Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thoughts on a Rainy Afternoon

If I ever start taking myself very seriously, I know how to get a quick recalibration. I mean in addition to asking my wife. A quick look at the figure above immediately shows me just how important I am, which is not at all, of course. But that doesn't depress me, despite the near endless rain and grey skies we've had this month. It's actually liberating to know that ultimately we're each pretty insignificant. Now we don't have to go out and win a Nobel Prize in Medicine, we can focus on more realistic goals like taking out the garbage or petting the cat.

This knowledge also allows us to put issues of great contention into perspective:

Politics is all about power, who gets to decide who gets to live well and who has to support them. Just as turkeys ought not to be strong advocates for Thanksgiving dinners, we might well consider how an election result will actually affect our lives. It's not about some abstract ideology; it's personal.

In Religion, we might want to consider the enormity of the universe before declaring allegiance to a God that fits neatly into our pocket, that is easily understood and interpreted. We might decide to leave a little room for mystery and uncertainty. At least we'd have fewer Holy Wars.

In Environment, we might come to recognize this earth is the only place we have. Unlike farmers who once practiced slash and burn agriculture, we can't foul this nest and simply move to another. There may be hospitable planets out there, but they are generations away, too far to consider. Should pilgrims depart for greener planets with the skills necessary to start over, it's unlikely their descendents will still have those skills once they arrive. And besides, we might get there and find the planet already taken.

Here's a little primer on the universe provided by Eric Idle, NASA, and a fellow who signs himself "finlarg."

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Gabby Giffords addresses Gun Control

On January 8, 2011, U.S. Representative Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords, was shot in the head and critically wounded by a mentally ill young man. In total, 6 people died and 13 were injured in the attack. Representative Giffords received brain damage and subsequently resigned from Congress. Earlier today she addressed the U.S. Senate, which is taking up the issue of gun control. She is accompanied by her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly. This is a poignant and powerful statement. And it's brief.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Occasional Curmudgeon

I've long been a fan of curmudgeons. My favorite for many years, and the favorite of just about everyone in America, was the late Andy Rooney of CBS's 60 Minutes program on Sunday evenings. Rooney died in 2011 just weeks after retiring from the show. He was 92.

To be a proper curmudgeon, one has to be old. Young people simply can't get away with it. Having earned the right through surviving youth and middle age, tolerating past employers, and the dubious honor of raising children, I now claim what is mine by nature. I am a grumpy old man. And today's sermon is about one of my pet peeves, euphemisms.

Oops! I used the word "old." We no longer have old people, we have "senior citizens." I laughed when a relative in his mid-80s recently told me that he goes down to a center each month to fix breakfast for the senior citizens. I wonder how old they are? Some of our senior citizens move into "assisted living" facilities. A prized curmudgeon, author Wilma Dykeman, described her last residence as an "assisted dying" facility. That seems to be a better fit with what I've seen.

I don't think we even have a word for the room where the toilet is located. We have "lavatories" (to wash), "bathrooms" (to bathe),  "restrooms" (to rest), none of which actually refers to the main reason for the visit. The Brits have "loo," which hasn't caught on here. I found that it originally referred to a card game in which "forfeits are paid into a pool." That's getting there. The Brits have proven once more that they are more creative than the Yanks. I guess that's why we speak English. Thankfully we are becoming bilingual, and businesses are starting to post signs declaring "baƱo." Maybe it will catch on. Oops! Even that word means "bath" in Spanish.

The military has given us "collateral damage," which means killing people and breaking things that were not the intended targets of an attack. No one wants to advertise the killing of children, after all. And then there's "ethnic cleansing," which is what we did to the indigenous peoples when we burned villages and crops, killed, and finally relocated the Native Americans to Indian Territory. That was a bad thing when it happened in the former Yugoslavia.

Finally, those seeking immortality would be well-advised to move to Morgan County, Tennessee. If the obituary section of The Morgan County News is any indicator, no one has died in this county in living memory. A full page of obits every week never says that any loved one has died. Instead we are given a variety of euphemisms, both religious and secular. My instructions to my sons are clear. When it's time to put a notice in the paper, the first sentence must read "He died." In fact, that should suffice for the entire obit! Anything more would be just putting lipstick on a pig.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Little Blue Car

Tommy and I played together after school, mostly with small, metal cars. Tommy let me play with all of his cars except one, a pretty little blue car. That car was Tommy's favorite; no one else got to play with it. It was special, the most prized, and what I wanted more than anything else in the world. Life would be perfect if I could just play with the little blue car. But it was Tommy's, and I'd never have it or one like it.

Tommy and I are now grown up and grown old, and I've long since lost contact with him. But I've since known a lot of Tommys.  A generation ago it was "you can't eat in my restaurant, join my club, live in my neighborhood because of your skin color." Now it's "you homosexuals can't marry because that would cheapen my heterosexual marriage," or "you can't have affordable medical care because that would give you something I have earned with my successes."

The truth is, "I'm not special if you have what I have." Greed is nothing more than The Little Blue Car.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Whose Government is it?

The 113th Congress of the United States has convened and the president will be sworn in for his second term on January 21. The stage is set for what is expected to be epic battles of political ideology over spending, taxes, debt, gun control, and a myriad of other issues. Two lobbying organizations, that deal with very different issues, illustrate the dynamic of the battles to come.

The ladies above are representative of the AARP, an organization comprising more than 37 million members that lobbies on behalf of America's older citizens. Protecting Social Security and Medicare are big issues on their agenda. They have enjoyed some success, but both of their flagship issues are on the table for coming budget discussions and both undoubtedly will see cuts. While they have a substantial membership, their funding comes primarily from that membership and leaves little room for actively supporting candidates. Further, two Republicans have introduced legislation to strip the AARP of their tax-exempt status, which would further restrict their activities.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) on the other hand has fewer than 4 million members, but the majority of their funding comes from the arms industry. They have large amounts of money to support candidates and have been very successful in protecting the interests of their sponsors.

Just whose government is it?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Health and Hedonism

According to the Franklin Institute, Benjamin Franklin wrote "Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards; there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine; a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy." At long last the medical community has caught up with Franklin. We're now told that wine is good for us. In fact, the AARP (formerly American Association of Retired Persons), our Geezer Guild, in the latest issue of their Bulletin published "10 Tips for Better Health." Pay attention! This is an invitation to hedonism.

1. Throw a Party. Research suggests that an active social life not only makes life more enjoyable but also may extend it. One study suggests that poor social ties may be more damaging even than smoking, lack of exercise or obesity. Party down! (See item 5).

2. Adopt a pet. Companion animals are said to have much the same effect as social interactions with other humans. Plus, a dog makes a perfect walking companion. And a cat sitting in your lap is a good excuse for not walking, or doing chores, for that matter.

3. Chocolate is Health Food. I'll repeat that statement: Chocolate is Health Food! YeeHa! Make mine dark chocolate. (See item 5).

4. Coffee also is good for you. After all these years we're now told drinking coffee helps lower risk of dying from heart disease, diabetes, or pneumonia. Coffee with caffeine may also offer some protection from skin cancer, liver damage (see item 5), and Parkinson's. It just keeps getting better!

5. Ben Franklin was right. Wine is good for you, and so is beer. Both can be considered part of a heart-healthy diet. I love dieting! And did you know, red wine and dark chocolate are a perfect combination?

6. Have more sex. Are we preaching to the choir here? The benefits, aside from the obvious, include the increase in release of endorphins in the brain (think mood enhancement and a sense of well-being), benefits to the immune system, and lessening of depression.

7. Enjoy music. (See numbers 5 & 6). Among the other benefits cited, increased blood flow, mood enhancement, better sleep, less anxiety, and less pain.

 8. Nap. Benefits include mood enhancement, improved memory, enhanced alertness, and better learning.

 9. Enjoy nature. We who have enjoyed hiking and backpacking have known this for years. During the high-stress work years, a weekend spent in the mountains, walking along Rhododendron-lined stream banks and through forests reset all the systems. The mood enhancement and improvement in sense of well-being were easily recognized. Science also tells us it promotes healing after surgery, improves immunity, and helps diabetics control their blood sugar.

10. Do what you want. OK, that may be a little strong. What the article said was "At least once a week, buy yourself the present of spending time doing exactly what you want."

 So, the next time someone accuses you of being a hedonist, just smile smugly and think "I'm going to outlive you." And thank you AARP for pointing all of this out. You may visit the AARP website and read the article yourself by clicking here. If I'm lying I'm dying!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Owner's Manual and other fantasies

Have you ever actually tried to use an owner's manual? When my wife wrecked our car a little over a year ago, we needed a replacement. Since she had walked away from a totally destroyed vehicle, we bought the latest version of the same car, figuring that if either of us has a similar experience in the future we stood a good chance of surviving it again. But much had changed in the 11 years since we had bought the old car. Things had gone high-tech, feet-first into the digital age. Much of it is very good, at least in theory. For example, one may carry on a telephone conversation without taking one's hands off the wheel or eyes off the road. That comes in handy when driving through states where talking on a cell phone while driving is illegal; just let them try to show probable cause. But first, you have to set up the phone, and that is where the owner's manual comes in.

We initially got my wife's phone set up at the dealership (my phone at the time was too old to talk to the car). It took the owner, two salesmen, and a mechanic an hour to complete. I'm not sure, but there may have been a side trip to a Japanese shrine en route to the solution. When I got my new phone I consulted the owner's manual. First, the index is a meager collection of terms having only broad, general relation to real-world needs. Choosing the one entry that seemed to be vaguely related to cars and cell phones, I turned to page 363 for the first step in what proved to be a scavenger hunt, where each answer was a clue leading you to the next clue. The clues were scattered at random throughout the book, of course, so the next hour was spent leafing back and forth like a Baptist Sunday School class engaged in Sword Drills. When at last the answer appeared, it was written in a simple, cook-book-like series of steps. From this point, things were going to be easy. There was one minor problem, however. The directions didn't work. Now I know why the dealership was so slow setting up my wife's phone. I wonder how long it will take them to set up mine?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Who are you?

O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
Robert Burns's wish might turn out to be a prayer the devil answers for many, if not most, of us. But it does raise the question, "Who are you?" When asked, we usually give our name, possibly where we live, or even where we work. If we're in Appalachia, we also are obligated to say who our people are, to fit ourselves into the historical and social context of place. But how do we answer when it is ourselves who ask the question?

Richard Blaustein (The Thistle and The Brier) quotes Jim Wayne Miller's famous poem The Brier Sermon: You must be born again, to illustrate the effect the Appalachian experience has had on our sense of self. He describes our collective coming to self realization as identity reformulation, a process of separation, marginality, and return. Like Native American children sent off to Indian Schools to learn how to be white, we have been taught that our world is inferior to the rest of America. We must give up our accents, our syntax, and values to be homogenized with the larger world. We are told this so often and with such authority that we begin to believe it.

I ran across an example recently while sampling You Tube videos. A group of young people has set out to illustrate regional differences in speech by creating a list of words that are then pronounced on camera by young people from different regions. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was almost no variation in pronunciations. One young woman from Appalachia began a word with a traditional Appalachian pronunciation, but quickly corrected herself to say it the "proper" way. No one sounded like my parents' generation, much less my grandparents' generation. We're now True Americans.

I have lived the separation, marginality, and return of which Blaustein and Miller speak. I was just entering high school when my family joined The Great Appalachian Migration, taking factory jobs in the midwest. When registering for classes the first time, I wasn't permitted to take college preparatory classes. I was a "Brierhopper," deemed incapable of such rigorous education and destined to join my parents in the factories. That decision wasn't based on test scores or transcripts, but strictly on the fact that the last school attended was in Appalachian eastern Kentucky, not to mention my then-authentic eastern Kentucky accent. So I conformed, worked to remove traces of Appalachia from my speech, and tried to blend into my peers. I think the only person fooled was myself.

While getting an education and trying to be a True American, I discovered that I really did like bluegrass and traditional mountain music. I found that the writings of Jesse Stuart spoke to me in ways that William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald didn't. I found that I could out shoot all of my peers with a rifle or a pistol. And that hiking through wooded hills and mountains produced a sense of well-being that was hard to explain. I discovered that there actually was value in my culture and my heritage. I discovered that I was actually proud that I was descended from the West Virginia Hatfields, and my other Appalachian ancestors, as well. I discovered myself.

I now know I am Appalachian, and I'm proud of that fact. Who are you?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Mike Auldridge 1938-2012

Cancer claimed Mike Auldridge on Saturday, December 29, 2012, one day before his 74th birthday. Auldridge was a founding member of The Seldom Scene, a bluegrass band that gained national attention not only for their musicianship, but also for being a highly successful group that kept their day jobs and only played once or twice a week, and then only in and around Washington, D.C. The band was formed in 1971 and, although they didn't tour, produced a series of albums that led to national and international fan bases. Auldridge's dobro playing and baritone harmonies were an integral part of the Scene's unique sound.

Below is a video clip of a song featuring Auldridge that has remained one of my favorites. It conjures up emotions shared by my wife and me during those years when I spent half my life on the road.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Of Bullets and Babies

The following is among the best-said I've seen. Please take a look at it.

All I can say is "Amen!"