Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Summer of Books

Professor J,

We are launching into our summer lounge fest? Oh, thank goodness. I'm exhausted. We need to restore our reserves since we are headed into an election year. It never really ends anymore though, does it?

So to introduce summer (which I wasn't trying to do in my last post, but okay) I'm listing ten favorite books. That sounded easy at first, a cop out almost, but then questions arose about which books to include.

Best summer reads? Most influential? Most beloved? In the end I decided not to get too bogged down but to just list the first ones that came to mind when I thought about it. Here they are in no particular order. I really couldn't bear to have to rank them.

1. Les Miserables. For so many reasons, too many to list.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch is pretty much the perfect man.

3. Beau Geste. Just so much fun. You can't beat a good adventure.

4. The Chronicles of Narnia. Some of my favorite memories are of reading these aloud to my daughter.  (Yes, I know that technically this is seven, this is my list and these are my rules)

5. Gone With the Wind. Scarlett is a far more complex character than in the film. It's actually a coming of age tale.

6. Auntie Mame. Because I laughed all the way through. Out loud.

7. Jane Eyre. Every girl needs a fictional heroine. 

8. Little Women. Which I never read as a child but it's another beautiful memory of reading aloud
    to the kids. More heroines. Charming ones.

9. The Firm. So many Memphis references. Such a fun read, when no one knew who John Grisham was.
 

10. Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut was the man.

Hmmm...now I'm thinking I could have done a list of classics, or children's books, or my favorite thrillers. And of course now that I'm done I've thought of fifty more titles but these were the first ten off the top of my head as promised.

Are you up for a summer of books? Best thriller? Most life changing? Best plot twist? Most beloved character?  Most heartbreaking? Most hilarious?

And yes, War and Peace is still lurking about unfinished. :)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tidy Up Decisions

Madame,

A great summer story!

Before we take our traditional summer soiree into lighter fare, let me “tidy up the place,” so to speak.

The Supreme Court handed down what were termed surprise decisions this week.  One essentially refused to give credence to a ridiculous argument about the Affordable Care Act, and the other removed restrictions on homosexuals legally marrying.

While there is much that can and should be celebrated, let us peer through the curtain a bit:

The Supreme Court threatened (by taking the cases) to do something that could have had strongly negative consequences for a lot of people.  It is a victory these days when they…don’t do it.

The little secret in Washington, leaked by more than a few credible sources, is that Republican Congressional leaders, and even many Republican presidential candidates, wanted (lobbied hard, albeit indirectly) John Roberts especially and his court in general to make the right decision, which he/they did.  Those “leaders” knew that they had no plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, and that it would be a political rebound disaster on them to have it gutted.  Their emergency contingency plan, that they worked feverishly on while awaiting the decision, was, if it had been gutted, to declare a 2 year continuation while they worked on something. 

Why, you or readers might ask?  Because Obamacare is, with some minor (albeit irritating to them) tweaks, their (the Republicans, from the Heritage Foundation) plan.  Opposing it via lippage and ineffectual measures serves their ends well however.  They like to whip up the suckers that comprise so much of their unthinking base and keep them distracted with it, because it serves their ends, but they know they have no substitution that would be anything but politically harmful to them.

Although there is less evidence concerning the other decision, much of the same rationale applies.  Few things, as demonstrated by the lightning-rod Indiana law against homosexuals, whip up their opponents’ supporters more effectively than gender-preference discrimination.  They know they only have a chance of winning the presidency and retaining control of Congress, given the change in demographics, if their opponents’ numerous  but flighty/hot and cold varying supporters stay home.   If those supporters think that things are “trending” in the “correct” direction, there is a very good chance they will lose focus and not turn out. 

Our food “system” is now so suspect on so many levels that merely making “good choices” is not a suitable mantra.  When 2/3rds of Americans are now overweight or obese, and obesity is showing up in younger and younger (and more of them) individuals, how can it be that they are all such sluggards?  Well, they all aren’t.  The system, by much evidence, appears stacked against them.  Many, MANY more people are gaining weight and feeling terrible, and one can no longer ascribe all of it merely to poor life choices, as there are systemic contributors that transcend most individual control.  In fact, it almost makes one want to believe the consipiracists:  That the plutocrats are deliberately enervating all but the upper class  and those that serve that class in order to, over the long term, create a sparsely populated, feudalistic society that is neither threat to the planet, nor, more importantly, a threat to them and their descendants.

While I’m not sure about that, I am in strongly questioning mode, and will be thinking about this a good deal.


Dang it, now I’m going to enjoy that 4th of July hot dog a great deal less now! J

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Power of Wildflowers and Paper Cranes


Professor J,

I'm certainly in the mood for something uplifting. I Am seems like a good place to start. I hope to check it out soon. Meanwhile, I for one needed a bit of hope this week. So here's my contribution. It's a rehash from my personal blog.


 While on my silent weekend at a local retreat center last year there was much encouragement verbal and non verbal to spend time in nature. The very place itself beckons you out of your room and into surrounding woods and meadows. After dinner on our second evening there I noticed a young man in the distance wandering around among some wildflowers. He'd stop and pick some and then stroll around some more. I rocked in a chair on the porch and watched him. He was around my son's age and I imagined all the things he might be pondering in his solitude. 

 The next day after walking a couple of different trails I found one that disappeared into the woods behind the pond. Blue Bird Trail, perfectly named for the many bluebirds that are attracted to the retreat by birdhouses attached to numerous trees all around.


 About halfway around the pond I happened upon a bench, one of many placed in the most secluded spots to invite contemplation and rest. On the bench rested a bouquet of wildflowers carefully bound with long blades of grass. I caught my breath and smiled. At that moment nothing had ever been so beautiful as this gift left by a silent stranger for an unknown person to find. I took this picture and left it so someone else might be cheered by it. 



Later in my room I thought about another random act by strangers that had filled me with intense joy.

A couple of years ago in St. Petersburg Russia we were on an evening river boat cruise with our travel companions. As we passed under this bridge near the Hermitage a Japanese couple tossed a flurry of paper cranes into the air timed perfectly to shower down upon our boat.


My friend and I scooped up the paper to see what it was and then looked back to the top of the bridge to wave to the strangers who had randomly gifted us. They were beaming and so were we, waving furiously, knowing we would never meet them or know what prompted their gesture and they would never know how grateful we were for a small kindness.


At the end of the retreat when speaking was finally allowed I spotted the young man I'd seen wandering around that evening. 

"Are you the one who left the bouquet of wildflowers on the bench?"

"Yes." 

"Well, I have to tell you how incredibly happy that made me when I happened upon it." 

"Wow. You just made my day." 

We all want to change the world for the better. We often imagine doing it on a grand scale. We think real change has to be something big done for masses of people. But if you are feeling small and inadequate, if you think you are only one person with limited resources, if you wonder what you could possibly do to make the world a better place, just start small. 

Where you are. 

With what you have. 

Even if it's just wildflowers or paper cranes.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

I Am and You Are

Madame,

Spending being good for the economy speechmaking has been around since at least Keynesian economic days of the Great Depression, but its tone was generally muted and occasional, although the rise of the expanded consumer economy in the 1950s began to change that.   In the late 1970s and early 1980s, spurred on by the ravages of inflation, but also by the surging strength of the plutocrats, such talk became more open, direct, and frequent.

You are right that beginning in the 1980s (although the 1970s had given it a boost), fewer families lived within their means.  While much of this had to do with the absurd phenomenon of  “Affluenza” (to use the name of a good book), where people spent to meet some ridiculous hyped-up “standard” set up by Madison Avenue and others, an increasing majority, unfortunately, came about because wages simply weren’t keeping up—and at the same time that even more burdens were being thrown on the individual/individual family.

Your points about interns are so appropriate.  The exploitative mentality has now infected most of the big companies, and even many big institutions.  The exploiters keep harping to the field, to the workers, to sacrifice and quit thinking about fairness and money, and instead serve the company/country and sacrifice “or everything will fail.”  The cruel irony that the best compensated, best treated, most privileged at the top are exhorting the least compensated, worst treated, and least privileged to do more calls to mind that very S word you mention.  Thus living out the worst aspect of robber-baron capitalism: How to get the most work out of the workers while paying them the least.

But despair is enervating.  Readers are suggested instead to watch a documentary called, “I Am.”  Everyday acts—even small acts—can change things over time.  Building up, over time, a consciousness that brings change.  Realizing that accumulation beyond your needs is probably a form of mental illness.  That nothing in nature really takes more than it reasonably needs.   That only aberrations do that.  Cancers do that.

G.K. Chesterton  is credited, when asked  by the most famous paper in Britain what was wrong with the world, as simply replying, “I am.”

The documentary maker—a rich and once high flying Hollywood filmmaker—says to us that can also be our answer when asked what is right with the world.


Readers can find out more at: http://www.iamthedoc.com/

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Be Brave and Spend

Professor J,

The picture you paint, all too realistically I fear, is grim. And then I got all the way to the bottom of the post and saw that you have come to the same conclusion as me. Bernie Sanders is the only person running who is even bothering to address any of the real issues in an honest way. Bet you never thought you'd hear me say that! Socialist Smocialist.

Is it just me or is the entire Republican party leftover from an 80s frat house? Donald Trump's announcement seemed like the rich father who shows up and instead of trying to bring about order offers to buy kegs for the next party. It would all be laughable if it weren't alternately sad and terrifying. The Dems don't impress me much either but Sanders and Warren (if she would run) look like sensible grownups who have an understanding of how the world works and how scary and dangerous that makes it.

I'm not surprised at all to hear about the abysmal savings and for all the reasons that you point out. I can remember saving being a big thing to my parents and other adults when I was a kid. Then in the 80s something shifted and the appearance of affluence, name brand products and certain labels on clothes seemed to become inordinately important. Fewer families lived within their means and went without the extras to save. And we began to hear about how good spending was for the economy. I'd be interested to know when that kind of terminology came into political speech. This idea of spending in frivolous things being almost our patriotic duty. We remember the worst example after 9/11, of course but it was programmed in previously. Be brave and go shopping.

So we did. The Millenials have wised up a bit more than their parents thanks to the recession, but as you point out, the system is failing. The system is rigged and unbeatable under the current circumstances.

And people don't see solutions. They certainly don't see politicians who offer up solutions. It's just more of the same. The same tired ideas. The same phony candidates. The same feeling that there isn't any real choice. The realization that no change is coming. Voluntarily by those in power, anyway.

I found this article this week that I thought was telling, Goldman Sachs tells Interns to Take it Easy and Only Work 17 Hours a Day.

Corporations have really hit a gold mine with internships which, according to this article, do not tend to lead to jobs. Is it just me or has the idea of internship exploded? I can remember when being an intern meant that you were going to be a doctor but now every corporation has scores of minions that they don't have to pay or give benefits to. And just like the actual employees of these businesses the attitude is that no one can question it, because, you are so lucky to be there.

But back to the GS article. We'd call it slavery anywhere else. But this is the mindset we've created and the values we've embraced. More. Bigger. Shinier. Better than the next guy. At any cost.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

How Close To The Bottom Do We Have To Go?

Madame,

Even if we manage to avoid a Great Recession/Great Depression type calamity, few are ready for the looming “Retiremageddon.”

Retirement is a relatively modern invention to accommodate much longer life expectancy.  Its invention rested on a three legged stool:  1) pensions companies and governments set up (defined benefit),  the largest piece; 2) individual savings (defined contributions, sometimes assisted), the next largest piece, and 3) Social Security, the smallest piece. 

In the 1970s and 1980s the assault on pensions was intensified for misleading reasons I might detail in another post.  Today,  the war of annihilation on pensions is nearly complete.  Few have them anymore and they are often being modified or eliminated (at least for new employees).

That left retirement to somehow make it on two legs, even though stools don’t make it on two legs.  Not to worry, the plutocratic misleaders told us.  Companies would “match” all sorts of savings, and the government would even give economic incentive to save.  What they failed to tell everyone was that, despite great increases in productivity (the profits from which went to a few), wages would almost certainly not keep up, leaving little to save.  And that each individual would also become responsible for more and more things, and thus further be able to save even less and less.

Contributing to the misleading discourse have been the financial idiots who are always blathering on that they wish they could “opt out” of their pension (for those few lucky enough to have one) or Social Security and “keep that money for myself.”  Those suckers are the financial equivalents of the voters who keep voting against their economic interests.  Like them, they have bought in to a philosophy where it is all too easy to exploit the individual.

An individual has so little economic power, even on occasions when they might have a little financial savvy.  They can’t command the economic clout that big institutions can.  And so, consequently, they don’t get the same financial returns, even when fees are small, which they rarely are.  What’s worse, individuals get hammered and exploited in the upswings and downswings of the market, let alone the crashes.  They have little to no protection against inflation either.  And that’s even if they don’t get outright ripped off by a financial industry that purposely complicates and confuses things to prey on ignorance and take advantage of greed.

A generation that bought the 401k, IRA, etc. “promise” is about to discover some pretty harsh truths.  When the money—for those frugal and lucky enough to have some saved—runs out, the wailing will begin.  What am I talking about?  Read on, readers!

According a March 2015 study, among households on the verge of supposed retirement, the median retirement account balance is…less than $15,000.  Not the yearly income one could expect from the “investments,”  but the total BALANCE.  Over 60% of American working households aged 55-64 don’t even have a total retirement savings sum that even equals ONE YEAR of their annual income.

And what of the formerly 3rd  (now 2nd) leg of this weak stool?  Social Security replaces, percentage wise, the greatest amount for lower-income earners.  Yet at most that is 40% of one’s annual income—and that’s for low income earners.  If they can barely make it now on 100% of their income, they sure aren’t going to make it on 40%.  For middle income earners, the prospects are even bleaker, with Social Security replacing at most around 15-35%. 

But even that is uncertain now.  The plutocratic (and their shills/politicians) assault against Social Security is relentless—and increasing.  The lies being spread against one of the most successful social responsibility institutions ever devised are repeated over and over because the plutocrats—and the media they control—know that a lie endlessly repeated gets believed.

Our disengagements from being informed and being involved mean we presently live in a plutocratic oligarchy with the veneer of a democratic republic and the last remaining vestiges of social responsibility.   The vast majority of Americans are poorer, more stressed, more insecure, see fewer opportunities, and see most of the economic trends going in the wrong direction, even though they strongly disagree on causes and solutions.  Their educational systems and infrastructure are either crumbling or starving for real investment, even when people don’t recognize the plutocratic withholding about all that.  Somewhere in the back of their minds, they suspect that all this debt—personal, business, government—is due to fundamental weakness, that things aren’t making it, once again even when they don’t recognize the plutocratic withholding that contributes strongly to that.  They fret about health care—the number one cause of bankruptcy—regardless of what “side” they are on.  They know the tax code is unfairly tilted away from them and toward the already rich.  They realize how corrupted and ineffectual the so-called “elites” have become.  They feel helpless against giant, rich, powerful entities that do what they want and face no real consequences from us.  They probably suspect at some level that our priorities are all off, that maybe we shouldn’t have a giant, ravenous, corrupting military-private sector-security-intelligence resource sink, and one used in perpetual conflicts that sink resources even more—and change us for the worse, maybe Orwellian-like.   They may see—or experience—freakish weather catastrophes, droughts, or floods, may even agree with scientists that we are changing the climate for the worse.

Then they blank it all out.  Or latch on to some minor thing.  Or simplistically lay blame on one (usually wrong) cause—and usually with some equally wrong “solution.”

Thus leaving the problems to the few activists—and to the power of money.  Leaving it to others (including their descendants) to deal with, let alone try to solve.

While the battering rams of our failures to meet our problems thunder at our doors, our response so far is only to turn up the volume louder on our electronic and other diversions.  This mass denial, if it continues, will be—rightly—judged harshly and venomously by future generations.  Instead of The Greatest Generation, we will be known as The Failure Generation, The Despised Generation, The Contemptible Generation.  Unless we quit diverting and “amusing ourselves to death” in Neil Postman’s apt words,  we will, like opiate addicts and lotus eaters, still be diverted when the problems break through and finish us.

Every day we don’t arrest our descent is future pain—deep, agonizing, lengthy pain—for ourselves and our descendants.

GD, we can do so much better.  I for one don’t want to be despised by the future.

And yes, I realize that, except for the last few paragraphs, I sound surprisingly similar to Bernie Sanders.  What a pity the man has no power base, no team of best and brightest, no movement to sweep with him into office in state and national legislatures.  Without that, any effectiveness of his would be greatly reduced.  Even a year and a half is not enough time for anything except near-total people power to overcome the many (and deliberate) roadblocks and transform the political scene.  It takes a lengthy effort, not some relatively brief and emotional one.  

It requires a continually engaged public.  One not in evidence so far.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Lost Connection

Professor J,

The article about our veterans returning home was enlightening. I remember older female family members discussing the war on the home front and the rationing, scrap drives, and worry about brothers and husbands far from home. I remarked that it must have been terrible to which came the response "No, it was the most wonderful time even if it was hard. Everyone pulled together."

I'm one of those people that thinks mandatory military service between high school and college would have a lot of benefits, this feeling of camaraderie would be experienced by everyone at least once. I'm reasoning that serving, training, and those respective hardships might be beneficial in the ways needed without necessarily being in a battlefield situation. Mandatory service is a whole other discussion.

The concept of the White Indian makes sense. Interesting that it was happening back then when, compared to our modern lives, we would view people as much more connected than today. Hippies went searching for it again on communes in the sixties and it is the draw of most cults. There is clearly a deep longing there that is left unmet in our cars and single family/single generation dwellings.

The comments about mother/child bonding reminded me of how often we have heard doctors and child psychologists advocate the concept of "self soothing" and a child learning it even while in their crib. It's the intentional forcing of the baby bonding with that stuffed animal or toy so mom and dad can sleep or go about their day. The underlying message from early on is: No one is going to comfort you. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, kid.

In recent years however we've seen the rise of things like breastfeeding and the baby sling to increase that skin to skin contact. The family bed, advocated by lots of parents, is considered dangerous and unhealthy by the medical community. We have a lot of deep and (naturally!) connected problems.

Since I posted last I've read several articles about the somewhat prickly relationship between the feminist community and the transgender one. Here's just one example. It's apparently existed for some time and Caitlyn Jenner brought it to the forefront. The Trans community want support, which they get in theory, but as Stewart pointed out the focus is on how Jenner looks. It only makes sense that feminists who have fought the good fight not to have women judged solely on their appearance would take issue. As one writer pointed out Jenner is 65 but didn't get a breast augmentation and ask for 65 year old breasts. (But then seriously, who would go under the knife for that?)

It's an interesting debate with good points made all around and no simple solutions (funny how often that's the case). The bigger picture is that Jenner is bringing attention to the issue.  I keep thinking how many episodes of COPS I've seen where the prostitute on the sidewalk turns out to be a man. They make sense now. The amount of teens thrown out of the house because they are transgender is a serious problem. Education and enlightenment will hopefully help solve it.
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