Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later

As everyone knows unless you've been trapped in a 60s-era bomb shelter and can't get out, it's the tenth anniversary of the WTC terrorist bombings.

I'm really not much for anniversaries because I'm not sure they mean anything. Sure, these past ten years amount to one-sixth of my entire life. Anniversaries are human conceits, ways for us to acknowledge the limited time we have on this planet. Things are not the same as they were ten years ago. Everything is different now, and will never be as they were.

I'll leave it to other people more qualified than I to summarize the national trauma and grief we went through. I will say it was one of the worst days of my life, that warm September morning ten years ago. I remember looking at the television news thinking, "This is really REALLY bad." Little did I know what an understatement that was. To this day I avoid looking at any coverage or video footage. To say it was nightmarish is pitifully inadequate; there are no words to describe an unprecedented catastrophe of that nature. Anyone who watched it unfold that day has their own memories deeply, indelibly etched in their consciousness. We don't need video footage to remember; we can never forget.

It's also unbelievable how much our lives have changed. We now have many words and phrases we never could conceive of before. Things like "Al Qaeda," "jihadists," "Al Jazeera," "threat level," and so many more. Air travel has become even more of a spectacular pain in the butt than it ever had been. I used to love to travel so much but now I avoid it like a letter full of anthrax. The Department of Homeland Security was unknown ten years ago. Now we have to remove our shoes at the airport and ridiculously mundane items like bottles of shampoo are regarded as serious threats. Anyone who even looks vaguely middle-Easternish is automatically assumed to be a terrorist, and every U-Haul truck is a potential car bomb.

How can such drastic changes happen in such a short time? There is much discussion on the Internet about the role religion had to play in all this. And the term "religion" includes Christianity and Islam and every other belief system in the world. People are saying that religion is the cause of all this. As anti-religion as I am, I know that is not true. Religion by itself did not do this, but when religion is distorted and corrupted by extremists whose lives are ruled by irrationality and hatred, then these kind of things can happen. People blame Islam for the aircraft plunging into buildings and Pennsylvania farm fields but really, there is barely any noticeable difference between Christian fundamentalists and Islamic fundamentalists. Religious extremism of any kind can be responsible for unimaginable horror, as history has proven again and again.

So, while I do remember that September morning ten years ago, I prefer to look forward rather than backward. If I thought for one second it would be possible to go back and undo everything and get those 3,000 innocent lives back, I would do it in a nanosecond. But we all know that is impossible. For me, the only rational thing to do is live my life the best way I can, knowing that we only get one life to live and when it's over, it's over. I will live in the present and anticipate the future, and remember everything we lost.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day 2011

Today is Labor Day, and it's always been one of those funny little "second tier" holidays like Presidents' Day or Columbus Day that people feel obligated to take notice of, but if for some reason it would go away, no one would care a whole lot. Get rid of Christmas or Thanksgiving and yeah, people would go nuts. But Labor Day, not so much.

Originally created to honor the hard work and contributions of workers, Labor Day started off with good intentions but seems to have gotten derailed somewhere along the way. Maybe they needed some kind of holiday to mark the end of summer, something to break up the monotony of the long stretch between Independence Day and Halloween. I think that's how most people view Labor Day, as the end of the summer season. We should be so lucky here in Phoenix, because summer is still in full force for at least another month, maybe longer. The old-timers around here will tell you it doesn't really cool off until the end of October, and after 18 years I can vouch for that.

The connection of Labor Day to actual labor is diminishing, reflecting the fading influence of labor on the national scene. Time was, back in the day, when 25% of American workers were in some kind of union. Now it's very much less. When I was young my father was an officer in the local Steelworkers' Union and it was always a big deal. They wielded political clout and a lot of power. When they spoke, politicians listened. Pundits are always bemoaning the fact that America doesn't "make anything" anymore, that we've moved from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. It's true that the unions have suffered, because making cars and steel carries a lot more influence than nursing or waiting tables.

Now, the unions are being attacked from all sides. Governors in a number of states - Wisconsin and Ohio to name a few - are actively and blatantly going after the public worker unions and stripping them of their collective bargaining rights. Candidates for the highest office in the land criticize and bad-mouth unions as being behind-the-times at best and greedy bloodsuckers at worst. How did this major change in perception happen over just a couple of decades?

First of all, times have changed, a lot. Unions were powerful back in the 70s and 80s and negotiated some very lucrative contracts for their members in many fields of work. In particular, public workers in major American cities got some very cushy deals regarding salaries, pensions and benefits. During boom times, that is not perceived as excessive or out of line. These labor contracts got locked in at high rates and were rarely adjusted downward. Now, with the economy in the tank and money a great deal tighter than ever, the labor contracts are viewed as insane, greedy and excessive.

Another thing is that decades ago, many unions negotiated full health care benefits for their members and retirees. These days, health care costs are through the roof and these full benefits have become a severe and substantial drain on the resources of the companies who must pay them. Companies are just no longer able to provide full health care benefits for everyone who does or used to work for them. Just today, the news had a story of the U.S. Postal Service drifting toward insolvency, and if Congress does not do something to help they will default on some of their obligations by the end of this month. The Postal Service is running an annual deficit of over $9 billion, and they have a $5.5 billion payment for retiree benefits due soon which they do not have the cash to cover. To be sure, a lot of the Postal Services woes are because of reduced revenue due to the overwhelming popularity of email and online shopping, but they said that unless they are able to curtail some of their services (such as Saturday delivery), close literally thousands of small-town post offices across the country and make changes to retiree benefits, which the Postal Service Employees Union will frown upon, the Postal Service will be broke very soon.

To be sure, unions are at least partially to blame for this seismic shift in public opinion. Everybody became aware of union workers who could not be fired no matter how incompetent they were. They got very liberal pay and vacation benefits for their members, usually unmatched by the private sector, and they fought back ferociously if anyone tried to adjust these benefits to fit changing financial realities. Unions were gradually perceived as bloated, overreaching and standing in the way of progress.

A cultural shift occurred in the 1980s which proposed that if earning a fair amount of profit was a good thing, then earning a huge amount of profit was a better thing. This shift was encapsulated in the famous line from the 1987 movie "Wall Street," when iconic character Gordon Gekko delivered his famous line, "Greed ... is good!" Stockholders put pressure on major corporations to show enormous profits all the time. Something that corporations had to do to achieve this was to reduce costs and overhead, and one of the biggest, fastest rising costs was labor. Unions were perceived as standing in the way of reducing labor costs and subsequently, higher profits.

More recently the surge in outsourcing meant the same amount of work could be done by offshore workers who worked for a small fraction of what American workers were paid and cost the corporations nothing in terms of expensive benefits. Unions were caught asleep at the switch when outsourcing became prevalent and found themselves pretty much powerless when it came to staunching the critical hemorrhage of jobs overseas.

Throw into this toxic witches' brew of rising costs and changing times, the political climate in this country has shifted far to the right in the past decade. A number of states, particularly those in the South, have always been antagonistic to unions and have declared themselves as "right to work" states, curtailing the power of the unions to organize employees. Republicans and their obnoxious little lap dogs the Tea Party have managed to increase their hold on government at every level, from local school boards to the House of Representatives. Unions have long been strong supporters and financial backers of the Democrats, and have thus come under unrelenting, merciless attack by the Republicans. Cripple the unions and you cripple the Democrats, the Republicans reason. Hurt the unions, and turn off the money spigot to the Dems. Amazingly, this line of action, coupled with completely idiotic and spineless moves by the Obama administration, seems to be working.

Political bickering aside, getting rid of the unions would be a really bad thing to do. Unions have always been an opposing force, a check-and-balance system against the greed and avarice of Corporate America. Corporations make no effort to hide the fact that they choose profit over the best interests of their workers. The unions were a counterbalance to this, advocating the good of the worker over the singular pursuit of profit. Just the way that divided government used to ensure that neither political party would gain too much power and go off the deep end, unions served to be defenders of the interests of the middle class. But now that the middle class is being marginalized into extinction, and the majority of this country's wealth gets concentrated in the top 1% of the population, unions are finding it very difficult indeed to stand against greedy, rampaging corporations.

So this Labor Day finds the state of unionization in the country to be deeply in peril. A hostile and very polarized political climate, weak economy and out of control health care costs, have conspired with the unions' own bloated and anachronistic sensibilities to sap them of almost all of their political and bargaining powers. If the unions do essentially disappear from the scene, which is completely possible, then the corporations and the wealthy will indeed have won, and it will be a very bad thing for the people in this country who don't make over a million dollars a year.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Morning Rain - Part 2

This is an excerpt from my book in progress, "Songs of Abundance and Beauty: The Stories of Josiah."

In the beginning Human got along with all the other animals. We shared with them the generous gifts of Mother Earth and they were a part of the great community of life that encircled the entire world. They lived among us, and their babies played with our babies. We watched as their numbers grew and they gathered together in towns and villages. From the start Human and Wolf seemed to have a special relationship. Wolf came down from the mountains and lived with Humans in their villages. All animals had a common language which we used to speak to each other, but Human and Wolf had a special bond. Wolf taught Human everything they knew about the sun and sky and movements of the stars and how the earth was born. Wolf showed Human which plants were good for food and which were good for medicine. Humans learned about the different songs to sing and how to read the messages in the wind.

Dog thought it was a little strange how well Human and Wolf got along, but they didn't much care. They were having too much fun running and playing with their own kind. With Coyote, it was different. Coyote saw how Wolf lived among the Humans and shared in their food and helped each other, and he wondered why he could not do the same. Human hated Coyote, and drove them away every chance they got. Coyote became upset and jealous of Wolf and Human, and decided to do something about it.

Coyote went to their cousin Dog and started to tell them lies about Wolf having a plan to come to their territory and take away all their hunting grounds and food and water. Dog did not believe Coyote at first, but so skillful were the lies Coyote told that the seeds of doubt were planted in Dog's mind. At the same time Coyote went to Wolf and told them that Dog was conspiring with Human and was preparing to take Wolf's place among them and force them back into the mountains. Coyote continued weaving his intricate web of lies by telling Human that Dog and Wolf were preparing to join forces and take over their villages. They also told Human that Wolf would turn on them and murder their children.

One fateful night when Grandfather Moon was absent from the sky, Human was alarmed to see Dog, in large numbers, moving toward their village. Dog was coming to confront Wolf about their plans to force them out of their home. Human assumed the time had come for Dog to join Wolf and attack them. Wolf saw Dog approaching and thought they were also being attacked and would be forced to flee to the mountains. Fear and tension raced through the village as Dog grew nearer. Right then, Coyote sent one of their own to sneak undetected into the home of a Human family that lived on the outskirts of the village and took the life of a child. Human discovered the terrible act just as Dog reached the village and a horrendous fighting ensued. Wolf, Human and Dog fought each other in an epic battle with previously-unseen savagery and violence. The destruction raged all night long, and the next morning Father Sun awoke to find a horrible scene of death and chaos.

When Mother Earth discovered what had happened she was extremely angry, and created fierce rainstorms and torrential flooding to try and cleanse the area. A great many other animals suffered and died in the aftermath as the earth and sky ripped themselves apart in pain and sorrow. Human and Dog together had inflicted great suffering on Wolf who retreated to the mountains, never again to cross paths with Human. Dog slowly moved into the place that Wolf had occupied next to Human and became subservient to them, convincing Human that they would forever do their bidding and be at their service. Human then turned on all animals, except for Dog, and felt that they were superior to the animals despite having lived as equals with them. They began to take many, many animal lives without reason to satisfy their own greed and hunger, and the animals came to fear Human.

But Mother Earth saved the worst punishment for Coyote, whose lies and deceit were responsible for so much damage. From now on Coyote would live in barren, forbidding places, and will never live with Dog, Wolf, Human or anyone else. They will be shunned by other living creatures and will live solitary, lonely lives, trapped between worlds. Their plaintive, sorrowful calls will fill the night air and they will lament and regret their actions for the rest of time.

Many rabbits had lost their lives in the terrible fighting. So appalled were they at the wanton destruction and killing that Rabbit had decided at that point, that even though their lives had been taken by senseless barbarism, they themselves would never, ever do the same. So it is to this day, even though Rabbit may be prey to many other animals, they themselves never take the life of another animal, no matter what.

Mother Earth was very sorrowful when she saw what her children had done, and to remind everyone of how wonderful things used to be, she created some new constellations in the nighttime sky. She created a Human made of stars and placed him in the cold, crystal winter sky, to commemorate the beautiful, pure relationship Human had with the Earth but was now gone forever. She placed a handsome, noble Wolf constellation next to the Human, to celebrate the once-great relationship the two had had and was now also irretrievably lost. And finally, she placed a Rabbit constellation under them, being sheltered and protected by Human and Wolf.

Humans nowadays will tell you something different. They named the Human constellation Orion, and exalt him as a great Hunter. They also say that Orion's companion is a Great Dog, instead of Wolf, and that Orion and Dog are hunting the Rabbit, instead of protecting him and keeping him safe.

"This is what the humans say happened," said Auntie Jools, "but we know differently." She looked around at all the young bunnies in front of her, with their bright, sparkling eyes wide open, ears straight up and noses twitching. Lowering her voice to nearly a whisper, she said, "We are Rabbit, and never forget that we above all other creatures are favored by Mother Earth. Life can be hard for us and Humans and other animals can do terrible things to us, but Mother Earth has given us great gifts and blessings. We will survive and..." She looked down at the very youngest rabbits, peacefully sound asleep and nestled in the soft, warm expanse of her own fur, and said, "...we will thrive!"

Morning Rain - Part 1

This is an excerpt from my book in progress, "Songs of Abundance and Beauty: The Stories of Josiah."

It started to rain last evening, right after the sun went down. We were all back in our barn so no one got wet, but we heard the noise of the rain on the roof, like many little rabbits thumping at once. We could smell the fresh smell of the rain and felt the cool, moist air coming in under the door. It reminded me of sweet grass and moss and tiny mushrooms, and I found it to be really pleasant. We all went to sleep to the music of the steady rainfall, and felt safe and content. At one point during the night we heard loud booming noises outside and saw flashes of blue and purple light, and some of the bunnies got scared and upset, but it passed quickly and we were left with the loud, angry noises fading off into the distance and being replaced by the soft purring of the rain.

The rain continued all night and morning came dark and gray. The nighttime just sort of blended into the morning and you couldn't really tell where one ended and the other began. The barn was unusually still for quite a while, with none of my rowdy friends waking me up and demanding to go outside to play. It was a quiet, restful and slow kind of morning, and we liked it.

One of the humans came in with our breakfast and I couldn't tell if they were upset or not. Sometimes on cold mornings when they bring us breakfast you can see that they are cranky and didn't want to do it. They sometimes mumble about staying inside their own barn and drinking warm stuff. I don't know, but that didn't happen this time. The human dropped off the food, petted and stroked a couple of the bunnies, cleaned up the mess that somebody made (but wouldn’t admit to), and then left. We knew it was one of those days when we would be by ourselves mostly and would not be able to go outside and play chase or nibble on plant leaves, but we didn't care. We had lots of food, were warm and dry, and we were all together! We knew we would have a good time.

Often during these rainy days one of the female rabbits will gather all us younger bunnies like me around her for a storytelling session. They take these stories pretty seriously and tell us that it is our rabbit history we are learning, not just listening to an entertaining tale, but we just like to hear stories. This time it was Auntie Jools who would be doing the storytelling. Auntie Jools is a big white bunny lady with red eyes who has been around for a long time. Everyone calls her "Auntie," just as we call all the other female bunnies like her. I think she is very nice and knows so many wonderful stories, but she will cuff you behind the ears in a second if you act up or make noise while she is talking. Sometimes a couple of the very youngest bunnies will fall asleep during the storytelling but Auntie Jools doesn't seem to mind. In fact she will let the littlest ones snuggle right next to her and listen to her heart beat while she talks. She knows that they will not hear every word she says but she doesn't get upset; she knows that just by being there they are learning important lessons nonetheless. She loves the little ones and will always give them kisses any time they want.

Auntie Jools got more comfortable, sitting down on the ground and allowing a couple of baby bunnies to cuddle in the big flap of fur around her neck. She lifted her head and said with her stern voice, "Who would like to hear a story?" Some of the bunnies are scared of Auntie and think she is mean, but I know she isn't, it is just her way of speaking. "ME! ME!" a bunch of us called out, "I want to hear a story!" She just looked at us and we quieted down immediately. Auntie Jools is one of those rabbits who doesn't have to say anything to get her point across.

I was sitting between my two best friends, Zachary and Constance, and I could feel their warm fur next to me. I felt completely happy right then and there, and I knew this is one of those times in life when everything is perfect and we really don't need anything else to feel totally satisfied. We all hunkered down on the ground and settled in for a good, long story. This is the story Auntie Jools told us on that dark, rainy morning:

A very long time ago, the world was a different place than it is now. It was a time when everything was clean and fresh and new. The air was fragrant with the aroma of many different flowers and every gentle breeze carried with it a new story of the richness of life. The rivers and streams were crystal-clear, and ran cold and pure. During this time, Mother Earth, Father Sun and Grandfather Moon existed in perfect harmony. There were many different kinds of animals that lived on Mother Earth, and all coexisted in peace and tranquility. Some animals ate other animals, as was their nature, but it was never done out of cruelty or malice. Everyone knew their place and the role they played in making the world a very lovely place to live.

We rabbits have always occupied a special place in the heart of Mother Earth. In fact, the original word for "rabbits" meant "children of earth." Rabbits spend their lives mostly in the bosom of Mother Earth, digging tunnels and chambers into her soft body. We are born there and return there over and over again. We come up to find food and water, of course, and to run and play in the warm sunshine, but we always come back to the cool, dark embrace of our Earth Mother to live our lives and sing our songs and have our babies. We are creatures who need to feel the firm presence of Mother Earth under our feet, and we are not happy unless we do. Life can get a little harsh for us sometimes, with floods or drought or freezing cold, but we know that Mother Earth will always take care of us. She holds us close and always makes us feel we are beloved to her.

Besides us rabbits, there were lots of other animals on earth. There were the creatures of the air, so many different kinds and in such vast numbers the sky was sometimes darkened with their presence. They rode the wind and played among the clouds high above. Some of these creatures chose to live on the water, and others had very beautiful and colorful feathers. There were many animals that lived under the surface of the water and we could sometimes see them moving about silently when we came to a pond or a stream for a drink. Still others crept and slithered among the grasses and bushes, and some lived with us in the earth. But everyone got along and the world was a place of peace and contentment.

Also favored among all animals was Wolf, a big, strong, noble animal with great skill and abilities. Wolf lived in the cold, austere highlands and mountains, many of them leading solitary lives. After dark we could often hear them calling to each other and speaking to Grandfather Moon, their faint and ghostly songs drifting in on the luminous night air. They sung of dreams and phantoms and yearning, and seemed to be constantly searching for something. Wolf was a very strong presence and a protector of all other animals. They made sure everyone behaved and if someone got a little out of control, Wolf would come down from the mountains and set them straight. In particular Wolf was our protector and made sure we rabbits were safe at all times.

Wolf had a cousin, named Dog. Dog was not as mighty and powerful as Wolf, and lived in big, gregarious packs of many families in the lowlands and valleys. They could be heard playing and chasing and shouting at each other, and usually made quite a ruckus for no good reason. What Dog lacked in strength and power it made up for in intelligence and sociability. Dog seemed to thrive the most when living among a lot of other animals where things were very busy and active.

Wolf and Dog both had another cousin, Coyote, who was a little bit different. Coyote could not make up his mind who he wanted to be or where he wanted to live. He was bigger than Dog but not as big as Wolf. He lived in small family groups who were moving around all the time, never staying in one place for very long. Sometimes they would come into the lowlands to look for food, other times they would go up into the mountains where Wolf lived. They could never seem to find enough to satisfy them and sometimes stole food from other animals. Coyote also sang songs at night, but they were songs of unhappiness and resentment and conflict. The other animals didn't know what to think of Coyote but understood that they were exactly as they should be, as Mother Earth intended.

One night something extraordinary happened. Grandfather Moon slipped into the shadow of Mother Earth and hid his face. A new star appeared in the sky with a long tail. It moved slowly across the black sky and disappeared into the east, where Father Sun brought the dawn every day. A few days later a new animal appeared. It was tall and slender and mostly hairless, and moved about on its two back feet, looking quite different and strange. It didn't look very strong or able to run very fast, but we all got the impression it was very crafty and cunning. It moved about timidly at first but then with more assurance, and it wasn't long before it was moving about with confidence. It called itself "Human".

To Be Continued...
click here for Part 2