issue, you know what I am talking about.  If you haven't, then you certainly have nodded your head in sympathy at other people's tales of woe while not really understanding just how miserable and limiting a bad back can be.  Pray that you never find out.


I did a little internet research and discovered that, without experiencing numbness or shooting pains in my legs, I probably hadn't ruptured or herniated a disk.  So I had that going for me. However, that did not change the fact that I was "unable to perform the activities of daily living" (to borrow a phrase from the insurance industry.)

So, being stubborn, I suffered through a week of waiting for improvement that never came. With nowhere else to turn, I turned to chiropractic medicine.  Reluctantly.

Chiropractors, I am now sure, are underappreciated professionals. I think it is a generally accepted–though incorrect–belief that chiropractic is quack medicine and that chiropractors' place on the respect-o-meter is on par with car salesmen.  Untrue and undeserved.  Chiropractors, I have learned,  have to undergo thousands of hours of clinical training and must pass several licensing exams in order to be accredited by the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners and allowed to practice. 

Funny thing about chiropractors, though. Everyone who has ever been to a chiropractor did so only after getting a referral. When you are talking about your spine, you are not going to just pick a name from the phone book like you might when you need a plumber or an electrician. Oh no no. Before entrusting your back to the care of a stranger, you need firsthand attestation. When you are in agony and ready to try anything, you don't need much but you do need some assurance that this person knows what he/she is doing. You do have to sign a form acknowledging the risk involved in spinal manipulation. I saw the word "paralysis" in the disclaimer, but I was at the point that I would have signed anything to make the pain stop.

The doctor–and, yes, they are called doctors–took some x-rays, had a look, and diagnosed the problem.  He contorted me into some positions I could not possibly have gotten into by myself and then started working the chiropractic magic.  I heard a thunderous CRACK, followed by a satisfied utterance from the doctor. 
 
"There, that should do it," he said. 
 
The relief was not immediate but within a day I was much improved.  A day or two later, my back was fine.  I couldn't believe it.  Chiropractic medicine is not voodoo.  It works.