Monday, February 26, 2007

A Defining Moment

In almost every life, there is a defining moment -- meeting your beloved, the birth of a first child, allowing a life's lesson fully to permeate one's being, an epiphany. It's always nice when a defining moment is positive, but often, these personal watershed moments are anything but positive.

The defining moment in my life was the day my maternal grandmother -- Floy J. Sparling -- died. One minute she was fine, standing in the kitchen making lunch for my grandfather. A few minutes later -- after complaining of a sudden headache and taking my advice to lay down on her bed for a bit -- she was gone. Just like that.

Other relatives and friends had died before. I rationally understood that all things die, but I had never personally watched someone move from life to death in the blink of an eye.

This one event nearly 20 years ago has influenced almost every second of my life since. I still think of my grandmother often. More importantly, it has caused me to realize just how fleeting and ephemeral life on earth is. And I try not to take the routine for granted.

Each time my wife or I go off somewhere without the other, we say what everybody says, "See you later". I realize, however, that everyday someone says that to someone else and that later never comes. Something happens in the interim and they never come home again.

Each second we are here on earth could be our last. (Who knows? Maybe this could be my last blog entry ever.) While I don't want anyone to think my life is filled with maudlin thoughts, I do make the effort to cherish even the most mundane of moments.

Our lives are a gift of immeasurable proportions. If we are able to recognize the depth of this gift, then we will do everything in our power to embrace it in the good times and the bad times.

If we neglect it, one day it will be gone and we will discover we have wasted the greatest gift of all.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Squeaky Clean

I spent this afternoon watching a variety of documentaries plus one feature film that each depicted life in the early to mid 19th Century on the American plains. As the narrators inform us, life on the frontier was often brutal, unforgiving and harsh. Many people died young -- very young. Those who survived led a life of isolation and constant anxiety.

With all this as a backdrop, the various actors and actresses who acted out various depictions barely resembled the historical description. While food was often scarce, these people all looked well-fed. While bathing was an infrequent occurrence, all of our "characters" looked spiffy and squeaking clean. While most of these homesteaders lived far from towns and local trading posts, their clothes looked new and pressed with nary a hole or fray in sight.

As is often the case, we tend to romanticize the past. While our rational minds understand the hardships, our artistic expressions tend to be antiseptic. In essence, the past loses its hue and color. It becomes a snapshot frozen in time.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Living in a Black Hole

I live in a black hole. While there seems to be a lot of doppler radar sites throughout the northwest in populated areas (e.g., Seattle, Vancouver,Portland, Eugene, etc.), The Daily World reports that this radar coverage doesn't seem to extend to most of the Washington and Oregon coast.

The lack of adequate radar coverage genuinely affects one aspect of living far from the urban corridor -- our weather forecasts are a lot more hit and miss than in other places. In fact, we recently learned that much of the forecasting for Washington's coast is nothing more than guess work.

When my wife & I first moved to Aberdeen in December 2005, we noticed on the Weather Channel that rain never seems to show up on radar. Yes, it could be raining buckets here, yet, if you looked at the radar either on the Weather Channel website or on TV, Grays Harbor appeared to be precipitation free.

It seems that the radar that purports to cover Grays Harbor & Pacific Counties actually is the Camano Island radar and said radar genuinely doesn't extend this far. It is blocked by the Olympic Mountains!

Of course, for most months of the year, it's not that big of a deal. From October through March, it rains. It rains a lot and it rains often. In fact, during the winter, it rains most everyday.

You don't need doppler radar nor to be a weatherman to figure that out.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The "Great & Powerful" Wizard of Oz

For me, one of the scariest things a person can utter is, "I don't care what you say or do, but I'm not going to change my mind". By making such a statement, the person is stating unequivocally that -- regardless of any new knowledge, experience, insight or sensation -- this person has decided to close their mind to any and all other possibilities. For them, the case is closed.

If we humans understood all the complexities and nuances of this process we call life, then such a statement might be warranted. If we had examined all the potential variables and all the possible stimuli, we might well be able to make incontrovertible assertions.

Let's be frank though. Not only do we not understand everything, we actually understand very little. If all the knowledge in the world was represented by 100 million gigabytes, all the human knowledge and insight throughout history might represent 1 teeny weeny byte!

Therefore, to close our minds on any given topic is foolhardy, at best, and insanely stupid, at worst.

Imagine if the lead characters from the Wizard of Oz had adopted this mentality. Near the end of this classic film, Dorothy and her friends have presented the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West to the "Great & Powerful" Wizard of Oz.

While the fiery spectacle of Oz -- who never expected that the foursome would return with said broomstick -- fumbles around with upholding his end of the bargain, little Toto is pointing the way toward a startling revelation. You see, there is a man standing behind a curtain who appears to be operating the controls that project the visage of the great Oz.

If Dorothy and her companions approached this situation with a closed mind, they would have ignored Toto's efforts and remained fixated on the visage itself. In fact, I dare say that Dorothy would have scolded little Toto for his attempt to uncover new information.

Fortunately, Dorothy and the crew acted upon Toto's discovery and confronted the wizard face-to-face. It was only because they were willing to allow new information to influence their current comprehension of the unfolding situation that the confrontation was allowed to progress forward in a successful manner.

Each time any of us close our minds to other possibilities, we are in danger of becoming fixated on the visages of our own construction. And, if we are indeed connected to all other life, we invariably cut ourselves off from the flow of that life.

It's one thing to be relatively sure of something; it's another altogether to know something absolutely. We each tend to confuse the former for the latter and we do so at our own peril.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Virtual Integration

It's February and it's time for our annual salute to Black History. As I've written in this space before, I utterly detest Black History Month! It's a contrivance for the dominant white elite , so that they can tell themselves, "Hey, I ain't no bigot".

The media has really bought in to this supposed celebration of all things Black. Despite the fact we live in a predominantly segregated society (and it's growing worse), you'd never know it by watching TV commercials.

Regardless of the product or brand, we so often see blacks and whites together in all sorts of situations and circumstances. There they are smiling, laughing and supporting the product of choice.

Oh Golly yes, they're our pals and buddies. We eat with them. We go places with them. We even party with them.

Yet, in real life, we don't live near them and we get nervous if we happen to see one or more of them driving around our neighborhoods. They must be up to no good, we think, as we frantically dial 9-1-1.

I live in an area where there are few Blacks -- less than 5% of the county population. Our chief minority groups are Latinos, Koreans and Indians. For the most part, they live in certain parts of town away from the white majority.

I live in one of the few integrated areas. Most of my neighbors are Latino and our next door neighbors are Mexican. We get along with them fine, though there is somewhat of a language barrier as both parents speak little English and my Spanish skills have waned since college. Most of our communications are through their 8 year old daughter who is bilingual.

Actually, there are lots of white people who live near racial or ethnic minorities. It's not that many of them want to live next door to a Black or Latino family, it's just that they're poor and, when you don't have the financial means to be exclusive, you take what you can get.

All in all, I relish the day when we don't need to single out a racial or ethnic group to celebrate "their" history -- while it gets ignored the rest of the year -- and the integration we see played out in the make-believe world of television is truly played out in the real world.

We're each part of the same universal reality. It sure would be nice if acted like it.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Polluted Legacy

It's a scene all too common across the American landscape. Communities, large and small, competing against each other to lure Corporate America to their city or town. They knit together tax abatements, taxpayer-funded infrastructure improvements, and a host of other economic enticements. The Big Boys make their selection and the community seems to flourish...for awhile.

However, sooner or later, the mega company pulls up stakes and gets the hell out of dodge. For all the freebies and good will they've received over the years (possibly decades), they leave the community to deal with soaring unemployment, a diminished tax base, struggling local businesses who relied on the Big Boys AND a toxic mess.

One such story appears in a recent edition of The Progressive Populist, "Big Blues: The Death of an Industrial Town". A homegrown son of Endicott, NY tells us of the sickness left behind when 2 companies eventually pulled out of town.

Here's a snippet:
I can clearly remember the day in 1984 when Ronald Reagan came to town. I was an 8-year-old living in Endicott, N.Y., an industrial village home to both IBM and a large shoe company named Endicott Johnson (known to the locals as E-J). The president was campaigning, and that afternoon he would be speaking at the high school football stadium. I recall the deafening approval of thousands of residents when the president began his speech by asking, "Which way E-J?" While this query must have seemed nonsensical to outsiders, it had special meaning to the residents of Endicott. To them, Reagan's question symbolized their pride in Endicott's prosperity, and the assumption that good economic times were there to stay. Who could have guessed that in 20-years time, the same town that once rated an election-year visit from the president would be a polluted economic wasteland?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Slabs of Bacon

It's easy to be a cheerleader for war. A great deal of the people who support any given war are those who don't have to wage it and are personally not affected negatively by it. For such people, it's nothing more than a concept or rallying cry. From this standpoint, it's easy to wrap oneself in the flag of patriotism.

Unfortunately, war is never that simple and clearcut. For one thing, people die as its consequence and the family of the deceased must deal with the fallout.

War is hell on the environment, both where it is fought AND where it is prepared for. The landscape of Iraq is now being seriously harmed. Most of the Super Fund sites in the U.S. are related to former military sites (think Hanford).

War is also expensive. Every dollar spent on the machinations of war typically represent tax dollars NOT being spent on something else. Wars have led to the demise of many great nations and civilizations.

And war tends to affect the fabric of life in ways not readily apparent. Every soldier in the theater of war isn't killed. Many will come home with physical wounds and most will come home with emotional scars.

This is one of the areas in which I'm probably the most upset with the Bush administration and its supporters. While the p[R]esident speaks of war with lofty and emotionally-charged prose, he only seems interested in the welfare of the soldiers who wage his war in a conceptual way. In genuine human terms, soldiers are treated no better than slabs of bacon.

Consider the following:
  • Our soldiers in Afghanistan & Iraq are ill-equipped. Each stands a better chance of being wounded or killed due to a lack of personal body armor and out-dated or poor working equipment.
  • Soldiers aren't paid well. Their families must struggle to make ends meet while the breadwinner is thousands of miles away.
  • Soldiers aren't being allowed to come home to resume "normal" life. It's been well documented that the Pentagon keeps extending tours of duty beyond reasonable limits.
  • Once soldiers do return home, they are soon faced with a VA system that is underfunded and understaffed. It's like now that they've done their "duty", the Bush administration has nothing to offer them and, basically, is no longer interested in them.
As anyone who has read anything on this blog must know, I oppose war. I oppose the violence and I oppose the fallout.

That said, if some of you favor this or that war, then you've got to support the whole enchilada. It's not enough to wrap yourselves in the flag and mouth patriotic jingles. You've got to support our soldiers and the victims of war every step along the way -- from beginning to end.

The tragic thing is that most of the supporters of war do NOT support all the recriminations of war.

It's very similar to many who are against abortion. They will jump up and down to save an unknown fetus, but seem to oppose some or all of the social service programs that will serve the saved fetus that will grow into a human being.

They embrace concepts only, but reject the living and breathing human beings that give life to their sterile concepts.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Then & Now

I've been publicly protesting the various "wars" in Iraq since 1991. During this timespan, the general reception of the public has changed drastically. In the 90s, people were far more apt to give the finger or tell us to "go to hell". In the early portion of this decade, we went from 2/3 disapproval to maybe 50/50.

Today in Aberdeen I joined several ladies in standing on the street corner during rush hour. We held signs that demanded US troops out of Iraq. Despite the fact that Aberdeen is NOT a liberal community, I would estimate that 75% of the people passing us gave us the thumbs up or flashed a smile and peace sign.

It's interesting how public perceptions change. In my mind's eye, the chief reasons to oppose the war in 1991 are the same as in 2007. However, many of the people who were waving the flag of patriotism in 91 are many of the same people agreeing with us today.

I guess it's now chic to be against the war. Personally, I don't care WHY more and more people are against the war -- All I want is for people to be more vocal about their dissent.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Science Wins Tight Game

The fans were tense with excitement. At various times throughout the game, it looked like one team or the other might pull out the victory. However, backed by solid relief pitching and a two-run double to left in the 7th inning, the visitors were able to come out on top. Final Score: Science - 6 Intelligent Design - 4.

Ok, so it wasn't really a baseball game. It was real life. Still, the recent decision by the Kansas State Board of Education dealt another blow to the Intelligent Design community. Science, not the dressed up version of creationism, will be taught in Kansas public schools.

According to the Guardian,
School authorities in the American heartland state of Kansas have delivered a rebuff to subscribers to the notion of intelligent design by voting to banish language challenging evolution from new science guidelines.

In a 6-4 vote on Tuesday night, the Kansas state board of education deleted language from teaching guidelines that challenged the validity of evolutionary theory, and approved new phrasing in line with mainstream science.

It was seen as a victory for a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats, science educators and parents who had fought for two years to overturn the earlier guidelines.
The decision is rather surprising too. I've lived in Kansas before (Pittsburg & Newton) and I can tell you that it is a most conservative state. Kansas is what brought the world Bob Dole.

And I've got to give the London newspaper some extra plaudits. While far too many U.S. media sources tend to dance around providing an apt definition of intelligent design, the Guardian hits the nail flush on the head.
Teaching creationism in American public schools has been outlawed since 1987 when the supreme court ruled that the inclusion of religious material in science classes was unconstitutional. In recent years, however, opponents of the theory of evolution - first developed by Charles Darwin - have regrouped, challenging science education with the doctrine of "intelligent design", which has been carefully stripped of all references to God and religion. Unlike traditional creationism, which claims that God created the earth in six days, proponents of intelligent design say the workings of this planet are too complex to be ascribed to evolution. There must have been a designer working to a plan - that is, a creator.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Shock Absorbers

A good number of people met untimely deaths yesterday. First, there was the typical daily carnage in Iraq. Second, a "gunman shot and killed three men at a business Monday night before turning the gun on himself and taking his own life", and we ended the news day with the shooting rampage at a Salt Lake City mall.

The most disturbing thing about all this violence is that it's not that disturbing! It's become so commonplace that most of us simply shrug our shoulders and go about our business.

It's an apt example of how our society has changed...for the worse. As late as the 1960s and 1970s, this kind of news would have been shocking. People all over the country would have been cast into the throes of mass anxiety. Today, however, it's par for the course.

The nightly news has become a shock absorber of sorts. We learn each day of so much death and destruction that we have become numb. Subsequent reports fail to arouse or scare us.

In the end, by taking death so lightly, it concurrently dampens the beauty and excitement of life.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Massive Misdirection

Both the mainstream media and general public seem to have a weird sense of priorities. With all the important and serious issues facing humankind, too often our focus is on minutiae and sensationalism.

Here's a classic example from the website, Think Progress:
The death of Anna Nicole Smith yesterday was a feeding frenzy for the national media, and coverage of the war was drowned out: NBC’s Nightly News devoted 14 seconds to Iraq compared to 3 minutes and 13 seconds to Anna Nicole. CNN referenced Anna Nicole 522% more frequently than it did Iraq. MSNBC was even worse — 708% more references to Anna Nicole than Iraq.

The lop-sided coverage largely ignored many key developments in Iraq, including the sixth downing of a U.S. helicopter in the past three weeks, the allegations that a deputy Iraqi health minister was aiding a Shiite militia in its attacks against U.S. troops, and the death of four Marines.
While I'm sure Ms. Smith's death is an important issue for her family and loved ones, it's not major news for the rest of us. When compared to the ongoing calamities in Iraq or the Sudan (to name but two examples), it shouldn't even register.

Yet, as Think Progress documents, Smith's death dominated the news on Wednesday. On Fox New, there were 112 references to Smith and only 33 to Iraq. The ratio was far worse on MSNBC with a 7 - 1 edge for Smith!

Is it any wonder that far too many Americans are in the dark regarding important societal issues? It's hard to be informed when the news is dominated by the like of Anna Nicole, OJ and Pat Robertson.

Friday, February 9, 2007

In the Short Term

When most people discuss the primary downfall of humankind, the focus is of a religious nature. You're apt to hear phrases like "turning away from God" or doing "the devil's work". Others, who come from a more psychological bent, will tell you that people make poor decisions or take rash actions because they want to increase pleasure or decrease pain.

From my humble perspective, a better way to explain this phenomena is that we humans tend to focus on short-term benefit at the expense of long-term effect. We tend to look at the here-and-now and only give lip service to the future, ours or someone else's.

Of course, our current economic system -- capitalism -- undergirds this mentality. For the capitalist, maximizing short-term profit is the end-all be-all goal of everything. Yes, it might be nice to ensure long-term stability, but making sure you show a profit at the end of the current quarter is what matters most.

I was thinking about this general concept while I watched a program on the History Channel about the history of torture. The use of torture is bound up completely in this idea of short-term benefit.

In the first instance, torture is a method for extracting revenge on your enemies. At some point, they injured you (or it was perceived that they did or will injure you), so now you get to exact the utmost pain upon their existence.

Torture is also a means of terrorism. Of course, it causes abject terror for those it is being inflicted upon, but it also terrorizes the community at large because no one knows who might be subjected to it next.

While the use of torture may reap some short-term benefits, it concurrently leads to some nasty long-term recriminations. The most obvious of these is payback. Like a blood feud, the subjugated or their allies will not always be under your boot. One day they will rise up and they will want to repay you in spades.

Thus, torture inevitably breeds more torture. It's a closed loop system.

Another problem with the use of torture is that, when used to get information, the information is usually faulty. When we humans are subjected to intense pain, terror and the real possibility of a gruesome end to life, we'll say or do almost anything in an effort to stop the blood lust orgy.

Yet another aspect of torture -- one that seems counterintuitive -- is that too often throughout history it has been sanctioned by religious authorities. From what I've learned from my various studies throughout the years, ALL religions stress peace and doing right by our fellow man.

Be that as it may, let's take a look at but one example. In the United States today, the Bush administration has adopted numerous policies that endorse the use of torture on "enemy combatants". While there has been a strong public outcry repudiating this effort, there has been one group of Americans who have steadfastly supported this use of torture -- fundamentalist Christians.

Yes, the very people who believe that we should "do unto others as we would have them do unto us" and that we should treat others as ourselves seem to have no problem whatsoever with terrorizing and dehumanizing individuals who oppose US foreign policy.

I'm not suggesting this is solely a Christian problem. Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists and a host of other religions have embraced the use of torture at various times in history -- some continue to endorse its use today.

In the final analysis, torture is a stain on the life process. It begets hatred and revenge. Until we decide to focus on the long-term of our collective survival, torture will continue to replicate negative energy until, at some point, it will consume us all.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Beyond Fuzziness

The Judeo-Christian Bible and Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching address the issue of the ultimate reality in altogether different ways. The former declares the existence of an entity that shares a relationship with his creations, while the latter eschews the existence of an omnipotent being in favor of an underlying process that is present in all things.

One of the aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition that I find most astonishing is that followers are taught that God (e.g., Yahweh, Jehovah) is omnipotent, ubiquitous and beyond human comprehension, yet the authors of the Bible itself spend an inordinate amount of column inches attempting to define and describe the indescribable.

As I've touched on before, it seems patently odd to me that this so-called almighty being would be imbued with all the petty emotions we humans possess (i.e., jealousy, anger, greed, guilt, etc.) the very emotions with which devotees are told are un-Godlike.

Compare this to the simple message of the beginning sentences of the Tao Te Ching.
The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The Taoist philosophic tradition recognizes that the ultimate reality can neither be described nor defined because it is too large and too broad for the limited mind of humankind. However we try to describe or define it, we will miss the mark. Whatever we say, write or think will represent only a mere fraction of its entirety.

This well explains why Taoists spend little, if any, time trying to figure out what is beyond our comprehension. It's enough to spend our time and energy on all the things within our ability to comprehend; why waste valuable time on what we cannot know?

The Christian tradition, on the other hand, compels their followers to try to comprehend the unknowable, while often implicitly encouraging devotees to ignore the knowable.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

In my opinion, far too much of the world's population is preoccupied with trying to figure out things they will never know, while almost willfully ignoring a lot of the stuff that they could easily observe and discern. By employing this type of misdirected strategy, it well explains why our society is gripped by fear, suspicion, uncertainty and collective anxiety.

Simply by observing the workings of the universe around us, it should be readily apparent that life is a process of movement and change through rhythmic cycles. Every entity follows the same general course: birth, death, rebirth, etc. Each step along the path leads to its antithesis and, in a matter of time, comes full circle to begin anew.

Against this background, all of the world's theologies have erected deities that are fixed and unmoving. They each set down rigid rules and rituals. They solemnize orthodox dogmas which tend to remain static and unchanging. They rely on documents written centuries ago. In essence, the ways of thought developed by religions seem always to run counter to the movement of the life process.

Now, I certainly understand the base motivation behind these beliefs. As the world is ever changing, we humans are always looking for a safe haven, a place where we can catch our breath and the dizzying movement seems to slow down or even stop. Such a cessation of movement would allow us to be able to better focus on the various elements and decisions we come face to face with each and every day.

Unfortunately, this cessation is only an illusion within our minds. Our bodies keep moving unabated and so too does everything else. In fact, the only time the cessation may be real is when the body's internal functions come to a complete halt -- we die.

Be that as it may, so many people still cling to this idea of an unmoving and resolute God[s] -- an all powerful entity that defies the laws of nature by NOT evolving.

How can something that never evolves create a world that is ever evolving?

The Woo Way

We live in a world dominated by the ethos of competition. From the earliest age, we're taught that the path to success is achieved by outmaneuvering, out thinking and outworking the other guy. If you're willing to put forth the needed commitment, time and maximum effort, you stand a good chance of becoming rich and powerful.

The Taoist concept of wu-wei (pronounced woo way, hence the title of this post) offers a stark contrast to this pervasive mentality. Strictly translated, it means doing by not doing or action through non-action. In a world dominated by Judeo-Christian and capitalistic principles, wu-wei seems completely illogical.

How can any of us achieve a goal through inaction?

I believe that one of the reasons most westerners have trouble understanding the concept of wu-wei is that they seek to understand it too literally. They form in their minds an image of a Taoist sage simply sitting around all day with legs crossed and not doing much of anything.

This misses the inherent message of action through non-action.

One way to explain this concept in a way that most people can understand is to talk about being "in the zone". This is a phrase most commonly used in a sports setting, but could just as easily apply to a multitude of situations.

I've often heard athletes say that, after a successful game or match, it was like everyone else was moving in slow motion, except for this person. They saw things with greater clarity than usual and, almost without thinking, they performed better.

Writers and artists also know what it's like to be "in the zone". The words, music or images seem to come flowing out of them. Often times, such people will tell you it was a surreal experience, almost like the ideas were coming from someone or somewhere else.

Almost anyone in any profession knows this feeling as well. While most days on the job seem to take a great deal of concentration and effort, there are days when we seem to get a lot done almost without realizing it. On these special days, almost every decision rendered or every project attempted works perfectly as it should.

For me, this gets to the heart of what wu-wei refers to -- effortless action.

Too often, most of us go through life as if we're strictly following a time-honored recipe or marking items off of a dogmatic checklist. When we encounter problems or challenges, we try to follow some preconceived plan to overcome them (regardless of whether or not the steps match the true situation).

It's like a cook who refuses to prepare anything that might deviate from a specific printed recipe. It doesn't matter if everyone at the dinner table wants a Caesar Salad; the cook has a recipe for Hungarian Goulash and so that's what everyone is going to eat!

If, on the other hand, we allow ourselves to become immersed in our craft, vocation or hobby, all the steps needed to create something or accomplish our task become second nature. We get to the point in which we no longer have to think about all the necessary steps to get from point A to point B to point C.

In other words, our actions flow like a river. It's as if we do without doing.

That is the essence of wu-wei.

Monday, February 5, 2007

More Than Casual Interest

I was watching the news on CNN last week while, simultaneously, trying to read the newspaper. One of the items reported was something about interest rates holding steady around 5% or so. Because my attention was divided, I didn't really catch all the details.

Later that night -- for some unknown reason -- this news item got me to thinking about the concept of interest or usury, as it used to be called. Our economic world is built upon the edifice of interest and, if interest were miraculously to disappear one day, our markets and way of life would come crashing down around us.

I live in a nation built upon Judeo-Christian beliefs. One of the malevolent forces in the United States today is the fundamentalist Christian right. Most of the all powerful leaders of industry (i.e., Corporate America) are fiscal conservatives and strongly support the concept of earning interest on money loaned.

So it's rather surprising that the very book -- the Bible -- that serves as the guiding force in their lives strongly condemns the act of usury. Not only does the Bible frown upon it, but so too does the Qur'an (Islam).

Here are some examples:
If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him; you shall not charge him interest. ~Exodus 22:25~

Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase. ~Leviticus 25:37~

If he has exacted usury Or taken increase -- Shall he then live? He shall not live! If he has done any of these abominations, He shall surely die; His blood shall be upon him. ~Ezekial 18:13~

Those who charge usury are in the same position as those controlled by the devil's influence. This is because they claim that usury is the same as commerce. However, God permits commerce, and prohibits usury. Thus, whoever heeds this commandment from his Lord, and refrains from usury, he may keep his past earnings, and his judgment rests with God. As for those who persist in usury, they incur Hell, wherein they abide forever. ~Al-Baqarah 2:275~
Despite these straightforward admonishments, Jews, Christians and Muslims living in the US (and most of the rest of the world) accept the practice of usury as a given.

[Since I'm not as familiar with the Qur'an as the Bible, my central criticism is upon the use or misuse of the latter.]

Conservative Christians like to use their holy book as a mighty brick to smash practices they believe are not in keeping with their God's plan. One that quickly comes to mind is the issue of homosexuality.

According to these fundamentalists, homosexuality is a sin against God because they can quote several passages in the Bible that they interpret to mean it is a really bad thing. If you try to reason with them, it's fruitless because they say you can't go against the word of God.

This book very clearly states that usury is a really bad thing and yet these same people seem to have no problem whatsoever in violating this prohibition. If anything, it leads the non-Christian observer to discern that the so-called word of God is conditioned on each person's own prejudices and biases.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Lemonade Sale

I'm standing in the express lane of my local Safeway. I remark to Lisa, the clerk, that I know I'm growing old based on the sale price of frozen lemonade. How so?, she asks. I tell her that I can easily remember the days when a good sale for generic frozen lemonade was 6 or 7 for $1 (truth be known, I can even remember 10 for $1). Today, to my utter amazement, the bargain price is $1 per can!

Lisa says that it's not necessarily a case of growing old; it's just that prices keep shooting upward. "That's your story?" I ask. She smiles. "It sounds better than to say we're growing old".

But we ARE getting older and, for Lisa, that's not such a good thing. Actually, for most people in our society, growing old is a very bad thing indeed.

There's no question that, the older one gets, your metabolism and energy level seem to slow down. The skin loses its soft sheen and wrinkles appear. And we all tend to lose the feeling of immortality.

Yet, for all these supposed negatives, there is one all powerful positive in the aging process -- wisdom. If we've paid any attention to our choices and actions over our lifetime, the older we grow, the wiser we should become.

In my book, that's a most magnificent perk to growing old.

When we're young, we too often take unnecessary chances and risks. We make foolish mistakes and grievous miscalculations. We often treat life too flippantly because, heck, we can possibly try to rectify the situation at a later date. Why should we care? Hey, we're going to live forever.

As we age and mature, we come face to face with our own mortality. If we've paid attention to the world around us, we come to understand that all life moves in cycles from birth to death to rebirth, etc.

And this is a central concept in Taoism, that all life -- no matter its outward shape or form -- follows the same cycle. Whether we speak of a Homo sapien, dog, butterfly, daffodil or rock, we all travel between birth to death and back again.

When we are younger, we may understand this principle rationally. When we are older, wisdom allows us to understand this cycle intuitively.

Monkey Business

Last night I watched a movie I haven't seen for quite a few years: Planet of the Apes (1968). While I could write a lot about the futuristic plot that sees apes take over the earth, while subjugating humankind, I was more struck by the similarities between the Christian version of God and this story's vision of civilization in the 23rd century.

In both tales, the leading characters possess human traits and foibles. It's as if, whether looking backward or forward, we Homo sapiens believe we represent the top of the heap, the apex of sentient life.

The Christian God is shown to possess all the petty emotions of people. At one time or another, we're told that God is jealous, angry, remorseful or even suspicious. At times, he seems rather befuddled as he doesn't seem to know what's going on around him and is forced to send spies [angels] to determine what's going down.

On the other hand, we're told that God is all knowing and all powerful. If the latter were true, then there would be no reason for the display of emotion. Emotions are borne by the uncertainty of our lives and our feeble attempts to deal with unknown situations and circumstances.

On the flip side, regarding the vision of this classic film, we catch a glimpse of a futuristic society that has been created in the aftermath of nuclear holocaust. Humanity has destroyed its own civilization and society. Via evolution, apes have moved beyond the ethical limitations of Homo sapiens and created a more just society.

Yet, for all their supposed advancements, we soon learn that our new masters of the planet are nothing more than humans in monkey suits. Their society offers a mirror image of our own, replete with all the advanced conceptualizations, religious belief and base emotions as then-20th century human society.

It leads me to believe that we humans are a very egotistical lot. Far too many of us simply cannot conceive of a life force that does not embody the essence of our consciousness.

This is most unfortunate as it seems to be leading toward the demise of our planet and civilization. If we continue to be unable to visualize beyond our own self-imposed glass ceiling, we are lost. If we continue not to recognize our connection with all things, we will ensure our eternal separation.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Living in the Past

I think we've all met a person who seems fixated on the past. Such people don't seem "with it" and have a great amount of difficulty dealing with people and situations in the here and now. We tend to think that people like this need psychiatric help.

It dawned on me last night that such individuals are not atypical at all. No, what we view as abnormal only is the breadth of their fixation. It's only when the past they refuse to let go of is from a different era or a decade or two ago that we say they've "lost touch with reality".

Every person's mind lives in the past. Each time we encounter anything in life, our minds are able to interpret stimuli and thoughts only AFTER they have taken place. Sprinters don't begin to run the exact moment the starter's pistol is fired. It takes a fraction of a second for the mind to compute the sound before impelling one's feet to get in gear.

When we hear a song on the radio, our minds are always half of a beat behind as we listen to the words and music. Because we recognize the melodic chords or the words of the song, it only seems that we are in the present.

In his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, Allan Watts States that,
"From one point of view, each moment is so elusive and so brief that we cannot even think about it before it has gone. From another point of view, this moment is always here, since we know no other moment than the present moment. It is always dying, always becoming past more rapidly than imagination can conceive."
The only way to live IN the moment is turn off our minds and allow our brains and other senses to encounter the present. This process is often referred to as meditation.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Low Ethics Leader

I live in a town of 16,000 predominated by Big Box stores. Want coffee? We've got 3 or 4 Starbucks outlets. Need hardware or home improvement supplies. Go to The Home Depot. Need almost anything else? Visit our "friendly" Walmart, the low ethics leader.

In fact, if you enter Aberdeen coming from the east, the first businesses you'll see on cresting the hill outside of town are chain stores. Yes, your first view of our fair city will include the following: McDonald's, Blockbuster, Taco Bell, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Staples, Ross, Dairy Queen, Big 5 Sporting Goods, Skipper's, Baskin-Robbins, and, of course, the big spiffy Walmart.

I can't even begin to count the number of times I've been at a local establishment looking for some item and the clerk (usually a high school student) says to me, "We don't carry that. You should go to Walmart." I then explain that I refuse to shop at Sprawl-Mart and they look at me like I'm from outer space.

The next time this happens, I'm going to be better prepared. I'm going to print a lot of copies of Jim Hightower's recent article, "Wal-Mart's New Marketing Strategy Hides Dirty Practices" and keep them in my truck. I can hand them out to the ignorant.

Here's a snippet from the article (which I hope will entice you to read the whole disgusting piece).
Beneath Wal-Mart's new cosmetic sheen lies the same old ugliness. The average employee toils for $8.23 an hour -- a poverty-level wage that amounts to about $16,700 a year gross (in both meanings of that word). Many don't even make that, for Wal-Mart defines "fulltime" work as 36 hours a week rather than the usual 40. It's common for bosses to hold workers to under 24 hours a week, which reduces gross annual income to only about $10,000.

Contrast this miserliness with the company's lavishing of wealth on those at the top. CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr., had a base salary of $1.3 million in 2005, plus $4 million in "incentive" payments, as well as stock and other compensation that raised his total haul to $17.5 million (including more than $100,000 for personal use of corporate jets). Also, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton's widow and their four children, who collectively hold 40 percent of the corporation's stock, are living grandly. At present, they are sitting on personal nest-eggs of $15.5 billion each, putting all five of them among America's 11 richest people.

Meanwhile, fewer than half of Wal-Mart's employees get any healthcare benefits at all -- and those who do must pay 41 percent of the cost for a lousy plan that carries a $3,000 deductible per family plus a $300 pharmacy deductible and a $1,000 in-patient hospital deductible. Honchos at headquarters keep insisting that the health benefits they offer are "competitive" with other retailers. But look no further than Costco, where a good plan covers 80 percent of employees and the company pays 90 percent of the premiums.

Classic Fairy Tales Rewritten

A report today in The Guardian, "Millions Wasted in Iraq Reconstruction" -- don't worry, it will show up in the US media within a few weeks...or months -- let's the public in on a nasty little secret. It appears that a good chunk of our taxpayer dollars are being handed over to Corporate America for diddly squat. In other words, a lot of the so-called reconstruction in Iraq is nothing more than so-called.

It got me to thinking that the Bush administration is mirroring many classic tales, albeit in a perverse manner. For example, Bush could play the role of Robin Hood. Of course, in this 21st century version, the theme is turned upside down; instead of robbing the rich to give to the poor, Bush Hood robs the poor to give to the rich!

Or maybe Dubya has taken on the persona of famed Don Quixote and the windmill he's tilting at is the "war on terror".

Though not a classic tale -- it's a romanticized rendition of an historical event -- we were taught in Civics class that the American revolutionists fought under the cry of "taxation without representation". This cry well fits the current situation too.

All of our taxpayer dollars are being handed over to megacorporations under a different guise (i.e., reconstruction). In the end, though, it turns out to be nothing more than corporate welfare, an entitlement program for the well-to-do.

Help me out here. Can you think of more classic fairy tales the Bush administration could star in? If so, leave your thoughts in the comments section.