Monday, January 31, 2011

Book Review: GOLD DIGGERS

Gold Diggers is Charlotte Gray's excellent story of the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 19th century. Gold rushes are one of those human phenomenons which show off the incredible ability of the human being to put up with hardships and adversity when he is motivated enough. It is also a testament to the basic venality of human beings that it is undertaken in the service of greed, and that most places that have seen gold rushes--California, Australia, South Africa, and the Yukon, the story told here--have resulted in the oppression of the people that were living there at the time gold was discovered. That story is not shied away from in the book, but most of the narrative concentrates on the three peak years of the rush, and the transformation of Dawson City from an Inuit village to a boomtoom of 20,000 people in 18 months. The near-impossible conditions of living in an Arctic environment, much less mining in permafrost, are portrayed in great detail, and something of the flavor of that time and place vividly suffuses the entire book. The story is based on the experiences of a few people who lived through it and were major players at the time, most notably Jack London, and it is unfailingly interesting, from beginning to end.
It also points out, yet again, how Americans are perceived by the rest of the world. One of the major issues at the time and place it was happening, and this is the first time I have ever heard about this, not surprisingly, was the rather intense anger against Americans and the measures that were taken by Canadian authority to make sure that the gold benefited, to even a small degree, the nation within whose borders the gold lay. American-Canadian relations are portrayed on this side of the border as basically friendly, even a little paternal, but as I have gotten older, I have discovered that this view is not usually shared by those on the northern side. It's not the white-hot anger felt by people in Iraq or, say, Venezuela, but Canadians don't like us much, either, as indeed most of the world does not. We are a nation of rather greedy and arrogant boors, certain that the rest of the world shares our devotion to all forms of commercial enterprise (in plain English, our love of money) and that they are as willing as we are to destroy the resource and its surrounding environment to make a buck off it. It is unfathomable to Americans that other nationalities aren't eager to foul their own nest in the service of making money, and that they are not willing to let Americans do it for them, for a pittance, either.The one image that stayed in my mind as I read of the helter-skelter development of Dawson was the fact that after the Han Inuit were rudely moved three miles north (downstream, as the Yukon River flows north there) to make room for the miners, the Yukon was used as a sewer, fouling the natives' drinking water to the point where diseases became rampant. The description of piles of garbage and shit being taken out onto the frozen river in the winter and left on the ice, to be washed away when spring came and the ice melted, is unforgettable.
I also did not know that the Yukon is navigable for its entire length, when it is clear of ice. It's long--1900 miles from its source lakes in extreme southern Yukon/northern British Columbia--wide, and deep, and carries an incredible amount of water and silt when it is not frozen over. The river made the rush possible; it was the only way to keep supplies in to even rudely sustain thousands of people in a place with little contact with the outside world.
This book is an excellent read.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Trying Something Different

Yesterday was a lot of day. It was the day of the One Point in Time Homeless Count, which, although I wasn't outside flushing out the riverbanks like some, nonetheless had me chasing down seven different schools' numbers for most of the day. We came up with 63 kids from ages 14 to 18, that were not going to be counted elsewhere (for example, the kids that I've worked with that have moved onto the transitional program I didn't count, because they're doing their own count) that are undeniably, indisputably not living in a "fixed, adequate, and regular nighttime residence." The number is depressingly large, if not surprising to me. I also had the intern all day, who is at the stage where everything has to be explained to her (and she's not a terribly curious type, anyway). And to top it off, I had to run someone downtown at 5 to finish recording at a local studio, only to find (after 45 minutes) that the studio had double-booked the time and that she has to come back next week. By time I got home, it was 6:30; I made some mac and cheese and headed back out the door at 7:15.
I have not been at a meeting this calender year. I fully intended to go last night, because I need something to get my spirit nourished; I can handle a week off or two, but a month is stretching it, and I have been just feeling the cynicism and negativity eating away at me again. So I was incredibly dismayed when I walked in the door and saw the Addictions Crisis Center had brought their horde again. I joined and continue to belong to the home group I do because it is small and everyone gets a chance to talk, and we often end up focusing on mature recovery themes, since many of us have many years clean. I realize that newcomers have to get exposed to meetings and recovering people to start the process--but those of us who are lucky to find one meeting a week really aren't helping themselves or the horde by listening to two dozen people dropping war stories and talking about how drugs and (even worse in an NA meeting) alcohol have ruined their lives. . At seven days clean, you don't understand that you ruined your life by using drugs and alcohol, and that the challenge is "what are you going to change?" I don't begrudge them their process. But my admittedly selfish view is that there are 25 other meetings per week, and ACC can bring their mob to one of them, rather than our carefully constructed and maintained refuge.
Because at this point in my life, that's not what I need. I've noticed that neither John nor Kate has been there in weeks, either. Bridget and Jose C. were running the meeting, with support from Staten Island John and his wife, and while they all mean well, they have different notions of recovery than I or the other used-to-be-regulars do; they, too, still believe it is mostly about the drugs. I did sit down for a few minutes, but as the mob kept moving around and changing seats and in general acted like they were at the Hess instead of a meeting, I made a decision that I was not going to be miserable trying to pretend that I wasn't miserable. I got up and I left.
But instead of going home, I walked the thirty feet to the church next door, Barb's church. Friday night, they had been doing Bible study for months, but there was a large number of cars in the parking lot, and I thought maybe something different was happening. And it was; it was the first meeting of a group they are going to be hosting called "Progressive Christianity." I decided to sit in, and ended up actually enjoying myself. I'm not, by definition, Christian, because, although my belief in God is the focal point of my entire existence, I do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was God or that he came back from the dead, and I do not believe in many aspects of Christian theology, most notably the concepts of sin and the need to "atone" for it. But I have found over the years of being in recovery that I have a lot of common ground with activist progressive Christian communities nonetheless, with those that believe social justice ought to be the most passionate cause of those who believe in the message of Jesus; who believe that mercy, forgiveness, and good works for everyone are the most important parts of living the way God wants us to; and who believe that the differences among us are less important than the similarities. While not everyone there was a pleasure to listen to--one person in particular is as self-centered as any addict in the ACC is--I have to say I found the discussion (which centered on Creation) very interesting and stimulating. It was nice to hear intelligent, thoughtful people talking about matters of the spirit again, through lenses I am not really familiar with. And the talk did go in some directions I did not expect, which added rather than detracted from the experience.
Am I filled with a passion to start falling on my knees and praising the Lord now? No. But I actually felt good when leaving last night. It was some nourishment for an aspect of me that has been neglected somewhat recently, some needed food for a hungry soul. I intend to go back next week and see where the series leads. I've been wondering for years whether there is another level to take the journey to, and I've tried a couple of times to get involved with church communities, but with the exception of the year at First Christian when Pastor Ken was there, it's never taken root. Barb is similar to Ken in many ways--most notably in that she is willing to accept that someone who has strong doubts about the form can nonetheless embody the substance of the message their faith promulgates very well-- and I always feel comfortable discussing matters of faith around and with her, and last night felt right, as little has in some time. I did not feel any great pressure to conform, and the focus went in directions we didn't expect but that I found interesting. Maybe I was just in the right frame of mind, but, to take one example, I agree that most of us, including me, are attuned at times to other people and stimuli enough so that we notice--for example, when someone projects an aura of menace or danger from across a parking lot and we sense it. Some people there said that they get that aura, that sense, about people in a good way, too, and that they project not only psychic vibes on some level, but that those people actually appear slightly more luminous than the average person, that they actually give off some sort of light that can be seen. Part of me wants to dismiss that as ludicrous, but part of me wants to be able to see that, too. Is it real? I don't know. But part of me says it might be possible; virtually everything else about human existence is dispensed in varying degrees to different people, why would the ability to sense auras of other people be an exception? And I am living proof of what is possible when one's mind opens. I want to know and learn more.
Which is why I will be back next week. I left charged up last night, despite feeling fairly exhausted physically. I haven't had that feeling in a long time. And I've missed it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Review: THE DAY DIXIE DIED

The Day Dixie Died is a monograph about the Battle of Atlanta, one of the most decisive battles of the American Civil War, written by Civil War historian Gary Ecelbarger. It is a pretty straightforward account of the actual battle itself, brigade by brigade, hour by hour. For military buffs, it will be interesting reading. For the average reader, probably not so much, as it is about 150 pages of "this brigade attacked at this time, and this is what the survivors in the brigade said about it afterwards."
But it is a book that brings up some interesting ideas nonetheless, and touches on a few of them at the beginning and the end. Today the outcome of the Civil War is seen as inevitable, that the North was always going to win, but for most of the time it was being fought, it hardly seemed so. Even after Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the South, while incapable of winning the war, could certainly not lose it, and in fact in the summer of 1864 appeared to be on the verge of doing just that. Up until Atlanta fell, Abraham Lincoln's reelection was looking very doubtful, and with failed Union general George McClellan as President, it is very, very doubtful that the war would have been prosecuted to a victorious conclusion, if only because the generals most responsible for winning it would have been relieved of command by McClellan.
It also tiptoes around something that isn't generally heard in classrooms or popular mythology regarding the war. It is commonly beleived that the South had better generalship and that their armies were more effective than the North's. That belief is wrong. The North's armies were every bit as good as the Southern man-for-man, and after 1863, the generals were better. At the risk of sounding sacreligious, Robert E. Lee, while effective at times, made blunders on both his Northern excursions, and was eventually defeated by a man who was (gasp) a better general, the best general this country ever produced, Ulysses S. Grant. But the Lee/Grant comparison, while interesting, isn't particularly relevant to this book, but another point is; that many Southern generals were not only ineffective, but stupid. The general who conceived and lost this battle, John Hood, threw away his army and the rebels' chances for success in their insurrection by being unable to wait for another  three months for Lincoln's defeat. One of the best generals of all time, Hannibal, was stymied by a patient enemy, Fabius Maximus, who did not commit and waste resources in a pitched battle he likely could not win; if he had not done so, there would have been no Roman Empire and history would have taken a vastly different path. If Joseph Johnston had been left in charge of the army (Johnston was put back in charge after the debacle, and the remnants were still in the field when the war ended), history would have played out much differently.
It was also interesting to find out that Atlanta, as important as it was, was not the behemoth city it is today; it had ten thousand residents at the time. It wasn't even the capital of Georgia at the time (some town called Milledgeville was); that came after the war, partially as a measure of spite towards those who forced the state back into the Union, as a way to remind everyone that the hated Yankees did not destroy the Georgian spirit. It was important because (shades of today) every important railroad in the South went through there. But losing it might not have been a fatal blow, in August 1864, if Hood had not thrown away his army there; there was no intact force left to oppose Sherman's march to the sea during the remainder of 1864. We also would have been spared Gone With the Wind and other elements of the Lost Cause myth that have bedeviled American culture ever since.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: VOYAGER

Voyager is Stephen Pyne's ambitious effort to not only tell the story of the Voyager space missions, but to fit Voyager and the larger space programs of the world's nations into a larger narrative of the history of exploration in general. Voyager (actually, Voyagers, because there were two of them) was the spacecraft that was launched in the late 1970's to take advantage of a once-every-two-centuries planetary alignment that allowed all of the outer planets to be visited. The story of how the project came to fruition, and of the United States' space program in general--how priorities were set, the struggles to find a coherent emphasis--, is pretty fascinating, and the review of the missions brought me back to my youth, as I recalled the awe of the pictures sent back from Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The technology, so cutting-edge at the time, now seems primitive--a cell phone's electronic wizardry is capable of more memory than the spacecrafts' computer by a magnitude of thousands-- but the spacecraft worked beyond wildest dreams; they are still transmitting beyond the planets, and will, faintly, for another ten years or better. It was perhaps the apex of the space program not only of our country, but of any country.
Pyne doesn't shrink from the implications of that statement, either, as the decline of NASA is discussed in detail, too, especially the boondoggle that the space shuttle turned out to be and the gradual takeover of the program for military purposes.The review of the struggle to set agendas within the space program is pretty interesting stuff, as well, and many personalities of the age are revealingly illuminated, including such "pop" figures as Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan (I am glad I am not the only one who found Sagan pompous and two-faced).
The other part of the book, the brief overview of the history of exploration's ages and the space program's position as the signature undertaking of what Pyne calls the Third Age, doesn't work as well, and Pyne admittedly struggled with it. While there was some interesting information transmitted, by and large it only served as a distraction from the larger tale being told of the Voyagers' journey, and his main thesis that we are in the middle of another exploration epoch doesn't really pull together very well. But the main focus--Voyager--is a good enough story that the book doesn't suffer much from the distraction; it is extremely readable and informative, at least to someone of my generation for whom the Voyager flybys of the outer planets came as regularly as signposts on a highway on my journey through my youth. I was in high school when the first Voyager got to Jupiter, and was getting ready to get married by time Voyager 2 got to Neptune over a decade later, and the six periods when Voyager (Voyager 1, by design, only went to Jupiter and Saturn) was in the news all marked distinct eras in my life. I had also forgotten that Challenger blew up when Voyager 2 was at Uranus, and the spate of stories in the papers at the time about the contrast between then and now with NASA and government priorities regarding the space program.
That debate is still being fought, but it has become clear that all the lofty rhetoric and fantastic dreams for man in space heard during my childhood is not going to come to pass. And even though a case can be made that it is no great loss, it nonetheless feels like it is. One of the vignettes in the early part of the book points out that the Chinese empire explored most of the world during the 15th century--and then followed up their discoveries by closing up shop and banning travel outside China. In effect, that's what we have done, and it seems as it's happening to be as short-sighted and deficient a decision as the Chinese one was in retrospect. But the will to change it isn't likely to come any time soon.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Drug Tests at the Welfare?

Last night, a Facebook friend posted a notice that Kentucky had supposedly enacted a law requiring drug tests for anyone applying for public assistance of any sort--straight PA, Medicaid, food stamps. After I posted a reply, I looked up the particulars, and found out that it hasn't been passed and isn't going to get passed; the same folks that put Rand Paul in the US Senate apparently put the measure on the table, but the fact that it violates federal law as it currently stands is going to preclude it from passing, as it should. My friend agreed to disagree with me, but I think this question needs to be explored in a little more detail, because it ties into something I've both written about before--the last acceptable prejudice, against people who use or have used drugs--but also how "simple" solutions that appeal to people because they sound right are neither simple nor solution.
I vividly recall a precursor to this conversation a few years ago. I was at a meeting of the Southern Tier Meth Coalition, an outfit dedicated to tracking the use of methamphetamine in this area and devising strategies to combat it. The only non-professional in the audience was an obviously earnest and distraught man in his late 30's, who eventually got up near the end to speak his piece. He was the parent of a kid in middle school in the Union-Endicott district, he said, and had discovered a few months prior that his kid had been dabbling in "hard" drugs (he didn't specify meth, and it may not have been, because this was the time of the great Heroin Scare in that district). His pain and puzzlement were evident, and he suggested that the entire school population be randomly drug-tested as a way to try to keep on top of the problem. He wove his appeal to drug testing into a general narrative about the state of society and how the U-E school district had fallen on hard times and how taxes were already too high. After the meeting concluded, I spoke to him for a few minutes, and asked him how much he thought the drug screening units cost. He guessed about a dollar, and I told him that, in 2001 when I was working at Fairview, they cost about $5.30 each in bulk, and to test an entire school population once a month or so--about a thousand kids at that time-- it would cost the district about $50,000 a year just to buy drug screening units. He didn't seem fazed, and then I pointed out that it would mean that fifty tests a day would be done, which meant that somebody would have to be doing a test about once every ten minutes every day school was open, which would mean at least one and maybe more staff would have to be added, bringing the total cost, at a minimum, when union benefits were included, to well over $100K just to implement the idea. That got his attention, and then I asked him what would he do, hypothetically, if, say, five percent of the kids tested positive--50 kids in the school. He said, "Send them to rehab." I said that there were three rehabs in New York state that took under-18 youths in-patient, each costing over a thousand dollars a day, and youth-only facilities that offered drug treatment cost about as much. He then suggested that they go to outpatient instead, and I said outpatient not only was not free either, but there were months-long waiting lists to even get into the juvenile groups. If you end up hiring more people to staff the facilities--well, part of your original complaint was that your taxes were already too damn high, and those people are not going to work for free... To his credit, he admitted he had not really thought through his ideas, and that his frustration had gotten the better of him.
Which is where this initiative is coming from. No one likes knowing that there are some people who no doubt are taking advantage of the system. I spent my lunch hour yesterday at my lawyer's office talking about my upcoming support court date; the biggest reason I am finally taking Sabrina's mother to court for support after all these years is that I am tired of her choosing to spend her money frivolously instead of on supporting her child. But requiring public assistance applicants to take drug tests, however emotionally appealing to the person who pays into the system, runs afoul of many of the same considerations detailed so many years ago at the Meth Coalition. I pointed out some of them yesterday, and a few responses were posted to the effect of "kick their asses off welfare." If only it were that simple... for one, most people, if they do test positive, are going to test positive for marijuana, which really should not be illegal any more. It is very hard to make and sustain the case that it is any more harmful than tobacco or alcohol; in fact, I would say, and think the evidence proves, that far, far more damage is done to people and families by alcohol abuse than by pot use. Is alcohol going to be tested for, too? Should smokers be banned from receiving assistance? Part of me is infuriated every time I go to Social Services for some reason and I see dozens of people waiting to be called who go outside to smoke cigarettes; most people smoke a pack a day or more, which today has got to be at least a $40/week habit, and that could $40 or more a week going to pay for their, you know, necessities. But I also realize how difficult that would be to implement--and also that it would create a whole new set of problems. Namely, what do you do with the people who would test positive for any of these proposed tests? They're not going to just go home, start the car, and close the garage door; one way or another, ignoring them is not going to be possible. If you take their children away from them--where do they go? Foster care and residential facilities are incredibly expensive and, to judge by some of the people I heard from last week, fuck up the kids in them even worse than their families do. I think we as a society would rather not deal with an army of people committing petty crime to eat, and telling them to "get a job" isn't a solution in a time of 9.6% unemployment, either. Sending them to treatment would be even more expensive then it was nine years ago, and even then, well over three quarters of those who start rehab relapse within six months of entrance; I spend my life around people in recovery, and I am one of about two dozen people I have met in a decade who only went to rehab once and never relapsed. Rehab hardly "fixes" the problem; would we be prepared to fund multiple trips to rehab? It used to piss me off royally when I worked at Fairview and saw people there for the third and fourth time (and when my home group was the one that meets at the rehab, and I would see people there for the third and fourth time in a calendar year. My thought was the same--who's paying for this shit?) DSS temporary services workers already have reputations for being less than rocket-fueled and more than a few are not exactly warm and fuzzy; can you imagine them administering urine screens to people they already have contempt for (and who have contempt for them, as well)? Can you imagine Broome County Security intervening in cases where urine is being thrown at people (and you know it would happen)? If you use the oral device now available, it takes ten minutes to administer, it's easier to get a bad reading--and the units are even more hideously expensive. And rather than a thousand kids in a school who would need testing once a month, you would have close to a thousand people a day using services of one sort or another that would need to be tested, especially if it were to be required every time they come in for recertification or screening. You would need to hire at minimum half a dozen people at DSS just to process the drug screens--and this at a time when entire departments are being consolidated and work forces being shrunk, because the tax base is wilting and those left are screaming that they pay too much as it is (and they're not really wrong).
Some point to the fact that private businesses drug test for employment as a reason for social service departments to do the same. With all due respect, that argument falls down, too. Businesses' fundamental purpose is different than DSS. Businesses are entities undertaken by individuals and large groups of individuals (corporations) to make money. DSS assistance exists to make sure people don't starve and don't die of exposure to the elements and don't have to walk around naked. The purposes are not the same, and the constraints they operate under should not be and are not the same, either. Something like DSS has to necessarily have looser standards, probably looser than what would seem "right", because we haven't got to the point, at least not yet, where we would deny someone the right to existence because they took a few bong hits a couple of weekends ago. I agree that it is distasteful to know that some people on assistance are getting away with doing things they should not be doing, and that our money is funding their narcissism.
But the alternatives, ultimately, are even less appealing and more expensive. It's one of those ideas that sounds good that would fall down if actually implemented.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sports Desk Report

1) I did not pay much attetention to the pro football season this year, after last season ended with a baseball bat to the stomach. But I have to say that I could not imagine much worse of a scenario than the four teams who were left to play for berths in the Super Bowl. As a Viking fan for my entire life, I cannot imagine an outcome more odious than Green Bay and Chicago playing for the right to go to the Super Bowl. It was a crappy game, as it should have been, and to me there is no doubt the better team won, but watching the game was like being invited to the wedding of someone who stole the girl you loved the most in your entire life away from you. The AFC game wasn't much better: I don't like the Steelers, and while the Jet team doesn't bother me much, I can't stand their coach (both for his blowhard personality and the fact that he is the offspring of one of the world's truly loathsome individuals, Buddy Ryan) or many of their fans. I suppose, for my brother's sake, I would have preferred to see the Jets win, but even then, watching the game was more an exercise in resignation than anything else. I suppose if there was comfort to be taken, it is that despite a Super Bowl victory a long time ago, Jets and Vikings fans at least are in the same area code as far as dealing with disappointing outcomes. Misery does love company.
2) The magical season of the BU women's team continues apace. Sunday, I went to pick up Sabrina from the softball clinic and discovered that the game in Vermont was on the radio, and ended up listening to most of the second half. The team blew an 11-point lead and should have lost the game; they turned the ball over 20 times again, and much of the team had a horrible game once more. But if there is a moment that has defined what the season has become, it was this: tied with 8 seconds left, they immediately put up a shot off a timeout, missed, and Vermont came down the floor and was fouled at the buzzer--only to have it reviewed by the officials and ruled that the foul came milliseconds after the horn. Then in overtime, when Vermont went ahead, Andrea Holmes drilled a 3-pointer to put them ahead to stay, and Jackie Ward made two clutch free throws to ice the game. Granted, they struggled mightily to beat a team with two wins--but in the past, they lose this game. And to win a game with zero points from Jaz Swain and three each from Rebane and Elafson--well, you take it and you go home. Or in this case, to Boston, where the first-place showdown with the other BU is tomorrow night. Boston University had their first single-digit win in conference play Sunday (by 8), and if the Bearcats don't fire on all cylinders, it's not going to be close. But still, this is the first time in memory that a game has mattered this late in the season.
3) The Rangers stubbornly refuse to go away, as well. The injuries keep mounting; there were 5 players last night-- Newbury, Kolarik, Zuccarello, Grachev, McDonaugh-- who were in Hartford a few weeks ago, and a sixth scratched. Callahan, Dubinsky, and Fedetenko are out for weeks longer longer, Frolov is out for the season, and Girardi did not play last night. They've wobbled a bit recently, but somehow keep picking up wins. After rallies against Atlanta and, last night, Washington, they have now won seven games (and three OT losses, as well) this season where they were trailing entering the third period--which is three more wins than anyone else in the league. The heroes keep coming; last night it was Anisimov scoring in the shootout to win the game. There are down notes, most notably watching the carcass of Chris Drury take up ice time (will a captain be a regular scratch once everyone returns? It would seem to be indicated). But this is a team with a future now. For us old-timers, this season is starting to have echoes of 1979, where it is possible to dream as the season starts to go into its final third.
4) Finally, the Syracuse Orangemen lost twice this week. The good news is that they were two losses to two of the best teams in the country, and they were the first two losses of the season. I haven't been paying a lot of attention, but this is another team that has Sweet Sixteen and possibly more written all over it. It should be fun to be a Syracuse fan in March again this year.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Book Review: QUEEN OF DRAGONS

Queen of Dragons is one of a series of drakon novels by Shana Abe, a fantasy series that follows the story of a diminishing number of dragons (who can turn into smoke or human beings at will) still living in the world. This installment features the interaction between the Carpathian and English dragon clans in the late 1700's, and of the courtship and eventual mating of the King of the English clan and the Queen of the Carpathian. This sounds simplistic and frankly juvenile, but somehow it works, and the interactions between characters are skillfully drawn and explored. I have not read any other books in the series, but after a few dozen pages, I was not wondering what was going on, and to me, that is a characteristic of a decent series, that one does not have to read all the books in order to be able to enjoy any particular book in the series. Reading the book was a pleasant way to spend a very frigid afternoon.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Review: TWILIGHT AT THE WORLD OF TOMORROW

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow is first-time author James Munro's fascinating story of the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. It is hard to believe that it took place over 70 years ago, because when I was growing up and spending a dozen, if not more, weekends in Brooklyn and Queens a year (my father had nine brothers and sisters, and all of them lived within twenty miles of the World's Fair site), I used to ride by the site in Flushing where it and the later 1964 Fair were held almost every time we went, and I heard my father talk about my uncles' contracting company helping to build both Fairs and his own attendance at the age of 8 at the 1939 Fair. But I had no idea of what had gone into the Fair, and the politics and story behind it.
For one, it was a vastly different America in many ways. Union issues caused both delays and cost overruns in its construction. The vast majority of Americans, in the author's words, "did not trust corporate America," and there was considerable trepidation about whether people would pay to see corporate exhibits, so much so that blatant advertising of a particular company's products in their own pavilions was discouraged. The food and admission prices that seem absurdly low--75 cents for admission, fifty cents for a hamburger meal--today were considered gouging at the time.
But most of all, there was a difference between what we are taught in school today and what was the reality at the time about the United States' place in the world drama playing out at that time. The way history is taught in our schools, this country didn't pay a lot of attention to the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe during the 1930's, and we were sort of taken by surprise by the advent of World War II. That is not true; both the construction and open phases of the fair were dominated by geopolitical concerns. Germany eventually, after an enormous outcry, did not have a pavilion. One of the most controversial pavilions was that of Palestine, and in the second season of the fair, the pavilions of the countries conquered by the Nazis became centers for national mourning and defiance. Public statements by public figures at the time made it clear that most of the country was very anti-Nazi, and that the small vocal minority that was pro-Nazi was treated like the KKK would be today--there was a near-riot when the German-American Bund had a rally at Madison Square Garden, for example.
But there were fascinating subthemes, too. I did not know that the Flushing site used to be New York's main dump, it took an enormous amount of money to transform it into developable real estate. I know that Robert Moses, the public works czar of New York for nearly forty years, was tyrannical, but this book paints a very vivid portrait of just how much so. I did not know how badly the Fair (and the 1964 Fair, too) lost money. I did not know (because virtually the entire infrastructure of the Fair was demolished and eventually ended up in the war effort) what the 1939 Fair looked like on the ground (I do have some sense of the 1964 Fair because my parents bought a whole lot of souvenirs and I've actually been to the place a few times; there is much more of the latter Fair left in place).
And most of all, I had no idea that the Fair was disrupted and diminished by a terrorist attack. A bomb was placed in the British pavilion on July 4, 1939, and while it was discovered and moved to a more open area, it detonated and killed two members of the bomb squad and injured several others. I read a lot and am more knowledgeable than most about American and New York history, and this was the absolute first I had heard about it. Even my father, who was not shy about recounting events of his childhood, never mentioned it to me. After the attack, the theme of the Fair-- "Building the World of Tomorrow"--seemed to be a cruel joke, especially as the globe descended into the hell of world war, and the Fair chugged along to a rather desultory end. But the author points out that its most enduring legacy may have been, through a series of events connected to the Fair that Albert Einstein found himself a part of, the pushing along of the Manhattan Project, which led to the atom bomb; Einstein basically lost his pacifism when he learned that the Germans were trying to find all sources of uranium. For better or worse, the Fair had its role in creating the future, even if it bore only a partial resemblance to the World of Tomorrow it exhibited.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Purpose of My Blogging

I've been catching some flak from others for moderating their comments. One person in particular keeps posting comments, calling me insecure and self-involved because I'm not letting everybody's comments post up on my site. I'm going to explain as succinctly and clearly as I can:
  1. People blog for different reasons. Maybe some people blog with the intention of starting dialogue. I'm not one of them. I blog because I like to write about things of interest to me. Do I hope that the people who read it like it? Well, yes, of course I do. Does that mean I am writing for them? No, it doesn't. Does it mean that I am inviting them to comment on my motivations, my professional abilities, and my ability to form opinions based on the world as I experience it?... I have to think about that. I don't mind engaging in an honest give-and-take with someone--if it stays respectful and if they want to talk about what I have actually written, instead of their particular pet topic or axe to grind. I don't have to agree with someone to respect their point of view--but it's not going to happen if their comment starts with, in essence, "you're full of shit and here's why." If you don't like what I write, then stop reading. I can't be any more blunt than that. I'm not advertising on this blog; I'm not one of these guys writing with the express aim of swaying public opinion, at least not at present. I don't feel any obligation to give everyone a chance to spew whatever bile comes into their head all over something that matters very much to me. So what if it's on the Internet? If I were in Wegman's and you accosted me and started telling me that I'm an idiot and I harm everyone I come into contact with, do I have to put up with you? Hell, no. In my mind, this isn't any different. I'm not compelling you to read it, and I certainly am not inviting you to share top billing here. Like I said, if you want to share your views with the world, then start your own blog. Don't think you have a right to piggyback on mine.
  2. I especially love the people who have no idea of who I am performing instant personality analysis. I've been very blunt about my journey as a person, where I came from and what I've gone through to get where I am now. There are over 500 posts on this blog that both talk about my past and serve also as a log of the journey as it continues. I know I struggle with control issues; every recovering addict that has ever lived does--and so does everyone else in the world, even if you prefer to believe that you don't. We just are more open about it. But I don't believe that it's a mark of a control freak to not post disparaging, insulting remarks about me on my own website. And if you disagree, than we're going to have to agree to disagree on that one, because I'm not changing my mind.
  3. And as a general rule, it would be nice if people read what I write more carefully. 
This is the last word I am publishing on the subject. If you think this makes me controlling and insecure, so be it. I don't care what you think. You're welcome to stop reading at any time.

The New Year's Diet

A few weeks ago, at the end of last year, I wrote that I was going to start a diet, mainly because I needed to lose weight (I had creeped over 200 pounds again, not the most I've ever been but enough so that some of my clothes were unwearable and most of the others were uncomfortable) but also because I wanted to check out something I had read about in a few books I've read recently. In Stalin's gulags and in the Nazi concentration camps, the inmates were supposed to get 1200 calories a day, which their jailers insisted was enough for healthy human existence. I figured I would try to limit myself to that amount, which seemed suspiciously low to me, for as long as I could. I believed that I could probably exist on that much, but I wondered if I was going to be walking around hungry all the time, if I was going to have to give up virtually every thing other than basic necessities, or whether it was in fact a diet that you could stay healthy on.
Well, I've been doing this for 3 weeks, and I think I have some answers. I've lost 16 pounds in those three weeks, but only two in the last week, as the major fat has melted away. My clothes aren't fitting quite as well as I would like them to, but at least I'm not carrying big paper clips in my pocket in case the buttons on the waist pop in the middle of the day, like I was in December (and yes, it happened toward the end of last year. Twice), and I can turn my body in some of the more problematical shirts again without feeling stitches in the fabric strain. And I've been surprised by how well I can eat. I've pretty much eaten everything I normally do except speidies, which is tomorrow's dinner, at least once. If the portions are reasonable (for example, one lamb chop instead of two or three), then dinner usually comes in around 600-700 calories. I usually eat sparingly for breakfast (banana most days, a bagel once in a while) and lunch (most of the time, an orange will suffice, but even a baloney/salami/cheese sandwich is only a few hundred calories--if you only use one slice of each). But I've been surprised that you can still eat what I would have thought were really awful-for-you foods without blowing the calorie limit. I've gone to four BU basketball games this year, and a hot pretzel and a small box of popcorn is just over 600 calories. A slice of cheese pizza, I found, is only about 150 calories. A small bowl of french fries is about 300 calories. I've made sausage/egg/cheese sandwiches and a couple of burritos stuffed rather full, and while figuring out how many calories are in there is a nuisance, the total is still manageable.
I've kept track on a daily basis of the caloric intake. The average is a little over 1200, with a high of 1835 one day and a low of 998. And I've haven't gotten to the point where I am staring into space thinking how hungry I am. It's not quite like a prison diet, in that if I decide I want to eat, I always can, but much to my surprise, you can live on this amount of calories. And my physical went well; my blood pressure (with the aid of Enalapril, which I've been on for a year) is normal, and I've decided that my cholesterol is not enough of a concern that I am going to lay out 88 dollars a month for Lipitor or feel like I've gotten the shit kicked out of me every day like simvastatin makes me feel.
So how low am I going to try to go? The last major diet I was on was six years ago, when I had ballooned up to 212 and I was told basically to lose weight or make sure my will was in order. I did something similar at that time, but even more drastic--I basically ate one small meal and a piece of fruit a day--and dropped 40 pounds in two and a half months; my blood pressure went to normal again, and my doctor, entirely seriously, was asking if I was smoking cocaine again. I stayed around 172-75 for another couple of months, until we started going to the Chinese buffet after my home group every Friday, and I began the long drift upward to 202. I'm not sure I want to make the effort it would take to get to 172 again, but I would settle for 177 as a base weight. I think between 170 and 175 is about the lowest I can go these days; I can't exercise like I used to, and I'm not about to get into a relationship with someone like Lila again where I lost my appetite for days at a time (the last time I was under 170 was when things were falling apart with her in 2001). My clothes fit and my blood pressure is good in that range, and I can live with that.

Friday, January 21, 2011

More Buzzing Around the Pile

  1. Yesterday's post caused quite a stir, if the webpage hits and comments were any indication. Apparently, there are some people out there who view adoption as a never-ending trauma. I'm not going to revisit the entire debate here, but several points struck me forcefully. One is some people really have no sense of what adoption truly is. There were several comments to the effect that people who adopt children should never feel as though those children are ever theirs, even though they love them, care for them, nurture them, raise them, simply because they did not give birth to them. With all due respect, adoption is not designed to be temporary; it is not foster care, where the family knows going in that it is a temporary situation. This is the only society in the history of the world where that distinction does not appear to be clear as day. From ancient Sumer right up through 20th century America, an adopted child was considered to be a part of the adopted family, not a boarder, and adopted children didn't have any doubts that they were considered to be part of the adopted family. I'm aware that some adopted families are not warm and fuzzy. I'm also aware that many "regular" families are not either, as well, and on balance, I would guess there are far more of the latter than the former. If the original family was intact, if the original parents were capable of or wanted to take care of their children, adoption wouldn't be on the table, would it?  Second, regarding biological parents, I guess it's supposed to be fine if their word, their commitment, is conditional and temporary. Unless the parent is truly unfit, in which case adoption is the only safe option, biological parents agree to give up their children. As difficult a choice it must be, this or any other society cannot run as if agreements entered into do not mean anything if one party unilaterally changes their mind and thinks it can be abrogated. In virtually no other area would such an action be even remotely considered to be valid or even possible, but I guess the rules don't apply when a biological parent decides years after the fact that they really didn't mean what they said and did all those years ago, and basically says, "Well, thanks for doing my job for all these years, and I'll take it from here, and don't take it personally when I tell your child that you never really loved them or cared for them, that only the person whose been absent for years and decades really matters." Three, many of the adoptees I heard from threw out terms like "never was the adoptive family considered my REAL family" and "it's always traumatic" and threw out links and studies to buttress their contentions. For some, I'm sure it is. But no means all. And the basic point I was making--endemic self-centeredness being the root of the problems--is even more strengthened. For an adoptee to insist that the people that have chosen to have you be a part of a family, who love you and take care of you and give you a chance to the best of their ability to grow up and live a meaningful life, can NEVER be considered your "true" family is nothing more or less than a colossal tantrum, of insisting that the adoptee's fantasy vision of what their family should be is the only concept that matters, and if the fantasy is not accommodated, then they are victims of trauma, and they get a lifelong excuse to feel marginalized. They can choose to live their lives as victims if they wish to, but don't expect most of us to feel your pain; it seems that some, even many, have a loving, caring family that apparently they choose not to feel a part of.  And to insist that their sense of alienation is the norm and the only true way of viewing the adoption process is extremely self-centered, as well--only my experience and my feelings are valid. If this is truly how most adopted children feel, then the wonder is that any family chooses to adopt at all. And to those who made my acquaintance yesterday you can comment if you wish, but it doesn' mean I'm going to post them.This is my blog. If you want a soapbox, start your own blog. And it's one thing to disagree with me; it's another to tell me I don't know what I'm talking about. Whether or not you agree with me, what I see every goddamn day in working with and alongside kids and families is not a mirage. If there is one thing I can abide less and less, it's people who insist on viewing the glass as half-empty, and who think they are traumatized because the glass isn't full.
  2. The Binghamton University women's basketball team's magical season continues. As we took our seats last night at the Events Center, Sabrina asked me if the opponent, Albany, was any good. I told her they had the exact same record as the Bearcats, and it should be a good game. It did turn out to be good, in the sense that it was close, but it was a very ugly, sloppy game for both teams. Albany couldn't have shot more than 30% from the field, and BU wasn't a lot better. But the Bearcats played awful in a lot of other areas. Their two best players on offense normally, Holmes and Rebane, scored seven points between them, and Rebane fouled out. They committed about 20 turnovers; there was stretches in both halves where four or five consecutive possessions ended in turnovers--balls sailing out of bounds, bad passes, dribbles off feet, really poor decisions, shot clock violations. There was also a four-minute stretch in the second half when four consecutive shots didn't hit the rim. Albany outrebounded the Bearcats by a margin of at least 15. And yet somehow, they won, their first victory against a quality team. I wrote last week about how Kara Elofson is the type of player every winning team has, and she was the difference last night--key rebounds, and made the key 1-and-1's at the end of the game to keep the Bearcats on top. I am sure Albany drove home wondering how the hell they lost this game, because they really outplayed BU. But the final score read 50-44 in favor of the home team, somehow, and it was a sign that this season really is going to be special.  They go to Vermont Sunday, a team that is 2-17, and all signs are pointing to the Boston University game at Boston next Wednesday as being the biggest game played in years in women's basketball around these parts.
  3. Weather is causing issues here again. I just got a call from Binghamton City School District; two-hour delay today. I normally don't care too much, but I am supposed to go to Norwich today to attend a mandatory seminar for those interested in applying for a local outfit's grants this year. This foundaton is, of all the local charitable foundations, probably the most difficult to deal with--their paperwork requirements are more burdensome than OCFS and the federal government combined--and I am tempted, if it is not cancelled, to just bag it and take my chances that many others will decide it's not worth the risk of driving an hour in the snow to get to. It is supposed to go till 3:30, and I can't say I'm relishing the idea of driving 40 miles with 2-4 inches falling. I have to call there at 8:30 if it is still being held, but knowing this outfit, I would guess that it is going to be.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Test of Parenthood

I've been charting various milestones in my daughter's journey into adolescence the last couple of years. While there have been a few bumps, there has been nothing that actually worried me, and although I can do without the tuning out on occasion and the constant text messaging, on balance she's still a pretty good kid, reachable and teachable. And I have felt like I made the right decisions by allowing her to be on Facebook and letting her have a cell phone, with proper supervision, because it is better to try to maintain some input into the process--and understand how it works--than to stick my head in the sand and hope that nothing untoward is happening.
But this week has been the first real scare. She has hundreds of friends on Facebook, and I don't know half of them anymore, which isn't the issue; my network has expanded to include plenty of people I don't spend a lot, or any, time around, too. I do monitor her page at least once a week and often more, though, and lately this one boy has been showing up regularly, both on Facebook and in text messaging. With a little research, I found out he is a freshman at Vestal High School, a friend of Nancy's stepson, who is also a freshman at Vestal. I was concerned, but not terribly so, as long as it was at that level; it is natural for girls her age to interact with older boys because of the difference in maturation rates.
Then two days ago, I heard her talking on the phone, and by being persistent I found out it was him. I made her hang up, and told her I wasn't real cool with that happening, and that I would prefer that he not call anymore. She kind of shrugged and said OK insisting that there was no reason to be concerned. Yesterday, she was home from school due to a snow day, as was Vestal, and to make a long story short, not only did he call her again after I got home, but there was an extensive chat log on Facebook, too, and it's clear that this is not quite as innocent as she is making it out to be. I was quite a bit more forceful this time, telling her that there is no legitimate reason for a ninth grader to be calling a sixth grader and that if I found out it happened again, she was going to have her Facebook deactivated, and her iPod Touch,and cell phone taken away for an indefinite period of time. I also text messaged the boy--he has his phone number on his Facebook profile--and told him that I strongly suggested that he not call my daughter anymore; and I called Nancy and asked if she knew the kid, which she does, and she said she would take it up with her stepson and the boy's parents, if need be, that she felt I was right to be concerned.
Sabrina took it somewhat calmly, and is clearly worried about her digital access; she continues to claim it is innocent, at least on her end. And I think from her end, it probably is; I don't think she's ever actually met this kid. It's very flattering, I'm sure, for a just-turned 12YO to be paid a lot of attention by a kid in high school. It's the boy that I am really not happy with; there is no legitimate reason for him to pay the amount of attention that he has been to her. I'm suspecting that his parents are clueless and don't pay the slightest bit of attention to his phone and computer access, which would be par for the course for parents in Vestal, but I digress... I've addressed it as much as I can without punishment and freaking out. But this had better nip it in the bud. I did not make her block him on Facebook or even ban her from texting him; I'm not sure I could do the latter without taking her phone away, and the other would be ineffectual, I"m sure. But we are going to be busy the next two nights--winter concert at school tonight, BU game tomorrow night--and we will see what happens next.
But I told Sabrina that she is going to be watched very closely the next few weeks. I am going to take the extraordinary step, for me, of involving her mother, too, to monitor the situation on the weekend; Shannon didn't pay a lot of attention in the old house to her phone use, and clearly does not pay hardly any attention in the (bigger) new house to what she is up to. Even Shannon, as much as she is not liking me right now, isn't going to be so lax as to approve of this kind of thing just because I'm against it.
I knew adolescence was going to be a series of tests for me, but I was really hoping to not have to deal with this stuff for a while longer yet. But that didn't happen, and now is the time to apply what I've always preached, and to also show some faith in my daughter. I know the value system that she has been imprinted with, and there are times when I have to trust that she is going to follow it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: THE FLOODED EARTH

The Flooded Earth is prolific academic Peter Ward's latest book on the full effect of global warming. Ward has been beating the drum about warming for many years, and he focuses, in this volume, on an aspect of warming not often talked about: what the melted ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica actually are going to  mean. What it means is that much of the world's currently inhabited lands near the oceans are going to be either underwater or uninhabitable to salt water intrusion into aquifers. Ward is also blunter than most writers on the chances of arresting the increase in carbon dioxide emission; he believes the chances of the levels leveling off or decreasing are next to zero unless and until there is a major "mortality event" directly attributable to global warming, and even then it is doubtful to occur.
The scenarios depicted seem to be realistic, and none of them are encouraging. My daughter was asking me what the book was about last night, and I told her, and she asked how soon the ice sheets would be melting, and I told her that by time she was my age, the ocean would likely have risen a couple of feet and maybe even more. She seemed impressed, and no doubt will be discussing the matter tomorrow with her science teacher, who is her favorite teacher. But even if every sixth-grader in the world is imprinted with the necessity and desire to change their ways, the melting is still going to happen. The question has become, "How many people are going to have to die before an equilibrium is reached?" My guess would be as many as 80% of the people on earth.
One aspect Ward talks about in some detail that no one else I've read really has is the geopolitical aspect of the changing climate. If one looks at any map of the world, it's hard to miss that most of the upper latitudes of the globe are taken up by three countries. It will be very interesting to see if the United States and Canada remain in the same relationship over the coming decades, and the Russian resurgence that has come about post-Yeltsin is only going to become more pronounced. The idea of World War III between the USA and Russia seemed unthinkable fifteen years ago, but the nightmare scenario of our parents' youth is going to become the nightmare of our children's, too. Ward is quite clear that he does not expect the Chinese and Indians to voluntarily cede their rising eminence based on climatic concerns and does so without seeming judgmental, but he does manage to mention a few times that the Japanese employ practices he does not find pleasant. He also foresees conflicts arising over the exploitation of newly emergent land in Antarctica and Greenland, which I have never seen anyone refer to before but what makes perfect sense in the light of what has happened in human history before. And he also went into considerable detail about what happens when the oceans currents change; that's not pretty to contemplate, either, oceans with completely anoxic (oxygen-free) zones where the dominant life form is sulfur-eating bacteria, which he contends is a development that could lead to what he calls a "greenhouse extinction." He presents fairly compelling evidence that of the five major extinction events in earth history, four were caused by what we are seeing now--excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The difference now is that instead of it happening in five to fifty thousand years, we may start seeing it happen in mere decades.
It's coming, and it's not going to be pretty. And Ward is the first writer who has at least hinted that the world we live in may--may--not change too much for humans if there is a lot fewer of us. If the world population is, say, one billion, instead of eight or nine, what we call modern life probably could continue. But of course, that's a lot of people dead. As I said, it's not going to be pretty.

Monday, January 17, 2011

MLK Day

I do not remember Martin Luther King while he was alive. I have very few pre-school memories, with none of those of world events, and I did not start school until the fall of 1968. But he was a presence nonetheless; not only was there always general disbelief that his assassination was not the result of a conspiracy, but at New York at least, he was always accorded, in classes and public discourse, respect and near-reverence usually reserved for national icons like Franklin and Lincoln. As I got older, I was shocked to discover that this was not the case nationwide and had not been the case when he was alive, by any stretch, which puzzled my adolescent mind: how could someone who professed the values he did not be held in universal respect?
There were two basic answers to that question, one partially legitimate and one not at all. The one with some merit is that, like almost all public figures, there was an element of hypocrisy; King was often unfaithful to his wife, which in a minister and moral leader is even less excusable than in an average prominent political figure. While it was not splashed all over the media like it would be today, nonetheless it was an open secret of the time (especially with J. Edgar Hoover's FBI dogging him and actively seeking to undermine his influence) and no doubt contributed to some people regarding him as a charlatan of sorts.
But by far the biggest reason for the lack of respect in certain areas of the country and certain strata of society was the great unmentionable (well, it was mentionable at the time): racism. Racism was much more overt in King's lifetime than it is now, but it still exists in a more dormant but still viable form, and I have no doubt that someone of King's stature and methods would have to be silenced all over again in this day and age. While the blatant legal racism of years past may not be in place any longer, the disproportionate incarceration level of black America has served much of the same purpose, with arguably nastier results: a discriminated-against black person still was able to be a part of family and society, and was still able to contribute, even if underpaid and mistreated, to the national economy and well-being. The non-violent philosophy King espoused was being rejected even in his own lifetime, and has virtually no practitioners left today, for reasons rather unclear, as there are more hypocrites and less adherence to the moral strictures of America's religions than ever before; it is much easier to point out gaps between rhetoric and practice than ever (as people like Mark Sanford, Eliot Spitzer, Tom DeLay, and John Edwards, among almost countless others, can attest) and those guilty of transgressions do pay the price. While the situation of the black and poor was not great by any means in 1968, their plight was a national priority; today, their is some handwringing over their desperate straits in public, but the gouging and exploitation of them proceeds with gusto as America accelerates its division into the classic oligarchical state of a small number of haves and a great number of have-nots. King's legacy has dissolved in the Age of Oligarchy, and it seems extremely unlikely that that legacy will ever return to the top of the national agenda--witness the cruel irony of the first person of King's race, a member of King's political party, turning to be as much of a corporate butt-boy as the most whitebread of Republicans.  If there is going to be a change in American society, it is going to be explosive and anarchic, not peaceful and orderly, which was King's dream.
I was also thinking about the irony last night that the recent attempted assassination of a progressive Democrat happened in Arizona. When MLK Day become a national holiday in the mid-1980's, Arizona became notorious nationally because of its failure to implement it, even losing a Super Bowl because of it.; racist undertones of Tea Party wingnuts with access to guns in Arizona are nothing new. While all 50 states grudgingly observe the holiday now, in many places it is a second-tier holiday; for example, in our county government, it is a "floater," meaning basically it is optional, and if today is taken off it means that another floater like Veterans Day has to be worked on. It says something about our national sense of values that much of what we treasure in public--the message of racial harmony of King, the sacrifices made by our men and women in the armed forces--are treasured a good deal less in practice.
King has been dead now longer than he was alive, and it is fair to wonder what his ultimate legacy will be. I seriously doubt his birthday will be celebrated much longer. Between the nation eschewing his ideals and the growing marginalization of the ethnic/racial group he means the most to, King already has little relevance to most of those with the ability to make decisions of this type. With economic times hard and not likely to substantially improve, the latent racism always present in American life is only going to become more blatant as time passes, and that is going to work against honoring King's memory, as well. It is distressing, because although he may have had lapses in his personal life, King's ideals and actions in striving to bring those ideals into practice were and are beyond reproach. This would be a lot better place to live if America were more like the dreams of Martin Luther King than those of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. And it's a measure of how tragic my own life span has proved to be that I have had a front-row seat as the nation has turned from one dream to the other, and my generation has seen the souring and ending of the American Dream.
It has not been a pleasant show. And taking one day a year to talk for a few minutes essentially about What Might Have Been doesn't really help the sense of loss and, yes, anger at the knowledge that we as a society glimpsed the city on the hill--and turned around and went in the other direction because it was terrain we were familiar with. That city on the hill cannot even be glimpsed in the distance now.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review: WRONG

Wrong is not the George W. Bush memoir or even the autobiography of my daughter's mother, but a study by David Freedman of the plethora of "experts" in our society and why they are often contradictory and, well, wrong. There is a lot of dense analysis in these pages that basically says experts are human, that they are as much if not more prone to biases as us ordinary folks, and that many are beholden to those with vested interests in the questions being examined Ultimately, Freedman's remedy for wading through the mess and discerning which expert knows what they are talking about is what used to be called common sense. If a study is claiming something outrageous on the basis of a very small study over a short period of time, then the chances are it's hogwash. If a study's claims go against logic and long-established practice, it's probably hogwash. If it seems to have been done carefully according to random double-blind control groups, there's a better chance it's legit. If it is anything at all to do with money, such as stock market predictors, be aware that is subject to intense bias. In other words, you are better off living your life based on the intellectual distillation of your own experiences rather than trusting to experts, and in matters, such as medical problems, get as much information as you possibly can. As an aside, the author also delved into the search engine phenomenon and confirmed what I long suspected: the first page of Google often isn't the best information you can find on a subject, so keep searching.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tournaments on the Horizon?

The Binghamton University men's basketball team has gathered almost all of attention paid both locally and nationally to winter sports at BU in the last few years, much of it for the wrong reasons. The blowout loss to Duke in the tournament two years ago has paled compared to the revelations of a program out of control, one that appeared to fielding a team consisting entirely of players who were deemed expendable by other major college programs because they were, even though they met athletic standards, for one reason or another young men who did not belong in college. Last year's team lost half its players less than a month before school started, and actually turned around some of the negativity by being competitive in its conference (it sat out the conference tournament as penance for its sins). This year's team's prospects didn't look a whole lot brighter, as all the holes left by the departures of two years ago by no means have been filled, and indeed the team entered conference play at 3-10, a mere five points away from being winless.
But the team has started their conference schedule 3-0, and hope has sprung eternal. Their best player has been hurt, but some others have been picking up the slack, and there are no budding monsters lurking in the conference. It is unlikely, but not impossible, to dream of a legitimate NCAA appearance this year. What a shot in the arm that would be for the community and the university, whose reputation has been clearly lowered by the mess.
But the more likely tournament participant is the women's team. Sabrina is interested in basketball (she can't play for the school teams until 7th grade, though) and is still a Junior Bearcat (this is the final year she can be), and we have been to all the women's home games this year. Which, in a pleasant change from past seasons, have all been victories. The team doesn't play as well on the road, and only sports a 9-7 overall record, 2-1 in the conference, leading into the weekend's road game, but unlike in years past, this team has a chance to go places. For one thing, the team speed issue that has plagued them in years past has been addressed; the holdover players all move around the court well, and the new blood, particularly freshman Jaz Swain, who has the reflexes of a cat, have pushed the speed of the game the team plays to a quality level. They have a 7 1/2 player rotation (Simone Thomas plays significant minutes in only about half the games), which doesn't sound like much but in the league they play in is a player and a half more than most teams have, and this year's edition pulls away from teams in the last 6-8 minutes instead of fading themselves. There is less reluctance to take open shots than in years past; Orla O'Reilly in particular has become much more comfortable shooting the ball than previously, but all of them will put it up (there are five players averaging between 9 and 15 points a game) when open. Their team defense is pretty good; they have some trouble with teams with tall and bulky forwards, but unlike in past years, they don't stop trying after a bad lapse or if the other team hits a couple of three-pointers.
But the most notable difference has been the confidence level. The teams of the past few years would clearly and obviously deflate when things started to not go their way; this team does not do that. If a layup is missed, then they work harder on the defensive end. If someone on the other team is unconscious from 3-point range, then they work harder to deny her shots. If the foul calls are one-sided, they grit their teeth and play zone for a few minutes. This team, unlike the other editions, takes the court expecting to prevail in the game, and it's a wonderful thing to see. I really think that they are capable of being conference champions this year for the first time.
And unlike the men's team, there is no baggage surrounding them. The team GPA is in Dean's List territory. The players are personable and visible in the community; my daughter's second-favorite player for the three years we have gone to games is Viive Rebane, and she got quite the thrill when Rebane and O'Reilly came to her school before Christmas and hung around with the students for an hour. It's hard to be sure when the only time I see them is at games, but judging by some of the cheers and comments from the student section, they appear to be integrated into campus life, as well.
And they have, most of all, some really good players. Swain is still raw, but is going to be, absent unforeseen complications, a great player; the tools are there now, and her only obvious weakness is an inability to make foul shots, which means she finds herself on the bench more often than not at the end of halves and games. O'Reilly has turned into a very useful player who does everything well without being noticably outstanding, and most importantly can handle the ball if needed to; her twin Sinead, after two years on the bench, has turned into the closest thing to a power player the team has--still isn't much on offense, but can be reliably depended upon to make another team's inside players work very hard to get the ball and to score. Rebane has matured into an effective forward as well--always around the ball, adept around the basket, and, along with Swain, a ferocious rebounder. Jackie Ward, the lone senior (and Sabrina's favorite player), still isn't afraid to put it up, and although her judgment is suspect at times about shot selection, plays effective defense and handles the ball well. Kara Elofson is the type of player every successful team has--doesn't make the highlight reel, but gets a lot of rebounds and scores 5-6 baskets a night, and is effective on defense.
But the engine that makes the whole team go is Andrea Holmes, who is, from what I have seen, the best player in the league, much less on the team. Every game the team has played this year, she has been the best player on the floor on either team. She handles the ball well; she can't have but twenty turnovers on the entire season, and the team never plays out of control. She can score, she gets her share of rebounds, she plays effective defense. But the best thing about her is that, at least in the home games we've seen, she leads. If the other team makes a run, it is guaranteed that Holmes will drive the lane and answer or draw a foul. She has a sniper's instinct for putting up a deflating three, and makes most of them. She and Elafson are the only players who consistently make the front end of 1-and-1's. Her decision-making is beyond reproach; I don't think there's been an occasion this year where she's done something and I've wondered, "What was she thinking?" If there is a big player on the other team having a good game, she drives the lane and starts drawing fouls on that player; I have seen this too much this year for it not to be a conscious decision on her part. And she knows the game is 40 minutes long. She had a real tough start to the game the other night, missing her first five or six shots and turning it over twice; she just took a deep breath and started driving the lane to get to the line where she regained her eye, and turned into a dervish on defense, neutralizing the guard on the other team who was burying 3-pointers at will. And when the leader of the team doesn't panic and adjusts on the fly, the rest of the team settles down, too. It's been really special to see.
The best thing about the team? They have one senior, Ward. They should be even better next year. But this year's team has a real good chance to get to the NCAA tournament. Granted, I have not seen Albany or some of the other conference teams that are supposed to be good yet, and UMBC crushed them in Maryland the other day, but it's still possible; if they play their game, they can beat anyone in their league. It should be an interesting winter.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Last Acceptable Prejudice

Yesterday, one of my friends posted that she was getting very tired of the media's infatuation with Ted Williams, the homeless guy with the golden voice who has been discovered, hired by an NBA team, reunited with his family, detained by police, intervened with by national media personalities, checked into rehab, and probably abducted and probed by aliens, too, all in the space of a week. Williams was very open in his first few days in the spotlight about how he came to be homeless--drugs and alcohol, and their effect on his life. My friend, to her credit, did not mention Williams' problems, only that she was tired of the media attention.
Not everyone was so reticent. One commenter found it necessary to state her indignation that so much was being made of the "offensive" Williams, and that it was outrageous that our society would make a "celebrity out of a crackhead" and that his addiction was being "glorified" and would no doubt negatively affect "impressionable kids." I'm used to the intolerance of many toward those with histories of alcohol and (especially) drug abuse, but the comment about the "glorification" of his addiction struck a raw nerve.
Nothing I have seen about Williams' story has "glorified" his addiction. It is a part of the story here, and it is a part of almost addict's story, that the man's abilities, family, and ultimately most aspects of his life were eventually consumed by his addiction, in his case to the point where he was homeless and holding signs begging for work on the streets. But the fact that almost all addicts have abilities, have qualities, have families that love them and that they love, does not enter into the equation with far too many people (especially if the addict is not white and their drug of choice is not alcohol). All they need to hear or know is that they have been addicted to drugs of one sort or another, and they are forever pigeonholed and categorized as a lesser form of life, barely human compared to the upright, upstanding citizens who have not succumbed to addiction. For people like this, for the addict there is no true redemption, no rehabilitation, no real recovery: they are once and forever "crackhead," not worthy of any positive attention or even basic consideration as human beings. That many do put their problems behind them, make amends to those they have wronged and to society, and show "impressionable" young people that it is possible to change and to be able to recover from even huge and repeated mistakes does not matter to these people; the only important piece of information is that the addict has ingested illegal drugs, and therefore are morally inferior beings that can never be full participating members of society again, that they have forever forfeited any right to have the same "rights" that "normal" people do.
There is wrong for dozens of reasons, but I will limit myself to a few, one of which I put into my eventual response: that people in recovery are much more numerous than you think, that smoked cocaine entering one's bloodstream does not automatically cause horns that never can be removed to sprout from one's temples and therefore make a "drug addict" instantly identifiable. While we are not a majority anywhere, we are represented everywhere. One thing I have noticed in 12+ years clean is just how many people seem to know the lingo and turn up at the occasional meeting, and many of them are people that, if they choose not to identify themselves as recovering people, no "regular" person would ever suspect of having had a rather large substance abuse problem in the past. One need not be forever marked as a moral defective (actually, they never should be to begin with, but I will let that one pass for now); it is quite possible to change more or less completely, to transform. There is a school of thought that believes that people's characters and moral compasses do not significantly change after adolescence, and they could not be more wrong. I and thousands of others in this relatively small city and its environs give the lie to that proposition each and every day.
But you can't tell most "normal" people that. Even if the prejudice is not so raw as that exhibited by the commenter today, there remains lingering and barely concealed disdain for addicts, even the recovering kind, among what we call "earth people," and it expresses itself in many different ways on a daily basis. I remember during my first year at my job, I had to attend a cultural competency training sponsored by my agency, and on the last day, there was time set aside for comments from the floor. When my turn came up, I said that there were no doubt competency issues in the workplace that centered on race, gender, and sexual orientation, but from my perspective, the most pervasive cultural insensitivity was the total indifference displayed by "social drinkers" to the abstinent, that every agency event seemed to feature a cocktail hour, that informal get-togethers and celebrations always seemed to be at bars, and there was a near-total thought process disconnect between the families we worked ostensibly on behalf of and their children that we worked with in our programs and our staff--that there was absolutely no understanding of the dynamics of addiction in those settings other than the staff's preferred view of it as a moral problem that had to be stopped, either by just choosing not to be addicted or by "professional treatment" that focused on physical aspects of the disease of addiction (and which could be billed for). Every other person who made a comment during that three-hour session generated a lively discussion of the issue they raised; mine generated a profound and rather embarrassed silence, even among the presenters, until about thirty seconds passed and someone else talked about whatever their pet issue was.
And drinkers are everywhere, not just on the job. I have dated a few people over the last several years, and with one exception, every one of them drank, and with every one of them (well, one says she was an exception, so I will give you the benefit of the doubt and say maybe I was oversensitive, Lori) it eventually got to be a problem, because they and 95% of the world are not comfortable socializing without alcohol (or other things). I get it; I drank for years. But I also think I'm not wrong for thinking that if your ability to drink means that much to you that you can't put it aside at least part of the time because I matter enough that you don't want to make me uncomfortable, then we don't really have much of a basis for a relationship. But somehow, I have the problem with substances, even though I'm doing just fine without it... I don't want to go off worse than I already am. But there's a fair amount of hypocrisy involved in all this. I remember hearing in early recovery that almost everyone is an addict; it's just that many people's drug of choice isn't a narcotic or alcohol. I believe that this is true, and that most people who have progressed to a certain point in a 12-Step program are actually the healthiest people I know. We're not steeped in denial, held prisoner by our fears, worshiping at the feet of false idols, or paying lip service to cliches twenty years past the point of relevance in our lives.
But the biggest reason I like hanging around other people in recovery is that they're willing to talk about something other than my drug use, especially as that period of time when I used drugs recedes farther and farther into the past. My estrangement from my sister this past Christmas was in large part due to her insistence (not limited to holiday times, but pretty much every holiday gathering), every time her feathers get ruffled about anything I say or do, of bringing up active addiction, of my moral rot being demonstrated by the fact that 14 years ago, I did something under the influence of drugs. All the aspects of me and my life that have changed since 1998 matter not at all; since I was once an active addict, I'm always just waiting for a chance to reassert my inner asshole at the expense of the good-hearted and morally upright, if only I am given the chance. People at my job keep a very visible distance; there may be some outward cordiality, but hardly anyone ever asks me if I want to go to lunch or what I think about the State of the Union address or who's going to win the Super Bowl--but my input is sought after when the topic of the day is Ted Williams or Lindsay Lohan or "Intervention" on television. People meet my daughter for the first time and are visibly surprised when she turns out to be "normal" and sunny and bright and friendly; one person a few years ago actually voiced her surprise, given "what her parents have done" (even though I haven't "done" anything since 2 1/2 months before she was born). When I hang around other people in recovery, there isn't this distance, this shadow, hanging over everything; we can talk about jobs, the Giants, the economy, culinary delights, dogs, whatever, without needing to make oblique references to addicts and addiction and without having a look on our faces of mortal fear that something crazy or inappropriate is going to suddenly come up next in conversation.
And our effect on children? A fair number of people I know who have been in recovery for years have actually done a better job raising children than those who are not, because so much of the 12-Step process deals with values we hold and how we came to hold them, and that necessarily involves not only a look at our own upbringings and identifying what did and didn't turn out healthy and what we did and didn't like about it, but the willingness--indeed, urgency--to act on the knowledge and to be different when it is our turn to parent our own children. For many of us, the cycles are not only identified, but are truly broken. For earth people, the realization that co-dependency and pursuit of "financial security" are at least as much golden calves as drugs and hedonism are never comes, and the results are starkly apparent in their children and the way they come to view themselves and the world around them. I go to my alma mater every year to answer questions about drugs and drug addiction and every year without fail I get full-page letters from a quarter of the kids in the classes I talk to thanking me for presenting the "real" story about drugs, for providing an example of courage in facing up to problems, and for demonstrating that it is possible to make mistakes and still end up having a good and fulfilling life. It's not "glorifying addiction;" it's not a fond reminiscence of Up in Smoke days or talking about how many famous people I did blow with or how much I miss it. More than addiction, it's about perseverance and responsibility; it's about gratitude; it's about hope. Would you rather see a story in the media about Ted Williams or Jared Loughner? Is Ted Williams or someone like Andrew Cuomo a more inspirational story for your impressionable youth (with the proviso that Williams is just at the beginning of his journey)?
And for those decrying that Williams was "handed" opportunities unfairly: the man, whatever his current circumstances, worked hard at some point in his life to get that "golden voice." Does the fact that his life spiraled downhill after that mean that the voice training and work experience of prior years no longer counts that somehow it didn't happen? Many addicts are college grads; do we have to give our degrees back and start over because we ended up with substance abuse issues? Everyone has some talents or ability, and everyone gets extended an opportunity of one sort or another to move forward. Would these people rather Williams didn't jump at the chances he's been offered? I think he's handled a rather unique situation about as well as most people would; let's not forget that three short weeks ago, he was a street person, not a national celebrity whose hopes and dreams are suddenly and improbably within reach. He didn't find himself on the streets in a three-week period, and it's going to take some time before he is going to come all the way back. Frankly, rehab is the best place for him now; it will mean the glare of the spotlight will recede for a few weeks and he can gather himself and regain his bearings.
I think the media is overdoing it a bit, but I think it is that they are creating a false set of expectations The man is obviously not equipped to suddenly be "normal;" no addict with a few days or weeks is, especially with the entire country watching every move. What I find disturbing is the large number of people who would begrudge him his opportunity. There is a substantial number of people who would prefer that anyone who has had drug problems crawl under a rock and never emerge, never try to get better, and never try to contribute to "normal" society again. Their attitude, frankly, says more about them and their insecurities and cold-heartedness than it does about the addict's moral compass. I only hope that most of these people are never held to the same level of accountability that they hold others to. But the chances of that happening are slim, because it remains disturbingly acceptable to hold addicts, recovering or not, in lower regard than "normal" people. You can't dismiss people as being unworthy of respect because race, gender, or sexual orientation any longer without catching flak, and rightly so--but people can and do so dismiss those with addiction problems, even if those issues are well in the rear view mirror without recrimination or challenge from most of their peers.
And it's wrong. And it's not easy to live with, every day.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Book Review: PACKING FOR MARS

Mary Roach's Packing For Mars is one of the most interesting and entertaining books I have read in a long, long time. We all have ideas on what space travel entails, and for those of us who were in grade school during the Apollo missions, few professions seemed more cool or glamorous than "astronaut"--I remember killing entire summers with a couple of kids in the neighborhood pretending we were exploring the other planets in the solar system. But astronauts remain human beings even if they are in space, and this book examines what the practical, everyday effects of space travel are on the body and minds of human beings. Every chapter is full of interesting information that most likely the casual observer never really thought about before--how astronauts are chosen around the world; the effect of space on the mind; how one trains for zero gravity; preparing for crashes and accidents; space hygiene (including things we do everyday without thinking about that are vastly different in space--eating, eliminating our wastes, and bathing) in zero gravity; the effect of incredible G-forces on the body (imagine not being able to reach a switch because your arm is too heavy to move);and places on earth where one trains for actual extraterrestial worlds (in the Canadian Arctic in the summer, it turns out).
The chapters on hygiene matters are especially eye-opening. One thing that never made it onto the coverage of the Apollo missions on television was when someone didn't quite close their fecal bag correctly and pieces of crap went floating around the module. One reason that the Apollo crews were all male was, at least according to NASA, not discrimination, but rather trying to figure out how women could urinate into containers in zero gravity. Showering in space is next-to-impossible; apparently the inside of capsules were horribly rancid-smelling by the end of a mission. These tidbits of information certainly change one's idea of the glamour of space travel. But they don't necessarily kill it; one of the themes running throughout the book is that every astronaut and cosmonaut talked to by the author thinks the experience was well worth it. And I'm sure it was. Less than a thousand people in the history of mankind have ever left earth orbit; only about a dozen have ever actually set foot on another world. Regardless of the inconveniences and strangeness of it all, how cool would that be, to be one of those few? I wouldn't do it now, at 47, but twenty-five years ago, absolutely I would have. And I think an awful lot of people would, too. The author did most of what astronauts do for training, and the reader does not sense one moment of regret on her part. And I didn't regret opening up this book for a moment, either.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Let the Games Begin

The New Year is starting to kick into high gear. We had a long meeting yesterday regarding the One Point in Time Homeless Count that is coming up in a few weeks. The folks that do the counting have never been particularly committed to making an intense effort to count numbers of homeless youth around here, for a variety of reasons. This year, we are going to make a concerted effort to count as many as we can using the HUD definition of "lacking a fixed, adequate, and regular" nighttime residence, and try to get them included in the final number. There is some skepticism as to whether the powers that be will accept our data, but whether they do or not, last year's fiasco--when, according to their count, there was one homeless person under the age of 18 in Broome County on the day the count occurred--will not be repeated. I am actually among the skeptical, but as our program, as currently constituted, does not need HUD money--we get our federal grant through HHS--I'm not as bound up in this issue as some of my colleagues in other programs, who are facing large budget shortfalls and could use access to larger amounts of HUD funding. It will be an uphill battle, but the area I have been assigned--the school districts--is one that will be relatively easy for me to get the necessary numbers.
There is also the matter of child support. I filed the petition for support on Friday, and it got to the respondent yesterday. I endured a series of vitriolic text messages, accusing me of bad faith and of asking her for money she doesn't have. As for the second, I note that she still smokes cigarettes (I quit over eight years ago), that she has many more cable channels than I do (I get six channels) , that she has two huge dogs to feed (our pet eats grass), and she pays for odd stuff like drug screen kits for her son (if she would have followed through on PINS, they'd do it for her). I realize that it's tough to learn to live within your means, but I made that move almost a decade ago, and if she is ever going to stop living paycheck to paycheck, she really ought to learn to. The fact is that I am caring for Sabrina most of the time, and that the concept of child support exists for a reason. The bad faith accusation has, on the surface, more substance. I wouldn't describe it as "bad faith," but I admit that there is a part of me that knows that in some small way, she did work with me several years ago on support issues. But as the bile increased, I also remembered that I was hit with child support (50 dollars a week) in 2002 when I was on unemployment, and God knows how many CPS reports and other crap for years. And the bottom line is that everything changed in the summer of 2009 when she put drug abuse back on the table; she was the one who reneged on the basic premise that both of us were going to live on this side of the law. Some of her other threats and noise are actually laughable--she says she wants "back taxes" from me because I've claimed Sabrina on my taxes since 2004. Well, she signed the exemption form in 2004 and 2005, and I've had primary residency ever since, so what exactly does she think she is entitled to?. She also made vague threats to have me audited because "I know the shit you and your father used to do." My father has been dead for over ten years, and my tax returns since 2002 have been very simple: the W2, child care when she was in daycare, claiming her as a dependent. No deductions, no exotic claims.
I'm not really scared, not by a long shot, but it's never good to think about any possible issues in this area. After the child support problems with the parent of my other girls, I have been fanatical about keeping track of expenses and income-- I have a box full of receipts in the basement, I have a notebook by the computer that logs expenses each and every day for over eight years, and I double-enter the notebook figures on Excel spreadsheets. It would be a nuisance, but I am better equipped for a close look than anyone else I know. And I haven't even gotten a refund in the last three years, not on a federal level anyway. I would also think that her history of welfare fraud isn't going to help her credibility with anybody....she has a history of blowing hot initially and then not following through. The wild card is her new man here; I do not know what kind of input she is getting. I kept every response to her reasonable and civil; I basically told her to file her income statement and we'll then see whether her claims of poverty have any sustainable basis. The initial appearance is February 7, but if I get the petition approved, I will get awarded money from the day I filed, which was last Friday.
Lastly, there's a significant amount of snow out here. Not sure whether there is going to be school, (just got a call that there is a two hour delay) . but I have to say I'm finding it very comforting that I know I can leave Sabrina here all day if need be without problems. I am also eager to test my new shower; the wall covering and the wall behind it had to be replaced. This house, nice as it is, is eighty years old, and some of the more basic things that would go into a newer house--like a fan in the bathroom--aren't present here. But I'm not complaining; this is still as nice a house as I ever lived in. And I have to go to the doctor's to get my arm read to assure my agency that I do not have TB. My physical showed no major problems, which made me very happy; I'm not real eager to be needing more products of Big Pharma while the battle to implement and/or repeal health care reform begins in earnest.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Giffords Shooting

Already the media offensive has started. "Both sides talk like this." "He was a nutjob." "You can't stop someone who wants to do something like this." "Palin didn't really mean what the ad implied." And so on, and so forth, and shut the fuck up already.
There are some people whose politics are left-wing whose tendencies go to the violent side. But as another blogger wrote, they take out Starbucks windows and disrupt conventions, not try to kill politicians of the other side. The media never points out that right-wing violence has been much more prevalent in this country for at 150 years. If they still taught the labor movement's history in schools today, we'd know that the police and courts stepped down hard on ordinary people every step of the way right up until World War II; massacres took place, and were legally justified by their compatriots in black robes and Congress. Outside of Hinckley's attempted killing of Reagan, every assassination attempt of prominent political figures in this country since McKinley has been on Democratic/progressives. It is not the lefties who are inundating the airwaves with calls to war, who are subtly and openly questioning whether the President is even American, who are subtly and openly racist, who went apeshit and go apeshit over incredibly modest efforts to tinker with vast economic inequality and systems that are clearly broken and repair. It isn't lefties who support guns for everyone. It isn't lefties who openly profess allegiance to the ideals of men whom, two and a half centuries, fought a real bloody revolution.
Was this guy nuts? Yes, no doubt. Does that give America's Bimbo, Glenn Beck, The Big Fat Idiot, Rand Paul, the Tea Partiers and the media mouthpieces a pass on their responsibility for this? Hell no, it does not. Palin ran an ad with the words "Reload" and a gunsight targeted on the state where Giffords is from, and the text of that ad listed Giffords as someone who needed to be removed. While this may not be the same as actually pulling the trigger, it sure as hell had something--a lot--to do with someone who did actually pull the trigger. It helps create a moral climate where this sort of action becomes acceptable, where violent measures become legitimate ways of dealing with those who do not agree with you.
And it's been ratcheting up for a long time. I remember less than a decade ago, when it was very difficult to be openly against sending troops to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. I remember all the lies told about Kerry. Look at the noise being made about Obama's "socialism" and his citizenship. Look at the screaming over health care reform. In the fall campaign, Rand Paul supporters actually beat up someone who was stumping for the other candidate, and then justified it as some sort of hijink. And with the Wall Street toadies now in the majority in the House, more along these lines is promised--not just likely, but promised.
There are times when being a history major is beneficial; it does offer a window into understanding what is happening in the present. And what we are seeing here is Wiemar America. In the 1920's and early 1930's, the Nazis gained first a foothold and then eventually climbed all the way into the drivers seat in Germany. The similarities are unsettling: 1) a sense of helplessness and outrage over foreign concerns; 2) economic disorder and hardship becoming increasingly common; 3) Right wing scapegoating of left/center politicians as the source of the nation's ills. 4) A romanticized version of the past serving as some sort of ideological mecca to return to, 5) the future aim of a cleansed society, of a new order where only true citizens were inhabiting the country, 6) dreams of a much larger empire to make the lives of the chosen ones easier, and 7) a party/societal elite who will benefit the most from being in power.
All of these elements are present in American political life today. Your Tea Partiers are the American Nazis, people. These people are not going to stop now; if anything, they are going to be emboldened. One reason that the Nazis managed to get into power was that none of those who should have known better took them and their rhetoric seriously; they assumed that the noise was simply a means to get themselves into the circle of power, and that they would be co-opted and appeased rather easily by the existing elite. In short, they thought that underneath the hate-filled slogans, there was a shared value system. Well, there wasn't then, and there isn't now. These people mean every awful thing they say, and if they get opportunities, they are going to act out on those beliefs. We need to wake up now and do something about these assholes now, while there is still a chance of keeping them at bay.
One of the core American beliefs, one of the supporting pillars of American civil life, is that "freedom isn't free," that it is a citizen's duty to fight to make sure that our civil liberties remain intact. You usually hear it as justification for barbarism abroad. But the biggest threat is here, in this country, and that's where it needs to be combated most urgently. Of course, given the empty rhetoric of most American political life, chances are slim that standing up against it is actually going to take place; the capacity of most of the populace of this country for denial of where our real troubles lie is stupefying, and has been for hundreds of years.
There is a general sense of outrage, true, but so far the general spin effort has been to protect the right-wing politicians and mouthpieces. This is to be expected; the media is controlled by them and exists to further their agenda. I'm not optimistic that anything substantial is going to change, unfortunately, but like a Cassandra, I feel duty-bound to make the effort, because make no mistake--they will eventually come for you, too. Let's not forget that that famous poem was written in the Nazi era, and they have already started coming for the blacks, the poor, the Muslims, the immigrants, the gays, and the Democrats. And when they have gotten their hand fully on the reins of power, they will come for the suburban whites, too.