Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Empty Hourglass and the Boomerang Curve

The extremist ends of our two dominant American political parties might best be illustrated by a couple of familiar, if not ancient, objects. How we decide to address the problems and predicaments presented therein will determine the future of our country and our world.

"Time is up" describes not only the assertiveness of women and the renewed feminist movement, but also the growing urgency in addressing climate change, labor rights, consumer protections, universal healthcare, civil rights for all ethnic populations and all categories of gender and sexual orientation. These are timeless issues that have advanced only incrementally even when the Democratic party has been in power. The sand in the hourglass has been wasted by previous centrist democratic leadership seeking to appease Republicans who lean slightly left. The exhaustive effort to convert centrist Republicans has sucked all the energy out of the rest of the party. Change has been at a snail's pace; and that same impatience in the far-right has resulted in great leaps backwards as current administrations dismantle existing protections for all but the wealthiest of individuals and corporations.

The trajectory of the Republican party is best described by the path of a boomerang, originating from the point of absolute White Privilege, and seeking to return to that point, albeit in a form that does not resemble original slavery. "Reactionary" is the word that was once used to describe this desire for a return to the "good old days," but now we just call these people what they really are: racists, bigots, homophobes, and misogynists, to name but a few. They are not interested in the prosperity, or even the survival, of anyone but themselves, and they define prosperity only in monetary terms.

The two parties have always been similar, starting to diverge only when the democrats began realizing that there were constituents to be mined from the feminist and civil rights movements. Later, they embraced gay and lesbian issues, but mostly to again swell their voting rolls. Democrats have, to put it bluntly and cynically, recognized minority populations as a means to advance a tamer form of White Privilege. Yes, dear Blacks, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, and transgendered, and disabled and discriminated, we are reaching out, we are giving you a seat at the table, just not any power to enact significant changes that require sacrifice from White men.

Ideally, we want the trajectory of our political party to steadily increase, with no setbacks, instituting changes that are perceptible but tolerable to all, assuming that our motivations are clear and in the best interest of our constituents. The curve of that pursuit over time represents a graph we can comprehend easily, a smooth climb of idealism.

The Republican curve has become a boomerang arc, a "fool you" curve that turns back on itself in trying to reassert White male privilege, with increasingly hostile legislation and policy, more distractions for the gullible, and no apologies to the disenfranchised. The Democratic curve, on the other hand, is more schizophrenic in its ascent, and the leading edge has become a splintered rainbow of constituencies, each with its own overriding agenda, and the upper layer (Democratic National Committee) still being White male interests. Guess what? A rainbow has no white light. That is the whole point, in fact. You address the white light by embracing whole-heartedly the colors behind it. Raise the profile of each color and you lift up the whole radiant beam.

How do we prevail as a just and equitable society, then? We need faith. White democrats need faith in leadership that does not look like us, that came from a different culture and different circumstances. We have to lose the fear that by electing and supporting leaders from disparate enclaves we are turning power over to people who will try and oppress us as we have oppressed them, historically.

Do we deserve to be punished for our own version of apartheid, our prior collective hate crimes? Sure. Personally, I don't see vindictiveness in our diverse and newly-elected federal representatives. I see an energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to making our country better for all, including White people. We should be grateful for the strength and forgiveness of those we have suppressed and neglected and waged war on. Let us begin the road back by letting them lead on the road ahead.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

I'm on the Edge....of Irrelevance

I happened upon a recent Wired article chronicling the writer's self-imposed demotion from a smart phone to a flip phone, and it got me revisiting my own philosophy of technology, which is a product of both intent and financial hardship, with a dose of reluctance for good measure.

I wrote about some aspects of technology in this post, but let me speak more personally as to why I draw the lines where I do. My first reaction to the Wired piece was that it was a flawed experiment in that the writer was regressing from a smart phone to a "dumb phone" as opposed to never having had a smart phone in the first place, which is my situation.

I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the cell phone era. The breaking point came the nth time my flight was delayed or cancelled and I had no way to reach my party on the receiving end to tell them I would not be arriving in a timely manner. I was still reluctant to make the expenditure for a phone, battery, and calling plan, but it was getting embarrassing and impolite to beg the use of a stranger's device. Consequently, I purchased the cheapest phone, and a pay-as-you-go service.

To this day, I run out of "service days" far more regularly than I run out of minutes. Our household still has a land line, with unlimited long distance (no "roaming" fees), that I rely on for the overwhelming majority of telecommunication aside from e-mails. I briefly flirted with an upgraded phone that had an uncovered keyboard, but after I accidentally pocket-dialed a friend in Massachusetts, I went back to a flip phone and here I am.

One Christmas my wife got me a tablet as a gift. After the futility and frustration of trying to scroll and accidentally connecting to unwanted website after unwanted advertisement, and the aggravation of automatic word suggestions while texting or posting, I gave up. That was about three days in. I am all thumbs when it comes to anything smaller than a full-sized keyboard.

There are many benefits to having sub-forefront technology. The greatest of these might be the deterrent to theft. If a burglar had ever entered my prior residences, he or she would have taken a look around and screamed something to the effect of "Are you KIDDING me?!" and maybe an expletive, before storming out. Had they managed to haul off the television, recovering the unit would be a simple matter of calling around to hospitals to see if anyone had come in with a severe back injury. My laptop is so outdated that even I no longer use it. My desktop is over seven years old, and the various cords too tangled for a hurried criminal to untangle. I am still running Windows 7. This is all exactly how I like it: Technology that gets me through, is still supported and serviced, and not new enough to be attractive to thieves.

Another benefit to not carrying a smart phone or tablet or notebook or whatever they are calling the latest thing is that I am forced to unplug when I am out of my home. I am compelled to interact with other people in the flesh, pay attention to my surroundings, and experience the unadulterated reality of the here-and-now. Yes, sometimes it is boring. So what? If you have to be entertained all the time or, increasingly, feel obligated to entertain others via social media, then you might want to re-examine your life. Take a breath. Smell the flowers. People-watch. Wildlife watch.

I can assure you I do not relate any of this to paint myself as superior, or inferior, or out of touch with the realities of the digital universe. Indeed, I find this Age to be a wonder, but I also wonder whether we are losing sight of things that truly matter, whether we are still engaging one another in meaningful relationships, and whether we are losing touch with the natural world. I am fortunate enough to know people who balance flesh-and-blood and digital worlds perfectly, so I have hope. Meanwhile, if you need to reach me on my travels, good luck. I use Tracfone, and isn't that everyone's punchline for any joke about irrelevance?

Sunday, December 30, 2018

New Year's Resolutions and Revolutions

Anybody else likely to bid farewell to 2018 with a sentiment akin to "Don't let the door hit you in the arse on your way out?" Me, too. Personally, it has been something of an average year, but in terms of local, national, and global trends, it has been more like a horror movie with no end in sight. Time to reflect and plot ways to better handle stress and deal with our adversaries.

© Unearthedcomics.com and Sara Zimmerman
Is the Past the Past, or...?

Part of the problem entering 2019 is that there will not be a clean break from the problems of 2018. The federal government shutdown is likely to persist, for one thing. Closer to home, the housing development destined to go up on the land I want to see preserved as an open space, just up the street from us, will edge closer to reality. The stream where I found the only population of Filigree Skimmer dragonflies in the entire state of Colorado will be threatened by a Colorado Springs Utilities project to widen the waterway, sometime in late 2019 or maybe 2020. Developers will also press for conversion of the prairie around Jimmy Camp Creek Park and Corral Bluffs Open Space to housing and retail. Continued sprawl.

The portion of the U.S.-Mexico border wall that is already funded will begin construction (or demolition, more properly) beginning at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, effectively ceding over forty acres of this preserve to Mexico. Many a sleepless night will occur as I ponder whether to engage in direct action protests there if it comes to that.

Leftover Gratitudes

On a brighter note, I will be continuing to identify insect specimens under two contracts I have. I am exceptionally grateful for the work, and find it challenging and stimulating and gratifying in every sense of the word. I also have a new book out that I will be promoting every chance I get, hopefully benefiting entities larger than myself in the process. I have ideas for at least two more books, and need to get cracking on proposals for those that I can shop around to an agent or publishers.

Positively Coping

I have come to excel at procrastination and distraction, and need to correct that, channeling my fearful energies into brighter things. To that end I will take steps to get back to comedy. That may merely take the form of regular attendance at the local comedy club, actually participating in open-mic nights, or even starting a "comedy clinic" for aspiring comedians. Maybe I will start cartooning again, too. That may even be the first thing before the club scene. Point is, I love to laugh and, even better, make other people laugh. My spouse may be growing tired of my brand of humor, so it may be necessary to take it to another audience, just for the sake of our marriage.

Keep On Writin'

The one thing that I do manage to do with a fair degree of consistency is to write. That will not change. What I want to change is where I am writing. I need more eyes on my work. This is not as egotistical as it sounds. The more eyes the more people thinking, whether they agree with me or not. The more people offering sound and constructive criticism so I can better my writing. The more people inspired to share their stories, their ideas, their experiences. Society does not advance if we are silent. The most successful revolutions start by example, one person's resolution shared through in-person demonstration.

Maybe podcasts are in my future. Maybe guest spots on other people's podcasts. Maybe I should investigate the TED talks thing. The basic point is that I need to explore more, get out of my comfort zone. I need to exercise more. I have to quit making excuses and find a yoga class I can get to. Walk twice a day instead of once a day as I am doing currently. Learn to cook something besides a frozen dinner. That reminds me, we have two bottles of wine, one untouched for a year. I keep forgetting about that.

Monday, December 17, 2018

A Longing For Fairness

© Cortlandschools.org

Perhaps the one wish we all share in this holiday season, after world peace, is a more just and fair society. Even most of us with White Privilege have a sense of humility at this time of year, even if you are not the Secret Santa who passes out one hundred dollar bills randomly, or someone who donates to Toys for Tots, the local food bank, or some other charity on "Giving Tuesday." There is, however, a deep undercurrent of anger and misguided energy that surrounds our sense of injustice and unfairness, and that has to be addressed daily, maybe even hourly.

The statement "life isn't fair" always raises my own ire because it is an easy way to dismiss injustice and preserve the status quo for those who benefit by it. It is an excuse for inaction at best. Today, that statement of acceptance of injustice has been turned into a weapon that is being used not just for ignoring problems, but further punishing those already suffering. The idea that "life is not fair" now excuses greed, racism, bigotry, nationalism, and flaunting the rule of law, among other heinous behavior.

Blame and accusation are too often the overriding symptoms of unfairness, even if they are legitimate in their claims. When we start pointing fingers and raising our voice, then we are being "militant," "uppity," and unfair ourselves if we start making demands for change. The flip side of that coin is suffering, and collectively we have limited tolerance for that, too. Those who give voice to their pain are "whining" or "complaining," and we downplay the intensity of their desperation. We are thus dismissed as "radical" or "pathetic." Damned if we do, damned if we don't.

Another symptom of the unfairness disease is an investment of emotional energy in matters that are trivial. I myself am guilty of this during football season. All my anger is channeled into hatred of dynasties like Alabama and Oklahoma football, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and other teams that have dominated the stage for decades. My dream? A different team wins the championship every year, spreading the wealth and joy. This is a horribly shallow and inconsequential desire when people are dying for lack of affordable healthcare, are homeless for lack of affordable housing, are hungry for lack of employment, and addicted because that is how they have come to cope with the unfairness of their circumstances.

Our blind hatred, even when directed at appropriate figures and factions, has allowed our sense of fairness to be corrupted in other ways. Many people view taxation as "theft," that the government is "stealing" your hard-earned money. So, when right-wing candidates campaign on a platform of tax relief and tax cuts, they are embraced with a zealous fervor that we usually reserve for athletic teams. The irony is that these candidates, once in office, effectively do steal from their citizen constituents, applying those tax cuts mostly to persons who are already wealthy beyond our wildest dreams. Candidates, and those in office already, conveniently fail to remind voters that their taxes pay for the common good in the form of roads, schools, libraries, parks, and many other amenities vital to our society. In fairness, it is hard to believe that given the state of our pothole-pocked streets, closing and failing schools, and desecrated parks. That is because government no longer feels the need to be accountable to anyone but the most wealthy.

It is inappropriate and inexcusable to point fingers at any "minority," race, ethnic group, religion, gender, or other convenient category of human beings and accuse them of being the root of all of your problems. We have to begin assessing individuals in power by their actions, not their platforms, by their behavior and not just their rhetoric, and take responsibility for our own actions. We can set an example through personal sacrifice, respect for others, and ceasing our aspirations to excessive material wealth. We can share our ideas for how to effect long-term change through our activities in the marketplace, our engagement with other citizens, and our commitment to personal and environmental health.

The next time someone says "life isn't fair," agree with them and then ask them "so what are you going to do about it?" Remind them that as human beings it is our obligation, indeed our duty, to try and make life more fair. Happy holidays.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Alone Like Never Before

My wife just got us an ECHO™ device. I was not consulted, at least not while I was paying attention, but it got me thinking about the deepening and darkening trend toward the total isolation of the American household, the individual U.S. citizen. Freedom has come to mean freedom from others, and social media aside, that should be disturbing to you.

Advertisers don't frame it this way, of course. They paint these newer technologies as the latest in "convenience." I suppose so, but they conveniently omit the loss of labor from the self-checkout at the supermarket, the fresh air you aren't breathing and the exercise you aren't getting when you call Grubhub or DoorDash, your lack of daily education that comes from interacting with other people face to face, in person.

Can't be bothered conversing with an Uber or Lyft driver? No problem, driverless taxicabs are on the horizon. Where will this end? At what point do we say no, I can do that myself? It is all I can do to tolerate hotel personnel waiting on me hand and foot when I am at one of the fancier establishments. I am not helpless, and I didn't get where I am as a writer by asking Alexa or Google for everything. Back in the day I had to go to a library. I still do, but not as often as I should, and so I miss out on local happenings because I fail to go up the street regularly and see what community announcements they have posted. Shame on me.

I can see where this is going, and it is very clever. Eventually there will be Republican Alexa, Fox News Alexa, Gangsta Alexa, Zionist Alexa....and maybe their counterparts of Democrat, CNN, Folk Alexa, and Agnostic Alexa. Why be unduly inconvenienced by different opinions, religions, cultures, and whatnot? Who needs that baggage? The answer, of course, is that we all do.

While we are talking to our home devices, our Senators and Representatives are talking to lobbyists and corporate interests and making deals that further undermine our rights as workers, consumers, voters, and taxpaying citizens. Alexa is not going to remind you of that. You eventually won't know the rules until you unwittingly break one. Right now, Blacks and Hispanics are all too familiar with this scenario, but sooner or later so will you unless you leave your comfort zone, at least periodically.

People fear the wrong thing from the in-home devices. They think these are stealth machines, surveillance products we have been duped into buying ourselves! Don't you know they are listening to our every word, recording our every action if you have one of those portal thingies, and otherwise invading our privacy? Not likely, though I trust that the manufacturers are listening to find out what else they can sell us.

The real fear we should have in our constant isolation is the erosion of empathy. You cannot relate to others if you don't share experiences. You cannot acknowledge wrongs to others, or validate their trauma, if you do not bear witness firsthand. That was the power of the Civil Rights movement. Comfortable people finally opened their eyes and what they saw shook them.

We need another breakthrough like that, and something sustainable that rejects not technology but the agenda behind it. The future of products and services, as the corporate world sees it, is in cutting us off from each other, automating marketing based on our prior consumer choices. No other input necessary, but thank you for the Yelp review, and "checking in" on Facebook so that we can start a marketing campaign for other individuals. Oooh, look at this bright and shiny new gizmo while we beg Congress for more tax breaks and subsidies that will go to our CEOs and shareholders rather than into properly compensating our employees, providing healthcare and other benefits, testing our products for safety, and making our factories safer, cleaner, and less impactful on the environment. Don't look behind the curtain at our lobbyists arguing for relaxed industrial emissions, looser labor laws, and reduced consumer safety standards.

One day soon I may toss our ECHO into the trash, or at least take it to a thrift store, though I hate to encourage the proliferation of these gadgets. Meanwhile, Alexa? Tell my wife I love her and that I forgive her for the error of your purchase.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Children's Book Review: The World Never Sleeps

It might sound odd to recommend a book entitled The World Never Sleeps (Tilbury House Publishers, 2018) as bedtime reading, but parents will find this book to be both enthralling and calming to their children. The story arc is a natural one, covering the rhythms of life through an entire twenty-four hour cycle; and the creatures found from the sky to subterranean burrows.

The artwork, by Carol Schwartz, and text by author Natalie Rompella, complement each other perfectly, weaving a captivating story of the life of an average home, garden, and pond as explored by a cat. The feline serves as the perfect bridge between the familiar and comforting and the unknown and adventurous. It gives children permission to explore, with the promise of security that home provides. It ignites imagination and no doubt sparks dreams of what lies beyond the doorstep.

I can speak to Rompella's near obsession with accuracy, as she recruited myself and several other entomologists I know to check facts and rigorously analyze her words for faults in the narrative. Hopefully, she did not lose sleep herself in this agonizing attention to detail. One of the recurring problems with children's books is failure of agreement between text and artwork, as the author is almost never permitted (by publishers) to illustrate his or her own book. Rompella worked tirelessly to insure this would not be an issue in The World Never Sleeps.

The back of the book includes more matter-of-fact prose about the many insects and other invertebrates spotlighted in the story. This helps illuminate aspects of their behavior and biology that could not otherwise be covered, and serves to further inspire the reader, or listener, to make further inquiry online and in other books.

The world needs more books like those that Rompella writes, for children of all ages. Conservation of biodiversity begins at home, with an appreciation and understanding of wildlife of all kinds, even those we might regard as pests at first glance. It is my honor and conflict-of-interest-free delight to recommend The World Never Sleeps. What an appropriate holiday gift this would make, especially in light of "The Night Before Christmas." There most certainly are more creatures stirring.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Impending Death of the LRGV

The Rio Grande (Mexico in the middle) from the National Butterfly Center. If the wall goes up you will never have this view again.
© Heidi Eaton

Make no mistake, the construction of a border wall, or even a fence, would doom the economies and ecologies of the Lower Rio Grande Valley LRGV) in south Texas. Public and private lands alike would take the brunt of a closed border, effectively impoverishing every aspect of life in the region. I speak from having visited the area on three separate occasions.

Among our favorite places in Texas is Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, a world-famous destination for tourists wishing to see birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and other watchable wildlife found nowhere else in the United States. The planned route for the border wall would exclude visitors from half of the current acreage, if the park even remained open to the public at all. This is what the average American does not seem to understand: The rights of American citizens will be denied as a result of this massive undertaking.

The National Butterfly Center, where new U.S. records for Mexican species are documented almost annually, will likewise be heavily compromised, and that is private property. Why Libertarians and others who hold private property in sacred esteem are not up in arms over this is beyond me. There is a lawsuit pending, but it may have little impact, for reasons that should terrify you.

To pave the way for the border wall in the legal sense, executive orders rescinded protections afforded by: The National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (Clean Water Act), The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, The Archeological Resources Protection Act, The Solid Waste Disposal Act, The Historic Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act, The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, and The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, among several other distinguished pieces of legislation (nearly thirty in total) that make this country truly great.

Were it not for persistent and vocal protests, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge would already be bisected by the wall. For now it has received a temporary stay of execution (of wall construction). The refuge is a gem, with a variety of habitats and mind-blowing biodiversity from "bugs" to birds.

A border wall would have a devastating impact on wildlife, for even though birds could fly over the barrier, the habitat would be so fragmented by the structure and accompanying 150-foot "enforcement zone" that migrant wildlife would no longer have refuge in their travels; and resident wildlife would likewise be displaced. Meanwhile, have we learned nothing from the insidious networks of tunnels beneath our existing border barriers? Do we truly believe for an instant that "coyotes" will be deterred from their businesses of human trafficking and gun and drug running?

Opposition to a border wall can take many forms, and you are encouraged to pursue one or more of them:

  • Engage in in-person protests at various border locations.
  • Call, write, and e-mail your U.S. Representatives and Senators to express your outrage in polite but assertive language.
  • Bombard the White House with calls, e-mails, and letters.
  • Donate to the National Butterfly Center and other conservation organizations, and humanitarian non-profits that are fighting the border wall.
  • Find out who the contractors are for construction of the wall and urge them to cease activity. Threaten to not do business with them otherwise.
  • Continue visiting the border and infusing the local economies with your tourist dollars. Ask locals how best you can help them fight the wall.

Our current U.S. President is hell-bent on erecting a highly visible legacy of his own fear of immigrants and refugees instead of enacting foreign and domestic policies that would defuse volatile relations with Mexico and Central America instead of igniting more fires. He insists on punishing law-abiding citizens in the U.S. instead of crafting more stringent laws against human trafficking, and expanding the currently overworked agencies charged with handling the deluge of legitimate refugees seeking asylum.

Foreign policy should address corrupt governments that lead to mass exodus, but we need the cooperation of our allies, the UN, and other international bodies that the President has turned his back on. We may even need more official ports of entry along the border so that the few currently in play are not overwhelmed, and adjacent lands between those posts can be patrolled more easily.

We have by no means exhausted all our options with regard to immigration reform, but we will be taking a step backward by building a wall. Yes, Mr. President, it would be something concrete, literally if not figuratively, but what you personally gain from visibility you will lose by several orders of magnitude in credibility, both at home and abroad.