Thursday, December 29, 2016

The New Volunteerism


A recent post on a colleague's blog got me thinking again about what it means to be a volunteer these days; and how we define the word "community," too. The world is changing, and we are perhaps failing to recognize the profound impact we have on our neighborhood, town, city, country, or even the globe from our desktop PC, laptop, tablet, or phone. Must we show up in person, or donate money, to be considered valued contributors to various causes? I believe the answer is no.

Consider in-person activities. You get the exhilaration of achieving, or at least working toward, a common goal when you volunteer with others at an event or location. Not everyone enjoys such gatherings, though, and in fact many people sympathetic to a cause may be far too shy or anxious to expose themselves to the excitement and pressure inherent in fund-raising and other events. Further, they may feel inept. You may not be playing to the personality strengths of many of the most fervent people involved in a cause. Lastly, interaction with others at group events tends to be very brief, and shallow.

The internet, and social media even more so, allows even greater participation in communities, however you define them, because even those who do not venture out into crowds can still be volunteers, and may be even better at recruiting others to a given cause or charitable organization. They might be better at researching an issue, and providing links to articles and experts that solidify arguments for an issue. These unseen, nearly anonymous volunteers may also be gifted, like my friend's late friend, at pairing certain talented individuals with organizations desperate for the skills those people offer.

Here is another point. Often the best kind of volunteering has nothing to do with a non-profit, political, or social organization at all. I, myself, volunteer at as an authority in the entomology category. I address questions from the public without representing a company, industry, university, or any entity besides myself. This gives me freedom that would be impossible if I were bound by the rules and expectations of an organization. I am free to speak against the use of insecticides to treat pests. I am even free to espouse my own philosophy that there is no such thing as a "pest." I was successful enough to be honored as one of the top fifty (50) experts in all categories for the year 2009.

There may be no substitute for a one-on-one exchange between a volunteer and a recipient of services, and the relative anonymity of the online world helps immensely in allowing for those relationships. Sure, it is not without its pitfalls, but one quickly learns who they can trust, who they enjoy dealing with the most, and conversely who is unreliable or has poor "netiquette."

Another aspect of the online community is that it is global. There are no geopolitical boundaries, and we have the freedom to exchange ideas across borders without a passport, or other official permission. We can engage in unfettered dialogue, or seek out moderated forums, whichever we feel most comfortable with. We teach and, more importantly, learn, daily. The odd flame war, as discussions that degenerate into angry name-calling are known, is a small price that we can usually tolerate in exchange for helpful conversations.

One way in which the internet lags behind traditional volunteerism is in the art of recognizing volunteers. You don't get a t-shirt, coffee mug, or any other tangible reward for your online service, no matter how many hours you put in, or how many people you serve. Surely we can overcome that challenge, though rarely have I seen any online volunteer's enthusiasm diminish in spite of being unrecognized. People who love what they do, and love the way they do what they do, are not easily derailed from continuing their quest to make the world a better place in one way or another.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Why (Some) Americans Don't Want to Work


One of the recurring themes in our divided nation is the persistent idea that those in poverty, who may be recipients of federal or state welfare programs, are lazy and do not want to work. I think I may have an understanding of why that is. There may be several reasons, in fact.

First of all, bear in mind that our unemployment statistics do not accurately reflect the magnitude of the out-of-work crisis. The figures do not measure the population of "discouraged workers," those who have given up trying to find a job, and do not even bother applying for unemployment compensation. If you do not enroll in unemployment, the government does not recognize that you are unemployed. If your unemployment compensation has expired, and you do not re-apply, the assumption is that you found work.

Those receiving welfare have something in common with undocumented discouraged workers: they look (up) at the working poor and think "what's the use?" I would hardly be better off if I was employed.

This conundrum is not an accident. It is in the best interest of those corporations profiting economically to point to lower unemployment as an example of how well they have created jobs....when that is far from the truth. So, many out-of-work individuals are not accounted for, are not feeding from the government tit, and struggle in anonymity. Meanwhile, corporations are relieved of the "burden" of hiring more workers.

The major source of complaints about welfare recipients comes from the next rung up the ladder, the working poor. They believe that their tax dollars are going to let "those people" get something for nothing; or, worse yet, they view the poor as scam artists who are maximizing their take by having extra children to boost their subsidies. Meanwhile, low-wage earners are working two or more jobs, maybe trying to go to school as well, having to pay for daycare if they have children, and praying they don't have to take a sick day. It is not an enviable lifestyle, and those receiving welfare have something in common with undocumented discouraged workers: they both look (up) at the working poor and think "what's the use?" I would hardly be better off if I was employed.

Now we finally come to the middle class, those who have some degree of disposable income....or do they? The truth is that we have a debt class masquerading as a middle class. The lifestyle of the Jones's is propped up on a mortgage, car loan, student loans, and credit card debt. They are one paycheck away from being working poor, if not welfare recipients, themselves. Somehow, though, they do not have much empathy for those beneath them on the socio-economic spectrum.

The real welfare queens are, of course, industries and corporations that are floundering in the free market we cherish so dearly. They have become dependent on, if not addicted to, government bailouts, subsidies, tax breaks, and other forms of institutional welfare. Meanwhile, the CEO that drove the company into the ground escapes on a golden parachute. Where is the justice? More importantly, where is the outrage? Why do we take out our frustrations on the most vulnerable instead?

The American Dream has always been about aspiring to material wealth, even to the point of excess. We have to have a new dream where everyone has a basic standard of financial security.

We apparently feel powerless to battle against big business bullies and the irresponsibly affluent who have no interest in anything but padding their bank accounts. It is easier to flog the lower class who we view as equally responsible for our inability to ascend the ladder of prosperity, though they are not even remotely as culpable as those at the top. The American Dream has always been about aspiring to material wealth, even to the point of excess. So, why would we break off the very pinnacles we want to attain ourselves? The answer, in the name of stress-reduction and sustainable economics is that we have to have a new dream where everyone has a basic standard of financial security. Everyone. I'll talk about how to do that in my next post.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Doing the Wrong Thing

The Electoral College failed to do the right thing on December 19 when it completed the confirmation process of ratifying the legitimacy of President-elect Donald Trump. This was expected. Most government bodies such as this are loathe to upset the apple cart, to set any kind of historic precedent that would have huge ramifications presently, and in the future. Still, one could argue the electors abdicated their true responsibility to the welfare of our nation at large.

Before you dismiss the rest of this commentary as just another Trump-bashing editorial, please understand that ordinarily I would praise the Electoral College for not rocking the boat, regardless of what political party stood to prosper. This is an exception given at least two very disturbing conditions that presently exist. We have it on good authority that there was foreign interference in the election cycle itself. Also, our President-elect has shown complete disregard for conflicts of interest as applied to both himself and his Cabinet appointees. One more thing: Trump has not attended intelligence briefings regularly, if at all.

It turns out that there is good reason that the Electoral College convenes more than a month after the public vote. The window between the two events permits a glimpse into the behaviors and tendencies of the next potential Commander-in-Chief. This is where we gauge the prospective effectiveness of the President based on his actions, appointments, press conferences, willingness to learn from advisors of previous administrations, and other decisions made in this pre-inauguration time period. At this point, any evaluation, even an unbiased one, should raise several red flags. At the very least, the Electoral College might have considered delaying their vote until at least some of these troubling circumstances were better illuminated. That alone might have gotten the President-elect's attention, made him realize his power is not going to be rubber-stamped, and that we, the people, take his new job seriously.

The fact that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Administration (NSA), and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) all concur that there were cyber-intrusions into the election process makes the validity of the election highly questionable. This has a lot less to do with who emerged victorious than it does the value of the public electorate and the sanctity of what is supposed to be a democracy. The fact that our newly-elected leader could apparently care less speaks volumes about how much he values democracy, and the citizenry, save those, maybe, who are attending his post-election victory rallies. Rallies. Nothing of substance, no press conference. Rallies.

It seems clear to me that the President has no intention to "make America great again," but only make America appear great.

The Trump presidency is going to be all about keeping up appearances. This is a man of Wall Street and the marketplace, where perception equals reality. Advertising equals truth. There can be no conflict of interest if you equate governance with business management. The only "intelligence" you need to collect amounts to focus groups, surveys, and polls. It seems clear to me that the President has no intention to "make America great again," but only make America appear great again. We have a remarkably good salesman as our leader now. In what business model does the salesman call the shots, wield all the power?

By now I am stunned that Trump has not named Howard Stern as his Press Secretary. This is how low my expectations have sunken. Trump apparently wants to retain command of publicity himself, but there is no one home anywhere but Twitterville. The whole impression of how the administration is shaping up is somewhere between The Wizard of Oz and....what, Young Frankenstein? It defies logic, lacks credibility by even the most basic standards, and ignores all legitimate questions, regardless of how impartial the interrogating party may be. Where is my faith, you ask? Elsewhere.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


$3,000+ to bang out hail damage to the Saturn in 2004

We have hail storms here in Colorado. They are a fact of life that instills fear in every car dealership in town. Right now we are in the aftermath of one of the worst storms of that sort that we have seen in recent years. What I cannot fathom, though, is how a vehicle can be defined as "totaled" by such an event. We need a new definition for what constitutes a total loss.

This is a relatively new concept for me. Remember, I have not even driven a car for most of my life, and still do not enjoy doing so. It is merely a means to get from point A to point B. That's why they call it a vehicle. Until recently, my idea of "totaled" was that the vehicle had been in a collision or other kind of wreck and was completely inoperable, or at least unsafe to drive. Apparently I was wrong.

Ok, so my wife and I did get a good deal on our recent purchase of a 2015 Hyundai Elantra as a result of a previous hail storm; but the dealership was apparently obligated to hammer out the dings before turning it over to us. Is the cosmetic shell of an automobile really that valuable? A pelting of hail can result in diminishing the value of the entire vehicle, engine, drive train, wheels, interior, and all, to the point that is "totaled?" Really?

No wonder our collective auto insurance rates go through the roof. No wonder you see people driving rusted cars or cars with dents they haven't bothered to repair. When you assign such ludicrous value to what is arguably the least important part of the entire object, it forces the owner into limited choices.

My in-laws recently had their SUV broadsided by a deer. The trauma of the encounter was bad enough, but the damage, barely even perceptible unless you look closely, or in the right light, was estimated at $3,800. Wait, this just in: $5,000 to pound it out. Are you kidding me?

The same kind of logic, and I use the word loosely here, applies to agriculture. As consumers, we have become intolerant of imperfections in the cosmetic appeal of fruits and vegetables. At least that is what agri-business tells us. Maybe it is so, but I have been known to bite into blemished apples; and sometimes that orange that looks perfectly fine on the outside is rotten on the inside. What I find truly rotten is waste. We are wasting our emotions, energy, and money on things that are trivial.

A vehicle is an inanimate object (at least until you turn the ignition), but men especially treat it like a living, breathing member of the family. In my neighborhood, some men spend more time on their cars than they spend with their wives and children. That I find appalling. Sure, we depend on our cars to get to and from employment, family that is far away, for trips to the grocery and the doctor and such. Still, maintenance should be minimal, and there are professionals who usually know more about your car than you do. Take a walk to the park with your kids and play catch for crying out loud.

Our society needs to take a hard look at how we relate to transportation anyway. The bus is not the horror most people think it is. Neither is the subway on most days. We need to build walkable neighborhoods, live closer to where we work and play, and start demanding some degree of accountability from the auto industry. Require emissions tests at a federal level. Work to eliminate noise pollution. Remove the stigma from dents and dings, too. Doesn't anyone else find it ironic that industry television advertisements have vehicles driving at excessive speeds, and/or through rugged wilderness terrain, and yet still expect the purchaser to keep it in pristine condition? Please.

I think the bottom line is that we fear judgment from others if we drive a "clunker." As far as I'm concerned, a few mars add character. They tell me you have your priorities straight, that you would rather spend your money on other people than on property. You would rather enrich your life in ways that extend beyond the material. On the other hand, it might also reflect that you, yourself, are in need of financial help, or a better life situation in general. That's ok, too.

Unless your car or truck or van or SUV is a safety threat to you, your passengers, or others on the road, relax.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Diagnosis Social Media


Yesterday, though I had not exercised much, I found myself with a sore hip at one point when I got out of my chair from in front of my desk. I seem to be a bit better today, but I was all ready to take to social media to determine whether it was something worth getting checked out. You know, because my friends, the majority of whom did not even attend medical school, would be so helpful in making an accurate assessment of my situation. Also, everybody else does that, so it must be an acceptable form of diagnosis.

Alas, it is probably not the best idea to run to Doctor Facebook or Nurse Twitter complaining about inexplicable ailments. God forbid you go onto Instagram ER. Thanks, dude, I can't un-see that now!

Ironically, or certainly responsibly, the Aussies have taken measures to address this, creating "A Nurse's Guide to Twitter" to insure best practices when confronted with situations like the one friend of mine on Facebook who posted that he had just been bitten by a copperhead, a dangerously venomous snake here in the U.S. The most helpful responses were on the order of "I hope you are posting this from the hospital." Really, what is the point in a situation like that when you know you are far better off to drop the phone and get yourself to medical treatment immediately? As venomous serpents go, a bite from a copperhead is rarely life-threatening, but you can still lose a digit or something if you procrastinate. It's called "complications."

If social media were a prescription drug, or even an over-the-counter remedy, its label would include the disclaimer "results may vary," in bold lettering. Maybe it depends on who your friends are. Those engaged in the same profession, hobby, or family situation may well be able to say been there, done that regarding whatever accident resulted in the injury to your body or ego, or that of your offspring if you are serving as proxy for a younger patient.

This is not to say that there are no tangible, ultimately concrete benefits to taking the social media ambulance. For starters, it beats self-medicating. You may find that one of your local friends can attest to what excellent care they have received from Dr. X, or how well the Fix-it Clinic over on Main Street treats their walk-in patients, honors (insert your insurance company's name here), and brings you coffee while you wait. Those are probably the best kinds of outcomes we can hope for when we complain about our aches and pains.

The other kind of social media post happens when you are already under care, about to undergo a surgical procedure, or facing rehabilitation and other recovery-related matters. This is when your community of social media "physicians" can do no harm. We are more than happy to pray for you, offer our sincerest get-well-soon wishes, and even come visit you if that is possible and you desire it.

The real bottom line in posting our physical and psychological woes is that we don't want treatment suggestions as much as we want empathy and sympathy. Feel-good messages are what we seek in the comments under our posts. Misery really does love company, and I think it is just human nature to act on those desires. Be careful what you wish for, though. TMI (Too Much Information) is frequently shared once you start a thread like that. Do you really want to know about Uncle Joe's infected bunion in detail?

One thing most of us should do more of is express gratitude for our current good health. I am as guilty as the next person for taking my vitality for granted, thanks to guaranteed meals, clean water and breathable air, shelter, education, a relatively stable financial situation thanks to my spouse, medical insurance coverage, proximity to hospitals, caring friends and family, and a lot of other tangibles that too many people on the planet, even here in the U.S., do not have. It really is our responsibility to look out for those less fortunate, and help them reach the standard of living that we already enjoy.

Well, I better get up and move around a bit, lest my hip stiffen up again. May you all enjoy excellent health today, and every day, and have a joyous, charitable holiday season.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Non-profits: We don't need "free gifts!"

'Tis the season of giving, but I have to wonder sometimes whether material generosity, while perhaps well-intentioned, does not undermine more important principles and charitable efforts. Is it just me, or do others also find it annoying that otherwise worthy non-profit organizations use the promise of a "free gift" to encourage you to join? Personally, I would rather have as many of my membership dollars as possible go directly to the cause.

Here is a list of all the "free gifts" that I have found enclosed, or for which I am eligible with membership to organizations varying from Natural Resources Defense Council to Audubon to Nature Conservancy to World Wildlife Fund:

  • tote bag
  • Address labels (enclosed)
  • bird guide app
  • fleece blanket
  • plush toy animal
  • bird feeder
  • lunch tote
  • a penny (enclosed)
  • umbrella
  • travel cup
  • water bottle
  • calendar (enclosed)
  • petition (enclosed) Hey, asking something more of me is not a bad thing!

Ok, I get that you want me to advertise your non-governmental organization (NGO) by sporting that tote or knapsack, drinking from that cup, or hanging that calendar in my workplace. Since I have now collected four unsolicited calendars, I can have one at home, too, plus my summer house....Wait, I don't have a summer house. Who do you think I am?

Even the address labels would be fine....if any of us actually used "snail mail" to deliver anything any more. I doubt the utility vendors, loan providers, and credit card companies even glance at the incoming bills we are remitting. I think if I saw "free annual report enclosed" on an envelope, whereby I assume you would account for all of your spending of our membership dollars, I might even open it up and take a look.

Two pieces of mail did get my attention with what I hope is the future of membership recruitment, at least in part. The American Indian Relief Council, which is now Northern Plains Reservation Aid, promises a $2-for-$1 Matching Gift Challenge. The American Indian Education Fund wins me over a bit with their persistence: the first, and so far last, time I donated was back in 2008. They also promised a "matching gift offer enclosed." The Audubon Society finally jumped on this bandwagon and is offering a dollar for dollar matching gift, with a deadline of December 31.

The real gift we all want is the gift of accountability. Literally, in the financial sense of accounting. We want to know our hard-earned dollars are doing what we think they should be, be that providing relief to indigenous peoples, purchasing land that will be set aside in perpetuity as wildlife habitat, or some other noble, tangible outcome.

We recognize you have overhead in the form of employees, offices, travel, legal representation, utility bills, publicity, and other necessities in this day and age of business competition realities. What you may be lacking is marketing research, focus groups, and more tech-savvy means of membership recruitment, judging by how archaic your mass mailings have become. I have been getting the same offers since at least the 1980s. Get innovative already. Get to know who your members, or prospective members, are and what they expect and desire. Really, how many tote bags do I need?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

When the Dog Bites

The back of my right calf, courtesy of a dog

I am not usually hard up for material anyway, but occasionally something happens in my personal life that disturbs me enough to prompt a post. I was bitten by a dog the other day. Yeah, that will get your attention, even if it was a little yippy-yappy thing. In the wake of the event, all my other encounters with aggressive canines came flooding back along with long-buried hostilities and unresolved conflicts.

I take a walk through my neighborhood almost daily, and Thursday, November 17 was no exception. At one point in my route, which I have passed countless times, a pair of small terrier-like dogs were playing in a yard. As I passed on the sidewalk, they barked and gave chase, nothing terribly alarming....until I felt pressure and a mild sting on my calf. I was so surprised that the little nipper may have gotten me again, though not as acutely. I backed out into the street shouting "Hey!" numerous times, loudly.

A neighbor across the street was silently raking leaves and witnessed the incident. He might as well have been a statue. I asked if he knew who owns the dogs, and he pointed to the next house. Indeed, the pair of pooches ran there next, still barking. The one that bit me made efforts to do so again. More shouting from me, into the open garage of the owner's home. Nothing.

I finally shouted the house number and told them they needed to get outside. A petite Hispanic woman eventually emerged. I told her rather angrily that one of her dogs bit me. She told me to "calm down," and barked commands in Spanish that sent the mutts running into the garage. I repeated, even more assertively, that one of her dogs bit me. As she made for her garage I said she better pray that I don't get an infection out of it; and she muttered back something to the effect of "I hope you don't get an infection, too." I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt that is what she said, anyway.

Upon returning home in snow and rain, I discovered that at some point my mobile phone had been lost. I exchanged my coat for a rain jacket and headed back out. I found my phone easily, and though it was wet it was still operational. Now, I finally turned my attention to the bite, and found that despite heavy jeans, it had broken the skin. The bite most resembled an abrasion, though, so I didn't treat it except for showering later.

Taking to social media, I found out that, by law, you must report pet bites to the proper authorities. Here in El Paso County, Colorado, the Humane Society takes care of that. I answered a few questions and told them I had no malice toward the dog, or even its owner, despite her unsympathetic nature. I hoped the dog would not be removed for quarantine and was assured that a ten day in-home quarantine was standard.

It was interesting to read some of the responses to my post on Facebook. Some of my friends were only mildly sympathetic, too. Several even gave the thumbs-up "like" to my status. Not sure why I deserved that. Others commented that "at least it was a canine [and not a cat]." Cat bites are really bad news, I'm told. I politely replied that I am not generally in fear of being attacked by felines during my walks.

The whole cat versus dog thing is really starting to get my dander up. Far more people pile on the cat-hater bandwagon than even acknowledge the danger that unrestrained dogs pose to other pets, wildlife, and people. Then again, we all know that the only "good doggie" is yours, right? I am guilty, too. Logan was an adorable dog. All the other canines in the neighborhood were pretty much Cujo. I recall occasions in which I had to maneuver myself between Logan and some off-leash, unfriendly dog to avoid something heinous from happening.

I do believe pet-related laws need more tooth to them; we need harsher punishment for irresponsible pet owners, dogs or others. I am not a mace-carrying, knife-wielding, or gun-toting pedestrian, and never intend to be; but, bear in mind that the demeanor of your pet speaks volumes about you, too. I am not inclined to have a positive opinion about your personality if your dog is belligerent, loud, and otherwise obnoxious. Forgive me if I don't believe you when you say "he won't bite."

Thursday, November 17, 2016

About the Safety Pin Thing


It appears that no good deed, or symbol, goes unpunished right now. Take the safety pin, which some American citizens have taken to wearing on their clothing. We'll get into the meaning of that, but you'd think they were wearing swastikas or something given some of the social media backlash. My own bottom line? I'm wearing the damn pin.

The U.S.A. cannot take credit for the origins of the safety pin phenomenon. No, that would be Great Britain, in the wake of the "Brexit" fiasco (though the initial idea seems to pre-date that event, too, according to a article). Along with the desire to separate from the European Union came a minority opinion that it was also time for refugees and immigrants and other minorities to be expelled from the UK. These vulnerable groups were met with open hostility by thugs who thought the vote gave them license to be abusive. Wearing a safety pin became a message of solidarity with those groups being persecuted.

Fast forward to the current situation in the U.S. where our recent election has likewise inspired hate crimes or at least incidents that come dreadfully close to falling into that category. People of Color, immigrants, refugees, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, and queer individuals, as well as women (regardless of whether they are in any group other than....women) are all experiencing insulting, intimidating, and violent conduct by....well, I have no words to begin to describe the lowlife scum conducting themselves in this manner.

Many folks here have now taken to wearing the safety pin as not only a show of solidarity, but as a symbol that says "I am a safe person to approach, to seek refuge in situations where you feel fear or are being taunted or victimized." Well, to hear some people frame it, the safety pin is just another prop to make Privileged White people feel better about themselves, to assuage their guilt for having let things get out of hand in the first place. It is an empty promise, and literally the least they can do for the underclass in lieu of making donations to organizations, volunteering at the soup kitchen, or whatever else is deemed more helpful and demonstrative if one is truly empathetic. To be fair, those accusations of "slacktivism" might have some merit. I will admit I don't go out of my way too much, as often as I should, for anybody, regardless of their circumstance. Still, I think the safety pin detractors are missing the point.

The safety pin is not about race, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, or anything else aside from HUMAN DECENCY. Excuse the "shouting," but this is about demanding that ourselves and others behave in a manner acceptable to each other regardless of our differences, visible or not. We who wear the pin recognize it as a badge, a way of deputizing ourselves as ambassadors of good will and decorum.

Let me tell you this: should I ever witness a situation in which someone openly supportive of President Trump faces unprovoked insults or intimidation tactics, I have that person's back, too. We are all guaranteed the same rights, regardless of political affiliation, too. I suspect it won't be long until we all denounce both Republicans and Democrats anyway, as completely unresponsive to the electorate.

What good is accountability if we demand it only of our public officials, and not of ourselves and each other as ordinary citizens? Hostility makes us no better, and arguably worse, than politicians. There is a fine line between being assertive and being angry. I am not sure that either Trump or Hillary Clinton understands that. I am very sure that too many of our electorate don't get it, either. For now, I will gladly wear a safety pin as a symbol not only of solidarity, but of empowerment, no matter which side of the political spectrum you are on.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Sudden Centrist


In the wake of the election results, I find myself in the odd and frustrating position of "centrist," trying to pull friends back toward each other, or at least back from the brink of hostility or despair; all the while trying to stay true to my own convictions and beliefs.

For many of us, I think we feel like we are in a real-life version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, whereby our friends have been replaced with alien duplicates. They look the same, but we are now questioning whether they still possess the same values, sentiments, and other intangibles that had us come to love them in the first place. We also feel guilty for our sudden suspicion.

I notice we are good at telling each other what to do lately. Stop whining. Get a job. Stop protesting. Start protesting. Emotions like jubilation from victory (how about those Cubs, huh?), disappointment over defeat, or angst over the unknown are all legitimate. If you are a woman, a minority, immigrant, LGBTQ, or other traditionally marginalized, non-Privileged category, then even fear is understandable. It is going to take time and empathy to even begin to settle things down.

Blame also seems to be an overriding theme, at least on social media. Blame the third-party voters. Blame the uneducated ruralite. Blame everybody but yourself. Well, I am not about to cast blame on anyone who voted at all. It would have been nice if the forty-six percent of our electorate who abstained would have participated. I am also not about to make vast, sweeping statements about relative intelligence or assumptions of any other kind. We are all individuals and if we don't know each other personally then we should not be casting stones. I scroll right past any Facebook post that even mentions any of the above groups because I know where you are going before you even start. Don't start.

The most troubling situation, of course, is when you thought you knew where a given friend, or even family member, stood, and when they behaved out of character from your expectations, then you were shocked, even appalled. The key word here is "expectations." Unfortunately, expectations and assumptions are closely related. Did our friends then "fall short of expectations?" Maybe we weren't really listening to them to begin with. Maybe we don't fully appreciate their struggles, their experiences, their lives. We better get better at that, and right away.

That is at the heart of it, though, assumptions and expectations, and the breakdown of trust that results from that. Not only do we not trust others any more, we assume the worst until proven otherwise. Well, you cannot prove yourself worthy of respect if you are dead, or beaten, or harassed, or threatened. Furthermore, if you are the one doing the violence and insulting, you automatically forfeit respect. Completely. Forever.

One of my dear friends, who I know personally, and who shares a love of nature with me, has just returned from an overseas trip looking at exotic wild birds. She has volunteered to sit with me and explain why she voted how she did. I look forward to this. I might learn something. I will learn something. I already have learned something: real friendships endure differences of opinion on how to fix problems.

It will be harder to reconcile with far-flung friends who may be on the other side of the country, as being a writer is essentially the same as being unemployed and therefore I have no travel budget for a face-to-face. I do hope that friends who I have connected to each other, but may not know each other that well, will be patient and reserve judgment before "unfriending" or "de-tweeting," or whatever. I urge all of us to think before we speak, not to shout, and assume the positive if we assume anything at all. We have to have faith that our friends have not become climate change deniers or racist, misogynistic bigots overnight; that they will still have our backs if our public lands are threatened by sale or development, or we ourselves become victims of persecution.

The ultimate goal must be to rebuild trust. The Village should not be your enemy. What is unacceptable right now, as it should be, is bigotry, hate, violence, property damage, and wanton destruction of our social fabric, be it from the Left or the Right. Surely, we can all agree on that.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Can We Still Be Friends?

© American Psychological Association

That may be the biggest question resulting from the outcome of our recent Presidential election. Many of us were shocked to find that close personal friends were opposed in the choice of candidates that we endorsed, however enthusiastically or reluctantly. The candidates were not nearly as important as the values, ethics, and potential policy decisions they represented, and that is of course what is at the core of our national divide. "Splintering" is more like it, actually. So, how do we reconcile with those closest to us? Do we want to? I would say that we must at least make the attempt. Here, I'll start.

What I cannot fathom, as someone who was greatly enthused by Bernie Sanders, and reluctantly supportive of Hillary Clinton, is how some of my friends could willingly sacrifice values that I thought we had in common, for the sake of a very vague description of "change." How can you be an ardent wildlife conservationist, for example, and potentially be throwing public lands under the bus when it seems abundantly clear that a Trump presidency will not value biodiversity and wild places at all? Please explain that.

How can you claim to value human diversity and vote for a candidate who has made it abundantly clear that only the most beautiful people deserve good things, that women are to be servants of men, and that immigrants and refugees have brought only grief and strife to the White Privileged class instead of enriching our collective souls as they do? If you believe, as I do, that a candidate's vocabulary and gestures and other behaviors predict his or her potential actions once in office, then how can you not be genuinely frightened of the prospects? Hey, I was appalled by the "basket of deplorables" quote, too. What was shocking was how stark that comment was in comparison to an otherwise mostly positive picture Clinton painted of the electorate.

Perhaps one thing we can agree on is that no presidential candidate in recent history, maybe even in our lifetimes, has been someone we can personally relate to. Time and time again we are forced to choose between ultra-wealthy, arguably elitist, representatives of a corporate-dominated business world that looks out only for itself, its shareholders, and its CEOs. Employees, consumers, and our environment and climate are expendable, if not actual obstacles to success. Why can't you see that?! Actually, enough people do see that, enough that it nearly got Sanders the democratic nomination. The bullying tactics of the Democratic National Committee are what delivered Clinton instead. Meanwhile the fumbling ineptitude of the Republican National Committee permitted the rise of President Trump.

Ok, back to our basic question of whether we can be friends. It boils down to the "I feel your pain" scenario. If you do not have empathy for each other's fears of what could have been (Clinton) or what could come (Trump), then we don't have hope. We have to clearly articulate those sentiments, fearlessly, and then listen to the other side without judgment. We have to realize that we need to help each other rise, start electing each other, putting those people who we can relate to into places of power where we know we will be listened to.

We live at a unique time in which social media and the digital age are leveling the playing field. We don't have to appeal to corporate interests to run for office. We have Facebook, Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and so many other campaign options at our disposal that bypass the traditional gauntlets. We can do this. First, though, we have to stay friends.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

State of the Union Divide

My new masquerade in the interest of personal safety: As White and Patriotic as possible

Never have I felt such a sense of being misplaced as I do right now in the wake of this U.S. election cycle. I was less anxious after September 11, 2001. The title of this post is misleading, too. We are not a country divided, we are a nation that is shattered. Placing the entire federal government leadership in the hands of a single party sets up the potential for unimaginable tragedy.

The working class, the poor, minorities, immigrants ("illegal" or documented), the LGBTQ community, women, children, and many other conveniently-lumped groups of human beings have legitimate, profound complaints with current leadership. About the only group without an axe to grind are those with White Male Privilege, yet we elected about the most privileged White (well, orange, close enough) male possible to the highest office in the land. Yes, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) rammed Hillary Clinton down our throats when it was glaringly apparent that Bernie Sanders was a cut above, able to address fully the wealth inequality that is at the core of the angst of the electorate; and without any attendant scandal. Still.

Part of the problem is that our electorate is so fragmented that their votes are based on a single issue. Blacks want a leader who will keep them alive, then, hopefully, give them more opportunity for advancement in society. Republicans are not going to reduce mass incarcerations, let alone pledge a moratorium on fatal shootings by police.

Meanwhile, immigrants from everywhere, not just south of the border, want equal opportunity. We need to work on overcoming language barriers, but they are not "taking our jobs" as many would have us believe. Frankly, nobody should be doing dangerous work like that of migrant workers for a sub-minimum wage, without proper healthcare, nutritious food, and secure lodging. "Cheap labor" is an insult that encourages poor performance, a litigious society (lawsuits are viewed as getting what the plaintiff feels is owed to them already), and a screw-you attitude toward our nation as a whole. After all, look who literally prospers from the fruits of their labor.

Women did not vote in overwhelming numbers for Clinton. I suspect many wanted the symbolism of a female leader, but were uncomfortable associating themselves (or their votes) with someone of dubious repute. Did she earn her way to the top by sticking to her values and principles, or did she compromise time and time again to survive and advance? Why they saw Trump as a viable alternative is beyond me.

Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of the campaign leading up to the election was, well, the campaign. The media failed completely in holding discussion to issues of core importance. Trump was, is, and always will be, an entertainer first, a businessman second, and everything else a distant third. He was allowed to take his act, unrestrained, to every debate, town hall, and public appearance. Don Rickles could not have done it better. The insults. The distractions. The vulgar humor.

The act of running the country, however, is not a celebrity roast, or even a reality television show. It takes diplomacy, of which Trump has demonstrated zero aptitude. It takes tolerance, to which Trump has turned a deaf ear. It takes humility, for which Trump scores in negative numbers.

Trump appealed because he gave us the promise that all we had to do was elect him and all our problems would magically disappear, like he is the Great Houdini or something. Again, the showman emerges, with no substance behind it. Are we so lazy that we will freely admit we want someone else to do the work, even if that "work" in the short term undermines long range opportunities for prosperity for ourselves, our children, and others?

Despite the results, I would still like to believe the majority of U.S. citizens want our nation to be an example of charity and good will, both at home and abroad. We believe in rewarding good work, holding ourselves and each other accountable for our actions or lack thereof, and actively punishing wrongdoing.

What I fear is that a sizeable minority will take this political moment as a sign that they have permission to exercise their White Male Privilege even more destructively than is currently the case. Trump rallies have been a horror show in this regard, and I am not looking forward to inauguration day. There may be civil unrest for months, but the good news is there will no longer be complacency from any party dedicated to civil rights. We have clearly been living under a false sense of security.

Left to political devices and political "will" and whims alone, we are never going to rise to our true potential as a nation. We don't have all the answers, either, and until we embrace the successes and innovations of other countries as well as those here at home, we will flounder; and enjoy a global reputation as a population of gluttonous egomaniacs. Sound familiar? I'm Eric Eaton, and I approved this message.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Women, Nasty and Otherwise

I have concluded that I am completely unqualified to write about the fairer sex. Oops, I did it again. I probably just offended thousands of feminists with a phrase that was considered complimentary back in the day. The following is not meant to be humorous, or flippant, but a reflection of an honest struggle to achieve personal understanding of how to relate to the opposite gender in a positive way, both personally and as a society.


There are countless examples of sayings that should no longer be part of our societal conversation. "A woman's place is in the home." Utter that, and you deserve to be slapped upside the head. Every son knows that if someone calls him a "momma's boy," it is not intended as a compliment. Well, why not? What is wrong with having empathy, compassion, and at least some degree of sensitivity? We have very few words in our collective vocabulary that paint a positive picture of females, but suddenly, thanks to a certain high-profile political race, "nasty woman" is embraced as a badge of honor. Meanwhile, we throw around labels like b***h, diva, and whatnot every day. No wonder we are confused.

We call our entire species "mankind." We call God "Our Father." Jesus....Jesus was a man! The whole construct of human history, myth, and "progress" is overwhelmingly male-centered. Women have always been a footnote while men have left a footprint.

Back to day-to-day gender relations. Even chivalry may have ulterior motives. Are we being a gentleman when we hold open the door, or do we just want to watch your a** go through it? I suspect it is a little bit of both. I guarantee that I have offended entirely too many women throughout my life, knowingly or not. Today, I can no longer claim ignorance, cannot continue to make assumptions, or otherwise believe I know how to conduct myself in the presence of women. I may no longer attempt a hug without an unequivocal invitation to do so.

Now, women object to suggestions they should smile. There is open hostility from pent-up rage and resentment over Male Privilege. No one can blame them. They face daily the insidious if not outright blatant vulgarities of male dominance and expectation of subordination and male-defined femininity. The fact is, men have no clue as to what the average woman has gone through in her life, how many are victims of sexual assault, attempted assault, harassment, discrimination, and/or any other form of abuse. Guys, even your closest female friends are unlikely to let on if they have faced these crimes. They are also not likely to tell you if you are behaving inappropriately.

I carry guilt for myself, and for men in general. I am ruled by hormones to this day, I admit it; but that is no excuse for bad behavior, let alone criminal behavior. I hope that I am not a jerk, but I am lustful, no question. It is not a quality I am particularly proud of, but it is a facet of my being I have come to accept.

What was once considered polite and courteous is now considered condescending and patronizing. Men no longer have a language for women that is acceptable to women, and frankly I am not sure how that can be resolved. Tension between the sexes is at an all-time high. Part of the reason for this is the rise of women into positions of social, political, and economic power. It is about time that happened, but it makes the Good Old Boys network nervous. These men then regress into childish, but still hostile, language and behavior in a desperate attempt to return current situations to more familiar but oppressive norms.

Furthermore, masculinity, in America at least, is built largely on your history of sexual conquests and your "success" in manipulating women to suit your needs and desires. There are no rules, just goals, if you can call getting laid a goal. Losing one's virginity is the standard rite of passage for teenage boys seeking manhood, along with getting your first car. What the hell?

So, here we are in a "swipe right" society, pretending we still care about dignity and respect. Alas we are shallow. It is the sad luxury of too large a population where there are always more fish in the sea, and our relationships on the whole are superficial. When all is said and done, though, one old saying still rings true: "Women: can't live without 'em."

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Suicide Prevention Month

September has been National Suicide Prevention Month. That seems like a great idea; so why am I struggling with the concept? Between friends, families of friends, and friends of friends, I have entirely too much personal experience with suicide and would not wish to visit that kind of ordeal on my worst enemy. Still, the idea of depriving an individual of death on their terms seems equally wrong.


Looking at our society's schizophrenic approach to dealing with suicide, I can see I am not alone in my ambivalence. This November there will be a ballot issue (Proposition 106- "End of Life Options Act") seeking the legalization of physician-assisted suicide here in Colorado. Citizens in my home state of Oregon have had this legal recourse for some time already. At the same time, suicide is generally regarded as the "coward's way out," an ultimate sin just this side of murder. Why the polar opposite opinions?

I think we tend to draw the line based on what we interpret to be the intent of the victim in carrying out their lethal measures. Did the person do this to end their own suffering? If so, while tragic, we can comprehend it to a degree at least. If not, then we view suicide as punishment for those left behind, abandoned literally or figuratively. Few, if any, decisions we make impact only ourselves. Life-altering and life-ending rationales obviously stress a great many others.

It is only natural to feel conflicted on this issue. We are by nature selfish organisms. We want our loved ones and friends around for as long as we are, to give us comfort, to provide us with joy, love, counsel, and all the other positives that come from personal relationships. Just the same, if we truly love someone, we have to recognize the boundaries for personal decisions like suicide do not encompass us. We can choose only how we react in the aftermath.

Janet Adkins was the wife of my Boy Scout Troop Leader, Ron Adkins, and mother to three boys who were my friend, classmate, and friend respectively. When she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, she turned to Dr. Jack Kevorkian to help her end her life. June 4, 1990, she did so, with the blessings of her family and friends. Anyone who knew the Adkins family knows that they did not reach this decision without a great degree of deliberation and mutual understanding. At the time, Alzheimer's was in no way treatable and both patient and family endured horrific emotional suffering. Mrs. Adkins did not want to visit that hell on her children and husband. I respect that and marvel at their resolve in the face of the public spotlight.

More recently, a dear friend and colleague apparently ended her own life after suffering decades of severe depression. The family is understandably quiet in the name of privacy and respect, but it seems an inescapable conclusion. I desperately wish they did not feel stigmatized if that is what happened. We have no right to demand that a person, no matter how much we love them, continue to endure excruciating pain, be it physical, psychological, or emotional, just for our own benefit. That is not love, that is the worst kind of selfishness. If you consider suicide a sin, maybe the real sin is in believing that you have any stake in determining how someone else lives their life, or decides to end it. Have you ever thought about it that way?

Don't look for the "healthcare system" to have mercy on you, either. The horrible truth is that no matter what our personal suffering, we are precious lives in the economic sense. The medical marketplace will twist and distort your sense of self in every way imaginable if it preserves your living, dollar-spending soul. We are not good at healthcare, but even worse at deathcare. The system will cling and claw until it can no longer drain you of any more financial blood. It is extremely convincing, to the point that it will turn surviving family members against your own desire for eternal peace.

So, this is what we need to prevent: the extension of life beyond the wishes of the individual affected. We need to prevent bullying, harassment, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and other willful behaviors that cause unbearable suffering leading to suicides on impulse. We need to stop allowing for-profit entities from sticking their noses and money-grubbing fingers into the ultimate of personal decisions.

To friends and family who have chosen to end their lives: Worry not. Rest in the peace that you deserve. There is nothing for which you need forgiveness from me. Nothing. I know that all the king's horses, all the king's men, and all the love in the world could not have saved you. And that's ok. Love, Eric

Monday, September 12, 2016

Happy (Belated) B-day NPS

I am overdue in wishing the National Park Service a happy 100th birthday, which they celebrated back on August 25th. Apparently it is more properly the centennial anniversary, but whatever. My own love affair with our national parks dates back to my childhood, and I don't see the passion ending anytime soon.

Growing up in Oregon, we did not have many national parks or monuments in the 1960s and 1970s, but I found my way to them anyway. My father enjoyed driving, and made sure to get me to Oregon's scenic wonders like Crater Lake and Oregon Caves. Through the Boy Scouts (traditional and Explorer Post) I also explored other areas like Newberry Crater in central Oregon. In 1990, long after I left Oregon, the crater became Newberry National Volcanic Monument.

At the end of my junior year of high school, my mother took me on a cross-country vacation to visit relatives and friends in St. Louis, Missouri, New York City, Washington, DC, and Florida. Obviously, we hit a number of national landmarks along the way. One highlight I still remember vividly was visiting Everglades National Park. Before we embarked from Oregon, I tried to secure a permit to collect insects in the park, or at least a visit to the Archbold Biological Research Station. Neither of those things happened, but it did not diminish my experience.

Me at the Everglades in June, 1978

We took a route through Homestead, Florida to the park entrance there, and then headed for the Anhinga Trail. Ironically, the Royal Palm Visitor Center there had a wonderful insect collection on display. Outside the door, an armada of dragonflies was engaged in a swirling feeding swarm over the lawn. Strolling the boardwalk, I remember thinking it was just like Wild Kingdom, the television show hosted by Marlin Perkins. You could see fish, the occasional alligator, birds of every description....There was even a soft-shelled turtle basking right beside the trail.

Since I could not collect inside the park boundary, we drove just outside, where I found a pair of Eastern Lubber Grasshoppers, huge insects that, though harmless, are still intimidating to a kid from Oregon who is not accustomed to such giants. I saw a big Black Ratsnake, and mud dauber nests coating the underside of a bridge. This remains, however, one of only two times I have stopped collecting or observing insects....because of insects. Biting flies were whining incessantly in my ears, and I was sweating off repellent by the gallon.

Most recently, my wife and I visited Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. We entered on the South Rim. Thirty dollars buys you seven days of sightseeing there. That may sound exorbitant, but trust me, it is worth it, if not downright underpriced. No sooner had we left to kiosk where we got our visitor's pass than we almost collided with a coyote that was about to cross the road. Not even one hundred yards later, another car had pulled over, the occupants enjoying a view of a small elk herd.

Heidi at the Grand Canyon in August, 2016

The Grand Canyon gets a lot of hype, but it backs it up. The scenery is indeed spectacular, but the wild flora and fauna are plentiful and engaging. No one is in a bad mood. Few people are loud. The park literally creates a silencing awe and commands respect that transfers over into interpersonal relations with other tourists. It is the United Nations of nature.

That's it! The national parks are our parks, yes, but they also belong to the world, and people come from all over the globe to experience them. They are also treated, usually, to the best in American hospitality. The lodges and restaurants in our national parks are magnificent structures, offering comfort, cheer, and familiarity. Our servers in Grand Canyon were both from Thailand. That may seem insignificant to us as U.S. citizens, but what a great joy it must be for visitors from Thailand.

Knowing how underfunded the National Park Service is, it is remarkable how well it does what it does, overcoming obstacles both natural and political to deliver once-in-a-lifetime memories for millions each year. This, this is the face the U.S. we want people everywhere to see. Something we have done right, arguably better than any other nation on Earth, and inspiring other countries to do the same, or at least similar.

Were I ever, by some quirk of fate or destiny, empowered to save only one federal government program, the National Park Service might just be it. It is too impactful on our nation's heritage, freedom, and sanity to allow it to wither due to lack of a robust budget. Meanwhile, here I have been living in Colorado for nearly five years and I have yet to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Shame on me.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Frack Off

© (Canada)

I was already aggravated by the incessant television commercials here in Colorado that are promoting fracking, a method of natural gas and oil extraction that uses pressurized chemicals to fracture bedrock in order to "free" the desired natural resource. This week, we get Gale Norton (yes, that Gale Norton) stumping for Protect Colorado, the greenwashed front for the oil and natural gas industry. This raises my degree of ire even higher.

Gale Norton is the former Secretary of the Interior. You heard me correctly, this woman once oversaw the National Park Service, BLM, and other public land management bodies. Even when she was appointed by George W. Bush to serve as the 48th Secretary of the Interior (2001-2006), her ties to the energy lobby elicited vocal criticism.

She also served as Colorado's State Attorney General, 1991-1999, and has returned here where she is apparently her own corporation, Norton Regulatory Strategies. She also served as general counsel to "Royal Dutch Shell Unconventional Oil, 2007-2010. She was a member of Shell’s global legal leadership team, and handled legal, regulatory and governmental issues for Shell’s oil shale and in-situ oil sands projects, primarily in Colorado and Alberta." That according to her Norton Regs website.

Norton has managed, successfully, to greenwash herself, masquerading as someone who truly cares about the environment and sustainable energy, thanks in large part to her former employment overseeing public lands. No wonder Protect Colorado finds her to be such a perfect spokesperson.

Understand that we are treated to at least one pro-fracking television commercial in prime time every single night. It is the industry's right, of course, to exercise their free speech. They are paying handsomely for the chance to broadcast their message, but that is exactly my point. They can afford to make their case publicly, night after night. Not so for any group opposing them. Just because you are the loudest voice, doesn't mean you should be the only voice.

It is common courtesy to allow both sides to have their voice in debate of an issue. In my opinion, it should be the law. On issues as contentious as this one, both views should be granted equal time to make their case. This is also why the Supreme Court case of Citizens United needs to be overturned. The essential outcome of that decision was the "money equals free speech" doctrine that now dominates public discourse, certainly skewing the course of said discourse.

Advocacy groups involved in issues of free speech need to brainstorm another way to circumvent Citizens United until we get a constitutional amendment stripping corporations from the overwhelming advantage they have in the court of public opinion on issues like fracking that threaten public and environmental health.

Can you imagine where we would be today if oil and natural gas corporations were not so greedy in pursuit of profit, seeking from day one the elimination of competing, renewable, energy industries like solar and wind? It isn't just energy, either. The automobile industry has steadfastly opposed funding for public transit, while garnering huge government subsidies and outright bailouts. The cotton, pulp and paper, and plastics industries have all convinced us that hemp is a drug threat needing regulation if not prohibition, when in reality hemp is nothing but a more durable and preferred alternative in the manufacture of products from clothing to acid-free paper.

Back to Norton and her spokesperson role. We have apparently not yet graduated as a culture from the era of snake oil salesmen and other con artists. In fact, we are now appointing them to office and allowing them to swindle our faith in those who govern. It is up to us not only as consumers, but as citizens, to do a background check on those who purport to have our best collective interests at heart.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Singular "Protest"


I was hoping I could refrain from making any comment on the Colin Kaepernick incident, whereby he refused to cooperate for the national anthem before a pre-season football game last week. It is, to my mind, a relatively trivial blip on the socio-political seismograph, but there have been too many ill-conceived attempts to either criticize or defend the quarterback's stand (or lack thereof) for me to ignore.

First of all, let me acknowledge his right of refusal to participate in a patriotic exercise. Does he have the personal authority to do that? Of course he does, it is a constitutionally-guaranteed act of free speech. Heck, these days I, myself, find the Star-spangled banner ringing at least a little bit hollow considering how the culture of this nation has degenerated. Home of the brave? We're afraid of everything, and everyone. Back to Kaepernick. Do I think his (in)action had anything to do with something larger than himself? Hell, no.

One man sitting out a pre-game ritual does not in any way constitute a protest. Recruit all of your teammates to do likewise? Now you have a protest. Furthermore, you have leadership, someone courageous enough to incite others to follow suit in a non-violent act of defiance. Kaepernick clearly wants to have nothing to do with anything "team." So, he comes off as a pouting little boy, demoralized that he is no longer the starter at his position, and desperate for any publicity, good or bad. I am almost willing to bet that the whole protest angle was an afterthought. He was sulking, but suddenly recalled a way he could turn a purely selfish act into something face-saving. Is that too cynical?

Wait, you say, aren't there other examples where a single individual forced change, or demonstrated courage that initiated a chain of events by others? What about that dude who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989? Look at the context. That was during a sustained mass protest by students in China. It was also an act that had strong potential for life-and-death consequences. China does not have the same set of freedoms the U.S. does, and that man was going to face some kind of very harsh punishment.

Rosa Parks, there's a real heroine, no.? I agree. What made her special is that she was no one special until she did what she did; and she likewise had more to fear than (non-existent) social media rants. A lot more. Like lynching, for example. You simply cannot compare a safe exercise in disagreement with social norms, like sitting out the national anthem, with actions that actually violate current law, let alone cultural permissions.

So, yes, you have the right to stand down from the Star-Spangled Banner, burn the flag, and even spout hate as so many have from the safety of their keyboards and snarkphones. Just be aware that the true heroes of the world will quietly conclude that you are being intolerably lame, if not simply reinforcing the attitudes already directed at those of your kind, however we lump each other these days.

Sit down if you must, speak up as you should, but get over yourself. Also, I strongly recommend that "Whites" and "Coloreds" should only be used when referring to laundry. Let's top airing the dirty stuff, shall we? We face too many critical issues to waste time with one person's ego.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

"Hello, Seniors!" The Economics of Aging

© Joe Heller, Green Bay Press-Gazette

Exactly what is considered "old" varies according to whether a given industry thinks it can make money off of you, versus whether it feels obligated to pay you. AARP is lowering the "retirement age" to recruit new members, while the Social Security Administration would very much like to raise the retirement age somewhere past infinity.

I remember back in the day (now I am really dating myself) when you started getting discounts, free stuff and, mostly, respect, around age 55. Coincidentally, that is where I am at currently, and none of these promised benefits is anywhere in sight. Seriously, where are the rewards for putting up with the world for more than half a century? Endurance ought to count for something, and I grew up with the notion that you "respect your elders." Today, our older generations are caricatures and stereotypes of themselves, constantly reinforced by advertising.

"Help, I've fallen and I can't get up!" is the classic interpretation of aging now. If you are a male, I suppose it is more like "Help, I can't get it up!" The point is that our society is all too eager to celebrate the negative side of aging through products, while terribly reluctant to recognize the personal and at-large hardships that older persons have overcome. If there is not a profit to be made from you or your frailty, then you are ignored. Worse yet, every effort is made to avoid obligations made to you through your employment history and government programs.

The problems with social security, for example, began to intensify when politicians began referring to the program as an "entitlement," as if those individuals who stand to gain from it are acting like demanding little brats instead of the exhausted adults they are, indeed entitled to what they, and their employers, put into coffers as a reward for time served, and to allow the next generation gainful employment in a given industry, at a given company.

Greed has taken hold now, and there is a relentless effort to privatize social security such that once again a profit can be made off the backs of the labor force. This amounts to an employee working twice: once for their employer, doing actual labor, and second for Wall Street speculators to use retirement funds to rake in cash for those who are already wealthy beyond reason. Ironically, those who can most easily partake of the benefits of stocks, real estate, and related markets are those very CEOs and other high-ranking corporate types who employed the people they would then be exploiting through privatized social security.

Scams. Oh, the scams that are taking elderly people to the cleaners. Well, if you ask me, old folks have already seen it all, and the vast majority are skeptical of legitimate offers, let alone anything that sounds too good to be true. Not every person over seventy-five is on the verge of Alzheimer's, dementia, or some other mind-degrading illness.

What should trouble us more is the pervasive condition of neglect and physical distance between the elderly and their offspring. Our celebrated "mobile society" has stretched family ties to all corners of the country, even the globe. How can we care for those closest to us in blood relation if we are hundreds of miles or more apart? Here is where we could stand an education from Blacks (African Americans, or your preferred form of address) and Native Americans (Indigenous Peoples, or your preferred form of address). Those cultures are, traditionally, far healthier in many ways for having multiple generations under one roof, or at least next door or in the same neighborhood. Think of what our children are missing today in wisdom, love, compassion, and entertaining stories because grandma and grandpa live on the opposite coast.

There is thus nothing friendly about aging the way our profit-driven society now thinks and acts. We deprive you of proximity to your children and grandchildren as they go forth to prosper in the global marketplace. We divorce you from your savings, your ability to make your own decisions, and your dignity. You are nothing if not incontinent, impotent, or in need of personal locomotive devices, hearing aids, or new joints. Oh, and Medicare may or may not be there to help should you actually need one of the aforementioned products. After all, Medicare is just another "entitlement," you know.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Olympics


After careful deliberation, I deem the Rio version of the thirty-first Olympiad worthy of a score of roughly 4.2. This is much less of a reflection on the host city and the competing athletes than it is on the presentation of the games by NBC, which was simply dreadful.

First, as with all networks these days, NBC assumed that every television spectator has a cable or satellite service and could therefore tailor their Olympics-watching to their own personal tastes. This left those of us without such providers to endure basically only "race" events and women's gymnastics, interspersed with diving and beach volleyball. Seriously, that was about the sum of network coverage on free, commercial television.

The network also missed many an opportunity to profile non-U.S. athletes, though there were some stories here and there. Showing how athletes from what we might consider Third World countries can succeed against athletes from nations where they train almost full-time, and have many of their expenses covered, would be a real source of inspiration and hope to a jaded American audience. As it is, I find myself rooting for the "underdog," especially in the Olympics, because we already have it so good here in the U.S.A.

At least one friend commented on Facebook that it was nice to be free of political advertising and, ostensibly, other matters of more lasting importance economically and socially, during the two week span of televised competition. Still, the irony of someone firing a gun that sends a group of (mostly) Black people running is not lost on me, but no one else will say that because it "isn't the right time," and all of that kind of rhetoric. How doubly ironic that a privileged Caucasian male was the one that committed a crime after his own athletic events had concluded. I am still willing to help pay to extradite his ass back to Brazil, by the way.

The opening and closing ceremonies were the real treat, of course. It never ceases to amaze that the host nation raises art and pageantry to a new level. We need this kind of celebration at more frequent intervals than every four years. Why wait for an excuse? Let's do a world art olympics every two. Also, the commentary on the ceremonies was limited, much like it is for parades, and that is how every event should have been handled.

Among the worst aspects of Olympic coverage were the commentators and analysts. Every event should have been handled with a lot less verbiage, let alone criticism. If ever there were athletic competitions that could do without voice overs entirely, it would be the Olympics. Why not simply explain each event beforehand, then sit back silently and watch the athletes execute? Instead, we get negative comments on all but the most perfect dives and gymnastics performances. I really don't care that you know it all because you are retired from the sport you are analyzing. Shut up and let the rest of us enjoy.

What made NBC think a late night party with Ryan Seacrest was a good idea? His "interview" skills are non-existent, and the rest of the broadcasts were so exploitative of the locals as to make me want to vomit. Even Bob Costas seemed off of his game, relegated to presenting the latest medal count and trying to play along with female gymnasts half his age or younger. You are not "hip" anymore, Bob, get over it.

All of this said, spectator athletics are exactly that: entertainment. Few athletes recognize that they are entertainers, but it is those who do that we adore the most, and who are usually the most successful. It also makes some of those athletes the most hated, misunderstood, and mistreated of all.

Muhammad Ali was perhaps the first athlete in the modern era to recognize his stature as an entertainer, and he played it to the hilt. He was so masterful, in fact, that many people mistook his on-stage (in the ring) persona for his actual character as a human being. Later, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Jr. and Shaquille O'Neal took to the basketball court all smiles and we loved, as we do, watching someone who loves what they do for a living. Simone Biles actually smiled during her floor exercise routine. How can you not love that?

Well, another Olympiad is in the books, for better or worse. We can only hope that coverage for the next one in Tokyo is going out for bid. Maybe PBS will get it, though I wonder how many people would fall asleep during its broadcast. Personally, I am hoping that it goes to Comedy Central.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Two Cars, but at What Cost?

The new Hyundai (foreground) and old Saturn (background)

We had occasion to take our 2002 Saturn in for a check-up last month, and the upshot was that it became clear we needed a newer, safer, more reliable vehicle for my wife to get to and from work, at least by winter when the roads get icier and diceier. The process of purchasing that second car left me feeling both relieved and anxious in ways I was not accustomed.

Heidi, my spouse, became uneasy when the dashboard on the Saturn lit up with a red "ABS" warning. Wow. I had no idea that automobiles even had abs, let alone that they were that important. Apparently, the car had not been doing crunches or sit-ups for awhile. Ok, so we learned that "ABS" stands for "Anti-lock Braking System," and that is a pretty integral part to driving safely. Unfortunately, the Saturn is no longer in production, and neither are many parts for those models still on the road. That includes the ABS. So, we are left with a vehicle that functions incompletely, and hence the need for a newer car.

Heidi really does her homework when it comes to important purchases. She likes to consult Consumer Reports first, and in her research she discovered a handful of models ranking reliable and safe, while still within our price range. We settled on a 2013 Hyundai Elantra advertised at a local car dealership, and went to take a look.

As it turned out, that particular vehicle was still awaiting title transfer and other paperwork from Oregon. Coincidentally, or not, the dealer had another Elantra, this one a 2015 model, damaged in a recent hail storm, that was good to go. It was a rental car in its previous life. It was a little more expensive, but had slightly less mileage, and was a color that we liked much better than the model we had come to see. More questions answered, and a short test drive later, and we were filling out forms. Surprisingly, to me, the last thing we did was write a check for the downpayment.

We wrote two checks, actually, from our separate bank accounts. We have been lazy and, for whatever reason, reluctant to merge our financial records. I think it comes from us both having been single for so long, and reliant only on ourselves for our welfare. We just are not used to the idea of combined incomes. Well, I hardly have an income, and that has led to guilt and frustration for me. This expense, an unforeseen and large amount, pretty much erased my savings. Earlier in the month I had to write a check in the same amount to repay half the advance from the now-terminated contract to do the spider field guide.

I felt like I went from zero to "adulting" in about six seconds. It is an emotion and stress that has not left me. In fact, it has intensified. I am also dealing with a cantankerous father, who will be 91 on August 8, for whom my cousin and myself are trying to finalize legal documents concerning my dad's will, estate, medical directives, and related matters.

The other aspect of a new vehicle purchase that makes me uncomfortable is my personal view that we, collectively as an American society, should be driving less, using less fossil fuels, and relying more on public transportation, pedestrianism, bicycling, and other modes of transit that are healthier for ourselves and the environment. While I like the idea that I now have a vehicle at my own personal disposal, any day regardless of whether my wife is carpooling with a co-worker, I am reluctant to indulge in that luxury.

So, it is a mixed bag of blessings, curses, and unanswered questions that we face in this new automobile. Where are we going to find the money for the payments and the increased insurance premiums? How much longer are we going to have the old Saturn, and what will become of it when it is no longer useful to us? What will we be sacrificing for fuel, repairs, and other expenses? The prospect of having to get a more traditional "job," outside the home, demoralizes me because so few opportunities for employment mesh with my personal values. It may come to that, though, and while it may be another part of "adulting," I don't know how well I would stomach it.

These days, my progress comes in small doses. Avoiding addictions as coping mechanisms, for example. Accomplishing a load or two of laundry, and writing one blog post may be all I can do in a given day. Avoiding the temptation to flee in the old Saturn. That may, ironically, be another victory.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Trust Issues


I find it ironic, but sadly so, that both sides of the gun control debate share one thing in common: We don't trust anybody. At all. Answer me this, though. If you shoot first, how are you ever going to know the true character of someone? As I write this we have not only a recent mass shooting event in our collective consciousness, but an entire population of people in fear for their lives from authority figures we were once taught were our friends and protectors.

I am reminded of one of the tag lines from the television show The X-files: "Trust No One." Well, we're there, folks. Not only that, but we now assume the worst about each other until proven otherwise. The problem is, you cannot prove yourself if you are wounded or dead.

Many will point to the National Rifle Association as the villain in promoting gun ownership and the proliferation of those weapons. Are they not merely capitalizing on our growing distrust of our neighbors, the government, law enforcement, immigrants, other races, and those with different lifestyles? The media may be the catalyst in all of this. How many times can you hear about crime after violent crime, night after night on the evening news, before you start getting paranoid? Heck, we have entire television networks now devoted to covering crime twenty-four seven, three sixty-five.

Nothing like this kind of violent epidemic happens in a vacuum, or even from a single incident. We have the "military-industrial complex" which would be better called the "military-technology" complex today; but we've since added the "industrial-prison complex" with privatization of prisons and a larger incarcerated population than history has ever known....anywhere. Is it any wonder the powers-that-be have no interest in stopping crime? They cannot actively promote it, so the next best thing is to just ignore it, or kill two birds with one stone and throw up their collective hands and gesture to the gun lobby. We're all on our own and that suits the suits just fine. More gun sales, more inmates, more money.

Fear of terrorists is icing on the cake. They are actually more convenient scapegoats than they are a real domestic threat because yeah, Homeland Security has to do something to justify its bureaucratic existence. They do seem to be increasingly efficient at thwarting plots, but still at the cost of liquid-free airline flights, and pat-downs beforehand. The greatest price we pay, though, remains an eroding trust of our fellow man and woman. We are driven to, and oppressed by, suspicion, constantly reminded to assume the worst about a lonely bag in the terminal, or the passenger in a turban.

The propaganda is not limited to the airport of course, and the incessant refrain is to depend on "product" as the solution. Build a wall. Install the alarms and surveillance cameras. Take up arms. Prepare to defend yourself because everyone is out to get you. The only people out to get you are those in charge of the marketplace. They fleece you daily, and legally, feasting on your desire for comfort and security, and your weaknesses that stem from fear and loathing.

As long as profit is to be made from pitting average citizens against one another, the tyrants of the economy will continue to undermine our social, cultural, and institutional fabric. They may pull strings politically, but they are still at our mercy as consumers. We can still refuse to buy into their "logic," their merchandise, their system.

It is probably going to take a "Berlin Wall moment" to force change. An act of defiance, that is what we need now. Someone will think of something that goes beyond an ordinary protest, and the dominoes will fall. It won't be our government "leaders" who do anything. They have proven themselves incapable time and time again.

For our part, we have become too lazy, too distracted, and far too willing to "go with the flow" as dictated by authority figures. It is John Carpenter's film They Live, come to life. There is not even anything subliminal anymore in the commands to consume, obey, submit, conform, stay asleep, and shut up. We are wearing blinders of our own making and it is time to take them off, take up love guns, chew gum, and kick booty. I, for one, am all out of gum.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016



I like to think that I don't have an ego, or at least not a big one, but lately I find myself facing emotions and triggers that make me realize I might be wrong about that. It has also started me thinking about what an ego is, what it is connected to, and why it is largely considered a "man thing."

Pressed to define myself, I would have to say I am a writer who knows a lot about entomology, the study of insects. Many people would reverse the order, saying I am an entomologist who writes. That is flattering, and it is the reputation I have earned through countless hours of volunteering to answer online questions about "bugs," giving public presentations, and writing my other blog, Bug Eric. Oh, and I was principal author of the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Here in Colorado, that seems to matter little, and people frequently credit a retired state entomologist for everything they know and appreciate about insects.

This individual has remained a mystery to me. He has never introduced himself to either welcome me or express regret at my arrival here four years ago. That stings a little when colleagues don't acknowledge you. What hurts more is what I perceive as a fierce loyalty to this person that I will never receive from anyone who has met both of us. Whatever I do will never be as good as what he did.

I find I have a competitive tendency in situations like this, and I really don't like to be competitive. I would rather have a cooperative, equality-based relationship with most people. I don't consider myself superior, and in fact I now get an inferiority complex at the mention of this entomologist's name.

So, our ego wants to cultivate a sense of loyalty among others; and it will become fiercely competitive in order to achieve that. What else is the ego up to that we may or may not be conscious of? The first definition of ego in my handy The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, copyright 1973, is "The self as distinguished from all others." Ah-ha! We literally want to "be somebody." Our ego is a product of everything we have done to achieve our sense of identity, from being kind to strangers to earning a degree, to climbing the ladder of our career. This is where things might come undone. Men in particular often equate their entire identity with their occupation. Suddenly, you seem to slip down a notch in the hierarchy of your field and all emotional hell breaks loose. You are convinced that you are now a "nobody."

Why do we so easily forget that our identity is not just what we do for a living, but who we are as human beings? A good analogy, perhaps, is colleges and universities. The most graphic presentation of these academic institutions is their athletic teams. The football and/or men's basketball program are the public face of the whole school. Measuring the quality of education at a school by the performance of its sports teams is, of course, ludicrous, but we do it every single season. Likewise, our career status is what everyone sees in us, regardless of whether they truly know us. It can be argued persuasively that we put entirely too much effort into career success at the expense of family, friends, and community, maybe even our own physical and mental health.

The other thing about occupation is that it is something tangible, demonstrative, and that is really high on the men's priority list. Guys, try listing less visible qualities about yourself. Hard, isn't it? Somewhere I have filed away a list of my own positive attributes (strengths) and negative personality traits (weaknesses) in case I ever have another job interview. We, myself included, don't seem to devote nearly as much time and energy into becoming better human beings as we do to being better workers, supervisors, or CEOs. This is tragic and ironic when you consider the people you hold in high esteem. They are likely to be people who impacted you directly as friends, mentors, partners. We can admire public figures, but we love family, friends, and colleagues close to us.

I'm feeling better already for having reminded myself that I am not "just" a writer or an entomologist. I am a husband, a friend, a volunteer, and sometimes an activist. So who are you? Take a moment, I can wait. Think about this daily, make it a habit to praise yourself for the intangibles. That is where you earn what is most valuable and irreplaceable of all: true loyalty.