Category Archives: Social Commentary

Revolution Starts with the Fence

Is there revolution in the air?  Russell Brand is talking about it. Yves Smith at “Naked Capitalism” asks if it’s time to look at alternatives to capitalism.  She cites Brand’s writings and recent essays by Ian Welsh as examples of whiffs of revolutionary expressions.

Where to start?  I am reminded of one of Gary Larson’s great cow cartoon entitled “Cow Poetry” in which the beatnik cow laments the confines of the electric fence.

DISTANT HILLS
by A Far Side Cow

 The distant hills call to me.
Their rolling waves seduce my heart.
Oh, how I want to graze in their lush valleys.
Oh, how I want to run down their green slopes.
Alas, I cannot.
Damn the electric fence!
Damn the electric fence!

Don’t be afraid of the electric fence.  Roam free on the free range.

Notes:  Russell Brand doesn’t vote.  He never has.  It took me awhile to get to that place, but I wrote about it last year in “Power to the Apathetic”.  And as Brand points out, it’s not apathy but more like righteous indignation and not wanting to be complicit in the wrong doing of the corrupt system.

Looking for Trolls and Finding Common Ground

IMG_0751Saturday  I went down about 3 and 1/2 miles into the center of a mountain.  My husband has a friend who works at the local palladium (used to make catalytic converters) and platinum mine (one of only three in the world) and we got an invite to the annual Employee Appreciation Day  tour.  How could I pass up a chance to go into the kingdom of the trolls, workplace of the 7 Dwarves, and inspiration for the dark kingdoms in Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy?

The bus ride from downtown up the Boulder River to the mine took about an hour and we got lucky.  We were hit three days ago with a very early winter snow storm with 8 inches in town and 3 1/2 feet up in the mountains and at the mine.  Saturday was bright and sunny and the roads were clear.  The ride is always gorgeous but it was a winter wonderment yesterday although it was hard on the cows, horses, elk, deer and turkeys that we passed as they pawed and scratched to find some grass or grain to eat.  With the temperatures already rising, tomorrow would be much easier for the critters.  And most ranchers were spinning out some hay to tide them over.

On the hour ride a safety film was played and a safety instructor went over the basics of how to conduct ourselves in a hard rock mine.  “”Oh boy what have I got myself into?” I thought,  as my mind started plotting a Bruce Willis movie where he has to save a bunch of tourists who were trapped in the Escape Chamber at the bottom of the mine.  It didn’t help that I’m working out a deal for a client of mine to do “The 33”, a movie about the trapped Chilean miners who in 2010 had to spend 69 days a half mile down in the earth.  They were a half mile down and  we were going a lot further down. Yikes! I looked around at who to cast as the a**hole who drives people nuts and steals the last Coke and energy bar when nobody is looking.

IMG_0749 - Version 2Once we arrived at the mine, we entered the administration building and got our protective gear; hard hats; impenetrable gloves, flashlights, eye protectors, and metal toe shields.  Oh, and ear plugs.  Each person also has access to an individual device like a airplane oxygen mask that converts carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide, if, for example a fire breaks out.  It gives a person about an hour of air.  Time to find one of those escape chambers.  If there is an emergency, there is a  “Stench Warning” in which  a gas is emitted that sends a rotten stench through the air since miners may be working in the dark with ear plugs on.  Not sure I got all those instructions right, but then I’m still not sure about how to inflate those life vests under the airplane seats.

IMG_0743The journey down was in a long train made up of individual small square cars with room for about 4 to 6 people in each.    It was pitch dark and chilly  as we rumbled along with nothing to see but light bulbs, wires, and tubes.  Not quite a Disney World ride; no pirate ghosts but at least no annoying speaker system playing “It’s a Small World” although I started humming to myself, for some reason,  “Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash followed by “16 Tons”.

Once we arrived about 17 minutes later, we were shown around the shop area and also shown different types of machinery.  There was one massive machine that bored the holes into the rock for the sticks of dynamite.  I asked where it was manufactured and turns out Sweden makes a lot of these hole making machines that can cost a million dollars.  IMG_0733 Tasmania makes some of the underground bulldozers they use to scoop up the muck from which the precious metals are extracted.  They run around a half million dollars.

After an hour or so tramping in and out of different tunnels and watching guys operating heavy machinery, we loaded back into the train to take us back up to the top.  The journey home was much slower as we were going up.  They also admitted they were going slower on account of not wanting to possibly get derailed with a bunch of tourists on board.  It was at least 30 minutes and it was pretty darn chilly.  I was glad I brought warm gloves and a sweater and jacket, but many of the people had just worn sweatshirts.  The girl next to me looked kind of miserable, but the miner across from me was catching some shut eye. I passed the time reading “Econned” by Yves Smith on my I Phone.

We arrived at the top and got a great lunch of spaghetti and salads.  Then we piled back on to the buses and headed down the mountain and back to town.

Some of these miners come from over two hours away every day on the buses, work their shifts, and ride back home which leaves as little as 6 hours sleep.  But the pay is good and the work is “honest” as they say.

So no trolls.  No pick axes.  Just some lean looking regular  guys in yellow hats and plastic glasses.

As a footnote, back in 2000 the Stillwater Mine and the citizens of Sweet Grass and Stillwater Counties brokered a conservation deal.  It is called “The Good Neighbor Agreement”. Called ground breaking, it has become “a model” by the NY Times and “a testament to how people can find common ground,” by the Billings Gazette as it seeks to create jobs while at the same time protect the rivers, streams and agricultural land.

I was here when the discussions began about how to  protect the river where they shot “The River Runs Thru It” and it was highly contentious. (There was a doofer element that yelled loudly that any kind of interference with the company would cause the mine to go out  business, but that’s another whole chapter.)  But thanks to the hard work and common sense of some thoughtful rancher conservationists, they hammered out an agreement and to this day regular monitoring of the operations at the mine continue.  There is also  no man camp and so no “company store” that Cash lamented about.   It is also considered one of the safest mines in the world and the supervisors are continually looking for ways to improve safety.

For the local miners, this is for many, if not most, their first exposure to unions and the idea of government mandated safety rules.  It has been a long time since the Anaconda copper mine made Butte, Montana, “the richest hill on earth” while at the same time creating the nation’s largest super fund site with the toxic Berkeley Pit as a lasting reminder of corporation bad practices gone amuck.   Montana mines were also the most dangerous in the country. But many of these young miners are the grandsons and granddaughters of dairy and wheat farmers and cattle ranchers and not the kin of the rugged Fins and Irish men that wrestled minerals out of the earth a hundred years ago.  They are new to the idea of solidarity but you can hear it in their voices as they describe with pride how they look out for one another each and every day.   So no whistling while they work or “Hi Ho, Hi Ho’s”, but as we tourists settled in for the night in our warm homes  in town, somewhere deep below the mountains the  sounds of 1950s rock and roll are keeping a weary miner going.

The Feeling is Mutual

This afternoon I’m starting my next series called “Ruminating with the Ruminants:  Conversations with the Cows.”  I’ve been chewing my cud  for the last 4 weeks on the notion of charity and philanthropy.

I’ve been going to various summer fundraisers and appreciation picnics.  Here in beautiful Big Sky country with its rivers running through it, the summer residents have arrived.  Summer is the perfect time for community groups to invite these people to partake in the community by giving them an opportunity to rub elbows with the locals and to contribute monetarily to the various non-profits that vie for scarce dollars in a county that has only 3500 people in it and is the size of the state of Rhode Island.

I often sigh a lot when I’m eating my plate full of food at these affairs.  By and large, the people that run these organizations and those that sit on their boards  are dedicated and goodhearted folks.  The reason that I sigh is that I wish we didn’t need these charities.  I wish everyone made a living wage so we didn’t have to help people get decent food to eat.  I wish everyone made a decent living with short work hours and work weeks so that they could spend time with their kids instead of having after school volunteers take care of them.  If we had free college education, we wouldn’t need to have fundraisers for scholarships or to buy a kid a tuba.  If we banned chemicals and other crap from our crops and our cows,  we wouldn’t need as many cancer care groups.  If we really embraced community, we would take care of our retirees and respect their wisdom and reward their work years with decent pensions.  In a my wishful world, everybody would be at the picnic because everything would be done in mutual support of each other. There would be no classes of the haves and have nots.

Summer Sweet Grass Picnics Continue reading

Plenty of Time

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….” ― Noam Chomsky

I like lively debate outside the box.

We have a local lawn service that employees some Latin American workers.  The children work alongside the grownups.  They work hard but take good breaks and quit by 4PM.  I worked for my Dad in the summers and loved every minute.  At the breaks, we got a donut in the morning and one Pepsi in the afternoon.  Heavenly.  My Dad was a history major and loved to talk about long ago and far away.  He talked of the war and of growing up in The Depression.  He taught me how to hammer a nail and to tighten a screw.  I knew what the difference was between a wrench and a pliers.  I helped him build a boat and a small horse barn.  I helped him plant trees and pour cement.  He taught me how to mow a lawn straight.  That was the worst as my wandering mind and boredom led me to start making circles instead of lines. Then I would get hollered at.

I’ve changed my mind about education.  From where did I really get my learning?  I read a lot of books from the local public library.  My parents bought an encyclopedia and a huge book on the Civil War.  I know that Robert E. Lee’s horse was named Traveler because I read a book about it.  At the same time I learned to question what I was reading.   Mostly I learned from the stories my Dad and Mom told me of how they grew up in vastly different ways.  I’m pretty sure I would have been fine without being stuck in a cinder block cell called a school room for 7 hours a day.

I had the fortune to be raised on the grounds of the school for the handicapped that my Dad ran.  So I followed him like a puppy dog my mother said anytime I got the chance.  My Dad wasn’t stuck behind his desk all day in some far away office is some building in downtown Chicago.  Yes, I was fortunate.  He didn’t make a lot of money, but he had plenty of time for me.  I think that all children should have parents who have plenty of time.

There is child labor abuse like having little children work in coal mines.  But then there was also adult labor abuse in those mines.  Back breaking work in the fields in hot weather with no breaks is abuse.  But so is sitting in a cement box all day being taught to take tests.

In Dimitry Orlov’s “The Five Stages of Collapse” he tells the story of how he as a young boy in the Soviet Union would fake an illness so he was sent home for weeks.  There his grandmother would home school him for 3 to 4 hours and the rest of the time he would sled or play fetch with his dog.   He also read a lot of books.  His desk mate at school turned out to be a gypsy who scoffed at book reading and said that none of that was real and that his people kept everything in their head.

The powers that be hate leisure time for the riff raff.  Leisure is for for the elite.   Work is for the little people (to paraphrase Leona Helmsley).  And if they have too much leisure time it leads them to question the prevailing order of things.  The whole hierarchy thing comes into question.  Why do some people get to loll around while others have to work their butts off?  Yeh, why?

I was fortunate.  I got to do meaningful work  spending time with my Dad.  I want that for everybody.

2013_08_11_12_35_52.pdf000Me and Dad with the model ship “we” put together in the classroom where he taught his first classes at the Elim Christian School for the Exceptional Child.  My father was quoted as saying “Children should be custom made not mass produced.”  The children at his school learned to make a car, build a boat, cut and bale the hay field, take care of 2 steers and 5 horses along with reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.

Vegetable Medley

In my last entry I described a dish I made this week, Tikka Masala.  It’s an Indian dish with a rich blend of flavors.  As I stirred in the spices to the simmering onions and tomato paste and waved my hand over the pan and towards my nostrils just like I’ve seen chefs do on The Food Network,  I sighed, “Ahhhh”. Already the meal was satisfying.  And later when we ate it, we sighed again and commented on the complexity and the surprises in this exotic dish.

But if I go out to dinner in this tiny Montana town, “The steak (chop, fish, chicken) comes with either a baked potato or “our vegetable medley.”  The vegetable medley is so bland that I can hardly tell you what’s in it.  I think it’s got some zucchini, carrots, and those odd tasteless things with the odd texture, the sugar snap pea.  The spice is butter with a little salt.  Ho hum.

It came to me the other night that the “vegetable medley” is the apt description for the people that inhabit this place.  Having lived in New York City for over fifteen years with its rich blend of peoples, I often long for the sound of foreign accents, strange headgear, and different skin tones.

This is not to say we don’t have our local eccentrics (and by now I’m sure I’m considered one of them with my hats,  horn rimmed glasses, and big scarves).  IMG_0558 - Version 2

There is some satisfaction here in conformity and the sameness of even the vegetables with your entree.  There is comfort in the same Parmesan cream sauce over penne and the cream of mushroom soup. The ideas and the conversation can be much like that bowl of soup or that vegetable medley; a little weather conversation and concern about rain mixed with news of old Sally tripping over a frozen cowpie and breaking her hip while sorting cows.

When I long to talk about the protests in Taksim Square or the NSA spying crimes, I bite my tongue and talk of how to make the perfect Manhattan or why Hendriks gin is better than Bombay sapphire as an alternative to the endless discussions of drought and how the tomatoes are growing.  Instead of talking about Booz Allen Hamilton, I talk just booze.

Fortunately with summer comes the summer tourists.  Every once in awhile somebody slightly more like Tikka Masala than Vegetable Medley comes through the door and we engage in asking questions about each others’ countries and customs.   I savor these conversations like I do a good Chimichurri sauce accompanying my flank steak.

Staff and Workers and Big and Small

I shop at a huge supermarket/organic food combination store in Bozeman, MT.  Their organic department is quite good.  I was  going to remake a delicious Chicken Tikka Masala recipe from Bon Appetit’s April issue.  I had made it the night before to much praise by finicky husband.  I had all the exotic ingredients like Garam Masala, turmeric, chiles de arbol, cardamon pods.  I did not have Ghee (clarified butter) and was told to substitute vegetable oil.  It also said to use yogurt but not Greek.  I only had Greek.
So the point and relevance is coming, I promise you.
I am standing starring at the yogurt section.  Oddly, there now is very little old type yogurt.  Mostly Greek.  As I’m pondering, the usual helpful employee asks if there is something she can help me  with.  I usually say, “No, I’m fine”.  This time I mentioned there being no “regular” yogurt.  She explains the difference between them is mostly texture and how she has a hard time eating regular because the thickness of the Greek is so satisfying.  I tell her that I used the yogurt with the Indian spices to marinate the chicken.  We both pondered and decided to stick with the Greek since I had more of a variety of container size and whatever was left over I could eat.  I then showed her the jar of Ghee and asked about using that or the vegetable oil.  She immediately said, “Oh, the Ghee, of course.”
I thanked her profusely and went on my way to checkout where the bagger asked if he could assist me to the car (whispering as they always do), “I’d like to get outside. It’s so nice out.”   We chit chat all the way to the car.
I realized that the woman who helped me probably felt some satisfaction in helping me and it was a nice change from stacking shelves.  And with finally a nice sunny day, who wouldn’t want to get outside and see the beautiful snowy mountains and breathe fresh air?
Then off to Costco I went where the same people have been helping me for 15 years.  The same woman admires my flowers and I tell her that they last at least two weeks.  I talk to the checkout guy and ask how his son with cystic fibrosis is doing.  He has insurance which is much needed.
Why would anybody shop at Wal-Mart other than hoarders of cheap crap?
By the way, our local store is not all that great although it’s trying for more “organic” and the check out people are mostly kids or tired looking adults who none the less do smile and ask “How’s it goin’?”

I do  wish the “big” stores had lower ceilings and didn’t feel so…well…big. But the happy helpful staff makes up for that. (Although I do wish the bagger last week hadn’t coughed and sneezed all the way to the car.  No paid sick days?)  And I do wish the smaller stores weren’t so strapped that they can’t afford to pay decent wages to  their workers so that they felt more like…well… “staff”.

Weaseltown

“To err is human. To cover it up is weasel.” (Scott Adams).

A therapist friend recommended a new book called “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Tavris and Aronson.  I read a couple chapters and then skimmed through the rest.  It reminded me of books by Malcolm Gladwell and the “Nudge” guys who are friends of Obama.  Simple premise and lots of interesting examples.  The premise in “Mistakes” is that people use a lot of self justification to defend bad decisions or hurtful behavior.  Another phrase for this is “cognitive dissonance”.  Cognitive dissonance is the “state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as their example:  “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it will kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.”  (Not sure this is the best example as tobacco is addictive so there’s a reason it’s hard to stop the dumb thing.)  They also use the example of trying to make sense out of contradictory ideas such as Albert Camus’ idea that humans spend their lives trying “to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd”.  This causes anxiety in most humans , they say.

It hit me that these psychologists must not be Jungians.  Carl Jung embraced contradictions and was not cowed by them.  The whole concept of the shadow aka our dark side is based on humans being born hardwired in a certain way but through the software of life that includes families, friends, and work, we begin to experience  our opposites; the contradictions in life.   If we learn and grow and accept these opposites/ contradictions, we are healthy.  If we just can’t see our “dark side”,  we  don’t know that we live in a place called Weaseltown. Continue reading