Sense from Seattle

Common sense thoughts on life and current affairs by a Seattle area sexagenarian, drawing on personal experience, years of learning as a counselor to thousands of families and an innate passion for informed knowledge, to uniquely express sensible, thoughtful, honest and independent views.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Choices - Part 3

Starting college was a choice I almost failed to make. Neither Mom nor my step-dad had even gone to high school and I don’t remember O’Dea giving any guidance on how to start college. I had won a scholarship to Carroll College in Montana, but I quickly chose not to take it because the almanac told me Montana had winter temperatures well below zero. I suppose I assumed college would mean Seattle University, for the continuation of my Catholic education, but I had no idea of the mechanics of enrollment.

John from Phoenix [currently headed for a European tour during which he will not be commenting on Sense], had graduated from O'Dea with me and stopped by my house one day to verify I was going to register at Seattle U the next week. I did not even know registration was taking place and it was John who gave me the information on where and when to go. I often wonder if John had not stopped by that day, how my life might have been different.

There was not much to read in our house growing up, but once I reached teen years I talked Mom into subscribing to Life and Look magazines. I loved the articles with accompanying photos, particularly in Look which had longer stories. I dreamed of being a photojournalist. With the launching of Sputnik, the Russians had taken the lead in the space race and there was much urging of American students to study math and science. Should I major in English or math, I wondered as I entered the Seattle U orientation room. I did not see John, but I did notice Denny from O’Dea. Perhaps knowing John was going to major in math, I was leaning that way when Denny asked what major I was choosing. When I said math, Denny, who was not the scientific type, audibly registered disgust and then told me of his clever choice. He was going to be a pre-major, taking a little taste of various areas before having to declare his choice in a couple years. That sounded good to me, so I chose to postpone having to choose.

College year one zipped by without much actual choice of classes, though I did choose to avoid getting started in math. Logic class was appealing, religion boring and English literature stimulating. The only book from college that I still have is that first year literature book covering the pre-romantics to modern times. I was finished with classes by noon and would go home and read my literature assignments while listening to classical radio, which I had just discovered seemed to complement the readings.

Enter John again. Tuition for the second year was going up a whopping $20 per quarter, from $140 to $160 and John had decided to switch to the University of Washington, where tuition was still only $71, the math program was better and the Huskies were in the Rose Bowl for the first time in the modern era. I chose John’s choice, to save money, get Husky tickets and go to a non-Catholic school for the first time since kindergarten. I didn't care about the UW math program because after a year without any math classes, I found I did not miss them. If John had not suggested the transfer, I wonder if I would have just stayed on at Seattle U and again how my life would be different.

At the UW, a nice young man was my counselor, but I only remember our first brief meeting when I told him I was a pre-major and understood I could delay choosing until the end of the sophomore year. He said why waste another year and possibly have some second year classes not count toward my eventual major. He suggested I consider pre-law, which would count everything I had already taken and would give me a good variety of classes, all of which would count toward a pre-law degree. As a bonus, if I did well enough in the program, I could take the law school entrance test after my third year and if I scored high enough on that, I could start law school a year early, with the first year of law school counting as my last year of college. Classes would concentrate on political science and English, with minimal physical science and no math. If I failed to gain admission to law school or if I chose not to continue in that direction, I could always take a fourth year of college and get a degree in political science. I chose to pursue the pre-law program because I wanted to feel I had a more defined direction, law school sounded prestigious and exciting, and though the entire program could mean five years at the UW, I could actually be saving one year if I did go to law school.

Transferring to the UW was an exciting choice. It literally represented a change of direction. For thirteen years I had gone to Catholic schools, all in the Central Area, located west of my home. Now I was going to a public university, heading north across the Ship Canal. As a kid I had sometimes walked through the Arboretum, across the Montlake Bridge, past Husky Stadium and onto the UW campus. Now I was going to be a student there. Crossing the Montlake Bridge twice a day symbolically reminded me how I had now made the choice to take the direction of my life in my own hands.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Choices - Part 2

As kids, we form beliefs and we learn things. We believe what we learn and we learn what to believe. Parents, schools, churches, governments and other authorities are the instructors. Sometimes their instructions conflict and sometimes they change. We also learn from the example of choices made by others and from choices of our own, both wise and mistaken.

I started public school kindergarten at age 4, and I don’t remember much about it, except some older kids being in charge of walking me to school and me being in charge of waiting on the school steps after school for a taxi to pick me up and take me to the restaurant where my mom worked. I remember one day having to go potty while waiting for my ride and deciding to use the bush next to the steps instead of using the school bathroom, for fear of missing my ride. In Kindergarten I learned that I have very little navigational ability and need to depend on guides or rides, or use a good map.

Mom chose Catholic school for my brother and me for the simple reason the School of the Immaculate Conception was only one block from where we lived and the nuns were nice enough to offer day care to a single mother. For eight years the nuns taught, indoctrinated and guided in the Catholic traditions. They set good example and encouraged accomplishment. Under their tutelage, I learned that I was smart, interested in learning, cared about other people and wanted to be a good person as measured by the Catholic religion. My main gripe about attending Immaculate was that we moved 16 blocks away and I ended up having to walk 32 blocks round trip to school for eight years.

Boys graduating from Immaculate went to O’Dea High. My small graduating class had a few exceptions. Three boys who had been bussed in from suburbia for a couple years went to high school out there, and the two African-American boys from the central area, including my best friend, moved on to the public Garfield High. O’Dea operated like a prison, which wasn’t as shocking for me as it was for some boys, since my step-dad ran our house the same way. Most of the Irish Christian Brothers were not good Christian role models. Unlike the nuns, who imbued Immaculate with a Catholic spirit, the Brothers seemed to regard religious instruction as something best limited to religion class and church services. O’Dea valued athletics more highly than academics, and I definitely was not athletic. By the 8th grade at Immaculate, I had discovered how much more interesting girls can be than boys, so the biggest disappointment at O’Dea was the lack of female students.

After one year at O’Dea I tried to make a choice to transfer to Garfield, where all the kids from my neighborhood attended, a group of boys and girls that I had been growing up with, diverse in ethnicity and religion, unlike the overwhelmingly white, all male Catholic student body at O’Dea. But as hard as I tried, Mom would not allow it. Academically, I envied boys who attended Seattle Prep, where the Jesuits embraced academics highly, but I never considered transferring to Prep an available choice. Stuck at O’Dea, I made the choice to do well academically, make a few close friends there, satirize the ridiculous disciplinary regime and think for myself.

A regrettable choice I made in high school years was not to get involved in the teen club at Immaculate Church, where girls from Immaculate High and boys from O’Dea could socialize. I was too lazy to do the 32 blocks again on evenings the teen group met. Lack of socializing with girls was painful, but I think those four lost years have made me more appreciative of the wonders that women are.

Two interesting things happened in my senior year at O’Dea. I was chosen for a group that attended some pre-college classes at Seattle University, and I chose to question that very basis of the religious instruction I had received for twelve years - the existence of God. The university exposure showed that instructors at the next level would treat students as young adult intellects instead of inmates. In the last year before releasing us to the world, O’Dea tried to train us how to handle religious sceptics, those who tried to undermine our religious beliefs by asking for proof. For me, the training backfired, because the sceptics seemed to have some very good points and I began to see religion in a different light, as an intellectual choice that one could make. Thinking for myself, turned off by the Brothers and the rigidity of many Church rules, and turned on by the university exposure and hormones, I chose to stop believing and to try to find out for myself what life was really about.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Choices - Part 1

This past week was the first week I failed to post to Sense, which was ironic since it was a week I had more time available to write. I purposely stopped my weekly borrowing of 5 or 6 DVDs from the library, and some people with whom I usually spend some time were away on trips. But I made the choice instead to read [The Omnivore’s Dilemma, highly recommended], run errands, shop and get chores done.

We make choices on how to use our time. As we retire and get older, we have more time without a job to go to but we also realize we have less time left in our lives. An article in the May/June Spirituality & Health magazine [which publishes some good pieces with an Eastern influence], “Can You Say No to Too Many Choices?” , included a quiz [not available on line] to see if you are a maximizer (a person who wants to make perfect choices), or a “satisficer” (one less obsessed with perfect choices). The quiz was scored using the average of 12 answers registered on a 7 point continuum from satisficer to maximizer. My average was right in the middle, but only one quarter of my responses were in the middle one quarter of the range, which shows the danger of oversimplified test scoring.

Do we also make choices on calculating how much time we have? Can we choose whether or not to believe in life after death or reincarnation, or is such a belief based on faith? Believing that when we die nothing follows reduces our calculation of time available, but does that naturally incline us toward maximization?

We do not choose to be born [some reincarnation believers would dispute or qualify this, but I do not believe in reincarnation]. As youngsters, we operate on instinct and parental domination until we reach the age of reason, which is when parents and their delegates (teachers and preachers) know we are becoming capable of making reasoned choices and they start to influence us to make the choices they want us to make.

On this Mother’s Day, at age 65, I just realized I don’t even know if my mother wanted me to be born. After the birth of my brother three years earlier, my parents separated and my Mom’s mom told her to get a divorce. Mom did not follow the advice right away, I was born, the divorce soon followed and my father disappeared from my life before we ever bonded. To my grandmother, I was the “I told you so” child, an extra burden on my mother. The degree to which my birth was planned is actually irrelevant, since what really counts is the role parents choose to play in the lives of their children. My father opted out, but my mother loved me so much that it took me 65 years to even think of the question whether she planned my birth. And Grandma’s love for us all overcame any misgivings Grandma may have had about my birth.

Over the next few days, I expect to write more about my memories of choices made and how they affect Sense.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Repub Debate #1

Last night the Republican group of 10 had their first Presidential debate. Podium order was chosen at random, and since questions directed at the entire panel were answered starting from the left end, Mitt Romney lucked out by getting that position. John McCain was in the right half and Rudy Giuliani was next to last.

The event was held at the Presidential Library of Ronald Reagan, the most overrated President of the modern era. Almost everyone agrees Bush II failed to plan adequately for post-war Iraq, which is now a chaotic shambles. But Reagan is praised for supposedly ending the cold war by arms racing the Soviets into bankruptcy, without being criticized for failing to adequately plan for a post cold war Soviet Union. The Reagan policy not only financially broke the Soviet Union, but also plunged the U.S. into great debt, and left the world with huge amounts of unsecured nuclear weapons and materials in the former Soviet Union, the very materials most likely to fall into the hands of terrorists.

Among the front three, Romney wins the beauty contest hands down, looking successfully handsome. He also had the smoothest delivery and most appealing voice. He had prepared well for the question of the role religion plays in the decisions of a President, answering it deftly without mentioning any specifics of his Mormonism. McCain looked jerky in his mannerisms - he walks and gesticulates in an awkward manner, and at one point I think I heard him asking another candidate what the question was, as if he was not attentive or had trouble with his hearing. In response to criticism that he seems to be lacking energy on the campaign trail, last night McCain seemed as if he had downed a couple espressos. Giuliani was the most uncomfortable, since his position on social issues is quite the opposite of the other candidates and most of the republican base. His answers, though honest, seemed pained and watered down.

The group of 10 recited the Republican mantra about taxes and terrorism being bad, and religious faith and family values being good. When questions got more specific, the answers got quite unresponsive and degenerated into stump speech snippets. Republicans have nothing new to offer, so the content of all the answers was boring, though Romney did actually get more specific on some tax and economic answers than the other candidates and also referred to a new possible scientific way of dealing with the stem cell research issue. One interesting question did not get the follow through it deserved; as the moderator asked the panel whether they believed in evolution, Romney started with a fairly long answer and before the next couple answers had finished, the moderator asked for a show of hands from those who did not believe in evolution and three or four hands went up to some degree.

The three leaders were just supposed to avoid mistakes and they all did that, though McCain’s re-energized performance was marginal. Giuliani survived the tough social issue questions that were thrown at him. Romney, the lesser known of the three, helped his cause and was the winner in my opinion. Actually, one of the front runners was not even present, Fred Thompson, the actor and former Senator who has not announced his candidacy - yet. Republicans are fast to criticize actors who support Democrats, but also quick to embrace actor candidates like Thompson, Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Republicans need actor candidates, because actors can more effectively pretend the Republican platform is good for everyone, not just the corporate sponsors of Republicanism.

The oddball in the group was the curmudgeonly libertarian Representative Ron Paul from Texas, who was the only candidate who opposed the War in Iraq from the start. Paul ridiculed the hand wringing over a nuclear device or two coming into the hands of a middle eastern state, by pointing out we survived decades during the cold war with the Soviets having tens of thousands of nuclear weapons.

Here is my take on the also rans:

Sam Brownback - Give him the Mister Pious award.
Jim Gilmore - Sensible sounding and in good control, but no “pop”.
Mike Huckabee - Appropriately self-effacing - and unnecessary.
Duncan Hunter - War monger in need of anger management.
Ron Paul - Could look Denis Kucinich in the eye - in more ways than one.
Tom Tancredo - Who? His position at the end of the line seemed appropriate.
Tommy Thompson - Most in need of a makeover.