Friday, April 10, 2020

The Saddest Day

As many of my friends and all of my family know, I grew up in the fire service. From the time I was old enough to walk, I spent countless hours in the fire house, learning about the big red trucks, the piles of hose, nozzles, air packs, turnout gear and the various and sundry tools necessary to perform as a firefighter. I knew from the first time I ever went there that one day I would be on the job.

I grew up in a small town in Upstate NY, where the fire department was the hub of the community and all the services were provided by volunteers. Invariably, one of my uneducated friends will offer up that it is a shame that we couldn't afford "professional" fire protection. Let me set the record straight right now. Being paid to be a firefighter does not make you a professional, nor does serving as a volunteer make you an amateur. Regardless of your pay status, if you are in the firefighting business, you had best be a professional, because if you aren't, you will be tomorrow's statistic.

Education in NC

The North Carolina legislature is at it again. Once more, they are wrestling with budget concerns, once more, they see education as a place to make cuts. I am seriously wondering how many of these buffoons made it beyond sixth grade.

Instead of looking to trim the fat by slashing important programs like More at Four and Smart Start, both early education programs with a proven track record, the legislators need to look at some of the real culprits. There is plenty of waste in the system without penalizing the children that need services the most.

The first place to cut is obvious. Charter schools are nothing more than a sham education system developed solely to serve elitist parents that feel their children are too good for public schools. Sorry, but if the public school isn't good enough for your child, then you pick up the tab for sending them to some form of alternative schooling. Not one cent of taxpayer money should be used to fund private education.

Another effective cost cutting measure would be to eliminate the absurd number of administrative positions. If one administrator can't handle the demands of 500 students, they aren't doing the job they are trained and being paid for. The primary job of many assistant principals appears to be collecting their paycheck. Sorry, but that isn't effective use of tax dollars.

The school calendar also needs some attention. Teacher "work days" are another example of a system gone amok. Nationwide the average number of "work days" is six....until recently, it was twenty in NC. That number has since been reduced to fifteen, but that is still more than double the national average. Mountain schools are struggling to meet the required 180 days of classroom instruction and yet, they are required to take "work days" during good weather that could be better utilized as classroom days.

It fascinates me that NC schools start their school year a month before public schools in NY and PA....and yet they can't manage to fit in the required classroom days even with an extra 30 days penciled in to the calendar. Lest you are one of the fools that thinks NY and PA are nothing more than concrete jungles where every child is within walking distance of the school, I have to inform you that you are sadly mistaken. Many areas of NY and PA are as remote, if not more so than the "wilds" of western North Carolina. The weather is also a far bigger issue in the northern states, but they have learned to adapt. Yes, they are forced to take a snow day on occasion, but they don't close down the minute the local forecaster predicts a single flake of snow.

Has the Time Come to Abolish Political Parties?

I seriously wonder what we teach our kids in school today. For some reason, it appears that a vast majority of Americans don't seem to understand exactly who their elected officials are supposed to represent. Folks, we do not elect people to go to Washington or Raleigh or even to Asheville to represent the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. We elect people to represent their constituents. Period.

Suppose I choose to register as a Democrat and eventually get myself elected to Congress. I haven't been here two days and already someone has decided that it is time to make an assault on the Second Amendment to our Constitution. It seems that every "real" Democrat believes that guns are the root of all evil and that by eliminating guns, we would eliminate all forms of crime and strife in America. Perhaps I live in a more enlightened corner of our nation, but by and large, the vast majority of people living here realize that guns are no more responsible for crime than bananas.

The pundits, big-wigs and party faithful are circling the troops in DC in preparation for a heated battle on the floor of . Come stand in this corner son, your name tag says you are a Democrat and therefore, you must stand here with those of us that wish to outlaw guns.

Nixon, Watergate, China, and Today

On August 9, 1974 President Richard M. Nixon stepped down in shame, the Watergate Investigation bringing an end to his term of office. Then Vice-President Gerald Ford was sworn into office and many felt as if a great weight had been lifted from America's shoulders. Let's revisit that time for a it altered the course of the world in ways we are only just starting to comprehend.

August of 1974 was a much simpler time for me. A recent high school graduate, I found myself on an extended camping/canoeing trip in a remote section of the Adirondack Mountains of New York, with a group of friends and chaperones from the Ecology Club of Candor Central School. We had tirelessly worked recycling newspapers and then selling them to a scrap dealer, long before recycling was the norm, to fund our trip. The trip was an incredible opportunity for all of us involved, and I think we each grew personally as a result of our experience. We were isolated and insulated from the outside world...a time long before cell phones and pocket internet, we didn't even have a transistor radio with us. 

For a number of days, we enjoyed the serenity of one of Mother Nature's most pristine playgrounds. We paddled countless rivers and lakes, swam in cool, clear waters, camped in idyllic forest settings, dined on the "finest" dehydrated and freeze-dried entrees of the day, supplemented by the fresh catch of the day from the mountain waters,followed by spending our evenings enjoying the campfire and the sky filled with endless stars.Life was grand and we had no clue what was happening outside our small circle. Life was good!

As our trip was nearing conclusion, we found ourselves camped on the shores of Weller Pond. The plan was to camp there for two nights, so that we might have some time to get in a couple of hikes into the surrounding mountains. While enjoying the fire on our first night there, we decided that the following day, a small contingent of us would paddle to nearby Saranac Village to purchase some fresh supplies for a last night feast. Funds were pooled and we decided on a spaghetti dinner, with some sort of available snack for dessert.

At mid-morning on August 10th, we set out on our supply mission. Norm Szwec, Tom Cavataio, and I (it seems like there might have been an additional 2 or 3 people that were also along) began the two hour paddle into Saranac Village. The trip in was uneventful, we took our time and enjoyed the sights. Arriving in town, we found a spot to secure our canoes and set off in search of a nearby store. Things were about to get crazy.

We spotted a store no more than 100 yards from where we landed. Our party immediately set off in search of the required provisions. Upon entering the store, we were greeted with racks of newspapers, all bearing the same shocking headline. "President Ford declares our long national nightmare is over." We stood in stunned silence while the news set in....followed by a spontaneous celebration of whooping and hollering, handshakes and hugs, and giant grins. The local patrons looked at us as though we were insane. We decided to make a couple of small alterations to the menu and purchased our supplies. The clerk asked if we had been under a rock somewhere, as everyone knew this would be happening for the past few days. We explained that we had been on this trip without any outside contact. The locals still gave us the side eye as we gathered up the provisions...yes, we got the stuff to make spaghetti, but for a treat we purchased 3 six-packs of beer and a couple bottles of some cheap wine (before anyone gets their panties in a wad, 18 was the legal drinking age then), a few bags of Oreos and a couple bags of potato chips.

Supplies in hand, we rushed back to the canoes and paddled furiously back to camp to share the news with the rest of the group. To say that everyone was stunned would be a vast understatement. Once everyone had returned to camp from their day's activities, dinner was prepared and enjoyed by all. Dishes were finished, the campfire stoked and we sat down to discuss how the world had changed.

It was very difficult for any of us to find a silver lining to Nixon's Presidency, but we finally decided that even though there was a lot of bad to be seen, he might still be remembered as a "good" President as a result of his efforts to normalize relations with China. You have to remember that we were still at the height of the Cold War, China had the bomb, and Americans in general had a huge distrust of what they might do with it. By establishing diplomatic relations and establishing trade, most people felt that the threat was over...leaving only the Russians and their puppet states as the "enemy".

Looking back over the past 46 years, one has to wonder if normalizing relations with China was as good an idea as it once seemed. Our markets are flooded with cheap products, many of which are vastly inferior to products produced elsewhere. This has resulted in the loss of American jobs. China continues to violate human rights, worker's rights, child rights and by most accounts, continues to purge their citizenry of dissidents, those seeking religious freedom and persons the government deems inferior. The Chinese government still controls the media and actively censors information both in and out of the country.

While China didn't exactly drop "the bomb" on us. They still hold over 1 trillion dollars of our National Debt. We still buy products and services from them, that has a negative impact on the American work force. And we continue to purchase food and medicine from them which are not subject to the same protections for the consumer as foods and medicines produced by "Free World" nations.

Before you label this as a xenophobic rant, understand this...I hold no ill will towards any man, woman or child because of their race, religion, creed, nationality, ethnicity or other factor. That said, there is a vast difference between the ordinary citizens of China and the Chinese government, same as there was a huge difference between citizens of the former Soviet Union and the government of the Soviet Union. The desires and intentions of the Chinese, Soviet (now Russian) and some other governments is typically far different than the wishes and beliefs of the people. I don't for one minute believe the general populace of China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea hold any ill will towards ordinary Americans, nor should there be any reason for Americans to hold any ill will towards citizens or descendants of those nations. It is the governing powers of nations that spread hate, distrust, and corruption across all our nations.

I firmly believe that virtually all people would prefer to live their lives in peace, prosperity and happiness, the sole exception being those few power hungry miscreants that somehow end up in power over the rest of the world population.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Common Sense

The death of a child is a tragedy. The death of an adolescent is a tragedy. The death of a teen is a tragedy. The death of an adult is a tragedy. The death of a senior citizen is a tragedy. Let's face it, to someone, somewhere, the loss of any human life is tragic. Unfortunately, many politicians have decided that some deaths are more tragic than others, for nothing more than furthering their own political agenda. Parading the victims of gun related violence around like trained circus monkeys is criminal. Yes, their pain is real, yes, the horrors inflicted on them are real, but is their tragedy any more tragic than that brought about by any other method?

Recently, a four month old little girl died as the result of sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Take a minute and think about this. Was this crime any less horrific than what happened at Sandy Hook? I think not. Both events were the acts of a person with a very sick mind. And yet, because a gun wasn't used, there is nowhere near the coverage of the death of that little girl. There is no politician fanning the flames of public opinion on the matter, there is no politician demanding that every male be castrated least he decide to take indecent liberties with a baby...and yet, the fact remains that her death was no less horrific, no less tragic than the deaths of anyone else.

Don't get me wrong, what happened in both cases was absolutely vile and offensive, uncalled for and possibly even preventable. Mental health problems are at the core of virtually all of these heinous crimes, but instead of focusing on the real cause, we find ourselves being told that we need to blame an inanimate object for an act committed by a human.

Yesterday, a very sick individual or group of individuals decided to use a household pressure cooker, some nails, some ball bearings and other assorted benign objects to craft a series of bombs, which were then unleashed against a crowd of harmless, innocent victims. The explosions wreaked havoc,  causing the loss of both life and limb, forever changing the lives of countless people. Was there an immediate cry from anyone demanding a background check on all persons purchasing pressure cookers, nails or ball bearings? No...we instead realized that it wasn't the inanimate objects used, but the deranged mind of the perpetrators what was responsible for the carnage. Why is it that virtually everyone can understand the proper blame to assign in this instance, but they can't seem to employ the same rational thought process when a firearm is involved?

If a drunk driver runs a stop sign and crashes into a loaded school bus, killing and injuring dozens of children, do we immediately seek to ban cars? If an individual driving down the road, playing with their cell phone, plows into a crowded restaurant, do we seek a ban on phones? If someone walks into a grocery store and starts stabbing people with a butter knife, do we seek a ban on cutlery? Obviously, the answer is no. We look to the cause of the problem, the human behind the act and precede accordingly. You don't arrest cars, phones and cutlery, you arrest and prosecute the criminal that committed the act. 

Chicago has the toughest gun laws in the nation and yet gun related crimes there are statistically astronomical compared to the rest of the country. Banning guns does not stop crime, if anything, it serves to intensify it. I honestly think we need to sit down and evaluate our current laws, determine what the failing points are, and correct and (and even more importantly) enforce those laws. Something is very wrong with our system when a murderer spends less time in jail than a teenager caught with a "joint" in his pocket.

The time has come to look to some real solutions to these problems:

1. If you commit a crime with a gun, you go to jail...not for 5 minutes, but for a meaningful period of time. Twenty years sounds like a good starting point.

2. If you kill someone during the commission of a crime, you go to jail...forever. No parole, no pardon, no country club incarceration, just four cold, grey walls and eternity to reflect on your actions.

3. If you sell the gun used in the commission of a crime without following due diligence to ensure that the buyer is entitled and able to own a firearm legally, you go to jail alongside the criminal, with the same sentence.

4. Get rid of the foolish notion that banning things solves problems. (If you don't believe me, look back at history, Prohibition...didn't work, ban a book or film in Boston and you have a new best seller or the hottest movie ticket in town. There are countless other examples, but I think you get the gist of it.) Our current laws prohibit virtually all private ownership of actual military weapons. (This includes things such as machine guns, fully automatic weapons of any type, bazookas, landmines and hand grenades) Regardless of what anyone says, you can not go into any store in the United States and buy an "assault weapon".

5. Stop using the ignorant and inflammatory term "assault weapon". Shy of the military items previously mentioned, they don't exist. The term was coined to incite hype and fear. A customized gun is no more dangerous than a customized car. Composite stocks, folding stocks, hand grips and the like do no more to up the so-called "killing power" of a gun than 20" rims, low profile tires, pinstripes and carbon fiber hoods do making a '98 Buick Regal into a "race car".

6. Fix our broken system of mental health care. It is painfully obvious that our current method of treating people with mental illness like there is nothing wrong is woefully inept. Being "politically correct" and denying that mental illness exists is insane. There are people out there that need help of competent, trained professionals.

7. This one is beyond politicians. We need to get back to being responsible parents. Shutting your child in their room with the latest iteration of "Mortal Kombat" or "Call of Duty" for 16 hours a day or longer is absurd. Set boundaries, teach them that no means no, that there are consequences for their actions and stop rewarding failure. Life isn't always fair and we further complicate it when we refuse to acknowledge our children making mistakes. Part of the process of growing is learning that you are not always going to be number one.

I think we all realize that something is broken in this country. We need to fix it, but we also need to work in a reasonable fashion, addressing root causes and not trying to repair a ruptured appendix with the application of a cast. The problems facing America are not Republican or Democratic problems, they are American problems, which are best fixed by good old American ingenuity. (Surely it still exists!)