Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Manifesto for a Sane Economy:

Okay, in order to write a manifesto for a sane economy, we must agree that the economy we currently have is insane.

Whether you are Republican or Democrat, or Independent, or Progressive or Conservative, I think we can all agree that a 15% rate of poverty among Americans living in the wealthiest country in the history of the world is ‘abnormal’.

Houston, we have a problem...

Rather than focus on the nuts and bolts of this issue – the very familiar stats and graphs pointing to an historic wealth gap between the rich and the poor -- I’d like to focus on something I have experienced myself that I feel is one of the underlying causes of this situation; its pathology, if you will.The factor that again and again deters us from coming up with a rational and practical solution to the problem; and that causes many of us to spin out into a myriad  of basically irrational -- cultural, religious, political, racial  -- conjectures for an explanation of the problem.

Four years ago, I became homeless and destitute after taking care of a terminally ill parent for a number of years. I then had to rely on social services and for the first time in my life, I learned what is like to be poor in America.

Outside of the physical hardships that go along with being in a situation like this – mainly, how to secure housing without any financial resources – the thing that struck me most was the existential challenge brought on by society's attitudes towards people in temporary or permanent poverty. (Your particular circumstance doesn’t mater; everyone gets lumped into the same generic group: poor people.)

Where this becomes problematic and counter-productive to bringing people back into the economy, is when poor people, specifically, are singled out and blamed for being the central cause for the social pathology that creates this wealth gap and hardship for so many.

It is as if people in financial difficulty are either choosing to be that way (because they are too lazy to find work) or else they are chronically poor because they are too degenerate in their ways of living to overcome personal weaknesses and become productive members of society.

True as this may be in some cases, it is also true that there are lazy and degenerate people occupying all strata of  society. Some are taken care of for life by family trust funds, or other forms of private largesse, and others get by via social services. Most families of any size has one or more members who, for whatever reason, are incapable of ‘making it in this world’.

Fine. Do we shoot them?  Let them roam the streets like feral animals looking for scraps of food? Or do we simply ignore them so that they resort to criminal activities and become the ultimate drags on society -- expensive lifetime  incarcerated wards of the state. No, whether it’s in a family or a nation, we try to provide them with some form of a safety net.

Good.  So now we’ve gotten that out of the way: not all of the poor, nor all of the wealthy, are saintly or inveterate sinners.

But that’s not how you are made to feel when you are in financial difficulty. The first questions, or attitudes, that society puts upon you are: What did you do wrong? And/or, What is wrong with you?

A Hobson’s Choice if there ever was one.
Say you are one of the many thousands of people in the last decade who lost their employment and incomes, and then their homes. You were okay financially one day, and then not okay the next. Is your changed situation due to some lack of work ethic, or bad lifestyle choices? In the overwhelming majority of cases: no.

But our society will make you feel that – in addition to all the rest of the tangible difficulties you need to overcome, you must also deal with the existential claims against your worthiness as a human being and citizen. It’s one weight too many and therefore becomes counter-productive to the shared goal of getting people back into improving society and strengthening the economy.

Now I understand and appreciate the need for people to have a strong work ethic, and the importance of cultivating that as a bedrock for maintaining a solid social fabric and viable national economy. But the work ethic was memorialized in an era when America was an agriculture-based economy. Damn right, you better be able to get up early and work hard to feed your family and make some money for essentials. 

But we are no longer that economy, nor can people be that autonomous and self- sufficient. Hell, you can’t even find a menial job these days without a computer that can connect you to countless resources that you depend on.

We are more inter-dependent now than at any time in history; we all depend on one another for our survival and economy.

Never the less, the old attitudes persist, and that’s understandable; peoples’ attitudes change slowly, it takes time.

But the point of my argument is that there is a proportion of our population – with enormous financial and political power -- who are knowingly and purposefully (and perhaps for their own amusement) exploiting these dated attitudes and negative projections about the poor for personal, economic and political gain. They pit the 'righteous' poor against those they characterize as unworthy and undeserving. I liken these ‘1%ers’ to the elites in ancient Roman times who derived great pleasure from watching their captive slaves fight against one another to death in gladiator pits. It was pathologically anti-social then, and still is.

Our world economy is not going to improve – be better for more – until these attitudes change and the rich and powerful stop proselytizing lies about one segment of the population at the expense of everyone.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

What it is to be a Writer (besides writing)

I have been writing stories for as long as I can remember.

I wrote my first novel when I was 23 years old, living in Paris and in love. What a better setting, better start?

I am now approaching 60 and have written a half dozen more novels and a few books. So yes, I write.

But I’d also like to say something about how I perceive that writers approach life and live it differently than others.

Our present culture – capitalism unbound – is constantly bombarding us with information about how we should live: what our sex lives should be, how much we should weigh and what we must look like, and even things we should live and die for, like wars.(Every American coming of age in my lifetime, including my own generation in Vietnam, has had to face this grim issue.)

 Therefore, a writer in the modern world must possess a state-of-the-art and functioning bullshit meter. When the meter alerts us to, we must be aware and alive enough to follow its direction and move out of the ubiquitous piles.

The difference between a hermit, monk and a writer moving out of the junkyards of imposed desires and false choices is that the writer will eventually feel compelled to write about his or her experience.

In my own life I can site the example of being bombarded with information and rational justifications for why my 86 year old mother with Alzheimer’s should be placed in a nursing home. I listened to the arguments, but deep down my writers mind could decipher in exacting details what the experience would be like in real life terms: the feelings of confusion and abandonment; the hours upon hours of loneliness; the sad little group activities that would never satisfy the need for meaningful interaction.

I saw all these things as vividly as if I was living them because I had trained myself, as a writer, to look below the advertised to the real. I paid a heavy price for doing so, as I relate in my latest book.

When I am not writing I enjoy leading creative writing groups where I get to share what I’ve learned over the years and also discover young potential writers.

My first experience with this, a few years ago, was among incarcerated youths, male and female. Many of these youths had such vile upbringings – emotional and sexual abuse were standard fare – that they were quite willing and eager to express themselves to anyone who was willing to listen.  Given the demographic and background, many of them preferred to rap their stories rather than to write them. Some were fiercely talented and might make a career for themselves some day in a quasi musical poetic business that values ‘street-cred’. 

Most of the others were quieter and wrote painful and heartbreaking stories of abuse and their attempts to deal with it and go on living. For them, I did not wish for, or envision, writing careers; I simply prayed that giving them an opportunity to express what they usually held hidden deep inside would somehow allow them to gain a sense of control over what had happened to them.

But we all write, whether on paper or not – it’s the voice in our head that sees things not as we are told they are, but how they actually are.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

What is True Service?

What is true service, or how can one actually be of service to another person is a question that has been challenging me for the last few years.


Because about four years ago I found myself in a situation  that I honestly could not have gotten out of without the help of others; without people being of 'true service' to me. 

Allow me to set the stage.

About six years ago, I decided that I would take care of a parent, my mother, who was living with the onset of Alzheimer’s -- a debilitating, intractable terminal illness. I did this, largely on my own, for the next four years.

During the last couple of years Alzheimer’s became all-consuming for her as well as me. From then I was unable to complete book-editing assignments in order to bring in an income. My mother and I subsisted on what little savings I had along with her meager pension and social security allotment.  But money was not an issue; we managed.

Then, after my mother passed away, I was left in an isolated, exhausted, financially destitute and -- I can only describe it as an existentially bewildered and completely out-of-synch state of being.

Taking care of someone in your own family, especially a parent, is not like taking care of a friend or a stranger.  As they inevitably become increasingly dependent on you, the life-roles reverse. The very personal and intimate sense of a secure place in life that your parents provided for you as an infant, you now get to return to them as an adult. You experience the same kind of extraordinary bonding  -- their life is more valuable than your own -- that usually only takes place between a parent and their dependent young children.

Only a parent is nurturing a child into more life and there's a reward for them in the end; you, on the other hand,  are in an intensive 24/7 tilt-a-whirl relationship with life and death that abruptly ends one day with them leaving you and this world... 

Therefore, there's no way to taper off on your feelings and prepare for the loss. Not if you are committed to being there with them until their final breath. So when it happens, when those  last chortling breaths cease, the loss you feel is not the usual one, nor is the grief you experience normal grief.

For reasons I don't want to rehash here, but which I go into detail in my book,  An Odyssey in the Great American Safety Net, I was soon unceremoniously evicted from the home that I had been living in while taking care of my mother. Let's just say, to be kind, that it was done by an 'insensitive' sibling who was the executor of my mother's estate as well as an aggressively successful real-estate agent who wanted the house on the market and sold as soon as possible. Two years earlier, this very same sibling had taken me to court in order to have our mother taken out of my care and placed with 'professional care-givers' in a nursing home. That I had to fight Alzheimer’s, and her, at the same time was not only grossly unfair but mentally and emotionally exhausting . There are no two people alive with more different values than my sister and me.

During the time that remained for me to stay in my home -- a few months --  I sank into a deep funk. A close friend who was calling me regularly noticed the change in my condition and advised me to go a hospital. I reluctantly forced myself to get out of the house and check into an emergency room. There I was diagnosed with an acute stress/anxiety disorder that was causing me to feel a debilitating general sense of anxiety and gloom.  The treatment was a few days worth of anti-anxiety meds and the phone number of a public mental health facility that didn't have an appointment available for another three months. 

Once I was finally legally evicted, Social Services stepped in and placed me in a one-room motel room where I assumed that I was supposed to languor until I expired from despair and ennui.

I laid on top of the bed (during the six weeks I would be in the motel room I never once opened the bed and actually got in it) and as I stared up at the cigarette- and crack-smoke-stained ceiling I thought to myself: 'Lord, God, Life, Any Thing, I'm not getting out of here with my life or sanity intact without some help'. 

Help did not come immediately, but it came. Within the next three months I would meet a handful of the most extraordinary, selfless, and I would say saintly people, I have ever encountered. I didn't know any of them before this ignominy befell me, and yet they unquestioningly helped me find permanent housing, furniture, food -- and for the first time in longer than I could remember,  a sense of security and hope. 

When an experience like this happens to you -- and  you've taken the necessary time to recover and restore yourself  -- there develops inside of you a very strong desire to want to reciprocate for the help you received by being of service to others in similar situations.

Doing so is not as easy as one might think, which brings us back to the question of what is true service. During the years following my 'recovery', I worked as a volunteer teaching creative writing to youths in detention, as well as a counselor for people and families in crisis. None of these, and other similar activities, satisfied my desire to return the kind of service I received. For one thing, state-funded institutions want to see tangible results for  the  money they are spending to 'rehabilitate' people, so their approach invariably comes down to trying to change someone from being who they are into being something they should be -- basically, acting like a well-educated middle-class person.

That mold does not fit everyone (including me). If it did, I probably would have been more concerned for my financial well-being than for my mother's quality of life, turned her over to ($7.50 an hour) 'professional care givers' and avoided the dilemma. 

The kind of service that sticks out in my mind, and what defines for me what 'true service' is, is that which was provided for me when I needed it. The people who helped me never once asked what happened that got me into the situation I was in, nor did they ever offer unsolicited advice. Their attitude was 'you need help; how can we help you?' No more; no less.

You don't know what a relief that is when, in truth, you are too overwhelmed by your unsettling circumstances to understand what is happening to you. You are just living it, hoping you will survive, and that maybe you’ll figure it out later. As I described it in the book I wrote about my experience: 'What good would it do you to be able to name the make and model of the bus that just ran you over?'

So that has become my model for true service. One of the persons who helped me out the most when I was in need ministers a charitable outreach to the homeless in our community.  By and large, these  people are not coming to outreach in order to be rescued from how or where they are living, nor are they looking for counseling  or advice -- psychologically, spiritually, or otherwise. They simply want to be able to come to a place where they will be treated with the same kindness, respect and dignity as any other human being.

I respect that, and them. I know what it's like to be looked at like a one-dimensional 'social problem' in need of fixing. So lately I've been volunteering to help set up the outreach, which  twice a month provides free clothing, food, a  home-cooked  meal and medical checkups for those who want them.

On outreach day, sometimes I show up for a home-cooked meal. I don't talk with any one there about anything other than what they might want to talk to me about.    


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Poverty IS Like a Tragic Accident or Terminal Illness

To tell you the truth, until it happened to me -- when I needed  housing assistance and food stamps -- I did not know very much about the plight of other people who had to deal with similar circumstances.

I think one of the reasons is simple human nature. Most of us think that poverty -- like a freak tragic accident  or sudden terminal illness -- can only happen to other people.

The more we live, the more we acknowledge that that's a foolish, wishful thinking kind of assumption. Especially in regards to experiencing poverty in today's America. If the trends continue the way they have been in this zero-sum  economy with a growing population of super-wealthy (winners) on one side, buttressed by a growing population of  people living in moderate to acute poverty (losers) on the other, then the prognosis for one's financial  health in the American economy is not only ominously bleak, but, frankly, scary. 

According to the Social Work Journal,  'By age 35 nearly one-third of the U.S. population will have experienced a year in poverty. By age 65 more than half of all Americans will have spent a year below the poverty line, and by age 85, two-thirds. Rather than an isolated event that occurs primarily among what has been labeled the “underclass,” the reality is that the majority of Americans will encounter poverty firsthand during adulthood..'

So here we are now in 2013 -- with ever-growing numbers of people needing  housing and food assistance -- and the Republican dominated Congress of these United Sates is proposing to cut $20 Billion from SNAP or Food Stamps over the next decade. 


To cut our deficit?

Oh, if only it were so.

The truth -- and this is where it gets classically Orwellian (or just plain creepy) --  is that not only is it the very same Republicans who are calling for cuts in SNAP that bear major responsibility for the monumental deficits they  rung up under Presidents Reagan and the last Bush, but they are also the ones who promote and legislate lavish (tax-payer paid for) subsidies to already wealthy American citizens.

Here is just one (small) example of how this works, related specifically to the 2013 Farm Bill.(For a more thorough listing and analysis of these kinds of subsidies for the wealthy go to Inequality.org.)

Our pick of the litter: subsidies to agri-businesses in the name of 'crop insurance'. The Crop Insurance Program was originally designed  in 1938 to insure that proven productive farmers having an off year -- due to weather, soil erosion, pest infestation, what have you --  would be reimbursed for their crop losses and thus be able to remain in business for the next and hopefully better season. Nice idea: generous and practical.

Over the years, lobbyists for large agri-businesses have changed the program from insurance for failed crops, to blanket subsidies for farmers' revenues.  Here's how  it works:  if the price of, say,  soybeans goes down and the farmers' revenues go down accordingly; instead of allowing the much lauded free-market to sort it out, the federal government comes in and says here, we will (using taxpayers' money) make up your lost revenue. But we won't call it a subsidy, we'll call it 'crop insurance'.

Wouldn't it be nice if the federal government provided blanket revenue subsides to every business so that no one ever had a bad year?


It wouldn't work for the reasons socialist programs can't work -- they subsidize arbitrarily, not based on genuine merit or real need. 

Now isn't it ironic (or Orwellian if you want to go with the darker angle) that the same politicians for whom socialism is a dirty word are, in effect, practicing it. Well, in today's political world, words no longer have  literal meanings, they have a meaning that suits the user, and if the user has wealth and power; well, hopefully you've read  1984 so I don't have to rehash what happens next.   

So let's take this back to SNAP or food stamps.I wish I could report a  high-minded reason for why Congress wants to increase funding for crop insurance at the same timed it proposes to cut food stamps. . But what it really boils down to in the petty tit-for-tat circus-like political arena we are currently living in is: If you, the Democrats, want to help out poor people who vote for you then we, the Republicans, will help out the wealthy who vote for us.


Maybe Orwellian was given them too much credit; come to think of it stupid or idiotic seem more apropos.And if I've insulted any professional clowns I also apologize for that.

This is not tit-for-tat to those affected by this legislation. A person who is working and struggling to make ends meet (and help prop up this lopsided economy) and is receiving some nutritional support and food security in order to sustain them is not comparable to someone who is being guaranteed to never have a bad year in revenues -- regardless of what they produce, or don't.  

 Need? Merit?

I don't know what else to tell you other than to ask you to please check out and sign the petition I wrote to Reform the 2013 Farm Bill that I will then forward to Congress.

I'd also like to invite you to read an excerpt from my latest book/memoir: An Odyssey in the Great American Safety Net.

Thank you,
James Abro 
Founder:  Advocate for Economic Fairness!

The proportion in poverty in 1969 stood at 12.1%. By 2011 it had risen to 15.0%. A larger proportion of Americans lived in official absolute poverty in 2011 than 42 years earlier. - See more at: http://inequality.org/absolute-poverty-america/#sthash.h3A2Heaa.dpuf
The proportion in poverty in 1969 stood at 12.1%. By 2011 it had risen to 15.0%. A larger proportion of Americans lived in official absolute poverty in 2011 than 42 years earlier. - See more at: http://inequality.org/absolute-poverty-america/#sthash.h3A2Heaa.dpuf
The proportion in poverty in 1969 stood at 12.1%. By 2011 it had risen to 15.0%. A larger proportion of Americans lived in official absolute poverty in 2011 than 42 years earlier. - See more at: http://inequality.org/absolute-poverty-america/#sthash.h3A2Heaa.dpuf
The proportion in poverty in 1969 stood at 12.1%. By 2011 it had risen to 15.0%. A larger proportion of Americans lived in official absolute poverty in 2011 than 42 years earlier. - See more at: http://inequality.org/absolute-poverty-america/#sthash.h3A2Heaa.dpuf
The proportion in poverty in 1969 stood at 12.1%. By 2011 it had risen to 15.0%. A larger proportion of Americans lived in official absolute poverty in 2011 than 42 years earlier. - See more at: http://inequality.org/absolute-poverty-america/#sthash.h3A2Heaa.dpuf
The proportion in poverty in 1969 stood at 12.1%. By 2011 it had risen to 15.0%. A larger proportion of Americans lived in official absolute poverty in 2011 than 42 years earlier. - See more at: http://inequality.org/absolute-poverty-america/#sthash.h3A2Heaa.dpuf

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Tony Awards -- an Insider's Perspective

I'd like to present for the first time a 'guest blog' -- one written by someone besides me.

Millions of us watched the Tony Awards the other night with an outsiders perspective -- probably finding it entertaining as well as offering us an opportunity to see many Broadway shows we won't get to see ( or can't afford to see) in person.

In the same way that many of us may shop at a Walmart or other wholesale outlets, and purchase and eat fruits and vegetables without knowing anything about what goes into their production, so it is true about much of the 'entertainment' we consume, including Broadway plays.

I read a 'review' of the Tony Awards by Fred Barton and asked his permission to reprint it here. 

Fred Barton is an American composer, lyricist, director, actor, singer, arranger, conductor, and pianist. He is  the co-creator and arranger and performer in the original company of the award-winning revue Forbidden Broadway. In 1985,  the show won a Drama Desk Award, and also won a special Tony Award in 2006.

So Mr. Barton is a Broadway insider; he knows what he is talking about. 

Here is his take on the Tony Awards:

"So I know you're dying to know. The fact that I had to run a search on the internet to locate the following information is everything that's wrong with Broadway today, and with the Tony [Awards]broadcast tonight. The unfortunate blonde with the aggressive street London accent, introduced only as "Velma Kelly in CHICAGO" is one Amra-Fay Wright, whose bio states that she has "starred in numerous musical extravaganzas worldwide," as well as the West End CHICAGO and other productions. She has no television credits, which is no disgrace, until you're on national television, and unable to find your teleprompter or have the forethought to memorize your five lines in case there's a fuck-up, and petulantly remark to millions of people that you or someone has fucked up and you don't know what to do. I wonder if she goes all Patti Lupone apeshit if someone misplaces her prop in a stage show, or if her fellow actor misses a cue.

The current Broadway cast members, en masse, should have flatly refused to appear unless they were identified by name, either by announcement or subtitle; my friend Judy McLane is not just some broad on the set in MAMMA MIA, she's fucking Judy McLane and deserves recognition; John Lloyd Young won the damn Tony Award himself, and did not deserve to appear as some anonymous fourth boy from the left in a generic JERSEY BOYS condescension. The producers of the show should be ashamed of themselves, although clearly shame is not on their list of skills. But the performers themselves bear some responsibility for this ignominious treatment; my friends, you're headlining on Broadway and people are paying big money to see you -- and even though Broadway is doing everything in its power to keep you down, to keep you anonymous, to keep you from being stars, and to keep you replaceable, you don't have to help them do it, even for a national TV appearance, which was designed to show you as grunts on a chain gang for the glory of others no more (and in some cases less) deserving."

Obviously, Mr. Barton did not watch the Tony Awards show with the same passive geniality as most. But I feel he makes some excellent points about  workers -- in this case actors -- and their relationship to the 'owners of their labors' that extend beyond Broadway and entertainers.  

I won't do him an injustice by paraphrasing him, so I'll repeat what I feel is the most poignant of his observations: The performers themselves bear some responsibility for this ignominious treatment; my friends, you're headlining on Broadway and people are paying big money to see you -- and even though Broadway is doing everything in its power to keep you down, to keep you anonymous, to keep you from being stars, and to keep you replaceable, you don't have to help them do it, even for a national TV appearance, which was designed to show you as grunts on a chain gang for the glory of others no more (and in some cases less) deserving.

I think we'd all feel better about our work, and create an even stronger economy,  if we heeded his advice to proudly value our work more highly

If you'd like to contribute a blog on a topic you feel passionate and informed about,  please message me on my Facebook page: 32 Beach Productions.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

It's our Damn Country (and food) not Theirs...

This just off the morning news wires: "Though the week got off to a mixed start, the record books remain wide open this morning with the Dow seeking to extend a record Tuesday winning streak currently at 16. The Dow has not fallen on a Tuesday since January 8. The S&P 500, meanwhile, comes off yet another record close, with the Nasdaq chalking up a 12-1/2 year closing high."

Okay, so bully bully for them.

But at the same time, when the wealthiest Americans, including the owners of large farming conglomerates, are doing better than any time in recorded history, why is our Congress considering cutting the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) by more than $20 billion dollars over the next decade?

I think the most obvious reason is a complete disconnect from the realities of the lives that the governed live as opposed to the lives lived by the people they govern.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the average wealth of a Congress person is around $14 million. How in the world are they supposed to relate to or understand what on an average day 50 million of their fellow citizens experience: food insecurity -- not knowing if, or when,  you might get your next meal.

They can't. But it's not their damn country,  it's ours. 

Even though I have received them, I am not in favor of food stamps. I think that a nation like the USA, with its enormous wealth, should be able to create an economy that provides its working citizens with enough income to afford to buy their own food.

Even though that's not the way it is right now, I would like to alert you to a progressive trend toward agricultural and financial independence taking place among some legislators in the Congress.

They need our support or otherwise big money, as usual, will snuff out their ideas. 

Here's one: Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has introduced a critical amendment that would  have a transformative impact on our food and farm system. It's called the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition amendment and is aimed at encouraging food and agriculture market development, entrepreneurship, and education. The Brown amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill would help create a better future for our nation’s food supply by aiding small farmers to grow healthy foodstuffs for local populations -- while at the same timed increasing employment in those same communities.Senator Brown: “By increasing access to fresh, local foods, we can expand markets for agricultural producers around the country while improving health, creating jobs, and strengthening our economy.”

Another equally important bill is called The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act of 2013.

This bill, if passed by Congress , would  increase support for farmers who are growing organic and sustainably produced fruits, vegetables, meats and other healthy foods for local and regional markets. It would also increase access to these healthy foods in underserved communities.  

So the news is not all bleak, but one must support these innovative legislative initiatives less they get bowled over by well-heeled lobbyists for large argri-businesses.

I'll repeat it more more time, like a cheesy cheerleader: It's our country, not theirs!

One small way you can participate is by signing a petition I created with Noelani Musicaro, a food-security activist, to Reform the Farm Bill of 2013 by including progressive legislative measures that will give us increased food and job security, not less.

Please read & sign: A Petition to Reform  The 2013 Farm Bill 

Please also support and join my Facebook group, Advocate for Economic Fairness!  

And please also check out Noelani Musicaro's Facebook page:  Figlie di Fortuna

Be well!  Stay healthy!  And fight the good fight! --  Rah! Rah! Rah!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Turning Fifty-Nine -- Like a Fine Wine?

Turning fifty-nine years of age is as good a time as any to reflect on where one is at in their life.

The last half of the last decade of my life was an especially 'picaresque' one (picaresque: realistic, and often humorous details of the adventures of a roguish hero of low social degree living by his or her wits in a corrupt society).

Yep, that about sums it up. Though, as per the definition, it begs for details:

That last half of the last decade of my life started out in a rather auspicious way. I traveled to India to join Yogi Amrit Desai (Founder of Kripalu Yoga) and a small entourage of people who were taking a 'lineage tour' of the places in India that were of seminal importance toYogi Desai's formidable spiritual development. Among the places we visited were the village where Amrit Desai grew up; the Temple in Malav dedicated to his guru, Shrii Kripalvanandji; and, the final leg of the journey for me, the Temple of Kayavarohan. Kayavarohan is a very special place' so please check out the video I linked it to.

It was the last leg of the journey for me because, while we were in a brief layover in Mumbai, I telephoned my 86-year old mother. She was completely disoriented, and living alone. I was writing a book on Yogi Desai and Kripalu, and I'd done the research I needed to do, so I decided to skip the next leg of the tour and return home.

While we were in Kayavarohan, Yogi Desai was gifted with a large Shiva icon to take back to the Amrit Yoga Institute in Florida. Yogi Desai didn't want to continue traveling with the 80 pound base of the statue in tow, so he asked if I'd take it back with me and then ship it to him in Florida.


Shiva icons are made from Joytilingams -- black meteorite shards in the shape of phalluses. They are essentially Penises from Outer Space. What I was taking back with me was the base for one of these phallic icons, or it's female counterpart, Shakti. Essentially an 80-pound vagina. Yogi Desai explained to me in great (mind-blowing) detail what to tell customs agents if they asked about it.

So here I am returning to the States with an eighty-pound vagina to take care of my ailing eighty-year-old mother. (Dr. Freud, I dare you to take this one on...). Needless to say, when I got to customs in New York and was greeted by a gruff Brooklyn customs agent, I said 'It's just a freagin' rock.'

I should have expected things to get 'loopy' after that, though there was no way I could have predicted how much so.

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers, and I had to make the decision to either take care of her in her home, or give in to the prevailing cultural (and familial) whim to have her institutionalized.

I decided to keep her at home and take care of her myself with the help of local social services. This so infuriated another member of my family, an older sibling, that I was literally in and out of court every three months or so protecting my mother's right to stay in her own home, and my right to take care of her.

In the end, I was not only exhausted emotionally and physically, but rendered destitute. I no longer had a place to live and I was broke.

I then had to lean on social services again, and learn how to humbly rely on 'the kindness of strangers'. I document this experience in a memoir, 'An Odyssey in the Great American Safety Net'.

So what does all this have to do with turning fifty-nine and fine wine?

I guess it's okay when you are in your thirty's and forty's, and you've practiced yoga or some other spiritual discipline, to set up shop somewhere and hang out a shingle declaring yourself a spiritual teacher. But I think that at some point in your life it's time to take down the signs and just live it.

If there is someone in your life you love who is terminally ill, don't let them be placed in a 'warehouse for the infirmed and aged'. Take care of them. There are many social problems that need addressing in our culture. If any of them affect you personally, then commit yourself to changing them. My personal experience of dementia and destitution has made me acutely aware of how inadequate our social services system is in regards to responding to people with these needs, along with seeing how difficult and painful it is to live in illness and/or poverty in our society.

Fine wine? Well, you can't even make a mediocre wine without crushing some grapes.

Please share a 'crushed-grapes' story on my Facebook Page: An Invitation to Odyssey.

Or, if you feel inclined, join my group: Advocate for Economic Fairness!


Monday, May 20, 2013

Time to Declare Economic Independence & Claim Creative Frededom!

Nearly thirty-five years ago, in the fall of 1978, I was hired by the N.Y. Newspaper Guild to work as a freelance writer and editor on independent, alternative newspapers the Guild was publishing in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Earlier in the year, unions representing  pressman, typesetters, machinists, photoengravers,  and commercial employees, including drivers, declared a strike against the owners of the three major New York City newspapers, as well as affiliate newspapers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Guild, representing more than 4,000 reporters and editors, shortly thereafter joined the strike in solidarity. 

The ostensible reason for the strike was to protect union members' jobs from  being replaced by new technologies and automation. Instead of asking management to retrain workers in the use of these new technologies, the union demanded that their jobs -- even if outdated -- simply be retained until those workers retired. A futile and misguided endeavor that was pursued only because it had worked in the past.

Past is the key word here.  

Members of The Guild, however, depending on their age, saw the strike and the alternative newspapers in a different light.

Roughly speaking, if you were over thirty-five, you saw the alternative newspapers as just another  bargaining chip to help union leaders resolve the issues with management and achieve the union workers' demands. Again, the model for this was in the past.  

At the same time, if you were a Guild member under thirty-five, you saw yourself as not merely helping to publish  a temporary 'strike-newspaper',  but that you had just been handed an extraordinary opportunity to create an independent newspaper that one could then own, manage and work at.

The alternative newspaper came about because  of the  technological advances that were replacing pressman and typesetters . Micro-computing, still in its infancy, allowed one to literally create a digital newspaper from the back of a truck (which we did) anywhere you were (in  NY, NJ, or Pennsylvania)  and then drop it off at a local printer and voila! -- instant newspaper on demand.  Being young and idealistic at the time, I fancied us as some sort of modern-day  heirs to Thomas Paine with his self-published pamphlets advocating free-thinking and independence from economic tyranny (Common Sense).

The Guild had not financed a strike since the 1960s, so it had a considerable 'war chest'   (over a decade's worth of union dues monies) to invest in publishing and distributing the alternative newspapers. It did so in good faith for four months; and we worked day and night, taking time off only when we felt the long hours were taking a toll on our skills and denigrating our product.  

I wish that I could report a happy ending, but in the end, actually,  the Old School Guild Members weighed down our efforts to put out independent newspapers. Instead of pitching in, they complacently waited for the corporations and/or unions to settle their differences and once again take care of them by letting them go back to the simple 9-5 lives they were used to.

I was so pissed off at  their lack of initiative and foresight to not seize on such a  once-in-a-lifetime  opportunity that when the strike ended,  I felt they deserved what they got. Next to nothing. I watched grown men who had worked 20 or 30 years for a newspaper whimper away like scolded school kids clutching checks  for 2 or 3 grand. 

For there was a new kid on the block, and a new breed of owner named Rupert Murdoch who not only did not have any sympathy for unions or workers, but disdained them. The unions were crushed, and their members were forced to accept early retirements for ridiculously low buy-out packages that included cuts to their cherished health-care benefits and pensions. 

So what's the lesson to take away from all of this? 

I think the most obvious lesson is that in this day and age, the twenty-first century, one should no longer be so naive  as to expect a corporation or union to 'take care of  you' for life.

My father was a union member at a time when skilled laborers like him (without even a high school education) could own a home, buy a new car every few years, and give his children the opportunity to go to college. Those days are over now, and will not come back.   When  people would chide my father for paying union dues to a 'syndicate' run by the allegedly corrupt (he can no longer speak in his own defense) Jimmy Hoffa, my father would retort: 'Sure, Jimmy Hoffa is a thief.  But he's a good thief -- he doesn't take everything.'  There's more than  a grain of truth in that, which  no longer holds true for the persons controlling our present economy. There are people in our midst who would, literally, like to take it all -- or at least 98% of it. I know I've posted this video before, but if you haven't watched it, or want to watch it again, please do: Economic Reality 101

I'm not advocating waving flags of surrender in the face of this grim collapse of unions and  consequent wealth-grab; quite to the contrary, I'm challenging and inviting you to take control of your own creative destiny and financial independence.  

Here are just a few of the resources I've found that can help you do that:

Crowd-funding for your work or project:  Centup,  Kickstarter, Indiegogo,   
Long term loan/investment: PAVE  
Social Entrepreneurship: Ashoka Center,  Resource Generation, Skoll Foundation

There are plenty more.  I'm not a union or corporation so I'm not going to try to find them all for you.

Please share what you learn on my Facebook pages:Advocate for Economic Fairness!
                                                                              32 Beach Productions

I'll leave you with this from Thomas Paine. (I think he was talking about economic dependence): "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right."

Monday, May 13, 2013

Give Us a Break!

The two most damning misconceptions about poverty in America is that it is the result of a weak economy, and that poverty is, 'in fact' , caused by poor people.

Weak economy?  

The details of an historically unprecedented explosion in wealth among a small percentage of the population in America during the last 40 years has been well-documented. If you need a refresher please revisit this video from Upworthy:

Or this article from Alternet .

And yet, despite this, there is a significant number of people in our political elite who are waging a war against poor people.   "The war against working people should be understood to be a real war.... Specifically in the U.S., which happens to have a highly class-conscious business class.... And they have long seen themselves as fighting a bitter class war, except they don't want anybody else to know about it." -- Noam Chomsky

Why? I think the simple answer is greed. But if you are going to be greedy in public, one must then find a way to justify such an otherwise socially unacceptable behavior.

Here's where it gets interesting, and creepy: after you abscond the nation's wealth you then blame the poor for being poor, for creating the economically and socially degraded condition they find themselves in.

To pull this off requires advanced wizardry (or as they used to call it in my hood, blarney):  I'll just use one such person as an example, Paul Ryan -- the wanna be VP. It's his Christian faith, specifically Catholicism, that informs and inspires him to be tough on the poor -- "for their own good". As if the current wealth disparity isn't tough enough on poor people, let's clobber them further with self-righteous moral judgments.  

I quoted Chomsky above. Now I'll retell an anecdote from one of his books. Alexander the Great is having a  marvelous time reeking havoc on the world as he goes about plundering and conquering it. Then one day he comes upon a man who has set up shop on a small Mediterranean port, where he is making a modest living pilfering from the largess of wealthy seafarers.

When Alexander encounters the man, he is beside himself with contempt: "My dear sir, how dare you pirate these waters?" 

The man looks back with world-weary eyes: 'My dearest Lord, how dare yay pirate the whole world?'

Give us a break.

Please visit my Facebook group: Advocate for Economic Fairness!

Friday, April 26, 2013

A Seat at the Guillotine - Oops/Slash - I Meant 'At the Table'

Yesterday afternoon I went to see the film 'A Place at the Table'. A well-intentioned attempt to shed light on hunger and poverty in America and provoke social and political activism.

Okay,   I'll give you the fact that I saw it in the middle of the day (noon) and that it was showing in a new art-house theater in the town where I live, but still: I was the ONLY person in the theater. Fortunately, I knew the proprietress who allowed me a 'private screening'.

'A Place at the Table,' was meant to be for the 21st century what the CBS documentary 'Hunger in America' was to America in the 1970s -- a shocking expose of hunger and poverty and a clarion call to do something about it.

It worked then and President Lyndon Johnson's 'Great Society' programs began to make significant inroads into ending acute and chronic poverty and hunger in America.

I covered this in a blog I wrote on March 12th, 'The Predicament of Impoverishment in America'. Allow me to quote myself (hell, it's my blog):  "In 1968, CBS aired a documentary called Hunger in America. It awakened many Americans to the fact that a very large number of their fellows citizens were underfed and malnourished. 

This led to significant legislative initiatives aimed at combating poverty and hunger in America during the late 1960s and 1970s.

Then, in 1976, came this ditty: "She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000."

The 'she' is the infamous 'welfare queen' and the person making the lumpen remark would become president of the United States in 1980.

Words matter. And the remark marked a significant turning point in American attitudes toward their fellow citizens receiving financial and/or food assistance from the government." 

Okay, so that was then and this is now. It's no longer politically correct to say things like that, but it's still damn sure all right to feel that way -- as many do. (We also didn't have Fox News then, who can now couch those kinds of views in 'subjective journalism'.) 

'A Place at the Table' made a few salient and poignant points: The most dramatic one, for me, was a report by doctors working in inner-city and rural health clinics on the state of the health of the children they see. It is not only that the children and young adults are obese and malnourished from eating a steady diet of cheap junk foods,  but that their immediate mental health is adversely affected as well as their long term physical health. In effect, we are creating a generation of people who will not have the mental skills to compete in the economy, and whose inevitable physical disabilities are going to devastate it. Nice job?!

The other two poignant moments in the film were how people partly responsible for this catastrophic domestic situation reacted to it. The first was the owner of a trucking service that delivers food nationally. His claim was that it is not cost effective to drive his 'eighteen wheelers' into small towns and inner cities. The camera then smartly showed  small-town groceries with isles and isles filled with ring-dings, sugar-dusted donuts, and an incredible assortment of chips and  candies... Those things are not manufactured in those places, so how do they get there? Someone is making enough money on them to do so. The fact: agricultural subsidies overwhelmingly favor the production of what goes into cheap-to-make and highly profitable processed foods, not fruits and vegetables. And that's not going to change so long as lobbyists for those giant agricultural corporations  and junk-food producers can pay politicians to maintain the status quo. The take away:  short term financial gains are more important than the health and well being of our next generations of Americans.

The third moment that struck me was the remarks made by a Senator opposed to increasing funding for child nutrition.  The former Senator from Indiana (big agricultural subsidy state) Richard Lugar. I don't mean to be unkind, but when he looks into the camera and says he doesn't think there is enough money for this program, the expression on his face is as disingenuous as what you'd find on a Sear's catalog mannequin, or -- what it reminded me of personally --the robots they used to impersonate human beings in exhibitions about the future in Worlds Fairs.  Fact: the money needed to fund child nutrition is miniscule compared to what was spent on any of these gems: the Bush tax cuts; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the bank bail outs .  Take away: this senator, and others like him, are not speaking from the heart or the gut; their lips are moving, but money is doing the talking.

As I was leaving the theater the proprietress asked me what I thought of the film. I told her I was tired of seeing movies about poor people; I want someone to make a film about the top 1 to 5% showing how they can remain so out-of-touch and insensitive to what is going on in their country.

I still do.

Please check out my Facebook group: Advocate for Economic Fairness!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Waiting for Godot? Hell no!

In 1953, Samuel Beckett, an Irishman living in Paris, published 'En attendant Godot', and then translated it himself into English,  'Waiting for Godot'.

It was produced in 1955 at a theater in Paris and since then has been performed non-stop at a theater locale somewhere in the world.  It's the only play about which that can be said.  In 1999,  it was named "the most significant play of the 20th century".

For those of you who are  not familiar with the play, it's essentially about two men --  call them rakes, hobos, bums, anchorites, idiot savants, hippies or punks  (if you want to modernize it) -- wandering about the stage not knowing where they are going and just as uncertain as to whether they should keep moving or 'wait for Godot' --whose presence is imminent but who never actually shows up.*[See a sample of the dialogue at the bottom of this blog.]

Of course a play like this -- labelled absurdist, existential, and even nonsensical-- is an enigma that has been subjected to a broad range of interpretations and explanations. Beckett himself said that he wasn't sure what it was about exactly, and that he might have written parts of it while in a 'trance'. 

I saw a production of the play, fittingly enough, on a barge docked along the Left Bank of the Seine River in Paris in 1976. It was a seminal experience in my life. I was 23 years old and had just graduated college. A few days after seeing the play,  while strolling around Paris feeling fancy free, as I was want to do,  I came across the cast of the play having lunch at an open-air table on a patch of grass alongside the floating barge. They appeared to be as flamboyantly rakish and raffish in real life as they had been on stage -- laughing and drinking, and, well, simply enjoying life (Joie de vivre!).

If there had been any corporate inclinations in my 20 year old future perspective on life, they were wiped out in that moment. That's how I wanted to live!

But, in addition to that, having seen the play, I feel, also entitles me to  my own opinion about what 'Waiting for Godot' means: I've always felt that Beckett was warning us against the human proclivity to look for authority figures to tell us what to do. The proclivity must be burned into our DNA because, except for this recent and brief (and still fragile) experiment with democracy, we humans have throughout history fought long and hard to be ruled by some particular authority figure, be it king, emperor, dictator, pope or cult leader.

It's understandable to want things to go right, and to want to put as little effort into it as possible -- after all, don't we elect people and pay them good money to do that for us? But is that realistic? I'd argue no, and I think Beckett might agree with me. 

I think that many liberals, progressives -- whatever they prefer to call themselves these days-- had a 'Waiting for Godot' attitude toward the election of Barak Obama.  They expected that just by the fact of electing him,  that the election in and of itself would change things.

I think it's time to heed Beckett's ever timely and significant warning against waiting for others to do for us what we know deep down we can only do for ourselves.

You can argue how effective, or not, Barak Obama has been as president, but his two terms in office have opened up an eight-year window of opportunity to push a progressive agenda forward without the interference of a reactionary conservative in the White House.

The question should not be about Obama's performance, but our own.  Are we doing enough to advocate  for economic fairness, affordable housing, living wages, banking and financial reforms? 

Pick a cause you feel something about and push for it. If not, don't blame 'Godot' for not showing up.

Please check out my Facebook group, Advocate for Economic Fairness! 

And, if you like, you can also watch this video of me talking about kindness and being homeless -- during which, I must admit, I did feel a little like one of Beckett's untethered waifs.

* Dialogue from Waiting for Godot: “Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for one the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflexion, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in the immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come -- ”