Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reflections On 65

If you would, please indulge me in some thoughts of a more personal commentary. Last weekend, I hit another one of those birthday milestones. Admittedly, 65 does not have quite the be-all connotation it once had. Enrollment in Medicare arrives, but full-benefit Social Security retirement is now delayed to age 66. AARP enrolls you at 55; retailers offer senior discounts anywhere from 55 to 65; you can retire early with a partial social security benefit at 62. Conversely, mandatory retirement age in many companies has been pushed back towards age 70. Nevertheless, “65” still has that aura of being the doorway to senior citizenship status – a status with an ever-enlarging peer group.

From my vantage, there are really four key birthdays that are important to notice. The first is your Day1 original birthday when living starts. All the world is brand-new, frightening in its newness given your quick realization that you have no immediate context or self-coping skills for this existence other than inherited instincts. So the next 20 years are spent trying to figure out the structure and makeup of this human life, and the tools needed to survive – if not thrive – in it. The tools we ultimately choose are quite individual to our experiences, outcomes and the scope of our worldly education from those early years.

Which brings us to the 21 milestone. We have loaded ourselves (for better or worse) with what we think will be effective tools for making it in this world, coupled with what we think is a good understanding of how life works and the rules of the game.  Then we set out on what we believe is our path to follow – maybe even with some glimmer of what the path’s end is supposed to look like. We rent apartments and buy houses, get jobs, begat a family, serve as parents, earn money and pay bills, and try to leave some room for fun along the way.

Until somewhere around 40, the 3rd major milestone. (For some it is as early as 30, or as late as 50, but this milestone inevitably shows up somewhere.) We have been diligently following our path, using our tools. But now we have a track record we can assess. And that assessment begins to raise doubts. Was this the right path for me, or were other choices possible which I may have denied or not even seen? Did my toolkit have the right tools in it, and/or did I use the right ones at the right moment in the right circumstance? Was my earlier understanding of life accurate, or did I miss a couple of key elements in that understanding? Have I been riding life’s wave, avoiding life’s wave, or has the wave been riding me? Doubts arise, basic truths get questioned, and dread grows that we may have locked ourselves into a play in which our role actually belongs to someone else.

In this phase we may plunge on and reach our greatest heights professionally as our hard work to date on this path begins to pay off. Or we may abruptly change directions to head down a different road, making a dramatic change as the only way out of the current play and into another. Or we make an uneasy truce – achieving a level of success on the current path yet all the while knowing that our ground work is weakening, out principles are bending, our needs are shifting. That which we previously clung to so tightly begins to move as we loosen our grip. Over time, recognition grows that our life is unfailingly morphing to a different place.

And then we reach 65, a progressive journey to a milestone that demands a choice: to hang on stubbornly to what was, or to let go what is no longer really important or truly needed and move into a clearer view of what one’s own life is really about.

Change has been pretty much a constant through my entire life. Surprisingly so, given my upbringing. At 21, 65 was a number with which I had no connection or meaning. At 40, 65 was a number visible on the radar but always still out there in the future, yet increasingly a marker of time left on a ticking clock. So much left to do.

But here I am. Arriving at 65, it is not the disaster I had once anticipated. Nor is it an end to life’s journey, though maybe a necessary end of what has gone before. It instead serves as a door opening into yet another phase of never-ending change. Jobs end, but careers continue even if in new forms. Doubts about what I could possibly do after 65 yield to doubts about how/what I will do with the opportunities in front of me. What I have learned yields to what is still to be learned.

My physical stamina is definitely reduced from 5 years ago. The soreness from a day working to maintain this mountain refuge takes a little longer to ebb. The impending finiteness of my life is more real to me now, given that 82% of my 79-year old life expectancy has already statistically expired. But death is not as frightening a prospect as it once was, though the manner of my death remains a concern. The timing is pretty much out of my hands.

I know the physical side of my life from this point will get progressively more difficult. That is a shame, since I just now feel like I am really understanding what my life is about. (As with the old saying, it is a shame that youth is wasted on the young!) I keep hearing that we are supposed to live “in the now.” Yet right now I have an advantage of seeing and understanding from an informed lifetime of experiences, answers, and learning. I think it is important to draw on those as I live through my now-ness.

65 is a milestone. One that demands a pause for deep reflection before proceeding. Because this upcoming phase can be radically different from all those many birthdays of before. My reflection says that life is pretty darn good right now. A settled-ness, clarity and peace not experienced before. And if I am perceiving current clues and insights correctly, what awaits around this corner can be better than ever. So I am embracing this latest change. And so would I similarly hope for you, at whatever your age.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Equality of the Dollar

Take a dollar bill from your purse/wallet. Examine it closely. Ask someone close by to do the same. Other than a different serial number on each, I am guessing that each bill looks exactly the same (wear & tear notwithstanding!). And I assume that your $1 bill looks exactly like mine.

When we each deposit our $1 bill into our respective bank account, the only thing that is recorded on our computer file is “1.00.” That’s it. Your digital “1.00” looks just like my “1.00.” There is no other tag attached to our 1.00s, no indication of our age, gender, race, religion, profession, marital status, etc. Just a generic lookalike “1.00.”

When we write our checks to pay our taxes – federal, state, county, local – our “1.00 without a suffix” goes into another bank account filled with lots of other 1.00s. Those 1.00s come from many people with a myriad number of backgrounds, demographics, personal opinions, spiritual/religious beliefs and affiliations; people who live their lives in countless different ways. All of those individual people are nondescript and neutral to the tax treasury – just a whole lot of identical 1.00s mushed together. In fact, our public treasuries are one of the great equalizers of our wide-ranging diversity. The commonality of our 1.00s makes us all equal, shared co-owners of the public funds, wrapped together across our individual human differences.

When it comes time to dispense all of those collective 1.00s, we are all shareholders in those decisions. EQUAL shareholders, because such decisions are not based upon how many 1.00s you contributed versus I versus others. Unlike a corporation, a greater pay-in does not buy you greater shares of public stock and thereby give you greater voting control. My one vote is the same as your one vote for the Congressperson or city council member who will likewise each have one vote on how to spend the money.

While the majority of one-votes accumulated will decide how the money will be spent, such decisions need to still reflect and honor the individual sameness of all of those 1.00s that contributed to the pot. The time-honored American tradition is that, while the majority rules so that we can move forward, the rights of the minority must still be respected. So public expenditures must be as “category-neutral” on human criteria as possible. Funds provided from diverse sources should not be spent so as to favor homogeneity or favored groups. We are obligated to preserve the same neutrality going out as the 1.0s were neutral coming in.

Yet when large sums of public funds are dangled in front of adoring eyes, these principles of neutrality and the avoidance of favoritism seem to get quickly lost. A failure to proactively support one interest group’s cause over other groups is often seen as an attack on that first group, a limiting of its causes, instead of recognizing that a preferential treatment today can easily be tomorrow’s discriminatory treatment. Yet with public institutions supported by public dollars paid by taxpayers with different views and values, it is only by remaining neutral that we can ensure that all expressions can be made possible, all citizens/taxpayers can be included, and no one is legally preempted out of participation.

Instead we choose to argue about whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed in secular courthouses. These Jewish teachings may be 10 good principles for moral living, but only a few of them have been made into actual laws. (Maybe I should honor my father and mother, and proclaim only one particular god, but thankfully these admonitions have not been made into American statutory law.) Likewise, when an organization puts a cross on a hilltop in a publicly funded national park and then disingenuously claims it to be a non-religious monument to WW1 dead, it speaks in contrast to the many beautiful and moving memorials to our war dead that required no obvious symbol of only one religion in order to be meaningful – witness the Viet Nam or WW2 war memorials in Washington. When we eliminate the saying of prayers in public schools, we are thereby protecting our children and all religions from abuse by any one preferred religion – because who’s prayer would we use that would be applicable to all of the diverse children in the classroom? Which child would have to leave the room? When my county commissioners open a public meeting with a prayer that concludes “In Jesus’ name we pray,” are non-Christians thereby implicitly excluded from the subsequent political discussion? When students in a California law school seek to form a club open only to Christians pledging a non-homosexual lifestyle, AND seek to have the club funded from a pool of student fees paid equally by ALL students, do these would-be lawyers not see the inherent conflict of their request?

Some religious and lay leaders now claim that America is “A Christian Nation” and was founded as such. Just as I guess Iraq and Iran were founded as an Islamic Nation or Israel as a Jewish Nation. But nothing could be further from the truth about America’s founding or purpose. Our country was founded by men and women who predominately (but not exclusively) attended some form of a multitude of Christian churches, but whose personal religious views encompassed many different viewpoints and expressions. Given the experiences of their forefathers/foremothers in colonizing America to escape persecution and the abuse of state-supported churches, religious tolerance and religious freedom were in fact their over-riding concerns and what was collectively written into their Constitution for us. Promote none; allow for all. And over the course of our 200+ years, we have gotten better at extending such equality and neutrality in the public arena to differences of race, gender, economic wealth, and marital/sexual status.

If we want homogeneity of thought and a single point of view, that is where we have the power to utilize our privately-funded churches, schools, topic-specific clubs, and corporations. But when you take my 1.00 of taxes and merge it with your identical and no-more-powerful 1.00, please do not turn around and try to have it spent in a way that insults or minimalizes me. Let us instead respect and look out for each other in our common endeavors, and go our separate ways only in our private endeavors. Picking none, we are open to allowing for each of us.