No Eggroll, Please

Thank you, Mr. President, for choosing to halt the annual Easter egg roll on the White House lawn, due to the sequester. It is a little enough stroke against the size of the federal budget, but it is a start. And we need to start somewhere, no matter how small. Those parents who have been looking forward to getting their photos taken with Mrs. Obama will just have to come up with some other form of entertainment for their children this year.

Next, please close the national parks. There are plenty of wide open spaces that people can enjoy without paying an entry fee and being warned not to feed the bears. Plus, all of those tacky tourist traps that normally have to share the wealth with the park rangers will really appreciate the increase in business. These sorts of acts, along with cancelling the tours of the White House, will help the American people to understand what non-essential roles the federal government has been playing. We need to start somewhere with getting the bloated budget under control, and these items will serve nicely, since you were so determined to keep Big Bird alive. And the virtual tour may end up being more enjoyable, since no one has to put up with children crying, gum smacking, and the occasional loud texter.

Then you can send all of the TSA people home. Yes, that simple act may lead to the demise of more than one airline, but, you know, someone has to sacrifice for the good of the country. Buses, trains, automobiles, people will get where they need to go. And they will be forced to re-examine whether they do  really need to make that trip they’ve been planning. Sending home TSA agents will make the cell phone companies and Skype very happy, as people adapt to changing circumstances. Business will carry on even if some airlines go under. The world does not come to a halt just because the federal government eliminates some non-essential services.

People can’t afford to wait on their government. If no one else does so, they must either step up to the plate themselves, or do without. It’s easy to take advantage of government services when they are offered, quite difficult to refuse that piece of cake laid out on a plate. But when there is no cake, the bills must still be paid, business must still be done, people must still continue with their daily lives, somehow.

Mr. President, if you truly are attempting to lower the size of government, then bully for you. It does seem that you are more interested in trying to show the American people all of the wonderful things that the government does for them, all of the services that they will be missing, but you have that backwards. People existed before government, and they will persevere; they will find a way.

In the end, it is not the government that runs the country. It is not the government that decides what business will be done. It is not the government that decides how people will spend their time. If, in your cost-cutting measures, you finally realize that, then some good will come of this sequester, no matter how drastically its provisions are put into place. Besides, what is the White House doing involved in an Easter tradition, anyway?

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Catholics for Choice

Once again, I watched the weekend talk shows. They’re like a car accident: you want to look away, but you just can’t tear your eyes off the wreckage. This time, one of the programs featured a woman from some organization called Catholics for Choice, which is, of course, an oxymoron. But, not being Catholic, I can stand on the sidelines and ponder the wisdom of belonging to a society while disputing its most basic, fundamental guidelines.

In this instance, the spokeswoman was all up in arms because those in the Catholic hierarchy refuse to condone the use or  encouragement of condoms in the fight against spreading AIDS. In her argument, the woman claimed that condoms are “almost the most effective means” to combat the disease, and decried the inhumanity of the church leaders in not expounding their benefit.

What is interesting about her argument is that, as far as I can tell, the church leaders have already found the most effective means of halting the spread of AIDS: abstinence outside of marriage. Were all people to practice that form of disease prevention, AIDS would disappear within a generation or two, because there would be precious few people to disseminate it.

However, this woman implies that abstinence is simply too lofty a goal for most people to reach, and so it is the church that needs to abandon its principles and face reality. My question (again, as a non-Catholic) is, what, exactly, is the point of a church without principles? Is it the duty of a church to espouse high ideals, then when those ideals prove difficult for the average Joe to attain, just say, “Never mind. We didn’t mean it. Just go about your business. We’ll let you know when we’ve made religion a little easier to perform.”

That sounds like a Monty Python bit.

I understand that AIDS is a dread disease. I wish that it didn’t exist, and I think that it is horrible that anyone has to suffer it. I wish that no one ever had to suffer anything—I have heard the adage that we cannot appreciate the good without some knowledge of the bad, but I’m the type who’d like to give savoring the good on a daily basis a try.

What I don’t understand is claiming membership in a group, while tearing at its bastions. At what point does a Catholic who refuses to abide by the tenets of Catholicism become no longer a Catholic? Is not abstinence one of the basic guidelines of that faith? Aren’t purity and chastity ways that Catholics demonstrate devotion to God? Isn’t then asking the church to put aside its teachings in recognition of the fact that followers of the faith are sinners, raise the practical above the spiritual?

And what is truly interesting about this woman’s argument is that I’m sure she is not making it for herself. She is not the one who is concerned about getting AIDS; she is trying to help all those other poor souls who are in need of her guidance. Never mind any Catholic who is actually able to abide by the principles of the faith—her concern is with those who want to be called Catholic, while acting like heathens. The fact that she is tearing at the foundations of Catholics who prefer to have high ideals to live up to  seems to trouble her not a whit.

For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul? This woman is chiding the church leaders for not forsaking their principles in order to make the earthly life of their followers easier. Never mind what they shall have to answer for in the afterlife. Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?

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A Change in the Making

I know that I rag on the educational system a lot, but really, is it so unjustified? My father-in-law gave me yet another example of a true success story the other day.

It seems that my in-laws had stopped at a deli, and ordered a sandwich, side, and a drink, to split. The cashier punched in whatever she needed to, to arrive at a total bill of $9.52. My father-in-law is old school, and learned how to do maths back in the day. He found a Ten Dollar bill in his wallet, and handed her that, then said, “Wait a minute,” while he fished in his pocket for change. Before he could locate the change, she’d rung up the Ten Dollars, and the cash register was now telling her to return $.48 to him.

Being a good little obeyer, as is the wont these days, she retrieved Forty-eight cents from the cash drawer. Okay, now here is where it gets complicated. By this time, my FIL had located two pennies, and set them on the counter. The cashier (I use this term loosely) stared at the pennies for a moment, then her face brightened. She counted out Forty-six cents, and held it out to my FIL, who couldn’t help but chuckle in disbelief.

Being a polite sort, instead of saying what was on his mind, he merely inquired how she had come up with that amount. She said, “I took off the two cents.” I know, I know. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

He gently said, “That’s not right, you know.” The blank look on her face cluing him in, he said, “Let’s start over.” He took back the Ten, pushed all of the change except his two cents back her way, then said, “If I give you Ten Dollars,” handing it to her, “plus two cents,” dropping them into her palm, “that totals $10.02. $10.02 minus your bill of $9.52 equals Fifty cents. You owe me Fifty cents, not Forty-six.”

By this time, her eyes had glazed over, and she was clearly simply waiting for instructions. When she heard Fifty cents, she was relieved. She picked up the two dimes and the three pennies that were lying on the counter (fortunately, somewhere along the way she had learned to count change), and added a quarter to the one left there.

“Did you see how that worked?” My FIL asked, intent on not cheating either himself or her. She merely smiled. The cash register had told her one thing, he had told her another, but even though she had not learned higher math in school, she had learned the more important lesson that the customer is always right. And I guess that’s got to be good enough, these days. Let’s just hope that somehow the people who will be programming our computers get the chance to be introduced to some math along the way.

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Mississippi Mud

Much as the liberals amuse themselves with the conservatives’ lack of belief in global warming, the conservatives have a field day with the liberals’ Panglossian notion that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that we ought to keep the planet exactly the way it was when we, the generations currently alive, chanced to embark upon our lives. As if.

I can almost always find the wellsprings for a rant or two in the pages of The Economist, and of course, TED Talks. (If that sounds too snooty, you should see me snort into my beer at some of the comments that Daniel Tosh makes.) I am not picky about the source of my ramblings—generally I want to be amused, entertained, or educated, and preferably all at once. I mention this because, with all of the evidence that surrounds us, at all levels of erudition, I can’t understand how anyone can believe that this world is not all about change. Back to The Economist.

Awhile back, there was an article on the Mississippi River, and how its flow has changed over the centuries. The illustration accompanying the article makes the flood plain painfully clear, and yet our government encourages people to build, and rebuild, in an area that can’t help but be inundated in the future. When will the madness stop? Who will be the first to say, yup, it’s a bad idea to try to drag this planet to a halt, right where it is. It’s the height of hubris to think that a) we can mold this big old earth into our version of heaven, and b) that we are the be-all and end-all of everything.

It’s interesting that conservatives tend to be more religious, but that liberals act as though humans are the teleological result of evolution. Change is the only constant, and evolution is a non-thinking phenomenon, regardless of the way it is portrayed in schools and on science shows. No creature thinks, wow, I got to get me a longer proboscis, so’s I can get the nectar buried deeper in the flower. It’s the poor fella who happens to be stuck with the longer proboscis that finds, or doesn’t find, the flower that happens to allow for that particular trait. Then he either dies off, or passes that mutation on to later generations, who find, or don’t find, flowers that work for them. Evolution is not a forward-thinking process. It’s only after it happens, and we see the current state of things versus what worked in the past, that we can figure out which random mutations are working right now. Even that won’t tell us what mutation will become necessary in the next five minutes as a result of ongoing changes.

Yet daily we are inundated with examples of the pervasive thinking that, because we exist at this point in the lifespan of our planet, this is the way things ought to be forever and ever. We can’t manage to find a source of power that can be made readily available to all, without causing harm to some part of the planet, but we have the right, and the ability, to keep the next ice age from occurring?

How about we get the religion out of the government—the religion that says that we are the all-powerful, all-knowing gods of this planet, and that if we merely tithe enough to Caesar, he will render paradise.How about we make adaptation a conscious process, conforming ourselves to the world we happen to find ourselves in, instead of acting as though throwing more money at the coastline will make the tide stop washing away the beach. Or plunking a house down will hem in the Mississippi River.

Somewhere, we glommed onto the notion that we’ve got all the answers, even in the face of the planet constantly demonstrating that we do not. Maybe this is the time we can step back and think things through, before rushing to an expensive, short-term solution that only ends up aggravating the whole situation. Or, I guess, we can just throw more money into the river.

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Closed Shops

There is a lot of talk lately about the evil, nasty unions. But they are not the only closed shops in town. Many professions refuse entry to those who do not possess the proper credentials: lawyers, engineers, teachers. Used to be that a person could apprentice to masters in these arts, and when the master had determined that the apprentice was sufficiently practiced so that he wouldn’t embarrass the master when representing his office to the public, the master would declare the apprentice to be fit and capable to perform the duties of the profession.

Nowadays, the state requires that aspiring whatevers attend school, for a pre-determined amount of time, take a minimal exam, pay the required fee, then voila! the student is magically transformed into an expert, and allowed to hang out a shingle. Book learning has become all. And by book learning, I mean the payment of vast sums of money to attend class and take tests. The practicum, the nuts and bolts of each profession, have taken a back seat to the rote pedagogy. But this system does do its job—not to prepare students for the professional life they are about to enter—but to keep the number of possible aspirants to a particular profession to a minimum.

You think there are lots of attorneys now? Just imagine how many there’d be if the rigors of three years of law school weren’t thrown in their path. If apprentices were permitted to contribute to their upkeep somewhat while in the throes of mastering a new way to deal with the world. The same holds true for teachers, engineers, scientists. Amazingly enough, we have come to accept that years spent in the classroom are better preparers than are years spent in actually doing the work.

The current common wisdom is that everyone needs a college education in order to be successful. In addition, the push is for schooling to begin earlier and earlier. But more schooling does not necessarily equal more competence, more ability. In fact, in many cases, it seems that quite the opposite has occurred. What more sanctioned schooling does do, however, is provide the establishment with many more years of opportunity to mold and create the kind of citizenry that is most amenable to the thinking and tactics of persuasion of the powers that be.

The ostensible reason given for the  need for more schooling is standardization. Just a glance quickly gives the lie to that concept. Even within a school district, the opportunities available to each student are quite varied. Within a school, even more so, depending upon how individual students are tracked and guided. Even if the methods of teaching and the materials available to each student were somehow able to be measured and doled out precisely, every student is different, and will achieve a different outcome. No, it doesn’t seem that the actual goal can be competence for all.

The next time you wonder about the power that the unions have over industries like construction, automobiles and the like, consider the power the non-acknowledged unions have over the professions, as well. Gone are the days when professionals were deemed competent based on their output. Gone are the days when a master would not dream of holding out his apprentice as skilled unless and until the apprentice could perform up to the master’s standards. Now, students are given a certificate of completion, and their potential employers (and clients) can only hope that they know what they’re doing.

What we have done to the education system in general, we have also applied to the professions in particular. Years spent, or misspent, listening (or not) to lectures have been substituted for actually doing the real thing. When we are contemplating how to deal with the power of the unions, let’s not forget those invisible closed shops that exist all around us.

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