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Friday, July 28, 2017

A Festivus for the Rest of Us: On Valuing Things That Matter to Us (in all forms, but Largely National Parks and Other Pressing Interests)

        In 2002, I went on a Seinfeld binge and would watch all of the syndicated viewings of the series until I pretty much saw every single episode of the show. One of the best episodes was the Festivus episode where George's father Frank Costanza expressed his alternative holiday beliefs beginning with his airing of grievances.
        And right now, that is how I feel... that grievances need aired. There are many concerns from a myriad of people from wide ranging backgrounds on the state of our nation about a variety of issues that are going on right now. While these seem to come from every angle at every single turn, they are the same in that they represent legislation by tweet and war with the media in order to demonize and conquer. While many of these are scary for a variety of reasons, I choose only to focus on the ones that affect me most (this is already a LONG blog). Thus, my three biggest concerns begin with eschewing taxes while turning the education system into a privatized cash cow, run by a woman with absolutely no idea how to do anything except say "vouchers!" The next of these is the destruction of healthcare protections for large groups of people while allowing states to have the option to dismantle or increase the costs of certain other necessary protections that would affect people with pre-existing conditions (such as Parkinson's disease, which I have and advocate for), would affect care to older Americans, and affect Medicaid.
          I say this not in support of Hillary Clinton. I'm glad she lost. That said, I was a Never Trumper who got stuck with a third choice (Gary Johnson) because I wanted to show my lack of support for a 2-party system to reflect all Americans as an all-inconclusive, either or structure. Was he the right choice? No, but it sent a protest against 2 parties, who were essentially voting on party lines to get a Supreme Court nominee in. For this, people were able to ignore Trump and Clinton's flaws and go bell to bell for the championship.
          With that being said, while I in no way agree with hacking to do it, the scandals of the Democrats last year and the ones that follow this year show that they disappointed America as a whole, and that they too have to wake up or the extremes of their party will also take over. Frankly, both parties will need to shape up for 2020 if they want people to trust in them again. An approval rate of less than 40% equals a one-term president, if he doesn't get himself impeached first.

            Originally, I started writing this blog a few weeks ago when I wanted to discuss the review of National Monuments for what should / could be downsized (hence all the pictures of them). On top of that list was Bear Ears National Monument, which was one of the last of Obama’s contributions in office. Over time, events have changed, so I have modified this post to reflect those changes and how they relate to my overall political feelings at this time.
            Currently, it seems the new American administration represents the extreme right of the conservative wing while standing in control of much of the more moderate wing of conservatives who are generally relegated to being less vocal, but still omnipresent in the party (although kudos to John McCain for just saying no). Yes, there are those who won't bow down, the Never Trump-ers who are in there somewhere, but they have been largely scolded or silenced in this debate, especially with they are outright tweeted against for going against those at the top and the do or die orders that be. 
            And during this time, Trump is doing everything he and his team can to make it so the 8 years before this administration came to power never happened (to varying degrees of success). Paris Climate Deal. Check. There are many other education and environment issues, which you can see HERE. Personally, I find a lot of this list scary. Then again, I find Ryan Zinke and Betsy DeVos to be really scary, too.  
           Personally, I can’t think of anyone who has gone this far out of the way to commit Orwellian erasing of the past since maybe the reign of Akhenaten ended and he was removed from Egypt’s list of kings. What’s more, every day it’s something new from some different direction. Instead of focusing on one thing at a time, it feels like they are trying to give the Tea Party every dream they’ve ever had on a platter. Maybe it's payback for what they feel was done to them in the last 8 years with regard to social change (with things like gay marriage and transgender rights), but no matter why they are doing it, it just feels like a whole lot of change for a small segment of the population (instead of the greater utilitarian good). That said, I’m sure I would feel the same way if conversely, Bernie Sanders was elected and declared this country socialist tomorrow while forcing every Democrat to jump on board or be branded as not being “loyal,” so this isn't a conservative or liberal thing.

I should be clear that I don’t say this as an Obama supporter. I didn’t vote for him either time (since I align to the middle and even the right on most things – Teddy Roosevelt Republican), but I do say this as a person who can at least be open enough to look back on Obama's accomplishments and deeds to respect and understand them, whether I agree with them or not. That said (and not to get off track), in hindsight, I find myself liking more of what Obama did (things like the world apology tour and the Iran deal, not so much). 
 As I get older, I have come to see that people will take whatever they can from others. When people can, they can make up the standards and rules as they go along to inflate the system. This goes both ways. That said, this isn't some kind of Marxist discussion since I'm well aware that while some bosses give less pay, some people want more entitlements for less work. However, there needs to be checks and balances as well as opportunities for all people who want to work for them, both at the top and the bottom of the pyramid. This doesn’t entitle either group of people to everything, but certain protections are fair to expect. We need to know that there’s a system in place if we become destitute; some type of stable and definite money set aside for our retirement days, which we pay into; a system that helps look after people who have health issues like it does houses and cars; a system where everyone is able to get insurance, not just the people who are healthy now and don’t need it; educational opportunities for all who are willing to put effort forth for them; and environmental protection so that we can have clear air and water, as well as places where our natural areas can remain healthy.
Perhaps that’s maturity. Perhaps it’s just my life situation talking (having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and valuing that someone else values how people with pre-existing conditions need to be covered since the poop has hit the fan). I have come to see that bad things can and do happen to people through no fault of their own. As a result, we need to pay into a system that COULD protect us and ours if that time comes. Without it, many people, even the really rich ones, would be living in cardboard boxes as soon as the first hospital bill stacks hit.
For those who are too young to know, don't forget; insurance isn't always about the insurance company paying all or most of the money that we don't. It's also about the hospitals agreeing to take a fair value for a procedure, which drops the price as well since insurance feels that they are too expensive.

In this way, it’s not about what situation we have in this moment of this calendar year (in the same way home insurance protects against a fire that COULD be or car insurance protects against a crash that MIGHT happen in the untold future), but what might someday come. In this way, we are helping to support a system that protects us and ours IF the worst happens. Personally, I'm grateful to have insurance that helps do just that since it allows me to stand up for others who might end up in the situation.
The same is true for education. It’s not about whether we’re paying for our kids. It’s that we’re paying to educate our kids and those other kids who will be needed to make our life and lifestyle possible. That's the full context of Obama's statement on such. Here, it’s clear to see that my neurologist had to be educated to care for me. The person making change at the store or restaurant was also educated to do such (and every other job, too). I can't sell on the Web without the Internet or Amazon or the credit card companies. I need a healthy, educated community. Granted there are a lot of people out there who take the money and run and don't care, but there are a lot who were educated with this money (myself by the GI Bill and grants as well as lots of my own cash after the Air Force). I took it, and now I'm paying it back.
For that matter, I am the 99% at both of my jobs because they both take government money and give it to the schools and the students who go there. If I don't acknowledge that they keep me in my home, then I'm just deluding myself. Even if I were the school president making 6 figures, I'd still be the 99% because of that. Why bite the hand that feeds us.

With regard to the environment as John Muir saidwe need places to play in and pray in, which is where we step away from education to look at why unspoiled worlds, even those we aren't going to at this moment, matter.
Simply stated, your happiness wears off on me because it's contagious. If you're relaxed and in a good mood, then you're kinder to me, and so on down the lane. If I'm relaxed and in a good mood, then I'm better to you. Whether I find my enjoyment of Nature in person or on television / photographs, the amazing sights, sounds, and feelings from it are transcendent. Knowing that these places exist and that someday I could see their flora and fauna gives me and many other people a goal to work for. Maybe this sounds selfish, but how many of us would want to see Hawaii's volcanoes, Yosemite's waterfalls, Yellowstone's geysers, Acadia's coastline, the Shenandoah's mountains, or Zion's canyons? I'm sure a lot of hands are going up. If not, google them and start checking them out. This country's geographic wonders are amazing.
But not everyone sees it that way (cue the chainsaws and digger equipment).
The current administration’s target of choice is Bear Ears National Monument, which became a park due to a joint-partnership with Native Americans, essentially, to protect the lands of long since deceased ancestors in “graveyards.” While not the kind of places our relatives are buried in, these are the skeletons, homes, and artifacts / relics of Native Americans, which gather the dust of time in the middle of the American Southwest’s vast deserts and canyons.
Funerary artifacts are already supposed to be protected by the Native American Graves and RepatriationAct (NAGPRA), which became law in 1990. It was passed to essentially stop all archaeological research on human remains, and that was a good thing other than the fact that some of these skeletons were being dated way back before we thought people were in America (12-15,000 years or so ago tops. Thus, skeletons like Spirit Cave Man and Kennewick Man, 2 of many sets of remains that could offer us keys to our American founding as being way before the time of the Bering Strait theory, are un-testable, which keep us from discovering / researching more 10,000+ year old skeletons in places that they just couldn't walk quickly enough through mountains without REI gear (great news for believers in the Short Earth Theory as well as Native Americans who claim them as their ancestors). While that leaves science and history out of the equation, it’s a small price to pay for respecting the dead (pretty much a universal taboo to go against that one – for a logical reason). Wouldn't we want someone to do this for our ancestors?
But it's not just here in my essays that I believe this. In my fictional writing, I talk of the need to protect and respect these sacred Native American places for what they are and were as well. My one main character (Willard Greer) is a land-owner based in part off of Waldo Wilcox, a real dude of a man who protected his land from anyone who might be interested in searching, looting, or visiting the pristine artifacts that were there. While not a “traditional” environmentalist looking to protect the world (he was bothered by hippies / bureaucracy / academia, and he said so in so many words), he was a man with a purpose. Over a decade ago, he finally gave the land up, and now his former property is being cataloged by experts, many of whom don’t understand near as much of it as he did (See David Roberts’ The Lost World of the Old Ones, which characterizes him well. Personally, I’d love to sit down and talk to him about his life experiences over cold drinks). Wilcox's personality is the inspiration for the first chunk of the book (and other parts in it as well), and his story alone makes the book worth reading.

While my books go into fictional ghosts (I admit it; I’m into the supernatural), it also uses themes that detail a love and respect for archaeological remnants. My soon to be released new book is especially filled with concerns for the destruction of sacred sites in the Middle East, an ancient history caught in the crossfire of war without end. This book looks at both how people from both sides of this dramatic adventure story respect the works while looking to take them out of the hands of those who would destroy them. That said, one group wants to preserve the objects to use them for evil, while the other group wants to keep them out of the hands of evil altogether so that nobody can use them.

In my real life, I first encountered stories about archaeological destruction like this with the tales of Avebury, a Celtic cross stone circle in England, which is much bigger than Stonehenge. People used to kick and push over the stones because they could. I guess that’s what happens to things in America that people don’t respect, too (in this case, some “pagan” religion in England). Other people might not focus their hatred from a religious holy war, so they might instead feel the need to relive some ancient conflict with Native Americans (or some other minority group), or perhaps they just might want to mine the area for uranium or some other mineral that they can sell off from these dry wastelands that "nobody else uses anyway." It sounds logical. If the land isn’t being used, why not use it to make money for me?
But just because we don’t use it doesn’t mean that other things don’t use it or the ancient artwork shouldn't be protected. Isn't it enough to preserve it just for its rare, delicate, natural, or in this case, cultural value? But nonetheless, getting past ME and looking at all of the other people affected is a big stumbling block for people of the “id-driven” persuasion to get over.

No matter what side people are on in this debate (conservative or liberal), many of us agree that these places are worth special consideration of some sort (though as to how much, we might differ). However, even if we haven’t thought about “sacred” lands, I am sure that most people consider what has been officially designated as National Parks to be special (to Ken Burns, they were America’s best idea). For that reason, when I wake up to the news that some (insert derogatory term for the most wretched and vile human on the planet here) went and used archaeological relics at Mesa Verde to essentially mark his or her territory like some animal, I feel a little irate because, now, we (the people who share ownership of the place, which is all Americans and visitors) have to see images of other people’s visits on the walls of what I have always felt is my favorite National Park. Sadly, they need to be professionally and quickly cleaned off, so their former presence won’t always be there.

Here, I equate this graffiti's destructive and ugly presence with the desire to strip mine these places. I know that they’re not done for the same reasons, but one mirrors the other in that it says that what we don’t respect doesn’t deserve respect - especially if we can get something for ourselves from it. We should have learned that with the Boy Scout leaders at Goblin Valley State Park, but instead, we still fight the ancient wars to privatize all things that can benefit us.
If we didn’t learn anything from those rock pushers, maybe we should have learned from Casey Nocket (she who placed graffiti on rocks in multiple National Parks and posted about it with all the evidence that the state needed to try her), it’s from her sentencing to being banned from parks for her 2 years of probation, 201 hours of community service, and a $175 fine (far less than Vanessa Hudgens $1,000 whittled down charitable donation plea offer for red rock carving) for thinking she could “improve” on nature’s beauty with her “art” of her boyfriend and her name.
“The defendant’s defacement of multiple rock formations showed a lack of respect for the law and our shared national treasures.” Phillip A. Talbert, U.S. attorney

Those words say a lot. I’ve listened to the words of trail maintainers who talk about hauling Taginator and water up 1,000 vertical feet to clean off graffiti that people leave as if it's their right, and it cuts me to the core. While these trail maintainers' words are a little more common and rough around the edges, it still gets the point across, but "Why, man? Why? What were you thinking because you clearly weren't thinking?"
So as I think about that news, I think again about the other potential devastation to our parks, which includes archaeological sites like Canyon of the Ancient NM and Bear Ears NM, which are at a risk to be downsized by a negligent parent who instead should be taking care of them for all that they are (since the talk of removing them completely seems to be spurring some backtracking on what will be done to them with a legal challenge in courts over what the President can and can’t do about removing The 27 National Monuments he would like to offer up to energy and timber corporations - thanks for your help in this Ryan Zinke). I say this, and I ask myself, “What would fascinate someone so much that he or she would feel compelled to go into a National Monument property and leave it unprotected, let it open to vandals, or profiteer off its destruction for making a quick buck on fossil fuels or paper for junk mail?”
And then I realize that what compels them to do it is not the feeling that they're offering up energy to the world's needs, but it's more about hating liberals, "tree-huggers," and hippies who believe in the crazy notion of these National Parks.
You know, because only Democrats use the woods.
So where does that leave me as I search for facts to base my opinion on when I know the first troll question coming toward me is, “You drive a car. You're a hypocrite.”

I do. I drive a 40mpg Toyota Yaris. At the time, it was the right fuel efficiency for the right price. And yes, I know we’re dependent on oil and that goes well beyond just gas. That said, mostly we’re stuck as a culture because when we as a country should have been figuring out alternatives in the 1970s, we didn’t do enough then. With what we tried to do, it wasn’t good enough (due to technological advances that still needed to be made to yield more energy than it took to make it (the problem of electrolysis, which is being looked at in other ways like this now). We just haven't done enough since then. And for all of the renewable changes we do attempt, there's always a naysayer (for valid reasons). Our water power messes up the ecosystems of rivers and our wind power leaves a huge mountainside footprint while killing birds. I’ve heard the arguments. That said, at least they’re trying to make a change from non-renwables, and at this point, something is definitely a good thing as our world keeps getting larger and only Europe is looking to abandon new car sales of gas and diesel (Norway to do a complete cars on the road ban by 2025 - France by 2040 and hopefully Carbon neutral by 2050 and England with no gas car sales by 2040).
However, for all of the issues that complicate the mess we're in, the worst problem to me is when news sites like Fox mock people whose businesses fail when they try to go green. Low or no tax people castigate the government when it gives incentives for going green (hydrogen powered cars for example), when actually, helping fund advances instead of using the old standard could help this country save money that we spend on cleaning the environment from its greenhouse effects and money that we spend in the Middle East on an endless war, when we could back out of some of our interests there if we didn’t need as much of the oil (though not all).

And since none of us want to expend our country’s people and wealth on any conflict that doesn’t have to be, no matter how patriotic we sound doing it, it seems important to be able to cut a bad point of the equation out of it completely.
So as I say that, I go back to my original essay, which I include here for you to discuss about the concept of VALUING things, and why it’s important to STAND UP FOR THE RIGHT THINGS.
            I have been thinking a lot about this question over much of the time that I have been writing. That question, “What do we value and how do we know we value it?” is something that strikes at the heart of everything we are.
            For me, I assign my students the opportunity to list 100 things that they are thankful for. My list of 185 things is HERE. Obviously, I did more, both to show them examples and to personally reflect on what matters to me. On this are a variety of things from mega important to other things that are good are here.

            But what things would represent fighting words if I were to lose them? For some people, these are concepts like freedom or liberty. Most people would also specify people by name. For other people, these are keepsake mementos. Additional people will value events in the past, present, or future. For me, I’m all of the above, but I’m also a places person. If you look at most of my places that I write about, they have an outdoor bent to them. I go to them with people and enjoy them. If there is nobody around, I go by myself. Either way, I create memories. I photograph their histories, and I learn about them. To me, these places, whether natural or man-made history, are priceless. They’re part of what makes me proud to be from America.
As John Muir said, “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and give birth to the soul.” I completely agree with him. I think he got it, even if some of his writing reads “slow” due to its seriousness. Like Muir, I would not want to be without these things, and many other people feel the same way, but some “shortsighted” minds do not feel the same way. There are also other people who would simply seek to profit off the land, knowing full well that they are bleeding it dry, and to me, they are all too dangerous despite whatever necessary things that they bring back from their dealings.
            The writer William Burroughs  once paraphrased Faust by talking about how people should never exchange quantitative merchandise like time and money for qualitative merchandise like souls. When we give our goods away on the cheap, we fail to see the universal idea, which says there are some things that we just should not give up for the sake of convenience or even sacrificial necessity because the time to pay up will arrive soon. This isn't the MLB trade deadline
           I think of the story of Sylvester Stallone’s dog Butkus, who he sold for $40 to buy food when he was hungry (before the first Rocky). Afterward, Stallone bought the dog back for $15,000, and he remarked that, “he was worth every penny.” Stallone realized what a tragic mistake he made, and he atoned for it. Fully realized people do what they need to do to make up for what they shouldn't have done.

            There are times we can get the past back (though it comes at a price), and there are times where once the deal is done, we have sold our souls (or in this case, our cultural heritage) for good. Thus, to me, the answer is simple when I reply that these places I value are things of everlasting beauty and connection to our happiness and our place in the world. Here, if we look at people, our relationships with them have a deeper meaning. Our keepsake mementos from them connect us to them, their generosity, and / or their spirit. The ideals we want to live for are non-negotiable since they affect not only us, but they alter the greater world around us with a sense of fullness. I cannot say for sure if this would qualify as a Utilitarianism approach, though I would say more often than not it is, but I would say that it does the greatest good for the most living things and not just people since it forces people to think of a larger whole than just themselves. Heaven forbid.
            This is why education and healthcare are also important to me. If you value people, you will educate them to help the community, which also helps them live better since they make money to live and they fulfill their personal drive, too. If you take care of people's health, they will come to work and contribute (that's why some companies even pay part of a gym membership). If they're sick or frustrated all the time, how does this help them? So much depression that is preventable is out there, but when people aren't allowed or encouraged to grow, they wither away. This should not be.

Thus, to me, when we have things that we put time, money, and effort into, they should be things that we value having around in our lives. Once we make a commitment to these things in our personal lives, it’s up to us to share their value with others, whether experienced or stated, since they are the type of things we need to continue to fund, accomplish, and extol the virtues of. People who inspire by positive methods have the chance to lead and / or empower.
For instance, if I value my wife, I should let her know how much I love her, and other people should be aware of it, too, so they see that happiness in a relationship between 2 consenting people is a good thing. I do not mean with a leash and collar or a permanent tattoo, but people should know how special she is to me (a bumper sticker can work nicely), and they should see how she feels the same.
In our lives, we should do things together. We should have similar ideals that allow us to go to these special places (and others, too), where we create memories. In these places, we can talk about our lives, hopes, and dreams while working to make them all come true in the midst of a world that we can both marvel at. At the end of the day, since she makes me happy and I want to be with her for all of my days, I am going to make sure I do the right things to make this relationship work.

This is all about value.
If I do not value something, let’s say the NHL playoffs, I won’t make any effort to know any of the players or make a conscious effort to go to games or buy merchandise. While some knowledge might be diffused, as if by osmosis, into my life from Facebook (the series this year was Pittsburgh vs. Nashville), I won’t make an effort to find out who won or how they won, much less what the series stands at (for the record, the Penguins won, if this statement made you curious about it). My interest or lack thereof in watching the NHL has no bearing on your choosing to watch it. Like professional soccer (or football to the rest of the world), they’ve done pretty well without my business and people who value it still get to enjoy it. Such is how it is. The game goes on and attracts its base. It finds the right to thrive accordingly in much the same way my love of baseball allows it to thrive. I respect other people’s right to enjoy it. I do not petition to have it removed from the face of the earth or have the stadiums tore down and replaced with biospheres or replanted with trees to respect my love of a more natural world. In this case, their value of something I don’t like has no effect on me as my lack of value for it has none in their lives.

However, other people’s wanton disregard for the natural world does (as does when they encourage it to promote end of times beliefs), and that’s why the issues of wanting to downsize national monuments seems so absurd to me (though I do see why those affected by eminent domain would have been ticked off to be booted from the land). Their desire to suck the life from something and render it into something unusable for a temporary solution, which in some cases won't directly go to America (oil exports from Alaska to Asia and Japan / largely done to create jobs in the 49th state). 
So we need to educate our people to understand what's at stake with how we use our resources (from both sides and let them figure it out for themselves instead of going with blind agendas for one or the other.
Here, I should say that I am a part of a statewide 22-person volunteer outdoor committee that provides recommendations on trail-building projects for the state to work on (I don’t vote though). Pennsylvania wants more trails for more people. They want good trails for people (and dogs!) to enjoy on foot, bike, stroller, skateboard, horse, snowmobile, kayak, or whatever other device is out there. Some projects get really expensive. If I said numbers, they might be shocking to some of you, but bridges and safety aren’t cheap, nor are aesthetics (bureaucracy really does drive up the price and it gets me, too, and spurs some of my more right-leaning feelings). However, because my statewide leaderships knows the community values these things (safety, fresh air, exercise, family time, travel), they pony up a certain amount to give people things to enjoy while bringing in tourist dollars (ideally). Personally, I like thinking my taxes go there.
Business and the outdoors can be interchangeable, and government can get it right.
Are there other options of where to go play outside? Yes. Are there other ways to get exercise? Yes. However, does quality of life in a community go up with the presence of well-maintained trails? DefinitelyHomes sell faster and for more money because people see these communities as better places to live.
Thus, by spending money, the community makes money with property taxes, business taxes, and positive spin for tourist bucks. You don't have to leave the state. We have it here. Crime also decreases. I even see this on the local rails to trails as the graffiti on the walls is gone due to beautiful murals being painted on them. Even the riff raff recognizes how people value the beauty of good art done well in the right places in the right ways.

Besides, not everyone’s idea of fun is the local coffee shop, mall, or Enormodome facility. We need variety, and we need opportunity (as well as those things), and by actively showing interest for the things I value and sharing the love regarding the reasons why I value them, I show people how they can benefit from these things, too. I’d be more than willing to be sat down for a state of the NHL discussion by someone who really got it. In the past, I’ve paid for minor league tickets. I would do so again, but as for telling me why I should be a fan, persuade me in the same way I’m trying to tell you to take advantage of our natural and cultural areas and to preserve them for the future.
Moving onto the concept of whether I sort of value things, I might enjoy them peripherally, as mentioned in the example above. It’s something to do, so yeah. Let’s do it. Another example stems from the fact that I value family time, so I’ll go see Ant Man with in-laws because that’s what they want to do, even though comic book movies, as a whole, are hit or miss for me, and this 1 didn’t seem to have a lot of upside from previews (in the end, I did like that movie, but I don’t value it enough to pay to own it; 2 tickets at the theater is enough). For that matter, any time I see a movie, I think, “Is this movie worth $20 to see in theaters (myself and my wife), or is this a Redbox movie? Better yet, does my library have it? I like the library. I truly value having access to books, DVDs, and CDs, even though some people might consider this frivolous. This is worth my tax dollars. I’d encourage you to take advantage of yours, too.
To this, the answer that we need to show people for them to understand the value of natural places is to take them to the big money spots. Get the bang for the buck with a great vista on a short trail. We can’t promise bear or rattlesnake sightings. These might even be deal-breakers, but we can hit the highs and be like Muir was for Teddy Roosevelt and vice versa (what happened to Presidents who got it like he did?). Sometimes, it’s just about getting in there and doing what needs to be done.

Then there are the things we have conflicted values on. For me, in my day to day life, I love music. I wouldn’t want to be without it, either on my stereo or live, so when the chance comes to see a great band that I or my wife likes, I’m going to jump at it, as I did when Iron Maiden took the stage in June. I value their talents and what they mean to my life, but even for as much as I like “Wasted Years,” I value my sanity in getting out of the parking lot and Philadelphia traffic, so I’m going to have to leave early. I’d also wear a shirt to support the band, but I wouldn’t pay $40 for a shirt I’d have to A) not sweat in, B) not go anywhere it could get damaged, or C) take it off to eat for fear I’d get schmutz on it. Thus, I’ll save my $40 for my co-pay at the doctor’s office and wear the t-shirts I already own. Your like or dislike of this band and my dislike of your band doesn’t affect how both of us can actively enjoy our interests.
I think General James "Mad Dog" Mattis put the concept of live and let live best when he said, “Frankly,senator, I’ve never cared much about two consenting adults and who they go to bed with.” Essentially, what this means is that if it doesn't appeal to you, no matter what it is, don't think about it. Get on with your life. Move on. Enjoy your own dang life. It makes me want to know what he'll say to Trump's legislation by tweet. Yeah, I know he’s not for everyone, but he definitely stands tall in charge of defending America (and he is the one member of Team Trump I can respect since he is good at what he does on the job of keeping America safe and for others - especially this high school kid).
This is the point in the essay where I feel people should start to think about whether these values are being rammed down people’s throats or looking out for a more Utilitarian approach to give the most and best to the most. Yes, to have beliefs is to incite people for or against us, and we can't please everyone. There are people who will agree, and there are those who disagree. That's natural, but when 60+% of the people are very upset, something is wrong. Usually, if we look hard enough, there’s at least one exception to every all but absolute, but it just doesn't seem to be that way in this case.. Where Winston Churchill spoke it best when he said, “You have enemies. Good, that means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life,” it feels like Trump's unpredictability is his greatest enemy, even to his own people that he throws under the bus. 

In nature, we see a can't win situation with people who have been led to the same conflicted values of the environment versus the economy. I hear how protecting the ivory-billed woodpecker’s habitat is affecting business, and it often gets played off as “how dare a few (almost and soon to be extinct) birds do this to an area that can be used for X,Y, and Z?” Here, I, like many other people, am made to wonder if it’s better for my neighbor to work or to see the death of a species (or other ones living in this area, which might be protected by re-branding the protected status of the area. Where are the ethical guidelines for how I figure this out? To just say a person has more value might seem easy, but do we have higher moral responsibilities, especially with things that we could easily control? I really don't know. I, too, would be torn on what to do because this is where you alienate one group or the other, so pick your poison.
I know I don’t want family and friends to lose our jobs in the U.S. to places like Dalian, China, who is more than willing to get bigger by any means necessary, but at the same point, I don’t want to live in an area where I practically need a gas mask to breathe. Wasn’t that the lesson we learned from the 2008 Beijing Olympics? With so much pollution and population concerns, I don’t think it’s much to ask that we clean up the environment. Then, I get conflicted by things like paying 2-3 times more for organic food or paying to dispose of old computer stuff beyond just my standard garbage bill. 
And I get asked the question, “Then why do you have a car if you want to protect everything that you can?”
What is the answer?
"Because there's enough vacant strip malls that can be torn down or re-purposed to just put new stuff there than tearing down a forest or field."
Why must the answer be to destroy these sacred national treasures for energy and timber (or because prices would skyrocket if we paid these benefits of healthcare or because we want to send our kids to a better private school that can make them brilliant when all of our public schools can't)?

And yes, I know about how expensive higher wages are. I've eaten a $20 breakfast plate that goes for $7 tops at a local greasy spoon when my wife and I dined in New York City. Nobody wants double prices on the same thing we got yesterday.
And for this, so much comes back to our wallets. I get that. I know it’s hard when we don’t have more money than Fort Knox to decide where to spend our money. We see the hit to our paychecks, and it hurts us and we want to understand why it has to be (especially when I still have to tip a waiter who gives me crappy service). For this, that's how we see taxes on all things. I get that. What are we getting for our cost? Show me that and make me believe, and I'll go along with it, but until then, I'm finding it hard to reason some of the need (and here, I hope I've convinced some of you of the need for why we must fund our parks). 
Yet we don't hear debate. We instead hear discussion how ending terrorism is more important than social programs (an argument that I’m not getting into), and we fret over what we could do with some of that extra 25%+ in our pay if we only had to support one or the other (instead of the logical both). Trust me; I know. I’ve seen entitlement programs bilked by many people, and I know there are people in the system who help them do it. Part of my teaching job is removing never attend students from the roster because they do exist to take what they feel "entitled" to.
But as to what I said regarding having both, in balancing a ridiculously high debt, why can’t we keep our people safe and happy? This doesn’t have to be an either / or. There’s plenty of money to go around – ideally – if we look at bang for our buck and expedite the system. Nevertheless, we are sold a bill of goods that it’s this or that. Republican security from terror or Democrat security of economics. Where are the people in the middle who can educate others to read up on how to make an effective argument for both. If you find them, they should go HERE.

To me, I think of how this short-changing of funding affects the natural places of the world, specifically the National Parks Service. These parks that range from sea to shining sea are yours to enjoy for $80 for 1 car a year. The same car with 2 parents and 2 kids can’t see 2 forgettable movies for that price. For the movie, you get 2 hours. For the parks, you get 1 year. You can see waterfalls, wildlife, history, culture, rivers, mountains, deserts, swamps, caves, and oceans. You can create memories to last a lifetime if you are so inclined. Sure, there are certain things that will need tour tickets or permits, but for the average family, that kind of cost of admission value is just amazing.
And it doesn’t matter if you’re from the right or the left, the color of your skin, the religion (or lack thereof) in your thoughts, or the gender of your body. You get it all except the right to do things like hunt in a national park, but since there’s plenty of state lands funded for that, that shouldn’t be an issue anyway. Besides, you're going to a zoo without fences anyway. Just enjoy the living museum.
What’s more, people who have permanent disabilities can get a reduced pass to get in free. Military members get a free pass, too. Seniors pay $10 for a lifetime pass. Even 4th graders get in for free this year (yes, that’s real). Personally, I value the parks, so we’ll get the $80 pass to take in lots of sights and sounds when we go again (this is what I’ve always done). The things that I get out of these parks are, as I said, priceless to me. The things we protect now are worth more to me than paying people not to grow things (or Andres Serrano’s "art"), so when I think about my taxes, I don’t think about how I pay for those. I think about how I preserve Mesa Verde (though I choose not to think about my money going to graffiti cleanup since the people who do that should be haunted endlessly by the vengeful, angry poltergeists of Ancestral Puebloans). It sure beats thinking of all of the money spent on the bureaucratic rigmarole, the catered events, Trump’s golf game, and even little things like the time and effort and cost nightmare waiver process to  buy Made in the USA equipment that was completely made and sourced in the US with government grants (in an era of outsourcing, tell me what machinery that you can get that’s made in the US with US steel – not an easy question).

We don’t get back the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Acadia National Park, the Shenandoah Mountains, the Smokey Mountains, or Bryce Canyon if we give them up as some cost-cutting dream. The 27 National Monuments on the chopping block offer a range of experiences as well. I’ve personally been to 4 (Great Basin, Grand Staircase, Vermillion Cliffs, and Craters of the Moon). I’d love to see Bear Ears and Canyon of the Ancients. Katahdin Woods in Maine would be a destination to take in as well.
So what’s the answer? How do we keep our country’s natural riches intact for the future? Is it as simple as showing people early on that they need to get out there and see those things? It can't hurt. Take your kids. We'll get back to them in 20 years for a longitudinal study, and I bet my hypothesis will be correct!
How do we keep our environment protected when an anti- Environmental Protection Agency crusader runs the helm until the powers that be make good on their threats to shut down the rest of the EPA that they don’t lay off (someone has been watching too much Ghostbusters original movie, it seems)? How do we discuss the effects of pollution, climate change, and agricultural concerns if we’re muzzled on what research we can do?

So long live the Alt-NPSand the mindset that says fund and protect our parks and public places, no matter how big or small! Power to the people, the land, the critters, and the clean air!
The issues that it (and all of our personal joys) encompasses are endless, but if people value things, then they can be loud enough to be heard. All people who love the outdoors are in this together. Be they hikers or hunters or hikers and hunters (and bikers, photographers, kayakers, anglers, climbers, swimmers, or any one of a myriad of other hobbies to include Frisbee golf, geocaching, and Pokemon Go), we all love to be OUTSIDE. We don’t want to live in places that suffer the fate of Flint, Michigan, no matter how much our paycheck is.
            It all comes back to valuing things and thinking about the ultimate goal of what obligations we are willing to take on for our money and our futures. Thus, if you love the outdoors, spend your cash on the places that need it to stay wild and free, either by accepting the taxation, supporting the causes, or paying the entry fees / giving donations.
           Your children's children will be glad you aired your grievances appropriately.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Surviving Avalanches - Cory Richards, Alive Day / Diagnosis Day, Big the Musical, and Wishing for Younger Days

          Cory Richards is a mountain climber and an adventure photographer, who was also the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. He has definitely had lots of extreme experiences with the wild and the life-altering, especially a 2011 trip to Gasherbrum II in 2011, when an avalanche hit him and his two companions like a “freight train.” All of them survived, but they were dramatically changed by that one moment of their life, which wracked  his entire life from then on out. 
            Just like in the military, when a person is severely injured, but is saved, this would have been his Alive Day. There is a great documentary with James Gandolfini, which is available, or you can watch this short video to understand the concept. Of the people in Alive Day Memories, my favorite was the story of Bryan Anderson, though they were all powerful.
            For Richards, after regaining where and who he was in that moment of "how the hell am I not dead," Richards took a selfie (it's at the top). In the moment when his fellow climber dug him out from under the snow and ice, he felt he looked like an old man. What had previously been the first successful climb of an 8,000-meter peak in winter by an American was now a catastrophe of legendary proportions for 3 men who desperately needed to get back to safety.
            However, it was also a lot of other things since it was also Richards’ introduction to post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that would affect his entire life from then on out. If you're interested in learning more about this, check out Laurence Gonzales's Surviving Survival book. It is that good.
            This nightmare condition would lead him back into facing his own demons, the beasts he was trying to escape from his entire life, by taking part in these high-octane pursuits. As PTSD raged inside of him, depression, divorce, alcoholism, and loss of purpose all affected his life, but somehow, he found a way to navigate through his present by taking steps to figure out his past, present, and future.
            I had never heard of Richards before I read his story in Outside Magazine this month. When I got through the story (on newsstands now), I felt blown away by the power of his life story (available as 3 clips starting here - they take about an hour, but they're worth it). The thought of how a person can look at him or herself and say, “I should have died” / “I’m not the same anymore” / “I don’t recognize this person staring back at me” / “I’ve got this thing inside me, which is just like death because it’s crawling around and trying to kill me and I can't get rid of it” is incredibly human and fragile, no matter who we are, but to try not to be broken and to not hurt anymore, well, that takes something more, and that frail nature is exhibited clearly in the video. 
            I should also say that despite the climbing world's usual bravado, Richards feels very approachable and vulnerable. I really liked this in all that I've seen of him.  

            As I’ve said before, I’m very interested in stories of accomplishment and survival as well as stoic philosophy (since they're what I want for me). There’s something very empowering about recognizing that we have been handed a role (like Epictetus said) and have to play it to the best of our ability. We alone make our choices to drive ourselves to the peak of our journey or not.

            I don’t believe that we always do it alone. We do have the option to choose our teams, and with the universe in the right place, we will find strong people to help motivate and carry us through to strength that we can get up again. If we don’t have these people, being a solitary man is a long journey not worth taking (see John Donne).
            I also should say that I do believe that the universe provides fail safe methods that allow us to get out of situations. We may not like them, but they’re there, and for the humble pie we’ll need to eat or the 3 steps back we might have to take when the poop hits the fan or we mess up, we can eventually find a way to move ahead 4 steps over time. The key is that we recognize these things as they come and don't give in to them. Here, I think of a story told to me by a person about his son who got out of jail and was picked up by a priest who wanted to give him an apartment, job, and a key to a new life, but the son refused. Which part of that moment doesn't show divine intervention to be in a better place?
            I guess for some people, it's all about going on their own journey until they find the next moment of clarity that appeals to them... maybe Player's club, an attractive spouse, more money than Rockefeller, and international fame instantly. 
            Finally, I acknowledge that education and mental preparedness in temperament and ability is the best thing that we can do for when our own avalanches hit. We probably won’t get caught in an avalanche unless we decide to do winter hiking or climbing, but we will definitely find a train barreling down the tracks to mess us up at some point in our lives. Loved ones will get sick and die. Jobs will come and go. We will get old, and with that, we won’t be able to do what we used to do, even if we don’t develop conditions like what afflict many of us. It's just a part of life. Natural disasters will take place. People will mess with us, either intentionally or unintentionally. Systems that operate in chaos will break down in the fraction of error moments. Some days, we’ll be in the money, and some days, we’ll need a new dishwasher, so there goes the vacation money.

            For people with Parkinson’s and other conditions, we have faced the moment of discovery. Like people who hear the C word in a diagnosis, there is a moment of clarity that a huge sheet of ice is crashing down on us or that a flash flood is about to leave the world under water. We have been given official notice that something is going on inside. And it’s going to get worse. And it’s going to change our life and the lives of all of those people that we know.
            What the heck do we now?
            One of my favorite posts in the groups that I’m involved with for Parkinson’s once did was a post on when, where, what was your first diagnosis of Parkinson’s. It was a very human and beautifully tragic expression of our shared experience played out in different ways, on different stages. To that, I ask what was your moment of official confirmation like?
            For me, I had been playing the part of a man on the path to what I thought was going to be surgery for my cervical spine issues. This was that “spondylosis” was the cause of my tremors, and it“definitely was not” Parkinson’s (I'm glad I was misdiagnosed; I wasn't ready for the real diagnosis in 2015). To get to another MRI, I had to go through the spinal surgery people who told me that I had to go to physical therapy first (since it was a year and a half after my first time in the box). However, at the first PT appointment, I had a therapist who said my tremors definitely weren’t caused by spondylosis. She couldn’t tell me what they were since she wasn’t a doctor, but she did get her doctor to refer me to a neurologist named Efrain Perez-Vargas. To this day, I'm very grateful for her forwardness. She changed my life. 
            On September 27, 2016, I sat in the sterile hospital room at Reading Hospital, complete with its disinfected hospital smell, sitting in a simple classroom type chair next to my wife waiting to do what I had to do to play the game that would allow me to do my surgery over Christmas break. I was sure this is how it was going to go down. This appointment was just a formality.
            I’m not an expert with a degree, but I knew. Yep. I knew.
            When Dr. Perez-Vargas came in, we did the motion checks, finger taps, walk, and other bodily functions, and then he asked me if I knew what was going on. I responded that I didn’t.
            “You have Parkinson’s. I’m 90% sure. We’re going to do an MRI and blood tests to find out for sure.”
            I sat frozen in place. I only knew that Parkinson’s was Michael J. Fox, Mohammed Ali, and tremors. I didn’t know anything else. Instantly, I wanted to google search what else it was, but before I could do that, my wife broke out in tears. I tried to comfort her, but it wasn’t easy. Why would it be? She knew more about what it was than me.
            As I sat there in my internal stare, holding onto her, the doctor said that I would be OK based on how I was handling it, which apparently meant I wasn't crying or freaking out, but rather taking it in. Other than that, I’m not sure how I was handling it. I was really just dumbfounded. I would have known the ramifications of the C word or many other conditions, but not this one.
            He went through the discussion about how this wasn’t a death sentence and how there were many medical treatments being looked into and already done. He also talked about how some Parkinson’s doesn’t advance as quickly ("vanilla," he called it), but that I should stay active and we would find out for sure when my results came on November 1, 2016, that this was what it was.
            At the time of the first appointment, I didn't get medicines because I wanted to be sure before I started. I can't say there was any more logic to it than that, but at the time, it made sense.
            As we left the office, I told my wife Heather that we would make it through this. We always do, no matter what happens in life. She was still teary-eyed, but she was better. From there, we went to my parents’ house to tell them what was most likely going on. They, too, didn’t know much, so I had to tell them what I had found out, and we went into the mode of, well, here we are, all straight-faced. Let’s go on. Over the next month, I would tell other family members and friends as well. It wasn't fun because everyone started to learn and ask, "What's going to happen to our son?"

            I took my wife back to her car so she could go home from the doctor’s (we had driven separately to get there since we both came from our jobs), and I told her that I would be teaching my class that night in abbreviated form (in about an hour and a half - too late to call off). However, when I got to the classroom, I was early enough that I had time to google Parkinson’s. I went straight to Michael J. Fox videos, and I saw his tremors and shakes, and I instantly shut the video off after contemplating my future with the shakes (not knowing he often purposely goes off meds when he's interviewed to show the effects of PD to help raise awareness).
            The heaviness of that moment was a shock to my system where I realized what was coming. Combined with discussions from the Mayo Clinic, I had an idea of what was going on, but I chose to look at the videos and articles in smaller doses at first. However, I would choose to learn a lot more over time. That night, I finally hit the wall, and I needed air, so when my students (all 6 of them in the class) came in, I told them that I had a really rough diagnosis at the doctor, and that I would have called off if I had more time, but that I would let them e-mail their essays for a complete look through before they turned them in. They were really great about it and very supportive over the term as I talked to them about what was going on. They definitely made the adjustment easier.
            I should say that as a teacher, sometimes, we think only of our problems, but in the last decade, that moment where they were that kind for me and this were my biggest successes (as were my other honors students). That's what I'm choosing to remember.
            From there, I went home, and I talked to my wife while watching Dodge Ball, which was a great choice. Laughter is an amazing thing, and I can honestly say that living with an approach that the negatives in life aren’t worth the time, especially if we don’t need them (arguments, for example), is the answer to the meaning of life. Life is about living, so choose to live life. Don't dwell on the haters (advice for myself, best followed if I write it down).
            With that, we went to sleep, and when I woke up, I decided that I would be an advocate for Parkinson’s if this was to be my fate. I told my wife, and from that point, I never looked back. I would empower and educate others and myself at the same time. It was the best decision I could make, and for this, I posted my first blog post on November 1, 2016, when I was “officially”-diagnosed, though I truly consider my diagnosis on that September day.

            Now, I find myself asking myself, “How did you survive that avalanche, Dan?” What was my facial expression the moment I swept off the snow and ice to realize I was still alive, before I realized just how hard I was hit? I know that the next morning, I had a feeling of peaceful acceptance, but how was I the previous night? What are my thoughts now that I know what all is preparing to go these next 10 rounds with me?
“I’m going to die after I suffer a lot?”
“I’m not the same Dan anymore?”
“I don’t recognize this person staring back at me?”
“I’ve got this thing inside me, which is just like death because it’s crawling around and trying to kill me and I can't get rid of it; help me?”
There are so many options. All of them bounce around inside all of us from time to time. It’s part of this beast, but we can hold them at bay with the other choices:
“How can I stay me as long as possible?”
“How can I enjoy my friends and family and let them see me for me as long as possible (be a person first)?”
“What can I do to make a difference for others?”
Things like that are what keeps me going as I shake off my avalanche and climb back up the snowy mountain to the top of the pile.

Nevertheless, I am well aware that I’m getting older and my body is changing to be someone new in this world I have found myself in (46 in a month). I thought about this when my wife and I went to see Big the Musical (based on the Tom Hanks movie). If you’ve never seen the movie, it’s a story about a kid who makes a wish to be big, and then it comes true. The rest of the musical deals with him being able to fit into being a vice president at a toy company (easy because he thinks about creating toys that kids will like from a kid’s perspective, but hard because he has to compete with a jerk while navigating an adult relationship with a woman who is very into him). Through it, he comes to enjoy being old until he realizes he doesn’t want to give up childhood, his family, and his best friend.

As usual, the Fulton Theater did a great job with it. For a local Lancaster, Pennsylvania, production, the sounds are good and even the child actors play their roles well. As it was performed during the day so that kids could see it, they brought young kids onstage to dance with the young part of the cast before the show started. Whoever wants to, groove on!

My wife got the tickets and we were in the lower level of the Abraham Lincoln seats, which put us directly stage left. Our view was good enough to see the microphones taped to the actors' foreheads. Let it be known, I am down with the Abraham Lincoln seats.

Somewhere in the reflections on the show, there is a feeling that if kids want to be old, then on the other side of the coin, adults want to be young (and while not a part of the musical, people with disabilities want to go back to a time when we didn't have them or to live like we never had them). There are glory days to be lived again or for the first time. With all of the nastiness inside of us from the hand life has dealt us, no matter who we are, we all want to go back to get a redo, whether complete or partial, so I thought to myself, “Where would you go back to if you could?” I found that to be an interesting question since there are definitely things to consider that keep it from being an easy choice, especially if this Parkinson's was always in me waiting to explode.

1)      If I go back to youth, then I have to through junior high school again. I’d rather swim in the shark lane than do that.
2)      If I go back to high school, then I have to deal with everyone going through puberty and all of those issues. Nope, it’s gotta be later than that because even if I'm magically transformed from Goofus to Gallant, I still have outside influences to contend with.
3)      The Air Force England years (18-24)? I wouldn’t have the life experience and (theoretical) wisdom that I have gained since then, although I would have Europe at my doorstep. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be going to see the things that jive with my older self, who would want to go over there to share them with my wife. Nope, it has to be later than that, even if I was younger, thinner, and healthier.
4)      The late twenties seem like a good time for the wisdom that I gained from the experiences I had prior to it, and I would still do many of the same things, but I would have definitely done many other things differently (like get a degree in Sabermetrics). However, I might not end up meeting my wife, so is it really worth it to disrupt the best parts of my universe on a wild card opportunity to feel the vitality of youth?
5)      The early thirties offer life wisdom, but they also offer the beginnings of the aging life. As soon as professional reality hits, there’s minimal fun due to job and / or family and / or commitments, so for the youthful vitality and lack of gray / white hairs, it becomes a choice of trade offs with a very limited time between. Also, while more of the money needed to do things is technically there, but time is the biggest constraint. Just like setting our own bedtimes as an adult, we realize that staying up until past midnight every night isn’t a possibility, and neither is cashing big checks to spend on frivolous wants and have to haves. We need life moderation, and this is a time it really needs to be figured out by.

So what’s the answer when we’re coming out of the avalanche and trying to make sense of what we have with what we want from life and where our future is and isn't and will never be headed? If we’re sitting here in the uncertainty of “how long until the rug gets pulled out from under me (i.e. if we're waiting for the inievitable avalanche),” we know we're wasting time, but how can we get away from what seems so inevitable when it's such a powerful thought in our heads? If we took the hit and ended up on our feet, how do we reconcile all the mistakes we’ve made and the times we’ve wasted to enjoy what we've got where we stand? Fretting over wasted time is such a Dostoevsky thing anyway. 
Looking at it in this way, Josh Baskin (the Hanks character) has it so easy because he gets to live out the whole thing and make his way through to discover all of the great things (and character building mistakes) for the first time. Besides, all he wants is to be big enough to ride the rides, drive a car to impress a girl he really likes, and to do the other things he wants to do in a "relatively carefree" life (though as we all know, pressures like these do affect kids just as much as adult pressures affect our "ancient" lives). In the same way, Dan the Parkie wants the time to still be able to do the things that make him who he is before his dopamine supply ends. He wants to do as many of them as he can like he used to, while he comfortably / awkwardly / uncomfortably makes peace with his past on what he can’t do or what he does a lot differently (a personal soul searching effort to accept what I can't change - either via the Serenity Prayer or Epictetus).
You'd be surprised what you can accept that you can't do without crossing personal scum lines when it means being alive, happy, and relatively healthy with positive people around you. My midlife crisis at age 39-41 was hell, but since that time, I've made peace with the aging process and who I am. I'd rather sit and purr than obsess and go negative, at least when I can control it.

This is the new normal where the first step is to stare in the mirror and hope the guy in the mirror isn’t covered in snow and ice. After that, he can go look for a beach to enjoy the calm tranquil waters of life. In the meantime, I just need to take the pieces of my story and make them into a cohesive take away line for the audience I am speaking to, even if I’m the only one listening.