Sunday, March 11, 2018

King of Pain


Movies and television have long given advanced warning of graphic content before showing or broadcasting to audiences. Social media, and the internet in general, are lagging a bit and so less savvy users are occasionally startled by content they were not expecting and that they would deem inappropriate for themselves or younger members of their family. Personally, I count images and videos depicting graphic violence between animals as something I would like to be warned about rather than suddenly confronted with in social media. It does not stop there, though, and people who voice their discomfort are often shamed by others for not being "man enough" to take it. That needs to end.

We could probably debate the true meaning of the song "King of Pain," by The Police from their Synchronicity album, but what I take away from it is that the singer feels intensely the suffering of every other living creature. It is inescapable, much as he longs for relief. I can empathize with that. Indeed, empathy is the whole point of this blog post. My brain, for whatever reason, is acutely sensitive to graphic violence and gore. I sometimes find myself involuntarily recalling horrible images or movie scenes without prompting, just suddenly, randomly, and for no apparent reason. Meanwhile, I have much more difficulty conjuring peaceful, pleasant images. Maybe you are wired differently. I hope you are wired differently. It is not any fun to be a King of Pain.

Professional wildlife photographers should be committed to documenting life with honesty, and predation, territorial battles, and other violent conflicts are a part of life, no question. It is difficult for me to communicate my understanding of that to my camera-toting colleagues while at the same time arguing against what amounts to nature violence pornography. It may come down to intent. Sex sells. If it bleeds it leads. You know the drill. Networks and their executives who pander to a perceived public bloodlust are also failing to be honest, let alone fair and balanced. They may need more diverse focus groups, or simply stop making assumptions, or otherwise take responsibility for their content instead of claiming that a steady diet of violence is what audiences want. This includes Discovery Channel and Nat Geo.

Online, I have finally noticed that the more responsible outlets for natural history content, and/or my friends, are prefacing videos at least with text warnings if the content is of a violent or graphic nature. I appreciate having the choice to click or not. When someone shares a graphic video or image then I will comment that I do not like to see that kind of thing without warning, thank you. Sometimes, if their reply is impolite, I unfollow them.

I have been told that if I don't want to be exposed to certain things then I should get off the internet. I have been told to "man up," implying that if I find certain things distasteful then I am somehow being a baby or too sensitive or some other judgmental epithet. No, I am not a child or some other kind of innocent, but I am vulnerable. Some people are not comfortable with being vulnerable, but we don't shame them for having a hardened heart. I would not advocate that we should. There is no place for shaming anybody except, perhaps, those who perpetrate cruelty, shame, discrimination, and other acts of wanton, needless hostility.

This is another kind of divide in our country, one of conflicting personality traits. It is not necessary that we all think alike, or "feel" alike, either. We need diversity in all aspects of our life: biologically, psychologically, and socially. What we must have in order for that diversity to flourish is respect and acceptance. You want to watch animals killing each other? Fine, but do not admonish me for not desiring the same thing, or objecting to it when you gave me no choice but to see it. Understand the difference between someone standing up for themselves, and someone berating you for whatever excites you.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Don't Ax or Ask....


A couple of people I admire recently shared in social media a video that claims that "ax" was once a perfectly acceptable alternative to "ask," until it was co-opted by the (largely White) aristocracy as a way of demeaning the (mostly Black) lower class and elevating the privilege of those in power through an elitist version of our common language. I was surprised that my visceral reaction was one of anger, and a sense of being offended. So, now I struggle to discern the source of that. The following will not be pretty, but it will be honest. Honesty is maybe the last vestige of my voice that is allowed in differentiating myself from other writers.

First of all, I am not opposed to being enlightened on the history of African American Vernacular English (AAVE, the dialect formerly known as "ebonics"). I consider it a travesty that this was not a part of my education back in middle school or high school, akin to the celebration of Christopher Columbus while choosing to overlook his disastrous treatment of indigenous Americans. However, I believe the illumination of AAVE can be achieved with a little more finesse, without implying that the rules of English I grew up with and abide by today are not inherently racist or designed solely for some air of snobbish intellectual prowess.

Please do not confuse my pursuit of literary excellence with a desire for privilege. If grammar, syntax, and spelling do not have a place in informing quality of expression, then what am I left with?

Every heritage deserves a sense of pride, and warrants celebration, not just on holidays. It appears that we have difficulty doing so without taking something away from every other culture, though, or offending in some respect. The backlash then reduces things like Irish immigrant history to leprechauns and shamrocks and green beer, and other demeaning caricatures and stereotypes of St. Patrick's Day. Sigh.

I sense that elucidating AAVE is not without an unspoken desire to take traditional English down a notch, and I think that is unnecessary. There is no way I can write about this dispassionately, without giving the impression that I take these assertions personally because yes, I do feel threatened by them. This is the first time that I have truly felt not just uncomfortable, but under explicit attack by another ethnic group. I am beginning to wonder if certain segments of the activist community will simply not be satisfied until they convince every White person that they are, in fact, racist. No, Eric, not even you can assert that you are above your Caucasian privilege. We will find a way to make it so. We will expose you one way or another. Well, they did it, by coming after my vocabulary.

Maybe Blacks are now projecting their often legitimate fear and hatred of law enforcement officers onto the "grammar police." Maybe they see those who subscribe to traditional English as using words to beat them into submission and irrelevance. I assure you the abuses, if there are any, are unintentional. You want to take language to task? We are on the same side in wanting to banish the n-word and other hateful language, believe me. Were it in my power I would exempt hate speech from protection under the First Amendment. I would also overturn Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission because the truly offensive language of oppression and privilege in this day and age is money.

There is a larger question at play here. Is there any facet of White culture, if there is such a thing, that is acceptable to Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and all other "minorities?" Is all of it contrived to ensure a sense of superiority, elitism, and privilege? We have given you plenty of reasons to hate us, no question, but are we as individuals guilty until proven innocent, or guilty no matter what, just because we are White? Are we guilty by association with the legacy of oppression that has come before us? Where does it stop? Help me out here. Enlighten me more. What are we permitted now? Am I really out of bounds in asking these questions?

Please do not confuse my pursuit of literary excellence with a desire for privilege. If grammar, syntax, and spelling do not have a place in informing quality of expression, then what am I left with? Where does my voice come from if not my own flawed and imperfect education, the dictionary of my own mind, and yes, those rules of language?

Maybe it is, in reality, one of those "just when you thought you had it all down...." moments. Maybe I have a hard time admitting I am out of step, that I haven't kept up. Perhaps it is confronting the fact I am too old to learn any more, or too stubborn, or too lazy. Yeah, that is to. Nope, pretty sure it is the racist thing.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Olympics Are Over!

© Eric Eaton 2018

Our marriage is tested a little during the Olympics. My wife loves them. I endure them. My reasons for lack of enthusiasm range from petty to political, but it mostly boils down to personal preference. The Olympics force me to confront my biases and allegiances, and that makes me uncomfortable.

First of all, I have never much enjoyed individual sports. I grew up in Oregon and lots of my friends were skiers; but when many of them came back to class in casts after a weekend on the slopes, I decided that was not the sport for me. It is an expensive form of recreation, too, one that was beyond the means of my family. That idea of privilege also put me off, and it still does today. How many athletes could be competing in international competition if only they were wealthy enough?

Meanwhile, the Olympic coverage on NBC fails to show in its entirety the one sport that they might get me to watch: hockey. It is the same way in the summer games with basketball and volleyball and soccer. Unless you have a cable or satellite package, you will not get to view team sports. Bah-humbug. This time it is the spectator who is punished for not having enough privilege to afford those subscription services. It is unjust, unfair, and I am not going to apologize for feeling that way. They need a new model for broadcasting. What a concept it would be to have coverage over NBC, FOX, and CBS, for example. God forbid they put the public's desires above their own bottom line for two weeks. Two weeks.

It pains me to say this, but I also have an increasingly difficult time telling which team is the Americans, especially in figure skating. The sport has become dominated by Asians, even on Team USA. Don't get me wrong. If you are the highest-performing individual in the sport, then you deserve the right to represent, regardless of your ethnicity. I just personally find a Dorothy Hamill or Sarah Hughes easier to watch. I know, I'm so shallow! I at least have the guts to admit it. These are spectator sports, and every spectator has their own preferences. I will also be the one to tell you that the failure to attract an audience for the WNBA stems largely from the fact that there are too few "cute White girls" on the court. I truly wish we were beyond that, believe me, but the average spectator is a middle-aged White male who wants to be entertained instead of being a supporter of equal opportunities for all female athletes. Yes, we need to grow up, I only wish I knew how.

What did give me a perverse sense of satisfaction is that Team USA was not the leader in medal totals. At this point in time I find it difficult to cheer for my own country. It goes back to privilege and entitlement again, and choices. We Americans would rather pour our money into training elite sports figures for the extremely short duration of their careers, instead of investing in the next generation of scientists, scholars, musicians, artists, writers, and social leaders, to name but a few more enduring occupations. Our public schools might suffer, but by golly we are going to have sports champions! We will cut school lunch programs before we have a skater go without blades. Several sets of blades. Many, many sets of blades. Huge blades.

Ironically, at this point in history, our USA athletes may be the best face of our country. Most have demonstrated humility and grace, win or lose, and a spirit of camaraderie with their brothers and sisters from another country. I wish we here at home could learn from that. Instead, we experienced another mass shooting while our competitors were in Korea, and are now talking about arming teachers and other school staff as a viable preventative measure. Wow. I wonder how our biathlon teams feel about that. Maybe they'll volunteer for school guard duty, but I doubt it. I suspect they want schools to be something different and better than a prison.

When they arrive stateside, maybe our athletes will seek endorsement deals with the Ad Council, and non-profits extolling the virtues of public lands, safe drinking water, clean air and energy, a rejuvenated public education system, and freedom to pursue excellence in whatever career path you choose, even if it doesn't put you on a podium or a pedestal.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Guns Are a Problem And a Symptom

© Eric and Heidi Eaton 2018

So I had a peaceful conversation the other day with a friend who, along with her husband, own at least two guns. She was raised by responsible gun-owning parents, and she exhibits rational and loving behavior. She believes that our current issues are "multinodal" in their causes, and I agree completely. Our collective short-term strategy may require stricter gun laws, but our long-term strategy should be to make guns irrelevant.

We did not get to the weaponization of America overnight, and we won't willingly disarm ourselves quickly, either. We must have an honest dialogue about what we fear, and why we see a solution in firearms. I am no pacifist, but I also don't trust myself with a gun. I can be too impulsive, for one thing. I would pass a background check easily, but I know myself and there is no way any good could come from arming me. I also do not trust many other people to make the same kind of self-assessment.

Our society has become reactive, not proactive, regarding the stresses and threats to our lives. We are constantly subjected to media that teach us to fear each other. It starts with the morning news, interrupted by ads for security systems, and drones all day long. We go to social media and buy into memes that can be overwhelmingly classified as propaganda. The average citizen believes they have no escape from this relentless stream of negativity, but there are positive choices. Physical exercise helps relieve stress. Owning a (shelter) pet helps immensely. Experiencing forests, mountains, meadows, deserts, and other natural habitats brings peace to both myself and my gun-owning friend. She advocates for bird conservation.

I have friends who pursue crafts like knitting with such enthusiasm they do not have time to worry, fret, and fear. They enrich the lives of others by sharing the gifts of their talents, mentoring youth, and channeling their energy into these creative pursuits. My wife sings in the church choir and plays handbells. I write, doodle cartoons, and venture outdoors frequently to find insects, spiders, and other overlooked wildlife that I can show to other people. We even have a Mile High Bug Club of like-minded souls. When I am actively engaged in something I am passionate about, all problems and anxieties fade.

We certainly need a diversity of experiences; and we need to expose ourselves to different cultures and communities to even have insight into, let alone appreciation of, the lives of others. I have not done such a good job of getting out of my comfort zone in that respect, and I am embarrassed. I believe that a certain degree of periodic discomfort is as healthy as the activities we take refuge in. How to stretch our boundaries little by little, day by day. That is the challenge.

We can have illuminating conversations about what plagues our collective psyche. We can craft innovative solutions and even laugh at ourselves in the process. I remember the comedian Gallagher espousing his own solution to gun crime: "Let everyone have a (hand)gun, but just require that the barrel be three feet long. That way, if you see someone limping toward you, you know trouble is coming." Humor is healthy, and in careful doses does not detract from the seriousness of our most heinous atrocities.

It takes a village to raise our children, but the village seems terribly hostile right now. We need to lighten up, support our neighbors, and reject the subscription to fear and anger that is the media and marketplace. Demand products of peace. Preach not "tolerance," but acceptance of those different from yourself in gender, age, ethnicity, religion, and sexual preference. Do not arm teachers with anything but love, an ample paycheck, and maybe a conflict resolution curriculum. We can do this. We must do this. We put it off at our civilization's peril.

We need to imagine a nation in which we are so equal and respectful, devoid of envy and the urge to aspire to material wealth and power that the thought of violence never crosses our minds. I will finally rest when there comes a day when someone cleaning out their closet, garage, or shed, finds a gun, and says aloud "Hm-m-m, I forgot I had this."

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Book Review: Never Out of Season

Rob Dunn grabs your attention right out of the gate in his book Never Out of Season (Little, Brown and Company, 2017, 323 pp). Our monotonous diet, and utter lack of crop diversity is not just stunning, it is frightening. The book's subtitle, How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future, is a bit misleading. First, that applies mostly to Western cultures which are affluent enough to import fruits and vegetables from other parts of the world, continually. To his credit, Dunn addresses global agriculture and food security, going out of his way not to ignore Third World nations, poverty, war, and other factors that influence the ability of countries to feed themselves, let alone the rest of the world.

Indeed, Dunn's historical accounts demonstrate how time and time again human populations has been on the brink of starvation, yet are bailed out by individuals and organizations on the far side of the globe. It has been Russians and others who have had the foresight to save seeds in banks and vaults, preserving crop diversity even at their own personal peril. Meanwhile, governments and industries have blissfully ignored the lessons furnished by famines and crop failures.

Never Out of Season is in many ways a real-life thriller, but the reader is largely left to draw their own conclusions as to who the villains are. There are plenty of victims and heroes, but aside from a small group of henchmen who sabotaged a cocoa tree plantation by deliberately infecting trees with a fungal disease known as witches'- broom, few criminals. At least, they do not have overtly hostile intentions. The problem is, overwhelmingly, neglect, plus failure to learn from history and failure to properly invest in efforts necessary to avert future calamities.

The progress of the Green Revolution creates the narrative arc, from its beginnings around World War II through present day. Humanity quickly became dependent on pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals to increase crop yields and exploit marginal soils. From there, agriculture scaled up, and today it is largely the province of multinational corporations with a primary agenda of profit and patent protection over feeding people. Consumers are left with increasingly processed foods in the supermarket, the illusion of choice, poorer nutrition, and a widening disconnect with farmers. Dunn is less simple and direct in his presentation of the state of agriculture, and how we got here, but is captivating, entertaining, and educational in his language. His research is exhaustive and beyond reproach. The end notes take up forty-six (46) pages.

Readers looking for an unequivocal indictment of industrialized agriculture will have to search elsewhere. Never Out of Season presents a series of cautionary tales that inform, enlighten, and serve as examples of the kinds of catastrophes we are in for if we continue to devalue genetic diversity in our food crops. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are not painted as evil here, but powerful tools that can help advance agriculture provided we do not become as addicted to them as we did to pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and phosphate fertilizers.

Dunn also offers hope at the end of the book, successfully energizing and empowering the reader to plant their own yards with vegetables and fruit trees, join in citizen science projects to enhance our collective understanding of agricultural ecology, and to purchase from local farmers those foods they cannot grow. The variety of approaches to agriculture is beginning to diversify, which is a positive trend, but it remains to be seen whether agribusiness will respond favorably, or seek to bury smaller entities under patent-infringement lawsuits and other legal strategies.

Paul Ehrlich, in his own endorsement, states that "Everyone who eats should read Never Out of Season. This reviewer could not agree more. Even fans of fiction would be hard-pressed to find a more compelling page-turner replete with colorful and heroic characters, and an ending that only we, the reader, can finish by holding our leaders accountable for funding priorities, environmental regulation, making conservation of heritage seeds an overriding concern, and bolstering consumer protections. We can also shop smarter and grow our own.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Mandatory Meditation?

© The New York Times,

I recently posed a question to my friends in social media who are gun advocates, for lack of a better term. I asked what they were so afraid of. The overwhelming response was to avoid answering directly. Instead they offered the usual arguments for their position. One even suggested that there should be mandatory gun safety courses in middle school and/or high school, I cannot recall which. That met with some sharp replies and "wow" emojis. It got me thinking, though, about what else we might want to become mandatory in our society.

How about mandatory meditation? We need mindfulness more than ever now. Desperately, in fact. The ultimate in being proactive is not learning how to use a gun, it is learning how never to need one. Maybe we should be required to learn meditation, and to exercise it before we shoot off anything, from our mouths to our magnum .44s. I myself am not entirely sure what constitutes meditation. I know there are many different styles, some related to religions, others that are independent of any dogma, but I am embarrassed that I have not sought to learn more. It is unfortunate that meditation is something of a casualty of dismissing the "New Age" movement. Meditation is not a fad, nor a dinosaur. It is a life skill, emphasis on "life."

The point is that we are all too well-prepared to be violent. No one is prepared to be peaceful.

What is that long-standing joke? "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out." How wonderful it would be if, metaphorically speaking, we went to a mass shooting and a yoga convention spontaneously occurred. Collectively, we have a profound disconnect between our minds and our bodies. We are over-stimulated and on edge almost every waking hour. Then we cannot get to sleep. Advertising has become a substitute for education, and so we believe that exercise must be vigorous, even violent like boxing, and can be accomplished in as little as what, fifteen minutes? We do workouts. We should be doing peace-ins.

"Did he say mandatory medication?" No, but we pretty much have that already, and it is both a blessing and a curse. Pharmaceutical companies are rich enough as it is, thank you, and the side effects of the drugs they are turning out are no doubt underplayed. Perhaps mandatory marijuana would be worth considering, though, to mellow everybody out. Here in Colorado we have decriminalized both medical and recreational use. We are still working out the kinks, but if it ever loses its stigma entirely, I like our chances of being a more peaceful community.

There are lots of things beginning with the letter "m" that might be nice if they were mandatory. Mandatory mediation is a cornerstone of the discipline known as restorative justice. It certainly de-escalates matters, and is arguably more effective in conflict resolution than traditional paths of legal recourse.

Mandatory music? Here is a facet of our school curricula that is often the first to be sacrificed as unnecessary, an "elective" and a frivolous use of our taxpayer dollars. Really? When was the last time you saw an angry, stressed-out musician? What about a hostile mob surrounding a solo musician in the subway station, at a bus stop, or on a public square? Music is energizing in a positive way, stress-relieving, and emotionally moving when it is at its best.

"Did he say mandatory masturbation?" No, but that does seem to help keep the peace in societies of Bonobos, formerly known as Pygmy Chimpanzees, our closest living relative. They are quite literally lovers, not fighters, from what I can gather, and worthy role models for the rest of us Great Apes. There should be no shame in any non-violent behavior that is consensual, self-gratifying, or calming, be it a nap or self-pleasuring.

Homo sapiens, it can be argued, is a violent species because we do not practice peace and love. Again, we allow greeting card companies, candy manufacturers, and florists to educate us about what love is. It is none of that. Peace does not come from any commercial outlet. No weapon is a "Peacemaker," not even the Colt Single Action Army revolver of the old wild west.

The point is that we are all too well-prepared to be violent. No one is prepared to be peaceful. Mastery of weapons is a "death skill," not a life skill. How we define preparedness has to change if we want fewer incidents of mass carnage, if we want the very fabric of civilization to remain intact.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Hearts and Guns

© Medi Belortaja and

First, a note to future mass murderers: Remember to check the history books to make sure there is not already a major event from the past that will overshadow the morbid disaster you are planning. For instance, there already was a St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and it was way better than your pathetic bid for fame because it involved two warring organized crime syndicates and not law-abiding citizens. Now, on to a more constructive discussion for how to end these things once and for all.

The overriding barriers to meaningful dialogue are distrust and fear in our American culture. There are other factors that contribute to the stagnation and inaction in the wake of active shooter incidents, too. Arrogance and stubbornness for example. Our insistence that we can only solve this on our own, that we do not need help from abroad in reducing gun violence here at home. We are also entirely too eager to look to the marketplace to solve intractable problems. The answer is sure to be another product, another service, or just more products and services. What we get are more knock-offs, more non-solutions, like another diet fad that does nothing, or is even proven harmful down the road.

What are we so afraid of? Why do we continue to assume the worst about people we do not know personally? When did our society start to unravel so? We have to start with these questions to learn the motivations behind our behaviors, our actions, and our inactions. There is absolutely no room for dishonesty, for saying what you think other people want to hear. We will get nowhere without being brave, even if that means exposing selfish motives or trivial concerns. Maybe you frame your experiences and perceptions differently than others. That is fine. This is how we begin to understand each other. We do not know what has shaped your approach to life unless you share that.

We have to resist the urge to judge others, of course, when someone commits to divulging personal matters. Belittling and bullying we know to be triggers for homicidal and suicidal behaviors, and if we are trying to end those consequences then we need to listen without judging. We have to beware of being condescending, too, or even being too overtly compassionate. It is a fine line between detachment and empathy and most of us, most of the time, are not very good at walking it.

The bravest among us are the unarmed. Not just in the sense of not carrying literal weapons, but in lowering their emotional shields, shedding the armor around their hearts and minds, admitting weakness and fears. There should be no shame in any of that. To the contrary, these are people we should elevate to the heights of heroism, supermen and superwomen who owe their strength to kryptonite, the vulnerabilities that make them human. Step out of your shell, just peek out from under your rock. Baby steps, but steps, please.

Australia apparently has very strict gun laws. Do we look at our friends Down Under and think "wow, what a totalitarian regime they must be living in?" Of course not. We envy them, perceive their lives as sunnier, livelier, and a lot more relaxed than our own. We want to go there on vacation, if we can ever get enough money and time together. Our U.S. government leaders should be inquiring of Australia and other nations that do not have such frequent episodes of gun violence how they have come to make it work. No one has a monopoly on ideas.

We do know what is not working: Ignoring the problem, offering only thoughts and prayers, and relying on the proliferation of guns to somehow level the playing field. Correction, battlefield. Everyday life should not be a battle, a war. It should be about an intolerance of violence as normal.

We are currently an epic failure at loving each other, so perhaps it is fitting that another violent event took place on Valentine's Day, when it should be all about hearts and flowers and everything nice in the world. Go, from this day forward, professing what you love, what you fear, why you don't trust. Do it fearlessly, do it to free yourself of your own dark armor.