Sunday, May 20, 2018

A Wedding, Wealth, and Masculinity


It is perhaps tragically ironic that we have prom season and the royal wedding setting up the perfect storm of inevitable disappointment for the average high school male bent on wooing his dream girl. When you aspire to fantasy, have unrealistic expectations, and are more concerned with how you stack up to other male students, it is not going to end well for you. Meanwhile, women are collateral damage.

Our collective obsession with the royal nuptials Across the Pond is troubling if not disturbing. We revel in pomp and circumstance, and I dare say long for the rigidity in standards for what constitutes "marriage material" in stodgy old England. We want rules to be explicit, if only so we know when we are breaking them, but often because we have failed to properly construct our own moral compasses. We rely on externalities instead. America has few formalities, and even those may vary from state to state.

Consequently, our young men are left to their own devices, their own warped perceptions of idealism in the female form. How boys and men handle their romantic defeats is what should make you a gentleman or a loser. Here in the U.S., we do not learn how to deal with those perceived setbacks in any positive, meaningful way. At best our male students simply become more determined to achieve victory in the socio-romance game, and maybe set their sights on college coeds once they graduate high school. That simply perpetuates the cycle of reducing women to prizes to be won, by any means necessary.

The tragic part is that for men like this, women are a means to an end, the end being enhanced status for the guy. There truly is a trophy wife mentality whereby men measure each other by the....what, "hottness" of their spouse or girlfriend. Women cease to be anything more than an accessory to this kind of sorry excuse for a man. This is how we ruthlessly objectify women, and it does not even have anything to do with women. It is all about the male hierarchy.

At some point in our evolution did this become a strategy for becoming the alpha male? The accumulation of food and other necessary resources certainly made some males more desirable to females, but eventually there was enough to go around thanks to agriculture, improved weaponry for hunting, and the ability to preserve collected foods. What separates us now, then? We created the unnatural resource of money, currency that is not perishable, wealth that demonstrates you have risen above mere survival. We announce the existence of our fortunes through expensive automobiles, luxurious homes, second homes, yachts, jewelry, and other rare and precious commodities....and attractive, younger women.

Mating strategies in the animal kingdom are often complex, and none more so than in Homo sapiens. We point derisively to other cultures that rely on arranged marriages, that eliminate a woman's dignity through genital mutilation, or reduce her worth to her dowry, or enslave her in any number of ways by prohibiting her education and disallowing her consent to anything, but are we any better? American men who cannot achieve wealth, or cannot achieve it fast enough, try and bypass the implied route of success and just go for the hot chick. If he can get her, other men will assume he has something they do not. Women are the facade in the male social-success game. Debt is the facade we all use to project that we are wealthier than we are. We must stop kidding ourselves.

Let me repeat that: We must stop kidding ourselves. We must stop believing that we should be aspiring to great individual material wealth and the flimsy social status that comes with it. When we do that we start dropping pretense. We stop pretending. We start being comfortable with who we are. We start recognizing the matrix that is our unsustainable style of living and relating to each other. We stop shaming others. We stop feeling guilty for our excesses because we have realized the futility of indulging in them. We start having meaningful relationships with the opposite sex.

The revolution will be a long one. Men will not go quietly, willingly giving up the power that they have accumulated through greed and womanizing. We will have to overcome our biology and our social expectations, without the help of media and advertising that will even more stubbornly stick to the status quo, the old school rules of engagement. We have an opportunity here to advance civilization to a level of respect it has perhaps never enjoyed. Failure will mean its total collapse.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Nearing the End

I write this as my father lays dying several states away. The hospice care workers tell us that they would be surprised if he lasts until the end of the week. You do not need to know how he got here. You do need to know how I got here, to the point of wishing no suffering on my parent, but not wishing to see him, either.

My father is over ninety-two years old. How he has survived to this point is a mystery, given his alcoholism and Type A personality. Maybe just an angry personality. He was never satisfied with his life throughout his marriage to my mother. After the death of his second wife, his life began to deteriorate. He is not able to function well on his own. That is one trait for which I still take after him, much to my dismay.

Dad and I on July 25, 1966

The things I learned from my father I have had to steadily unlearn. Anger used to be my ruling emotion, too. He demonstrated that rage is how you get your way, how you assert yourself, how you express your pain, but it really just makes people hate and fear you. Dad never learned about empowerment, just power. I would cower as a child during one of his outbursts. Rarely were they directed at me, but threatening my mother has the same effect. Doing damage to property creates an atmosphere of constant anxiety, if only because every day you see the hole in the closet door, the hole in the screen door, or some broken object. He drank, too, of course, and so when I became of age and struck out on my own, that is how I began coping with emotional pain and insecurity, despite the fact I have never really enjoyed alcohol.

Here we are, miles apart, and I am told that I should hurry to see him. Why? I have spent the majority of my life doing what other people have told me I should do, and resenting them for their "advice." No more. They do not deserve my animosity, for they have a right to their sentiments. I have a right to make decisions on my own, though, and I have concluded that it is in my best interest to await his passing from a distance. I could justify a case for either course of action. I could claim that I would rather not remember him on his deathbed, barely conscious let alone coherent, perhaps not even recognizing me. On the other hand I could secretly enjoy seeing him in a position of utter physical helplessness, his power over me vanquished at last.

The last time I spoke with my father was over the telephone, many months ago now. He had made a habit of calling me to tell me goodbye, that he was happy with the life he led and was now ready to surrender. This particular conversation took a different turn when he once again started making derogatory remarks about my mother. I do not hold either of my parents in high esteem, but my mother made untold sacrifices to get me to adulthood, and despite her shortcomings as a parent, I deeply respect her ability to succeed at that with limited resources as a single mother. I told my father that he needed to stop his defamatory tirade. Twice, at least. Because of his near deafness, he could not understand what I was asking. Ultimately, I hung up on him.

How does one honor their parents when they never honored each other? Thankfully, I am learning what real family life is all about through visits with my in-laws. My wife's parents are the polar opposite of my own. Sure, they have their moments, sigh and raise their voices in exasperation when they have to repeat something because the other one can't hear. They overcome their physical limitations through determination and sheer discipline, adhering to exercise regimens that would tax most teenagers. My mother-in-law swims daily, and gets in something like 100 miles each year. I would have drowned before a quarter of one mile. My father-in-law walks seven miles a morning. Pretty sure. All of this is because they recognize they need to do it for each other, their kids, their grandchildren. They share a devotion to God through religion, but never admonish me for not being so devout myself. This is in spite of the fact that their other sons-in-law are both pastors.

I honestly look forward to being myself full-time in the judgment-free zone. That is what my father's death will be: liberation for him from his failing body and mind, liberation for me from my parents' expectations and as a source of disagreement over my future. I will make no apologies for my reality. You did not live it, and I have no siblings to bear witness. Likewise, I have no control over your relationship to me, or to anyone else.

Free yourself from bad relationships, bad habits, and rewire your mind, through whatever channels help you. That would be my advice to others. But really, who am I to talk. I am still a work in progress, but it is finally my own mind and soul in charge.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Last Bastion of Legal Discrimination

A video making the rounds through social media these days asserts that "Diamonds Are a Lie." It points to propaganda by the diamond dealer De Beers that artificially inflated the value of the stones. This hit home for me for a number of reasons and reminded me to write about my long-held perception of the perils of wealth inequality as a whole.

My father earned his affluence by creating high end custom jewelry for wealthy clients in Portland, Oregon. This of course included diamonds and gold and other "precious stones" and metals. There is no question that our society has ascribed arbitrary monetary valuations to certain gems and other natural resources. It is perhaps a logical extension in our evolution for male individuals who want to set themselves apart from competing males by demonstrating financial richness in addition to physical prowess, intellectual superiority, and other characteristics attractive to females. Still, it has to stop.

Status has come to mean one thing: relative financial wealth. It is putting our entire human species at risk. We now have the human equivalent of the peacock, only instead of feathers it is funds, stocks, bonds, yachts, luxury cars, second and third homes, exotic vacations, designer fashions, and yes, pricey jewelry. We celebrate and idolize these people, mostly White males, in the Fortune 500, Forbes, and other periodicals devoted solely to wealth and how to achieve it.

Interestingly, we assign dollar values chiefly to inanimate objects, and non-living natural resources. Living creatures we conveniently refer to as "priceless." The insinuation is that people, other animals, plants, and other organisms are so valuable that it is pointless to put a figure on their worth. The reality is that the convenient priceless tag permits us to devalue life when it stands in the way of resource extraction or our personal ascent up the ladder of wealth. We have no trouble turning our backs on our brothers and sisters, let alone other entire species, if profit is to be had.

What is most staggering is the almost complete success of the brainwashing campaign that has convinced us that great material wealth is something we should aspire to. Why? Well, it is the carrot held before us so that those who are already wealthy can beat us with the stick. Drudgery is supposedly the price we pay for our income. We have apparently resigned ourselves to accept this scenario without complaint, even without union representation. We literally slave away so that company shareholders can reap ever bigger profits and reward the executives with bonuses.

We still believe that if we work hard we will one day own a home, be able to retire to a leisurely lifestyle, and still put our kids through college, too. No, we cannot. Wealth is now inherited far more than it is earned. We can always borrow, because the interest rate is so low. We no longer have a middle class, we have a debt class masquerading as the middle class. We used to be able to get ahead by saving money, but no bank product pays worth a damn because of the low interest rate. Your life is reduced to your credit rating, your ability to borrow.

Should everything be free? No, of course not, but there are entirely too many things we do not need at all. I speak again of objects and accessories that do nothing, or next to nothing, but flaunt our personal affluence. Why must we measure ourselves by dollars? Why do we continue to tolerate, even endorse, discrimination against others based on their inability to pay exorbitant amounts of money for exclusive this, or chic that? It is nothing short of shameful.

What interests me is not the prime rate, it is your willingness to share what you have. It is, as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. decreed "the content of (your) character" that should define you. Your currency of thought, and empathy and humor and empowerment of others is what interests me. Your refusal to judge others, or assume the worst without knowing them, is what sets you apart and makes you my friend. I have no desire to burden myself with material goods, or surround myself with elitist, snobbish friends. Neither do you, right?

Saturday, April 28, 2018

In Praise of Vacant Land

Growing up in Portland, Oregon in the 1960s and 1970s, I spent my lonely childhood exploring the forests, fields, and vacant lots around our neighborhood. Maybe it was the time period, maybe it was the culture, but I was allowed to roam freely for the most part. Not today. Our vacant parcels of land, whatever their size, have gone from implicit invitations to traverse them to extreme possessiveness and a clearly uninviting nature full of fences and other explicit boundaries and "no tresspassing" postings. I long for the good ol' days.

It would be an interesting exercise to plot a timeline of American land use over the centuries, from the frontier to current efforts to shrink public lands. Some things stand out from my own education, both formal and subsequently informed by "alternative media." We clearly usurped indigenous peoples in our effort to conquer the wild landscape and settle what were apparently chaotic ecosystems prior to our arrival as European colonists. Resource extraction went from individual mining claims during the Gold Rush to mountaintop removal for coal, to fracking done by faceless corporations. We tamed forests through logging and fire suppression.

If you believe that to have value, a given parcel of land must provide an economic return, then you are starting with the wrong premise.

Eventually, individuals with great foresight and appreciation of wilderness brought us the concept of parks, wildlife refuges, and roadless wilderness. Then came Aldo Leopold's land ethic, and Garrett Hardin's The Tragedy of the Commons. Our population boomed in post war celebration, and prosperity seemed boundless. The interstate highway system replaced the railroad as the way to move freely about the country, unfettered by fears of peak oil. Everyone could have everything, including their own piece of real estate. We could feed ourselves, recreate, work, and live, all in different locations. Sprawl was not the name for subdivisions back then.

Where once land was appreciated on several levels, today there is but one consideration: financial gain. If you believe that to have value, a given parcel of land must provide an economic return, then you are starting with the wrong premise. Land already has value as the ecosystem engine that keeps us breathing, keeps us grounded, keeps our minds resilient and stokes our creativity, awe, and curiosity. The idea that human activities enhance the value of land is a corruption of economics that ignores biology. I have personally never seen a natural landscape improved by the addition of a strip mall or suburban housing project. Indeed, such projects diminish the value of land at best.

Undeveloped acreage is protected the way ranchers protect their cattle before they take them to the slaughterhouse. The average lot is merely reserved for something "better" at some future date.

Today, the vacant lands of my youth are protected from children, and all other innocent and worthwhile interests. Undeveloped acreage is protected the way ranchers protect their cattle before they take them to the slaughterhouse. The average lot is merely reserved for something "better" at some future date. I ask what could be better than wildflowers, the hum of bees and songs of birds? What could be better than an unofficial playground for our wonderfully wild, exuberant children? I never got curious about illicit drugs because I was curious about insects and reptiles and other wildlife. I was able to satisfy my inquisitive nature precisely because I had places I could go, safe or not, where I could find and observe other organisms. This is saying something considering that I am an only child who was raised mostly by an overprotective single mother.

Vacant lots are only as much of a blight as we allow them to be, at least in urban settings. Why not take that weedy block and turn it into a butterfly and bird garden, or even a community garden that feeds people as well as wild things? Grow something other than another concrete and steel building. Density and infill are not dirty words. Apply them humanely and shrink your city's sprawl. Leave the larger pieces alone or manage them for all the biological services they provide us. Leave them for the kids.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Eagle and the Flycatcher

Taking to the road in search of birds is usually a rewarding, relaxing experience, but sometimes it can be a roller-coaster of emotions. Such was the case on April first when my wife and I set out over the plains east of Colorado Springs in mid-afternoon to take advantage of a sunny, cool, day. We had no idea what was in store for us.

More on him later

We drove south down Interstate 25, and took the exit for Hanover Road, as we have done countless times. We quickly got one of our target birds, our first Turkey Vultures of the year for El Paso County. A whole kettle of them was circling over fields adjacent to Fountain Creek. The rolling shortgrass prairie here is studded with cholla cacti, which are sometimes so thick as to create a stubby forest of the spiny succulents.

Farther out on Hanover Road we saw a vehicle pulled over on the shoulder, and a woman looking at what first appeared to be a chunk of retread from a truck tire. We slowed, and I noticed that the rubber debris had feathers. "Oh, wow, that's and eagle" I said to Heidi, and we pulled over ourselves. Walking back, I greeted the woman and asked if she was a wildlife officer or someone assigned to pick up deceased raptors. She said no, she lived in the area and had seen the Golden Eagle flying in this vicinity earlier in the day. She had found it in the middle of the road, as indicated by residual downy feathers still adhered to the pavement by dried bird blood. She had placed the corpse where it now lay.

Maybe my coping mechanism for tragedies like this is to immediately begin thinking of how to make the best of a bad situation. It was an adult bird, as I could best determine by lifting a wing and finding no white patch like the juveniles have. We hoped it was not on a nest, but at this time of year that is a distinct possibility. This was a freshly-killed bird, no rigor, though it had clenched talons on one foot.

Note: Possession of a dead bird of prey, especially an eagle, or even its feathers, is a federal offense. Taking the bird ourselves, even with the best intentions for depositing it, was not an option. Ever the quick-thinker, Heidi suggested we call a friend who has experience with this kind of thing. Miraculously, out in the middle of nowhere, we had a cell phone signal. I dialed our friend and luckily she picked up. She promised to do her best to track down a state official to go and fetch the body. She would call back with a verdict one way or the other. My phone did not ring. Heidi found she did have a voicemail message, and we listened to that. Success! There was no Colorado Parks & Wildlife person on duty, but the state police would find someone and we would get a call from whomever it was.

A couple minutes later my phone rang and an off-duty officer was on the other end. We described our location, even with GPS coordinates thanks again to Heidi, and he told us it would take him at least twenty minutes to get there. Bear in mind this is Easter Sunday. I told him we would wait....

Surprisingly, traffic was not entirely absent from this rural stretch of two-lane road, and we wondered if each approaching vehicle was "the guy." Most cars and trucks barely slowed, some rushing past at speeds well in excess of the posted limit. That might explain the dead eagle, and I wondered to myself why no one bothered to ask if we were broken down. Check that, one older gentleman in a pick-up did pull up next to us to make sure we were all right.

About thirty minutes after my phone conversation with the wildlife officer, another truck, approaching from the opposite direction we expected our hero to come from, slowed down and pulled a u-turn behind us. I asked if he was here for the bird and he confirmed it, displaying his badge upon exiting his vehicle. He had brought his wife with him. She is even more experienced with birds than himself, he informed us. So began "CSI: Ornithology."

One thing that puzzled us all was that the entire tail of the eagle was missing. The wildlife officer suspected that someone had yanked the tail feathers, which are prized in Native American cultures for ceremonial dress and rituals. There was a blood trail. More feathers on the other side of the road, but the bird's wings appeared to be almost undamaged, so there was another head-scratcher. Examining the carcass revealed just how extensive the damage was. A broken leg. Massive injuries where one wing joined the body. The blood on the bird's hooked beak could well be its own.

Much to our surprise, another birder friend of ours pulled up, having recognized us and being curious as to what all the commotion was about. She greeted us warmly but quickly breathed a sigh of sorrow at the reason for our roadside gathering. As we wrapped up our crime scene investigation and climbed into our car, Heidi told me that our birder friend was returning from seeing another spectacular bird, this one still living, just down the road.

"They saw a Vermilion Flycatcher?" I asked incredulously. Yep, a male, too. This is a pretty common southeast Arizona, along the Rio Grande, and the Gulf Coast. This far north? Not so much. The bird was hanging out behind the fire station in Hanover. It had been there pretty much all day. We arrived to find one of Colorado's foremost birders on hand with a spotting scope, dutifully pointing out the bright red bird to the steady parade of "chasers" who flocked to the location for their own viewing pleasure. This gentleman is absurdly generous with his time. He has more patience than a saint.

Heidi and I could have had a supremely awful afternoon had our most memorable experience been coming across that eagle. We owe it to friends, and the bird gods, for providing us with an exhilarating "upper" to end our day. No one promises that pursuing your passion is always going to be a positive thing, but if you do the right thing in the face of the worst circumstances your favorite pastime can deliver, then you will still be rewarded. It may not always turn out the way our Easter excursion did, but you can at least sleep well in the aftermath.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Unfriendly Fire


Having military bases as neighbors is not without its irritations, but last week civilians were forced to evacuate when the Carson Midway Fire swept through their neighborhoods after "going off the reservation" as it were. While I support our troops, the men and women on the ground at home and abroad, I do not always endorse the missions they are sent on, nor the leadership calling the shots. It is my opinion that the Army base of Fort Carson clearly compromised public safety by insisting on using live ammunition for training exercises during red flag warning days of high winds, exacerbated by severe drought. Surely, solutions exist.

The Carson Midway Fire actually represents the fusion of two separate fires. The merger resulted in the burning of 3,300 acres, reaching the El Paso-Pueblo County line, west of Interstate 25 near the Pikes Peak International Speedway. It was that portion of the fire that consumed several structures, including two homes, and resulted in at least 250 evacuations. It also ignited an enormous pile of discarded tires. Those tires are still burning as I write this, and evacuees from the immediate vicinity are not being permitted to return due to the dense smoke and toxic fumes emanating from the burning heap of rubber. According to one spokesperson, there are heavy metals in tires that, when there is "incomplete combustion," liberate toxic chemicals, especially cyanide. Terrific.

Fires in rural areas here also affect livestock, so accommodations have to be provided for evacuated horses, cattle, and other large animals, plus smaller pets. Colonel Fitch may have empathy for evacuees and those who lost their homes or other structures, and remorse or regret for how things went south, but if so it was not on display at the press conference on March 16. Instead, he asserted matter-of-factly that imminent deployments of personnel to Afghanistan and elsewhere necessitated employing live rounds during training. Meanwhile, the El Paso County Sheriff's office is the agency left holding the bag.

This is a fast-moving story, and now the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken over the extinguishing the tire fire and subsequent clean-up of the underlying soil contaminants resulting from the fire. Evacuees might be allowed to return today (Thursday, March 22), but no final call has been made.

It remains unclear among the myriad of agencies involved as to which ones will be deemed responsible for compensating for damages, or providing relief in other ways. The Red Cross did set up an evacuation center in Fountain, Colorado, and as usual the state fairgrounds in Pueblo offered shelter for livestock. Two other centers were established to receive smaller animals. What happens next?

An online petition is now circulating calling for the prohibition of live fire rounds on the Fort Carson base during red flag days of high or extreme fire danger. The petition has already secured over 2,000 signatures. The purpose of this petition should not be read as a desire to hamstring our military operations, but instead to insure the safety of both military and civilian personnel, and to limit the impact on precious fire-fighting resources that can be stretched thin given the outbreak of fires off the base.

No matter the jurisdiction, when it comes to fire prevention, everyone should be playing by the same rules. This is simply common sense, and would unite our diverse community instead of dividing it. The Front Range is a unique and complicated amalgamation of urban, rural, military, and wilderness landscapes. Establishing guidelines that respect those diverse interests, public or private, is not without its challenges, as we are learning from this unfortunate event. We need to come to the table and make some tough decisions before the fire next time.

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.