Monday, August 30, 2010

Of Light and Dark

In a few weeks I will be having my 60th birthday. It's very easy to joke about someone else's 60th, but somehow when it's your own it's different. At age 60 you've already been getting AARP materials for 10 years. The fact is inescapable that you're getting old. Unless you turn out to be a miracle of a human specimen and live to be 120+ years old, there is less life before you than there is behind you. When you take stock of yourself, you realize that you can't put things off any longer if you really want to achieve them. It's time to crank it up and get it done if you haven't managed to do it already.

What it is is a not so subtle reminder of one's mortality. Now you're a senior citizen, even if the Social Security and Medicare don't kick in for a few years yet. Even if you can't afford to retire for a few years yet. In society's eyes you're old. In your insurance company's eyes you're becoming a liability. In your employer's eyes you're becoming one of those big salaries to be urged out as soon as possible. In your wife's eyes, you're one step closer to biting the big one and leaving her all alone to try and make ends meet and suffer through the rest of her days alone. Ask Babs sometime about her fantasy regarding after my death. It involves being dirt poor, living in a ratty little apartment, and having a skinny German shepherd for company.

As if this state of mind weren't bad enough, one of my cats is on his last legs and we're going to have to "put him to sleep," to euthanize him. Who knew you could get so attached to a 15 year old mass of fur? Talk about your reminders of mortality. His kidneys are failing. We've spent the last few months giving him Lactated Ringers solution subcutaneously and trying desperately to get him to eat something, anything. Mostly he likes to drink water and lactose free milk. Now he's beyond skinny and somewhere in the realm of gaunt. He's gotten weaker and walks very slowly, with the gait of the old and fragile. For the last couple of days he's pretty much holed up in the guest bedroom and on the rug in the guest bathroom.

I made the call today. I called the veterinarian's office and told them the story and requested an appointment to euthanize him. I got choked up and had a hard time speaking with the clerk in the vet's office. I feel complicit in bringing about the death of a friend, albeit a very sick old friend. How do you say good-bye to a friend when you asked the vet to put the needle in and give him the sleep from which he will never wake.

Then that brings me back around to my own mortality. How will I feel when I too walk the walk of the old and fragile. If it is hard to face the death of an old friend, of a close relative, how then does one face one's own demise? How hard will it be to go to sleep at night, knowing that any one of those nights could be the sleep from which you will never wake? How do you say good-bye to those with whom you shared a lifetime? Talk about being choked up.

It is times like these when I remember Dylan Thomas and his urging to "not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light." As humans we have that option. As cats and dogs, our old friends of the feline and canine variety do not. They generally just give up and let you know it's time. They seem to know that at some point it is all futile. The cycle must be completed. The old must make way for the new.

There are those, perhaps wiser than I, who would advocate a similar resignation for human deaths. They are, however, people with religion. Whether one believes in heaven and hell, in reincarnation, or in becoming one with Mother Earth, it gives one a reason to not dread the end. How I wish it were that easy. Unfortunately, logic and a lifetime based on reason tell me otherwise. When the darkness comes, it comes. There is no relief. There is only wishful thinking, in that respect. One must make one's own peace with death, or one can fight it tooth and nail until it finally is able to overtake you.

There are people with painful, terminal diseases who welcome the coming of the darkness, the release from the pain and misery. There are those who live very long productive lives who make peace with their end, having squeezed every ounce of living out of their lives and are ready to go. We can only hope that we are not reduced to the former. We can only hope that we are fortunate enough to qualify for the latter. In the meantime I am still in full-blown "Rage, rage against the dying of the light" mode, and I plan on squeezing a lot more life out of my remaining years. I'll miss my cat greatly, though. Sammy, we salute the short little fuzzy life that was yours.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Summer Fades Away.

It's 6 PM on a Monday in late August. The sky above is a light blue, untouched by clouds. The lake below has taken on that dark blue of late afternoon on a sunny day. The sun itself is slanting lower in the sky and the light it gives off is not as intense as the midday sun that beats down mercilessly. When last I checked, it was 78 degrees at the Mini.

A couple of power boats are in The Playpen. Out beyond, in the deep water, there are a handful of sailboats drifting slowly, their white triangular sails crisp and white in the afternoon sun like freshly laundered sheets hung out to blow in the breeze. There are runners, bikers, roller bladers, and assorted tourists on rented bikes out on the lakefront path.

At the beach there are still young people in swimsuits, playing volleyball, throwing frisbees, splashing in the water that has grown warm from the heat of the sun over the summer. The chess pavilion is full of chess aficionados. The rink has roller blade hockey in the mornings. The tennis courts had disabled people playing today, including some in wheel chairs. Damn, that one guy was good. One has to wonder how good he would be if his legs worked and he weren't dependent on a wheel chair.

All is normal in Streeterville and on the Gold Coast. Yet, something is different. The air is just that little bit cooler. The sun is retreating a wee bit sooner. Its rays are beginning to come from a more southerly direction. The combination of heat and humidity has subsided enough that I feel comfortable running 9 minute miles now instead of the 10 minute miles that are more comfortable in July and early August.

This weekend is the last weekend in August and then comes Labor Day. Teachers and students are busily making purchases in preparation for the new school year. Looking in the shops on Michigan Avenue, the mannikins are displaying items with fur, long sleeves, and features that enable one to remain comfortable in cooler temperatures. Gone are the retail signs of summer. Retail America has moved on. The fall selling season is here, soon to be gone itself, traded in for the Christmas and Winter push.

Although the beaches and parks are still brimming with people in warm weather attire, their activities have taken on a late summer desperation, a push to squeeze every last drop of summer out of the tube. People find themselves trying to squeeze activities in that they planned on for summer but never got around to, affirming that they didn't let summer entirely slip away. In that vein, I find myself traveling to Traverse City, Michigan later this week, to enjoy the dunes, to enjoy the lake, to enjoy the country air, to enjoy a bicycle on a country road leading to a winery. Last gasp, for next week is September, time for autumn and sweaters and yellow and red leaves in all their splendor.

Just a warning boys and girls. Summer is about to end. Soak up what you can of what is left. Then prepare yourself to shift your gears. Put away your shorts and t-shirts and get out your sweaters and coats. Begin to think in terms of warm drinks in mugs instead of cool drinks in icy glasses. It's okay. It's just different.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Elections? I Just Love a Good Clown Show.

Election years have always brought out the worst in some candidates, and the open mouth insert foot syndrome is all too familiar to any of us who have endured very many elections in America. Following the election process, though, can be a huge source of entertainment. The entertainment varies from the sexual escapades of politicians with campaign workers, gay-bashing Congressmen being caught with their pants down, so to speak, soliciting sex in public restrooms, and the implosion of those who just can't figure out what not to say in public.

This year's crop of Republican candidates across the nation have been an especially entertaining bunch in the "You can't possibly mean that," category. The party has tilted so far to the right this year that it appears in danger of falling over. And not all of these "let's just abolish government" sorts hail from the ranks of the Tea Party. Some are just legitimate Republican wing-nuts. The campaigning process has devolved into something like a circus, only in this circus it's all clowns, no wild animal acts.

It should be noted that both Democrats and Republicans have emerged this silly season, running as pulled myself up by my bootstraps outsiders. Most are millionaires and billionaires. Well that's certainly outside the experience of most Americans. That much is for sure. One of my faves in this category is Linda McMahon, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Connecticut. She pulled herself up by her bootstraps by running the World Wrestling Entertainment corporation. Now there's some good training for the U.S. Senate.

The State of Colorado has produced an exceptionally goofy and entertaining group of Republicans this season. Ken Buck, running for the U.S. Senate has gone on record as supporting the repeal of the 17th amendment (Direct election of U.S. Senators. Suppose he's got a friend in the Governor's office who might appoint him if it weren't for that nasty direct election thing?) He also has gone on record as saying the separation of church and state is too strictly enforced and he wants to eliminate the Energy and Education Departments.

Not to be outdone, the Republican candidate for Governor in Colorado, Dan Maes, went on record as saying the Denver bike sharing program was converting the city into a United Nations community and is one step in the ongoing conspiracy to take over the U.S. city by city. Last I heard, getting more people on bikes and out of their cars does only good for traffic congestion, air pollution, and fossil fuel consumption. Apparently Mr. Maes thinks that congestion, pollution, and burning oil are the foundations of our society and not to be tinkered with. Go figure.

No list of election year nut jobs would be complete without Rand Paul of Kentucky (Son of Ron Paul, famous Libertarian.). Rand has criticized the minimum-wage law and civil rights and fair housing laws. He doesn't like unemployment insurance and Medicare either. Just more examples of socialism creeping into our system. Mr. Paul wants to nip that in the bud. Really, why should we be funding lazy do-nothings with unemployment insurance and why should we be cutting into the profits of companies by making them pay people $7 or $8 per hour? And while we're at it, who out there really thinks Grandpa and Grandma need healthcare? Let em die off like nature and God intended. More room for the rest of us. That Rand, he's such a card. He really needs a show on Comedy Central with material like this.

Then there is Sharron Angle, U.S. Senate candidate from Nevada. Doesn't believe in same-sex couples adopting kids. Doesn't think the U.S. should be in the United Nations. Doesn't believe in government run Medicare and Social Security. More of that socialism stuff. Are we seeing a pattern here, among these Republicans? Ms. Angle goes further, though than most. She has suggested that if she does not defeat Senator Harry Reid in the election, the people maybe should consider other more drastic means of ridding this nation of Democrats. What means you might ask? Well ask Sharron. It might be an interesting answer.

Then there is Mike Lee, the U.S. Senate candidate from Utah. Mike thinks we should do away with the progressive income tax and we should put a really low limit on liability for oil companies that cause damage to the environment. Pollution! It's your constitutional right as an American, right along with making obscene amounts of money and not having to give any of it away to the government to pay for stuff like armies and navies and roads and health care for Grandpa and Grandma. Oh, and he wants to change the 14th amendment to prohibit American-born children of illegal immigrants from being granted U.S. citizenship. Naturally.

Okay, there has been a lot of focus on the idiocy coming from the Republican Party, but let's get this straight. There are others out there who can quite entertaining with their idiocy as well. Let's take the case of Ieshuh Griffin, an independent candidate for the state legislature in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin people have a pretty good idea what you stand for if you're a Democrat or Republican, but if you're an Independent people don't always know. Therefore, the State of Wisconsin allows Independents to add 5 words below their names on the ballot, so as to inform the public what it is you're basing your candidacy on. It seems that Ms. Griffin, of Milwaukee, wanted the 5 words, "Not the white man's bitch," placed below her name on the ballot. Somehow Ms. Griffin has convinced herself that this message is not racist or offensive or obscene. Darned election judges wouldn't let her put her little message there, however. Now she wants to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court. She also wants to serve as her own lawyer in this case. Don't hold your breath Ieshuh. Print it in your campaign literature. Say it in stump speeches. Ain't gonna show up on the ballot, though. Won't get you many votes either, I'll wager.

While Independent, Ieshuh Griffin, is a most entertaining sideshow this election year, it is the Republicans that carry the weight of this Clownarama. Just one thing really puzzles me. While all of these Republicans are basically saying that we should dismantle the government, why is it that they all want to work for the government? Apparently, all government expenditures are bad unless they are government expenditures on oneself and one's friends.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Finding Nits to Pick For Elections

By now the entire state of Illinois and a largish number of citizens from the rest of the country know that former Governor (He was impeached.) Rod Blagojevich of Illinois was convicted of lying to the FBI. On 23 other counts the jury was hung. Apparently one or two of the jurors couldn't find it in their hearts to convict Mr. Blagojevich on corruption charges just because he was on tape blatantly demanding money for his campaign fund in exchange for favors rendered. Now Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois is planning for retrying the other 23 counts, hopefully with better results next time around.

Rod Blagojevich was elected as Governor of the State of Illinois after the previous Governor, George Ryan, a Republican was convicted of taking bribes and was subsequently sent to prison. (I suspect a dedicated Illinois wing of the Federal Correctional Facility in Terre Haute, Indiana is in the works for all of the convicted politicians.) Now he certainly face the same fate as his Republican predecessor, even if the process is taking a little longer than expected. The Illinois Republican Party is positively salivating. (Foaming at the mouth? Only a few of them.) Now that Blagojevich's very public trials will be extended well into campaigning season, this can and will be used as evidence against the Democratic Party so the Republicans can attempt to retake the Illinois legislature, Governorship, assorted Washington Congressional posts, and maybe even President Obama's former Senatorial post.

This is how politics are played in America, Home of the Brave, Land of the Free, and the place where attack politics play out in 30 second commercials on TV in between sitcoms, reality shows, and yet more shows where cops try to stop violence and mayhem while occasionally creating more violence and mayhem. Find something your dumb ass opponent did that is very embarrassing to himself, his family, and his political party and exploit it for your own personal gain. Take a guess as to which American political party excels at this kind of politics? Hint: Starts with an R-e-p-u-b-l-i-c-a-n. Know who we're talking about? Good.

On the national stage the Republican Party is busy making hay from xenophobia, racism, and general hatred of all things Muslim. The proposed Islamic Center to be built two blocks from the sight of the 9/11 attacks have become a lightning rod for every right wing nut in the country and the Republican Party is using this as leverage for the upcoming national elections, in an all out effort to regain control of Congress. Our President, in a reasoned response, said that Muslims have a right, as do all religions, under our Constitution to purchase property and build houses of worship wherever they wish. This includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and even Wiccans.

Sadly, a large number of Americans fail to differentiate between the moderate group of New York group of Muslims who are proposing this Mosque and the radical Islamists who perpetrated the 9/11 bombings that precipitated a worldwide emergency. Now America is being split into liberal and conservative camps, based on your response to what is being called "The Ground Zero Mosque." The President and by extension, his political party and all citizens of a liberal persuasion are being branded as anti-American by a media lynching party headed by, hmmmm, who would that be? You guessed it, the Republican Party.

Then there is the immigration issue, brought to the public's attention by the passage of a law in Arizona that basically legalized racial profiling. Fear of illegal immigration running amok and specifically Hispanic illegal immigration has reached epic proportions in America recently. Why? The Republican Party is pandering to the cultural conservatives in their ranks who, despite real facts, insist that illegal Mexican immigrants are living large at the expense of American taxpayers. These same cultural conservatives seem also to be convinced that hoards of illegal Mexican immigrants are at the core of a massive crime wave in America. Recent data show that all of those states along the border with Mexico are experiencing a very low crime rate compared to other areas within the U.S.

Across the border in Mexico that's another matter. If you check closely, you'll find that the Mexican government is busy blaming Americans and their demand for illegal drugs and their easy access to high-powered weaponry for the shootouts in Mexican streets. It is not in America that these shootouts are occurring. It's in Tijuana, Juarez, and assorted other cities on the Mexican side of the border, but the money and means to carry out these shootouts, murder, and mayhem are coming from the American side of the border, not the other way around.

And then there is the issue of gay marriage. The Republican Party has also enlisted the faithful in the "Homosexuality is a Sin Against God" campaign. A Federal judge in California recently overturned Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage. A large portion of conservative America is opposed and appalled by homosexuality in general and the idea of gay marriage specifically. They are outraged and want to Just one more issue being dredged up by the Republican Party to unite as many ill-informed and bigoted citizens as possible against the rest of us.

The bottom line is that the Republican Party in America is willing to unite all of the most extreme conservative elements in America in any way it can to benefit itself. They are willing to exaggerate, invent facts, and pander to the most racist, xenophobic, illiterate, and ill-informed sectors of our society to get votes, votes that ultimately benefit a wealthy minority of Americans, a group that continues to live by their own rules despite the image they project to get the votes needed to further the process of giving all of America's wealth to the 1 or 2% who currently control 90% of the money.

This is, of course, nothing new. It is of concern, however, because the furthest left elements of the Democratic Party are also busy picking apart the current efforts by the Democratic Party to repair what was thrust upon us by the previous 8 years of Republican stewardship nationally. No our President and our Democratic representatives in Congress, our Democratic Governors and Representatives in various state governments have not gone far enough to the left for me either. But sometimes in a democracy, it is necessary to compromise. Sometimes the tenor of the entire society, taken as a whole, makes it necessary for a group to temper their, perhaps just impulses, in order to make any progress at all. If we wish to make further progress, it will be necessary to once again unite all of those progressive elements in American society to offset the unity of the nuts, the unity of the right. Don't kid yourselves. Vote Democratic if you want to benefit all Americans.

Monday, August 16, 2010

End of Summer Pleasantry and Wistfulness

I'm going to have to depart from my usual political, educational, and social commentary today. I just returned from a day in Michigan City, Indiana over by the Indiana Dunes. A friend has one of those 32 foot boats that sleep 4 comfortably and 6 or 8 if they're really close friends. Cruised the lake. Grilled out. Enjoyed good company, good food, good wine. Drove home down wooded 2 lane highways through the Indiana Dunes State Park. A cooler, drier air mass moved through bringing temperatures in the low 80's and a very manageable degree of humidity. (Thank you Canada.)

My pleasantometer is reading off the charts just now. Speaking of which, if you plan on buying a pleasantometer, don't be fooled by some fast talking salesman who wants to sell you a European pleasantometer. Those things are metric and for most Americans they're a major pain in the butt. Every time you read it, you end up having to do a lot of complicated mathematical conversions which inevitably lower your pleasantry reading. The other option is buying an adaptor, and European-American pleasantometer adaptors will end up costing you more than you paid for the original pleasantometer, resulting in, you guessed it, lower pleasantry readings.

This afternoon, after having caught up on errands that went undone over the weekend, I went for a little Monday afternoon run along the lake, soaking up the warm but not too warm temperatures, the pleasant humidity levels, and the let's get some last beach time in before school starts up again and the weather gets too cold crowd. It was overall quite pleasant, but somewhere in the back of my head there was something nagging at me, intruding on all of the pleasantry.

I had to think very hard about what it was, but then I realized what it was. It was wistfulness. If I had a wistometer, it would have been reading about 9.75 on a 10 point scale. Why? Chicago's annual Air and Water Show is over. This is an annual signal that summer is almost gone and return to the working world of educators is imminent. Running under the trees between the Chess Pavilion and the North Avenue Boat House, the sound of cicadas in the trees gave me another clear signal that summer is in its waning days. The very fact that a Canadian air mass had brought cooler, dryer temperatures in itself revealed itself as a signal of the end of The Dog Days, if not summer itself.

Looking out my window, the water is a pleasant blue, reflecting the color of a cloudless sky above. The slanting rays of the afternoon sun have begun to color Navy Pier and the water crib in the distance in late afternoon yellow. A few stray boats are anchored in The Playpen. A couple of kayakers are paddling their way across the water. Further out, in the deep water a barge plies the waters southward to the steel mills in Indiana. The entire picture is off the charts pleasant, but the overriding wistfulness makes it clear that everyone and everything involved is trying desperately to wring that last bit of pleasantry possible from the few remaining days of summer.

What are these last remaining days, these pleasant but wistful days, but the last opportunity for sitting outdoors and enjoying a glass of wine while weather permits, the last opportunity for watching a symphony under the stars, the last opportunity for a long weekend of wine tours, bicycling, and staying in a nice hotel on the water. It is time to make hay while the sun shines, assuming one does not suffer from hay fever.

Personally, I have two weeks of this pleasantry offset by the intersection of wistfulness. It is a time of year to embrace. All too soon it will be gone. Then it will be time to plunge into autumn with a sense of abandon that will make one forget the pleasantries of summer, and indulge in sweaters, football games, warm drinks, and crisp temperatures. For now, though, the cicadas are singing to me.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gotta Have A Job If You Want Me To Buy Stuff.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average is regularly above 10,000 again, but the national unemployment rate still hovers around 9.5%-10%. There are those who claim that it is actually worse than this, that there are large numbers of people who have given up looking for work and thus do not figure into the statistics any longer. All across America state and local governments are laying people off, cutting services, and in at least one case turning off the street lights, to save money.

So let's get this straight. Corporations have returned to profitability but they are not hiring and they continue to cut benefits and demand more of their workers for less. What they are not seeing is that without employment people cannot pay taxes. Without tax revenues governments cannot provide basic services. That means policemen, firemen, teachers, garbage collectors, and road crews who fix the potholes. This drives up the unemployment further and increases the numbers of people who are not paying any taxes.

Furthermore, when people are unemployed they do not make any purchases beyond the basic necessities, food, clothing, shelter. When they are unemployed long enough they may cease making even these basic purchases. Want your company to sell products. We need people to be employed. Then they buy air conditioners, televisions, cars, and houses. With a job, they are less likely to default on a mortgage and end up in foreclosure.

Then there are the retirees and future retirees. 401(k)s are tanking. Public pension funds are in danger of defaulting and leaving their membership out in the cold. Again, let's get something straight. Retired people without money neither pay any taxes, nor buy cars, televisions, or any of the other things that keep the economy humming along.

So what's up? How do we get out of the current economic morass? Part of the answer lies in one of President Obama's favorite topics, creating new industry via green technology. This country needs to create new sustainable industries that will employee people for the long haul in real jobs that create and sell things, not in more service sector low-wage employment. Recognizing that we live in a world where the economy is global, we have to recognize that certain types of manufacturing will continue to be done overseas until the standard of living in China, in Indonesia, in other Third World nations improves to the point that it is no longer profitable to send your work overseas. We need to be working toward worldwide minimum standards of living and wages.

Part of the problem lies, however, with corporations that had a 2% decrease in profits and promptly laid off 6% of their labor force, resulting in soaring profits. These same corporations cut benefit packages to those who were lucky enough to keep their jobs. Profits soared. Executives reaped huge bonuses to their already extravagant salaries. Stock holders cheered because their stock values bounced back. The trouble is that corporations need to recognize some middle path between enormous profits and low labor overhead and that of no profits and shutting down operations. If corporations employ more persons, there are more persons to pay taxes, keeping the roads paved, the garbage picked up, the streets safe, the fires put out, and the country's students educated. The more people who are employed, the more profitability there is for corporations that sell products, because now people can afford to buy them.

So what am I saying? Employ people you rich schmoes. Quit stuffing all the damned money in your owned already overstuffed pockets. With high employment (and I'm not talking about a nation of Wal-Mart greeters and Starbucks barristas here.) everybody benefits. Maximizing profits for the benefit of a few? Well, I have to think that's going to eventually result in social unrest and the overall standard of living in this country sinking to Third World status. So take your choice ladies and gentlemen.

Monday, August 9, 2010

And What's Wrong With Having a Pension?

My father was a route salesman for a bread company. He drove a bread truck and sold bread, buns, and cupcakes to grocery stores and restaurants. He worked hard, and in return the company he worked for rewarded him and people like him with a pension plan. He paid in some money from each paycheck. The bread company matched his contribution. In time he was supposed to retire with a regular paycheck and would be able to live comfortably in his declining years.

Then the company he worked for was bought out by a larger company. He was a valued employee so the new bread company kept him on after the sale was complete. His pension did not survive the buyout. The new company's bottom line was more important than rewarding long-time employees. The money that he had in the pension plane was given to him, and he used that money to pay off some debts, but the prospect of having a regular pension check in his retirement was now history.

As a result, my father worked as long as he could, and when declining health forced him to retire, he put together a meager living as best as he could. He took his Social Security checks and added a few dollars here and a few dollars there from anywhere he could. He picked strawberries. He bought truckloads of watermelons that he sold from the back of his pickup. He did odd jobs at a warehouse that stocked gimme hats, Arkansas Razorback blankets, and assorted odds and ends that I usually dub "useless crap." He survived, but he worked until he absolutely could not work any more. Then his health went into a rapid downward spiral and he died. This was his reward for a lifetime of dedication and hard work with a company. He was loyal. The company was not.

Now I am the adult and I have spent the last twenty years of my life working in education. I am a teacher. I hold two BA degrees and a Master's degree plus 57 hours of additional graduate work. In the business community that comes with monetary rewards. In education, it means you make a little more than the run of the mill teacher, but still it is not as much as someone with similar credentials would be paid in private industry. In return I have been promised a pension. I pay a percentage of my paycheck into the pension every payday and the school system and the school system matches this with their own contribution. As a teacher and public employee, I do not pay into the Social Security System. The public pension is to be my retirement.

The trouble is that now there is a movement afoot to do to me and my colleagues in public employment what that bread company did to my father. They want to take away my pension, or at least reduce it seriously. Why? It's considered too expensive. Why? Nobody in the public sector gets this, why should you? Why? Part of it is funded through taxes and nobody wants to pay their taxes to fund somebody else's comfort. Frankly, part of it is a misery loves company impulse. We've gotten nothing from life and you shouldn't get anything either.

Ron Lieber, in a recent New York Times piece, calls it class warfare. Mr. Lieber, taking a cue from the Republican Party playbook has framed his argument by using Marxist terminology, only turning it on its head. Instead of the working poor as the have-nots and the bourgeoisie as the haves, he refers to all government employees with their pensions as the haves and the private industry sorts with their tanking 401-Ks as the have-nots. He goes further to suggest that it's about time that all of us overpaid and over-pensioned government employees should just suck it up because the politicians are going to shove smaller pensions or no pensions at all down our throats. He suggests that those of us who elected to take smaller salaries, who expected a retirement reward down the road are asking too much of the public to follow through on what they promised.

Let's get to the meat of the matter, though. A lot of what has precipitated this crisis is the shortfall in funding in government pension systems due to large numbers of baby boomers suddenly retiring coupled with a recession that has caused a shortfall in tax revenues. What caused this shortfall in funding of the pension systems? First and foremost, let us not say that it is because it was unrealistic in the first place. Everyone knew that there were going to be a lot of boomer retiring. The problem resulted because of massive mismanagement on the part of governmental units that did not hold up their end of the bargain. In the state of Illinois it has been routine practice to raid the money that should go to pension funds every time there is a fiscal crisis. Raise taxes to meet the budget shortfall? Heavens no! Legislators might lose votes in the next election if they did that. Instead, they chose to use money that was supposed to go to pension funds. And now, duh, there's a shortfall in the pension funds. Whose fault is that? That of teachers and other government employees? Not on your life. It's directly the fault of pandering legislators and of citizens who feel no responsibility to the society as a whole.

Now a whole generation of teachers, policemen, firemen, and various other government employees are in danger of losing their pensions because they entered into a contract with the government, and in most cases they won't even have the little income that Social Security offers because as a public employee who pays into a public pension fund you do not pay into Social Security. These are employees who worked their entire adult lives in good faith that if they did their parts, the government, representative of the public at large would do their part when the time came. Well now the time has come and the politicians and large numbers of people in the general public want to renege.

Mr. Lieber in the recent New York Times article from the business pages suggested that we, as public employees were not thinking about the public at large and were being litigious. Well, Mr. Lieber, we contend that it is the public at large that is not thinking about us. We teach your children. We protect your streets. We put out the fires. We pick up your garbage. We manage your society. We gave of ourselves. We gave up the possibility of higher pay for a delayed reward. Now it is your turn to pay up. This was not a gentleman's agreement. It was a contract. We have rights and protections under a constitutional government. Should the government as a representative of the public at large choose to negate that contract, we will exercise our constitutional rights. We don't have 401-Ks. We don't have Social Security. What else can we do?

Friday, August 6, 2010

An Informed Populace Votes in Their Best Interest. The Others Aren't Paying Attention.

Funny how democracy works. There is the theory. There is the reality. In theory, informed citizens will vote in favor of their own best interest, based on facts. In reality, people vote for candidates based on sound bites on TV, based on bias, prejudice, and misinformation. People vote on the basis of ill-conceived notions of reality and dare I say it, ignorance.

Let's face it, anyone who has been paying any attention at least since I was born, and I was born in 1950, should know that the political party most likely to pursue policies beneficial to working class and poorer Americans is the Democratic Party. For all their foibles, the Democratic Party are the party of the majority of Americans, if you vote based on facts and an informed vision. We should also face the fact that the vision of the Republican Party is one that best represents the interests of money, big money. They are the party of less government, less regulation, less taxes, and less money in the pockets of working class Americans.

Social Security is designed to be a safety net for working class older Americans and for Americans who are unable to care for themselves. Wealthy Americans typically do not need Social Security and the Republican Party routinely tries to gut this program as being too expensive. They try to privatize it. Do you really want to trust Social Security to the Stock Market and the Wall Street types who precipitated this latest financial meltdown? They try to make it optional. Of course they do. They don't want to pay into a social safety net that benefits poor people and not themselves. Many of the people supporting the "Do away with Social Security" politics are also those who have stripped working Americans of their pensions to foster higher corporate profits. Let's see, the Republican Party, on the whole supports no Social Security and no pensions, and in many cases no minimum wage. What that suggests to me is that these are individuals who want to use ordinary Americans in the work force until they are used up and then discard them like so much trash going to the landfill.

In the latest clash between those who would help working class America and those who would help the minority of really wealthy Americans, there is the fuss over universal healthcare. Who benefits from universal healthcare legislation? Working class Americans. Wealthy Americans can afford their own health insurance. Who opposes universal healthcare? Republicans, the party of wealthy America. They don't want to pay to see that everyone can receive reasonable healthcare when they personally won't benefit from it.

The Republican Party likes to speak in terms of "class warfare created by the Democratic Party," as if we were one unified America, all equal, and engaged one big group hug. Class warfare? Of course there is class warfare. The Republican Party promotes it. They declared war on working class America a long time ago. The shameful thing is the pretense that what they propose will actually help all Americans. Please explain to me again, how cutting taxes one more time for the wealthiest Americans will shrink the budget deficit, create more jobs, and help all Americans. Somehow the logic escapes me.

So how is it that large numbers of working class and poorer Americans continue to support the Republican Party when they are so obviously making every effort to screw working class America? In my lifetime, the real trouble with the Republican Party started with Ronald Reagan. He brought back the idea of trickle down economics (Very popular in the 1920's until the stock market crashed in 1929.). More importantly, however, he brought in an element of jingoism. Make America safe from all enemies. Spend enormous amounts of money on the military and just kick anyone's ass that disagrees with us. Then he also allied himself with social conservatives.

As it turns out, those most likely to agree with a militaristic foreign policy and domestic policies that oppose abortion, gay rights, civil rights, women's rights, immigration reform and any number of other hot button social conservative issues are working class Americans. The Republican Party sold its soul to the devil and forged an alliance of the super wealthy, busy grabbing larger and larger portions of the pie, and the social conservatives, busy trying to return us all to a world that was in place before 1950. The sad thing being that these social conservatives support the Republican agenda wholesale, disregarding the fact that the Republican ideal screws most of them economically while pandering to them on social issues.

The founding fathers had an ideal of a republic where an informed populace would vote in its own best interest, and the great issues of the day would be debated, not just on the floors of Congress, but in the press, and on the streets of America. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia with the idea that the best and brightest would be able to go there and receive a world class education regardless of income. He had that informed and competent citizen thing in mind. Competent governance requires competent citizens. If ever there were an argument for public education, it is this. Now if we could only get Americans to take their education seriously, and take time out from obsessing over American Idol and what's up with Lindsey Lohan long enough to read some serious news, and think about it.

I guess my advice to the American people at this point can be summed up in two short words, "Pay attention!" If you're paying attention, you're less likely to have the wool pulled over your eyes. Have a wonderful weekend.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Where Have All the Teachers Gone?

Once more into the breach it would seem. As a teacher in a public school in a large urban district I find myself routinely annoyed at the bad things said about us in the press, on the TV, by the politicians (federal, state, and local), by the local Board of Education, and most often, by the administrative officials who oversee the schools in the district. So I read something. I get annoyed. I write something in response. Seems as if it's a never ending cycle, a cycle informed by underlying political motives and misinformation.

There are a lot of factors that go into this ongoing argument. The American people don't want to pay the taxes necessary to legitimately support public education. A lot of the people with power to make things happen in America really don't care about the fate of public education because poor people's kids go to public schools. Rich and powerful people send their kids to private schools. It becomes a sort of "Let them eat cake," kind of situation. "We pay out of our own pockets for the education of our children. Why on earth should we pay for the education of their children. Let them pay for the education of their own."
Public schools are now, as they traditionally have been, funded by property taxes. Some communities rake in more in property taxes than others. Some school districts have more to spend per student than others. All districts are not equal. By the same token, some students have more advantages than others. Some have parents with college degrees and kids benefit mentally, socially, and economically. All of these factors play into how well the student does in school. Some students have parents who dropped out of high school, some have disabilities, and some have to deal with gangs, crime, and ghetto mentalities run amok just getting to and from school every day. Some of them are successful in spite of all this. A great many are not, and are condemned to life in the neighborhoods that are seen on the news when there has been another shooting.

To make things more complicated, school districts like the one in Chicago offer magnet schools, schools for the gifted and talented, college preparatory schools, and schools for kids with special interests. The best and the brightest are siphoned off from the neighborhood schools to attend these special schools. They are held up in the press as shining examples of how to achieve success in education. Well duh! Give me a school full of kids in the 99th percentile and I suspect they are all going to succeed. The kids left in the neighborhood schools are kids who never did particularly well academically. Then the teachers get blamed for the failure of these kids when in reality they are working their butts off trying to help these kids succeed.

With the constant budget crisis, and the so-called crisis of failing schools, there is a lot of pressure placed on school districts to improve success rates and to cut costs one way or another. Everybody has an idea about how to improve schools and how to cut costs. Very few of these people with ideas have ever worked in a school. A great many, for whatever reason, hold up the American business model as something to be emulated in public education. I'll go on record here as saying this is insane.

This is an American business community where corporations go broke, but executives get million dollar bonuses and golden parachutes. This is an American business community that responded to responded to a 2% shrinkage of profits by laying off 6% of their workers and telling the remaining workers that there would be no raises forthcoming in the near future and by the way, you have to take care of your own healthcare and retirement henceforth. Profits soared. Stockholders benefited. Unemployment remains at 10% for the nation, and with that many people out of work purchases of things that keep the economy chugging along lag. Eventually the whole thing comes tumbling down. As my mother always said, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." The American business model would appear to be a recipe for civil unrest, not a shining example for school systems to emulate.

This brings us to the efforts to "reform" the schools. Frankly, a lot of the reforming of the schools involves "reducing expenditures" not any real reform that could result in more students being successful and becoming productive citizens. A lot of the efforts have actually tried to emulate the business model. They have tried to squeeze as much as possible out of the educators with as little cash as possible. Charter schools and privatized schools partially funded from public coffers are both business answers to public school problems. What has been discovered is that charter schools that have selective enrollments (much like the magnet schools mentioned above) achieve wonderful results. Others do not. They all save money, however, because they operate outside the normal union restrictions on hours, salaries, and benefits. What? They pay people less, require them to work extra hours for no extra pay, and they slash benefits packages. Are these better schools? No, just cheaper, with employees who are left to fend for themselves when it comes to vital issues like retirement.

Now the current worldwide economic crisis has shrunk tax receipts significantly and the money available to operate public school systems has shrunk with those tax receipts. The answer to the budgetary woes is to fire more teachers, replace experienced teachers with inexperienced teachers who won't have to be paid as much, and to raise classroom size. In the ongoing clash between teachers and administrators, the mantra of the administrators has routinely been "If you were a good teacher, you could teach a class with 40 kids." Really? I dare you to try. The simple truth is that kids learn better when the student to teacher ratio is lower. The Chicago Public Schools recently made a big deal about the rising standardized test scores. Now they want to can experienced teachers, replace them with less expensive, younger teachers, and make them teach classrooms with 35 kids/class.

Is this a recipe for continued success? I think not. Kids are not a packaged, mass-produced product. A school is not a factory. The success of the kids depend on well-trained, caring educators who are not so overtaxed by sheer numbers of students that they have no time for individual students. The success of schools depends on appropriate management of those schools, and that means that the lean and mean model of the business world should not be followed. This is the future of our nation and the world. Write your Congressman. Call your Alderman. Descend on the Board of Education at their next meeting. Let them know that there is a crisis in education. It is a crisis of vision, of management, and of money. Want better schools? Save teachers' jobs.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Whatever Happened to Civility?

When I was a child my mother taught me a few things about behaving civilly when interacting with others. "Always respect your elders. If you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all. Don't swear in public. Don't swear at all if you don't absolutely have to. Never hit a girl. Open doors for ladies. Be polite with others. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Admittedly, over the years I may have had trouble at times with the "if you don't have anything good to say" thing, but for the most part I internalized these life lessons and have spent a lifetime being civil with other human beings. Most people I grew up with did likewise. It made life easier. It made co-existence with others more tolerable. Treat others well and with respect and they tend to reciprocate, though not always.

The trouble is that as time has gone by, it appears that the number of people who live by these rules and behave by basic rules of civility have declined drastically. Examples of very public conflict and egregious disrespect abound. Whence the source of this breakdown?

Yesterday afternoon Babs and I went over to a public tennis court a couple of blocks away. You hang a racket from two posts marked even or odd and reserve a court for yourself in hour increments. We had the five o'clock (odd) time slot on one of the courts. Somewhere about 15 minutes into our hour some guy with an oversized ego and a seriously oversized sense of self-importance comes in the gate and interrupts our game. "Are you going to play the entire hour?" He was very impatient. Admittedly I am not very good at the game, but who the hell is this pushy guy coming in and tacitly suggesting that we should wrap it up early so real tennis players could have the court? Babs informed him we would indeed be using our entire hour and he could come back at six o'clock.

Not to be picky but the guy and his partner came waltzing through the gate at 5:59, walked over and started unpacking his gear. Hey I have another minute here buster! Taking Mother's lesson to heart Babs and I picked up our tennis balls and before we could even get everything packed up and ourselves off the court this guy and his partner are on the court. (And it still was not six o'clock by my watch, by a few seconds.) Pushy, presumptuous, self-involved, and absolutely sure his time was worth more than that of the old guy and his wife. Remember that "if you don't have anything good to say" thing? I had a really hard time with that one about that time.

On another occasion, a few years back, Babs and I were going to a video rental store in a very busy strip mall. One usually had to wait your turn for a parking spot and a rent a cop patrolled the area for those who dared park in a spot not designated as a parking spot. One end of the lot was clearly marked ENTRANCE. One end had a sign clearly marked EXIT ONLY! After waiting about 5 minutes for an open parking spot, someone came out and left. I started the car and began pulling toward the parking spot. At this point, some guy in an SUV swerved in the EXIT ONLY opening and gunned it, trying to get the parking spot I had so diligently waited for.

I would like to say that my mother's lessons in civility kept me on the higher ground at this point, but the truth is I put the pedal to the metal and beat the guy into the parking spot while mouthing "No way asshole." Apparently the asshole was really good at reading lips. He slammed on the brakes, stopping right behind my car. Babs and I exited the car, locked it up, and started toward the video rental store. Meanwhile this guy, who stood all of 5'5" on a tall hair day comes right on our heels screaming at the top of his lungs, "Asshole! Asshole! You're the asshole! Hey mother fucker! I'm talking to you!" He followed us, engaging in this tirade all the way to the entrance to the store. Where was the rent a cop when you needed him? Taking a break I guess. Certainly nowhere in sight. I did show some restraint. I ignored him rather than confronting him and making the situation even worse and possibly violent. Not sure, but I believe being ignored made him even more belligerent and uncivil. As Babs suggested at the time though, "A man that crazy probably has a gun in his car." Point taken.

Life is full of these little stories. There are the women who walk right in front of you when you've been waiting in line patiently for 5 minutes at Starbucks. These sorts seem somehow convinced that being young and pretty means never having to wait in line. They usually seem convinced that all the men in the world owe them free meals, free drinks, and endless attention.

There are the people, both male and female, who in rush hour traffic on the expressway cannot wait their turn. You know the scenario. There is a line of cars slowly merging into one lane and most people patiently, or not so patiently, waiting their turn. Inevitably there is some clown much too important to wait like everyone else so he or she drives down the breakdown lane on the right and at the last possible moment cuts in front of someone else, causing everyone in the line to stand on their brakes. Very uncivil behavior that usually elicits some uncivil behavior (although warranted in my humble opinion) from the people who were cut off. Usually this consists of words your mother told you not to say, and the ubiquitous American one finger salute. This scenario also plays out at stoplights where a driver who wants in front of you pulls up on your right in the parking lane, waiting for the light to change so they can gun it and cut in front of you before hitting the parked car looming ahead. Hitting your brakes, screaming obscenities, giving the finger usually ensue and then you end up at the next light immediately behind this person.

There are the herds of people in groups walking down a busy city sidewalk oblivious to the fact that they are but a few of the millions who need to traverse this sidewalk so they spread out 3, 4, and 5 abreast making anyone walking the other way step aside to let them pass or step out into the street risking life and limb from taxis, buses, and assorted drivers who think they're in the Indy 500. Share the sidewalk people. You're not the only persons in the universe nor are you the most important. Believe me. You're not. If your were, you'd get a police escort. I've met the important sorts before. They're usually a great deal more civil.

Six billion is the number of people currently residing on this planet and that number grows by the minute. There's not a lot of room for all that incivility. It tends to cause confrontation and violence. It makes people stressed out. It invites eventual heart attack. On occasion it causes death by road rage or just plain old, "You pissed me off so I'm shooting your ass." On a larger scale nations go to war over incivility on a large scale. There is a lot to be said for civility. It makes life a lot calmer. It makes life a lot safer. It invites life to last a lot longer. Next time you find yourself in a situation where incivility has run amok just remember your mother and imagine what she would say. "Just keep a civil tongue in your head young man (young lady)."