Sunday, October 2, 2011


When you go over two months without writing a blog post you know what happens? You kind of forget how to make a blog post. But after that much times goes by you start to feel compelled to write something because over the years some friendships have formed and your only point of contact is the blog and it’s only fair to let those people know that you are still alive and that you still know how operate a keyboard. So…I am, and I do.

I’ve often thought it would be kind of cool and useful to start writing little life lessons down that a 34 year old Ben would tell a 20 year old Ben (or some other young dude). I recently made a mental note that when I got back to this blog that is exactly what I would do, but as it is, I’m going to keep that on hold for the time being because something very significant happened a few weeks ago and it merits a mention here.

A few weeks ago I received a message that my two year old niece had had a really bad accident and was in ICU at one of our local hospitals – one that just happens to be one of the best children’s hospitals in the United States. She had fractured her skull and face in multiple places and was on a breathing machine with an uncertain future.

Getting this news was a 9/11 kind of moment for me (and obviously more so for my brother and his wife). I’ll never forget where I was and what I was doing at the time or the tones of voices of the various family members who I spoke to, all within maybe a five minute period. That period was followed by a frantic rush to get out of the house and to the hospital. On arriving at the hospital I saw the single worst sight I have ever seen in my entire life: that precious two year old girl with a hugely swollen face, large black/red circles around her eyes, small amounts of blood coming from her nose and ears, and numerous tubes coming out of her throat and limbs, and the various machinery that connected to those tubes; then of course my brother and sister and law, and the looks of horror and helplessness on their faces.

I’m not going to try to describe the emotion or drama of that whole event. For one, I’d never do it justice but the main reason is because it doesn’t matter now. What matters now is that this is happy post. And these are happy times. These are times that are the little wake up calls reminding you that every moment is precious and nothing is to be taken for granted.

To sum it up, my niece was in ICU on a ventilator machine for about five days. On the afternoon of the fifth day they removed her breathing tube (and the other various tubes) and she immediately began breathing on her own and her body began functioning as it should. It wasn’t an easy journey by any stretch but after two weeks she was released from the hospital, and now, on the third week, she is walking, talking, climbing, laughing, eating, and doing all the things that two year olds do; which is really something considering this time last week she could not walk without falling over or stand up without holding on to something. She is in a large neck brace and still has some physical therapy ahead of her but for the most part is back to her old self.

I do not like the word miracle but this has been an extraordinary recovery and endless Gratitude is the name of the game for this uncle and this family.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On Civility, Or: Real Life Versus The Internets

Those of us who have spent a considerable amount of time discussing and debating politics and current events online have a tendency to become quite the vitriol spewing blowhards. There is something about this medium – primarily the anonymity and lack of physical proximity to one’s opponents – that just fosters over-the-top invective. As an admitted and experienced online socio-political demagogue, I’m more than qualified to express this observation. I’ve spent enough time engaged in this activity to realize that those of us who do this become cartoonish caricatures of normal, opinionated human beings.

That’s not to say that it’s a completely negative or non-worthwhile hobby. To the contrary, if you hang out in the right online locales and tangle with enough well-informed, intelligent opponents, it can be quite the learning experience. But almost as a rule, it gets very nasty very fast and otherwise mature, reasonable adults end up in virtual shit-slinging fests that would (or should) be completely humiliating in a less anonymous, real world environment.

I’m all for debate and discussion. Indeed, it is a pity to me that discussing politics is considered such an impolite taboo. It’s one of the things that drives me to online discussion forums. In the real world we are so concerned about not offending our peers that we have conditioned ourselves to just not discuss these matters that really do affect all of us very deeply. It’s like we’ve admitted that we lack the capacity to have grown up discussions about grown up topics. This, in my view, is a serious mistake. Vigorous debate is healthy, necessary even. Especially in a democracy where, allegedly, peons like us actually have some control of our political fortunes. It’s okay that we have strong disagreements. That is actually the point of a democratic republic; to have a structured and civilized way to direct public policy in a manner that accounts for differing viewpoints and preferences. It is more than a little tragic that it’s socially acceptable to spend hours arguing about sports or reality TV shows that have zero real impact on any of our lives, but it’s a big no-no to talk about the debt ceiling or healthcare debate, or tax policy, or our wars – things that, unlike whether or not Lady Gaga has a penis, actually do matter.

The reason for me saying all of this is that yesterday I actually did call both of my senators (John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchinson) and my representative (Dr. Michael Burgess) to “make my voice heard” on this debt ceiling debacle. When an online demagogue like myself does something like this, the first thing you realize is that ranting and raving like a hysterical lunatic will get you absolutely nowhere. When you have an actual person on the phone (much less face to face) and they are speaking to you intelligently and with courtesy about these issues that you may feel so passionately about, you realize that, like you, they are human beings just trying to do the best they can. Pardon the corniness. Granted, this doesn’t apply to everyone but I think it’s safe to say that it applies to most. When talking to Michael Burgesse’s aide, who was (thankfully) being bombarded by calls yesterday, it certainly applied to her. When you are used to communicating these issues through hyperbole and angry rhetoric, actual contact with a reasonable human being kind of deflates your balloon. And what you realize – or what I realized – is that articulating your thoughts respectfully and in real time, to someone who is treating you – despite your strong disagreement on the issues – with courtesy and kindness, is a very rewarding and challenging thing.

Being polite, sticking to facts, being specific, avoiding insults and inflammatory rhetoric, certainly feels more constructive than the ad-hominem, ball-kicking, hair-pulling internet brawls that have become the norm for many of us. But in our defense, because of the aforementioned strange cultural norm, the interwebs are the only outlet available to those of us who enjoy and see value in spirited debate and open political discourse.

Now I may very well be deluding myself. My call yesterday might have been utterly meaningless in the scheme of things. But I don’t see how it could have been any more meaningless than getting in juvenile(ish) pissing matches with complete strangers online. The online thing has its place and purpose and I won’t deny that. But in theory, this democratic republic of ours affords some actual say and power to us individual citizens, and that power is not being put to any kind of meaningful use by simply yelling at people we disagree with online. There is probably not a single one of us who does not want change in some form and directing all of our political energy to the blogosphere will not do much to affect that change. In real life, calling someone a teahadist or libtard will do nothing but guarantee that other people will immediately discount you as an unreasonable extremist. If you want change, you do not want to be discounted. If you want to be able to persuade or inform your fellow citizens, you cannot come off as a blowhard. There will always be the real-life blowhards and they will always be the laughingstocks of everyone else.

I’m not sure what the moral of the story is here. I do know that I had a conversation with someone yesterday who was near someone in power, and we were/are on opposite ends of the political divide. We talked in specifics, in a reasonable manner, and listened to one another receptively and at a bare minimum my views were registered and acknowledged. My “voice was heard”, for whatever that is worth. I’m as cynical as the next guy but that style of discourse sure felt more constructive than the anonymous, online variety.

I’m familiar enough with history to know that social progress and positive change has always started from the ground up, with seemingly inconsequential people like you and me. Maybe the internet has, among other things, served as a kind of trap where otherwise politically active people who give a shit get stuck, instead of taking an approach that might have an actual impact. Just a thought.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Mexican Fisherman

An American tourist was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked.

Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The tourist complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, "Only a little while."

The tourist then asked, "Why didn't you stay out longer and catch more fish?"

The Mexican said, "With this I have more than enough to support my family's needs."

The tourist then asked, "But what do you do with the rest of your time?"

The Mexican fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos, I have a full and busy life."

The tourist scoffed, " I can help you. You should spend more time fishing; and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat: With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor; eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You could leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and eventually New York where you could run your ever-expanding enterprise."

The Mexican fisherman asked, "But, how long will this all take?"
The tourist replied, "15 to 20 years."

"But what then?" asked the Mexican.

The tourist laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions."

"Millions?...Then what?"

The American said, "Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos."

I came across this a few weeks ago and have been meaning to put it here, for my own reference if nothing else. This story elegantly illustrates one of the fundamental problems of the collective American psyche – the over-emphasis of material and financial “success”. More is always better. As one person put it: We live to work, they work to live.

One of the great things about America is that each individual is free to determine their own personal values and choose how they want to live their life. What’s so interesting is how little variation there actually is when it comes to those values and lifestyle choices. Our cookie cutter idea of success is so pervasive that the entire culture seems to be built around the acquisition of stuff and money. We express our unique, rugged individuality by pursuing the exact same goals as everyone else and conspicuously consuming the same products.

It’s worth noting that a population willing to work ever longer hours, sacrifice their personal relationships, time with family, and opportunities to pursue other areas of human development chasing this pre-packaged ideal, works out very conveniently for the ultra-wealthy business owner and executive class. In short, people who can never have enough make for great employees. The carrot and stick approach is a fabulous way to get the most out of your human capital. Sadly, it can easily be observed that even when people do achieve this very narrowly defined version of success they are still just as discontent as before, often even more so. This myth about what is supposed to make us happy and what we are supposed to be is probably one of the greater ills of our time.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

My Top 5 Fiction Favorites

I recently finished reading two Charles Dickens novels and liked one of them so much that I thought to myself, “you know, this is easily in my top five favorite novels of all time”. That thought prompted the question of what exactly are my top five favorite works of fiction and the answer came so easily that it seemed significant enough to get on record. I like to do this sort of thing because it’s a given that preferences will change over time and it’s neat to look back years later and see what my tastes were at a particular phase of my life.

I’ve been an avid reader through most of my adult life but have always underestimated the value of fiction, being more concerned with history and fact and how the world works and why things are the way they are. You can go a long way towards that with non-fiction, assuming you do your homework and always try to get the background on the author’s motivation and agenda and what factors are involved with their particular point of view. Everyone is bullshitting you to some extent, just as you bullshit others and yourself to some degree. We can’t help it. But we can consider information that is presented to us with that in mind. The importance of this cannot be understated if you are truly interested in gaining an accurate view of the world.

But anyway…I’ve generally neglected fiction because I’ve been interested in learning about reality and practical things that I can apply in my own life. It’s only been over the last few years that I have ventured off into the wide, wonderful world of novels. And in doing so I’ve come to realize you can learn a tremendous amount from them also. Instead of facts and figures you learn about the human condition and the limitless scope of human creativity and imagination. Non-fiction can make you smart but fiction can make you wise. Personally I have come to value wisdom over intelligence.

So without any further ado here are my top five favorite fiction works (in order):

1. Jitterbug Perfume – Tom Robbins
2. Siddhartha – Herman Hesse
3. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
4. Island – Aldous Huxley
5. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy – J.R.R. Tolkien

This, of course, is subject to change and the number five was totally arbitrary.

Maybe next time I’ll do top ten.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Global Mourning

I recently found myself in a discussion about global warming, which is something I will only do with individuals who are least nominally capable of grappling with objective reality. On topics such as this that limits my prospects considerably.

The conversation went through the typical motions and concluded with my associate making a statement along the lines of: The American people are hostile to government action that addresses global warming because they know it will increase their costs at the pump and quite frankly, many wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Prior to the above statement I had been expressing my amusement and semi-bewilderment that the majority of the public had been convinced to believe something contrary to the conclusions of legitimate and rigorous scientific findings.
My associate’s retort was a valid one and we both commented on how common it was for individuals to be selectively skeptical of medical findings that interfere with lifestyle habits they are strongly attached to, downplaying the risks of smoking, eating Big Macs, or whatever.

This is all well and good and I appreciate and agree with the point that was made, but my objection lies not so much with my fellow Americans being reluctant to pay higher gas prices, but rather with the fact that they have been convinced that there are no risks associated with that choice; that “global warming is a hoax” or that it is a hotly debated topic within the scientific community. My problem is with the multi-billion dollar public relations campaign being waged by the most powerful corporations on Earth to sow doubt and skepticism, and generally manipulate opinion in the same cynical fashion that had tobacco industry funded doctors publishing reports telling us that not only was smoking not bad for you, it actually had positive health benefits. The parallels between the “global warming is a hoax” and “smoking has no harmful health effects” campaigns are striking. Both are cases of incredibly powerful industries doing damage control when overwhelming evidence starts to show that their product is harming human beings.

That Americans want to protect their pocketbook against higher gas prices is understandable and they cannot be faulted for that. But allowing themselves to be manipulated on such a mass scale to be “skeptical” of conclusions reached by over 90% of the experts in that field, while gullibly swallowing propaganda fed to them by oil companies is pathologically stupid. It’s unforgiveable.

The media presents the debate as if there are somehow two equal opposing sides. That the assertions of corporate-owned right wing politicians and television pundits, along with a few oil company funded “studies”, are the equivalent of the overwhelming, worldwide, scientific consensus on the topic. Given that no entity on Earth – with the exception of Wal Mart – rakes in more revenue than the five major energy corporations, and that the advertising dollars from these companies is staggering, perhaps it’s at least explainable (though by no means acceptable) that the media so complicit in this mass ignorance.

It’s true that most Americans get their information about the outside world from watching television and don’t have the time to do in-depth research on all of the issues of the day. But this is a potentially tragic situation, and one that does not do the collective intellect of the American public justice.

I would submit that given the opportunity to make a truly informed decision between lower gas prices now and taking action to reduce the consequences that science tells us will result from not lowering our carbon emissions, the result would be different than what we are now seeing.

If the same discipline that brought us cell phones, modern medicine, and space travel is telling us that there are very real and likely catastrophic environmental costs associated with continuing to burn fossil fuels at the current pace, those costs should be reflected in the price at the pump. Otherwise the market, that Hallowed Deity, is grossly distorted. And if the public was more informed as to how our wars in the Middle East and the so called war on terror are directly related to oil, they would realize that those costs should also factor in to their price at the pump.

The truth is that gas prices in the US are artificially low and this is solely the result of the power wielded by the energy corporations. Yes, this gives the illusion of being easier on the pocketbooks of American consumers, but the true cost is eventually paid one way or another. That may take the form of trillion dollar wars that costs lives in addition to taxpayer dollars, or environmental catastrophes with costs that we may not yet be able to comprehend but would be psychotic not to consider. By the time we begin to understand those costs it will probably be too late, and future generations will look back on us a society of gullible, short-sighted dupes that were either too selfish or too stupid to confront reality and make the necessary but difficult changes that could have prevented such a tragic predicament.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

On Reproduction

Why no kids?

It’s a question I have been asked so many times, a few of them with touching sincerity and genuine curiosity, and it’s one that I have never answered as earnestly as I should. In fact it is likely that I’ve never answered that question for myself in a comprehensive way; which, of itself provides a significant clue on the subject. To put it most honestly and simply, becoming a parent is something I just have never given that much thought to. And given the permanent, life changing implications and tremendous responsibility associated with child-rearing (what a weird phrase), I am of the mind that this is something one should feel passionately about if you’re going to go there. If it’s going to be a choice, which – let’s be honest – for many it isn’t/wasn’t, then it needs to be a well thought out and definitive choice. It needs to be something you want as much or more than anything else that earthly existence has to offer; something that stirs your soul. Something that you feel you cannot live without.

For me, it never was. If and when I thought about it at all it just seemed to be something I vaguely knew that I didn’t want to do. Like becoming a professional taxidermist or entering a hot dog eating contest, it’s never been one of those things that required a great deal of internal debate to know that it was not my cup of tea. Contrast that with the many, perhaps the majority, who feel the intense, in some cases almost desperate desire to produce offspring. It is my opinion that the child bearing is best left to the people who fall into that category. It reasonable to assume that they feel that way for a good reason, and I feel the way I do for a good reason, although the reason seems much less important for those of us who chose to abstain (from conception, that is).

Now. To go deeper into the issue it’s probably worth approaching the prospect of parenthood from the perspective of my view of life in general. For as long as I can remember I have felt an inner imperative to move through life as lightly and simply as possible. There have been decisions made that were not always congruent with this principle – who among us can truly say that they’ve lived up to their own values 100% of the time? – but for the most part, keeping the literal and metaphorical baggage to a minimum has been a consistent theme throughout my adult life. This is not something I feel compelled to justify to anyone anymore than I feel the need to explain my rationale for green being my favorite color. It is what it is. I had a seventh grade art teacher who gave the sage advice of K.I.S.S…Keep It Simple Stupid. Seeing as the act of living itself can be viewed as a form of art – perhaps the highest form – it made sense to me to apply this concept in the broadest context possible.

Raising kids in this current environment that we find ourselves in is, in my opinion, wholly incompatible with the K.I.S.S. philosophy, which brings up another significant factor in my decision to be a non-breeder – environment. Human beings are screwing up the planet. And the more of us there are, the more rapidly we wreck the natural world. I realize that at one point in our evolutionary history it made sense for us to reproduce at the highest possible levels. Indeed, it was key to our survival as a species. But at this phase of our evolutionary development I am of the opinion that the reverse is now true. That is, indiscriminate and mass reproduction now actually threatens survival of the species. Humankind, in all its arrogance and folly, now threatens its host planet. Resource wars, despite the bullshit explanations proffered up by the powers that be, are already commonplace. Humans kill each other over access to oil now and we will likely do so over water in the not so distant future. And knowledgeable sources and agencies are already predicting food shortages within the coming decades.

Not to be so heavy on the doom and gloom but ignoring problems will not make them go away and from my perspective these are reasonable things to take into account when considering making your own addition(s) to the Earth’s population.

Then there are environmental considerations of a different sort. What kind of a society/environment would I want to introduce my own children into? Frankly, not this one. There are many great things about America but it is not a place I would want to raise kids. With so much emphasis on competition, materialism, money, greed, consumption, image, and so on, it seems like our values are exactly backwards from the ones I would want to instill into any child that I brought into this world. And I’m afraid that despite my best efforts, it would be impossible for me to shelter my child from a culture that appears to have gone so horribly wrong somehow. The forces of hyperconsumption and reckless, self-serving ambition permeate almost every aspect of American culture and the onslaught of conditioning starts well before preschool.

There are also the metaphysical aspects of child-bearing. It is a hard truth, but life is suffering. Even for those of us who were blessed enough to be born into almost ideal circumstances, with an abundance of love and security, life is a difficult affair. It is also a beautiful, enriching, and rewarding one, and I do not mean to downplay the inherent good in human life, but nor will I deny the bad. And bringing a new life into that certain guaranteed amount of pain and suffering that is also inherent is something that generates significant resistance from my conscience. And as one of Aldous Huxley’s fictional characters in his book “Island” points out, any good Buddhist knows that childbirth is simply delayed assassination. Though I cannot rightfully claim to be a Buddhist, I am quite sympathetic to this sentiment.

Furthermore, simply providing for kids and a family in today’s world is no small or simple feat. From a purely financial standpoint the act of parenting appears daunting to me. Were I a parent, providing materially for my children would be the single most important part of my life. It would, of necessity, override any and all other considerations. By no means would this be an insurmountable situation but I cannot see how the majority of one’s time, energy, and efforts would not be primarily directed towards this end at the exclusion of all others. And when I take an honest assessment of myself, I cannot deny that I am someone who requires a certain amount of freedom and latitude. I need time to think, time to be, time to explore, room to make mistakes, a fair amount of solitude and quiet, and time to pursue things other than providing materially for myself or others. Notice I included ‘myself’ there. I already feel that too much of my time and energy goes into the pursuit of money. It is a fact of life, and one that I accept and have adapted to, but not one that I will willingly excaserbate.

All of this being said, I do not hold it against any of my peers - that being the majority - who feel differently. I do not feel contemptuous or superior to them. On the contrary, I am grateful for them. People have kids for a variety of reasons, some of which I do feel are ridiculous, but for those parents and kids who I am fortunate enough to have in my life, I am thankful. My young nieces and nephew give me feelings of delight and happiness that are uniquely wonderful, and – I might add – somewhat unexpected. (Who knew I loved little kids so much?) And I know whatever feelings of joy these little ones provide me is felt to an exponentially higher degree by their actual parents. I have no doubt that there is a level of satisfaction and fulfillment that can only be experienced and understood by parents, and I applaud them. And for the sacrifices and devotion and love that is given in such abundance by parents, I truly admire them. It is an enormous responsibility, and I am continually surprised and impressed by the skill and competency that I’ve observed in those close to me who find themselves tackling the various challenges associated with parenthood.

Also, I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason. If I were to find myself a parent I would know that it was meant to be and the resources and wherewithal necessary would appear in me, just as they have in those around me who have been thrust into parenthood. I’ve learned to never rule out any possibility. And woe unto him who ignores the admonition to ‘never say never’.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

R.I.P. Joe Bageant

A master of wit, wisdom, and razor sharp social commentary, whose truly unique perspective will be sorely missed. Part philosopher, comic, and humanitarian, I count him among my significant influences.

Thank you for being who you were Joe. That's all.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


This is an interesting case because many of us have found ourselves having a difficult time forming a definitive position on what is taking place. On the one hand, a tyrannical dictator was using fighter jets, tanks, and other heavy military equipment to attack a civilian population. This certainly qualifies as a humanitarian crisis. Nevermind that much of said military equipment is probably of US and European origin. It can be argued that the mass slaughter of civilians presents a moral obligation for a dominant, allegedly pro-democracy and pro-human rights country like the United States to intervene on behalf of the civilians who find themselves under attack.

I’m sympathetic to this argument. However, a fair counter point is made. What of other similar cases of innocent people being slaughtered en masse where the US did not intervene?

It is an excellent question and the fact is, when you look at US military action over the past twenty years, there is no clear or consistent standard of what constitutes justification for US intervention. This is one part of the problem for me. But the real problem is, historically, when has US military action in middle eastern countries ever had a net positive outcome? Our track record is abysmal. We have a spectacular ability to turn a bad situation into a hellish one and create a host of determined new enemies in the process. The term is blowback. And it’s what happens when you blow up lots of innocent people. Friends and relatives of blown up people do not give a shit about the US’s proclaimed intentions – even in the rare instance that our intentions are not blatantly self-serving.

As to the legality of Obama’s actions, the fact that the decision for a no-fly zone originated within the UN and was mandated through a security council resolution (unlike Iraq) absolves him from any legal wrongdoing. The United Nations Participation Act passed in 1945 excuses the president from needing congressional approval for a case like this. No domestic or international laws have been broken by participating/leading the implementation of a no-fly zone over Libya. Anything beyond that is questionable.

However, just because it is legal does not automatically mean that it is right. Other points have been made concerning the will of the Libyan population. It has been argued that that should be the foremost consideration concerning US involvement. I wholeheartedly agree with this argument. The weakness of this argument is that it views an entire civilian population as a monolithic bloc, which is really an impossible assumption. But every indication I have seen suggests that yes, in general, the Libyan rebels (which we are again assuming is representative of the larger population) asked for and support a UN implemented no-fly zone.

It could be that I have succumbed to spin or propaganda from the various information sources I’ve used to form my opinions. As a rule I take every measure to avoid that but it’s not out of realm of possibility. Aside from the various news reports, it makes sense on a gut level. When civilians are being bombed by fighter jets and tanks it stands to reason that they support action alleviating that situation. With that in mind, I do break from some of the voices out there that I generally agree with on foreign policy issues, and find myself highly sympathetic to the view that the US/UN has a moral obligation to intervene and prevent the mass slaughter of civilians by the heavy firepower of their own government.

With that being said, Middle Eastern as well as American citizens have every reason to be highly skeptical about this (and any) US military intervention. Reluctance and reservation are not just understandable, but – at this point – are the only sane and rational response to any military aggression by the US.

And while I lean towards support of the no-fly zone, anything beyond that is suspect. Anything outside the specific mission outlined by the security council resolution is an immediate game changer. If US ground forces enter Libya, we’ll know we’ve been had (again). At this point one just hopes that this is that one out of twenty times when our intentions are pure and our action is justified.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Pursuing Happiness

Hat tip to JRB at ladypoverty for his always insightful commentary and for directing my attention to this article from the WSJ.

At the risk of (re)stating the obvious it should be pointed out that ours is a society that overwhelmingly emphasizes instant gratification, pleasure, and relentless pursuit and adoration of the superficial. Whether or not that is intentional isn’t important. What is important is understanding the effects that this particular trait of the collective psyche has on our overall health and well-being.

The WSJ article talks about two kinds of happiness: eudaimonic – which refers to an overall sense of well-being, and hedonic – which refers to a more short term, fleeting kind of happiness.

When one thinks in terms of economics – which, sadly, seems to be the best lens for gleaning cause and effect relationships in the real world – it’s easy to understand why the hedonic is more highly valued than the eudaimonic. The key word is value. Value means dollars, profits. Pursuing immediate, short-lived happiness keeps us spending because repeating those temporary thrills somehow, almost always, translates into buying something; something that we will either consume, discard, or lose interest in shortly after purchasing it. This works out great for companies selling us junk we don’t need and employers that appreciate employees who remain in a perpetual state of financial insecurity because they promptly blow their entire paycheck in a hedonic frenzy. (Financially insecure individuals are amazingly amenable to employer demands requests!)

Probably as a result of the increasingly obvious perils of crass materialism starting to seep into the mass consciousness, more attention is being devoted to understanding how people might achieve authentic happiness. This could prove to be entertaining as any newly “exploding” field is destined to be latched onto by the marketing world as they seek to answer the question: how can this rising sentiment be exploited to sell our product?

Self-fulfillment, purpose, and meaning aren’t concepts that easily lend themselves to the consumerist model. That doesn’t mean there won’t be, and haven’t already been, cynical attempts to do just that (designer yoga mats, $1500 meditation retreats?).

I appreciate the WSJ article because the cited study provides empirical evidence strongly suggesting something that most of us have observed and intuitively felt: that our culture’s extreme emphasis on materialism is harmful to our psychological and physical health.

Just what the rising awareness of this will mean in practical terms remains to be seen. There will be no sudden shift in American values, that much is certain. Human nature being what it is and the all-pervasive, highly sophisticated marketing machine being what it is both ensure this. But I don’t think resistance is futile. And it’s encouraging to speculate on how society might gradually reshape itself if our collective ideas of success and ambition are redefined to include meaning, purpose, and authentic self-fulfillment.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Gone Acoustic

A month or two I set a goal to write something new on this blog at least twice a week. That hasn't quite worked out as intended because life happens, and things come up. Things always come up. Amazing, that.

Here's my excuse this week...

This weekend, in anticipation of a modest but much welcomed tax-refund, I finally broke down and purchased an acoustic guitar. It was something I'd been thinking about for months if not years. That seems to be the way I work. I get an idea in my head, it lingers there and marinates for some length of time, and eventually I manage to act on it. Occasionally I do something impulsive but usually, for whatever reason, it takes awhile for my visions, ideas, or whatever to come to fruition. For instance, I've been thinking of planting a small vegetable garden because the idea of eating food that I've grown has become very appealling. Who knows when this will actually happen, but chances are that it will.

So anyway - I bought this guitar Sunday morning, after playing maybe ten different prospects the day before. I didn't want to break the bank but I did want something decent. I ended up with a Seagull Entourage. (I'm too lazy and hurried to put up a picture or link right now.)

I've played (or attempted to) guitar for a number of years now but I've always been an electric guy. For the longest time acoustic just didn't appeal to me. But lately the simplicity, portability, and versatility of acoustic has kind of gradually drawn me that direction; possibly another outward expression of my inner state.

I've had the guitar since Sunday and there hasn't been a tremendous amount of free time since then but what free time there has been, has been spent with the acoustic. It really is alot of fun and challenging in its own way. It's physically harder to play than the stratocaster but the quickness and ease with which you can learn songs is amazing. It's a totally different vibe and has really reignited my interest in playing music. Undoubtedly our trip to Austin two weekends ago tipped me over the edge on this.

And thus goes my latest excuse for neglecting the blog. Maybe this weekend I can introduce the acoustic to the blog via the dinky iFlip camera, and we can have a little infomercial for Seagull guitars here. (And my adoring throngs of blog readers can see why I have a day job.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

On Spiked Penises And Union Busting

The cool thing about having your own blog is that you can write about whatever you want. And this evening seems as good as any for an impromptu discussion on how, if not for evolution , male human beings might have penises studded with "small, hard spines". That's right, spiked penises ladies and gentlemen. Female humanoids might take this opportunity to send gratitude out to the Universe for the evolutionary forces that intervened on their (and our) behalf. Crazy stuff, yo.

Okay so I don't really intend to defile the hallowed ground of this blog with an essay devoted to penises. But I did come across this today and thought it was kind of disturbing and unique and I thought my distinguished readers might also find it as amusing, interesting, and grotesque as I did. So enjoy.

One thing I do feel compelled to comment on, completely unrelated to the spikey penis thing, is this brouhaha in Wisconsin; and by brouhaha, I mean this latest assault on people who work for a living - the lower 99%, economically speaking.

Wisconsin republicans managed to pass their cynically and euphemistically named "budget repair" bill last night. Many conservative, working class Americans are very enthusiastic about this because hey, now public employees in Wisconsin will be that much closer to sharing the same level of powerlessness, job-insecurity, and lowered standards that they currently enjoy.

Teaching school is a very modestly paid and noble profession. And God knows it's a difficult profession, dealing with insolent, sometimes gun-toting, and heavily medicated kids, and apathetic or belligerent parents. One can't imagine a person making that career choice for the financial rewards. I know it's cliche, but there are few outside figures who will have a more lasting impact on a person than one's school teachers. Yes, like any profession, there are bad ones. But there are also really, really good ones. It's hard to think of a profession that contributes more to society and that we have somehow been persuaded to demonize school teachers is appalling and embarrassing. Only in a society that's gone horribly wrong can public school teacher become a symbol of greed and extravagance.

Make no mistake, this move on the part of Governor Walker has nothing to do with balancing the budget. The teachers union agreed to the pay and benefit cuts that were requested. What they did not agree to was surrendering their collective bargaining rights, without which their union would be effectively neutered and meaningless. This bill was not about saving taxpayer money, it was about striking a blow to what's left of organized labor in this country. Solidarity among working people, public or private sector, terrifies the corporate oligarchy and must be crushed by whatever means necessary.

They started this assault back when His Holiness The Ronald Reagan fired the unionized air-traffic controllers and made it cool to hate unions. Union membership in the US has fallen from almost 30% of the workforce in the late 70s to less than 8%currently. And the American middle class has suffered accordingly, as can be seen in the various studies that compare income/wealth inequality trends over the past 40 years.

And it's not just wealth and income that has deteriorated for the working class. Long before public sector unions existed, private sector employees once enjoyed guaranteed pensions and generous health benefits. As political power and therefore policy has shifted further in favor of the economic elite, these benefits have eroded for private sector employees. Pensions have been replaced with 401Ks, shifting risk and expense from employer to employee, and the amounts employees contribute to their health insurance premiums have exploded.

The Wisconsin situation is just another move to disempower the working class, ensuring cheap labor for the corporate elite. And if busting public employee unions becomes the trend it will affect more than just public employees and will be a significant factor contributing to further economic inequality in the US. Class war at it's finest.

Monday, March 7, 2011

McMurtry Live @ The Saxon

This weekend I had the privilege of attending a live, solo, acoustic performance by James McMurtry at The Saxon Pub in Austin, TX. My familiarity with McMurtry is a result of his song “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore”, which could be the theme song for the US’s current state of affairs. It is a raw, poetic expression of what has been happening to this country; a more honest national anthem for post-1980 America.

The show itself was an unforgettable experience. The Saxon is a tiny, intimate venue. And when I say intimate that can be quite literal in the standing room only areas as moving from point A to B ensures the mutual violating of personal space. Luckily when McMurtry took the stage the desire to go anywhere quickly vanished. One was grateful just to be standing there.

He is an incredible lyricist. The comparison with Bob Dylan is a fair one, although McMurtry is more grit than ethereal, more storyteller than mystic. His stage presence is…intense. At times it felt like he was almost glaring at you as those haunting, soulful verses poured out. In my case it’s possible he was actually glaring at me as I was blocking the door and he literally had to bump me out of the way to make his way towards the stage. All I can say, Mr. McMurtry, if you happen to read this, is that it was an honor.

The feeling and emotion he put into every tune was astounding, especially when one considers that he’s performed each song hundreds of times. He tells stories with his music; gut-wrenching tales, unapologetically dark, profound, and real…almost too real. One could say depressing. But his refusal to shy away from the harsh and uncomfortable aspects of human existence is part of his greatness. You are pulled into the drama and raw emotion of each song, like a riveting novel or movie.

Being at this show I felt that I was in the presence of a living legend, an American master. In the era of Justin Beiber and Lady Gaga, McMurtry is destined to be an underrated, underappreciated talent who probably never makes it to household name status. His message is not likely to meet the corporate approval prerequisite of attaining mass popularity. Frankly I doubt that he cares much. His is not generally feel good music, but it is music that you will feel, and feel deeply. And I should also mention that he rips it up on the twelve string acoustic guitar. His proficiency with the guitar is up there with his ability to craft soul-stirring verses.

In summary, let’s just say that I will definitely be going out of my way to catch another live James McMurtry performance.

In case any of my illustrious readers are unfamiliar, here's a sample. This is the album version of "We Can't Make It Here Anymore".


Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Culturally constructed ignorance…perfect. An interesting article but anyone who has spent time debating politics online or anywhere else knows that facts are, at best, of secondary importance. That’s the beauty of the information age; you can find “facts” that support your position, no matter how ludicrous it may be. My point being, the argument made by the author isn’t exactly an earth shattering revelation.

I’m too young to remember a time when we could all agree on basic reality (earth round, 2 + 2 = 4, etc) but without that agreement, constructive discussion is impossible. Maybe there was never that basic agreement but one can imagine that without access to thousands of dubious but credible sounding websites and a 24 hour “news” cycle (the term is used oh so loosely) and hundreds of talk radio stations dedicated to constant propaganda and agitation, that it was more difficult for the obfuscators to obfuscate.

And let’s be clear on something. ‘Culturally constructed ignorance’ is a misnomer. It’s not the culture that facilitates and creates its own ignorance. It’s those elements in society that have the means to advocate their agenda in a highly visible way – basically, rich people. You have the right to be informed but only insofar as being informed doesn’t conflict with the preferences of the elites.

I do like the phrase “Disinformation Revolution”. Disinformation is far more profitable as people are more likely to tune in to information sources that confirm their own biases. And truth is generally bad for business anyway. Hard news certainly isn’t sexy. Emotion and hyperbole is sexy. Scaring the shit out of people on a regular basis keeps them coming back like hogs to a trough. Fear is sexy. I can’t quite understand that one but it’s impossible for me to watch more than half an hour of cable news or prime time television and come to any other conclusion.

The author and creator of the term agnotology, being apparently less jaded and cynical than I am, closes on an optimistic note, pointing out that the internet makes secrets harder to keep. Maybe that’s true, but it also makes completely fabricated bull$hit more easy to disseminate. But…with new players like Wiki-Leaks out there, his optimism may be not be unfounded. Censorship has certainly become more difficult if we consider the internet. The question is, is the internet enough to offset the self-censorship and corporate subservience of the tee vee? I’m iffy on that one, but hopeful.

On a closing note, it must be pointed out that ignorance is truly bliss. Who wants bad news? Who wants to confront the fact that driving their car or eating a hamburger might be significantly harming the live-ability of our planet? Who wants to admit that their country has slipped into a kind of corporate feudalism? These are things we’d rather not think about.

At this point you might be asking yourself: How can I know this is credible? How can I be sure this guy has any clue what he’s talking about? Allow me to alleviate your concern and assure you that I have your best interest at heart, and besides, this is the internet…so it must be true!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Sacred Cows

Sometimes a picture is worth four or five hundred words.

(Ben There has been really, really busy, but has not forgotten about his esteemed blog. The regular nonsensical gibberish insightful commentary will resume shortly.)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

12 X 12: A Review

William Powers’ 12 X 12: A One Room Cabin Off The Grid & Beyond The American Dream is described as ‘a memoir of what can be gained by going without’. It is the author’s account of a season spent living in a twelve foot by twelve foot cabin with no running water or electricity in rural North Carolina. The 12 x 12 is owned (and normally occupied by) a successful American physician, Jackie Benton, who accepts an annual salary of only $11K to avoid paying war taxes, and chooses to live without modern comforts like electricity or indoor plumbing so as to “have the carbon footprint of a typical Bangladeshi”.

It was my intrigue with this Jackie character, not the author or even necessarily the book’s theme, that drew me to “12 X 12”. She is referred to as a Wisdomkeeper, a Native American term referring to elder women who inspire others to dig more deeply into life. And that she does. Anyone who can turn down a couple hundred thousand dollars a year and willingly live in conditions that most of us would describe as abject poverty has either gone stark-raving mad or achieved a level of self-mastery that borders on superhuman. Embodying one’s inner principles so fully and completely in their outer life is beyond rare. That she does this in a way that is conspicuously without fanfare or recognition makes it all the more special. (She only consented to the book on the condition that her real identity and location would be concealed.)

Jackie is against American imperialism, against our wars, against environmental destruction and the corporate dominance of society, and every aspect of her life reflects this. Her life may appear to be one of material poverty, but she is far from poor. At least outwardly, she embodies the realized, deliberate life - principle in action. And while I doubt my own capacity for this degree of radicalism, I admire such an exceptional being who can walk the walk so completely.

Sadly, Jackie is not the subject of the book, only a significant but peripheral character. That would be William Powers, an activist, conservation and foreign aid worker, and author. Powers takes up temporary residence for several months in the 12 X 12 and this book primarily deals with his various inner conflicts and emotional dialogue. Indeed, it felt like more of the book than not was devoted to a conversation he was having with himself revolving around various uninteresting details of what, admittedly, has probably been a relatively interesting life.

One gets the impression that, despite his efforts at sounding otherwise, the author is very pleased with himself. And he wants you to think very highly of him too. He’s spent a decade working on environment-sustaining projects around the world. He’s well travelled, well-read, well-educated, and has clearly done more personally to save the world than you or I – and he really really wants you to know about it!

The author’s pet cause is global warming, and hey, I get it. I’m with that 90%+ segment of the scientific community that recognizes man-made global warming is a real and growing threat. It needs to be addressed and action needs to be taken. But Powers beats the reader over the head on this. A third of the way into it I was feeling guilty for walking upright and having thumbs. In many ways the author is the kind of individual that gives us liberals a bad name. The self-righteous, preachy tone detracted from what this book could have been.

While I’m on the negative, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the gratuitous spiritual and literary name dropping that again, give the impression that the author is going out of his way to sound erudite. From Thich Naht Hahn, to Lao-Tzu, to some poet named Galway Kinnell, Powers seems intent on displaying his lexicon the way a peacock struts its feathers. I could have done without this grandstanding.

That said, I am sympathetic to the author’s perspective and appreciate the spirit of 12 x 12. For those who oppose American empire, are concerned about the environment, or have grown disillusioned with our culture of hyperconsumption and gross materialism, this book may well be worth a read. If nothing else, it gives us a glimpse of living at the other extreme.

There are tidbits of wisdom and worthwhile philosophy scattered throughout (largely thanks to various ‘thoughts of the day’ and other sentiments expressed by the cabin’s absentee owner, Jackie). An example of this is a line from Jackie about how a problem cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness at which it was created. Unless I’ve gone horribly wrong, there is usually some idea or nugget that stays with me from any book I take the time to read, and in 12 X 12, this would be the one. Probably not the first time I’ve heard it but the timing and manner in which it was expressed here made an impression on me. I remember pausing, putting the book down, and thinking: this is something I can apply to my own life. Often times we have to be exposed to an idea from several sources and angles before we really connect and it becomes a part of us.

Another takeaway for me was the concept of permaculture. Wikipedia defines permaculture as a land use and agricultural system “…based on ecological and biological principles, often using patterns that occur in nature to maximise effect and minimise work. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs, harmoniously integrating the land with its inhabitants.”
Surrounding the 12 X 12 cabin is Jackie’s three acre permaculture garden composed of dozens, if not hundreds of different vegetables, fruits, teas, flowers, and other plants. Walking out of the cabin at sunrise into this thriving and diverse landscape is likened to entering the Garden Of Eden. And I doubt that this is pure hyperbole. 12 X 12 was my first exposure to the concept of permaculture and it left me interested and intrigued; for me, one of the redeeming aspects of Powers’ work.

The author also introduces (I think) an original term, “The Idle Majority”, which refers to the large segment of the Earth’s population who has far less than most Americans in material terms but in many ways enjoy a much saner existence than us workaholic, consumption-obsessed westerners. While this group lives mostly at the subsistence level, basically having little more than the bare essentials necessary for survival, they enjoy an enviable amount of leisure time and a richer community and cultural experience. They derive their value from life from non-material sources which, I am convinced, offers some clues to our society that, while materially rich, suffers from unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and isolation; a condition that is often defined as spiritual poverty.

Also worth mentioning are the other inhabitants of the area immediately surrounding the 12 X 12 cabin; an entertaining mix of organic farmers, biofuel brewers, eco-developers, furniture crafters, artisans, and other off-the-gridders, all in some fashion rebelling against America’s out of control consumer culture. The interplay between these neighbors, and between them and the author, is one of the highlights of the book – touching at times and fairly heartbreaking at others.

All in all, this one’s a toss-up. For those who find themselves drawn to simplicity, and increasingly turned off by the technological, hyperconsuming rat-race, I think it has something to offer. If you remove (or abbreviate) the meandering details of the author’s own emotional/psychological narrative, this 250+ page volume can be condensed to around 100. To be fair, I realize some people will find that sort of thing more interesting than I did. It’s said (not in the book, thankfully) that what we criticize about others is also in ourselves, and perhaps it’s the recognition of some of my own narcissitic neurosis that explains my adverse reaction to Powers self-absorbed psycho-babble. Or, maybe it’s just that self-absorbed psychobabble is best kept to one’s self and not passed off as transcendental, save-the-world, heroism. I report, you decide!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dispassionate Action, Or Something

Damn. Only a few weeks into it and I’ve already broken my commitment to do this at least twice a week. It’s not a paid gig, but unpaid gigs are the best gigs. And commitments made to self are the most important commitments. That said, I’m going to break with western tradition here and not beat myself up over minor, inconsequential personal failures. I’ll save that for the monumental, irreversible f#@-ups.

In my defense, this last week has been an abnormally busy one. My routine was shot to hell. I spent three days doing actual physical labor: scrubbing, shoveling, hauling, taping, painting, and more. This may not sound like much, but to a body that’s accustomed to sitting at a desk forty hours a week, it’s something. I have the aches and pains to prove it.

The act of sitting down a couple nights a week and trying to write something is a discipline like any other. Discipline is a dirty word, which is understandable. It implies doing something other than that which is most comfortable. It gets a bad rap because initially it is imposed on us from outside authority: first from our parents, then our teachers, and so on. In this form it feels constricting and oppressive. In contrast, I would argue that discipline that originates from our own will - that is self-imposed – is freeing and expansive. It’s a step toward self-mastery. A person who is constantly at the mercy of their every impulsive whim and desire is not a free person.

Bear with me, reader, if I am sounding preachy. If anything, I’m preaching to myself. That’s one of the things I do here.

This concept of self-discipline, I would argue, is the single most important factor in the success or failure of accomplishing anything. What one deems worthy of accomplishing is their own to decide, but whatever that is, self-discipline and the harnessing of will power will be required.

This past week I missed my regularly scheduled appointment to sit down here and churn out a blog post or two. My excuse was time. But the truth is, when something is truly important, we make time. This is an activity that I generally enjoy but the minute I try to impose some structure and requirement to it, it becomes a problem. It starts to feel like a chore. This is something I’ve encountered with almost anything I’ve ever enjoyed or taken much of an interest in. Rarely is it ever good enough just to do something. No – you have to continually do it better. This urge for more and better, I wonder if it’s universal or if it’s peculiar to the American psyche. We do seem to emphasize winning and success like no other – save possibly the Chinese who clearly have a great deal to prove to the world, and themselves.

I’m off on a tangent…

My point - or what began to form in my mind as words started appearing on this page - is about the importance of habit. We can scrap the word discipline and just call it habit. Achieving any great thing begins with forming the right habits. This is obviously no great original insight on my part, just something I’ve experienced and can personally vouch for. My natural personality has always seemed to me to be quite undisciplined. Lazy even. But for those things I deemed important, once the inspiration fully crystallized, the will to overcome my inherent limitations appeared. That didn’t mean it was easy. But eventually, the right habits formed and the struggle subsided. They were (and are) small things, daily things.

And so it continues. I envision where I want to be, figure out the small steps and habits that can get me there, and move gradually in that direction. The difference now from ten years ago is that I understand the importance of enjoying the journey and am not so focused on the end result that the path leading there becomes a burden. Accomplishing something by brunt force and aggressiveness is fine in your late teens and twenties but feels like bad form in your thirties. At this stage getting from point A to point B seems like a process that should be undertaken with quality and grace. Resentfully forcing oneself to perform the mundane tasks necessary to achieve a longer term goal is a condition to be overcome.

There’s a balance between carefree spontaneity and conscious, purposeful action. Finding that balance is an important aspect of the Art Of Living.

Now, how I managed to arrive at these conclusions from the starting point of scolding myself about missing a couple of blog entries is tonight’s mystery.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Let Them Listen To Cake

A couple months ago I was in the car alone, early on a clear, cold Sunday morning. It was the third or fourth week of a strange new routine I’d adopted on the weekends. I got it in my head that every Saturday and Sunday I would fling myself out of bed uncharacteristically and (for me) unnaturally early, and proceed immediately to the gym where I’d engage in a grueling forty minute session on the Stair Mill. To fully appreciate this, understand that everything is a grueling act for me prior to 9:30 AM. An intense cardio regime at 7:00 or 7:30 is borderline masochism for those of us who are early-morning challenged.

It’s hard to say exactly what inspired this madness but it had something to do with the drab, dreary winter weather that makes me want to hibernate until spring. The onset of cooler temperatures is refreshing at first, but after about a month I just want to stay inside, eat, read, sleep – anything that keeps me where it’s warm and my pulse stays comfortably south of the aerobic zone. Possibly this is some primitive survival instinct to build and store body fat for the winter. Yeah. We’ll go with that.

I must have felt the need to rebel against this climate induced impulse towards sloth and torpor. And the weekend, up at the crack o' dawn, Stair Mill campaign was one of the ways this rebellion took shape. All in all it has been a rewarding undertaking. After the initial torturous shock wears off, it’s pleasantly invigorating.

This one particular Sunday morning was exceptionally bright and crisp, and my post-workout aura of well-being was intense. In that state my connection to material, day-to-day concerns tends to get a little flimsy and my thoughts drift to loftier ideals, a more elevated perspective. Endorphins are our friends.

The radio was cranked and my mind was on a familiar theme; something about the comedy and futility of our efforts, the transience and insubstantiality of the things we expend so much energy and endure so much stress to acquire, how acquiring them never really satisfies, how getting what you want only makes you want something else, the dog-chasing-its tail quality that so characterizes that which passes for normal, accepted, even encouraged behavior. I was thinking on these things, not exempting myself from this unflattering assessment, and this catchy tune comes on. My attention shifted to the music just in time to take in the following lyrics:

Every shiny toy
That at first brings you joy
Will always start to croy and annoy

Every camera every phone
All the music that you own
Won't change the fact you're all alone (All alone! )

Every piece of land
every city that you plan
will crumble into tiny grains of sand

Every thing you find that at first gives you shine
always turns into the same old crime (Same old crime! )

What timing! Imagine my surprise to hear this veritable Buddhist Sutra being channeled through a pop radio station.

Just a small but momentous event that, pure coincidence or not, had an air of Synchronicity, and turned a fine morning into an even better one. Oh, and the song wasn’t half bad either.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cake:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Signs And Wonders

This week Mother Nature has bestowed on us the rare favor of thwarting the normal, compulsory routine. Sadly, what started out as a pleasant inconvenience from my perspective has turned tragic and destructive for others. Such is often the case. If there’s going to be an event that disrupts the flow of business and interrupts our sense of control and order, it probably means that somewhere lives will be lost.

A massive winter storm rips through the United States, blanketing even parts of Texas with a respectable sheet of ice. In Australia, the worst cyclone in that country’s history comes right on the heels of record-breaking floods. (I’m American - what the hell is a cyclone?) Many of my countrymen - those of the Foxnewsy persuasion, if you get my drift – mockingly comment how all this must be caused by Global Warming. And funnily enough, actual scientists point out that some of it is indeed caused by climate change.

There is talk of Gaia being pissed. She’s had enough and an ass whipping of global magnitude is in order. One can make an argument for this. Ours has become an ungrateful, reckless species, perversely shortsighted with an impressive capacity for exploiting and poisoning the natural world. I realize that many of my Reality Challenged brethren have been convinced that humankind cannot possibly affect the planet they live on. But I’ve seen the brown smog that blankets the horizon and breathed the exhaust and foul air of industry. My own eyes and lungs can attest to man’s ability to negatively impact the environment. And aside from that, it defies credulity to believe that hundreds of trillions of extra tons of C02 have zero effect on the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, it is a damn fine time to not be president of an oppressed Arab country. If massive changes are indeed afoot on Planet Earth, this - I think - is the real story right now. The powerful force that has been unleashed across the Arab world is one to be reckoned with. It’s the human spirit and its impulse towards freedom, self-determination, and self-respect. Human beings can only be deprived of these things for so long. Who knows where this leads? One can only hope that this, most powerful of all energies, is channeled constructively. It is almost certain at this point that the effects will be far-reaching and dramatic, perhaps the kind that are only seen once in a generation.

There’s a message in these events that is hopefully making it into the consciousness of the elites in all parts of the world. And that is, if you deprive your fellow humans of their right to freedom of being, freedom of self-determination and expression, and the chance at a decent and happy life…there will eventually be consequences. If you insist on having everything at the cost of everyone else having nothing, beware. The human spirit can only be taunted for so long.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt/America: Inequality And Complacency

As this fellow at Washington's Blog points out, economic inequality is higher in the United States than in Egypt, Tunisia, or Yemen. This is another fact that would probably be very surprising to most Americans.

The author at WB asks the question: “Why are Egyptians rioting while Americans are so complacent?”

It’s a good question and two reasons are given as possible explanations. First he points out that relatively speaking, Americans are (or have been) some of the wealthiest people in the world, with an abundance of luxuries and comforts. Second, and in my opinion more important, he references a study showing that Americans consistently underestimate the amount of inequality in their own country.

Both of these observations are relevant but I’d offer a third factor that explains American complacency. It’s important to understand that the unrest in Egypt isn’t solely the result of economic inequality. Equally as important, if not more so, is that the Egyptian people have no voice in their own political system. Without a legitimate democratic process there is no effective way for the Egyptian population to address their grievances against the government. That is the significant difference between Egyptian society and American society.

As Americans we operate under the assumption that we the people determine who our leaders will be and that our elected officials are accountable to us, and are therefore obligated to do our will. On the surface this appears to be the case. Elections are held every two and four years and the candidate(s) with the most votes win. For presidential elections this isn’t technically correct due to our peculiar institution of the Electoral College, but we can ignore that for purposes of this discussion.

I would argue that this appearance of political self-determination goes a long way towards explaining why Americans happily tolerate inequality that surpasses that of Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.

What’s overlooked in the American political process, and the reason I use the word ‘appearance’ in the statement above, is that any political candidate running for high office in America stands no realistic chance of winning unless they are endorsed by America’s corporate elite. Votes are important but money is more important. Almost without exception, the candidate who raises the most money wins the election. Obama received more corporate largesse than McCain. George W. Bush received more than Al Gore. Without financial backing from corporate giants in the finance, pharmaceutical, insurance, energy, and military industrial sectors, it is not possible to be a viable candidate in American national politics.

It’s why candidates like Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul, and Ralph Nader were not taken seriously by the media and political establishment when they ran for president. And it’s why an allegedly liberal president with a democratic senate and house majority pass a law that requires every American to purchase health insurance from a private health insurance corporation and why,even after “reform”, it is illegal for Medicare to negotiate drug prices or re-import American drugs from other countries whose governments are not held captive by our pharmaceutical industry.

Unfortunately perception is usually more powerful than reality. And despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary, American voters still accept the notion that their government is beholden to the people, not the moneyed interests who allow candidates to reach office in the first place.

There are obviously other factors to consider but I’d argue that it’s this misperception about political power in America that best explains why extreme economic inequality causes riots in countries like Egypt, but gets little to no attention in the US.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Egypt: A Useful Example

I want to state something obvious about this Egypt situation because I know it’s not obvious to many of my fellow Americans. Let’s be clear about what’s happening. The Egyptian people are rising up to protest an undemocratic, repressive, tyrannical dictatorship – one that has been the second highest recipient of U.S. foreign aid over the past 30 years, second only to Israel. Most of this has been in the form of military aid.

The United States - which espouses values like freedom and democracy, and frequently intervenes in the affairs of foreign countries to allegedly promote these values – has been sending about $2 billion each year for the past three decades to a dictatorial, undemocratic regime with a horrendous human rights record.

Stated more simply: The US has been heavily subsidizing repression in Egypt.

Pardon the redundancy but I’m emphasizing this point because I know it will come as a surprise to a lot of Americans. Prior to this week’s events most were probably unaware of the nature of the Egyptian government and the plight of its people. And it’s likely even less were aware of the kind of money flowing to Egypt from the US.

I’m mentioning it here because in my experience Americans genuinely cannot understand why many foreigners, especially in the Middle East, view the United States so negatively. The US’s support of Mubarak is but one small example of how America comes to be seen as a hypocritical nation that supports violent dictators when it serves its interests to do so, and makes war against them in the name of freedom and democracy when it doesn’t.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Catching On

According to a new poll, Americans are losing trust in business.

I see this as further confirmation of my theory that if you smack people upside the head enough times they eventually start to develop an unfavorable view of you. Well, roughly 50% of them anyway. The other 50% will continue to deify you for your benevolence and graciously repeat “Thank you sir, may I have another”. Then they drop whatever it was they were doing and run to the tv because look! – it’s almost 4:00 and Glenn Beck is about to be on!

The banks, insurance companies, and other victims of this negative public sentiment probably just see this as a ‘messaging problem’.

But as a casual outside observer I’d offer the following reasons as another possibility for this bad PR:

  • 12-16% real unemployment while corporate profits are at historical highs and corporate treasuries are fairly bursting at the seams with unprecedented levels of cash on-hand.

  • An oil spill that devastated the gulf coast, causing environmental and human damage of epic proportion.

  • A Great Recession caused by the irresponsible, greedy actions of a handful of giant financial institutions, followed by a taxpayer bailout of those institutions, followed by jaw-dropping bonuses paid out to the executives of those institutions with taxpayer money!

  • A CEO-to-average worker pay ratio that has increased from roughly 24:1 in 1965 to 42:1 in 1980 to 475:1 by 2004.

  • Grossly imbalanced income growth over the past three decades with 35% going to the top .01% while the entire bottom 90% received only 16%.

  • A broken healthcare system where 1 out of every 3 dollars spent ($800 billion per year) goes to corporate profits, stock-options, executive salaries, and marketing – not towards actual healthcare!

  • 1.4 million jobs created overseas in 2010 versus less than 1 million created here in the United States where millions of people are unemployed due to no fault of their own, losing their homes and often much more.

  • Those are just a few quick ones offhand. But hey, this is America. And even as these poll results are being published our president and congress are falling all over themselves to reassure business leaders that we love them, and we’re here for them – and we’re sorry for all those mean things we said the other night when we were drunk; we didn’t mean it.

    Saturday, January 22, 2011

    Why Do It

    One of the people I’ve enjoyed reading over the past year or so has been this guy. His focus is finance and economics, which isn’t nearly as interesting of a topic to me as it once was - but still. You have to take the world as you find it, not as you wish it to be. (Or so I’m told.) And I find a world that is utterly at the mercy of what happens in business. I’d just as soon do away with commerce and money if I could conceive of a plausible alternative for human society. But realistically, holding out for an Enlightened Utopia is wishful thinking leaning heavily towards impossible fantasy. On an individual level Enlightened Utopia might just be doable and a fine thing to work towards, but on a large scale, fuggedaboutit.

    Anyway – BR’s “Why Blog?” post was timely for me as I have recently decided to start doing this again, with the aim of doing it with some regularity. He lists ten reasons a person might start and maintain a blog. Of his ten, I identified with #3 (“You want to figure out what you think, and do so in public”) and #9 (“You want to create a permanent online record of what you are reading, looking at, or thinking about”).

    A few thoughts on each of these…

    You want to figure out what you think, and do so in public:
    For me, the lesser emphasis is on the ‘in public’ part but knowing that other people will or might be reading your work can be an incentive to try harder. And depending on the subject matter, feedback can be helpful. The downside is that it also has the potential to result in either: self-censorship (so as not to offend or disappoint would-be readers), an overly self-conscious “it must be perfect!” attitude, or an inauthentic approach that’s more about portraying a certain image or impressing others. These are just a few of the hazards that come to mind. ‘Figuring out what you think’ wasn’t one of my original reasons for starting a blog but it has turned out to be a rewarding and pleasantly challenging side-effect. Don’t be fooled by how easy it sounds. Articulating your thoughts about (sometimes) complex issues in a coherent, concise, and intelligible way can be a formidable undertaking; even more so if there’s the chance that other intelligent, more-sophisticated minds might be there to challenge and critique your conclusions. We all have opinions. But taking the trouble to actually hash-out and justify those opinions is no trivial thing.

    You want to create a permanent online record of what you are reading, looking at, or thinking about:
    One of the main reasons I do this now. I honestly can’t remember why I started blogging in the first place but this may be the reason I decided to keep it going. I’ve found it to be fascinating and enlightening to read back over stuff I posted say a year or two years ago. My reactions to older entries range from embarrassment to pride. As time goes by our views and the way we express them change. It’s neat to have that history out there. And thanks to Google, even if my house burns down or my hard drive gets dropped into a vat of battery acid, my narcissistic drivel humble musings will still be plastered all over the internet. (You’re welcome.)

    Outside of BR’s ten reasons, one of my motivations for doing this is the challenge of it. As he mentions – it’s hard. I’ve seen blog posts that span less than 2000 words where the author has claimed to have spent eight hours or more writing it. And that was a ‘professional’ blogger. I can’t foresee any scenario where I’d put in that kind of time and effort but trying to come up with something to say, in your own voice, sprinkled with some of your own insights, is difficult. But it’s also remarkably fun.

    With that said, I’ll close with one of my own insights which is: Doing something without the aim of making any money or accomplishing any particular goal, doing it just for the sheer enjoyment and challenge of it, without any expectations, rules, or conditions, is an underrated and highly worthwhile endeavor.

    UPDATE: As an example of looking back and being ridiculously amused, would you believe I wrote a post titled Outdoor Urination For Dummies?

    Tuesday, January 18, 2011

    Internal Expose`

    So I've challenged myself to try to start writing blog posts a minimum of twice a week, preferably more. With that kind of requirement there's no telling what kind of breathtakingly fascinating topics are bound to come up. It's sure to be a continuous stream of edge-of-your seat material. Bet on that.

    I actually had a particular subject in mind for tonight's offering but now that I'm here - and determined to do this in fifteen minutes or less - it's clear that I'm not in the mood for that post right now. Instead I want to touch on something more personal, while bearing in mind that getting too personal and/or specific is probably a terrible idea in this venue.

    Oh look, my clock is ticking...

    In each of our lives there will be a few very notable, very defining moments in terms of who we are as individual human beings. I'm talking character here, and values. We all claim to have certain high-minded ideals and principles. It's easy stuff to say, primarily because there are few actual situations that require going beyond the mere words.

    The true measure of character comes when our ideals are put to a test that require some concrete, tangible action. We know when this happens because it usually feels like a difficult or conflicting situation, one of those things where deeper down we know what we should do, the only problem is that it's the one thing we really, really don't want to do.

    What can make this kind of scenario even more difficult is if nobody will really know one way or the other. Nobody but you. You find yourself rationalizing and playing little mind games with yourself trying to justify taking the easy way out, only to realize what that will mean. It will mean that you don't really believe what you claim to believe, that you can't live up to something that you've long thought was a deep part of who you are.

    So what do you do? You have this little battle with yourself that goes on for however long is necessary (if you're fortunate enough to have the luxury of that kind of time) and you make a decision that either exposes you as a fraud or confirms your integrity. To put it another way: you find out what you're made of.

    Such has been the kind of incident that I've encountered recently and the outcome was positive. It's probably gone the other way before but this one was a clear victory. But it wasn't one that I can claim solely on my own. Without the right words and the right understanding from a supportive and compassionate spouse, it would have been a fairly gut-wrenching situation for me. (See...getting personal, but not too personal!)

    So...thank you supportive spouse if you happen to read this.

    Here's the thing. I knew the right answer within seconds. The heart is quicker than the head, but when the head goes to war with the heart...look out! No telling what might happen.

    As it is, I feel that I passed the test.

    Damnit though. Went a little past my fifteen minutes.

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    Tea It Up

    It doesn’t seem to matter where it is I’m going or what I’m doing but I’m almost always running late. Time often feels like a menacing burden. There’s the sensation that something’s chasing me, lurking just out of sight but gaining. I have no way of knowing what it is – I just know I better hurry. ‘Hurry’ might be the theme for the way of life that I see all around me and the one that I am immersed in. There cannot possibly be that many critically important things that so many frantic people have to attend to so urgently, all the time.

    Nonetheless, time presses down relentlessly on all of us and you see it everywhere. There is a good bit of historical evidence that our ancestors enjoyed much more leisure time than we do. Leisure is not valued in our culture, at least not beyond its function of allowing us to be useful participants in the consumerist lifestyle. It’s defined for us as time to be spent buying some product that will allow us to fully relax and truly be ourselves. That so much consumption results in the necessity of most of our time being spent in the pursuit of money, thereby depriving us of true leisure, doesn’t get discussed nearly enough.

    Being so pressed for time results in a high premium being placed on the concept of convenience. Fortunes are made catering to our perceived and/or actual need for convenience. What’s overlooked is the high price - in terms of dollars, quality, health, and authentic experience – that is paid for the sake of convenience. Most of the good things in life are not convenient. They take time and attention. There’s a reason that patience is classified as a virtue.

    Anyway, as an act of rebellion against all of this I have decided to forego all of my worldly possessions and relocate to a cave in New Mexico where I will adopt the lifestyle of humans that lived there 5,000 years ago. Just kidding. But what I will do is drink tea. I mean real, time consuming, painfully inconvenient tea. Maybe I should phrase it more esoterically: I will partake of the ancient ritual of Tea.

    The art of taking tea has a grand history from Eastern culture to Western culture that spans the ages. Granted it’s become a huge industry, another exploit of commercialism, but that’s a trapping that can scarcely be escaped. The act of making and enjoying a genuine cup of tea requires slowing down and engaging in something simple, subtle, and inexpensive.

    For my tiny act of rebellion tea time will be early morning, before work, the time when I’m naturally feeling the most rushed. Water will be boiled via stovetop, not microwaved, and allowed to descend to its prime temperature for that particular tea. For my purposes I’ll be using mostly varieties of green, loose-leaf tea that require water just below the boiling point. My first few samples have been: “Sky Between The Branches” green tea, “China Dragonwell” green tea, Wu Yi Oolong tea, and a Roasted Green Tea Mint that is my favorite so far.

    My tea ritual will follow my morning round of Sun Salutations and will be a slow, deliberate, mindful act that will be a kind of thumbing of the nose at the hurried, frantic conditions that tend to transpire at that time each morning. And though it falls short of taking up residence in a Himalayan cave with naught but a loin cloth and a candle, it’s a beautifully inconvenient start.