Saturday, November 29, 2014

All Quiet On The Western Front

This is a classic in literature that I had never read. It was now time. Remarque served in World War I. His novel is a graphic recounting of the damage of war, first approached by young men who believe (at that time) in their mission. Friendships develop, and life seems good. Battles are described in precise detail, and gradually the horror is overwhelming. First published in Germany in 1928, certain passages show that Remarque foresees World War II.

I'm not going to say any more other than to recommend this first-person narration to anyone who is looking for a true-to-life recounting of war. But I will include a lengthy quote of this gifted author that captures the essence of this tale.

"I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing; - it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?" pages 263-264 of this edition.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

After watching "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price" - Hell no - they're not getting any more of my dollars.

Documentary: "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price"

July 17, 2014
Shopping at Walmart offers convenience, low prices, and a lot of variety. I finally succumbed after years of resistance to occasionally shopping at Walmart. After all, they were touting that they had local produce, some organic. And their employment policies did not automatically exclude people with criminal records, pretty progressive in the USA. Walmart's spin of stories on discriminatory employment practices was covered by the media, suggesting these were rarities. Money talks and advertising pays big, I guess. 

No more shopping there for me. My eyes have been completely opened after watching "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price." (2005) Filmmaker and Director Robert Greenwald contrasts Walmart's "message" with the truth, and it is appalling to see the big picture.

The film opens with President and CEO (at the time) Lee Scott giving pie-in-the-sky speeches at an annual meeting attended by both Walmart workers and the uppity-ups. He brags of record sales and earnings. The crowd cheers. Lee says they are "doing the right thing and doing things right every time."

Why then, is the Hunter family's small business - a hardware store in Middlefield, Ohio that lasted generations - now dust in the wind? Can Walmart justify the closing of small town businesses after it appears, decimating downtowns?  

Why does Walmart received tax-funded subsidies to add their big box stores? School teachers and fire fighters show that their budgets are cut when Walmart gets public money and publicly-funded infrastructure (roads, streetlights, sanitation, and so on). 

Why are employees encouraged by Walmart's own personnel departments (as a matter of corporate policy) to apply for Medicaid, food stamps, and public assistance? Answer: because their annual wages at the time of the documentary were in the $13,000 range. There are stories of (and lawsuits on behalf of) employees forced to clock out but to continue working so that overtime wouldn't have to be paid.

This refreshing documentary tells the stories of real people, not "experts." Josh Noble, at one time thrilled with his job, becomes a union organizer after enduring less than ideal working conditions and only a $1.07 hourly raise after his 3rd year of loyal service. Edith Arana describes the lack of affordable health insurance and the point-blank statement to her that her race and sex were preventing her from being promoted.

Small business owners talk about how the intrusion of Walmart led to the decline and closing of their businesses. Chinese workers discuss their exploitation and being forced to lie about their hours. A Walmart manager is dismayed when his attempts to improve the conditions for Honduran workers are completely disregarded. Customers who were crime victims due to the lack of security outside the stores get treated shabbily. People who are trying to fight Walmart's efforts to build in their neighborhoods have David-versus-Goliath stories to tell.

This film will give you pause next time you pass - or enter - Walmart. Forget the ads showing Walmart as a responsible and caring presence in a community. Think about the billionaires it has created while treating and paying employees poorly, ensuring that a number of them must draw public benefits to support their families.

Wonder about why employees contribute annually millions of their own hard-earned dollars to an emergency fund for other Walmart employees caught up in disasters (tornados, floods, and such) while the billionaire Waltons contribute just a few thousand dollars to this same fund?

These stories of workers, many of whom had been loyal employees, are heart-
breaking. The destruction of small businesses likewise is truly disturbing. Walmart's surreptitious efforts to resist unionization, spending fortunes rather than paying living wages, is despicable.

Some appalling statistics are interspersed between the interviews, but the film ends surprisingly on a note of optimism. This inside look at one of the largest and wealthiest corporations should not be missed. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I took an 8 week road trip in the summer of 2011 to de-stress from a difficult job in the world of law and state government - and as the beginning of ACT III of my life.  The vast beauty of the country laying out before me, accompanied by music, talk radio, audio books or silence, was a perfect way to start anew. The plan was to stay off interstates as much as possible and stay in towns off the beaten track, to be in the moment. On the one hand, a long road trip empties one of the past and the future, but on the other hand recalls history.
I began in Las Vegas, Nevada - headed up to Portland, Oregon - then meandered east all the way to Ocean City Maryland.  Next: through the south to North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, then a few days in Texas, New Mexico and back to Nevada.

I enjoy the anonymity of travel. One is an observer and not valued (or devalued) based on one's career, family, income level, origin, or connections.  Adrift on the road and on walkabouts, one experiences the humanness of existence. One is a part of this vast grouping of land and people, buildings and industry, farms and mountains, and roads and water, all of which are connected. Who and what we are, and what we have become, and the "baggage" we carry seems less important and lighter. That is freeing.

I visited many places in this country to which I will not return. Life will go on there, though I have seen the near death of a number of small towns that were thriving in the past. I could imagine their pasts and their futures. The small towns stand out along with the vast amount of undeveloped land in this country.

It is calming to be on the road alone (except in the beehive traffic areas). The crazy divisiveness of politics and prejudice becomes just a gentle hum. Nature prevails. On occasion, time slows down, particularly when the landscape is repetitive, only broken by the occasional billboard.

In flat places like western South Dakota and eastern Texas, I would see a shape that broke up the flatness in the distance and keep my eye on it until it formed into a silo or barn. In other moments, time flew, particularly as darkness descended and my fear of driving in the dark reared up. Road trips are a way of time traveling. The land evokes the days when Native Americans were the dominant people, when industries rose and fell, when forests covered much more of the country, and when the civil rights movement was in its infancy.

The last few weeks of the trip flew by more quickly than the first few. Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska seemed to be leisurely and refreshing drives. As the trip ended, obligations and chores came back to my mind. Today, this trip is almost like a dream. By writing about it and looking at my photos, I experience it tangentially. Already, it seems long ago. 

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

When I immerse myself  (however briefly) in a culture that dates back centuries, I realize how I am here on this earth for only a few moments. When I listen about the long peaceful history of the Acoma Nation, interrupted by conquerors and then the encroachment of the dominant culture of the United States, I admire the people who work to ensure that their rich cultural traditions remain.  The Acoma Pueblo has preserved the Acoma Mesa, on which many people lived over centuries, surviving raids, droughts, and attempts to destroy their cultural traditions.  A visit to the Acoma Nation leaves one in awe at the ability of the people to persevere.  These few photos give a sense of the place.

A dog watches warily as tourists wander about the mesa.

As we leave, there is an overlook that allows us to look back on the beautiful mesas in the valley.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The contradiction.  There's an odd beauty in the smoke heading up to the sky.  As a young person, the imagery of Bethlehem Steel enthralled me.  From the waterfront one saw white-gray smoke drifting upwards into the clouds, beautiful puffs against a turquoise sky.  When I learned of environmental hazards of coal-fired plants, I reconsidered, particularly since I was burdened with numerous upper respiratory issues.  Now, as a photographer and writer, I see the strange contradiction and wonder.

We want clean energy.  We want energy-independence.  We need heat and electricity and fuel for our vehicles.   Very few of us live "off the grid."

How do we reconcile these internal contradictions?