Monthly Archives: March 2011

Meet your Meat

For several years I’ve toyed with the idea of vegetarianism. While I can’t claim that there’s ANY way I can go as far as veganism, I really do feel badly about the sad and pervasive inefficiency of eating meat products. Add to this the fact that the whole industry is just terribly cruel and you can build a good case for not subsidizing it with our dollars. Most of this just rattled away in the back of my mind until I visited a local dairy farm the other day.

Firstly, let me say that I went into this with a fairly open mind. I imagined a tour of a facility that was at least grounded in some level of realism. Sure, animals are going to be dirty and crowded and I was prepared to deal with that. I spent a fair bit of my life around a small farm so I get the farming thing. You do what you have to do to get your product to market. Fine. I can accept that much. You know what really just turned my stomach? You walk into the place and instantly you’re hit with the barrage of marketing. How environmentally friendly the farm is. How incredibly clean it is. How healthy the product is for you. A fucking animatronic tree babbles on for 10 minutes about how much the native wildlife just LOVES the farm because of all the wilderness areas that have been left untouched. There’s a 3D movie that talks about how healthy milk is for you and how clean and sterile the environment is for these cows. I may not know much but I do know enough to realize that any time a company spends that much time telling you how clean and sterile their product is and how good it is for the environment that they are totally fucking feeding you bullshit.

So let’s get down to facts. Facts from the tour. The tour that was promoting the farm and how great it was. Firstly, do you have any idea how wasteful this whole thing is? Their big line was, “From grass to your glass.” The premise being that these miraculous cows turn grass into milk. It’s like magic! Well firstly, that’s utter bullshit (no pun intended). These cows would be lucky if they’ve ever SEEN grass let alone had the opportunity to consume it. Every day, the video happily proclaims, the average cow eats… get this… 100 pounds of grain. Yeah. You read that right. One hundred pounds of grain, 30 gallons of water and in exchange you get 10 gallons of milk and, one can only assume, 100+ pounds of excrement. Do you have any idea how many people you could feed with 100 pounds of grain or similar vegetable products? People are starving on this planet and yet we’re force-feeding grain to dairy cows. The video made all sorts of wonderful claims about how the cows live in luxurious conditions. They have clean sand every week in their pens (because cows in their native habitat no doubt hang out at the beach so this is utterly natural) and they have all the food they want, available 24 hours a day, and even get to go (I shit you not) “hang out with each other” in a special area of their pen. Their description makes it sound more like a retirement home than the abattoir that it really is.

The marketing also went to great lengths, repeatedly, to talk about how clean and sanitary their product was, how they “harvest” the milk and sanitize the udders and cool it down rapidly to make sure it stays fresh. It just sounds so yummy and delicious! That is until you see the cows on the huge rotary milker covered with their own shit. Seriously, their pens are filled with sand, so I’m fairly certain that brown material covering them is probably not mud. If you put antiseptic on a shit-covered cow and then suck the milk out of it, is that really sanitary? Or is it just “kinda” sanitary? Close enough for the USDA, perhaps. Just worth keeping in mind, I suppose, that every drink of milk contains some amount of cow shit.

What struck me most of all was the birthing barn. Here you had cows that had been force-fed to the point of being utterly obese, filled with hormones and unable to give birth to their own children without the assistance of a stout rope. The audio voice-over claimed, “only 5% of births need assistance” but even our small sample size proved that an utterly contrived statistic. These poor animals, stretched beyond all proper bounds of nature’s intention by human greed and force-feeding, have as much chance of giving birth naturally as an obese woman does of running a marathon. In many cases their udders are so grossly distended that they can barely walk in a straight line let alone give birth naturally.

In summary, the dairy farm is a dim parody of nature. While the voice-over proudly proclaims how happy the cows are and, most disturbingly, how smart and easily trained they are, they live out existences that are more closely akin to something from an H.P. Lovecraft novel than anything else. Once they serve out their useful lives in the dairy they head to the slaughterhouse to “give their all” as the tour guide said when it was asked of her. What logical sense does that make? Who in their right mind subsidizes an industry that is not only horrendously wasteful but just idiotically cruel? In our pursuit of cheap calories, we’ve created a monstrosity, a travesty of all logical justice.

I, for one, am off dairy. I’ll admit that it will be difficult to give up cheese but the image of the shit-stained udders of dozens of cows being suckled by probing mechanical nozzles is more than sufficient to put me off milk and beef. How can we justify such an industry? As intense as the marketing is, I shudder to think what the reality is hidden behind the sanitized version we see on the tour. Perhaps if I put these products aside it can help make the huge pile of shit a bit smaller. Perhaps if we all do it will vanish entirely.

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In Defense of Women

It has occurred to me that as of late I have found myself increasingly confrontational. I delivered my polemic from yesterday morning to the Lafayette Journal and Courier in the hopes that someone might take sufficient notice to make the issue of which I write visible to a larger crowd than the small one that reads this blog. Since the article on economic inequality on March 19th, (“On Organized Labor”), I’ve found myself increasingly controversial and ready to face whatever negativity that might result from my opinions. Whether any of this prolixity is justified is left as an exercise to the reader but suffice it to say that I grow increasingly unimpressed with the society in which we live.

For today’s rant I take up a topic that I’ve touched on before in the long history of this blog but never with quite this level of specificity. It seems that there exists in this country a silent war on women. I was greeted this morning by a post from Sarah Kimmett in defense of the right of a woman to breastfeed her baby in some public place aside from a restroom. While the imagery of her post was… well, a tad unsettling, her point was well taken. Why should a woman who wishes to feed her baby, in the most natural way possible, and in the most healthy and responsible way possible, be consigned to do so in a public restroom? Because of a group of ultra-conservative, ultra-religious assholes, we’ve vilified the natural act of feeding a child. It’s become something to be hidden away in a dark corner like taking a shit. Feeding your baby is not the moral equivalent of dropping a deuce. Stop treating it like it is.

My personal experience with this is fairly limited. I’ve seen a few women breastfeeding in my day but not many. The most poignant that I recall was, somewhat ironically, in the Field Museum in Chicago. Amongst the displays of primitive man and bones of long-dead Dinosaurs, I saw a woman quietly sitting in the stairwell feeding her child. She wasn’t terribly exposed. She wasn’t a repugnant display of human flesh. She was simply and discretely and quietly feeding her baby. I didn’t feel repulsed or disgusted. What did I feel? I felt an overwhelming sense of well-being. Here was a woman who was sharing of herself to bring life and joy to the next generation of humankind. The image of her still dances through my mind all these years later. In some utterly bizarre way this image gives me hope for humanity. It lets me know that there is hope for all of us, that we are still one big human family that cares for one another generation after generation. I would be sad if some close-minded bigots kept me from having that feeling. Every time that I see a group of people on television I’m greeted by a sign that says, “Support our Troops.” It would be nice if once in a while we saw a sign that said, “Support our Moms.” Their jobs are no less important, but their song goes unsung.

Closely related to this, I’ve been increasingly confronted as of late with men, or at least stories of men, who are stuck in the year 1953. There is still a small cohort of mankind who believes that there is something called “women’s work” and that women are uniquely qualified to carry it out. To them I will merely say, the year is 2011 and it is time to dispose of your old value systems. The women of today are capable of much more than their assigned roles from 60 years ago. June Cleaver didn’t bring home a paycheck, run the house and keep junior’s fingernails trimmed in the way that today’s modern woman does. Because of this added responsibility, she deserves not only your respect but very nearly your worship. She balances more things in a day than an average man could possibly conceive of. Appreciate her for all that she is and she will, I assure you, more than compensate you for your attentions. Men of the world, do not wage war on your women. Stand beside them and recognize them for the awe-inspiring allies that they are.


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Fourth Reich

If you talk to most people about Hitler’s extermination of six million Jews during World War II or the death of a million and a half Armenians in 1915 or even the work of the Khmer Rouge killing two million Cambodians in the seventies, the predictable quizzical refrain is, “How could they DO such a thing?!” Unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon, and the ideological roots of such thinking are alive and well in the United States even today.

Our story begins innocently enough… Yesterday I went to the camera store for my semi-annual shopping trip. I judged myself in “need” of a good macro lens and so, having had good luck at a store in Lafayette I traveled hither and availed myself of the help, selected an appropriate lens and then found myself in the awkward, “Oh jeeze, now the salesman wants to talk about something unrelated to photography” situation. The guy certainly didn’t look like a Nazi; he was about medium build, balding, late 50s with a queer expression that makes you wonder if his mental acuity is fading a bit. Somehow he got onto the topic of crime in the surrounding county and how it had risen dramatically over the past few years. I mentally braced myself when he said the words, “You know why crime is up so much don’t ya?”

He then went on for a full five minutes about how Mexicans and African Americans had invaded from Chicago. He told stories of welfare moms (all with six kids by six fathers he noted), apparently by the dozens, would go to the fair and “let their kids loose to run around unattended and ruin the whole thing for everyone”. The reason they were here was simple, he said. They came because Illinois is out of welfare money and the mayor of Chicago told them to come to Lafayette because Indiana still has plenty. The Mexicans are here because, as you may have heard, there’s a big sign at the Mexican border that says, “Come to Lafayette, Indiana. We have good jobs for you.”

It’s endlessly fascinating to me that I’ve heard many of these stories before but the details and the place names are always different. If they’re all to be believed, then the border with Mexico must just be crowded with signs as far as the eye can see for every burg, hamlet and village in America that’s seeking out cheap labor from Lafayette to Frankfort to South Park, Colorado. It perplexes me even further that if the speaker believes his own story, why does he have such vitriol for the people who have come to Lafayette rather than the situations that brought them here? If the influx of African-Americans is bothersome, why be mad at them for their very existence? Why not vent your angst on the society that made it profitable and reasonable for them to get into their situation in the first place? Why not write a letter to the mayor of Chicago telling him to stop sending his huddled masses down I-65? Is it really their fault for existing? If Mexicans are coming here in droves because of signs then why not boycott the companies who put up the signs to attract them in the first place? If one is going to hate a group of people then at the very least the reasons for doing so should make logical sense rather than being cobbled together from bits and pieces of yokel-pseudowisdom.

So what’s the truth here? Are there really people on the welfare rolls out there with six kids by six different dads collecting taxpayer dollars? Certainly there are. No denying that. But whose fault is that really? If these people exist it’s not because of some inherent flaw in their persons so much as a gap in the systems of education and government that created them. The difference between a welfare mother of six and a successful professional woman is merely a matter of situation and education. As long as America tolerates the existence of a class of ultra-rich elites there will be a class of ultra-poor to balance them out. The question of Mexican immigration has been a hot-button one for decades and somehow it’s perceived to be the fault of the immigrants themselves that American companies demand their cheap and undocumented labor. Of course companies want to keep their costs low and in many cases have no choice about it because the American people have such an insatiable demand for cheap goods. If you have a problem with immigration then you should start by making sure that none of the goods and services you buy are sourced with the labor of immigrants. That will mean that you’ll pay a lot more for them because the equivalent American worker won’t accept $20 a day in wages. But that’s OK, right? No price too high to make sure we don’t have to hear Spanish in the grocery store!

In the end, I’m not sure whether to be angry or sad at the situation. The camera shop salesman’s viewpoint, as loathsome as it is, seems to be a very popular one. And that’s the scary part. It’s thoughts such as these, spread person to person and quickly accepted as reality, that start atrocities such as the Jewish Holocaust. The simple and virulent idea that, “things are bad and it’s the fault of THOSE people,” spreads far too easily and once it permeates a society it lacks only a persuasive leader to turn from an underground movement to an all-out war. We cannot continue to think this way about the people around us. Like it or not, we’re all in this together so rather than spending your wrath hating the person next to you let’s embrace what we’ve got and try to make things better for all of us. Vote for parties that support responsible social programs that help bring people up from poverty and ignorance (if you can find one). Volunteer at literacy programs and give to organizations that help those in need. While the forgotten masses at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder may seem the least important, they also have the most potential. And when you see injustice or ignorance in your community then stand up and talk about it. Don’t let your quiet non-vote contribute to the growing river of hatred and blame that runs through our communities.


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A Fish out of Ink

As a rule I tend to keep myself pretty quietly tucked away in my familiar corner of society. This is a polite way of saying that I don’t get out much. Sure I tend to traipse around in nature quite a bit seeing this, that and the other thing but it is not easily lost on anyone who looks at my photo albums that there just aren’t a whole lot of people in them. At least in part this is due to no small degree of anthropophobia on my part, not to mention the concern that taking pictures of people is sometimes likely to get one punched in one’s camera lens. The point is that my experiences in the company of other actual humans are almost frighteningly limited. I can count on my fingers the number of people I’ve spent more than few hours with in my entire life outside the context of work. My circle is very small and very homogeneous.

So it is with this context in mind that I look back on the events of last night. I found myself in the company of people for several hours with whom I shared… well, absolutely nothing. Save for the acts of respiration and other simple biology, it’s exceptionally hard for me to draw any common relationship between myself and the other people in the room. What’s surprising… well, not really surprising actually, but what struck me is that as I sat, quietly observing them, listening to their banter, I built up a fair amount of respect for them. Their values systems were completely different than mine. Hell, I got the impression that they didn’t even know what Monty Python was. What more blaring sign of affiliation with an alternate reality do you need than that? Despite their vastly different life context, they seemed intelligent (though not erudite), passionate (though not about anything that I particularly cared about) and amicable (though in that “I’m likely to insult you just out of playfulness rather than spite” sort of way).

At this point, the patient reader is no doubt asking exactly WHO this demographic is that I’m referring to. The impatient reader hasn’t made it this for. So to the patient reader I grant their reward. The group in question is that you will find if you make your way into any common purveyor of the tattooed arts. The cast of characters consisted of the shop leader, a 45-year-old gent who has been at the task of tattooing for almost 20 years closely followed by a posse of 20-somethings and lastly a young apprentice who was just beginning to learn the trade. There was a fairly clear pecking order and an almost communal feel about the place. I shall illustrate the cast of characters in some detail.

The lowest person in rank, the apprentice, was clearly stuck with the grunt work: cleaning up, autoclaving, filling out paperwork, etc. These non-artistic (and possibly non-paying) jobs seemed to fall exclusively to him. A small joke was exchanged that if he continued to do his job well he could very well be at it for life, but if he sucked badly enough he might actually get to tattoo someone some day. It’s unclear that there is any formal process for apprenticeship, but there did seem to be knowledge that there was a process of sorts and that it was clear he was at the bottom of it. Physically, the apprentice was the most unique of the group. Of course everyone present was heavily laden with artwork but in particular this gentleman sported a shaved head, decorated with a colorful design as well as a cake donut with pink icing tattooed around his navel. He used this bit of art in particular to scare away a group of cackling teenagers who had come into the shop apparently for the purposes of gawking.

Next in the ranks came a man of similar age who had at least passed out of the initial stages of apprenticeship. He was in the midst of giving his first tattoo, a large, red rose on his own leg. Apparently it is common, if not required, that a fledgling artist perform his first tattoo on his own person. When we quietly inquired of the owner about this practice he said simply, “you have to learn how hard to press down.” It is comforting to know that practitioners of this art do only to us what they would be willing to do on themselves first. More amazing to me, I suppose, is that this gentleman was able to accurately and protractedly use an electric needle on his own person with no apparent outward signs of stress. This indicates a fairly high degree of devotion to ones trade if not a super-human tolerance for pain.

The rest of the group, save for the lead in our story who I shall save for last, seemed fairly non-descript. It was unclear to me if these were other artists who simply didn’t have clients in at the time or just “friends of the band” as it were. In total the group varied from six to seven with a couple of people popping in and out from time to time. As I mentioned earlier, the whole group was wonderfully congenial but one always had the sense of being an “outsider” in someone else’s party. Perhaps in part this was exacerbated by the fact that Laura and I were the only people present in the shop who didn’t seem to have some affiliation with the shop or the people in it.

At any rate, I move lastly to Roger, who I presume to be the shop owner and the only one with an actual paying client that night. Roger’s a soft-spoken gentleman who quietly seems to hold sway over the rest of the shop. Because he is such a gentle character though, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what his relationship is with the rest of the people working there. As cliché as it sounds, he has an almost fatherly aspect. While the rest of the shop is bantering about whatever it is that 20-ish guys banter about, he’s off somewhere quietly working away on something (or someone). It’s clear from his demeanor as well that he really, really likes doing this sort of thing. His professionalism and pride in his work is obvious yet without the egotism that sometimes comes with those qualities. What struck me most though was that after he’d really settled into his task he seemed to pass into a trance-like state of complete concentration. I’ve seen the expression many times passing by a programmer’s cube at work when they’re in the throes of some deep and gritty technical problem. The two are not unrelated, I suspect.

I would feel remiss if I didn’t take at least a short moment to comment on the art itself. Having some time to browse the common designs available and see no small amount of it actually on the people in the shop, I’m struck by the themes. For the most part, it seems to be expected that men should have tattoos depicting skulls and death and gushing blood and hearts stabbed by knives and similarly gruesome themes and I honestly just don’t understand why this is at all popular. I realize in some cultures it’s important to look “bad-ass” and to carry off an aspect of toughness but is that really the majority of the tattoo-buying crowd? If I were in the market for a tattoo then I’d imagine something by Hieronymus Bosch would be much more appealing and appropriate. Is society really so fascinated by death or is this just the tattoo shop’s polite way of suggesting that perhaps you bring in your own damn design rather than asking them to tattoo the same shit over and over? Or more likely are these designs the type of things that drunken last-minute decision-makers tend to like when they stumble into the shop impaired but with a mind to mark themselves for life? Who can say?

So all in all I would say the experience was a vastly broadening one. Considering that I’ve babbled on for 1400 words about it, it apparently made a fairly significant impression. The question that now bubbles to mind is how to continue this. I don’t mean tattoo shops specifically, I could stumble into plenty of those, but how does one in today’s society reach out and find new aspects of culture to explore without invading and inserting one’s self where otherwise unwanted?


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Coping With My Own Ignorance

The most surprising thing about the movie Invictus that we watched last night was its effortless ability to remind me of my own complete and utter ignorance of African History. From there my mind was able to trace its way backwards through a thousand topics of which I know very nearly, if not exactly, nothing.

On one hand this makes me desperately sad because I feel a large hollow space in my soul where a lot of really amazing information is begging to be. Sure, I can call up the image of Nazi soldiers on hang-gliders any time I want for entertainment but part of me knows that there’s so much MORE to be had for the assiduous pursuer of knowledge. There are eight million stories in the Naked City and I want to know every fucking one of them. As song lyrics from songs that were popular before I was born blast through my head, I ponder reading a biography of Nelson Mandela. But the pang of sadness is palpable as I realize I had to do a Google search to verify the Nazi hang-glider story I remembered from high school history wasn’t apocryphal… another to recall that there are eight million stories in the Naked City and not just one million… and a third to get rid of the second L that I tried to put in Mandela. And of course the spellchecker corrected my spelling of apocryphal. Christ but I’m getting soft…

The problem seems to be that there’s just so damn much to KNOW. It’s always been my goal to pursue breadth of knowledge not depth. I don’t really need to know the exact structure of a Benzene molecule but it would be nice to know enough to at least have an intelligent discussion about chemistry. (As a side note, I completely bite ass at chemistry. My mind works conceptually and I never found enough logic in chemistry to make it properly hang together in any reasonable structure to actually remember anything aside from tidbits from the Periodic Table.) The problem though even with a depth-wise view of human knowledge is that it’s still impossible. Some topics are just too deep to skip over and you become hopelessly mired in detail. Eighteenth century Italian Opera you can hit the highpoints on but Quantum Mechanics not so much. If you condense some topics to their fundamentals you lose them entirely. Distilling World War II down to: “An embittered Germany, after being let off far too easily after World War I, seeks continental dominance.” Is at best a hollow summary and at worst raises far more questions than it answers. Some things are worth a year looking into. Unfortunately, we just don’t have enough years.

So what’s the answer? How do we all keep from feeling like hopeless mental failures? In general, and simply put, we specialize. I know a lot of people who have one area in which they are simply legendary whether it’s sump pumps or some arcane technical topic. Personally that seems unsatisfying. I’d go insane if I were the foremost expert on the world on subject web browser compatibility testing but knew little to nothing about anything else. Even so, I would feel like I knew something. As it stands, I look at the vast open plains of my lacking intellect and I feel vacuous and in need of more, More, MORE!

Returning to the long-neglected other hand, does it really matter? What point would there be in owning even the entire breadth of human knowledge? Perhaps a bit of focus, not so razor sharp that you can unravel the secrets of the universe but forget how to button your shirt in the morning, is a good thing. Picking a few things to be reasonably good at and quietly being at peace with ignorance of the rest seems a good and healthy attitude to have in a world that offers so many options that they exceed the human lifespan to consume them. If I can practice a trade and write a bit of prolix triteness to my own satisfaction and capture a sunset with the great-great-great-grandson of the daguerreotype, then what else need I worry about? I can spend my life fighting and being at odds with my own ignorance or I can walk down the hall and sing quietly to myself…

“Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took…

(Never underestimate the wisdom of songs that were popular before you were born…)


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The One and Only You

Last week I listened to an episode of Radiolab, a podcast that discusses interesting scientific concepts and stories at a universally accessible level. On the episode a woman told the story of one day during her childhood when she was at a party and she suddenly became disoriented. In fact, she became so confused that she ran into her own back yard and failed to recognize it as her own. The part of her brain that recognizes spatial relationships had had a sort of “short-circuit” and the world rotated ninety degrees. The details of this are unimportant but what followed made me ponder. When she told her mother about it she was more than a bit unhelpful and so for the next twenty years this woman carried around the belief that her brain was somehow “screwed up” in a way that was unique to her. She couldn’t fathom the possibility that anyone else had this problem… until she met someone who did, decades later.

I’ve often noted in humanity the tendency to think that we’re each wonderfully unique individuals. “There’s nobody like you,” sang Barney the Dinosaur, “you’re special!” For most of us childhood is filled with trite phrases and affirmations like that one. Society works so hard at lifting us up and making us feel good about ourselves that it forgets the simple truth that in the grand scheme of things, we’re each ultimately replaceable. Sure, in our own local circles we matter greatly because our families would notice if we were suddenly replaced with the next best version of ourselves, but looking at it globally, we’re all really just different copies of the same model number. If the internet can teach us nothing else it’s that no matter what you might happen to be into, there’s somebody else out there who’s into the exact same thing. There are one-legged crocheting cat-fanciers in the hundreds just waiting for your annual membership dues.

And while it may be depressing to think of the world that way, remember the woman from our opening. Her brain was suffering with a serious problem. She thought she was uniquely damaged in a way that nobody else could ever begin to share or relate to. Yet the show goes on to describe her amazing relief when she realized that she was NOT the only one. While it may deflate one’s ego to think that you’re not the unique and wonderful person you think you are, the flip side is that no matter what your problem, no matter how down you may get, perhaps it’s some comfort to know that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people who have the exact same problem. There are people out there who feel your pain and know your sorrow. Sometimes being special feels like the most magical feeling in the world. Sometimes being special makes you feel like the loneliest and most isolated person in the universe. Take comfort in the simple fact that you are not special.


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Second Childhood

It was once the rage, not so much now in this indulgent 21st century, to practice something called ‘tough love’. This trite phrase has fallen out of favor for one because… well, it’s trite, and secondly because nobody seems to want to actually do it. Increasingly it seems that we just give our children anything they ask for because we want them to just shut up and go away. The act of parenting has been reduced to that of a Walmart stock person filling up the shelves of junior’s room with any and every gewgaw, bauble, trinket and gadget that their little heart should so temporarily set itself upon. The parents that practice this mentality of parenting utterly fail to realize that the seemingly harsh act of saying, “no” is the best thing they can do with their children. It prepares them for the very real time in their adulthood when the world will look them straight in the eye and say, “NO!” with vastly greater emphasis and far less empathy. It is best that we teach our children the ways of the world now rather than letting them learn the lesson when the purulent Valkyrie of reality does it for us.

Recently I’ve been reminded that it is not only the children of youth who need this lesson but sometimes also those who have lived their lives and found themselves back in the simple-minded throes of a second childhood. As children, it is easy to look at our parents and say that they have earned the right of perpetual self-determination. While it is never an easy task to curtail the most precious freedom to run one’s own life, there comes a time for most older people when they’re a danger to themselves and others. Every day we see fragile senior citizens crouched behind the wheel of a car, barely able to see over the dash, unable to turn to see traffic or react quickly enough to avoid a collision. It is sometimes only by the tenuous thread of happenstance that they don’t cause serious harm to someone. How will you feel as a child if your parent comes to an unpleasant end or causes someone else’s because you respected far too long their expired right to direct their own lives?

Far too often we confuse love and respect for a parent with obedience. We’re trained to honor our fathers and mothers and to be obedient and respectful. To truly honor and love someone though does not mean to blindly follow their desires and wishes to the murky and uncertain endings to which they might lead. Just as they parented us in our youths, giving us what they thought was best rather than what we said we wanted, it is the duty of every child to guard over their aging parents with the same assiduous pursuit of what is in their best interest. Sometimes this will lead to conflict or even schism, but whatever the result, it is a far better one than that of a parent lost too soon because we failed to guide them safely though their final years as they so faithfully guided us through our first.

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On Organized Labor

Personally, I’ve always found the idea of unionization repulsive. The idea of bargaining collectively with my colleagues rather than standing out on my individual merits bothers me at my very core. What possible motivation would I have to excel at work if the result for me would be the same as for all my neighbors who are idly clipping their toenails for eight hours a day? Despite the physiological wonder that growing one’s nails that quickly might imply, one hardly believes it appropriate compensation for the fact that it leaves their hands free to do little else. Isn’t it the American dream to make good and do well for yourself rather than tugging along at the party line so that those around you can be paid the same while contributing less?

However this morning when I cracked open the March 7th edition of the New Yorker and read the lead ‘Talk of the Town’ story I couldn’t help but scowl quietly to myself. It goes on at length about the decline of the American labor union. The workforce has doubled in 50 years and yet union membership has declined. Increasingly, republicans engage in union-busting legislation that makes it harder and harder for unions to exist at all. Per the paragraph above, this doesn’t bother me overly. These people should negotiate on their own behalf and make their way as best they can. All is well and good and my mind is filled with the wine and roses of equality and self-determination until the numbers start to come out. Like any good analytic, I respond well to numbers.

Currently in this country the top 10% of the earners account for 50% of the money earned. The fact that the remaining 90% of the population is left to scrape by on the remainder makes it unsurprising that we see as much poverty as we do. How can this be deemed at all reasonable? While I by no means wish that everyone should be paid the same for what they do, they should at least be paid enough to comfortably exist without having to worry every single day about where their next meal will come from. Perhaps a program in which the bottom 10% can eat from the garbage cans of the top 10% is in order. No doubt the Republican elite would find this a fine and amicable agreement.

All this talk of social inequality brings me to the topic of taxes. Classically, the rich complain bitterly about their tax rate. They reason greedily, that if they were taxed less, then they would have more leftover to invest in industry to create new jobs for those who are jobless. Even if this were true, however, without unions the jobs created would likely pay a pittance. The rich certainly will invest extra proceeds in industry but only, of course, with the view of making themselves even richer. One does not become richer by paying a fair and equitable wage to one’s workers. One becomes rich by doing as much with as little as possible. Squeezing every last drop of productivity from a given resource is the very definition of efficiency. In the interest of efficiency we increase the wage-gap and do everything we can to make sure our worker drones remain under-paid and ignorant of their own inherent value to the company for which they slave away. The unions serve as the only mechanism by which the workers, largely oblivious to the larger economics of their relationship with the parent company, can be fairly represented and compensated.

So, like an embittered Christmas Scrooge, the top echelon of the American wealthy look down from on high and ask simply of their less fortunate cohorts, “are there no workhouses?” To them I say, there are, but not nearly enough. Perhaps a tax cut for you so you can build some more. While part of me is fiercely independent and desires to “get ahead”, another part of me wishes fervently for a society in which we all go to bed every night knowing that we need not fear for our lives, our health or our families. Clearly unions are imperfect entities, but such is the inevitable result whenever such an uneven fabric as the American workforce is ironed out into something resembling equal treatment.


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On Blogging

As I look back at the long and tangled history of this blog, I realize that it’s gone on for very nearly eight years.  Eight years of sometimes random and almost always unnecessary detail about a person that most of you probably don’t even know.  I flatter myself a bit here since to say this implies that more than about the five people in my immediate personal sphere of friendship actually read it.  Google’s statistics on the matter are brief, numerically unimpressive and no doubt completely accurate.  My audience is miniscule and generally entirely quiet.  It brings one quickly to the question of why one would even bother.  Why sit down for two hours a night to write something that five people might read?  
The most important answer to this question really is that my most fervent reader is some future copy of myself and my children.  From time to time I dig about for a random nugget from the past.  The words “bring on the cocaine” echo through my mind from 2005.  (  When I’m feeling particularly in need of inspiration to divest myself of some unnecessary possessions, I re-ask questions from ’08 (  Even if nobody ever read a word I have to say it would still be satisfying in the extreme to leave this trail of myself weaving sinuously through the internet.  Thing is though… people do read it.  Even total strangers read it.  Google reports quite diligently that people looking for “boss fix powder” or notes on old books I’ve read or “sardinian bronze figures” find some small solace in my words from the past.  The net is a wide and varied place but on many topics is not nearly so deep.  There’s a place for random tidbits here.  It’s hardly the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but it is still a voice.  In my wild imaginings, if I helped or entertained even one person, then my efforts were more than worth it.  I’m confident that I’ve contributed something to the wide world.  Certainly not the cure for cancer, but I’m sure that at some point I’ve made one person think or laugh or ponder a bit longer than they would have otherwise.  

What is saddest to me in this whole topic is that so many voices are silent.  I’ve seen many blogs spring to life, ardently persist for a few months and then slowly fall silent.  Those at least tried to add to the world.  Sadder still are those that never open their mouths to speak at all.  Their wisdom and words are lost forever.  So, in an effort to bring those voices to the foreground I will address the common excuses I hear one by one.  For those of you who are unheard, perhaps you will see some echo of yourself in the words I share below and realize that you too have a story to be told.  

Most commonly I hear the excuse, “I can’t write.  I’m no good at writing.”  Forgive me if I say, simply, that if you’re not good at writing it is merely because you don’t do it enough.  Writing is simply concretized communication and communication is what humanity is all about.  The simple act of speech and sharing of ideas is what separates us from the apes and the iguana.  You can be good at writing but you simply need to do more of it.  It’s said that it takes 10,000 hours to become good at something.  In many walks of life putting words to paper is as foreign and strange a pastime as any you can imagine.  If you belong to a part of society that doesn’t write often or doesn’t feel the need then it is absolutely IMPERITIVE that you make an effort to do so.  The literary history of the world is littered with the words of Kings and scholars.  What is most important and in most short supply is the word of the common people.  Don’t let the affluent speak for you and write your history as well as your own.  

My last point overflowed with zeal, I fear.  For the second I shall proceed more gently.  Next most commonly we have those who are simply afraid.  They fear to put their words to paper in front of the public because of what people might think.  Often these ideas are not explosive in nature.  There is no vast and unsettling profundity lurking that will upset the balance of humanity.  Instead the problem is simply one of self-image.  Much like those who profess no talent for the written word, those lacking confidence also deserve to be heard.  Often those people are the ones whose ideas are most thoroughly composed and well-constructed because they have spent a lifetime going over and over in their minds what exactly they would say if asked the exact right question at the exact right time.  

The primary fear of the second group is that of criticism.  In their well thought-out scenarios, they imagine they will say something that will offend someone else and will be hit upon the head with a large hammer in response.  To this fear I say simply… yup.  You will.  Be prepared, not only to argue your point but also to change your mind if appropriate.  Personally, half my reason for writing anything is to invite discussion and debate.  At times, I say things that are intentionally irrational or excessively vitriolic just in the hopes of inviting some response because ultimately I want people to think about what they’re reading.  I want them to disagree.  I want them to think about why and I want them to express it.  I stand ready to be argued with as should any writer.  The majority of human ideas are blunt weapons only honed to trueness by the test of scrutiny by others.  Your ideas are no different but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of sharing.  
The third group of non-writers is those who say simply, “I don’t have time.”  At this group I simply smirk and shake my head.  With few exceptions we have time for exactly what we make time for.  Television ratings are far too high for me to believe that any American person is too busy to sit down for a few hours to write something meaningful.   Except for single mothers of quadruplets and those working two full-time jobs, Americans are overflowing with free time.  It may not be utterly convenient to write about your life as you sit at your child’s soccer practice but technology has come far enough that you can certainly do it.

To close, the point here is simple.  Everyone within the sound of my keyboard needs to write about themselves and contribute to the vast choir that is the account of the human condition.  Technology has advanced to the point that we can leave for our progeny an account of our lives with unparalleled accuracy from coal miners in West Virginia to software developers in Seattle.  Every voice that is lost is lost forever.  We need to hear you.  There is no reason to be afraid.  Simply be honest and put yourself out there.  If not for humanity in general then for your own children.  What amazing treasure will it be to your children when they are old and gray to have your words and innermost thoughts to peruse and perhaps say to themselves, “Yes, I feel that too…”  Let your words today be your testament and your monument to the future.


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On Books: “The Finkler Question”

“The Finkler Question” earns fairly poor Amazon reviews and I can see why. The book is more than a bit heavy for American tastes; its prose is complex and at times difficult to unwind. That said, for the determined reader it not only has a statement to make but is an education in and of itself.

Per my long-standing tradition I picked up “The Finkler Question” while doggedly avoiding any back-cover reading that might have hinted at what I was about to read. So the first and obvious interrogative is, of course, “What *IS* the Finkler Question?” Or, for those who like to leap forward, “Who *IS* this Finkler person anyway?” To encapsulate, and potentially spoil this little mystery that lasts for all of 5 pages within the book, Finkler is one of the triumvirate of protagonists in this novel and he represents the prototypical modern Jewish person. Rounding out the trio we have Treslove the goy and Libor the old-school Jew.

I will not belabor the reader with the characterizations of our Jewish main characters. They represent well the stereotypes one would expect on the surface. They’re erudite and intellectually immaculate individuals. I’ve noted in my brief survey of Biblical literature that the Jewish view on such matters is impressive in its completeness and honesty. The portraits drawn of that religion in this book strengthen my opinion on the topic. Our goyish third finds himself at a bit of a disadvantage time and again when standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his Jewish counterparts and later a Jewish girlfriend.

At first introduction I found the text a bit daunting. Coming off a long stint in the land of L. Frank Baum, it’s not surprising that my eyes were a bit crossed and my tolerance for long and winding tracks of prose a bit taxed. Finkler is a book best taken in long, savory gulps rather than short, winded sprints. If you cannot devote an hour or more, then do not bother even to begin. It is an immersive tome that requires an investment rather than a mere passing fancy. The rewards, however, are immense, especially for one such as me, who is a true goy among goys. If nothing else, a passing introduction to Yiddish is provided at no cost to the reader save a few trips to the dictionary.

Our gentile protagonist I can relate to well. The book begins trippingly and graphically with the descriptive passage:

“He was a man who saw things coming. Not shadowy premonitions before and after sleep, but real and present dangers in the daylit world. Lamp posts and trees reared up at him, splintering his shins. Speeding cars lost control and rode on to the footpath leaving him lying in a pile of torn tissue and mangled bones. Sharp objects dropped from scaffolding and pierced his skull. Women worst of all. When a woman of the sort Julian Treslove found beautiful crossed his path it wasn’t his body that took the force but his mind. She shattered his calm. True, he had no calm, but she shattered whatever calm there was to look forward to in the future. She was the future.”

I can feel Julian in my own life. For me, as with Julian, a good woman is not so much an entertainment or amusement so much as a lake to be jumped into, something to completely lose yourself in and maybe, if it’s terribly necessary, maybe something to eventually find your way out of. But that’s only if absolutely necessary.

Aside from Julian’s determined devotion to the gentler gender, the main crux of the book is to examine the world of what it means, exactly, to be Jewish.

“Maybe it wasn’t self-respect at all. Maybe self didn’t enter into it, maybe it was actually a freedom from self, or at least from self in the Treslove sense of self – a timid awareness of one’s small place in a universe ringed by a barbed-wire fence of rights and limits. What Sam had, like his father the showman parmaceutical chemist before him, was a sort of obliviousness to failure, a grandstanding cheek, which Treslove could only presume was part and parcel of the Finkler heritage. If you were a Finkler you just found it in your genes, along with other Finkler attributes it was not polite to talk about.”

As the reader we’re simultaneously privy to Julian’s thoughts on the matter as well as the actions of his Jewish friends that form those thoughts. What is most surprising and a new idea to me, is that as much as there may be groups around the world who dislike the Jewish faith, it seems the Jews are their own harshest critics. As Libor says…

“Oh, here we go, here we go. Any Jew who isn’t your kind of Jew is an anti-Semite. It’s a nonsense, Libor, to talk of Jewish anti-Semites. It’s more than a nonsense, it’s a wickedness.’ ‘Don’t get kochedik with me for speaking the truth. How can it be a nonsense when we invented anti-Semitism?’
‘I know how this goes, Libor. Out of our own self-hatred . . .”

“It’s not peculiar to Jews to dislike what some Jews do.’ ‘No, but it’s peculiar to Jews to be ashamed of it. It’s our shtick. Nobody does it better. We know the weak spots. We’ve been doing it so long we know exactly where to stick the sword.”

So again, going back to the honest and determined analysis, even the Jews themselves have problems with what their culture and their state of Israel is doing in the world. Finkler himself heads a group that calls themselves the “Ashamed Jews” and Libor, while less vocal, seems no less disillusioned. If these two represent the majority or even a sizeable faction then it is more than a bit unexpected. The book, though not by any means an easy read, brings the issues of Zionism and anti-Semitism onto a very personal level. No longer are the issues mere warring world views but have found homes in the embodiment of three people pushing ultimately for what is right rather than what is popular.

Waxing personal, I find myself on the side of Finkler and Julian. I fail to see what business Israel has in pushing itself into existence at the cost of more recent inhabitants. It cannot be surprising to anyone that this has stirred the ire of everyone in the region. While I don’t disagree that everyone deserves a place to live and prosper, I’m not personally of the opinion that one should get first choice merely because they happen to be Jewish. Countries come and countries go and any attempt to turn back history is bound to instigate conflict on a greater and greater note.

Julian is the embodiment of fascination with Jewish culture as we look in from the outside. I will admit that I agree whole-heartedly with him in that respect as well. I find the Christian faiths trite. The Muslims, while exotic hold little interest. The Eastern religions, while shrouded in mystery, still seem like mere toys. The Jewish faith, however, seems grounded in a sort of determined honesty and analysis that I find infinitely refreshing. They have traditions like any other group of people but I simply can’t help but respect them because they deal bare-facedly with the world around them and their relationship to their creator. I cannot help but think of a line from Fiddler on the Roof. Tevya asks, “How did this tradition get started?” and his quite acceptable response is, “I don’t know.” While other religions work fervently to construct a reason for everything, the Jewish faith is OK just shrugging its shoulders. That is as closely akin as religion gets to science. For that, it earns my respect, my admiration and my interest.

As usual however, I digress. The 2010 Booker Prize winner, “The Finkler Question” is well worth the read to those who have the grit and determination to power through it and really digest its message. To the hundreds of people on Amazon who gave it a right panning… perhaps you want the “young readers” section. The words are shorter and the messages simpler.

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