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Thursday, May 24, 2018

"This Isn't the Time"

I don't get it, and I'm tired of trying.

I don't understand the American obsession with guns. There was another mass shooting at an American school last week, this time in Texas. Ten people were killed -- eight students and two teachers -- and 10 were seriously injured. As usual, politicians offered their useless "thoughts and prayers" and still refused to do something -- anything -- to address the problem of gun violence in America. 

The arguments of pro-gun people that we hear over and over include:
  • More laws won't stop the violence. We already have gun laws, and they don't work. Criminals don't care about laws.
  • Guns don't kill people. People kill people.
  • You liberals are just trying to take away our guns.
  • The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
  • Let's put armed guard/s in every school.
  • This isn't the time to bring this up.
  • Hundreds of people are shot in Chicago every year, and nobody talks about it.
  • These deaths are the price we pay for freedom.

Let's address these arguments one at a time. No, laws don't stop criminals from committing crimes. They never have. So since gun control laws don't work, according to some, why do we bother with laws at all? It's illegal to murder someone. It's illegal to drink and drive. It's illegal to rape someone. It's illegal to speed. It's illegal to rob a bank. By this logic, since people continue to commit these and other crimes, we might as well just get rid of the laws that make such acts illegal, right?

Right, people kill people using guns. It's much easier to kill 10 or 20 or 50 people using a gun than it is to kill them with a knife or to strangle them.

Nobody is trying to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. People are asking for common-sense solutions, not to disarm people. Perhaps the second amendment needs to be rewritten to guarantee the right to bear the type of arms available when the amendment was written -- musket loaders.  

Sure, once in a great while someone with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. But if police respond to a shooting situation, how will they know who is the good guy and who is the bad guy? Police will assume that anybody brandishing a gun is a bad guy until proven otherwise.
Do we really want to return to the days of the Wild West, with shootouts in the streets?

Armed guards in every school is not a viable solution. When teachers are spending hundreds of dollars of their own money to provide needed classroom supplies their districts can't afford, who is going to pay the billions of dollars it will cost each year to put an armed guard in every school? The same goes for the call to install metal detectors in every school. Perhaps there should be a large tax on every gun sold, with the tax money used to fund armed guards and metal detectors in every school.

"This isn't the time to discuss this" is one of the most ridiculous responses I have heard. So exactly when is the right time to start discussing possible solutions to the ongoing gun violence in America? It wasn't time after the Columbine shootings. It wasn't time after the Parkland shootings. It wasn't time after 26 first graders and teachers were gunned down in Newtown. It wasn't time after the Virginia Tech shootings. So tell me, when is a good time to discuss the murder of hundreds of innocent people in the US every year?

Yes, Chicago has a serious murder problem. People should be talking about it. People should be outraged. But the fact is, those are not mass shootings, and people pay less attention to individual murders than to mass murders. That doesn't mean the people killed or wounded are any less important. 

Deaths from gun violence are the price we pay for freedom? The cost of freedom is the deaths of hundreds of innocent people every year? No, allowing people to slaughter people just because they got fired or are having a bad day or the wife left them is not the price of freedom. We aren't talking about soldiers protecting their country. We're talking about people attending a concert, going to a movie or going to high school, and being killed because they are participating in everyday activities.

Don't ask me what legislation I think would help solve the problem. I don't know. I'm not an expert in gun violence. I'm not an expert in public policy. Legislation on its own won't make a difference. But I do know that Congress needs to stop blocking the CDC's wish to study gun violence as a public health issue. I do know that there need to be discussions -- minus the rancor, accusations and name calling -- about how to address this problem. As long as the NRA and its followers continue to reject every proposed action, there will be no progress. Nobody is trying to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. Stop pretending that is going to happen. It isn't. This isn't an all-or-none situation. I do know that we need to find a middle ground. And that won't happen as long as the NRA and others care more about guns and money than about human lives.

My father and grandfathers hunted squirrels and rabbits. There were guns in the house (shotguns). They were not kept in a gun safe. But we kids knew not to touch them, and frankly, getting them out to play with or use to shoot somebody never crossed our minds. So what has changed over the years?

We can point fingers at a myriad of people and organizations. Despite what that well-known intellectual and rabid NRA shill Ted Nugent says, it isn't preservatives in our food that cause mass shootings. One of the victims of the Texas shooting is now being blamed for causing the shooting because she repeatedly rejected the advances of the shooter and reportedly "embarrassed" him in class. We live in a culture of 'blame the victim,' a culture of violence, where if a driver inadvertently cuts off another driver, there is a risk of road rage escalating to the point where one driver pulls a gun and starts shooting. A 6-year-old girl in the car with her dad and brother was shot and killed in a road rage incident in Albuquerque a couple of years ago. Was her death "the price we pay for freedom"? I think not.

There is no easy answer. There is no "if we do this, gun violence will stop" answer. But don't we -- gun owners and non-gun owners, Democrats and Republicans, city folks and rural residents -- owe it to ourselves and our kids to at least try?

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Sounds of Silence

Unlike many people, who always need to have a television or radio on, I love quiet.

As I sit at my desk writing this blog post, I can hear the quiet breathing of one of my dogs as he sleeps in his 'den' under my desk. Outside, I hear nothing -- no traffic, no lawn mowers (I live in the high desert, where lawns are very rare), no kids squealing. The quiet environment is one of the reasons I bought the house I now live in.

In northern California, where I lived for more than 20 years, my senses were constantly assaulted by noise. Just a block away was a public park that hosted kids' baseball games seven days a week for eight months of the year. This league had a loudspeaker system, so I constantly heard "Now batting, number 5, Michael" until the game ended. The park had no parking, so my street and others nearby were filled with cars.

I was just 5 miles from the commercial airport, and a couple of blocks from a busy expressway. The sounds of emergency and police sirens, the squealing of tires, honking of horns and smashing of vehicles involved in accidents were a regular part of my life.

So when I retired and moved to New Mexico, I knew I wanted a place with quiet and space. I love where I live. I have wonderful views of the mountains, enough land (1/2 acre) for privacy and quiet, and a street that has very little traffic.

As an introvert, I am comfortable with silence. When I travel, I gravitate toward places that will fulfill my need for space and quiet. I guess that's why I enjoy hiking, traveling to remote places and going with small groups. I sometimes visit busy places -- London, Moscow, Jordan, Israel, Morocco -- but I really enjoy places where I can enjoy nature. I look forward every weekday morning to hearing a couple of minutes of singing birds on the local classical radio station. I have had tinnitus (ringing in my ears) for as long as I can remember, so my world is never completely silent. When I lived in Moscow in the 1990s, I always felt irritable, due in large part to the ever-present traffic noise. I loved finding places -- even in the city of 12 millions people -- where I could walk without the din of traffic.

I have been to Costa Rica twice. I love visiting Yellowstone in the winter, when there are only a few hardy people braving the snow and cold. I love visiting the vastness of Africa.  There is nothing like lying in bed and hearing lions roaring nearby, or listening to the grunting of hippos as they leave the water to eat on land. Those are the sounds of nature, not of man-made noisemakers. There are no airplanes flying overhead, and no sirens. There is no neighbor kid roaring up and down the street on an ATV.

Silence is so underappreciated. There is a reason why certain groups of monks and nuns take vows of silence. Some organizations offer silent retreats where guests can disengage from the world for a few days and live in a silent world. Silence can be the lack of sound in the environment, or it can mean abstaining from speaking for a period of time.

Either way, I think silence is good. It can be healing. It can help us refresh and reenergize ourselves. I make a point of trying to find silence in my everyday life. It isn't hard, given where I live. Give it a try. It might be uncomfortable at first, but I think silence is an important part of maintaining sanity in our crazy, high-tech, hurry-up world.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Survey Fatigue

Is it possible these days to be left alone and not be hounded by scam artists and those who want my opinion about everything?

The answer appears to be a resounding "NO!" I just got a call from "Susan with Credit Card Relief" offering to lower my credit card interest rate. Scammers are everywhere. "Susan" should know that I don't carry credit card debt, so I don't need any "relief." And I didn't fall for the robocalls from the IRS (yeah, right) informing me that I was about to be arrested for "intentional fraud."

Every time I order something online, I get a survey asking me to rate the product or the representative's service and responsiveness. Even medical professionals I visit (or more likely, the medical conglomerates for which they work) follow up surgeries or office visits with surveys.

Do these businesses actually do anything with the survey responses? Why have these requests for feedback proliferated so much over the past few years? Why should I waste my time completing surveys that do nothing to benefit me? Even cash register receipts at some stores contain a survey link asking about that day's "shopping experience." In return, some stores promise to enter me into a contest (along with hundreds of thousands of other customers) for a chance to win a $100 gift card. 

If I thought all these surveys would actually result in change or improvement or recognition for an employee, I might not object so strenuously. I see no benefit to spending my time on endless surveys. Apparently, many others do, too, as evidenced by the creation of the term 'survey fatigue.'

I absolutely refuse to provide demographic information such as age, marital status and income as part of a survey or to register a purchase with the manufacturer. Those details are little more than the company's attempt to better under the customer and to add to their e-mail and snail mail advertising lists, but they have nothing to do with my satisfaction -- or lack thereof -- with my "shopping experience."  I refuse to allow businesses, including my doctor's office, to collect information about me just because.

I bought a new car a few years ago, and at the end of the transaction, the salesman told me that he would get in trouble if I didn't give him a 5-star review. The same happened during a high-pressure meeting with another auto dealer person who pushed the need to have a special undercoating applied to the car, as well as a few other pricey but not necessary services. What kind of evaluation is it when the customer is coerced into giving a glowing review? 

I went to see my sleep doctor recently. The first thing her nurse wanted to do was get me on the scale. As usual, I refused. My visit was a follow-up to discuss ongoing sleep problems. It had nothing to do with my weight. I am not fat, and how much I weigh is irrelevant to my sleep issues. Take my pulse and blood pressure; check my temperature. That's fine. But I absolutely refuse to get on a scale at the doctor's office, especially when told to do so by an obese nurse. I did consent to being weighed before a recent surgery, because the dose of anesthetic depends on body weight. But that is the only reason I agreed.

If I have a particularly wonderful "shopping experience" or a really bad one, I will certainly notify the company (which more than likely won't bother to respond). Otherwise, I will continue to delete surveys', feedback requests or any other request for information that wastes my time. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Am I Lazy?

I am lazy. Or at least it seems that I am.

That is a hard thing to admit, as I have never in my more than 60 years been lazy.  But lately lazy is how I have been feeling. I don't want to deal with anything other than my photography and reading.

I do the minimum necessary to clean my house and take care of the yard. Larger projects, such as removing dead branches from some of the pine trees along the driveway, remain undone. My car, which hasn't been washed in months, is in serious need of a bath. It also needs to go in for some regularly scheduled service.

I'm not depressed, and I don't feel particularly tired. I just don't feel like spending time on household chores.  And I take care of the important things, such as walking my dogs every morning, picking up their poop from the back yard, etc. But raking up the dead pine needles in the grass? That can wait for another day. In fairness, I do clean up the pine needles from time to time, but perhaps not as frequently as I should.

I also have had more than my share of medical appointments, mostly related to my ongoing eye surgery ... and sleep issues ... and osteoporosis treatments. So I'm not neglecting the important stuff. It's just that cleaning house doesn't rank very high on my list of things to do. 

I take care of the important things. I spend hours some days editing my photos from Africa. It makes me happy to see the improved images that result from some cropping, adjusting of color and a couple of other small edits. I make time nearly every day to read on my Kindle.

So maybe I'm not lazy. Maybe I'm just prioritizing what I want to do each day. Maybe I have decided at this point in my life to focus more on the things that I enjoy -- reading and photography and learning new skills -- and less on the mundane chores of life. If I'm expecting company, I will clean the house from top to bottom. But my dogs don't seem to mind if the furniture is a bit dusty. And I don't mind, either. I keep up with the clutter, as that is one thing I do mind. 

For now, I will ignore the dusty furniture and spend my time planning future travel, learning Photoshop and Lightroom, reading and editing photos of the amazing animals I have seen during my travels.


Saturday, May 5, 2018

I Cannot Imagine

After watching and reading the news on a daily basis for my entire adult life, I cannot imagine
  • being angry enough or hating someone enough to kill them
  • getting pleasure from killing an animal, any animal, for fun or so I can hang its head on my wall
  • hating any group of people -- gender, ethnic group or religion -- enough to discriminate against them
  • abusing any creature, whether human or non-human animal
  • showing total disregard for our planet, our only home
  • bullying someone because he/she is somehow 'different'
  • being so greedy that I am willing to step on others
  • blowing myself up to kill others for some supposed religious conviction
  • doing anything illegal
  • doing anything that would destroy my reputation
  • doing something that will hurt someone who cares about me
  • attacking, either physically or verbally, someone whose only offense is looking or dressing or speaking differently

What brought this topic to mind was reading stories in the news, and then shaking my head in disbelief that anybody would actually do these things. Case in point: Some bimbo proudly posing with the corpse of a giraffe she has just shot. I can't imagine doing this, and I certainly don't understand why anybody would want to do this.And no one with a conscience would proudly display the efforts of her killing.

We are all human beings. We share the same number of chromosomes. We share the same four blood types. We all have 206 bones in our bodies. We share the same dreams for safety, security and love. Humans are supposedly the pinnacle of evolution, the smartest and most advanced of all the animal species. 

It's time we start acting like it.
This world is filled with things that seem unimaginable to most of us.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Planet Under Attack

It's Earth Day 2018.

And our planet, our only home, is in big trouble. The United States, once a leader in environmental issues, now is the leader in rolling back environmental protections. The current administration has canceled a variety of measures designed to protect our water and air. Here is a list of some of the anti-science, anti-environment, anti-animal actions taken or proposed by the current administration.
  • The so-called Environmental Protection Agency has started efforts to roll back tougher emissions standards for cars. The administration also is proposing cuts to clean energy and climate programs, as well as eliminating the agency climate change research program. It also has plans to loosen regulations regarding toxic air pollution. 
  • FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) has removed the phrase 'climate change' from its strategic plan. 
  • The administration seeks to axe several NASA earth science missions, while it calls for increases in fossil fuel programs. The president continues to advocate for "beautiful, clean coal." 
  • Seventy five percent of the National Parks Advisory Board has resigned in protest. Government web sites have been systematically altered to remove mention of climate change. The Interior Department has declared that accidental bird deaths are legal. 
  • Two new national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, both in Utah, are being dramatically downsized. 
  • The Department of Interior has proposed auctioning off oil and gas leases for 77 million acres of federal waters within the Gulf of Mexico—the largest lease auction of its kind ever announced.
  • The EPA is set to withdraw the Clean Power Plan, the lynchpin of the Obama Administration's effort to combat climate change.
  • The administration has suspended a study of health risks to residents who live near mountaintop removal coal mine sites in the Appalachian Mountains. 
  • The EPA has drastically slowed enforcement of environmental protection laws.
  • The Interior Department has relaxed certain aspects of protections for the endangered greater sage grouse.
  • The administration canceled a rule that would have helped prevent endangered whales and sea turtles from becoming entangled in fishing nets off the U.S. West Coast. 
  • The US pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord signed by 194 other nations.
  • The EPA dismissed several of its key science advisors.
  • The president signed an executive order that aims to increase offshore oil drilling.
  • Congress has passed legislation that would permit aerial hunting of bears, as well as shooting of denning mother bears and cubs and mother wolves and pups in Alaska

To read a comprehensive list of anti-environmental actions taken by the current administration, go to Educate yourself, then get involved in efforts to save our planet. Become an activist. Register to vote, and then VOTE in elections at all levels of government. Let your elected officials know that you do not approve of this administration's anti-environment plans and actions. 

Find out what you can do on a personal level to protect the environment. After learning that the average person uses and discards some 300 plastic toothbrushes in their lifetime, I am switching to biodegradable, environmentally friendly bamboo toothbrushes, which cost less than standard plastic toothbrushes. If you must use a drinking straw, opt for a paper, not plastic, straw. Or buy your own reusable straw. Take reusable shopping bags with you, keep them in your car, and use them rather than plastic bags for your groceries and other purchases.

I know these are small steps, but if enough people take small steps, they can create big changes.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Sleeping With Lions

I have just returned from a wonderful two-week photo safari in Tanzania.

Here are some impressions from my time in Tanzania. It was a time of both dead silence and many sounds. When there were no animals about, the night was totally silent. Other nights were busy with the sounds of the larger wildlife. Some days my eyes were overwhelmed by the vast numbers of animals (wildebeests and zebras), while others challenged us to find the very elusive leopard.

At night, as I lay in my tent (a large, nice tent with indoor plumbing and electric lights), I listened to the grunting of hippos ashore to feed. I heard the plaintive cries of hyenas.and the roaring of lions. If we ventured out of our tents after dark, we had to be escorted by a spear-wielding Maasai warrior. This was a good precaution, as early one morning a male lion was walking around the tent of one person in our group! Unlike at home, when birds aren't heard chirping and singing until dawn, birds in Tanzania started their morning serenades long before sunrise.

A muddy spotted hyena
The sounds of hundreds of thousands of wildebeests and the shrill cries of tens of thousands of plains zebras filled our days as they milled around waiting for one of their number to start moving as part of their annual migration.

We enjoyed bowls of creamy hot soups made of pumpkin, zucchini, cucumber and other vegetables.We all looked forward to finding out which soup would be part of dinner each night. Fresh bread made from scratch complemented the soups. I loved the sweet, juicy pineapple and delicious slices of mango. Everything was fresh and made from scratch.

The warm smiles and cries of 'jambo' (hello) from lodge staff greeted us throughout the day. Every person I encountered, from the resident chef to our Maasai escorts at night, was friendly and helpful. Our guides/drivers, Angelbert and Tom, took such good care of us. They both have an uncanny ability to spot even the smallest sunbathing lizard on a rock, a colorful small bird on a tree branch, and a camouflaged leopard walking through tall grasses. I started calling Tom 'Gentleman Tom' because he was always there to lend a hand. When I slipped on a very muddy step while exiting our Land Cruiser and twisted my leg, it was Tom who came to my rescue. 

We saw many beautiful birds, an amazing sunrise and sunset,
and so many wildebeests and zebras on their annual migration that the horizon was blackened by their presence. We watched in awe as a mother lion carried her four cubs to a new, hidden location. She picked each one up by the back of the neck and moved it, and then she went back to get the others one at a time. The next morning we laughed as she repeatedly tried to corral her wandering offspring. She would get three of them back into the brush, but as she went after the last one, the other three would emerge to follow her. One little one (we assume it was the same cub) kept wandering off in the opposite direction. Finally she got them all tucked away and settled down to nurse.

Spending 90 minutes with two cheetah brothers as they walked slowly across the grassy plains, taking time for a quick roll in the damp grass, was a real treat, as was photographing them as they seemed to pose in a tree. The day before, a different cheetah chased -- and barely missed -- a gazelle that was on the dinner menu. Unfortunately, slipping on a muddy step while exiting the vehicle and twisting my leg prevented me from standing up on the seat to watch the chase.

Of course, not everything we saw was pleasant to contemplate. We saw a baby zebra with a hind leg it couldn't use. We saw several baby wildebeests that had been separated from their mothers in part of the massive herd. One was running back and forth desperately trying to find her in the huge herd. Another stood alone a good distance from the herd. Lone animals, particularly the young ones, stand no chance of escapin g hungry lions, leopards and hyenas. One of our guides noted that only half of all wildebeests born in a given season (most are born within the same month) survive to their first birthday. 

We spent several minutes watching dozens of vultures of various kinds, along with marabou storks, battle with hyenas over the carcass of a wildebeest. The birds won the battle, with the hyenas leaving for a bit, and then returning at a respectable distance. Vultures are not attractive birds by any measure, but the marabou stork gets the prize for ugliest animal in Africa.

Toward the end of the trip, so much rain fell that some of the roads were washed away. We even spotted a catfish on a flooded road!  Our planned visit to a pool that usually was occupied by dozens of hippos was shortened dramatically due to the rains, which had turned the pool into a raging torrent of water, sending the hippos to calmer waters. We even spotted a large catfish on a road that had flooded with overflow from a river some 100 meters away.

Despite all my visits to Africa, the thrill of seeing magnificent elephants, mischievous baboons and vervet monkeys, birds of vibrant colors, graceful giraffes and a variety of antelope and gazelles always calls me back for more. Each day, each sunrise, each sighting is unique.

I haven't uploaded or edited most of my images from this trip yet, but more will be shared soon.