Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Extended Illness and Bereavement Leave

Yesterday was a historic occasion--for me. A few years ago, our agency changed the way we managed our time off. We used to have sick, vacation, and personal time off, but that was changed to a simple "combined leave time" of varying levels, depending how long one had worked for the agency (5-10 years in my case, which gave me four weeks off a year). Our accumulated sick time up to that point went into the "Extended Illness and Bereavement Leave" pool, which is meant to cover extended absences--but can only be drawn on after being out for three consecutive days of CLT. I had 227 hours of EIBL when the policy changed, and you get something added like an hour a week.
But this is the first time in nine and a half years I've ever been out for an extended time. Thank God I had the time, which had accumulated all the way to 302 hours before this week's pay period. And I thought, not for the first time, how fortunate I really am to have the job I have, for the agency I work for, that, as much as I complain at times at the bite coming out of my pay for health insurance, I am actually able to take three weeks off to recuperate correctly from surgery without it being a financial catastrophe.
And I am always struck by the many, many people I know who do not have the options I have in this area. All of the youth that I have ever worked with, in nine-plus years, have never landed at a job with sick time off. Usually, an absence of more than a day brings termination, even if the kid is legitimately half-dead. In all of the jobs MOTY has had over the past ten years, I can remember maybe two where she was able to be off and get paid (although it would have helped her cause if she had both stayed at all but a few of those places for more than a few weeks, and if she had worked for longer than a few weeks before taking days off). But when I talk to some of my friends that work for other outfits in the do-gooder community, few if any have the ability to do what I am in the midst of doing without having to go without a paycheck or two (or depend on something like AFLAC, which is something you have to pay for every week out of your check if you go that route).
And having grown up around here, in the heyday of IBM and GE and Singer Link, it is even more disconcerting and sad. Those places were good places to work, even without unions, employees were invested in, made to feel like they mattered. Today, although there are exceptions, the main ethos in the workplace is very much "everyone is replaceable; if you're not here all day every day, we'll find someone else who will be. And benefits? Don't make us laugh." To be sure, on paper there are benefits available--usually after being with an outfit for six months. And I can give you five examples of people I know, three kids and two adults, that were let go one to three weeks before their six-month anniversary for reasons that were dubious at best. And these aren't fly-by-night operations; the employers were Wally World, Target, Boscov's, and Dunkin' Donuts.
And once more, I cannot see how anyone can logically make the argument that the state of affairs we have now is an improvement over the supposed bad old days. I cannot understand how not providing benefits to the workers that work for firms large and small is necessary for profitability--and then the profits seem to justify executive pay rates in the tens of millions. I fail to see how this is the "road to making America strong again." This is what we have done for thirty years, and the only "road" we have traveled has been the one to perdition. I watch Primates Flinging Poo, who want to travel even farther down the road to providing less guidance and regulation of corporate American, who want to dismantle what obligations employers still have to their workers, and I think that these people really do want a return to the past-- the Gilded Age, when employers did not give their employees anything, and the society at large had to put up with such pleasantries as sawdust in food, poisonous substances in medicines, child labor, and 72-hour work weeks, while the "entrepreneurs" in charge made millions.
Yes, it's all connected. Let's say this was 1912 instead of 2012. Let's say I had this procedure done because I couldn't actually walk anymore. Either I would have had to go back to the job when I couldn't really get around at all, or I would have no money coming in for three weeks--not to mention I would have had to pay the doctor myself.  Chances are if I had stayed out three weeks, I would have been replaced--by someone who couldn't do half of what I could do for a long time to come. See, ultimately, this is what kills me, that in the long run, it is not advantageous for corporate America to treat its workforce this way. People get good at what they do for a living--but that level of expertise and competence doesn't have time to accrue if the worker is getting replaced every few months or after a year. And you also end up with employees coming to work when they are not physically able to do their jobs well because they are afraid they will not have a job if they don't show up--and so do a half-ass or incomplete job because that is all they are capable of on that day. And everyone suffers as a result.
But then, that's the problem with the economic model we have been moving toward--that has become entrenched--in the last thirty years; it's short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating. It doesn't have the big picture in mind, not at all. But those with the ability to set agendas don't care; this model allows those setting the agendas to benefit more, and that's all they are concerned about. Which, distasteful as it is,  is human nature. And that ultimately is the argument that government regulation and redistribution is necessary for a healthy society. Yes, I can already hear some of my regular responders scream that the government is not efficient at dispersing that money--but even if so, it's a hell of a lot better than a few executive types hoarding it while the vast majority lose the ability to be able to take care of themselves because they can't afford to miss a week of work.
I remember talking with my father one time about his experiences with unions. I expected him, as an independent contractor and businessman, to be anti-union, especially since he spent his formative years in the construction field in New York City, where unions and officials had to be paid off for any job to be landed. But even though he occasionally bitched about what nitwits some individual union guys were, he was not anti-union. I remember pointing out to him how some of the state highway guys were a joke, some of the laziest people I had ever met, and how it was disgraceful that they had a job, etc. And he said to me, "Yeah, but that guy just dropped $500 in here. That's the thing about what you're complaining about. Is it right? Probably not. But what it means in practice is that everybody has money to spend on everything everyone else has to offer." He then used a local beer distributor, who was fairly generous to his employees and had a 25-30 man operation that probably could have made do with five or seven less employees, as an example, saying, "If he was more of a greedy prick, he would maybe buy two more cars, which means if we're lucky we get to put tires on them once every two years" (our core business was tires and an inspection station, although he had a side store with clothes and jewelry and other knick-knacks, like one of these gas station/convenience stores before they became ubiquitous). "But we wouldn't have the business of ten of his guys, he'd have three or four less trucks, we wouldn't see the employees' wives and family, and we wouldn't be doing the inspections and repairs on any of these people's vehicles. That's why I put up with his arrogant ass; because on some level, he gets it. Money is like shit. You spread it around, it does a world of good and everything grows. You leave it piled up in one place, it stinks like hell and poisons the air, water, and ground, and eventually it drives everyone away."
Well, we've piled up a lot of shit in this country in the last thirty years. And it does stink, it has poisoned us, and a lot of people have been driven away. I realize I've digressed quite a bit from have paid time off and being grateful for it. But it would be better by far for all of us if everyone had the opportunity to do what I've been doing the last two weeks and will be doing for another week.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Higher Education

My daughter Rachel is a senior in high school, and is likely to be the class valedictorian of her mid-sized high school. As such, obviously she is planning on going to college, and indeed she has been sifting through brochures and applying for well over a year now. But as graduation approaches--less then four months away--and the reality sets in for all of us, I've had a few occasions to reflect just how different it is from when I was getting ready to enter college thirty-one years ago.
For starters, there are a lot fewer kids planning on going to four-year schools than there were in 1981. I would say roughly a quarter of my graduating class went to the local community college, and a good number of those eventually did go to a four-year school. In Rachel's class, I would bet close to, if not actually more than, half of her class is going to go to either Broome or Tompkins/Cortland (one of the few residential community colleges in the system), and for a majority of those kids, an associates degree is all they're going to get. And it isn't due, in any significant degree, to brainpower or intelligence. It has simply become a matter of finance.
I got my first inkling last year of how much college costs have changed, when my oldest niece was finishing up high school in the Albany area and Aldo's son was graduating with high honors from Binghamton. My niece, after a rocky start to high school, pulled it together fairly well to graduate with decent grades--but my sister is not able and her father is not willing to put much money into higher education, and as a result it has never been an option to go any route other than community college for her. She now is going here, instead of up there, because my mother (her grandmother) and my other sister are making it possible for her to do so, but even with that help, I have not gotten any sense that she is planning on going beyond Broome. Which to me is sad, not so much for the improved employment opportunities (which is a factor) but simply because the four years of college simply make for a fuller intellectual and emotional development. I don't know how many people I know that are surprised by the breadth of knowledge I possess, of the sheer number of things that I know something about. Some of that is innate, in that I've always been very curious about the world and wanted to know more--but part of it is simply having those four extra years to pursue learning and educating myself. To take one trite but real example, most people have heard of Shakespeare, but few (and getting fewer by the year) actually have read or seen anything Shakespeare wrote, and even fewer understand that the themes that Shakespeare explored are very relevant to the experiences of life; that Shakespeare is perhaps the greatest single contributor to British culture and, by extension, had a huge influence on the development of American culture; and that I actually know a thousand little terms and references that pop up in all sorts of places--for instance, Sabrina was watching some movie years ago where the character washed and washed her hands but never thought they got clean, and I know that's an idea that was first expressed in Macbeth. I can give you dozens of examples of things that I know because I learned them in college. There is very little that happens in the world today that I am totally ignorant of, and the reason why is that I had all that time to learn about those things.
And I didn't have to pay a premium for it like kids today do. Aldo's son ended up going to RIT--and is paying $50K per year for the privilege. Rachel's preferred destination is the University of Rochester, which costs $60K per year. I am just blown away by those numbers. I went to a SUNY school, back when New York and indeed the rest of the country were committed to higher education as a means to better citizens and better prospective employees. I graduated from Geneseo, the best of the colleges and the equal of the four university centers academically and in prestige, and actually one of the better institutions of higher learning in the country (if all these rating services are to be believed; all I know is that it's very hard to get accepted there) in 1985. And between the larger amount of financial aid available at that time and the lower costs of that era, I actually did not have to pay to attend until I was a senior, and did not have to take any loans at all during that time. I think the entire four years cost less than $20K. I told my daughter that a few weeks ago, and she looked at me like I had antennae growing out of my head. I'm not sure you can go to community college for two years for that amount any more... I had to fill out some online form for non-custodial parents last night so that the schools she is interested in can figure out how much aid she is worthy to receive. There were two things I found noteworthy. One is that I am glad that my taxes are not difficult to figure out, because two-thirds of the form is supposed to be taken from your return. I haven't done my yet, and thank God it is easy for me to figure mine, because most of these colleges are going to be issuing acceptances long before April 15. I have a rough idea now of how much I am going to owe. The second thing is that, after filling out all the information, I was informed that I did not have to pay the $25 fee for filing it, even though my income is not poverty level. To me, that's an indication that the world of higher education is even more divorced from the world most of us inhabit than ever before. I am not wealthy by any means, but I am quite a ways over the "free and reduced lunch" threshold, to take one example. I almost felt condescended to by having the fee waived.
And if one is looking for evidence, as if it was needed, of how wrong the country has gone in the last thirty years, look no further. A college education should not require $200K for four years. If our society was truly geared toward producing well-informed young people capable of independent and rational decision-making and problem-solving skills, we would ensure that virtually every graduating high school youth had a reasonable chance of going to and finishing college without having to pay a prohibitive cost. Thirty years ago, this was the case. And one of the first steps down the slippery slope came when the federal Pell Grant program was drastically cut when Reagan was President; it removed the chance for many kids from not-high income families to go to college for four years. And it's only gotten worse.
You can't tell me that we, as a society, are better off with corporate CEO pay increasing by incomprehensible percentages over the last three decades while the money available to help our kids get a college education has been drastically slashed. You can't tell me that we as a society are better off with people like Mitt Romney, who already started with large fortunes, laughing off $10K as not worthy of note while thousands of kids would give five years of their life for that amount of financial aid to finish college. You can't tell me that stockbrokers and financial specialists and commodity traders making millions and millions, while fewer and fewer of our kids even have realistic access to higher education, is better for the country. And on and on. The bottom line is that George Carlin was right. Thirty-five years ago, there was a broad-based commitment as a society (and our governmental spending priorities reflected this commitment) to creating well-informed citizens. Now, it seems as though the priority at the highest levels is simply ensuring that our educational system turns out a minimal number of obedient workers literate enough to keep the system from breaking down.
And sadly, neither political party, as presently constituted, is making any effort to reverse that direction. And you wonder why no one is enthusiastic about politics? You wonder why the Occupy movement, ill-defined and insipid as it was on some levels, struck such a nerve and remains viable, disorganized as it is now? You wonder why people have visceral repulsion toward the likes of Romney? It will cost more for my class valedictorian to go to one year of college than I make in salary, while Mitt Romney's kid can perform like Spaulding from Caddyshack and go anywhere in the country to college.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Did He Really Say That?

"Primates Flinging Poo" has been taking a bit of a breather during the month of February, so I haven't been paying a whole lot of attention to the ravings coming from the Republican presidential hopefuls. But a few days ago, the anti-Romney of the moment, Rick Santorum, came up with a statement so outrageous to me I had to look several times to make sure he said it before believing it. Santorum is Catholic, loudly so, which would ordinarily be a severe handicap in his yearning to become President; only one Catholic has become President of the United States during the entire history of the republic. This is despite the fact that the single largest religious denomination in the United States has been, since the time of Martin Van Buren, Roman Catholicism. You would think that Santorum would more apt to ape what that successful candidate did and said if he was serious about succeeding in his quest.
But no, he did not; as a matter of fact, he said that John F. Kennedy's famous speech in 1960 that placated enough of the bigoted and ignorant non-Catholics in the electorate so that he did win both his party's nomination and the presidency made him "want to throw up." Kennedy's words about the separation of church and state, designed to assuage rampant fears among the Protestant rank and file that he was going to be a tool of the Pope if elected, apparently sicken Santorum. Santorum actually said he did not believe that the separation of church and state should be absolute, and that he feels that if it is, it means that the "government" is imposing its values and morals on the country.
This is not only astonishing stupidity on the part of a major party presidential candidate--I would like to know exactly what "values and morals" the government is "imposing" on us. It also betrays a fundamental ignorance of American history. I am not currently a practicing Catholic, but I was raised Catholic and grew up as one, and I heard fifty times if I heard once from my parents and from people at the parochial school I attended through the fourth grade how much bigotry and ignorance Kennedy had to combat to become elected because of his religion. The reason that American Catholics are held in relatively little suspicion by a much larger percentage of the American population now than in 1960 is that American Catholics have, for the most part, ignored the Church's positions on most "social issues" very consistently--most notably on birth control and divorce, the very issues Santorum has been emphasizing in his "cultural warrior" pose. That is not to say, though, that there is now widespread acceptance of Catholics and Catholicism among the rest of Americans--far from it. The perception now is that a large majority of American priests are pedophiles, and that the Catholic Church is an institution where no child is safe from predation. I don't know if this is going to hurt Santorum should he win the nomination--I honestly do not think he is going to win the nomination--but, like Romney's Mormon faith, it's going to be a silent but real factor inhibiting rock-ribbed Republicans in the fall campaign. Many may end up not casting a vote, a few would rather vote for Obama, and there will be a general lack of enthusiasm for the candidate in any case, not normally a prescription for winning.
But the overwhelming theme that has emerged from the entire nomination process this year is, "Is this really the best they can do?" It is an indicator of intellectually bankrupt the Republican party has become that there is not only no one currently running that can win a general election, but none of the alleged sideline candidates can win, either. I am not a rabid partisan, and I am no fan of the Empty Suit. But he, and most Democrats, do not frighten me with their ignorance and rigidly impractical views like most of the nationally prominent Republicans do.
Just once in my life, I want someone to run for President that I can actually be legitimately enthusiastic about, rather than resignedly lukewarmly support because he (or she, someday) is "not as bad the other guys." That will have to wait for 2016, at least. If there even is an election, that is; with the amount of money that Very Rich Men are pouring into this campaign, I can't imagine that they are taking sanguinely the possibility that they just flushed it away. Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Book Review: QUITE ENOUGH OF CALVIN TRILLIN

Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin is a collection of various Trillin pieces, for The Nation and The New Yorker among other publications, since the 1960's. Trillin rarely makes a reader bust a gut laughing, but he has been consistently wry and humorous over the entire time, and I found myself smiling almost constantly from one end of this surprisingly long book to the other. Trillin is fairly liberal, and so I enjoyed his bits that poked fun at the Bush Administration(s), but most of his humor takes gentle aim at the foibles of the people that he runs into in his life--lower Manhattan, but also in the literary world, Kansas City (where he's from), Jewish culture, and, in a chapter I found far too short, his former editor at The Nation, Victor Navasky, a man whose memoir I read several years ago and whom I found unbearably pompous, an assessment that Trillin apparently shared. At nearly 350 pages, this is a much longer book than most collections of humorists are, but it is well worth reading.
And as always, click on the title to go to Amazon.com for other reviews and purchasing information.

End of Februrary Sports Desk Update

I used to consider the middle of the winter the doldrums of the sports year. No longer. The three sports I have the most interest in now are hockey, college basketball, and NASCAR racing, and all three are front and center today. This is the most significant hockey season for me in a long time, as the Rangers continue to lead the conference in points by a healthy margin, and have become so good that a 2-2-1 stretch qualifies as a "slump." But I will be spending the next 36 hours or so on edge, because the NHL trade deadline is tomorrow. The Rangers made one minor move--somehow convincing the Florida Panthers to take Wojtek Wolski's carcass off their hands for no major league players, which added $3.6 million to their salary cap flexibility, which certainly makes the possibility of Rick Nash coming on board more likely. The speculation surrounding the Nash situation has been in overdrive for three weeks, since it first became known that he might be available. Columbus needs a goalie more than they need anything else, and the Rangers don't have one to trade, which to my mind means that if the Rangers do get Nash, it's going to be as part of a three-team trade. I wrote a few weeks ago that if the asking price was Dubinsky, Chad Kreider, and a number one pick, I'd pull the trigger. But it has been reported both that the asking price is higher than that, and that Ranger brass has labelled Kreider untouchable, which is another factor making me believe that if it comes to pass, it's going to be a three-team trade, and rack my brain as I might, I really can't see how any of the other teams can make it work for both Columbus and the Rangers...my personal belief is that Nash is going to end up in St. Louis, whose offense is even more anemic than the Rangers' and who have three NHL-caliber goalies, and Nash has done well with the current St. Louis coach, the difficult Ken Hitchcock, when Hitchcock was coaching Columbus. And what else is out there simply doesn't excite me at all, nor do I suspect that it excites Ranger GM Glen Sather. I would be OK with the team doing nothing, other than perhaps try to find room for a top-shelf prospect on the big team--Kreider's season is over, and JT Miller or Christian Thomas will be available soon. They have gotten the best record in the league with the team they have on the ice now.
There is one guy whose name has not surfaced whom I would be ecstatic to see them trade for. The player is an established star, who has averaged over a point a game since the lockout. He is old enough (36) that I am sure that his current team would not ask for a king's ransom for him; Dubinsky, a decent minor league player, and a second rounder might get him, or perhaps a second prospect, too. His team has already signaled it has thrown in the towel on this season by moving several players already. And there would be no question that he could fit in with the demanding Ranger coach John Tortarella; he won a Stanley Cup on Tortarella's Tampa team in 2004. The player is Martin St. Louis, and even at 36 years old, he is a much better player than Dubinsky--indeed, has to slip considerably to fall to the level of Dubinsky's ceiling. Even if they make it a package of Dubinsky and someone young off the current roster--I'm thinking Hagelin; one of the three really good prospects has to take a spot with the top two lines, and, as many positives as he has, Hagelin's ceiling is probably being roughly as good as Dubinsky--along with picks, I'd do it in a minute. St. Louis is like Richards, in that he's really good; even if he slips some, you've still got a quality player. But I haven't seen any indication that St. Louis is available, so I'm sure it's not going to happen. But if it did, I think the Rangers' chances went from "pretty good" to "even if Sidney Crosby comes back, the Rangers are the favorites."
But hockey, rewarding as it has been to follow this year, is not the only thing going on at present. Two years ago, the Syracuse Orangemen made well past the new year undefeated, but ultimately wilted and lost in the NCAA tournament before the Elite Eight. This year, they got past the new year undefeated before losing to Notre Dame... and they haven't lost since. They clinched the Big East regular season title last night, and have taken, in succession, the best shots that all their main rivals in the conference--who are legitimately some of the top 50 teams in the country--could throw at them and held them all off: Cincinnati, West Virginia, Georgetown, Louisville, South Florida and now UConn. They are ten-deep, make foul shots, play defense extraordinarily well, and really don't have a weakness (other than "can somebody please grab a rebound once in a while?") All this in a season where the level of off-court distraction was at historic levels (the whole Bernie Fine fiasco, which turned out to be the bunch of bullshit that people connected with the program said it was). And it took three decades, but I am now the biggest Jim Boeheim booster there is. This is a coach that wins no matter what is going on, no matter who is on the team, no matter who they are playing against. And maybe the best thing to be said about him is that, in the last fifteen years or so, none of his players have done as well as pros as they did when they were at Syracuse--which means that, as a coach, he was able to maximize the talent he had on hand to get the best he could out of what he had. There is no better indication of quality coaching than when players do better for that coach than with anyone else. I am so looking forward to the NCAA tournament this year...especially since it appears that the Butler Bricklayers are not going to make it in, thank God.
And for an added bonus, I will spend today glued to the TV watching the ultimate NASCAR event, the Daytona 500. NASCAR takes some crap from non-racing fans for having its signature event lead off, rather than end, the season, but after becoming a major fan over the past few years, I actually think this is a good thing. Unlike other sports, no one is sent to the sideline as the season progresses; when racers are competing for a championship late in the season, everyone else is still out there, even though they have no chance to win. So why not have the ultimate extravaganza of the sport at the very beginning, when all things are possible and everyone theoretically has the same chance to succeed? And this year is more interesting than most. For the first time in six years, the champion is not Jimmie Johnson (and it so gladdened me to read last week that his team was caught cheating with their car set-up). The sports world's Sarah Palin, Danica Patrick, is in the race, where no doubt she will garner 7.4 updates per minute until she causes a crash halfway through the race. I'm sorry, but I think if she was a man or an unattractive woman, she would be racing at county fairs, and if nothing else, her moronic GoDaddy faux-porno commercials ought to be grounds for deportation. But the thing about Daytona is that literally anything can happen, as last year proved: in a field where the best racers are running in the best equipment, with the whole world watching, a 21YO rookie somehow crossed the finish line first (and had to be given directions to Victory Lane; how great is that?)... as always, there was a lot of off-season changes. NASCAR is an exception to the usual sports fan rules--we have our favorite drivers, but it is OK, even necessary, to have back-up rooting interests, and part of the fun is the drivers that you hate as well. Contrary to my usual fan experience, I like an established winner in NASCAR--Jeff Gordon (although he hasn't won the ultimate prize in a decade, he is a 4-time champion, and is certainly in the discussion of the best all-time drivers). But my secondary driver has gotten himself booted from yet another team because he is, frankly, one of the world's biggest assholes, and we are going to find out this year just how good Kurt Busch really is, because he could secure no more than a really rinky-dink ride. If he can win races with the team that Landon Cassill was regularly finishing three laps down with last year-- hands down, talent-wise, he would be the best guy out there. We will see, and I can't wait for the race to start this afternoon. And as always, I will be hoping for (non-fatal) crashes for Carl Edwards and Johnson and Denny Hamlin, drivers that I really cannot bear.
Let the fun begin.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Spate of Anniversaries

Two nights ago, at my Endicott home group, I had the all-too-rare pleasure of witnessing a first anniversary celebration. Last night at the candlelight meeting, it was the fourth week of the month, which meant a home group speaker, and the name chosen was another member who is about to celebrate a year, a few weeks after another person did celebrate two years. I honestly cannot remember a time when groups I was involved in had so many people sticking around (well, other than my own generation, but that was a long time ago), and to me, it shows that the recovery community in this area appears to be, finally, coming out of a decade-long torpor.
As a fellowship, we are supposed to put principles before personalities. In reality, those words appear in the Twelfth Step, which means a whole lot of recovery has to go on before they begin to be regularly applied. That isn't to say that principles and aspects of all the steps aren't applied before one actually gets to those steps, but the steps are in the order they are for a reason, which means that it is a hell of a lot easier to apply that maxim if you've worked the full program. I will be the first to tell you that I am not exemplary in this regard, and indeed no one really is. But there have been certain patterns, certain controversies, certain individuals who keep bobbing up like dolphins coming up for air in the middle of the problems that have racked intra-fellowship relations for the entire thirteen-plus years I've been around. I've contributed to a degree, but honestly not on any large scale, because I'm simply not that visible; I haven't been part of the Area service structure for years, I don't go to any of the meat market meetings, and I'm not a usual attendee at speaker events and such (at the moment, I am planning on going to tonight's, but that is because my friend Chris, one of the people very instrumental in helping me stick around the first few years I was around, is coming in from Pennsylvania to be the main speaker). If anything, I've been more involved in this stuff in the last couple years because of this blog; I don't go out of my way to stir stuff up, but I have been rather open about sharing my experiences in this forum, and that includes my views on what goes on around me and the people that are involved in those happenings. And more people pay attention, I have found, that I ever thought possible. Knowing this has forced me to be more responsible; in the last several months, I've been much more careful about what I write in this space, because I've learned anew that I am responsible for my own recovery just as surely now as I was ten years ago, and that includes trying to make the program as attractive to those looking for recovery as possible. To be blunt, no matter how justified I may feel in giving acid baths to those I feel deserve it, that doesn't serve the purposes of the Higher Power that has allowed me to recover from the depths of addiction, and so I have become much more subdued in my opinions as expressed here.
But I have also come to firmly believe, in the words of John Milton, "It makes no sense to evaluate ideas without considering the character of the people that hold them." Perhaps because of my own honesty issues before coming into recovery and the completeness of the commitment I made to practicing integrity upon arrival in Narcotics Anonymous--and the massive positive changes that came about because of my applying that commitment--I have always been very sensitive to, aware of, and quick to comment upon hypocrisy when I hear it and see it in action. I do review what I have written in the past here on occasion, and most of the time, I have gotten pissed about the gaps between walk and talk. I think that gap has done an indescribable amount of damage to our fellowship over the years, and quite honestly, all venom and bile aside, it has come almost entirely from the same few very visible sources over that time. I can't tell you how many times I saw people coming in the door broken down and looking for help, that were mesmerized by the fine-sounding glib words that came from certain people--only to find that beneath the words lay a cesspool of predatory behavior, endemic dishonesty, and devotion to money, property, and prestige instead of the greater good. The resulting disillusionment (at best; in many cases, newcomers were straight-up victimized) drove many people out of the rooms or into the other fellowship that isn't as capable of helping them confront their problems. And as year after year, growing into a decade, of this sort of thing passed, I began to despair that it would ever improve. I look back at some of the things I wrote in 2009 on this blog, and that sense is unmistakable: it was not getting better.
But I had lost sight of one of the central tenets of this program, too: things happen in God's time, not ours. Or, for the less spiritually minded, one can posit that one can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. What has been happening in the last couple of years is that the consequences of talking clean and living dirty have, finally, begun to catch up with those doing it. For some of us, it takes a lot more to become willing to change our ways than others, and for a few, the chaos that ensued from endemic hypocrisy finally served as a catalyst for some substantive change, which has benefited the fellowship greatly; there are fewer Pied Pipers leading newbies over the cliff.
And it took twenty years, but the Messagemaster finally overreached and exposed his true nature just a little too much. What has struck me, bringing this back to the explosion of people sticking around, is the degree of separation that the crop of people who are sticking around have from the Tribe. Ryan initially went to the Messagemaster for sponsorship, but soon grew tired of the way he treats non-Latinos without huge wallets in their pockets and went elsewhere for guidance. Misty got involved with a Tribe-dominated subcommittee very early, but did not succumb to the usual isolation that is encouraged among acolytes, and as a result has exhibited a startling resiliency in the face of major troubles while retaining her enthusiasm and gratitude--and not incidentally, has moved perceptibly away from the Tribe (a first-hand encounter with that peculiar Tribe characteristic, the knowing "celebration" of clean time that a Tribe member doesn't actually have--and you can make all the noise you want about celebrations being for the newcomer, but the first principle of recovery is honesty, and if you celebrate an anniversary that's bullshit, how does that help the newcomer? It doesn't; what all these faux "celebrations" do is celebrate the Messagemaster and his ideas on the program, nothing more and nothing less-- will do that for you). Sarah, last night's speaker, has been one of the few that has openly confirmed what most of us suspected for years--that the Messagemaster resorts to very ugly and opaque manipulations, when someone leaves the Tribe, to try to maintain control of his image and reputation; her journey over eleven months has been another one of repeated overcoming of very daunting obstacles, and finding hope and faith in the fellowship without relapsing--very inspiring and heartwarming stuff. Others who have been sticking around have either never been part of the Tribe or have actively rejected it once shown examples of the clannish isolation and chronic dishonesty that are defining characteristics of it. I find it amusing that the Messagemaster, after having two home groups for the first 16 years he was around, has been moving around like a fly in a barnyard the last few years, trying desperately to find some perch to alight upon, because, to be blunt, the act has grown stale. People just aren't putting up with the bullshit like they used to.
But one thing that I, graybeard that I am, have learned in the last year from the youngsters: that not only is is possible to resist the blandishments of the Messagemaster, but those who have succumbed to it over the years deserve not my scorn, but my empathy. They have been preyed upon in recovery just as surely as the female newcomers who have been taken advantage of by the sexually predatory, and it has caused a lot of damage to them. One thing I couldn't help but think about last night as Sarah was speaking was my old friend Marc, who first got clean when I got clean, who has been more or less around almost all of that time, who has been sponsored by the Messagemaster Himself for the last year after being sponsored by other members of the Tribe before that--and who has less than a month clean now. He took my number a few weeks ago, not for the first time, and said he'd call, not for the first time. He actually went a little farther this time than usual, in that he did call--Monday morning, when I was at the doctor's office. I texted him I would call him when I was done, and I did, and he didn't answer and hasn't returned the message, and he wasn't at the meeting last night either, and I wonder how he's doing and what he's feeling like. It is a source of bafflement to him, I truly believe, why so many people around him, people who have been through worse texperiences than he has, have been able to keep it down and he cannot. I've talked with him a few times, and I've been as blunt as I dare--suffice it to say that when your main issue is womanizing, perhaps you shouldn't be looking for guidance to someone who has the attitudes toward women that the Messagemaster does, whose MO for two decades regarding women has been stealth, secrecy, and covering up misdeeds. I think on some level Marc understands this, but it's been very revealing to see someone who literally cannot make a clean break. It really has reminded me of someone trying to break away from a cult, like one of the Manson girls showing up in a court with an X carved into their forehead.
And seeing and talking with Sarah regularly, and again after the meeting last night, has also, belatedly, fostered a more tempered and compassionate view toward my longtime bete noir. She is still involved with Rich E (part of my amends is that I will stop referring to him as RFE) to some degree, and I've gotten regular updates as the status of the breach between him and the Messagemaster. And I've come to see, in stages, that Rich was perhaps negatively influenced by the Messagemaster more than anyone else around here. Rich is, by this area's standards, a wealthy man, coming from a wealthy family, and the fact that MM has shown much more patience and forbearance with Rich than any other Anglo that has ever crossed his path is not a coincidence. Bluntly, MM realized as far back as spring 1999 that this was his Money Tree, and Rich got the full Monty as far as being stroked and manipulated to keep him in the fold. This rift between them has lasted better than six months now, and I've heard from a few people that, 13 years after first arriving, Rich is finally developing his own identity as a recovering person, that he is finally beginning to emerge from a very deep and dark shadow. That I've been coming to an awareness of; what's new is that I never understood that he just might have been more sinned against than sinning all those years.
You learn something new every day if you work your program, including your own blind spots and how your own disease of addiction (the endemic self-centeredness) finds ways to express itself even when the using is far, far from the table. I don't know how many times I've heard Aldo say over the years that the essence of recovery is trying to find a way to cut someone a break, and in Richie's particular case, my willingness to try to find a way had been measured in microns, because I felt like I had been wronged by him. It never occurred to me that I might not have been the only one who had been wronged.
And to those who might wonder why Narcotics Anonymous remains the focal point of my life long after drug use ceased to be an issue in my life--this is why. Because the journey to becoming a better man, to learning to live by spiritual principles, to practice those principles in all my affairs, is never-ending. There's always another hill to climb, always another stretch of field up ahead, something else to work on, another level to take it to. Do I get tired of moving? On occasion. But not often. Because the view is always new scenery. Because the most painful and chaotic venues of the past are far, far behind me, and I would rather be dealing with "problems" like this than problems like supply and demand and cash flow resulting from drug use, like my children losing faith and hope because the person they depend upon does not live up to his responsibilities, like my family worrying themselves to death over my self-destruction, like myself feeling hopeless and scared that death is just around the corner.
And one of the benefits has been watching others travel over the same ground. It is uplifting to actually see people change before your eyes, from being cracked out and whacked out people who can barely string together two coherent sentences to people who are putting their families back together and becoming role models for others suffering from chronic, endemic despair. And for those of us who have been around for a long time, it's a shot in the arm, a wonderful reminder that our own journeys have not been in vain, that the path we forged did inspire and show the way for others to follow. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the whole point of this process is to show others that no one needs to die from this disease, that it is possible to arrest its progress and find a way to live a meaningful, productive, and happy life.
And we can only keep what we have gotten by giving it away. And when some accept it, and start to be able to pass it along to others... well, that's how it works.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Nerve of Those Iraq People

I was reading online this morning that American rice farmers are absolutely furious that Iraq is no longer buying rice grown in the United States. Seems that Iraq is buying from other countries that 1) grow different kinds of rice than we do, specifically strains that have featured prominently in Middle Eastern cuisine since time began, and 2) sell rice at a cheaper rate than the United States does. I scratched my head a little bit, wondering what the big deal was and why anyone would be mad. Until I read the article in full.
For starters, despite all the high-flown rhetoric of the Bushies during the occupation, Iraq bought rice from the United States, despite it being significantly more costly than that available virtually anywhere else, while the United States military was running the country. Despite all the wonderful "free market" noise being made, it was essentially (surprise) a colonial arrangement. I am as sure as sure can be that rice was not the only commodity that this was the case for, as well. You would think that people in this country, if we had the Iraqis' development into capitalist free marketers as our primary concern, would be ecstatic that they were shopping around and buying at the best price possible. I guess you just can't satisfy some people.
And then it was something less than shocking to find out that the majority of rice grown in the United States is grown in Texas. That was typical, total Bush standard operating procedure: make sure that the military adventures we embarked on economically benefited his own people. And this sort of agrarian economic model has appealed to the American Southern farmer for centuries; this is the land of slavery and sharecropping, after all. The Texan farmers quoted in the article have never had to "compete" on a level playing field in the history of this country, and their bitching at the moment sounds very much like a cheater or a bully getting their comeuppance.
But what really galled me was some of the statements made by these farmers:
 "That's just not right. If we've got some rice to sell, they ought to pay a premium for it just because this is the country that freed them."
"You would think with all that we've done over there, there would be a way to get them to do business with us."
"We invested so much in that country, and it feels like a slap in the face."
"We spent billions and billions over there, if not trillions, and lots of people died. There should be some reciprocation."
Unfuckingbelievable.
I used to wonder what kind of morons actually bought into this "we're bringing freedom to the world" nonsense. It was barely defensible and understandable in the first year or so, but after it became clear that "weapons of mass destruction" was a lie worthy of Goebbels, after Abu Gharib, after Blackwater, after the repeated and irrefutable evidence that the "occupation authorities" were looting the country on a scale worthy of Nebuchadnezzar... I understand a lot of people have a knee-jerk "support the troops" mentality that allows them to justify current policies in the interest of keeping "our guys" out of harm's way. While I disagree that that is the proper way to "support" our military, I can understand the sentiment and don't get overly riled about it; at heart, it's a decent and honorable impulse. But to actually believe that the purpose--and result--of what we did in Iraq, in 2012, was "bring freedom" to that accursed place, that we did something noble and wonderful and deserving of gratitude--well, I didn't think it was possible to have one's head stuck so far up their own ass.
For the Texan farmers and any other flagwaving apologists for atrocity remaining, let me briefly recap what the situation looks like from a place you've probably never considered once in the last decade: where the average Iraqi sits...Despite more or less being at war since 1981, Iraq in 2002 was still a recognizably modern society, with functional electrical grid, health care system, transportation networks, readily available food, clean water, and a thousand other things Americans take for granted. Then a nation that had already kicked the shit out of them once before, albeit with some reason, and that had been largely responsible for the previous decade's shortages of medical supplies and other moderate-to-severe annoyances, all of a sudden came back to finish beating up someone who had already quit fighting and hit them with everything they had short of nuclear weapons--after making shit up to justify the invasion. Let me repeat that: it was made-up bullshit that was not true, and they went to great, unprecedented lengths, even comparing the country's leadership to Hitler, to justify beating up someone who wasn't looking for a fight. And because of made-up bullshit, the country was essentially, in many areas, transported back to the Middle Ages. As a result of this invasion, 1) sectarian violence was not only unleashed, but encouraged, leading to the type of hellish civil war that only religious conflict can unleash 2) the invaders were basically allowed to kill anyone and everyone they considered a risk to their "security", 3) when, as will often happen in such circumstances, a lot of people ended up dying for nothing more than minding their own business and trying to live a tiny semblance of "normal" life, any sort of legal redress was more or less laughed at and ignored, 4) thousands were arrested on the flimsiest of pretexts and subjected to humiliation that the Nazis and Mongols never would have resorted to--and those responsible for it basically got away with it, 5) the "authority" that was supposed to "rebuild" the country allowed it to be looted and gouged on a scale not seen since Tamurlane, and 6) the promises made to "restore freedom" turned out to be a bad joke, as it became clear that the people who would have been elected in actual free elections were deemed unacceptable by the occupying army and therefore are not now running the country.
To recap even more bluntly--a few thousand American soldiers and noncombatants died in nine years in Iraq. The most conservative estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths in the nine years we were there I have seen is 100,000 people, and the true number likely approaches a million. This is essentially the population of Dallas, Texas--killed by foreigners in a war started because of made-up bullshit. This is on top of the deaths and misery as a result of the first Gulf War. And we really are expecting this country to be grateful? We think they should be falling over themselves to pay "premiums" for our shitty products? That they should regard us as anything other than an undeserved plague that has ended hundreds of thousands of lives and ruined countless others, for no better reason than Bush and Company accused them of being up to something it is now beyond a shadow of a doubt they were not? How grateful would you be, assholes?
Actually, there's an answer to that question. One hundred and fifty years ago, a nation went to war on largely moral grounds--in essence, to free a subject population from longtime exploitation. That contest was a hell of a lot harder to win than our conflicts in Iraq, but in the end, the armies with the moral force behind them prevailed. Did the defeated nation embrace the conquerors and fully implement the new value system? Did they show gratitude for being released from their morally deficient leadership and go out of their way to economically and socially integrate their country with that of those who sacrificed over a million of their own soldiers on their behalf?
Fuck no. In most of the American South, and most certainly in Texas, they still hate Yankees. The native American Southerner is a boil on the ass of humanity, a viral infection that unfortunately has every indication of being a permanent infection and one that cannot be genetically modified. And even more unfortunately, their viral DNA has been integrated into the host's DNA so thoroughly that we have mutated into something different. And the change has not been for the better.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Book Review: GRANT'S FINAL VICTORY

I admit, when I picked up Charles Bracelen Flood's Grant's Final Victory, that I thought it was going to be a military narrative, an account of the campaign that ended the Civil War. Despite the propaganda fed our children by the Confederate/Southern revisionists and sympathizers that have often made me wonder who the hell won the damn Civil War, the best general this country has ever produced--and by definition the best one of the Civil War, too--was Ulysses S. Grant (note to all Southern blowhards: Lee wasn't bad, but he never beat the varsity. Not only that, but with the exception of Bragg's army in Tennessee, Grant not only won all his campaigns, but he beat Southern generals who were actually competent, too). As I have gotten older and read more and more historical literature on the Civil War, I see the "story" shoved down our throats in high school--that Grant was a butcher who merely won wars of attrition--was not only false, but almost a libel; Grant's Vicksburg campaign was the greatest ever conceived and employed on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, by anybody, and even his Virginia campaign was bloody because he was facing a motivated, desperate, and confident enemy on their own turf. No one else in the war ever made Lee defend consistently; Grant not only did so, but eventually prevailed. And if history didn't shortchange Grant badly enough regarding the war, he is generally regarded as one of the worst Presidents ever, which is completely unfair and wrong. Yes, there was widespread corruption in the years he was President--but there was widespread corruption for a long time after he was President, and even Lincoln was bedeviled by greedy underlings during the war. But Grant cemented the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments in place; he presided over the finishing of the trans-continental railroads; he began the National Park System; and most importantly, because of the respect he engendered from the defeated traitors for his clemency at Appomattox, he was the one man in the country that kept the country quiescent during the crucial first decade after the Civil War. The Jim Crow and Klan didn't start retaking control of the South until after he was out of office.
That respect was a part of what this book was about; the last year of Grant's life, when, devastated by financial swindle, he learned he had cancer at the same time he learned he had nothing left to provide for his family with, and so resolved to write his memoirs in a deadly race against the clock. Not only did he succeed--by three days--but the result was (surprise) one of the best pieces of American literature ever produced, the English equivalent (as many contemporaries,  and literary critics today for that matter, agreed) of Caesar's Commentaries for clarity of prose, power of description, and ability to relate complex events in succinct and accurate summation. Mark Twain managed to obtain the rights to the work while he was writing it, and paid a huge amount of money that turned out to be well spent. But more than the story of the writing, it is a story of a nation coming to grips with the imminent loss of its hero, and the closing of the door on the Civil War era, as the two other protagonists that figured most prominently, Lincoln and Lee, were long dead. This book also shines light into Grant and his family, with emphasis on how truly decent they were and how much they, quaintly, loved one another and rallied around him in his time of need.
This is an uplifting true story of one of the most unappreciated Americans of all time. Grant reached the pinnacle of military renown--literally saving a nation--, served two terms as the most powerful official in the land, and (even if posthumously) wrote one of the masterpieces of American literature. Yet most people only dimly know him as the guy on the $50 bill, and know next to nothing of what he actually did--and those that do know of him, as noted before, tend to believe that he was something less than he was. What he was was a man, someone who Lincoln correctly viewed as someone who would do his best to accomplish a given task--and his best turned out to be better than almost anyone else in the world at the time. The biggest difference between him and his contemporaries was not in ability, though; it was that he did not feel the need to sing his own praises at all. Actions may speak louder than words, and for his generation they certainly did. But unfortunately, the position of Grant in American history today shows that the volume of words resonates, to our detriment at times, far louder as time passes.
As always, if one clicks on the book title, the reader is taken to Amazon.com for more reviews or purchasing information.

New Reality

I check the weather every morning when I wake up, but I've been keeping an especially wary eye out since last Friday, when I had the surgery on my feet. Because I am walking around with open surgical shoes on both feet, and because the one absolute total "cannot be done" I have gotten in the way of instructions from my doctor has been "do NOT let the bandages on the feet get wet," a significant snowfall 1) changed from "several inches" to "anything that sticks on the ground" and 2) is going to be some pain in the ass to work around. I hate being housebound, or at least not having the option not to go anywhere. Anyone who knows me knows that I am at my most disagreeable when my car is not working correctly or at all, and I am incapable of sitting in one place for more than 90 minutes (which makes some activities, such as attending movies or plays in theaters, very problematical. Seriously, I think the last time that I did not move from my seat for more than two hours was when I saw Amadeus in the theater when I was at Geneseo).
I have been fortunate that the last week has not only been unseasonably warm, but dry. That is going to end. There is the possibility that we are going to get a quick snow shower this morning (the map shows a line of green entering Tioga County at this moment, which means it should be here by time the sun is coming up; the temperature is around 35, which means it could be either rain or snow), but more importantly, there is a 100% chance of snow this evening--several inches--before it turns to rain tomorrow morning. Chances are the snow will largely melt by tomorrow afternoon, but even a slushy mess is going to present a very serious problem for me in the state I am in.
I have a large supply of plastic bags and a full roll of duct tape, and I just went outside and brought the shovel onto the back stairs, so I can get to the garage if I have to from the house. But with the forecast also including significant winds, as much as it galls me, I think shoveling the driveway, even with bags taped to my feet, is going to be out of the question. Which means (gasp) I might have to ask for help. My daughter just got her ears singed last night for near-total self-absorption in the midst of this new reality, and so might be a little more inclined to step up to the plate than usual. But she won't be here on Saturday in any event.
I think that it would be wise to alter my usual schedule and go grocery shopping today, before all the good stuff starts tonight. Up until now, I had been very pleased with how this entire little drama has been playing out; there has been significant improvement every day, and while I certainly am not "normal" yet, six days after the surgery, I do not need pain meds or even ice anymore, and a couple of hours a day in the recliner has been more than enough to keep the situation manageable. I even got myself a handicapped permit yesterday; it has been cool to park next to the store at Price Chopper and CVS, and I really want to go to Wegman's now, since normally you need a Sherpa to guide you from your parking spot into the store. This is not a setback of any importance; there have been years when there has been snow on the ground for three months by February 23, and this is right around the time last year when we got the foot and a half of snow, so it certainly could be worse.
And this morning I have a choice to make. As always with these sort of things, physical therapy was recommended, and I went to the place the other morning and made an appointment for today at 8:30. But the more I think about it, the less I want to do this. I am always suspicious of outfits that remind you incessantly that they're in a business, and this place had three signs (on the ground floor, in the elevator, and in their second floor office) that co-pays are expected at time of service. I am not sure I want to pay $40 twice a week for the next month, not when I am experiencing visible improvement daily and it is frankly beyond me what the "therapist" could have to offer that I am not capable of doing myself. I went to a "physical therapist" years ago when I was having back trouble--once; the "therapy" was a fucking joke, to be honest. I figured out that hanging from the monkey bars on the playground across the street from my then-apartment did more from me than all his "exercises," and never went back. I understand that in more serious cases, they fulfill a necessary role.--but as with everything associated with the medical field, the costs are outrageous, and in this case, in my particular circumstances, I cannot justify even the limited expense I am going to have to shell out. Not to mention it irritates the hell out of me that someone gets over a hundred dollars an hour to move my leg up and down, move my toe an eighth of an inch, and tell me to watch what I eat more carefully.
I probably will go today, because I cancelled a breakfast with one of my friends to make the appointment. But I seriously doubt that there will be an encore performance, especially after reading their contract that all prospective clients have to sign. And I asked my insurance company, via their highly-touted website, last night how much of this is covered, and have yet to receive a replay. Welcome to America 2012, where the health insurance industry is demonstrating their contempt for the millions of Americans who supported health care reform by being as unhelpful as possible to their subscribers and devoting all their resources to trying to make sure Obama gets defeated. In a country where corporate predation is an epidemic, this is perhaps the worst genus of parasite of all--the medical insurers and the totally outrageous pricing structure around our medical care. Anyone who defends the current system is out of their mind.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

It was only with great difficulty that I did not title this post with the word I wanted to. Suffice it to say, this is the one day of the year, even worse than Christmas and Easter, that gets my blood boiling regarding the practices and beliefs of most of my compatriots around this area, indeed around the world, of the religions that they were born into. I don't know how many people I am going to see walking around with smudges on their foreheads today, but it's going to be several hundred before the day is done. And what's galling to me is not the fact that they feel the need to advertise what their religious beliefs are. I understand, having been born Catholic, that this ritual is indeed part of the Catholic service for this day, and for quite a few Protestant sects as well.
And for the devout Catholic, I am sure that the symbolism behind the ashes is valid and heartfelt. What irritates me when I see it is the certain knowledge that least three quarters of the people walking around with dirty foreheads today don't pay the slightest bit of attention to pretty much any other of their church's tenets of belief any other day of the year. I'm just reminding everyone that the Catholic Church does not approve of contraception, does not approve of premarital sex, does not approve of viewing sexually explicit material, does not approve of viewing or owning the merely risque, and does not approve of a thousand other practices that most of these people regularly indulge in--indeed, could not bear to live their lives not doing. It's the same principle that used to irritate the hell out of me when I saw people whom I knew regularly violated church beliefs going up to Communion every week--some of whom were in my own family--knowing full well they hadn't seen the inside of a confessional in a long time, in some cases years or even decades.
It's the same reason that even though my belief in God is the axis my life revolves around, I can't bring myself to observe these kind of rituals of any church. I don't follow all the rules, and I don't believe in the need for absolution in most cases--and those that I do, if the sacrament isn't followed by sincere acts of contrition, it's pointless. Moreover, more than not following rules, I sincerely believe on all of the things that I listed above, the Catholic Church's position is wrong. And I know I have a lot of company among ostensible Catholics, including a lot of people walking around with ashes on their foreheads today. So why the hypocrisy? Why the outward signs of belonging to an institution that you admittedly do not share the views of?
I honestly don't know. And the fasting gets to me, as well. My view on the subject is actually taken from the gospels--Mark, the earliest gospel and the one that probably records the closest to what Jesus of Nazareth actually said and believed. Quoting Mark 7:15, KJV:
There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things that come out of him, those are they that defile the man.
And the context of the seventh chapter? The Scribes and Pharisees were giving Jesus a hard time about not observing Jewish dietary rituals, including fasting.
I'm not a believing Christian in any case, so I don't feel the slightest compunction about not observing any of this stuff--indeed, I just ate a baloney/salami/cheese on rye for lunch. But my point is, for the believing Christian, Jesus of Nazareth was God. You can't get any more direct input than this--and yet the ostensible believer is being asked to do something that Jesus himself has marked as pointless, and, in other places in the seventh chapter, as a doctrine of men, not anything that denotes or shows any real devotion to the pursuit of God or spirituality? So tell me again why the Church requires fasting, if (the alleged word of) God says we shouldn't, that indeed it is a practice that many hypocrites and false believers engage in?
Stuff like this is what drove me out of churches. Because 98% of the people attending have no idea that much of what they are asked to do by their church doesn't have a whole lot to do with what the person they say they believe is God said on the same subjects. I'm sorry, but a life of ignorance and in some cases deliberate hypocrisy is not for me.
And I guess we'll find out when we die whose view has more substance. I don't think there's any kind of tribunal or judging that takes place. But even if there is, I'm going to have a lot less to answer for than most of the people walking around with dirt on their foreheads today. There are a lot more virtues--and certainly more important ones--to practice while living one's life than blind, ignorant obedience to dogma that you have no idea of how it came into being or what purpose it is supposed to serve.

Book Review: SEX, DRUGS, AND SEA SLIME

The title of Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime is better than Ellen Prager's book, but that doesn't mean I didn't like it. Prager is a marine biologist whose name I have run across in other author's work, but this is the first work of hers I have read. She clearly loves the ocean and the creatures who live in it, and this rather slim volume is a brief review of what wondrous creatures there are out in the vast watery mass, more or less in order of size from plankton to whales. Special emphasis, of course, is given to the more interesting creatures out there, and there are two plates of amazing pictures, but this is actually a pretty thorough listing of what is in the oceans, why they are important, and potential uses for human beings as far as medical applications, nutrition, etc. If science is not your thing, then you're probably not going to like the book, but if you don't mind a foray into the natural world, then there are worse ways to spend a winter day or two than by plowing through this book.
And as with any book reviewed on this site, clicking on the title brings to other reviews and purchasing information from Amazon.com.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Still Looking At Greece

The financial world's eyes remain glued to Greece today, as the ugliness of the choices available to that government become more apparent and all the high-sounding rhetoric is being revealed to be a mere power play. No one is really convinced that Greece is ever going to be solvent, and it is becoming increasingly clear that all the European Union is concerned about is that their financial institutions recoup as much of the money they lent to the country as possible. There is no concern for the long-term well-being of the majority of Greeks, or of the ability of the Greek economy to recover to a functional level. More details emerged yesterday; basically now the money to be lent is to go into "escrow" until changes are made in the country that suit the EU's financial brokers, and that the German financial minister is telling the Greek government either to postpone elections or to stipulate in advance that the election results cannot alter the EU-imposed financial plans. The Greeks, understandably, even the pro-EU ones, are balking at this, and it is becoming more likely that Greece is going to walk away from the EU and default on its debts.
I've gotten in some rather spirited discussions over the past few weeks with some conservative friends of mine about this situation and the general idea of debts, and ultimately it becomes a question of what place money has in a society's hierarchy. And this going to provide an answer to the age-old dilemma "Who does the government of a country have its greatest responsibility to--the well-being of the largest number of its citizens, or to those who provide the financial backing to it?" It sounds like a moral question when framed in those terms, and in many ways, it's impossible to escape the morality of such a choice. I understand that without money, it is very difficult to make a modern society function. But at the same time, making the entire power available to a government work in favor of those who already have more than sufficient means to meet their needs and to facilitate even greater control over the resources of a nation is not a workable solution, either. You simply cannot impoverish the large majority of your population and hope to maintain social stability--at some point, the dam is going to break.
This is a greatly simplified view of modern finance, but one with a great deal of merit. Austerity does not work as a long-term solution for modern economies, because every viable economic model assumes the mobility of cash flow through them in order to maintain financial health. It's like hanging upside from the monkey bars; if there is too much blood at the head, eventually you are going to fall down. If you are literally banking on people having the ability to purchase things, and that ability is withdrawn, it all comes crashing to a halt.
But the people who already have a great deal of money aren't necessarily afraid of it all crashing to a halt; they figure they are going to be all right. And since the people who already have money generally are in charge of or have disproportionate influence over governmental policy, generally governments take economic matters a lot closer to the brink than common sense would dictate that they should. And the one thing that moneyed elites have feared in every society since the dawn of time is the cancellation of debts-- the wiping clean of slates. In some cases, that was because most of the elite's money was lent out--but in most, it simply was not to be allowed because it removed the leverage the elite had over most of their fellow citizens. My area of concentration for my history degree in college was late Republic-early Empire Rome--and virtually every occasion of major unrest in the Roman Republic was due to the specter of the cancellation of debts, from the original secession of the plebeians in 494 BCE to the upheavals of the time of the Gracchi in the late second century BCE to the repeated crises of the last century--Saturninus, Marius, Catiline, Clodius, Caesar, Antony. The end result was the Principate, which restored order--and a climate where the moneyed elite could resume business as usual.
In a nutshell, what is happening in the EU now is a replay of the ancient screenplay yet again. It does not seem likely that the EU will militarily intervene in Greece, but ostracism and retaliation if the country does default is definitely in the cards. And if the EU gets their way, revolution within the country is a distinct possibility, too. It's a situation where no feel-good choices are left, but it's also a situation where widespread misery doesn't have to happen. And the thing that always bothers me about these type of situations is that while plenty of opprobrium is always poured on the debtors, none seems to accrue to the lender--even though in many cases the rationale for lending the money was dubious at best. It's the same thinking that led to the subprime housing meltdown here; if you lend money to someone who you know isn't going to make enough money to pay you back, then why are you surprised when you don't get paid back?
It should also be pointed out that on moral grounds, the emphasis on financial probity is misplaced. Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad, the most visible proponents of the three great monotheistic faiths, as well as the Buddha and Confucius, were all largely in agreement on the subject of money and those who devoted their energies to husbanding it--that it and they do not serve the purposes of God or the divine. The Euros are by and large not overly religious anymore, and so the financial strongarming isn't quite as hypocritical as it is here, but, as a much better man than me put it, "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven." Money is a human creation, a Higher Power that does not have the best interest of people in mind, and by slavishly serving it as a god of sorts, we are making the world a worse, not better, place. To me, it's a no-brainer when confronted with the choice of rich people eating some of their fortunes compared to widespread impoverishment of a nation.
It was to Franklin Roosevelt, too, who was only the greatest leader this country has ever produced. And a lot of the pronouncements coming out of European capitals these past few months could have been uttered from 1929-32 by Treasury officials and Herbert Hoover, and no one would know the difference. Austerity does not work, never has worked, and never will work or all but a few people in a large society. I honestly do not see the virtue in imposing widespread suffering just so some people who already have disproportionate shares of power, influence, and money don't have to lose some of it. If that makes me a dangerous radical, so be it.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: MAPHEAD

Not many people know this, but I longed to get on the game show Jeopardy. I actually went through the tryout process when it came to Binghamton in the 1990's; much to my chagrin and disgust, all I got for my trouble, despite answering every question correctly, was a form letter stating I was on their list, and that I would improve my changes marginally of being asked to go on the show if I managed to drag my ass to Los Angeles and call them from there. I gained a measure of small satisfaction about a year later when one of their "answers" turned out to be wrong (the longest river in Europe is not the Danube, but the Volga, for pointing out which I received a check for $50 and a form letter I was inordinately proud of which, no doubt, my ex-wife disposed of minutes after we separated). Fast forward a few years, and I watched along with the rest of the country as some reedy-looking Mormon went on a four-month winning streak, ultimately winning 74 shows in a row before finally getting defeated. I grew to hate Ken Jennings during those weeks; I was sure that could be me, if only the bastards would have given me a chance.
Eight years have passed since then, and I no longer watch Jeopardy or any other game show, and even though my distaste for the LDS Church grown, I have found that is as silly to dislike people merely for being Mormon as it would be to dislike someone for being Catholic or Muslim or anything other religious practitioner. I also have made giant strides in combating my persecution complex; I'm no longer nursing resentments over not catching breaks like getting on game shows. So when I saw Maphead at the library, and saw Jennings was the author, I decided to pick it up and read the liner notes.
And discovering it was about geography wonks, I immediately checked it out and have been plowing through the book backlog to get to it. Because it's about me, in some ways. I've always loved maps; I could decipher them by the end of the first grade, and used them as a gateway to imagining traveling to other places and even other worlds since about that time. I memorized the Interstate Highway System of the US by time I was 9 (where every highway ran to and from, what states they crossed, the best way to get to anywhere--which resulted in me becoming the family navigator from the second grade onward on our annual Michigan excursions, a position I have held the rest of my life with whoever I am travelling with. I had one friend who didn't let anyone drive his car--except for when we went to Belmont Park on Long Island. Then he pulled off I-80 in New Jersey just before the George Washington Bridge and put me behind the wheel until we were out of the New York area on the way home), created elaborate maps of places that didn't exist right up through college (and I still will draw continents with nations, rivers, mountains, cites, etc, on the back of Power Point handouts if I am at a training or presentation that I find mind-numbingly boring, to this day--and if I am really bored, I create cities at the mouths of rivers running down the blank lines of individual Power Point slides if someone takes entirely too long to move past a particular, totally dull point), and use National Geographic maps in lieu of pictures as wall decorations for any room or dwelling that is mine--at this moment, sharing wall space in this room with a Justin Bieber movie poster, a photo collage of my kids when they were younger, and four Sabrina artwork creations, are maps of the eastern Mediterranean, Arctic Ocean, two maps of the world, and one of the Persian Empire.
And the point of Jennings' wonderful book is that there are a lot of people like me out there--map geeks or map nerds, whatever term you want to use, are everywhere. There is a lot of anguish in the media because periodically there is are stories about the lack of geographical knowledge among our youth--but somehow I think there has never been a whole lot of people with a great deal of knowledge of geography in any culture, much less this one. And being one of the few doesn't bother me in the least--I know where everything in the news is going on, I know how to get places without having to depend on a GPS that may or may not be correct, and I am not apt to embarrass myself in front of people from other places or cultures due to ignorance.
There are some chapters in this book that I was not familiar with--geocaches, for example. It was interesting to read about, but not something I particularly feel any urge to participate in. But that's all right; there was enough for me to identify with in this book so that it was perhaps the most enjoyable reading experience I've had in the last sixth months. And I suspect there are enough geography geeks who at least occasionally check out this blog that at least a few people are going to be tempted to locate this book and check it out themselves.
And as always, you can click on the book title in this post to get to amazon.com and read other reviews and obtain purchasing information, if you so wish.

Almost Normal

Other than having to wear plastic sleeves around my legs when I shower, and trying to find time to do laundry, I have to say that my life has almost returned to normal, less than 72 hours after surgery on both feet. That's amazing to me. I took one pain pill yesterday, and even that was iffy, more as a precaution after having been walking around for a good hour or better. I tried to go to the laundromat, but it was crowded and I thought better of being obviously hobbled in a public place where there were two dozen other people in a place where robberies have been reported in the news before. I'll think I will just spend the afternoon at my mother's today and get it done there.
Rachel and Jessica were here for a few hours yesterday; they were actually suitably impressed, if briefly, by my gimping around. Rachel was in a foul mood; she has had her heart set on the University of Rochester since she first started seriously considering colleges a year ago, and I guess they offered her a lot less aid than she both thinks she deserves and needs to go there (as an aside--sixty thousand dollars a year to go to college? Excuse the French, but what the fuck? I realize it was thirty years ago and it was a state school--but Geneseo is a top-notch college, possibly the best that the SUNY system has to offer--and it cost me about twelve thousand for four years). She is starting to reconsider going to Scranton, which is also very expensive but at least is willing to pony up more money for her, and she will probably like that better as it is only an hour away from home--and given her maternal grandmother is from Scranton, I'm sure that side of the family will be happier if she goes there. I'm not trying to get overly involved with whatever she chooses, but I really hope she picks somewhere that won't end up costing her six figures.
And I have really been happy by the level of interest shown in my welfare by my friends and acquaintances. At least a dozen people have called or texted and offered to help. It is such a good thing knowing that you're not alone in this world. Thank you, everybody.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book Review: AMERICAN EMPEROR

One of the first true novels I remember reading was Burr, Gore Vidal's cornerstone of his American history magnum opus. Given the affinity I have for figures that come out as the "losers" in historical struggles, I probably was going to have a strong interest in Aaron Burr, without a doubt the most controversial of the founding generation of American political leaders, but Vidal's book cemented that interest very early in my life. David Stewart has gained some renown recently for his books on the Constitutional Convention and the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial, and American Emperor is his fairly exhaustive study of Burr's activites in the first dozen years of the nineteenth century.
There is still a lot of debare over just what Burr was trying to do--whether he intended to wage war against Spain to acquire West and East Florida, Texas, or liberate Latin America, or whether he intended to set himself up as the ruler of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. There probably isn't a definitive answer, likely because Burr himself wasn't sure what he could hope to get. What is clear is that many people in the early years of the republic harbored similar ideas. I was surprised to read that Andrew Jackson helped Burr during whatever-it-was, and there were a lot of other "respectable" figures of the time that also aided him. It is an interesting story, one that is rarely heard about today, and Stewart does an excellent job in detailing it chronologically and in a way that the reader can follow.
It is not a novel, though, and so I found it less interesting than it really is, because Vidal's book is so etched in my mind. But Stewart's work does make some coherent connections--namely. that a challenge to the fledgling republic so early in its history helped crystalize the idea of "Union" in many minds, to the point where, when secession became reality 50 years later, the idea of a truly American nation already had been tempered through fire. And unlike many American historians, Stewart is keenly aware that the United States did not exist in a vacuum; the dominant events of the time were the Napoleonic Wars, and all Burr's activity took place in that context, which explained much.
And Stewart also confirmed something I first considered reading Vidal's book, and have little reason to re-think since. The most overrated figure in American history is Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was a hypocrite of the first degree, and a sneaky, devious political weasel that was at least as impure in his motives as those he clashed with. His Presidency was not terribly auspicious; in fact, if the powers of the world at the time had not been involved with the titanic struggle with Napoleon, Jefferson might very well have presided over the splintering and break up of the country his majestic words had given birth to thirty years prior. Every nation has its mythological heroes that gets treated very well by history for reasons that have few logical explanations, and Jefferson is this country's.
As always in this space, if you are interested in finding out more about the book or wish to purchase it, click on the title of the post, and you will be taken to Amazon.com.

A Lot Better

The surgeon told me that the first day after the procedure would be the worst, and boy was she right. At about 4 PM yesterday, I was in a lot of despair, one of those moods where you'd give five years off your life if the pain would just stop now. Of the two pain meds I was prescribed, one didn't do anything at all and the other one worked for two hours--which was only mildly helpful because I can only take it every six, and since it is a controlled substance, I am not about to fool around with the dosage either for possible effects or to blow my clean time.
But then my mother brought me Chinese food, a cane, and another bag of ice, and then Kathie brought over a meal and cookies, and it was time for the med again before I knew it. The cane was probably the best development; I almost fell on my ass a couple of times yesterday wobbling around. I went to lay down in the bed around 8, fell out before 9.
And woke up a few times during the night to--an absence of pain. I couldn't believe it; they were just there, not throbbing, not aching, not much of anything. So far this morning, it's been pretty good since I got up; I'm icing them per instructions, but they really don't hurt--I didn't even take the med. And the walking is a thousand percent better. I think I just may be able to drive to pick up Sabrina this morning.
What has  been gratifying to me has been the response from my friends and family.. About ten local people have asked if they can help me--and meant it--and others out of town on Facebook who have had foot surgeries have been sharing their experiences, which has also been helpful.  Between my mother and Kathie, I have enough food here for a week. I'm actually looking forward to going to the doctor's tomorrow morning.  I got a peek at the right big toe, and it is purple--but I guess that's to be expected, being it just had a golf ball sized piece of bone removed from it. I'm going to keep it elevated as much as I can today again, because it seems to be working. And the despair is gone; I don't imagine I'm totally out of the woods yet, but if I feel this good without any medication, if it starts to act up again, it should be taken care of by the pill. And I can at least think about doing things other than reading and watching television.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Agony of the Feet

"Agony" is such a strong word, but the phrase gave such an opportunity for a bad pun that I could not resist using it. Especially since at intervals, it's not too far off. On the whole, I am managing to make it without a caregiver present. But I really did underestimate how the immediate post-operation aftermath was going to be like, even though several people tried to warn me.
The operation itself wasn't all that much of a big deal. The doctor told me I was going to be in surgery by 9:30 yesterday morning, and they wheeled me up there at 9:27, so whatever lingering doubts I had about her competence vanished. I had doubts because her office staff is among the least effective and helpful operations I have ever seen. I called there four different times asking for my pre-operation paperwork to be sent to me, and each time I was assured it was "going right out today." I'm still waiting for it; I ended up picking it up from the office myself one day when I found myself on the South Side by the office. Two other times I called there, I got put on hold--and then no one picked up for 18 and 25 minutes, respectively, before I hung up. And then the day I did have the pre-op doctor's visits, while waiting to go back, I saw the administrative assistant do the same thing to someone on the phone, and they moved around attending to their work at about the same speed I am getting around  my house now-- somewhere between a sloth and snail's pace. The doctor herself is very helpful and personable (she passed the Barbara test; my mother was at the hospital with me yesterday, and let's just say she has exacting standards on what is and isn't proper behavior and protocol in those situations), and so far everything she told me was going to happen, pain and mobility-wise, has been the case.
I can get around, with difficulty. But most of the time I am very content to lay out in this reclining chair and use the laptop, read, or watch TV (saw Big Bang Theory and 2 1/2 Men a couple of times each yesterday). When I asked her about the resumption of driving, she said I could do so on a limited basis by tomorrow; when I said, "What about [today]?" she said I wasn't going to want to, and I have to say she's right. After all the talking-up of Toradol I did in the last week, it ended up being woefully inadequate, and I had to go to the second painkiller she prescribed, some new controlled substance called Nycurta. It hasn't taken away all the pain, but at least it makes a sizable dent in it. I didn't sleep half bad last night--woke up four of five times, but was able to go back to sleep, and I got up at 5 more out of habit than anything else.
Well, that and the fact that I missed my morning pot of coffee yesterday. It sounds stupid, but I think that was the most put out about all the changes to routine I was yesterday, not being able to have coffee. Cooking for the moment isn't appealing; standing for long periods of time just isn't a real option, not today anyway. I'm not sure what I am going to do for lunch and dinner today. A lot of people have offered to help, and some of them might find themselves called upon. although a part of me suspects that when I do so, I'm going to find what my friend Sarah found a couple of weeks ago after she had her gall bladder out--a lot of people who said, "If you need anything, call" weren't willing to help when she did call. But I'm going to have to ask someone to go to Livingston's or Agway today and get the guinea pig food and bedding; she's about out of food and the bedding isn't going to last past today.
The ice on the feet--actually on the shins, the feet are so wrapped the pack would never penetrate it-- does help a little bit. I don't really know how swollen the feet are; I'm not really feeling, at least so far, like they are, but there's no way to really tell until I go to the doctor's office Monday morning. And I admit to a little nervousness now, in that my sister's man friend has had all sorts of trouble with his feet after he had his operated on last year. However, his got run over with a car, and he had to have reconstructive surgery and a whole lot of other stuff that I don't have. But my sister told me that he still has pain all the time.
Which would suck. But I'm not overly worried about that; the doctor told my mother that the surgery went without a hitch, so as long as I follow instructions as close as I can, I would imagine I'm going to be all right. She did mention that there was more evidence of arthritis than she anticipated, so I may not be completely pain free even when "healed." But at least my toes will bend again, and I can fit better in shoes, and all the other benefits will still be there.
But some of you are probably going to get a call today.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Pre-Op

No, I am not at the hospital yet. I am leaving here at 6:45 because I was told to get there at 7:30 (can you tell that my mother is involved in this operation; she has been one of those "get there days early, if possible" people my entire life, not least because then you can really complain up a storm about how long you've been waiting). But this is not my normal morning routine, and it's messing with me a little bit.
First of all, I imagine there are sound reasons for fasting before surgical procedures. None come to mind at the moment, or at least one that justifies me NOT HAVING MY COFFEE. I am a man with an addictive personality, and I fully admit my powerlessness over my cup(s) of joe in the morning. No, you do not need a white keytag for admitting that. I was generously allowed a sip of water to take my blood pressure medication, but I am sure that it is going to be high when I get there anyway; that's the nature of the beast when routine is disrupted on this scale.
I have to shower in a little while, because I have to make sure Sabrina is up in time so that she can shower so that she can be ready to walk to school. And I need to make her her breakfast before I leave, too, because otherwise she just goes without. And she goes to her mother's after school today, so I can futz around her, however this is going to be, without having to call my daughter on the phone even though she is two rooms away because she has her iPod buds in her ears and doesn't hear me yelling, even though I am pretty sure people in houses on Schubert Street are cocking their heads wondering who that is...
Yes, I am nervous. Not scared, although there was a bit of mild anxiety last night about "Is my will in order" and stuff like that. But nervous. Almost everyone I've talked to about my plans here is convinced I am six kinds of nuts for getting both feet done at once, and that I am far too casual about the pace of my recovery. My friend Rob Allen from high school, who lives in Atlanta now, had some kind of operation on one foot recently, and although it involved a little more than what I am getting, he was laid up for a few weeks and had a lot of trouble getting around. My friend Kristen said she had bunions removed from both feet years ago at the same time, and spent three days crawling around the floor to get anywhere. And a few others have said that my natural assumption that I am going to do things like drive Sabrina to softball practice tomorrow is just a wee bit optimistic. I guess we'll know in several hours. I've been counting on my general ability to slog through physical issues that I've exhibited my whole life; I seriously have dealt with all sorts of pain and just carried on (product of 1970's Union Endicott sports teams, whose coaches had the highest pain thresholds I've ever seen, being that none of our injuries seemed to hurt them in the least). But this may be on a different scale than I've ever dealt with, and it's my feet; it's not like I can just "walk it off," Mr. Miller...
Anyhow, I digress. I am sure that a month from now, I will be ecstatic that I went through this, because I really want to be able to be more physically active again, especially since I show no real inclination to seriously stay away from the food I like for any length of time. But like I was sharing in the meeting last night, I'm so much an addictive, routine-obsessed person that I really am grudging myself taking it easy for two or three days.Saturday is the day I do laundry, don't you know that? And clean the guinea pig cage, too. I'm not just going to lay around with my feet up. Are you nuts?
This should be fun. To read about, anyway. Being I'm not going to be at work for a few weeks, I brought home my computer, and it's faster (once it boots up; I really hope Hewlett-Packard isn't the contractor of choice for any outfit that needs to get started in a hurry), has a working video card, and is two inches smaller than the older laptop I normally use. So I can inflict my thoughts on the world from my recliner with one less pound on my thighs. And since I will be on Toradol for the next few days, you will all get to read what I write with the filtering apparatus in my head disabled. Toradol does that to me. I just hope I don't start thinking about work or local politics...Anyhow, here goes nothing. I am planning on being back online by afternoon. And seriously, thank you to everyone who has wished me good luck and wished me well.