Sunday, December 30, 2018

New Year's Resolutions and Revolutions

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

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

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

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

Leftover Gratitudes

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

Positively Coping

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

Keep On Writin'

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

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

Monday, December 17, 2018

A Longing For Fairness


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Alone Like Never Before

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Children's Book Review: The World Never Sleeps

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Impending Death of the LRGV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Climate, Consumerism, and Immigration

Wow, look at all those refugee....Oh, never mind, it's Black Friday

It has been an eventful Thanksgiving week, but you might not be in the loop if you were properly focused on family, food, and travel. We can be grateful for our American privilege of indulgence in those loves and pursuits, but for how much longer? A government report acknowledging climate change, a scathing indictment of mindless consumerism by a journalist, and the virtual disappearance of the immigrant "caravan" should give us pause.

Released at 4 PM on Black Friday, when the masses were distracted by shopping, comes the Fourth National Climate Assessment, volume II, outlining what we can expect if we stay our present course in, well, pretty much our everyday habits as consumers, producers, drivers....Will the fourth report (time) be the charm, the one that finally elicits action? Don't hold your breath.

The first alarm bells began ringing around a 1965 report issued by President Lyndon Johnson's Science Advisory Committee, its findings echoed in a speech by Frank Ikard, then President of the American Petroleum Institute. Ikard's analysis was published in the journal Nature. Good luck accessing that government report from 1965, despite it being public record. Attempts by Texas Pollinator Powwow, a Facebook group, to provide links in its posts have resulted in not one, but five broken links. Cover-up, much?

The hyperlink above goes on to reveal that physicists and other scientists had their suspicions, and were conducting atmospheric research, back in the mid-1950s to create projections of rising carbon dioxide levels and the implications thereof.

Appropriately for "Black Friday," journalist George Monbiot dropped a bomb of an editorial on what he calls "Pathological Consumerism", condemning the largely American habit of gift-giving for the sake of gift-giving, with little or no thought to the greater ramifications. He argues convincingly that production of many products, including novelty items, consumes so many resources, and takes so much energy, that it is nearly equal to the impact of driving internal combustion engine vehicles in terms of contributing to climate change. Plastics are derived largely from petroleum, electronics depend on the mining of rare metals, etc, etc.

Ok, fine, but what about that parade of immigrants threatening our southern border? Largely dismissed as a political stunt for the midterm election cycle, the deployment of troops to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas seems to have evaporated in its urgency. There are larger than average numbers of asylum-seekers at the California border checkpoints, we are told, but that does not seem to have triggered any alarm or military response.

Here is something to consider: if you think "normal" streams of immigrants are an issue, just wait until catastrophic climate change kicks in. As more of the planet becomes uninhabitable, where do you think those displaced people are going to go? You want to do something about the immigration problem? Then do something to mitigate climate change. Call on our government officials to mandate industry controls, but also think twice about your daily habits, including whether you really need to drive to the store, or if it can wait until you have a greater necessity, or can find a carpool buddy.

I call on my followers to set an example of responsible consumerism, activism, and compassion for all species. No, we are not going to be perfect, and we have to learn to forgive ourselves for that and not let it prevent us from acting anyway. We have to be stern to those in power, and gentle to those struggling to change for the better. We can do this, but we have to start now, no pessimism allowed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Kudzu Ate The Off-ramp: A Brief Visit to Tennessee

View from Roan Mountain

Over the river and through the woods, our Garmin has gone astray....No, seriously, in Roan Mountain State Park, the GPS had us traversing the forest on the other side of the stream instead of the perfectly good road we were actually on. Such is life in east Tennessee, but well worth the effort you put into making it a destination.

My wife and I found ourselves there as a result of a conference she was attending in Knoxville. I had to occupy myself while she was at the gathering, but we took an extra few days together in truly rural east Tennessee afterwards. We can now attest to the legend that is southern hospitality, and are likely to return for further explorations if we can avoid the tourist traps, which are equally legendary, from Gatlinburg to Dollywood.

We arrived by plane on a Sunday, got the rental car, and headed into downtown Knoxville, spending the whole ride trying to find something other than an on-air church service over the radio. Good luck with that. Our trusty GPS guided us to at least two restaurants that were closed, so we finally just parked (for free on weekends) in a big lot and set out on foot. We settled on The Crown & Goose, a well-patronized establishment, practically an institution if you ask around. The hostess greeted us by welcoming us to the restaurant's last day of existence. I wish I were making this up, but it was true. The place was closing to make way for part of some much larger development on the horizon. I think I recall something about a new sports complex and entertainment district, the kind of thing that often signals the death knell for local businesses in favor of chains.

We learned of this by striking up a conversation with another couple, their son and ("hopefully") soon-to-be daughter-in-law. We were all enjoying the warm sun outside while waiting for seating inside because despite the sun it was pretty chilly. You cannot say that about the people, though, as everyone is warm and friendly and will talk to you like they have known you all their lives. This stereotypical aspect of the south is most welcome, and something other regions should strive for. Sure, it was a Sunday, and just about anyone is more laid back on the weekend, but still.

Volunteer Landing, downtown Knoxville

Downtown Knoxville is perhaps not quite as vibrant as some city centers, but you will not go hungry or lack for entertainment, or visual stimulation thanks to the mix of history and architecture and public art. Nothing is overwhelming, and it says great things about the city that they are not prone to overstatement....except for the University of Tennessee. Lots of orange, lots of orange, but I digress. I thought my hometown of Portland, Oregon was clean, but Knoxville, and for that matter every other place we went, may get polished daily. I remember maybe one piece of litter in over a week, and given my tendency to spy trash while looking for birds and other wildlife, that is saying something. Other cities bent on beautification projects should put Knoxville on the "must visit" list.

U.S. Courthouse, downtown Knoxville

It is virtually impossible to find fault with anything in east Tennessee. I mean, I got nothin'. Seriously. You have to have been a long-term resident to have complaints, and they do have complaints, mostly about traffic and construction, and sometimes disrespecting human and natural history in their haste to put up a new housing development or something. Gentrification is an issue everywhere, and apparently the Knoxville area is not immune. Ok, we were there during an election cycle, and politics are ugly there, too, judging from the campaign advertisements.

Farther afield, toward Johnson City and more rural hamlets, you might not be able to get a quorum to reach a consensus of complaints. Unless and until you stop in at a diner, it is easy to imagine that everyone is on their own up in the hills and hollers. Abandoned houses, barns, and outbuildings are quickly overwhelmed by kudzu, and I can only wonder what would happen if you didn't leave your home for a couple of days. Would you still be able to open the front door? No matter, the locals no doubt turn every obstacle and negative event into a running joke. You just get that vibe that there is nothing that can't be overcome with a little ingenuity and a lot of laughter.

Blackberry Blossom Inn, Unicoi

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Book Review: The Humane Gardener Offers Lawn Alternatives

Nancy Lawson was not always one to garden beyond her self-interests, but The Humane Gardener (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017) represents her own horticultural metamorphosis through careful research and the experiences and results of others. She deftly avoids sermons and diatribes, instead letting common sense and examples speak to her points. The result is a thoughtful, captivating, and motivational book.

Do not let the cover, which brings to mind the Old Farmer's Almanac, fool you. This is not an old-fashioned throwback to romanticized rural life and how to achieve it. The book is well-illustrated and well-organized. Chapter breaks are punctuated with real people experiences of gardening with native plants, coping with sometimes unwelcome wildlife, and successfully enhancing or restoring natural landscapes. Lawson is unwavering in her focus on the whole, yet still paints vivid portraits of the people behind the process of converting desolate deserts of lawns and exotic botanicals into something not only sustainable and more diverse biologically, but that ironically often takes less work to manage.

The text is gentle, rarely admonishing any reader who may be practicing the "normal" style of manicured turf and media-dictating plantings of the latest and greatest cultivar of this or that. Lawson herself describes once shopping for various varieties of commercial roses, for example. She readily admits her failures and what she learned from them, as well as demonstrating how others have overcome obstacles to reinstating a more natural look to their properties.

I fully expected a much more forceful....activist....voice, with one-sided arguments, and was pleasantly surprised by the fairness of Lawson's approach. When I was certain that she was going to give only one side of an incident involving dead bumble bees and linden trees, she came through with further explanation. Notes in the back of the book cite the sources for her assertions of statistics and academic studies. Nowhere does she claim to have all the answers, nor advocate a one-size-fits all mentality.

The whole point of the book appears to be that our spectrum of urban to rural landscapes are works in progress, usually resilient, with a memory for what they once were. Still, each location has its own peculiarities and deserves a reverence for its history as a precursor for whatever comes next. Changes do not happen overnight, but your efforts are often, if not usually, rewarded more quickly than you would imagine. Patience and forgiveness are recurring themes in the book. No one in the selected examples between the chapters is raised to sainthood, and each readily admits their shortcomings.

While there are numerous photos throughout the book, most are exceptionally dark, and the matte finish of the paper makes it difficult to discern the subjects of the images in many cases. That matters little, as the prose paint their own imagery. I found only one error in the entirety of the 204 pages of text. There are no "Grey herons" in North America, let alone my home state of Colorado. I am rather certain she meant "Great Blue Heron." Zero spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors did I detect.

Lawson's previous work at the Humane Society of the U.S. prepared her well for writing and marketing this book. She recognizes that the shift toward more wildlife-friendly gardens is in its infancy and that a book is only a snapshot on a timeline. To that end she has erected a website, The Humane Garderner, to continue the conversation and explore specific topics more in depth. The website also lists author appearances and other events, provides an opportunity to sign up for her e-mail newsletter, and gives readers a portal for feedback. Lawson is also aware of the mobile digital age and so the book itself is available in e-reader formats as well as the hardbound copy that I have.

The Humane Gardener is an ideal introduction to gardening with natural history in mind, and I look forward to a sequel or two that might give more tips applicable to those of us in townhouses, home owners associations, apartments, and similar residential situations. The same might go for office and industrial parks. We all need to get on the same page, though how we get there could be a radically different journey.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Time to Phase Out the Wildland-Urban Interface

The Waldo Canyon Fire from our east side Colorado Springs neighborhood in 2012.

The almost non-stop catastrophic conflagrations in California, and continuing wildlife conflicts in many areas around the United States are two reasons to re-think what has become known as the wildland-urban interface. The desire of some people to live in wild areas without assuming any of the risks inherent in such locations is going to bankrupt many jurisdictions if trends continue.

Furthermore, entire ecosystems could be permanently compromised as fires, mudslides, and other natural disasters leave few if any pockets of intact forest as refugia for wildlife. Healthy forests are a spectrum of habitats from meadows with a few seedling trees to old growth stands of ancient conifers. Forests periodically change through low grade fires that burn out understory vegetation without becoming crown fires that devastate mature trees. Browsing by deer and the herbivorous activities of insects also affect the structure of forests. Changes in ecosystems from meadows to mature forests represent the phenomenon of "succession," but it is very much a non-linear process. It is cyclical, and interruptions can happen at any stage.

Construction of human habitations fragments forests, taking parcels out of succession entirely, and permanently. Even after horrendous wildfires, we vow to rebuild. We are told to mitigate future fires by de-vegetating wide swaths around buildings. Sure, this protects our private property, but the public domain surrounding you is also compromised by having a reduction in the geographic continuity forest ecosystems. The result is islands of natural forest in a sea real estate managed for human habitation, logging, and recreation.

Risks of land ownership in forests, especially in mountainous regions, abound. They are only going to increase with climate change, and every event is likely to be more severe than the last. Not long ago, the City of Colorado Springs faced demands from private landowners in the foothills for compensation due to severe erosion. Foundations were slipping and cracking, and homes were potentially going to slide off the hillsides. This should be the kind of risk assumed solely by those landowners. If you cannot afford to personally cope with potential catastrophe, then you have no business living there.

During my time living in Tucson, Arizona, we endured an enormous blaze (two fires that fused) that burned most of the back side (north side) of the Santa Catalina mountains north of town. I could see flames coming down the south slope from the balcony of my apartment. Once the fire was extinguished, foothills residents soon began experiencing an influx of wildlife including bears and cougars that were deprived of food and habitat by the fire. Mountain lions in particular posed a threat to pets, and to hikers in the heavily-used Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. Arizona Game & Fish announced they would be closing the area and using lethal force on the cats. This raised such strenuous objections from citizens that they ultimately tranquilized two animals and turn them over to a sanctuary facility in another town.

This is the kind of corner we have painted ourselves into by insisting on the continued existence of the wildland-urban interface: Everyone wanting to live there, no one willing to assume the risks. All the risks are borne by the public at large, regardless of their personal level of affluence, through increased taxes. Valuable resources are used to combat natural disasters, the lives of first responders put at undo risk, and the fabric of natural ecosystems shredded, all because there are people who don't want to live in the city.

They want to flaunt their wealth, and have that stunning view. Maybe they want to be seen, be an example of what we are all supposed to aspire to: the dream home, with neighbors miles away, the ultimate in seclusion and privacy. Those of us in the city are supposed to have a view of their homes interrupting the majestic mountain skyline.

Did I go over the top there? Perhaps, but what we need is to reach consensus on what we will tolerate in terms of what is best for the common good. Right now we assign vastly higher values to private property than public good, and it is costing us dearly every time we respond to a fire, landslide, or wildlife encounter that ends badly. The time to re-assess was yesterday.

Smoke from the Black Forest Fire looming north of our Colorado Springs neighborhood in 2013.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Pulling the Lever, Filling the Oval


Watching the news coverage of the election returns Tuesday night, and the aftermath on social media, one thing struck me above all talk of a "blue wave" and the advancement of women and minorities in politics. What was graphically exposed once again were the shortcomings of the election process, from redistricting to faulty voting machines, to long lines, severe or substantially inclement weather, and inaccessibility of polling locations. All of this is inexcusable for a country that purports to be a democracy.

Interestingly, if not ironically, many states took steps to improve the election system, through measures that were on their ballots. Florida granted former felons the right to vote, unless they committed a sex crime or murdered someone. Here in Colorado, we overwhelmingly approved Amendments Y and Z to the state constitution, creating unbiased citizen committees to draw the districting maps in a fashion that does not favor one political party over another. We did that via mail-in or drop-off ballot voting. Wow, what a concept, to dispense with the archaic polling locations, at a time of year when we could have a Rocky Mountain blizzard on election day.

Back in the day (whenever "the day" was, it is all relative I suppose), there may have been good reasons for each state, or even county, to set up its own election day procedures, draw district maps the way they did, register voters, and otherwise service a largely sedentary, if not rural, population of the electorate. There are some aspects of our culture that do well to recognize and follow history, however ancient, but voting should not be one of them. Today, with our mobile society, we desperately need standardization of election rules. You should be able to arrive in your new state and county of residence and know exactly how to register yourself to vote, including exactly what pieces of identification are required, on the first try, minimal hoops to jump through.

Once you are registered, you should not have to worry about where to report to exercise your right to vote. Mail-in ballots should be the norm. Why? You have plenty of time to go over your ballot, and do your due diligence in researching the candidates and issues. You need not concern yourself with the weather on election day. You do not need to fear that you will show up at the wrong polling place, or that it will be closed, or there will be long lines....I understand the appeal of exercising your civic duty socially, in public, but this method is now being exploited by nefarious parties to advance agendas not endorsed by the electorate. Time to rectify that.

No voting system is going to be foolproof, nor impervious to hackers nor immune to other glitches of technology and human error, but evidence and repeated experience suggests that voting machines cannot be trusted, especially when their manufacturers are in bed with one political party.

Then there is enduring hostile poll workers who take it upon themselves to harass voters, if not outright evict them from polling locations. Frankly, there should be minimal requirements for identification, and of course mail-in ballots again dispense with this kind of confrontation. Voting should not be stressful, let alone embarrassing or demeaning. All of that can take place on Facebook or Twitter. I'm kidding, there is no place for that kind of....attitude.

It should not be obvious that your particular voting district(s) lean toward one party or another, and your suspicions should be aroused if the district has a long history of domination by either Republicans or Democrats. I'm not even sure why we need so many districts, or why they are independent of, say, school districts. The geography of politics these days amounts to urban versus rural, and that divide needs to heal as quickly as possible, too. Our collective dialogue, when it comes to candidates and governing policy, needs to refrain from legislating morality and concentrate instead on addressing needs common to all citizens regardless of whether they live in a suburb or on a farm.

Gerry needs to stop mandering, and realize that democratic elections cannot take place when you rig the system. "But we've always done it this way" is now a euphemism for racism, bigotry, voter suppression, and a last gasp at preserving a status quo that is circumventing the will of the People. Yes, it is that plain and simple, like how voting should be.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Coming Out Versus Sticking Your Head in the Sand (or Elsewhere)


Thursday, October 11, 2018 marked National Coming Out Day, a recognition and celebration of the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) community. Hard on the heels of that comes proposed legislation to define citizens as either male or female based entirely on their genitalia. Here, friends, we have manufactured division, stoked hatred, and utter ignorance of the realities of our times.

Originally, I had intended to write about my own reaction to Coming Out Day, which would have been friendly enough, but with some trepidation about getting personal pronouns wrong and the embarrassment of unfamiliarity with a whole new vocabulary of categories from the LGBTQ community. While I will share those struggles here, I have absolute disgust for the news that our federal government administration wants to....relieve us of this terrible societal burden of adapting to a new gender landscape.

When I was single, I would sometimes be hit on by gay men. I was not appreciative of that and firmly communicated such, though often the other person would smile in a "knowing" way that I found offensive. I do not consider myself homophobic in any sense, but I did find those episodes a painful reminder of how unsuccessful I was at initiating my own relationships with women. That is where my anger came from. I have also hit on lesbian women in the past and found that to be a demoralizing experience, too. In retrospect, I admire the courage it took for all of those people to communicate their own orientations at a time when it could be life-threatening to do so.

Flash forward to today. I'm glad we have Coming Out Day, and I completely respect however you choose to identify yourself. I think identities of all sorts are a HUGE deal, and I can understand if someone feels the need to assert theirs, especially if it has been oppressed, repressed, or simply unrecognized for so long. Hell, I finally identified myself as "writer" after decades of self-denial.

That said, I hope you will be patient with those of us who grew up in a time when there were still only two recognized genders, and we pretty much assumed everybody was straight. In many ways I feel I have suddenly landed on a completely different planet with all of this non-binary, a-gender, asexual, cis-....vocabulary that I have frankly not given time to learning. I am deathly afraid that if I address someone by an incorrect pronoun that I will be viewed as a bigot, or otherwise insensitive. The one thing that provokes me to anger more than anything is looking like I'm stupid.

I say all of this to be honest, and possibly preemptive. It turns out I have a lot of friends who fall into these "new" categories and I feel like I am now walking on eggshells. Doesn't change the fact I love them all. After all, I tend to make friends based on the person's behavior, values, non-sexual interests, and ability to communicate honestly and unambiguously.

There, I feel better now.....Wh-a-a-a-t?! Our U.S. President wants to draft legislation to define our identities based on our genitalia at birth? In the context of my current understanding of "freedom," this is about the most limiting legislation I could possibly dream up. It is totally political and has zero place in an evolving society. It is wishful thinking on the part of some unenlightened parties who long for "the good 'ol days." I think they call these people reactionaries.

You cannot stick your head in the sand when the cat is out of the bag. Sorry, didn't mean to mix metaphors, but you get my drift. We should be standing united in the face of such manufactured social divisions. They are all designed to distract, so that we fail to see the Wealthy White Male Privilege behind the curtain stealing our money, our freedoms, our rights, and our dignity. We are not divided, but we let them TELL us we are, and then we go and believe it in the face of all the contrary evidence. That is the ultimate fake news.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Friends We Never Meet and the Ones That We Neglect

The other day my Facebook newsfeed blew up with remembrances of someone who I never met, or even "friended," but who clearly mattered to all my associates in the birding community. People who watch birds take it seriously, but empathy for one another runs deep among them. When one of them passes it reverberates like the the call of a raven throughout their circle. It got me thinking, long and hard, about who in my world might be slipping away.

One of the friends of the deceased shared a poem by her departed friend. The poem was about how we frame mental illness as it relates to artists. I suspect that this women suffered herself from depression and was frustrated by how society sees that anguish as somehow necessary in producing masterpiece paintings, novels, and other works, yet a self-imposed weakness in everybody else. It was a powerful piece of writing.

I clearly missed out by not having known this lady. I feel anger and guilt that I had never even heard of her until she was gone, and I no longer had any options. This is the one aspect of social media that I find excruciating, a "so close yet so far" phenomenon. I mean, I suppose I could "friend" her still, and have the archive of her posts to look back on, but it would be somehow empty, you know? One cannot be everywhere at once, even in the digital age. So many people will still not connect with you, nor you with them.

The irony is that social media isn't about you, nor is it about the next person you connect to, it is about we, and making more "we" as it were. It is about moments of clarity, like that poem, moments of sorrow like that day, and moments of joy, which is of course what all artists leave us with regardless of their medium.

Meanwhile, the flip side of all your friends on social media are the ones neglected because they don't do Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever the next new platform will be. They are left in digital dust when we fail to pick up the phone, or a pen, and call or write like we know we should. Inertia kicks in, along with its best buddy guilt, and then we never get around to it, despite our own nagging impulses. Right?

Well, today I did it. I e-mailed my best friend (aside from my wife), and just flat-out apologized. I did not beg forgiveness, but granted permission for him to hate me for my abandonment of him. Of course I got an immediate reply whereby he essentially expressed that he was no better at reaching out, and that we should indeed talk soon. I had expected as much but also do not take the let's-pick-up-where-we-left-off shrug of let-bygones-be-bygones for granted, either. Life is short, complicated, conflicted, and otherwise tumultuous, prone to sudden finalities. No, I will leave him no doubt that I love him like the brother I never had.

Carl is a generous, dependable gentleman, with a wit and sense of humor that would make him a great stand-up comic if he ever wanted to be. The stories I could tell. Mostly, he just makes everyone around him comfortable and happy. I cannot imagine a greater legacy or example. He was like a second son to my mother, too, and looked in on her in my out-of-state absence, which was from 1988 to when she passed in 2014. Yet, here I have been, going on about my "business" daily and, albeit several states away, not paying him near the respect that he deserves. That changes now and changes permanently. It also gets me thinking about who else I have ignored who deserves better.

Some people are artists with brushes, pens, chisels, cameras, or even computers, but the raw medium is still life itself, and it is those rare individuals who sculpt our personal realities that matter most to us. We cannot let them fall by the wayside because their comfort zone is still where it probably should be for all of us, grounded in the tangible and not in the "cloud." Someday we will look up from our devices and find them vanished because we haven't been paying proper attention. Someday we ourselves will draw the line at the next big thing, fearing for our privacy or unable to afford the technology, or whatever other roadblock clips us neatly from society as we know it, like a feather molted from a bird.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

An Unholy Alliance

We have seen lengthy television commercials recently here in Colorado Springs that advertise the new partnership between Girl Scouts of America and Raytheon. I get it, everything has to be about girls in science careers, and STEM in general (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Still, the GSA could have found a better ally.

Raytheon came onto my radar back in 2001 or so as the second Gulf War was ramping up. I was living in Tucson, Arizona at the time and participating in anti-war protests with some regularity. Raytheon has a facility on the southern outskirts of town. They make missiles there. The company announced last May that it will be expanding its Tucson location to the tune of $550 million. Raytheon is the largest employer in southern Arizona and as such was rewarded with a five million dollar grant from the state to help with the upgrade.

There were persistent claims that Raytheon was using depleted uranium in their missile products during the second Gulf War, making them essentially radioactive weapons. That is not the only controversy that has plagued the company over the years, with problems ranging from environmental issues to workplace diversity concerns, and inflation of federal defense contracts (surprise, surprise). Raytheon may claim in their television commercials with the Girl Scouts that they want to basically "make America safe again," but their history is one of warfare and the death and destruction that results from it. Yes, they use science, but to what end? The company is the ultimate poster child for the military-industrial complex.

Apparently, the Girl Scouts of America are just fine with all of this, probably because Raytheon has money to burn. Raytheon gets to wrap itself up in feel-good sentiments provided by the warm fuzzies we get from the GSA. What is not to love? Do we not all look forward to cookie season, feeding our tummies while warming our hearts and minds with the knowledge that we are spending in support of a great cause? There is nothing but an upside for Raytheon as it greenwashes itself.

Could the Girl Scouts not find a corporation with a more peaceful platform? What about partnering with a telecommunications giant, or renewable energy conglomerate, or some other enterprise that reflects optimism for the future and has an explicit mission that reflects public interest instead of private affluence and "security" for the wealthy few? Did they bother calling Oprah Winfrey for suggestions? How about Elon Musk? Bill Gates? Richard Branson? Ted Turner?

Yes, we need better cybersecurity, and to be able to defend our own country at home, but we are mostly exporting our weapons and defense technologies to the highest bidder, under an administration that is actively spurning involvement with our traditional alliances like NATO and the UN. The ramifications seem obvious: We will have less and less national and global security as our defense contractors get greedier and greedier, their morals eroding as their profits skyrocket.

At least one friend has suggested that the marriage of Raytheon and the Girl Scouts may not be the worst thing. As women ascend the corporate ladder, she suggests, the sphere of female influence will expand (hopefully), leading to a more humanitarian approach to profit-making, backing away from the idea that there is no profit in peace. I wish I were as optimistic. I wish we had the time for a rise in the power of compassionate women.

Interestingly, the Boy Scouts of America recently decided to admit girls to their ranks. It will be telling if the GSA starts losing membership to the BSA as a result of the decision to partner with Raytheon. Not that the BSA has a history devoid of controversy, either, but now girls have a choice in organizations that can foster their future careers. Maybe both organizations will begin to fizzle and we will see a surge in participation in Junior Achievement, 4-H, Future Farmers of America, and similar clubs that lack the baggage of scouting. Maybe kids will just keep playing soccer, Little League, and video games instead.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

A Supreme Injustice


Many people are outraged over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, and perhaps rightly so, but the real injustice is not who was appointed, but the way in which the process of confirmation was conducted. It does not bode well for the future of the country when the justice system itself becomes entrenched in politics and agenda-setting.

I am old enough to vaguely remember the Anita Hill hearings that dragged out the eventual confirmation of Justice Clarence Thomas. I am grateful to Hill for her courage and personal conduct during an excruciating process. I am also grateful for the fact that the televised hearings pre-empted my own appearance on The Jerry Springer Show, back when it was produced in Cincinnati and had not yet become the totally dysfunctional mess it is today. In retrospect, it was still a trap production, and more on that later. The point here is that when President George H.W. Bush appointed Justice Thomas, there still was a process of confirmation, a clear path that everyone followed with respect for

Contrast those events of 1991 with recent trends in filling Supreme Court vacancies. Fresh in our collective minds is the Republican refusal to allow President Barack Obama to fill a vacancy near the end of his term. Forget respect for the process, Mitch McConnell and friends flat-out suspended the process, blocking all attempts to even hold confirmation hearings for nominee Merrick Garland. That this refusal to participate in the process was not illegal, never mind unethical, boggles the mind. From announcement of his nomination to his Senate confirmation, Justice Thomas' process extended from July 1, 1991 to October 15, 1991. Months. MONTHS.

We could argue forever as to whether Anita Hill had credibility, whether her testimony had any effect in swaying some Senate votes, or even whether the effects of Justice Thomas' appointment changed the Supreme Court for better or worse. What we cannot argue is that the process was adhered to, was executed with civility and decorum, and with respect for the justice system. All of that went out the window with this latest sorry excuse for a "process."

There is wild speculation as to why the hurry-hurry rush-rush to get Kavanaugh on the bench. One claim that probably does carry some weight is that President Trump needs a powerful ally in undermining the investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 elections. It is not much of a leap to suggest that this is a "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" arrangement, with the added benefit that a now highly conservative Supreme Court is not likely to oppose gun rights, or support rights to birth control, or take a liberal stance on other critical issues that could come before its bench. Still, there is no excuse for conducting confirmation hearings with such recklessness, and complete disrespect for people who claim to be victims of the nominee's prior behaviors. Kavanaugh's conduct during the hearings should raise serious questions about his fitness for a position that demands the ultimate in professionalism.

I am taken back to The Jerry Springer Show again. I was to be on a panel of adult children of divorce. I'd already been on Donahue, so had faith in the process of television production. I can say truthfully that Phil Donahue did his homework, and had no real agenda but truth, compassion, and respect. Jerry Springer's staff wanted conflict, victim roles, and ratings. You, as a guest, were expected to comply. Donahue's process was honest and respectful. Springer's show was coercive and basically ambush "journalism."

This latest Supreme Court confirmation was not process. It was theatre. It did not even pretend to have the best interests of the nation at heart. The President is still fixated on "ratings," and this was his latest show. Hell, Rosanne Barr might have made a better nominee in that case. The citizenry knows better, the difference between entertainment and distraction and the very real repercussions of hastily-drafted personnel to places of great power. We, the people, will remember this, your disdain for process and civil conduct.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Redistributing Wealth

Have you ever noticed that those who object most strenuously to the notion of redistribution of wealth are those who benefit from the status quo? Their hostility is espoused mostly from the pedestal of White Privilege, from offices on Wall Street, and it echoes through the halls of private mansions and country clubs. The ultimate source of their anger is, of course, guilt. They know they got where they are because of the toil of others. They are reaping their profits from uneducated consumers who fall for marketing campaigns. Their expenses are for lobbyists in Congress, if they have not paid outright for a Senator or Representative. Ironically, they have engineered a redistribution of wealth to themselves, so the idea of the reverse is repugnant.

We have had a redistribution of wealth for centuries. Slavery. The gender wage gap. Mass incarceration of minorities. Minimum wage. Credit that leads to bankruptcy. Failure to provide affordable healthcare and housing. Food deserts. Gerrymandering. Voter suppression. Government subsidies to corporations. Industry bailouts. Offshore banking. Tax breaks on investments. You don't think any of this has had an impact on who becomes wealthy? Really?

For our part as laborers and consumers, we yearn for financial freedom, still clinging to the belief that a bright future is all up to us as individuals, still pursuing the white picket fence and two-car garage. Society, we are told, gives you the freedom to do whatever it takes to get wherever you want to go. Yes, there are still some ways to attain wealth from the ground up, if you choose the "right" career, take advantage of existing financial structures for which it helps to be already wealthy....Where is the freedom in that?

If you do not believe we need measures in place to level the financial playing field, then you are either a diehard capitalist who cares not one whit about anybody but themselves, or you have bought into the fictitious idea that if you merely work hard you can still amass great wealth by climbing the ladder of success. Hogwash. We no longer have a Middle Class. We have not had that for quite some time. What we have is a Debt Class masquerading as the Middle Class. It is an illusion based on credit and other forms of borrowing. Our "portfolio" is a job, check cashing establishments, and the lottery. Ok, maybe two jobs or even three.

The ultimate question, of course, is why are we aspiring to personal material wealth in the first place. Who does that benefit except you, your family if you have one, and your heirs if you have children? Do you really want that small a sphere of influence? Dream bigger. Dream beyond money. Cultivate the currency of generosity instead of selfishness.

The solution to our enormous prosperity gap must come from both ends. Yes, to obliterate poverty the very wealthy must give up a substantial portion of their wealth. The remainder of the financial spectrum must cease to pursue the amassing personal material wealth as a goal. The new American Dream needs to be one of inclusion, with goals beyond ourselves such as renewable energy, preservation of biodiversity, acceptance (not mere tolerance) of alternative lifestyles, the abolishment of hate speech, enactment of affordable healthcare and housing, a return to small scale agriculture, and other communal and social endeavors. These are the things we need to commit to, not to our financial planner's idea of personal financial security, as if there is such a thing. Self-reliance is just a fancy synonym for pride, and putting pride as a priority has never ended well.

You want something to aspire to? How about this. How about we aspire to be like people who have lost everything material. People who have been through tornadoes, or hurricanes, or earthquakes, or fires, or even stock market crashes, who come back even stronger after the devastation because they know what really matters is not status or wealth but character and love and all those things you cannot measure in economic terms. Let us be like those who have been wronged, been cheated on, been scammed, been victims of violent crime, who come out of that trauma and still manage to trust other human beings. Let's be like that: all heart, soul, and empathy.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

You, topia

© Chelsea Leigh Stockton (Sherrie Duris is subject)

Who are you at your core? What would you be if you strip away all the material things that adorn you, lifestyle, and make your image? What are you without your occupation? How do we make tangible the intangible qualities that are what make us truly unique? We are all works in progress, aspiring to our own nirvana of self-actualization. Are you there yet?

We are forever caught between the rock of our own individualism and the hard place of societal expectations. Youth mostly lean toward living up to expectations (though they will profess otherwise) while the older we get the more we yearn to break free of the confinements of conventionality. Collectively, though, we tend to want to keep up appearances, and that is a costly lifestyle both financially and in terms of our mental and physical health. It takes a toll to pretend.

Our capitalist economy, maybe any form of economy, dictates that we be a collection of products first and foremost. You must practice self-expression through clothes, cosmetics, commitment to fitness and food choices, and your taste in entertainment and extracurriculars. You set yourself apart by branding, or at least the brands you choose, because status is everything, and you do not ever want to be yesterday's news.

What are we to do then? Walk around naked? Let ourselves go? Give up? That would be unacceptable, and actually defeat the purpose of our existence anyway, but what we need to do is shift the center of our personal and collective universe away from....things.....and to what truly gives us fulfillment. The default setting on our health and happiness meter is probably family and experiences, not material wealth, not a career, not what we are constantly told by the marketplace of diets and clothing designers, drug companies and politicians.

The late Dr. Leo Buscaglia was fond of saying the we are "human doings" because we are so obsessed with proving we are worthy of existence through tangible deeds, contributing to society in a literally visible way, that we have lost track of our true essence, the fact that we matter anyway, independent of our works. Indeed, there are few if any careers that enjoy a completely positive image in our society. Some are too complicated, dismissed as "rocket science" in conversation. Others are too simple and seen as unworthy of respect. Did you tip the wait staff at the restaurant with a generous gratuity? Do you greet the garbage collector or your postal delivery if you happen to see them? Wave at the public transit driver? I didn't think so.

We have to stop equating ourselves and each other with our jobs and our wardrobes and our bank accounts and our vehicles and every other measure of self-worth we have allowed society to calculate for us. We need to transcend "tolerance" and replace it with acceptance, free ourselves of labels and stereotypes. The marketplace is not going to stop categorizing us anytime soon, so best to just give it your middle digit.

Religion, too. Personally, I carry enough guilt to be a Catholic, and complain enough to be Jewish. Maybe that is why I am agnostic. See? There come those caricatures again, those easy-to-use ways of pigeon-holing people. We are so populous as a species, and put such a premium on convenience, that we accept our lazy ways of classifying people as the norm. We are diamonds, people, with multiple facets that will only glint in the light of patience in learning about ourselves and each other over time.

You-topia? You are already there, you just haven't realized it yet. You are still consumed by consumerism, restrained by beliefs that you cannot make a difference, that only your vote matters in your district, your ward, your precinct, and in the marketplace. You believe you are a means to an end for others, not for yourself and your family and friends, let alone other species. Rebel. Lead a personal mutiny against everything unimportant. Do not let the pressures of society lead to pent-up anger and hostility. Relax. Free your mind. When someone asks "what do you do?," tell them who you are instead. Remind them that you are a human being, already worthy, and so are they. Repeat. Daily.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

What Would a Truthful Campaign Advertisement Look Like?


Ready to throw a brick at your television yet over the latest wave of commercials in this election cycle? Me, too. They seem transparent enough, which may be why I find them so distasteful and deceiving. What would an honest ad look like, I wonder, and would it not be a refreshing alternative to the current disguising of agendas?

One of the more insidious advertising campaigns here in Colorado revolves around Initiative 97, where a grassroots public effort led to this measure making it onto the ballot. It would greatly restrict the places where oil and natural gas extraction could take place on non-federal lands. Most of the concern centers on potential health effects upon, and disaster risks borne by, those residential neighborhoods in rural and suburban districts. It would require a drilling location "setback" of 2,500 feet, or greater, from vulnerable parks, creeks, and homes. Scientific studies have suggested adverse public health consequences among populations close to drilling sites; and there have been documented explosions and fires associated with the industry that have resulted in worker deaths.

Naturally, the industry side is not in favor of further constraints, and of course they resort to fear-mongering to incentivize voters to reject Initiative 97. The recurring television ad features a stern-looking female spokesperson warning that the inevitable result of the passage of 97 will be greatly decreased revenue for public schools, fire and police, as well as lost jobs. Their argument is that the "setbacks" would "set back" the economy. This is the same rhetoric we have always heard, as if we believe the fossil fuel industry cares one whit about your safety, your education, or whether you are employed or not. The overwhelming number of these energy companies are not based in Colorado. Heck, some are not even based in this country, as Canadian corporations make ever-increasing inroads into natural resource extraction here in the U.S. and elsewhere. Most of the "jobs" they profess to be creating are open to applicants from all over, not reserved for Coloradans.

Well, maybe we are not as well educated as we would like to imagine, if anyone seriously believes the claims made in this advertisement. It must be a strategy that works, at least in part, or the advertising agencies would not adopt it, and the industry would not endorse it as their platform. That is perhaps the scariest part of it all: that anyone falls for it.

Ok, so what would a more honest approach be? Permit me a little artistic license if you will, but I think it would go something like this: An actual executive in the industry would present the following narrative.....

"We, as executive officers and shareholders, are addicted to the obscene profits we generate through fracking and other fossil fuel extraction methods. We greatly appreciate the generous federal, state, and local subsidies we receive in addition to those profits. We know we could make even more money were it not for those pesky environmental and public health regulations that we have to abide by. It is therefore necessary for us to make large expenditures on lobbyists and public advertising, even creating faux "green" organizations like Protect Colorado and Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED). Oh, we also have to constantly battle competition from renewable, vastly safer energy sources like solar and wind. That takes money, too. So, you see we need relaxed regulation, not increased regulation, if we are to make up the deficits we perceive in our bottom line. Your health, safety, employment status, and recreational opportunities are not our problem. You want heat, fuel, electricity, and telecommunications at low prices? That we can do for you, if you vote no on Initiative 97. Thank you, from here in the back of my limousine/inside my corner office suite/favorite golf course."

I am not holding my breath that any industry, candidate, or other interest group is going to stop lying and hiding their agenda any time soon, but I would find it more difficult to object to their posturing if it was put forth in an honest manner. Hey, what do they have to lose, right?

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Yes, Yes to Nanette!

© The New Yorker

Hannah Gadsby is an Australian-born comedienne. That is all you need to know before watching her Netflix special Nanette, because she explains the rest of her life experiences in that stand-up special. And you better brace yourself. Or not, because maybe not knowing what you are in for is at least half of what makes this performance worthy of its critical acclaim.

The best comedy delivers not just laughter, but provokes thought, emphasis on "provokes," and this is flat-out the most provocative writing I've seen performed on stage in decades. As another critic pointed out, it gets the audience to question themselves, and their role as either instigator or ignorant bystander, in the atrocities perpetrated against people from varying walks of life who we identify as "the other." Done incorrectly and you have the audience storming out of the venue. Done brilliantly, like this, and you have everyone's rapt attention.

If you do not see yourself in every facet of this monologue, then you lack empathy and honesty.

A graph of your comfort level during this seventy minute show would likely look like something off a seismograph, but that would be fitting because this is an earth-shaking episode. Part of the premise that got the attention of critics is that this was Gadsby's swan song, that she would be quitting comedy because....well, I am not going to spoil that for you. Gadsby is apologetic at one point for being so angry, and taking out her frustrations on her audience.

I disagree with Hannah that she is angry. She is assertive and emphatic, and displays a degree of strength that transcends gender, class, or any other category we so conveniently put each other into. If you do not see yourself in every facet of this monologue, then you lack empathy and honesty. This is funny, but at its core it is a plea for self-evaluation, and assessment of your own personal code of conduct.

Does the audience really deserve to be made so uncomfortable, though? The unequivocal answer is a resounding "Yes!" There are many ways to be "woke," and this is one of the tamer routes. It is like the tear-jerker rom-com movie, albeit a great deal more intense in parts. You may leave the show with feelings of shame and guilt. So? What are you going to do with that? This is really what the heart of great entertainment is all about: a jumping off point (not off a bridge for crying out loud) for self-conversation, for deciding how to redeem yourself. How best do you participate in the revolution?

Hannah Gadsby's writing and delivery are passionate and compassionate, despite her belief that she is just angry. You still want to give her a hug and say "Thank you!" when all is said and done. She manages to maintain the vulnerability we all have, that makes us caring human beings when we acknowledge it. Some will say that Gadsby gets her audience cheering for their own execution, but if you have been listening, you see a bit of your parents, or best friend, the people in your life who will not always tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear.

I hope Hannah Gadsby won't quit. We desperately need her voice, day in and day out. Heck, we need more people like her. Watch Nanette, it is must-see TV or streaming or whatever you call it.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Kinds of (Landscaping) Codes We Really Need

©, Naples, Florida

I have reached wit's end with code enforcement in cities, towns, and other municipalities. Do not even get me started on homeowner's associations (HOAs). The emphasis is clearly cosmetic and does more harm to our environment than even simple neglect of yards and gardens in this age of climate change. We need a total overhaul of the statutes.

Were I a conspiracy theorist, I would be claiming that local governments were in cahoots with landscapers to create standard urban and suburban landscapes that feed the landscaping industry, as well as pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer manufacturers. Why do we continue to insist on models of landscaping that are no longer sustainable, if they ever were to begin with? The only thing "sustainable" about lawns and exotic shrubs, trees, and flowers is the heavy upkeep they require simply to stay alive. That usually necessitates contracting with lawn care services and other businesses that feed our addiction to showy gardens and pristine lawns.

Let's face it, lawns alone have become a status symbol, especially in the western U.S. A large, uniform expanse of grass says that you have the large sum of money needed to cover the water bill, and pay for a landscaper. What that speaks to me is an attitude of "I don't give a damn about water scarcity, native vegetation, or the future of the planet." You would rather spend money creating what amounts to an advertisement of your wealth. Wow. How responsible of you.

Meanwhile, municipal code enforcement tends to center on "weeds," many of which are actually native wildflowers that sustain pollinators and other desirable wildlife. If your grass gets too high it is subject to fines until you are in compliance. Tall grass and herbs are ironically considered a haven for mosquitoes and other disease vectors, as well as being "unsightly." This, in my opinion, is an overblown argument, if not even fallacious. You have undesirable rodents, for example, in urban areas lacking any vegetation. Feral pets are more likely to carry diseases than most wild animals, save for skunks, the odd raccoon and, sometimes, bats.

Were I writing the codes, they would be almost the polar opposite of what is in place now. I would limit the size of lawns to a percentage of your total outdoor landscape. I would enforce strict outdoor water use limitations, regardless of the current weather conditions because most regions are becoming more arid, with no end in sight for that trend. I would mandate that a percentage of landscape plants be native, drought-tolerant, and wildlife-friendly. I might require a permit for the use of any chemical treatment outdoors. This may be an area where contractors could really benefit because leaving chemical applications as do-it-yourself (DIY) has accident-waiting-to-happen written all over it. Failure to follow label instructions for applying pesticides and herbicides is a leading cause of household poisonings, let alone environmental hazards.

I would raise fines for feeding wildlife other than birds, and require anyone in bear habitat take down their feeders every night. I would raise fines for neglect of swimming pools and other water features, even including bird baths, as stagnant water is a breeding environment for mosquitoes and other biting flies. I would reduce outdoor lighting to prevent the interruption of normal behavior by nocturnal animals. Using wildlife-proof waste disposal containers would discourage raccoons, opossum, and other mammals from doing damage and maybe even frequenting urban areas at all. Ok, that is probably wishful thinking.

No entity raises my ire more than HOAs. They are entirely consumed with keeping up appearances, and have complete disregard for the mental health of residences and the environmental health of their communities. Raising property values is their bottom line, even if it means tearing out everything green except lawns, as our own townhouse property management agency is in the process of doing. HOAs put forth arguments for "improved security" as justification for removal of shrubbery and increased outdoor lighting. Baloney. You want increased security? Hold informal events so everyone can get to know their neighbors. Enforce codes of personal conduct instead of landscaping rules.

We need to collectively begin calling for changes to codes that begin to address what could be called environmental impoverishment. We deserve better, more diverse landscapes in our communities, but that cannot happen without some major alterations in governmental mindsets.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Anger and Apathy

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A few days ago I posted this statement to my Facebook page: "I am angry because I fear the only other option is apathy." I was curious as to the responses, and I was not disappointed. The comments reflect a wide spectrum of viewpoints and coping strategies in our troubling times.

I find that my mind often perceives things as black or white, as limited to only a couple of points on the spectrum. I have been known to become impatient with people who do not express outrage at what I see as an injustice or other wrongdoing, usually inflicted by a government agency or policy, or a private corporation or religious institution. A lack of response in the face of egregious acts I see as either agreement with the action, or apathy.

Why don't you care?! How can you not be as angry as I am? Do not get me started with "life isn't fair." Our only responsibility while we are on this planet is to do our best to make life more equitable. We have instead allowed ourselves to be channeled into a way of thinking that elevates the attainment of vast personal material wealth as the highest degree of success....but I digress.

The responses to my statement were more concerned with personal psyche than with whatever triggers anger. "Anger is only good if you use it for organization towards a goal," wrote the person who replied first. "I go with rage, because horrific sadness sucks," said another. "True...stay with anger," wrote another in agreement.

The next response was perhaps the most revealing, and puzzled me: "Have you tried empathy? I helps me when i get where you are at." That somehow made me even more frustrated, and I answered "My empathy often incites my anger. I have an intense sense of justice and fairness, and of course the world is anything but." Farther down in the comments was a similar answer: "I know how you feel, Eric. And my only statement is this: Empathy expands you while anger only shrinks you. Small words, I know."

No, those are profound words which got me thinking, after I wrote " But I AM empathetic! That is where a lot of my anger comes from: injustices to people I empathize with." What next entered my mind, but which I did not communicate outright, was something to the effect of "do you expect me to have empathy for irresponsibly affluent people, for racists, for bigots, for those who put profits above environmental health? Am I to empathize with people who deny others the right to affordable housing, healthcare, food, and opportunity?" I cannot imagine that is what you mean, but if so then I need to reconsider some of my social media friends.

I am not sure why more people do not see the link between empathy and outrage. You cannot witness injustice after injustice and not be driven to madness....unless you benefit from the status quo. "I too am angry," wrote another friend. They continued "It doesn't help. Neither does the immense sadness I feel. Between the two I am stuck. We have politicians who deny climate change, and politicians who acknowledge it, but refuse to do anything on their watch. I am 74, and will live to see the devastation and great extinctions. They are already happening. I think I am doing what I can. It is not enough." I would argue that sometimes it is enough to simply express solidarity with other empathetic people.

Another sentiment: "Rage, grief, when it's too much, sometimes a numbing sets in. When it hurts too much to care... Everyone has their own way of dealing. Some become apathetic and some don't recognize how much they've changed until an event occurs in their life to wake them up again. Some never wake up. Some never feel alive again. Some fight all of it within and some are lucky enough to have a life that sustains their spirit. Many are not so lucky." Well said, friend.

"I believe ACTION is a third option," mentioned another person, and my response was that I am very much an "idea man." I am horrible at taking action on those ideas. I often don't know where to start. That is why I write. Another person chimed in "Writing is action. And, if compelling, it propels other people to take action. We cannot sit by paralyzed by depression, disappointment, inertia, whatever! The stakes are much, much, much too high...."

I was reminded by another that it might help channel my anger if I read more: "It occurs to me that I ought to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. We’re all talking in affirmative messages that are pertinent for 'normal' times, and they’re still true but don’t feel proportionate to the current set of catastrophes. I want to see how a man got himself through a time when the world was completely falling apart.

What do you do in the face of injustice and misguided priorities by those in power and those who do not know better because of ignorance? Are you shopping differently in the marketplace? Writing and calling your public representatives? Practicing civil disobedience? Please share your ways of coping, and changing the world. Thank you.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A Deep Desire to Live Somewhen Else


Many people are not happy with the place where they live. Maybe the neighborhood is bad. Maybe the climate does not agree with them. Maybe they are just restless. I have concluded that I would rather live in a different time. I have no desire to return to my childhood. This is not about a re-do on a personal level. We make the best of the cards we are dealt. This is about something bigger. This is about a longing for what was never allowed me because it was gone before I was born.

There is increasing evidence, if only anecdotal, of an "insect armageddon," which suggests the abundance and diversity of insects and related organisms are plummeting. We have already lost many once-populous species to the greed and ignorance of previous human generations. A planet devoid of even insects raises a specter that I am unwilling to contemplate, and a life I would not be able to endure, psychologically if not physically.

That is the thing about history. You will eventually learn about what you will never have the opportunity to experience.

You better believe I am angered that I have been deprived by my forefathers of the vast flocks of Passenger Pigeon, the antics of Carolina Parakeets, and the jaw-dropping icon that was the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. I can only see Bison on preserves and ranches, and on the ranches one suspects it is actually the hybrid "beefalo" that one is seeing. Meanwhile, I have a hard time looking at a salmon or trout without seeing a fish hatchery. There are still California Condors, but so few that each bird is fitted with huge, numbered tags, radio telemetry devices, and who knows what else. The bird's "recovery" is not a success story. Maybe it will be once they are no longer wearing the accessories of science, and are truly free to fly.

We have not just tamed the wild, we have diluted it beyond recognition in the name of risk assessment and public safety and public grazing, to name but a few agents of wilderness simplification. The national forests are national tree farms, and it should come as no surprise that the U.S. Forest Service is in the Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of the Interior where it ought to be.

Back to the past, the long ago that I long for. It would be wonderful to know the truth of the landscape that surrounds me today, to see what a riparian corridor looks like without Russian Olive everywhere. What is a foothills meadow without mullein? What is your eastern deciduous forest without an understory of Japanese Honeysuckle? Do I wish we could resurrect mastodons and mammoths? No. I draw the line at being a potential meal for a saber-toothed cat or a Dire Wolf. Furthermore, those were the days when our ancient ancestors were just surviving, without understanding of the ramifications of their actions.

Naturally, I would still want to bring my binoculars, digital camera, first aid kit, and waterproof jacket on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Perhaps I am guilty of romanticizing the age of the old growth hardwood bottomland forests with their gargantuan oaks and hickories before we started logging and draining the good kind of swamp. Old photographs and artwork paint pictures that are hard not to idealize when you are passionate about the natural heritage of this country. That is the thing about history. You will eventually learn about what you will never have the opportunity to experience.

Ah, but what would I give up in exchange for that bygone era? I do believe I would sacrifice the internet, television, maybe even electricity, especially because I would never know those innovations were on the horizon. Naturally, I would still want to bring my binoculars, digital camera, first aid kit, and waterproof jacket on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Sure, I would likely have a shorter lifespan, but at least I would enjoy that life more fully. Today, instead of California Condors gracing the skies, I am subjected almost daily to extremely loud military aircraft overhead. I would gladly trade noise and neon and traffic and the illusion of choice in the marketplace for something a lot simpler, with fewer losses of species.


We can reverse some of this, turn back the clock if you will. The grand experiment of reintroducing the Gray Wolf to Yellowstone National Park proves decisively that Mother Nature has a memory, and that when you bring back a piece of the puzzle, the whole thing fits together tighter and smoother. We need a historical spectrum of nature, from the initial stages of succession to the "finished" product, because we know there is no such thing as a permanent climax ecosystem. Even natural communities are ephemeral, but until now there have been multiple, continuous habitats that feed each other. They are now so isolated that there is no transfer of species and so invasives take command. We need to link the wild spaces with corridors to facilitate healing of the landscape.

It remains to be seen if I can continue to be as resilient as that landscape, how many times I can come back healthy, vibrant, committed to making the world a better place, acting on my vision of wholeness in every sense of the word. For now I am misplaced, a pioneer naturalist and writer in a domain that I had no conscious hand in architecting.