Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Gone at 51

“Don’t waste another day” said our Engineering Director as we filed out of Robert’s funeral mass.  A sudden heart attack prematurely took the life of one of NASA’s best engineers last week and his stunned colleagues, a group not known for expressing emotions well, exited the church with glazed looks on their faces.  51 is too young for someone who appeared to be in reasonably good health to die and for those of us of that age, his death is yet another frank reminder of our own mortality. 

Whenever I attend a funeral I cannot stop imagining myself in a casket in front of the church, but fortunately these thoughts don’t continue past the service.  What Robert experienced yesterday awaits us all and the only thing we can control is what we do beforehand.  How do we want to be remembered when our days are over?  As the priest said in his homily, Robert was known as a brilliant engineer, a “go to” guy for propulsion issues, but also as a caring friend of many, and a loving father to his four children. 

As I drove away from church, the sun shined on a beautiful October day, lawn mowers whirred, and cars passed in all directions.  Life moves on just as it will when we die despite our focus as the center of our own personal existence.  For an hour in church and maybe a few hours afterward, we are motivated to take stock of our lives and to think about making changes.  But then life’s inertia reappears and we fall back into our regular habits.  John Wood, in his book Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Mission argues that we become enslaved by our habits and resist change because we don’t want to let go of what is comfortable. 

So how do we change our lives?  How do we break the habits that keep us from leaving the legacy that we want?  Prayerful self-assessment followed by action is needed.  The time before our own funeral is getting shorter.  I’ll miss my friend Robert as will everyone whose lives he touched.  Thank you Robert for your life and for yesterday’s reminder to not waste another day.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

RG III and the Fiscal Cliff

The political polarization in Washington seems hopeless as America heads toward the fiscal cliff that will be triggered by Congressional inaction on January 1.  To avoid this calamity, the country needs a negotiation facilitator who is respected, admired, and liked by both Republicans and Democrats; someone who can sit between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner and cajole them both into a budget deal.  Fortunately for us, that person exists and currently resides in our nation’s capital.  He is none other than the superstar rookie quarterback of the Washington Redskins, Robert Griffin III, aka RGIII.  The Griffin legend continues to grow as he has led his otherwise mediocre team to victory after victory in front of throngs of DC fans, conservatives and liberals alike, who are head over heels in love with the guy.  Griffin’s appeal is not only for his extraordinary athletic ability.  He is smart, articulate, grounded, and a leader as evidenced by his teammates recently naming him captain despite being a 22 year old rookie. 

So how would a negotiation session with Obama, Boehner, and RGIII go?

Obama:  “There’s just no deal without raising tax rates on the wealthy, those $250K per year or more rich guys like John and me.”

RGIII: “Prez, you’ve got to give Speak some credit for putting additional revenue on the table.  He’s putting up with all kinds of static from Grover because of it.  It’s all about raising more money and higher tax rates are not the only way.  Your buddy Erskine Bowles even agrees with that.  Let’s accept Speak’s proposal to limit income tax deductions.  We’ll take a cue from poor old Mitt Romney and cap itemized deductions at $25K.  That should raise about $120B per year and even though the middle class will pay some of it, rich people like Mitt will pay a lot more.” 

Obama:  “That won’t raise enough money.”

RGIII:  “Then let’s throw in some excise taxes.  How about taxing bad behavior like using too much gasoline?  The Federal gas tax is a paltry 18 cents per gallon and has been unchanged since 1993. I paid $3.20 per gallon the other day.  We could increase it by 50 cents and a gallon of gas would still cost less than 4 bucks.  This would get us another $90B per year.”

Boehner:  “Increasing taxes will hurt the economy and cost us jobs.”

RGIII:  “That’s the beauty of excise taxes Speak; you can choose not to pay them.  Think carpools and hybrids instead of Nissan Armadas.  While we’re at it, we ought to put an extra tax on fast food to offset health care costs and take some fat off of America’s kids. Now let’s look at the spending side.”

Boehner and Obama:  “We can’t cut Medicare for today’s seniors.”

RGIII:  “Got to do it guys.  Raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67 seems reasonable since we’re living longer, but we’ve really got to change the way seniors and all of us think about health care.  Most people with comprehensive health insurance don’t even know what medical care costs because they don’t pay out of pocket. We’ve become addicted to health insurance. If we restructured Medicare with means tests and higher deductibles, people would care about what their doctor charges or what lab does their tests.  Market forces would lower costs.  The reduced cost of insurance would then free up some premium money that seniors could keep in flexible health savings accounts that they could use to pay the deductibles on routine care.  Imagine the reduction in administrative overhead if seniors paid doctors for office visits with debit cards linked to their health savings accounts.” 

Obama:  “What about investments in America?”

RGIII:  “That’s what the stimulus was for Prez.  It’s belt tightening time now.” 

Boehner:  “Now you’re talking.”

RGIII:  “Hold on Speak.  We already dealt with Medicare, one of the big budget elephants.  Now we’ve got to work on Defense.  Speak’s man Mitt proposed a 5% cut to all discretionary programs.  That’s fine but to make a dent we’ve got to include the DOD in that cut.  Now with the Afghanistan war ending, can’t the DOD tighten up by 5% and still keep us safe?  5% from DOD saves us $40B per year.  5% from non-defense discretionary saves another $25B.”

Boehner and Obama:  “I don’t like it.”

RGIII:  “But can you live with it?  That’s the definition of compromise gentlemen.  We haven’t solved this $1 Trillion deficit, but we’ve got a good start and the plan is balanced with spending cuts and revenue increases. This has been challenging, but now I’ve got to head back to Landover for a really tough job, getting my 6-6 Redskins into the playoffs.”

Monday, February 20, 2012

Pipp, Lin, and Davis

Injuries occur in all sports and professional athletes fear recuperation time on the bench because of the legend of Wally Pipp.  Pipp was a solid first baseman for the New York Yankees who sat out a game in the middle of the 1925 season, supposedly due to a headache.  His replacement that day, Lou Gehrig, then played 2130 consecutive games for the Yankees on the way to baseball immortality.  Baron Davis, the injured point guard for the New York Knicks may be the latest re-incarnation of Wally Pipp.  As Davis’ injured back was healing and the Knicks languished with an 8-15 record, coach, Mike D’Antoni turned to seldom used guard Jeremy Lin, the last guy on the bench, for a spark in a Feb 4 game against the New Jersey Nets.  Lin responded with 25 points and the rest of the story is known as “Linsanity”. 

Lin has started at point guard in the 8 games since, averaged 25 points per game, and the Knicks have won 7. So why was Lin on the bench in the first place?  Well he certainly doesn’t fit the mold of the prototype NBA player.  The 6’ 3” Lin is of Taiwanese descent, is a Harvard graduate, and looks like he should be running the Physics Lab instead of an NBA offense.  His pro basketball career looked to be a short one until the injury to Davis.  So will Linsanity continue or will opposing coaches figure out how to stop the Knicks’ new point guard?  Will Lin’s magic February be a feel good footnote in this NBA season or the birth of a great career?  Will Baron Davis ever start another game for New York?  One thing is for sure; Jeremy Lin is a breath of fresh air and has given the NBA a needed charge of energy.  This blog is testimony to that since I normally don’t care about the NBA and now Lin has me reading box scores on the Knicks’ webpage. 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Joe Pa and the Bear

29 years ago Bear Bryant died 4 weeks after coaching his last football game.  Joe Paterno died this morning 11 weeks after coaching his last game.  Two legendary college football coaches whose careers have been compared many times over the years now share one more trait; they couldn’t live without the game.  As the dust has settled a bit from the awful November revelations of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged molestations of young boys, attitudes towards Paterno’s poor judgment in the matter have softened.  While it is still apparent that Paterno should have done more, his own admission of such as well as his failing health have caused the media to focus more on his “full body of work” at Penn State to capture his legacy. 

Joe admitted that he didn’t know how to deal with Mike McQueary’s  report of what happened in the  shower room,  and he settled for informing Penn State administrators thinking that they would have more expertise in dealing with the situation.  He should have done more.  He should have thought about future victims instead of potential embarrassment to the university.  This is obvious in retrospect, but given similar circumstances, how many of us would have behaved differently?  After all, he didn’t hide it; he passed the problem up the line. So did McQueary.  We think of our heroes like Joe Paterno as being better than the rest of us in all respects.  This event proves that while iconic football coaches like Paterno and Bryant are superior in one field, they can be extraordinarily human and average in other aspects of life.

Paterno’s longevity was both legendary and controversial.  He was asked to retire in 2004 after consecutive losing seasons but refused.  For the past two seasons his frail appearance evoked more pity than adulation and the injury that he suffered this season when accidentally hit by a player during practice took him off the sidelines and may have accelerated his death.  An argument can be made that he was too old to coach in 2002 when as a 75 year old man, he faced a decision that would later turn out to be career and life defining.  Would a younger, more energetic Paterno, a man of unquestioned  integrity and honesty, have dealt with McQueary’s revelation in a more proactive way?

It’s been said that Joe Paterno died of a broken heart.  In a sense, his sudden death relieves him of the pain of watching the sordid Sandusky affair unfold in the courts later this year.  Time does heal and Paterno’s legacy will be less tarnished as time moves on.  A lesson that we can all learn is that public icons are no better than the rest of us outside of their field and we all have a responsibility to act when presented with the opportunity to stop a threat to society.

Monday, January 16, 2012


Now that the Denver Broncos have been eliminated from the NFL playoffs, “Tebowmania” should subside, at least for a few months.  After watching Tim Tebow’s play since he took over as starting quarterback in mid-season, I have to agree with Mel Kiper and the other draft gurus who claimed two years ago that he did not have the skill set necessary to be a successful quarterback in the NFL.  Yet despite lousy mechanics, so-so arm strength, and poor accuracy, he actually led mediocre Denver to eight wins including a first round playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Was there divine intervention at work here?  And so the Tim Tebow mystique continues and the legend grows.
Of course Tebow is so newsworthy because of his unprecedented combination of athletic ability and evangelical Christian focus.  Of all the athletes who have started a press conference by thanking their Lord and savior Jesus Christ, (and there have been too many), he is the most genuine.  The media, who love to build up and then tear down heroes, are unlikely to find a skeleton in Tim’s closet, but you know they will look hard.  Tebow’s evangelical work in prisons, with young people, and his habit of spending time with critically ill people before games is well documented.  These are admirable traits so why is he such a polarizing figure? 

People who outwardly demonstrate such a strong, confident faith can be disconcerting to those of us who struggle with faith or who remain bewildered by the mysteries of God and the universe.  The ministry of Bob Tebow, Tim’s father, is based on an extremely conservative, fundamentalist, Christian belief.  The Tebows believe that the words of the Bible are inerrant, including the book of Genesis.  They, like many other evangelicals, believe that salvation is only achieved through belief in Jesus Christ.   It is a ministry that is very intolerant of other beliefs (Christian or otherwise) and is blatantly anti-Catholic.  According to their website, their ministry in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, has five major priorities; Evangelism, Church Planting, Pastor Training, an Orphanage, and the Training of the Next Generation of Evangelists.  I’ll give them credit for the orphanage. 

It must be very comforting to have such a strong and simplistic faith.  Personally I struggle with the contradiction between John 3:16 (salvation through faith alone) and the 25th chapter of Matthew (where Jesus instructs the Apostles to love their neighbor as the means to salvation).  I can accept the book of Genesis as an inspirational story of God’s covenant with man, but I can’t accept the contradictions with evolution or cosmology that arise if one takes the creation account literally.  I also can’t accept that there is no place in Heaven for those who live their lives in accordance with Matthew 25:31-46 whether they have ever heard of Jesus Christ or not.  I respect and admire Tim Tebow for his character and his virtue.  For at least a few months I won’t miss his press conferences with the obligatory reminders of his father’s religion.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Turning Into a Newt

Has the Republican Party swung so far to the right that Newt Gingrich is now criticized as being too liberal?  Such were the accusations against the former House Speaker and 1990’s conservative standard bearer by several of his fellow Republican Presidential candidates in a recent debate.  Newt garnered this criticism by taking a risk when answering a question on illegal immigration.  Instead of taking the easy, party line approach of expressing zero tolerance for those in this country illegally, he proposed that families who had been here for decades should be allowed to remain together.  The repudiation was swift, particularly from Michelle Bachmann, a proclaimed evangelical Christian.  
Gingrich has been called many things, but holy is not one of them.  A checkered past of three marriages, extra marital affairs, and ethics sanctions follows him so it is ironic that the candidate least likely to appeal to those looking for righteous Christian values would be the one who acted the most Christ like.  Can anyone intelligently read the Gospels and think that Jesus Christ would advocate deporting illegal parents of children who are US citizens?  Newt’s proposal, risky in the environment of a Republican debate, was pragmatic and reasonable, and he deserves credit for steering discussion on immigration away from the hard line position.   The aftermath?  He has jumped in the polls and is now leading all the other candidates for the Republican nomination. 
President Obama’s strategists are giddy with the thought of facing Gingrich in next fall’s election.  After all, Newt’s campaign is poorly organized or financed relative to Romney’s.  He has also found ways to alienate people and self-destruct in the past and is perceived as a much easier opponent to beat than Romney.  The Democrats should not rest easy however.  Gingrich’s intellect is a match for anyone and his willingness to take a risky, moderate position on immigration may be a sign of an older, wiser man.  Paraphrasing a line from Monty Python and theHoly Grail, the Republican front runner has “turned into a Newt.”  It remains to be seen whether he “gets better.”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What I’ll Miss About DC

The blog has been silent for a long time and if I have any readers left, you have probably guessed that my detail to Washington ended and I’ve returned home to north Alabama.  It’s been great coming back to my wife and my home and the foliage and football of October was like a welcome sign.  Starting a new job and returning to my pre-detail routine and life has suppressed the urge to write however and it’s hard to believe that I haven’t posted anything in two months.  The guilt finally got to me so here are my “top ten” things that I’ll miss about living in Washington in no particular order.

1.        Life without a car.  Driving, especially filling my car with gas is now something I dislike.  Commuting to work via the Metro and walking and biking everywhere is a healthier lifestyle and forces one’s mind to think differently.

2.       Great restaurants.  The culinary selection in my hometown has improved over the years, but I’ll miss the selection of wonderful ethnic restaurants that DC has to offer.

3.       Proximity to power.  There’s no denying the excitement of being right next to the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court and walking the same streets as the people on the news.

4.       The Mount Vernon and Rock Creek Trails.  I had many memorable runs and bike rides on these well maintained and scenic trails that offer great views of the city.

5.       Arlington Cemetery.  Situated on a hillside overlooking DC from across the Potomac, the cemetery with its long rows of neat simple gravestones is a constant reminder of the price of freedom.

6.       The Mall and Smithsonian museums.  The best things in Washington are free and the museums flanking the Mall are among the best in the world.  Natural History and the National Gallery of Art are my favorites.

7.       The Monuments.  All the monuments are inspiring, but the Lincoln Memorial at night is a must see for a visitor to Washington.

8.       Observing veterans visiting the War Memorials.  Having the opportunity to say “thank you” to an elderly WWII veteran in a wheel chair is a moving experience.

9.       Professional sports.  Although one could argue that the Crimson Tide football team is an exception, we don’t have professional sports in Alabama.  Becoming familiar with the Redskins, the Nationals, and DC United has given me some new teams to root for.

10.   My colleagues at work.  Everywhere that  I’ve lived I’ve met good people and Washington was no exception.  I’ll miss the friends that I made over the past year, but it’s nice to have an expanded network.