Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Collossal Life---Alexander Cockburn




I just finished Alexander Cockburn's last book, A Colossal Wreck, last night. I'm old enough now to have witnessed the beginning, middle and end of writer's careers. When I was in Rushford last summer, the young upstart who applied for a job as a journalist at my hometown newspaper, beating me out for the job, announced his retirement. I went on to write for a competitor paper, The Fillmore County Journal. But it felt weird to be old enough to witness the beginning and end of this writer's career.

The same thing sort of goes for how I feel about Alex Cockburn's career. I began reading him back in the early 80's when he wrote his great column for The Nation. Beat the Devil, he called it. Of course, the Cockburn family is one of the greatest examples of nepotism you can find in the US media. Claud Cockburn was Alex's father and a writer of some renown. He wrote for the Communist newspaper in the UK up until 1948. Many have said he was a paid agent for Stalin. Given the Cockburn's financial situation growing up, if he was a paid agent, the Soviets certainly didn't pay very well.


Back to nepotism. Claud had three sons and a daughter. The three sons followed Claud into journalism. His daughter became a mystery writer. Claud's son, Andrew is married to Leslie Cockburn and together they've been working for CBS news for years. They have one movie to their credit and probably the best book on the Soviet Union's military capacity was written by Andrew back in the early 80's. Andrew's book on Donald Rumsfeld is on my reading list.

Another of Claud's progeny, Patrick Cockburn, is a correspondent for a couple of British newspapers and has been covering the middle east for years. His pieces from Iraq and the middle east are must reading. However, he isn't read very often in the US Media, much to our detriment. Patrick has a son named Henry, and together they wrote a book about the development of Henry's schizophrenia. Patrick blames the development of Henry's schizophrenia on Henry's heavy cannabis abuse.

Olivia Wilde is Andrew's daughter and she is making quite a name for herself in Hollywood. She did a breastfeeding shoot for a fashion magazine that recently caused a stir. Oh, those radical Cockburns!


Claudia Cockburn was married to Michael Flanders. Their child, Laura Flanders, is another American left wing journalist who has the independent television show GRIT. She also writes for the usual lefty periodicals.

Let's just call this family the Left Wing Media's version of the Kennedys.

Alex Cockburn created one of the first websites to fully use the Internet to get information out. Counterpunch continues to offer good, and some not so good, news analysis from a variety of left wing viewpoints. They publish everything from the Socialist Workers Party to Ralph Nader. I had a piece published there once.


The thing that bugs me about many writers on the Left is that you can't really pin down their ideology. Alex Cockburn never wrote out clearly what he believed. Yes, he was a critic of all wars and imperialism. But he never came straight out and said what he was. I've read that others said he became an Anarchist towards the end of his life. Many called him an old guard Stalinist. It is obvious that the Russians did influence him, to the point that he followed the Russian line of the abiotic origins of oil. He is probably the last American pundit who quoted Lenin, Bukharin and Bakunin.

Of course, Alexander Cockburn paved the way for his former friend and colleague at The Nation, Chris Hitchens. At one time, they monopolized the pages of The Nation, both with cult followings. Hitchens actually was a Trotskyite at one time. He evolved over the years, as did Cockburn, to a space much different than from where he started. In judging the two, I think it is instructive to see where they both chose to live their lives. Hitchens had a flat in downtown DC with a view of the halls of power. Cockburn chose to live in a very isolated community of Petrolia, on the west coast of California. You couldn't get further away from Washington than Petrolia.

Alex became a climate change denier who even went to one of the despicable Heartland Conferences. Towards the end of his life, he seemed more like an eccentric writer Uncle. Always an entertaining read, but more and more influenced by a Libertarian view. In the 90's he forayed into the armed survivalist movement. And he was a Second Amendment enthusiast who thought that college kids should be armed.

You just can't pigeonhole Alex.

Alex wrote a column critical of Ed Abbey way back when only to become very much an admirer of him towards the end of Cockburn's life. He even took a trip to Ed's secret burial spot with Doug Peacock.


And so Alex is one of the major influences on my life. As such, reading his last book, A Colossal Wreck is both sweet and poignant. So how's the book? I found it less stilted than his earlier works. More approachable. Readable. Enjoyable. Honest. It is a book to bring out every couple of years and read again, if only for the beauty of the writing and the wry wit.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Treadmills, Fox and the Soulless CNBC...


The Swanky In Motion Fitness, my new gym...
 
I have a new life. I no longer travel 165 miles once a week to work in a hospital in the Napa Valley. Instead, I average around 150 to 250 miles a day, traveling around Butte, Tehama and Glenn Counties visiting homebound patients who suffer from mostly late life depression, anxiety and dementia.

It's a lot of driving; a lot of sitting. I sit to drive and then I sit to talk with the clients. My prior jobs have been mostly active ones---so this sitting for a living thing is new to me.

Plus Kylie, the resident 14 year old, moved back in with us after an attempt to fledge to her Mother's house. She prefers the school in Paradise, California where she likes the Honors program. So I start my day by driving her to school.

All this sitting and driving have led to an expansion of my waist line.

I work long hours--- I've been pulling into our driveway around 7pm. I leave at 7:20 am to get Kylie to school. Upon getting home, I've been much too tired to get a walk in with the dogs. Plus a little walk after work just isn't enough of a workout. I need to sweat.

I sold out some deeply held personal values and joined the swankiest gym in Chico. The place has three pools, umpteen million classes, scads of treadmills, ellipticals and other modern instruments of torture. There's a weight area where the muscles bulge and the men look like they must be using some sort of chemical to bulk up so big. They look like freaks. Yoga pants and pony tails are the fashion with the women---everyone has a smart phone with earbuds. All these people working out and I can count the number of conversations people have had with me on no hands. As in, nobody converses. Ever.

This has got to be the most anti-social, social place I've ever been. All these people go there to workout and are deaf and mute to each other: Each listening to their own secret soundtrack. My own private Idaphone.

I have headphones too. An old set that were new during George Bush's first term. I plug them into the treadmill machine and watch the bank of five televisions that face those of us working out. They have the TV's tuned to a local station, a sports station, CNN, Fox, CNBC/MSNBC (depending upon the time of day), and HGTV.

I alternate between 30 minutes and 60 minutes on the treadmill. Sometimes I achieve a peak speed of 5 mph. Mostly I stumble along at 4 miles per hour. Well, actually, I'm happy with 3.5 mph. We work up slowly.


And so I have that amount of time to watch TV. I alternate between Fox and the business news on CNBC. MSNBC, although advertised on the placard below the television, has never been on while I'm there. Things I've learned: CNN covered the memorial service for Michael Brown; Fox didn't. Fox has one show called "The Five" where one lone liberal, a portly suspender wearing gruff man who is reminiscent of Ed Asner, tries to represent sanity amongst a crew of younger, handsome men and women who do battle with him. He is hopelessly outnumbered. And every show on Fox displays a leggy female in a tight fitting dress, some wearing glasses, the sexy nerd look, who have searing words describing President Obama as a bumbling ineffectual dweeb.

And CNBC? The analysts there, soulless creatures beholden to the dollar, talk in raptured terms about the oil and gas boom and how there's a pile to be made in fracking. And so they suggest hardware stocks that supply pumps and tubing to the oil industry. When Burger King announced they were moving to Canada---the analysts were quick to defend BK, calling it a fine example of Capitalism and bemoaning the 35 percent nominal Corporate Tax Rate in the US (the effective rate is 12%). Of course BK should move: they owe it to their stockholders to make as much profit as possible. If you are a corporation that actually pays 35%, you need a new Chief Financial Officer. There is no talk about citizenship and the civic and social responsibilities of corporations. Follow the money. By the way, with ObamaCare, Healthcare stocks are up; home health company stocks are down (just my luck--if there's a curve to be behind, I'll find it).

I take the agitation caused by Fox and CNBC out on the treadmill. Anger motivates.

By the way, there is even a country song about the women of Fox News.









Saturday, August 23, 2014

Thru Hiker Blog Update...

Blogger Extraordinaire, Carrot Quinn, finishing her 2014 Thru Hike of the PCT.


I started out this Thru Hiker season by following 19 blogs written by hikers who were attempting to thru hike the Pacific Crest Trail. It was an especially big year for the PCT, as 1,300 Thru Hiker permits were issued by the PCT Association. You have to have a hiker permit if you plan to hike more than 500 miles of the PCT at a time. The permit enables you to breeze on through some of the more congested areas of the trail in the Sierra. Especially the John Muir section.

But back to the hikers and their blogs. Of the 19 blogs that I followed, 2 of them actually finished the trail yesterday. These are the rabbits. The hardcore hikers who live the Hiker Trash lifestyle. Carrot Quinn was one of the finishers. She has garnered a bit of attention from the PCT magazine when she wrote a piece for that at the beginning of the season. Her blog really is well written---although a bit young and vulgar at times. One Who Cannot is a blog written by one of the herd that traveled with Carrot. He borrows the title from the beginning of Aldo Leopold's classic book, A Sand County Almanac.

As far as I can tell, six other bloggers that I started the year out reading are still slogging it out on the trail. A couple of them look like they aren't going to make it as they are still in Northern California.

One who probably will make it is Lon, otherwise known as Halfmile. He is the guy who created very informative, downloadable maps of the PCT for free. He is a living legend amongst those who hike the trail. He was hiking with his girlfriend, but she dropped out a few weeks ago. He carries on, hobbled a bit by injury, but carrying on nevertheless.

And of those who dropped out? Josh and Mandie were my favorites. They were just everyday people, not in the best of shape, who decided to hike the trail. They dropped out due to injury. Mandie's advice on what they did wrong is excellent. I hope they take another stab at the trail.

Injury and homesickness got the other Thru Hikers. One of them made it all the way to Ashland, Oregon before he had to drop out. Another drop out was Professor Errant, an English Professor who got a sabbatical to hike the trail. He lasted a couple of days before he got hurt. Then he tried again and lasted a week. He still got the sabbatical though.

So the tally so far? 2 have finished; 6 are still plugging along; 11 have quit. Usually about 50% of those who get permits to Thru Hike actually finish the trail.

Of course, all these people are winners in my book. They dreamed big and took a chance. They pushed themselves and I think every one of them came away from the trail loving the PCT even more. And yes, I have some criticisms of Thru Hiker culture, yet, anybody who takes that amount of time during their lives and devotes it to walking, well, we just need more of that. Fewer people sitting on their asses is a good thing. We all should get off our backsides and join them on the trail. It'd do all of us some good.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Rise of Dollar Stores and the Death of the American Dream



The best indication that I can see of the impending death of the American Empire, and of the American Dream, is the rise of Dollar Stores through out America. When I flew back to Minnesota and visited my hometown that has all of 1,700 souls living in it----there, on the outskirts of town, was a brand new Dollar Store. Dollar stores are everywhere now. They are the fastest growing retail segment in the US. You can't escape them.

Of course, Dollar Stores sell cheap useless products made by cheap overseas labor and sold to a desperate consumer class that has ever dwindling resources and ever lower expectations of what makes for a good life. It's what happens when people still have a materialistic consumer hangover but are unable to indulge in the addiction due to a lack of money. It's like an alcoholic at the poverty stricken end of his disease, who buys generic mouthwash and guzzles it because that's the cheapest way to satiate his addiction.

You know things are bad when Dollar Stores have cut into Walmart's market share.

So is there any hope that we might someday, wake up from this nightmare and begin to do the work of creating the Good Society again? After all, both political parties have had their grubby hands on letting things slide to this point. Reagan began the inevitable decline with his emphasis on Defense (offense?) spending and the way he cut the upper tax bracket's taxes. Clinton came along and bought into the whole "Capitalism's rising tide raises all ships" logic and negotiated NAFTA, a move that doomed my hometown in Minnesota when its factory closed down and was shipped off to Mexico (and then China). The tide went out and the rich got richer and the poor? They ended up shopping at the Dollar Store. Bush II escalated the decline by cutting taxes again, even to the point where we had a couple years there where there was no inheritance tax whatsoever. Those couple years were a Trustfunder's wet dream.

The result of all these bad decisions is the rise of Dollar Stores and Second Hand Stores. Frugality is no longer hip; it's a necessity. The working class can't survive on their wages anymore. Somehow the ruling class in the US decided that jobs were mere hobbies, and as such, no longer needed to pay a living wage. It was assumed that people had other ways to survive: inheritances, multiple generations sharing one roof, two or three substandard jobs spiked together. The affluent and the hyper-educated did well; the rest couldn't eat cake. They got government commodities instead.

We will know that America is on the mend when these awful Dollar Stores start shuttering their doors. How to make that happen? Oh, it's really quite simple. We need to raise taxes on the rich. And then we need to invest that money in the public good, once again. We need tariffs. We need to create a new energy and food system in this country. We need to change corporations charters such that they are expected to work for the public good. We need schools that educate our kids to new heights. We need to guarantee a job to every American. We need to raise wages.

But more than anything, we need to end this belief that our lives are only meant for our own private gain. Marx had the idea that economic systems change personalities. Hence he had the concept of the new Socialist Man (and woman). I think that's worth thinking about: how economic systems create personality traits. If you want confirmation of how economic systems create despair amongst the poor, just spend sometime watching the hordes shop at a Dollar Store. It'll drive you to start thinking about ways to create a Revolutionary Change. And soon.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Oil and Honey and Bill McKibben



I stayed up late last night to finish Bill McKibben's latest book on how he became a Climate Change Activist. Then I got an e-mail from Bill this morning. Bill wrote to invite me and about 400,000 other people to go to New York City on September 21 for a rally demanding that our politicians start doing something to address climate change.

Joni got the same e-mail too and we both sort of had the same reaction: why spend that much time, money, effort and carbon to travel across the US to go to a rally in New York? Bill McKibben is all about local economies---his call for rallies should also be local.

Yet, big movement rallies do work. Remember the Nuclear Freeze movement? Remember when a million people showed up in New York in order to demand that Reagan take a different tack? Well, Reagan did change his tune after that rally and a guy named Gorbachev came along and Reagan was, suddenly, all about reducing the number of Nukes.

At least Bill McKibben is doing something. There are some on the Left who disparage the guy every chance they get. I'm talking about the cynics over at CounterPunch who regularly make fun of Al Gore and Bill McKibben. They seek purity where there is none. I wonder if they would find such ideological purity if they looked at themselves in the mirror?

We may be much too late to save the planet and civilization. I spent this afternoon looking at temperature records for the town that is across the canyon from me: Paradise, California. Turns out that since 2000, Paradise has broken 81 high temperature records. Compare that to only 12 low temperature records set since the year 2000. The months of March, May and November had the most records broken for heat. So, from looking at those records (and by writing down the date that my apricot tree blooms every year) Spring time is coming earlier and Summer is lasting well into the Fall. Then I read an article from The Nation that suggested we need to adjust the projected temperature increases to be as much as 3.5 degrees centigrade by 2035! And the arctic ice cap? Gone by 2020. That would be within my projected lifespan.

Of course, a temperature increase that fast would be incompatible with the agriculture we currently have that has been slowly developed over the last 10,000 years. Yes, we've heard all the alarmist projections in the past. Chicken Little has ridden into this town before.

But then I look at the data for Paradise and I realize, we really haven't had a winter in years.

The title of Bill McKibben's book comes from his fight against the oil companies and about a small farm he bought where he has a local friend, and bee expert, live on the farm in order to raise honey bees. Bill bought the farm to keep himself sane.

McKibben is a bit like me: he thinks big but when it comes right down to it, he isn't very handy. You either like to putter with a hammer or you like to putter with lap tops. The renaissance person who can putter with both is rare. That's why McKibben bought the farm and provided it free of charge to a friend. He could vicariously learn to be a farmer. And just owning the place gave McKibben the place to depressurize from his travels.

Oil and Honey is a journal of the whirlwind life McKibben has created for himself. And sometimes he gets a bit too enamored with his celebrity. Bill wrote of giving a talk in Nevada City and staying at Gary Snyder's ranch prior to the talk. Well, Snyder is buds with Governor Jerry Brown and arranged to have Jerry and his wife attend the talk. Jerry Brown sat right up front and was seen taking copious notes. Of course, Governor Brown didn't learn anything if you look at his wholesale sell out to the Fracking Industry. Bill McKibben was duly impressed with both Snyder and Brown. I'm wondering if either one really is worthy of such hero worship.

It is hard not to be impressed with yourself when you have been foisted into the limelight. We are social creatures who like to be popular. We like to name drop. I can't fault McKibben for being human. Doesn't every memoir drop names?

This is a very approachable book that, essentially, is a journal. McKibben has a gee whiz, "look at me Ma! style---yet he also remains accessible and humble. And all criticism aside, he has almost single handedly created a movement that just might be our last best chance to save civilization. That's heady work. And nobody else is doing it.

Good for Bill.





Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Blogs Put The Joy Back Into Writing.





I created a Facebook page for this blog. I will also post my other published works there too. I've always felt a little weird posting my own stuff on my Facebook stream. If I were to chart in psychobabble Nurse-speak, I'd call such posts to my Facebook page as "Attention Seeking". And it is. Every writer is Attention Seeking until their Attention is Sought. Hence the millions of blogs out there written by lots of everyday people who just want to express themselves. God bless 'em.

I love it that people have blogs. Blogs have brought the fun back into writing. As much as 7th Grade English tramples any love of language that a kid might have for reading and writing, blogs and the Internet are resurrecting our interest. Do we really have to teach writing by diagraming sentences? Why do we spend hour after hour teaching English in a Math-Like Manner? Writing isn't math. Language should be fun. Writing is fun. Why do we teach it like it is pure drudgery?

I got a D minus in 7th Grade English. My grammar never fully recovered--hence, you'll find plenty of mistakes here. Editors always make me look better and I'm nearly always either annoyed by how they clean up a piece or fully enamored with their command of grammar and style. Most times I feel both ways---and when I push a limit, I'm always ecstatic when it squeaks through.  I could never edit--that's a skill I don't have.

This blog is unpolished. What you see is always a first draft filled with lots of mistakes. But some of the mistakes are intentional. I will often emphasize certain words that I think are important by writing them in the Upper Case. I haven't a clue how to use a semi-colon; I think most people haven't a clue how to use them. As for the "comma splice", I'm all for them. Yes, we should Write Right as Ed Abbey used to say--so if you see some grievous errors, feel free to mention them. Just don't ask me to diagram a sentence. Been there. Done that. I failed.

For those who are so inclined, you can Like the Facebook page for this blog, and my other scribbles, by following this link.

Thanks...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

RIP Robin...




A person I admire, who suffers from chronic depression, wrote after Robin Williams suicided: "What hope is there for the rest of us if Robin Williams, with his millions of dollars, couldn't make it?"

Good question.

If Robin Williams death means anything, it must be just how tricky it is when you combine substance abuse/addiction with mental health problems. Put these two separate problems together and you have one gigantic mess to deal with. And as much as I can tease out of the situation, Robin Williams was in a depressive episode after relapsing from whatever chemical, or chemicals, which drove him to spend some time at Hazelden in Minnesota
.
I've known several therapists who, as a condition of seeing a client, would treat you only if you chose to refrain from using alcohol or other recreational substances. Thirty years ago, I thought this was extreme; I don't think so anymore.

I'm not privy to any information on Robin Williams, although being a psych RN who worked close to where Robin had a house, I did hear rumors about him which I will not repeat. So, my guess, without any first hand knowledge, is that Robin Williams, more than likely, was Bipolar. I don't think anyone would be surprised by such an assertion. I imagine he spent part of his life in a hypomanic state. His comedy certainly was brilliantly hypomanic---hypomania being just on the fringe of  full blown mania. Many Bipolar people are just amazingly smart: it is the mental illness of brilliance. What people don't understand is that most Bipolars spend a majority of their lives in a depressive state. Or dysthymic (which is just a smidge better than being clinically depressed).

More than likely, Robin Williams would have his relapse on drugs while in the buoyant manic phase and then he'd settle back into the depressed state saddled with the guilt that only a hypomanic phase ---combined with lots of drugs--could instill. It is hard not to misbehave when you have all the energy in the world, all the money in the world and a psychiatric disorder that inclines you to indulge in binges.

The photos I've seen of him during the last two months of his life tell the story. He looks gaunt. Weak. Tired. Worn out. Binges take a toll.

In the end he hung himself with a belt. There were hesitation marks (superficial cuts) to one of his wrists. His wife didn't check on him before she left the house for the day; he was found by his "personal assistant" who, hopefully, will resist any urge to write a tell all book about this unfortunate occurrence.

Substance abuse kills. It kills geniuses. It took Hunter Thompson, Ed Abbey, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and a multitude more.

Combine substance abuse with a long term chronic depression, well, that isn't good. Depression can be very difficult to treat in a small minority of cases. And the treatment of last resort, ECT, is not palatable to maybe someone like Robin Williams. Although I've seen it work on other very depressed intelligent successful men. But after awhile, we lose the will to live. We can lose our fight, our pluck and give in to the dark thoughts. Depression can be a lethal illness.

RIP Robin.