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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

'We the People' Demand Change

I am a senior citizen, and frankly, I am tired of members of Congress targeting Social Security and Medicare as easy ways to cut the massive budget deficit.

I was forced to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes throughout my nearly 40-year career. It is with great dismay that I have watched members of Congress, and others, blame seniors for the enormous national debt this country faces. We are accused of being greedy and selfish for wanting the benefits we were promised from Social Security and Medicare. These people use the word entitlement to describe the benefits we were promised, and they have made this into a derogatory word. 

Well guess what? Social Security and Medicare are entitlements. I was forced to pay into these funds, with the promise of future benefits, and I expect to receive what I was promised. That doesn't make me greedy. I will forgo my monthly Social Security payments, and my future Medicare benefits, if Congress will return to me, with interest, every dime I was forced to pay into these programs. I suspect there are many others who would do the same. I will be responsible for investing my money and deciding how much to withdraw, and how often. 

I paid cash for my Social Security benefits. This money was taken from my pay checks without my permission. Just because the government borrowed the money and now doesn't want to pay it back doesn't make my benefits some kind of money-grab by me or other senior citizens. Expecting to receive what we were promised does not make us greedy. I should not have to be subjected to a 'means test' before I can receive the benefits I was promised and for which I have already paid. It's my money, and I am entitled to it.

Federal employees and retirees, and Social Security recipients, get whatever cost-of-living adjustment the president and Congress decide to give them -- if they get one at all. Many private sector employees are in the same situation. Members of Congress get an automatic, annual pay increase unless they vote not to accept it. (How many do you think actually do that?) 

All Congress can think of to cut spending is to take from the people who need help the most, while at the same time continuing to pad their own bank accounts and those of their corporate handlers. And they want to eliminate the income tax deductions for mortgage interest and charitable donations, things that benefit middle-income taxpayers? 

Here's a suggestion: Why not collect Social Security tax on all income, rather than just the first $106,800 of earned annual income, as is done for Medicare? That would put a lot of money into the fund. Of course, putting more money into Social Security is but one step. Another needed reform is to stop stealing money from Social Security. So far, the federal government has taken $2.5 trillion from Social Security, which is supposed to be repaid. Given the current budget deficit, how likely is it that this money will actually be returned to Social Security? Stealing from this fund needs to stop NOW, and it should be illegal. Don't blame senior citizens for government's greed and ineptness.

Rather than eliminating the mortgage interest deduction, how about limiting it to a single home, the primary residence. Deductions for interest on vacation homes, second and third homes, rental properties, etc., should not be allowed. And limit the deduction to homes of less than $1 million value. How much would that add to the government's coffers?

We have spent trillions of dollars on two unwinnable wars trying to help people who in large part don't want our help. More than 6,000 American men and women have been killed in those wars; countless others will live the rest of their lives with horrendous physical or psychological injuries. We have spent millions to set up a postal system in Iraq, while our post office is facing massive cuts, layoffs and closures. America is usually the first to send food, water, shelter and medicine to other countries after a natural disaster, while millions of our own citizens struggle to provide these basic necessities. 

I see the long line of people outside the food pantry where I volunteer every week. I see the people 'shopping' for free, donated clothing, toys and household goods for themselves and their families. I see how happy people are to get a pair of shoes, a pillow or a box of Q-Tips. We send billions of dollars to other countries while our own citizens struggle to get by. Whatever happened to "Charity begins at home"?

It's no wonder Americans are fed up with their government. It no longer serves 'we the people.' It appears to be serving only those individuals (lobbyists) and corporations that deliver the most money and other perks to their campaign coffers. The voices of the 'little people,' those who elected their so-called representatives, go unheard.

I cite two examples from New Mexico, where I live. More than 72 percent of New Mexicans want the 2003 law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain a NM driver's license to be overturned. The governor, with whom I agree on little else, wants the law overturned. But our legislators refuse to consider legislation to end this ridiculous practice. A judge has halted the governor's plan to verify the residence of a sample of 10,000 of those non-citizens who have received a NM driver's license. This despite well-publicized cases of unscrupulous people from China, Poland and other countries bringing (at considerable profit) to New Mexico illegals who don't even live in the state, for the sole purpose of obtaining a NM drivers license.

Likewise, 69 percent of New Mexicans support efforts to reintroduce the highly endangered Mexican gray wolf into a small  portion of its former territory in southwestern New Mexico. Despite overwhelming public support of this plan, the governor stacked the Game and Fish Commission with ranchers and others who believe the only good wolf is a dead wolf. As a result, trapping is once again allowed in the wolves' habitat in the Gila National Forest. These are public lands; they are not there for the economic benefit of a small subset of the general population. As public lands, they should be there for the enjoyment -- not profit -- of anyone who chooses to visit there. Instead, a small, wolf-hating group is allowed to threaten the very existence of a native mammal. Individuals and their family pets have been caught in these barbaric traps. Despite trappers' claims to the contrary, there is no way to make this torture device more humane. But does the state government listen to the wishes of a large majority of its citizens? No, it listens to organized and well-funded donors who apparently feel extremely threatened by the 50 remaining Mexican gray wolves that have managed to escape being shot, trapped or poisoned.

Our country is facing some tough choices, and all the politicians do is attack the other party and pontificate. There will be no easy solutions. As a start, our elected officials need to listen to the voice of the people -- not the lobbyists, not the special interests, not those seeking to profit at the expense of others. Of course, there will continue to be a variety of opinions about what is best for the country. But taking from senior citizens isn't the answer. Cutting benefits to the poor, to veterans and to those most vulnerable in our society, is not the answer. 

There is incredible waste and fraud in government. I worked for the federal government for nearly 25 years. I have seen the ineptness, the cumbersome regulations, the red tape that can make even the most simple purchase take forever. 

We need to take care of our people, of our country, before trying to save the world. The American people want action. They want solutions. They want government funds to be spent on taking care of our problems, rather than on propping up corrupt dictators in foreign countries. It is past time for 'we the people' to take our government back and make it work for us.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I Give Up

I don't know how much more I can take. I love animals, I have been involved in animal welfare and rescue activities for 40 years, but I have reached the end.

Facebook is filled with stories of animal abuse and death. Dogs and cats left to starve. Dogs forced to fight each other to the death. Horses electrocuted. Animals set on fire or burned with chemicals. Wolves slaughtered simply for being wolves. Millions of dogs and cats killed each year simply because no one wants them.

I don't need to hear about all this suffering and death. I don't need to see the pictures of the horrific sores, the emaciated bodies, the dogs murdered by gun-happy cops. I know all about animal cruelty. I worked for a large humane society in California for 8 years; I photographed cruelty cases for possible prosecution. I can't take it any longer.

There is nothing I can do to stop the abuse and cruelty. I write letters and send e-mails; I boycott the products of states that encourage the slaughter of wolves and of countries where animal abuse is institutionalized. I don't patronize businesses and companies that tacitly endorse animal abuse. But what good does it do?

The abuse doesn't stop; in fact, it seems to be getting worse.

I donate to various animal protection groups; I contribute to the occasional 'chip in' to help fund needed veterinary care for a specific dog in need. But my donations are a mere pittance. Even if I donated every dime I have, it still wouldn't be enough.

So I surrender. The bad guys win. Those who abuse animals and who are punished, if at all, with a small fine or 'community service', win. Countries like China, where animal abuse is institutionalized and unpunished, win. States like Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, with their government-sanctioned efforts to exterminate wolves, win. Companies like Nike and Subway that hire felons and animal abusers to represent them, win.

They all win. They have the money, the power and the influence, so of course they win. They can buy the votes of their elected officials to do their bidding. We, the little people who work tirelessly to help animals, count for nothing because we can't compete where it matters -- the bottom line.

I am blocking or removing organizations that are trying to help animals so I no longer will have to read about endless cruelty and slaughter when I visit my Facebook page. I just can't take it any longer.

So congratulations, members of Congress, state legislators, governors, corporations. You win. I give up. My boycotts and letters mean nothing. You have been bought by the highest bidders. I hope you are proud of yourselves.

By the way, karma knows who you are. Maybe I and others like me can't change things. But karma will get you in the end. Enjoy your victory.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Wolf We Feed

I read this Native American wisdom a few years ago, and I was pleased when a cyber friend recently posted it on her Facebook page. It is definitely worth repeating.

An old Cherokee told his grandson, "My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth." The boy thought about it, then he asked his grandfather, "Which wolf wins?" The old Cherokee quietly replied, "The one you feed."

I think the wisdom in this brief tale is profound. If we don't feed our negative emotions, they are more likely to go away, or at least to become less powerful. I know that if I am in a bad mood, the whole day can quickly spiral into a deep, dark hole. If we focus on the positive, we are more likely to enjoy the benefits a positive outlook can bring. We will feel better, and those around us will feel better, too.

Over the years, I have had opportunities to practice this lesson. A few years ago, it seemed that my world was collapsing around me; I was incredibly stressed. I started to think about all the 'what ifs.' My thoughts were full of worry, anxiety and fear. I had trouble sleeping and eating. Nothing was going right. I then realized that I had a choice. I could continue to spin in a downward spiral, or I could change my way of thinking. It took a few days, but eventually I started to focus on the positive aspects of my situation.

The other reason this appeals to me, of course, is the reference to wolves. Followers of this blog know that I frequently write about wolves and government-sanctioned efforts to 'manage' (i.e., exterminate) them. Having had several opportunities to spend time with these magnificent animals, I still find myself in awe whenever I am with them. A powerful spiritual teacher in many Native cultures, the wolf has lessons to teach all of us, Native and non-Native alike.

We all have wolves within us, engaged in a struggle. Think about your life at this time; which wolf are you feeding?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

When Death Knocks

The world lost two notable people this past week. One of them was not famous at all; she lived a simple life in West Virginia. The other was known around the world; he was very famous and very wealthy. Both had an impact on the world, but in far different ways.

Although I had never met Peggy Sue in person, or even talked to her on the phone, her personality shone through her on-line posts. She was a vivacious, funny, kind and caring person who dearly loved her husband and her dogs. Because she lived in West Virginia, she often referred to herself as a 'hillbilly' and she loved to tell redneck jokes.

Just a week before her passing, Peggy had to say goodbye to her beloved dog Freeway, who had a terminal illness. To read of Peggy's passing just a week later, at the young age of 53, was a real shock.

This sudden and unexpected loss has been a wake-up call, serving as yet another reminder of the fragility and brevity of our time on earth. I hope the loss of this vibrant woman will serve to remind us that life is fleeting, we never know when we will lose someone in our lives, and that we should appreciate every minute we have.

The famous person who died was, of course, Apple founder and innovator Steve Jobs. I didn't know him, either, but his creative passion is felt and seen around the world in the many innovations developed under his leadership: the iPhone, iPod and iPad, among others. 

We never know when Death will come knocking on our door. It could be from an accident or a heart attack or a terminal illness. We just never know. It behooves us all to set aside the 'it couldn't happen to me' mentality and realize that it could, and can, and will, happen to each of us. We just don't know when.

Much has been written about living life to its fullest, letting those we care about know how we feel, and enjoying the lives we have been given. We tend to get so wrapped up in the mundane details and obligations of living that we often overlook the blessing that is life. We need to:
  • love more and worry less. 
  • dwell on what we have, not on what we don't have.
  • appreciate the simple things in life: a beautiful sunrise, a nice day, coffee with a friend, playing with our kids or dogs, our good health.
  • not stress over the little things in life (and much of what we stress about is little)
  • spend more time with family and good friends
  • take time for ourselves
  • greet each new day with anticipation
  • be happy more than we are sad, worried or angry
  • continue to grow and learn
  • share our blessings with others, whether through volunteer work, providing support to those in need or donating material things such as food or money
  • realize that no matter what our problems are, so many people have far greater problems
Life is a gift given to us at birth, with an unknown and unknowable expiration date. We can sit on the sidelines, we can participate, or we can jump in and lead. The choice is ours. Remember the lines from the Lee Ann Womack song "I hope you dance"?

"And when you get the chance to sit it out or dance
 I hope you dance. 
 I hope you dance.
 I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance.
Never settle for the path of least resistance."

We never know when the knock at the door will come. We cannot know when our clock will run out of time. As Steve Jobs said in a commencement address to Stanford University graduates, "Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

I can't think of anything to add to that. Be yourself, let your light -- whatever it may be -- shine brightly. It doesn't matter what your contribution is or how many people you influence. Don't waste your time trying to be something or someone you're not. Most of all, live your life. You don't get a second chance.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Balloon Fiesta!

It's fiesta time again! 'Fiesta' is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world's largest hot air balloon event. Some 550 balloons are expected this year, the 40th anniversary of this event, along with an expected 800,000 visitors.

I attended opening day last year, and it was an awesome experience. The highlight, of course, is the mass ascension, as the crowds gathered in Balloon Fiesta Park are treated to the sight of hundreds of colorful balloons being inflated, then launching and floating silently overhead. I loved looking up into the envelope (the part that inflates) and watching the flames of the propane burners as they heated the air that keeps the balloons aloft.

I didn't go to the mass ascension this year, but I feel as if it came to me. The area just over the hill from my house is a perfect landing area, so I grabbed my camera early on opening day and walked a 2-1/2 mile loop, taking more than 360 photographs.The winds were light, the sky a beautiful New Mexico azure, with just enough clouds to add interest to the photographs.

Despite the early hour, local residents gathered in their yards to watch the hundreds of balloons drifting overhead. Many balloons landed on vacant lots, roads and in arroyos in the neighborhood, giving residents an up-close look. People chatted with balloonists awaiting the arrival of their chase vehicles and crews. One crew I talked to, from the Detroit area, had landed two streets over from my house. They were loading the gondola into the van as I walked by with my dogs.

I love seeing hot air balloons in the sky. They are so peaceful and colorful, a real treat for the eyes against the crystal blue skies of central New Mexico. They drift on wind currents, unpowered, totally silent except for the occasional noise of the burners that heat the air to keep them aloft. And I love the sound of the burners as they shoot their yellow flames into the envelope. The sound reminds me so much of another sound I love -- the sound of whales exhaling as they break the water's surface after a long dive. I like being able to call "Good morning" to balloon crews as they pass overhead on their way back to Earth. Chase crews waved as they drove to pick up the balloons and pilots.

Hot air balloons are not uncommon in the skies over Albuquerque at other times of year, but certainly not in the quantities present during the balloon fiesta. Last year, lines for the shuttle buses were long, but despite the early hour, people were cooperative, pleasant and excited to be going to the mass ascension. Visitors are allowed to walk among the balloons prior to launch and to talk to the pilots. It's a family-friendly affair, with people coming from all over the country, and from other countries. Balloonists seem to be a really friendly bunch of people who enjoy their sport and sharing it with others not fortunate enough to be able to fly. And I count myself fortunate to live in a place where I can simply step into my back yard and see these beautiful balloons gliding over the neighborhood on a crisp October morning.