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?