Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Have We No Sense of Decency?

The United States is schizophrenic. Okay, maybe it just has what used to be called a split personality. In recent years this condition has been reduced to the words Red and Blue. Since I identify as Blue, anything I say about the Red side is suspect. Probably, however, since most of my friends and relatives are Blue, I am just preaching to the choir. 

On one side we have those who want low taxes for all including the super rich, less government regulation, strong borders and limited immigration, free and unlimited access to guns, lower spending on all social programs: health care, education, transportation, scientific research, and greater spending on the military along with a generally more robust interventionist foreign policy.

On the other side, the opposite.

On both sides we have a culture of fear and distrust of government, except when the government is in the control of their side, and even then, there is a growing percentage who distrust government regardless of which side has control. Many Americans identify with groups whose goal seems to be to destroy or dismantle most of the functions of government such as the Tea Party, Patriot Movement, and Libertarians. I couldn’t find evidence of an organized leftist group that wants to destroy the government, but those on the Red side see programs such as the Affordable Care Act and efforts at Immigration Reform and gun control as the destruction of the “American Way of Life.” 

Increasingly, therefore, there is a feeling that the other side is “Anti-American” or at least acting in ways that are counter to established American values.

And that’s how I’ve felt since the anti-Syrian, anti Immigrant response to the Paris attacks from Red state governors and congressmen. 

I am ashamed of the news coming out of the United States regarding these issues. It boggles my mind that over half the states’ governors have requested that Syrian refugees be kept out of their states. It drives me crazy to hear supposedly serious candidates for president proclaim that no amount of vetting could be adequate to verify that a Syrian refugee is not coming here to cause us harm. 

There oughta’ be a law (I’m not serious) against that kind of fear mongering. I wonder when the harassment and discrimination, possibly worse, of Syrians and other immigrants or even long time citizens who may look less than white or vaguely Arab will begin.

I shouldn’t be surprised after the fear and panic some of these same so-called leaders encouraged in the face of the outbreak of Ebola in Africa. Remember the hysterical declarations and efforts to keep people from any of the affected countries from coming here? Where are the outbreaks they predicted?

The fact is that anyone can become radicalized and become a terrorist in this age of social media and slick recruiting videos. Putting refugees of war in camps and refusing to integrate them into any kind of society or allow them any opportunity to have a decent life is a recipe for creating terrorists. 

To paraphrase Jack Welch to Anti-Communist crusader Senator Joe McCarthy when he was using a Senate investigative committee to accuse them, costing many their jobs and reputations, “Have you, at long last, sir, no sense of decency?” Have we, as Americans, no sense of decency? Are we so afraid that our only response to tragedy is an impulse to send troops, to send bombers, to seal our borders? 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

How to Enjoy a "Simply Happy" Life

How many of us asked what’s most important in life would say happiness? Most of my life I have. But of course I’m a member of the notorious, self-centered baby boomer generation born and raised in a middle class home by two college educated parents in the suburban sprawl of a small town between Philly and NY. I was raised to believe I could choose my own path. My teenage angst and anger at a country engaged in the insanity of the Vietnam War and which unfairly discriminated against African Americans was assuaged by a counter-culture which allowed me to express my anger and rejection of the “straight” world by growing my hair long and substitute the relaxing and often hilariously happy highs I got by smoking pot and the crazily mind altering excitement of psychedelics. 

Before I was twenty, having turned on and tuned in, I dropped out. Anger and political frustration as I had watched my heroes (JFK, MLK, RFK, Malcolm X) get murdered and the lying Nixon take over the Presidency led me to participate in massive marches against the war in D.C. in 1969. I believed in peace, but seeing the soldiers lined up shoulder to shoulder around the Justice Department and  tanks in the garage entrance backing them up, breathing the pepper gas and tear gas that we were barraged with, I came to an ultimate realization that they had all the weapons, all the power, and it was suicide to fight. Truly, I was ignorant of political process and also ignorant of what it really meant to make change through nonviolence. I thought the 60’s had proven nonviolence doesn’t work. Unwilling to die in Vietnam and unwilling to die fighting or going to jail to end the war here, I headed for the woods to live the life of a hippie homesteader—what we now call “off the grid.”

Call it growing up, but over the next several years the pursuit of happiness was pushed aside in favor of learning how to survive….not hunting and fishing and farming, but learning how to live on less, build a serviceable shelter, fix my own car, grow some vegetables, take advantage of free stuff this prosperous country offers, and find odd jobs to bring in enough money to “get by.” The birth of a child brought me the rest of the way back on my journey from homeless wandering to rural poverty as I sought full time employment and worked for a logger for a couple years before finding a job in a runaway shelter and going to college in the evenings, eventually becoming a teacher. 

My happiness was secondary to responsible parenthood until the marriage I was in left me so unhappy that I divorced when my daughter was fifteen, leaving her with her mother. This was the most unhappy time of my life and I sought the help of a wise therapist who helped me resolve some of the barriers to happiness within myself through a process called “inner child work.”

Now remarried and retired, I have time to pursue happiness full time. And I have done so by pursuing my interests and taking care of my health. I play music regularly at home and in public in a variety of settings, a lifelong avocation that I couldn’t make work as a career. I ride my bike or go to the gym almost every day and do some Yoga. I cook meals regularly and struggle to keep my weight down. I read a lot of news and a few books, and I occasionally write essays I fire off to the newspaper about issues that bother me. I give volunteer time to environmental groups and to organize contra dances sponsored by my local folk music organization, FOOTMAD. I read, watch Netflix, and listen to the radio, especially NPR and NPR podcasts.

Which brings me to the reason I started writing this morning. Yesterday, listening to the NPR program, TED Radio Hour as a podcast while riding my bike on a gorgeous Indian Summer day, I listened to an episode called Simply Happy (you can stream or download the whole hour or any of the shorter segments here ). TED is a worldwide series of short lectures on topics related to Technology, Entertainment, Design by some of the smartest, most successful people in the world. The NPR program aggregates a few “TED Talks” by theme, uses excerpts from the lectures and interviews with the speaker to weave together a fascinating and educational hour of radio programming each week. 

This particular show featured a scientist who had researched what makes people happy, someone who created a happiness app, authors, and a monk. It was full of wonderful “a-ha” moments for me. Takeaways:
  • Stuff, wealth, etc. won’t make you happy 
  • Adversity such as illness, misfortune, etc., does not keep people from being happy after an average of a few months of adjustment 
  • Slowing down and paying attention to what you’re doing can increase happiness, or at least letting your mind wander tends to add to unhappiness; 
  • Happiness does not cause you to be grateful, gratefulness causes you to be happy.

That last was imparted by a Benedictine monk by the name of David Steindl-Rast, who has a PhD in psychology and studied Zen Bhuddism and probably every other religion and spiritual practice. Thinking back over my life, I realize that I lacked gratefulness for much of it, which means I was not as happy as I could have been. I’m grateful I ran across this, and intend to look for more of his advice on the key to happiness. I also intend to think more and more often about what I have to be grateful for (though I don’t intend to write it on FB everyday as I’ve seen some others do, which I find…annoying). In the meantime, as the great philosopher Bobby McFerrin sang, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” 

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Republican (Right) Field, Round 2

To go with the mixed metaphor of my title (baseball vs. boxing), today's blog post presents in short "chapters" some of my response to the second Republican debate, which I endured for almost two and a half hours on Wednesday. 


I almost felt sorry for the poor guys and gal--they had to stand there for 3 hours and think about the fact that they would have to somehow distinguish themselves from the other 10 wingnuts on stage with them in little 1 or 2 minute chunks every 10-15 minutes. I'm surprised no one came out from behind the lectern and started doing cartwheels, dancing a jig, or juggling watermelons to get attention. 

Mostly they had to hope someone would mention their name, because if their name was mentioned they got automatic response time (imaginary pre-debate confession cam, with Christie: "Kasich and me gotta deal goin' you see--every time one of us gets a chance to talk we'll take a softball poke at the other one, that way we'll get to go back and forth all night and block the others out!").

And they actually got into policy, which shut Trump up, because the fact is, and he acknowledged it, he doesn't know much. I'll hire experts who know this stuff is basically what he said...that inspires confidence. Rand Paul and John Kasich tried to inject some reasonable ideas like not trying to police the whole world and working with allies instead of going it alone...but they were all alone up there. Ben Carson...what is the great attraction to him? I still think that may be about Republicans wanting to win the black vote ("Look at how many African Americans came out to vote for Obama! They'll vote for their own"). Rubio and Bush are supposed to have potential to pull in the Hispanic vote, but it seems like Trump has forced Republicans to write off that block of voters...and by the way, ship them out on Day 1!

Other things that will happen on Day 1: End Obamacare, Tear up the Iran Agreement, and, though none of them said it, probably indict President Obama for impersonating a president.....OMG--it's still over a year until the election!

On Carly Fiorna’s attack on Planned Parenthood

As if the doctored stealth videos purporting to show that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue illegally weren’t false enough (a few PP clinics legally donate fetal tissue for medical research and are reimbursed for the expense of doing so), Carly Fiorina described a supposed scene from the video THAT SHE MADE UP! Here's what Politifact reports:

“Carly Fiorina spoke out against Planned Parenthood regarding the controversial videos released over the last few months. The scene she described, though, does not exist in any of the videos.

Fiorina: I dare Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama to watch these tapes. Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.

We are aware of no video showing such a scene. The videos, released by the Center for Medical Progress beginning on July 14, have focused on fetal tissue being collected for research and have shown some aborted fetal tissue. As we wrote before, the use of donated fetal tissue has been important in several areas of scientific research.

Fiorina’s description matches up with one of the videos in a series the Center for Medical Progress has called “Human Capital” — but only with regard to how an interviewee describes her experience. Holly O’Donnell, an “ex-procurement technician” for StemExpress, a company that procures fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood clinics, relates a story of an intact fetus. She says that a Planned Parenthood doctor “taps the heart and it starts beating,” and then instructs her to remove its brain for collection.

The video does contain images of what appear to be intact fetuses, but they don’t fit Fiorina’s description. In one, where a fetus does appear to move, there is a caption saying that the footage is from the pro-life Grantham Collection and Center for Bio-Ethical Reform; there is no indication as to where the footage was shot. In the other, it was revealed after the video’s release that the image was of a stillborn baby, rather than an aborted fetus.
Though we cannot verify if part or all of O’Donnell’s story is true, the scene Fiorina “dares” others to watch is not present in any of the Planned Parenthood videos."

On Donald Trump boasting he would create a bigger, stronger military, so strong that nobody, not even Putin would mess with us

The fiction the Republicans have created is that talking tough, having a strong military, and using it frequently scares others into cooperating with us. They say Reagan talked tough and scared Gorbachev into disbanding the Soviet Union (false--Glasnost--freedom of speech he implemented led to the Republicans breaking away). They see Bush as tough and strong and would go it alone--going to war in Iraq with "a coalition of the willing". That meant neither NATO nor any major allies were with us and actually weakened us and our interests in the world, strengthening Iran and creating ISIS, which started as Al Qaeda in Iraq. 

They say Obama is weak because he is willing to negotiate with countries that we have serious disagreements with in order to avoid going to war. They don't see it as a strength to bring in our allies to participate in negotiations, but allies add to the threat should negotiations fail. But time after time, Obama has led the majority of the world to the table, negotiating the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, the Iran Agreement, and to stop Russia in Ukraine by implementing sanctions against them that are devastating their economy--finally, the ceasefire seems to be holding, an indication that the policy is working.

Yet like other Republican fictions that they repeat endlessly as if repeating a lie will make it true: that cutting taxes always creates jobs, that making abortion illegal or unavailable reduces abortions, that running a deficit is always bad for the economy, an overwhelmingly strong military used irresponsibly does not make us safer, it makes us feared and hated around the world.

What Republicans see in Ben Carson (I don’t see much)

Chicago Tribune columnist Dawn M. Turner (African American—I mention that because I think it lends her credibility on the issue) wrote that Carson’s inner city Detroit rise to famed neurosurgeon story “allows Republicans to feel good about themselves. They can vote for a black guy (whose name isn’t Obama) and maintain the myth that race is no longer a hindrance in this country and the only thing black folks have to do is work hard (as if blacks don’t already) and they too can achieve the American Dream."

And the prize for dumbest statement goes to (no surprise)

Trump on why he didn't recognize the name of the head of Iran's Quds Force: “[The reporter] was giving me name after name; Arab name, Arab name, Arab name… and there are few people anywhere that would know those names… I think he was reading them off a sheet.” 

Friday, September 11, 2015

When You Dance with the Devil, You Risk Getting Trumped

When you dance with the get burnt; you have to pay the piper; you dont change him, he changes you. Finish it how you like, the Republicans have been dancing with hot issues and colorful characters for years. They have enticed their base with pipe dreams of a tax free country with a tiny efficient government, an all powerful military to which all countries and terrorist groups submit, and a return to a 19th century morality that never existed in which the Preacher in Chief ushers in an era of peace, prosperity, good health, and world dominance, and theres no need to pay for any of it.the shining city on the hill.

The flip side of these fantasy images assigns blame to anything they claim is preventing us from living their dream: Evil Empires, abortion as holocaust (even to save a womans life),  a government that should be starved and shrunk until they can drown it in the bathtub,a MuslimPresident born in Africawho hates America”, and encourages illegal immigration and “entitlements” to pad the Democratic voting roles. Their list of imagined grievances is  endless, but it starts and ends with their political opposition who, like the rest of the world, are either evil Socialists or the Gestapo. 

Their dance with the devil, during which they have abandoned facts, reason, caution, and evidence of anything that counters their Bible thumping, demagoguing, conspiracy theorizing, tax revolting, tea partying, war mongering, immigrant hating, gay bashing platform has won a loyal following. Their constituency no longer trusts government, and the horde of Republican Congressmen, Senators, and Governors who seek the presidency are one face of the reviled government. An ever increasing number of Republican voters are not interested in facts, just claims, like those the  front runner comedian, I mean candidate, Donald Trump makes that America is losing because, We are led by very, very stupid people,and, "We will have so much winning when I get elected that you will get bored with winning.” 

The only other Republican candidate even reaching double digits in the polls is Ben Carson, a skilled neurosurgeon who also has no experience in government and has said Obamacare is the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.Is it possible many Republicans support him because he is black and they want to prove they are not racist? At least hes not saying life may have been better for enslaved African American families than it is today as a pledge once signed by Republican candidate Rick Santorum suggested.

I, like many liberal or progressive Democrats, are quietly waiting for the dance to end. Trump is such a wild carda multi-billionaire who is entertaining, media savvy, and so totally disdainful of politicians, even of his own party, that voting for him is the biggest gamble voters could make. They are willing to trust our nation and the world to a carnival barker who has absolutely no discernible platform or policy—an amazingly brutal competitor who has proven himself by becoming rich, very, very rich! 

After losing the 2012 presidential election, Republican strategists saw the writing on the wall: if they didnt abandon some of their most radical right platforms and reach out to a wider audience, they were doomed to a shrinking Party comprised mostly of angry white men. Trump represents the devil they tried to spurn. After thirty years of listening to the devils enticements, at least half of Republican voters will not face reality, they will not listen to reason, they want someone who tells them what they want to hearthat they, too, can be rich winners who take back their country and return it to the good old days: government of white men, by white men, and for white men.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The End of Coal, the Restoration of WV

Retired TV News Correspondent, Ed Rabel, in an op-ed in the August 21 Gazette-Mail suggests that the southern West Virginia coalfields should be evacuated because strip mining, combined with drug use, other health issues and hopelessness in an economically starved region has made it dangerous to live there. I don’t dispute his view of the state of the region, just his proposed solution.

As a transplant who has probably lived here longer than most West Virginians who were born here, forty years, I can say without hesitation that we love our mountains and are tied to the land. Even those operating the heavy equipment that is destroying it love the mountains and streams and want to stay here. They just operate under the belief that mining coal regardless of the harm to the environment is what must be done to maintain their standard of living and our state’s economy. 

Ed Rabel imagined what he would do if he were king. What I would do is gather together politicians and religious leaders, educators and health professionals,  bankers and lawyers, scientists and captains of industry, and tell them that coal is history. We will leave the rest of the coal in the ground for some future when sun, wind, waves, geothermal, biomass, or other nonpolluting forms of energy can no longer provide energy. I would tell them it is up to all of us as a state and a nation to make the transition now: a national mobilization for clean energy. If we can send spacecraft to the ends of the solar system and reach the bottom of the ocean, if we can transplant hearts and lungs and create hip replacements and artificial lungs, cure cancers and create computers that can outthink a man, then we can create a clean energy future. 

On Saturday, September 12th at shelter #6 of Kanawha State Forest, 11 am to 3 pm, a group of people who love our mountains and streams will participate in a world-wide event called The Ground Beneath our Hearts organized to honor the creativity, dignity, and resilience of people who live in communities affected by mining and oil and gas development. This is a celebration, not a protest, and everyone who loves our state and wants to preserve it is invited to attend. For more information, go to

this essay was published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on Saturday, August 29th, 2015 under the title, Innovate, Don't Evacuate Coalfields

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Climate Tipping Point?

Have we passed a tipping point on global warming? Or is there still time to slow the warming trend by reducing the burning of fossil fuels? Could predicted effects get worse faster than scientists have predicted? According to recent research released by world renowned climatologist James Hansen and his colleagues at Columbia University, sea levels could rise a staggering ten feet within fifty years instead of three feet envisioned previously.

A warming planet is no longer disputed, even by most Republican politicians. Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree the warming is caused by the extreme levels of carbon in the atmosphere and oceans largely from burning fossil fuels in which carbon has been stored since dinosaurs roamed.

Hansen could be wrong in his predictions, but what if he’s right? What will it cost to move cities to higher ground? What happens to populations forced to compete for food resources and agricultural land as farmland is lost to the sea and drought? Even if Hansen is wrong, what are the costs of rising seas, increased damage from powerful storms, heat waves, droughts, forest fires, and the other impacts of rising temperatures predicted by more conservative scientists over the coming decades? We have spent hundreds of billions in tax money and private dollars on such weather related disasters in recent years. 

Around the world and in some states and municipalities here, alternative energy sources are being developed and tapped to reduce the use of carbon-based fuels on a large scale. Solar panels get cheaper every day and are now competitive with the price of electricity produced by coal burning power plants. Wind power, geo thermal, bio-fuels, waste to energy, fuel cells, are entering boom times. The alternative energy market is producing jobs at up to ten times the rate of the national average. (

Corporations must plan ahead. They want to transition to cleaner energy sources but need a level playing field. In fact, six of Europe’s biggest oil producers including Shell and BP recently called for a world wide pricing system on carbon. They’d rather compete in a predictable marketplace than face unpredictable regulations.

Why a price on carbon? It’s similar to taxes on tobacco products. We know that tobacco use leads to disastrous health consequences: lung cancer, heart disease, lost work time, etc. That costs all of us money, not just those who use it. So we have put high taxes on it, and because of that, smoking and the health costs of smoking for all of us has been reduced.

A revenue neutral carbon fee designed to garner bi-partisan support has been proposed by Citizens’ Climate Lobby ( and endorsed by former Republican Secretary of the Treasury and State, George Schultz. It would collect fees and return them to American families. 

This proposed legislation sets a modest fee of $15 per ton on carbon rising by $10 each year so that the economy can adjust. Revenue is divided equally among American families (1 share for each adult, 1/2 share per child up to two children), providing the resources to cope with rising fuel prices and consumer goods. The respected firm, Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI)4 predicts a family of 4 would receive dividends greater than increased costs each year. By 2026 they’d be receiving $300/month. One million new jobs would be created in the first 4 years in addition to health benefits and a 50% reduction in carbon use over 20 years, far more than currently proposed regulations such as the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The incentive to increase efficiency and develop alternative energy is obvious.

Our state’s representatives in Congress and most state legislators say that the continued mining and burning of coal is good for WV. They say coal is an inexpensive fuel and warn of job and tax revenue loss if use is limited in any way. But West Virginians are not only paying the costs of climate change, we pay for the negative effects of coal mining on communities: to health, water and air quality, and even threat of destruction from impoundments.  West Virginia could be a leader in alternative energy production and reap the benefits of a job boom in solar, wind, hydro, and other green energy initiatives with the help of forward looking policies.

Our representatives will not change their minds unless they hear from many of us relentlessly. Tell them this is critically important and that you demand action. Carbon pricing legislation does not rule out coal, but assesses the true costs of carbon it contains. Perhaps the industry will find cost efficient ways to reduce or sequester carbon emissions, but until they do, they should pay for the damage they are causing. 

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Losing My Mind? No, just a little stress...

On Sunday I lost my keys. On Monday I realized my wallet went missing. It was very distressing, but it wasn’t the first time I’d been through this, so I did what I do. I began searching. Not only the likely places, but the unlikely places. Because that’s what I do. And when I find something I’ve misplaced, I always say the same thing, “Gee, how come I always find things in the last place I look?” That’s supposed to be funny. But at that moment I am feeling supreme relief. This time, what I also realized was that stress had led to me losing these items in the first place. 

As a retired guy, I don’t feel a lot of stress lately. And I don’t misplace my keys and wallet that often. Over the years, I’ve trained myself pretty well to leave my keys on a hook in the coat closet and my wallet either in the rear pants pocket of the pants I’m wearing or on a surface in the bedroom—my dresser or the end table where I charge my phone. 

But on Sunday, I was stressed because I was getting ready for a party and had the lawn to mow, errands to run, and food to prepare. Everything went fine, though I realized shortly after returning from the grocery store that I’d misplaced my keys because I wanted to move my wife’s car into the garage to make more room for guests. I borrowed her keys rather than waste time looking thoroughly. The party went fine, but on Monday I realized that my wallet was also missing, and as I started my search, I was feeling stress. Had I left my wallet at the grocery store? We had a trip coming up Thursday. Would I have to cancel credit cards? What a hassle. I went to the market and asked about lost and found wallets. No luck.

After the fifth or sixth time looking in, under, and around every piece of furniture, the car, my drawers full of clothes and the hamper, going through the trash (I only did that once), I decided I had to let it go. Either they would turn up or they wouldn’t. So far, no new charges on the charge cards, so I would not cancel or put holds on them. 

On Tuesday, I was in the basement (yes I’d looked around in the basement and garage, too), and decided to check the pants I keep hanging on a hook to wear when I mow the lawn. I’d checked them earlier, but must have been in a hurry or it was when I was just looking for my keys, so had kind of squeezed or jiggled them but not checked the back pocket. The wallet. What a relief. Keys are much easier to replace than a wallet. Why I put my wallet in my work pants I’ve decided has to do with stress: because my mind was so occupied with the list of things I had to accomplish in little time, automatic habits like putting a wallet in my back pocket occurred without conscious thought. 

On Wednesday, I found my keys hanging on a hook. But not the hook in the coat closet. It was a hook on a coat tree in the corner where I hang a couple hats and the portable earphone radio I sometimes wear when I ride my bike. Reconstructing my day Sunday, I vaguely recalled finding the radio sitting out somewhere, grabbing them as I put down bags of groceries, and putting them on the hook under the hats. Unfortunately, the keys were also in my hand, and with my mind occupied with the next tasks on my list and the time I had left, I must have slipped the keys onto that hook where they would stay perfectly hidden by the hats for two days. Luckily, on Tuesday when I went to get my radio, I found the keys, or they might have stayed there unnoticed until I had reason to move two hats that were hanging on the same hook!

Of course, being retired (and married, so backup keys and money were available) the stress of losing a wallet and keys is very small stuff. But I’m always amazed at the truth of the old adage, “I learn something new every day.” I don’t know whether I’ll act on it, but I intend to, when stressed, pay extra special attention to some of those little things that could later cause more anxiety and wasted time. And no, I’m not going to the doctor and asking for an alzheimer’s test.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Carla Rising, A Novel Worth Reading

I just finished reading Carla Rising, by Topper Sherwood, available as a soft cover paperback only from WV Book Company click here (could be ordered by your local bookstore as well). Full disclosure: Topper and I worked together thirty some years ago and he has sent donations to a project I coordinate called AWARE: Artists Working in Alliance to Restore the Environment.

Carla Rising is a novel written by West Virginia native, Topper Sherwood, about the period in American history known as the West Virginia Mine Wars, specifically, the Battle of Blair of Mountain in 1921, during which thousands of armed miners attempted to march on the town of Logan to free their union brothers who had been jailed without charges. The battle ended only when the U.S. Army was sent in to restore order.  

Sherwood has fictionalized the event, renaming some places and not others, and assembling a cast of characters some of whom can be fairly easily correlated to the historical figures they stand in for. The book is named for a central character, Carla Rising Mandt, raised on Blair Mountain by parents, Bonner Rising, a miner who had died in an earlier labor battle, and her mother, Mary, a quintessentially strong Appalachian woman who quietly endures the hardships of an idyllic rural life trying, but failing to avoid the dangerous politics of the era. Carla has been married for a year to Sid Mandt, a miner and local union leader as the book begins. 

Sherwood, a journalist and small press publisher now living in Berlin, Germany, has long been interested in this period of West Virginia History, having co-authored the history, Just Good Politics, the Life of Raymond Chafin, Appalachian Boss. Sherwood displays virtuosic skill as he paints a rich picture of life in the southern WV coal fields in the early 1900’s. He brings to the page many of the images John Sayles fans will recognize from his 1987 independent film classic, Matewan, which covers some of the same ground, but focusses on the “Matewan Massacre,” which took place a year before the events portrayed in Sherwood’s novel.

Carla Rising explores the minds of two brothers, Todd and Gibbs Bryant, who vie for leadership of the striking miners, one advocating patience and one armed action. Having grown up roaming Blair mountain, Carla’s knowledge of the terrain is valuable to the striking miners, and she struggles to decide which of the two brothers to support.

Along with a host of authentically drawn characters, some born and raised in the mountains, others newly arrived European immigrants: Aunt Tildy and Uncle Harm, Lowcoal, Darko, the evil Baldwin guard, Gaujot, and Carla’s eleven year old brother, Nick, a mute innocent collecting trinkets to display in his secret cave, Todd, Gibbs, and Carla each find their way to important life lessons amidst their struggle to make a better life for the miners and their families in this period of exploitation and corruption in the Appalachian Mountains.

Sherwood’s Carla Rising is an important book because it brings us into the minds of people who struggle against seemingly impossible odds to take on local and state government leaders who are fully beholden to their corporate sponsors. Of course, there are no political leaders such as this in the United States today, right?

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Thoughts on Belief on Passover, Easter

As a humanist (non-theist), I understand the desire that people have to believe that there is a force for good looking over and protecting them and their loved ones and forgive them for their seeming lack of ability to imagine how that might seem when applied to those whose lives are negatively impacted in any given situation. It always drives me crazy to hear someone describe some incident in which others were hurt or died, but they or their loved one survived by saying, "God was watching over (me or them)."

"Oh, really," I want to say, "but He didn't care about the others?" Of course they would likely come back with "He has his own plan" or some such.....But, that is just what they need to make sense of the world, and many studies have shown that people who believe in these ways get health benefits from this kind of thinking, although it looks like denial to me.

I wrote the above in response to a Facebook post in which someone had made a similar observation regarding lyrics in a Garth Brooks song about souls being called to earth to be born to wonderful mothers. She wondered about the babies being born to less desirable parents and situations.

And then I remembered that last night was the beginning of Passover and tomorrow is Easter. No, I did nothing to observe Passover last night. 

I was raised in a Jewish family by educated parents who were not terribly religious, though we attended services in a Reform congregation somewhat regularly through the year and on holidays, I attended Sunday School and had Hebrew lessons twice a week for a couple years preparing for Bar Mitzvah. But part of the rebellion of my young adulthood was a disavowal of religious belief, and I have only been back in synagogues for family weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, and funerals since.

Passover, which celebrates the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt recounted in the Book of Exodus, is a perfect example of a religious belief in which God is watching over only certain people, not others. Moses demands that Pharoah release the Jews; he refuses, and God unleashes various plagues until finally the Jews are instructed to mark their doors with the blood of a lamb and the Angel of Death is sent to kill all the firstborn sons of the unmarked households. Hence the holiday is named "Passover," since the Jewish households were passed over and their children spared.

According to the Christian Bible, Jesus and his disciples were eating the Passover dinner, the Sedar, in what has come to be called the Last Supper. Jesus was a devout Jew, a rabbi, though his teachings challenged the powerful Jewish priesthood at the Temple in Jerusalem and the Roman notion that Caesar was a living god.  The Romans could put up with an invisible Jewish god, but not with a man who had thousands of followers who proclaimed him King of the Jews and possibly the Messiah.

The message of Easter (apologies to any Christians who may ask how a lapsed Jew has the chutzpah to interpret their religion), while broadening the extent to which the heretofore God of the Jews would extend his love and protections to anyone, Jew or Gentile, limits his favor to those who acknowledge faith in Jesus Christ. 

I don't hate religions or religious people, but I recognize that religions are exclusive clubs. They subscribe to the "only-one-True-religion" thesis. While most of them invite others to share their beliefs, too often they find other religions or even sects within their own religion threatening, and since in their belief system God favors them, blesses them, they sometimes feel justified in discriminating against or even attacking others. While there are benefits in belonging to religious groups, such as the wonderful charitable work they do for their own members and for others outside their groups, and for the teaching of moral lessons inherent in all religions, I would on this holiday pray if I were religious, but hope since I am not, that my religious friends would contemplate whether the sense that their god protects and favors them affects the way they think about people who are different or believe differently than they do.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sixty Degrees Difference from Snorkel to Skis

I went cross country skiing today. The sun was shining and it was in the mid-20’s. One week ago, I went snorkeling in the Virgin Islands. The sun was shining and it was in the mid-80’s. The snorkeling and the weather in St. Croix was more enjoyable than the skiing, but even though I found it difficult to get enthused about going out today to shovel snow and get my old cross country skis out of the garage, I enjoyed the physical activity.

As I swished around the Shawnee Park golf course in Dunbar, WV, I worked up a sweat and found myself smiling and enjoying the exertion, the beauty of the almost unbroken expanse of snow, white and blue before me. 

But snorkeling over the coral reef off Buck Island, hovering above schools of brightly colored fish and interesting coral formations in the warm, clear tropical waters was clearly the more beautiful and interesting activity. Of course, without the effective waterproof sunblock I had smeared over my body before getting on the sailboat for the forty-five minute sail from St. Croix to Buck Island, I would likely have sustained a serious sunburn. But with the ocean breezes, I rarely felt hot during the week I spent there.

View of Buck Island from Point Udall, St. Croix, VI

Warming oceans and increased carbon dioxide in the water is killing coral reefs. And today, a few miles from Charleston, where I live, a train derailed and several tanker cars filled with crude oil from the Bakken shale exploded and continue to burn twenty-four hours later as I write. Some of the oil has fouled the water of the Kanawha River. 

February has been very cold and snowy over much of the country, and because of this, no doubt the climate deniers are saying this proves that the planet is not warming. Actually, extreme weather of all kinds, including colder weather in some places is expected as the arctic winds escape the forces that used to hold them in place around the poles.

I’m becoming increasingly disillusioned about the ability of those of us on the planet who would like to preserve the beautiful places and creatures and plants in the world by reducing and finally eliminating the burning of fossil fuels, and though I know I contribute to the problem by stepping on an airplane to go see some of those places, I’m glad that I have the time and resources to be able to once in awhile. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Call Me Humanist, Not Atheist

Before I tell you why I prefer the label humanist to atheist (literally, “not a theist”), I have to ask, what is a theist? Easy, you answer, someone who believes in a god or gods. 

A majority worldwide, and over 70% of Americans believe there is one God, and they generally agree they are worshiping the same God, but in different ways, ways they often believe will give them a good result in this life and/or an afterlife.

So really, when we ask a person what they believe, we are usually more concerned with, and they are more likely to answer with something that reflects their religion of choice or birth. “I’m a Christian. Jesus is my savior.” “I’m Jewish. one of the Chosen People.” “I’m a Muslim, praise be to Allah (God).” And in the United States, where most are Christian, “I’m Catholic.” or Episcopal, Baptist, etc. with all the distinguishing beliefs that each carries.

Theists not only believe in a higher power, but usually subscribe to a specific shared set of beliefs regarding that higher power and the possibilities of an afterlife, and how one should live one’s life in order to fulfill the higher power’s wishes or demands. 

There is also a fairly large group of people who one might call unaffiliated or agnostic who will say they believe in or at least don’t disbelieve in God or a higher power or say they are “Christian,” only meaning that they believe Jesus existed and was special and agree with the concepts associated with him. They generally go along with God or Christ being a force for good, and maybe if they live a good life, they’ll probably have a good result if there is an afterlife. Of course people move between agnosticism and belief and change beliefs in the course of their lives.

What does an atheist believe? The short answer is whatever hum (the non-gender pronoun hum can mean he, she, him, her, etc.) wants. Since hum does not subscribe to one of the world’s religions, hum does not have a set of rituals to follow, like praying at certain times, attending meetings on certain days of the week to talk about shared beliefs or receive instruction on them, eating or not eating certain foods or following certain rules or laws written in ‘sacred’ texts and interpreted over hundreds or thousands of years by scholars or visionaries, or powerful leaders. 

Many theists wonder if an atheist feels free to steal, kill or rape freely without fear of retribution. Rest assured, we live in the same world you do and follow the same laws which are enforced in the same way. There are many who make the case that atheists, because we have to think through what we believe to be right or wrong as we consider where our natural instincts or desires lead us rather than referring to an ancient text or asking a clergyman, are more moral than the many throughout history who have at times followed their religious leaders to commit atrocities. 

When I think about what I believe, I’m not thinking about what I don’t believe. That list is very, very long, and extends to all kinds of supernatural phenomena and conspiracy theories, from a burning bush that is not consumed and talks to Moses to paranormal activity or ability such as ESP, ghosts, or psychic abilities. Essentially, I’m a skeptic.

Humanism sprang up in the early 20th century and, according to Wikipedia, “rejected revealed knowledge, theism-based morality and the supernatural.” Sometime later religious conservatives began to refer to it as “Secular Humanism,” to distinguish it from some religious, non-fundamentalists who adopted humanist principles.

As a humanist (I prefer no capital H, because it’s just a label, not a religion or organization), I believe that no one has the answers to “life’s persistent questions,” which Guy Noir, a character of Garrison Keillor’s, seeks. I believe that this is the only life we have and our goal as humans should be to make the most of it: learning, loving, laughing, creating. I believe that through science, we have the potential of solving problems and making our lives better.  I value kindness, taking care of the planet, being a force for good. I acknowledge that not everything is known, and therefore many things are possible, such as that there is a remote possibility life or memory may continue in some form after death and even that there could be a “higher power” that in some way influences life on earth. That doesn’t make me a theist, or even agnostic, but it allows me to be a humanist.