Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Another Reason It's Not All About Us

I'm constantly reminded that humanity has been on this earth for only a tiny percentage of the earth's history, and modern humanity for virtually no time at all. Yet, so many people have this idea that the universe is really all about us, and for us. They feel that our mission is, over time, to subdue the universe and make it ours. Well, I'm not so sure that's the case, and in the last day or two I've come across some new information that may confirm my point of view.

Apparently there is a twin star system about 8,000 light years from us. Both stars are large, and they are orbiting each other as their gravititational fields slowly pull them together. We earthlings are approximately 90 degrees offset from their orbital plane, which is kind of like being in the center of their bulls-eye. This is not so good.

It's not good because someday the twin stars are likely to fall into each other and become a supernova. At that instant a huge plume of cosmic radiation will spout out at that 90 degree angle and come roaring toward our solar system. It will take 8,000 years to get here, but it will instantly fry and sterilize our entire solar system, and us, when it arrives. So much for the universe being about us, my friends!

I'm hopeful that the supernova did not already occur, 7,999 years ago, because I'd like to live at least another year. That's a joke!

But seriously, perhaps we can live with the idea that everything is impermanent. Does it really matter whether or not humanity continues for millions of years, or even thousands? Can God not make as many worlds as God desires? Does not each life stand on its own, regardless of what may follow? My life will end, and not so many years from now, at best. And so may our species end, sooner or later. At least the supernova would be mercifully quick.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Let the Pot Boil in Iran

Iran is seething, fermenting, building to a climax, or whatever you want to call it when something's got to give. That country has all the symptoms of an allergy to autocratic rule, and those in power have no cure. Sooner or later, whether it be days, weeks, months, or years, the ayatollahs will be displaced and some kind of representative government will emerge.

Obama is getting some pokes from conservative republicans like Lindsay Graham who believe the U.S. should speak out in support of the Iranian dissidents. As usual, their instincts stink. For the moment at least, power in Iran is held by a government that is generally perceived as illegitimate because it conducted a fraudulent general election. The smart thing is to let the internal pressure build in Iran and not give its government any reason to claim U.S. provocation is creating the dissention. Israel, similarly, should pipe down about Iran.

With a very youthful and technologically savvy population, a high unemployment rate, and a history of more moderate Muslim practice, Iran is ripe for a counter revolution that will put the ayatollahs back on the sidelines. Let's just sit back and see what happens. If the current government is bent on repression, the cork will stay in the bottle awhile longer.

I like seeing the pictures of protest in Iran. This situation is providing a wonderful object lesson for those in countries populated largely by Muslims. Until the present time, many of these countries have been moving toward more religiously-dominated governments. But if Iran's religious rulers put down legitimate dissent, Muslims around the world may react by becoming increasingly reluctant to elevate religious conservatives in their own countries.

We need to leave Iran alone for awhile. No matter what happens there, the outcome is likely to be good if it is internally-generated. Obama has got it right. Let the pot boil on its own.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Boys from Burma

Burma is half a world away, so few Americans understand that its military regime has been systematically persecuting ethnic minorities for many years. Members of two tribes, the Karen and the Chin, have been harassed and driven out to refugee camps in Thailand. From there, some come to the United States as political refugees, having been assisted by the American Baptist Church. This church has had a long relationship with these tribes.

Rochester, New York, has become home to many of these Burmese refugees. The Lake Avenue Baptist Church, where I keep the books, has a major mission to help them assimilate into American culture. A high percentage of the refugees are young, since the young have the stamina to flee their homeland and the courage to start anew.

Today two of these young men, "Eric" and Salai, have been helping me erase a few major items from my "honey-do" list. Eric is 19, Salai, 27. They are good looking, happy, and hard workers. This morning they did yard work, and this afternoon they've been removing wallpaper. I made them a nice lunch, and later they'll get some nice cash for their efforts. In the morning I'll make a long drive into city and pick them up for another day of work.

Eric has been in the U.S. for one year and his English is already quite good. Salai is picking up the language pretty well, too. They require little instruction. I give them a general idea of what I want done and they figure out all the pieces on their own. So far, their tasks have been completed with a few extra nice touches that they thought would make the job even better. I'm happy.

This is not the first time I've been up close and personal with refugees from Asia. The first time was when the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Hmong thronged to the U.S. following the Viet Nam war. I was astounded at how quickly, and with such sacrifice, they established themselves and became major contributors to our economy and culture.

Don't tell me there are no opportunities in America. All it takes to achieve "success" is the will to do what is obvious to succeed. Some people get it; many don't ever figure that out or don't want to admit that they understand but are unwilling to pay the price. Eric and Salai get it. I'd like to see what their lives are like ten years from now.

Saturday, June 13, 2009


A week ago Thursday, in the early evening, I emerged from the tree tunnels of the Appalachian Trail onto Connecticut Rt. 41, near Salisbury. It's a winding two-lane road.

An hour before and three miles back, I had inadvertently walked past the path to the shelter where I'd planned to sleep that night. By the time I realized this, the shelter was quite a bit uphill from where I was. So I decided to walk to the road and find a motel for the night.

Dropping my pack and poles at the roadside, I stuck out my thumb and began to beg for a ride into town. Drivers of the intermittently passing cars looked me over and passed me by for about 15 minutes. After all, I was somewhat dirty and I had a five day grey beard on my face.

Then, a red Ford pickup passed me, going the opposite direction to the one I intended to go. As it faded into the distance I saw the brake lights come on, and I said to myself, "That person is going to turn around and pick me up." And so he did, and so began the mini-Oddessy of the next 12 hours.

The 40-ish, fit-looking driver had a heavy accent that I couldn't quite place. He told me there was no motel in Salisbury, but there was one, he thought, down another road in the direction he intended to drive. Would I be OK with going on awhile? "OK", I said, trusting in fate as he drove the truck, which needed some wheel balancing, too fast down the almost-shoulderless Connecticut roads.

More than one half hour and many miles later, following a fruitless information stop at a small town gas station, we pulled up to a shabby 1950's style motel with only one vehicle parked in front at 8 p.m. No other businesses were visible in either direction; the motel was squarely in the middle of "nowhere". There was no cell phone reception. The man said, "I'll come back in the morning, about 7:30, and take you back to where I found you." He waved goodbye, and the red truck disappeared down the road.

The next adventure of the evening involved an Indian lady motel owner who, without being asked, loaned me her shabby old car so I could drive nine miles to get dinner and call the Good Witch. I think she badly needed the cash I gave her to cover the gas I used, plus a bunch extra. The tiny stall shower in my room worked, and the bed did not have bedbugs. Everything's good!

At about 7:30 the next morning a red pickup pulled into the motel parking lot and stopped in front of the little cabin where I waited. Off we went, following a much more direct route to where the man had found me the previous evening. Even so, we were on the road at least 1/2 hour before arriving at the spot. Our conversation was continuous. I had many questions for my new friend, whose name was Walter Pezantes.

Walter was an Equadorian, working in America as a mason and stoneworker. He built high-quality walkways, porches, chimneys, and stone walls. He had an ex-wife and three children in Equador, and two larger parcels of property where he intended to retire someday. Working in America gave him the opportunity to support his family and plan for the future. He told me much about Equador while I struggled to get through his accent.

Why was it Walter who stopped for me? Why didn't the "regular Americans" give me a helping hand? The answer is simple, one I've known since I began hitchhiking as a young teenager. It's those who've had it tough, those who've really been desperate for help, those who've received an unexpected gift of kindness from others, who don't hesitate to put out their hand for strangers in need. Most "regular Americans", those who've never known deprivation, feel only fear of the unknown when they look into the faces of strangers in need.

I could tell that Walter enjoyed his time with me. We had a lively conversation, and he knew I was interested in him as a person. I thanked him profusely for helping me to get a shower and a good night's sleep before my last day of hiking.

The act of putting out my thumb, something that I'm never embarassed to do if need arises, set off a chain reaction of events that I'll remember as highlights of this past week on the Appalachian Trail. Now you know why I generally pick up people who wave their thumb and look at me with imploring eyes as my car approaches them on the highway.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Killing Spree Gains Momentum

Right wing killers are having a field day. The election of a mixed race president has brought them out faster than a full moon awakens the werewolves! It's a devil's brew: uneducated, unsuccessful, resentful men; easily obtained guns; inciters everywhere - radio, "churches", social groups, and the web. Don't expect the killing to end anytime soon.

The inciters are the big problem. There's plenty of evidence these creatures are motivating the killers to pull the trigger. It doesn't take much, just a little daily push toward acting on hate. There's no need to be explicit, either. Code words that everyone understands work just fine. What's a few deaths when such talk keeps the ratings high?

Sooner or later we'll have another big killing spree. Maybe not an Oklahoma City massacre, maybe worse, who can tell? It will be ugly. Then the people and the government will come out in force. The inciters will be muzzled, the potential perpetrators rounded up, and everyone will be sad that nobody took action before the terrible crime happened.

How free must speech be? Maybe it's a little too free right now.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Health Care Reform - Single Payer is the Only Way

OK, call me a "socialist". I just think that a few very large public functions need to be done by the government, and health care insurance is one of them. Going to a single-payer, government-run plan is the only way Americans will be able to receive adequate health care at a reasonable price. But, there will be some perceived sacrifices by consumers, and the hospitals, doctors, and pharmaceutical manufacturers will not be happy about it.

Sacrifices will be necessary to implement universal health care. Some expensive treatments will not be provided for persons near the end of life; they, and relatives, will be angry. Some persons with destructive life styles will not receive unlimited treatments for their repetitive self-inflicted wounds. Judgments will be made about providing the most care for the most people, given some limits on resources. Some will be unhappy. Of course, the rich will always be able to buy whatever care they desire, in the U.S. or elsewhere; they'll just have to pay for it themselves.

Some heath care providers will be happy with a single payer plan. My own internist, for example, is totally bummed out by HMO paperwork and bureaucracy. Others, chiefly those whose earnings from specialty practices are spectacular, will be unhappy when government puts the brakes on excessive compensation. In my view, the best of them can go totally private if they so desire. We need more doctors, not just a few of the very best. And, a government plan will make it easier for people to get an M.D. and easier for them to have a normal life once in practice.

Opponents of a single payer plan complain that it will take "choice" away from medical consumers. It's a scare tactic. People will always be able to choose which doctors they wish to see, as long as they're willing to wait in line with everyone else. The real issue is that there are many intermediaries in the current health care system who will be cut out of a single payer plan. Those are the folks who are funding the "anti" campaigns; their lifeblood depends on keeping their rather useless functions going. I say, good riddence.

Will we get some form of national health care soon? Probably not. But costs will soon escalate beyond the capability of our economy to support them under the current system. Then, public opinion will move the concept forward and the very significant change will start to happen. It will take years to fine-tune it, but it's the only long term option. Go for it, Barry!

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Keepin' On Keepin' On

I've been absent from the blogosphere this past week as I struggled up and down some rather imposing mountains in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Nights were spent in first class accomodations like the one on the right.

I'm pleased to announce that in my quest to somehow hike the entire Appalachian Trail, Massachusetts is now completed! That makes eight states done, and five to go. I have partially completed New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, but have not taken a single step in New Hampshire or Maine. Later this year I'd like to put New York and Connecticut in the "win" column.

I'll be 65 next month, and I'd be lying if I told you this was easy. Some days are grueling and seem to never end, with exhaustion waiting to take over when the climbing and descending ceases. Wednesday was like that. The target shelter was 16 miles off, with two big mountains blocking the way. Ten hours of hard work, sometimes on rock faces so steep that hands and feet were needed to scale them. When the day is over, I'm so tired I don't want to eat. But, if I don't eat, I forfeit energy for tomorrow. The food tastes like paste.

People think of Massachusetts and Connecticut as being on the populous East Coast, but most of their population is concentrated in the coastline areas. The western sections of those states are extremely mountainous and thinly populated. Thursday night I had to drive 9 miles in a borrowed car to pick up a weak cell phone signal! The roads constantly curve back and forth as they snake through the mountain valleys. The Appalachian Trail is aptly named: the Appalachian mountains really do continue unabated from Georgia to Maine, and the trail just puts them ahead of you, one at a time, as you walk north.

While I was hiking, the Air France jetliner crashed, Obama made his Cairo speech, and David Carradine became deceased. The "real world" goes on and on. But in the deep woods, the forests and rocks seem timeless and unconcerned about it all. Change is much slower, and totally unemotional. Millions of trees drive their roots into the hard granite, slowly cracking it into sand with the help of the freeze/thaw cycle. I pass by. They take no notice.