Monday, January 24, 2005

Here's To The 22%

With the heavy snow in Chicago and the storm on the East Coast I was watching CNN and one of their polls reported that, during winter, 22% of those responding would go out and play while the remaining 78% just wanted to stay at home and keep warm. Well, it was nice spending the messy day moving the snow in the driveway and then cooking for a group of friends. But, Sunday, we went out skiing at a nice hilly park nearby. Wow! the snow was nice and crisp, the trails fast, and the exhilaration of stretching out on a sunny day was delightful. Those of you who ski, sled, snowshoe, or just plain cavort in the white stuff know the feeling. The park system that I, and that 22% of us, use for recreation is a reminder of the public good that is accomplished by a government whose mandate is to make our lives better and more enjoyable. The benefits that accrue from support of our public parks are indeed intangible, but those wonderful open spaces provide a gift for the generations.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

I Celebrate America

Or, perhaps it is better to say that I celebrate democracy. On this January 20, a profoundly mean-spirited person is taking the oath of office as the 44’th president of the United States Of America.

Our nation has survived fools, hollow suits, ideologues, and men whose senility crept upon them while in office. However, we also have had those, as first-citizens of this nation, who generously led us through troubled times or were visionaries of our true national greatness. America has managed to survive the great and foolish alike; perhaps not without scars, but always with a renewed sense that our democratic ideals are revolutionary and remain the best example for a free and just world.

Those who were our greatest presidents acted as if they embodied singular and genuine public ethics regardless of the peculiarities of their private lives. Some recognized that they, as president, lead from a position of being a citizen among a nation of peers. The honorable burden of representing this nation is one that is granted, not taken. Others, while wealthy, excelled by acting upon the realization that out of great privilege comes a great responsibility. Our democracy will not thrive if this is forgotten. The very best presidents demanded of us that we attend to a real justice for all people even if it meant the denial of legalities that had been the morals of our nation. America is far more than just a nation of laws.

America has also been fortunate to have ethical, if weak, presidents. While we may not have thrived under those who’s principled forethought did not match the cynicism of the times or who, to the best of their abilities, actualized a reasoned position which failed, our nation was stronger for the public debate they created.

We have not been fortunate when men of mediocre intelligence are swept into office. America has had to endure presidents hiding their increasing senility and dementia under an actor’s mask, those whose small-minded greed led them to forget the best interests of our nation’s citizens, or those ignorant men who took office as part of a political machine.

Anyway, good or bad, our democracy has persevered so very durably, correcting errors, striving to enhance the lives of its citizens. As insufferable as it may be to have that dishonest, fraudulent, weak, little man, G.W. Bush, as our president, I have hope that a just democracy will prevail.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Education And Democracy

Personally, when I stop learning and using an improving knowledge to adjust the way I perceive the world, I will be dead.

Observing the dynamics of American society, its impulses, the ideas we develop, and the reaction of citizens to events affecting us all, I see, with no uncertainty, that the maintenance of a vibrant democracy and the quality of my own life is absolutely dependent upon a well educated population. And, while not an educator nor an expert in education theory, attempting to live my secularist ethics along with the responsibility I have to my democracy, underscores, for me, the importance of education in supporting our freedoms, unchaining the expression of our best impulses. So why this entry?

I am concerned that a vital aspect of any good education, critical thought, is being submerged under a wave of mechanistic, business-oriented, stultifying, training. No one disagrees that a facility in the mechanics of arithmetic, reading and writing must be effectively taught and monitored. An ability for more sophisticated learning and analysis is contingent upon such literacy. Perhaps it is pessimistic, but I do not see a growth of discriminating thought. Why?
  • There are more people in America doubting the fact of Evolution and The Theory of Natural Selection than in any other first-world nation. How sad that people are swayed by superstition and blind speculation rather than factual observation and a testable model.
  • I see an increasingly gullible populace easily manipulated by sophisticated commercial advertisement. Rather than being skeptical of transparently mercantile appeals, such people revel in being sheep-like “consumers” rather than educated customers.
  • It is easy to observe that most of Americans are fearful of low probability threats such as terrorism but ignore greater, everyday, threats to our safety, freedom and economic health. How else to explain the imbecility of believing our president, who manufactures fictional crises then claims the ability to rescue us from the conditions he has created.
  • I’m not even going to touch the kindergarten religiosity practiced by most believers. Thomas Paine has plowed that ground far too well.
  • Then there is the slack-jawed unquestioned acceptance of a poisonous world-view vomited by right-wing commentators and conservative think-tanks that do not have the best interests of their audience in mind.

Examples abound, but I don’t have all of 2005 to enumerate them. I am not the first to believe that an inability to think rationally has a corrosive effect upon democracy. But, aside from speculation, one need only consider those nations with a population either ill educated or educated solely for the goal of serving industry. Naive populations in Saudi Arabia, Iran, China or Singapore, among many, submit to restrictions upon their liberty and free will by leaders cynically contemptuous of the people they rule. They are object lessons for America.

My hope is that this nation will exert the effort and recommit to our democratic ideals by supporting a liberal education that is not entirely a corporate conveyor belt. I believe that learning the art of sifting ideas, comparing them against common observation, safeguards our democracy by arming us with the best offense against an ignorance that would be used to shackle our hopes.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Tsunami Relief

I cannot add anything regarding the Tsunami that so devastated an uncounted number of people's lives. I do wish to add something to the relief effort. My spouse and I have contributed her pension for a week. She was involved in a bus rollover accident in Thailand and the unstinting generosity that was shown to her deserves repayment in this time of their need, so we are feeling generous.

A digression for my countrymen who have not traveled in Asia. In general, societal support of individuals in these countries is driven at the family or local community level and rarely accomplished by the government. You may call this a form of "selfish familialism". There is also no insurance. Be that as it may, the communities are still rather generous with its members. Yet at this time, when many communities have suffered major disruptions, this support is severely fragmented. When you look at where your support goes, make sure that it is predominantly delivered at the local level!

It appears that survival assistance is now flooding in. This is all as it should be, but we must give thought to rebuilding livelihoods and communities as well as lives. For instance, I have heard that groups like Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) have ample funds and finding how to contribute to longer-term projects was difficult for me. Galvanizing long term generosity is also a problem because of the attention deficit disorder in the American media.

Luckily, I have a friend who works for the travel agency, Abercrombie & Kent. They are supporting "Bhat For Boats". You may see this at . They are paying 100% of all administrative costs, they have local offices where the effectiveness of the generosity may be monitored, and better yet, this will go towards rebuilding boats for fishermen and schools for communities.

Just letting you know.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Wonderful Physicality of XC-Skiing

Just spent a week in Northern Michigan cross country skiing with friends. How to describe it? I'm not a racer and like the narrow single tracks yet there is still a great joy in the physicality of the experience. Listening to the creak of deep snow under your skis and poles and the sibilant hiss as your skis run downhill brings you into the present as sensations accumulate; feeling warm inside but sensing the chill of the air around your body, noticing the snow fleas coming out of hiding as the snow warms, the stress you feel within your body with heart and lungs and muscles working to achieve a smooth rhythm, all conspires to create an fine intensity of being part of the world around you. In pursuing this sport one realizes that the closeness with the natural world heightens the senses, not only for the practical aspects of noticing the trail and snow conditions and the form and style one brings to the skiing, but also for the sensations of the world; the light under the trees or the muffled sounds carried on the wind. One ends the day tired, perhaps with sore muscles, but greatly satisfied by the journey through the landscape.

This reminds me of the first statement that Joseph L. Sax makes in the appendix of "Mountains Without Handrails"; "The parks are places where recreation reflects the aspirations of a free and independent people." I can"t help but think that this also applies to our recreation choices and am happy that I have chosen to celebrate human powered recreation. While I am often disgusted with motorized recreation, I am actually sorry for those who in their reliance on things other than their own strength and skills actually demonstrate how weak they are.