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There is a quote from H. L. Mencken that reads, “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” Since first reading it, I’ve been struck by those words and have remembered them. Every normal man must sometimes want to throw caution to the wind and be a pirate, it says, to slit throats with abandon and claim the spoils regardless of consequence. It is tempting. But I also read a deeper meaning in it. A rallying cry, a warning, a call-to-arms. There comes a time, these words say, when every man will have to take action, make a stand, and risk everything to fight for what they value or else lose it to another’s plundering.

I’ve never read that line in its original context. Those sentiments may not be remotely near what the author intended when writing it. But a learned man once told me that what we see on our own is more important than what we are told to see. You can be taught to see more, to see better, he said, but never fully trust what you are told. So Mr. Mencken will have to pardon my conclusions; they are mine alone.

Hoist the black flag, he said. Slit throats. To war, then, and to the victor goes the spoils. It strikes me that much of American society is already busy at pirating, or was until the Big Bust of 2008. Wanting a large payoff from a smaller, somewhat riskier investment seemed to be the prevailing modus operandi. Flip houses. Flip cars. Flip companies. Trust Bernie with your money. Cheat (but slyly) on your taxes. In fact, cheat at anything if you think you won’t get caught. Score as much credit as possible. Buy things you can’t afford with someone else’s money. Lie and steal from your government, your employer, your family, your fellow man. Anything for the almighty dollar.

If you were in construction, you threw together as many buildings as possible and waited for fat profits to roll in, and who cares about the structural integrity of those houses and business spaces. So what if the floor joists won’t last five years, and the basement leaks if so much as a dog takes a whizz two doors down, and the wallboard emits poisonous gas? Sorry, buddy, you were dumb enough to sail into my harbor and your throat just got slit. Thanks for the booty. Besides, that’s what homeowner’s insurance is for.

If you were in insurance you issued thousands of policies that were useless and refused to pay claims, slitting more throats and raking in treasure chests of booty. Your house burnt? Oh, so sorry, we won’t pay for anything damaged by smoke or water or heat or any wall left standing. Tell you what, we’ll give you this month’s mortgage payment plus an extra $50. We’re feeling very generous today. A hurricane you say? Your house flooded? Oh how awful. But no, sorry, we don’t pay off on damages from storm surge. Nope, it’s not a flood, it’s a wave, and we don’t cover that. Sorry. Don’t forget, your next payment is due in two weeks. Bye bye now.

And of course there were still the usual rackets of car sales, internet companies, Wall Street, and, well, anything run by the government. Anything to make another dollar, and the less honest the better. Hey, that’s the new American Dream: getting something for nothing. From the world’s largest corporation to grade schoolers, everyone’s playing pirate.

But someone somewhere is losing. Someone is watching their house or car or savings or future circle the drain when that newest chest is drug on board the winning ship and its golden contents are revealed. With a pirate on every side wondering how they can get their hands on it next.

So what does this have to do with Mencken’s quote? I think the deeper meaning behind it says you have to be your own pirate, be prepared to fight for anything you want, and if you really want it you can’t let others stand in your way. If keeping your job means someone else goes unemployed, so be it. If keeping your house means another family goes homeless, that’s something you’ll just have to face. It is, in a way, Darwin’s evolution in action. No one ever wrote a treatise on the survival of the nicest.

The sad fact of life on this planet is that not everyone will have what they want, and many will not have what they need. And to have anything at all, you will have to fight for it. We do not live in a global utopian society, and if you do not take it you will likely die waiting for it to be given to you.

That goes for liberty as much as for anything else. If you do not fight for your freedoms, you can hardly expect anyone to grace you with them out of the goodness of their heart. Governments, for instance, were not constructed out of goodness but out of fear and desire … even our own illustrious “city on a hill.” It’s nice to stand safely on the sidelines and speak of pacifism and conscientious objections, but in reality they don’t work. At some point, the theory breaks down. Even one man sitting alone in the middle of a garden will have to fight if he wants to eat, fight weeds and animals and drought and frost. Idealism has yet to feed a hungry belly.

I think Mencken’s words reveal that life is simply one fight after another, and if you want to do more than simply survive, you’ll have to do so at someone else’s expense. Is your life more important than someone else’s? Is someone else’s life more important than yours? How can anyone possibly know? So hoist your flag, brandish your sword and pistol, and let the blood run.

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Amber Waves of Gain

Let me preface this statistic-rich post by noting the following: 1) most of these numbers were derived from two online sources, so if they were incorrect then I am also; and 2) if you are caught genuinely breaking a law, you deserve to be fined, ticketed, booted, or otherwise reprimanded as defined by local law (with a few exceptions, which may or may not be discussed below). Now, on to the good stuff (it’s long, but it’s worth it).

If the preface didn’t spill the beans, let me do it here by stating that this is a post about our city governments and parking violations.

For instance, in the 2007-2008 fiscal year, New York City brought in revenues of $624 million from parking infractions alone. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office in 2001, the city has hired nearly 800 new “traffic enforcement agents” to help maximize this revenue opportunity, and 200 of those new agents were hired this year. These agents write, on average, 40 tickets per shift (according to an MSNBC news article), which equates to roughly 40,000 new tickets written every week. If the amount fined averaged $20 per ticket, that’s an additional $800,000 every week, per shift, for the city’s piggy bank. Not bad, eh? And that doesn’t account for extremes, like the super-agent who wrote 227 tickets in a 5-hour period on Black Friday 2007, when 41,000 citations were issued across the city in one day.

Boston visitors and residents face a rise in fines, a 75% increase on parking more than a foot from the curb and an increase of more than 112% for parking on a crosswalk. In similar fashion, Sacremento tacked an $8 surcharge onto its parking fines with the express intention of collecting an extra $1.5 million … or more … to ease a budgetary shortfall. Meanwhile, Seattle implemented a camera ticketing system which issued 58,000 tickets in its first three months, totaling some $5 million in fines to be collected. And last year in Colorado, Denver’s ticket revenues jumped $4 million, to a total $20 million from parking violations. Is it me or does this seem a bit extreme?

In cities like Louisville, Kentucky, a minimum of two outstanding parking violations will get your car booted. Boots are usually removed by police at their discretion … after you pay your fines, of course. But if you’re in a hurry and happen to be in Montgomery County, Maryland (just outside Washington, D.C.) or in Baltimore, you can use your cell phone to unlock the boot … after paying your fines … and a $115 fee, apparently for the convenience of a quick de-booting. (The system isn’t confined to Maryland; it is used in a dozen cities, including New Orleans.)

Some cities have begun using a camera-equipped system that allows meter agents to drive at normal speeds and simultaneously scan license plates for outstanding parking violations. Nifty, huh? Nab two birds with one stone and boot previous violators for extra money even if they are currently legally parked. But that’s just the beginning. Have you heard about the new parking meters in production? They text message local police as soon as your flag goes up. (Better hope there’s not a meter agent in the area.) And several large cities have issued electronic ticketing machines to their agents, allowing them to ticket 30% faster. Oh good, their antiquated tools and multi-million dollar annual revenues had me concerned about reduced productivity. Whew. That’s a real load off my mind.

One New Yorker said he’s seen drivers get ticketed for double-parking while waiting for someone to pull out of a space on the street, an almost universally accepted act especially common in areas of concentrated population and limited parking. In a similar stretch of the law, an attorney was ticketed for parking “somewhere between one second and 59 seconds too soon” in an alternate-side violation. He fought the ticket and won; the citation was dismissed by a judge. Which brings us to a whole new sub-topic: how many of these charges are legitimate?

In the Bronx, a dozen residents accused a traffic agent of falsely citing them for double-parking, some arguing they were not even in the United States when the tickets were issued (at the time of the article, no charges had been filed against the agent, who the city defended and who remained on duty). A retired Navy veteran said he was ticketed while dropping off his wife in a bus zone. One reader commented that he was sent a parking ticket, complete with late penalties, without having been in the city for twenty years. (Despite the two decade absence, ownership of a vehicle that did not remotely resemble the ticketed car, and a letter he sent to authorities with a copy of his registration, the ticket is unresolved.)

Another reader said, “the New York City parking signs have purposely been made so confusing that even police officers cannot tell you if it is okay to park.” He went on to note that many signs were damaged, illegible, or missing altogether but agents still ticketed in the effected areas. In some areas, he also shared, “we have Muni-meters, where you have to park your car then walk to the meter several yards away to buy a receipt…to place in the windshield. Meter people will watch you walk to the meter and give you a ticket before you can get back to the car with the receipt. This is NYC government-sanctioned mugging.” Posters from other cities shared stories of similar abuses and I have no doubt that thousands more could easily be included, everything from unlawful ticketing and conspiracy to purposefully mass-ticket all the way to outright harrassment.

And not just in New York City. People from Columbus, Ohio, and Santa Monica, California, share the same stories, as do citizens from Fort Worth, Texas, and Portland, Oregon. Obviously, these are not isolated incidents but a general trend among cities with the primary goal of raising funds. By any means necessary. Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, it makes no difference, and the more tickets written, bogus or otherwise, the more revenues will increase. (For a disgustingly blatant example, visit my previous post, “Holy Jericho”.)

I will take this opportunity to reiterate that those legitimately breaking the law deserve to be fined … but only those breaking the law, and they should not be fined unreasonable amounts.

I’ve had three parking tickets over the years and I paid every one of them without complaint. Even though the last two were tenuously legal at best, I paid, took my receipt, and walked away without a word. Because it wasn’t worth fighting. For $40 I retained the ability to work a full schedule instead of missing days to fight the tickets in court. I retained anonymity and did not bring down the wrath of meter maids and law enforcement everywhere I went. (If you think that’s not important, you’ve never lived in a smaller town.) I avoided the costly unpleasantness of hiring a lawyer. I learned when and where I could push the law, and when and where I couldn’t. I learned that legality has absolutely nothing to do with decency, common sense, or common courtesy. And all for the low low price of only $40.

I’m not denouncing parking tickets. I am denouncing the growing practice of manufacturing falsities and extorting money out of a populace to fund government greed and idiocy. And so should you. It makes me wonder … what else are they falsely accusing us of? How many innocent people are being ruined by similar practices in other disciplines? Like taxes, for example. If the IRS came calling, could you prove your financial statements to their specifications? There is no statute of limitations; what if they ask for files from a decade ago, or two? Or how about the Department of Homeland Security accusing you of terrorist activity, seizing your property, and denying you trial? It’s perfectly legal and they can sell any seized property for profit without ever formally charging you. Local police have the same authority for drug-related activities and can gleen millions annually from the sales of seized items. Why? The short answer is money. But, really, is that all? Is that why are our freedoms are being pared down to nothing while government payrolls balloon and hoover up any dollar they can find?

These are questions we should be asking.
These are questions we should be asking every day, because this country is feeling less and less like ours.

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After visiting a friend’s blog, I discovered that I had completely forgotten Mother’s Day. I’m not a mother myself, and have no mother or maternal relations, so I often forget. But I think fathers are getting a raw deal.

Mother’s Day gets splashed all over the television, newspapers, and internet advertising like a second Christmas. You’re encouraged to buy jewelry, flowers, flashy cards, expensive dinner reservations, vacations, etc. But come Father’s Day, what do advertisements push? A lawnmower. A leafblower. A new golf club. What’s Dad likely to get? Some god-awful tie and a pair of socks or, if he’s lucky, a wrench set. And since Father’s Day comes about six weeks later, all the money seems to get sucked up by Mother’s Day and the Memorial Day binge that marks the beginning of summer.

What’s left for dear old Dad?

I don’t enjoy the commercialization of holidays but I do think it can be a useful indicator of our society, namely in that the level of commercialization is dependent on how important that holiday is rated. And Mother’s Day would blow Father’s Day right out of the water any day of the week. I’m not against mothers (please, how could anyone be?) but I think fathers are becoming more and more marginalized in our society. Their roles are considered expendable.

Movies, television, and commercials paint men as lust-hungry fools. And while, true, some men are lust-hungry fools, many are not. Nor are fathers’ roles quaint but expendable.

With relatively few restrictions, single mothers can draw thousands of dollars in local, state, and federal aid each year to supplement their household, in addition to receiving various other subsidies. Single fathers often can’t. Two people, of identical race, income, background, number of children, medical issues, etc., are judged unequally based on gender alone.

The man is expected to work and bring home a paycheck whether he is trying to raise children alone or not. With that check he is expected to pay the rent, or mortgage, and utility bills; keep food on the table; pay medical, dental, and optometry bills; provide suitable clothing, shoes, school supplies, etc.; pay for child care and or hire babysitters; make vehicle payments and provide for repairs, maintenance, and fuel costs; and, of course, pay his taxes.

The woman is expected to be a stay-at-home mother. In many cases, the state will help with or fully cover her mortgage or rent payments; pay part or all of her utility bills; provide hundreds of dollars in food stamps per child; provide full coverage for medical, dental, and optometry; pay for child care; provide transportation; and often supply her hundreds of dollars, per child, for other expenses. All tax-free, of course.

Though legislation surrounding it is slowly changing for the better, fathers are still often forgotten.

And on television sitcoms, it’s Dad who makes all the idiotic blunders, who is usually cast on a couch or behind a grill or clumsily fooling in a garage. Mom is Heroine Extraordinare while Dad is, at best, Bumbling Sidekick.

I’m all for Mother’s Day. I think parents are terribly overlooked and under-appreciated by their increasingly rude and selfish offspring in today’s world…

But don’t forget Dad.

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Another long one, folks.  Hold on tight…  When I hear the word “nickelodeon” I think of a music player, like the old song.  “Put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon, all I want is loving you and music, music, music…”     [ That one’s for you, Lofter; maybe that’ll get the crawdad song out of your head.   🙂 ]     But over at the blog A Ruach Journey, there’s an interesting post involving nickelodeons of a different sort and the lingering adolescence of America, beginning with a very apt quote from Diana West’s new book The Death of the Grown-up: How America’s Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization.  Here it is in a slightly more focused version:

“…The National Academy of Sciences has redefined adolescence as the period extending from the onset of puberty, around twelve, to age 30.  And, leaving CNN aside, here’s another cartoon statistic: One third of the 56 million Americans who sat down in 2002 to watch SpongeBob SquarePants on Nickelodeon each month were between 18 and 49 years old.  (Nickelodeon, incidentally, thought its core demographic group was the six- to eleven-year old set.)  …The point is, aspects of the maturation cycle have stalled, leading to significant changes not only in pop culture, but in ourselves as a people.”

The group that Ms. West speaks about I will heretofore label the Nickelodeon generation, just for easy reference.  And like any good, critical blog, I’ll start the ball rolling with religion.  Or lack thereof.  A fast-growing segment of the population is not currently active in or affiliated with any religion.  And we all know how pathetic the school system is, so two pillars of “how to be a good and responsible grown-up” are gone, or horribly corroded at best.  One cannot be a “grown-up” without facing responsibility, without being held accountable for one’s actions and understanding what repercussions those actions have. 

Religion and education (in more traditional and ideal forms) are actually quite good at that.  So are parents, when they actually bother parenting their children.  But the parents of the Nickelodeon generation seem to have failed, perhaps distracted by that second job, or that second mortgage, or that second marriage.  At any rate, a frightening percentage of people under 30 have no experience in being “grown-up”at all.  Half of them still live at home, or leech off their parents for support.  (“Oh, yeah, I’ve lived on my own since I was 18.  But, you know, Daddy pays the rent when I miss it, and sometimes makes the car payments.  And my insurance.  And, you know, when I need some cash they give it to me…  But I’ve totally been on own for years…”)  They have never been responsible for anything.  They have never been held accountable for anything.  Most have never had to work a real day in their lives and seem to think they somehow deserve their every desire handed to them. 

There is no religion saying to them “work hard because you can; help your fellow man; the most worthwhile things in this world have nothing to do with money or materials” (which are basics in pretty much every major religion, not just the typical Judeo-Christian beliefs).  There is no real education reminding them “great things take time, patience, persistence, discipline; some things are worth trying whatever the outcome.”  There are no parents telling them “you’re an adult now, act like it; we’ve shown you the way, now it’s time to pull your own weight.”  In reality, there were no parents showing them the way.  So it is not entirely the Nickelodeon generation’s fault they continue to linger in adolescence long after they should; many of them were raised by TVs and Nintendos, computer monitors and cell phones.  It’s all they know. 

When their parents did acknowledge them, it wasn’t with wisdom of the world but “here, take this and go away; if I buy you that will you be quiet?”  A new game to shut them up, another movie to keep them busy and out of the way.  Which left the children – now the Nickelodeon generation – without a real understanding of value and worth, work and reward, compromise and pay-off, duty and privilege.  They should be able to get something simply because they want it, and get it easily.  If it can’t be had quickly and easily, something in their world is horribly awry and someone else is going to have to fix it.  They are without drive and commitment, beyond reaching the next level of a video game or scoring more friend requests on FaceBook or beating out rivals for the next latest fashion.  Which is great for a consumer-driven, 100% disposable society like the one we’ve built here, but not so great compared to the society we were – and were aiming for – about 50 years ago. 

The Nickelodeon generation also seem to make no tangible connection between a temporary compromise and a long-term goal.  Yeah, who doesn’t want to sleep in late on a Saturday or buy something that catches their eye or otherwise feed their impulsive nature?  But part of being a grown-up is learning that you can’t always do those things, that in fact you often can’t do those things no matter how much you want to.  Part of being a grown-up is learning to settle, to compromise, to accept.  But there are trade-offs.  So maybe you can’t sleep in this Saturday, but maybe you can this Sunday, or next weekend, or for an entire week next season.  And maybe you can’t afford that almost-irresistible store-front treasure right now, but if you save up for a few weeks it can be yours and will mean that much more to you because you had to work for it. 

Working for things gives them their worth.  There is no intrinsic value in pieces of rock in the mud.  We walk on them every day and never even look down.  But let someone dig them out, clean them up, cut them, polish them, and you have a precious stone worth something.  It’s the labor behind the product that gives it value.  But who wants to labor?  Who wants to get down there in the mud and muck about?  That’s not cool.  That’s not glamorous.  And that sounds so much harder than, like, being a movie star.  Only poor people get down in the mud like that, preferably third-world poor people that we never have to see…right?

Responsibility is not cool.  Or glamorous.  Or easy.  But it is worthwhile.  It isn’t something you can learn at the end of a game controller, or buy with daddy’s money, or con with the good looks mommy gave you.  I know dozens of young people who can’t balance a checkbook; who constantly miss payments because they’ve overspent or flat-out forgotten the bills were due; who would rather buy it new off the shelf then find a good used one for a fraction of the price; who will go to rip-offs like Rent-A-Center and cheque cashing joints to get it now get it now get it now instead of saving up a few weeks, months to buy it outright.  I see children with total control over their parents; spoiled teenagers completely lost in the world with no urge to find their way; adults who remain oblivious to how things really work; and people who should have given up the trappings of adolescence years ago still clinging to it principally because it was a time of some freedom and few responsibilities.

I don’t understand it.  I wouldn’t want to be a teenager again, and I know without question that there is more to life than a screen and a dozen buttons. Technology is not the best part of the day.  And what do most teenagers really dream of?  Being in charge of their own lives.  So why this adolescence?  Why this crippling immaturity and emotional/psychological constipation?  I don’t understand.  Maybe I was raised old-fashioned, but god, do you really think someone who spent five years of free time trying to beat a video game has a good grasp of who would make the next best leader for this nation?

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I hope you had a nice Memorial Day weekend.  For many it meant an extended visit with friends and family or at the very least another day away from work. But I just don’t like Memorial Day very much.  I think the parades and flag-waving and grave decorating are great, honestly, but I’d rather not see all those white crosses and stars-of-david.  I’d rather not read article after article about sacrifice and loss.

Call me squeamish, unpatriotic, weak…  It’s all true.  I am squeamish when it comes to seeing boys barely out of high school with their arms and legs blown off, with their bodies disfigured and their minds scarred and their futures questionable at best.  And I feel very unpatriotic when I see our government lying to its people, usurping power, perverting every ideal this nation originally stood for.  And I am weak.  I am tired and frayed and more heartsick than words can say. 

In every marker and memorial I see my grandfather, who helped liberate Auschwitz but would never bring himself to talk about it.  I see a man who, at eighty, still screamed in his sleep from dreams about what he saw and did in Italy and Germany.  I see a man who lost part of his hand in Korea; one who lost his best friend in Vietnam and never forgave himself for “letting him die”; another who will never use his right arm again and will walk with a limp for the rest of his life.  I hear it in a voice talking about her son and how she wishes she could have been with him in his last moments.  I feel it in a set of dog tags.

So wave your flags and enjoy your parades and forgive me if I would rather lose myself in work or change the channel or put away the newspaper.

Some are still trying to forget.

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Long Way Home

I like to take the long way home.  During winter, I often take the detour for its gentle grades and almost non-existent traffic, especially when weather is bad.  The short way has put me in the ditch a few times and is something of a white-knuckle ride when it’s slick.  But in spring, summer, and fall I have little excuse, except that sometimes I just need those few miles to get my head on straight. 2007 wasn’t a great year, 2008 hasn’t exactly gone gangbusters so far, but that stretch of road makes it seem a whole lot better.  For one, there are great places to pull over and stroll, hike, sit, think…  

When I get sick of myself, my life, the world, I can go there and find some peace – no matter how badly I feel starting out – if only I stay long enough.  More often than not, I swing down that certain road on my way home from work.  After 12 hours of being surrounded by people I don’t really want to be surrounded by, doing things I don’t really want to do, those simple rocks become a refuge, give me room to breathe when the rest of the world seems intent on suffocating me where I stand.

So, yes, I take the long way home.  I drive miles out of my way to do not much of anything.  I escape, if only for twenty minutes, down a piece of quiet blacktop.  And I thank god for the long way home, because sometimes I feel like it’s the only thing I have in my life that’s real and good and capable of keeping me sane.

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