Thank You, President Obama

President Barack Obama is photographed during a presidential portrait sitting for an official photo in the Oval Office, Dec. 6, 2012.  (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“Before I leave my note for our 45th president, I wanted to say one final thank you for the honor of serving as your 44th.  Because all that I’ve learned in my time in office, I’ve learned from you. You made me a better President, and you made me a better man.”

President Barack Obama, January 19, 2017

President Obama, today you officially leave the White House and reenter life as a (somewhat) private citizen.  After an incredible, yet curious, eight years, you leave a unique legacy to a nation that challenged you both professionally and personally.  From my vantage point as an average citizen, I feel you did as best you could do.

First, you took on the most difficult job anyone could have: proverbial leader of the “Free World.”  It’s a position riddled with dichotomies: intensely powerful and emotionally draining; prestigious and notorious; riveting and excruciating; honorific and horrifying.  With a glaring tone of schizophrenia, it’s not so much a job as it is a role.  Chief Executive of the United States of America stretches across the horizon of humanity.  No wonder you leave office looking decades older than when you first arrived!

Second – and perhaps most important – you took on this task at the start of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; when we straddled two wars that left us enraged and tired; when the richest, most powerful nation on Earth suddenly had to question its future in relation to its past.  And you did it with members of the opposition who awoke each day more determined to destroy you than to ensure the nation’s success.

Your life story is fascinating.  Here you are – born of a Black immigrant father who abandoned you almost from the start and a White teenage mother who nurtured you as best as her young age would allow, but who would never see your rise to fame – one individual beginning life under such duress.  You attended Columbia College where you majored in political science and English literature.  You moved on to Harvard University, one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education and one of the most difficult to access.  You were then president of the Harvard Law Review.  Before that, though, you were a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles where a hint to your political ambition became apparent in a speech calling for the college to sever its investments in South Africa.  None of these are small achievements.

As president, you helped to salve the damage of the Great Recession with investments in an economy that created 11 million new jobs; the longest such streak on record.  Unemployment is now down to pre-recession levels.  With exports up by 28% and a deficit cut by $800 billion, the stock markets have nearly tripled, the auto industry is flourishing again, and our reliance on foreign oil stands at a 40-year low.  High school graduation rates increased substantially, and Pell Grants doubled.  Your administration instituted new federal student loan payment plans; established a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; put in place a new mortgage refinance program; passed a Patient’s Bill of Rights; extended protection for land and water resources; and placed limits on carbon pollution.

If I have any grievances regarding your record, they are few, but noteworthy.  I personally don’t care for the Affordable Care Act, as it presently stands.  You and your fellow Democrats seemed to spend too much time designing and implementing this law, instead of focusing even more time and energy on the economy.  Americans certainly don’t need another tax, when they’re having trouble finding stable employment!  I was also disappointed in your response to threats by your Republican colleagues to withhold benefits for the long-term unemployed at the end of 2010, if you didn’t agree to maintain the Bush-era tax cuts; the very items that shoved the nation into economic jeopardy shortly before you took office.  I believe you had the executive power to force the dreaded tax cuts to expire as originally scheduled and further ensure benefits for those hapless citizens – people you rightfully deemed “hostages” – remained in place.  There were other down moments: “Operation Fast and Furious” and the Benghazi tragedy, in particular.  These episodes may haunt you, but they don’t define you.

You withstood the worst personal attacks on any public official I’ve ever seen.  From vicious protests by a band of (all-White) conservative students at Texas A & M University to a South Carolina congressman shouting “You lie!” in the midst of your first State of the Union address (something that had never happened before); the Arizona governor jutting her crooked finger into your face and later claiming you intimidated her; and finally to the asinine “birther” movement propagated by the incoming president, you’ve endured extreme social and political animosity.  As someone who began following U.S. politics with the Watergate scandal, I can say with 100% certainty that I’ve never witnessed such levels of verbal barbarity and recalcitrance as what your Republican counterparts slung at you.

It’s obvious you tried to restrain your frustration; fighting through the muck of political swamp water.  But I still wish you had simply gotten ugly with these clowns.  With each personal assault, I kept wishing you’d strip away your professional comportment momentarily and bring forth the worst parts of your personality (the kind that exists in all of us); the nigger and / or redneck sides of you – all in a concerted effort to try to communicate with your adversaries.  They didn’t like you anyway.  Nothing you did or said could possibly satisfy their pathetically myopic attitudes.  If you tried to negotiate and compromise, they dubbed you weak and ineffective.  If you dared to raise your voice and talk back to them, they declared you uppity.  You couldn’t win no matter what you did.  So, why remain polite and dignified all the time?  Yes, I realize that’s not your nature.  But, in dealing with arrogance and outright stupidity, you occasionally have to jump into the gutter with those fools, merely so they can understand you.  I’ve had to do just that in my own professional life and I always hated it.  I despised dumbing down my intellectual capacity just to get my point across.  It’s nasty and painful to we intellects who understand the value and necessity of good dialogue.  But, like cleaning a dirty toilet in your bathroom, sometimes you just have to behave in such a manner to get things done.

And, despite the blatant, unapologetically crude and juvenile behavior your opponents exhibited, you tightened your lips, held your head high and kept your back straight.  You let your emotions show on only a handful of occasions; mainly when yet another deranged gunman rained terror on unsuspecting innocents.  In other words, you allowed the true nature of your humanity gush forward when it really mattered.

Your poise and demeanor are unmatched among modern-day public servants.  You and your beautiful family are emblematic of grace and class.  Mrs. Obama, in particular, displayed personal charm and studious refinement; more so than all four of her predecessors combined.

In 2012, I published an essay on this blog entitled “Barack Obama – The Unintentional Martyr”; where I highlighted that your professional troubles were a predictable, almost unavoidable evil; a grueling necessity to compel America to hold up to its promise of dignity and equality for all citizens.  You paved the way for future candidates who won’t fit into the pre-ordained mold of what an American president should look and sound like.  I suspect if your father had been born in Europe, Canada or even Australia, no one would have questioned your citizenship or your legitimacy.  But he was from Africa – the “Dark Continent” – that massive region of Earth that is the birthplace of humanity and whose indigenous peoples had the audacity to expel a cavalcade of brutal European colonists and – gasp! – demand they be treated with the proper deference naturally due to them as human beings.

I understand the hate that a mixed ethnic background incurs from the cerebrally- challenged.  I’m White (mostly Spanish, but also one-quarter German) and Mexican Indian.  I tell some people I’m justified in criticizing middle-aged White guys because…well, I’m one of them; while I told others who didn’t care for you to just vote for the “White Obama.”  My ancestry in the state of Texas extends back to a time before the Mayflower pilgrims had even begun making travel plans.  I celebrate my complex heritage because it ultimately spells A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N.

Unfortunately, future history-making presidents will have to face the same barrage of disquieting irreverence: the first female, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Wiccan, atheist, or gay / lesbian Chief Executive.  All of them will have their character questioned and their birthright authenticity shredded by those who think America’s sacred promise of opportunity and equality actually applies only to them and their ilk.  These prospective White House occupants will be forced to prove their place in this great American society is not defined by other peoples’ ideals.

Sadly, you leave office – and the fate of the nation – in the lap of a maniacal, temperamental, foul-mouthed, proudly bigoted oaf; a cretin who holds no qualms in lambasting anyone who is the least bit different from or disagrees with him, yet seethes about the most diminutive of sleights.  He has single-handedly reduced the prominence of the U.S. presidency to 140 character rants.

I’m trying to imagine you entering the White House with a much-younger third wife for whom you left your second wife.  My brain cramps as I try to envision you standing before a crowd of thousands demanding they pummel a dissenter into the ground.  I can only wonder the reaction you’d get telling a mass of financially-struggling Appalachian Whites, “What do you have to lose?”

I will miss you, Mr. Obama, along with your eloquent words and unimposing determination to make the United States live up to its full potential as a nation for all people.  You can rest now, my good man; start building your library; await the days you become a father-in-law and a grandfather; and – above all – get some sleep!

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Dead Demos

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In some paranormal circles, “dead time” refers to the period when otherworldly spirits are most likely to be active.  Even though it’s not official – and really, nothing in the paranormal realm is considered official – it’s generally believed to occur between midnight and 5 a.m., with the two to four o’clock hours considered the key time.  Nothing in the political arena – especially here in the U.S. – is considered normal either.  But, for those who didn’t vote for Donald Trump in last fall’s presidential elections, dead time started materializing just as Tuesday, November 8 was turning into Wednesday, the 9th, and it appeared the bombastic real estate magnate was going to be our nation’s 45th Chief Executive.  Trump’s entry into the race nearly two years ago surprised few; his name had arisen more than once since the late 1980s as a potential candidate.  But, as he marched forward – taking out one competitor after another – the mainstream Republican Party stood dumbfounded; recoiling as each individual dropped from the race quicker than a Texan would drop a bottle of warm beer.

And, for the second time in sixteen years, Americans found themselves with a president-elect who didn’t win the majority of the popular, but still managed to garner most of the electoral votes.  The vast majority of liberals and moderates were shocked – and appalled – that such an event could happen again within so short a period of time.  As the Democratic National Party scratched its head, people began to question the validity of the Electoral College system that original framers of the U.S. Constitution had created as a means of spreading the generosity of power.

U.S. intelligence had surmised last summer that Russian hackers were trying to infiltrate our voting system.  Now comes proof they actually did manage to sneak their way into it.  Exactly how they were able to do that remains uncertain.  Were votes eliminated, or were votes added?  Was someone in the Electoral College bribed?  Even if no one hacked into the system, would Trump have won anyway?

It’s bad enough that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump garnered their respective party’s nominations last summer.  But they plowed through the campaigns with the lowest favorability ratings of any presidential candidates in U.S. history.  In other words, no one really liked either of those fuckers, but felt compelled to vote nonetheless.  Voting is more of a right and a civic duty than it is a privilege or an inconvenience.  I have to admit that – for the first time since I began voting in 1992 – I went rogue and selected Green Party candidate Jill Stein.  I knew Stein had as much of a chance of getting into the White House as I do of going a month without a mixed drink or a glass of wine.  But it’s always the thought that counts, right?

I’ve always liked Bill Clinton, but Hillary never had much appeal to me.  Most of my friends and relatives voted for her.  A few criticized me for choosing Stein over Clinton; emphasizing that I was inadvertently voting for Trump instead.  I don’t care.  Opting for the lesser of two evils isn’t much of a choice.  I did that in 2004, when I voted for John Kerry.  Regardless, I wasn’t going to be swayed by party loyalists this time.  While Trump is atrocious, Clinton is as hollow as the empty bottles of hair dye she leaves on the bathroom floor.

Yet, as the world looks at the United States – that self-proclaimed beacon of democracy and freedom – with a mix of horror and amusement, the Democrats are still patching up their emotional scars and sorting through the morass.  But let’s pretend for a moment that no one had hacked into our voting system, or that any such attempts were successfully uncovered and squelched months before election day and that Trump still managed to win.  The Democratic National Party would still have to undergo some serious soul-searching and understand what they did wrong.  I can help and have narrowed the fiasco down to three primary issues.

 

Affordable Care Act (ACA) – While millions of average Americans were losing their jobs, their homes and their life savings because of the 2008 economic meltdown, the Democrats curiously focused their efforts on one issue: health care.  Yes, it’s great if people don’t have to choose between a flu shot and the light bill.  But ensuring that citizens will have adequate health care is not nearly as significant as ensuring they have gainful employment.  I don’t know why the Democrats went off into an ideological black hole with this issue.  That Democrats seemed more concerned with the ACA than boosting the economy was matched only by the Republicans’ determination to destroy the program.  Both parties operated within a vacuum.  Nothing else – mainly that economic thing – seemed to matter.

Inequality – The “Great Recession” almost completely destroyed the U.S. economy.  So many factors contributed to the calamity, but the USD 8 trillion housing bubble burst was the primary culprit.  More people than ever before were buying homes, which would normally be a good thing.  But, in this case, people were getting into homes with little or sometimes zero money down.  How reasonable does it sound for someone earning roughly USD 30,000 a year to buy a USD 500,000 house without making a down payment of even 5% of the structure’s value?  Such a practice was inconceivable two decades ago.  But that’s exactly what people were doing.  And both financial institutions and homebuilders were part of the fiasco.

When I got laid off in the fall of 2010 (in the midst of a fragile recovery), my top concern was the job market; not whether I could afford to get my teeth cleaned.  By the end of that year, the “Great Recession” was, from a purely technical standpoint, over.  But to those of us trapped in its putrid residue, it was alive and well and sucking up our savings and maxing out our credit cards.

Between the fall of 2008 and the summer of 2009, the U.S. economy lost 8.4 million jobs, or 6.1% of all payroll employment.  It was the worst job loss since the Great Depression.  When people mention inequality, they’re not referring to racial or gender disparities.  They’re talking about the wealth gap; that ever-widening abyss that separates the middle class from the upper class.  After-tax income has been shrinking for the past three decades, while the cost of living has been increasing.  Sen. Bernie Sanders made this a key point of his own bid for the presidency last year, and it certainly gained a great deal of attention.  But the Democrats seemed more intent on denigrating Donald Trump’s character and highlighting his personal foibles.  People working two or three jobs just to stay afloat financially don’t really care if the real estate mogul fondled a young woman at a beauty contest.  They want to know if they’ll ever be able to stop working so hard for so little.

Illegal immigration – For decades politicians have said, if they want to appeal to Hispanics, they have to devise a comprehensive immigration plan; meaning that illegal immigrants from anywhere in Latin America must be treated better than others.  This ideology assumes two things: that most Hispanic-Americans are immigrants and that we only care about providing sanctuary for people who emigrate to the U.S. illegally from Latin America.  Immigration – legal or illegal – is NOT the top priority for most Hispanic-Americans.  As a group we’re concerned about the same things most other Americans are concerned about: jobs and the economy.

Obama’s demeanor – Barack Obama is one of the smartest and most verbally gifted men ever to ascend to the nation’s highest elected office.  He had the right message with the right tone.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  His demeanor is as remarkable as it is unimposing.  It’s one of his greatest attributes.  But, once in the White House, it became one of his greatest faults.  You’d think someone who came of age in the rugged world of Chicago politics would be a little more forceful.  But I felt Obama was too conciliatory, too nice, and too willing to compromise.  The Republicans made it clear from the moment he won the 2008 contest they were determined to ensure he wouldn’t garner a second term.  Their efforts didn’t pay off: Obama won again four years later.  And, as Obama himself stated in his 2016 ‘State of the Union’ address, there was never any doubt he actually won.  But the level of disrespect and recalcitrance the GOP displayed towards Obama has been unprecedented.  From Rep. Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” at Obama during the 2009 State of the Union address to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer jutting her finger into Obama’s face (later claiming he intimidated her), I can say without a doubt Obama endured more shit than any of his predecessors.

I’m certain race played a major factor in their behavior.  A gaggle of (mostly) old, White men just couldn’t fathom that a half-blooded Negro actually won the presidency.  So, instead of working on behalf of their constituents (that is, doing their jobs), they opted for the asshole category and tried to stifle Obama at every turn.  If he tried to compromise, he’d be viewed as weak; if he talked back, they’d consider him uppity.  He just couldn’t win no matter what he did.  And I know he could see this.  Therefore, he should have responded accordingly.

Politics in any nation is a blood sport, and the United States leads in the sanguinary nature of this.  Obama needed to get ugly with those clowns.  And not just ugly, but fuck ugly; telling them, ‘Look, I’m president and I run this joint.  You either work with me, or I’ll use my executive powers to slaughter your ass.’  That wouldn’t have earned him any fans among the right-wing crowd.  But he might have earned their respect.  I’ve learned that the hard way; sometimes you just have to stand up and scream at people to get their attention and make them bestow upon you the dignity and deference you deserve.  It’ll definitely piss off some people.  But in politics, like in business, you have to draw the line somewhere and tell people to shut the hell up and listen.  It’s just the nature of both realms.  You may not win any friends like that, but you’ll generally get the job done.

 

Overall, though, I’m satisfied with the Obama years.  One person – even the President of the United States – can only do so much.  History will be kinder to him than his contemporaries.  It’s already treating George W. Bush with more compassion than he deserves.  If the Democratic Party intends to remain relevant in the future, they need to be tougher with their opponents.  But they also need to be more forward-looking and emphasize that we can’t go back in time when things seemed simpler and calmer.  Otherwise, they’ll be digging an early grave for themselves, and only their most devout followers will be in attendance.

Demos.

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Go On

My first two personal journals, which covered the dreaded year of 1985.

My first two personal journals, which covered the dreaded year of 1985.

On December 31, 1985, I gathered with one of my best friends, his then-girlfriend and her older sister at the girls’ house to ring in the New Year.  In my 22 years of life at the time, I had never been so glad to see a single year fade away as 1985.  Just about everything had gone wrong for me.  I was placed on academic probation in college because of my dismal grades for the fall 1984 semester; then got suspended for the fall 1985 term because I still couldn’t get it right.  That prevented me from becoming a full member of a fraternity I so desperately wanted to join.  In April my parents and I had to put our German shepherd, Joshua, to sleep.  That fall I had my first sexual experience, which proved embarrassing and depressing.  In October I fell into a police trap and was arrested for drunk driving.  (My blood alcohol level ultimately proved I wasn’t legally intoxicated.)  By Christmas, I was an emotional and psychological wreck.  I’d come as close to committing suicide as I ever had that year.  But, as New Year’s rolled around, I’d settled down my troubled mind and realized my life could continue.

I realized 1985 was the worst single year of my brief existence and hoped I’d never see another one like it.  For more than three decades that pretty much held true.  For the longest time almost anything related to 1985 made me tremble with anxiety.  Nineteen ninety-five turned out to be almost as bad; instilling a phobia in me about years ending in the number 5.  Ironically, though, 2005 was a pretty good one for me, and last year was okay.

Then came 2016.

People all around me are waiting for this year to die, like a pack of hyenas loitering near a dying zebra.  Aside from a raucous political campaign – with a finale that seems to have set back more than two centuries worth of progress – we’re wondering why this year has taken so many great public figures and left us with clowns like the Kardashians.  I could care less.  This year has also taken my father and my dog and is slowly taking my mother.

Over these last six months, I’ve experienced emotional pain unlike anything I’ve ever felt before.  I’ve never endured this kind of agony.  It’s dropped me into an endless abyss of despair.  Early in November, strange red spots began appearing all over my body.  It brought with it chronic itching sensations.  I wondered if small pox had been reintroduced into society and I was one of its unwitting earliest victims.  The rashes and the itching would come and go, like million-dollar windfalls to an oil company executive.

It all shoved me back to the spring of 1985 and the odd little sores that sprung up on either side of my midsection.  They were painful pustules of fluid that I tried to eliminate with calamine lotion, ice cubes and prayer.  They finally vanished, and only afterwards did someone tell me what they were: shingles.  I had to look up that one in a medical reference.  For us cretins aged 40 and over, WebMD was a fool’s dream.  But I knew that’s what I had, and its cause was just as apparent – personal stress.  My poor academic performance, Joshua’s death, thinking my failure to join that stupid fraternity was a reflection of my failure as a human being – all of it had piled onto me.

In November of 1995 – about a week after my birthday – I woke up early one Saturday morning, stepped into the front room of my apartment and repeatedly banged my fists against the sliding glass door.  I was aware of it, but I felt I was compelled to do it.  As I lay back onto my bed, my hands already aching from pounding on the glass, I asked why I had done something so bizarre at that hour of the morning.  Then, almost as quickly, I answered myself.  I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was experiencing serious financial problems at the time and I was having even more problems at work.  My father had just experienced a major health scare.  One of my best friends was sick with HIV and had been hospitalize with a severe case of bronchitis, and I’d just had a heated telephonic argument with another guy I thought was a close friend over…some stupid shit I can’t recall after all these years.  So, after weeks of dealing with that soap-opera-esque drama, my mind cracked.  Stress of any kind wreaks havoc on one’s mind and body.  It’s several steps up from a bad day at the office.  This is why U.S. presidents always look light-years older when they leave office.

So, as I smothered my body with cocoa butter lotion and anti-itch cream, I harkened back to 1985 and thought, ‘Goddamn!  History repeats itself too conveniently.’  The death of another dog and more subconscious trauma.  This time, though, events have been more critical than not being able to join a fucking fraternity or falling into a drunk driving trap.

But something else has changed.  While my body reacted in such a volatile manner, my soul has been able to handle it better.  I’m older and wiser now, and with that, comes the understanding that life is filled with such awful and unpredictable events.  Yes, I’ve fallen into fits of depression.  But I’m not suicidal.  I don’t want to harm myself in any way.  In fact, I want to heal and keep going.  I didn’t kill myself in 1985 or in 1995 or in any other stressful period since then.  I really just want to keep going.

I keep a list of story ideas; a Word document amidst my electronic collection of cerebral curiosities.  When I peruse that list, I realize I may not be able to bring all of those ideas to life.  But, if I didn’t try, why should I even bother with it?  Why bother even with getting up every morning?

Something has kept me alive all these years.  Something has kept me going.  Earlier this month I noticed a cluster of irises had bloomed unexpectedly in the back yard.  My father had planted them a while back.  With Texas weather being so schizophrenic, warmer-than-usual temperatures must have confused the flowers, and they jutted their blossoms upward into the swirling air.  I had to gather a few before temperatures cooled, which they did.  They languished on the kitchen counter for the next couple of weeks, longer than usual.  And I realized their presence is coyly symbolic.  My father was telling me that, despite the heartache of this past year, life continues, and things will get better.

I still miss my father and my dog, but I care for my mother as best I can, even as her memory keeps her thoughts muddled from one day to the next.  And I continue writing because that’s who I am and what I love to do.  I can’t change what happened years ago, but it brought me to where I am now.  I couldn’t alter the events of this past year.  But it’ll all carry me into the following years.

Happy New Year’s 2017 to all of you, my followers, and to all of my fellow bloggers!

Irises that bloomed in our back yard earlier this month.

Irises that bloomed in our back yard earlier this month.

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Echoes on Carpet

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“Goodnight, little boy.  I love –”  I stopped, catching sight of the blank floor space against the wall, next to the closet in my room.  He wasn’t there, curled up into a crescent of silver and white atop a towel riddle with holes and tears.  Wolfgang was gone.

I was reaching for a lamp on an end table, when I started to tell him goodnight and that I love him – as I’d done for years.  I remained in that odd position – propped up on my left elbow, right arm stretched out towards the lamp – for what was probably just a few seconds, but felt like several minutes.  I wondered how long I could hold that position without dropping dead.

I finally shut off the lamp and laid back onto my trio of pillows.  Beneath a single sheet, clad in nothing but skin and body hair, I felt a stick of anxiety materialized in my throat.  I rattled off my usual stanza of prayers to all those who’ve gone before me, pleading for their protection and their strength.

I looked again at the spot on the floor where Wolfgang would camp out every night; that ragged towel – seemingly held together by strings – bunched up beneath him.

I don’t know why, but Wolfgang had a fetish for towels.  It may have come from his previous daddy, Tom*, my former friend and roommate, who carried the puppy around in a lunch cooler; an old purple beach towel of mine that he’d stuffed into it.  The towel provided some comfort to a tiny critter who would grow into a 20-pound monstrosity filled with eons of canine angst.

In early 2005, I lived and worked temporarily in Northeastern Oklahoma on a government project that was part of the contract my employer, an engineering company, had.  The area, bordering Kansas and Missouri, is a mostly toxic wasteland where soil and water had poisoned by decades of lead and zinc mining.  I stayed in a nice and recently-built hotel, along with a coworker and our supervisor.

For most of the time I was in Oklahoma, Wolfgang stayed with my parents.  But, for the month of May, I rented a car and drove all the way up there because I’d decided to take Wolfgang with me.  Some of the hotel staff came to like him.  The first time someone with the housekeeping staff heard him barking, she was certain I had a pitbull ensconced in the room.  There mere sound of his voice frightened her.  But she and a few others were mirthfully surprised to see how small he was.

That little thing can make that much noise?!

Yes, he can!

One night, as I sat at the desk in my hotel room, working on my laptop, I noticed Wolfgang exiting the bathroom with a small white towel in his mouth.  Because of his presence, I made a deal with management that no one was to enter the room, unless I was there also or in the event of an emergency.  Wolfgang’s bite matched his bark.  Consequently, I let bath towels pile up beneath the sink.

A few minutes later, I turned to Wolfgang and was startled to see that he’d removed every single used towel from beneath the sink and to a spot in front of a cabinet.  He lay in front of the pile, curled up like a hairy conch shell.  I laughed.

I keep trying to think of things like that, now that Wolfgang is gone.  It’s the same with my father.  Memories of him behaving like the lunatic he was – imitating Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine Jones” persona, threatening to tickly my mother – roll through my mind.  It eases the pain of losing both of them within a 5-month period.

Today is the first birthday I’ve marked without either of them.  It’s such a weird feeling.  How could this happen?  Why, in the name of all that’s great and wonderful in this world, did they pass away so close together?  Talk about timing!

Last month I finally decided to rummage again through the storage shed in the back yard; a dilapidated structure where my parents stuffed anything and everything they didn’t want or need in the house.  It also had doubled as a tool shed for the plethora of gardening equipment my father had accumulated over the years.  In the fall of 2014, I carted a few large pieces – a dead lawnmower, an antique weed eater, etc. – to the front yard for him.  I taped a cardboard sign with the words “FREE TO GOOD HOME” across the mess and left it all there for whomever.  It was gone before day’s end.

At the same time, I retrieved several boxes of old National Geographic magazines.  “These don’t belong out here,” I told my father.  Old Home & Garden magazines, maybe, but not National Geographic.  I hauled them all into my room and rearranged them, alongside my gallery of books.

But last month I found several other items – a few as old as those National Geographics, but more precious.  There was a box of handwritten journals by my paternal grandmother, Francisca.  A couple of other boxes contained stuff from my childhood: drawings, poems, stories.  Among the latter was a one dollar bill paper-clipped to a fragile slip of paper.  It was a note from me to my father; thanking him for being such a great daddy.  I was about 5 when I wrote that.  And he kept it!  As an only child, my parents were apt to keep as much about my childhood around as possible.  But that a simple, handwritten note dating to the late 1960s would retain a place amidst all of that material stunned me.

And yes, it also made me sad.  But I realized – more than ever before – how fortunate I was to have a father as incredible as mine.  It’s why I get angry now when I hear people say fathers don’t serve a purpose in this world.

Back in July I visited a weight-lifting gym in East Dallas with a close friend, Pete*, who’s a regular there.  It’s a tiny, no-frills joint carved into an aged shopping center; where free weights are the main source of muscle-building and men can work out shirtless.  After showering and changing back at his house, Pete and I had dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants near downtown.

At some point, the conversation turned to family, and – with my voice cracking – I emphasized how badly I missed my father.  I try not to get emotional in public.  Even during my dad’s memorial service in June, I managed to hold it together.  But, planted in a booth beneath dim lighting in the restaurant, I just couldn’t remain poised.  It must have been the margarita swirls.  I was already on my second one.

Pete knows how I feel.  He lost his own father 12 years ago.  Curiously, our fathers had grown up together in East Dallas neighborhoods now occupied by office buildings and overpriced condos.  “My father went to be with his mother,” Pete had told me that night on the phone.  I didn’t understand.  All of Pete’s grandparents were dead.  What was he trying to – aw shit!  I don’t know if there’s an etiquette rule for announcing the death of a loved one via telephone, and if there is, I could care less about it.

I still have trouble sitting in the easy chair near the fireplace where my dad used to sit while watching TV.  His urn resides quietly on the dirty white brick of the raised hearth.  I make it a point to touch it every day and tell my father I love him.  His mother had lived to age 97.  Why couldn’t he?  What is the proper time of year to die?  It seems we have rules for everything in our lives these days.  Meteorologists can track hurricanes with near-accuracy.  As soon as a massive quake struck northeastern Japan in March of 2011, scientists could determine how long it would be before tsunamis struck the Hawaiian Islands and the west coast of the U.S.  Why couldn’t the slew of doctors my father had seen over the years not tell me when his body would finally say, ‘To hell with this shit!’?

A few times over the past few months, Wolfgang would stare at that general area for the longest time.  I’d feel the pressure change in the house.  But it wasn’t a frightening sensation.  I knew my father was nearby.  He had said more than once he wanted to die in this house and not in a hospital, a menagerie of tubes pouring out of him like overgrown hairs.  If I did anything right, I feel it was that.  I was able to grant my father his most heartfelt wish.

There are so many echoes of him and Wolfgang around me, now that they’re both gone.  And the house is otherwise quiet.  I’ve never felt pain like this before.  But, on this 53rd birthday of mine, I’m not too distressed.  My heart and my mind are filled with the happiness of the lives they lead.  I couldn’t ask for more from either of them.

 

*Name changed.

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For the Love of Dogs

Wolfgang in March of 2004.  Behind those sweet, glassy eyes lay eons of canine evolution and aggression.

Wolfgang in March of 2004. Behind those sweet, glassy eyes lay eons of canine evolution and aggression.

I quietly strode towards the bedroom of my roommate, Tom*, merely expecting to find him asleep.  He had just experienced a heart-wrenching loss: putting his 11-year-old miniature schnauzer, Zane*, to sleep.  Surely, Tom was exhausted after a long road trip to and from the Northeast Texas town where he was born and raised; the same place where he’d raised Zane.

Zane and I bonded quickly when Tom and me agreed to pool our resources in May of 2002 and share a two-bedroom apartment.  I was working temporary gigs, and he had a courier job that left him feeling tired and uneasy.  After a car wreck and a major health scare in the fall of 2001, he had managed to put himself back together, while recuperating at his mother’s home back in that Northeast Texas town.  Zane’s presence, he told me, comforted him better than the medications he’d been prescribed and the alcohol he’d consume as an additive.

But, during the first week of August 2002, Tom had to return to his mother’s home to tend to a family crisis.  When he came back, I informed him that Zane was extremely ill.  I didn’t know what was wrong, but the shy little dog had shriveled up to the point where his ribs were visible.  Tom spent the next day in bed; holding Zane tightly.  He finally headed back to that Northeast Texas hamlet where Zane’s old veterinarian was also located.

Upon arriving at the veterinarian’s office, however, Zane suffered a catastrophic stroke…and never recovered.  “My little boy is gone,” Tom cried over the phone that evening from his mother’s house.

I cried with him.  So, while I was surprised to find Tom back at the apartment earlier than expected, I was even more surprised to see a tiny ball of silver and white fur crawling around on his bare chest.

On his way back to Dallas, Tom had stopped off in a town east of the city to visit a cousin.  In a purely spontaneous decision, he grabbed a newspaper and searched for a miniature schnauzer breeder.  He found one and purchased one of the eight-week-old puppies.  He named him Docker.  Where he came up with that I never knew.  But I renamed him Wolfgang a few months later.  That’s because he became my dog when Tom and I decided to go our separate ways in January 2003.

It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made; albeit an almost equally spontaneous move on my part.  In an uncertain time for me (I’d just started a new full-time job that felt insecure and I wanted desperately to move out of a complex that was going to hell), as well as for the nation (we were about to invade Iraq under false pretenses, and the economy remained fragile), taking custody of that dog stood out as a bright moment.  Tom left owing me some $700.  But I ended up with the dog.  I was ill-prepared to have a pet, yet I still felt I came out with the better bargain.

All of that came back to me Wednesday morning, as I carried Wolfgang’s quivering form into the veterinarian’s office.  He had gone into some kind of cardiac arrest episode…and never recovered.

Basic evolutionary tree of canines.

Basic evolutionary tree of canines.

Wolfgang’s veterinarian had diagnosed him with a heart murmur a couple of years ago, which explained his occasional coughing / hacking fits.  Earlier this year, though, he began experiencing seizure-like episodes.  One in early May terrified me: he literally fell over onto one side; a cartoonish action that was anything but funny.  An X-ray proved his heart had enlarged and was clamping down on his airway.  The seizures, the doctor explained, were actually moments where Wolfgang couldn’t breathe.  He put him on two heart medications that would be a daily ritual for the rest of the dog’s life.  That life ended sooner than I’d expected – or even wanted.

“I just lost my father,” I whispered to him last Monday night, the 24th.  “You can’t leave me also; not now.”

His behavior was actually quite normal this last weekend and into Monday, the 24th.  Yet, by Monday evening, I could tell he had trouble breathing and began to suspect the worst.  Then it seemed the air around me had thickened, and I sense my father was nearby.

I tried giving Wolfgang the two medicines the doctor had prescribed back in May.  I literally had to shove them into his mouth; a little mouth lined with razor-sharp projectiles, backed up by eons of canid ambivalence.  I always tried to retract my hand as quickly as possible, but each time he managed to scrape my fingers.  Then, on Monday, he did something he’d never done before: he actually impaled one of his dental daggers into my right forefinger.  Blood oozed immediately from the gash, as I hurtled the tiny white pills into his food dish and marched into the bathroom.  My entire right hand throbbed.  It still aches.  But I don’t care.  He was just a dog.  More importantly, he continually spit out those pills.  I’ve found bits of them around the den area.  It was his last act of wolf-infused defiance and stubbornness.  Perhaps he sensed they were of no use at the moment.  He was done and wanted to move on from here.  Are dogs really that sentient?  Do they possess the same level of emotional capacity as their human counterparts?

A variety of studies over the past two decades suggest yes; dogs truly are more emotionally and psychologically complex than we ever realized.

I still find it amazing how we humans become so attached to certain animals.  For me, it’s always been dogs.  As far back as I can remember, I’ve held a special fascination with the canines among us.  Cats and horses are undoubtedly beautiful.  But I’m allergic to felines (as a 2004 allergy test proved), and horses are too big and expensive.  I’m an all-around animal lover, but dogs secured a tight grip on my mind and in my heart.

I often joked that Wolfgang wasn’t really a miniature schnauzer; he was a previously unclassified species of canine – a miniature wolf.  The big mocha brown eyes, soft fur and floppy ears (especially the right one, which rarely stood up, lest he tilt his head back at a certain angle) were just aesthetic ruses.  The mere mention of his name incurred occasional chuckles.

“The name fits,” I told people.

Artist depiction of Eucyon davisi, considered the direct ancestor of modern dogs.

Artist depiction of Eucyon davisi, considered the direct ancestor of modern dogs.

Miniature schnauzers are among the 148 breeds of domesticated dog recognized by the American Kennel Club.  In addition, there are more than 150 other breeds of domesticated dog not officially acknowledged by the AKC, such as the Russo-European Laika, the Peruvian Inca Orchard, and the Prazsky Krysarik from Czechoslovakia, the world’s smallest dog.  Zoologists have also identified more than 100 species of wild canine, such as the South American bush dog, the Australian dingo, and the African basenji, the only dog that doesn’t bark.  It produces something of a yodeling sound.  Altogether, an estimated 10 billion dogs exist on planet Earth today.

Dogs boast an extensive and impressive lineage.  Canines have a longer and more diverse history than any other predatory carnivore, which allowed them to spread across the globe faster than fellow mammals.  They belong to the family of mammals called canidae and to the order of carnivora.  Zoologists believe all mammals descend from Creodonts, a group of small, meat-eating creatures that first appeared about 100 million years ago.  About 55 million years ago, during the Eocene Epoch, a more refined (but not much larger) carnivore, Miacis, arose in North America.  Miacis then evolved into Hesperocyon, or Hesperocyoninae – traditionally regarded as the direct ancestor of dogs – between 38 and 26 million years ago.  Hesperocyoninae generated 28 sub-species.   They were followed by Borophaginae, which produced 66 sub-species, and Caninae with 42.  One member of this latter group, a fox-sized animal called Eucyon, played the most critical role in canine evolution.

Arising in North America about 9 million years ago, Eucyon was omnivorous; a unique attribute that allowed it to survive longer than any of its predecessors and outlive even its contemporaries.  But Eucyon also had longer leg bones, especially the forelimbs, which increased its running efficiency and therefore, its ability to capture prey.  It had a shorter neck than most felines, another top predatory carnivore, which otherwise would have inhibited its ability to tear at flesh.  But Eucyon necks compensated for it with the nuchal ligament; a feature that permitted greater rotation of the entire neck column.

Adding to this was the extraordinary development of canine dentition (teeth) and the power of its jaw bones.  Together this allowed for actual bone-cracking of its prey.  The reason is obvious: inside animal bones is marrow, a rich source of protein.  Among all canine species the power of bone-cracking is no more evident than in the family of hyenas.  These wild African canines have been known to leave little evidence of a kill; they literally consume an entire animal.  Getting inside those bones with its mighty jaw strength helped canines retain their spot as top predators no matter where they migrated.

An artist’s rendition of the extinct Borophagus secundus canine from the late Miocene Epoch in North America displays the animal’s large dentition and low-angled skull that allowed it to engage in bone-crushing of its prey.  Courtesy Mauricio Antón.

An artist’s rendition of the extinct Borophagus secundus canine from the late Miocene Epoch in North America displays the animal’s large dentition and low-angled skull that allowed it to engage in bone-crushing of its prey. Courtesy Mauricio Antón.

Between 6 and 4 million years ago, Eucyon began migrating across what is now the Bering Strait into Asia.  There it developed into Canis lupus, the gray wolf.  Canis lupus then spread further throughout Asia, eventually making its way into Europe, Africa, and India.  It also evolved into both variations of itself and canines such as dholes and jackals.  About 800,000 years ago canis lupus began tracing its ancestors’ migratory paths back into North America where it continued evolving; again into other wolf species, but also into such animals as the arctic fox and the coyote.

Throughout the next several millennia, wolves continually metamorphosed into various breeds of dogs.  At some unknown point, they formed an alliance with humans.  How, when and why this occurred are among the top questions for zoologists.  It’s quite likely that a human somewhere along the way found an abandoned wolf puppy and, feeling empathy for the animal, kept it and managed to raise it.  It’s also likely that canines began following humans, realizing the two-legged beings had a knack for capturing and killing large prey.  When the humans moved on, the canines would descend upon the remains of whatever animal was left behind.  This, of course, would make dogs scavengers, instead of hunters.  But, in a brutal world of survival, that’s what was necessary.

It’s more probable, however, that all of these incidents took place a number of times, all over the world and over a number of years.  As with other animals, such as horses and bovines, canine evolution eventually fell in line with human evolution; that is, their domestication coincided with the development of more complex and wide-spread human societies.

Skull, cervical vertebrae and muscle structure of the extant Canis lupus (gray wolf).  The nuchal ligament allowed for greater movement of the head and neck.

Skull, cervical vertebrae and muscle structure of the extant Canis lupus (gray wolf). The nuchal ligament allowed for greater movement of the head and neck.

The close relationship humans generated with dogs means people began subjecting these animals to selective breeding, in which they were propagated for specific purposes.  Initially, dogs served two primary roles in their union with humans: hunting game and herding livestock.  Later, they were bred to be protectorates, guides, and, of course, companions.  Consequently, we now have a plethora of dog breeds.  No other animal displays such an extraordinary level of diversity in size, color and shape as canines.

Dogs’ sensibilities are extremely acute.  While their visual resolving powers are less efficient than humans, their eyes are more sensitive to light and movement.  Dogs can hear sounds four times farther away than humans and are able to locate the source of that sound in six-hundredths of a second.  Dogs’ olfactory capabilities are their most extraordinary attribute.  The average dog has over 200 million scent receptors in its nasal folds, compared to a human’s five million.

Dogs are certainly among the most intelligent of mammals; perhaps the smartest among non-primates.  Like humans, dogs appear to be sensitive to vocal inflections and emotional queues.  A study at the University of Lincoln, United Kingdom, that dogs “form abstract mental representations of positive and negative emotional states, and are not simply displaying learned behaviours when responding to the expressions of people and other dogs.”

The researchers presented 17 domesticated dogs with pairings of images and sounds conveying different combinations of positive and negative emotional expressions in both humans and dogs. The sources of sensory input – photos of facial expressions and audio clips of vocalizations (voices or barks) from unfamiliar subjects – were played simultaneously to the dogs, without any prior training.  Researcher noted the dogs spent more time looking at the facial expressions which matched the emotional state of the vocalization.

Another study in Hungary went further by conducting MRIs on 13 dogs – six border collies, five golden retrievers, a German shepherd and a Chinese crested.  The animals were trained to lie motionless during the procedures, although they were awake and unrestrained.  Researchers found that dogs processed words with the left hemisphere and processed pitch with the right hemisphere – just like humans.

We’ll never know when the bond between humans and dogs was established.  Whether they save our lives, protect our property, or provide simple companionship, dogs are an indelible part of the human existence.  For dog lovers such as myself, that relationship is indescribable.

Basic evolutionary tree of modern dogs from their wolf ancestors.

Basic evolutionary tree of modern dogs from their wolf ancestors.

* Name changed.

ASPCA

 

References:

Dogs: Their Fossil Relatives and Evolutionary History.”  Richard H. Tedford & Xiaoming Wang. Columbia University Press, 2008.

New Encyclopedia of the Dog.” Bruce Fogle, DVM. Dorling Kindersley, 2000.

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No Defense Here

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At some point in the late 1960s, a Mexican-American guy got arrested in Dallas for a series of robberies.  The incident garnered some media attention, but was pretty much a non-event.  Until someone at my father’s workplace mentioned it.

An older White man approached my father and said something to the effect that the police had arrested “your brother Rodriguez.”  He knew what the old man was talking about.  My father promptly reminded the man “my name isn’t Rodriguez, and that guy isn’t my brother.  Now shut your ass and leave me alone!”

The old man apparently was offended at my father’s brusque language and complained to the company owner, another old White (albeit Jewish) man who said something to the effect of, ‘What did you expect?’

My father often found himself in such uncomfortable situations; where some Hispanic individual would do something stupid and / or criminal enough to get media attention, and some non-Hispanics would assume my father was guilty by association.  It actually still happens.  A lot.  Just ask Black men when other Black men get arrested.  Or Hispanic men.  Or Native American men.  Even in this second decade of the 21st century, in a post-civil rights America, crime still often bears a Black, Brown or Red face.

That mess stormed into the public conscious last week when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump dismissed a 2005 conversation with an entertainment journalist as “locker room banter.”  With a monster hurricane having just ripped through the Caribbean and the U.S. east coast and the Zika virus still a threat to public health, this is what the American media and much of the American public has focused on: eleven-year-old verbiage from two old men trash-talking on a bus.

The dialogue hasn’t discouraged Trump who is roaring ahead with his campaign – undoubtedly one of the most bizarre in recent memory – even as one woman after another jumps forward to proclaim they’ve fallen victim to the type of actions the business tycoon describes in that brief snippet.

There’s no getting around it: what Trump said in that piece is deplorable, and his attempt at an apology is as sincere as a 13-dollar bill.  Even before then, I didn’t like him.  But, aside from the rancor bubbling over this mess, it’s amazing the number of men who are also publicly proclaiming their ardent respect for women and disdain for Trump.  Athletic coaches at the high school and college levels are gathering their young male acolytes to warn them that such talk about females will not be tolerated.

Personally, I don’t feel the need to refute Trump’s so-called “locker room banter.”  I don’t have a guilt complex over it and I’m not hopping up and down trying to convince any female within ten feet of me that I’d never talk that way about them.  And neither should any other man.

Since high school, I’ve spent time in men’s locker rooms and can say without wincing that I’ve never heard men talk like that about women.  Men say all sorts of stupid shit in locker rooms, but I cannot recall anything of that sort.  As a writer, I’m prone to listen in on other people’s conversations.  I’ve always wanted my characters to speak and behave as normal as possible, so they’ll be more realistic.  Yes, men do talk about sex in locker rooms.  (And, in other Earth-shattering news, the sun rises in the east.)  I’m certain women engage in similar talk, even though most won’t admit it.  Men also talk about body parts.  Mainly their own body parts.  Usually, though, we talk about work, home, family, cars, sports, our individual exercise routines – but never something so vile as sexually assaulting or molesting women.  I know some men have talked openly like that.  I’ve just never heard it.

But it’s not enough to point out that most men don’t talk in such a debasing manner about women.  It’s more important to realize that most men don’t act that way either.  The vast majority of men don’t harass and / or sexually assault women.  I know that contradicts feminist ideology, but it’s painfully true.  Men are much more likely to assault other men or even themselves than they are women.

Yet, while plenty of people like Trump think their wealth and power make them better than the rest of us, there are others who latch onto the Trumps of the world in the hopes of improving their own station in life.  Trump surely has no genuine respect for women overall, but a number of women swoon over men like him daily.  This is one thing that upsets most average men.  Women often claim they want a man who is honest and fair-minded.  But, as some men view it, women really just want a man with lots of money.  Even some of the most successful and well-educated women often still expect the men in their lives to earn more than them.  Why?  Just in case said woman decides she’s tired of working?  I don’t know.

Women, on the other hand, often say their lack of opportunities in life put them in a position where they’ve had to find men who have money, or at least a job that pays above minimum wage.  On average, women still earn less than men, but women are superseding men on the educational front.  If you break that down from a racial viewpoint, the gaps grow even larger.  Gender politics, like racial politics, is ugly, and no one wins the argument.

I’ve heard more than a few women engage in “locker room banter” – in public – in front of me and other men.  I’ve endured my share of harassment from both women and men.  It was never caught on video or audio.  And I rarely complained out loud about it.  I knew few would believe me, especially because I’m a man.  Therefore, I understand how some women feel about life in the work place during years gone by – long before the term “sexual harassment” was ever created.

Former Texas Governor Ann Richards once advised young women to complete their education and not depend on a man to take care of them; “when the Prince is middle aged with a pot belly and a wandering eye, you’ll be glad you have a degree and can support yourself if you have to.”  As expected, social and religious conservative across the state and the nation dumped their snarky bile on Richards; denouncing her as anti-family and anti-marriage.  Richards shrugged it off, even after losing her 1994 reelection bid.

Trump is in a class all his own – and I don’t mean that in a good way.  He’s harking back to those golden years gone by; when people didn’t have to be politically correct, especially White male people.  But, as part of that elite and much-reviled 1%, he obviously believes his wealth and power give him license to say and do whatever he wants.  Plenty of people in his social class possess such self-righteous haughtiness.  Despite all his money, Trump is still little more than a loud-mouthed bum.  He’s a disgrace to all men – White or not.

My paternal grandfather once said you can dress a donkey up in silk and satin, like a thoroughbred horse, but eventually it’ll start bucking and kicking like the animal it truly is.  Now, I don’t mean to disrespect donkeys by comparing them to Trump.  Talk about being disrespectful!  But I think you get the idea.

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Just Leave Them Alone

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) image of Hurricane Matthew moving towards Florida on October 6, 2016.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) image of Hurricane Matthew moving towards Florida on October 6, 2016.

People living along the U.S. Gulf Coast were accustomed to this.  A massive hurricane was headed their way, and they had been warned to evacuate further inland.  It’s the price one must pay for a home with a spectacular view.  They didn’t need too much encouragement to flee from the chaotic beachfront.  Barely a decade had passed since Hurricane Camille had plowed into the Alabama-Mississippi coastline with winds of roughly 190 mph (306 km/h).  Camille was only the second documented Category 5 storm to hit the United States.  It had set the standard by which all future tropical storm systems would be measured and – more importantly – by how coastal residents and government officials would respond.

It was September of 1979, and Hurricane Frederic loomed menacingly on the horizon.  What had begun as a tropical wave off the west coast of Africa at the end of August metamorphosed into a Category 4 behemoth, with 135 mph (215 km/h) winds, upon entering the Gulf of México.  The National Hurricane Center issued warnings for much of the U.S. Gulf Coast, and some 500,000 people – from East Texas to the Florida Keys – heeded that ominous call.  Utilizing a new and innovative weather system called Doppler Weather Radar, the NHC had deemed the Florida Panhandle as the most likely strike point.  Locals remembered Hurricane Eloise very well, so most took no chances.

Then, seemingly at the last moment (as hurricanes frequently do), Frederic shifted further westward and landed at Gulf Shores, Alabama.  As they trekked back to their boarded-up homes and businesses, wondering if criminals had taken advantage of their absence, some Florida Panhandle residents were irritated that they were forced to flee a hurricane that didn’t hit.  Wasn’t this new-fangled Doppler thing supposed to cure such uncertainty?  Regardless, many vowed to stay put the next time.

Much of this same drama played out last week, as Hurricane Matthew terrorized the Caribbean and then teased the southeastern U.S. by remaining mostly offshore.  At one point in its early life, Matthew reached the rare and dreaded Category 5 status; the first such tempest in the Caribbean since Felix in 2007.  Matthew finally made official landfall in South Carolina October 8 as a Category 1 storm and is now – as of this writing – a post-tropical cyclone.  With more than 1,000 fatalities directly attributed to it, Matthew’s financial damage will take a while to tally.  And, as always happens with these things, a proverbial “lessons learned” compendium will develop.

One lesson is how best to warn people living in vulnerable areas that they must leave.  As Matthew neared the U.S., literally millions of people, from Florida to North Carolina, were ordered to evacuate.  I don’t like the idea of forcing people to flee a coming storm or any natural disaster.  Hurricanes are one of the few calamities that can be tracked from far away.  It’s only fair to warn people of some pending disaster and help them avoid it, if we can.

Yet, if somebody wants to remain in place, I believe we should just leave them alone.  Governors and mayors should never issue a mandatory evacuation, but rather, a necessary one.  Necessary in that it would be in the best interest of residents to flee.  But people should be allowed to make decisions about their own welfare without harassment or input from others.  I recommend a ‘No Rescue’ policy.  If, for example, a hurricane is estimated to make landfall on a Friday, anyone still on the beachfront after midnight is on their own.  First responders would not be required to respond to a frightened citizen whose million-dollar condo is starting to flood.  Police officers, firefighters and military personnel shouldn’t risk their own lives to save just one dumbass (usually a man) who thought they were tough enough to handle 100 mph winds and 20-foot tidal surges.  Advances in automobile technology have given people a false sense of personal security; therefore, they may not drive too carefully.  Advances in meteorology have had the same deleterious effect.

Photographer Frankie Lucena captured this image of “red sprite bursts” above Hurricane Matthew, as the storm lingered between Colombia and Aruba on October 1.

Photographer Frankie Lucena captured this image of “red sprite bursts” above Hurricane Matthew, as the storm lingered between Colombia and Aruba on October 1.

In September of 1999, Hurricane Floyd headed straight for the Georgia-Florida area, prompting the governors of both states to issue that dreaded mandatory evacuation.  Some 4 million people heeded the warning and fled westward.  As usual, store shelves were emptied out, gas stations were drained, and highways became clogged with frightened coastal residents.  But then Floyd suddenly turned north and plowed into North Carolina’s Outer Banks, before marching up the East Coast.  It missed the Georgia-Florida line altogether, and many of those residents who had been ordered to leave got pissed.  With all of the advances in weather forecasting, they declared, you’d think meteorologists would know exactly where a hurricane will strike.  How pathetically arrogant.

But the public’s salacious desire to watch these disasters unfold is matched only by the media’s desire for high ratings.  As Matthew approached Florida, news outlets planted their reporters on beach fronts and empty streets to help viewers vicariously live the power of the wind and rain.  It’s almost comical watching someone holding onto a street sign or lamp post with one hand and a microphone in the other; adorned in the requisite rain coat and / or ball cap; describing how bad it is “out here” and stating the obvious: “conditions have deteriorated.”

Several years ago I watched the national news as a brutal series of wild fires ravaged Southern California.  People were angry they had to leave their million-dollar homes.  And, of course, media outlets dispatched their own people to show and maybe speak with locals packing up all they could and fleeing the area per the mandatory evacuation orders.  I recall seeing one angry man being led away from his house by some police officers; he had been reluctant to leave.  He looked into the camera and screamed about being forced to leave his home, while “the fucking media” were allowed to stay.  I empathized with him.  If he wanted to stay, he should have been allowed to do that.

After Hurricane Katrina tore into the Gulf Coast in August of 2005, thousands of people who didn’t evacuate subsequently refused to leave; despite the warning by then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin that the city “isn’t safe.”  A large swath of the region, from Southeastern Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle was in chaos, and no, it wasn’t safe.  But no area directly impacted by a natural disaster is safe in the aftermath.  Still, if people want to stay and protect their property, the government shouldn’t force them to leave anyway.

Harry R. Truman refused to leave his home on Mount St. Helen’s, despite its pending eruption in May of 1980.

Natural disasters have a unique way of putting humanity back in its place and making us realize we’re not its master.  On March 11, 1888, a massive blizzard rolled over the east coast of North America, killing more than 400 people and dropping as much as 55 inches of snow in some areas.  The storm practically paralyzed major metropolitan areas, such as Boston and New York City.  Most of the fatalities occurred among urbanites, while folks out in the country just considered it another really bad storm.  Human vanity reached a new level with the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912.  Branded as “unsinkable,” the massive vessel met its fate on its maiden voyage, courtesy of a wayward iceberg, taking more than 1,500 lives with it.

Saving people from themselves is not just virtually impossible; it’s impractical.  It’s also a waste of time and energy.  Give individuals the necessary information and a means to escape.  After that, just leave them alone.

Smoke from wildfires burning in Angeles National Forest filled the sky behind the Los Angeles skyline on June 20, 2016.  Image courtesy of Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP.

Smoke from wildfires burning in Angeles National Forest filled the sky behind the Los Angeles skyline on June 20, 2016. Image courtesy of Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP.

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