Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Goodbye to Summer

I don't guess Summer is the favorite time of year for very many of us who live in southeast Texas. It's just too hot and muggy during summers here. By far Spring is my favorite time of year. Everything is being reborn and refreshed, the days are pleasantly warm and the nights are cool. I love the Spring.

For many years I became mildly seasonally depressed each Fall as the days grew shorter and leafs began to fall leaving the trees bare and bleak looking. That doesn't happen so much anymore because most of the trees here in the Houston area are either Live Oaks or Pines which stay green year around. I've come to appreciate the shorter days because life becomes a little bit less of a rush for those of us who are retired. We can't cram as much into short Fall and Winter days as we try to do in the seemingly endless days of summer.

Nevertheless, I enjoy summers, especially the couple few weeks leading to the end of summer. My
Stunning Shot of Northern European Village
wife and I have taken to traveling frequently in the latter days of August and in September when kids are back in school and their parents are back at work. It's an especially nice time to visit Europe. Everything is still open, the weather is mild and crowds are small or even non-existent. This year we took a few days to visit Northern Europe. It is a place I had wanted to visit since my childhood. I was not disappointed. It is a magnificent part of the world and I enjoyed it immensely. My only disappointment was that I have, with my cancer, become simply unable to hike the rugged areas as I once would have done.

I enjoy the people of northern Europe. They live their lives well. Like Switzerland, the countries of
northwestern Europe are sparkling clean. Everywhere one looks, the eye sees a picture post card. Rarely is anything out of place. Houses are well maintained and neat as they can be. Maybe there are some slum areas, but if there are, I've never seen them. European Socialism seems to have, in the decades since WWII, brought everyone firmly into the middle class, and there are, as well, those who are just as firmly in the upper 10% or 1%.

One thing I like a great deal about the northern Europeans is they take a more sensible approach to religion than do Americans. In some parts of northwestern Europe, almost 30% of the population are atheists, compared to only 10% in the United States. More importantly, of the 70% who remain believers, almost none worship in churches that are involved in anything even close to the fundamentalism that attracts more than 30% of all U.S. Christians. The lack of fundamentalism means that northwestern European cultures are significantly different than U.S. culture. They see religion beliefs as a personal thing not open to active proselytizing. Fundamentalist in the U.S. are extremely active in proselytizing and see it as their duty to save everyone who does not believe as they do from Hell by converting them not just to Christianity, but to fundamental Christianity. We should be so lucky here in the U.S.

Norwegian Stave Church
Because religion is seen as a private thing in Europe, the way one leads his life, even his sexual life, is considered private as well. All the countries of northwestern Europe allow gay marriage and it is not allowed because high courts have demanded it. It is allowed because the majority of people support it. How different from what we have to put up with here in the U.S. where fundamentalists are not content to have their own beliefs but insist that everyone else share their beliefs as well.

We could certainly learn a thing or two from the Europeans. Of course, to be fair, I have to point out that not all is rosy there. In a conversation with one man, I told him within two weeks of being diagnosed with cancer I was undergoing treatment by an oncologists. He readily admitted such a thing rarely if every happened in the socialized medical systems in Europe.

In some northwestern European countries women who give birth are give one year off with their babies and retain their full pay. Such a thing is bound to be a boon to childhood development, but we'll never see it here in the U.S. And, of course, it must be pointed out that everything in northwestern Europe is expensive for Americans. Social benefits are not free. There is a definite cost, and high prices and even higher taxes are required to support the cradle to grave welfare systems.

I think America and Americans suffer from an all too often parochial outlook because they are too isolated from the rest of the world. We won't and we shouldn't adopt everything that is European, but it would be nice to consider where they seem to have made better decisions that we.

Jack Scott

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Art of Living

The quote, "If you are young and not liberal, then you have no heart, but if you are old and not conservative, then you have no brain," is most often attributed to Disraeli or to Churchill. It seems more Churchillian to me, but it really doesn't matter who said it as much as it matters what was said at this point in our history.

I usually try to stay away from politics in this blog, but the country is sharply divided between liberal and conservative citizens like no other time in modern history. Worse yet, the country is divided between radical liberals and radical conservatives as in no other time in our modern history. To me it is very easy to navigate the radical divide. Radicals are never deserving of our considering their ideas and ideals other than to guard against them. The reason is simple, radicals have stopped thinking, if indeed they every thought at all, they act only on emotion and self-interest. That is the root of the evil that is presently preying upon our country. So many citizens, including most of our elected officials have long since forgotten their duty to the public interest and the good of the country. There is not a single statesman left in the Congress. They all say and do whatever is necessary in their minds to get reelected and enrich themselves at the public expense.

The prime example of this kind of behavior, unfortunately, is at the very top of our government. That is not to say that he is acting any worse than other elected officials, he just happens to be at the top of the heap and thus more visible. He and the other 644 men and women who make up the three branches of our Federal government have long since forgotten the art of governing. In fact, they have tragically forgotten the art of living itself, and the country, indeed the world, is the worse for it. For much of our 218 year history, the United States has been a positive and respected bastion of leadership and selfless service to the world. Over and over again, we have spilled our own blood on foreign battlefields to save the world from tyranny and tyrants. Now, we have squandered that leadership and that respect in the name of partisan politics and self-interest.

All this can be turned around. Reagan was very successful in giving the United States a new sense of love of country and a new respect for  the countries place in the world after the devastating Carter years. It could happen again, but I'm not optimistic. I see no one on the political stage that has Reagan's abilities to unite people and make them realize there is more to our common good than to our disagreements. More dismaying is that I see no one on the national scene that has Reagan's natural goodness of heart.

It is important to realize that the shape the country is in today did not have it genesis in politics. Its roots are unmistakably entwined in all of us. We are a people who have succumbed to the baser sides of prosperity, self-interest and emotionalism. In short, as a people, we have forgotten the art of living.

For those of us who are gay or bisexual, the art of living has always been a struggle. But now, life has become a struggle for almost every American. The middle class which has always been the backbone of the country has largely disappeared. Why? Because businesses have broken the social contract that allowed them to make money while allowing their workers to prosper too. Henry Ford made himself a millionaire by building and pricing his automobiles in such a manner that the men who built them could afford to drive them. The genius of his thinking is now forgotten. The business of business today is to make as much money as possible with absolutely no regard for the workers who actually make the money for their employers other than to push them harder and harder to make more.

Anything that makes money is fair game. Houston's Enron Corporation opened the flood gates on that way of doing business and the biggest and once respected members of the U.S. financial firms and the Barney Madoff's have followed their example in droves. Just find something to sell. If you have to make it up that's ok. Package it to look inviting and hawk it to the suckers all the time knowing it is worthless. No matter that millions of people loose their jobs and their homes so long as a profit is made by the crooks in suits, white shirts and ties. If you have any doubt of this at all, consider that while the financial sector makes up just 6% of employment in the U.S it now enjoys 30% of U.S. income. That tells the story.

It doesn't have to be this way. None of us is above some degree of greed or self interest. Certainly, no one is above disreputable behavior, but that doesn't mean that greed and disreputable behavior have to be the things at which we excel.

Last week, I came across an article in the August, 2014, Reader's Digest entitled "Art of Living. The title itself caught my interest and I began to read the excellent article by Mark Divine. The article is taken from Divine's book The Way of the Seal.

Divine confides that after college he entered the world of accounting and consulting without much thought other than making a lot of money. As a talented young man he did indeed begin to make a great deal of money, but to his surprise he found that more and more often he found himself feeling unhappy and dissatisfied with the daily grind. It was not only the grind that was getting to him. He found himself feeling dirty about tactics his firm was using that were not precisely illegal, but were unethical. The tactics sometimes forced companies innocent of any wrong doing into bankruptcy and forced their workers out of their jobs. The realization horrified Divine.

For some time Divine had had a desire to quit his high paying job and become a public servant. A big
man in great shape with a real love of physical exercise and the outdoors, he knew exactly how he wanted to serve. He wanted to become a Navy Seal Officer. Soon the straw that broke the camel's back occurred in Divine's company. He resigned. A year later he graduated from Navy Seal training. Eighty cadets had started the training. Divine was one of 19 who graduated, and he was at the top of his class. He went on to serve honorably as a Seal, and after retiring from the Navy he started an entrepreneurial career which lead him to create several successful multi million dollar companies.

My son is career Navy. Though he was never a Navy Seal, he was a member of the Navy's Special Ops. I was very pleased to read Divine's description of some of the things he learned along his successful career in leadership. Several of them were the same conversations my son and I have had about leadership. For instance, Divine says that leadership is not a skill. Instead, leadership is a character set - a core value of one's personality. Successful, happy and fulfilled people, Divine says, have core values such as honor, courage and a true commitment to personal excellence that makes them natural leaders. It is a conversation my son and I have had many times. For my son, his own sense of honor, courage and commitment to personal excellence helped him to become one of the youngest Command Master Chief's in the U.S. Navy, and it has guided him through many a battle and many a tight squeeze. No one should ever get the idea that honor, courage and commitment to personal excellence is something that is always appreciated. It's not. When one rises above his peers, there is often jealousy and peek. When a young career military man still in his twenties begins to be singled out for praise from senior officers, junior officers are, more often than not, less than supportive.

Divine tells of a senior officer challenging him to succinctly state what he stood for. After several false starts, he told the officer, "Destiny favors the prepared in body, mind and spirit." Again it is a concept my son and I have talked about many times. When he first joined the Navy, I told him that if he was always willing to do more than was asked of him, he would have an exceptional career. Luckily, it was one of the times he truly listened to me and his personal commitment to always being prepared and willing to go the extra mile served him well from the very beginning of his career right into the second decade of his career.

Divine goes on to explain that after talking with the officer, he went on to expand what it meant to him to be prepared in body, mind and spirit. He wrote the following stand:

  • Destiny will favor me if I am prepared in body, mind and spirit.
  • I must work harder than expected and be more patient than others.
  • Leadership is a privilege, not a right.
  • As a warrior, I will be the last to pick up the sword but will fight to protect myself, my family and my country.  (This another conversation my son and I have had many many times. Nothing irks my son more than for someone to say or imply that military men and women love fighting. He tells people that as a young man who has seen the horrors of war often and first hand, he hates war and fighting, but he accepts the responsibility to protect his country and those he loves at any cost.)
  • I will find happiness by seeking truth, wisdom and love and not by chasing thrills, wealth, titles or fame.
  • I will seek to improve myself, my team and the world every day.
Divine, correctly states that few people these days take the time to think deeply about their personal ethos.  He encourages the people he works with to take the following steps to correct this:
  • Write out a personal list of the principles on which you stand.
  • Define personal values.
  • Identify personal passions.
  • Discover the purpose of your life.
I believe that every life has a purpose. Unfortunately, I also believe that the number of people who identify their life's purpose are much smaller than the number who do not. It's a tragedy. Knowing one's purpose in life can make the good times in one's life even more rewarding and it can smooth over the inevitable rough spots as well.

As a young boy, my parents always reminded me that God would use me - use me as a good example if he could, as a bad example if he must. We live in a time when bad examples surround us on all sides. Those who cheat, steal and use others are exalted in our popular culture. Even those who murder are often admired. How did we get to this point? I think Divine would say, it is because so few of us have any personal set of ethics. We just go with the flow.

I was raised by parents for whom ethical behavior was paramount. Breeches of ethical behavior on my part were always punished. Thus, ethics became an important part of my life as well. As a young bisexual man who wanted a traditional marriage and family and who seemed to need something beyond that as well, ethical behavior in that part of my life was always troublesome. As I've gotten older I find that I am glad to have been troubled. The troublesome nature of my life helped me to at least stay within personal boundaries of propriety and safety.

As a Christian, I've always struggled with the concept of hell. I have come not to believe in a geographically defined pit of burning unquenchable fire. However, I very much believe that hell does exist. It exist all around us and within us, and when hell does invade our minds and our spirits, its metaphorical fires can indeed be unquenchable.

The antidote to this metaphorical hell is the Art of Living. A life lived well is a beautiful thing and a
very satisfying thing. Unfortunately, we live in an era when parents dearest wish for their children is for them to live a life free of adversity. We would do well instead to teach our children to live an artful life. In an artful life children would grow into adults who could face any adversity and overcome it, if not in a physical sense, in a spiritual and mental sense. I have an incurable cancer. Barring a medical breakthrough, it will kill me. But I have overcome my cancer. I do not let it define me. I define myself and I choose to live a life in which I count my many blessings rather than to dwell on physical and social cancers that surround me. Such is the blessing of living an Artful Life.

None of us can control what adversities we encounter in life. What we can control is how we handle those adversities. Handling them in such a manner that they are temporary inconveniences and refusing to be defined by our adversities is the definition of Artful Living.

Jack Scott


Anyone can comment on what I write in this blog. Regretfully, the recent amount of spam in my email account as required that I reinstate the word verification process for comments which I personally hate.

But at the same time I have loosened the comment moderation process so that those of you who have a Google Blogger ID or other recognized blogger ID will no longer need to wait for your comment to be moderated. I'm hoping this will tempt you to take the trouble to comment.

The truth is I want respectful comments both from those who agree with me and those who do not. All I as is that you keep comments to the point, clean and non-threatenting.

I look forward to hearing from each of you.

Jack Scott