Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Suicide Prevention Month

September has been National Suicide Prevention Month. That seems like a great idea; so why am I struggling with the concept? Between friends, families of friends, and friends of friends, I have entirely too much personal experience with suicide and would not wish to visit that kind of ordeal on my worst enemy. Still, the idea of depriving an individual of death on their terms seems equally wrong.


Looking at our society's schizophrenic approach to dealing with suicide, I can see I am not alone in my ambivalence. This November there will be a ballot issue (Proposition 106- "End of Life Options Act") seeking the legalization of physician-assisted suicide here in Colorado. Citizens in my home state of Oregon have had this legal recourse for some time already. At the same time, suicide is generally regarded as the "coward's way out," an ultimate sin just this side of murder. Why the polar opposite opinions?

I think we tend to draw the line based on what we interpret to be the intent of the victim in carrying out their lethal measures. Did the person do this to end their own suffering? If so, while tragic, we can comprehend it to a degree at least. If not, then we view suicide as punishment for those left behind, abandoned literally or figuratively. Few, if any, decisions we make impact only ourselves. Life-altering and life-ending rationales obviously stress a great many others.

It is only natural to feel conflicted on this issue. We are by nature selfish organisms. We want our loved ones and friends around for as long as we are, to give us comfort, to provide us with joy, love, counsel, and all the other positives that come from personal relationships. Just the same, if we truly love someone, we have to recognize the boundaries for personal decisions like suicide do not encompass us. We can choose only how we react in the aftermath.

Janet Adkins was the wife of my Boy Scout Troop Leader, Ron Adkins, and mother to three boys who were my friend, classmate, and friend respectively. When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, she turned to Dr. Jack Kevorkian to help her end her life. June 4, 1990, she did so, with the blessings of her family and friends. Anyone who knew the Adkins family knows that they did not reach this decision without a great degree of deliberation and mutual understanding. At the time, Alzheimer's was in no way treatable and both patient and family endured horrific emotional suffering. Mrs. Adkins did not want to visit that hell on her children and husband. I respect that and marvel at their resolve in the face of the public spotlight.

More recently, a dear friend and colleague apparently ended her own life after suffering decades of severe depression. The family is understandably quiet in the name of privacy and respect, but it seems an inescapable conclusion. I desperately wish they did not feel stigmatized if that is what happened. We have no right to demand that a person, no matter how much we love them, continue to endure excruciating pain, be it physical, psychological, or emotional, just for our own benefit. That is not love, that is the worst kind of selfishness. If you consider suicide a sin, maybe the real sin is in believing that you have any stake in determining how someone else lives their life, or decides to end it. Have you ever thought about it that way?

Don't look for the "healthcare system" to have mercy on you, either. The horrible truth is that no matter what our personal suffering, we are precious lives in the economic sense. The medical marketplace will twist and distort your sense of self in every way imaginable if it preserves your living, dollar-spending soul. We are not good at healthcare, but even worse at deathcare. The system will cling and claw until it can no longer drain you of any more financial blood. It is extremely convincing, to the point that it will turn surviving family members against your own desire for eternal peace.

So, this is what we need to prevent: the extension of life beyond the wishes of the individual affected. We need to prevent bullying, harassment, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and other willful behaviors that cause unbearable suffering leading to suicides on impulse. We need to stop allowing for-profit entities from sticking their noses and money-grubbing fingers into the ultimate of personal decisions.

To friends and family who have chosen to end their lives: Worry not. Rest in the peace that you deserve. There is nothing for which you need forgiveness from me. Nothing. I know that all the king's horses, all the king's men, and all the love in the world could not have saved you. And that's ok. Love, Eric

Monday, September 12, 2016

Happy (Belated) B-day NPS

I am overdue in wishing the National Park Service a happy 100th birthday, which they celebrated back on August 25th. Apparently it is more properly the centennial anniversary, but whatever. My own love affair with our national parks dates back to my childhood, and I don't see the passion ending anytime soon.

Growing up in Oregon, we did not have many national parks or monuments in the 1960s and 1970s, but I found my way to them anyway. My father enjoyed driving, and made sure to get me to Oregon's scenic wonders like Crater Lake and Oregon Caves. Through the Boy Scouts (traditional and Explorer Post) I also explored other areas like Newberry Crater in central Oregon. In 1990, long after I left Oregon, the crater became Newberry National Volcanic Monument.

At the end of my junior year of high school, my mother took me on a cross-country vacation to visit relatives and friends in St. Louis, Missouri, New York City, Washington, DC, and Florida. Obviously, we hit a number of national landmarks along the way. One highlight I still remember vividly was visiting Everglades National Park. Before we embarked from Oregon, I tried to secure a permit to collect insects in the park, or at least a visit to the Archbold Biological Research Station. Neither of those things happened, but it did not diminish my experience.

Me at the Everglades in June, 1978

We took a route through Homestead, Florida to the park entrance there, and then headed for the Anhinga Trail. Ironically, the Royal Palm Visitor Center there had a wonderful insect collection on display. Outside the door, an armada of dragonflies was engaged in a swirling feeding swarm over the lawn. Strolling the boardwalk, I remember thinking it was just like Wild Kingdom, the television show hosted by Marlin Perkins. You could see fish, the occasional alligator, birds of every description....There was even a soft-shelled turtle basking right beside the trail.

Since I could not collect inside the park boundary, we drove just outside, where I found a pair of Eastern Lubber Grasshoppers, huge insects that, though harmless, are still intimidating to a kid from Oregon who is not accustomed to such giants. I saw a big Black Ratsnake, and mud dauber nests coating the underside of a bridge. This remains, however, one of only two times I have stopped collecting or observing insects....because of insects. Biting flies were whining incessantly in my ears, and I was sweating off repellent by the gallon.

Most recently, my wife and I visited Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. We entered on the South Rim. Thirty dollars buys you seven days of sightseeing there. That may sound exorbitant, but trust me, it is worth it, if not downright underpriced. No sooner had we left to kiosk where we got our visitor's pass than we almost collided with a coyote that was about to cross the road. Not even one hundred yards later, another car had pulled over, the occupants enjoying a view of a small elk herd.

Heidi at the Grand Canyon in August, 2016

The Grand Canyon gets a lot of hype, but it backs it up. The scenery is indeed spectacular, but the wild flora and fauna are plentiful and engaging. No one is in a bad mood. Few people are loud. The park literally creates a silencing awe and commands respect that transfers over into interpersonal relations with other tourists. It is the United Nations of nature.

That's it! The national parks are our parks, yes, but they also belong to the world, and people come from all over the globe to experience them. They are also treated, usually, to the best in American hospitality. The lodges and restaurants in our national parks are magnificent structures, offering comfort, cheer, and familiarity. Our servers in Grand Canyon were both from Thailand. That may seem insignificant to us as U.S. citizens, but what a great joy it must be for visitors from Thailand.

Knowing how underfunded the National Park Service is, it is remarkable how well it does what it does, overcoming obstacles both natural and political to deliver once-in-a-lifetime memories for millions each year. This, this is the face the U.S. we want people everywhere to see. Something we have done right, arguably better than any other nation on Earth, and inspiring other countries to do the same, or at least similar.

Were I ever, by some quirk of fate or destiny, empowered to save only one federal government program, the National Park Service might just be it. It is too impactful on our nation's heritage, freedom, and sanity to allow it to wither due to lack of a robust budget. Meanwhile, here I have been living in Colorado for nearly five years and I have yet to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Shame on me.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Frack Off

© (Canada)

I was already aggravated by the incessant television commercials here in Colorado that are promoting fracking, a method of natural gas and oil extraction that uses pressurized chemicals to fracture bedrock in order to "free" the desired natural resource. This week, we get Gale Norton (yes, that Gale Norton) stumping for Protect Colorado, the greenwashed front for the oil and natural gas industry. This raises my degree of ire even higher.

Gale Norton is the former Secretary of the Interior. You heard me correctly, this woman once oversaw the National Park Service, BLM, and other public land management bodies. Even when she was appointed by George W. Bush to serve as the 48th Secretary of the Interior (2001-2006), her ties to the energy lobby elicited vocal criticism.

She also served as Colorado's State Attorney General, 1991-1999, and has returned here where she is apparently her own corporation, Norton Regulatory Strategies. She also served as general counsel to "Royal Dutch Shell Unconventional Oil, 2007-2010. She was a member of Shell’s global legal leadership team, and handled legal, regulatory and governmental issues for Shell’s oil shale and in-situ oil sands projects, primarily in Colorado and Alberta." That according to her Norton Regs website.

Norton has managed, successfully, to greenwash herself, masquerading as someone who truly cares about the environment and sustainable energy, thanks in large part to her former employment overseeing public lands. No wonder Protect Colorado finds her to be such a perfect spokesperson.

Understand that we are treated to at least one pro-fracking television commercial in prime time every single night. It is the industry's right, of course, to exercise their free speech. They are paying handsomely for the chance to broadcast their message, but that is exactly my point. They can afford to make their case publicly, night after night. Not so for any group opposing them. Just because you are the loudest voice, doesn't mean you should be the only voice.

It is common courtesy to allow both sides to have their voice in debate of an issue. In my opinion, it should be the law. On issues as contentious as this one, both views should be granted equal time to make their case. This is also why the Supreme Court case of Citizens United needs to be overturned. The essential outcome of that decision was the "money equals free speech" doctrine that now dominates public discourse, certainly skewing the course of said discourse.

Advocacy groups involved in issues of free speech need to brainstorm another way to circumvent Citizens United until we get a constitutional amendment stripping corporations from the overwhelming advantage they have in the court of public opinion on issues like fracking that threaten public and environmental health.

Can you imagine where we would be today if oil and natural gas corporations were not so greedy in pursuit of profit, seeking from day one the elimination of competing, renewable, energy industries like solar and wind? It isn't just energy, either. The automobile industry has steadfastly opposed funding for public transit, while garnering huge government subsidies and outright bailouts. The cotton, pulp and paper, and plastics industries have all convinced us that hemp is a drug threat needing regulation if not prohibition, when in reality hemp is nothing but a more durable and preferred alternative in the manufacture of products from clothing to acid-free paper.

Back to Norton and her spokesperson role. We have apparently not yet graduated as a culture from the era of snake oil salesmen and other con artists. In fact, we are now appointing them to office and allowing them to swindle our faith in those who govern. It is up to us not only as consumers, but as citizens, to do a background check on those who purport to have our best collective interests at heart.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Singular "Protest"


I was hoping I could refrain from making any comment on the Colin Kaepernick incident, whereby he refused to cooperate for the national anthem before a pre-season football game last week. It is, to my mind, a relatively trivial blip on the socio-political seismograph, but there have been too many ill-conceived attempts to either criticize or defend the quarterback's stand (or lack thereof) for me to ignore.

First of all, let me acknowledge his right of refusal to participate in a patriotic exercise. Does he have the personal authority to do that? Of course he does, it is a constitutionally-guaranteed act of free speech. Heck, these days I, myself, find the Star-spangled banner ringing at least a little bit hollow considering how the culture of this nation has degenerated. Home of the brave? We're afraid of everything, and everyone. Back to Kaepernick. Do I think his (in)action had anything to do with something larger than himself? Hell, no.

One man sitting out a pre-game ritual does not in any way constitute a protest. Recruit all of your teammates to do likewise? Now you have a protest. Furthermore, you have leadership, someone courageous enough to incite others to follow suit in a non-violent act of defiance. Kaepernick clearly wants to have nothing to do with anything "team." So, he comes off as a pouting little boy, demoralized that he is no longer the starter at his position, and desperate for any publicity, good or bad. I am almost willing to bet that the whole protest angle was an afterthought. He was sulking, but suddenly recalled a way he could turn a purely selfish act into something face-saving. Is that too cynical?

Wait, you say, aren't there other examples where a single individual forced change, or demonstrated courage that initiated a chain of events by others? What about that dude who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989? Look at the context. That was during a sustained mass protest by students in China. It was also an act that had strong potential for life-and-death consequences. China does not have the same set of freedoms the U.S. does, and that man was going to face some kind of very harsh punishment.

Rosa Parks, there's a real heroine, no.? I agree. What made her special is that she was no one special until she did what she did; and she likewise had more to fear than (non-existent) social media rants. A lot more. Like lynching, for example. You simply cannot compare a safe exercise in disagreement with social norms, like sitting out the national anthem, with actions that actually violate current law, let alone cultural permissions.

So, yes, you have the right to stand down from the Star-Spangled Banner, burn the flag, and even spout hate as so many have from the safety of their keyboards and snarkphones. Just be aware that the true heroes of the world will quietly conclude that you are being intolerably lame, if not simply reinforcing the attitudes already directed at those of your kind, however we lump each other these days.

Sit down if you must, speak up as you should, but get over yourself. Also, I strongly recommend that "Whites" and "Coloreds" should only be used when referring to laundry. Let's top airing the dirty stuff, shall we? We face too many critical issues to waste time with one person's ego.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Hello, Seniors!" The Economics of Aging

© Joe Heller, Green Bay Press-Gazette

Exactly what is considered "old" varies according to whether a given industry thinks it can make money off of you, versus whether it feels obligated to pay you. AARP is lowering the "retirement age" to recruit new members, while the Social Security Administration would very much like to raise the retirement age somewhere past infinity.

I remember back in the day (now I am really dating myself) when you started getting discounts, free stuff and, mostly, respect, around age 55. Coincidentally, that is where I am at currently, and none of these promised benefits is anywhere in sight. Seriously, where are the rewards for putting up with the world for more than half a century? Endurance ought to count for something, and I grew up with the notion that you "respect your elders." Today, our older generations are caricatures and stereotypes of themselves, constantly reinforced by advertising.

"Help, I've fallen and I can't get up!" is the classic interpretation of aging now. If you are a male, I suppose it is more like "Help, I can't get it up!" The point is that our society is all too eager to celebrate the negative side of aging through products, while terribly reluctant to recognize the personal and at-large hardships that older persons have overcome. If there is not a profit to be made from you or your frailty, then you are ignored. Worse yet, every effort is made to avoid obligations made to you through your employment history and government programs.

The problems with social security, for example, began to intensify when politicians began referring to the program as an "entitlement," as if those individuals who stand to gain from it are acting like demanding little brats instead of the exhausted adults they are, indeed entitled to what they, and their employers, put into coffers as a reward for time served, and to allow the next generation gainful employment in a given industry, at a given company.

Greed has taken hold now, and there is a relentless effort to privatize social security such that once again a profit can be made off the backs of the labor force. This amounts to an employee working twice: once for their employer, doing actual labor, and second for Wall Street speculators to use retirement funds to rake in cash for those who are already wealthy beyond reason. Ironically, those who can most easily partake of the benefits of stocks, real estate, and related markets are those very CEOs and other high-ranking corporate types who employed the people they would then be exploiting through privatized social security.

Scams. Oh, the scams that are taking elderly people to the cleaners. Well, if you ask me, old folks have already seen it all, and the vast majority are skeptical of legitimate offers, let alone anything that sounds too good to be true. Not every person over seventy-five is on the verge of Alzheimer's, dementia, or some other mind-degrading illness.

What should trouble us more is the pervasive condition of neglect and physical distance between the elderly and their offspring. Our celebrated "mobile society" has stretched family ties to all corners of the country, even the globe. How can we care for those closest to us in blood relation if we are hundreds of miles or more apart? Here is where we could stand an education from Blacks (African Americans, or your preferred form of address) and Native Americans (Indigenous Peoples, or your preferred form of address). Those cultures are, traditionally, far healthier in many ways for having multiple generations under one roof, or at least next door or in the same neighborhood. Think of what our children are missing today in wisdom, love, compassion, and entertaining stories because grandma and grandpa live on the opposite coast.

There is thus nothing friendly about aging the way our profit-driven society now thinks and acts. We deprive you of proximity to your children and grandchildren as they go forth to prosper in the global marketplace. We divorce you from your savings, your ability to make your own decisions, and your dignity. You are nothing if not incontinent, impotent, or in need of personal locomotive devices, hearing aids, or new joints. Oh, and Medicare may or may not be there to help should you actually need one of the aforementioned products. After all, Medicare is just another "entitlement," you know.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Olympics


After careful deliberation, I deem the Rio version of the thirty-first Olympiad worthy of a score of roughly 4.2. This is much less of a reflection on the host city and the competing athletes than it is on the presentation of the games by NBC, which was simply dreadful.

First, as with all networks these days, NBC assumed that every television spectator has a cable or satellite service and could therefore tailor their Olympics-watching to their own personal tastes. This left those of us without such providers to endure basically only "race" events and women's gymnastics, interspersed with diving and beach volleyball. Seriously, that was about the sum of network coverage on free, commercial television.

The network also missed many an opportunity to profile non-U.S. athletes, though there were some stories here and there. Showing how athletes from what we might consider Third World countries can succeed against athletes from nations where they train almost full-time, and have many of their expenses covered, would be a real source of inspiration and hope to a jaded American audience. As it is, I find myself rooting for the "underdog," especially in the Olympics, because we already have it so good here in the U.S.A.

At least one friend commented on Facebook that it was nice to be free of political advertising and, ostensibly, other matters of more lasting importance economically and socially, during the two week span of televised competition. Still, the irony of someone firing a gun that sends a group of (mostly) Black people running is not lost on me, but no one else will say that because it "isn't the right time," and all of that kind of rhetoric. How doubly ironic that a privileged Caucasian male was the one that committed a crime after his own athletic events had concluded. I am still willing to help pay to extradite his ass back to Brazil, by the way.

The opening and closing ceremonies were the real treat, of course. It never ceases to amaze that the host nation raises art and pageantry to a new level. We need this kind of celebration at more frequent intervals than every four years. Why wait for an excuse? Let's do a world art olympics every two. Also, the commentary on the ceremonies was limited, much like it is for parades, and that is how every event should have been handled.

Among the worst aspects of Olympic coverage were the commentators and analysts. Every event should have been handled with a lot less verbiage, let alone criticism. If ever there were athletic competitions that could do without voice overs entirely, it would be the Olympics. Why not simply explain each event beforehand, then sit back silently and watch the athletes execute? Instead, we get negative comments on all but the most perfect dives and gymnastics performances. I really don't care that you know it all because you are retired from the sport you are analyzing. Shut up and let the rest of us enjoy.

What made NBC think a late night party with Ryan Seacrest was a good idea? His "interview" skills are non-existent, and the rest of the broadcasts were so exploitative of the locals as to make me want to vomit. Even Bob Costas seemed off of his game, relegated to presenting the latest medal count and trying to play along with female gymnasts half his age or younger. You are not "hip" anymore, Bob, get over it.

All of this said, spectator athletics are exactly that: entertainment. Few athletes recognize that they are entertainers, but it is those who do that we adore the most, and who are usually the most successful. It also makes some of those athletes the most hated, misunderstood, and mistreated of all.

Muhammad Ali was perhaps the first athlete in the modern era to recognize his stature as an entertainer, and he played it to the hilt. He was so masterful, in fact, that many people mistook his on-stage (in the ring) persona for his actual character as a human being. Later, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Jr. and Shaquille O'Neal took to the basketball court all smiles and we loved, as we do, watching someone who loves what they do for a living. Simone Biles actually smiled during her floor exercise routine. How can you not love that?

Well, another Olympiad is in the books, for better or worse. We can only hope that coverage for the next one in Tokyo is going out for bid. Maybe PBS will get it, though I wonder how many people would fall asleep during its broadcast. Personally, I am hoping that it goes to Comedy Central.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Two Cars, but at What Cost?

The new Hyundai (foreground) and old Saturn (background)

We had occasion to take our 2002 Saturn in for a check-up last month, and the upshot was that it became clear we needed a newer, safer, more reliable vehicle for my wife to get to and from work, at least by winter when the roads get icier and diceier. The process of purchasing that second car left me feeling both relieved and anxious in ways I was not accustomed.

Heidi, my spouse, became uneasy when the dashboard on the Saturn lit up with a red "ABS" warning. Wow. I had no idea that automobiles even had abs, let alone that they were that important. Apparently, the car had not been doing crunches or sit-ups for awhile. Ok, so we learned that "ABS" stands for "Anti-lock Braking System," and that is a pretty integral part to driving safely. Unfortunately, the Saturn is no longer in production, and neither are many parts for those models still on the road. That includes the ABS. So, we are left with a vehicle that functions incompletely, and hence the need for a newer car.

Heidi really does her homework when it comes to important purchases. She likes to consult Consumer Reports first, and in her research she discovered a handful of models ranking reliable and safe, while still within our price range. We settled on a 2013 Hyundai Elantra advertised at a local car dealership, and went to take a look.

As it turned out, that particular vehicle was still awaiting title transfer and other paperwork from Oregon. Coincidentally, or not, the dealer had another Elantra, this one a 2015 model, damaged in a recent hail storm, that was good to go. It was a rental car in its previous life. It was a little more expensive, but had slightly less mileage, and was a color that we liked much better than the model we had come to see. More questions answered, and a short test drive later, and we were filling out forms. Surprisingly, to me, the last thing we did was write a check for the downpayment.

We wrote two checks, actually, from our separate bank accounts. We have been lazy and, for whatever reason, reluctant to merge our financial records. I think it comes from us both having been single for so long, and reliant only on ourselves for our welfare. We just are not used to the idea of combined incomes. Well, I hardly have an income, and that has led to guilt and frustration for me. This expense, an unforeseen and large amount, pretty much erased my savings. Earlier in the month I had to write a check in the same amount to repay half the advance from the now-terminated contract to do the spider field guide.

I felt like I went from zero to "adulting" in about six seconds. It is an emotion and stress that has not left me. In fact, it has intensified. I am also dealing with a cantankerous father, who will be 91 on August 8, for whom my cousin and myself are trying to finalize legal documents concerning my dad's will, estate, medical directives, and related matters.

The other aspect of a new vehicle purchase that makes me uncomfortable is my personal view that we, collectively as an American society, should be driving less, using less fossil fuels, and relying more on public transportation, pedestrianism, bicycling, and other modes of transit that are healthier for ourselves and the environment. While I like the idea that I now have a vehicle at my own personal disposal, any day regardless of whether my wife is carpooling with a co-worker, I am reluctant to indulge in that luxury.

So, it is a mixed bag of blessings, curses, and unanswered questions that we face in this new automobile. Where are we going to find the money for the payments and the increased insurance premiums? How much longer are we going to have the old Saturn, and what will become of it when it is no longer useful to us? What will we be sacrificing for fuel, repairs, and other expenses? The prospect of having to get a more traditional "job," outside the home, demoralizes me because so few opportunities for employment mesh with my personal values. It may come to that, though, and while it may be another part of "adulting," I don't know how well I would stomach it.

These days, my progress comes in small doses. Avoiding addictions as coping mechanisms, for example. Accomplishing a load or two of laundry, and writing one blog post may be all I can do in a given day. Avoiding the temptation to flee in the old Saturn. That may, ironically, be another victory.