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.