Mother Earth Is Crying

April 22, 2018

Today, April 22, the day which has been designated as Earth Day, we are reminded to appreciate the environment and reflect on how essential its preservation is. The native people of the past did not need Earth Day, for they had an instinctive reverence for the natural world and a realization of its delicate balance. It seems that civilization has made us arrogant, for we consider the land and all that is upon or under it to be merely there for our exploitation. We have disregarded the interconnected nature of all things that make up the ecology of this world, and in doing so have created an imbalance that is spiraling out of control. 

This is a shame that can become a tragedy, for humans have ignored this stark reality: if we do not take care of this planet, we will destroy it and us along with it. This is not crazy talk. It is not the doomsday rambling of some overzealous tree hugger. It is science. It is common sense. And, in the long run, it is a matter of survival.

The impact of human activity on our climate is causing a warming of the earth that can have cataclysmic results. The greenhouse gases produced by man trap heat and influence global warming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s studies are showing a rapidly increasing rate of melting in the glaciers and polar ice. If this is not reversed, the level of the ocean will rise and eventually create massive flooding of low-lying areas on the coasts. About 40% of the population of the United States lives in such coastal areas. Even now the effect can be seen in stronger storm surges that are causing more damage than ever before.

The health of our oceans is a powerful indicator of the condition of the planet itself, and that health is suffering. Increasing ocean acidification — sometimes called climate change’s equally evil twin — is caused by carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels. The CO2 is dissolved in the ocean at the current rate of 22 million tons each day affecting the marine life upon which humans depend.   

Solid pollutants are another source of concern. At this moment eight massive “garbage patches” exist in the world’s oceans. These huge debris fields are composed of anything humans dispose of that floats. The greatest portion is plastic. This is of particular concern because plastic takes an extremely long time to biodegrade, the average plastic bottle taking at least 450 years with some as long as 1,000 years. Rather, the plastic is ground down by the motion of the sea and the light of the sun into small particles called “confetti” which is destined to float around in the currents like a murky soup. These plastics leach out harmful substances such as bisphenol A (BPA). Plastics also absorb PCBs already present in the water. When marine life consumes the plastic granules, the harmful chemicals get into the food chain and affect any organism that eats them — including us.

Modern man has exploited the raw materials of this Earth without regard for their potential depletion or the destruction that is the byproduct of their acquisition. Natural resources — especially fossil fuels — are a finite entity and should not be a commodity to be manipulated for the benefit of national power, corporate stockholders, or personal convenience. We have become energy gluttons, and our avarice is reprehensible considering the consequences for the future of life on Earth. Far greater effort is needed to develop and make use of the technologies that would allow us to produce energy without destroying our planet.

History shows that we constantly overestimate our ability to safely extract and use the materials that we want and dispose of their waste. The result has been the pollution of our only environment. How many oil spills, nuclear meltdowns, deforestations, slag heaps, chemical contaminations, fouled wells, toxic dumps, poisoned water sources, and ozone level increases do we need to understand this?

There will be those who read this and shake their heads. They think this point of view is far-fetched. I’m afraid it will take nothing short of a catastrophe to convince them otherwise. Perhaps the skeptics should speak to those affected who also once felt that way — until it happened to them, that is. The litany of disasters is long, amongst them the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee; the dioxin contamination in Times Beach, Missouri; the toxic dumps of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York; the deepwater Horizon oil spill impacting the Gulf Coast states — not to mention the 1,322 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List in the United States.

We do not have unlimited time to solve the problem. The land, air, and water that make life possible are being endangered, and some damage that is now being done to our atmosphere and oceans cannot be reversed. Unlike the dinosaurs, we will have no one to blame for our extinction but ourselves. If you listen carefully at this very moment, you might be able to hear the sorrowful cries of your Mother Earth as she witnesses the betrayal of the humans who inhabit her. Or perhaps that is just the sound of the ice caps melting.


The Folly of Arming Teachers

February 26, 2018

The idea of arming teachers to prevent mass shootings in American schools springs more from romanticized fancy than reality. The John Wayne/Rambo fantasy of stopping the bad guys with gun blazing is still alive and well in the American psyche. However, I find it hard to believe that armed teachers with minimal training at random locations in a school building during a high stress active shooter scenario would be an effective measure to solve the problem.

Though I have no doubt that there are some teachers in some schools who would be willing to carry guns on the job, that does not mean that they would be able to successfully intervene in school shootings. Take a look at statistics concerning firearm use by trained police both on the target range and on duty.

In a study published in the International Journal of Police Science & Management (2015, Vol. 17(2) 117 – 127), shooting accuracy was compared between expert (completed law enforcement firearms course), intermediate (recreational experience), and novice (minimal experience) level shooters. The accuracy percent overall from a variety of distances was 48.73% for the experts and intermediates, and 39.91% for the novices. However, at a distance of 18 to 45 feet which more realistically reflects an active school shooter situation, the accuracy percent falls to 39.4% for experts and intermediates and only 27.6% for novices. Remember that this is in a target range situation, not a real life one in which the research shows that an officer’s performance is greatly affected.

John C. Cerar, a retired commander of the New York Police Department’s firearms training section, aptly put it this way: “You take Olympic shooters, and they practice all the time, and they can hit a fly off a cow’s nose from 100 yards. But if you put a gun in that cow’s hand, you will get a different reaction from the Olympic shooter.”

This reaction is readily seen in the 2008 RAND Corporation study which evaluated the New York City Police Department. Examination of statistics from the years 1998 through 2006 shows that in cases of shootings when the suspect did not return fire, officers had a 30% accuracy rate. When fire was returned, the accuracy rate dropped to just 18%. Just how well could we expect teachers whose main job is not law enforcement to fare?

Another aspect not given enough consideration is an unfortunate byproduct of gunfire — the shooting of innocent bystanders — something even well-trained police officers fear. In real-life situations filled with movement and chaos — especially in a school filled with children — the chances of this are dangerously increased.

As appealing as it might sound to some, it is simplistic to think that merely arming members of a school staff would provide an adequate resolution to the dilemma. The idea is fraught with complications.  Exactly how much and what kind of training could be given to teachers who are already burdened with myriad responsibilities? How many teachers would actually agree to be armed? Some schools may have a large number of willing participants but others few or none.  Schools are generally organized by grade level. How then can those who volunteer to bear arms be placed in the building to provide feasible security? How would carrying a gun affect the students’ relationships with their teachers? How would it affect the teacher psychologically and emotionally?

Furthermore, armed teachers would most likely not serve as a deterrent. Those who have been responsible for these shootings have not been mentally stable people. The shootings are fueled by irrational emotion to which the logic of deterrence doesn’t adhere.

Schools are only one of many vulnerable sites in our society. Exactly where would the arming of “soft targets” stop? Ministers packing heat to protect their parishioners? Secretaries and managers with Glocks to safeguard offices? Ushers with pieces to secure movie theaters? No, the answer is not to turn the country into an armed camp. Rather, what we need to do is eliminate as best we can the problem at its source. Put teeth in the mandatory background checks for gun ownership including the presently exempt gun shows. Have an adequate waiting period so that a thorough check can be done. Connect law enforcement and mental health agencies so that swift and accurate communication between them is possible. Pass and enforce a ban on those weapons that can fire many shots in a short period of time, notably the current mass murder weapon of choice, the AR 15 (which, despite being “only” semi automatic, can fire 90 rounds in a minute). If there must be an armed presence, provide funds for well-trained armed security outside the school to prevent any potential shooter from entering. But to think that arming teachers is a solution to this terrible problem is a foolhardy idea.



Number Seventy-two

November 11, 2017

As the Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick played out on TV last month, I found myself glued to the screen. It exploded with images of fierce battles and the great social upheaval both in Vietnam and the United States. An amazing assemblage of reminiscences of soldiers and TV clips from the news gave such depth to this complex subject. There was much I didn’t know and much I couldn’t know not having been there myself. But there was also much I remembered of that time, and as I sat riveted, I couldn’t help but to think back.

During high school, only snippets of our growing involvement in Vietnam entered my consciousness, some from the news and some from a few teachers who spoke of it. It was a far-away occurrence, one of little importance to most  teens whose minds were on more immediate concerns. That all changed once I reached college.

My freshman year began in the fall of 1966 as the crescendo of protest was building on campuses throughout the country. I began to pay attention to the news stories which grew more and more prominent. I heard the protest songs that were the soundtrack of those times: Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” Richie Haven’s “Handsome Johnny.” Back home the “silent majority” made their voices known too. It was a period of extreme social tension and moral reckoning for us all.

I had always believed in the Kennedy ideal manifest in his inauguration speech: “ask not what your country can do for you but rather what can you do for your country.” Ever since I became aware of the Peace Corps during high school, joining had been my goal. It would be my way of contributing to my country and a world that clearly had great need. That dream came into greater focus during college, especially when one of the upperclassmen I admired joined. My correspondence with him overseas only whetted my desire more. I gathered up all the brochures I could get my hands on and then finally in the beginning of my senior year sent in my application.

That year also brought about the first draft lottery, and I was part of the pool of 19 to 26 year olds involved. Numbers would be drawn based on one’s birthday. The draft order would be established from low number to high. The fate of each rode on the luck of the draw.

On December 1 of 1969, I can still remember the anxious souls milling about the hallways in the dorm awaiting the results of the lottery. Those who drew numbers above two hundred were considered to be safe. I got number seventy-two.

I proceeded with my plans to enter the Peace Corps undeterred. Although this would not excuse me from the draft, it was a commitment I had made to myself to honor the spirit of Kennedy’s service ideal. I knew I would be a better teacher than soldier, and to serve in the interests of peace took precedence in my mind over participating in what was widely considered to be an ill-advised and unjust war. My letter of acceptance into the Peace Corps arrived on April 13 just before my senior year drew to its tumultuous conclusion with the Kent State shooting and its aftermath of violence on my own campus.

I arrived in the Philippines in 1970. During my service there, I received my draft notification. The best the Peace Corps could do was to have my induction postponed until I finished my two-year tour.

When I arrived home in 1972, two significant events occurred. I discovered that my draft board had violated their own rules while drafting me when I had been overseas thus exempting me from being inducted. I then discovered through a routine medical test that I had been born with only one kidney which, had I not already been exempted, would have classified me 4F and unable to serve.

A few months later, in January of 1973, Nixon announced an accord had been reached which would end our involvement in the fighting in Vietnam. This closing chapter was painfully depicted in the documentary, those final weeks tainting what was to be “peace with honor.”

I think about those of my generation who ended up going to Vietnam, those who did so out of a sense of duty, and especially those who were drafted out of small town or inner city America. I met some of these while in the Philippines, mostly young guys who had never been out of their state no less half way around the world fighting a war they didn’t understand. I could hear in their conversations a sense of unreality of their situation. Most of them sought escape at the bottom of a bottle, some worse.

There is still much debate about the legacy left by this conflict. However, whatever conclusion each individual believes, there can be no doubt that this war left many scars, scars in those who fought, in the families of those who fought, and in a nation that was shaken to its core.


In Fourteen Hundred Ninety-Two

October 9, 2017

As school kids, the chant “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” rang out in classrooms all across the land each October. One of the first encountered among the pantheon of heroes we celebrated, we learned how Christopher Columbus bravely sailed across the Atlantic to discover the New World in spite of the fear that anyone who tried would fall off the edge of the Earth. We colored pictures of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Some of us even got the day off from school.

Thus Columbus was installed as an icon of American lore. Unfortunately, as is too often the case, the mythology overshadows the reality. Though largely undeserved, this grandiose image has carried forth from childhood into the adult American psyche.

It is a question of worthiness, for here is a historical figure who, at closer examination, didn’t really do what he is given credit for having done. Of even greater concern is what he did do, which was to inflict abominably cruel mistreatment on the indigenous people he found in the Caribbean islands that he accidentally stumbled upon.

When Columbus made landfall, he erroneously thought he’d circumnavigated the earth and reached the Indies by sailing westward. His mistake become forever manifest in the name he gave to the people he found who would henceforth be called “Indians.” He “discovered” islands which had already been inhabited for centuries. His goal of finding the westward passage in actuality resulted in failure. Additionally, falling off the edge of a flat Earth was not even a consideration. At the time Columbus sailed, the knowledge that the world was indeed round was widespread, something known since the time of the ancient Greeks and long recognized by observant sailors everywhere.

As a matter of fact, the Columbus expedition was not even the first to accomplish a cross-Atlantic journey. That honor goes to Leif Erikson who accomplished the feat over 400 years earlier, though in actuality, neither arrived at mainland America. Ericson’s Viking exploration in the 11th century brought him across the North Atlantic to Greenland and Newfoundland thus making him the first European in the “New World.”

Once Columbus had arrived in the islands of the Caribbean, his quest focused on gold and other resources that would result in his and his backers’ enrichment. In trying to accomplish this end, abysmally cruel treatment of the native people transpired, the record about which is clear based on well-documented firsthand accounts of the atrocities. The senseless brutality perpetrated upon the native people — rape, enslavement, dismemberment, beheading, and mass murder of men, women, and children — is indefensible, especially in view of his Catholic faith which he had been mandated to spread.

Today Columbus Day is misguidedly billed as a “celebration of Italian culture.” Many Italian-Americans rail at the suggestion of reevaluating Columbus and his dubious fame, viewing it as defamation of an Italian hero. This overlooks several salient facts, not the least of which is that his actions were far from heroic. Italy did not even exist as a country until 1861 — Columbus hailed from the Republic of Genoa — and he sailed under the flag of Spain, so calling him an “Italian” hero is a stretch.

Celebrating the Italian culture (or any other, for that matter) in America should not revolve around any one person — particularly not this one. Italian-Americans already have so much about which to be proud as key constituents in the building of our nation. The hollow honor bestowed upon Columbus isn’t needed to justify this pride. The reality of what Columbus did is far from the image created after the fact, and it is hardly something worthy of acclaim.



Erasing Symbols, Not History

August 19, 2017

Statues and flags are not history. Only history is history. History exists in many forms and in many places: books, videos, museums, exhibits. Though history goes far beyond the physical manifestations which represent it, some artifacts can be invaluable for the study of past civilizations and cultures. Statues erected after the fact, however, are not the true artifacts of history but merely symbols created with one purpose: to aggrandize.

When Saddam Hussein’s statue came down, it did not erase the history of his reign, not for those he oppressed, not for those who were his cronies. That history remains. However, the statue which honored that leader became a symbol for the defeated regime that had oppressed a significant portion of Iraq’s population, and the reason to publicly honor it or him no longer existed.

This is the flag that signifies the fascist regime of Adolph Hitler. It is no longer flown because that regime has thankfully perished. It too is part of history, one which can be seen in books, videos, museums, and exhibits. Though it no longer has any actual function, it remains a symbol of supposed race superiority and the horrendous application of that despicable philosophy which resulted in the denigration and mistreatment of an entire group of people. It is not a flag that should be displayed publicly for that very reason. The sight of it in that context triggers intense feelings of outrage to all people who recognize what it now represents.

This is the flag that signifies the Confederate States of America that existed during the Civil War. It is no longer flown because that regime has thankfully perished. It too is part of history, one which can be seen in books, videos, museums, and exhibits. Though it no longer has any actual function, it remains a symbol of supposed race superiority and the horrendous application of that despicable philosophy which resulted in the denigration and mistreatment of an entire group of people. It is not a flag that should be displayed publicly for that very reason. The sight of it in that context triggers intense feelings of outrage to all people who recognize what it now represents.

The astute reader will notice that these preceding paragraphs are the same. The parallel is not accidental.

The fact that these two banners are currently used by those hate groups that still cling to the shameful idea of race superiority is an indication of why they should not be part of a public presence. Though statues are not as blatant of a symbol, they still represent ideals that are repugnant to the standards of the nation. Their images belong in books, videos, museums, and exhibits. They do not belong in places of public honor.

I just got back from a trip to the South. One of my stops was at Petersburg, Virginia, site of one of the critical battles of the Civil War. It is now designated as a National Battlefield Park. There are various sculptures and memorials located throughout this park, and that is as it should be, for these are the sites where the events happened, and they should be commemorated in this place. There are memorials to the soldiers and their leaders on both sides. Here, it is fitting and proper.

I also visited Richmond, former capital of the Confederacy, which has a long boulevard called Monument Avenue. Statues of Confederate icons such as Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee can be found here. They serve as a reminder of the old South, one that no longer exists (other than in the minds of a hard-core fringe). Let us not forget that regardless of any other accomplishments, they were the leaders of the fight to perpetuate the abominable institution of slavery, and for that reason should forfeit any public honor.

Removing any remaining public vestiges of the era of slavery should not be an issue any more than removing swastikas and Hitler statues should have been. The only real question is why they were allowed to stand for as long as they did.


Dog Days

June 20, 2017

For those who are inexperienced in such matters, life with a dog is significantly different from life without one. I am particularly aware of this because I happen to have a foot in both worlds.

I do not own a dog myself, so the majority of my time is spent dogless. However, since both my brother-in-law and niece are dog owners who go away fairly often, I thus become de facto caretaker of an intensely loyal Schnauzer named Rocky and a cute but rambunctious Morkie named Max.

Rocky and Max

I love animals in general, but dogs have a special place in my heart. The unconditional love they share with the humans in their lives is unmatched (very often by humans themselves), and there is no price that can be put on the joy they bring us.

But, as with everything in life, there are pitfalls as well, ones about which the dogless are oblivious.

Dogs, for instance, do not know how to use a toilet. Such an incongruous idea never occurs to those who are not in the position of walking a dog in pouring rainstorms, freezing cold, or sweltering heat (one becomes hyper-sensitive to weather forecasts in such situations) or at inconvenient hours (such as 5:00 in the morning or after you have already gotten ready for bed). At least cats, for all their faults, know how to use a litter box. But I digress.

Dogs (many of them I hear, and certainly the two in my life) like to sleep with their humans. Now I am not so fussy as to object to a pup snuggled at the foot of my bed, but when he insists on cuddling up right next to me on my pillow, that’s where I draw the line. Dogs, unfortunately, don’t understand the lines that one draws.

Dogs like to bark, some more than others. Chloe, the pit bull that lives down the street, never barks. In stark contrast, Rocky and Max make a living barking. At the mailman. At the children passing on the way to or from school. At birds that fly by, at squirrels that prance teasingly on the branches outside the window knowing they are immune, at chipmunks that scurry by the front door, and at cats. Especially cats.

This is particularly problematic for us since we maintain a small group of feral cats who have lived in and about our yard for years (now all neutered). They are friendly and entertaining and keep down the rodent population in the garden. It is not difficult, in my opinion anyway, to live at peace with them.

Rocky and Max, on the other hand, have quite a different perspective. It is their mission to relentlessly pursue them (a near impossible task if you are at all familiar with cats) and, failing that, to bark their fool heads off whenever they see them (like when lounging in their favorite spot on our deck). I have taken to keeping large cardboard sections handy to strategically place in lines of sight by doors and windows to control the racket.

My brother-in-law employs shock collars to deal with this problem at his house, but I don’t have the heart to do that. I’ll just stick to the cardboard.

Dogs like to eat. They like to eat just about anything, above all whatever you happen to be eating. At the table during breakfast, lunch, or dinner. On the couch snacking during TV time. In the car after a stop at the drive-in or ice cream shop. Dogs also don’t quite get the impropriety of begging.

During this current period of dog days, it is only Max that is staying here. He is watching me right now as I write this from his customary perch on the back of the couch (he has a Snoopy complex in that regard). I had considered letting him look this over before posting it, but his editing skills don’t quite match his barking ability. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my minor criticisms, for he knows well my tender feelings toward him as does Rocky.

Though at times I look forward to being free of the inconveniences of their presence, each time they go, I end up missing them. And I think perhaps that is the most essential measure of the quality of life with a dog.

Whaddaya mean the cats are your friends???


An Unfortunate Step Backwards

June 5, 2017

On this World Environment Day we are left to ponder the latest chapter in human irresponsibility, the decision by Mr. Trump to have the United States, the second greatest polluter in the world, withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

This decision manifests the President’s unacceptable lack of understanding of reality. After hearing his comments and speech, one is left to wonder if he actually read the agreement. Trump’s assessment of the Paris accord and its supposed effect on our nation once again displays his “willful ignorance and disinterest” and “failure of intellectual virtue” as columnist David Brooks (a Republican, no less) aptly phrases it.

This is an agreement involving a non-binding timetable for the reduction of carbon emissions. No country is imposing restrictions on any other country, contrary to Mr. Trump’s assertions. Under the agreement, we already have the freedom to make adjustments as dictated by our circumstances without penalty.

Trump claims that the accord “would effectively decapitate our coal industry.” For those who pay attention, the coal industry was in decline long before the accord because of the availability of cleaner and cheaper energy sources. As a matter of fact, even the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Benham, Kentucky, switched to solar power in order to save money.

He said in his speech that he “was elected to represent the people of Pittsburg, not Paris”. It is of some interest to note that the people of Pittsburg voted overwhelmingly in favor of Hillary Clinton and is a green city of its own volition.

Economically, there is widespread agreement that any short-term gains made by the fossil fuel industry will be greatly offset by our inability to capitalize on the inevitable world-wide shift to renewable energy. By leaving the Paris agreement, we jeopardize our potential to be at the vanguard of clean technology and the economic gains that come with it, a vacuum sure to be filled by other industrial nations, notably China.

This withdrawal seems to be more about sending a misguided “nationalist” message to the world (courtesy of the unelected Steve Bannon) than about global warming. It is the product of the bunker mentality of a man who sees not facts or points of view but instead a pantheon of enemies composed of any person or group who disagrees with him.

Mr. Trump has chosen to put us in the company of only Nicaragua (who voted against the accord because it wasn’t tough enough) and Syria in the world community. He has basically abdicated the leadership role the United States had formerly embraced in this critical issue. Instead of forging ahead in the field of sustainable energy, he has chosen to go backwards in spite of the opposition of a large number major corporations (including, amazingly enough, Exxon), 211 mayors representing 54 million Americans, and his own Secretary of State.

By now there should be no question about climate change being affected by carbon emissions caused by mankind (though some in the current administration still have their heads in the sand on this one) and no question that an immediate concerted effort is needed to curtail the damage being done before it is too late. Any negative impact this may have on our economy (and that is indeed disputable) is far outweighed by the positive impact we could and should make concerning the future health of this planet and the future generations that will inhabit it.

The Paris accord is by no means perfect, but at the very least it takes a step forward in uniting the nations of this planet in a common cause, one that is critical to us all. To abandon it is an act of self-absorbed fantasy which only serves to accelerate the advance towards an incomprehensible cataclysm. The reality is that we are all in this together. It is a time for America to step up, not take this unfortunate step backwards.