THE GOLDEN RULE: In A World Of Complex Problems…It’s The Simplest Solution

February 15, 2012

We live in a world beset by complex problems.  Naturally, our inclination would be to assume that in order to solve those problems we need to divine equally complex solutions.  It is my pleasure to assure you that seeking those complex solutions won’t actually be necessary.  The answer to all that plagues our planet can be found in one of humanity’s oldest and most universal principles…you may know it simply as, “The Golden Rule”.

The maxim to “Do Unto Others As You’d Have Them Do Unto You,” sounds more like a reprimand from a kindergarten teacher than the answer for all the world’s ills.  But we’ve marginalized the power of this idea by allowing it to be constrained to Sunday School classes and dusty philosophy textbooks.  The Golden Rule is not merely a neglected childhood lesson, it is a naturally occurring shared value that speaks to the interconnectedness of all living things.  It is a preeminent universal guideline that reminds us that the well-being of each individual is reliant upon the well-being of us all.  When we ignore it…when we downplay its importance, we do so at our own peril.

The Golden Rule is the solution to our problems precisely because its absence and neglect has been the trigger that has brought all of our problems about in the first place.  Millions go hungry, our environment is destroyed, violence is perpetrated, and the weak are exploited all because too many of us have not embraced the fundamental law we were taught to follow as children.  The application of the Golden Rule would not so much be a fix as it would simply bring about a cessation of all the pressures that plague us as people.  Our problems would be solved because the roots of those problems would cease to exist.

You may wish to dismiss my idea as childish or naive, but I would urge you to take a moment to look at the world around you, examine our collective predicament, and explain to me how a little adherence to the Golden Rule wouldn’t make all the difference.  Would thousands be foreclosed on and forced from their homes if banks treated each customer as they would their own family?  Would schools, deprived of finances, be crumbling if our elected officials saw each student as their own?  Would we be slaughtering innocent men, women and children in foreign lands with our machines of death if we took the time to recognize our shared humanity?  Would there be enough jobs if executives finally came to see that their bonus wasn’t quite as important as the salaries of a few more employees?  Would children, all over the world, be going hungry if each one of us had a better understanding of the difference between a luxury and a need?

All of the obstacles we face are the product of a world ruled by greed, excess, expediency and the never ending thirst for power.  All of us are capable of falling victim to those selfish motivations, but it only happens when we depress our normal human urge for empathy and dehumanize those who reap the consequences of our egocentric acts.  Minorities are mistreated because bigots fail to see them as equals.  The environment is destroyed because those responsible live far away from the destruction.  Programs that promote the social welfare are cut because the victims remain faceless to those in power.  Bombs are dropped because Presidents and Generals put uneven values on various human lives.  The Golden Rule is a standard that forces us to confer equal worth to every other person on the planet.  The major problems that human beings face are all created by those who are unwilling to acknowledge that equality.

The downfall of the Golden Rule is that we have a tendency to think about it and embrace it only on a micro or personal level.  Mention the Golden Rule to someone and they’re likely to get images in their head of holding open doors and allowing fellow drivers to merge on the highway.  Although those simple, everyday applications of the Golden Rule are incredibly important, why can’t we insist that we employ it on a grander scale?  The Golden Rule can’t just be the standard that guides our interactions with strangers out in public.  It needs to be the broad foundation of our whole society in general.  It should guide our foreign policy and inform our economic priorities.  It should be top of mind for every lawmaker, councilman, CEO, police officer, teacher, clergyman and leader throughout the world.  The Golden Rule should be engraved in giant letters on the entrance of every public institution in the country.  It should be the foundation of every corporate charter and printed on a plaque in every boardroom.  Every sermon, every oath, every bill, every merger, every deal and every judgment should have as its backbone a firm comprehension of the Golden Rule and all that it entails.

The most brilliant aspect of the Golden Rule is its universality.  The Golden Rule could be put into practice in all walks of life and almost no one should feel offended.  This wouldn’t be like placing the Ten Commandments in a courthouse at the expense of non-Christians.  The Golden Rule is a precept that can be found in one form or another in ALL of the world’s major religions and a whole handful of the minor ones as well.  Listed below is an example from each of the five most prominent sets of beliefs:

CHRISTIANITY:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”–Matthew 7:12 (NIV)

JUDAISM:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman.  This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.”–Talmud, Shabbat 3id

ISLAM:

“None of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”–An Nawawi’s Forty Hadith 13

BUDDHISM:

“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”–Udana-Varga 5:18

HINDUISM:

“This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”–Mahabharata 5:1517

One cannot be accused of imposing their beliefs when it is a belief that is supposedly shared by all.  On what grounds would one be able to object?  And it goes beyond just the five listed above.  Mohism, Taoism, Platonism, Sikhism, Quakerism, Jainism, Humanism, Confucianism, Baha’i Faith, Brahmanism, Ancient Egyptian beliefs, Native American Spirituality, Shinto, Sufism, Unitarian, Wicca and even Scientology all advance and embrace The Golden Rule in some iteration.

Doesn’t it speak to the truth and the power of an idea if it can be found in such a myriad of forms?  If the solution that I’m pushing is to be dismissed, wouldn’t it require a dismissal of thousands of years of common human development and thought?  The fact that the Golden Rule has a home in so many cultures says something meaningful about its place as an objective truth.  Systems of society and belief have come and gone but the Golden Rule remains.  The major questions of religion…Why are we here?  Who shall we worship?  How shall we behave?…produce multitudes of answers across the globe and throughout time.  But yet humans, from all corners and all walks of life have somehow all agreed that “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You” always sounds like a pretty good idea.

We supposedly live during incredibly fractious times.  Our population and our leaders are split on how to solve all of the largest issues of our day.  No common ground can be found on taxation, education, civil liberties, health care, energy production, environmental conservation, public spending, government debt and every single other issue that lies somewhere in between.  But I believe these divisions are entirely unnecessary and wholly a fabrication.  We can’t find common solutions because we fail to embrace the common moral code that binds us all together in the first place.  The universal nature and well-founded history of The Golden Rule proves that there is indeed a common moral thread woven throughout all of humanity that has the power to bring us together.  Solving the problems of our day does not have to be fraught with political divisions.  If as a people we could find the ability to let The Golden Rule be the beacon that guides our decisions, we would soon discover that we aren’t nearly as divided as we may have once believed.

Many don’t need to find that ability.  Many in this world are already well aware of the power of putting others’ needs on an even field with those of their own.  Unfortunately, the voices of those compassionate souls are often ignored by those in power.  Active practice of The Golden Rule is much easier to find on our own streets than in the halls of Congress or in the boardrooms of corporate America.  It should be the mission of all who realize the unifying power of The Golden Rule to see to it that this message of kindness be pushed onto those in power.  Instead, we allow the forces of division and greed to constrain and diffuse our message.  People and organizations and movements of all stripes have The Golden Rule as a pillar of their agenda, but those who live in the world of selfishness conspire to keep any thought of shared prosperity or sacrifice out of the halls of power.  Those who know better must never allow themselves to grow weary of advancing their message of hope, and they must not allow the common bonds of compassion to be torn apart by the petty cultural divisions of the day.

The Golden Rule has its advocates and it’s message rings true for millions across the globe, but despite this fact, problems still remain.  Our world is still awash in despair.  Too many fail to live up to this most elementary of standards.  Humans are a deeply flawed species and even though the concept of the rule is simple, it’s implementation can be incredibly complex.  Regardless of how attractive my solution may appear, even the most hopeful of believers must concede the enormity of the task.  So where does that leave us?  How can we convince a global population of 7 billion people to leave aside their own selfish desires and come to realize that the only way to bring about a sustained peace and harmony is by ensuring that it is equally achieved by all?

I argued earlier that The Golden Rule needs to be embraced on a large, macro-scale, but it can’t materialize on that scale overnight.  Those of us who wish to see a world where all are treated well have only their own individual acts at their disposal.  If we want a world where The Golden Rule becomes the law of the land,  if we want corporations to freely decide to put people over profits,  if we want the entire globe to universally embrace the idea that others’ needs supersede personal greed, then the only thing we can control is how we each choose to lead our own lives.  The only way for The Golden Rule to succeed on a grand scale is for individuals to take it upon themselves personally to give it a simple spark.  It’s power can be exponential.  How each of us choose to live our lives can affect all those with whom we interact.  If we desire to see the human species reach its universal utopian potential, we must first dedicate ourselves to making the change within our own sphere of influence.  Every time we choose to treat another human being with kindness and compassion we can inspire others to do the same.  The bonds and interconnectedness we create with this kind of behavior will expand and strengthen if our adherence remains true.   Anger, division, resentment and greed can all be marginalized if individuals decide to have faith not only in their own ability, but also in the ability of all of their neighbors to embrace The Golden Rule and let it act as the true agent of harmony that nature intended it to be.

If we allow The Golden Rule to be the solution to the problems we face in our own personal lives, it has the potential to become the solution to the problems we face collectively.  Our questions may be complex, but the answer is quite simple…Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.

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OREGON ADVENTURE–A Photographic Travelogue of The Best Vacation Ever

October 21, 2011

Tami and I set off on a two-week Pacific Northwest Extravaganza this September.  It was a trip that we had planned for over a year and we couldn’t have been more pleased with the results.  Many of our friends and family were surprised that we chose Oregon as our destination.  Perhaps that state doesn’t immediately pop into people’s head when they think of summer vacations, but I can most assuredly tell you, there’s was no shortage of beautiful sights, interesting people, fascinating history and unique environments for one to explore.

Our Oregon adventure would take us to Portland, the Willamette Valley for wine tasting, Crater Lake National Park, Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast, the Columbia River Gorge and up the side of Mt. Hood.  It was most certainly a whirlwind two weeks and my energy for sight-seeing may have worn my wife out, but every place we stayed and everything we saw was so spectacular that it would’ve been a shame to have chosen to cross any of those locations off the list.

The main impetus behind the decision to vacation in Oregon was based on reuniting with my good friend and current Portland resident, James.  James and I (seen above at The Pittock Mansion overlooking Portland) are friends from our days at MSU.  It’s been many years since we’ve seen each other and much has changed since that time.  The last time we spent any significant time together, both of us were single and still in our twenties.  Today we’re both married and James has a lovely two-year-old daughter.  It was important for both of us to become reacquainted and discover how each of our lives had changed.

I’ve got a terrific wife that understands the value of friendship so she was interested in making this reunion possible.  But instead of just merely making a short visit, we decided we should take advantage of having friends in far away places and thought we should make it a grand Pacific Northwest vacation and see what Oregon had to offer.

Our first destination was Portland.  As you can see from the photo above, Portland is a city that prides itself on its spirit of individuality.  It’s a city where environmentalism and liberal thought is embraced and where the conformity of traditional society is rejected.  Tami and I very much looked forward to exploring Portland.  We believed that it could be a place that we felt like we might fit in.  Bike-friendly streets, restaurants promoting local eating and a culture of inclusion were some of the things we found attractive.  However, as we got to explore Portland, we found that it wasn’t necessarily the urban utopia we had imagined.

It was bigger than we expected and because of its size, Portland experiences many of the same problems that all big cities face.  Traffic, garbage and homelessness do not disappear from sight just because a city is trendy and hip.  Although Portland fell short of our unrealistic expectations, it did still have many attractive features.  We ate and drank at numerous unique and delicious restaurants.  We appreciated the free public transportation downtown.  We thoroughly enjoyed the Portland Saturday Market, featuring local artists and vendors selling their wares.  We stayed at two very modern and affordable downtown hotels.  And we were able to take in the sights and attractions of a city that truly did have a lot to offer.

One of those attractions was Portland’s International Rose Test Garden.  It is the oldest official, continuously operated rose test garden in the United States.  Portland is known as “The City of Roses” so how could we not check it out?  The garden itself was nothing more complicated than what the name implies.  It was just row after colorful row of some of the most exquisite and unique roses we’ve ever seen.  I personally have a strong affinity for photos of flowers, so the Rose Test Garden was a perfect destination for me.

After a couple of days in Portland, checking out the city and catching up with old friends, the next stop on our trip was Oregon Wine Country in the Willamette Valley.  We stayed two nights at a Bed & Breakfast in Newberg, OR.  We’ve been wine tasting at just about every winery in Michigan and we’ve also gone wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley in California two years ago.  We go for the scenery, the slow pace, the interesting people, the great food and of course, the wine.  The Willamette is well-known for its incredible Pinot Noir, and wouldn’t you know it…that just happens to be our favorite.

Our Bed & Breakfast was incredible.  It sat at the top of a ridge that looked out at the vineyards and small town of Newberg below.  The photo above is Tami looking out on the valley beneath while out on the deck just outside our room.  We weren’t sure if we were going to do a lot of wine tasting while in Newberg or if we were just going to do some relaxing.  Our accommodations would’ve certainly been right for that, but we ended up doing plenty of tasting nonetheless.  Our wine bounty was made up of some truly excellent selections and we shipped 14 bottles back home to Michigan.  Those bottles will now be reserved for some special occasions when a simple bottle from the grocery just won’t do.

After our second night in wine country, we awoke early in the morning to depart for Crater Lake National Park.  This was what we expected and hoped would be the crown jewel of our entire trip.  Upon arrival, it was easy to assess that Crater Lake would not fall short of those expectations.

Crater Lake National Park is the most spectacularly overwhelming sight I have ever encountered.  The photos you see here can’t begin to convey its scale and my words will most definitely fall short of appropriately describing its beauty.

Crater Lake is actually the remnants of Mt. Mazama, a volcano in the Cascade Range that erupted some 7,700 years ago.  The eruption was so large the mountain collapsed in on itself creating the giant pit we now see today.  Since that event, melting snow and rain have collected to form what is the deepest and arguably clearest lake in the United States.  With a maximum depth of 1,994 feet, Crater Lake is also the seventh deepest lake in the world.  The walls of the caldera (the cliffs along its rim) range from 1000 to 2000 feet above the water level.  So when you stand at the edge of a cliff, it takes your breath away to realize how far down it is to the shore.

There is only one location at Crater Lake where you’re allowed to get down to the water’s edge.  When I learned prior to our trip that this location also had a 20′ cliff that people jumped off into the water, accomplishing this task became my biggest goal of the whole vacation.  Since we went in September, I was worried that the water would be much to cold to take the plunge.  But on our first day at Crater Lake, the sun was shining brightly and temperatures were near 80 degrees.  I was hopeful as we made the long trek down to the water’s edge, but when I saw others already swimming when we got there, I knew my dream would be realized.

The water wasn’t nearly as cold as I expected.  It was a bearable 60 degrees at the surface.  That’s warm enough for me to swim in Lake Michigan, so it was definitely warm enough to take the plunge here.  The gorgeous blue water was absolutely crystal clear and totally invigorating.  I made the jump four times and would’ve done it four more if time hadn’t been a factor.  While swimming back to shore I took the time to peer around with my eyes open under water and was stunned at how steep the lake bed was beneath me and just how far into the depths I could look.  I’ll never forget the jump and I’ll never forget the sensation I had gazing down into the deep below.

Unfortunately, our time at Crater Lake National Park was limited.  Seen above is the Crater Lake Lodge, located right on the south rim of the lake.  It is without question, the prime location to stay when visiting the park.  But since the next closest accommodations are seven miles away, it is also extremely popular.  As a consequence we were only able to book one night instead of the two we desired.  We were only able to be at the park from around 1pm on Wednesday til we left at about 3pm the next day.

The lodge itself was incredible.  The view is absolutely unrivaled and the room was very nice.  The best feature was the deck on the front of the hotel overlooking the lake.  Our dinner reservations weren’t until 8:45 that night, but we were able to pop open a bottle of wine we had just purchased the day before and drink it at our leisure as we watched the sun set over one of the most stunning attractions in the world.

Despite our short stay, we made sure to see as much of the lake and surrounding sights as we could.  The hikes at Crater Lake are mostly trails that lead from lower parts of the rim to higher elevations for more sweeping vistas.  We took one of these on the first day to Watchman’s Overlook.  The second day, our bike hike was to the top of Garfield Peak.  This hike took us from our Lodge at about 7000′ elevation to the top of the peak at just over 8000′ elevation.

The hikes were steep and cut along the edges of some rather precarious slopes.  I was very proud of Tami and how well she did.  I’m a very “go-go-go” person when on vacation and I have a tendency to push her pretty hard.  But she responded with more vigor and tenacity than what I could’ve ever hoped.  The hikes may have been tiring and arduous, but I’m sure she would admit that the end result was most certainly worth the work.

I took hundreds of pictures while at Crater Lake National Park and I feel like I’m doing a disservice by not posting more here today.  I really can’t say quite enough about how inspiring I found the place to be.  I have learned that when our country has chosen to make a place a National Park, there’s usually a pretty obvious reason why.  I haven’t been to many of them, but each one finds new ways to top the one I visited before.  We live in a world filled with amazing natural beauty and I feel it is our responsibility to see as much of it as we can.

At the Crater Lake Visitor’s Center there was a quote by author Jack London that I feel summed up my feelings pretty accurately.  He wrote, “”I thought I had gazed upon everything beautiful in nature as I have spent my years traveling thousands of miles to visit the beauty spots of the earth, but I have reached the climax. Never again can I gaze upon the beauty spots of the earth and enjoy them as being the finest thing I have ever seen. Crater Lake is above them all.”

We left Crater Lake feeling remorseful we couldn’t stay longer, but satisfied that we had seen as much as we had in the short time that was available.  Plus, it was only the sixth day of our 14 day trip so there was much that still lay ahead.

We drove back to Portland for another stay in the city.  While there we were able to explore even more and spend more time with my friend, James.

But one of the main purposes for our return to Portland was for the easy access to the Columbia River Gorge.  This National Scenic Area is just a short half hour drive from our downtown hotel.  And that mere half hour is enough to transport you from a bustling urban cityscape to a lush, scenic, moss-covered paradise that at times seems miles from anywhere.

The Columbia River Gorge is a large canyon carved over millions of years by the rushing waters of the Columbia River.  The banks of the river are overlooked by towering cliffs and impressive rock facades.

Cascading off of those cliffs and running down to the river are countless absolutely gorgeous waterfalls of all sizes and varieties.  These waterfalls bring hundreds of thousands of visitors each year to the gorge and we were surely going to join them.  An interstate runs through the Gorge right next to the river, but tucked away just off of that interstate is the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway.  This is a road built in the early 1900’s and snakes its way through the Gorge with easy, convenient stops along the way to take the in the beauty of various waterfalls.

This is the first one we encountered…Latourell Falls.

But most spectacular, and most visited, of all the falls is Multnomah Falls, towering 620′ above the river below.

The highlight of our two days exploring the area was our venture into the Oneonta Gorge.  Nestled in the Oneonta Gorge is Lower Oneonta Falls.  The falls can only be reached by trekking up the creek through a very narrow gorge with towering, moss-covered walls of rock looming over you.  While researching our trip to the Columbia River Gorge, I was searching for some unique and extraordinary hikes.  I stumbled across the tales of the Oneonta Gorge and was immediately convinced that this would be a good adventure for Tami and I.

It’s only about a half mile hike, but according to the guides on the internet, we needed to prepare to get wet.  We purchased water-sock shoes for easier walking in the stony creek, and even though it was a rainy 60 degree day that day, we were ready.

Our first obstacle was this very imposing log jam.  There was no way around, the only way through was to go over it.  It was raining that day, so these giant logs were slippery and the pile was over twenty feet hit with some rather daunting cavities awaiting if you made a false step.

Once past the log jam, it was just a walk through creek waters of various depths.  Had it not been for the advice of some friendly hikers who were leaving as we were just beginning, we would’ve certainly been in water up to chests.  The creek water was extremely cold and my adventurous wife had strong urges to turn back, but we pressed on nonetheless.  With the aid of some very crafty maneuvering on some rock edges, we were able to make it to the falls without getting wet beyond our thighs.

And finally, we reached our destination.

After our adventure in the Columbia River Gorge, we were both ready for some relaxation.  Good thing for us our next destination was the beach.  We had two nights booked at Cannon Beach, a small, tourist community on the Pacific Ocean about an hour and a half away from Portland.  I was concerned that our time at the beach would be marred by some poor weather, but we couldn’t have had it any better.  When we arrived we were greeted by a bright sunny sky, warm temperatures and some fantastic scenery.

The centerpiece and main attraction at Cannon Beach is Haystack Rock, a 235 ft. monolithic rock towering over the beach-goers who congregate around it.  Coming from someone who for most of his life has only known the beaches of Lake Michigan, a visit to the Pacific Ocean is always quite an impressive event.  The giant rock formations, the colorful creatures, the intimidating waves and the water levels that shift from high to low in a matter of seconds all create a new and completely engaging environment.

But as impressive as Haystack Rock was during the day, nothing could touch the fireworks we got that evening with a picture-perfect sunset.

On our second day at Cannon Beach we visited Ecola State Park, a mere five miles north of town.  While at the park we headed down to Indian Beach to climb on the rocks, explore the tide pools and hunt for various sea-critters, like starfish.  The waves were much calmer on the second day, so I even had the opportunity to jump in for my first swim in the Pacific.  I had a chance when I visited California two years ago, but missed out, so I was not going to let it pass me by this time as well.

While we were at Ecola State Park, we climbed to the top of a peak that gave some outstanding views of the surf below.  Also visible off in the distance was Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, seen in the photo below.  Our time at the ocean proved to be both relaxing and in its own way, a great adventure.  We saw things we hadn’t seen before, partook of some great food and had the chance to spend even more time with my friend and his wife and daughter who came out and stayed with us.

After we left the coast, it was now time for the final leg of our journey.  We would head back east through Portland on our way to Mt. Hood.  We had reservations to stay at The Resort At The Mountain, a golf and spa resort right at the foot of Oregon’s tallest peak.  Mt. Hood is an 11,000 ft. volcano in the Cascade Range.  It’s an omnipresent fixture in the Portland area on clear days.  Coming from Michigan, a place with no mountains, I get particularly excited anytime that I get to be around them.  I think its part of human nature to have the desire to be in the mountains, to feel some isolation, to explore new terrains and to be able to stand on the edge of incredible elevated vistas.

I had picked a whole handful of hikes we could take in the Mt. Hood National Forest, so our first step was to stop at the ranger station and get some advice on which hikes to choose.  Time was limited our first day, so the ranger recommended that we head to Trillium Lake.  This was a small, beautiful lake at the southern edge of Mt. Hood with amazing scenic views of the mountain.  We did the two mile hike around the lake, but the best part was the photographs.

The lake and mountain were unbelievably picturesque, but it got even better when the hike was completed.  The water of Trillium Lake smoothed to a glassy sheen near the end of the day to produce a reflection of the mountain that I only hoped I would have the chance to capture when the trip was originally planned.

We stayed until daytime faded into dusk and then headed back to our hotel.  On the way, we stopped in the small ski village of Government Camp right at the base of the mountain for some dinner.  The place was dead, but it was easy to imagine what a great location it would be during the peak of ski season.  The resort we stayed at couldn’t have been nicer.  We were given a free upgrade on our room, so we were now staying in some luxury accommodations.  Our room had a balcony, a living room, a huge fireplace and more space than the two of us could ever need.  We both felt so comfortable that it made us question our plans for the next day.  We had been going at such a breakneck pace that the idea of relaxing at a spa and resort and maybe playing some golf sounded really appealing.  But we knew that nature awaited and we needed to take advantage of our surroundings while we had the chance.

The next day we had big plans.  We were headed up the mountain.  Our main destination was the Timberline Lodge.  This is an immaculate wood and stone ski lodge 6000 ft. up the side of the mountain.  It was built by the WPA during the depression and completed in 1937.  Some of you might recognize the outside of the lodge from the movie “The Shining”.  It was a fascinating place.  A complete original that caused us to wonder at the craftsmanship and think of a time when our country made it a priority to take on projects like this.

The inside was even more impressive.

But our day had loftier goals.  We would be embarking from the Lodge on a six mile hike to Zigzag Canyon.  This hike was basically a horizontal trek along the side of the mountain, so there wasn’t a huge elevation gain.  Our trail coincided with part of the Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada, so it was exciting to be a part of that.  It was a terrific hike.  It stayed right at the timberline, so we wove in and out of pine forest with almost constant views of the summit looming over us.

It really didn’t take long for us to arrive at Zigzag Canyon, and what a view when we did.  The Canyon is a 1000ft. deep gash cut in the side of the mountain.  It provided wonderful views of the summit and the hills and Mt. Jefferson that spread out to the south.

On our way back to the lodge from the Canyon, we had the chance to take a trail straight up the mountain to the Silcox Hut, located near the top of the chairlift.  The Silcox Hut is an old warming station for skiers that has been converted into a kind of rustic banquet hall.  I really wanted to head further up the mountain, both for the better views and for the chance to do something that I don’t get the opportunity to do where I live.  The Hut was a mile away and 1000 vertical feet up the mountain.  It sounds easy, but after just completing a six mile hike, it definitely proved to be harder than what we expected.  I definitely put Tami to work on this trip, and she handled it all beautifully.  This was the one point where I maybe asked her to do a bit too much.  In my mind, the payoff was worth the work, but I think she might have preferred a cold drink at the lodge instead.

After two weeks of hiking and exploring, this day definitely wore us out.  We had planned of tackling more hikes the next day, but we were satisfied with what we had seen and quite frankly, we were tired.  The next day was Friday, our last day before flying back to Michigan on Saturday.  We headed back to Portland and stayed one more night downtown for easy access to the airport the next day.  We had one last evening to say goodbye to my friend and his family.

Vacations often make me feel like I just don’t have enough time.  I feel like I’ve got to go too fast in order to see and do all that I want, and the end of the trip is always looming close.  This vacation wasn’t like that at all.  It had been a long time since I’ve taken a two week trip and I don’t know how I could’ve possibly enjoyed this one any more than I did.  We saw amazing sights, caught up with old friends, found time to relax and enjoy life, and had the opportunity to explore several new and unique places.  But when departure day arrived, we were ready to go.  This trip didn’t just exceed my expectations, it blew them out of the water.  I had the most wonderful time with world’s best traveling partner and wouldn’t change a single thing.

If you’re looking for an interesting trip, I would absolutely recommend Oregon and all of it’s surrounding highlights.  We got a little bit of everything.  It’s a beautiful world, and we feel completely blessed that we have the opportunity to get out and explore it.


WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?–Why Governor Snyder’s Actions Should Come As No Surprise

April 22, 2011

Corporate CEO Snyder vs. Governor Snyder...can you tell the difference?

Congratulations, voters of Michigan.  You’ve been duped.  You’ve allowed a con-man with deep pockets and a slick marketing campaign to put one over on you and get elected Governor of your state.  And now that he’s in power, his ‘moderate’ and ‘centrist’ veneer has been removed and his true money-loving, conservative colors are boldly shining through.

In a matter of mere months, Governor Rick Snyder has gone from the supposed “non-traditional political outsider” that he claimed to be in his campaign, to nothing more than another right-wing ideologue hell-bent on consolidating power, destroying unions, erasing the social safety net and transferring wealth into the hands of the few at the expense of the many.  And somehow, amazingly, hundreds of thousands of Michigan voters never saw it coming.  But for every angry protestor rallying in Lansing, for every Democrat who stayed home on election day, for every independent voter who decided to give Snyder a shot, for every moderate Republican outraged by his abuses, I have only one question…what did you expect?

Rick Snyder was elected Governor last November by easily besting the Democratic candidate, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero.  Greater finances, nationwide anti-democratic fervor, an off-beat marketing strategy, liberal-voter apathy and Michigan’s displeasure with Jennifer Granholm’s previous eight years can all be claimed as reasons for his victory.  Since he had no previous experience in politics, he was able to position himself as an outsider who could clearly navigate Michigan’s problems with a fresh perspective.  He avoided focusing on traditional cultural wedge issues such as abortion, and by doing so, was able to pass himself off as a new kind of Republican.  Success in the business world was his claim to fame and he was able to translate his resume into proof of his ability to revitalize Michigan’s struggling economy.  All of this converged in a way that convinced thousands of independent and even democratic voters to completely lose their senses and cast a ballot for someone who never had their best interests in mind.

Since his inauguration, Governor Snyder has quickly set to work implementing his skewed vision for Michigan.  These measures include creating new corporate tax breaks, slashing basic services, raising taxes on the poor and the elderly, cutting funding for education and most ominous of all, passing his “Emergency Financial Manager Law” which has the power to completely remove the voters’ rights to have a say over their own future.  With an obedient Republican-controlled legislature at his command, enactment of these measures has been swift.  But angry reactions from both those who opposed him and those who voted for him has been equally abrupt.  Whatever popularity he may have once enjoyed has drastically begun to wane.  The tide has turned in our State in a very short period of time and many are faced with feelings of ‘buyer’s remorse’.  They thought they were getting a non-ideological decision maker with clever commercials.  Instead, people all around Michigan have come to realize that what they got was a typical profit-driven corporatist with little concern for the welfare of his struggling constituents.

But why are we so surprised?  Everything we needed to know about Rick Snyder was right there in front of us.  Everything he represents, everything he believes and everything he desires was staring each person who voted for him right in the face and they were either too ignorant or too blissfully oblivious to see it.  We elected a millionaire nincompoop who made his money running a giant, soul-crushing corporation to be the Chief Executive of our State.  I’ll ask it again…what did you expect??

Rick Snyder sent his children to private school…did you really think he was going to be a big supporter of public education?  Governor Snyder is an extremely wealthy man…did you really think he would have the ability to empathize with those who aren’t?  While Rick Snyder was at Gateway, the company sent thousands of jobs overseas as a way to cut costs…did you really think he would be an advocate for Michigan’s working class?  This is a man who made his name and made his fortune in a corporate culture where profits and bottom lines are the only things that matter…can you honestly say that you would expect him to run our State any differently?

Our Governor comes from a world where taxes are always too high, social services only encourage laziness, unions are the enemy and no one’s interests are more important than those of big business.  It’s the same world that ALL Republican politicians come from whether they spend their time preaching about ‘family values’ or not.  It’s a magical world where success is only determined by one’s own subjective drive and ambition and is in no way is ever influenced by the objective forces that exist around them.  Michigan voters allowed this capitalist stooge to pose as a normal working-class citizen and completely ignored the world from which he hailed and the moral abyss that defines it.  Men like Rick Snyder do not get to where they are without displaying the proper fealty to wealth and all the power that it represents.  His actions thus far while in office are merely the inevitable outcome of a career spent seeking new ways to quench a thirst for profit.

So now, finally, everyone is starting to see Governor Snyder for who he really is.  All across the State, angry citizens are busying themselves painting witty protest signs to bring to the Capitol and inventing new chants designed to whip rallying crowds into a frenzy.  Some have even gone so far as to begin work to recall the Governor.  Apparently voters in Michigan are just completely shocked that a Republican corporatist would come to power and do exactly the kinds of things that Republican corporatists always do.  But what I’m curious to know, is where was all of this liberal civic engagement last year during the campaign?  If everyone is so concerned about funding education, and taxing the rich and preserving the rights of unions, then why did Rick Snyder win so easily in November?  The thousands that have continued to gather in Lansing to make their voices heard had plenty of opportunities to rally for their issues before the election.  Snyder’s competition, Virg Bernero was perfectly clear about where he stood on all of the issues that are bothering everyone so much today.  I find it hard to believe that everyone of these angry voters did all they could to make sure that Rick Snyder didn’t succeed.

Political winners like to boast that ‘elections have consequences’.  It’s a way of saying, “We won, now we can do whatever we want”.  It’s a dismissive and generalist argument, but unfortunately, it also happens to be kinda true.  Governor Snyder won fair and square, so did all of his fellow Republicans in the legislature.  Consequently, they are entitled to follow through on what they believe to be right.  His plans for Michigan have justifiably raised the ire of citizens all across the state, but the time to do something about it was BEFORE he was elected.  Recall campaigns are no doubt a valuable tool in the democratic process, but so are elections.  Where was this dedication and passion from the left side of the political spectrum last November?  Michigan voters were asleep at the wheel and now they are learning that indeed, elections DO have consequences.

Rick Snyder has not betrayed us.  He is merely acting on the only ideology that exists in his small, selfish mind.  We have betrayed ourselves.  It is our own sloth, our own ignorance and our own fascination with all things shiny and new that put us in this predicament.  What Governor Snyder has done and will continue to do should have been recognizable to all of us from the very beginning of his candidacy.  Anyone who cares about public education, anyone who cares about the rights of workers, anyone who cares about putting corporate power in check and anyone who cares about helping those who lack the ability to help themselves should have been able to see the consequences of electing this man to be our Governor.  As voters, we are too quick to forget the lessons of the past and we are too easily distracted to perceive the obvious warnings of what might happen in the future.

It is right and noble and admirable to cry out in protest over what Governor Snyder has planned for Michigan.  But those voices should’ve been thundering all throughout the campaign and those voices should continue to thunder long after Rick Snyder has gone.  People who believe in putting the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the privileged few cannot allow themselves to be fooled by politicians who quite plainly advocate for the opposite.  Our frustration with Rick Snyder can only go so far.  Our frustration needs to lie with the apathetic citizens who fail to get out and vote.  Our frustration needs to lie with Democrats who allow their conviction and support to waiver.  Our frustration needs to lie with independent voters who are too easily swayed by soundbytes and marketing.  And our frustration needs to lie with Republicans who blindly vote while neglecting their own interests and needs.  All of these people are responsible for what Rick Snyder is doing today.  And if any of them are angry or frustrated or displeased with the results, I’m only left to ask…what did you expect?


IN DEFENSE OF TELEVISION—-If It’s Making You Dumber…You’ve Only Yourself To Blame

March 31, 2011

Whatever your problem...it's not the TV's fault.

Got a problem?  Surely, there’s someone you can blame.  Americans love to point their fingers at anything that will help explain, rationalize or otherwise dismiss any of their own faults and shortcomings.  Unfortunately, most seem to forget that old playground proverb that says, “whenever you point a finger, there’s always three pointed right back at you”.  Nonetheless, everyone still seems to have an excuse for everything.  Too fat?  It’s genetics.  Your kids do poorly in school?  It’s ADHD.  Fed up with politics?  It’s the Republicans.  No matter what ails you or what predicament you face, there’s someone other than yourself to blame.  And nothing shoulders more of that unwarranted blame than Television.

Pick a problem plaguing our world today and you’ll surely find someone saying that TV is at fault.  Violence, laziness, ignorance, corruption and moral decay all have their bony fingers pointed directly at the glowing black box that sets innocently in every one of our homes.  But just as with all of our other problems, affixing blame onto television is ensuring that the blame is misplaced.  Viewers shoulder the blame.  We shoulder it not only for our viewing decisions, but also because of the ways that we relate to the content of the programming choices we make.  Television will give back exactly what we seek to get out of it.  The way in which we engage with television will determine the results.  So if your TV is making you dumber, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

I’m sure you’ve heard all this before.  Many have already made the argument that if we would just pick up our remotes and change the channel from MTV to C-SPAN, the world would be a better place.  If only we could just see fit to watch “Masterpiece Theater” rather than “Jersey Shore” our culture could arise from its cesspool of iniquity and once again thrive.  This is not my argument.  Television doesn’t need to be ‘high-minded’ to have a positive influence.  What matters is how we respond.  Even the simplest or tawdriest of programs can be meaningful depending on if and how we seek to derive meaning from them.  My argument deals more with the way we process information and less with the substance of the information that is provided.  TV programming of all varieties can prove to be enlightening if we as viewers make the choice to put our minds to work.  As soon as we make the choice to allow TV to merely serve as a mindless daily sedative, then that is exactly what it will become.

For instance, ABC’s “The Bachelor” is one of the most inane shows ever conceived.  It is a show that promotes narcissism, materialism and shallow relationships and stars a group of irrational, young bubbleheads who share the word “amazing” as the only adjective in their collective vocabulary.  At first glance, this show possesses no redeeming qualities and quite possibly makes anyone who watches it not only stupider, but also a little more cynical and shallow as well.  But is that really true?  We all watch TV from a subjective vantage point, so depending on the viewer’s attitude and disposition, perhaps even this monstrosity could reap positive results.  For those who watch analytically and make sure their brain remains working even while the TV is on, doesn’t “The Bachelor” have plenty to say about the flaws of modern relationships?  Personally, when I watch, I’m often wondering to myself what makes it possible for a young woman to honestly believe she’s in love with a man who is simultaneously sharing intimate moments with other potential suitors.  “The Bachelor” may not be an accurate reflection of relationships in 2011, but that doesn’t mean that when its layers are peeled away there isn’t still something valuable to learn about human nature.  By resisting the temptation to get caught up by the choreographed drama and emotion that the show’s producers try to create, you’re left with the chance to ponder the motivations and desires of good-looking, seemingly successful young people and how they approach finding a mate.  As shallow as “The Bachelor” is, it still allows you the chance to think deeper, if you’re so inclined.

When we put our brains to work, lose our passivity and become actively engaged in our programming, almost any show can escape its seemingly narrow confines and provide us with something worthwhile.  Take MTV’s “Teen Mom” for instance.  On its surface, and similarly to a whole host of other ‘reality’ shows, “Teen Mom” is nothing more than basic voyeurism.  It is providing the viewer a simple opportunity to gawk in amazement at the sorry state of those who are less fortunate than themselves.  But this is a show that, if viewed with a curious rather than judgmental mind, can provide an immense amount of information and insight into a phenomenon that affects countless people across the country.  “Teen Mom” is not just about the poor parenting techniques of 16 year-olds, it’s about incredibly important issues such as abortion, adoption, domestic violence, the value of education and the role that healthy families play in sustaining a productive society.  If it is viewed merely as a shocking spectacle, it loses its potential to teach.  But if we go beyond just ‘watching’ and seek to understand how it reflects the world around us, following a show like this can be an enlightening experience.

The same is true for a whole host of shows.  We watch “Hoarders” and “Biggest Loser” and “American Idol”.  It can be entertaining and emotionally engaging, but at the same time, can’t it also be educational?  We’re fascinated by their situations, their addictions and their ambitions, but can’t we also be stimulated by the lessons they provide about materialism, consumption and our quest for fame?  “The Biggest Loser” should not be seen as a show about weigh-ins and silly competitions.  It’s a show about our culture’s relationship to food, our declining active lifestyles and our search for fulfillment in all the wrong places.  But in order for those lessons to sink in, we have to actively seek them out.  It’s analogous to going to the zoo or a museum.  We can walk through and be fascinated by the animals and the displays and be on our way, or we can stop and examine the details, read the presentations and absorb their broader purpose.  If we want television to be more than just an attraction, then the responsibility is ours to make that happen.

However, that responsibility also includes a caveat.  Active thinking is not the only requirement necessary to make watching television educational or meaningful.  Unfortunately, it also matters “what” we’re thinking about.  If you watch a national cable news broadcast and through its false presentations it compels you to ponder whether or not our President was actually born in America, then you’re probably not accomplishing anything positive.  If you watch endless hours of sports commentary and it leads you to waste your mind contemplating which team should win Friday’s big game, then you’re also on a fool’s errand.  Following the nightly parade of police blotter details on your local news may get your mind whirling, but chances are all that thinking won’t bring about many worthwhile results.  It’s great for a viewer to be captivated by a show, but if all the show is doing is causing them to reflect on a certain celebrity’s dancing ability, then perhaps it’s not the most effective use of their mind.  We should all be able to recognize for ourselves if the programs we’re watching have the capability to provoke constructive thought.  In all of the previously mentioned examples, constructive thought is indeed a possibility.  Making our television watching meaningful requires the viewer to not only make wise choices, but to also then be conscious of the reaction those choices will most likely to draw out.

If what I’ve just described seems to require too much effort, don’t worry.  There is an unprecedented amount of television programming out there that by its very nature is enlightening and doesn’t require any mental discipline to achieve its beneficial results.  Grab your remote and everywhere you turn you’ll find a show about remodeling your kitchen, the lifestyles of ancient Mayan civilizations or how to cook delicious bbq brisket.  You can learn about swordfishing and wilderness survival in the afternoon and catch up on genetic science and American history later that evening.  Anyone who wants to bemoan the value and educational capabilities of television is certainly not paying close enough attention.  Stimulating, thought-provoking television is available for even the most discerning of tastes.  And the networks that broadcast these shows are not just relegated to the periphery.  Channels like HGTV, Discovery and The Food Network are some of the most-watched cable channels on the air.  Whatever topic interests you, whatever subject stimulates your brain, you’re sure to find a presentation of it somewhere on your television dial.  If a viewer was so-inclined, they could focus their viewing exclusively on educational programming and still never run out of options.

But how many of us are quite that dedicated about their TV viewing habits?  Even though we may aspire to make television-watching a worthwhile endeavor, the intelligent, high-minded programming often loses out.  We watch TV because we want to laugh, because we want to be entertained and because we want to root for our favorite teams.  Television serves as an escape, so naturally people are going to be quick to choose shows like “The Office” instead of a new episode of “Frontline”.  There is nothing wrong with this phenomenon.  But as with almost every option we encounter in our consumer culture, moderation is the key to achieve positive results.  It’s okay if you like to eat donuts, just try not to have one for breakfast every single day.  The same is true for television.  You may like to watch “Family Guy”, but you probably shouldn’t make that your choice every night.  As I’ve already explained, something of value can still be taken away, regardless of which show you choose.  Perhaps you missed out on a captivating recount of the 2008 financial crash when you chose “The Office” instead of “Frontline”, but who’s to say that some biting satire of corporate culture, mixed in with a few laughs, can’t be just as enlightening?

Those looking to place the blame on television for whatever social ill they have in mind will probably not be swayed by my arguments.  Many just reflexively view TV as a sub-standard format that will always be playing catch-up with the “more intellectual” entertainment options like cinema, live-theater and books.  I can still remember the desperate pleas of my English Teachers imploring us, for the sake of our own cognitive futures, to turn off the TV and pick up a book.  I will always be someone that defends the value of literature , but I never understood why TV received such a bad rap.  Reading can be a wonderfully enriching enterprise, but there are aspects of our lives and our culture that can be much more accurately reflected and conveyed through a television screen.  And let’s not pretend that the breadth of idiotic TV programming isn’t matched by an equally wide breadth of idiotic books.  I recently went on vacation and paid particular attention to the reading choices the people around me had made for their flight and for their time on the beach.  Everywhere I looked, my fellow vacationers had their noses buried deep in celebrity biographies, factually-challenged political screeds, dime-a-dozen mysteries and dull religious hot air.  I saw no one reading the classics, no how-to books, no research-driven non-fiction and and nothing that rose above what’s innocently known as “light reading”.  Books are great, but there’s no way that reading Sarah Palin’s latest offering is anymore enlightening than watching an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy”.  They’re both fluff and both should only take an hour to get through.

The biggest problem with everything I’ve just laid out is that ultimately, the quality and depth of each individual’s television-watching experience is completely up to them.  It’s this unfortunate circumstance that gives the ‘blame TV’ crowd its most compelling argument.  TV can actually be dumb.  It can be violent, it can be lazy and can be apt to reflect a shallow understanding of our world.  But that’s not TV’s fault.  On the whole, TV responds to what the market demands.  If vast majorities of our society wanted smarter programming, then it would most likely be so.  But our society instead demands hours of cop shows about dead hookers, over-dramatized ‘reality’ programs, dishonest newscasts and exploitative spectacles of those who are downtrodden or different.  TV gives that to us because apparently that’s what we want.  But TV did not create those desires.  Our flawed inclination to watch awful TV is caused by a whole host of factors strung throughout every fabric of our culture.  Blaming television is merely making it a scapegoat for broader problems.  Television is not so much the cause as it is a reflection.  The opportunity exists for all of us to allow television, even in its current state, to have a positive affect on our lives.  So sit down, tune-in and bask in its enchanting warm glow.  TV is your friend and it doesn’t deserve your scorn, because if watching TV is making you dumber…you’ve only yourself to blame.


THE EXPENDABLE CONSUMER: Why Are the Biggest Companies So Willing to Treat Us So Bad?

January 10, 2011

What, you still thought the customer was always right?

The old adage says that you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.  However, the sharp-tongued individual is always quick to respond that even more flies will come your way with bullshit rather than honey.  Our corporate masters, those who offer up their services and sell us their junk, most certainly embrace the latter.  Anyone who has made a purchase, set foot in a big-box store, attempted to call customer service or been involved in any kind of transaction involving a Fortune 500 company in the last few years will most certainly attest to that notion.

Whether its your bank, your cable provider, your grocery store or your least favorite restaurant chain, you undoubtedly have a horror story about some kind of consumer-related atrocity that was committed at your expense.  We’ve all been wronged, and yet we all, sometimes without choice, begrudgingly line up for more.  Those tales of marketplace malfeasance are cataloged on a fascinating website I recently discovered located at www.consumerist.com.  Consumers like you from all across the country have gathered at The Consumerist to form a kind of support group where people share their accounts of how huge multi-national corporations have robbed, humiliated and generally taken advantage of them usually without any remorse or reservation.

The Consumerist has provided me with endless hours of reading enjoyment.  Some stories I can relate to while others cause me to shake my head in disbelief.  You can search their archives by the topic of the transgression.  Had trouble with a car dealer?  Been screwed on a return?  There’s sure to be someone with a similar story.  Or perhaps your beef is with one company in particular?  Feel free to scroll through The Consumerist’s list of corporate offenders.  Who’s the object of your ire?  WalmartBank of AmericaUnited HealthcareMicrosoft?  They’re all there…and it’s a bad-business-buffet…a veritable who’s who of goonish, profit-thirsty corporate jackasses.

No matter the topic, no matter the company at-fault, they all have something in common.  They all treat their customers like crap.  Each and every last one of them regards each and every last one of us as no better than that fly they’re hoping to attract with their giant, stinking bowl of BS.  The stories that people have posted on this site are horrific.  Here’s one about a girl who died while waiting for CIGNA to decide if she qualified for a liver transplant or not.  Here’s one about an old woman who bled to death because  Comcast’s Operator couldn’t connect her 911 call to the police dispatch properly.  And here’s a famous one where JP Morgan Chase sent an employee to change the locks on a house they thought was in foreclosure, except it wasn’t and the owner was at home while they broke in.

But the most amazing part of all of these stories is that no matter how obscene the offense, these companies suffer minimal damage and are able to return to raking in gobs and gobs of our money.  Now certainly, as consumers we are sometimes left with minimal options when it comes to refusing to do business with these corporations.  People will continue to eat at McDonald’s because their prices are low.  I’ll continue to get my cable from Comcast because they’re the only provider at my address.  My wife and I wanted to do business with a local bank, but that bank ended up selling our mortgage to Bank of America whether we liked it or not.  They’ve got the game rigged and they know they can essentially treat you as badly as they like and you’re sure to come crawling back for more.  And even if you’re fortunate enough to be able to put an end to this abusive relationship, they know there is another sucker standing right behind you who doesn’t have that same kind of luck.

So the American Consumer is bent over a barrel and our corporate masters are free to treat us like crap.  But the logical question that follows is “why would they WANT to?”  Obviously, companies have made the determination that it’s not a big deal to lose a customer because plenty of current and future customers are there to take his or her place.  But isn’t it the goal of business to attract and KEEP as many customers as possible?  Let’s say you own a business and you have 10 customers.  You’ve pissed two of them off and they’re going elsewhere, but you’re not worried because you have three new ones lined up as replacements.  So you say, “I can afford to lose those two because I’ve got three new ones coming in.  I used to have 10 customers, but now I have 11.”  That all sounds well and good, but am I the only one who thinks the most sensible plan of action would’ve been to not piss-off those first two customers, keep your original 10, still add 3 and end up with 13 instead of 11?  I can’t for the life of me figure out how this willing and seemingly intentional purging of customers makes the slightest bit of business sense.

Why are we so expendable?  I know they all already make truckloads of money, but greed is the only language these bastards speak, so why aren’t they willing to make two truckloads instead of just the one?  My wife and I hate Walmart and we refuse to shop there.  Doesn’t that bother them?  Shouldn’t they covet our money?  Why are these corporations so willing to do so many things that drive all of us up the wall?  I could be a happy Verizon customer if their contracts weren’t so unreasonable.  I’d still have a Chase credit card if they didn’t randomly jack-up their rates.  Take a second and think about how many companies you’ve become so frustrated with that you promised yourself to never again buy their junk.  Doesn’t that mean anything to them?  I understand that Subway isn’t going to go bankrupt if I stop buying their subs, but shouldn’t they still want to try to keep me nonetheless?

There’s obviously some kind of cost/benefit algorithm that they’ve concocted that justifies this.  But that’s absolutely crazy.  That means we live in a culture that has decided it is actually more beneficial and profitable to screw your customers than to treat them well.  Our largest corporations have made the calculus that making terrible products and offering pathetic service is a better business model than doing things right.  So it obviously doesn’t matter how angry it might make you that HP or Motorola has their customer service center somewhere in India.  You may fuss and fume after spending hours on the phone with someone who barely speaks english and vow to never buy their crap again, but it doesn’t matter.  That customer-service center that ruined your day saves them enough money that your patronage is expendable.  We can only deduce that they have come to the conclusion that making a quality product or offering professional customer service is a loser, no matter how many of us promise to leave.

These companies have become so large and powerful that they no longer need to worry about losing customers.  They feel complete freedom to employ whatever money-saving tactic they desire.  Those tactics are set into motion at our expense and yet their profits will still continue to grow.  Take a look at The Consumerist’s list for “The Worst Company in America” competition.  This is a list of the worst offenders in the country.   They each have their own unique and repulsive track record of giving their customers the shaft and putting their profits over their customer’s happiness.  But here’s the amazing thing…all of those companies are all WILDLY SUCCESSFUL!  They’ve taken a dump on millions of American consumers and they’re getting rich while doing it.

So what’s the solution?  The most obvious answer is to say that we, the angry customers, haven’t been diligent enough about withholding our business.  Millions of us may have been wronged, but unfortunately, the thousands who have fought back haven’t been able to make a big enough dent.  But such is the nature of a free-market system.  For as long as people continue to buy from these companies, they’ll continue to survive.  To see these barbarians of business brought to their knees, we need to be unwavering in our resolve.  We need to be organized and determined to prove to those who have trespassed against us that their actions will have consequences.  We, the consumers, ultimately decide how profitable or successful these companies will be.  Our power to make that determination is only as strong as our willingness to present a unified front of opposition.

Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against us.  Our idealized “free-market economy” isn’t nearly as free as we would like to believe.  Not everyone possesses the freedom of choice necessary to avoid these corporate crooks.  “Mom & Pop” stores are losing the battle and alternatives to Big Box Stores are hard to find.  The financial world is centralized between a small handful of companies and any effort to work with a local bank can often be an illusion.  We may choose to avoid fast-food restaurants, but we still unknowingly buy our food from the companies that supply them.  For every instance where we can choose to abstain, another instance will arise where we cannot without incurring a hardship.  All of that is intentional.  Competition is the hallmark of a free-market society, but in the corporate world, competition is something to be dismantled over time.  These companies spend their profits in Washington with the explicit purpose of limiting our options.  Every dollar we give them is a dollar they’ll use to ensure that we have no choice but to come back again.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely prefer honey over both vinegar and bullshit.  But too many of us flies are allowing ourselves to be captured by that ever-growing mountain of BS.  If we want the sweet stuff, we’re going to have to start demanding it.


THE G.O.P.–The New Heavyweight Champion of The World!

November 16, 2010

Two foes stepped once again into the grand electoral ring of death for an early November cage match to the finish.  The pair of heavyweights exchanged vicious blows, but with a mighty swing of the steel folding chair, the Republicans have heroically put the Democrats down for the count with a bleeding gash over their eye.

But weep not for our Democratic warriors, they’ll be back.  Weep instead for our nation and it’s future.  Because with this most recent election, our politics have plummeted to absurd depths of shallowness and asininity.  Elections are no longer a solemn referendum on the state of our union, they are merely a sideshow, another mindless form of vacuous entertainment for a populace that is already overwhelmed with similar frivolous retreats.  Our National Elections have taken their rightful place next to America’s other favorite exposition of inanity, professional wrestling.  Wrestling is a superficial spectacle meant to entertain the masses, and unfortunately, our elections and our political discourse has devolved in a similar manner.  Parallels between the two can be found with ease.

HEROES vs. VILLAINS

The world of professional wrestling is famous for casting its characters in roles of good guys and bad guys, and those roles are constantly evolving.  One week, you might find your favorite wrestler cast as a man of the people, fighting his battle against incredible odds.  But tune in the next week, and you’ll witness that same wrestler flipping the bird to the fans while he leg-drops his lifelong friend.  This sudden transformation of a hero into a villain is a defining feature of American politics.  Just two short years ago, the Democrats were the party of the people, the saviors of our broken system.  They were swept into power by a citizenry that had had enough of the malfeasance of the Republicans.  It was going to be a new, brighter day with Barack Obama in charge.  Now only two years have past, and in just that short time, those same citizens are once again searching for a hero.  And even though the country was body-slammed over and over again by the Republicans for eight straight years, they are now recast as saviors.  And don’t be fooled, this transition between good and evil will happen again in the near future.  Americans will grow tired of Republicans, label them the bad guys, and once more call out to Democrats for redemption.  Acts of betrayal followed by reparation is the main plot driver for the theater of wrestling.  It is also the main driver that keeps us engaged in a political system that neglects our most basic needs.  Everyone loves a winner.  No matter what side you’re on, just wait four years (or in this case, two) and you’ll be back on top again.

EMPTY WORDS

Every wrestler that has ever lived has at some point or another claimed to be the “Greatest of All Time”.  In the wrestling world, proclamations are made, promises are tendered and guarantees are wildly thrown about all without any requirements for backing them up or repercussions for falling short.  For anyone who follows politics, does any of that sound at all familiar?  Wrestlers may say some shameless things, but their biggest rival in that department is the members of our political class.  When it comes to elections and campaigns, empty promises and insincere rhetoric have become the official language.  How many candidates did you hear make the promise “I know how to create jobs” this election season?  Regardless who made that claim, at no point was that phrase ever followed up by a concrete example of exactly how they might accomplish it.  Candidates always claim to “share your values” and want “to clean up Washington”, but those words are never bolstered by any details or specific plans.  And just like with wrestling, there is no accountability or follow-through.  When I was in high school, I saw a “retirement match” between Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair live in Detroit.  Whoever lost, would be forced to retire.  There was most certainly a winner and a loser, but you better believe that both men continued to wrestle for another ten years.  Our politicians are allowed to promise the world without ever being held to account.  Voters would actually be wise to think that whenever a promise is made, you can almost expect to see the opposite result.

XENOPHOBIC PATRIOTISM

Long before the Tea Partiers made rampant racism and blind patriotism vogue, the world of professional wrestling placed these ideas front and center.  When I first starting watching wrestling in the early 1980’s, the cast was filled with characters like Nikolai Volkov and The Iron Sheik.  These characitures were designed to prey upon people’s deep animosities and insecurities of all things foreign.  Ethnic wrestlers are always locked into a narrow-minded stereotype and are almost always cast as the villain.  In the 1980’s it was Russians and Communists, today it’s Muslims with supposedly strong sympathies for Al-Qaeda.  And these silly wrestling cartoons are always pitted against tanned, blonde-haired “American-looking” heroes who whip the crowd into a patriotic frenzy with chants of “USA, USA!”  We don’t have to look hard or long at our modern political discourse to find similar strains of xenophobia.  One could even make the argument that the entire Republican party embraces it to its extreme.  Their platform consists of bombing middle-eastern countries, hunting down illegal immigrants, marginalizing the economic plight of minorities and screaming “terrorist-lover” to anyone who doesn’t comport with their myopic vision.  But both sides of the spectrum include a built-in tendency to only embrace ideas that fall within the confines of their narrow-minded agenda.  And both sides attempt to use patriotism to whip up support for any variety of causes.  Appealing to people’s tribal instincts is to appeal to the lowest common denominator, and both wrestlers and politicians use it effectively.

“IMPARTIAL” COMMENTATORS

Just as important as the action that goes on inside the wrestling ring is the action and commentary that exists on the sidelines.  Wrestling announcers, hosts and interviewers play an integral role in the show.  They provide an open mic for the wrestlers to advance their agenda and they provide the general framing of the storyline to help fans choose their sides.  And they do all of this without the slightest concern for fairness or objectivity.  The fans allegiances are influenced and formed by the instruction of the commentators.  If one wrestler performs an illegal move during a match, that move can either be classified as ‘dirty’ or as ‘strategic’ based on the preordained script pushed forward by the announcers.  If the wrestler is meant to be a villain, he will be the recipient of scorn and disdain from the sidelines.  If he is meant to be a hero, the move will either be ignored or praised as ‘resourcefulness’.  These commentators and announcers can find their equals in the political world in the form of the media.  Our political media during times of elections believes it is not their job to call-out the objective truth.  They believe their job is to amplify the conflicts, provide a sounding board for the participants and to stick to the preordained storylines at all costs.  The confines of debates are framed ahead of time and are viewed by the media and then disseminated to the public only through the preexisting rubrics of thought.  Our most recent election was predetermined to be a referendum on democrats and on incumbency in general.  Regardless of whatever other notions may have been put forth, the media stuck to that narrative and pushed it relentlessly.  Our political media does not advocate for truth, nor do they require that their interview guests be at all beholden to it.  The empty claims that were described in the second item of this essay can exist only because the media allows them to happen.  Our politicians are enabled to spread lies and propaganda because we have a media culture that seeks to be a part of the process instead of a countervailing force pressing against it.  They are merely part of the show.

DON’T LOOK BEHIND THE CURTAIN

We all know that wrestling is fake.  From beginning to end, the entire spectacle is staged.  But that doesn’t stop millions of Americans from being totally engrossed and shelling out hundreds of dollars for tickets, merchandise and viewing rights for pay-per-view events.  Everyone who attends a professional wrestling match (except for the youngest of kids) knows they are watching an artificial conflict, but that knowledge never compels them to recognize, call-out or rebel against that artificiality.  The show can’t be fully enjoyed unless its inherent fictitiousness is embraced to the full.  The fans choose to ignore the lies that exist right in front of their face.  Our elections are driven by a similar willfully ignorant ideology.  Our media and our candidates prompt the voters to believe that the current election is of momentous importance.  They want us to think that our vote will carry all the weight and significance of a heavyweight title bout, but while they do this, they neglect to pull back the curtain to allow us to witness the elaborate charade that  lies behind.  Voters are not educated to learn that the differences between candidates are relatively small.  We are not shown the true records of those who seek reelection.  We are led astray from the real issues that have tangible affects on our lives and we are forced to focus on sideshow spectacles dominated by name-calling and rank demagoguery.  Just like wrestling, our elections are an illusion; a reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic.  The problem is that the voters know this.  People in our country have real problems that they know are going unaddressed.  But every two years, instead of unified action from all of us, voters fall victim to this illusion and start to believe that the fault simply lies with those from the other party.  Wrestling fans know that the match is fake, but they still get whipped into a frenzy when the action begins.  Similarly, voters know that our elections are fake, but they still insist on embracing the notion that a vote for a Republican instead of Democrat will somehow make a difference.  In both examples, its nothing more than willful ignorance from those looking to be entertained.

So the 2010 mid-term elections have come and gone, and the Republicans have triumphed in the steel cage against the Democrats.  We witness conservative voters who stand and cheer at the victory while liberal voters look for consolation and start plotting their strategy for the next match.  While all of this cheering and mourning continues, the grand electoral illusion, with all of its fireworks and engrossing plot lines, endures unabated.  Our elected leaders brandish their shiny new heavyweight belts, while their media enablers begin studying how to increase ratings for the next event.  And if the illusion is continuing, so too is the misery felt by the millions who’s needs will continue to go unanswered.  Our elections are nothing more than a state-sponsored form of entertainment, a competitive spectacle meant to distract voters from engaging in the kind of actions that could actually better their lives.  We need to drop our affiliations to political parties as if they were our favorite wrestlers or favorite football teams.  We need to require more from our leaders and our media than just mindless political gratification.  Wrestling is shallow and fake and violent and awful, but it has no affect on our shared welfare.  Politics and elections, on the other hand, have widespread consequences for us all.  The ramifications of treating the dealings of our Republic like a heavyweight bout are serious and will continue to worsen if they go uncorrected.  We can either choose to demand more, or we can be left behind, watching as two parties take turns knocking each other out with punches that don’t even connect.



“CLASSIC” FOR A REASON–Why The Scholastic Headaches of My Past Are The Treasures Of Today

October 5, 2010

It took me WAY too long to realize that some things are called "classic" for a reason

I believe I owe my high school english teachers an apology.

They sought to broaden my mind with some of the finest pieces of literature ever written.  In return, I sought to find new and imaginative ways out of having to actually read them.

I am older now and I suppose a bit wiser as well.  And a portion of that wisdom can be directly attributed to letting go of my educationally evasive ways and finally giving the classics the chance they deserve.  The five novels shown above;  “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “All Quiet On The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, “1984” by George Orwell, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck and “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair have all captured and held my imagination in ways that I never previously thought possible.  After trying so hard to avoid them, who knew that 15 years later these books would turn out to be my absolute favorites?

I hate to say it, but my english teachers were right and I was most certainly wrong.

But even if I had sucked it up and read everything that was assigned to me in high school, I don’t think I would’ve been properly equipped to truly appreciate them anyways.  My teenage mind was too preoccupied with thoughts of girls and basketball for there to be any room for classical literature.  I lacked the necessary depth and cultural awareness required to understand the messages woven into these books.  And therein lies the real shame, because these books offer to readers timeless lessons that are as true and as applicable today as they were when they were written.  I am fortunate enough to have been compelled to give them a second chance, but for others, novels like these remain in an educational graveyard never to be thought of again.  These books have the ability to illuminate our understanding of the world around us and it’s truly regrettable that for so many, they exist only as the relics of a long-forgotten youthful curriculum.

So if these books are currently gathering dust on your shelf, here’s a brief explanation of why each of them has something valuable to say about the world we live in today.

THE GREAT GATSBY–takes a long look at wealth, ambition and moral decay as they relate to the American Experience.  The book’s title character, Jay Gatsby, is a true example of the self-made man.  But for all of his accomplishments and materials possessions, he is still unable to attain his true desires.  He is forever chasing happiness in the form of Daisy, the object of his affection.  Gatsby’s earnestness and virtuous plight is contrasted by the hollowness and indifference of the society into which he has been elevated.  Those who surround him care only for themselves and the wealthy lifestyles that define them.  Gatsby ultimately falls short of his dream in tragic fashion.

Our world today is set up to condition us to believe as Gatsby did.  We are led to believe that success and happiness can be achieved through self-determination and a relentless pursuit of wealth.  The individualistic ethos pushed by the far-right and the corporatist class has produced a culture brainwashed to worship consumerism and to reject the value of the common good.  Our world fills us with desires to be rich, while those who are, have lost all concern for those below them.  Fitzgerald’s descriptions of a society filled with inequality in the 1920’s has incredible parallels to the wealth gap and decay that exists today.  Fitzgerald wrote, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”.  In our materialistic world of bail-outs and selfish ambition no truer words could be spoken.  The Great Gatsby provides a brilliant illustration of what happens when a world, such as ours, has truly lost their way.

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT–quite simply, gives full voice to the horrors of war.  The book follows the experiences of a group friends in the German Army during World War I.  Not a single line of the book is wasted on romantic notions of heroism or glory, instead we are given an honest portrayal of the brutality, pointlessness and long-term effects of war.  The book describes in grisly detail the way soldiers are robbed of their humanity and become either fresh-meat for the unstoppable war machine or numb, lifeless relics unable to re-enter normal society.  The author focuses on the empty value of nationalism and how citizens are conned into believing that war has purpose.  We also get to see the brotherhood that grows between soldiers after all other forms of human emotion and interaction are stripped from them by the blood-thirsty leaders that have betrayed them.

American men and women are currently engaged in conflict all over the globe.  Our media and government urge us ad nauseum to ‘support the troops’, but we live in a world where it is deemed cowardly and unacceptable to insist that these men and women might be shown true support by being spared of the horror and brutality of war.  We send young boys and girls to die in foreign lands without being asked to sacrifice ourselves.  All Quiet On The Western Front should be read by any person who blindly advocates for war without considering the true cost on the lives of those who fight it.  Militarism has become the religion of the United States and our society has become callous to its effects.  This book is a striking reminder that the violence of war not only kills and maims, but also has a deteriorative fallout on the country that supports it.

1984–is a bleak glimpse of life under an omnipresent totalitarian government.  Every aspect of life, including work, language, home, sex and recreation all fall under the absolute power of The Party.  The book’s main character, Winston Smith toils under this oppressive regime and struggles not only to remember a brighter past, but also secretly fights against the power structure to regain merely a shred of his individualism and independence.  The novel exposes the methods that totalitarian regimes use to control their citizens.  These methods include psychological manipulation, constant propaganda, intrusive technology, and restrictive control over all information.  It is a world where The Party retains its power by imposing absolute limitations on its citizens’ ability to even conceive of an alternative state of being.

The dark and sinister world portrayed in 1984 could easily be dismissed as a hyperbolic expression of government power.  But just because our world can’t match the same level of manipulation and despair, does not mean that many of these totalitarian devices don’t already exist.  Our oppressor is not a singular entity such as The Party, instead it is a collection of government agencies and huge corporations that strive to develop complete control over our finances, our thoughts, our beliefs, our consumer habits and our ability to act autonomously.  We live under a government that is rapidly expanding its ability to eavesdrop on its citizens and that same government is masterful in the way it uses propaganda to spread fear and animosity towards foreign enemies as a way to wage war.  Our information is controlled by a corporate-owned media that has no real regard for facts or the truth.  Our politicians and leaders are allowed to express dishonest and contradictory statements without being held to account.  We’re led to believe that capitalism allows us freedom of choice, but those choices are always dictated by a small list of companies whose only motivation is profit at our expense.  The connections between our world and the world in 1984 are subtle and are intentionally obscured from our minds, but they exist and are constantly growing nonetheless.  1984 offers a wake-up call to readers and urges them to examine and scrutinize those that wield power over them.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH–is a novel highlighting the struggle between rich and poor, landowner and tenant.  The author contends that the misery and misfortune of the one is directly caused by the inhumanity of the other.  The book tells the historical tale of families from the dust bowls of the midwest who were pushed off their land and forced to head west in search of work, land and a sliver of hope for the future.  Their journey is a combination of blind optimism and enduring hardship and despair.  Once in California, the family joins the ranks of thousands of other dispossessed families and realizes that their visions of a brighter future were all an illusion.  The trend of exploitation continues as the landowners of California seek to protect their own power by treating the migrants like animals, using their desperation as a weapon against them and ultimately turning them on each other.  The novel is a study of the hardships of class warfare, but also a contemplation of the value of family and the bonds that are formed by those who retain the value of humanity in the face of insurmountable sorrow.

The class struggle of The Grapes of Wrath is true for all societies throughout history, but it is especially germane to our recession-ravaged lives today.  We may not be forced to live in camps and asked to toil for merely pennies per day, but workers everywhere still feel the pressures of exploitation from the ruling classes in a variety of ways.  Our world today still lacks the altruism and kindness that is required so that everyone can enjoy a happy life.  The families in the book are perplexed at the notion that able-bodied humans who want to work and eat and live are somehow denied that opportunity.  Our country is currently filled with unemployed and dispossessed people who are still perplexed by that very situation.  The desperation of the characters in the book is also matched by an underlying anger.  That same anger exists today.  The Grapes of Wrath is a fantastic handbook for how and towards whom that anger should be directed.  This book is a wonderful reminder that family, love and people should always come first.

THE JUNGLE–is often incorrectly thought of as merely an expose of the turn-of-the-century meat packing industry.  It is more appropriately described as an expose on the failings of the entire capitalist system.  The novel features the lives and trials of an immigrant family that settles near Chicago as they optimistically pursue their vision of the American dream.  Over time, that dream is shattered by the realities of the cold-hearted and ruthless nature of capitalism.  The family is exploited, chewed-up and spit out by the profit-hungry machine.  Their belief that hard work and honesty will eventually bring happiness is dashed by a never-ending cycle of abuse and debasement at the hands of not only those who reign over them but also by those who are competing alongside of them as well.  The novel is a critique of capitalism and takes the position that despair among the working class is an unavoidable product of the system’s ultimately selfish goals.

Although our country has progressed past the era of 14 hour work days and the sale of contaminated meat, capitalism still exacts its toll on those who labor under it.  The Jungle is a terrific illustration of just how far we have come, but it is also a reminder of how much misery still remains.  The merciless extraction of labor from those with no other options still exists in this world, if not here in America, then in other countries where social advancement has yet to take hold.  Products, especially food products, are still made not so much for the benefits they offer the consumer, but for the cost-effective benefits they offer to those who sell them.  We’re still taught to believe in American Dream.  We’re still taught to believe that all you need to thrive is the will and determination to make that dream a reality.  The Jungle presents to us in unrelenting fashion, the abundance of holes that are forever woven into the fabric of that capitalist dream.

There is no way that all of these lessons could have carried the same significance if I had experienced them as a teenager rather than as an adult.  I feel silly for at one time being so adverse to the world of reading and classic literature, but at the same time my tardiness has afforded me new insight.  I could have given these books the chance they deserved in high school, but that chance would have forever classified these enduring works as nothing more than annoying stepping stones of my educational past.  My high school english teachers were indeed right, the value of these books is immeasurable.  But I am glad I resisted.  Instead of being musty tales of times long-forgotten, these books are now an important part of who I am and what I believe.  They’ve broadened my horizons and shaped my understanding of the world.  And if I’m not mistaken, that seems to be the whole reason why they’re assigned to us in the first place.  I should still get credit for figuring it out, albeit fifteen years too late.