Friday, September 30, 2011

An Ode to Oaths

For security reasons, I don’t talk about my real job on Facebook. I don’t even befriend folks from work, unless I have some connection to them other than the workplace (e.g., because we went to school together). Facebook is my retreat from work, to spend time with friends and former students (I don’t allow students to befriend me until after they’ve taken my final exam).

However, this was a significant week for me with my primary occupation—the one that pays the bills. Due to a government reorganization, I no longer work for the same bureau that I have worked for the past 23+ years. Although I am not being forced to move to DC (at least at this point), I now officially work for a different agency that is partially merging with my previous employer.

This week, I went to DC and formally joined the other government organization. As such, I had to take the official oath of office (shown below) as part of my orientation.

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

To me, oaths are something to be taken seriously. As a former Constitutional Law professor, I know that government oaths are a requirement made by our founding fathers. I remember my orientation at NASA Headquarters after getting my J.D./M.P.A., and saying that historic oath for my first time. I enjoyed going through the formality of reciting it again.

Here is a strategic tip I want to share with others. There were five of us getting concurrently sworn into our new positions with this DC organization. Quite a few of our new management officials were present. The five of us were given written versions of the oath to read in unison, with a top-level manager leading us by reading a portion at a time. We stood together, raised our right hands, and took the oath—but one of us stood out.

I’ve always been good at memorizing things, so rather than look down at the paper we were provided that showed the words to the oath, I put it down and simply repeated the words as they were given to us. Thus I stood out as the only one with my head up, proudly stating those historic words. I noticed that the other management officials (including my new boss) in the room were watching me. I had not meant to draw attention to myself, but I think it left a positive impression on them. So if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, try putting down the script and simply listen carefully and repeat the words. It’s not that hard to do, and this simple action can make you look good.

A harder but more impressive thing to do is what I did at my wedding in 1987. I had always felt that when I got married, I wasn’t going to merely parrot back the words of the preacher. I decided that I would memorize all my lines in the ceremony. After all, I took getting married seriously (my ex-wife didn’t take her vows as seriously—but that is enough said about that chapter of my life). It showed my commitment to the marriage, and many of those in attendance who greeted us in the receiving line afterwards complimented me on reciting my vows, rather than simply repeating spoon-fed fragments from the preacher. I’m sure I am not the only one who has done this, but I’ve not seen anyone else try it. I think it makes a strong statement at a wedding, and would recommend others consider it. If you aren’t dedicated enough to memorize those words joining the two of you in matrimony, then maybe you aren’t ready to be married.

Finally, there is another oath that meant a lot to me. I still have on the side of my refrigerator a yellowing picture from the Parkersburg newspaper of me taking the oath of office from a circuit court judge in 1992 as an elected official in Wood County. I had hoped that I would have had the chance to take that oath of office more than twice in my life, but it just wasn’t meant to be. I am extremely proud of my eight years of service on the school board, and all the changes we were able to promote. In my humble opinion, subsequent school boards have not been as active as we were.

As it turns out, it was probably advantageous to get out of public education in 2000, with all the challenging problems that may indeed be insurmountable. Plus, it was beneficial to me because I replaced my part-time school board position with my part-time job of teaching American Government and Constitutional Law—and I am very glad that I got the chance to try my hand at teaching, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, since I am writing about reciting, I made a habit of requiring my ConLaw students to recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and to do so by standing in front of the class (I also gave extra credit to those who memorized the Gettysburg Address—and a few of them did it!). However, I am afraid that my new job, with what will likely require frequent trips to the DC area, may mean the end of my teaching career. I take my teaching seriously (like taking an oath) and don’t want to commit to a semester of classes if I am not able to ensure that I will be there every week.

Thus, I look forward to the challenges of my new job in a new organization. I didn’t ask to be transferred to a new job, but the reorganization and merger resulted in my move (and in today’s economy, I am just thankful that I have a good job!). So far, everyone in the new organization has treated us well, and I think the future looks bright. I plan on performing strong in my new job, because I took an oath to do so—and I take such things seriously!

Monday, September 12, 2011

9/11 Reflections

Ten years ago started as a typical day at work. About the same time that I started to overhear some colleagues talking about what seemed like unbelievable news, Anna called me on the phone with all the details she knew. It was the start of a crazy day, and a crazy decade.

I’ve been to Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and just recently to Shanksville, PA (see A girl from my hometown of Parkersburg was killed that day, as well as a former quarterback for my beloved WVU Mountaineers. As I reflect on the tragic events of ten years ago, the emotion I feel is anger towards the 19 hijackers and the leadership of Al-Qaeda. However, mine is a different and more subtle form of anger.

I’m mad that approximately 3000 innocent lives were lost that day. But I’m also disappointed that this terrible attack has resulted in suspicions against Muslims in general (or anyone with dark complexion, dark hair, etc.—lots of Sikhs, Hindus, and others are often looked upon with suspicion or even disdain despite the fact that their people had nothing to do with the attack). During the ‘60s, the civil rights movement tried to get us to look beyond the color of one’s skin to the content of their character. Having grown up during that era, I have tried to live that credo, but too many others prefer the perceived safety of their biases.

At one point during my college years, I dated a girl from Pakistan. She was thoroughly Westernized, and we didn’t really talk about her family origins. She was just a regular girl who happened to have a dark complexion and black hair. We didn’t have a lengthy relationship, but she even came to dinner at my parents’ house once while she was in Parkersburg. At that time, there was no real bias against Pakistanis. Unfortunately, I know it is not that way for folks of Middle Eastern descent today. This is a sad result of 9/11, and contributes to my anger.

I’m mad at the aftermath of this day on our federal government. It has been a major drain on our treasury. At the same time we were cutting taxes, we started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and still are there today. Thousands more lives have been lost in these military activities, not to mention the countless lives disrupted by deployments to the war zones. The brother of one of my former students lost both his legs in Iraq. Others I know made it back in one piece physically, but are still affected to this day by the experience. I’m mad that the 9/11 terrorists succeeded in sucking us into these endless wars.

The government leaders also decided we had to create a Directorate of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security (without a compensating plan to fund this new bureaucracy). This included the Transportation Security Agency, and all their arcane rules and regulations. The cost/benefit ratio of these expenditures on “security theater” is likely very low. Indeed, when Anna and I flew from Cancun to the U.S., we could have easily brought on board implements of mayhem or destruction, given the lax screening by Mexican airport workers. Anyone who has flown since then should be mad at what we now must tolerate.

I’m concerned about the Patriot Act and the emphasis on internal security that we have moved towards in the wake of these terrorist acts. I recognize the need to avoid future tragedies, but I also feel that Americans have lost some of our precious freedoms in the process, which we will never be able to get back. The future implications of these “Big Brother” developments may have greater impact on our descendants than American citizens today realize. This makes me mad, because I don’t want my country (or the world) to devolve into the dystopian societies described in “Brave New World” or “1984.”

I feel fortunate to have attended the University of Charleston, and had the chance to talk to and learn from several international students. My knowledge of the Middle East increased exponentially through discussions in the dorm and Coffee Tavern with them. Most Americans don’t even know the history of Palestine and Israel, or the impact that Western decision (to make up for the Holocaust) had on the Middle East. It is something that is well known throughout the Arab world. With America’s thirst for oil and the behavior exhibited by our government through activities like installing the Shah of Iran (and his secret police), it is no wonder that our reputation over there is so bad. I’m not saying that our actions justified retaliation by terrorism, but I do think Americans need to be more cognizant of how we ended up where we are today. Too often we are only concerned with our own lives (which for many means materialistic consumption) for us to contemplate world history and cultures.

I find it incomprehensible that men would fly jets into skyscrapers and landmarks—but it is important that we try to understand all the implications before reacting. What they did was terrible, but we need to make sure they don’t succeed in the long run because our reaction was too short-sighted, poorly aimed, and over-the-top. Will our over-extended military actions and underfunded government treasury lead to the decline and fall of the American empire? That would make me very angry.

Don’t try to simplify today’s world into a simple black and white, “you’re either with us or against us” paradigm. The truth is much more complicated than that, and we should always strive to seek the truth. There has been very little effort to understand the “why” of 9/11. Patriotism is good, but blind patriotism can lead to problems. The motto of my undergraduate alma mater is “Vos Veritas Liberabit” (the truth shall set you free)—another credo that I have internalized. It is important to “never forget”—a popular catchphrase on this anniversary—but we should also try to understand and take intelligent, measured steps, as well as never forget the lives that were lost, or the valiant courage displayed by those first responders seeking to help others.

Jesus left such an indelible impression on the world because his message was so unique. Indeed, Jesus was a radical in his days. Forgive thine enemies was one of his admonitions. That is very hard to do, and I’m not sure that I am truly there yet when it comes to those Al-Qaeda hijackers and their leaders. Trying to understand may be the closest thing I can do at this point. I have a sense of why they did it, but I can never agree with their actions. Ten years may be too short a marker to measure 9/11. I am curious as to how this event will be looked at a century from now. And I say a prayer for the victims.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

My Return to Rowing

I got involved with rowing when I went to Parkersburg High School. I had an older cousin who had rowed, so I already had some familiarity with the sport. I had played football and wrestled in junior high, but I knew my chances to play would decrease as my cohorts from four junior high teams converged into PHS. Rowing is a good sport that provides an excellent total-body workout, and puts a premium on teamwork (unless you are sculling). I loved being on the water—it was a nice way to get in touch with nature. The mechanical aspects of rowing also appealed to me—there is a similarity to auto racing, another favorite of mine.

I've previously written about how I ended up at the University of Charleston, joining four other PHS Class of '76 graduates on the Golden Eagle crew team (see I thought that after college ended, my rowing days were over. However, I have been fortunate to have two interesting episodes where I rowed again.

The first was at the Parkersburg Homecoming Festival in 1988, soon after I returned to my hometown from Washington, DC. Fellow PHS and UC oarsman Eric F. and I participated in a PHS Alumni crew race that was part of the festivities. It was fun getting out on the water again! However, the big story of the day was that one of the guys had a kid who was a talented water-skier. They had arrived with skis and tow rope, and wanted to experiment to see if it was possible for an eight-man shell to pull a water-skier. To our amazement, we could see this youngster rise up out of the water as we rowed (and Eric's wife Darla has the photographic evidence). It was really neat to have had the experience of towing a water-skier, and I thought that event would be a fitting capstone on my rowing career.

However, I got one more opportunity this past Sunday. Anna and I had noticed a sign in Morgantown touting a “Learn to Row” day at the WVU boathouse on the Monongahela River. Even though I am 53, I thought I would like to give it another try. It was a chance to return to the Mon River, where I had first rowed back in 1975, which in itself is an interesting story. I shared it with the folks at the boathouse, and they loved hearing about the beginnings of their program.

With the proliferation of televised college football, some of you might find it hard to believe that in the '60s and '70s, the only time you got to see the Mountaineers play on TV was if they went to a bowl game. The only exception occurred in the fall of 1975, when ABC decided to televise the WVU-Pitt football game (featuring Pitt's star running back Tony Dorsett) from Old Mountaineer Field. It would be the first nationally televised game from Morgantown, and Pitt was a top ten team.

There was a guy at WVU (Dr. Van Eck) who wanted to get the sport of rowing started in Morgantown. Although the Mountaineers didn't have a team yet, he didn't want to lose this “marketing opportunity.” He contacted PHS, and arranged for our high school crew team to come to Morgantown that Saturday, put in at the Walnut Street boat ramp, and spend the afternoon rowing up and down the river. Old Mountaineer Field was horseshoe shaped, with the open end facing the river. When ABC would cut away to commercial breaks during the game, the sight of a crew team practicing on the river would provide an interesting backdrop. It didn't matter that we were a high school team—the point was to show that WVU was crew-friendly and a potential destination for future Mountaineer oarsmen.

As it turned out, that game is one of the most legendary games the Mountaineers ever played. The heavily favored Pitt Panthers were upset by a score of 17-14 on a last second field goal. Although we were on the water, we could hear the crowd noises and could tell that the place was going crazy at the end of the game. We were probably (?) the first crew team to ever row in Morgantown, and helped to provide the catalyst for the future WVU crew team. Indeed, WVU hired former UC crew coach Clark Wray to help get their program started a few years later.

So last Sunday, one of the very first oarsman on the Mon returned to row there. It was a lot of fun to have the water rushing past you on both sides again. I remembered everything I needed to do—it was just like riding a bike. It felt good to be stepping into a shell again and adjusting the shoes. A few things were unusual to me, like the modern designed blades rather than the spoons we used to use, or the fact that the coxswain was laying down in the bow, rather than sitting in the stern. But none of these minor difference took away any of the fun.

Finally, I also am glad that I got to row in a gold and blue WVU shell, with a flying WV logo and matching oars. I love both my alma maters, UC and WVU, and now I can say I've rowed at both programs. I think this may have been the fitting capstone on my rowing career. In the words of the command used by coxswains to stop rowing, it may be time to finally “Let it run!”