Remembering Convict #9653

I have always hoped that the human race would evolve beyond greed and self-interest. Of course, there’s nothing in our human history that shows that there’s any hope of that happening.

I’m thinking about the

turn of the century 1900, the era of extreme capitalists, sometimes referred to as “Robber Barons,” that consisted of the very wealthy and everybody else. Those 1% of the 1% fought hard to keep regular people as poor as they could, and they kept every penny they squeezed from the working poor. (Remind you of another time, say … recently? Hmmm.)

I am thinking about Eugene Debs, who fought for the rights of the working class to organize and strike and who founded the Socialist Party. Eugene Victor “Gene” Debs was an American union leader, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World, and five times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America for President of the United States

I think that it’s important to note that:

He refused to allow the Socialist Party to join forces with the various Communist parties that were active at the time, believing that the more moderate Socialist Party platform would win more hearts and minds. Considering that we now take for granted a lot of the things it fought for, the platform was radical for the time. It included:
A minimum wage
An end to child labor
Rights for black Americans
Improving working conditions
Increasing the number of people who can vote

On June 16, 1918, Eugene Debs delivered his final speech before heading to prison. As World War I raged on across the world, he spoke these words near a jail where several of his fellow Socialist Party acquaintances were housed for “antiwar agitation.” 1,200 people attended the party convention. He took advantage of the audience, and the moment in history, to speak to the crowd….His words were later used to sentence him to prison for 10 years. It was from there that he received nearly 1 million votes for president in 1920, running as simply Convict No. 9653.

“These are the gentry who are today wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty, eager to apply the brand of treason to the men who dare to even whisper their opposition to Junker rule in the United Sates. No wonder Sam Johnson declared that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He must have had this Wall Street gentry in mind, or at least their prototypes, for in every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor, and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the people.


But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street. The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles. The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt. And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives.

They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world, you — the people — have never had a voice in declaring war. And strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.

And here let me emphasize the fact—and it cannot be repeated too often—that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish their corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both.

They alone declare war, and they alone make peace.

Yours not to reason why; yours but to do and die.

That is their motto, and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation. If war is right let it be declared by the people. You who have your lives to lose, you certainly above all others have the right to decide the momentous issue of war or peace.”

Check out the Democratic Socialists of America: Democratic Socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few. We are a political and activist organization, not a party; through campus and community-based chapters DSA members use a variety of tactics, from legislative to direct action, to fight for reforms that empower working people.

slowly growing garden bounty

This year, the family planted an almond tree and a cherry tree. The fruit trees planted in previous years are becoming laden with young edibles. One tomato has shown up, and the bird house is filled to capacity. A little bit of paradise, here.


columnar apples


first tomato

occupied bird house.

We don’t have an extra big yard; it’s just a regular house lot. But the family makes the most of it. Such is suburban farming.

Low Empathy: the root of all evil


I am obsessed with the conviction that our human race is devolving because we are losing our capacity for empathy. And I am not alone in believing that is the root of all of the evil in this world.

On the other hand, there is increasing research that is proving how other mammalian species are actually evolving in their capacity to feel and demonstrate empathy. All you have to do is do an online search for “animal empathy,” and you can spend the rest of the day being amazed and gratified at the increasingly widespread “humane” behaviors of our non-human brothers and sisters. (Do an online search for any of the areas of human violence in the world today – shootings, rapes, war zones…. — and you will spend the rest of the day, perhaps, starting to believe as I do.)

The tendency for humans seems to be violent. An online search for “human violence” will provide support for that assertion.

But it’s really more complicated – and overwhelming – than most folks are willing to admit.

Individual research projects are showing that there are complex connections among the healthy functioning of the brain’s “empathy spot,” the levels of the aggression hormone testosterone, the harmful psychological (and, perhaps neural) effects of violent sports/games/language, and this crisis of morality that is plaguing our species.

After spending the past few days searching online for perspectives on this issue, the best piece I have been able to find (although there are others) is “Why a Lack of Empathy is the Root of All Evil,” by psychologist Simon Baron Cohen, who offers this general definition:

Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion,” writes Baron-Cohen. People who lack empathy see others as mere objects.

And so we have rampant misogyny, bigotry, border disputes, extreme nationalism, racism,war, violence of all kinds.

What is fascinating to me is that the home of “empathy” seems to be in the brain itself. Scientific research has identified an area of the brain associated with empathy – the anterior insular cortex.

In other words, patients with anterior insular lesions had a hard time evaluating the emotional state of people in pain and feeling empathy for them, compared to the controls and the patients with anterior cingulate cortex lesions,” said the researchers.

This area of the brain that has been proven to be affected by a variety of variables, including testosterone levels and exposure to violent media.

One of Baron-Cohen’s longitudinal studies – which began 10 years ago – found that the more testosterone a foetus generates in the womb, the less empathy the child will have post- natally. In other words, there is a negative correlation between testosterone and empathy. It would appear the sex hormone is somehow involved in shaping the “empathy circuits” of the developing brain.
Given that testosterone is found in higher quantities in men than women, it may come as no surprise that men score lower on empathy than women. So there is a clear hormonal link to empathy. Another biological factor is genetics. Recent research by Baron-Cohen and colleagues found four genes associated with empathy – one sex steroid gene, one gene related to social-emotional behaviour and two associated with neural growth.

Contrary to what gamer developers would like us to believe, ongoing research is tending to prove that areas of the brain associated with empathy are being affected by constant exposure to violent video and other games.

New preliminary findings suggest that brain activation is altered in normal youths with significant past violent media exposure while viewing violent video games.

The reasons for our devolution are obviously complicated and involve some combination of nature and nurture and the opposite of nurture. As a culture and society, we seem to be intent on denying how we actually are encouraging a diminishment of empathy in favor of greed, selfish amorality, and vested interests — whether they be political, religious, economic, or national.

Of course, it’s easier to deny – from climate change to chemical food contamination, to promoting and glorifying violence – than it is to tackle the daunting job of trying to undo what we have done. But if we don’t, we will be a dead species before long. We will destroy ourselves from the simple lack of empathy.

I am hoping that some less corporate-manipulated and more holistic researchers will be able to bring together all of the factors that are pushing our species over the precipice of widespread violence and come up with a convincing argument for the necessity to put the brakes on across the board. Coming up with a plan after that is maybe more than government is capable of now. But if we don’t….

Having been a fan of speculative fiction my whole life and witnessing the manifestations of many of those “fictional” speculations, I don’t hold much hope.

Suburban Farming on a Shoestring

With all of the concern over GMO foods and pesticide contamination, suburban farming has become a big deal these days. Our family has been growing veggies in a small plot of backyard land for several years now. This year I decided to extend our planting areas to other spots around the house. Instead of flowers, I have planted veggies.

tomatopatchHere is my tomato strip, which runs along the fence that separates us from one of our neighbors. I am experimenting with this red plastic mulch which is supposed to make the tomatoes grow faster and better. It sounds a bit like sympathetic magic to me, but there also seems to be some scientific connection, based on light waves and such.

I have planted beefsteak, Paul Rebeson, yellow grape, and green zebra tomatoes, as well as one that will be a surprise because I lost the marker and can’t remember what kind it was. If all goes well, we should be in tomato heaven.
sidetomatovinewatercress garden
This is a small spot at the front corner of our house that gets nice afternoon sun. Before I took it over for a cherry tomato vine and assorted other edibles (basil, kale, mesclun, dill) it was a patch of useless grass. I threw in some marigold seeds around the tomato plant. Bugs and other critters don’t like marigolds.

A raised bed space alongside the back stairs to my rooms gets sun all morning, and so I planted watercress, purselane, parsley, and cilantro. I never heard of purseland before I went to the Farmers’ Market this afternoon and saw a plant on sale. I like to try a new edible every year, and this is it for this year. Last year’s ground cherries didn’t fare very well.

rosemarywelcomeAn old chiminea that wound up on the front lawn and then lost it’s chimney seemed to be a good place to plant some rosemary and hang a fuschia plant. I put the chimney section aside and will probably plant some kind of vine it by the divider my daughter erected to block the part of the driveway where she puts a table and umbrella.

Folks in our neighborhood never use their front lawns, never sit on their front steps. We do. But then, again, we do a lot of things that the other folks in our neighborhood don’t do, including home-schooling.

And, for me, the best part of our front yard is this, where I often sit late in the afternoon and read, knit, listen to a book on tape, or just snooze. And from this vantage point, I can watch the hummingbirds visit my little hummingbird garden (more on that another time). In another month, the long branches of the willow and the tall grasses planted behind the swing will seclude it from the driveway and the road. This is my little piece of heaven.

end of her days

She spends most of her time in a cocoon she makes of my quilt. Sometimes she buries her head; sometimes she stares into space.

I don’t know if it’s her 9th life that she’s nearing the end of; over the past 17 years she certainly has gone through several, including last February, when I (and the vet) thought it might well be her last.

They were are able to diagnose and treat her then for pancreatitis, and she rebounded. But not this time.

The blood and other tests the vet did the other day indicate she’s healthy. Except she’s not. Her x-ray showed some weird pockets of fat where there usually aren’t any. More tests might figure out what that’s all about. But I have decided that there will be no more tests. She’s 17 and has had a good life.

She’s been coming to sit (or get into her “begging” position) at my feet and make strange staccato meows as though she’s trying to tell me something. If I pick her up and put her in my lap, she makes a whining sound low in her throat. If I pet her, she sometimes hisses.

Obviously, something is wrong.

She eats a little. Uses the litter box a little. Sometimes she stops whatever she’s doing and just sits, silent and glassy-eyed, as though introspecting.

So, I’m just giving her “comfort care” until the next stage of whatever is going on inside her. When she becomes “uncomfortable,” I will take the next step and end her days.

She has been my one close and constant companion, has been with me through the deaths of relationships, the deaths of family members. I will do for her what I tried to do for them — the best I can to make the end of her days easier.

Her name is Calli.

It’s no Eden.

A volunteering moment: A memory-impaired nonagenarian pats me on the butt. I just ignore it, since earlier today, for the first time, he actually conversed with me and willingly participated in a group activity. I can’t save the world, but today I make a sad old man smile.

Twice a week I volunteer at a geriatric facility that includes folks in assisted living (where I lead “Trivia” and other such group sessions) and a separate space for individuals who are memory-impaired (with whom I sing songs, share photographs and stories, go out for walks, and even play kids’ games). I think doing these things is my way of compensating for the fact that so much of this world is in such a large scale mess that I have no power to affect any of it in any positive way.

I don’t have the money to contribute to saving abused animals, abused environments, and abused people; listening to Sara McLachlan sing in the ASPCA commercial only makes my distress worse, so I avoid even doing that.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed by all of the horrors of the “big picture,” I cut out a piece of the “little picture” that I might be able make a little better. Maybe this geriatric facility is not the worse place in the world for elders to find themselves, but it’s no Eden, either. However, it is a place where I can make a difference without the effort impacting me in a negative way.

As a matter of fact, I’m always surprised at how much of the time I spend with these folks that I actually enjoy. Sometimes I even get inspired in crafty ways that I’d never expect.

For example, I noticed one woman had a really pretty quilted pouch attached to the front of her walker. It’s just big enough to hold some tissues, a few photos, and a pair of glasses. You can buy similar ones online for about $35. It’s a handy little item that I realized other women who use walkers would find helpful. So, I’ve been inspired to design my own version that combines crochet and fabric. Maybe I’ll try to sell them online. Maybe I’ll just give them as gifts. Either way, I now have the kind of creatively useful project that I like to work on at home as I sit around in the evening and watch escapist television.

In her post today on Time Goes By, Ronni Bennett confesses to having become a “cowardly” about dealing with the overwhelming problems in the world around her. She says:

Confronted with calamity – personal, private or global – I have always been strong, eager to understand and self-confident in my ability to do my best to help when I can and pass the word on to others who might have more resources than I.

Now, I’ve become a coward. If I cannot look at the photos, will not read the news stories, won’t listen to the appeals for starving children and abused animals, how can I possibly be part of any solution.

In a real way, it’s my similar cowardice that has led me to volunteer where I do. I can feel I’m helping to make the lives of at least a very small part of the human population a little better, in only three or four hours a week. And, as it turns out (as it so often does when you give of yourself), I get back unexpected appreciation and inspiration.

Although I can do without the nonagenarian’s pat on the butt.

the small, every day courtesies

My son says this on his web portal:

the small, every day courtesies matter

As we get older, they matter even more as we struggle with bad eyesight, poor hearing, and dozens of other major and minor infirmities.

My first day of volunteering at an assisted living center affirmed what I already believe: a smile and a little bit of sincere attention make all the difference in the world to people besieged by a world over which they have little control.

These days, given the economy et al, that’s pretty much true for all of us, but it’s even more true and important for the elders with whom I spent some time yesterday. Patience, courtesy, a smile.

I really enjoyed being able to help them out a little. I will be going back a couple of times a week.

what the Occupiers want

They’ve been bludgeoned, batoned, pepper-srayed, arrested, and purposely misrepresented by the 1%’s representatives, who keep insisting that the protesters in the Occupy (Everything and Everywhere) movement don’t know what they want.

Well, according to Naomi Wolf’s article in The Guardian, this is what they want, what we want, what we the 99% want. (Can you hear us now?)

Wolf reports,

The mainstream media was declaring continually “OWS has no message”. Frustrated, I simply asked them. I began soliciting online “What is it you want?” answers from Occupy. In the first 15 minutes, I received 100 answers. These were truly eye-opening.

The No 1 agenda item: get the money out of politics. Most often cited was legislation to blunt the effect of the Citizens United ruling, which lets boundless sums enter the campaign process.

No 2: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation, with the most frequent item being to restore the Glass-Steagall Act – the Depression-era law, done away with by President Clinton, that separates investment banks from commercial banks. This law would correct the conditions for the recent crisis, as investment banks could not take risks for profit that create kale derivatives out of thin air, and wipe out the commercial and savings banks.

No 3 was the most clarifying: draft laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.

In her frightening article, Wolf exposes “the shocking truth about the Crackdown on Occupy.”

We should all be outraged at the official conspiracy to try to keep a lid on what is the most rightfully forceful populist movement since the similarly persecuted Civil Rights and Anti-War protests of the 60s. Those movements forced the beginnings of positive and necessary changes in America that are still unfolding.

It is time for another major shift toward reclaiming what American democracy is meant to be.

(See this and other posters created by the Occupy movement here.)

If you want it but it doesn’t exist,
create it.

I moved into this town two years ago after a decade of taking care of my mom. It took me about a year to get over the stress and tension of living with my (demented) mother and (set-in-his-ways) brother for several years. And then my mother passed away.

For a year after that, until now, I have been trying to find a place for myself in this larger community. I joined a gym but found it all very depressing (and expensive). I joined a quilting group, figuring that I like to sew and might enjoy it. But I didn’t for all kinds of reasons, including that I have neither the space where I live nor the design talent and experience to get into quilting. And I find it boring to quilt from a kit.

So, I did more knitting to keep me busy, but that didn’t fill my need for community connection. I tried a couple of book clubs, but they never talked about the books and I didn’t quite fit in with the memberships.

So, I joined the Jewish Community Center, mostly for the Zumba and aerobics and gym facilities, and that helped to get me out of the house. But it still wasn’t what I was hoping to find. The JCC offers some other programs that I might have taken, but they were all at night (and I don’t drive at night) and cost more than I can afford.

So, I joined up to be a Hospice volunteer, got trained, and just met my first assignment. That was a start, but not exactly to the point.

What I miss from my old life are the people with whom I worked and the groups to which I belonged in which I took some leadership. Some were peer discussion groups; some were expressive arts therapy groups. They were groups that dealt with substantive personal issues and opened doors to creative and spiritual exploration (even though I am an atheist). I always made friends with people in those groups because we had those interests in common.

So, I went on a search for a group — preferably a therapeutic group dealing with elder issues or major life transitions.

Uh uh. No such thing. Not even within a 25 mile drive.

So, I drafted a proposal to start such a group under the auspices of the Jewish Community Center, and, since I am a trained study circle facilitator, I volunteered to lead such a group.

I’ve done that before — started a group to which I wanted to belong. It has worked in the past for me, and I’m hoping it will work again.

If it doesn’t, with the SAD season starting, I’m going to find it tough to muddle on through.

Oh well, I’ll think of something……

Whaling Blues — a found poem

Whaling Blues — a found poem
(take one of the blues, the largest…)

Lying at the ocean’s surface,
he is an island in the sea.
He does not fear others.
Others do not fear him.

His only victims
are two-inch crustaceans
(doubtlessly too primitive
for anxiety).

His body is used
for the satisfaction
of skillful motion,
not combat;
he is as harmless as flowers
and, in his silver swimming grace,
as beautiful.

Buoyant with blubber
and virtually weightless
in his glossy yielding element,
he is freer than the birds.

Monogamous —
mating in one year,
raising an infant in the next —
he strokes and glides along
his partner’s body
(although their specific interest in sex
is limited to the spring).

Good will, devotion:
he will stay
with his wounded mate
as long as life lasts,
even while knowing
death is certain.

The best of neighbors,
he will tirelessly
hold up to breathe
an ill or injured friend —

even that pygmie, man,
who hunts with harpoons
and his insatiable hunger
for car wax,
and shoe polish

from the last
of the blues.

c elf 1960s