Sunday, July 15

Amtrak- The Company that Wants to Die

       I love trains, but I have a problem with the cheap ass, inefficient excuse for passenger rail service in this country. The US ranks number one in freight rail and 22nd in passenger service, gee I wonder why.
       First the track is owned by Union Pacific which certainly cares more about moving it's profitable freight than people.
       Amtrak is like the show" Whose Line is it Anyway?" where everything is made up and the points don't matter. Travel points that is. If I rack up thousands of points ( you get 2 points for every dollar spent) I'll be able to buy an overpriced blanket with an Amtrak logo. Worse than frequent flyer miles and who ever travels thousands of miles regularly on a train is a masochist.
      Time schedules are mostly hypothetical, delays are common because freight gets first dibs on the track. while I was on the Lame Shore, er Lake Shore Limited already running 3 hours late, the train stopped and went in reverse onto a side track to allow freight by. I guess we went making up too much time. The food used to be good but has declined because management decided the passengers weren't suffering enough.
      Amtrak has a revolving door of  CEOs, 13 since 1971, and is currently run by a former executive of Delta Airlines which gives you a good idea how much faith the US Government has in rail. That's right our incompetent government runs Amtrak and is slowly running it right into the ground at the taxpayers expense because they don't know how to just pull the plug and lit it die already.
       Passenger service sucks mostly because-reasons, but the truth is, no one is interested in it. Private rail declined in the fifties due to air travel. Fly on an airline subsidized by Uncle Sam, drive your car on the extensive hiway system paid for by federal funding, stay at tacky motels and deal with your bored kids.
       Trains are so European and who wants to be like them? China, Japan and Korea do. They invested heavily in fast, efficient trains, while we puddle along in outdated cars that can barely keep up with auto traffic.
        Amtrak has been promising fast trains for 30 years only to have a new service in the Pacific Northwest promptly derail on its maiden trip because the speed safety system was not operating. A system that was rejected by a penny pinching congressional transportation committee, a day after an earlier derailment.
       US Railroads- and it's barons- used to be the gold standard.  The US expanded with the building of the Transcontinental railroad in the 19th century, a major engineering feat at the time. Today, I think Amtrak might still be using the same equipment.
      What happened? Like I said, nobody cares about trains when we got cars and planes. Let's compare them, shall we.
       If accidents are measured by journey rather than mileage, airplanes are the 2nd most dangerous way to travel after motorcycles. More people die from plane crashes due to their high speed while than trains usually just fall off the track at a considerably lower altitude. Between 1971 and the present, there have been 112 deaths and 1,325 injuries from train derailments.
       Fuel studies have shown that planes and cars discharge roughly the same amount of CO2  but planes are used more frequently and for longer periods. Diesel trains cut CO2 in half per capita emission and are 30-40 % more efficient than planes and cars.
       Airlines enjoy all kinds of  handouts from the government, most notably after 9/11 when Congress gave them huge loans with no strings attached and little pressure to repay them. Kind like the bank bail outs- our tax money disappears forever. I always point this out when people bitch about our government subsiding  rail service. Yeah, the paltry amount it gets every year and has to beg for more.
       An article in Politico noted a key problem with Amtrak funding  "the rail system chronically operates in the red. A pattern has emerged: Congress overrides cutbacks demanded by the White House and appropriates enough funds to keep Amtrak from plunging into insolvency. But, advocates say, that is not enough to fix the system's woes."
       If you enjoy long travel times to and from the airport, check in and security theatre by TSA petty tyrants, by all means fly the not so friendly over crowded skies. Getting on board the train is as easy as getting on a bus.
       The one advantage airlines have is booking. Call a travel agent and they can do it no problem. Call Amtrak and you get the "Julie Experience" an cheerful automated agent with the intelligence of a doorknob. Some of us don't have the patience or time to figure out the byzantine system Amtrak uses.
       Did I mention this was the company that wants to die?            

Tuesday, June 12

The Rave: Letting Go

            Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Keith Cobain- how could someone famous do that?  The compulsion to suicide comes from within, and the death of the famous increases the compulsion. It bares the lie sold to us: material wealth does not equal happiness.
            Theodore Roosevelt said "Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough." and promoted the "strenuous life" as an antidote while his brother drank himself to death.
            The four horsemen of suicide are depression, vulnerability, isolation and despair. Vulnerability in the face of failure at work, relationships, and money. Isolation from others fuels the urge–"no one will miss me". Despair at the unfairness of life chases the rider. Ultimately, the impulsive act boils down to one thing: they let go. The will to hold on is gone. The effort and strain becomes too much so they just let go.
            Suicide is an epidemic in America. According to the CDC suicide increased by 54% in the last decade, 50% die using a gun.
            Helping those who suffer is hard, because you don't know how to ease their pain and the victim feels the same way. Silence is deadly as each side struggles to deal with the demon in their midst. People are afraid to that ask someone about suicidal thoughts fearing it will drive them to the edge when in fact it will pull them back in relief.
            Drugs, therapy and physical activity can keep the black care at bay for only so long but depression is a liar and drains it's victim of the strength, clarity and desire to escape it's grasp. Seeking help is impossible when you feel nothing but desperation. Many have tried and tried and failed.
            Happiness is hard to maintain when it is fleeting and rare. When I do feel joy it's often accompanied by unease or I feel overwhelmed because I'm not used to it. The reverse is true for those who are generally happy and experience a blue funk. It feels unnatural. Depression is a palatable emotional pain, and as debilitating as physical pain. Even with  painkillers, it's still there and there are side effects.           
            Humans have a great capacity to endure enormous stress and trauma and come out the other side more or less intact- how I envy them. Ask a survivor of the holocaust, torture or prison. Then there are some who fold under a seemingly minor ailment or stress.  Despite his luck and prosperity George Eastman, who started the Kodak Film Co. killed himself. Ernest Hemingway raced with death all his life and finally gave up. Survival is for the fittest regardless of their circumstances and everyone has a limit to their endurance. 
            Adding to the horsemen is the current fashion of prejudice and intolerance feeding the isolation and despair.  Messages of comfort and empathy are sadly missing.
            How can you help a loved one who suffers from depression? Be there when they are down and the weight of existence feels too heavy. Talk to them about the things they enjoy or interest them as a distraction from the howl of despair. Listen when they express their pain- it is a balm to their souls.
            Life can be hard, it's harder when one feels deserted, unloved, weak. You can help another to outrun black care.

depression, suicide, Anthony Bourdain

Saturday, May 5

The Rules of The Game

     After decades of studying the human race, I've noticed some interesting rules that keep popping up despite attempts at common sense and logic.
        The Law.
        From the death penalty to school dress codes, laws are meant to teach us how to behave, you know, like not killing each other and wearing plaids with stripes. So far the death penalty is useless as a deterrent and nobody gives a shit what you wear.
         Except- a girl was denied a place on a boys baseball team because the rules state she must wear a protective cup- the league smugly declared. So she started wearing a protective cup- around her ankle, got to follow the rules.
         A golfer with a walking disability was denied use of a golf cart at a PGA tournament, because the rulebook says everyone must walk and the cart is an unfair advantage the chairman of  "rules are rules" insisted. Turns out there was a loophole in the same rule book to use one. The Grand Poobah wasn't so happy then.
          Don't get me wrong, rules are important, they help define society and set boundaries to keep it under control, but absolute obedience to written rules can be ruinous, even lethal, when taken to extreme.
         Like the epic tragedy of the women denied an abortion -which would have saved her life- because abortions are illegal in Catholic Ireland. Praise be to God that law was upheld. The ramifications of breaking the rules can be debated later but you can't fix dead.
         Did these people really think upholding the rules with no exceptions would make them look good? Mind you, these were not some petty tyrants in the bowels of an organization- although they certainly acted like one, they were people in charge. I guess there is such a thing as bad publicity.
         They adhered to the law as a symbol of order and failed miserably. They exposed the limitations of fixed rules when they meet shifting reality. That brings us to the next rule.
          Reality is a collective hunch that we pretty much make up as we go along.  Australia has strict rules on how climate change can be discussed-if at all and our darling EPA insists you not use certain words in climate reports like -anything connected to real science. Meanwhile coal and gas companies in the US have a free pass to continue to pollute an already strained environment. Meteorologist in Australia had to add another color to describe the record breaking temperatures during a ten year drought, followed by half of Brisbane under water from Winter flooding.
         "Hey everybody, all we have to do is simply disregard what's going on and it will go away." Yeah that's working out. There is no climate change, nobody is abusing children and, my favorite delusion of all-the Earth is flat.
         There are people who believe the earth is flat after watching videos on YouTube made by morons with no concept of science. Don't you see, NASA is concealing the truth with armed guards patrolling the ice wall that is Antarctica and the Arctic circle so we don't discover the truth and they can keep their budget. These are supposedly educated people who work without adult supervision. You're mocking our beliefs with your elitist snickering. They complain.
         No, we're laughing at idiots. I'm guessing this is a wholesale rejection of science because these same scientists are telling us how our discoveries and improvements on nature are destroying the world. If they got the shape of the earth wrong, what else did they get wrong? goes the weird logic. Science does get things wrong occasionally but not with this one.
         Ever since Descartes had his epiphany  "I think therefore I am" we have bought into the notion that the world is like a machine which can be controlled to do our bidding. Only now because of our attempt to tame it, we have screwed it up. Oops! Oh no wait, we had nothing to do with that. You can't have it both ways.
         Which brings me to delusions evil twin -denial.
         "Hey everybody, all we have to do is deny a problem and it wall go away"-like racism, child abuse, and persistent dandruff. Racism didn't go away even though black people can sit in a restaurant with white folks and get elected President.
         A white guy was harassing a black waitress in a restaurant to the point of her having to call the cops. He defended himself with- and I quote- "I'm not racist that nigger is making stuff up."            Facepalm. PC is not a cure for racism, it's just a vaccine shielding us from it's presence- until some unvaccinated dumb shit reminds us it's still there.
         The baseball league tried to kick a girl off a team because they really didn't want her to play with the boys- so they used the rule of law for another common tactic-
         The Work Around. When we don't like a staunch outdated rule, we simply find a way around it.
         Orthodox Jews respect the law that dictates that one cannot travel beyond their property on the Sabbath. Someone got the bright idea to collectively buy up a row of houses so they could visit the Bernstein's three doors down and not violate the law. See?
         Politicians and lawyers are notorious for fiddling with technicalities for a work around. The 13th Amendment bans slavery-except for prisoners. Corporate America has taken advantage of this loophole to brazen levels. They scored a trifecta with this one: cheap labor, re enslavement of minorities* and-in many states- keeping those convicted felons from voting. It's a winning loophole!
        The biggest rule book is the Bible of course, but there is not enough time to cover the cherry picking that goes on with that, it's threatening certainty created the work around.
        If it sounds like I'm picking on everyone -I am- because we all do these dumb, judgmental things, it's in our DNA along with arthritis and acne.
        You want to hate blacks, Jews, whatever, fine, you have the right to believe in whatever  suits you. The line is drawn when you force others to your belief.
         The Golden Rule is universal and promptly ignored for a reason. We like to judge and sneer down on others, it makes us feel special and superior but it just reveals how small we can be. In all the literature I've read on philosophy, religion, and metaphysics, the biggest rule is: don't coerce your will on others-it's bad karma.      
         The official denying a disabled golfer in a tournament does so because otherwise he would have to accept him as normal when he would rather see him as broken and beneath him.
         The law, parents and friends would rather think a young lady is lying about being sexually assaulted by that beloved teacher, coach or priest because the alternate is realizing they trusted someone who was evil.
         A politician or religious authority finds a loophole in sacred law because it interferes with their weekend plans or is a handy way to condemn a group they deem inferior.
         See how that works? I hate Rush Limbaugh and Nazis as much as the next person but they have a right to be here like the rest of us delusional folks.
         There are solutions to these behaviors. Acknowledge them, question everything. A reality check every once in a while is a good idea. Honestly is easier than trying to remember than what lie you're telling to who-including yourself. Denial, delusion, pedantry, loopholes simply put off the enviable realization that we're not as clever or enlightened as we thought.
         Let a law be a servant not a poor master. "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became an adult, I put away childish things."- St. Paul.
         When reality overwhelms you, have a drink, loosen up and remember, none of this is real anyway.
* The black population is only 12.5%  yet make up 24% of prison population.

Friday, April 27

An Open letter to Charlie Rose

Mr. Rose,
       I miss your show. I miss your insightful interviews with everyone from celebrities to heads of state, but most of all what I miss is the respect I had for you as a journalist.
      When I heard of the accusation of harassment, I thought it was overreaction, then I read the Washington Post and knew it was all too true because your behavior is all too common.
      When is society going to let men act beyond the narrow minded role of aggressor, winner and dominator in every interaction? When are we all going to learn respect each other instead of seeing trophies or something to fear? Why does a mature man act like an arrested juvenile? Is this really the only way men think they can gain power over women -with unwanted sexual advances? What were you thinking?
      "I am greatly embarrassed." Charlie Rose said "I have behaved insensitively at times, and I accept responsibility for that, though I do not believe that all of these allegations are accurate, I always felt that I pursued shared feelings though I now realize that I was mistaken."
      You can keep your retirement, you deserve it, with a sad stain on an otherwise great legacy. Or you can find atonement and continue to be a real voice in journalism we so desperately need in this time of chaos. You can do this confronting this issue. You can interviewDan Harmon and ask him about the self examination of his abusive behavior with a female co worker and how she forgave him. You can explore the effect of the degrading conditions women have endured in the workplace for decades and help everyone understand this cultural sexism. You can do this because you know how to get  people to speak the truth.
      “I do believe that someone as brilliant as Charlie could have sought help and documented the process,” says former assistant and accuser Kyle Godfrey-Ryan. “He could have dived into research about the male ego and tried to get to the root of why this pattern of abuse is so common with positions of power. He could have used this moment to change the state of play in journalism.”
Speak up Mr. Rose and be a mensch again. Owe up to this and join the liberation.
            Alisa McLaughlin

Charlie Rose Metoo sexual harassment Dan Harmon

Saturday, April 21

The Myth of Martial Arts


      I have practiced Aikido for 30 years and feel the need to correct the unrealistic view of martial arts that have evolved over time.
     Movies in particular, are the big offenders. The fights are a thing of beuty; clean and neat with precise movements and counter attacks. The combatants are equal in skill and fight on for several minutes taking blows that barely leave a mark. Right.
     Ignorant amateurs constantly point out how fake martial art are, how that would never work in a real fight. Really? How many fights do they plan to be in? Most street fights are messy, violent and hardly ever equal. They are usually over in seconds when someone gets hurt or is knocked out. Keep in mind that videos of martial art techniques are demonstrations not combat. What these critics fail to see is the real purpose of martial arts. They are not about men challenging each other in cock fights to prove something.
A Brief History of Budo
      Tae Kwon Do means hands and feet, Karate means empty hands. These unarmed forms were developed by civilians and monks when only the military was allowed to own weapons.
     In feudal Japan, martial arts changed when the Shogun rule ended the petty civil wars and the Samurai were effectively out of a job. They had the time to blend Budo-martial arts-and Buddhism into a spiritual as well as physical practice. When the Samurai were dissolved in the 1860's martial arts evolved again into competitive sports.
Training for Real Life
     Most people take up martial arts as self defense, a way to exercise or as self improvement. The techniques aren't about learning cool moves to defend yourself in a street fight or warding off robbers. You are not expected to use the maneuvers taught but apply the confidence and composure you learn to everyday life. Stuck in traffic? Instead of fuming, relax, do some meditation. Someone being obnoxious? Stay calm and centered so you don't lose your balance or temper. Same with emergency situations.
     The TV Show "What would You Do?" demonstrated an excellent example. A man posed as a an abusive boyfriend in a park. He was approached by another man who firmly and calmly told him to back off. He did the right thing the right way. It turns out the passerby had a black belt in karate and although he was nervous at the encounter, he remained steady the whole time.
      I have used Aikido many times over the years and never had to put a hand on anyone. It's about being centered and gauging a situation to avoid danger or escalation- something police officers should learn.
     The critics of martial arts or combat challengers don't understand what they are talking about. Morihei Ueshiba, a fierce warrior and founder of aikido realized, "True budo must be the spirit of harmony and loving protection of all creation."