Monday, December 30, 2013

A final, grand tour

A touching story.  It was penned by author Kent Nerburn, in his 1999 book Make Me An Instrument Of Your Peace, and it really happened.
I arrived at the address and honked the horn. After waiting a few minutes I honked again. Since this was going to be my last ride of my shift I thought about just driving away, but instead I put the car in park and walked up to the door and knocked.. 'Just a minute', answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor.

After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90's stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940's movie.

By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets.

There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard
box filled with photos and glassware.

'Would you carry my bag out to the car?' she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman.

She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb.

She kept thanking me for my kindness. 'It's nothing', I told her.. 'I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother to be treated.'

'Oh, you're such a good boy, she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address and then asked, 'Could you drive
through downtown?'

'It's not the shortest way,' I answered quickly..

'Oh, I don't mind,' she said. 'I'm in no hurry. I'm on my way to a hospice.

I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. 'I don't have any family left,' she continued in a soft voice..'The doctor says I don't have very long.' I quietly reached over and shut off the meter.

'What route would you like me to take?' I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator.

We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.

Sometimes she'd ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, 'I'm tired. Let's go now'.
We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico.

Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move.
They must have been expecting her.

I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

'How much do I owe you?' She asked, reaching into her purse.

'Nothing,' I said

'You have to make a living,' she answered.

'There are other passengers,' I responded.

Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly.

'You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,' she said. 'Thank you.'

I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light.. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life..

I didn't pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?

On a quick review, I don't think that I have done anything more important in my life.

We're conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments.

But great moments often catch us unaware-beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


I'm not sure how I missed his birthday this year, but November 9 came and went unnoticed, until tonight.

As the preeminent scientist, astronomer and philosopher of our time, Carl Sagan has written many thought provoking pieces, none more so than this, The Pale Blue Dot.  It was his idea to turn the Voyager cameras around one last time and capture a parting glimpse of her home, Earth.  This brilliantly produced video includes the piece he wrote, and the photo.

Happy birthday Carl.

Video produced by The Thinking Atheist.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Economic Disparity

Since the 1980's and even before, if you were to ask a presidential candidate what the campaign's primary issue was, they'd tell you that far above any social issue, any security issue, (even post 9/11) the economy has been the biggest concern for Americans.  Economy means inflation, income, housing, international trade, Wall Street and more, so it's a very complex issue.

So let's examine the economy.  Today, more than at any time in American history, the stock market is vibrant.  Breaking new records almost daily, the DJIA closed last week above 16,000 for the first time in history.  As I'm writing this, it's standing at almost 16,100.

Yet today, unemployment is above 7 percent overall, and far higher in key demographics.  Average income in the US is down precipitously since before 2007's Great Recession.  Historically high numbers of Americans are on some sort of government assistance.  Student loan defaults are at historic highs.  And as a country, our debt continues to increase, as we pour trillions into programs that have no chance or intention of changing the economic trajectory of the average American.

Today's presidential candidate might say their primary campaign issue would be economic inequality.  Today, the share of income flowing to the top 1 percent is over 20 percent - the highest level since right before the Great Depression.  Since 1993, the top 1 percent has benefitted from over two thirds of US economic growth, per family, real income.  Since the 'recovery' of the 2007 Great Recession, 95 percent of the total increase in income went to the top 1 percent.  Staggering.

In terms of wealth, the top 5 percent of Americans now control 72 percent of the wealth.  The other 95 percent control only 28.

So how can Wall Street be so vibrant, while Main Street is barely getting by?  The truth behind the numbers is telling.  The current market cap of the stock market is bigger than the Gross National Product of the US.  That doesn't happen often - only three times in history, two of which were right before the crash of the economy in 2007.  All the while, the Fed is providing economic stimulus to the tune of billions per month to help prop it all up.

Let me provide some insight behind the sharp contrast between Wall Street and Main Street.

The first reason market indices no longer reflect conditions on the ground is, they are based on productivity gains, not employment.  Corporations are investing in technology instead of workers.  The tax code is fertile with tax deductions for equipment and technology, not so much for investment in employees.  Higher productivity + lower payroll = higher profits.

Another reason - workers have no bargaining power when unemployment is high.  Wages stay low because those who are employed feel fortunate to have a job.  While governmental support systems, such as tax breaks for hiring the unemployed, may have helped in a different place and time, government is operating under very austere conditions as we chip away at deficit spending and try to at least reduce the rate of growth of the National Debt.  The result of a powerless work force is lower wages for workers and higher short-term profits for corporations.

American corporations are beholden first to stockholders, so they go searching globally for cheap workers.  That usually means moving much of their manufacturing and production off-shore.  That results in lower taxes, and again, less investment in employees.  Wall Street looks positively on all of this.

I mentioned the Fed.  The easy money they provide plays a huge role, pushing investors toward Wall Street, because bond yields are at historic lows.  Stocks, while riskier, produce far higher returns.

One final reason that doesn't get much play, but is a concern of mine: The methodology of the stock market.  At one time, investors looked for companies they felt were 'doing it right'.  They invested in ideologies and strategies.  Today, much or most of the trading on Wall Street is done by computer algorithms, and a share of stock might be bought and sold within 1/10th of one second, for a profit of less than a penny.  That's not much, but do it a billion times a day, and the results are staggering.  More important than corporate ideologies and philosophies in today's stock market, is the speed of your Internet connection.

The result: Wall Street is healthy, Main Street is not.

Adding insult to working-class injury, sequestration has eliminated or reduced the DOE's Title 1 Program, Head Start, and WIC, which provides nutritional education and assistance.  Rent subsidies are disappearing.  Cuts to the Department of Agriculture have eliminated or reduced food stamp benefits for many who need them.  Those who are suffering as a result of the productivity gains of corporations, the unemployed, are finding their long-term benefits are disappearing because of government sequestration.

Never before have governmental policy, and the need to feed the beast that is Wall Street, so inopportunely coincided to so radically help America's most fortunate, and hurt the least among us.

The icing on the cake is, nothing will likely be done about it.  Lax campaign finance laws mean those with the most money will get the most attention.  One individual can, through various means, contribute an unlimited amount of money to a Congressperson.  The Supreme Court says corporations are people, and money is free speech, a constitutional guarantee.  As bargaining power of employees is slowly whittled away, and the power of unions is reduced or removed, the rich hold not only the trump card, but virtually all of the cards.

Gerrymandering, and an apathetic (or worse, blindly partisan) electorate, ensure that those in power will remain, and little will change in the near future.

I'm not saying nothing will ever change.  History is a great tool, and easily reveals what happens to top-heavy economies.  Pyramids crumble when turned on their heads.  But our continued blindness to signs is discouraging.  Capitalism, in its orderly and regulated form, is an absolutely amazing system.  Capitalism unbridled and unregulated, is no better than Marxism or Communism, and is as dangerous a scourge as exists anywhere.


Spare me the tired slogans or accusations of class envy, I've lived through extremes, both high and low.  I'm a vibrant supporter of Capitalism.  I'm stating facts, feel free to check them.  We live in interesting times.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Vive la Francis

I've come to be agnostic the hard way - via the life of a born-again Christian.

In 1977 we lived in the basement of the subject of an early crush, Cindy Lewis.  One day, she introduced me to a bus pastor named Louis O'Neal, who attended Waldo Avenue Baptist Church in Independence, MO.

Long story short, I became a rabid Christian, attending church on Wednesday nights, Saturdays (for pastor
training and 'recruitment'), and of course Sunday mornings and evenings.  Mr. O'Neal took me, a poor 13-year-old urchin kid, under his wing.  He and his wife were amazing, and were like family to me.  People like Lou don't exist anymore.

At any rate, after witnessing the financial vehicle that is an organized church, and watching them spend a fortune on a building, the pastor, and the property, I realized that priorities were all wrong.  And being the science-based individual I am, I knew religion wasn't for me.

So as I watch a man like Pope Francis lead by example, in a way no person in any church has in a very long time, I am at least heartened.  It won't change my mind about the existence of a 'God', or that I perceive as wholly antithetical the practices of most church entities as they relate to Christian teachings.  But, as a Humanist, I'm glad to see a man who displays the best traits of the human race from perhaps the loftiest perch on the planet.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Chin up, Mr. Wong

Lesson for Kolten Wong: The way the game ends is not the way the game is lost.

The St. Louis Cardinals lost World Series Game 4 last night in a most deflating fashion.  In the bottom of the 9th.  Two outs.  Tying run at the plate, and a man on first - a rookie named Kolten Wong, who was pinch running for the injured but bat-happy Allen Craig.

What happened next wouldn't have been predicted by even the most ardent of baseball aficionados.  Wong was picked off leaning.  Boston's crafty closer, Koji Uehara, has a move to first you wouldn't believe, and the game was over.

At first, Cardinals fans were aghast.  Then confused.  Then angry.  Then numb.  But perspective is everything, isn't it?

Kolten Wong, however you may feel right now, your teammates lost the game way before you came in. They lost it when they left men on base against a burned out pitcher making his last start.

Your teammate Randy Choate might have made short work of Mr. Gomes.  Shoot, the team is paying him millions.  Instead, your manager brought in Seth Maness, a double play-producing pitcher, when you didn’t need a double play.  You needed one lights-out strikeout.  That’s Choate, not Maness.

Matt Holliday stranded two runs.  Jon Jay and David Freese?  Don’t get me started.

The game was in the bottom of the 9th with the tying run at the plate, the birds' biggest bat, Carlos Beltran.  Kolten, as a pinch runner, maybe you misunderstood.  The Cards didn’t need a stolen base.  They needed a body because Craig was hurt.  They needed two runs.  You got picked off.  Hard lesson, no doubt.  I’m glad you felt bad about it.  It was a rookie mistake.

But you are a rookie.  And remember, this loss was a team effort, (or lack thereof) and it was lost far earlier than the 9th.  This was the first World Series game in history to end with a first base pick-off.  The night before was the first World Series game in history to end with an obstruction call.  Boston didn’t lose that game in the 9th, either.  They lost it earlier when they failed to advance their runners.

Mr. Wong, history will remember you, like it or not.  Own it.  One day we will all laugh at the memory.  But whatever the social media meme-of-the-day is about the hated St. Louis Cardinals and their haughty fans, remember this.  Cardinals fans are the best fans in baseball, and the most forgiving, because next time you hit the field, you’ll get a standing ovation.

That wouldn’t happen in Boston, trust me.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

On health care

"People who feel safer with a gun than with guaranteed medical insurance don't yet have a fully adult concept of scary. Most of the scariest things that are liable to try to get you, as an adult, you can't shoot 'em. At all."

-- William Gibson

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The blink of an eye

Sir Richard Dawkins is my kind of thinker.  Not that I am capable of carrying on more than a glancing, half-assed conversation with such a person, but I know enough to understand that he is hyper-aware.

Deep thinkers always conjure deep thoughts in my mind.  One of the oldest philosophical questions we've asked as a species is, are we alone?

The easy answer is, of course not, I don't know of a scientist of any repute who believes we are.  Then why do we feel so alone?  Maybe the answer lies in a theory or concept we haven't yet considered.  And it's not a comfortable one, so maybe you should sit down.

I share Dawkins' theory about the evolution of intelligence.  It goes something like this: Given the limitless nature of time, the vastness of this (and perhaps more than just this one) universe, and the relative short scale upon which evolution works, there have been ample opportunities throughout history for intelligent beings to evolve to a point where they would be capable of tackling the challenges of time travel, or distance travel, or simply devising a method of communication that even the youngest fledgling civilizations (such as us) could perceive.

After all, our own high technology era is hardly more than a century old, yet already we know that in the universe, particles can be 'connected' over limitless distances. In fact, we are learning things that may render distance irrelevant to exploration. (Distance and time only really matter to us as a point of reference - but that's a subject for another discussion.) Given more time, say thousands or millions of years, intelligent, self-aware beings would surely find ways to communicate, and would likely do so in a way that we, even with our comparatively rudimentary technology, could see, hear, or sense.

So where are they?  Why haven't we heard from these neighbors?  Considering the known age of the universe, they've presumably had billions of years, and in that time, tens of trillions of opportunities to appear and develop.  What's the deal?

Perhaps, Dawkins says, the reason we haven't heard from another intelligent civilization in the universe is that there is a very limited time that a being can be self-aware, and possess intelligence, before it inevitably extinguishes itself.  Either by accident, or on purpose.  We have only been aware of our surroundings, our own intelligence, and had the ability to really do something with it, for the blink of an eye.  Of the approximately 4.6 billion years the earth has existed, only for the last fraction of a fraction of a fraction of that time have we even known what an 'earth' really is.  Yet already, we possess the technology to eliminate ourselves from existence.

Think of it.  It has been predicted by British Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees that humans have only a 50/50 chance of surviving the 21st century.  Common sense dictates that if we are capable of doing something, given time, we will eventually do it.

We will inevitably kill ourselves.

Perhaps that is part of the nature of being self-aware.  Intelligence may be a fleeting and deadly thing.  And perhaps that is a universal truth.

Maybe that's why our 'neighbors' haven't dropped by with cookies.

Monday, September 23, 2013

"My gun right is more important than your dead."

Aaron Weiss, thank you for your service.

In the same breath, I mourn how common sense has left the building. The ability of a growing segment to see beyond rigid black and white seems to be gone. We apparently no longer understand how "my (gun) right is more important than your dead" is apples/oranges because we don't exist to own guns.  We exist to survive. All we really have is our skin, bones, organs and brain, and when they no longer function, we’re finished.  A gun is just a lifeless piece of metal, no more, no less.

I simply can't relate to those who prioritize an inanimate object over a life.  Any society that fosters such priorities will soon be represented by an epitaph.  I can't help but think that if Jesus were alive today, he'd blow a gasket.  Guns just weren't his thing.

If the first minute or so of this speech weren't enough to lose me, that moment came when he compared the imprisonment of an entire race of Americans to a state law that can be changed at the ballot box.  Such a jagged break from reality is hard to fathom.

Mr. Weiss' dramatic suggestion that legislators be forced to enter a crime scene before law enforcement officers leads me to believe he isn't even really a cop.  Legislators don’t enforce laws.  Further, police don’t have the luxury of enforcing only the laws they agree with.

Aaron Weiss is being paraded as a hero for 'telling it like it is.'  I believe he's probably more like a decent guy who is wildly misled. The Constitution protects our right to bear arms, but common sense dictates that we qualify that protection the same way we qualify many other rights.  I believe our Forefathers had no clue what kind of firearms we would eventually invent.

If someone said “my right to freedom from religion in schools and government buildings is more important than your dead family”, I suspect that those who gobble up this gun rights candy would bring out the pitchforks.  But remember, both rights are enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

Lately it seems my blog has become a repository for essays about our lack of social conscience and the ignorance of many who are charged with the responsibility of voting.  Count Mr. Weiss as another example.  Meanwhile, it would serve all Americans to remember that there is a word that comes before “liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.


As I was writing this, my mother-in-law was staring down the business end of a shotgun in her own neighborhood, at the hands of a psycho who lost his mind over a group of pranking kids.  When she tried to escape, he shot.  He's now in jail and she's trying to regain her sanity and get the damage to her car fixed.  She's very lucky his aim was off.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

"God is Good"

As I paged through social media today, I came across a post with the accompanying photo, and the caption "God is good".  Of course such a statement could be debated to a stalemate for any number of reasons.   According to the Bible, God has quite a temper.   He killed every human on earth, save a few family members of Noah.  Yet, supposedly he created us, and is somehow responsible for every good thing that happens in our lives.   And apparently he answers prayers. Sometimes.

Forget good or bad.   I'd rather debate such an existence at all.

Millions are starving and dying every year, in rich and poor countries.  That fact alone flies in the face of such an existence, to say nothing of disease.  To assign credit for the before/after difference in the lives of the humans in the photo, one would also need to ascribe blame for the starvation of tens of millions, both in the past and today.

It's all hard to imagine for those of us who depend on evidence for guidance.

On the other hand, it requires no imagination at all to believe that our species has evolved a very unique and special feature - a conscience.  We are social.   Communal.   We care about each other in a way few other species have shown to be capable of.   We even live in cities, just to make it easier to help each other and to be helped.   We invent and create for the many, not the few.

Today, we are making great strides toward feeding the hungry.  Transporting food is becoming cheaper and easier.  Advances in agriculture have given us the ability to grow more food on the same acreage.

Further, more people are exposed to the atrocities of starvation and disease today than ever before, via the prolific Internet.  Today, those who care enough to act are exposed regularly to the information they need to motivate them.  And they act.

God isn't good.   Humans are.

What a great thing.   Finally, people are starting to realize that the message "let go and let God" is an excuse to do nothing.   "Praise God" robs credit from those who are due.   Our advancement has nothing to do with a God.   It has everything to do with the proliferation of Humanism.  It's all on us.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Meet... Sally.

A video I wrote, voiced and coordinated for TMS Audio Productions, with the help of Whiteboard Animators at WizMotions.  It came out well.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Cervidae overkill

Country singer Jason Aldean.

That must be one smart, wily deer.  Heck, my daughter got one with the bumper of her car, and she hadn't been driving longer than a week.  And she was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt.

Truth be known, I don't think he was hunting the four-legged kind, considering the comments he got when he posted this on Facebook:

That was a few of about 400 comments just like 'em.  Girls are worse than guys... sheesh!

By the way, my favorite Aldean song: