Monday, February 28, 2011

My Two Film Heroes

I can't even remember the last Academy Award-nominated movie I saw but we're talking decades, not months or years. I bought a DVD player so my son, the movie buff, could watch films when he's here.  I've never bothered to learn how to turn it on. I have Showtime on my cable but I ordered it for one program, Inside NASCAR. I watched part of Avatar when we were in Florida visiting the kids but I gave up and went to bed before it was over.

Mom is big into the red carpet on Oscar night. She likes seeing the dresses and shoes and hair dos although she doesn't have a clue about who starred in what film.

I have favorite actors and actresses but that doesn't mean I'll necessarily bother to see them on the big screen. I loved Farrah Fawcett but I don't believe I ever saw one of her movies. I was always a Cher fan but I don't think I've ever seen one of hers either. I like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston but.....

Over all, I much prefer reading over watching films. Partly, that's because I'm more in control. I can pick up a book and put it down at my convenience, wherever I happen to be - at the doctor's office, in the car, at home. Movies require more commitment, especially if you go to the theater.  You have to be willing to invest a dedicated amount of time.

There are two actors for whom I'll go to that effort - Michael Moore and Johnny Depp. Yep, I know - two more disparate people you could not find - the consummate politico and the consummate actor. Beauty and the Beast. The ultimate reality and the ultimate fantasy. One who plays the same character, himself, every time and one who plays a series of wildly differing characters.

When you sit through a Michael Moore docu-movie, you come out depressed about the world and how the lower classes are screwed over by their superiors (superior in power, at least)....and how complicit we are in our own screwing. Depressed, yes, but believing that he shows you things you need to know if you are going to be an informed and aware citizen.

That's not to say I always agree with Michael. I think he goes a little over the top sometimes to make his points but I understand that some drama has to be created if you are going to to draw viewers. I totally disagreed with him about Barack Obama versus Hillary Clinton and I still think we'd be better off today if we'd elected Hillary, but that's water under the bridge, and people will disagree about candidates.

Johnny Depp offers the opposite of Michael. Pure entertainment and escapism. Leaping from the mainsail with daring Captain Jack Sparrow, the unrepentant reprobate who somehow always manages to pull off doing the right thing. Faraway lands, mysterious waters, fantastic villains. Wandering into wonderland with Alice and her exotic cohorts, including Johnny as the Mad Hatter.

Johnny's milieu is so totally different than Michael's. Wicked watery denizens of the deep versus the everyday evil of corrupt politicians. One of our heroes taking them on with an actual sword, while the other forges his sword from pen and camera. They are both pirates of a kind. One steals ships and treasures while the other tries to steal away with our apathy.

I have a thousand book heroes but on film, these are my only two.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shame of the Working Class

Oh, man, here we go again. I'm scheduled to retire in August of this year. Hopefully, Social Security and Medicare will see me through the rest of my life although I hold no great hopes of that. Maybe we'll go back to poor farms for the elderly. Whatever....

I have given up on optimism when it comes to the American working class. I've seen them betray one another and themselves too many times. What's going on in Wisconsin is deja vu all over again. And with the lovely addition this time of the Tea Partiers who can always be depended upon to jump off the steepest cliff at Rush and Glenn's suggestion.

One thing you can always count on is that the rich who rule corporate America will stick together (i.e., the mega-rich Koch Brothers in Wisconsin and their fair-haired Governor Walker). America's plutocrats may hate each other as individuals but when it comes to forming iron-clad bonds to lobby for laws that benefit them, to influence prices and wages to their advantage, to lavishly support their political cronies, to fund groups that actively seek to turn working class America against itself , they can depend on one another to the bitter end....and they can depend on us playing to type too.

As Mary Kay Horter, who has not had a pay raise or retirement contributions in her job as an occupational therapist for two years, was quoted as saying in the New York Times - "I don't get to bargain in my job." And that's always our the attitude. "I didn't get a raise/pension/increase in benefits/more holidays, so you shouldn't either."  It never fails that we can hardly wait to race each other to the freaking bottom.

Over and over, labor is brought down by jealousy. We can't see that that every hit sustained by the employees of American Whatchamacallit bleeds down to the employees of  National Thingamabob. That's so even if AW's workers are unionized and NT's workers are not, in fact, even more so.

Decades ago, America's strength was its large and prosperous middle class. Our goal then was to bring as many people into the middle class as possible. We believed that the better off America's workers were, the better off the country was. Well-paid employees meant more consumer spending and that meant more profits and oh, yes, more jobs. Unions played a big part in this scenario. Were they perfect? Absolutely not. Like all entities that grow in power, they also grew in arrogance and corruption. But they were a counter-balance to unlimited power by the corporations who were themselves arrogant and corrupt. They at least made labor a somewhat equal player in the struggle for political parity.

Highly compensated labor bought the cars they produced themselves and the microwave ovens you produced and the house you sold and the steak you served and the gas you pumped. It was a closed loop system. As everyone did better, everyone did better. A rising tide raises all boats, as the old saying goes.

But the corporations never quite bought into that rosy scenario for workers. If they could lower wages and benefits and renege on pensions, their profits would be even higher is how they saw it. And unions and collective bargaining were the root cause of demanding employees.

Ah, but then along came President Ronnie. I have always thought that busting the Air Traffic Controllers Union was a test to see just how much solidarity workers could count on from each other. They chose an elite group of employees. One about which the rest of us could say, "those greedy PATCO people, they make lots more than I do," (sort of like MaryKay Horter). People for whom it would be unlikely lower wage people would feel much sympathy.

Reagan sentenced the Air Traffic Controllers, not to a temporary suspension for their transgression, but a lifetime disbarment from their profession. Did the rest of us protest that this was cruel and unusual punishment for PATCO's crime? Nope. We cheered and loved us some RR. What a man! The John Wayne of the White House. God, it made me sick then and it makes me sick remembering it now. Look where that slippery slope took us. It's sure not Morning in America anymore.

After PATCO, the writing was on the wall. It put those superior Air Traffic Controllers in their places, by Golly, but it sent the rest of us a warning too.  When about one/third of us were unionized, we believed that increased productivity and higher wages were roughly comparable. No more. We have fallen to a union membership of about eight percent. Between 1980 and 2008, our productivity increased 75 percent while our wages went up only 22 per cent. So work as hard as you like for your bosses, but your reward probably won't correspond to your effort.

The Wisconsin's governor's attempt to outlaw collective bargaining is just the next phase in the war against labor and if Governor Walker wins, expect other states to take up the banner. This could just be the final nail in the workers' collective coffin.

Incidentally, for all the talk about budgets and the necessity of employees being willing to pitch in and help, the Wisconsin Public Employees have already agreed to make the cutbacks the governor asked for but that wasn't enough to satisfy him - he wants to do away with collective bargaining. What do you think the motive for going down that slippery slope could be? Without collective bargaining, there may as well not be a union which is exactly the point.

And let's see what the result might be. Five states do not allow their teachers to collectively bargain. Here they are with their national rank in education:

South Carolina - 50th

North Carolina - 49th

Georgia - 48th

Texas - 47th

Virginia - 44th.

Wisconsin currently ranks 2nd. If the anti-union crowd wins, what do you suppose that percentage will be in a few years?

The race is on! Let's see who can get to the bottom first! Just like always.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Questions About Karma

My friend has always known I believe in reincarnation. During the years of our friendship, we've mentioned it in passing but I don't recall ever having an in-depth discussion about religion. She is a traditional Christian in the automatic way that so many are....because it was instilled in childhood as if there were no other possibilities.

In the last decade and a half, my friend has suffered multiple tragedies that have left her looking for something more, a yearning to understand the why of it. What is our purpose as humans and why does a supposedly loving God let these terrible things befall us?

She's certainly not the first person to pose those questions and I'm not the first person to try to answer based on my own beliefs.

"I believe in reincarnation," I told her, "because it is the only philosophy that makes sense of it all to me."

(Incidentally, Christianity and reincarnation are not in conflict. You can believe in both at the same time. There are even Bible verses which point toward reincarnation such as Matthew 17:12-13 which seems to indicate that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elias).

If you believe that we are given one life to get it right and that God's judgment is then based on how we perform during an existence as brief in the scheme of the cosmos as the twinkling of an eye, then you believe in a creator who rules by means of a spiritual roulette wheel.

Spin! Red 22! You will be born the child of, oh, let's say, Bill and Hillary Clinton. Your parents will be devoted to you. You will be exceedingly bright and attractive. You will be given every material advantage it is possible to have. Your choices in life will be many; your potential unlimited.

Spin! Black 19. You will be born in a ghetto. Your mother will be addicted to crack; your father will be in prison. Your school is falling down. Gangs rule your neighborhood. As a child, you are hungry, frightened, abused, molested.

Spin! You are developmentally disabled or crippled by disease.

Spin! You are in the Olympics, superior in your athletic ability.

Spin! You are sold into child prostitution in Singapore.

Spin! You graduate at the top of your class at Harvard.

Based on the final tally of  these vastly different life experiences and opportunities, are we to believe that a loving God casts us into heaven or hell for all eternity?

I just can't buy it. There has to be more to it than that. There has to be a fairer system.

For me, that fairer system is reincarnation. The belief that we live many lives and that each of them is another opportunity to evolve until we reach spiritual perfection.

I believe that our journey through our incarnations is one of spiritual education. Karma is not punishment but a kind of curriculum, one we choose ourselves, to emphasize lessons that need to be learned. If we are given great riches in one life and abuse them by being greedy and selfish and patronizing to those who have little, then in a future incarnation, we will suffer from privation so that we learn empathy for those we scorned.

If we are bigots, we will return as a despised minority so that our bigotry is turned back on us. If we are arrogant about our talents, we may have them in another life but we will search fruitlessly for success so that they benefit us not. Abuse your health by way of gluttony or addiction in one incarnation and live with the consequences in the next.

I believe that God is not cruel by design. He is cruel in a way that a teacher is cruel, insisting that every student passes the required tests before moving to a higher level. You set your own pace and will be given as many opportunities as you need to progress. Some of us are more resistant and willful than others about learning our lessons, just as we are in this world.

Reincarnation answers every question for me. It levels the playing field so that everyone of us has the same opportunities. In time, we will all be rich and poor, strong and weak, black and white, male and female. How we treat our fellow travelers is how we will be treated in our turn.

Reincarnation is not the same as fate. It is not pre-determination. At any time, we may exercise our will and improve our progress. We may be harsh or intolerant or self-righteously superior (a quality which many Christians possess)  but we don't have to stay that way.

We do not consciously remember our past lives, at least, most of us don't, but on a subconscious level, we retain the knowledge we learned in other incarnations. This explains why we are born with a seemingly natural ability - for music or art or medicine. It explains why we are drawn to certain occupations. It explains why we feel at home in places where we have never been and why we meet some people as old friends although we've never met them before. (Entities tend to reincarnate together so that families and friends seek each other out life after life).

Sometimes we choose an incarnation, not for our own sake, but for the sake of others in the ultimate act of love. A developmentally disabled child may have dedicated that life to help another learn a necessary life lesson and when that lesson is learned, it is free to move on to continue to seek its own spiritual destiny.

We typically believe that learning to help others is a worthy endeavor but we must also remember that the converse, learning to accept help through our own weakness, may be equally as valuable.

I bought my friend some books about reincarnation. She can choose to read them or not. She can choose to believe or not. I'm not a proselytizer. I don't try to convince anyone to my point of view. I believe that you can be any religion....or none. It doesn't matter because karma will affect you just the same.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Two Seasons

We NASCAR fanatics believe there are only two seasons: racing season and waiting-for-racing season. Unfortunately, the latter coincides with the season known to normal people as winter. During the very time when you need them most, the cars are at home in their garages so that most of us would simply go into hibernation from after Christmas until mid-February if we could.

This year has been even worse than usual with the tear that Mother Nature has been on. Here in Indiana, we've experienced blizzards with 16 inches of snow, howling arctic winds, white-outs and snowed-ins. We've had ice storms so that my back door was frozen shut and wouldn't open no matter how hard I slammed my shoulder against it. I was finally forced to go down my front steps, out into the street, around the front and then the side and up my drive to get to my car - roughly half the distance of a city block.  Yesterday morning, it was 11 degrees below zero. When I closed my eyes, I pictured a crew of elves shoveling bales of dollar bills into the furnace.  I've now paid my Mystery Shoveler as much as I paid my lawn service for a summer's worth of mowing.  My driveway is almost exactly the width of my car and lined by two snow walls. I wouldn't dare venture outside without a coat, hat, gloves, scarf and boots.

The worst part of all this is the lack of stimulation. Looking out my windows reveals a landscape of unrelieved gray and white - tree trunks standing stark against the snow. An overcast sky from which the sun seems to have permanently take its leave. It would be easy to convince yourself now that you only imagined a world of warmth and color and excitement.

Of course, the television is boring too without racing. Mom works crossword puzzles and watches the History Channel search for the Truth about the Shroud, UFOs, the Lost Tomb of Some Pharaoh. I read and rarely turn on my t.v.

Now, finally, we have made it to Speed Weeks in Daytona where it all starts again.  The rumble of vehicle engines that aren't snow plows.  Rainbow-hued cars and firesuits. Sunshine, ocean waves, palm trees. And optimism which is what we need most of all.

Everyone is an optimist in February at Daytona - drivers, crew chiefs, owners and fans. Every team is exactly even with every other team with the 2011 season looming brightly ahead of them. They will win a race, make the Chase, hoist the championship trophy come November in Homestead. It is all possible. Heartaches will eventually interrupt this plan for smooth sailing but not yet.

And so for them, for us. The snow will melt; the air will warm; the sun will shine; the flowers will bloom - and your driver has as good an opportunity to be a champion as any other....for now.

The new season - racing season - arrives and brings happiness with it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Back in Business

Okay, we're back in business after a couple of weeks off-line. My first warning that I had a problem was coming to this blog to be met by a warning - "FORBIDDEN!" - and the playing of the  JAWS theme. When I called the people who administer Redstatebluecollar, I was told the amount of traffic my blog received was messing with their server.

Seriously? This little backwater of a blog located somewhere in the farthest reaches of cyberspace, the tiniest blip in the blogosphere, was creating an internet traffic jam? I would have considered it a compliment had I believed it.

Credible or not, I was informed that I would have to upgrade to a dedicated server. No longer would I be paying a minimal annual fee but instead would switch to a recurring monthly charge. "Send us your credit card number and we'll take care of everything".

So, that's where I'm at now although I'm still pondering whether I think the the additional $$ are worth it because of the kind of off-the-wall traffic I mostly get.

I admit being a computer dummie. This blog is bare-bones because that's really all I know how to do. It revolves around writing - stories, opinions, information. I totally do not understand how or why spammers decide to bombard a blog with junk.

First, I get hundreds of comments in foreign languages, mostly in Cyrillic script (I think). I understand that there is a translator program I could install but I don't know what language I'd be attempting to translate! If I thought any of the comments were legit, I'd probably make the effort to try to find out but I don't think they are, so I mark them as spam and disappear them.

And, man, oh, man, did I ever make a mistake writing about new kinds of designer drugs. Ever since, I've gotten a ton of entreaties to buy pharmaceutical products of various kinds. Most of these are many paragraphs long. They list medication after medication and the prices for which I can purchase them. Many of them also contain a series of useless dots that have the effect of causing the comment to take up half a page. I don't know what the writers (or more likely, automatic response mechanism) hopes to achieve. Do they believe that if they bombard me, they'll wear me down so that I finally publish them or even order something? Not likely. Instead, I sigh and delete, delete, delete.

I also get lots of porn responses. They are often in a foreign language too except key words like "porn" itself. The ones in English describe what I'll see if I respond. Maybe they think they'll intrigue me into replying. And I admit that I was somewhat curious about "double anal penetration" but not enough to actually click. If I had thought it would be a one-off, I might have gone ahead rather than spending the rest of my life wondering but I was afraid I'd simply open the flood gates to a flood of new blog-busters.

I'll be retiring this August and my plan was to spend more time learning about the various facets of blogging then. You know, importing pictures and videos and inserting text blocks and, well, all that other stuff professional bloggers do.  That will be even more important now that the ante has been upped.

Blogging is like everything else in life, eventually it forces you to declare your intention - you can either plink around for your own amusement without much commitment of time or money or you make the investment to learn and grow.