Monday, April 14, 2014

Defining Success

I occasionally have "light bulb" moments when taking our dog, Bubba for a walk, especially when the walks last 45 minutes or longer.   It was during a recent walk that the idea of a blog about success occurred to me.   I decided to start with a quick google to obtain some published definitions.




The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines success as "the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame".




Dictionary.com has a few listed definitions, the first two being:
1.  the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one's   goals.
2. the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.

Finally, Wictionary also lists two main definitions:
  1. The achievement of one's aim or goal
     2. (business) financial profitability.


As I examine these offerings, I am struck by the fact that success seems to be determined as much by others as by one's self, (respect, fame, wealth), and is more often indicated by some type of monetary achievement (wealth, financial profitability). 


In a past blog, perhaps more than one, I stated that I consider myself to be a writer, despite knowing that I do not make a living as a writer, and do not have a very large audience.  Applying the above definitions to my assertion, it would seem clear that I could not claim to be a success as a writer without achieving some modicum of respect or wealth visa-vie my writing.  At this point, then, I do not ever expect to be a success as defined in that way, yet I still post my thoughts with a very specific goal in mind; to write something, someday, that will evoke a strong emotional or spiritual reaction in my readers.  And, based on some feedback that I have received over the last four years, I have accomplished that goal a few times.  So, while still requiring the viewpoint of others to attain success, I feel there have been a few moments when I have succeeded despite a lack of widespread fame, respect or wealth.


I would bet that a small percentage of the population would deem themselves a success in life.  They gauge this belief on the unrealized dreams of their youth, the undeveloped talent they couldn't pursue, the humdrum nature of the job in which they are employed, the average home in the average neighborhood with their average, everyday friends and family; in other words, their lack of fame and wealth. 


Is it a stretch then to wonder why there are so many who "work for the weekend", drink a bit too much, have trouble sleeping at night, overuse and abuse the fruits of the pharmacology industry, struggle with their personal relationships, are unhappy?  Would the perception of personal success help alleviate some of these problems?


My wife recently baked some cupcakes for her workplace to help raise money for a local charity.  The cupcakes were from a white cake mix with blue icing made from scratch.  She sprinkled some green-dyed coconut flakes on top for grass, placed a few small chocolate eggs on each surrounding a yellow peep placed lovingly in the middle.  Adorable right?  Of course, they all sold quickly.  And the few I brought to work were greeted with oohs and aahs.  Is that not a success?  Does she even realize how many smiles and positive emotions those cupcakes created?  Those few people who purchased and shared those few dozen cupcakes would undoubtedly consider them a success and wish they could have baked such treasures.   Strangely though, their perception is not perfectly in line with my wife's.  She does not attach the same result, the same perception of success in regards to those "peep" cupcakes as those who devoured them.


History is filled with stories of seemingly successful people who did not perceive their own success.  Who considered themselves failures even.  It seems clear then, that success may be apparent to others but only matters if the person acknowledges it as well.


If it is not possible for everyone to be a success, does that mean that we can't experience success?  Have a "favorable or prosperous termination of attempt or endeavor; the accomplishment of one's goal."  Is the athlete who breaks all the records the only success, or is every athlete who accomplished something on the field, and who generated a memory in a fan who will always remember that day, a success?  Are only the parents of noble prize winners or TV stars a success, or are all parents who raise their children to be productive, compassionate members of society a success as well?  Are only those who captain great multi-national companies or broker vast financial deals a success, or are the people who, to the best of their ability, cook and serve our meals, patrol our streets, take care of our children in the our daycares and schools, do the work that makes all businesses run properly, also a success?


Finally, assuming it takes outside input to help us believe in our success, do our institutions take the lead in providing that positive feedback?  Does our religion emphasize the good in people or  demonize others to make us feel good about ourselves?  Do our political parties point out the good qualities of all Americans or denounce those on the other side as evil?  Do our employers treat us as they would their own families, or jettison us as soon as the profit margin dictates?  Do our friends and family support us despite our flaws, or take no pains in revealing our foibles to the highest bidder?


Success then, to me, is a two part equation.  An uplifting environment where encouragement, constructive criticism and compassion rule the day, and an inner belief that we are basically good and able to accomplish our goals.  In the classic chicken or the egg question, I am not sure which comes first, so perhaps we should set our sights on both.         











Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Freedom of Religion, and other Rights

Soon after the United States Constitution was adopted in 1789, a series of amendments to the Constitution were introduced to the first United States Congress.  These amendments, commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights were presented by James Madison as a way to alleviate the fears of those concerned with too much power being invested in the newly formed government.


Most people, including myself until a few moments ago, don't know that there were 12 original amendments proposed by Congress, 10 of which were ratified in the following years by the necessary 3/4 of the states, one which was later ratified as the 27th amendment in 2003, and one which technically is still up for ratification but is not receiving any active debate in any states.


There has been much debate concerning the application of the bill of rights in today's society, 220+ years after their adoption.  Currently, the Supreme Court is hearing a case involving the very first amendment, which is detailed below.


"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances".


Before I enter the debate, it may be helpful for you to review those 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights.  I have provided a link below to Wikipedia which discuses a brief history, then the actual rights along with an explanation for each. 


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Bill_of_Rights


As I thought about this post, I planned to approach the topic as a discussion of how there are no rights that are sacrosanct, or put another way, one man's exercise of his freedoms should not violate those of another.  For instance, we all know many examples of limitations to the freedom of speech.  From not being allowed to cause a panic in a public place (by yelling fire), to noise restrictions in living areas where people are very close together, to revealing state secrets to the enemy, the freedom of speech is not inviolate.  


Even in respect to the freedom of religion, the first amendment states that neither extreme is permissible, either the prohibition of free exercise of religion or the establishment of any one religion over the others.  Of course, this leaves a lot of wiggle room in the middle which is where so many court decisions must fall.  In my view, the generic god, such as "in god we trust" on our money, the phrase "god bless America" which is on every politician's lips, or even "god bless you" when one sneezes, does not establish any one religion over others but merely reflects the opinion of the majority of citizens that the concept of god is acceptable to acknowledge.  It is the question of which god that creates the problems: The Christian God, The Jewish God, the Muslim God, the Buddhist God, the NO God?

There are also times when the exercise of one's religion should not be protected by the first amendment.  I think most people would agree that a parent's religious belief that the use of antibiotics violates the tenets of their religion should not excuse them from prosecution if they allow their child to die of an infection that would be easily treated.  In other words, the parent's rights to exercise their religion is negated when that action violates their child's right to life.


Question then, is there one right that should always be held to be the most important of the rights, one that always trumps the others?


Perhaps it is this one:


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.


Problem.  This phrase is from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution or Bill of Rights.  I believe that each of us in fact, has been granted, at birth, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, each person.  Taken literally then, any action that denies one's "pursuit" should not be allowed. 


But when do we do when one person's pursuit violates the rights of another's pursuit.  It is easy to see that stealing a TV from ones neighbor might help one along in their pursuit of happiness, but hurts another, hence it is not protected.  But what about an employer who's religion forbids artificial methods of contraception, yet is being compelled by federal law to provide health insurance that includes birth control?  And what if that employer is a corporation, not an individual?


Anyone who has read my blog in the past, knows my deep disagreement with the Citizens United Ruling that equated contributions to political organizations as an exercise of free speech, even when that contribution comes from a corporation.  In other words, corporations are people too.  (I imagine that without that ruling, this case would not have been on the docket of the Supreme Court).


In the case of the company, Hobby Lobby, a family owned public company, they maintain that their religious beliefs do not allow artificial birth control methods, and that forcing them to provide this benefit as part of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act, violates their freedom to exercise their religion.  Now, I am no legal expert, but I am pretty sure that not all religions ban birth control.  As a lapsed Catholic, I know that the Roman Catholic Church is against contraception but I am aware that their are many other Christian religions that have no such tenet in their dogma.  So, would granting  Hobby Lobby an exception give the Catholic religion a leg up on the others?  Would the Supreme Court also have to allow other exceptions to federal laws if those laws violate specific tenets of the Muslim religion or Buddhist religion?   Would those clamoring for the Supreme Court to rule for Hobby Lobby be just as vocal if it was a Muslim company looking for an exception to a law that they felt compromised their freedom of religion?


I have heard some say that if the employees don't like Hobby Lobby's religious beliefs, maybe they shouldn't work there.  If Hobby Lobby only hired people who shared their beliefs, would that be OK too?  Should they be allowed to ask religions affiliation on their job app?  What about people who work for a company for 15, 20 years, then experience a takeover by a company with "strong, religious beliefs".  Oh well, go find another job? 


Also, what about women who use contraception, especially the pill, for medical reasons in addition to or instead of for reasons of birth control.  Perhaps their medical professional has prescribed it to reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, lessen the pain of menstruation or PMS, or regulate their period more evenly.  For all the yelping about the government interfering with the doctor-patient relationship, I am surprised at the willingness of some of these same people to allow one's employer to interfere in that dynamic.


To me, this a slam dunk.  But, knowing the make-up of today's Supreme Court, I can foresee them  ruling in a contrary way; especially since six of them are men.  As I have said before, and will say again, if men could get pregnant, there would be a lot of different perspectives on some of the topics of the day.


Let's hope that the men of the High Court are able to put aside their religion; 5 of them are Catholic, and rule on the behalf of the rest of us who are not stuck in the middle ages when it comes to birth control.  Let's also hope that they don't use their judicial power to expand the "religious" rights of corporations, just as they expanded corporations' individual rights in the Citizen United decision.




        

Monday, March 24, 2014

Free Lunches







There has been a lot of talk lately about free lunches.  It has been talk filled with innuendo, condemnation and, for some, an appeal to everyday Americans to voice their disapproval of those receiving these free lunches.


I did some research today and found some shocking statistics.  Based on this research, I add my name to the list of those who call for our legislators to enact laws which will greatly reduce the dependence of many people on freebies from the American taxpayer.


Unfortunately, this call may fall on deaf ears as our Congressional representatives themselves would be on my list of those who should no longer get free lunches.  You see, in addition to their $174,000 per year salary (for 113 days of work - you can google that), they receive a per diem expense which covers shelter and food.  The food portion is around $45 per day, much higher than the cost of the school lunch that so many of the GOP seem to want to eliminate. 


But the real kings of free lunches reside in the business world.  The following link details the actual amount of money an average family pays towards the social safety net that accounts for programs like SNAP ($6) as compared to what it costs the American taxpayer for corporate welfare which the author of the article tabs at $6000 per family.


http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/19844-food-stamps-are-affordable-corporate-welfare-is-not


To be fair, I read some other articles which debunked some of the areas listed in this article, but even those that might be deemed more business friendly, or, at least less left-leaning, place the number in the $2200 area.


In other words, those hypocrites you see crying on C-SPAN (during House and Senate hearings) and on Fox TV who claim that America is going bankrupt due to all those taking freebies are correct; but way off the mark when it comes to who the free loaders really are. 


The sad news is that much of this rape of the American tax base is legal due to all the tax breaks openly stated and hidden in our convoluted tax code.  For instance, did you know that liquor distillers get a tax break for creating flavored vodka? To the tune of $1 billion?


What I find even more galling, if that is possible, is that the lunches, dinners, trips, gifts, etc that the lobbyists use to tilt the rules of our economic system in their favor are tax deductible.  That's right, every time a Congressman eats for free, travels for free, opens a free gift or just takes a huge check for their next campaign, results in a tax deduction for the company making the legal bribe, and an increase in the tax burden on the middle class. 


Not to mention all the "business" meals, sports events, trips, etc that businesses write off in pursuit of sales, in pursuit of business, in pursuit of their profit.  All used to reduce their taxes. 


I once heard a TV pundit say that the American business community is all about capitalism on the way up, but shared sacrifice (socialism) on the way down.  They all want the fruits of their work to remain in their baskets, with as little sharing as possible when the sun is shining and money is flowing but are the first to use their tax breaks to offset poor management decisions, poor marketing plans, poor expansion efforts when the going gets tough. 


At this point, some of you might be screaming -- flat tax!!!.


Be careful of this.  A flat tax might result in the elimination of huge corporations paying no taxes, but it might also increase the tax rate of those in the middle class that use the mortgage deduction and education credit.  I favor tax rates that have a floor.  Since we all know that there are some hugely profitable corporations that pay little or no taxes, that there are very few corporations and wealthy individuals that pay the actual top tax rate, let's stop debating raising or lowering the rates.  In fact, it is all a diversion anyway, since those crying that our top tax rate is so high know that actual tax rates are much lower but like to use it as a political tool to claim that the DEMS always want to raise taxes. 


A floor tax system would be simple to enact and understand.


Regardless of the actual top tax rate, 33, 36, 39%, whatever it may be, the floor rate for that bracket would be 20%, no less.  (Or 18 or whatever we can decide is fair).  The next rate, which I believe is 28% would have a floor of 15%, or so.  And so on.  Deductions could still be taken, but only as far as the "floor" rate for that tax bracket. 


Finally, let's make sure we fully understand why so many of American children need free school lunches and why so many American citizens, old and young need a strong safety net embodied in programs like SNAP.  Income inequality in the form of inordinate pay for the top 5% of wage earners as compared to the remaining 95% of American workers, unequal pay for the same work which still hampers women in the workforce, and the power wielded by those who control a disproportionate amount or influence over our elected officials.


So, a big YES to reducing the free lunch mentality that permeates America, specifically the American business community.



Monday, March 17, 2014

Science, Fiction and Fact

A week or so ago, I watched an old sci-fi movie, circa 1958, with my wife.  It featured horrible special effects and an unrealistic story line about manned missions to Mars.  Of course, it was made 55 years ago, so it should come as no surprise that the science was outdated, but we also noted that on the flight back to earth, from Mars, all the meals were served by the female scientists.  The women were clearly treated as equals, scientifically, but still expected to clean up after dinner and serve the men coffee. 


I also recently read a Smithsonian article about Carl Sagan, in anticipation of the new Cosmos series.
It dawned on me, that Sagan spent a considerable amount of his time in an attempt to bring the study of space, as well as an understanding of the vastness of the universe to the common man, especially the children of the 70's and 80's.


Additionally, I recently watched the HBO special called Questioning Darwin which included interviews from scientists defending evolution, as well as discussions with people who believe in the bible as scientific fact.


The 50's science fiction movie made me think about how far our technology has come.  While we have not landed a man on Mars, we did make it to the moon.  More importantly, the advances in  communication, whether it be via cell phones, the internet, twitter or the other various social media, have changed our world in ways we are still coping with and understanding.  The Carl Sagan piece made me think how upset Sagan would be at the state of science in America today.  From climate change deniers to bible-as-science-fact supporters there seems to be an attack on the research and accomplishments of science.  The HBO series about Darwin made me wonder if those who would take us back to the 1800's as regards to evolution, are as willing to do the same in the area of communication and medicine.  Do those who believe the bible is a science book, eschew cell phones and computers because they are not in the bible?  Do they seek cures for cancer and heart disease in Genesis as well or seek out the best medical advice of the day?


Fortunately, I watched the second part of the new Cosmos series last night.  The new host, a man with a clear and personal memory of Carl Sagan's passion for science, presented a wonderful defense of evolution as fact.  The episode made me think that Sagan would have been proud of this episode, and that I was wrong it my initial thought that Carl would be demoralized at the attacks of science.  He would have doubled his efforts!  And perhaps he wouldn't have waited so long to do it.


The beauty of the evolution episode of the new Cosmos hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, is that it presented the theory of evolution, not as a replacement for those who believe in the Genesis story, but as an updated version of that story.  Just as we might tell a young child that the stork brings babies until they are old enough to understand the biology of conception, the Genesis story attempts to explain to mankind not "old" enough to understand the true story of the beginning.  It is a story created to simplify the complexity and the mystery of the universe to a people that could not fathom the discoveries that science, the scientific method and the telescope would provide us today. 


Science, space, the universe, the meaning of life.  All challenging topics, even scary.  Carl Sagan thought that the best way to remove the veil of mystery, the fear of doubt and uncertainty, was through education, discussion, exploration.  He challenged us to accompany him on his space and time travels even when we might not understand fully, or not get it all right away. 


Perhaps that is the rub.  Some feel it is OK to not get it right away, to have to think about something more deeply; to use our brains.  Others prefer to chalk it all up to God, take it on faith, let someone else do the thinking for them.  Simple answers even for the most profound questions.  But where does that take us?


How small of a step is it from discounting the scientific evidence of evolution to discounting science as a discipline to be avoided, feared?  How small of a step is it from ignoring the overwhelming evidence that our planetary climate is being altered to ignoring other such warnings about poisoning our air, ground water, food? 


In the Questioning Darwin documentary, a bible as fact devotee longed for a time when parents, schools and religion taught children the same things, operated as a tripod of support.  His opinion, clearly, was that schools were no longer part of that support team; that public education was at odds with parental and religious influences.  I can't say for sure that that time actually existed or exists only in the rose colored glasses of this person, but I do know that when I went to parochial elementary school, we learned about our Catholic religion as well as evolution.  It was never explained how the two could co-exist, but knowledge of neither invalidated the other. 


Perhaps then, it is today's bible as fact advocates who have left the tripod of support for a single legged chair.  In so doing, they have sentenced their children to a wobbly support structure at best, and a sad day at worst when their one-legged chair fails to support them as they navigate their personal travels through time and space.


    

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Love, Sex and Divorce

The winter continues although today's snow only a trace compared to the 10+ storms of six or more inches that we have experienced so far.  Temps under 40 all week (normal is 45 or so) so even with some sun the snow piles are not dwindling.  Most people one encounters is wishing for spring's arrival.  In the meantime, while we are in the arms of old man winter, California is as dry as a bone and record heat has plagued many in the southern hemisphere.  Climate change is everywhere to see yet there are still so many people denying its existence, some due to the influence of Fox News and its legion of naysayers who either actually live with their heads in the sand, or more likely draw their salaries from the fossil fuel industry that is most threatened by climate change facts, and some who are just too busy or tired or uninterested to think about what is going on around them.


Like the proverbial frog in hot water, it will be a hollow told-you-so victory for those advocating for action now when nature's boiling over burns all of us, and those who have placed their profit above the health and security of their children and grand children are finally awakened to the nature of their foolish actions and short sighted denials.


But, that wasn't what I wanted to blog about today.


I recently read two articles in the February Smithsonian that touched on love, sex and divorce. 


http://www.smithsonianmag.com/issue/february-2014/


The first, Valentine's Revenge, detailed a brief history of divorce in the last 500 years.  Of course, as is true of much of history, divorce was exclusively a tool for men to control women.  Whether it be through divorce rules that required little proof for men but an overwhelming standard for women, or via the various tenets of religions that required the woman to always obey the man, or just by the simple fact that it is woman who is bears all the physical requirements of bringing a baby into the world while depending on the man to provide more than just the sperm, divorce until most recently has not been a viable option for women.  (A lingering sign of these times is the abuse some women of means encounter when they choose to raise a child on their own, without a father.  While I would certainly prefer two parent families, it strikes me as the height of hypocrisy when I see a young woman being attacked by a man for "breaking apart" the family unit, when these same men have little or nothing to say about holding the sperm provider accountable for all the babies born out of wedlock but have no problem with pontificating for women to put an aspirin between their legs or labeling as sluts those women who advocate for birth control in insurance plans).


Oops, I strayed again.


Anyway, if one would spend even a few minutes reviewing the history of divorce, it would be clear that it has been a process which favored men for a large percentage of the time.  Hence, women who tolerated their man's infidelity, cruelty or just plain assholeness, had no recourse but to stick it out.  No wonder then that the divorce rates have climbed in the past 50 years.  Women have finally received a fair legal shake and have a much better chance of surviving, economically, then all the generations of their sisters gone by.  As the optimist I am, my hopes is that the divorce rates will level out in the next few generations as we continue to evolve socially, which includes marrying at a later time in life, waiting a bit longer to have children and limiting our families to a size that we can support.


The other article was about Voles and the recent studies that have featured them in an attempt to understand love, bonding and monogamy in people. 


Interestingly, their are two types of voles which behave much differently; let's call them city and country vole.  The city vole bonds for life with the male spending much more time helping to raise the little ones than its country vole counterpart.  In studying the vole, scientists have isolated the RNA/DNA interactions which seem to create this difference, and have actually changed a country vole to act like a city vole by altering that interaction. 


Of course, there is no proof that a vole, or any animal, loves its mate.  Still, while the vast majority of mammals do not mate for life, do not have males that stay with the mother of their progeny, the vole does exhibit these traits.  So, if we assume that rearing a family with two parents is the ideal natural way, it is curious that it seems to be the exception rather than the rule.  Or, one might argue that man has evolved a bit farther than most other animals, has a deeper or more critical requirement for pair bonding; that nature has selected this trait for us to prosper. 


The interesting thing about voles and sex however, is that voles are not necessarily sexual faithful.  They stray, both males and females, but tend to return to the original mate.      


So, perhaps it is sex that is the problem.


Voles aside, do we attach too much value to the sex act?  Since we know how to control procreation, sex is less about babies and more about enjoyment.  I read recently that money problems are the number one cause for divorce, not sexual infidelity.  Would the human race be better off if we learned that sex can be both an expression of love and a physical activity, and that sex outside marriage should not necessarily destroy that marriage if it is done so openly, safely?


Unfortunately, it seems to me that sex, like so many other activities, is often used as an expression of power with rape being the ultimate example of that type.  And, sorry to say guys, men are much more immature in their understanding of sex.  As we continue to learn about the working of our brains, the influence of DNA and the environment on our behavior and the interplay of those dynamics, I hope there is more research concerning oxytocin and vasopressin, voles and humans, males and females so that someday the world will have much more love and sex, and much less divorce.


 







Thursday, February 13, 2014

Milestones

This past week, there was much ado about the 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan show.  I must confess, I was never a huge fan of the Fab Four.  I guess part of the reason is my age; I was just six years old when the Beatles visited America in 1964.  I also had a sheltered exposure to music until high school, at which time the Beatles were long past their heyday as a group.  I do remember exactly where I was when John Lennon was murdered, and I remember thinking that it was a great loss to the world, so I had established a respect for Lennon.  But I always thought Paul's solo music was a bit too pop so when I was seeing a rock concert twice a month in the late 70's and early 80's, the Beatles were not represented in any form.


During my newspaper delivery days, I did feel a modicum of admiration for the Beatles via a few particular disc jockeys who played Beatles music for hours at a time in the early weekend mornings, and I have also gained a much bigger respect for George Harrison in the past few years.  He was clearly a unique man in terms of his life perspective. 


Still, I am far from understanding Beatlemania.  But, all that being said, I was glad to see the 50th anniversary celebrated as it has been.  These kinds of events, sometimes understood at their occurrence as historic, sometimes only perceived as important after the fact, mark societal changes that effect everyone, those involved in the details, those who feel the significance of the event, and even (perhaps especially) those who were unaware of the event.  Whether we attach the popularity of long hair on men, the influence of Beatles music on all music which followed, the continuing revolution that allowed women to express their sexuality more openly, or any of the subtle and myriad ways that America changed in the 60's, the Beatles phenomenon was a factor in how America, and all Americans, live their lives today.


Speaking of icons, Shirley Temple (Black) died this past week.  Again, before my time, much before, I was never a Shirley Temple movie watcher.  I may have never watched one of her movies all the way through in my life.  But, her influence on American culture is undeniable.  At a time when America was suffering through the worst financial crisis in its history, the Shirley Temple characters gave us hope for the future.  She allowed us to look at the world through eyes less cynical, with a perspective that saw the goodness in others and in life's experiences.  Perhaps it was a bit too sugary sweet, but it was a sweetness in demand at a time when real life was not full of lollipops and sunshine.


Finally, another Olympics is ongoing this week, this one from Sochi, Russia.  From what I have read, these Olympics represent some of the worst that man has permitted and actively committed against his fellow man.  The history of the native folk who live in the Sochi and surrounding areas is rife with cruelty and killing.  And, Putin's efforts to dress up his country despite its horribly low life expectancy, horribly high alcoholism rates, poor economy and severe income inequality, are as politically motivated as any Olympic games have been.


(Quick note here, perhaps those who still cling to the belief that income inequality is OK should take a look at countries where the top earners control a large percentage of the money, and how devastated is the middle class of those countries, and how limited upward mobility is for its citizens.  Also, perhaps the Republican party and its far right conservative "Christians" should reexamine their affiliation with Russia in terms of their treatment, legal and social, of those with a different sexual orientation.)


Still, I enjoy the Olympics.  Perhaps I am biased as I attended two Olympics as a young adult, the 1976 event in Montreal and the 1984 extravaganza in Los Angeles.  (No, I was not an athlete, just one of the thousands in the stands.)  Yes, sports stars today are overpaid, and the Olympics has long shed its requirement that participants be amateur, yet sports, and the Olympics in particular can still act as a bridge between people from different backgrounds, cultures, races, religion, enabling them to build upon their commonalities rather than focusing on the differences.  Perhaps not as much today, but I recollect many a love story between two completely different people, emanating from past Olympics.  And, in addition to the obvious interplay between people of different perspectives, there are the wonderful stories of everyday Americans, Swiss, Norwegians, Canadians who have dreamed of someday performing on the world stage, and, through perseverance, and family (sometimes even community assistance), have achieved their dream.  Even more inspiring, (when we can put aside our obsession with winning) are the stories in which competing is the reward in itself because in the competition, individual bests are posted and medals are insignificant.


 


    


Thursday, January 30, 2014

State of the Union 2

I finished yesterday's post on a significantly negative note; that the SOTU is all about money with people a distant second.


I also mentioned in yesterday's post how confusing it seems that despite the incredible gains made in our economy since the desperate days of October 2008, most people are dissatisfied with the economy and the direction of the country.


It dawned on me last night at work that perhaps I am forgetting a critical aspect of the interpretation of such data.  For me personally, like a slight majority of Americans, I generally approve of the job that President Obama has done.  Whether you want to play the "it-would-have-happened-anyway" card, or the even more tenuous, "a different president would have made a bigger difference", the facts are that life has improved for many Americans, and that there is cause for congratulations.  For instance;


we have far less soldiers in harm's way overseas


we have ended the odious don't-ask, don't-tell philosophy for gays in the military


more gay Americans can legally marry the person they love


our retirement fund accounts have recovered much of their 2008-2009 losses


if you are sick, really sick, there are no longer caps on the benefits we will receive to battle your illness


if you lose your job, you have a much better chance of affordable health coverage compared to your previous options of COBRA, or being rated individually with the chance of denial or very high premiums if there are any pre-existing conditions


That being said, and while you know I remain an optimist, there are signs of major issues facing America that are not being addressed, or actively being ignored.  So, perhaps, a certain percentage of those saying we are heading in the wrong direction, are not blaming President Obama and his policies for this state, but all the players who govern America, and who run its businesses.  This might explain the difference between those 70+% who are dissatisfied with our direction, and the 50+% who approve of Obama's efforts.  In other words, like my wife who supports Obama but is terrified at the way of the world, there may be 20% of the population who believe he has not done enough, has not addressed the biggest issues, perhaps even, has not been liberal enough. 


I know the Republican party steadfastly believes that all 70% of those dissatisfied with the direction of the country think that we need to turn to the right but I don't agree.   As proof, I would offer the 2012 elections in which a middle right GOP candidate lost decisively to a middle left candidate.  In which the GOP lost two Senate seats (from 47 to 45) and 8 House seats (from 242 to 234).  Also the fact that Congress, both houses, have a dismal approval rating tells me there is no conclusive data to suggest that all the blame is placed at Obama's feet.  Additionally, and most damning, those same polls that detail the lament for the wrong direction, give the GOP very low marks in terms of trust to make things right.  And while Obama receives poor marks for flexibility to work with Congress, Congress receives even lower marks.  Finally, if you check the history of these moving in the wrong direction polls, you will find that Americans have been saying it for about 10 years now. 


So, perhaps we need to rethink our conclusions.


Perhaps, what these polls indicate is that America is unsure what direction to go.  On one hand, we know what worked in the 50's and 60's, how post war America led the world to recovery.  But competition was slight then.  Europe and Japan were devastated and China was still living in the dark ages.  Once the world gained its foothold, once China began to harness its resources, once the advances in communication and transportation burst on the scene, the labor market changed drastically.  Suddenly, goods could be manufactured anywhere (lower labor costs), and moved anywhere (lower transportation costs), and America's advantages dried up.  At this point, our choices were to lower our own wages (demonizing unions was a big part of that ploy), or create economic bubbles that would spur growth but not be sustainable, hence the frequent ups and downs. 


Hard work, individualism, entrepreneurship, invention, forward thinking, all characters that made America dominant are now shared by those in many other countries.  While our recipe for success may still be similar, we are not the only cooks in the kitchen.  We require some out of the box thinking, some challenges to the "it-worked-before" mentality.  We need to change yet, as is natural, we are hesitant.  Half of us clings to the old tried and true ways, while half discards the old to seek the new.  Unfortunately, in seeking the new, mistakes are made.  There are no guarantees.  Sometimes things need to be tweaked a bit before working fully but we seem impatient for the quick fix.  I've heard more than one pundit claim the Obama experiment had run its course, even back in 2010 when the GOP took back the House, as if two years could fix 30 years of problems.   The Affordable Care Act is a failure, I hear so many of the GOP claim yet it hasn't fully been implemented yet.  If we were to judge all long term solutions on its first few years, we may have discarded many great changes in their infancy, and lost out on those positive effects. 


And, as you know I join my fellow Americans in blaming our elected officials, yet if we don't know what we want, where we want to go, how we should get there, how can our leaders take us.  We seem bent on electing two drivers with opposite senses of direction for our national ship of state and then wonder why we are treading water.


America is in transition.  I would like to think that in 20 years we will have maneuvered our way into a position to determine our new direction, will have made a choice as to where we wanted to go and then elected people to take us there.  But as long as we have a significant population who want to go backwards to a time in their minds when America was always right, choices were black and white, good and evil, we will continue to struggle and continue to be dissatisfied with our country's direction. 










  


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The State of the Union

I must confess, I did not watch the President's State of the Union (SOTU) speech last night.  Nor, of course, did I watch any of the three Republican responses.  But I did watch a few shows yesterday which presented some data and possible talking points of the SOTU, plus I watched a few shows this morning which presented reactions to the speech.

First, two interesting facts. 

Unemployment began rising in 2008, then rose quickly through 2009 into 2010, topping at just over 10%.  It has declined slowly since, falling below 7% in December 2013 for the first time in 6 years.

See link below
http://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNS14000000

The stock market declined steeply beginning in October 2008, reaching its low point of the recession of 6547.05 in early 2009.  It is currently trading a bit over 15700. 

See link below
http://stockcharts.com/freecharts/historical/djia2000.html

Clearly, these are only two measurements of the economy.  But, at first glance, one might say fairly conclusively that our country is better off today than in January 2009 when Obama took office.  Yet, and despite his re-election just 14 months ago, his approval ratings are below 50%, and he seems to be given very little credit for overseeing the recovery to date.

Another measurement I just thought of might be housing starts.  Here is a link.  Again, dismal numbers at the peak of the recession, slow but gaining recovery, especially in the last 18 months.

http://www.macrotrends.net/1314/housing-starts-historical-chart

Not only is there a lack of respect for the recovery, but a majority of Americans feel the country is on the wrong track.  So, what explains the disconnect between our seemingly improving economy and people's perceptions?

An easy answer might be that people are not feeling the advantages of the recovery.  Wages are certainly not increasing.  In the private sector, profits seem to be flowing upwards, to either executive pay or to improve profits.  In the public sector, unions continue to be on the decline in terms of membership and influence, resulting in layoffs and give backs.  Even pensions, promises to workers made by local, state and federal governments, are being subjected to possible reductions and eliminations.  So, simply stated, people do not feel a part of the recovery because their buying power has, at best, stayed the same, but more often has decreased.  The good news here is that if you looked at your IRA statements for 2013, you should see at least 20%, perhaps as much as 40% increases in the value of your investments.  Good for the future but no help today, of course.

So, if there are signs of recovery but everyday Americans aren't feeling it what is going on?

As you know, it is my belief that our current form of capitalism is not working to the advantage of middle class Americans.  I believe that it started in the 1980's with Reagan's famous trickle down economic theories, continued with Bush 1, flourished under Clinton via large scale trade agreements and the now famous repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, continued under Bush 2 and his doubling down on corporate tax breaks, then finally peaked with the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling that granted individual rights to corporations.  

One thing that I heard both Dems and the GOP say today is that we must provide more jobs that pay a living wage to more middle class Americans.  Considering that we have so many people employed in retail and service industries, I don't see an easy solution.  Raising the minimum wage will only help a small percentage of workers unless the rate increases to $12 per hour.  To me, the minimum wage isn't the problem, it is all those people who work 40 hours a week and earn between $9-12 per hour and are expected to shelter, feed and provide opportunity for their family, not to mention participate in the economy.

The minimum wage issue is a distraction to the real problems facing middle class Americans who can't earn enough money to move up the economic ladder, especially in the face of all the multi-million dollar salaries going to those in the financial, entertainment and health care industries.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, income inequality is a serious issue in this country.  As long as we allow those on top to prosper at the expense of the rest, allow our political discourse to be driven by those with the most money, allow our votes to be bought by the promise of short term rewards over the longer term, as long as we, the people, continue to hue and cry over those in Washington but vote in alarmingly low percentages, we will not begin to broach any serious changes to improve the lot of the middle class.

The State of the Union? 

$$$ before people 








Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Just Finished "Death"

I mentioned a few months ago that I had begun the most recent Lapham's Quarterly called Death.  I just finished it over the weekend.

Such a wonderful compilation of thoughts about this topic.  There is no way to properly give it justice other than recommending that you read it yourself, but I will attempt to convey a few of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I read.

First, there was much humor in the magazine.  While it certainly includes many essays from the perspective of death's finality, it also shows a remarkable range of thoughts in which death and the circumstances of some deaths, can be humorous.  Sort of like the axiom that we shouldn't take ourselves too seriously, there were many who applied this same thought to death.

I was also struck by the insights provided by writers from hundreds, even thousands of years ago.  I think that we often consider all those who came before us, especially those born in the time before the great industrial and technological revolutions of the recent past, as stupid, or at least so much less evolved.  I also feel we look upon them with a bit of pity as well.  What they couldn't do, didn't know, etc.  Yet, some of the more insightful reflections about death came well before the 1600's, even in times BC.  It reminds me that man has considered his immortality since day one, has lamented that his time is so short, has continually strived to find elixirs and potions to extend his youth.

This thought then flows seamlessly into the realization that despite our extended life expectancy, we strive more than ever to live a longer, higher quality life.  Of course, that in itself should be expected, yet perhaps we have entered the realm of absurdity in recent times.  I am lucky that I still feel relatively young, have been told by friends that I look a bit younger than my age, so perhaps I am disingenuous when I laugh at those commercials that tell men that their problem is low testosterone, and by rubbing something under their armpits they can be young again.  I imagine that for some, an ideal existence would be to look twenty for eighty years then just die.  Perhaps that means it is getting older that we fear more then dying.

For me, I certainly would prefer more life.  I want to see my kids find happiness, in love, in work, in family.  I want to continue to write, perhaps even see one of my posts go viral some day.  I want to still be awed by the full moon rising over the horizon or a beautiful sunset over water or an open field.  I want to be there when my wife is able to stay home and tinker in the yard or create beautiful stain glass art in the basement.  I want to travel a bit more. 

But today, as I sit here typing away, I don't fear death.  While there are things I still wish to write, places I still want to see, experiences I still wish to have, while I certainly would prefer to live longer, I don't fear the nothingness of death, or the judgment of heaven or hell, or the chance I might come back as a slug. 

Perhaps that is the secret of life.  Knowing that all men die, knowing that you will someday die, accepting that regardless of wealth, fame, intelligence or education, death is the one experience that we all have in common, that unites us as fellow travelers in time.  And that living, truly living one's life as fully and with as much love as possible, is the one and only way to cheat death. 

Finally, a copy of the letter sent by Jack Kevorkian to the Chief Justice of the United States about assisted suicide was published towards the end of Death.  I was unaware of the point made by Kevorkian in this letter and it struck me hard.  He stated that by giving people a way to kill themselves, making it legal for someone to end the tremendous suffering they may be experiencing, just this act of having a way out can give people the strength to continue to live.  In other words, it is sometimes easier to endure one's hardship when one feels they have some kind of control over its existence.  To Dr. Kevorkian, the idea that someone's suffering has no end in sight and that they have no option in ending it is as horrible as the actual suffering itself.   In makes me think that those who are against assisted suicide for humane reasons, either have not yet experienced the suffering that those who see to die endure, have not seen a loved one endure such pain, or do not fully understand the meaning of what it means to be humane. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Staying Hopeful, and Crying

Now that the holiday rush has ended, I have spent a lot of time doing nothing, as opposed to working.  It's funny, I can fall asleep at the drop of a hat, anytime during the day, yet I am getting so much more sleep than during the holiday season.  It almost seems as if it doesn't matter, 4 hours of sleep or 8, I feel the as tired, or as energetic, depending on the circumstances.   The only difference is that I am dreaming/remembering my dreams more frequently since I am sleeping more.  Perhaps the perceived need for sleep is all in one's head.

With all this time to myself, I have been reading my favorite magazines (Yeah), and watching more TV (Boo).  I have also been chatting with my wife, Nora, about my recent blogs claiming the continued evolution of man, and my optimism about this progression.  Our discussion was especially pointed during and after we recently watched Gasland 2.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with either Gasland 1 or 2, they are documentary films about fracking, specifically about the victims of this new technology.  From tap water that easily catches fire to little or no land rights to the land beneath one's home to the many ways the energy industries in conjunction with bought off government representatives and regulators, the Gasland documentaries paint a dim picture of man raping our planet, abusing the rights of ordinary citizens, and placing industry profit over the health of the planet and its inhabitants. 

One particularly disturbing scene showed ex-Pa Governor Tom Ridge, now a spokesperson for the gas industry, denying the proof that fracking has caused the poisoning of wells on the The Daily Show.  While, I know that this program is a comedy, it was still very disturbing to see and hear laughter concerning this topic while countless families are being forced out of their homes because of the unhealthy conditions caused by fracking.  Even sadder, the victims must remain silent once they accept the industry payout for their homes, and so the fracking moves on to the next town as if nothing bad has occurred.

As Nora said more than once, some of these energy execs would f**k a snake for a profit.  The revelation that they often employ ex-military who are experts in PSYOPS (Psychological Operations) to isolate the victims within their communities, while rewarding those who benefit from the drilling, says much about how far they will go to obtain methane from the ground.  The parallel to the cigarette industry that denied the dangers of their product for thirty years is revealed in the similarity of some of the advertising campaigns.  I understand how Nora can watch something like this and conclude that we are slowly killing our planet, that money is more important that people, and that those with the power and connection do anything they want, with no consequences.   It makes my belief in man na├»ve at best, downright stupid at worst.

Yet there is the article in the December Smithsonian on the 2013 American Ingenuity Awards (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/specialreports/2013-American-Ingenuity-Awards/.  People in various fields of work who are creating new ways to understand our bodies (Natural Sciences -- Michael Skinner), new ways to explore the universe (Technology -- Adam Steltzner), new ways to improve our health (Physical Sciences -- John Rogers), and new ways to understand where we came from, who we are, and where we are going.  Most conducting their research or working at their craft behind the scenes, generally unknown, certainly invisible to the mass media and its obsession with everything bling.  Perhaps that is the only way these kind of achievements can be attained.  Would these people change their research, their methods, if they were in the limelight, if they answered to the vagaries of what is hot, what is commercial?  It makes me wonder how I might change my blog if it were to suddenly be viral.  Would I write to my audience?  To maintain my audience?

There are also the various citizens of the year that were named end of December, early this year.  Regular people who go the extra mile to serve their fellow man.  Again, little of no financial reward, perhaps a few minutes of local TV time or a quarter page of newsprint on page 20 of the paper.  Just service for the sake of others. 

As I mentioned above, I have also been watching a bit more TV lately, especially movies.  Of course, Hollywood is expert at heart tugging story lines.  The relationship between caddy and golfer in The Legend of Bagger Vance in which the sport is secondary to the metamorphosis of the man who finally overcomes the mental images that have haunted him since the Great War.  Or Mr. Hollands Opus which details the story of a music teacher about to be retired due to budget cuts.  He thinks his life a waste until an auditorium filled room of his ex-students bids him farewell by performing the symphony he has worked on all his life.  

But that is not real life you might say.  Art imitates life I would answer.  Even if there are not thousands of men and women alive today who successfully struggle to overcome their horrible experiences in war, or if there were not thousands of art and music teachers who have put aside their personal ambitions to inspire the youth of America to understand that while earning a living is important, the colors that make life worth living is found in the arts, the simple fact that someone could imagine these movies and their plots proves that there is hope for man.

Which brings us to crying.  I am not sure when it started but a I have become a crier.  Not a wailer, but certainly I am often teary eyed.  During the course of our recent conversation, Nora asked me about this.  I think she suspected that I cry at movies because I am sad for myself, having a rather mundane job, no longer able to afford to travel, as opposed to living the life of a successful writer.  To be honest, there may be something to that, but mostly I think I cry so easily because there is so much good to cry about.  So much to be inspired about, to be hopeful about.

And, yes, I cry for you Nora.  You, who along with our daughter took an abandoned cat to the local vet in hopes of finding her a home.  You, who miss our kids when they are away at college.  You, who recently made cinnamon rolls from scratch.  You who exude so much love despite having had such negative life experiences as a child.  I cry for you because I don’t want you to let your fear of man’s greed and hate and ignorance overcome your natural love of life and family. 

And yes, I cry for my children, for all children, in hopes that they will also be able to continue to see and experience the wonderful thinks of life.  To remain hopeful that their generation will leave the earth a better place, make is so there are less people being abused by those in power, those with money, those born to advantage.  To have children of their own, an act in itself that one might consider the ultimate hope for the future, and instill in those children the same hope for the betterment of the next generation.