Saturday, April 22, 2017

Not Fearless Enough?

© whotv.com

I am disappointed in Fearless Girl, that bronze figure in front of the iconic Charging Bull sculpture on Wall Street. Ok, it is my fault, actually. I took her symbolism in an entirely different direction than the artist who created her intended. Still, I find myself angry at the artist responsible for the bull wanting to evict the innocent child standing in defiance before his angry bovine. I wonder if this is just the beginning of art depicting culture wars.

When I first saw images of the pony-tailed pixie, I was delighted. My assumption, a naive one it turns out, was that she was a literal stand-in for the proverbial little guy. You know, those of us whose investment portfolios consist of a PayPal donate button on our blog, and two to four lottery tickets when the pot gets big enough to remind us there is a lottery. Those who in no way, shape, or form can participate in the stock market. That is who I thought our heroine was standing for.

Come to find out, the point of the diminutive Miss was to draw attention to the lack of women on corporate boards, let alone the near absence of females running those boards. Oh, boy. Oh, girl! While I am no sympathizer for male privilege, I could still feel my heart sink at this revelation. Not only that, but the statue was commissioned by one of the world's largest financial firms: State Street Global Investors, based in Boston. What I had thought might be more of a monument to the Occupy Wall Street protests turned out to be not the slightest bit sympathetic to the working class. She was installed on March 7 of this year, on the eve of International Women's Day, so I probably should have made the connection.

A circular plaque at her feet proclaims "Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference." Conveniently, the "SHE" is not only gender-relevant, it is the acronym for State Street's fund's NASDAQ ticker symbol. I see, so she is an advertisement as well as (instead of?) art. To its credit the fund itself tracks the stocks of more than a hundred companies that State Street sees as exemplary leaders in promoting women in the corporate sector. The pure artist in me still views this as a sell-out.

Meanwhile, the creator of Charging Bull is snorting at having his creation upstaged by the kid. The original intent of his statue was to provide an uplifting symbol in the wake of the 1987 stock market crash. He donated the 3-ton work, and friends helped him install it in the middle of a cold winter's night, right in front of the New York Stock Exchange. It was almost removed by city officials who deemed it a traffic hazard and "nuisance," but public pressure resulted in the statue being relocated to its current place in Bowling Green Park, two blocks away.

© USweekly.com

The Sicilian artist, Arturo Di Modica, worries now that the meaning of his sculpture has been corrupted by the little squirt-in-a-skirt, saying that the bull now symbolizes male chauvinism. Hey, if the hoof fits....The bull will always symbolize to me how the ultra-wealthy throw their weight around. The china shop is the local economy, your neighborhood grocer, mechanic, hardware store owner, and every other business you used to be able to rely on before they got swallowed up by big box stores, and even bigger agriculture, banks, and fossil fuel barons. There is a wasteland in the wake of that bull, and we all know it. We still fear it, save for the few that occupied Wall Street for awhile, and maybe Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren; but they still think the stock market can be regulated. One could argue it should be slayed.

Fearless Girl currently has a permit from the city to stay put another year. I do like that outcome, but when her time has come, if it comes, perhaps we should replace her with a matador sticking a few blades into that son-of-a-beast. When I win the lottery, or get enough blog donations, maybe I'll commission that statue. Heck, I'm even willing to make the bullfighter a woman. Take that, em effers of corporate greed.

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Life Sentence of an Unhappy Childhood

© Teach-through-love.com

The other night I stumbled upon the movie White Oleander airing on television, near its beginning. I cannot say I like films like this, but I admire the writers, directors, cast, and crew willing to take on the subject of psychological cruelty, and the agony of undoing the hell that parent-child relationships can often bring. The ramifications of one's upbringing are profound, and so variable in their outcome that stereotypes are useless.

Children are unable to stand up for their own right to peace, quiet, dignity, and love that does not come out of parental selfishness. The result is denial of their situation, and latent hostility towards others. By the time they are teenagers "acting out," or twenty-somethings bobbing and drifting in the debris of their past, the damage is done. When strangers, or even friends, ask what happened, or how did you get here, your response is to ignore them or change the subject. Then you hit thirty-ish and you begin to recall the past with the clarity of an unsubstantiated alibi. After all, up until now you had been conditioned to believe that you murdered your own childhood. Suddenly you cannot help but tell your story. You become the crusader, but you still couch your own pain in a "desire to help others." As the battles dwindle and the war wanes, you are left with a vacancy unfilled, and go back to the flat-line flow that is your life, punctuated here and there with good times and devastating bouts of depression, for your remaining days....or until your parents free you by their own passing.

This perpetuated, and perpetual, guilt, vindictiveness, distrust, and dishonesty is the legacy of generations upon generations of parents ill-equipped to raise a healthy child because they were not brought up in a sane environment. The coping skills of blame, shame, withholding of love and affection, infliction of punishment, and the examples of smoking, alcoholism, and other behaviors are handed down time after time after time.

We have been instructed to believe that the hallmarks of a broken childhood are reflected in the adult child through substance abuse, and indeed the twelve-step programs and anonymous groups can be places to begin silencing the echoes of the parental recordings playing endlessly in your mind. You finally begin to see the "buttons" and start the long process of rewiring or disconnecting them. You react with a little less intensity when one of them is pushed.

Still, social dysfunction, in all its many forms, is the overwhelming result of following the patterns set forth like the ruts from wagon wheels lifetimes previous. Maybe you never have an enduring, loving relationship with someone else. Maybe, like me, you become unemployable, because you see the social structure of the workplace for what it is: every employee's attempt to make up for their childhood of want, woe, and war....and that includes yourself if you are not wary, or willing to expend the enormous amount of energy to just "deal." Lather, rinse, repeat.

Our childhood senses and minds lack the filters that come with maturity, and we accept everything our parents dole out as fact and reality, not the products of a disillusioned personality, itself the victim of its own trauma. There is no end to the insidious strategies invented to insure that a parent maintains control of their child. Surely the world would fly apart if the chain of child-rearing incompetence were ever to break. We cannot afford, hell, survive, the exposure of our flaws, nor properly articulate their origin. We were just kids when we learned how to parent.

At the end of White Oleander, the mother marches into a life sentence at a real brick-and-mortar prison. She finally relented from pressuring her daughter into testifying, thereby setting her offspring free from the prison she created in the girl's mind. Rarely is it that easy, that metaphorical, that decisive. Most of us still spend our days methodically sawing through the bars with mental files, provided we even recognize the cell that we are living in.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

"Jobs" and Other Trigger Words

© Alternet.org

Remember when "sound bites" were all the rage, both in the popularity of their use and in the anger they incited in journalists? Those were the good old days. Today, politicians can use just a single word to evoke an emotional response that sways voters to support them, or to dismiss issues and concerns of their opponents. Is our collective attention span as citizens so short, and our reluctance to do a little homework so great, that we will allow ourselves to be so easily manipulated?

We are all familiar with certain trigger words. "Jobs" for example. We hear someone utter just that word and our gut reaction is "Good. Jobs are good. He/she is going to do something about creating jobs. We need more jobs." It is a word that reduces every other concern to something meaningless and expendable in the interest of creating....jobs. We never ask "how many jobs?" or "how long will those jobs last?" or "will our locally unemployed be qualified to do those jobs?"

The implications of "jobs" means that environmental health, and consumer and labor regulations may need to be sacrificed if you want more jobs. We all understand this by now. That is how powerful a trigger word can be. All of these emotions, issues, and actions can be triggered by just a single word. "Crime" is another. We understand that when a government official or political candidate says they will be tough on crime, it means that we will lose at least a bit of our privacy through surveillance, security checkpoints in public buildings, and data retrieval from our communication devices.

"Taxes" are perceived almost universally as a bad thing, and the word is now almost synonymous with "stealing" from our wages (income tax), purchases (sales tax), home ownership (property taxes), and every other aspect of our lives. Taxpayers have not been properly educated in the collective benefits we receive in exchange for taxes. Public education, parks, roads, public transportation, libraries, museums, zoos, and a host of other public services and facilities could not exist without support from taxes.

Still, politicians promise "no new taxes" or "tax cuts," meant to spell "relief" and appease those at the lower end of the wage scale. The reality is that most of those cuts are inevitably granted to those individuals and corporations, that are already highly prosperous. Tax law is another tool to redistribute wealth to the wealthy elite, the way it is currently being written and executed. We are so conditioned to think of "tax relief" and "tax cuts" as beneficial to us, that we don't think any more about it, we just react positively even though most of us will not see meaningful changes to our bank account.

I could go on and on just listing more trigger words and phrases like "immigrants" and "Islam" and "pro-choice," "pro-life" and "clean energy" and so forth, but I give my readers credit for being able to recognize the intent with which those words are chosen and used, like so many verbal bullets and bandages to provoke fear and loathing, or calm and soothe in order to create false empathy. Each side of a given issue knows exactly what the other side means when it uses a trigger word. The same word can be interpreted completely differently depending on your party or ideological persuasion; and used as a hostile epithet or a badge of honor.

How do we get over this language barrier? Can we? Honesty. That is the only answer. When my parents were divorcing, back in the 1970s, I remember the phrase "the best interest of the child" being a mantra. In contested divorces, when a parent says that, it really means not only that they believe they are the best parent to have custody, but that the other parent having custody is the worst thing that could happen to the child. Cloaking selfish interests in language that suggests altruism is repugnant and intolerable. We have to start speaking honestly and fearlessly.

Be honest in why you object to a public policy, political viewpoint, or other issue that ignites your emotions. Only when we see each other's real motives are we going to make progress, and take action acceptable to the majority.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Book Review: Vulture

© ForeEdgeBooks.com

Even if you do not already admire the Turkey Vulture as a master of sustained and effortless flight, and its willingness to consume the deceased animal life that would fester and overwhelm us were it not for these efficient scavengers, you will find Vulture: the private life of an unloved bird University Press of New England, 2017), by author Katie Fallon, to be well worth your indulgence.

Experience informs the advocate, and Fallon does a superb job at weaving her personal life experiences into the narrative of this story. The natural arcs would be the life history of her subjects, from egg to adult; or the migratory journey of a vulture. Indeed, Fallon employs these natural rhythms as elements of continuity; but it turns out not all Turkey Vultures do migrate, a fascinating aspect of the diverse biology of the species.

Familiarity cannot breed contempt in the case of vultures because people, including avian scientists, are simply not familiar with these birds. Much of the content in Vulture represents new information, acquired within the last decade or so, resulting from tagging studies. Vultures cool themselves by urinating and defecating on their feet, which quickly corrodes the metal ankle-bands used by scientists on other birds, hence the need to apply the wing tag strategy instead.

An unexpected and welcome element to the book is the frequent addition of information that applies to other vulture species. The Turkey Vulture is the main character, but our avian hero is also employed here as a messenger for other vulture species all over the planet. Fallon shares her own globe-trekking adventures as they relate to other vultures, like the Egyptian Vulture in India, where the birds have vanished from a sacred Hindu temple they once visited like clockwork. Old World and New World vultures are not as closely related as one might imagine, but they suffer, unfortunately, from the same conflicts with humans.

It is easy for advocates of any orphaned or maligned species to be overly zealous in their efforts to educate; or be too sternly admonishing in addressing those people who lack an understanding and respect for other life forms. Fallon should be commended for reining in her emotions while still managing to be assertive in her opinions and policy recommendations when it comes to vulture "management" here in the U.S. She backs up her statements at every step, and also informs the reader when there is a need for more study to conclude whether a given assertion can be proven.

Fallon should not be compared to any other writer. She confesses to her admiration for Edward Abbey and other predecessors, but her writing stands on its own merits, with a unique and welcome new voice. This book enjoys the personal qualities of a memoir, but those insights and life events are used like spices in a favorite recipe: Not as a dependent "crutch" or overwhelming element, but instead adding just a touch of flavor and eloquence to the literary dish.

This book is about vultures in the human world, but nowhere in the story does the human aspect overly intrude. The great birds are front-and-center, consistently painted in a positive and empathetic light. It is to Fallon's credit that she is able to coax the reader into the same love affair with vultures that she herself enjoys, without romanticizing her subject to the point of putting off her audience. As a male reader, I find this a tricky path that Fallon negotiates with precision and consistency. Her research is far-reaching and impeccable.

Vulture ends with an afterword that leads readers to the next step: their own advocacy for vultures and related birds of prey. It may seem naive to believe that one book could generate enough momentum to result in a surge of sustained interest in promoting vulture conservation the world over, but I have high hopes. Fallon seamlessly integrates the plight of vultures into the landscape of wildlife conservation in general. What we do for vultures we do for the health of entire ecosystems....but don't take my word for it, read Vulture for yourself.

Turkey Vulture over western Massachusetts

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Raise Your Standards When Voting on Candidates

© Questioning.org

We just had a national election last November, but already we are having a local one here in Colorado Springs, on April 4, to decide City Council races and a trio of ballot issues. This got me thinking about elections in general, and how low we have set the bar for qualifications. It is high time we raised it, so here are some topics and qualities to consider when choosing among a field of candidates.

We are at such a shallow threshold for qualified candidates anymore that if the incumbent can simply avoid scandal, he or she is almost guaranteed to retain office. As long as they are not a complete embarrassment, then we seem to be ok with allowing them to carry on. Should we not be at least a little more demanding in what we expect of our government representatives? What have they done for us lately? What are their goals in the short run and the long term?

We might start by screening all candidates with these three assessments, which should render them intolerable if these qualities and tendencies are the least bit apparent:

  • They demonstrate no empathy for those less economically fortunate than themselves; or those who are different from them in age, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and related diversity parameters.
  • They assume the worst in strangers, without evidence.
  • They use or seek financial, political, and social power for self-gain. They make it public that they aspire to higher office down the road.

It is incumbent upon us as voters to dig a little deeper, consult multiple media resources, and get behind the more affluent front-runners to see if there are better candidates who simply do not have the resources to campaign as widely or effectively. We also need to spread the word to friends and family once we find a candidate worthy of our vote. This can be difficult when no one wants to "talk politics." Remind them it is not politics, but governance that is at stake, and we need people in office who are responsive to all of their constituents, not just wealthy campaign donors.

We need people in office who are more like ourselves: working class, middle class (if not even bordering on the poverty line), and of diverse occupational, ethnic, age, gender, and related demographics. Yet, we insist on consistently voting for the most affluent career politicians who have nothing in common with the majority of the people in their districts, and who are most responsive to the industrial and business interests that provide massive amounts of campaign money. This is how we get tainted water in Flint, Michigan. This is how we get dangerous deregulation of natural resource extraction industries. This is how we fail to get clean energy options, affordable healthcare, safe infrastructure, and revitalized local economies.

You should also ponder running for office yourself. It is not for everyone, but everyone should give it thoughtful consideration. We require young men (and women, now?) to register with the Selective Service upon their eighteenth birthday. We should require them to register to vote as well. How ironic that we respect those who have served our country in the military, but have no respect for those who send them off to war. We elected them, and we should not be surprised at the results. Maybe we need to start randomly drafting candidates for offices. It might be an improvement.

In the meantime, we should take voting more seriously, do at least minimal homework instead of reacting viscerally to each contender. Change for the sake of change is rarely as good an idea as it sounds, and sometimes continuity is the better option. Only you can decide that. Once the election is over, then your real work begins. We have been awful at holding our representatives accountable, informing them of our viewpoints, economic needs, and sharing our stories. They only know what is important when we tell them. Am I practicing what I am preaching? Not nearly enough; but we can be each other's elbow in our ribs to remind ourselves this is a participatory democracy; or at least it should be.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Not Divided, But Isolated

© Wired.com

We keep talking about how the U.S. is "divided," meaning along religious, racial, ethnic, lifestyle, gender, and other traditional lines. This is largely fiction, and meant to distract us while powerful people and corporations work at deregulation, and dismantling the public foundations we need to engage one another.

Take the proposed elimination of funding for Meals on Wheels, for example. This is a vital program for maintaining not only the nutritional health of the elderly, but their mental and emotional health as well when they greet the person bringing them dinner. This is in fact the news that prompted this post. As many have pointed out, Meals on Wheels is often the only social contact a homebound elderly person has each day, even if they are able to secure food by other means.

We are told by our leaders that we should not trust our neighbors, let alone "foreigners," or those with a different lifestyle. This constant drumbeat of distrust is intended to further divide us, right down to family-level relationships. A splintered electorate can achieve no consensus, allowing powerful individuals and industries to have their way. Government and industry have always had an unholy alliance, each one reinforcing the other until some catastrophe or social movement intervenes. Now, having successfully convinced the electorate that it is hopelessly divided, those in power have little organized opposition to reducing government programs that have helped to unite us until now.

Furthermore, we choose to isolate ourselves with our earbuds, cell phones, and other personal electronics instead of conversing on the daily bus, train, or subway commute, or during the lunch (half) hour. We "Netflix and chill." It's chilling alright. This is exactly what an unregulated economy wants: Nobody talking to each other. If you are isolated you don't learn, you don't do anything but consume; and you consume as a person who no longer understands their rights as a consumer because you are getting input only from the marketplace.

By "products and services" I also mean media. I am experiencing radio silence from many friends in the wake of the executive orders and other actions of our newly-elected President. Why, if they support our Chief, are they not answering for some of his choices? Why are they not speaking to bills before Congress that will undermine our nation's stability and health? Then it dawned on me: they probably aren't plugged into the same media outlets that I am. This is not good. Media is now fostering the very division of our electorate that in the next breath it is lamenting.

The marketplace promotes this isolationism as catering to the individual. It takes your preferences, which it learns from social media, data collected at the grocery checkout, and an infinite number of other sources, and creates "opportunities" for you to get more of the same. You are treated as nothing but a consumer.

Who needs a Department of Education when all industry wants is consumers and, maybe, robotic personalities to staff....whatever jobs have not yet been automated? Unquestioning servitude is what corporations want on the production side; and unquestioning brand loyalty in the marketplace. Who needs the Environmental Protection Agency, either, when deregulation means cheaper energy and allows for the privatization of water?

There are signs of hope, especially encouraging because they are largely grassroot initiatives. I don't mean the women's march, or the upcoming march for science. No, I am talking about utility co-ops offering innovative and cost-effective energy options. I am speaking of local farmers markets and community gardens springing up to answer questions of food security in "food deserts." Food trucks are feeding people on every corner. Credit unions are prospering.

The greatest thing about local economies, of course, is that you can't help but meet your neighbors, and discover that you have more in common than you imagined. The hardest part of participating is just getting off the couch, out from behind your tablet or laptop, and unplugged from your ear buds. Let's do this. We can't wait for anybody else, least of all an elected official.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Gratitude

I struggle with gratitude. It should not be a problem. There are plenty of friends and strangers who suffer more and never complain. In fact, they often offer words of gratitude in place of sharing their misery. Bear with me if you will, though, as there are reasons gratitude is difficult for many people to express.

Those who express frustration and despair at their financial, social, or physical circumstances are often shamed for it. Constructive criticism, if even warranted, has been replaced with indignation and hateful remarks. Civility is no longer the order of the day. Even well-meaning friends often couch their sympathy in religious, condescending tones that still imply that you more or less get what you deserve. If only you were more grateful, more positive, or more....something other than who you are, you would be happy as you are.

All of us are constantly bombarded with examples of material comfort and excess by the news and entertainment media, as well as advertising aimed at ever-wealthier consumers. We invariably either allow ourselves to be persuaded that material wealth is something we should aspire to, or we become despondent over our realization that we are in debt for things we already have. We compare ourselves to others and become depressed over our "failure" to provide for ourselves. It does not matter how unrealistic our views of ourselves and others, it is a nearly automatic response. Our work ethic erodes as we see ourselves as devalued, or at least undervalued, cogs in a machine that makes other people comfortable.

Meanwhile, we are still cognizant of friends and strangers who are worse off. The Facebook couple who were in a wreck that totaled their vehicle. The friend on Twitter fighting cancer with physical, mental, and emotional strength you cannot comprehend. The town erased by a tornado that you saw on the evening news. "Minorities" who struggle daily against intense public hatred, bigotry and discrimination based on attributes determined by genetics. You are grateful for your White privilege, your gender privilege, your "normal" lifestyle, but also ashamed you have not done more with it. Gratitude for your own condition seems somehow empty or false in the face of that.

A good many people were raised with the idea that one should suffer in silence, that it is not your place to disclose "personal" trials and tragedies. Exposing your vulnerabilities was inviting someone to take advantage of your condition. It was also considered poor taste to flaunt your good fortune. Modesty and humility were virtues that garnered respect. How times have changed. It is important to share emotions, even negative ones, because it helps ease stress and also opens the doors to treatment for depression and other psychological illnesses. You cannot receive professional help if no one knows you need it and you won't admit it. Unfortunately, we no longer have the same sentiments toward snobbery and irresponsible affluence as we did back in the day.

Personally, I have no desire for wealth. I would rather have fewer material possessions, in fact. Were I to want to become wealthier, it would be to help others a lot less fortunate. It pains me at least as much to be unable to donate to causes I believe in as it does to be scraping the bottom of my bank account to meet my own financial obligations. I do wish my wife and I could travel more, learning more about other cultures, other nations, other organisms we share the planet with. That is what life should be about, rather than status and luxury.

I will be the first to admit that I need to express gratitude more often, but you cannot coerce someone into gratitude. One way I am guaranteed to remember and express my "blessings" is when I see someone else setting the example by sharing what they are grateful for. Leading by example, being the change you wish to see in the world. Those credos are popular and longstanding for a reason.