Religious Zealots Strike Again

A recent letter to the editor here in Arkansas perfectly portrays the bizarre mindset of certain Christians. The author wrote not about morally-bankrupt Trump, nor about people dying from chemical warfare and barrel bombs, nor about the continuing horror of mass shootings in our gun-mad country. No, that wasn’t the source of this woman’s righteous indignation.

She’s upset about a comic strip.

I wanted to express my outrage at the blasphemy and sacrilege in this cartoon [Wumo]. This disgusting disregard of Christianity expresses all the evils in troubles in our world today… A holy family, Christians, as [a previous letter writer] said, is fair game for those who want to bully and disparage those with whom they do not agree. (Satan is working overtime.)

People should be very careful when targeting others, especially those of us who will indeed make a stand for our God and his precious son, our lord and savior Jesus Christ. Our beliefs and our love for spiritual and heavenly knowledge and healing far supersedes anyone or anything this world (earthly) has to offer.[1]

The letter writer, a woman from Marion, Arkansas, goes on to demand the comic strip be removed from the newspaper. She concludes: “Christians are offended.”

Oh, my. Where to begin?

Might one suggest that she and others of her ilk SIMPLY NOT READ WUMO?

I mean, does that not seem the logical choice here? I go to the comic pages pretty much every day, but I only read four. Those are the only ones I enjoy. Perhaps this Christian extremist doesn’t understand the concept of enjoyment but rather flogs herself through a daily exercise of holy suffering by reading comics that enrage her.

This would be highly amusing to the rest of us if it weren’t for the awful reality that such people have no idea how ridiculous they are. They are convinced that the world must operate by their rules and anything that draws their personal censure is surely Wrong.

A long list of human tragedy unfolds from this viewpoint. The Inquisition springs to mind, an endeavor of the Catholic Church beginning around 1100 AD and continuing in various forms for the next 600 years. Any form of “blasphemy and sacrilege” could result in church leaders taking offense similar to our letter writer.

Sometimes it was difficult to guess, as any of the following were considered serious crimes: changing bedding on a Friday, not eating pork, dressing in certain ways, wearing earrings, speaking in foreign languages, owning foreign books, casual swearing, criticizing a priest, or failing to show due reverence to the Inquisition… People were executed for failing to fast during Lent, for homosexuality, fornication, explaining scientific discoveries, and even for professional acting..[2]

Or, in our case, publishing a cartoon.

Leg crusher

Generously, inquisitors utilized various forms of torture to provide the greatest possible opportunity for the accused to confess his or her sins. Serious effort went into the invention and construction of torture devices including the infamous ‘rack’ and various other gleeful methods of inflicting pain.

When a suspect was convicted of unrepentant heresy, the inquisitorial tribunal was required by law to hand the person over to the secular authorities for final sentencing, at which point a magistrate would determine the penalty, which was usually burning at the stake although the penalty varied based on local law.[3]

Historically, other than the necessary torture required to bring a confession from those blasphemers in order to declare them guilty and then burn them at the stake, religious extremists have demonstrated a fervent interest in killing anyone who doesn’t agree with their point of view. Is this what the letter-writer threatens in her statement that: “People should be very careful when targeting others, especially those of us who will indeed make a stand for our God.”

What exactly is she suggesting? Would her “stand for God” include Inquisition-style discipline on the newspaper publishers or the creator of the Wumo comic strip?

Sadly, we don’t have to look far, even today, to find exactly that kind of violence bestowed upon those who draw the critical attention of religious authorities. Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat dared to make fun of certain leaders in his cartoons. Assailants hunted him down and used clubs to break his hands.[4] Chinese censors called for a “severe punishment” for a star TV anchor over jokes he made at a dinner party mocking the People’s Republic of China’s founding father, Mao Zedong.[5] Then there was the Islamist terrorist attack on the French satirical weekly publication Charlie Hebdo which resulted in the deaths of twelve people.[6] Their justification? Charlie Hebdo made fun of Allah.

There’s a reason we Americans treasure our right to free speech. We can criticize our leaders, laugh at Saturday Night live skits, and even poke fun at entrenched religious views, all without fear of having our hands broken or being burned at the stake. Somehow in all her years of life, this letter writer missed out on all but the first part of First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

All this brings to mind the question of why certain religious types find it imperative to force their point of view on everyone else. Is that they are so insecure in their beliefs that they’re comfortable only if they’re certain everyone around them believes the same thing? Isn’t faith the foundation of religious practice, the assurance that no matter what happens, God’s got your back? Wouldn’t that pretty much cover being the only Christian in a sea of infidels? Why so insecure?

Is it that they see it as their duty to convert the rest of the world to their belief system? This certainly seems to be the case, a duty not only to police the statewide newspaper’s comics section for blasphemy but also to righteously demand enforcement of their judgement against a comic deemed offensive. After all, “Christians are offended!”

Do these folks not understand that this exact attitude is responsible for most of the world’s suffering? Most of the wars? Most of the violence currently taking place in the Middle East?

Education is a wonderful thing. But in a state where parents merely need to sign a form to withhold their kids from public schools and then indoctrinate them with whatever folderol fits their world view, people like this benighted letter-writer proliferate, aided and abetted by fundamentalist preachers who don’t hesitate to cast judgement despite the Biblical edict against judging.

Matthew 7: 1-3

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

National educational standards exist for a reason. They put us all on a more-or-less level playing field where we all understand the basics of our rule of law, our history as a Western culture, and yes, even the good bad and ugly of religious traditions. Public schools also help us learn to exist in a multicultural, multiracial world where even cartoonists like the creator of Wumo possess as much right to their opinions and creative efforts as the person who goes to church every time the door opens.

It’s a sad testament to the modern evangelical movement that such intolerance is not only accepted but encouraged. This letter writer seems oblivious to the irony in her remark about being “fair game for those who want to bully and disparage those with whom they do not agree…” That would be a thought to reflect on.

~~~

 

[1] Letters to the Editor, Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Saturday March 31, 2018. 7B

[2] http://www.badnewsaboutchristianity.com/gbg_inquisition.htm

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquisition

[4] http://www.dw.com/en/arab-cartoonists-walk-a-fine-dangerous-line/a-18184330

[5] https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/chinese-tv-host-mao-jokes-814168

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Hebdo_shooting

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Now It’s Drone Bees

I recently read a news report that Walmart is investigating the use of drones in pollinating agricultural crops.[1] That just about knocked me out of my chair, but then, on reflection, I saw the Walmart dream: total control of our food supply.

Granted, the bee die-offs are a serious problem for farmers, a result—according to most experts—of our love affair with poisoning our food. You see, spraying herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides on our crops to kill off pests like, well, anything that hurts the crop, also kills off the bees. Without pollination that bees perform so expertly, we’ll have no food.

How clever of Walmart to attempt some redress of this terrible problem! Their concept is to enlist drones with “sticky material or bristles” to spread pollen as they move from plant to plant.  Of course the elephant in the room is the obvious question: if poisons used in agriculture are killing the bees, what are they doing to us?

Already we’ve heard—and mostly ignored—reports that frogs and other amphibians are experiencing reproductive deformities[2] due to environmental pollutants like Round-up’s glyphosate, now banned in Europe, and atrazine which is applied to tens of millions of acres of corn grown in the United States, making it one of the world’s most widely used agricultural chemicals. A powerful, low-cost herbicide, atrazine is also the subject of persistent controversy.[3]

“Atrazine demasculinizes male gonads producing testicular lesions associated with reduced germ cell numbers in teleost fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, and induces partial and/or complete feminization in fish, amphibians, and reptiles,” according to years of study by scientist Tyrone Hayes whose reports on his research are the target of relentless attacks by atrazine’s primary manufacturer, Syngenta.[4]

Atrazine is just one of many chemicals in wide use across the United States known as endocrine disrupters, “shown to disrupt reproductive and sexual development, and these effects seem to depend on several factors, including gender, age, diet, and occupation… Human fetuses, infants and children show greater susceptibility than adults… in diseases such as cancer, allergies, neurological disorders and reproductive disorders.”[5]

Then there are the hundreds of other chemical cocktails we are forced to routinely ingest not only in our food but also in our drinking water. Tens of thousands of chemicals are released into the environment in products ranging from shampoo to toilet bowl cleaner, few if any of which have been tested for potential harmful effects on human health and which, at last count, only a handful are tested for or removed from drinking water supplies. Not that anyone has any idea how to remove them from the water. This is part of the don’t ask, don’t tell philosophy of the chemical industry which is not required by law to test human health effects unless and until some harm is proven.

Europe, more intelligently, requires testing to prove no harm before new chemicals can be used. What a concept.

It’s such a downer to the chemical and agricultural corporations that someone might want to avoid cancer, allergies, neurological disorders and reproductive disorders. What a hero Walmart will be for its clever solution to the bee die-off, allowing for continuing and possibly increasing chemical poisoning of our food supply through the use of drones! According to the report, its grocery business will be “aided by farm-related drones, which could be used to pollinate crops, monitor fields for pests, and spray pesticides.”

If we could believe for one second that Walmart’s concern is the nourishment of Americans, we might also be sold a bridge somewhere in Manhattan. We already know from years of experience with this corporation that its objective, at least since ole Sam Walton died and left the biz to his greedy kids, is only the bottom line. Squeeze producers to make the cheapest possible product. Eliminate warehousers and trucking firms. Pay employees wages so low they qualify for food stamps. Pocket the difference, a method that propels these money grubbers to the top of the wealth lists and gives them extra spending money to proclaim their ‘generosity’ with projects like Crystal Bridges.

They care nothing about American jobs. Sam was eager to advertise that his products were made in American. His body had hardly cooled when the kids were over there making deals in China. It’s hard to find any product in Walmart today that’s made in America.

Or customer service. They can’t work fast enough to eliminate those damn middle management jobs like department supervisors. If the computer models show that a particular inventory item isn’t the very best selling product, the motto is to shit-can the damn thing. It doesn’t matter if people have been purchasing that product at Walmart for the last twenty years. Thus was the case last week when I rushed in to purchase a battery for my camera, already late for a photo-shoot appointment for a book I’m working on, only to discover that Walmart has eliminated its camera department.

Then there’s the Williams seasoning mixes we’ve relied on for chili, tacos, and spaghetti, now swept from the shelves because Walmart is rolling out its store brand seasoning mixes. Okay, now if you really want to set my hair on fire, this is the right topic. How many times have you or I visited Walmart for a particular brand-name product that we especially enjoy only to discover its shelf area filled with Walmart’s Great Value brand. I wrote the corporate CEO: “First, let me say that I’d rather live the rest of my life without chili than to buy a brand I’m being coerced to buy.”

Do I have to tell you there was no response? Oh, and by the way, there’s no online email complaint method and in order to get the snail-mail address for the CEO, you have to spend an hour dodging through multiple departments who are trained, probably on threat of death, to take your complaint and “deliver the message.” Or to direct you to the store where you encountered your problem…

Then there’s the total incompetence of Walmart’s grocery buyers who don’t know the difference between a sliced almond and a slivered almond. Since last October, Walmart stores have had only sliced almonds. Big fat bags of sliced almonds. Great Value brand, of course.

The point is, if Walmart has no idea what it’s doing with almond inventory and no sense of patriotism about supporting American industry and no honor or reliability in customer service, then what will they do to our food supply? Already we can see a hint of how that will go with their careful bait and switch methods in supplanting traditional brands with their store brands. Once they’ve got their thumb in the pie from crops on up to the shelves, we’ll be completely at their mercy.

Yes, I’ve shopped other stores. But so many of us haven’t that the other stores have one by one folded up shop and drifted into shadow. There’s no local stationery store, unless you want to call Office Depot by that name. Which they’re not. They’re as bad or worse than Walmart. No nice little note cards on thick vellum paper. Now even the standard four-squares per inch graph pads have been supplanted by the smaller five per inch, no doubt some efficiency expert’s idea of customer service. Where is McRoy-McNair with their dusty basement of old colored paper and clasp envelopes in every conceivable size?

For years I’ve made it a point to buy everything I can from anyone but Walmart. This year I’ll be especially interested in farmers’ markets in the area where I live in order to support local farmers doing things the old fashioned way. I’ll be growing my own tomatoes, peppers, squash, and niceties like dill, thyme, sage, and basil. I live in the woods where there’s still a modest bee population, and I’m planting more bee-friendly flowers like lavender, rhododendron, California Lilac, and for my cats and the bees late into autumn, catnip.[6]

It’s dangerously late in this game when they start using drones to replace bees.

~~~

[1] “Walmart imagines drone-aided farming,” Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Sunday Mar 25, 2018. 1G

[2] http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2002/12/pesticide-cocktail-amplifies-frog-deformities

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4137807/

[4] https://www.sott.net/article/317851-Biologist-targeted-for-exposing-the-gender-bending-pesticide-Atrazine-poisoning-America

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3138025/

[6] Big list at http://beefriendly.ca/25-plants-for-bees-in-your-garden/

What’s in Assault Weapons for YOU?

Allepo, Syria. SANA/AP

If gun advocates really want to protect the 2nd Amendment, they would be well advised to disclaim assault weapons. They’ve been banned before and they will be banned again. Why confuse the argument?

The 2nd Amendment is fairly precise in its statement: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The elemental phrase of this sentence is “a well-regulated militia.” We have that. It’s called the national guard. And yes, these well-regulated military units possess weapons. No one is infringing their right to bear those arms.

And no one is calling for a ban on all guns. The only source of that hue and cry is the National Rifle Association which uses that particular lie to strengthen its grip on the minds of a certain type of person. It’s also a useful lie to sell when your primary objective is to profit from the sale of any and all firearms, mass shootings be damned.

Are military-style weapons really so important that gun owners are willing to risk losing even more rights? This is a no-win argument, conflating assault rifles with more traditional firearms. If the objective is to strengthen the 2nd Amendment, a smart strategy would be to distance personal gun ownership from assault rifles.

It bears saying again that at the time the 2nd Amendment was written, the Founding Fathers did not and could not conceive of a gun like modern day assault rifles.  Even the most basic revolver was unheard of to the common man. Fast forward to a more crowded, more urban, and more vulnerable population and add in the well-demonstrated threat to human life posed by assault weapons and you face the certainty that the Founding Fathers would have excluded assault weapons from the 2nd Amendment.

And let’s get real. What exactly does anyone expect to do with an assault rifle? They are not sporting guns. They are built to kill as many people as possible in the shortest possible amount of time. So unless you plan on becoming yet another mass murderer, you don’t need one.

It seems that assault-rifle aficionados live in fantasy land, believing that they must have such weapons to protect themselves from a potentially tyrannical government. All one must do to see through this delusion is to look at recent uprisings such as the rebellion in Syria. Entire cities have been destroyed in the government’s willingness to wipe out these rebels—chemical weapons, barrel bombs, white phosphorus bombs, entire populations of men, women, and children killed in their homes, schools and hospitals.

Never think for one minute that an armed insurrection within the United States would be met with less than deadly force. We’ve seen a few minor efforts along those lines. The Branch Davidians springs to mind, you know, that group of armed religionists who ended up burning themselves to death at Waco, Texas, rather than yield to the government. Or maybe the role model would be the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord, a white supremacist militia group based in Arkansas that was active in the late 1970s and the ’80s.

These bands of brothers with their camo trucks, prepper shelters, food rations, and an arsenal of AR-15s are hallucinating if they believe they can stand against the U. S. military. The idea is laughable. Even illegal grenade launchers and machine guns won’t help them. Will they shoot at the sky as Patriot missiles start flying their way? What happens when a few M270 rocket launch systems rumble into range? They’ll not even see the high-flying jets dropping cluster bombs. They won’t hear the Abrams tanks rolling toward them until the first rounds start blowing them and their shelters into the next life.

The reality is that U.S. citizens with assault weapons will have zero impact as resistance fighters against a government gone rogue. We already have a way to ensure that our government doesn’t go rogue. It’s called voting.

Then there’s meeting with legislators, running for election, and forming cogent arguments to be voiced among friends and neighbors. It’s called citizenship.

And if the scenario is a world where governments have crumbled and nothing is left but little groups of tough men fighting for God and the American Way, who are they fighting? Other Americans who also have AR-15s? What happens when the ammunition runs out? Why not do that first?

Assault weapons do not belong in the hands of civilians. So let’s get past that whole insanity and start working toward a peaceful future for everyone. Enough already.

The Honorable Act of Protest

Students who walked out of their Montgomery County, Maryland, schools protest against gun violence in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque – RC164B322F90

The student walkout last Wednesday presented an excellent parenting opportunity. Sadly, a significant number of parents failed to recognize the opportunity. Instead, many of them sided with authoritarian school boards who insisted that any student who walked out of class in honor of the seventeen students killed at Florida’s Parkland high school should receive disciplinary action for his/her outrageous rebellion.

Parents had the choice to support this, to teach their kids about the history of protest that forms the foundation of our nation. Our country began as a protest. Important change over the subsequent centuries occurred due to protest, not quiet little acceptable moments condoned by the powers that be, but full-bodied march-in-the-streets, dump-your-damn-tea-overboard protests. This was a chance for parents and community leaders to demonstrate a true understanding of what protest means to our nation.

And to our future.

It’s sad to see that so many don’t understand, tragic that so many accept the conditioning to stand quietly and wait for someone to tell you what to do, what to think. It bodes ill for our future that what we seem to be teaching in our schools and homes today focuses on doing what we’re told instead of what is right. Sit in your assigned desk. Don’t talk. Remember to bring a pencil. Stand quietly in line.

This is training for lock-step corporate workers, not the thinking adults needed to guide our nation forward in a time of great global change. Where is the critical thinking, the understanding of history, that education is supposed to instill?

Yes, the need to stand up for the right thing may have consequences. Many of the students who walked out of class despite draconian threats of suspension and other disciplinary action understood and stood up for their rights anyway. This alone should cheer us all with hope for our collective future.

The acceptance and embrace of authoritarianism raised its ugly head last week, a fitting reminder of the mindset that allowed Donald Trump to become president. Above all else, his election to the highest office in our political system reflects this pervasive eagerness for an authority figure who claims to know the right path. This world view reflects the fear of so many who can’t catch up with the times,  with a world going too fast for their 19th century brains to understand what is required of them. They don’t like change. So the solution is a strict set of simple rules enforced by a blustering promise-maker.

These kids aren’t having it. Thank you, kids.

A Day Without Music

One day. That’s all I ask. One day for us to recognize how much we’ve come to depend on and simultaneously disregard music. And to think about life without it.

One day without music in the doctor’s waiting room, the supermarket, the car repair shop. One day in silence while driving, while eating lunch at our favorite café, while having our hair cut. One day to live without a buffer against other people’s conversations, without music’s unique ability to suspend us in our own cocoon while noises of our increasingly crowded world batter us on all sides.

Think about television shows and movies without music to hype the suspense, give us auditory clues about what might happen next and what to feel about the images we see.

Like the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt, music has become so pervasive that we don’t even notice it anymore. Don’t notice, rarely appreciate, and generally don’t support in all the ways that are necessary for it to continue to be a viable art form.

Observers in the business world have warned us. Forbes published an article last year discussing how the music industry is putting itself out of business. Another commentary appears in a short documentary “that reveals the dramatic collapse of the music industry and the unintended consequences the internet revolution is having on creators of all kinds.” The warnings are out there.

Musicians don’t just pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano and magically start producing music. As any parent determined for his/her children to learn piano can attest, years of hard work precede the success of most musicians—learning the names of the lines and spaces, the rhythm designated in key signatures and variously shaped notes, the harmonic requirements in melody and supporting cast of chords in certain sequence.

Aside from the basics of learning to read music, there’s the even more challenging work of learning to express music through voice or an instrument. Applying all ten fingers in opposing motion to a keyboard with 88 keys. The difficulty of reeds and mouthpieces. The fingering of certain saxophone keys to produce an “A” versus an “F”. Mastering intonation—is it sharp or is it flat? Singing for hours a day without destroying our vocal cords. Keeping a steady rhythm, something we depend on drummers to do with both hands and both feet at work.

Do we appreciate musicians? We think we do. We watch the Grammy’s. We listen to the results of their long labor. We might spend a few bucks for a CD, but more often we’re eager to download music for free. We might spend a few dollars for concert tickets, but really, how often do we attend concerts?

Not so long ago, we might have routinely paid a modest sum to enter a club offering live music. Once inside the venerable establishment, we would have kicked back, welcomed a few friends around the table, and eagerly awaited that first slam of the snare, the reverberation of a guitar. Music would flood the room, its driving rhythms and wild harmonics hitting us in the gut and transporting us to a place outside of time.

Now clubs mostly don’t pay bands to play. They say patrons don’t want to bother with a cover charge, don’t expect to hang around for long. Patrons are about their phones, texts from friends who want to meet somewhere else. They’re not invested in a band or a place. Anyway, they can get music free whenever they want.

Where do they expect that music to come from? Bands don’t form out of thin air and suddenly play a big hit. Bands need instruments and they’re not cheap. Bands need places to practice which usually involves paying rent for rehearsal space. Bands need venues where they can offer their performance, feel the audience’s response, and go back to the practice room with a better idea of how to do better. Any climb up the charts is a path of trial and error—better bass lines, a more unique guitar riff, more compelling lyrics. Even touring to build audience rarely pays for itself. Hauling a trailer full of gear and finding a place to sleep for two or three months on the road is a towering success if it breaks even.

These are musicians at work, learning how to express an intangible idea, a heartfelt emotion, how to draw audiences into a new vision. They are participating in an art form older than history, universal among all races and cultures, key to exploring the mysteries of creation.

My concern is not just about popular music. Much of what we hear in movie soundtracks and even in television commercials is ‘serious’ music. Like, violins and trombones and percussion. Symphonies are slowly disappearing from our communities. College music departments continue to shrink. If we just removed ‘serious’ musicians from our daily diet of music, big gaps would open up in our need for constant sound.

Do we need constant sound? What is so terrible about pushing a grocery cart down a store aisle without music in the background? Would it wreck our day if we jogged without earbuds? If we drove to work in silence?

Is it fear of overhearing other people talking? Is it really that we need to be constantly entertained in ways we only dimly acknowledge, if at all?

Is it the need to stamp out the ongoing dialogue with our inner self, to block our feelings, to ignore the warnings and expressions of our subconscious?

How did we migrate from worshipful attention to musical performance  to this ho-hum disregard?

Why do we need music?

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” ― Plato

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” ― Albert Einstein

“Music is the shorthand of emotion.” ― Leo Tolstoy

“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” ― Maya Angelou

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” ― Aldous Huxley

“Where words fail, music speaks.” ― Hans Christian Andersen

“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” ― Arthur O’Shaughnessy

“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” ― Confucius

If you ask someone what music does for them or why they like music, no doubt you’d hear responses like some of these cited above. Yet how does that appreciation manifest today? Audiences talk through performances. Amplified music aids and abets this disregard by blasting out sound louder than the crowd murmurs. The routine background music in elevators, stores, cars, and every other possible venue leads us to assume that we’ll always have a soundtrack for our lives.

We take music for granted. We pay little attention to the very real struggle of musicians. We expect to flip a knob or press a key and have instant, free music. We have no idea how our lives would be different if we didn’t have music.

So let’s turn it off. One day without music. Let the silence echo through.

Then let’s pay attention to what we need to do to ensure that music regains its respected and vital role in our society.  Let’s have more silence instead of constant soundtracks so that when music appears, we pay attention. Let’s make sure our children learn music in school even if we have to sacrifice part of the athletic budget. Let’s patronize clubs that host fledgling bands and welcome the opportunity to pay a modest cover charge. Let’s attend local band and symphony concerts and donate to their organizations. Let’s be willing to pay more for our Pandora or other streaming services and discourage our family and friends from free downloads.

Otherwise, we might wake up one day and find there’s no music to be heard.

Smoking

I kind of quit smoking when I was 33 after having incessant heart palpitations. I think the actual trigger had been the exhaust we breathed stuck in traffic the night before after watching fireworks at the mall. Plus I’d had a lot of dental work done which involved repeated doses of ephedrine. Whatever. The doc looked at my EKG and said I had to quit smoking. And drinking caffeine.

I loved smoking. Maybe I imprinted on my father’s lifelong relationship with Winstons. Maybe I was just a natural addict. Maybe the boost I got from nicotine helped me jumpstart the confidence I so badly needed.

Pretty much within the first several weeks of college, I bought Winstons and started smoking. I learned how to French inhale. I learned how to flip ashes and thump butts out of car windows. After a year or so, I gave it up temporarily because my soon-to-be husband didn’t like me to smoke and I wanted him more than I wanted cigarettes.

For a while.

I could write an entire story about my life with cigarettes, about the on again, off again drama while married to him. About the shift to Kools after I met a particular man who was my lover for three months. One spring night as a thunderstorm raged outside, I ran out of Winstons. He offered me a Kool and that was that.

Smoking felt even more exhilarating with Kools, the intense menthol burn on the inhale, the slightly sweet smoky exhale. I loved each new pack in its clean white and green colors, the ceremony of tapping the pack, of pulling the little cellophane thread that opened the top, the careful tearing off one side of the foil interior wrap and the skilled thump on the side of my finger to knock the first lovely white cylinder loose. These were gifts, objects of beauty. That first puff felt wonderful, but it was the second hit that filled my lungs and my body with the full tobacco experience.

If anyone ever wanted a hit of my cigarette, they did not get the second hit.

Cigarettes were my best friend. They were there for me when the rest of my world dissolved into runny shit. In lonely moments, in anger, in grief, I turned to my faithful companion. In the dark of night, I relied on the warm cheery glow of a cigarette’s lit end. In hunger, in drunkenness, in the hours of tripping my brains out, the cigarette was there, centering me, reminding me of myself. Being the lighthouse in the storm.

With my first pregnancy at age twenty-seven, I bravely stopped smoking. Time slowed to a crawl. I so wanted to do right by the future child growing inside me. Then one night my husband and I had a vicious fight. I leapt into the old Ford 150 and drove to the nearest gas station where I purchased a pack of Kools. Then I drove to a vacant parking lot and lit that old friend and sat there crying and smoking. I subsequently smoked through all three of my pregnancies.

I required a cigarette when on the telephone. Otherwise I might leap out of my skin in annoyance with yet another incessant nonsensical blathering about whatever, or another tale of romantic angst, or whatever the fuck it was someone else had to tell me and I thought I had to listen as the minutes of wasted life ticked by. Without cigarettes, I finally learned to just draw my line in the sand and make whatever excuse was necessary to end the call.

After the doc said I had to quit and pointed out that I risked having some other woman mother my young children because I could fucking die, I stumbled out of the building into the glare of July sunlight and sat in my blazing hot car with the windows down while I smoked my last cigarette. I cried. Deep body shaking sobs. Then I drove up North Street, finished the last drag on that luscious Kool then tossed the rest of the pack out the window. Yes, I looked back. The little green and white pack lay forlorn on the pavement.

That wasn’t the end of my smoking. I went through a period where I’d meet a friend for a beer and she smoked my brand and I’d luxuriate in the pleasure of ‘just one.’ Only I never could smoke just one. ‘Just one’ after weeks or even days of abstinence resulted in dizziness and nausea. I had to smoke more often if I wanted to tolerate the effects. And I did smoke more. I stopped and started smoking so many times I lost count. The craving would get so bad, I’d buy a pack, smoke one then throw the pack away. Then I’d buy a pack, smoke one, and keep the pack in my glove box until the next insurmountable craving forced my hand.

It took nearly ten years before I really quit. I’d have dreams of smoking, feel the pleasure of smoke curling over my tongue, drawing deep into my lungs, brushing past my lips as I exhaled. In the dream, I’d panic that I’d started smoking again, that I’d never be free of it, that I’d always be tortured by an addiction I couldn’t beat. Even now, nearly thirty years later, I sometimes have that dream. In recent years when the dream occurs, I know in my dream that it’s a dream. For years, though, I’d wake up not sure if I had started again.

Side note: Maybe I have this dream often. I don’t know because I mostly can’t remember my dreams anymore. Why is that? My life is crumbling away before my very eyes.

I understood my thing with cigarettes was a real addiction. To me, addiction is the ability of a chemical to make a place for itself in the recesses of a human brain and take up residence there. A more refined understanding is that it isn’t the chemical itself that takes up residence, but the effect that chemical has inside the body. The whole endorphin receptor thing. The euphoria that results from those effects will live forever inside me, always ready for that moment when I might finally lay down my guard and say ‘why not?’ and bring flame to the tip and inhale.

Knowing that, I sometimes lament my father’s last request for me to bring him a cigarette. Or, more accurately, I lament my response.

We all knew he was dying. Eighty-five years of life and Winstons finally came to collect its debt in atrophied heart muscle and congested lungs. He spent his days and nights those last weeks in a hospital bed in the family room, unable to walk and perhaps in pain. But he never said he hurt. He didn’t complain.

On one of my last visits before he died, he held my hand and asked if I’d get ‘the old man’ a cigarette. I said no, you know you can’t smoke, you’re on oxygen. But later I thought, what the hell was I thinking? I could have turned off the oxygen. I could have bought a pack and wheeled him to the porch and watched him enjoy the hell out of that damn thing.

It would have been the rational, kind thing for me to do. He hadn’t smoked in nearly a year at that point, so I’m not sure how dizzy it would have made him. Maybe it wouldn’t have been the joyous sensation he expected. Maybe he would have coughed or choked. But he was dying anyway.

I should have done it.

U.S. Budget — Military and Social Security

Deceptive and Counterproductive.

Discussion ebbs and flows on the topic of U.S. spending. Of particular interest to several of my liberal friends is military spending. Frequent Facebook posts on this subject claim that military spending consumes over half the budget.

I agree that the military is not an ideal place to invest so many billions of dollars. I also agree that the U.S. has a history of blowing money on weapons and aggression. Further, I question whether the U.S. uses military means when a better, longer-lasting path to peace and stability in troubled parts of the world would be investments in education, infrastructure, agriculture, and commercial development.

All that said, I have to protest the continuing use of incorrect data in arguing against military spending. The cause for less military spending is not enhanced by presenting incorrect information. Just the opposite.

The accurate 2017 budget breakdown:

Please note that the portion designated military spending occurs in the lower left  of this pie chart and as such does not constitute half of the U.S. budget. It’s important to discriminate between a breakdown of discretionary spending and overall spending. Discretionary spending is one category of overall spending. It’s within the slice of pie of discretionary spending where we see the big bite that goes to the military:So yes, military spending within its slice of pie of discretionary spending, is over half the budget. And there’s no limit to the close examination this distribution of funds deserves. But please, let’s make our arguments based on the actual facts.

A second realm of considerable error by liberals calls for a shift in U.S. spending to better honor social programs like Social Security. A popular mantra on social media these days mistakenly claims that we ‘own’ our retirement funds because we paid into them. The following discussion spells out the facts:

“It’s My Money” [WRONG!]

* A common perception about Social Security benefits is: I am entitled to the money. It’s my money. I’ve saved it.

* Social Security is mainly a “pay-as-you-go” program. This means that it pays most of its benefits by taxing people who are currently working.

* Per the Social Security Administration: The money you pay in taxes is not held in a personal account for you to use when you get benefits. Your taxes are being used right now to pay people who now are getting benefits. Any unused money goes to the Social Security trust funds, not a personal account with your name on it.

* From the start of the Social Security program in 1937 through the end of 2016:

  • 94% of all Social Security payroll taxes were spent in the same year they were collected.

  • 13% of Social Security’s total income (including payroll taxes, taxes on Social Security benefits, transfers from the general fund of the Treasury, and interest on the Social Security Trust Fund) has accumulated in the Social Security Trust Fund.

* Per the Social Security Administration: Since the Social Security system has not accumulated assets equal to the liability of promised future benefits, the social security wealth that individuals hold represents a claim against the earnings of future generations rather than a claim against existing real assets.

* After the federal government pays back with interest all of the money it has borrowed from Social Security, the program’s current claim against the earnings of future generations is $30.8 trillion. This amounts to an average of $132,914 for every person now receiving Social Security benefits or paying Social Security payroll taxes.

* Per the Social Security Administration: There has been a temptation throughout the program’s history for some people to suppose that their FICA payroll taxes entitle them to a benefit in a legal, contractual sense. … Congress clearly had no such limitation in mind when crafting the law. … Benefits which are granted at one time can be withdrawn.…

* In 1960, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (5 to 4) that entitlement to Social Security benefits is not a contractual right. [emphasis added]

[For more discussion of Social Security taxes, allocations, and projections, visit the Just Facts page.]

So let’s get our heads screwed on straight, fellow progressives. While a large chunk of U.S. tax dollars go to military expenditures, it is NOT consuming over half of our tax dollars. Our Social Security and Medicare funds are NOT held for our future use like individual savings accounts, but rather are spent immediately in payouts to persons currently receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits.

If we expect to prevail in directing our nation toward a more equitable and socially conscientious future, we need to be well informed and make our arguments for social justice in ways that make sense and align with the facts.

That is all. For now.