Thursday, April 30, 2015

Book Review: COLD WAR

Cold War is OK for what it is, I suppose--a rather clinical, bare-bones look back at the 45-year rivalry that was the American-Soviet "conflict." But Carole Fink's work is not meant to be an exhaustive study; indeed, there are suggestions for "further reading" at the end of each chapter. Reading this was, for me, a revisiting of my childhood and early twenties, and more importantly, it was a look back through a lens that no longer exists. The world is so different today, and in so many ways, that the world depicted here seems as remote as the world of Columbus.
And yet, despite the rather omnipresent tension of the time and place, it seems almost idyllic in retrospect. We knew whom our "enemies" were; there wasn't this constant fear of the unknown and unknowable driving all our public policy. There was more accountability for the American government, because we had to fashion our policies in such a manner as to attract allies and friends. And the constant rhetoric we employed regarding "freedom" and "democracy" actually had some basis in reality for some of us.
Nostalgic for the Cold War. Who would have thought.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Values Check

Most people don't think a whole lot about their religious and/or ethical beliefs; they tend to blindly accept that which they have been taught as children and don't really examine them as adults. Which is ass-backwards, because it only seems logical that it would be better for an individual to work through and construct something as important as an entire value system when they are capable of rational, informed, fully mature thought processes, rather than try to adjust the realities of adult existence to the mindset of a child. Be that as it is, if one does analyze Christian beliefs (and Jewish, for certain, because the scriptural basis overlaps, and also, although I am less certain because I've never read the Koran, Islam as well), it is clear that rather than a unified, consistent belief system, there are two parallel and at times contradictory threads of ethical practices and beliefs running throughout the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. One is the basis of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, characterized loosely as following the Golden Rule and marked by spiritual principles such as compassion, kindness, mercy, empathy, and sharing.
And the other is based almost entirely on obedience to authority--parental, religious figures, and ultimately God (or more properly, to use the term translated from the original Hebrew, the LORD or Yahweh). And it is this second thread, this second outlook or belief, that is the basis for not only religion as we tend to practice it, but as also served as the bedrock value for most human societies over the millennia. Including this one. The problems with putting obedience to authority at the top of the ethical pyramid are many, but there are two primary ones. One is that it either relieves or prevents (depends on one's view) individuals from taking responsibility for their own lives on virtually every level, and certainly on questions of morality. And the other is that the entire belief system is predicated on the belief that the authority being obeyed is morally upright and righteous. The second is problematic enough when the authority in question is supposed to be divine.
But when the authority that is supposed to be obeyed is human? I don't know any human beings that are never wrong, that are completely free of self-interest, that never take advantage of other human beings, and that follow principles of justice and morality without fail. And inevitably, when human beings are in positions of authority over other human beings, injustices and wrongs are done.
Inevitably.
This may seem like a subject more suited for a philosophy class than current events, but it is the absolute core of the public discourse, civil and otherwise, over what is happening in Baltimore today (and of Ferguson, and New York, and a thousand other places around the globe, now and in the recent and in the distant past). The denunciations of the rioters, and the visceral unease and disgust of many not in Baltimore at people throwing rocks at cops and police vehicles burning, are nothing more than this ancient conflict of values coming to a head. Official after official has resorted to a call for "order" in the streets. People making comments in the media are also decrying the lack of "order." Citizens, both responsible  and troll, have also been quite vocal about the need for "order," to the point where the most visually arresting image to come out of the rioting is some mother yanking her son out of a rioting crowd and hitting him in the head over and over again while presumably herding him off the streets and to their home.
And like every other deep question of morality and ethics, there is no "right" answer. I have become convinced as I have gotten older that the Bible's enduring appeal and relevance is nearly completely due to the fact that both competing notions of the basis of moral values are present, from start to finish (that there is much more in the Bible about obedience to authority is largely due to the fact that authority figures need to expend much more effort--and ink--to keep followers in line, to not only disseminate what is expected but to set up and enforce consequences when obedience is flouted). And every single one of us recognizes this on some level. Even the most law-and-order types out there, the ones that want to militantly enforce morality codes, have points beyond which they will not go, something that they will not obey. And the most hippie flower children out there recognize that complete anarchy would be the result of a society that had no authority in place.
My own inclinations, as anyone that reads this regularly or that knows me personally can attest, are to follow conscience and principle primarily, rather than authority. Blind obedience, obeying authority simply because it is in power, has become anathema to me, because I have become convinced that the potential for abuse of authority is always present and frequently indulged. And that is why I am not moved to outrage by what I am seeing now, and wasn't moved to outrage by what happened in Ferguson last year, and wasn't moved to outrage by the Occupy movement a few years ago, and wasn't moved to outrage by anti-war protesters a decade ago. I have to come to believe that authority's primary motivation is not the good of the society, whether secular or religious, that they are supposed to be leading or protecting, but rather the preservation of their own privileged position and the naked exercise of power. That is why I believe police misconduct ought to be more ruthlessly punished than societal crimes. That is why I believe that those who hold political office should be held to higher standards of behavior and ethics than you and I should. That is why the rigging and gaming of the entire society by those that already have power and wealth profoundly pisses me off so much. All moral transgressions are not equal--and I feel as if it is the ultimate betrayal, the ultimate crime against humanity, the ultimate offense against society, when those charged with making sure it functions properly do not do so.
Because, when all is said and done, it is the authority figures that perpetrate injustice on a large scale. Names like Jesus and Martin Luther King and Gandhi have been bandied about in the media a lot in the last 48 hours--and all three of them, it should be noted, met violent ends at the hands of those that thought they were enforcing authority. The authority figures of the time had identified these men, and others in history, as threats--ostensibly to "order," but more realistically as threats to the authority overseeing that "order." And this is what I am seeing when I see and hear people denounce the protests, denounce rioters, that also are not willing to denounce the police practices and, yes, racism that have led to Baltimore and Ferguson and scores of other riots and disturbances going clear back to Watts fifty years ago.
It is not the burning CVS and the looting and the hoodies and the dancing on police car roofs that bothers them. It is the exposure of their complicity in the perpetration of injustice, of their own values being exposed to the light and the refusal of most of us to consider the idea that maybe our priorities ought to be different. And that many of us--most of us--are, in the end, hypocritical, that we do not, when push comes to shove, practice what we preach. All of us profess to abhor injustice, to believe in fair treatment for all, to believe in "truth, justice, and the American way."
And then we make excuses as to why we accept injustice, why we allow unfair treatment to go on and on and on, why we swallow bullshit coming from authority, why we are largely silent as massive injustices continue to be perpetrated on all of us, but most especially on a segment of our population that has suffered like few other human groups have suffered for four fucking centuries. I am willing to accept that a majority of people are not, deep down, moral monsters, that in a vacuum, they will do their best to practice and engage in principled, morally upright behavior.
But that willingness to practice it stops when they run up against their fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of consequences, and fear of loss of privileged position. I understand this; I struggle with the same stuff from time to time, in various areas.
But I have confronted my fears and face them on a regular basis. And when I don't, I don't rationalize and justify my failure to do so. I will never blindly accept authority again; there has too much evidence, too many instances, over the years where authority has proved not worthy of blind faith and acceptance. Because authority is exercised by human beings, and human beings are motivated by perceived self-interest most of the time. And when one is in a position of authority, the temptation to feed that perception at the expense of others is nearly irresistible.
Which is why it is imperative for the rest of us to question the exercise of authority, to make sure exercises of authority are justified, and to resist it when those exercises are not justified. I wrote yesterday that I would not likely be on the streets if I was in Baltimore, but that was because I still have some interest and stake in the way things are now-but that I sure understood why those that were in the streets were there. Because I don't passively accept injustice anymore when it is done to me, and I don't keep quiet about it when I see it done to someone else by those in authority. I understand, too, that not everyone is in the same place ethically and intellectually as I am. I wasn't born this way; I have come to the place I am now as a result of my own journey through life and my own experiences, and I know that everyone has their own journeys to make.
But please, please, don't expect me to regress. I understand why the law-and-order types say what they say, and even accept it. But I'm not going to pretend that it isn't an expression of what it actually is. I will never follow authority blindly again, and it may be that I will eventually run afoul of it. But I am not going to live my life beset by internal contradictions because I am accepting injustice and wrongs done to others because, ultimately, I am afraid of the consequences of not doing so.
There are higher laws, more important principles and values, than obedience.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Voice Of The Unheard

What was most amazing about the media coverage of Baltimore yesterday afternoon and evening was not so much how it was presented as the fact that it wasn't really deemed big enough news to stay on the air with. Granted, I don't have cable, but I do have Internet, and I checked out all the major cable networks (except Fox) online, and while there was plenty of airtime with talking heads, there wasn't a lot of live reporting or video. The national networks were showing their usual insipid fare last night, as well, after the 6:30 broadcasts were concluded. And I can pinpoint the exact moment when the unrest went from News! to merely news.
When the rioting and the looting started. Because at that moment, the events ceased, in the media narrative, to be about the injustice done by the Baltimore police that resulted in yet another death of an unarmed black man that was in police custody for a "crime" that turned out to be no crime, and instead became about "those people" fouling their own nests. You could hear the condescension, the clucking of tongues, the disdain, the contempt, in virtually media report, for the rioters and the looters. There were countless statements to the effect that "this doesn't help," "this doesn't move anything forward," that somehow a line had been crossed between "peaceful protests" and "criminal activity."
In a word, bullshit. In a couple of words, get your heads out of your asses, and stop insisting that people whose everyday existence is as far removed from yours as yours is from life on Mars abide by and share your views, your values, and your perceptions. Those people you see on the television screen are not people who have any realistic chance at sharing what most of us like to think is "American" culture. But in normal "American" culture, we are not harassed, arrested, or targeted simply for existing. If we do find ourselves the subject of police attention and in the "justice" system, we are treated somewhat fairly. Most of us do not have parents or family in prison (although that is changing). Most of us have some experience of finishing high school, of some degree of higher education, and have a reasonable expectation of our children having the same.
The things you, I, and most of us take for granted are not present for those people that are upset in Baltimore. Or that were upset in Ferguson. Or that were upset in New York. Many of us look at the television and wonder, "Why would they destroy their own neighborhood?"
Because it's not theirs. Why do prisoners destroy a prison when prison riots occur? These are people who lead lives that most Americans would dearly love to believe only happens in places like Cambodia and Equatorial Guinea and Turkmenistan and other Third World hellholes, when authority runs amok and is never called to account, where your free existence--hell, your life-- could end at any moment of any day for no reason. They live their lives in fear, without hope of positive change, and of being oppressed. Why not riot? Why not fight back? Why not fight against those that are the everyday agents of your misery?
As angry as I get sometimes at what America has become, I'm not likely to take up arms or take part in destructive orgies of violence--because I still have a lot to lose. I have an interest in the system as is; I have a stake in keeping at least something of the society standing. But I am not so blind as believe that everybody out there has something to lose, and I sure as hell have learned not to expect someone with nothing to lose from the status quo to passively accept it if an opportunity presents itself to act out on the frustration and anger that marginalization inevitably brings in its wake. These people on television have nothing to lose. Law and order does not work for them--and for a long time now, the forces of law and order have acted as an oppressing army of occupation without ever being called to account. Petty and even major violations of the law they are supposedly upholding by police forces across the country are almost never called to account.
And in the last few years, they are now, all across the country, getting away with murder. Getting away with murder. If some young white guy gets shoved into a police car with a functional body and died later in the day with a broken back, the outrage would be tremendous--but there would also be a legitimate expectation that those responsible would be called to some kind of account. That simply does not occur when the people it happens to are African-American. And decades--even centuries, to be truthful--of experience has demonstrated that there will be no "justice" applied to those that violate basic rights, up to and including the taking of human lives without cause.
I'm not on the streets, and I'm not likely to be. But I sure understand it, and I honestly do not blame them. Nothing is going to change without pushback. A lot of pushback. If that offends your sense of propriety, so be it. But in most cases of most people wringing their hands and denouncing the rioters, it's not their sense of propriety being jarred and broken.
It's their cherished illusions about this culture, this society, this country, crashing to the ground. I was in a discussion a couple of nights ago with one of my friends, a guy I grew up with, a guy I've been friends with since literally kindergarten. We were talking that night about a post on Facebook about another instance of alleged police misconduct, somewhere in Pennsylvania. As we went back and forth, he kept returning to the same theme over and over again--that he had to believe, had to believe, that most cops were inherently decent and didn't engage in these brutalities and harassment and racist actions.
He was missing the point. The point isn't the bad apples. Any large group of people is likely to fall into some sort of Bell curve distribution, and a police force is generally a large enough group of people to see it. Yeah, the truly heinous rotten apples are likely a minority. But the point is that those that aren't bad have to pull up, blow up, stop, whatever term you want to use--they have to call the bad apples to account. Not just when the media finds out. Not just when someone dies as the result of police action. Not just when there are police riots on national television.
When I was in school, the experience of World War II was fresh in our adults' memories, and there was a lot of play given to the Nazi experience--and how that the German people bore a great deal of responsibility for the Holocaust simply because they allowed it to happen even though they knew it was morally wrong. Well, guess what? We're not acting any differently than your average Wilhelm and Steffi Munster did in, say, 1937. When you make excuses, when you temporize, when you don't take active action to ensure justice is served--well, what you saw on television yesterday is the result you get.
There are no shortcuts. I am not a practicing Christian, but I do try, consciously, to follow the moral path of life--on this earth, not in the vague afterlife--that Jesus of Nazareth talked about, at least in the source material that is available to us. And those words, which much of this nation professes to believe are the word of the Deity Himself, which should ensure that most people actively try to live by those words, tell us to do unto others, that when you speak up for the oppressed, when you combat injustice, when you treat the disadvantaged well, you are doing the work of God. "When you do onto the least of my brethren, you are doing onto me."
"A just and fair distribution of the world’s resources would help separate the hundreds of fanatics who kill from the thousands of supporters who help them and the millions of sympathizers who defend them." A cleric named John Dominic Crossan said that many years ago, and he couldn't have been more right. 
"A riot is the language of the unheard." That was the take, fifty years ago, of someone who is being quoted a lot recently--Martin Luther King. An apostle of non-violence that was executed for his trouble, either by authority (what likely happened) or by someone that authority did a damn poor job preventing, finding, and capturing (the official version). 
Violence cannot build a better society. Disruption and disorder nourish repression, not justice. They strike at the freedom of every citizen. The community cannot—it will not—tolerate coercion and mob rule. Violence and destruction must be ended—in the streets of the ghetto and in the lives of people. Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain, and white society condones it.
That's from the Kerner Report, from 1969.  A generation and a half ago, generated in response to rioting and unrest at that time. 
And, just to show that even "conservatives" are capable of understanding what is really happening, this unbelievable (in a good sense) report from Shepard Smith on Fox last night: 
“I also don’t know where we are. We’ve got a major American city that has decades of turmoil within this neighborhood,” Shepard Smith said. “Decades! You’ve heard the stories from Doug McKelway a little while ago of people being arrested for nothing, a violent crackdown for years and years, of them feeling powerless and hopeless and nobody listening to what they were saying. One quarter of the youth locked up. Clearly there is a big problem. Then all of a sudden an African American man is taken into a vehicle and he comes out of it and dies. And you get nothing from authorities except a suspension. And those who would do harm take an opportunity to do harm. And here we are. But it is what has happened between all of that and today that that has led to this. There is no escaping that reality.”
The storm is not coming. It is here. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Driving a Hole Through My Wallet

It's been 3 1/2 months since my daughter got her driver's permit, and we've got enough time under us that I am starting to take the steps to ensure that she is able to take her drivers' test shortly after the required 6-month gap between getting the permit and taking the test. It's quite a bit different than it was in 1979, when I got my license, I am finding. For starters, there are fees and costs associated with it that were not charged when I was a kid; I think I paid $80 back when she got the permit, which will cover the cost of the eventual drivers' test as well as the picture-ID learner's permit we got at that time. I guess I can understand that, although I think the cost is a little steep and that the state could just easily hit those that make several hundred thousand dollars a year with a higher tax rate as they could hit everybody with a 16YO kid in the state with a rather large fee.
But there are going to be other costs associated with it. For one, there is a 5-hour course that is now mandatory for prospective drivers to take before you can apply to take the test. We used to have drivers' education offered through our schools, and it used to be something you could take as an option (it lowered your insurance rate, and it removed some of the restrictions on your license that under-18 drivers dealt with, but it wasn't mandatory that you took it to even get in the door). And it sure as hell didn't cost $40 to $60 a shot. What a crock of shit this is; it is nothing more than another con job, another fee for an unnecessary service conjured up as a way to allow some parasitic clowns with no real skill base to siphon a living out of something that shouldn't be necessary. I don't really know why this is irritating me so much; it isn't like this state doesn't charge bogus fees for other things it shouldn't (like the infamous "court costs" scam that is the main source of income for many municipalities, from one traffic-light towns to New York City), and it isn't like corporate America isn't gouging us at every opportunity, either (bounce a check sometime, or try to decipher a phone or cable bill and figure out what some of the charges are and why you get charged for them). Maybe because it is so totally unnecessary and superfluous. I remember the five-hour course we had to take during the drivers' ed course I took in high school; it was an absolute joke--nobody drives that way, least of all the people teaching the course.
And my insurance is going to go up, significantly. I don't know the exact numbers yet, but I've been reliably assured that I am looking at an increase of close to $700 a year. Since I am currently only paying $450 a year--yeah, that's a lot. I suppose some insurance company actuary has some chart ready to whip out whenever questioned about why teens are higher risks (don't get me started on the entire idea of insurance and the insurance industry and how much we pay for all that; it's not quite another grift or con job, in that insurance companies actually do pay out, albeit grudgingly and slowly, should something you are paying to be insured against happens, but the idea that there is an entire industry that basically makes a living off people's fears is something morally nebulous at best), but I really question whether a 200% increase is justified--is a 16 or 17YO driver three times more likely to get in an accident as I am? And I really don't pay a lot for insurance; my last ticket was (knocking on wood) nearly a decade ago, and I haven't been at fault in an accident since the 1980's. I really can't imagine how some of these poor bastards keep a car on the road when their children get their license.
As far as her driving...I've learned some things, mostly about how much of my own skill set behind the wheel that I take for granted now, that I must have learned through trial and error but have no recollection of the learning curve. Sabrina does reasonably well navigating through city streets and urban driving. She is a little slow to stop, works the brake a little bit too hard, but so far at least, isn't generally a lead-footed driver (note to parents; having a 4-cylinder car really helps in this regard). She has learned turning quickly, too. Learning to drive in winter and spring has also very quickly taught her how to avoid potholes and other assorted obstacles without becoming a menace to other drivers and pedestrians. But going on the highway needs some work. She entered 17 West from the mall exit the other day--and almost killed us by moseying on out into the drive lanes at 30 MPH and making several cars swerve around us (note to self: screaming "Speed up!"at the top of my lungs tends to freeze her, not get the desired result. Work on a Plan B). She still is not comfortable traveling at 55 to 65 MPH, and she gets resentful at other drivers blowing by her at speeds at least 20 miles an hour over the limit. She takes a long time to decide to change lanes, and even longer to actually get over into the other lane... A lot of it is lack of practice; she drives around town most every day, but has only been on the highway about a half-dozen times so far. And I am trying to remember that I wasn't born knowing how to merge into traffic and other nuances of higher-speed driving. But at the same time, the stakes are a lot higher at higher speeds.
Maybe that increased insurance rate is going to be necessary, after all. And I can tell you that once she does get a license, she will be expected to get at least a part-time job to help cover the costs. That's kind of the point of having a license; it increases your options all over the map. And by time she actually takes the test, softball and other time-consuming activities should be done with.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Book Review: THE LIFE OF THE AUTOMOBILE

This is a pretty ambitious book by British academic Steven Parissien--nothing less than a history of the car, world-wide, from its beginnings in Europe and America in the nineteenth century to today. And by and large, it does hold the interest of the reader. Those that are really into cars--that know models on sight and appreciate nuances about vehicles--will like the book more than I did, but I still found it pretty interesting to read of the individual manufacturers' histories, who did what when (I had no idea, for example, that the Renault that started the famous French car company was a Vichy collaborator and ended his life in a Fourth Republic jail), and what has happened in Europe over the decades. I did find a few things not so interesting, too, though. One is that the writer is British, and uses British jargon to describe cars--"bonnet," "saloon,"windscreen" (Americans use hood, sedan, and windshield, respectively), among many examples in the text. Another is, since the writer is British, there is a disproportionate (to American eyes) focus on the British auto industry, and entire chapters are devoted to people and companies I knew nothing about and don't feel particularly enlightened for having read about. I also think that there aren't enough pictures included in the book; if one is going to gush about design and style innovations, it would be nice to see what is being described, not just read about.
I obviously had more interest in the latter part of the book, which talks about cars and events I personally remember. And the sections of the book about American auto executives such as Lee Iacocca and Roger Smith (of Roger and Me, the movie that shot Michael Moore to stardom, fame) are priceless precisely because the author is viewing them through non-American eyes. It is became clear to me that I have not been following auto-related news very closely in the last decade or so; I had no clue, for example, that Fiat now owns Chrysler, and that the Big Three are now the Somewhat Large Two, that Toyota is the biggest car company in the world and Hyundai and Volkswagen are bigger than Ford, and that Nissan is owned by Renault. I remember when I was first entering the ranks of drivers and how many different models and manufacturers of cars there were, and I note now, as I look around for the not-far-off day when Sabrina will have a car, the relative paucity of options. GM doesn't seem to have half of what they used to, I still don't like Ford, and despite the prevalence of Toyotas on the road, I don't like the way they look and I don't trust the way they drive--the only one I ever owned fell apart as soon as it hit 120,000 miles. And the car company that made the best car I've ever had, Subaru, didn't even get mentioned once in the book, an omission that I find both curious and ultimately intolerable. Maybe Subaru doesn't have a presence in Britain, but still, they are a legitimate player on the world stage.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

#ChangeTheEnding

It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't easy. But it was relatively quick, and the New York Rangers are on to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the fourth year in a row (something which has not happened since the 1990's), winning four of five games against former nemesis team Pittsburgh by identical 2-1 scores.
I would love to tell you that I saw nothing in this series that makes me worry about a second-round match-up against Washington (who lead the Islanders three games to two, and who are likely to win). But that's not true. The Rangers were pretty sloppy at times against the Penguins, and frankly were lucky that Evgeni Malkin was not 100% (he was pointless in the series, both literally and descriptively). Lundqvist is himself again, and some of the players that entered the playoffs as question marks (most notably Dan Girardi) played well. But there are some serious problems among some of the other veterans. Dan Boyle is 38, and looks it most of the time. Martin St. Louis has not won a battle for the puck since January, it seems, and has become a turnover machine. And I really hope Rick Nash understands that the aim of playoff hockey is to put the puck in the net, not just on it; he sure looks to me like he is afraid to make any sort of move with the puck, but is firing as soon as he gets it on his stick. Kevin Hayes had the overtime winner in Game 4--and on virtually every other shift in the series looked as if playoff pressure was constricting his arms into Play-Doh.
And last night, Mats Zuccarello took a puck to the face and did not return; more ominously, there was not an update provided after the game. And if he can't play going forward for any length of time--well, the only spare forward on the roster right now is James Sheppard, who should be playing ahead of Tanner Glass anyway, but neither one of them is in the same zip code as a player as Zuccarello. Kevin Klein, who was supposedly going to be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs, still hasn't come back--and I'm not sure if he is going to play if and when he is ready, because Matt Hunwick has played really well in his absence. But the Rangers need to have a viable fourth line in order to be go all the way, and while it is debatable whether a fourth line with Glass on it is viable, a fourth line with Glass and Sheppard is certainly not good enough to play meaningful minutes against good teams.
But on the other hand, the mark of a really good team is being able to win games when it isn't playing really well, and even more so when the other team is giving its best shot. I'm not sure the Penguins played as well as they were capable of, because of Malkin--but everyone else seemed to have brought their "A" game. As much as I hate him, Sidney Crosby played very well; Steve Downie, of all people, looked like Cam Neely most of the series; and Chris Kunitz likely saved his Pittsburgh career with a decent set of games. The Wilkes-Barre Penguin defense actually played very well, and Marc-Andre Fleury played well enough to win most playoff rounds.
But there are reasons for optimism going forward. Fleury was spectacular; the Rangers could have easily had four or more goals in every game. Some players are really stepping it up, too--Stepan, Staal, Hagelin, Miller, Moore. And I do think that the Rangers are in the Capitals' heads a bit, too; the Rangers absolutely dominated them in the last game of the season, even when they had nothing to play for and the Capitals did. I have noticed, though, that Washington is winning without a great series from Ovechkin, and that is sort of worrisome. But Caps fans could think the same about the Rangers winning with a single goal from Nash.
So the journey continues on. I love the #changetheending hashtag; it is a perfect reminder of how close the team came last year, what the ultimate goal is--and how good this team really is. As the team moves on, I did some research, and found out that the winning of at least one series in four straight years is not a record--the team won at least one series in five consecutive seasons in the Duguay/Greschner years from 1979-83. I was a huge fan then, too, and I can tell you that with the exception of the first year in that streak, when the team found themselves in the Cup finals against the Canadiens, there was never a realistic sense of expectation around those teams about winning the Cup. Those five teams were trying to win against the best team of all time (the Islander dynasty) with John Davidson (good but not great), Ed Mio (journeyman), and Steve Baker (who?) in goal. The current Ranger goalie is of somewhat better quality...and relative to the rest of the league, their top players now (Nash, Stepan, Kreider, even a very old-looking St. Louis) are better than the Duguay/Anders Hedberg/Mike Rogers types that were leading those teams. But the best thing about this Ranger team is that their defense corps goes (if Hunwick continues to play well) seven-deep. If Klein is healthy, Hunwick likely is in the press box--and Hunwick would have been the best defenseman in the Penguin lineup in the series just concluded. Man-for-man, Washington can't match the Rangers on the blue line, either (the Islanders can, which is why the Rangers had such trouble with the Isles this season, but as I said, I don't think the Islanders are coming back against the Caps). If Boyle is able to actually shoot the puck on goal in the next round (he missed at least four wide-open nets in three different games against the Penguins), the Rangers should have a decided advantage against Washington.
And for all the ugliness of the series, let's not forget that they gave up eight goals in five games. A 1.53 goals-against average is going to win a best-of-seven series every single time. You could make a case that this series would have been a rout if not for Fleury in the other net just as easily as one could make a case that the Rangers didn't play all that great. And while the Ranger offense was somewhat mercurial during the season, the defense was not. Cam Talbot played a third of the season, and his numbers were actually better than those of Lundqvist. The team's true character is that they, first and foremost, keep the puck out of their own net. I think they are going to be fine.
We're a quarter of the way home,

Friday, April 24, 2015

A Bit of Relapse Mode

No, not on drugs; let me be quite clear on that immediately. But I am approaching four months now of excellent dietary habits, which has resulted in a weight loss of at least 20 pounds since the first of the year (I've been plateaued between 186 and 190 for a month, for reasons that will be clear in a moment). I've always maintained that it's easiest for me personally to lose weight between New Year's and Easter. I can resist the temptation to eat a lot, and I can control what food is available to me, much better if I am in the house more or less all the time when I am not working, and in the winter, that's pretty much where I am almost all the time.
But with the spring comes distractions and breaks from routine. The first temptation is Easter and the family gatherings associated with it; my mother, even approaching eighty years old, still cooks for a small army every time anyone is over there for dinner. And then, with warmer weather, start the barbecues and gatherings at friends' homes, and while I try not to overeat, at the same time I am not made of stern enough stuff to resist hamburgers, hot dogs, cake, and stuff like that, not if there is a table full of that stuff. With Sabrina in full softball season, it is often seven o'clock or better before she is home, and it is so tempting to take her to McDonald's or Subway rather than make her wait for me to cook something when we get home. And then as activity increases around my job, I find myself at events or on the road, and it's hard not to eat lunch at eateries that don't specialize in healthy fare or small portions. And it's like a dam breaching: one is too many, a thousand is never enough.
I went to a friend's birthday celebration Sunday, after eating pizza Saturday after Sabrina's all-day tournament. And then Tuesday I was out and about with the new program volunteer, and we were in Johnson City at lunchtime, and--well, Wegmans was right there and they have so many lunch options... And then yesterday the volunteer was around at lunchtime again, and Wendy's was right there and it's been so long since I had fries...and I could barely stay awake all afternoon.
But the real danger sign came last night, after dinner. I hardly buy snack and junk food anymore; Sabrina likes her Tostitos and salsa, and if I have a coupon for something she eats occasionally, like Price Chopper ridged potato chips, I will use the coupon. So far, I've been very good about resisting the Siren call; there has sat a box of unopened Pop-tarts since January in the cupboard, to take one example. But last night, after dinner, I was still feeling a little food craving--even after a Wendy's lunch. And I ate some potato chips.
And as I enjoyed every savory, mouth-watering chip, I thought to myself, "This is what the first stage of relapse feels like." And then, five minutes later, as I could feel the salt clogging my arteries and the pile of mush in my stomach shifting uncomfortably, I thought to myself, "This is what the rest of relapse feels like." The degree of self-loathing, of feeling disgusted with myself, of a lot of work going down the drain--it was all  present. I'm a little afraid to get on the scale this morning, to be honest. I hope it's something manageable, like 190; I fear it's going to read 192 or 193. And I am glad that that Sabrina's Saturday tournament is out in Newark Valley, where there should be no food vendors--and also that I have other commitments and won't be there for the entire day, too.
My goal of goals was to get to 170, and that looks very unlikely. But I would at least like to break through 180,  and that was looking very possible there for a while. It still is. But I have to stay out of places that sell lunch, and I definitely have to keep the cupboard door shut after I am done eating my meals.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Rational Analysis of Start-Up NY

I am drawn like a magnet to a refrigerator door to any news story that portrays our esteemed governor in anything less than a fawning positive light. So I immediately perked up like the pot of coffee that was brewing when I saw a note on our local newspaper site (one of the five free articles I get this month, and since it's the 23rd of the month, you can tell how much of what is published every day is actually worth reading and why I refused their 99-cent trial offer, but I digress) that reported that the Spoiled Little Bastard was feeling the lash of criticism over the centerpiece of his economic "recovery" program, Start-Up NY.
For those that live in other places, and indeed for those of us too rightly disgusted by any noise that comes from Albany to pay a lot of attention to what passes for public policy in this state, Start-Up NY was Cuomo's attempt to, in his words, counteract the image of New York as a high-tax, business unfriendly state, and also attempt to "solve"  the problem that few if any of the tens of thousands of students that attend college in this state get jobs in the communities they go to college in, by setting up hundreds (literally; there are 356 of them) of zones located near 62 colleges across the state that, should a business begin operations within the zone, will not have to pay taxes for ten years.
After a year of operation, the program has spent $53 million on advertising. It has produced $1.7 million dollars in investments in the zones, and 76 jobs. Critics are having a field day with those paltry numbers, and also because it effectively penalizes existing businesses. The SLB is counseling patience, claiming that 93 companies have been approved for the next few years of the program and that they have pledged 2100 jobs and $91 million in investments in those businesses.
While in general I am one that tries to look past the immediate present to the long term, in this particular case I am on the side of the critics, and not just because this is something that involves one of my least favorite homo sapiens on earth. In no particular order:

  1. This whole thing smacks of a Time-Warner promotion. I find it obscene, frankly, that I get seven channels of television and high-speed Internet for my $90/month--while Time-Warner's introductory packages for new customers promise more or less full cable, the same Internet speed, and a landline phone for $30/month. I have had an account with Time-Warner since they were Newchannels, sometime back in the 1980's; you would think that the long-time customer would be getting a better deal than some yo-yo off the street. But sometime in the last thirty years, that normal business ethic got perverted somehow, and this entire "Start-Up" bit seems a rather typical example of a business model that hasn't worked well.
  2. For a state that is supposedly very "anti-business," New York is the state where the so-called business/financial capital of the entire frigging world is located. Wall Street is in New York State, for God's sake. If the tax burdens were punitively high here, so high that no business could survive, then the presence of the most economically dynamic city in the world, or at least in this hemisphere, would be inexplicable. Ergo, the tax burden here isn't as "burdensome" as many think. 
  3. Taxes go to support not just a government and bureaucracy. They pay for an level of society. And to anyone that looks at economic/tax data with an unblinkered eye unbiased by ideology, it's hard to escape the conclusion that places with relatively higher tax revenue are better places to live than those that do not. On every level, from municipality to continents. New York has higher taxes than, say, South Carolina--and we have a much better educational system, a much better safety net, a much more diverse and open cultural context (from state involvement in the arts to better parks and recreational facilities), less awful justice systems, higher levels of child welfare services (from better Child Protective Services rates to day care for working people to summer programs to dozens of other things that have some degree of public money involved), to name just a few benefits that higher levels of taxation bring...people are going to bitch about taxes no matter what level they are at. Some of the earliest recorded examples of writing are laconic recordings of merchants bitching about royal taxes in ancient Sumeria 5500 years ago. And quite honestly, the same people that bitch the loudest about taxes are often the same people that are the most avid consumers of services underwritten by tax money. I remember, a decade ago when she was actually a semi-functional part of society, when MOTY got a bumper sticker that said, "Work harder. Millions on welfare are depending on you." This was a woman that, at the time, was having DSS pay for her day care, that was on food stamps, that was getting WIC for her then-infant (she was also someone that was ineligible for straight public assistance because of a conviction for welfare fraud, but I digress). And I see this to various degrees all around me even today. There's a lot more that your tax dollars go to then just public assistance recipients. 
  4. My father had a small business, of one sort or another, for nearly fifty years, and I was a partner with him for fifteen of those years. And I can tell you that a whole lot of other considerations go into making a business successful than the taxes one has to pay. A business has to be selling something that someone wants, and those that want it have to be able to afford to pay for it. Those are the two things that matter the most. Other secondary considerations are location, security, ease of access, and supply. The amount one pays in taxes is not completely off the list of factors that make a success, but it's very, very far down the list.
  5. This idea that taxes kill business is a staple of conservative ideology. Like so much of conservative ideology, there isn't any evidence that supports the notion--but it doesn't stop people from spouting it like it was true. Indeed, the SLB himself said yesterday that it's "inarguable that a tax-free zone is going to attract businesses." Well, it is very arguable, for the reasons just listed above. But what does Cuomo know about businesses and what makes them work? He was born wealthy and privileged, and the only ideas he has about business come from other people from wealthy and privileged circles. I wasn't a fan of his father, but you never heard this kind of drivel coming from Mario Cuomo--because whatever his faults, and he had many, Mario Cuomo grew up in circumstances that weren't isolated from the world you and I inhabit, and actual reality at least intruded onto his thought processes...We really need to start calling "Bullshit!" every time someone in power starts talking like this. It probably won't make a difference, because the wealthy and privileged have gamed the political system so that it benefits them--and a low-tax environment benefits no one but those who already have a pile of money. This ideology that we have followed as a nation for 35 years is as intellectually and morally bankrupt as Marxist-Leninist creeds--but there seems to be no shortage of people that support those that spout the same tired and wrong talking points even though there is absolutely no evidence that the ideology works. 
And the advertising money is just the icing on the cake, and is perhaps the quintessential example of what's wrong with the ideological basis of today's "policies." Advertising is another one of those vocations that adds nothing to the general well-being--in fact, you can make a case that it rewards people for disguising the truth and making a virtue of dishonesty. And it is instructive that this long-term, multi-million dollar initiative has benefited those that make their living in a parasitic, non-productive "livelihood" before there is any (theoretical) benefit to actual working people. Wait, that's not true--I'm sure some "consultant" made some ridiculous amount of money for conceiving this idea to begin with. 
That's the problem with the "business" environment in a nutshell. Consultants and advertisers are at the front of the line, get the first crack at the buffet. And that is an ass-backwards of promoting the interests of our society as a whole. Start-Up NY is not working, is not going to work--and by the time that it's failure will beyond argument, those that pushed the program into existence will have long since migrated to other pastures and away from any possible accountability. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Empire Strikes Back

You didn't really think Walmart was going to passively accept the strikes and generally negative publicity surrounding recent disclosures about their business practices and the awful way they treat their employees, did you? One of the least surprising news items ever came out of California this week, when the five Walmart stores that saw strikes by workers due to such Gilded Age regular business practices as forced (and unpaid) overtime, cutting hours to keep employees ineligible for benefits, and unfounded disciplinary measures were closed "temporarily" for six months by the chain, allegedly for "plumbing repairs." Employees were given a day's notice, offered reduced hours at other stores at lower wages, and told that unemployment claims would be fought. In the communities where the stores are located, not a single work permit for repair work has been filed, and employees of all five stores report that the "plumbing" was working just fine in every store the day before the announcement.
If you had any lingering doubt, Peons of America, that we are in a war for our very existence, wipe that doubt away. Big Corporate America does not care about you, they do not care about me, they don't care about the law, and they don't care about anything except making more mountains of money for themselves. They will actively resist being held to any sort of legal and moral standards that will result in even rudimentary fair treatment for its own workers, much less those that buy their merchandise. Walmart is one of the more open and more egregious offenders, and its recent struggles notwithstanding, is determined to continue to exploit its own and other countries' workforces to maintain the multi=billion-dollar fortunes of the Walton family.
In a related development from the sports world, I see that Los Angeles has decided to build a $1.7 billion stadium designed explicitly to lure the San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams to Los Angeles. The driving force behind the stadium has been the Rams' owner--who is a Walton in-law, who hasn't even tried to play ball with St. Louis in that city's efforts to negotiate a new lease for the team's existing stadium, who hasn't even pretended to be willing to accept St. Louis' offer (which is obscenely tilted in favor of the Rams, by the way). And of course, the proposal approved yesterday is long on rhetoric and amazingly, horribly short on details--basically, "Trust us; it will turn out somewhere."
Sure it will. Right out of taxpayer pockets.
Legal action has been talked about regarding the closure of the stores, but I am pretty sure that nothing is going to come of it. And while the country has never been the democratic, will-of-the-people utopia that we like to bullshit ourselves and others around the globe that we are, there was a time, forty to eighty years ago, when we were not, as a country, so blatantly the plantation of the rich and moneyed. The game is so thoroughly rigged now that the pretenses are becoming increasingly ignored. The staggering amounts of money being talked about as "necessary" to run for President next year have not only become commonplace, but they have forever removed the office from the vast majority of voters' interests. The political and legal systems are almost completely tilted in favor of those that already have a great deal of wealth and affluence.
And I really fear that the game is over. I have no idea of how long the corporate elite are going to be willing to continue with the democratic charade. The legal system, for the wealthy, has already been effectively neutralized; incarceration for financial crimes past a certain scale has not been taking place for nearly two decades now. I really do believe that at some point soon, should there be an election result on a national or congressional level, that has a slight change of fundamentally changing the status quo, that the trappings will be dispensed with. Indeed, it might happen sooner than you think. If the worker unrest spreads across the country's other Walmart stores, I have no trouble believing that Walmart will resort to private security forces to physically intimidate workers, protesters, or both.
The struggle to organize labor was long and bloody in this country, something that was often glossed over in the history curricula of my youth (I seriously doubt it is even being examined in any detail today). The period when I was growing up was the one generation in the nation's history when labor seemed to have gained somewhat firm and equal footing--but that proved to be illusory. One of the most unheralded truly significant developments of my lifetime was the Reagan Administration's breaking of the air traffic controllers' strike in 1981; it was ground zero, the beginning of the long, long slide downward for most of the American workforce, the point where the ground shifted.
Looking backward through both USA and world history, the reason that the economic structure of society was relatively labor-friendly in the period 1945-1980 was the result of the Depression. In this country, we made a decision to step back from what was essentially Social Darwinism rather than go to a totalitarian response to the great crisis; those societies that utilized the repressive response found themselves defeated in World War II (and later,the Cold War) and had to at least transparently adopt the mores of the victor. The trouble was that most of us assumed the victory was permanent--but the forces of wealth and power that brought us the Great Depression had not faded into extinction, and instead have regrouped and taken back control.
American history is more conflict-riven than our history books tell us, but it is true that we have had less of it than most of other Western societies. But we are also a lot younger than those other societies, and the way the world is going, we may have our unrest and attempts at revolution yet. Certainly people like the Walton family are not going to change willingly, and those that currently benefit from the entire system as it stands are not going to go quietly into the night.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Different Take on Random Notes, April 2015

One day. That's all it took--one day back at the office, before the alarm went off way too early and it's taken me two cups of coffee and a good forty minutes before I can even consider thinking about writing. And all I am going to write about is how tired I am.
I could write about other things, but I am choosing not to. I have lots of thoughts about my daughter's mother and some of the things she did and said this weekend, but the bottom line is that if she ever is going to turn it around, she needs to be in the fellowship, and the last thing I want to do is make it any more uncomfortable for her to be there than she already is, and so she doesn't need me doing an analysis online of her progress. Every journey has to have a starting point.
There's a part of me that would like to write about what's going on with my relationship. I actually shared some in the meeting Sunday morning about it, and that's a sign that I am growing more comfortable with it, but I've also still, after all these years, got a superstitious streak, and I've noticed over the six years of doing this blog that every time I seem to write in detail about someone I'm interested in or dating, it all falls apart rather quickly. I don't really think that's going to happen in this case, but why take the chance? I will say that moving to a new phase, taking it to another level, is on the horizon, and while it is going to be challenging, I also feel more hopeful than I have in a long time about the future.
There's a part of me that wants to be writing about the Rangers, who took a 2-1 lead in their playoff series last night--but I've only been able to watch about three periods total of the three games, and so I would be talking out my ass if I claimed to know what was going on in any fashion. I'm glad that they're ahead, and I think that quality is going to win out, but they still have to play the games.
There's a part of me that wants to talk about returning to work yesterday. After thirteen years and about thirty "returns" from time off, I'm still not sure which is worse--coming back and having to deal with eighty-five things the first day you're back, or coming back and everything went so smoothly in your absence that you wonder whether they've discovered you're expendable because they don't seem to actually need you. Yesterday was more of the latter (although part of that was being very diligent about making sure all loose ends were tied up before going on vacation). I should be busier today, and I am sure that by Friday I will be very glad to see the weekend come. But yesterday felt a little odd.
There's a part of me that wants to discuss gardening and planting--but the thunderstorms last night kind of put everything on hold, and the wet, non-sticking snow we are supposed to get later this week makes me happy that I did not go get some plants last week like I debated doing. The last couple of years, I haven't been able to put anything in the ground until a week or better into May, and it looks like that's the way to go this year, too.
There's a part of me that wants to write about the trolls that fill the comments on newspaper and television station sites--but I try not to make a habit of rewarding attention-seeking behavior from alleged adults. But there is a new name in the Troll Hall of Fame; if someone has the misfortune to know or be related to Eddie Ramsey--you have my sympathy.
There is a part of me that wants to decry the nonsense emanating from Washington, and the lack of noise coming from Albany, and the school budget that got passed, and the people running for school board, and the boycott many parents across the state are participating in of the standard tests that No Child Left Behind and Common Core mandate. But I don't have the heart or the stomach to do so this morning.
Part of me wants to bore you with my progress report on my diet--but eating out after the softball tournament Saturday and attending a cookout/birthday party Sunday added five pounds back in a hurry. I'm sure that the number will go down this morning and throughout the week as what has become my normal intake of food resumes--but these fluctuations give a new meaning to "one is too many and a thousand never enough."
And I see I've spent a hour writing about things I'm not going to write about, and my coffee is cold and my daughter is about to get up. And I suddenly feel less tired than I did when I sat down here. Thinking is somewhat stimulating, I find; one reason I write every morning is that it snaps me out of the waking doldrums long before I leave the house. My most productive hours of the day at my job are usually the first two I am there. That is partially because I get to the office 60 to 90 minutes before almost anyone else I deal with regularly and there are no distractions--but it is also because I am fully awake when I get there.
Anyhow, time to make a muffin and hope that the drip in the water heater doesn't lead to a catastrophic failure before I get out of the shower. Sometime in the last couple of days, I have to talk to the landlord about it, but thus far, it still is working.


Monday, April 20, 2015

Book Review: FUTURE ARCTIC

Edward Struzik is a Canadian writer and photographer that has spent a lot of time working with crews in the Canadian Arctic. His Future Arctic is a rather sober analysis of what is currently happening at the top of the world, and after finishing it, I almost wish he had been a little less sober and a little more strident. I am certainly not a climate change denier, but even I had no real idea of how quickly and strongly things are changing in the polar regions. Many of the things--permafrost melt, lack of ice cover, glaciers melting, polar bears in trouble--were not news to me. But some were. I had no idea that grizzly bears were increasing their range to the far, far north (or that they could interbreed with polar bears). I had no idea that Pacific salmon and other Pacific fish are now being caught around Greenland, or that orcas have made their way into the Arctic (lack of ice impeding them now)--and what a catastrophe that is for long-established species. I had no idea that Stephen Harper has done for Canada, as its Prime Minister, even worse than W did for the United States--the level of official denial in Canada about climate change is staggering, government officials are subject to loss of job if they speak publicly about it, and the energy industry gets more or less everything they want in the far north. And I had no idea that almost every animal in the Arctic ecosystem is in serious trouble--from lemmings to caribou.
And although Struzik doesn't say so explicitly, there is a general sense that he thinks that the damage is irreversible, especially if large scale oil and gas drilling takes place. One of the last chapters notes how long and how much trouble BP had in stopping the oil slick in the Gulf a few years ago, and that Alaska still hasn't fully cleaned up the Exxon Valdez--and then writes that should something happen in the far north, the ability to clean it up simply is not there and won't be there. It would be an absolute death knell for the entire region environmentally. And no one in power in Canada gives a crap. Very sad.
I guess I can cross Canada off my list of "places I might retire to."

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Walking The Talk

After going a long, long time without getting asked to speak at local events, yesterday was the third or fourth time in the last two years that either our local Activities and Events committee or another subcommittee of the fellowship has asked me to share my experience, strength, and hope. It is an honor to be asked, and I was glad to do so, especially since the topic I was given was something that is one of the more important aspects of my journey over the years--surviving emotions. The room was surprisingly full for an early afternoon slot, I was gratified to see, and it made for a good afternoon and, once I returned to the event after picking up Sabrina from her tournament, early evening.
I am aware that public speaking for some people is an ordeal. I can think of at least four people off the top of my head that will not even share at meetings, much less at an event like this, because they are so scared of speaking in public, and there are others that only do so with great difficulty. I feel very fortunate that I have never been afflicted with anxiety on that level. I get nervous, to be sure, but a little nervousness is never a bad thing; I take it as a sign that I am taking the responsibility that I have been given seriously, that I want to carry a clear and coherent message of recovery, in this circumstance, and that I want to do a good job when I have spoken in other circumstances. But once my mouth starts to open, I've never had much of a problem talking.
And one of the things that I was reflecting on in the week between being asked to speak and actually speaking was something I was writing about in this space a few weeks ago. Part of the reason I was not asked to speak in this area for so long was undoubtedly due to the Messagemaster's influence and desire to control both the A&E committee and who was asked to share at the committee's events. But sometime in the last year or two, I realized that during that period, I hadn't been getting asked to speak at home groups that have speaker meetings, either. Which meant, bluntly, that the message I was carrying at that time wasn't attractive enough for people to want to hear more about it or in any sort of detail. When my recovery changed focus, when I started working a stronger program, when there was less conflict and a more positive outlook coming from me--well, imagine that: people wanted to hear more about it. I've been committed to doing this for a year or better now, and it's truly amazing to me how differently I am being regarded by those around me. I even made reference to it at the end of my sharing yesterday; when you're not angry and conflict-ridden, people actually want you around and like to hear from you.
That was the message carried by the people that shared directly before and after me yesterday, as well. Roz and Danny both have more clean time than I do, and both have not only journeyed over the same ground that I have, but have also made profound changes just in the last couple of years. All three of us used to be angry frequently, act out a lot, and in general were difficult to be around for any length of time. And all three of us have made the conscious choice to change, and the results have shown, not only in the way that others regard us, but in the way we feel about ourselves and the lives we lead. I'm not real close to Roz, but I see and hear enough of her to know that the change is genuine. I do know Danny fairly well, and I know Danny likes himself a lot better than he did even three years ago, which is hand-in-glove with the changes he made in the way he conducted himself. And that is something I identify totally with. For me, it started with a simple determination that I was stop being judgmental, stop comparing myself to others, and start acting more and more on principle when the opportunity to practice them arose.
And one example took place yesterday, even as I was speaking. Sabrina's mother picked up a white keytag at Friday night's meeting, and showed up at the event when I was about twenty minutes into my sharing. I didn't adjust my sharing to her presence, because I had only mentioned her briefly, as part of the the story of my first few days in recovery, and the parts of my sharing that my parenting of Sabrina touched on did not require me to speak of her and my relationship with her. And after I was done, and a few people were talking to me afterwards, she was in the vicinity when I mentioned that Sabrina was at a softball tournament and that I was going to go there soon. She immediately asked when and where, and disappeared within a couple of minutes, and I knew she had gone to the softball field...I thought about saying something to her before she left that she might not get the reaction she was hoping to get from her daughter, but ultimately decided it was not my place to intervene. I also decided to hold back on going and to listen to Danny share rather than go straight to the field, in case my gut feeling was wrong and her presence there was welcome. And when I did get there, 90 minutes later, I saw Shannon and her friend leaving BAGSAI as I was pulling in...and when the first game was over, Sabrina immediately confronted me, because my gut feeling had been correct. But the point I am making is that I did not exercise any control over the situation, made no attempt to influence or manipulate anyone--and let events play out the way they were supposed to. I'm not sure how strong the desire is in Shannon to repair the relationship with her daughter--but something that is going to be necessary for it to happen is that she needs to realize that she has a lot of work to do, and that the primary reason it is in the shape that it is is not the result of what I do and say. That's Shannon's denial and refusal to take responsibility for her actions in play--she has always blamed me for somehow brainwashing our daughter into turning Sabrina against her. I would actually like to see Sabrina's mother be more of a presence and less of a sore spot in Sabrina's life, but for that for happen, Shannon is going to have to understand not only the magnitude of the task ahead, but also that Sabrina's grievances with her have little or nothing to do with Sabrina's relationship with me. I understand this a lot better today than I would have even two years ago. I'm not sure I would have resisted the temptation to say to Shannon, if this were 2013, "she may not want to see you there." And because I did, Shannon got a very clear expression of the reality of the situation yesterday. What she does with it is now on her, but at least that I know that I had no role in that, that it was a dose of reality administered by her daughter, not by me.
And I continue to demonstrate my growth in ways that simply weren't possible a year or two ago. I sat at the field for three hours yesterday, frustrated that my daughter wasn't playing the role that she should be, in my view--but I was able to not voice frustration around other parents, to cheer for the team, and to be supportive of the other players. It may not seem like a big deal--but it is to me, because it has always been difficult for me to be patient, to not make the situation worse, when I feel like Sabrina has not been treated fairly during the length of her life. I have been able to maintain some perspective, to understand that she is, after all, a varsity player, and that what is happening now may change--I got my own chances to shine back when I was in high school when other players even or ahead of me on the depth charts in football, hockey, and track got injured or played poorly. Her chance may very well come, whether sooner or later, or it may not. But I know that my making a nuisance of myself and being an unpleasant distraction is not going to help the cause, and may well, considering the ways of coaches in general and this one in particular, hurt it.
This is how to survive emotions--by not acting on impulse, by thinking through possible consequences, by looking at the larger picture. I have done it in some areas--thinking about relapsing, for example--since the day I got clean. I picked it more quickly in some other areas--as frustrating as dealing with Shannon years ago was, or with parenting a toddler, my emotions seldom made decisions for me in those areas. It took longer in some others--like in the vocational arena, for example. And it has taken even longer in other areas, like what I just described, and in the choices I make in romantic relationships. The point is that by not letting my emotions decide my actions, my life is manageable, my company is sought after, and the level of conflict in my life has dropped to very low levels.
And I so like this way better than the way it used to be.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Saturday In The Life

Today will be one of those overly busy weekend days--but of the kind where the busy is a fun and enjoyable kind of busy. Sabrina has a tournament/exhibition at the softball complex, with games at 2 and 4 in the afternoon, against some teams from New Jersey that are always regional and even national powers, and she is being asked to get there two hours early so that she and her team can watch Horseheads, one of the perennial softball powers in this area, play their noon game against one of the New Jersey teams. And I will not be there to watch for at least some of the day, because our local fellowship is having a speaker jam/event all day (and evening) that I have made a commitment to be at. After what seemed months of being stuck in the house because of snow covering the ground and/or temperatures well below freezing, spring well and truly has sprung, and it is good to be out and about much of the day (and evening). I don't think I've even sat in the living room all week; it's been that kind of go-go-go, even during a week that I'm on vacation.
The softball thing is something I am coming to acceptance of. I feel like she should be playing more than she is, but she has played in every game so far, and has done well when she has gotten on the field. And I have to remember that she still is only a sophomore, and that when I was in high school, unless you were one of the best players in school history, sophomores played on the junior varsity. I still have major reservations about the way the team is being led, but they have played three games and won all three in routs, including two games over teams that they have not usually beaten in previous years (granted, Union-Endicott was short-handed because several of their players had been suspended for rules violations, but still, 13-1 over a team they haven't beaten in a decade is a sign that this Patriot team may just be as good as all those junior league successes suggested they would be as high school players all those years ago), and Sabrina, I continue to discover, is wired somewhat differently than I am. I did not passively accept coach's decisions when I was in school; I was benched a couple of times in a couple of sports, and I was a ball of rage until the situation was rectified. She seems more content to play the role that she's been given--and all things considered, her way is probably a better way to go. And her acceptance is making it easier for me to be accepting. I am not going to be one of those parents that is there for the entire game this year, but I can show up part or most of the way through the game and be supportive and pleasant.
It helps that I genuinely like some of the other parents. One good thing about her being on varsity this year is that she is on the same team again as the daughter of the one parent I am really close to. I wrote about him this time last year; our situations are very, very similar, in that he, too, is the primary parent of his daughter (in his case, all of them) because of the ongoing substance abuse issues of the children's mother. That has not changed in the intervening year, and we got caught up at one of the games this week about what's been going on with our various situations. I mentioned the other day that I had missed the one game because I had had a commitment to open up my home group, and he asked, in a fashion that suggested he really wanted to know the answer, whether I still get anything out of, or even need to go to, meetings anymore.
I answered him truthfully--that yes, I do, for a number of reasons, but the two biggest ones are 1) obviously, the entire point of the recovery process is to be able to become capable of giving back, of being there for the people who are entering the fellowship now and to serve as a positive example and a role model, but also 2) that's my world--almost all of my friends are part of the fellowship, and this has become my way of life. I didn't get too preachy about it, but I think as he listened, he got some better insight as to the true nature of why his ex-wife can't stay clean--because she's always been under the (very common) misconception that the abstinent addict can resume or find a place in a world where other people use consistently and without dire consequences. I suppose that's possible, for a few people, but I have to say I don't know any, and those that stop coming around, whether they've got weeks or years clean, almost always turn up again at meetings, worse for wear, at some point in the future. At some point, staying clean for the duration requires a commitment to not only abstinence, but a recognition and an acceptance of the idea that the use of drugs was truly a symptom of the disease of addiction, not the disease itself.
I am going to try to not go off a long discussion of this idea this morning, but briefly, this is something that almost all people not in recovery do not understand. There is a real, growing militant backlash out in the general population about 12 Step programs, and one element of it is that the people carping and complaining about them have very little clue of what they are talking about. Ragging on 12 Step programs for being supposedly ineffective because people relapse or because people attending them end up making poor decisions that negatively impact their lives is kind of like blaming a doctor because a patient with diabetes insists on chowing down a few Snickers bars every few days. Any one that has been in the rooms of recovery for even a short period of time realizes that the only Step that has to do with the use of their drug of choice is the First--and the rest of the program, as our literature explicitly states, is a program that is designed to change our spiritual values and condition. And that's why people end up walking away and eventually relapse--because that's a lot more difficult, believe it or not, than keeping down the substance. And it's much, much harder to internally understand and accept that the values and beliefs that we have held since we were children are what need to change, if our behavior is going to change more or less permanently.
And I don't go to meetings at this point in my life because I am struggling with the notion of still wanting to use drugs. I have not seriously considering smoking cocaine for at least 15 years, and I have only entertaining fleeting thoughts of using other drugs since I got clean in 1998--because by working the Twelve-Step process, rather than the One-Step process, the reasons, the desire, to want to use drugs have vanished. My spiritual condition has evolved and changed to the point where there is literally no reason for me to get fucked up, to need an artificial escape to make me feel good. I don't feel great all the time, to be sure--but part of that spiritual evolution is recognizing that human beings are not entitled to feel good all the time. Bad things happen, sad things happen. It's normal sometimes to feel sad, to feel angry, to feel hurt, to feel feelings that aren't uniformly happy and wonderful. They're not an alarm bell that needs to be silenced; they're not a grass fire that needs to be drenched.
As I mentioned, I go now because the fellowship is just as much my circle of friends as anyone else's group of friends, whether they be centered around a job, a place to hang out, an activity, or a church, or a neighborhood, or whatever else bonds people together. And those of us that have been around a fellowship for many years and still are a big part of it have taken the core realization, the core tenet, of recovery to heart--that the actual root of our disease of addiction is overwhelming self-centeredness. The antidote to addiction is becoming more and consistently selfless--and it would be the ultimate act of self-centeredness, of selfishness, to accept the help that I was given when my life was a shambles and then depart without doing the same for those that came in after me. And the unspoken agenda, the underlying assumption, of all these baying for Twelve-Step blood in the media and in the nation's medical communities and in other places across the country is nothing more, in my humble opinion, then the American moral rot of greed and terminal selfishness expressing itself in yet another virulent form. The medical community and the legal community are not fans of the Twelve-Step approach because certain elements within those communities want to make money off the addicted and those in early recovery--and Twelve Step fellowships cost those that are a part of them nothing, not one red cent. And this country has always sold itself a bill of goods that it is based on "rugged individualism", and that we should all be ideally "self-sufficient," and that our ultimate good is "taking care of number one," and a host of other assorted lies, half-truths, and bullshit canards that only point out all the more how morally deficient and hypocritical our society is at its base.
I am not saying that Americans are the devil incarnate, or that we are not capable of being good people, or that we need to swept into the sea, or that we are deserving of a blanket, simplistic condemnation of 300 million people. But we need to understand that we are in a lot of denial about the less savory aspects of our national character and our moral values. You cannot turn on the news anymore without seeing some manifestation of hard-hearted, cruel, mean-spirited, selfish beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors in our basic societal structure. Punitive measures against "welfare people," the determination to legally discriminate, the willingness to foul our own environmental nest in the service of making money, the consistent beating of war drums to try to engage us in conflicts with everyone in the world that doesn't totally bend to our will--this is a morality issue. This is an indication that there is something fundamentally amiss in our souls. No, it isn't everyone, and I know that few people are totally and irreparably reprehensible--but shouting "USA! USA!" and waving a flag and pointing out the flaws of others doesn't change the reality. We make a lot of noise, as a country, about how "Christian" we are--but Jesus of Nazareth, if the Gospels we have access to represent his views and ideas correctly, would be absolutely apoplectic about the moral fitness of American society today. It is many things--but "Christian" is not one of them.
And the older I get, the less patient I am with co-signing bullshit, and the less sanguine I am about spending the last 40% of my life span in this society. The truth is that this country was conquered from the people living here when Europeans arrived in force in the seventeenth century, and that the people that came here from Europe were people that were the societal misfits over there. We are the descendants of the assholes that couldn't play well with others in their home countries, and in many significant ways, that is still exactly how it is today. We are the people that still have to have our own way. We are still the kid that won't share. We are still the adolescent that thinks violence is an acceptable solution to almost any dispute. And we are that overgrown adolescent that always has an excuse for the awful things that they do, and is always ready with an explanation why someone else is ultimately responsible.
I know this, because  I shared all those traits before I found a better way, before I took the responsibility for living differently. I am not permanently cured, by any means, but in general, I behave better, feel better, and am happier than I ever have been before. And I absolutely, totally believe that there is no way it would have happened for me if I had not gone to 12-Step meetings, and that I continue to grow and evolve and become more content and happy be continuing to attend them. We might not be able to change the larger society--but we can be a part of our smaller society, and by being a part of that one, we are not chewed up and broken by that larger one.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Book Review: PLAY ON

I've liked Fleetwood Mac for most of my life  (they were number 15 on my personal Top 40 list a couple of years ago), but I have to say I didn't know as much as I thought I did about the band, after reading Play On, Mick Fleetwood's autobiography. The first half of the book is very interesting; the accounts of Fleetwood's childhood and the way the band was originally put together were very informative and interesting. Fleetwood is dyslexic, which has had some effect on his music, and his drumming style, which I have always loved, is actually as distinctive as it is because he rarely is exactly in time (and John McVie, the bass player with whom Fleetwood partnered for decades to form perhaps the best rhythm section of any major rock band, also is rarely in time). The accounts of the pre-Buckingham/Nicks bands are also very interesting; Fleetwood is rather diplomatic about the eventual departures of Peter Green, Jeremy Spencer, and Danny Kirwan, but it is clear that all three had mental health issues that were, at the least, not helped by their use of psychedelic drugs (can you imagine a major band today losing a member because they wandered into a cult's office building and disappeared for months? It happened).
The material about the band as we have come to know it is pretty familiar, except for the section about the making of the album Tusk. It has been a while since I listened to the entire album, but I do remember, even when I was in high school, that it was better than the critics and press seemed to believe--actually, like many double records, I thought that the two best sides of it would have made a brilliant single album--, and as time has gone by, there is a growing consensus that the album was a masterpiece. Fleetwood seems to think so, and credits Lindsay Buckingham for its brilliance. Fleetwood is extremely supportive of all his former (and present; there will be a new Fleetwood Mac CD from the a newly reunited team any week now) band mates; if you are looking for dirty laundry on one of the most famous bands in the world, you're not going to find it here.
There is one thing about the book I didn't like, and that is Fleetwood's almost dismissive attitude toward the way he has churned through relationships and marriages. There is a sort-of self-awareness that hints at coming to grips with why he can't seem to keep a marriage together, but the patterns have been repeating for nearly fifty years now, and by the end of the book, the reader wishes he had left the subject alone. But that's a quibble; if you like Fleetwood Mac, and I do, this book is an indispensable source of knowledge about the band and the music we all like and remember.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Society of Thieves and Con Men

I was so looking forward to this week. I haven't taken time off for a while, and after working like crazy in the last two months to get grants written and other work matters taken care of, I was looking forward to a nice, relaxing, stress-reduced week with few or no obligations.
That went to hell in the express elevator.
It's been one long series of nonsense, problems, and irritations since Saturday morning. To start with, my daughter's softball season has started, a week late, and as a result, there have been scrimmages and games every day but one this week. And I am to the point already where I have had to make a decision to stay away from the games for a while. It would be all right for my daughter to be on the bench for merit. It would also be all right if the guy making out the lineup cards was upfront about his motivations. I've been aware for a few years that, like  most of America, scholastic sports has turned into a lucrative enterprise, in which access to the playing field has become more limited, to those that can afford $400 bats, summer camps, travel teams that only play other travel teams, private coaching clinics, and other adornments that only the moneyed can afford. I tried to ensure her access into this grifter's paradise, and blew eight years of savings on six months of travel team fees and out-of-town excursions. So I am not completely surprised by developments...but I am irritated beyond endurance by the hypocrisy. This is three years in a row that this guy has gathered together parents before the season, piously intoned that the only determinants of playing time and roster composition are effort and skill--and then fields a team filled with those that leak money all over his and his buddies' travel teams and coaching clinics. By this point in my life, I should be used to it--but I'm not, not when it's my kid that's not playing as much as she should even though she is clearly one of the nine best players on the team. And when I sit in the stands thinking for seven solid innings about how much I want to commit assault--well, I need to step back and remove myself. And since she has about six games this week--yeah, it's causing some problems.
Then there is another grifter's paradise that is afflicting American society--the chemical dependency treatment industry. Someone that matters a great deal to me left a facility in the Adirondacks almost three months ago. She had money in her account, which they told her they would mail to her when the regular staff came back on the following Monday (she left on a Saturday). She is still waiting for her money. She has written them twice without hearing back. They've blown off her attorney; they've blown others off, as well. She is not in a place where she can just dial them up and call them, either. They hide behind patient confidentiality laws to steal from those unfortunates that were mandated to their programs, treat them like slaves while they are there, and give a great big extended middle finger to anyone that doesn't complete their program. This particular facility claims some outlandish "success" rate, but I have yet to see any independent corroboration of their claims, and I have to say that I haven't been all that impressed with those that have returned from completing that program over the many years I've been clean. Which is beside the point. The point is that someone that gets caught up in the "help" industry is often looted of their money and possessions without being helped. My friend stayed at a local women's shelter for a time, and when her mother picked up her possessions from that place, that facility kept her television, claiming that it belonged to the facility.
Well, no it didn't. Because I lent her the television. It's an old model, and small, and one that I am not chafing to get back--but the hubris and utter lack of accountability in these places is staggering and worrisome.
And I've also had encounters with yet another set of leeches on the modern American--the health care system. I have been on blood pressure medication for several years now. About six months ago, the medication I had been on for about two years suddenly went from $4 a refill to $93 a refill. No explanation was forthcoming, and so I asked my doctor to find another medication I could, you know, afford. She did so, and it hasn't worked as well, but it's better than not being on any, I suppose. I always go to the doctor first thing in the morning because I take the pills when I get up, and it's easier to get in and out in the morning if one is gainfully employed. I got a call a few days before the appointment from one of those automated messaging systems asking me to confirm the appointment, and I did so. I showed up for the appointment, only to be told that I had cancelled it... we went round and round, and I managed to get in a week later, in the afternoon. I checked in that day, and the bitch at the front desk was so rude and nasty that, honestly, I don't know how I managed not to erupt and storm out. My blood pressure reading, between it being afternoon and the experience at the desk, was pretty high, and the doctor was concerned, but we agreed to give the medication another few weeks. So the refills ran out, and I called the office to get the refill called in. I got to the pharmacy Tuesday, and was told that they were waiting for confirmation from the doctor's office. I called the office--and was told that they were not going to issue the refill until I submitted to a full battery of lab work tests.
I told them to shove their tests up their ass. I was merely told by the doctor when I was there that it had been a while since the last workups. I am exhibiting no symptoms of any issues. My co-pay has gone from $10 to $50 in the last three years, and yes, I get charged a fucking co-pay every time I set foot on the grounds. And now they're going to pull this "gotcha" horseshit, holding my medications hostage until I fork over more money, and spend more fucking time getting shit done I don't need to get done? I told the office I would find a new doctor; I really don't want to, since I've been going to this one since 1996, but I'm not going to be robbed, either, and that's what this is. The office called me back and agreed to issue a 30-day supply to the pharmacy, which I haven't decided whether I am going to accept. I've lost 25 pounds this year, and I know my blood pressure isn't as high as it was in January. And I'll be goddamned if I am going to submit to a full markup of tests that have no purpose other than to bill my insurance company--and me."If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is perfectly sound practice, and I'm not feeling any obligation to support the standards of living of doctors, nurses, and insurance executives.
And lastly, another great festering wound of American society is the educational system. I was not happy earlier this year to fork over $180 so that my daughter could take tests-- it costs $91 each to take Advanced Placement tests. I am not happy with the school district for forcing this special IB program down everyone's throats. I am not happy with a lot of things about this school district. And I am definitely not happy with the quality of teaching that she gets. Her French teacher--well, let me backtrack a few years and comment that I am not happy that French was chosen for her by the school district as her foreign language. There is no justifiable reason why some kids get Spanish, some get Chinese, and some get French as their foreign language. It seems to me that a kid should get to choose which language they want to learn, because, you know, we at least still pay lip service to the idea that a kid can pick their own vocation and career direction and point their education accordingly. But not in the Binghamton school district, apparently... but anyway, her French teacher this year is a Senegalese immigrant. And like some immigrants, he is a flag-waving nincompoop. Apparently, this year he tried to get Sabrina sent to detention because she was not sufficiently reverent during the Pledge of Allegiance that starts the school day, and because, when questioned, Sabrina admitted to not buying the notion that the modern United States of America is not paradise on earth. Since that little dust-up, her French grade has dropped ten points, even though she keeps getting 95 or higher on all her assignments and homework, because allegedly her "class participation" is lacking. And then her chemistry teacher, one that has shown an alarming tendency to blur the boundaries between personal and vocational life, told her that she and her lab partner (another smart kid) "can't be doing it right" because they finish their labs ahead of the other kids, and has docked her points off for even more dubious reasons.
I wanted to email a principal or administrator with my concerns. The district completely overhauled their website recently--and one "improvement" is that it is now impossible to email anybody that works for the district! I called the high school switchboard, and didn't make a choice within milliseconds of hearing all the options--and heard a dial tone, as the switchboard hung up on me. It took me twenty minutes to get a number for a principal, and that's only because I have worked in and with high school personnel in my own job for a decade and know the numbers--if I was just some schmuck trying to get in, I wouldn't be able to do it by phone.
I have no doubt it was a deliberate choice to set up the Web presence and phone menus that way. I understand that Binghamton has a parent base that is difficult to deal with, and that many parents are a pain in the ass. But too bad--that's your fucking job to deal with us, especially if you're drawing higher salaries than any other school district around her. And my children don't need indoctrination from flag-waving morons, or to catch shit from teachers nursing hangovers and resentments about failed personal lives. Do your fucking jobs...my daughter took her concerns to her guidance counselor,  guy I've come to know well over the years and trust to a degree. We will see what happens going forward. But we have two years and several weeks left in this district, and honestly I am thinking about moving before it's done, because it's becoming more and more of a cesspool.
And that's how I've been spending my vacation time. I have four days left, and I hope finally to actually have some fun today, or at least not get aggravated before the morning is out.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Book Review: ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN

Bob Dylan has had more books written about him than any other figure in American music. Which is only right, because he's the best that American music has ever produced, but one result of the interest shown in him is that very few new books reveal anything about him that has not been put out there before. Which is why I picked up Victor Maymudes' Another Side of Bob Dylan; Maymudes was Dylan's tour manager at two different times during Dylan's career, and I thought that there might be something I didn't know in the book.
The book is more about Maymudes than Dylan, which I suppose is all right. As it turns out, Maymudes' son Jacob is the one that actually did the heavy lifting on this book, because Maymudes died in 2001 and the book is a transcription of tapes left behind and discovered after a fire destroyed the family home. And although Dylan is the book's axis, the narrative, such as it is, is the story of Maymudes' journey during the last half of the twentieth century, which I found a bit off-putting. Still, there was a bit of information in here I didn't know, both about Dylan's career and some personal details (I didn't know Dylan had, at one point, two gigantic bull mastiff dogs, for example).
But what I found most disturbing about this book was the utter inanity of these people's lives. Dylan is famous for walling off his family and his personal life from public scrutiny, but I'm reasonably sure that one reason why is that, before he had his family, if this book is to be believed, he didn't do much of anything. Maymudes' certainly did not, nor did most of the people he ran across; there is never a clue, not a sentence, in this account that indicates that these people were interesting to hang around with in any way. What they reminded me of, in fact, were using addicts, and Maymudes was unapologetic and very open about his copious use of marijuana--which might be one reason why the level of detail about his activity seems to be absent. And I didn't know this about Dylan, but he stopped drinking in 1994, which might be one reason why his body of work seems less dark and introspective since that date.
I'm not sure if this book shows another side of Dylan; the guy portrayed here is familiar from many other sources. But what it does show is entirely too much of the vapidity of the supposed counterculture, hippy life.