Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Fireplace

Good Witch and I have been doing some major remodeling lately. Our entire first floor has been transformed with new paint, one new floor, new carpeting, lighting, area rugs, countertop, and chair recovering. After at least a decade, the place needed a facelift. And the most striking change has been the covering of our 33 year old brick fireplace and hearth with natural multi-hued slate tile that complements all the new colors in the room. It's a focal point of beauty.

A decorator showed us a number of tile samples and we mulled them over for quite a while before making our choice. The samples were small, perhaps 3" x 3", and there were about six different tiles in the color palate we chose. Consequently, we had no idea what the fireplace would look like when it was completed. About ten days later the tile came in and the tile guy worked seven hours over two days to do the job. It was not at all what we envisioned; it was far more beautiful than we expected.

When the work was almost done, I asked the tile guy where the tile came from. He scratched his head and surmised that maybe it came from Italy. That made me feel good, thinking about Italian quarrymen cutting out those tiles just as their ancestors had done for hundreds or thousands of years. However, today when I went to the garage to test the sealing process on one unused tile, I saw in large letters on the box top, "MADE IN CHINA".

Now, when I look at the beautiful fireplace, I can't help but think that I am looking at my own little chunk of China, covering American bricks. Perhaps I wouldn't have been able to afford Italian tile, and maybe we don't produce these tiles in the U.S., but I wish it was otherwise. I don't dislike the Chinese, but I do worry about our trade imbalance with them. It's too bad that I just added to the problem. Please, my Chinese friends, buy another bulldozer or something from us!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Facts, Please!

Our leaders and the media must believe we are fools. They feed us pap and we take it for filet mignon. The lack of facts in the information we're given is embarrassing, but we don't protest. The lack of substance in the recommendations they make is also embarrassing, but we don't hold our leaders or the media to a higher standard. Maybe we really are fools.

Here in New York, we have real problem with the state budget. It's short about $4 billion and the politicians have been wrangling for a month, unsuccessfully, to agree on a solution. So, last week a local state senator went on the radio to discuss the matter. He talked with the interviewer for an entire hour without saying anything about what state spending he would cut. But, he achieved his objective: he said a lot about "solving the problem" and "working together", but he didn't offend even one special interest. He just offended me by providing no pertinent facts and no solid recommendations.

NPR this week broadcast a series on traffic fatalities. It highlighted the trucking industry and elderly drivers as problems to consider, but only after saying that traffic fatalities have decreased about 12%, to about 35,000 each year, since the year 2000. It took a caller to the program to point out that 30% of the fatalities are alcohol-related, and nobody said what percent of fatalities were single-vehicle crashes caused by driver errors such as pushing motorcycles too hard. NPR presented a lot of babble with few facts, plenty of opinion, and no simple recommendations as to which new laws would produce the greatest drop in fatalities while being accepted by the motoring public. I expect more from NPR.

Debates on the two current national issues, Afghanistan and health care reform, have also been light on information and recommendations. President Obama will attempt to sell his Afghanistan strategy this coming week, and I expect an excellent presentation; many lives may be lost pursuing his decision. Regarding health care, conversely, the result will be the work of congress - disfunctionality personified. It will be a hash, probably far less positive than what is needed. The fact that discussion of of the health care bill centers far more on the political push and pull than what's in the bill is telling; if we knew what was in that stew, we probably wouldn't eat it.

I'm tired of being treated like a child by government and the media. As Sergeant Joe Friday used to say, "The facts, ma'am, just the facts!" These agencies need to put out hard information, so that we have a fair chance to form our own conclusions and assess their decisions. Then again, maybe that's why we know so little about the important things.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Addendum to "Quid Pro Quo Religion"

Recently I posted about my distaste for religion that expects God to intervene when people bring their problems to God. I said that God already did God's thing by allowing us "to be", and by giving us the ability to perceive the divine. The rest is pretty much up to us, I believe. We have a conscience, right? That conscience is God, speaking to us if we listen.

In this light, I said that I pray about two things: first, I thank God for my life and the greatness of all creation; second, I pray I will listen to my conscience and try to act in the spirit of the great commandment - love God, and your neighbor as yourself. But I left something out.

It's very telling that I forgot to mention confession. I don't always do very well with the first two prayers, so confession to God is important. Sins of commission and omission plague me. My thanks are too infrequent, and my choices are often poor. No one knows this better than God. I owe a bunch of "I'm sorry's", to recognize the omnipotence of God and my poor efforts to contribute to the plan that I perceive only dimly.

In considering "confession", I must also remember the great sins of our species - sins that I participate in or acquiesce to . War. Destroying the ecology of our planet. Letting people starve or die of preventable illnesses. The list goes on and on. As a group, we humans are often stray far from being partners in the creative nature of God. We, and I, share responsibility for all the ugliness in the world. We, and I, need to feel some real sadness about this shameful part of our nature. That is confession, and it is the start of making amends.

I'm sorry I overlooked confession. I'll try to do better.

China and America

President Obama's visit to China is highlighting the differences between the two countries. China is repressive and undemocratic, but its economy is growing at 10% each year and poised to continue this trend. The US is open and democratic, but its economy is staggering and is poised to continue this trend. Perhaps both countries need to move toward the other's system.

The secret to China's rapid progress is unity of purpose. The cause of the U.S.'s slow decline is largely lack of a unified purpose. China sacrifices openness, personal rights, and property rights to accomplish its purposes. The U.S. system allows minorities so many rights that they can effectively block almost any purpose, regardless of its importance. Both countries need to move toward the middle.

I sense that the Chinese know they must loosen up as their population becomes more educated and wealthy; at some point, speaking out becomes a reason for being. However, Americans may only now be concluding that our constitution, our laws, and our legal system have morphed into an almost paralytic maze.

If the U.S. is to have any chance of maintaining some level of parity with China in the coming decades, our political system must change. The battle of "left" and "right" is killing us; what we need is some sort of national unity, and decisions that are important for the long term. But the politicians seem not to care a damn about our future - it's all about them.

On the national scene, the lack of an operational long term storage facility for nuclear waste is a great example of our paralysis. We've spent billions on a Yucca Mountain storage facility, deep in the Nevada mountains, but its use is being held up by endless lawsuits despite general scientific agreement that it's the right answer to the problem. In China, opening this facility would be a slam dunk. Time is money.

On the local scene, New York State is in paralysis because it spends more than residents can afford to pay in taxes. Can our elected representatives deal with this? No way! They play to the folks that bought them their offices, and the general populace suffers. Even the governor is powerless to impose a solution. So, the state crashes but the legislators get all their pay and the immensely overstaffed state bureaucracy lives on. Perhaps it's time for a revolt, since no other solution is remotely in sight.

China needs to allow more freedom while maintaining its ability to implement a national purpose. The U.S. needs to find a way to implement many national and local imperatives while still maintaining freedom. Neither course is easy, but the U.S. is in far greater danger if if does not find a way to break its political and legal logjams.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Major Hasan

This guy has a history. It's not easy to grow up as an "outsider", even if you are talented. I feel certain Hasan experienced a lot of discrimination and harassment as a Muslim in America. That has got to have a significant and lasting effect on one's persona, but it does not justify a mass killing. Hasan took out his frustrations in an unjustifiable manner.

In my view, this mass murder had little to do with Islam. Radical Islam was just a hook onto which Hasan hung his own problems. Hate needs company, and he found it there. He could have gone another way, but he chose the way of vengeance.

Why was Hasan not identified as a psychotic and a dangerous person? There were more than a few significant indicators, and his future in his profession and the Army was debated several times by smart people. What was lacking was the decisiveness to do the right thing with him, to go through a painful and time-consuming process to remove him. Supervisors always consider trade-off's about dealing with problem employees, simply because discipline takes lots of time and energy. In this case, their lack of stomach resulted in a failure to do the right thing, and lots of people died.

In my experience, even following the rules for disciplining or firing an employee often results in far more problems than it should. Here in New York, too many government agencies go overboard in their attempts to stand up for employee's "rights". Employers also have rights, in my view including having employees who show commitment to act in the employer's best interests and follow the rules. When they fail to do so, they should be dismissed after appropriate warning. But, too often the fear of incurring large legal fees and a potential reversal or settlement drives supervisors to overlook extremely negative behavior.

Hasan was terribly wrong. Our employment laws are wrong, too. Hasan will get his just deserts, but will government loosen up it's stranglehold on employers?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"Quid pro quo" Religion

Yesterday, while on a road trip with Good Witch, we passed a church with a typical sign outside. It read something like "Follow God, and God will Take Care of You." It made me cringe. It's the wrong message, at least for me. Although I'm a Christian, I don't believe that God is obligated to any quid pro quo deal. But if we can't expect any special treatment in this world, what is the purpose of religion?

For me, the purpose of religion is simply to give God the recognition God deserves. My every thought and breath are gifts from God, and this miracle of existence and consciousness is precious to me. The miracle underlies every moment and every experience of my life. Whether the moment is one of pleasure or pain, it is a unique moment that God has allowed to be. Consequently, God has already "taken care of me". My only response must be to say "Thank you", constantly, without expectation of any additional benefits from my action. Not one day more, not any fewer difficulties, not one penny more of wealth. So, where is the payback?

For the moment, let's forget about the life after death and think about the now. If I believe every moment of my life is valuable, then I've got to believe that every moment in everyone else's life is also valuable. The "Golden Rule" then becomes real and of the first priority. It affects the way I treat every person and how I view the community that is humanity. It makes me want to see the world as God sees it, however limited I may be in this endeavor. And, strange as this may seem, this attitude brings me far more benefits than deficits. I have a positive, non-protective attitude, and people respond to me with a smile. I am content.

The alternative is to see my life as being in competition with everyone else. I am protective, I am reserved, I am calculating. Every person who interacts with me will find out, one way or the other, that they had better watch out for me because my interests always come first. Smiles and hugs are less genuine and less frequent. But, I end up with more stuff. I trade stuff for smiles. That's not a good trade for me. I may be a "Type A" personality, but a smile is worth more than stuff to me.

In my view, God allowed our world to occur and gave us freedom to see what would become of it. Would we get our act together as a species, understand the opportunity that God has given, or would we self-destruct? Each one of us has a role to play in this drama. From time to time, God has intervened to give us some guidance -"Jesus" being one of several of these interventions - but God generally stays absent from the fray. It's our deal to win or lose, individually and as a species.

So, I don't expect God to take care of me. God has already taken care of me by giving me life and enough consciousness to perceive the divine. Whatever happens, happens. But while I'm here, I say "Thank you!" The benefits of that viewpoint make my days worthwhile, and when my days are over I'm willing (and obviously, obligated) to accept whatever God has in store for what's left of what was once "me". That sign on the church has meaning for me only in that respect.

Monday, November 09, 2009


It's been crazy at the Lifehiker and Good Witch house lately. The place had become a bit shabby and dated, but nothing $10,000 (or so) worth of paint, carpet, and "this and that" couldn't cure. But restoring a home is most inconvenient. Maybe, just maybe, everything will be calmed down by the end of November. In the meantime, I've been contributing a lot of sweat equity on the tasks where professionalism is not required.

While all this has been going on in my home, the cretins in Maine have voted down gay marriage rights, the pointy-headed, pedophile-loving Catholic bishops have put down the gauntlet on abortion rights, and a pissed-off Army psychiatrist has shot up Fort Hood. Not a good couple of weeks!

On the plus side, a few days of beautiful weather have descended on Rochester, New York. Any clear and sunny days in the high 60's or low 70's are called "bonus days". I painted my new garage door so that it now matches the primary color of my home, and I happily swept and raked the gajillian leaves from my yard. Maybe some golf is coming up before it's over!

My presbyterian church is slowly dying as aging members or those who lost jobs in the recession relocate, not to be replaced by new members. People seem to be too busy to give God the respect God deserves. I'm not saying this theologically. It just bugs me that so few people these days seem to wonder what it all means, and most of these think they will live forever. And then there are the republicans, who seem to believe in economic evolution while denying natural evolution. I hope God has a sense of humor about being dissed!

As liberal as I feel about many public policy topics, I'm still a bit miffed about the lack of accountability that we tolerate. If you fire somebody who doesn't give a crap about their job, the somebody can find plenty of government people to torture you. Both the Wall Street criminals and their union counterparts have got off pretty much scot-free after torching our economy. Far too many students and their parents think that paying no attention to education is OK, but expect somebody else to take care of them. Can't we have a society that rewards people who put in a full day's work and tells the others to live in a barracks and eat rice and beans once a day? Yes, the rich are too rich - but so are too many of the poor!

Tonight is "Dancing With the Stars", which Good Witch and I watch regularly. We love the incredible coordination of the pro dancers, and we appreciate the effort and achievement that the non-pro's exhibit as they strive to learn these very difficult dance moves. This show beats sit-com's hands down!

Tiger Woods got his hat handed to him this past weekend in Shainghai by Phil Mickelson and a few others. Woods has got a bit spoiled, I think, allowing himself to be distracted by spectator behavior and such. Don't you remember hearing how his father created giant distractions when Tiger was learning how to excel? Seems like Tiger's forgotten how to disregard what's happening around him and just hit the golf ball...but he's still the best.

As much as I like my home, I'm still a bit uncomfortable with all the "stuff" of life. I can identify with those Eastern religion adherents who believe that older folks should shed their stuff and simplify, simplify. I might be happier with a lot less. Something to ponder.

Be kind; do something selfless; say "thank-you" to whatever God you worship; savor the moment; learn something. The days go rushing by, and soon they will be over.

p.s. Get your swine flu shot when you can. If you die of the flu, I'll stand on your grave and tell you "I told you so!". This EMT has seen some ugly bad flu - don't take a chance.