Sunday, July 31, 2011

Simplicity

Simplicity is hard to achieve in a complex, materialistic world. We do not grow our own food. We do not make our own clothing. We do not build our own shelters from available natural materials. We cannot navigate to the goods and services we need without complex transportation, such as cars, buses and trains.

I have no time for or interest in being a Luddite, living on a rural acre and weaving my own cloth in my log cabin. I do sometimes nurture that fantasy though. The simplicity I seek enables me to live in clear light of mindfulness in the world I know.  The simplicity I seek enables me to use precious and irreplaceable time to laugh, to love, to learn.

Minimizing the amount of time I devote to accumulating and maintaining money and things helps a great deal. Maximizing the time I devote to friendship and my own development as a human being also helps. 

As I gradually simplify my personal environment, I feel a greater peace. As I simplify my mental focus, I am able to concentrate on those things that matter most. Simplicity of environment and activity enables me to look outward to my fellow human beings with less stress and more generosity of spirit.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Caretaking

I was please recently to see a Facebook friend's photos of her new urban space, which she had painstakingly decorated. She has created her own environment with simple recycled components and her own creative labor. A pleasant change from what I regularly perceive as an Ikea culture where everything is shiny new and readily disposable after being abused and neglected. 

Few people spend concentrated time creating and maintaining their own personal space. I have done a lot of house shopping over the years. I can say that about one home out of four is clean. One out of six may be decorated and maintained in a clean condition. What does this say about our culture, which is overtly hedonistic and materialistic? What is our culture's sense of worth?

Taking care of myself entails also taking care of my personal space.  The Japanese Buddhist expression, esho funi, means that a person and his/her environment are one. I subscribe to this concept fully. My experience as a professional nurse and health administrator have fortified my belief in this concept. Properly maintained environments promote positive outcomes.

The caretaking I refer to is not simply cosmetic. Martha Stewart's environments certainly reflect her persona, for example. They are cosmetically perfect, but cold and impersonal. Taking care of myself and my environment is a process with its own worth. The result is less important than the process. By consciously living healthily, creatively and prudently every day, I am practicing well being. If I am also practicing mindfulness and compassion, then this will develop in my environment as well.

The effort of establishing this practice may be initially daunting for many. Pulling away from mindless chaos requires intentional effort. It requires an honest appraisal of a person's true life condition. This can be painful and more easily ignored or denied. The return on the effort, however, is great.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Debt

The current debt drama in Washington illustrates a basic flaw in purely capitalist government, even in a republic. The lack of any representation in the American government by a party which would represent full economic justice for all Americans and a surplus of representation by parties who have been bought and sold by business and banking makes the argument over our national finances a dog-fight between alpha males, each grabbing for the larger parcel of the country's carcass. 

Our national debt crisis was incurred by capitalist interests. Our involvement in Asian wars was about capitalist interests in petroleum production and transport. It has been rationalized as a liberation battle between good and evil. This is pablum for the gullible and uninformed to swallow, of course. Simultaneously, wealthy capitalists utilized propaganda about 911's martyrdom of financiers into a tax break for the wealthy that has bankrupted our Treasury and a pillaging of the American people's equity (The Financial Crisis), for which nobody has been held adequately accountable.

While Democrats and Republicans act out a cynical play over the corpse of America's common prosperity, our President acts as the enlightened narrator on the side. He is indeed part of the cast, auditioned years ago by Wall Street, who bought him the election in 2008. 

The outrageous debt in America today is the debt of apology that all politicians of each party owe the American people for killing its young people on foreign soil for corporate profit, for handing over the government to financiers and for relentlessly pretending to be representatives of the common people's interests. This is a debt which may never be paid as we drift into international corporate domination.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Blogger

Sometimes, Blogger and I simply do not get along. Today is one of those days. I have written a long essay for today. Blogger has managed to lose half of it in translation from draft to page. My time today is limited. I will not begin again. I recognize the great service Blogger has provided for me over the years. However, today I leave this process out of necessity with a sense of frustration with myself for not having my own Web domain.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Color

I have a window fan in my bathroom. It's new. I liked the polished white finish of its hard plastic. The sun hit it this morning and I learned it isn't white in full light. It's pink! This experience has prompted this random reflection on color.

I often think about color. I draw and used to paint. I play with color in my home environment. I toy with color when making my illustrations for this blog.

When I look at a clear night sky, I realize that color is really about light, not about pigments or dyes. The vast areas of unlit Universe are black to my human eye. The stars are twinkling prisms of white light being refracted by the atmosphere as it reaches me. 

Everything in a totally dark room looks the same. As light is added, brighter and brighter, colors emerge and change. My perception is what changes. Shedding light on a subject allows its colors and nuances to come into my consciousness. 

I remember how tortured I could become when I was painting regularly with acrylics or oils. The harder I tried to control the colors on my palette, the crazier I became. Slowly I learned the wisdom of accepting happy accidents. My blood pressure and my work improved.

As a humanist and an inquisitively scientific person, I am aware of color when encountering a face that interests me on the subway or in a social context. I am fascinated by colors of human skin that range from the deepest black to freckled pink. I wonder at the pigments and their variation in light. I look at profiles and imagine them in silhouette without any color. 

The joy of color is diminished by its manipulation by those who would use it for power or superiority. Albert Speer's stunning graphic color sense becomes emblematic of true evil. Media portrayals of dark skinned people in early America were used to justify slavery. The perversion of the joy in and fascination with our own colors deprives us of a special form of self-appreciation and validation. It causes many of us to distance ourselves a step further from our bodies, our true selves.

When I worked in acute psychiatric services in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a fair amount of experimentation with the psychological and behavioral effects of environmental color on human beings. Pink was seen as soothing. Blue and gray as depressing. Red as agitating or stimulating. Some hospitals claimed positive results from applying these color theories. 

I have recently become a fan of the new full-spectrum efficient light bulbs. I placed four of these in a dingy bathroom of an old house I was recently cleaning. Suddenly colors and grime appeared that I had not seen before. The colors were beautiful, more beautiful than I had ever noticed in the fifty-seven years of my familiarity with that room. The grime was more easily removed.

My practice is often like turning a bright light on my own life. Nuances of emotion, like shades of color, become more pronounced when illuminated by bringing them into the light of my conscious examination. Making decisions is so much easier when all the components are clear, like colors on a brightly lit palette. And, as with painting, mixing the colors to come to a final decision brings both happy and unhappy accidents. But, the beauty of practice is using the mindful appreciation of these accidents to color future experiences for the better. Keeping the light and the colors bright is the function of practice.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Methods

There are innumerable methods for sustaining humanist practice. If you are a baker, your humanist practice would be quite different from the humanist practice of a stock broker in some ways. Your methods for getting the work done daily to sustain your livelihood while promoting inner and outer peace and joy would be different. However, the basic principles would be similar.

Meditation is a good example. I meditate daily. When I meditate at home, I meditate lying down in the middle of my day. Many people cannot meditate lying down without falling asleep. Their method of meditating may be different, but their appreciation of meditation for practice is the same.

Practice focuses on the daily goal of being healthy and compassionate in the moment, beginning with attention to the practitioner's peace and joy. My methods are less important than the actualization of living a peaceful and joyful life in harmony with my environment. In fact, adjusting my methods of practice is a creative necessity as I age and have different needs.

Many good people who seek to live in a practice of compassion and well being get distracted by ritual. Religions are methods. Certain guru-led movements are methods. The problem comes when the method becomes more important than practicing the principles of universal love and compassion. When a method replaces ongoing education and openness to change, practice becomes hollow ritual.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Relationships

Human beings name and structure many of their relationships around abstract concepts. This person is my second cousin. That person is my spouse. That other person is my colleague's daughter-in-law. He was married to the president of such-and-such.

How much of this naming and structuring is functional? How much of it gets in the way of people knowing each other simply as people? The boundaries and taboos that accompany some of these relationships may stand in the way of true love and appreciation between some human beings. The insistence of granting provenance to other people in introductions can as easily alienate as endear.

I have made it my practice to ignore labels. I am not impressed or intimidated by titles. I am confident enough in my own judgment to not fear conventional taboos in conversation. I find that this mind-set helps me to be less ageist, less racist, less sexist. In general, it is a practice of openness to other human beings as human beings without the inhibitions of names and structures. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Adapting

I did not post an entry yesterday. I was away from home in circumstances where I had no immediately available Internet access. This presented a small challenge to my practice. 

I was reminded of my youth. I worked for many years on evening and night shifts in hospitals. Beginning my day at 3 PM and ending it at 7 AM the next morning took a great amount of adaptation and structure, if I also wanted to have a life. My colleagues were mostly of two definite camps. Some were overweight and depressed. They spent their lives in personal isolation in order to make a living. Others were simply amazingly fit dynamos of creative intelligence.

I made the conscious decision early on to be part of the latter group. I devised a complex schedule of gym work-outs, social dates and even second jobs. I was continually inspired by one particular nocturnal colleague, a British-born nurse, who wrote bodice-ripper novels under an exotic pen name for Harlequin Press during her meal breaks. 'If I can only be like her at that age,' I frequently hoped to myself. Well, I am now older than she was then. 

As I look back, I realize that I would not be able to write a blog like this or have the life I have without being forced to adapt in order to pay my rent. I also realize that same pressure to adapt has left me prone to rigidity in my habits. It takes a certain amount of self-control to write a blog like this every day. But, letting that self-control turn into rigidity would be stifling. Part of my practice is constant adaptation to circumstance from the perspective of maintaining, not stifling, my creativity. 

So, when I found myself off-line yesterday, I was faced with a choice. Would I spend a good portion of a perfectly lovely day in pleasant surroundings searching for a wireless connection, or would I simply enjoy my day and surroundings for what they were. I chose the latter obviously. A measure of my practice, I believe, is the lack of conscious conflict that occurred with that choice.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Paradigms

If you are following the current political melodrama about the Federal debt ceiling, you will probably concede that very little of the coverage focuses on the core principle of economic justice. It seems easier to couch the battle in terms of entitlements vs.revenue. This is masking the real issue.

The Murdochs' testimony in front of a Parliamentary Committee this week illustrates the paradigm at the heart of the struggle over budgets in the U.S.. Is the wealth of humanity to be shared justly among humanity or is the wealth of humanity to be controlled by aristocracies, determined and propagated by genetic relationships? The right to quest for aristocracy, after all, is at the heart of the Tea Party's libertarianism. It is a continuation of American pioneer philosophy: Set out in a wagon and take whatever you can keep with a gun in order to build a legacy for your genetic family.

The current social environment in the U.S is a conflicted mess of super-affluent elites, dictating let's-all-get-along pablum, and a rapidly growing underclass, spanning the spectrum of rioting unionists to desperate illegal immigrants. The vast underclass is easily divided and conquered politically. Many vote against their own interests by supporting Tea Party candidates. Their indoctrination into family-centered thinking by overwhelmingly Rightist media and Rightist religion has effectively made them socialism-phobic.

The big question is one of social paradigm. Our social paradigm is not democratic. Our social paradigm is a confused mess, distorted and manipulated by corporate wealth and power. This is reflected in the current budgetary and political environment at the Federal and state level. As a humanist, I applaud President Obama's attempts to make this core struggle evident. I am not sure many Americans are open to broadening their vision to the larger social justice issues at hand.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Heat

Hot weather, like extremely cold weather, is an opportunity to get in touch with the reality of the mind-body connection. Being aware of the effects of heat on mood, energy and appetites is a way of getting grounded in the physics of being. The physics of being and the chemistry of being are core truths. Anyone who has suffered frost bite or heat exhaustion will agree. Having a daily practice entails naturally maintaining mindfulness about the effects of environment on practice and practice on environment.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Consistency (The Practical Humanist's 300th Posting)

Ralph Waldo Emerson
One great threat to practice is boredom. As Emerson put it in one of his Self-Reliance essays, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." I think we may all look to U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann for an inspiring example of these words.

Practice must be more than habit to avoid boredom and stupidity. It must be a vital, intentional awareness, a dynamic process of mental decision-making, like the high-awareness moves of the surfer or extreme sports participant. Instead of hand-eye coordination, the focus of the practitioner is a constant mind-body-brain coordination in all aspects of moment-by-moment life. 

The health-promoting and educational habits that support practice must be somewhat routine and consistent to be effective. However, there is wider and wider margin for creative variation as the practitioner feels healthier and learns more. As in athletic activity, more flexibility and strength in the mind-body-brain development enhances overall life performance. Consistency itself is not the issue. The quality and areas of consistency determine the benefits of practice.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reproduction

Successive feminist movements have made great advances for the reproductive rights of women. What about the reproductive responsibilities of women to the unborn, as the pro-life advocates call those imagined human beings who are not yet conceived or delivered into the world? Half the pregnancies in the United States are unplanned according to Planned Parenthood. As long as reproductive and sex education, based in science, are derailed by religion and politics, the full respect and care for each unique human life will not be assured.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Stress

The most harmful stress is that of which I am unaware. Schizophrenics live with brain chemistry that shuttles stress into dysfunctional defense systems, such as hallucinations and paranoid delusions, if they do not take medication or do other forms of practice to unearth stress or prevent it before these dysfunctional defenses go on automatic. Bipolar individuals spiral into mania under stress or crash into vegetative depression.

Most of us use degrees of unconscious defense mechanisms when stressed, if we do not work at recognizing and preventing stress. Buying binges, eating binges, drinking binges. These are often symptoms of stress which is not recognized or dealt with constructively. Human stress is amplified by the conflicts which can arise between the cognition of the frontal lobe and the automatic defensive  reactions of the animal brain.  If the animal brain wins control without moderation by cognition, dysfunctional social behavior or unhealthy personal behavior is often the result. 

Learning my own stress triggers by observing my own behaviors and thoughts has been my essential practice for reducing unhealthy stress reactions in my life. Small things, like mild food cravings or fantasies, can help me recognize stress in its earliest stages. This enables me to take appropriate, healthy action, such as changing my diet, increasing my rest and moderating my physical exercise. I have developed this practice through the use of psychotherapy, reflection and meditation. I discuss stress and defenses against stress with the people in my life. People who care for one another can help a great deal with managing stress together. This is an essential component of any caring or therapeutic community.

Dealing with stress is at the core of my practice. Learning to manage my stress responsibly in relationships and in my environment is an important part of my humanist practice. Promoting peace and joy within myself is the best way I know of being able to share peace and joy with others.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Carmageddon

This weekend's Carmageddon experience in Los Angeles says a lot about modern life in an overpopulated car-culture. Public officials are excited by their ability to cow the drivers of Los Angeles into avoiding the 10-mile stretch of Interstate 405 by using Homeland-Security-based methods of scaring the population through media blitz. That doesn't thrill me at all, but, I suppose, if you are a storm-trooper interested in suppressing public dissent any time soon, it would be good news.

If you are one of the starry-eyed who denies human overpopulation, you might read about the feared consequences of Carmageddon, which prompted these propaganda techniques to keep people away. You might also consider the environmental impact of the daily use of these freeways in the L.A. basin. If you continue your denial by saying emission controls and electric vehicles will inevitably solve the problems, I would suggest you take a course in Physics.

Carmageddon ...as a student of Buddhism, I do love the phonic double entendre... is a preview of coming attractions. Here in Boston, the Alford Street Bridge project is inconveniencing thousands of commuters daily but has not gotten high-profile attention because that bridge serves low-income communities. Currently. an Interstate 93 bridge project has led to massive delays and gridlock for those heading in and out of Boston from the north. How long will it be, with increasing population and diminished money applied to infrastructure due to a lowered tax base, before Carmageddon hits cities all over America? And, what forms of martial population control will authorities be forced to use to prevent rioting and mayhem?

I am amused by the gloating of Angelinos at their avoidance of this Carmageddon. If you are content with avoiding one disaster with techniques which may buy future problems for democracy and freedom of movement, perhaps you will feel right at home in a world of diminished resources and too many people.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch is suddenly revealed. Amazing. The world has stirred in its sleep. 

Rupert Murdoch has shamelessly has spearheaded the movement of promoting the new corporate Fascism for decades. Apparently his recent knife wounds to British privacy, wielded by Rebekah (Medusa) Brooks, went too close to the bone for politicians who have many closets and many skeletons. The pawns of Fascism suddenly developed spines as their current leader in Britain became exposed as part of the Murdoch game.

Now the FBI will examine naturalized American Murdoch. This should prove interesting. Will Fox News suddenly moderate its Right Wing propaganda? Or will the American press jump to Murdoch's defense in the name of the First Amendment? Considering that he owns much of that American press, it seems highly likely. Will our Congress deal with the issue in the shouting manner of Britain's Parliament? Of course not. The game is not played that transparently in America. We have become a nation of campaign chests and publishing careers for career politicians, including our heroic President Obama.

If we progress with an illusion of the end of Murdoch, we will not have solved the problem of democracy's erosion in the hands of the wealthy and their political minions. Attention to the current Right Wing ascendency with the aid of Murdoch and others will point to a future of greater domination by the corporate wealthy and less economic justice for individuals in America.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Place

I have little attachment to places in comparison to most people I know. I have enjoyed changing locations during my adult life, despite the obvious hassles and financial ramifications of moving. Learning a new place feels like an adventure to me. To many others, it seems to be a great toil.

I have been lectured to by friends and acquaintances who have said, "You'll never find a perfect place to live." They assumed I was looking for perfection when I was looking for affordable rent, a peaceful environment or simply a more convenient commute to work. I have seen many people live through torture in order to stay put and not have to move. That puzzles me.

I gave up the quest for permanence decades ago. When I was eleven, a series of losses occurred which depressed me deeply. When I emerged from my suicidal depression later in my adolescence, I did so with a coming to terms with the inevitability of impermanence and loss in everything. I was not endowed by nature or nurture with a serene disposition. Grasping the reality of change was a great help to me in wrestling with my demons. Nothing lasts forever, not even demons.

My comfort with change makes some people in my life wary. Those who want to achieve unshakable tenure in my positive esteem without treating me with respect or candor are disappointed. I do not wish to permanently own anyone or to be permanently owned by anyone, as the marriage myth promotes. I have been owned in the minds of two parents, now deceased. That was enough of that experience for a lifetime. 

My place is where I am in the moment. The structure where I live is simply a safe harbor from the elements. It is like an umbrella. It can be put aside when no longer needed. It is not an appendage or part of my identity.  Trying to put down roots is a functional behavior for those who need roots to feel anchored against life's changing seas. However, living with the flexibility of surfing life's seas by adapting to its changes can also be a highly functional strategy.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Business

I will admit to being conservative in my business practices. I don't like mixing business with pleasure or friendship. I don't believe in incurring unmanageable debt. Written negotiation and commitment are the only way I do business. I have also found that being an openly gay man has made me vulnerable to homophobic disrespect and chicanery in business situations. I take special care.

The current lack of ethical culture in business is very obvious to me. The banks and real estate cowboys who brought down our economy got away without punishment and, in some cases, made more money off rescue attempts by the U.S. government. President Obama presided over this debacle as much as his predecessor. A bad role model indeed, despite his pious declarations about "rule of Law". 

Scams and scammers abound on the Web. Buying a simple piece of durable clothing without flaws or faulty workmanship can be a challenge. Box stores charge a 'repackaging fee' when they take back faulty merchandise they sold to you. Selling real estate is a mine-field of bank appraisers with conflicting interests and basic mistrust between sellers and buyers, promoted by the brokerage process. 

All this can be very discouraging. However, what is the alternative choice in an industrialized and monetized  world? I have had to rely on my practice to moderate anxiety and stick to my principles. I meditate daily to keep my balance. I prioritize my own mental and physical needs to stay healthy. I am happy to not be hedonistic or materialistic. Those driving motives can be deadly in an unethical business culture. Ask the Madoffs and their friends. 

Society reflects its values in its behaviors. Today's mindless materialism and hedonism at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid have infected the entire business spectrum. While pollsters tout the Faith and religiosity of Americans, this love of dogmatic morality is not at all displayed in the marketplace. I smile to think that a secular humanist needs to point this out as Bible-thumping politicians, like Michele Bachmann, a self-praising businesswoman,  rail against paying taxes to assist those who have less.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Individuality

The old American archetype for the rugged individual entailed a mountain man who builds his own log cabin in the wilderness and lives off the land in harmony with Nature. The new archetype seems to be a loner-geek in a suburban garage devising a new IT IPO. In the general population, I see individuality often confused with narcissism. 

Some of the more boorishly narcissistic people, in my opinion, are gangsters, who are never alone and need an audience for every event in their lives. What looks like functional socialization is actually exploitation of the group to bolster an inadequate individual personality. This is not healthy individuality. 

Individuality requires a modicum of intelligence, mixed with a modicum of self-confidence. The person who is secure in his personality, as a result of candid self-development and self-assessment, is not usually antisocial or overbearingly gregarious. The healthy individual readily says "no" as easily as he says "yes" when asked his opinion or support of an ideal or proposal. 

I feel we are currently living in a world of growing conformity. The current pressures of human overpopulation and environmental deterioration may well be behind this in more comfortably developed societies. After all, these societies have the most to lose as those with less, who are the vast human majority, start demanding an equal share of diminished resources. Conformity may well be a natural tendency to cohere in the face of an imminent threat. 

In any case, I feel that individuality in its finest sense is an indication of dedicated personal practice. A group composed of strong individuals, like the Continental Congress which founded the United States, can achieve amazing things. It can also create horrors like the Red and White Terrors which followed the French Revolution. The determining factor may well hinge on the mental health of the individuals who form political or social groups.

Healthy practice builds healthy individuality. As a humanist, my practice is based upon my sense of personal responsibility for my health and the health of my environment. By being healthy, I promote health. My dedicating myself to personal growth and development, I promote growth and development by my example. I do not have to dominate or convince. My individuality is the measure of my practice. Its influence on my environment is a natural process.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Balance

How do you maintain balance? Do you consciously try? Many human beings live like body-surfers on the tides of change. Pummeled by storm tides and stalled by lack of inspiration or desire.

Balance requires effort in a Universe which tends toward chaos. Our bodies naturally deteriorate with bad habits of unbalanced exercise and poor diet. Encountering victims of true poverty will illustrate this point. People in poverty who are relatively young by educated middle-class standards look decades older and are often toothless from lack of dental care. Their lives are lived in imbalance, fed by ignorance and social injustice.

Balancing in the real world requires education and consciousness. Understanding how the body works requires studying the owner's manual which is now quite detailed, thanks to modern medical science. Understanding how physiology shapes and maintains the human mind gives the mindful person tremendous tools to balance stress and anxiety. Psychotherapy, psycho-pharmacology, yoga and meditation are examples.

Life without balance can be seen as exhilarating and colorful. Anyone who has read an autobiography of a 'colorful life' will soon find that the subjective experience of a life without balance is not really enjoyable in an overall sense. Those who come out of a life of ups and downs to a life of balance usually say they prefer the latter. 

Lack of balance usually displays itself as a life of one crisis after another. Some choose to live their lives this way. Many more do it just by habit or circumstance. In my own experience, I saw early in my life that living from one crisis to the next was simply a replay of my parents' methodology, which I had come to dislike as I matured. My focusing on what is going wrong at any given time undermines my ability to look ahead to a future which is generally right for me. When I establish balance in my life, no one event or circumstance overshadows my path to that state of rightness, a state of peace and joy. Balance is at the core of wellness.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mismanagement

Are we all tired of hearing about the government's credit default yet? I know I am. 

I am not an economist. I am not a CPA. I am not a banker. However, I never had much money and have had to get along as a single working person for the past 41 years in this economy. It hasn't been easy. I became financially independent in the great recession era of the 1970s, caused in part by a stupid war in Viet Nam. Now, 41 years later, I am working my budgetary pencil during yet another Great Recession. Two more wars are dragging on and dragging us down.

I pay my taxes. I pay my bills. When I had one, I never missed a mortgage payment. It was never easy. I haven't spent weeks on river cruises on the Rhine or Danube. I haven't wintered in Florida.  I've often had a small business to supplement my income from a full-time job. Yet I have never declared bankruptcy. I have never defaulted on my debts. 

My secret? It's easy. I haven't incurred debts I could not readily and realistically repay.

The Federal, state and municipal governments all hire economists, former bankers and CPAs to run things for them. Why can't all these geniuses manage things better? The answer is simple: Political corruption. 

In 2012, power-seekers will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on TV ads and Web advertising which very few Americans want to watch. The vendors of this advertising will continue their practice of brain-washing for cash with glee. They will disseminate questionable or misleading statistics. They will get more bad managers elected, based on candidates' photogenic profiles and bleached smiles.

As someone with a balanced budget, I resent paying taxes for these clowns to mismanage. However, I strongly believe every citizen must pay his/her share of the expense of civilization. The problem, in my opinion, is not an economic one. The problem is one of too much money in the political process and too little money being spent mindfully on the true needs of the people.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sundays

The encroachment of commerce on Sundays hasn't changed my fondness for them. I still feel different on Sunday mornings, despite years of working night shifts and weekends as a nurse. Sundays are special.

My affection for this day of traditional Christian rituals has nothing to do with faith or religion. In fact, the worst parts of Sundays past were the religious parts, which I tolerated with an eye to the rest of the day. In my working-class house as a child, Sundays were truly days of rest. Both my parents worked. It was the day when we could count of better moods and special meals. It was a day free of school. It was a day when we often got out of my sooty home town on a car trip to visit relatives or tour the leafy countryside.

I recently spent a dozen Sundays working as a volunteer for a local Humanist organization. My enthusiasm for the work was initially dimmed by my sacrifice of Sunday leisure, but I found that it gave me a new reason to see Sundays as special days. My Sunday mindset seems to be more or less unshakable. 

Over the years since I retired from my more routine work life, I have tried to instill Sunday mentality in all the days of the week, but it hasn't really worked. Saturdays have shown some promise, as have Wednesdays for a number of reasons. Mondays, despite their obvious proximity, are most lacking in Sunday's lightness of being. 

I would like to evolve to the point that the specific day or month or season has little effect on my experience of inner peace and happiness. I'm not quite there yet. Perhaps I will never be that enlightened. It doesn't bother me. I relish my Sunday morning exuberance. I have learned through some hard times, that any joy that comes naturally should be embraced and relished.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Tidying

I confess to being obsessive-compulsively tidy. When I was a child, this was problematic. The world is a big and messy place. My little hands and feet could not possibly manage to clean it up. I developed twitches and was quite withdrawn. I could keep my internal world ordered by being quiet and concentrating very hard.

I have been cleaning out my mother's house following her death. My mother was also obsessive-compulsive. When she was young, she stripped the kitchen floor of wax and re-waxed it every Thursday. She vacuumed and dusted relentlessly. Furniture was moved around every week to get the work done. A ban on easy access to various rooms lasted for hours, it seemed. As she grew older, her obsessive-compulsive nature flipped into hoarding.

Yesterday I finished emptying her house of the last of her collected treasure of paper bags, glass jars and plastic yogurt containers. As I sat in reflection in the dimming light of evening, I felt a deep fatigue and sense of accomplishment. I had toured the rooms which now look like the house I remember from my early childhood. The chaos of old age had been corrected within its walls. It was quiet, clean and peaceful.

I will be letting go of that house. Now it seems much easier. I've given it my best labor and care, despite my painful memories of unhappy times within its rooms. It occurred to me that I could even live there now in peace, if I altered it to my needs. I doubt I will choose to do that, but it is nice to know I could.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Automobiles

I believe the car culture is responsible for many of the health ills Americans face. Obesity, joint degradations, osteoporosis and, of course, respiratory diseases can all be associated with the use of cars instead of feet and/or pedals. The automobile industry intentionally pressured governments to tear up a massive public transportation system in the United States in the 1950s. Every city in the U.S. had an intricate network of street trolleys, running on electricity, not petroleum as the buses do which replaced them.

When I was very young, my mother and grandmother took me to a Russian picnic/festival in a state reservation just north of Boston. The whole trip of 15 miles was done on public transport. The final leg of the journey to the park was on an electric trolley which rumbled along through deep woods of the reservation on its way to its terminus in a suburban village. When I now walk in that park, which I must access in a car, I make certain to walk on the old rail bed of the trolley tracks. The rotted ties still stick up along the path in places. They are a symbol of America's assassinated public transportation network.

In recent months, Rightist state governors have proudly refused Federal public transportation funds for light rail and high-speed rail. How idiotic is this? What does this say about their attitude toward the public health and safety of their constituents?

To more affluent suburbanites, the car has morphed into a symbol of adulthood and freedom. Rather than hunting predators in the bush, pampered adolescents are given car keys by doting parents. Local politicians fight commuter rail development from a position of covert xenophobia. Rail means that those without cars, the less 'desirable' in the mind of the suburbanite, may be able to access their communities for housing.

Electrifying cars is not the only answer. Getting people out of their cocoons into the public space via public transportation is part of the answer to a society sharply divided along socioeconomic lines. Making cities accessible, quieter and environmentally cleaner is easy with adequate public transportation and traffic-free zones. Making hubs of smaller cities and extending public transportation networks within their metro areas can diminish urban sprawl. Concentrating housing with services around transportation stops is a proven way of developing more efficient and environmentally friendly housing for a growing human population.

The automobile's curse is not only petroleum dependence. It is the automobile culture itself. It is an antisocial culture in its very nature. Its health effects are overwhelmingly negative. As a humanist who takes responsibility for his environment seriously, I give my full support to expanded and improved public transportation. My enthusiasm for it is second only to my enthusiasm for simply walking to where I need to go.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Dumpsters

At 10 AM yesterday, the three friendly stalwarts climbed up into the red truck cabin after hoisting the huge dumpster up off the pavement onto its trolley. We had worked together for an hour. The 30-yard canister was full to its brim. It had a 5 ton capacity. 

I'd never contributed to filling a huge dumpster before. My mother had worked hard to accumulate well over 5 tons of junk in her modest house of many closets and two attics. I used to tease her about bringing a dumpster into her driveway and emptying the house while she was away. She would raise her chin and say, "You'll just have to wait until I'm dead." And here I am.

I sat in the kitchen after seeing off the three workers. One of them was interested in the house. I had given them a tour of the emptied, but still adequately furnished, house.They were careful not to touch anything. We were all pretty grubby from the dirt and 90-degree heat of the day.

As I sipped a well-earned cup of strong coffee, I looked at the Summer light coming through windows, freed of heavy curtains and dirty old blinds. The floors gleamed from being washed and buffed. A pang of sadness passed through me as I remembered my very old mother nodding off in a dark, dusty room in front of a blasting TV. Her hoarded treasure was out of her reach up in attics she was too weak to get into. The beautiful bones of her house were hidden under dust, funky old carpeting and piles of papers everywhere.

Later I cleaned out and polished her dowry chest after emptying the last remnants of hidden things. I ran a cloth over its Chippendale legs. I found myself thinking, "I loved you as best I could, as much as you would allow me to." With that thought, I experienced yet another deep release.

Dumpsters have always seemed scary as they barrel past my tiny car on the highway. I will not look at them the same again. I will think of my three saviors with sweating faces of honest work who liberated me from my mother's trashy treasure. As we cleared it away, we exchanged jokes and platitudes about life's impermanence. They left me lighter than when they came. They helped me get on with a new chapter of my life.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Communication

Despite all the tools of modern communication, meaningful communication between people is still difficult to achieve. It requires practice and skill. We live in clouds of details and opinions about people from Facebook and Twitter. How much time do we spend looking into eyes and conversing? I do not mean having a meeting or a group club night. I mean actually conversing personally and intimately about our lives.

The alienation which accompanies mass communication devices is stunning. The alienated individual on an urban subway looks up sleepily from a tiny LCD screen after madly thumbing it with active facial expression. He has nothing to give to his fellow riders, but is highly invested in the people remotely connected to him through his electronics. When asked information by a stranger, many look immediately down at their smart phone in response. Rather than engaging with the stranger on human terms, the device becomes the focus, a buffer in human communication.

I am not a Luddite by any means. I had a Web domain back when many of my friends were struggling to master Windows95. I use a cell phone as a convenience when I need to call someone away from home. However, I am not about to substitute texting in my life for the sound of a human voice and eye contact across a table. The feel of smooth plastic is a poor substitute for the warmth of human touch. The filtered human voice over a phone is no substitute for a whispered endearment while being hugged.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Business

This is touted by the political Right as an age of entrepreneurship. Libertarians cry out that everything would be just peachy under a totally Free Market system. Well, I am here to testify that the business and work ethic in the U.S. is in a bad way, judging from my experiences of it recently.

Ben Franklin, Businessman
I should begin by saying I have owned three small (tiny) businesses over the years. While I am well to the Left of any political chart, I practiced business with the serious ethics of the Protestant forebears of this country. Clean balance sheets. Do what you say you will do when you say you will do it. Show up on time. Do the whole job the best you can mange for the price offered. Do not whine or complain to a customer. Work hard and do the job as you would have it done for yourself. 

As a customer today, I am amazed at the sloppy and irresponsible behaviors I encounter everywhere with independent contractors. However, the prices are by no means lower than they were. They are exorbitant. This is no great advertisement for the Free Market and Libertarian values. What I see is a lot of freedom to do a lousy job for too much money with no values at all.

Estimates are bizarrely divergent for the same job. This indicates that estimates are not based on any physical reality of cost of materials and labor plus mark-up. They are simply imaginings, fantasy numbers, perhaps based on the price of a contractor's desired motorcycle or fishing boat.

Once a price is agreed upon, actually getting the service deliverer to deliver the service in a timely and efficient manner is nearly a full-time job in itself for the consumer. Insult to injury. It took two appointments for a plumber to recently fix a leak in a kitchen sink. The first repair ignored a problem that still leaked. Both times the plumber was an hour late. This was over $400 for a job which took about 45 minutes between the two appointments. It would have taken less time if it had been done correctly in the first place. 

I have found that I must call to confirm absolutely every appointment for service a day in advance after being repeatedly stood-up. The follow-up calls to the absent contractor usually gets a response like, "Oh, man, I had a really long weekend, if you know what I mean." I am supposed to be forgiving of this irresponsibility and just pay high prices for rescheduled labor at my inconvenience. 

For many years, I have honored my standard of "Business is business. Social work is social work." In other words, even in Social Work, the fee structure must be clear and the bills must be collected. I do not mix business with friendship or pleasure. I pay for service as it is delivered. I do not expect credit nor do I expect services to lag on forever while I twiddle my thumbs. This used to be the better part of the much-maligned Protestant Ethic. It was the only worthwhile part, in my opinion, as a practical humanist.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Violence

Brad Pitt as Aldo Raine
I had avoided watching Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" until last evening, when it came up on my cable menu. I knew it was a hit. I had heard rollicking reviews of the film by seemingly intelligent reviewers when it came out two years ago. I preface my remarks about this film by saying that I am not a naive watcher of movies. Years ago, when my life's circumstances were quite different, I saw many first-run films and wrote comments/reviews on the more egalitarian IMDB of the time.

There is a not-so-fine line in media between realistic enactments of violence as it exists in the world and schizophrenic indulgence in graphic and eroticized horror. The most disturbing aspect of this particular Tarantino blood-fest is its use of the events of the Second World War as a canvas. The sadistic antisemitism of the Nazis is exploited as an excuse for the barbaric and sadistic retribution of those fighting them. The whole bloody mess is an exploitation of actual sadism, obviously geared to attract the conflicted sexuality of adolescent boys to theater seats for profit.

I personally hold the opinion that no true art promotes violence. I would not even debate the artistic merits of this film or media like it, such as violent video games. They have no artistic merits. They are emotionally exploitative tools to make money for indiscriminate entrepreneurs. And, I must say, I cannot accept that humanist ethics are consistent with indulging in or promoting these entertainments.

There is no immunity when dabbling in violence. The mind determines behavior. The mind inoculated with or inured to sadistic violence is more prone to indulge in or accept violence. American society is one of the most violent in the industrialized world. Our media reflect this. As a humanist, I accept my own responsibility to avoid violence. In the case of this film, I was pleased to find that my disgust outweighed my curiosity while watching it. The fact that this film was very popular in the U.S. troubles me.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Belonging

There is a basic human desire to belong. Some people satisfy this need by living in the same community for their entire lives. Others are joiners of causes or teams.

As my own identity became clear to me with maturity, my natural desire to belong came in conflict with my newly found sense of self. As a person, I did not believe in negating my beliefs and values in order to belong to groups which denigrated my identity or the identities of people like myself. As a person who deplored violence, for example, I did not want to belong to sports teams that participated in intentional violence in the name of competition. As a person who saw addiction as a disease, I did not wish to belong to groups which drank heavily and did recreational drugs.

My need to belong persists. However, I have learned to satisfy my need to belong by developing the understanding that I belong simply to the human species. Everywhere I go I belong, whether I choose to participate in specific group activities or not. I assert my right to belong as part of my existence as a human being. This belonging, in my opinion, is the foundation of universal human rights.

I have found that this consciously developed perspective on belonging has helped me adjust to many situations. As a gay man, it has been very valuable in dissipating the resentments and disappointments which inevitably come with establishing a open gay identity. As a professional nurse, this sense of belonging to the human race has helped me care for some of the most difficult patients imaginable. I have been able to be on their side, to be their advocate, despite finding their behaviors unpalatable or even threatening.

I see the repression of truthful identity which many people practice in order to belong to a specific interest group as an unhealthy practice. There are certainly the extreme examples of Nazis and Stalinists. The more subtle examples of racist, homophobic or class-restrictive groups are equally destructive to the human community. In fact, I maintain that the obsession with competitive teams among a large segment of the population is an impediment to human progress. These identities can do more to obscure our commonality than they do to bring us together.

As human beings gradually evolve away from the concepts of genetic family or tribe through a recognition of the limitations of those identities. we will have to develop that greater sense of belonging to the whole species. This may help us to put aside those cultural and religious trappings which divide rather than unite. Once we see each other as related equals within that greater human group, we will perhaps begin the real work of establishing universal human rights and economic justice.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Junk

America is a nation of junk. Junk food, junk cars, junk condos. The American dream, for many, is based on the acquisition of junk. Big TVs, trendy gadgets and conformist sports-fan apparel. 

As I clean out an all-American house after my mother's death, I am dumbstruck often by the amount of accumulated junk that resides in every corner. Decades of junk trends are represented. Three aluminum pressure cookers, five stainless coffee percolators, collections of Corning ware large enough to stock several  homeless shelter kitchens. More is what many Americans see as prosperity. 

What is the cost of all this junk to the environment and to personal health? The cost is huge. The carbon footprint of one hamburger is well reported. The carbon footprints of useless appliances and gadgets are walking us to environmental disaster. The anxiety and stress of people who are driven to live up to the American Dream of Junk pollutes the daily environment of our workplaces and homes. 

So much of growing up is letting go. Letting go of junk and its pursuit are essential parts of discovering oneself. Getting junk and having junk are distractions from the harsh reality of an unpleasant inner life in many. cases. As part of my daily practice I look hard at my environment and try to keep it junk-free, just as I try to keep my mind junk-free. One process aids the other.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Promotion

Vince, Famous TV Promoter
The collision of IT technology, production technology and overpopulation has produced a culture of self-promotion. Shouting "Look at me!" has become a standard practice for pawnbrokers, plumbers and professors. Marginally interesting Linkedin connections pour into email boxes. Facebook befriending is an extension of business networking. The lines between commerce and relationships are blurred everywhere.

Years ago there were a number of ways a restaurant became popular. One way was through promotion. There was a popular, mediocre Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, MA for years that was promoted with the name of its owner, a woman with a TV cooking show. In the same city, there was a tiny, hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant that did no media advertising and became just as popular due to the high quality of its food, its charming proprietors and its low prices. 

Promotion today in a virtually driven world of information can be very hollow. What looks great on a Facebook site or standard Web site often disappoints in three dimensions. Self-made stars are often black holes in reality. Some non-profits which promote themselves as self-sacrificing saviors of the down-trodden are actually money machines for high-paid administrators, who never have any contact with the poor. 

Promotion, unsupported by worth, is fraud. This is not a popular notion in these times of entrepreneurial enthusiasm. The cries of "Get government out of business!" sound to me like an imagined P.T. Barnum saying "Get government out of the circus!" Business has become so much illusion piled on top of both good and horrible products. Just believing in the promotions is a good way to get ripped off, as many have been over the centuries by organized religions. 

This blog is not about promotion. As you can see, there is no advertising on this blog. That is intentional. I have no interest in selling humanism or humanist practice. If I did, I would be a huckster or a fool. Humanism is discovered, nurtured and practiced by individuals with their own minds and by their own actions. That is the beauty which is immediately evident in the true humanist. All the trappings of humanist organizations, humanist logos and humanist products are promotion, albeit for a potentially good purpose. In most cases, those who participate in these promotions are truly practicing humanists. However, some may be content to be promoters on their way to a career of promotion. The simple promotion of humanism, in other words, is not in itself humanist practice.