My New Year’s Revolutions

2016

A disclaimer is needed right up front.  I stole this title and subject.  I stole it from Parker J. Palmer, a columnist for On Being, whose similarly-titled piece I just read, and its sincerity and truth struck me.  (Thank you, Mr. Palmer.)  However, my revolutions are different from his…

The world seems a real mess right now.  Ask anyone.  A handful of religious nut-jobs are holding the rest of us hostages of fear; millions of refugees are trying to find ways to simply survive; mass shootings have become almost commonplace; our own American democracy has spiraled into a corrupt oligarchy; and Mother Earth is struggling to support the ever-increasing mass of humanity upon it.  Personal weight-loss resolutions that probably won’t survive until February seem pretty silly in light of it all.  What’s really needed from all of us is a commitment to something a bit more meaty – call them revolutions – as part of an engaged, caring world community which will be the only hope of turning this mess around.  We need to overwhelm the bad with good.  Thus, these are the revolutions I personally resolve to put more energy into for 2016:

  1.  Not being part of the apathetic, silent majority.  It’s not someone else’s job to fix this.  If we all don’t help, things are not going to improve.  Public dissatisfaction with our government is at an all-time high, and yet  U.S. voter turnout is one of the lowest in the free world. People complain about litter, but walk right past trash on the sidewalk – not their job.  Bystanders simply watch as someone else gets bullied or abused.  A smart man once said if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem.  Posts of complaint on social media to like-minded friends are fine for helping to raise awareness, but it’s not enough.  Therefore, I vow to cast my vote in every election.  I will write my representative rather than just complain without action. I will pick up more trash when I see it, and I will help others when I can and am able.
  2. Fighting political corruption.  Our once-great form of democracy is completely broken and has turned into a festering mass of corrupt politicians. The majority of Congress now spends most of their time pandering to wealthy contributors who donate millions of dollars for political decisions that make them wealthier.  Our Representatives no longer work for us and are not going to fix this because they have sold their souls and benefit from it.  Thus, I vow to work more with organizations such as Represent.Us to fight this cancer and to support and vote for candidates who promise to help.
  3. Reviving free speech.  Political correctness has killed the First Amendment.  For all the well-meaning intentions which drove the beginnings of PC back in the ’80s, the resulting overused cry of being offended and, worse yet, the fear of offending has basically shut down any real civil discourse between people on anything substantive, thereby strangling free speech.  This has become a huge problem on our college campuses, the very institutions where free speech should be taught and nurtured to maintain a healthy society where understanding others’ views drives togetherness and compromise.  Instead, we now have universities where students are suspended for saying what is on their minds, and a severely divided society where citizens only talk to those who share their own, evermore polarized perspectives.  Therefore, I vow to speak up (as tactfully as possible, mind you) to promote the blending of ideas and help get us back to a point where free speech is once again revered instead of punished.
  4. Fighting lies and fear.  Between our free enterprise system spewing deceptive advertising, erroneous social media posts gone viral,  and our fear-mongering media filling us with dread to boost ratings, we are becoming a country of quivering fools.  We spend billions of dollars on useless products that don’t work as claimed, hate and ridicule people for things that simply aren’t true, and waste trillions of our tax dollars fighting an enemy five thousand times less likely to kill us than our own lifestyle diseases and distracted driving.  Thus, I vow to research and expose the lies, when possible, to help shield us from the scams and BS that have overrun our lives.
  5. Being kinder.  The world has always needed people who are both strong and kind.  This has never been more true than it is now, and though we mostly hear about being strong, what we probably need more is the kindness.  We need more smiles from strangers as we go about our day and fewer aggressive-looking headlights on cars.  We need more people who help the elderly and less bosses who drive their employees with threats and criticism.  We need less people who hate based on color and spiritual belief, and more who accept others based on their individual actions.  Simply put, we need more nice, decent people, and I promise to do my best to be one of them.

So that’s it – my revolutions for 2016.  I hope you will make some of your own…  real goals that you can commit to, follow through on, and that will benefit all of us on this small blue planet.  There is still a lot of good out there and if we all work together maybe we can turn this tide.  Happy New Year.

-Russ

Thinking Pragmatically

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In light of the recent rise in world terrorism and mass shootings in the United States, it’s almost impossible not to think about gun control and the resulting swirling controversy. Everyone has a strong opinion, and the two sides seem to be as divided as ever. On one side are the folks who want all civilian firearms destroyed and banned forever, and on the other are those who will only relinquish their guns when they are pried from their cold, dead hands. Personally, I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

I’m not a gun nut and don’t have a bunker in my basement stockpiled for the apocalypse, but I have been shooting since the age of six or seven and am fairly familiar with firearms. Not counting the sticks we used as kids to play war in the woods, my first ‘gun’ was a chrome-plated Mattel Shootin’ Shell Snub-nose .38 toy revolver that shot caps and plastic bullets. That was followed shortly by a Daisy Defender air rifle (BB gun) that our father bought to teach my brother and I how to shoot safely, and then membership in a gun club where we spent a winter shooting .22 target rifles to earn awards for marksmanship. Since then I have continued to shoot, doing some small game hunting and plinking targets for fun with both handguns and rifles. I know there are quite a few people like this out there.

Though there has been that rare occasion when I was glad there was a gun nearby, I’ve typically felt very safe in this country, and the guns I’ve owned have always been unloaded and locked up when not in use. … Fast forward to today’s insanity.  Watching the nearly continuous media frenzy of the latest terrorist attack or mass shooting of the week, there is always one thought that runs through my mind:  I have to believe that every victim of those attacks wished there were people present who could have immediately returned fire.

I don’t know what the answer is, but completely disarming the general population will not help.  Though I fully agree with common sense gun laws, including banning assault rifles, requiring full background checks, and instituting waiting periods, there is much truth to the old adage that when you outlaw guns, only the outlaws will have guns. Criminals and terrorists don’t give a damn about the law, and they will always be able to obtain or manufacture weapons.  We shouldn’t make it even easier for them to do harm.

This country has a grassroots history of fighting back when we get smacked, and that is a large part of our culture. It’s one of the primary ways we have maintained our free and open society.  Now I certainly don’t want every citizen in America walking around with a sidearm, but the evil people committing these atrocities are choosing schools, social service centers, gun-free zones on military bases, and places of worship where there is little chance of resistance. They want to kill a lot of people before they themselves are ‘martyred’ by  the police, or they expect to get away before the armed authorities arrive, which almost always takes too long. What we need are near-term solutions that make it highly likely these sick individuals will be stopped within seconds of starting their violence.

-Russ

Unbelievably, It’s Still the Same

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Ten years ago my son and his girlfriend visited our county courthouse, for a reason I no longer remember.  When they returned home, they were laughing about the ineptitude of the security screening process.  It seems they had gotten mildly reprimanded because Sarah had not declared the cell phone that was in her purse, found as it went through the scanner. Reaching into that same purse, she pulled out a lock-back knife with a three-inch blade (photo) and asked, incredulously, “Why didn’t they yell at me for this?” A previous boyfriend had given it to her for protection, and she had forgotten it was still in there.

Fast-forward to this afternoon when I visited the courthouse.  Same county, but now in a new fancy building down the street. As I approached the security area, one of the four armed security guards stated, “Everything out of your pockets and through the scanner.”  I then also remembered the large Leatherman tool that lives on my belt (which I should have left in the car!), including its two three-inch blades, and added it to the wallet, keys, and change I had already put in the bin on the conveyor.

When my turn came, I was waved through the metal detector and quickly ‘wanded’ by the guard who had called me through.  He nodded that I was clear, and I collected my stuff from the other side of the X-ray machine and filled my pockets.  As I was reattaching the Leatherman to my belt, I was thinking, ‘this can’t be right’, so held up the tool to the closest guard and asked, “Is it really OK to take this in?”

“What is it?” he asked.

“A Leatherman tool,” I replied.

“Absolutely not!” he said, and it was exchanged for the stub of a ticket so I could claim it on the way out.

Obviously not much has changed at our courthouse.  Their crack security system still hinges on people declaring the weapons the guards miss, and is wasting buckets of taxpayers’ money.  In light of recent world events, that doesn’t give me much of a warm fuzzy.

Letting Go of the Guilt and Fear

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center has shown a significant drop in the number of Americans who call themselves Christians, and a large increase in those who say they are ‘unaffiliated’. Count me among them.

I was raised Presbyterian by very decent parents and went to church every Sunday as a kid. But as the years passed I found it ever harder to make sense of religion, including my own. Significant hypocrisies between the teachings and many followers’ actions were (and still are) commonplace, the ‘business’ of the church overshadowed the real meaning, and I realized a person’s faith was not what made them good and decent – those who were would still be that way if they weren’t religious, maybe even more so since they would be less likely to judge others who didn’t believe similarly. I also realized there are hundreds, if not thousands, of religions in the world whose followers all believe theirs is the correct one. Since that is not possible it is most likely they all have it wrong.

Over the years it took to rid myself of the guilt and fear that I might be a non-believer, I’ve come to see religion as just one more reason for people to be at odds with one another, simply because they don’t believe the same. Yes, there are many people with open minds who do not fit this mold, but those seem to be the exceptions and are strongly overshadowed by the actions of their faith’s extremists. History speaks for itself on that one.

I now believe that most, if not all, religions began as a way to explain things that weren’t yet understood – to ease the fear of the unknown, primarily death.  Many faiths were subsequently (if not initially) hijacked by some overzealous ego who wanted to control the masses; using guilt, fear, and the promise of a beautiful afterlife to increase their following.

Today we still don’t truly understand where we came from, how it all began, or where we are going, and maybe we never will. But the universe continues to unfold, and our tiny corner of it here on this small blue planet includes some unbelievably beautiful nature we get to enjoy during our time, so long as we take care of it.  And I no longer fear death.  Every living thing eventually passes on.  When asked by someone what I think it will be like after I die, I simply ask if they remember what it was like before they were born.  I believe it will be just like that.

Peace.

Choose to Share

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What a beautiful world it could be if we all gave just a little more of the best we have.  I believe our decency – some might say our soul – is simply the embodiment of our self respect.  Those moments when we choose to share are the moments when we, and the world, gain the most.

For 2015, I Wish you Decency

It’s now the final few hours of 2014, a year that has certainly held some incredible highs and terrible lows for our family. Some of us have just arrived, some of us have passed on, some of us have had wonderful successes, and some of us are struggling mightily as I write this. A statistician would look at this roller coaster of a year and deduce it has been ‘average’, but believe me, there has been nothing average about it.

Although there can be no doubt that life is progressing along as it should in our infinitesimally small corner of the universe, regardless of how I look at it life’s highs by themselves never do a good job of counteracting the lows. The happy times and resulting good memories only very slowly move the sad events further off into a corner. What does seem to help improve this process, though, and make it more bearable, is simply surrounding yourself with decency.

When I was young, I can recall my father using the word decent to describe people whom he felt were basically good, tried to do the right thing, and thus were worthy of his ‘seal of approval’. In contrast, a person on the opposite end of that spectrum was dubbed a ‘schmuck’, and was to be avoided at all costs. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized I’d taken his advice to heart and have tried to surround myself with decent people and tried to avoid being one of the schmucks myself. (Only my friends and family can say how well I’ve succeeded in that later goal!)

Recently I’ve tried to understand what it is about decent people, in my dad’s sense, that makes them so, and have determined they are simply people who care. They are honest, compassionate, trustworthy, and generous. They try to treat people like they would like others to treat them. They are the folks who tend to make life easier, not harder, for those around them. They are the ones that help make the lows in your life less impactful and help push those sad memories into the corners more quickly.

To all my friends, including many family members (and you know who you are!), thank you for your decency and for being part of my life.

For everyone, my wish for you for 2015 is that you find yourself surrounded by equally decent people.

Happy new year.

-Russ

A Good Trade

Healthy Food

If I have a number one pet peeve, it has to be misleading or downright dishonest marketing.  There are two areas that have drawn my attention more and more lately regarding this:  personal care products and food.  As the old adage says, ‘You are what you eat’.  That’s probably more true than most people realize and it used to be sufficient, but due to the boom in the personal care industry it should be revised to say, ‘You are what you eat and rub on’.  Unfortunately, our free-enterprise system, solely focused on making a profit on empty promises of greater beauty and better taste, has perfected the art of deceptive marketing to make us believe the latest concoction of laboratory wizardry is good for us.  The emerging truth, however, seems to be much different.  The correlation between the increase in cancer and other diseases over the last few decades and the increase in toxic additives in our food and personal care products is probably not coincidental.

It really doesn’t take much research to learn that Americans spend billions of dollars on personal and health care products, many of which do little to improve our well-being and in some cases do us harm.  The list of examples is practically endless.  Some of my favorites are women’s skin care products, which are mostly just expensive ways to clog your pores; high-tech shaving cartridges that shave just slightly better than the old double-edge blades but cost an astonishing forty times more (I am personally now back to using my 45-year-old safety razor and still get a great shave); the venerable multiple vitamins, which doctors now admit are mostly useless unless you have a serious deficiency (wouldn’t you like that money back?); and most toothpastes, which cost three to four times more than good-old Ultra Bright or Aim but work no better (Consumer Reports tests repeatedly show that how you brush is more important than which toothpaste you use).

And then there is our food.  Dr. John Alevizos, a physician in southern California who specializes in anti-aging medicine, says about 90 percent of America’s chronic lifestyle diseases are preventable simply by eating the right food in moderation and getting a reasonable amount of exercise.  These diseases include cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, asthma, eczema, psoriasis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, COPD, Parkinson’s, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis; most of which are caused by inflammation somewhere in the body.  And the two major causes of inflammation?  Obesity and the typical American diet, which is high in omega 6 fatty acids, simple carbohydrates (sugar, etc.), and loaded with pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals.

Earlier this year I was forced to do my own grocery shopping when my wife deserted me for a few months to help our daughter with her new twin boys.  With a strong desire to continue to eat well to help fight my stubborn Lyme disease, I started reading labels and researching foods that best bolster our immune systems.  It certainly didn’t take long to figure out why there is a health crisis in this country and discover what I believe are the three main reasons people don’t eat a healthier diet:

  1. They are addicted to lousy food (it has been scientifically proven that sugar is eight times more addictive than cocaine).
  2. It’s almost difficult to find the ‘good’ food at the store (food labeling in the U.S. is misleading to the point of being practically criminal).
  3. Healthy food is more expensive.

Assuming that some of you would really like to eat healthier and are willing to do a little homework and muster up some willpower, here is a good trade you might consider:  Spend less money on those useless and possibly harmful personal care products you currently buy and spend what you save on better food.  The homework part is that you need to apply a pragmatic skepticism to everything you buy.  Read labels and do some research to learn what is really good for you versus what manufacturers are telling you.  In other words, don’t trust anyone who is trying to sell you something.  The willpower part is that you must wean yourself off the lousy, addictive food that occupies the majority of most grocery stores.  (And that is no easy task!)  If you are successful, though, the benefits to your health and well-being can be huge.

-Russ