Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A Few Words on Ettiquette

Whatever happened to manners?

I hate to sound like an old grouch, but it seems like people today - young and old - have completely lost sight of all social proprieties.  And to be clear, this is not some "can't we call just get along" whine fest.  I acknowledge that we're never going to see eye-to-eye on a lot of issues.  But we are stuck with each other, differing opinions and all, and we have two choices: kill each other or figure out a way to get along despite these differences.  We don't have to agree to be falsely sweet to each other.  We don't even have to like each other.  I can hate your guts and still carry myself with a little dignity.

So here are a few observations on social graces that we could all stand to revisit:

  1. "Please" and "Thank you" go a long way.  It was true when mom and dad told us years ago, and it's still true.  You'd be amazed how much you can accomplish when dealing with others if you pepper your speech with these magic words.  And please don't say them with dramatic sarcasm.
  2. Don't insist on going first.  You may be the most important person to yourself, but you can't expect the rest of the world to see it that way.  Yield the right of way in traffic once in a while.  Allow others to order first at restaurants.  Hold the door open for others.  When you're in a slow moving line, shut the hell up with the complaining.  This includes traffic jams.  Deal with it.
  3. Being loud doesn't make you right.  Save the shouting for concert.
  4. If someone disagrees with you on something, let it slide.  You're not going to change their mind any more than they're going to change yours.  Learn the art of saying "I respectfully disagree".
  5. You're not supposed to like your job.  That's why they pay you to do it.  So save your complaining for when you get home.  They don't care.  Just be glad you have a job.
  6. Address people formally (Mr. This and Ms. That) until you have been told specifically to do otherwise.  Disrespecting people doesn't make you cool, it makes you an ass.
  7. Unless someone tells you to "make yourself at home", don't.
  8. Acknowledge the fact that you may be wrong, even if you are 99.999% sure you're right.  Don't assume the other guy is wrong just because they see it differently.
  9. Avoid the following topics in general conversation (as they tend to bring out the worst in people): politics, religion and sports.  Simply put, we all root for our own teams.
  10. The world doesn't owe you a damn thing.  Act accordingly.
Can we all agree that these are pretty good rules to observe?  I promise to do my part.  Okay?  Okay.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas in the Poorhouse

This holiday season many of us find ourselves in a quandry.  How do we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, whatever with all its gift giving while in the midst of a lousy economy?  I don't care what your politics are, or who you think is to blame.  That's irrelevant.  Right now Christmas et al is looming.  Gifts are expected.  And many of us are broke, and worse, unemployed.

I've given this some thought.  My first thought is: why should the retail behemoths necessarily have to cash in?  Christmas has been celebrated for years before there were such things as Wal-Mart, Target etc.  They see this time of year as one big cash pinata.  They herd us in on Black Friday weekend, queuing up at ungodly hours to save money.  And by save money, I mean of course spend money.  It's enough to make a person jaded.

So this year, I have a proposal.  Maybe it will catch on, maybe not.  I don't really care; it's my way of making the holidays special for the folks I love without going broke, or spending the rent money on someone else's "must have gift".  Here's what I plan to give: myself.

See, I'm good with a few things.  I can fix busted computers.  I can cook a little.  I can clean.  I can wash a car or mow a lawn (come spring of course).  I can split firewood.  I can carry heavy things, reach tall things, and be useful in general to those who need that sort of thing.  I can put together things that require assembly.  I know a little about carpentry, a little about electricity, and a little about a lot of things.  I'm no polymath, more like a jack of all trades. 

So this year, I am offering, in lieu of gifts I can't afford, to give you something you really do need: a little help.  Because you're my friend, because you can't do it all on your own, I am giving you the one thing I can afford.  I will offer each friend one full day of my time, to help them out in whatever I can.  There is no need to pay me, no need to even thank me.  Just let me know when and where, and I'll be there. 

And if it's true what they say, that time is money, I'm giving you something valuable indeed.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Mel Gibson Needs to Cool Off

I spend more time than I should paying attention to "entertainment news", which isn't really news. It's gossip, and juicy details about the various meltdowns of celebrities from all walks of life. Whatever an actor does when they aren't acting falls under the category of "entertainment news". Whatever a professional athlete does besides athletics usually does too. Admittedly, it's more interesting than a lot of what you'll watch on C-SPAN.

One of the more recent meltdowns (or re-meltdowns) has been Mel Gibson's. Remember a few years ago? He got arrested on a DUI and proceeded to tell the arresting officer why Jews were responsible for all the wars in the world. Back at the station, he addressed a female police office as "sugar t*ts". Part of his damage control was to point out that he was a family man and a good Catholic. Exhibit "A" was his wife of thirty years and their bah-zillion kids. Take THAT, Brad and Angelina!

He had the good sense to shut the hell up for a little while after that. He released "Apocolypto", which did okay considering nobody spoke any English. Then he left his wife and took up with a Russian model, and had a kid out of wedlock. Since then, he's been recording verbally abusing her, wishing she'd get gang-raped and telling her she deserved to get hit.


What got me writing today wasn't the need to parrot back what you could have read anywhere. Believe me, I just glossed over the highlights. If you want the real dirt, visit any one of a hundred different web sites, all dishing the dirt. What got me writing was in the comment section, which read in part " the real reason this article was written, is that the writer and the elitists in general hate Christianity (which Mel Gibson represents...)"

Wow. Really?

Let me say first, that I am not a Christian. I was once, but I'm not now. (Long story, ask me later.) It seems as if the person who made that comment feels the anti-Mel writings have more to do with settling a score with Christianity in general and uses its most public representative, Mel Gibson, to make that happen. It makes me wonder if the commenter was hinting that the anti-Mel backlash in the press recently isn't some cleverly orchestrated comeuppance by the Jewish community.

What bugs me is the idea that anyone can represent a religion. In the case of Christianity, you've got Jesus, and then you've got everybody else interpreting who Jesus was, what Jesus was all about, and doing their best to emulate that. Because as Christians - followers of Christ - one would think that you could gauge your performance as a follower by how well you emulate the leader. Now apart from laying hands on the sick or walking on water, I think the best way one could emulate Jesus would be to attend to the sick, to feed the hungry, to offer encouragement to the downtrodden, to not sit in judgment of others, and so on. But don't take my word for it - if you really want to know how best to emulate Jesus - in other words, to be a Christian - then get it from the source. Read the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That ought to be enough to get you started. Do what he would do, say what he would say, and avoid doing or saying stuff he probably wouldn't have done or said. From what I've read, there isn't a lot of mystery to it. You can take what you see at face value.

Understand that to me, it makes no difference if you're a Christian or not. I just don't care. But it seems to me that if every self-proclaimed "Christian" out there were to suddenly and genuinely dedicate themselves to be as much like Jesus the man as they possibly could, there would be a lot less war, a lot less televangelism, a lot less judging, a lot less violence, a lot less homeless, a lot less racism, a lot more caring about the environment, a lot more concern over health care (especially for the young and the poor), a lot less corruption, and a lot less Mel Gibsons in general.

Of course, I could be wrong.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Greasing the Wheels

So now oil is starting to wash up on the beaches in Texas, thanks to the never-ended bad news that is the BP Drama. For those of you living in a cave until just now, back in April a BP drilling facility in the Gulf of Mexico fell to pieces about a mile underwater, and has since been spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate that makes the Exxon Valdez spill look like a bad day at Jiffy Lube. Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states, just now emerging from the carnage of Katrina a few years back, are now losing the fishing and tourist industries thanks to zillions of gallons of greasy goop washing ashore. I pause at the news that Texas is now affected, only because it will be telling to see how the state known for its love of oil wells will react to this. That and the fact that Texas' governor hates Obama and the federal government, and I'll love to see him changing his tune when he asks, ten gallon hat in hand, that the feds step in and help the good folks in Texas clean all this up, or at least help pay for it.

That aside, I saw an article on about 6 alternative cars to the Mini Cooper. The idea was to showcase the other little, fuel efficient go-devils currently on the market. Of the six alternative to the German Mini, only one was from an American car company (Ford). The others were all Asian - Honda, Nissan, Suzuki, Kia and Scion (Toyota).

Now, it doesn't surprise me that out friends in the Far East set the pace for peppy, high-mileage cars. But it does disappoint me that our auto industry here in the U.S. seems oblivious to the realities concerning oil and gas. It is common for addicts to live in a state of perpetual denial about their addictions, so allow me to attempt an intervention with a few reality bombs. Please note the following for the record:

  • Gas is expensive. Granted, we pay less for our gasoline in the United States than a lot of other countries. But in the last few years, as our economy has circled the drain and jobs are evaporating, filling the gas tank is a bigger deal now than ever. Americans may be encouraged to "Buy American", but when we have to choose between treason and bankruptcy, then we are ultimatelty capitalists - which means we go where the bargains are. American car companies, in ignoring this, jeopardize their futures with the one captive audience they have.
  • Oil supplies are not endless. Ask a scientist. We, as a country consume more oil now than ever, and the earth isn't making more at a rate that can keep up. Simple mathematics dictate that we will, at the rate we're going, run out before we've had a chance to phase ourselves into a more viable long-term alternative. We do ourselves and our children a grave disservice by not acknowledging this.
  • It's only going to get worse. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in the 80's, we sat shiva for months, thinking that this was surely as bad as it could ever get. But in light of this current BP nightmare, we're almost nostalgic for that bush-league whoopsie. We are going to pay the piper on this one for decades to come. It's fair to say that the reality, the full reality of this has not yet landed on our collective consciousness. And we cannot afford to tell ourselves "surely this is as bad as it can get", as if the gods themselves would surely intervene to prevent anything any worse in the future. It is our job to draw the line in the oil-soaked sand and say to the big oil companies "this far and no further".

So to the American auto makers, please understand I am on your side here. I want you to succeed. I hate the thought of you sending your executives back to Washington (in your private jets) to ask for yet another bailout. You want to compete globally? You want to win back the hearts (and loyalty) of the American car-buying public? Acknowledge that our oil supplies are not infinite, and we're being pretty poor stewards of what little we have. We, the buying public, will always love that Detroit gave birth to the throaty "vroom" of the V8, and gave the world the Mustangs, the Corvettes, and the GTOs. But the rules of the game have shifted, and this is no time to wax nostalgic. Start dedicating yourselves to cranking out, en masse, fuel-efficient cars, hybrids, and other vehicles designed to take both the environment and the economy seriously. Maybe when we get the Gulf mopped up and the economy rebounds, we can talk about the possibility of making more useless money pit cars like the Humvee. But now, in light of the Gulf and my wallet, it's just in poor taste.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Define "Victory".

There's an article on Huffington Post about how House Democrats are withholding several billion dollars from our efforts in Afghanistan, citing rampant corruption. Really, guys? You're just now figuring that out? I haven't attended a single Congressional hearing, and I could have told you that.

But I have a better idea, fellas. What do you say we withhold all funding for our wars until we define what winning means?

It's a simple question, but I'm afraid the answers haven't been simple, and what's worse is they haven't been consistent. Here's a little tip: if you're going to lie, and if you want to make it believable, do not change your story. Cops know they've got someone guilty of something if their answers to simple questions are elusive or inconsistent. I wonder what the cops would do with the people who marketed these wars to the American people.

First, we were going over there because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Then, it turns out they didn't. Then it was to remove Saddam Hussein from power. So we did that, established a democratically elected government, and still we stayed for years. Towards the end, it was said that our presence was providing a stabilizing element in an environment that was deeply unstable. This, of course, ignored the fact that we were the main reason for all that instability in the first place.

In World War II, we had clear enemies - the Germans and the Japanese. they did us a great service by wearing uniforms and flying flags. They really helped minimize the chance we would accidentally shoot some sad sack civilians. All we had to hear was "Heil Hitler", or see the Japanese rising sun, and we were allowed to open fire. And in the case of Japan, we would accept nothing but the unconditional surrender. We were hardasses. Even when they did surrender, they came aboard the U.S.S. Missouri, General Percival refused to shake General Yamashita's hand.

In this "War on Terror", we have no such luxuries. Our enemies do not fly flags, they do not salute, they do not wear uniforms. There is no grand organization, not in any formal sense. Mapping the heirarchy of the terrorists of the world is like trying to herd cats. People in the Middle East do not need a general, a formal declaration of war, or a base camp to hate and kill us.

As such, it is difficult to know when we're finished. There's a story about Japanese soldiers who were on remote islands in the Pacific when the Japanese surrendered. No one told them, and months after it was all over, they were still there, ready to blast any Americans who showed up. Our war is a little like that. There is no central command. If we killed Osama bin Laden, or even if we got him to sign an unconditional surrender, there would be people hell-bent on killing Americans who wouldn't let that deter them.

Which brings me back to our efforts in Afghanistan. Given that there doesn't seem to be any real leader - not one to sign a surrender, anyway - it makes you wonder how we'll know when to declare victory and go home. Given that this is officially the longest we've ever been at war with any country, perhaps now would be a good time to establish some benchmarks. One of two things is going to happen here. Either we'll win or we'll lose. And if we don't have any clear ways to define "victory", we are doomed to defeat. We do not have an endless supply of money, soldiers, or patience. We need to be able to say why we're there, what we want to accomplish while we're there, and how we'll know for certain when we've accomplished that.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cruel to Be Kind

Nobody wants to be called "cruel". It is just about the harshest adjective you can use to describe someone. There are bullies, mean-spirited people, jerks, and yet all of these ne'er-do-wells manage to avoid being called "cruel". In fact, it is such a harsh term, that in the right contexts, it's actually a crime: cruelty to animals, cruel and unusual punishment etc.

In recent years the term "badass" has become a compliment. We've always loved badasses, even before it was the term. Brando in "The Wild One", James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause", etc. But there is an unseen line, where we stop the badassery just short of cruelty. And to be certain, it's a slippery slope. For example, if you own a pit bull, you're a badass. If you enter your pit-bull in a dog fight, you're cruel. If you wear leather, you're a badass. If you wear fur, you're cruel. Steak is badass, veal is cruel. Beat up a guy, you're a badass. Beat up a woman, and you're going to jail, and so on.

I have friends who aspire to be "cruelty-free" recently. Going shopping with them is a predictable nightmare, though a well-intentioned one. No meat, no dairy, no products tested on animals, only cage-free eggs (if they eat eggs), no leather or suede, and so on ad nauseum. That's noble and all, but how far do we take this? For that matter, how do we define cruelty? Is anyone truly "cruelty free", regardless of their shopping lists?

In the quest to gain the "cruelty-free status", it's easy to get started. We can avoid beating people up, especially small children, the elderly and the handicapped. That's a good start. Allow people the right of way in traffic. Quit taking perverse pleasure in Simon Cowell's belittling remarks on "American Idol". After that it gets a little less obvious.

What about hunting? Is hunting cruel, if the animal suffers very little, and you eat what you kill? Is it less cruel to pay a corporate farm to raise, then kill, then cut up animals so that we can buy cellophane-packaged steaks? Deer hunters make the argument that *not* killing the deer is actually the crueler option, as they will overpopulate and starve to death. That said, I still think mounting the deer's head and hanging it on the wall to impress the guys is cruel.

Is wearing leather or fur cruel? If a cow is slaughtered for the meat, and the skin could be used but isn't, that seems if not cruel, then at least wasteful. Of course this whole argument hinges on the idea that slaughtering cows for any reason could be justified.

Is eating meat cruel? If so, why? Because it's a living thing, and life is sacred etc? Well then what about plants? People who decline eating meat for reasons of cruelty, but aren't the plants alive too? Do they not grow and reproduce, just like any other life form? And if we snuff out that plants life to eat parts of it, isn't that cruel? Maybe if plants had the ability to make sounds, like if a stalk of corn screamed whenever an ear of corn got ripped away, we might have to re-think the whole "vegetarians are cruelty free" thing.

Under what circumstances is cruelty forgivable, even arguably necessary? Some people think water boarding terror suspects to get them to confess to their evil plans is cruel, but it's an acceptable cruelty, insofar as it could yield information that ultimately allow law enforcement to prevent a larger cruelty (a terrorist attack). Personally, I don't buy this argument; the odds that a water boarding victim will tell the truth are unlikely. More likely they'll tell their captors whatever they want to hear so as to stop the water boarding. I know I would.

The ability to sustain life, whether human, cow, or Venus Fly Trap is predicated on the taking of life. There is a certain level of cruelty which is inherent in all civilizations, indeed in any one thing's survival. We kill things to survive. It may be an animal for the meat, an enemy in self-defense, a colony of ants that invades our kitchen. Someone once said "a developer is someone who wants to build a house in the woods. An environmentalist is someone who already has a house in the woods." It makes you wonder if perhaps cruelty is a matter of perspective.

My point is that it's easy for us to talk about being cruelty-free, when much of the dirty work is done. If you're reading this in America, your home was built on land stolen from massacred people. If you eat, whether you eat plants or animals, your sustenance is a death sentence to other living things. Every bit of uneaten food you throw away is an act of cruelty too, when you consider how many people go without a decent meal. Your freedom is an act of cruelty, when you consider the blood that was spilled in gaining it. I could go on, but you get the idea.

We must each of us understand our own potential for cruelty, and the futility of trying to avoid it altogether. Beyond that, we can make little choices to stake our claim somewhere on the spectrum between karmic altruism and Michael Vick.