Please weigh in, agree or disagree, thoughtfully and respectfully. Ferocity and passion are encouraged; disrespect is not. Thank you for reading, and seeing this as a conversation rather than a monologue.

June 9, 2011

New Post: Ghosts

There is a new post at the new address for my blog. You can read and comment on it 

May 31, 2011

7 Principles of Fiscal Conservatism

N.B. This blog will be migrating to wordpress. Please find me there.

Let’s begin with fiscal conservatism, then. It begins with integrity. You do excellent work. Not good work: excellent work. You know that your reputation, livelihood and security depend on the work you do. You take pride in the quality of your work: what you do and how you do it. You mind the details. You build good relationships, preferably with others who do excellent work. Where that is not possible – because you know the world is not Utopia and is made of all kinds of people with different priorities and abilities – you make sure those relationships do not imperil your work or reputation.

Your goal in doing good work is not early retirement. Why would you live to stop doing something that you love doing, are good at doing and that meets a need? Good work is a very good answer to the question of the meaning of life. It is part of what is meant by a good life. If your work is so onerous that you can’t wait to stop, why are you doing it? Good work is its own reward. You preserve capital: your energies are finite, too.

Conserving your capital means conserving your money, your employees, your supplies, your time and your reputation. You are a grown up: you know life will challenge you. Obviously, even with all precautions taken, you can still lose your capital, but you don’t risk it intentionally or capriciously. Victims of tsunamis and earthquakes and thieves may have been fiscal conservatives, but life just isn’t fair. Living is risky enough – which is exactly why you don’t risk your capital, why you don’t live on credit. You save for rainy days because, sometimes, it floods. You take care of your employees and your customers if the former are doing good work and the latter pay their bills because you have no business without them. You set priorities. You fix problems, you don’t deny them or cover them up. Because you mind the details, you know where you can afford to be flexible: you know the potential downside. Perfect storms happen, but you don’t sail into questionable weather with no bilge pump, a radio that’s shorting out and a rookie crew.

The concept of “Too Big to Fail” is as antithetical to this – or, I would say, any – understanding of conservatism as it can be. The very idea of pumping more money into a bad investment, or into a company or person who has proven to be untrustworthy, is ludicrous from a conservative point of view. Conservatives don’t put that many eggs into one basket to begin with. Conservatism assumes that we conserve those resources on which our lives and livelihoods depend; they are finite and the world makes us no guarantees. If you have children, they will need them, too; conservatives do not leave their families in the lurch. Fiscal conservatives know the value of a worthy struggle: they may not give their children a free pass, but they won’t handicap them by using, much less wasting, what their children will need to make a go in a difficult world.

The same principle makes monopolies as anathema to fiscal conservatives as a table with one leg. There may be arguments to be made for one company taking over another, but there are limits. There is stability in diversity. There are no synergies in monopolies; no serendipitous cross-fertilizations can occur in monocultures.

Gratuitous spending is no better. It’s waste, too. If there is anything more antithetical to conservatism than waste . . . I’ll get around to it. Waste, inefficiency and disposability are all predicated on the assumption that There Will Always Be Enough. Or, perhaps, on its corollary, that We Will Always Be On Top. If conservatism is, at its foundation, the principle Thou Shalt Not Squander, then waste, inefficiency and disposability are not conservative values. In fact, they aren’t values at all: they are sloppiness and short cuts in business suits.

Conservatives don’t buy cheap crap. They don’t make it or sell it because they have pride. They don’t buy it because it doesn’t work, it wears out too soon, it’s a bad use of our limited resources, and it supports those doing mediocre work at the expense of those who deserve our business – Any Questions? Every basic tool should be built to last the better part of a lifetime. Planned obsolescence is just Orwellian double speak for shoddy workmanship. It sure as hell isn’t conservative. It isn’t liberal, either. It’s bad business. Making something designed to fail lacks integrity.

Conservatism does not write blank checks, so it cannot be considered either pro-business or anti-business. It knows that business can be done well or poorly. It is pro-good business. It demands that respect and patronage be earned.

Fiscal conservatives invest first, and then spend. Investment is different from speculation. Speculation looks for a quick return on money in the next quarter, if not in the next hour. Investment stakes a part of our livelihood on our values. It provides support to a long-term venture that needs it to thrive. Short-term successes of others based on shady or shoddy practices do not distract conservatives. Investment for the long term is a stabilizing influence on an economy. Fiscal conservatives know to avoid anything that reeks of get-rich-quick schemes. They deride those who take risks to make themselves rich quickly, instead of making provision for their values – and their children – for the long haul.

Investing contrasts with spending money on industries and companies that don’t need it, that are not competitive, and that are not investing in their own R&D. That is not conservative, it’s preservative: it maintains something in a state it was in while everything around it changes. Like putting something in formaldehyde: it’s no longer alive, but it looks pretty much like it did when we first put it in there. Think of the American auto and energy industries. Think of any company or industry that has a big lobbying presence in Washington. The ownership of Washington by big business has been bad for government, but arguably not as bad as it has been for business.

It occurs to me that there is another, unrelated school of thought that shares many of the principles of fiscal conservatism as I have described it. It is called Permaculture.

Permaculture is a design concept with broad applications that is best known and most widely applied to gardening and agricultural practices. In a nutshell, what brings it to mind is Permaculture’s insistence that, if you frontload your project with a lot of work in its early stages, and mind the inflow and outflow of resources all along the way, you can build a system that, barring disasters, will take care of you for the long term with a gradually declining need for long hours of work. In Permaculture, waste is defined as being a resource in the wrong place at the wrong time. It might also be described as a resource as viewed by someone without sufficient imagination to recognize its usefulness. Permaculture is also all about preserving the energy within a system for as long as possible, encouraging synergies, and not emptying the system of the resources that make it run in the first place. It saves seeds: very conservative.

Here are the principles of fiscal conservatism as I see them:

  1. The World is Risky: Don’t Make it Riskier.
  2. Thou Shalt Not Squander.
  3. Do Good Work.
  4. Reward Good Work.
  5. Invest First.
  6. Do Not Tolerate Waste.
  7. Save Your Seeds.

I contend that these principles derive from the meaning of the words Fiscal Conservatism. Insofar as policies do not reflect these principles, I don’t see how, absent Orwellian doublespeak, they can have any meaningful relationship with the term.

I further contend that policies derived from these principles are needed now, are timeless, and the lack of any support for them from either of America’s main political parties is what has landed us in the crisis we still have not acknowledged, much less addressed.

May 23, 2011

Captain America: Godless Liberal, or Birther?

Captain America
On Frum Forum, a conservative site run by David Frum, a speechwriter for President George W. Bush, there is an homage to Jack Kirby, creator of Captain America. The author calls Captain America the greatest American superhero (this was written even before Superman renounced his American citizenship). Kirby fought in Patton’s army in WW2. He declared himself a New Dealer and liberal, but the author points out that some of Kirby’s motivations were clearly conservative in origin.

This reminds us that, when we say that someone is X, it is shorthand, a generalization. Such descriptors, in almost every case, obscure the complexity of people and their views. We use these labels on ourselves as readily as we do on others. We should ask what the labels mean, and see how divergent are the answers. Then we can see how comfortable we are in applying them to ourselves.

Every election cycle there is a questionnaire online. (For example, see here.)You answer maybe a couple dozen questions and it puts you on a graph, showing whether you are, socially or fiscally, a liberal or conservative. I have found, while doing such questionnaires, an impulse to answer in a way that will place me in a particular quadrant on the graph. Talk about putting the cart before the horse. It is like an impulse to be told that what I think about myself is, in fact, true. Like quantifying my own mind. I know it can be useful, to advertisers and pollsters and such. But is it true? It’s a lot more accurate than a label. And if you discuss, not results, but individual answers with friends who apply the same label to themselves as you do, a fascinating conversation may ensue.

We have all read (or written) that “Liberals/Conservatives are _____,” “Christians are ______,” “Muslims are _____,” “politicians are _____.” As the article about Kirby illustrates, such broad generalizations are as false as they are common. I want to talk about what conservative values mean, or could mean. I want to foster a conversation, not slap a label on you and pack and ship you out. Along the way, I want to challenge the idea that conservatives and liberals are fundamentally different because their values are incompatible. I believe

The term “Conservative” is so attached these days to Trump, Bachmann, Palin, Tea Partiers and so on that conservatives who do not fit the stereotype must despair: like Christians who feel that their faith is a responsibility, and not the carnival sideshow that draws gawkers to its most bizarre manifestations (Rapture, anyone? Intelligent Design? Fred Phelps?). Why do the people who fit the caricatures get to take up all the time in the mass-distributed media, while people of more substance and breadth, who ask questions of themselves as well as others, must content themselves with talking to their choir, who know where to find them?

Many conservative principles – “fiscal conservatism” and “family values” among them – appeal to me. I just don’t like what is done under cover of the terms. I know that some conservatives feel the same way. (The exasperation of the title, “Can We Stop Questioning Obama’s Legitimacy Now?”, an article on Frum Forum, makes that point nicely.) We impoverish ourselves and our conversations by assuming that Christianity means creationism, bigotry, and next-worldliness, or that Conservatism begins and ends with birthers, or Liberalism with 9-11 truthers.

I’m prejudiced. Anything that denies me the chance for a good conversation must be wrong. Acting as if labels and caricatures adequately represent anyone’s views accurately would deliver me to the conversational equivalent of Flatland. I.e., Hell. I like the hard questions. They generally lead to better, longer conversations.

In my next installment I will talk about one of the archetypal conservative values, e.g., fiscal conservatism, family values, pro-life. I haven’t decided which one yet.

May 18, 2011

Conservatism, and Original Sin

I want to begin a discussion of Conservative Principles with a discussion of Original Sin. I will demonstrate the method I use by employing first an example that does not immediately push political, ideological buttons. Liberals and conservatives both have staked out positions on the issues of the day in such a way that merely mentioning an issue – immigration, energy, or abortion, for example – brings immediately to mind the positions that we find acceptable and unacceptable, the ones representing our side (the Good Guys) and the other side (the Evil or Stupid People).  This makes it difficult to see any points of commonality, or to see principles objectively if they are held by people whom we hold in derision.

Original Sin is my favorite Christian doctrine.  G.K. Chesterton said that it was the doctrine for which there was the most evidence. As the doctrine goes, our roots and origins preclude the possibility of human perfection. We are flawed. Sinful, even.

This is good news.

The implication is that we cannot expect ourselves to be perfect. Someone once said we are perfect as we are, and we could use some improvement. That is exactly what Original Sin means to me, including the playful tone. We still want to be the best we can be – most of us have, I think, an innate desire to engage in a struggle to improve ourselves and our world – but there is no valid ideal against which we can each be measured and found sorely lacking in any sense that has meaning.

I know this is not the conventional, traditional application of this doctrine. I don’t care. My use of this principle honors its core as much as the traditional interpretation, which undergirds the idea that we need redemption, does. My reading is unorthodox, but it is not illogical or inconsistent with the premise.

My take on conservative principles is also unorthodox. That only means that it is not conventional, which I don’t see as a fatal flaw. If my interpretation is illogical, that is a problem. Then I would need to find other principles from which to derive my policies, or change my policies to harmonize with my principles: it depends on what is more important to me – the principles or the policies. A professor once said that to believe something is to act as if it’s true. In other words, if you want to know what someone’s principles are, look at their policies, or their behaviors.

My contention is that conservative principles have inherent value to a liberal like me, and that those principles don’t have to result in the form of conservatism in ascendancy today. Some of the things we associate with conservatism have absolutely no relation to conservative principles, and can be – I would plead, should be – disavowed: not only would doing so do no damage to conservatism, it would help to restore to the movement a dignity that has been undermined by the bigots, birthers and Bible-thumpers who are its loudest, most garish representatives.

I look forward to our discussion. I will be posting more in the next week or two, between class sessions here in Freiburg.

May 16, 2011

Glenn Beck's Messiah Complex

Glenn Beck is going to Jerusalem.

He is delusional. Usually people have to go to Jerusalem before suffering from Jerusalem Syndrome. Oh, wait: he was there recently. Maybe that's where he picked up his Messiah complex.

Oh, how heroic: "I believe I've been asked to stand in Jerusalem. Many in the history of man have had the opportunity to stand with the Jewish people...and they have failed."

he called the rally a "life altering event" and warned that the "very gates of hell" would fight his attempts to hold the rally.
Wow. The imaginary enemy of his imaginary friend is really pissed, it seems. That makes him a World Historical Person, at least in his own mind.

Sorry, but this is all I have at the moment. Final exam tomorrow. Final class on Thursday, and then about 10 days of downtime, during which I hope to get a couple of more substantial posts out to you. Be well. Talk with you again soon.

May 1, 2011

Lost E-Mails

This is a courtesy notice to my friends and others who may have written and wondered why no reply has been forthcoming.

Twice – once around April 10, and again just a few minutes ago – all of the e-mails in my inbox have disappeared. There has been no warning, and they have not been moved to Trash or Junk folders or anywhere else. They have disappeared from my computer as well as from online. One time I open Mail and they are there; the next time the Inbox is empty as a bottle at an Irish wake. I am considering having all my Apple mail forwarded to my Gmail account for safekeeping – not the kind of thing a Mac devotee wants to hear himself saying.

So if you were expecting an answer to an e-mail, please re-send your original e-mail. For obvious reasons I am not posting my address here. Thanks!

April 28, 2011


I want to say how important I think is this editorial in the New York Times on the 7th anniversary of the revelations about the heinous things done in our names at Abu Ghraib prison.

While the Golden Rule is the plumb line for morality, I think it's a yin in need of a yang. The yang is, in my opinion, "Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me." Not being a Christian or theist, I interpret the "me" to mean that which one holds most dear or in highest esteem, whether that be Jesus, a reputation, security, or The Good, The Just or another principle. These abuses, and the indefinite detention of people without trial in Guantanamo, are unworthy of us.

* * * * * * * * *

I'd just like to say what a swell time I am having over at It's a website devoted to the most dingbatty of teabagger views. I actually ran into some folks there who have made me think more about nuclear energy issues, so I may be writing more about that after doing a lot more reading on the subject. (They're not completely out to lunch about EVERYthing. We had our truthers, remember, but they didn't make us wrong about everything else.) But I have been enjoying the guilty pleasure of egging them on in their birther, fundamentalist, "Obama is a Communist-Socialist" ways. If you come visit, please don't blow my cover.

* * * * * * * * *

I love this: Rand Paul asks The Donald for HIS long-form certificate. Not to prove his citizenship, but to prove his worthiness to join the otherwise august field of prospective Republican (I do not say conservative) candidates.

Personally, I'd love to see a real conservative run. Someone who values families above finances, someone who is fiscally conservative (I think we need to remind ourselves what the phrase means, given how long it's been hijacked), someone who is not a tool of fundamentalists or corporatists, someone who knows Emma Lazarus' New Colossus by heart. We need a grown-up, who asks us to be grown-ups, as head of the Republican Party. Most of you know how disappointed I have been in Obama, once the relief of being done with the Bush years ended. I would not vote for any of the current crop of Republican candidates (no, not even favorite son Gary Johnson). But a real conservative - I would have to take a second look.

And before any of you flame me, please hold your fire: I am working on a blog entry on conservative values that I support, how I define them, and why I support them (and suppose you would, too). It's just taking me a while to put it together. Maybe next week?

* * * * * * * * *

On a personal note, what a weird week. I have been struggling with increasing muscle pain in my neck and shoulder that has exacerbated a decade (or more) long struggle with being able to write by hand. It had become uncomfortable, for the first time, to sit and type, as well – or even to sit. Getting my hair cut, and the usual leaning the chair back to have my hair washed, was almost unbearable. I had begun to wonder if this level of pain was going to be a new normal. Then, Tuesday night, as I went to bed, my mind began to go to strange places. I woke at 4 AM in what appeared to be a panic attack. I opened the computer to try to figure out where they come from and how to deal with them. One site recommended a relaxation exercise that works by first clenching, and then releasing, your muscle groups from bottom to top. When I awoke on Wednesday, my neck and shoulder pain were not diminished. They were gone. And for the first time in over a decade I could write by hand with something approaching a normal grip. Then . . . it gets weirder.

Wednesday after class, I was Dead Tired. Spent. I took TWO naps, and still went to bed around 8:30 PM and slept until 7 this morning. Haven't felt sick. At all. Skipped classes today, since I hadn't been awake long enough to do homework, and wasn't sure what was going on. This afternoon, some of the stiffness is returning, but I still feel fine, and awake.

Body and mind are wonderful things. I'm just wondering what this part of the ride is all about.

* * * * * * * * *

And finally: Superman is renouncing his American citizenship. I wanna say "Bad idea," but you never know what they're going for with comics. Wonder if I can score an issue #900 here in Germany. . .

April 21, 2011

Gas Prices, Earth Day and Economies

Someone asked me recently how much gas costs here in Germany. Rather than doing the math – converting liters to gallons and Euros to dollars – I Googled and found this article. I wonder which gas price they think is shocking: ours, or the higher prices.

Gas is roughly double the price here that it is in America. It's still more expensive elsewhere. Taxes here are reportedly higher, too. Yet the German economy is, by most accounts I've seen, keeping the whole EU afloat. This is 20 years after reuniting with East Germany and absorbing all that debt and neglected infrastructure. Germany's policies are the greenest in Europe.

Happy Earth Day, by the way. We have Earth Day, and Germany is green. Which country is doing a better job of preserving its natural capital, do you think? I'd like to see a side-by-side comparison of our economies. May have to Google more. For now, I think I will have a Hefeweizen.

April 20, 2011

Photos from Freiburg and the Goethe Institute

Almost our whole class on a mountain overlooking Freiburg

My friend Anton, from Ukraine

Frau Ozana Klein: my German teacher, and a delight

Photos are clickable/enlargeable.

Time is FLYING. I simply cannot believe that I have already been here three and a half weeks. These folks are wonderful. I'd like to package them all up and take them with me from place to place, learning new languages, laughing it up, and having a ball.

I repeat: I AM the most fortunate person you know.

I am working on a more extensive blog post. It may be up this weekend, or not until next week. We'll see how it goes. School is out on Friday and Monday in observance of Easter, so I have a long weekend. Going to see Bach's St. Matthew's Passion tomorrow evening. Might even go to an Easter service. You would not believe the size of the chocolate Easter bunnies here.

Bis sp├Ąter, taters!

April 17, 2011

Why I am an Agnostic Rather than an Atheist

I’d like to begin by turning over a hunk of this post to a passage from Stephen Batchelor’s book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. It begins around page 197. (For those who wish to skip my philosophical musings, there is a brief update on goings on here in Freiburg below)

“Siddhattha Gotama did not reject the existence of the gods, he marginalized them. . . .

“I once spent a couple of hours trying to persuade a learned and intelligent Tibetan lama that the world is spherical in shape–but with little success. I would have had even less success had I tried to convince him of other beliefs I held: those about the Big Bang, evolution by natural selection, or the neural foundations of consciousness. I believed these things on much the same grounds that he believed in disembodied gods and spirits. Just as I unquestioningly accepted the authority of eminent scientists, so he accepted the authority of eminent Buddhist teachers. Just as I trusted that what the scientist claims to be true can be backed up by observation and experiment, so he trusted that what his teachers claim to be true can be backed up by direct meditational insight. I had to recognize that many of my truth-claims were no more or less reasonable than his. . . .

“...apart from these primary perceptions, intuitions, inferences and bits of information, the views that I hold about the things that really matter to me–meaning, truth, happiness, goodness, beauty–are finely woven tissues of belief and opinion. These views enable me to get by in my workaday world but would not stand up to a great deal of scrutiny from someone who was not sympathetic to them. Depending on how crucial they are to my integrity and credibility, I am prepared to defend some of them with greater vigor and passion than others. I drift and swim through life on a tide of derivative beliefs that I share with others who belong to the same kind of cultures as myself.”

Elsewhere in the book he enlarges on the first sentence quoted above. He says his atheism conforms more to the meaning of the original Greek, meaning not so much AGAINST theism as WITHOUT theism or gods. I find that to be both a corrective to my own impulse toward a combative agnosticism (an amusing juxtaposition of words, at least) and a concept that permits me to find a cozy spot a short distance from the angry atheists with whom I still feel some ideological affinity when it comes to the desire to combat fundamentalism.

As a layperson, and not a scientist, I have to admit to a level of dependence on authority in matters of the physical sciences. I have been drawing boundaries between the different claims to knowledge and wisdom, allotting each their fiefdom (fifedom – the place to which one can effectively “pipe” one’s followers or those of like mind – would also work). Science is a reliable, and still growing, authority on matters of how the physical world works and has developed, but not a great contributor on its own to questions of ethics or morality. Religion, philosophy, mythology and metaphysics are good sources for stories with which to make sense of the chaotic impressions with which the world bombards us, but no good at all with understanding how things other than humans work, and they have to be applied carefully outside of, or even within, their culture and time of origin. (Yes, I know: there is lots of room for quibbling on both counts, and I could spend time defining these boundaries better: but you have time only to read a blog, not a book, and I have time only to write a blog entry.)

In a nutshell, Batchelor seems to be saying that, yes, his and his Tibetan interlocutor’s ideologies will bear their respective weights; but he wouldn’t recommend jumping up and down on them.

I am not saying (nor, do I think, is Batchelor) that everything from every ideology is equally reliable or unreliable. He tends toward the utilitarian, as he discusses in the pages following the quoted passage. I tend, still, to believe that there are plumb lines, that beliefs and practices can be more or less in keeping with something resembling truth with a capital T, but the truth I imagine may be a projection of my own strivings toward Better. My idea of truth may simply be a longer-lasting or more broadly applicable version of utilitarianism. And it may be something to which we, in our times and places, have no access. We can only read history, learn about other cultures in our own times, and do the best we can. The next few generations will have to sort out what we did right from what we did wrong, in the context of their own times.

Which leads me to why I am an agnostic rather than an atheist. “Atheism” – as commonly used rather than as used by Batchelor – is a limited  term, defined by its aversion to and rejection of a deity. Batchelor’s use of the term comes closer to my idea of agnosticism: he says, in effect, “Ahh, God – interesting idea, anthropologically speaking, that I don’t buy. Let’s move on.” The question of god(s) is marginalized, seen as a distraction, at best, and set aside so other, more pressing, concerns can be addressed. Not worth getting red in the face about. What I like about agnosticism is its implication that all of what we know, however vast, will always be bounded by an ocean of context and information that we do not and cannot know and/or that conditions what we do know. For me, Wendell Berry’s essay, Letter to Wes Jackson, with which his book Home Economics opens, is the best 3 page synopsis of this view that I ever hope to read. (I would quote it at length, if not in its entirety, here, if either Google Books or Kindle had an electronic version.)

* * * * *

In other news, classes are going well. This weekend was spent going to the M├╝nsterplatz Market (fruits, veggies, wood crafts, plants, etc.), taking some photos, and reviewing the Dative and Accusative cases, and my Past Perfect tenses.

The big news this week is that I was honored to be asked to contribute a short piece to the Goethe Institute’s booklet celebrating their 40th anniversary. I believe it will come out next month. Someone on staff had read this blog and liked what I said about my experience here.

I asked that a representative from the Green Party, which won a big election here a couple of weeks ago, come and speak to us about their plans and policies, the realities of German politics and green business initiatives, und so weiter. I am hoping that that might happen next month as well. There are folks within the Institute who know people in the Party.

Lilacs are big here. See photographic evidence:

My favorite German word of the week: das Chaos, spelled just like the word with the same meaning in English. I like it because it is pronounced very much like “cows.” Which makes my imagination go all Far-Side-meets-Picasso. Cubist Cows everywhere!

On that high note, auf wiederbloggen.

April 10, 2011

A Nod to the Everyday/Allestage

The above is a photo of me taken on The Philosophers' Walk, across the river from old Heidelberg on Saturday. I'm wearing my Santa Fe Institute T-shirt. No, I didn't get an endorsement deal.

Sitting here at a cafe - the only one I found open earlyish - drinking a latte on Sunday morning, tears in my eyes. There is a dog here. Big guy, one of those Rott-shepherd types with the brown “eyes” above their eyes. Big, sweet, doted on by his owner. Eager to befriend the waitress, who is “has a bit of angst” around dogs. He wags his tail lazily, contentedly. It’s nice to let well-behaved dogs into restaurants, like letting the kids in The Golden Compass keeps their daimons near.

I’d like to share some of the mundane, pedestrian things that are making for a life here in Freiburg at the Goethe Institute. Forgive the collage-like nature of the post, then.

Cobblestone streets. I love ‘em. Pedestrian-only zones, too.

LOTS of European people smoke. I wonder why. I even saw one young woman smoking as she rode her bike.

Freiburg has more bookstores than any place I’ve ever seen, except, maybe, Berkeley. Lots of variety, too. It’s good to have them here, as a goad and encouragement to work on my Deutsch. Nearly every time I walk past a store I see a book or two I would like to be able to read.

My German instructor is one of the best teachers I have ever seen. She is ever enthusiastic – reminds me, in that way, of the best manager I ever had, Travis at B. Dalton’s, long decades ago – gently corrects errors, makes sense out of our wildly varied accents as we mangle the German language, and gets us out of our seats and using the language in class (and, on Friday, in town, without going along to hold our hands). But the thing that most impresses me is her ability to speak to those of us who know almost no German in a way that allows us to understand nearly every word she says without it seeming so simple as to be condescending. Such gentle instruction builds in us (others have had similar experiences) the sense that we can and do already understand, giving us the confidence to stretch more all the time. The tour guide we had in Heidelberg yesterday had the same gift. He is now retired, but worked for Goethe for 30 years in countries ranging from Egypt to Japan to Vietnam. He was trained in Greek and Latin language and culture. I could have spent all week listening to him, even in German. Both are willing to use English when the topic or need warrants it.

What's fascinating about being in a group of people learning a new language is the way in which we begin with the things our parents taught us to say: good morning, please, thank you, how are you, I am fine, thanks, and so on. We also try to make up words from the little we know, or even from sounds that we think are expressive of a certain thing we want to say; we use lots of body language; and sometimes we get frustrated and begin to babble in the language we know, even when the person to whom we are speaking doesn't understand. It is very much, I presume, like language acquisition as experienced and practiced by children.

The Germans have begun to come to grips with the horrid part of their past in the last 30 years, from what I am told and have seen. Before that, it was considered bad form to bring it up. Now, here in Freiburg, there are “stumbling blocks” set in the streets in front of the homes where Jewish people, who were taken from their homes and delivered into the hands of tormenters, lived. The stones are gold in color, and inscribed with the names and dates of birth and death of those who had lived there. The place of the old synagogue is, likewise, a memorial park in the center of Freiburg. If there is a concentration camp nearby – there must be: they were everywhere – I am confident that it, too, is a memorial. From what I have observed so far - and my ability to see is still quite limited, I must say – such commemoration has not led to compulsive self-flagellation or wallowing. But I wonder if the seriousness of the German people is not, in part, an echo of these oft-recollected misdeeds. I would be interested in knowing what it is like to be a Jewish person either visiting or living here now. I assume a lot in making the following statement, but it seems that the German people are aware both of the many things on account of which they hold justifiable pride, as well as their reasons for being humble. We’ll see if further experience and reflection uphold this hypothesis.

One of the great things about the Goethe Institute is the way they take pains to build a community, to make sure people don’t feel alone or forgotten. I spent a fair amount of the train trip yesterday in the company of two women from India. For them both it was the first time out of their country, but they both exude a sense of comfort and confidence, of openness. Many people are here from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iraq, and yet all are interested in meeting and talking with people from other countries, including those of us from the US.

I have learned that, while I like the austerity of living in one room in a dorm, there are a couple of things I need: plants, and art. Accordingly, I bought a few aromatic plants – a couple of rosemary, a mint, and a lavender – and a couple of small ceramic pieces from a potter whose studio and store are right next door to the Goethe Institute and its attendant bookstore. The photo shows them in the company of a little Ganesha, a gift from my friend Maia, which came with me. I have been tempted to buy other things – you can take the American out of America, but not the consumerist out of the American – but have, so far, resisted by asking the question, “Do I really want to carry this with me when I leave here to go to Hamburg in three months?”

April 2, 2011


Had an interesting e-mail discussion with my former pastor from my fundamentalist charismatic days. He asked what I thought the stories of Christians who have been near death and had what seemed to be experiences that confirmed their beliefs about Heaven and the afterlife. He knows I am an agnostic these days, and asked how I could account for such events.

I responded initially by saying that I had heard of similar reports from people of other faiths whose own near-death experiences seemed to confirm their beliefs regarding their deity, the afterlife, reincarnation, and so on. He asked if I knew where he could find such accounts (I didn’t), and how I explain such experiences.

Now, I have a long history of trouble with the whole question of an afterlife. One of my first unsettling questions when I was a fundamentalist reading Aristotle in college (I recommend his Ethics: I used to carry it in one back pocket and the New Testament in the other) was what was the USE of an afterlife. I mean, shouldn’t we do right because we are good, and the right thing to do is just the right thing to do? Not because we get a cookie.

This caused a minor scene in Sunday School thirty some years ago. My friend Drexel was teaching the College and Careers (20- and 30-somethings) class on Easter Sunday. He asked, first, how many believed Jesus rose from the dead. We all raised our hands. Then he asked how many believed WE would rise from the dead (a reference to the afterlife and, perhaps, the resurrection of believers expected to happen with the Second Coming of Christ). Everyone but me raised their hands. I didn’t make a show of keeping my hand down, but I thought the jury was out on this question, so I sat this one out.

Someone noticed. “John didn’t raise his hand,” she said. We spent the entire rest of the hour asking me what I did and did not believe – one of the most enjoyable hours of my time in church. Are you kidding? I was in my early 20’s, full of questions, and was the center of 30-some people’s attention. Plus, I had a vocabulary they’d never run into: in a moment of frustration with what he thought of my evasiveness, one of my classmates asked, “Well what DO you believe,” to which I replied, “Would you like me to begin with my eschatology or my epistemology?”

This was the same church where, in a different class on a different Sunday, one person brought in a church bulletin from the liberal church in town. That church’s singles group was going to meet in a local bar! Oh, the scandal! What would they do AFTER the meeting? {shudder! thrill!} After these preliminaries – I kid you not – they turned, with no apparent sense of irony, to the Gospel passage to learn how inadvisable it to be to casting stones. When I pointed out the jarring disconnect, they were not amused.

Both of these stories put me in a rather flattering light – is this my good side? – when I tell them to my friends who are agnostics, atheists or Christians of another sort.
But here’s the thing: like discussing the nature or possibility of an afterlife, or reincarnation, the foci of my classmates and I were distractions from what is important.

Karen Armstrong once said, “I am not interested in the afterlife. Religion is supposed to be about losing your ego, not preserving it eternally in optimum conditions.”

The only reason to trash the other church’s singles program was to say that we were better. The only reason to grill me – much as I enjoyed it – was to pressure or even punish someone who seemed to be straying from what everyone believed (and should believe). The only reason to discuss the afterlife, or how many angels dance on the head of a pin, is because splitting doctrinal hairs and grading each other’s orthodoxy is a lot easier than doing things that matter.

And the only reason to tell stories that make me look good at the expense of my old friends is that I have been prepared to use them to shore up a personal foundation in which I have had little confidence.

Stephen Batchelor, in his provocative book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, relates a story about how Buddha refused to answer questions about some things. In the Pali Canon Buddha said that to waste time with such speculations is like being shot with a poisoned arrow and refusing to have it removed until you know “the name and the clan of the person who fired it; whether the bow was a longbow or a crossbow,” and so on.

A recent example is with the Catholic bishop that stripped a hospital of its affiliation with the Church because it terminated the pregnancy of a woman whose life was in danger because of the pregnancy. Nicholas Kristof revealed this travesty in his column. The bishop first excommunicated a nun who participated in the decision; when the hospital continued to employ her, he withdrew their affiliation.

My hope is that Jesus would hold the hand of everyone who has to make that wrenching decision, regardless of which tragedy they choose to endure.

March 31, 2011

An Agnostic in Zwingli's Church

Zwingli and I wouldn’t have gotten along. He was the original hard-ass, humorless theist. Thanks to him, “most frivolous behavior - drinking, prostitution and actually most fun was forbidden or strictly regulated,” according to the tourist guide, Zurich In Your Pocket. (For a more erudite source, see here) The local sculpture of Zwingli has him posed with, of course, Bible and sword.

Within the confines of the austere Grossmunster Kirche (church) is the Chapel of the 12 Apostles, which is the best place for contemplation I have seen since Rothko Chapel in Houston or any of the monasteries I used to frequent. There is a large stone cistern there, shaped like the wide half of an egg turned upside down, hollow, with octagonally chiseled sides. Within is a brass tray filled with water and, sometimes, lighted candles floating. In the chapel are chairs and meditation cushions for the use of visitors. I lit a candle and placed it on the water, thinking of my theistic friends whose faith is but an expression of the truths they see and seek, and a goad to help themselves live better lives. Though I may not agree with their metaphysics, I applaud the lives they lead, for whatever reason they lead them.

Long ago, some friends and I were playing a game of “What One Historical Event would you undo if you could?” I wanted to undo the burning of the Library at Alexandria, but someone else suggested undoing the marriage of “Holy” and “Roman Empire” under Constantine. Neither the Church nor the Empire benefited. Doctrines of the Church could be imposed by law; laws could be given the sanction of the Church and, by implication, God. How do you amend God’s laws? How virtuous is coerced, as opposed to taught, and embraced, virtue?
Today’s “dominionists” and American fundamentalist Tea Partiers, like Zwingli or Catholic Inquisitionists of days past, or like the Taliban, seek to use power to impose their principles, in part because, who wouldn’t want to use the power dropped into their laps by the Fates to advance their highest principles? Who hasn’t said, “If I was President, I would [insert support for cause X here]?” Especially if you might get credit for doing God a favor?

Reminds me of a picture of Moses, as played by Charlton Heston, armed to the teeth with bandoleros and semiautomatic rifles, that appeared on the cover of The Wittenburg Door magazine long years ago. Reminds me also of the martial music playing at the end of the film Passion of the Christ, implying that Jesus is pissed off, and SOMEbody  is gonna pay. Or the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels, that ends with Jesus opening his mouth and flaying the skin of unbelievers from their bodies. Or the Gnostics, who fashioned themselves as Children of the Light, while all the rest are Children of DARKNESS, and there is a WAR against darkness . . . ad infinitum et spiritu sanctum, amen.

However, this problem is not exclusive to Religion when wed to power. Look at what happened to both business and government when they joined forces: government ceased to be responsive to any but matters of business, because business helped particular government officials keep their jobs; business stopped having to do the R&D to stay competitive, because government made it easier for them to be profitable without being competitive. For a while. Both are now broken. They do not serve the people, or even the principles underlying their existence, they are meant to serve.

I want to know more about the Founders’ ideas of separation of powers. Because this seems essential: not just to our branches of government, but to any entity in which power is concentrated and which has the capacity to augment its power by an alliance with another entity. Power has a tendency to aggregate. Whenever it does so, those with the ability to channel it – whether in their religion, their business, their government (or branch of government) – need to keep it corralled, lest it damage both institutions, the people affected by those institutions, and the principles meant to be served by the use of that power.

In other news, classes have begun at the Goethe Institute, and I am settling in to Freiburg with my new classmates. I must say I am impressed by how much care the Institute takes to make sure each student is in their proper class level. We submit a test before arriving; we engage in a brief conversation with one of the staff as we are registering and getting oriented; then we spend the first three days in the class which they think suits us best. At the end of those three days, the staff meets to discuss whether the fit is right, and whether we need to be moved up or down a level. Classes are active – lots of time is spent out of our seats, moving around, speaking with each other. We constantly are using the language in different ways, so we are getting a lot of practice.

Freiburg is beautiful, and wet: it has been raining for the last two days, off and on. Tomorrow we will take a walking tour of the town that will emphasize practical needs more than history and culture. On Sunday morning we will make our first excursion to the Black Forest.

I was going to buy two things when I arrived: a crock pot, and a bike. I can rent a bike here almost any time I like, there are so many shops and rental businesses. And no one here seems to have ever seen or heard of a crock pot.

I have met students from Poland, Thailand, China, Iraq, Ukraine, Britain, and Venezuela so far. Most students are from Saudi Arabia and Libya, with students from the US being third most numerous. Yes, it will be a very interesting time.

March 24, 2011


Three weeks ago I commended Boz to his new family. I saw him last weekend, and he is doing well. He was glad to see me, and I him. He is more mellow now, owing, I think, to the more regular stimulation his new living situation provides. He goes to work with Dad, on walks with Mom, and is learning how cats and 16 month olds work. I imagine he never looks at his new family and wonders how long it will be until they put down the book or leave the keyboard. But it’s interesting, how one can grieve in response to a change that is, according to all available evidence, good for the one for whom you care.

Yesterday I left home, commending it to Lauren, my long-time friend and, now, house sitter. I was ready. I had packed night before last, for the most part, so last-minute additions and changes were kept to a minimum. The only glitch was that I had read my flight’s departure time as 2:45 instead of 12:45. Fortunately, I checked my flight status by flight number on my iPhone app, Flight Tracker, and discovered my error just before 11 AM. My error cut short my time with my friends, but we made it to the airport by a little before noon; not a soul was in line at the Southwest counter; and I was sitting at my gate with half an hour to spare.

Speaking of time to spare, my 3 hour layover at Chicago Midway has stretched to 4.5 hours. And there is no Wi-Fi working here. Which is why I can be productive now and write the first blog of this new adventure.

I am going to Germany to learn the language, learn about the people, discover why they are so green (as opposed to America, which thinks of climate change as Al Gore’s false prophecy), and to dig up some family roots. I hope to return to America in September, via freighter or cargo ship, imitating as best I can the voyage my mother’s forebears took to come to America in the mid to late 19th century. Between now and then, the unexpected awaits. I will remain in Zurich for a few days to get over jet lag, before going to Freiburg to begin my studies.

But why am I really going to Germany? I’m not sure I can answer that. It occurred to me a minute ago that it feels a bit like migration: a kind of psychic imperative. Last year the imperative was physical: to flee the heat of Southern Europe. This time I am more drawn than repelled by anything. Germany seems an adult country, compared to America’s adolescence. Certainly this is not necessarily a favorable comparison, given Germany’s crimes against humanity last century. But they seem to be unflinchingly (permit the generalization, please, though I know it’s wrong in some particulars) aware of their past crimes, yet able to move on and meet today’s challenges with brio. Of course, part of the draw is the knowledge that I am a quarter German (Mom’s Father’s side), but it feels less like a personal inquiry or journey of self discovery than it is an anthropological or philosophical excursion. So, while I may indulge in some travelogue of a personal nature, I hope to focus more on what Germany represents, who the Germans are, and how defining a people or person based on one part of their past, no matter how archetypically heinous, may be inadequate.

So the migrations in question are not just geographic. I'm not sure which adjective fits. "Psychic" feels too Sedona to me, but that's partly it. As migration is in a bird's nature, so is change in ours, whether we are a people or a person. We are capable of improving, or of declining – or even doing both, at the same time, in different aspects or relationships.

America is the country of atrocities to Native Americans and Vietnamese and Iraqis. We are also the home of jazz, skyscrapers, the concept of Pattern Language, the moon landings, the laptop computer, and so many more good things. Germany is the country of the Holocaust, ground zero of 20th century (and before) anti-Semitism.It is also the home of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Fassbinder, Durer, Nietzsche, BMW, Einstein, Porsche, Adidas, Leica, and more.

We can say that O.J. Simpson was a great football player and a passable actor without in any way qualifying the hatefulness of his crimes. Saying what was good about him makes the picture more complete and true, and makes his story more complex – and so, more likely to be real and true to life. Saying he was a great football player does not imply approval of his hateful crimes. It may, instead, help us to understand that people who have been respected before, who seem to be like us (only richer or more famous), may suddenly succumb to their inner Mr. Hyde. And so they become a cautionary tale for us, rather than a monster story that has little or no connection. We begin to be able to understand different points of view, like why some people may have supported him initially, before the truth became widely known, and why some people who knew him liked him.

I'm hoping to gain some perspective on Germany and the Germans, thereby gaining perspective on human nature. I will share what I am learning, and hope you will join me in discussion.

Auf wiederbloggen!

March 14, 2011

Helping the Japanese People

Dear friends,
I know you are watching the devastation unfold in Japan and are wondering what you can do to help. I have chosen a charity, and provide this link to Charity Navigator's page on the disaster in Japan to help you choose a charity that is established in Japan and works efficiently, putting your money to good use. Charity navigator also gives tips on how to choose a charity and how to avoid scams run by predators who would even take advantage of this disaster.
I have always wanted to visit Japan. The Japanese have so much to admire in their history, their art and culture. I am confident that we will all be inspired by the way they respond to this disaster.
Thank you,


Reuters Photo

March 8, 2011

Trading a Known Good for a Complete Unknown

The bird in hand is, as we know, worth at least the two rumored to be in the bush.

Boz has joined a new family. It became official today. He spent the weekend with them while I was in Kansas City, and charmed them. They, in turn, assured me that they had already fallen in love with him. After three years of living with him, he has moved in with a family that will adore and stimulate him as they did their last two labs, both of whom died last year at good old ages.

I will be traveling. Soon I will leave for a long stay in Germany. I decided that the quality of his life would be better if he lived with someone who was around more and whose life was more stimulating for him – i.e., less sedentary, more active, than my own. He has a 16 month old boy and a cat who will challenge him to learn to live with them. He has a dad who will take him on the job at his landscaping business five days a week, and a mom who is a teacher, a former Peace Corps volunteer, and an avid walker. As their son grows older, they will take him and Boz hiking and camping together. It's going to be a good life.

Am I doing the right thing? Who knows? I hope and believe so. If I am not, at least I will be the only one paying the price for the mistake. Boz will be in good, caring hands. I have learned, again, that doing the right thing does not make it easier.

I don't know where my life will go after Germany. The last trip taught me that life, like travel plans, can take unexpected detours with no warning. There is no doubt that, having found Boz a great new home, I will have more options for my future. Only time will tell if that flexibility will lead to better places. Life is full of choices that cannot be clear without knowing the future.

It is right sometimes to risk even the great goods in our lives if, by doing so, we make greater goods possible. But, inspirational possibilities aside, the fact is, we risk opening ourselves to regret at the same time. That's what makes it a risk, and not an inspirational anecdote.

And so I have let the bird (dog) in hand fly free. He is, I know, better for it. I'm going, empty-handed now, to investigate what's in the bushes, and the forests behind them. I will keep you posted on what I find.

February 2, 2011

Food, Sugar, and Creative Juices

Having read Mark Bittman's excellent Food Manifesto in today's New York Times, and still engaging in my losing war with sugar, I thought I would go to Cafe Press and make up some bumper stickers, since I saw so few of any use when I searched for "Sugar". Mostly I found stickers about sugar daddies, sugar gliders (had never heard of them, and they are not dirty: that's just your mind) and diabetes. I did, however, find a sticker that said "W.W.J.D. Who Wants Jelly Donuts?" which I thought was quite clever.

Here are my first three stickers. When I find out from Cafe Press how to post them where other people can see (and purchase!) them, I will let you know.

Coming Soon: bumper stickers auf Deutsch! Stay tuned!

January 15, 2011


Something is shifting.

I have just surveyed my personal library and found nothing I really want to read. That's not normal. Instead, I find myself thinking of reading like drinking Coke: it’s okay if there’s no water. But I really want water for a change. Coke was fine for a while. But there is little in it that does more than keep me alive, or that I appreciate about it at this stage of my life. I want to live instead of reading about living or thinking about living. But I have no idea what that means.

It’s time to be uprooted, to cut loose, to find out what there is I need to find out. I can’t do it while connected to my life as I have been living it. Too safe, too familiar. And not, really, very successful or interesting to me.

I think all I need is a backpack and a passport.

To save my life, I must lose it. To find that which has value, I have to lose that which keeps me safe. I don’t know exactly what that means yet. Actually, I have little idea. But even the things that have value – and they DO have value, ARE valuable – are worth risking.

It’s not important to be important, I learned on a trip to Costa Rica. This is not about finding my place in the world of human society, though wouldn’t it be fun if that happened? It’s just about entering the Cloud of Unknowing.

I think I need to have a big garage sale. I think I'm going to be traveling for a while.
Because I Need to Know If McAndrew Is Full Of It