Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Can Instagram Make the Internet Nicer? Should it Try?

© San Pedro Sun

Last night I watched a segment on CBS's On Assignment program about how the CEO of Instagram is experimenting with the elimination of negative comments on user posts. Some critics say this is the first step down a slippery slope of censorship. Are they right? Can we collectively agree on any limitations of "free speech?"

The current target of the Instagram clean-up campaign seems to be online bullying, not quashing dissent, or opinions on the issues of our time. I find it hard to argue anyone, or any company, in the communications industry, who wants to stop enabling the abuse of the First Amendment as it applies to personal attacks. To my untrained information technology eye, it would appear easy to craft code that blocks a person's name, plus derogatory, libelous, defamatory, and hateful words, from making it online in social media. Does this stop the hate itself? Of course not, but again, social media is currently enabling those who intend to inflict emotional terror on others.

You argue that it should not be the responsibility of a media enterprise to edit and police its users. It is up to the victims of abuse to fight back. How, exactly? What if it is not in your nature to retaliate? How do you know that fighting verbal fire with fire will not escalate into physical abuse? I would argue that any tools available to diminish personal attacks on others should be deployed in the interest of a calmer public. We need more compassion, and if it has to be "imposed" through careful regulation, then so be it. Yes, those bent on abusing others will invent new slang epithets to get around the code, but right now there is no work (or thought) involved in berating another person online.

Words and ideas that have no other intention than to do harm to another party, be it a gender identity, race, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or place of origin, or those with disabilities, or whatever, have no place in our social conversations. Period.

What comes next? Won't certain organizations and their public figure spokespersons be muted online and elsewhere? Will they no longer have a platform to speak from, or places to convene? Unlikely, but public pressure is growing, and the will of the People must be respected. Consensus is building and it appears that tolerance for a rhetoric of hate is diminishing rapidly.

Here in Colorado Springs, it has come to the attention of residents that the Cheyenne Mountain Resort will host a conference for VDare, a White nationalist and anti-immigrant group. The conference is still scheduled for April, 2018, but the resort is taking a beating on Facebook, Tripadvisor, and Yelp. It will be interesting to see whether the VDare conference will need to look for a new location.

Right now we at are a collective low point of name-calling, inflammatory speech, and violent protest and counter-counter protest as the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia blatantly demonstrated. This cannot be classified as "free speech," certainly not as our forefathers intended it, and arguably not by any measure. Words and ideas that have no other intention than to do harm to another party, be it a gender identity, race, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or place of origin, or those with disabilities, or whatever, have no place in our social conversations. Period. Personally, I find it distasteful even coming from a stand-up comic.

When your goal, through your words and actions, is to deny civil rights to another class of human beings, then you are forfeiting your own right to free speech and, by extension, all the rights you are seeking to deprive others of.

I would not have expected Instagram to be a leader in a social revolution trending toward a more loving, or at least hospitable, online dialogue. After all, it is a huge financial gamble for a company to make such policy changes, at the risk of alienating a large segment of its users, as well as its shareholders. It remains to be seen whether a backlash will cause the company to retreat toward the status quo. Still, I applaud them for doing something to protect the most vulnerable among us. Meanwhile, we should each take up our own proverbial sword and shield and love gun, and start leading by example ourselves. We don't have to wait for others to do so.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Can You Live Too Long?

© Shutterstock.com

Earlier this week my father turned ninety-two. At least, we're pretty sure, when you get over ninety it is easy to lose track. There was really no celebrating, at least not with me here in Colorado and him in Washington state. It got me thinking again about whether an extended lifespan is really a good thing.

Almost a year ago now, my father sold his house and went into an assisted living facility, initially in the most independent wing. One broken hip later and he was forced into a more "managed care" wing that took away his independence. He hasn't been the same since. He had fallen in the parking garage while trying to get into his vehicle to go renew his driver's license. The outcome of having him off the road is probably a good thing, but I wouldn't tell him that. He has always been an excellent driver, but at his advanced age, anybody is going to be slower to react to traffic situations.

Dad calls his new home "assisted dying," and I find it hard to argue with that. In their defense, such facilities cannot do much for someone in relatively good health, but with reduced mobility. The best they can do is wake me up at one in the morning to tell me he has fallen again, and refuses to go to the hospital. I'm not at my most reasonable at that hour, and if he is lucid enough to comply with response protocol, then he can make his own damn decisions as far as I'm concerned. He's paying seven grand a month to live there, he ought to have some say in his care. That reminds me, I need to get a better itemized account from them.

Truth be told, my father's welfare began to decline after his second wife passed away, rapidly, from cancer, in July, 2006. Like me, he has never been that successful when left to his own devices. Our genetics have probably managed to get us this far in spite of our lifestyle. My father's coping mechanisms have always been anger and alcohol, and I have had to unlearn a good deal in order to get through my own days, and become the most minimally desirable spouse. At least I can articulate my emotions most of the time, something his generation never learned to do.

Ironically, our phone conversations are much more peaceful now. This is mostly due to his difficulty in hearing and, even more to the point, his resignation. He tells me not to worry, he has had a good life, and he is happy to go to sleep permanently whenever that happens. We still worry he might try and hasten that final goodbye, so his firearm is safely locked away; and we do what we can to prevent enablers from furnishing alcohol, though that has been impossible so far.

My father's business, for most of the time I was part of his life, was making custom jewelry, and I can say without bias that his designs were ahead of their time, exquisite in attention to detail, and worthy of every penny he charged for his creations. His skill extended to woodworking and model-building, too. Unfortunately, his current accommodations do not provide ample room to execute anything artistic, and it is probably best that he does not have access to sharp objects anyway. What is left, then? He has no interest in computers or the internet, like many of his era, and in some ways I envy that; but it means that he has fewer things to distract himself from tedium.

At his age, my father really has seen it all, or at least all that he wants to, and I find it excruciating that there is no socially acceptable exit for folks who have no joy in living this long. I would think that by ninety or so you would have earned the right to decide when you have had enough. Heck, here I am at over fifty-five, and I am already not liking what is on my horizon. All the benefits one has traditionally gotten as they age are either being taken away, or the age limit increased, forever putting senior discounts and other privileges just beyond one's reach. For shame! Where are my incentives to go on living?

I do hope that my father passes peacefully, without undo pain and suffering, even if he inflicted that on my mother, and myself in my childhood. I've no more animosity towards him, though I still have my truths about him, many of which are not pleasant. As a culture, though, we have a long way to go to make life worth living for our elderly. They are more than a revenue stream for care facilities, for pharmaceutical companies, and investment firms. They are living history, tangible wisdom, and our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers. They deserve better.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Through

I can see you through the knothole
Playing behind the fence,
But what a great big world you're missing.
Of the pain and agony of war you do not know,
And the joy of freedom you can only guess.
Your world is the sandbox and the jungle gym,
And your innocence is enviable.

I can see you through the chain link screen,
Playing baseball behind the backstop,
And what a great big outfield before you.
You can be anything you want to be.
Your idols are doctors, lawyers, and policemen.
So you take the pitches as they come,
And your choices are so limitless.

I can see you through the plate glass window,
Playing student in the classroom,
Giving direction to your teenage life.
Decisions to make and deadlines to meet,
And rules to break and friends to greet.
Life leaves you hanging in doubt and hesitation,
And your attitudes are so rebellious.

I can see you through the one-way mirror,
Standing in front of the scale.
Finger-printing and posting bail
Are routines you are not accustomed to.
Who will you dial with your single phone call?
You have decisions to make in hallowed halls,
And your innocence is questionable.

I can see you through the spaces between the iron,
Playing cards behind the bars.
But what a small world you are locked into.
Of the pain and agony of prison you have a clue,
But of the joy of freedom you can only guess.
Your enemies are doctors, lawyers, and policemen,
And your choices are so limited.

I can see you through my tearful eyes
Lying in the open casket,
But what a great big world you left behind.
You could have been anything you wanted to.
So you took the pitches as they came,
And life left you hanging in doubt and hesitation,
And judgment of your innocence is out of our hands.

© Eric R. Eaton, circa 1981

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Parents These Days

© Kitchenette.Jezebel.com

There was a time that I thought I hated dogs. Then I realized that what I really don't like are some dog owners. I am beginning to think the same about children. Kids these days? No, more like parents these days.

Earlier this evening I had an exchange with a neighbor whose children, and their friend were running around outside our townhouse complex shrieking and screaming. This happens almost every day, and some days I am less tolerant than others. I opened my front door and said "Can you please stop shrieking?" It was then I noticed a father figure on the porch of a unit in an opposite building. He said "They're kids. It is before ten o'clock [PM], so no, I won't tell them to be quiet."

I closed the door, unable to think of a retort, and worried that the confrontation could escalate. A short while later our doorbell rang, and after a short debate with my wife, went down to answer. The young father was walking away when I opened the door, but returned to give me a piece of his mind. He had a cigarette in one hand and gestured with the other. At least he looked me in the eye while making excuses for why he let his children run around playing loudly.

"The outdoors is where kids are supposed to let out their energy," he explained. "Kids are supposed to be quiet indoors." Ah, I see, the old children should be seen and not heard in his house, but out in public there is a different standard. "Why don't you take them to a park?" I asked. I cannot recall his answer for that. It was something like "Why should I?" "I pay rent here, same as you" he stated, as if that gave him the right for his family to behave any way they see fit. "Telling my kids to be quiet? I'm not cool with that," he went on. "I'm not cool with not having my opinion respected" I replied, more or less.

Our townhouse buildings are two stories tall, and arranged with only a sidewalk and very narrow strips of lawn on either side. I explained that sound is amplified by that kind of close architecture. He was not impressed and told me to close my windows. I refrained from giving the obvious answer, which is that this is impractical when the temperature is well over 80° Fahrenheit. Despite insulation, it still gets stifling if we don't have the windows open and a fan or two going. Further, our buildings are not soundproof, so closing the windows at most muffles outside noise.

What I really object to, of course, is that this gentleman, and I use the word loosely for this twenty-five year old father, has no respect for others and no interest in teaching his kids to be respectful, either. He said I could file a noise complaint against him, like his other neighbors had apparently done, and I told him that I would rather not have an antagonistic relationship with my neighbors. He ended our conversation by saying that it was "like talking to a brick wall, then," and I muttered "same here, apparently" as I turned and closed the door," perfectly appalled by his utter disregard for his neighbors. Now I live a bit more fearfully not knowing whether he has weapons he is willing to use, or a mind that dwells on retribution and aggressive tactics.

So, kids will be kids, you say. That is what irresponsible parents say. He probably had a permissive or ill-equipped father himself, and he knows no other way. Neither does he want to bother learning proper parenting skills. I have little tolerance for that. I do not like women with "toy" dogs they pamper and carry around in their purse to enhance their snobbish and snooty personality. Neither do I like macho men with large, aggressive canines that reflect their own hostile ego and warped sense of masculinity.

I have decided I also do not like parents who raise spoiled brats with an undo sense of entitlement; and parents who abdicate their role in teaching their children how to be grown-ups, so that when they come of age they have proper respect for others, and not so self-centered and uncaring as to become a drain on society instead of a force for good will. I remember when parents were embarrassed by their child's bad behavior because it reflected badly on them. Now they defend their kid's bad behavior. You know that village that it takes to raise a child? I am that village, and I will call you out.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Driving? Then Just Drive

© Autobidmaster.com
My wreck was not this bad, but still....

I was going to write about this even before my minor one-car accident, but that event just served to drive the lesson home in a most painful way. When you are behind the wheel, the only thing you should be doing is driving. Nothing else. Absolutely zero distractions period. I drove our 2002 Saturn SL into a rocky ditch at about twelve miles per hour because I was fiddling with the air conditioning buttons. I was lucky. I almost rolled it, but didn't panic and gently maneuvered back onto the roadway. Still, the car suffered enough damage to alignment that it would have been over $3,500 to get it repaired; and that did not include both right side doors. No injuries, just a bruised ego, but I can write-off the rest of my summer now as the car is totaled.

I am never that guy. Ever. I don't eat or drink while my vehicle is moving. Heck, lately I don't even have the radio on. I certainly don't text, or even answer my cell unless I am parked or at a stop light. I don't put on make-up or comb my hair (what little is left of it, getting grayer by the second after this incident). My full attention is on the road in front of me, with occasional glances in the rear view mirror. I drive defensively, fully anticipating that every other vehicle around me is driven by a maniac, idiot, or simply oblivious operator. I leave plenty of space between myself and the car ahead, stop well behind them at intersections, and always use my turn signal. I do everything in my power to insure my safety, and the safety of others. Except on Thursday, June 27.

I was in Cheyenne Mountain State Park, making my rounds of the restroom buildings in search of moths attracted to the lights the night before. The day was heating up quickly, and my last stop was at the bottom of a steep, winding road into one of the campgrounds. On the way back out, I decided to turn on the A/C. It did not feel like any improvement, so as I crept back up the road at no more than the designated fifteen mile per hour speed limit, I looked down to see what buttons might make a nice breeze happen. Looking back up it was already too late. The car had missed the curve and over the embankment I went. Camera, cooler, and backpack all went tumbling against the right passenger doors. There was the sound of crunching plastic as the exterior of the doors cracked, and an unsettling scraping sound as the undercarriage skipped over the large rocks in the ditch.

I got the car back to a parking lot and made an inspection. The passenger doors looked really ugly, but aside from some scratches underneath, things seemed remarkably ok. I was not even leaking any fluids. It did become apparent that something was dreadfully wrong as I drove out of the park, though. The car, left to its own devices, swerved to the right. Hard.

My wife accompanied me to the mechanics she has trusted the car to before I inherited it, and we got the results of their assessment the next morning. It would take more than our free lifetime realignment guarantee to get the car driving straight again. Several bent parts quickly escalated repair costs into the stratosphere. We simply don't have that kind of money to throw at an elderly automobile. It appears we will manage a whopping $150 for it at the local wrecking yard. There is not enough metal in it to warrant a bigger payout.

Let's get back to the moral of the story: Any kind of distraction while operating a motor vehicle can kill you, literally or financially. It can kill other people. It can shake your confidence to its core. There is no possible way there can be a good outcome from multitasking on the road. Something, or someone, is going to suffer, probably permanently. You are using up your nine lives every time you attempt to do anything other than look at the asphalt and other vehicles and pedestrians and bicyclists and motorcyclists and wildlife and stray pets and traffic signs and signals and....You get the picture. It is crazy out there in traffic, and even when there is no traffic. You have to assume something could go wrong at any time and be prepared to act in a preventive fashion. You cannot do that if you are having a phone conversation, taking a bite out of your burger, or even turning to look at your passenger. Eyes on the road. Please, I'm begging. Don't be like me on June 27.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Letter to Senator Cory Gardner

© HuffingtonPost.com

Clever. Clever, but cruel and cowardly to draft, in secret, healthcare legislation that will impact millions of citizens. Who could complain about a bill that they haven't even seen? Shucks, not even most senators have been privy to the plan. Maybe that is what the President means when he says this is a "mean" bill. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left to do what? Rely on what the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) is telling us? No matter, given past and present trends and tendencies of this session of Congress and this presidential administration, we can piece together what we are in for if this bill passes the Senate. So, please understand that the overwhelming majority of your constituents, including this one, are vehemently opposed to this bill and we expect your vote to reflect this. You need to defeat this bill.

May I politely, but assertively, remind you that you were not elected to guarantee increased profits for insurance companies, their CEOs and shareholders, and others who are affluent enough that they can pay for their own healthcare. You were not elected to argue for the interests of pharmaceutical companies, their CEOs, and shareholders, either. You were not elected to weaken environmental, consumer, and labor regulations so that the working class would face more risk without recourse to affordable healthcare. You were not elected to compromise the reproductive health choices of your female constituents. You were not elected to make firearms more accessible to citizens of dubious capacity who could endanger large numbers of citizens through acts of domestic terrorism. Indeed, you were not elected to shrink affordable mental healthcare. You were not elected to return us to the unsustainable era of fossil fuel dominance that has put us in a climate crisis of multiple yearly natural disasters. In short, you were not elected to put obscene corporate profits above the rights of individual citizens from all walks of life, rich and poor, men and women, children who do not even have voting rights, heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, transgendered persons, and people of all ethnicities, religions, countries of origin, and political party persuasions (or lack thereof). You do not represent lobbyists, either. We do not elect lobbyists, and our tax dollars are paying for you to listen to us, not them.

This goes beyond party politics. Democrats have also been all talk and no action, at least tacitly approving of legislation that undermines the welfare of our citizens. We can see through the rhetoric because actions speak louder than words and those actions of late have been highly detrimental to domestic and foreign policy. Right now, the "America first" slogan applies only to rich, Caucasian, and mostly male Americans, and everyone else is left to fight among themselves for the scraps from the feast at the top. This is an irresponsible, repugnant, and intolerable approach to governance. Charity begins at home, and that means that government should be concerned first for its most vulnerable citizens. Children, the elderly, and the destitute will suffer the most from the healthcare bill put before you now. How in good conscience can you approve of this oppressive bill?

A pre-existing condition of many politicians appears to be extreme focus on survival of the financially fittest, but even natural selection is a random force. Life is not fair you say, but I say that our purpose on this planet is to at least try and make it more fair, to increase opportunities for working class families and individuals to prosper. No one can prosper without good physical and mental health. Undermining options for healthcare only weakens the consumer economy. How can you and your colleagues not see that? Should you wish for your own political career to survive, it is in your best interest to start mirroring your home state citizens' wishes, and distance yourself from the influence of industry lobbyists. Thank you.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Budgets

© SSAE16professionals.com

Most talk of budgets is centered on government appropriations, program cuts, and other headline-making, multi-million dollar decisions made by elected officials. How much thought goes into our own personal budgeting? Are we guilty of saying to ourselves that if deficits and debt are ok for government, then overspending should be acceptable on a personal level? I find my own situation the opposite of that. I do not have a spending problem, I have an earning problem.

There is simply very little I am capable of doing, or interested in doing, that could generate a consistent income. More to the point, I no longer have tolerance for most employers, workplace politics, and being a cog that generates wealth for executives and company shareholders instead of a more equitable division of profits. Oh, I am guilty of instigating workplace drama myself. There may even be former coworkers and supervisors reading this who can attest to my being temperamental, seeking romantic relationships with coworkers, and not always completing tasks in my job description.

At least my contempt for most businesses is matched by my lack of enthusiasm for spending. There is simply very little I am interested in purchasing in the way of material goods. Not that I don't have my weaknesses. My spouse can vouch for the fact that tasty-but-not-always-healthy food and beverages are near the top of my priority list when it comes to disposable income. Good thing alcohol is so expensive, or I'd be drinking daily. Maybe hourly. On a really bad day it might be all I would do. The older I get, though, the less "things" I find I need or want. In fact, I would love to liquidate most of my possessions in favor of more money to travel.

One of my greatest disappointments is that virtually none of my belongings has any appeal to anyone else. My parents got me the Matchbox® toy cars as a kid, not the Hot Wheels™, for example. I have a few autographs, but they are from the era when sports stars and Hollywood celebrities would personalize them instead of offering a generic signature. That's apparently a bad thing that diminishes their value considerably. I put a few of my old natural history books up for sale on a Facebook group and got exactly zero responses. I don't mind donating things, but that usually isn't even enough to warrant itemizing my federal tax return. If charity begins at home, then we could use a little help here, IRS.

Collectively, we like to create the illusion that we are doing better financially than we really are. I've written about this before, the metamorphosis of the Middle Class into the Debt Class. We are taught that we need to "keep up with the Joneses," and not to complain, or have envy or jealousy over the success of others. Back in the day, that might have been true, and we could advance ourselves at least incrementally up the ladder of affluence. Today, corporations and Congress are simply removing the rungs, right out from under where we are currently perched. They are also cutting holes in the safety net beneath the ladder while telling us it is all for our own good, that we will somehow be better off. Baloney.

Back to your budget. The first thing to do is stop judging yourself by your material assets. Friends judging you that way? Get new friends. You can start with me. You know what is important, and the overwhelming majority of it you cannot find in a store or online. It is the fabric of family, community, and the other organisms we share the land, water, and atmosphere with. All else is icing, and arguably even unnecessary. There. Doesn't that make the cable or satellite service a little easier to part with? Maybe it even makes the decision to strike out on your own business venture a more plausible possibility. Go for it.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Addictions, Distractions, and Coping

© BrainyQuote.com

These days I am finding it almost impossible to find joy in anything. Instead, I am reduced to distracting myself from all the negative that permeates life these days, from world news to the incessant ear-piercing screams and screeches of unsupervised children playing just outside in our townhouse complex. Some of those distractions, compulsions, and addictions are productive, some are not. We don't cope well here in the U.S.A. That is our collective weakness, our Achilles heel.

Do I have addictions? Yes. What are they? None of your business. That is not what is worth discussing anyway. Specifics lead to gossip, judgment, shunning, shaming, bullying, and other social reactions that only reinforce addictions or drive people deeper into despair. What we need to be asking is how we have come to adopt addictions and other negative behaviors as coping mechanisms. We want to "check-out" without doing so permanently. Take away our coping skills, if you can call them that, and we might actually end it all.

Complicating matters, of course, is the fact that we have entire industries that profit by feeding our addictions: adult beverages, tobacco, marijuana (in some of our states), casinos and lotteries, adult entertainment....The list could go on and on. Sure, we pass legislation, have sobriety check-points, and institute other means of limiting our indulgences, or at least providing consequences for abuse that can affects others, like drunk driving; but the penalties are so minor and forgiving as to be an insult to victims. The treadmill continues.

Meanwhile, we desperately need new alternatives to alcohol, drugs (illicit and prescription), tobacco, gambling, and other avenues that usually compound our problems instead of alleviate them. The problem is, I am not sure there really are any. Individual brains are all wired differently, and what appeals to one person won't appeal to another. We make our suggestions, like exercising, going for a walk, going to a movie, volunteering for a charity, church, or other organization, but then chastise the person if they say no to our way of coping.

Even a good thing can turn ugly if one has an addictive personality. Why do I feel compelled to bring back images or other trophies from time I spend outdoors in nature? Why do I have to even justify time in the woods, on the plains, or elsewhere to myself? Why do I think that if I don't I have been wasting time? I need proof to show myself and others that I am not just goofing off, "bug hunting," or "birdwatching" or whatever. It would help if our society would stop stigmatizing positive behaviors like that. Ultimately, though, we have to make ourselves judgment-proof, and unless you are a complete recluse, that is extremely difficult.

What helps me a little is to make a weekly to-do list that I alone answer to. Some days, just doing a load of laundry is all the accomplishment I can muster. That should be ok, for other days I turn out an article, a blog post or two, or clean the bathroom, or all of the above. Having interests and skills that few others don't is both a blessing and a curse. Creative pursuits have their own schedule, which is usually no schedule at all, and the periods between those times can be depressing, lonely, irritating, and addiction-filled. This is not an excuse. It is a condition that I often fight daily, struggling between acceptance and shame.

No lifestyle today is free from external stress in one form or another, free of demands, responsibilities, and expectations, though we all should strive to liberate ourselves and each other from unhealthy degrees of those stressors. Ironically, we avoid or cope by adding self-imposed stresses in the form of addictions, distractions, and compulsions. What worries me is what if those bad habits and behaviors are all that is keeping one from losing their grip altogether. This is not a sustainable cycle, but we seem loathe to turn our culture around, to look to European nations and elsewhere for viable solutions. Nope, addictions are the American Way, and we'll be damned if we ever admit we don't have all the answers already.

Note: Thank you to all my followers here, new and "old," for your patience and support.

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.

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.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Media

© MadMikesAmerica.com

What a difference a couple of months makes. When I first drafted my concept for this post, "fake news" was not a....thing; and the war on the press waged by our President-elect had not yet manifested itself. I will not speak to either of these topics, instead staying with my original intent, which is again aimed mostly at local and regional television, radio, and print media. As consumers, we need to hold our local outlets responsible for their conduct and priorities.

Seek responsible advertisers. Just as the consumer has a choice in which companies he or she wants to do business with, so networks and newspapers can choose which advertisers reflect socially and environmentally responsible ethics, while making quality products or providing quality services. The media endorse certain businesses through an agreement to allow them to advertise. At the same time, the press is the first line of defense for consumers in the face of inferior products, services, and ethics. This responsibility should extend beyond reporting product recalls and indictments of CEOS, and investigative reporting that exposes wrongdoing. The media must decline advertising revenue from such businesses.

Empower consumers. The above paragraph demonstrates how the media can empower consumers, but they also need to be more creative in how to do so. Maybe the new version of "reality television" will be to follow lab workers at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Bringing back Mythbusters couldn't hurt anything, either. The challenge lies in making informative material entertaining. Right now we have a surplus of "empty calories" of entertainment with no purpose other than escapism.

Increase public service announcements. The Ad Council is one of the most underrated, underutilized, and no doubt underfunded organizations in the U.S. Go to their website and you will see some public service announcements you recognize, and an awful lot you have never seen before. That is probably in part the fault of your local media. Ask them to print and air more of these. Meanwhile, suggest your own issues to the Ad Council, and include resources where they can learn more and get ideas for building a message campaign. We cannot make a difference if we are unaware of issues, or do not know where to go to help change a situation.

Diversify for real. The media is getting better at projecting ethnic and lifestyle diversity that reflects our evolving cultural makeup, but that is not what I mean by "diversify." The media is the most glaring example of what comedian George Carlin described as the "illusion of choice." Think you have a huge number of choices in your cable or satellite television package? Think again. Most of those "networks" are subsidiaries of an enormous conglomerate. The "Disney family of networks," for example. There is constant duplication of content, and most of the new or live content is going into the networks you must pay for access to. Meanwhile, the newsstand is full of self-help, diet, food, celebrity, and "lifestyle" magazines, most of which are light on content and heavy (literally) in advertising.

© MadMikesAmerica.com

Be Your Own Media. Back in the day, you could produce your own television show through public access, a community-based resource that allowed citizens to learn television production skills and use studio equipment free of charge to air their programs. By 2009, public access had largely faded away or, more to the point, been driven into the ground by media corporations eager to again turn everything into a profit-making venture. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) largely endorsed this, as it has endorsed the mega-mergers that have left consumers with fewer and fewer media choices. Today, YouTube and its descendents have become the new personal channels; and blogs have become the new printed media, albeit you have to print them yourself. Most of these personal endeavors are not local, either, and that is what public access was all about. It may be time to resurrect that medium.

Consumers are increasingly left to their own devices in assessing what is truth, what is fiction, what is propaganda. I wish I could see it getting better, but for the time being we must practice mindful consumption of what passes for information. We must view everything through the filtering question of "who benefits from this?" Follow the money, indeed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Why You Should Leave Your Bank...Now

© Makeyourmoneymatter.org

There may be nothing better you can do to empower yourself in today's economy and political structure (for lack of a better term) than to choose where your hard-earned dollars go. No, you don't have much of a choice in taxation, but you have a marketplace full of financial institutions. Some of those are better than others. Some of them have demonstrated time and again an absolute contempt for conventional middle-class consumers. Here are some reasons why you should choose wisely, and maybe opt for a credit union instead of a bank.

Fees. Many traditional banks nickel and dime your accounts to death. You need a minimum balance or you get a "maintenance fee." You bounce a check, you get a fee. Ok, you might deserve a fee if you are fiscally irresponsible, but too often you do not have to do anything to incur a fee.

Maximums and minimums. We already mentioned minimum balance requirements for traditional banks. They usually have a maximum withdrawal amount, and/or number of withdrawals, too, which means you are being punished for emergency situations in which you may need more than the usual amount. The most you should suffer is an interest penalty for a low balance.

Socially and environmentally irresponsible investments. This may be the overriding reason you should leave a commercial bank. Are you opposed to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)? It may interest you to know that Citibank, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley have all extended credit to Energy Transfer Partners, the company constructing the DAPL. Don't believe me? Check out the Snopes.com article. We can collectively make a statement by taking our own personal business elsewhere.

Lack of interest. Literally! Can you remember the last time your bank account earned interest? Neither can I. Savings accounts are essentially worthless. Certificates of deposit (CDs) lock your money away for at least several months or more at a time and still pay next to no interest. Banks have no interest in paying you to save, or creating products that reflect the need of the average person to keep assets liquid for emergencies yet still earn a little interest in the meantime. Sure, the Federal Reserve chairman is responsible for setting interest rates, but banks still have more flexibility they choose not to exercise.

Lack of interest in you. Unless you are wealthy enough for private banking services, you are probably of little interest as a customer to the average bank. Priorities at least appear to be: Shareholders, CEO, customer and/or employee. Banks are profit-driven institutions that profit off of customers, not for them. They push loan and credit services like....I'll resist comparisons to nefarious enterprises. We are encouraged to live beyond our means, and to think first of ourselves instead of our communities. It's what banks do.

I have been with a credit union for the communicating arts for decades, and finally divorced myself from conventional banks....at least five years ago. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Customer service is outstanding, no matter how much is in my account, or how many products I have. This excellence has persisted even after a merger with another credit union. When was the last time an event like turned out for the better?

Because credit unions are not publicly traded, the customer is the priority. Because credit unions are usually local, or at least regional, and/or tied to a particular profession or military service, responsiveness to members vastly exceeds that of a traditional bank. Further, they are often sponsors of local charities and charitable events, from which we all prosper as a more healthy community.

I no longer live in the same city (not even the same state) as my credit union, but no worries. Many credit unions do what is called "shared branch" transactions. I can go to a totally different credit union to do my banking. How cool is that?

I urge my readers to give serious consideration to switching from a big bank to a credit union, for all of the reasons mentioned above. At least take stock of your current bank and make sure it is doing right by you, and right for our world at large. This is how you become empowered. You deserve it, and so do the rest of us.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Writers Have a Right to Rant

© Pixabay.com

The best rants are written so well that they do not offend. At least, they do not give an impression of being self-serving, or even bitter. The best rants create an understanding where there was none before. Today, I hope to deliver just such an essay, about what life is like as a writer in the digital age.

First, traditional markets for non-fiction writers are ever dwindling. Magazines are disappearing, their circulation sliding as people turn more and more to online content. The magazines that still exist are relying less and less on freelancers, so there are even fewer prospective clients to approach. One of my favorite, and most dependable, clients was forced last year to limit freelance work to in-state authors only as a result of state congressional mandate (which applied to all government agencies hiring contractors).

Second, if you manage to land an assignment, the time lag between when you deliver and when you are compensated can vary from a few weeks to months, even years. You always aim, as a writer, for clients who "pay on acceptance." That means that once they receive and approve your article, they cut you a check. Many magazines, however, pay "on publication." Editorial calendars typically work several months or more in advance, so even if they love your piece, you will not be paid until it goes to press.

There is no guarantee that even if the editor agreed to entertain your piece, that it will ever see the light of day in the publication. New writers almost invariably have to write "on spec," short for speculation, until they can demonstrate to the editor that they provide quality content and meet deadlines consistently. Good publications will offer a "kill fee," a percentage of the contracted payment amount for the article, if for some reason they cannot use the completed assignment. Really good publications will pay a "finder's fee" for research you do that they want to keep on file and perhaps spread over several articles.

The continuing expectation of free content from yourself, dear reader, feeds into the collective devaluation of all forms of artistic expression, from photography to painting to literature to music....and that is when you are not stealing those images and passages to raise your own profit margin. Hear that, advertising agencies and corporate marketing departments? This is a rampant criminal enterprise flying under the radar. I, myself, have had my entire Bug Eric blog reproduced without my authorization.

Copyright infringement has become so obscene that many writers, photographers, and artists now devote more time to writing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices to search engine and blog platform providers than they do to producing new material of their choosing. One author I know regularly files suit for infringement; but you have to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office, at $35 a crack, to be eligible to file lawsuits. She now earns more from lawsuits than she does from new projects.

When you put all these factors together, writing presents itself as an occupation that is disrespected, pays little and rarely with any predictable frequency, and is subject to copyright infringement at any time. Consequently, we have mostly beleaguered, demoralized writers who mutter "what's the use?" to themselves every time they plop down behind their keyboards; and, not surprisingly, few new writers are emerging to take their place.

I don't know what we should expect from a culture and society that has devolved in its ability to spell words correctly, and arrange them in grammatically appropriate ways. That is, when we even use words. Every damn thing is an acronym anymore, with resulting confusion, misunderstanding, and inappropriate assumptions that serve only as fodder for "Damn You, Autocorrect!" Clear communication is vital to the sustainability and advancement of civilization. We devalue writers at our collective peril. They are not out to make a monetary fortune, but they deserve to make a living.

© Myriadeditions.com

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Immigrants My Ancestors Were

© historythings.com

The roots of my personal heritage literally go back to the Mayflower. I suppose I should be proud of that distinction, but as I have grown older the novelty has worn thin and my more informed understanding of history, thanks to enlightened friends and obscure media outlets, has left me less than comfortable with my ancestral privilege. I take less for granted now, and have even more respect for those who have succeeded despite the governmental, cultural, and social obstructionism they have faced. Recent executive orders and openly hostile segments of our U.S. population are making me question what we are so afraid of, and the answers I suspect are ironic and troubling.

When my forefathers arrived in North America there was no United States. The land was occupied by indigenous tribes which either embraced the European aliens or slaughtered them, depending on which accounts you read or have been exposed to. Back in my day, at least, little mention was made in the textbooks about the diseases the White Man exposed the natives to, and how those illnesses devastated indigenous populations. I suspect this fact is still omitted from school lessons in an effort to protect our heroic Caucasian reputation.

We certainly don't make a habit of discussing our legacy of Native American oppression, from confining entire "tribes" to bleak reservations, stealing their children and placing them into boarding schools where they were "re-educated" to conform to the standards of their new White masters. Somewhere between the noble savage and the sworn enemy of progress lies the truth between stereotypical extremes. We still excuse ourselves today, turning a blind eye to the routing of indigenous Nations from where we have already banished them if it blocks the path of a pipeline, or sits atop an oil or gas deposit. Progress today is measured in White profit only.

Dare I even get started on how we have treated Blacks? Equally shameful. Again, we have barely progressed in the realization of past mistakes, while continuing to invent new transgressions. Reparations? Between Native Americans and Blacks alone, our debt of guilt and shame dwarfs the National Debt by several orders of magnitude, as it should. By some miracle of forgiveness and faith, these "minorities" have refrained from violently overwhelming us. Instead, most have exhibited remarkable tolerance, and extended the hands and hearts of friendship and cooperation in all segments of our society.

So, I ask you, those who stand behind measures to ban refugees, build a wall to block those seeking a better life, and exile those who are already here because they are of different faiths or cultures, what are you so afraid of? I think I know. You fear that what we once did to the natives and other minorities will now be done to you, to us. How ironic and awful that our own shame and guilt have morphed into toxic "protectionism" and nationalism. Those are poorly-disguised versions of racism, and you know it. We persist in this framework at our collective peril. No one profits from this mindset and the behaviors that stem from it.

The only way I can overcome my personal angst and sorrow over the fire my forefathers started is to not remain oblivious, idle, or silent. I am not proud of the errors of the past, but I am proud to recognize them, and to not ignore the ongoing plight of those less fortunate, regardless of their ethnicity, origin, or religious beliefs. The societal privilege I enjoy is a sheer coincidence of skin color, gender, and genealogy. Yes, it comes with historical baggage, too, but I own it. How about you?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

It Is Not "Politics"

© Horizons.gc.ca

This week I have seen several friends on Facebook complaining about all the "political" posts in their newsfeed, and wishing it would just stop. Perhaps they can be forgiven for being confused. Politics is what got us here, but what is happening now is not politics. It is executive orders and cabinet appointments and congressional initiatives that people are objecting to, and with good reason.

It isn't "politics," it is current acts of GOVERNANCE that threaten to destroy our democracy, civil rights, and environmental health.

There may be a little residual whining about who won the election, but the overwhelming majority of comments and links that are appearing in my social media platforms are directed at the actions of the President-elect and Congress. Even traditional Republicans are voicing concern over the heavy-handed executive orders, especially the "ban" on refugees and other immigrants from select nations that appear to have little if any history of exporting terrorists.

Equally alarming is the appointment of Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon to the National Security Council. This executive order may actually violate federal law. Only secretaries and undersecretaries are eligible for appointment to that council, and it has traditionally been composed only of the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Energy (which overseas nuclear weapons), the President, and the Vice President. I would be disturbed by this appointment regardless of who the President is, or what party affiliation they purport to have.

Our President-elect has no respect for either party, and is taking excessive liberties....to trumple (yes, I just coined the word "trumple") the rights of citizens of all political persuasions....

Perhaps that is at the root of this. Our President-elect has no respect for either party, and is taking excessive liberties with his power to trumple (yes, I just coined the word "trumple") the rights of citizens of all political persuasions in order to advance an extremist agenda aimed at dismantling all regulation of corporate business, abolishing protections of every kind such that labor, consumer, and environmental safety will suffer unimaginable horrors and, finally, pour gasoline on the smoldering and false notion that we have more to fear from immigrants and other nations than we do from corporate abuses and excesses here at home.

Trust me, "politics" would be tolerable, tame, and a lot less provocative compared to the hostile policies spewing from the Oval Office at present. Besides the executive orders, the President-elect has retreated from the press corps, viewing them as domestic enemies to be blasted at every Twitter-tunity. Our Commander-in-Chief has zero interest in explaining his actions, and uses social media not to connect with the citizenry but merely boast and bash as he sees fit. This man is not anybody's President, unless they are perhaps shareholders in his businesses.

So, the next time someone objects to "political" posts on Facebook or elsewhere, I hope they will reconsider what is truly at stake here, what is happening already, and what will happen if we do not find common ground, in a hurry, as the body of the electorate. Continue to don your rose-colored glasses if you will, stay blissfully unaware by blocking, "unfollowing," or even "unfriending" those who do not share your opinion, but you ignore the facts at your peril.

Maybe today you say good riddance to immigrants, public education, the Environmental Protection Agency, or any other group or agency you view as a waste of your taxpayer dollars; but, sooner or later, something you do value is going to go away thanks to this administration's careless, misguided, and single-minded railroading governance. What will you do then? Who will have your back?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

How to Save the Economy - Government

One of my more recent posts focused on what you as an individual can do to change the U.S. economy for the better. Today I want to offer suggestions for what government can do. My emphasis is on local-level government because you have a greater degree of influence there; and local initiatives that prove successful often get adopted at state, regional, and national levels later.

© KTTN.com

Stop insisting that economic salvation must come from elsewhere. The traditional strategy for stimulating local economies is to offer tax breaks and other incentives to out-of-state, even multi-national, corporations that promise to provide jobs in your city or town. This is almost never sustainable in the long term. When some other city or state offers a better deal, the company flees to that place. Further, the "good jobs" that require technical skills receive applications from everywhere, or may even be outsourced to another country. Exactly who is winning here?

Provide help and incentives to local businesses. Take those tax breaks and incentives you offer out-of-state corporations and start applying them to local enterprises. This is key in building a stable, unique, and respected economy. Offset hikes in minimum wage, utilities, and other overhead expenses that big, established companies can withstand without any help, by giving local businesses tax credits and other help. Require banks to put local start-ups ahead of big business when it comes to loans and other investments. Employment opportunities must include the opportunity to make your own employment.

Raise the minimum wage. We have heard the same tired arguments for and against, but consider this: Many individuals earning minimum wage are holding two or three jobs, or several part-time jobs just to pay their bills. Raising the minimum wage would thus increase employment opportunities as these people are able to drop one or more jobs. The decrease in stress on these workers also relieves all of us of collective healthcare burdens, allows parents to spend more time with their families, recreate, and otherwise enhance their physical and emotional well-being. Productivity goes up as each worker is taxed less in the physical sense.

Stop criminalizing homelessness and poverty. Here in Colorado Springs, the City Council has written ordinances designed not to address the roots of homelessness and poverty, but to simply erase it from public view. I know this because no councilperson has voiced objection to the homeless camps in our stream corridors where the average businessperson or shopper never ventures. Making it a crime to panhandle, or even sit or lie down on the sidewalk in certain parts of town, is an effort to protect wealthy people from shame and guilt.

Improve urban planning. In many municipalities, one could simply ask for urban planning period. Annexation to boost tax revenue may be appealing, but the cost of providing utilities, public transportation, and other amenities quickly overruns those gains. Having lived in Portland, Oregon for a fair portion of my life, I can attest to the viability of a semi-flexible "urban growth boundary" that creates a unique urban-rural interface, and allows growth to pay for itself. "Density" is not a dirty word, and walkable neighborhoods are highly sought-after by the new generation of business professionals who put a premium on reduced commutes and vibrant communities. Urban planning attracts desirable..."elements."

Broaden educational opportunities. Learning is a life-long commitment, but few cities or towns make continuing education a priority. Sure, there are online alternatives, but workshops, conferences, and traditional classrooms are still important. Opportunities for informal education through museums, libraries, and parks are not always publicized enough, and are certainly under-funded. Boost monetary allocations to reflect an interest in keeping citizens ahead of the curve and able to transition to newly-created occupations.

Promote multicultural festivals and events. Diversity is a strength of all communities, but too often we do not even know our neighbor. We may not even speak the same language. Festivals and events give citizens a chance to learn about other cultures by reaching beyond stereotypes and assumptions, and actively engaging with others in-person.

Prioritize public health and safety. This goes beyond law enforcement and an adequate number of hospitals. We have had enormous failures across the country in providing safe drinking water, healthy air quality, and safe transport of hazardous materials. We cannot tolerate privatization of water resources, or relax regulations designed to protect us from abuse by corporations trying to skirt the law when it comes to flammable, toxic substances. We need to tighten regulations, if anything.

Become innovative with taxation. Increases in sales taxes have been repeatedly used to fund what should be standard budget items like infrastructure maintenance. Such regressive applications hit the poorest citizens the hardest, and cost overruns often exceed the revenues generated anyway. Get creative. Why not a parking tax to encourage use of public transit, the revenue actually going to improved public transit? I am in no way an expert on taxation, but it is clear to me that we need to apply some serious brainpower to creating alternatives to the traditional, outdated code.

Empower citizens whenever possible. Finally, it should be an overriding priority of local governments to reward public initiatives that allow individuals to pursue projects that benefit the community as a whole. Some regulations actually do need relaxing. Ordinances that prevent homeowners from growing their own vegetable gardens, or erecting their own modest wind or solar devices, should be modified or repealed. Innovative ideas should be rewarded whenever possible, and seldom, if ever, punished. A citizen who feels motivated to create something, or share something, be it an idea or something more tangible, is the most valuable citizen of all. Oh, that means everyone is valuable, by the way, and not just as a consumer of goods and services.