A Dog’s Life

16 09 2013

Montana Dog

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”
-Roger Caras

Since we adopted him last fall, an australian shepherd named Montana has become a full-fledged member of our family, and what a wonderful addition he’s been. He has brought much more to our home than I had ever anticipated. I find it interesting that something so seemingly insignificant as an inanimate object or, in this particular case an animal, could be a catalyst for introspection and reflection.

We’d always planned on getting the girls pets once they were old enough to care for them, but it was a more sinister force that precipitated this dog’s sudden arrival into our lives.

The presence of squirrels, raccoons, and rabbits is an idyllic benefit of living next to a golf course and green space. Nature has a way of losing some of it’s glamour when those cute little mammals raze to the ground all of your carrots, spinach and romaine, or trash your koi pond.  A new fence around the garden and an electric wire for the pond took care of some issues, but what do you do about the thievery perpetrated by squirrels? The few peaches they took became a tolerable, albeit annoying loss. However, when the raccoons came under the cover of darkness, and in one night stripped my apple tree of all fifty ripe and ready-to-eat fujis, the romance was over. This was a declaration of war by villainous scum. Within a month, I had found the perfect ally, and Montana came to live with us.

As a “working breed” he is always ready to go and do – anything. He loves my early morning runs, and bounds with joy whenever someone comes outside with his leash. As much as he loves to be busy, he is just as content to lie at my feet, being close to his family. Nothing makes him more content than an appreciative pat on the head, or scratching of his belly, nor is it ever enough. No matter how long I pet him, as soon as I stop, he lifts his head, perks his ears, and looks at me, as if to say, “What, that’s it?”

Pragmatically, raising pets is a great way to help our children learn the importance of being responsible. There’s nothing like having the life of some cute little critter completely in your hands to reinforce this ideal on a daily basis. It’s been rewarding to see how the girls have stepped up in “owning” their responsibilities, feeding him his meals, while also caring for the rest of the menagerie (hamsters, hermit crabs & fish) they’ve acquired over the same period. They’re even big enough now to clean up his poop! (now if they would just keep their rooms clean!)

My hope is these pets will also provide some “teachable moments” on mortality. Admittedly it’s never  easy dealing with the death of a loved one, but it seems there’s a little perspective that can come from flushing a few dead goldfish, before eventually burying a hermit crab, a hamster, and inevitably, even our beloved dog. Well, it’s a plan that “looks good on paper,” anyway.

One thing I had not anticipated, is the emotional attachment that has blossomed since his arrival. It has been fascinating to witness the bond that occurs between man and animal, and the strengthening of our own familial bonds in conjunction. The girls, especially our oldest, are always giving Montana lots of luvin’. Both my wife and I, who tend to be otherwise relatively stoic in our demeanors, are much more expressive of our appreciation and love of this dog than I would have foreseen.

For me, the unconditional loyalty of a dog is a powerful reminder of what it means to be dedicated to your loved ones.  He reminds me that no matter the circumstances, we will always be family. These girls will forever be my daughters, and I, their father. I will always be there for them.

He is a role model for forgiveness. Within minutes of being scolded for some infraction, he is back at my side, as happy and devoted as ever. No matter how frustrated my wife and I may get with one another, at the end of the day, we’re still committed to making one another’s life better.

He reminds me that loving my family as deeply as I do isn’t enough. I need to show them, in deed and manner, how much they mean to me, and I need to do this every day. He reminds me one can never hug his children too much.





Television – an alternate reality.

25 02 2013

Photo on 11-11-12 at 2.46 PM

Well, here it is almost March, and I’m only getting to my second post of the year.  I’d planned on starting the year off with a number of more positive, uplifting posts.  I’d also intended to avoid writing about the terrible tragedy in Newtown, CT, along with all the predictable, explosion of dramatic media coverage. However, with the equally predictable debate regarding guns in America currently being held in the public forum, I can no longer refrain.  Perhaps it’s just not in my nature to be that upbeat.  Or maybe I’m moved enough to write only by the things that frustrate me.

Firstly I have to state what I would consider obvious: the death of all those people in Connecticut was a horrendous tragedy.  As a parent, and fellow human being, my heart goes out to all of those who had to suffer so terrible a loss. Although any such act and it’s results are immeasurably awful, it seems especially acute when it involves children and those we would consider innocent.

With that said, the all-too-typical media spectacle that followed, along with the current public debate regarding gun control are completely disproportionate, emotional, knee-jerk reactions to the tragedy.

The headlines were bold and eye-catching, using words like “slaughter” and “massacre,” and articles about a mass shooting “epidemic.”   The 24-hour bombardment of visceral images, gripping live footage, and heart-wrenching testimonials surely kept the viewers glued to the t.v., gawking morbidly like passers-by at a car crash, and thereby getting the ratings broadcasters need to make a living.  However, as they attempted to wring every last drop of opportunity out of such a tragedy, did they help us gain a healthier, more enlightened, realistic, or reasonable perspective of our world?

I would argue, “not at all.”

This entertainment disguised as “news” is only a more deceptive form of “reality t.v..”  It helps create a distorted perception of reality under the guise of being informative.  By airing hour after hour of in-depth coverage, live footage, personal interviews, and “expert analysis,” media outlets are able to turn a 10 minute story into a two week mini-drama.  In so doing, they create a bigger-than-life version of reality, thereby warping our sense of perspective.

If the amount of time the media spent were proportionately representative of the frequency, or statistical significance of the events being reported, we would see a much more broad spectrum of subject matter, and given what goes for entertainment these days, it would be pretty boring by comparison.  We would see hours upon hours of discussion about such exciting topics as heart disease, strokes, respiratory infections, bronchitis, and diarrhoea. (the top 5 killers worldwide)

WHOdeath

from: The World Health Organization

If we wish to focus on the national level….

U.S. death stats

from: Centers for Disease Control

Watching the “mainstream media” would be more like watching CSPAN, and, except for policy wonks, how many people would be interested in spending hours watching that?  Sure, these are very serious issues that need to be discussed, studied, and remedied, but let’s face it; they’re so boring! How is a news anchor supposed to spice up the subject of heart disease or cancer?  Compare that to a psycho shooter in an elementary school.  Now THAT”S a made for television hit!

Mass shootings, as tragic as they may be, DO NOT happen that often, and although Columbine and Newtown are fresh in our memories, they happen in public schools even less.  Nor are they on the rise.  This is just our own cognition playing with our minds. (pun intended)  Just as our confirmation bias reinforces those preconceived notions we believe to be true, the Availability Heuristic also clouds our ability to make sound judgements.  The Availability heuristic is the tendency to asses the truth or frequency of something based on our ability to recall similar examples.  With these two forces at play, and the deluge of information from the media, it’s no wonder that people feel like these types of crimes are happening all of the time, and are on the rise.

Accidental death pie

But that simply is not the case.  Just look at the numbers.

As per the 2011 U.S. Census, the U.S. had a population of 311,591,917.  According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report (2011), there were 12,664 murders.  Of that number, 8,583 were caused by firearms, or just .0028% of the total population.  The tragic deaths in Newtown account for but a small fraction of that, at .21% of the total murders in that year, or .0000083% of the total population.

For a comparison, look at this breakdown of the “accidental deaths” category from the CDC. Nearly 35,000 of the 37,275 transportation deaths were automobile accidents. That’s over four times the number of gun related homicides, yet I don’t hear a national discussion about it, nor do I see anybody discontinuing, or at least modifying their driving habits. (and trust me, there are plenty of people here in the burbs of Norcal who need to)

Here’s some more perspective on”rise” of mass shootings in the U.S.. Clicking on this chart will take you to a really good op-ed piece by James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University.

Mass Shootings 1976-2011.jpg

The bottom line is, mass shootings are not on the rise.  As repugnant as these crimes may be, there is no epidemic.  Only our perception of these atrocities has ballooned, with the aid of the media, and cognitive psychology.

Perhaps if the media actually meant to educate instead of entertain, we wouldn’t be as ignorant as we are.  As much as we would like to criticize mass media, however, the final blame rests with us, the consumer.  The media coverage is what it is because that’s what sells, not because of an “epidemic” in gun crime that needs reporting.  Television is a market driven enterprise, and the mass media is just providing what the market demands.  Apparently, the masses only wish to be entertained.





Kill your T.V.

22 02 2013

00025 Kill your Television

(click here for link to this bumper sticker)

IRAQ! AMERICAN IDOL! AFGHANISTAN! JERSEY SHORE! OBAMA! ICE ROAD TRUCKERS! MURDER! CONSPIRACY! THE KARDASHIANS! SANDYHOOK!

The media’s actions are understandable, albeit unscrupulous.  The nature of the  entertainment industry, of which CNN, FOX, and MSNBC are part, is to increase viewership.  Increased viewership means increased ratings, which translates to more advertising dollars, which is how broadcasting makes money.  Braodcasting agencies are driven, as is any corporate entity, by what generates profit.

Television “sells.”  We’re all aware of all the advertising that is continually interrupting whatever fine programing it is we’re wanting to watch.  Even though we realize this is simply part of the television experience, how many of us stop to consider the world view being promoted by all of this marketing? This stuff can warp our sense of reality all by itself.  Over and over we are shown that, “all happy people are beautiful,” as in glamour model, does-not-exist-in-reality beautiful, (see my earlier post Evolution?) and that “All beautiful people are successful, and happy because they own product X!” Obviously, my life just won’t be complete until I do, too.

But what about the bill of goods we’re being sold  under the guise of informing us.  I’m not talking about info-mercials.  The insidious part of all that’s being sold is a skewed perspective of our world, and CNN, FOX, and MSNBC are the frontrunners pitching us a load of crap.

We can dupe ourselves into believing that we’re becoming more informed about the world around us by watching the news, but this is a dangerous, misguided belief.  The news that we’re fed is designed to entertain us, and keep us wanting more.  The purposes of informing, educating, or enlightening come in, at most, as a second priority, and only when it helps achieve the primary goal of increasing profits.

Now we also are being inundated with “reality” t.v.  Now there’s an oxymoron.  (I love the fact that I can reference “reality” t.v. with an adjective that includes moronic.)   Fortunately I cannot claim expertise on these shows.  I have NEVER watched an episode of Survivor, American Idol, Jersey Shore, any of the Housewives, Dancing with the Stars, nor the Kardashians.  From the few episodes of such winners as Duck Dynasty, and The Ultimate Fighter  I’ve suffered through, I can verify that they all suck.  (I just tune into the last 10 minutes of The Ultimate Fighter for the fight)  There is very little reality in a group dynamic when you add a camera crew, and the profit motive that comes from knowing you’re gonna hit a big payday for being a dumb-ass.

I remember seeing a bumper sticker as a child that read, “Kill your television.”  For the life of me, I didn’t get it.  I just couldn’t figure out the joke.  Now I’ve got it, and it’s not a joke.  It’s not even remotely funny.  Turn that damnable box off and go do something.  Read a book.  Go outside.  Play solitaire.  Hug your kids.  Workout.  Go for a walk.  Knit a sweater.  Kill your television.  Really.

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Blind to our own reflection

5 12 2012

Way back in high school, I took a literature course in science fiction.  We read a number of short stories written in the early days of this genre, as well as a number of novels from the likes of Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, and Heinlein.  Science fiction became one of my favorites, not because of all the dreamy techno gadgets, however cool some of that stuff may be, but from the ability to make social commentary in a thought-provoking manner.  It really provided me with a venue to more effectively question and discuss the social ails that I perceived as a young, ideological teen.

We often can’t see the fallacies in our own way of thinking, blinded as we tend to be by our own egocentrism and ethnocentrism.  Reading about other beings and their societies on distant planets or in the distant future, however, can open the door to introspection.  This can be a great way to present social critique in a less confrontational manner, since it’s about some fictional “others.”  As we experience the trials and tribulations of aliens in science fiction, we can come to a more clear perception of our own reality.

Isn’t it funny (or sad) how we can see the weaknesses or fallacious nature of another’s way of thinking, but we struggle to see the same thing in ourselves?  We can criticize a purple alien on some unknown planet light years from our own Milky Way for it’s derision or hatred of a green alien solely because of a difference in color.  Yet, we can’t even discuss immigration, taxes, nor “entitlements” in this country without stereotypes and false assumptions convoluting the conversation beyond any reason or sense.

Here’s another example.  While teaching English in Korea years ago, I visited a memorial for the victims of the Japanese occupation with a number of students.  During this rather somber affair, these gentlemen made no bones about their anger and hatred of the Japanese.  They said the Japanese could NEVER be forgiven for what they had done to their countrymen.

(I, for one, am not a big fan of the “forgive and forget” school of thought.  It seems to me that it’s our tendency to forget that hinders our ability to learn from past mistakes.  However, it’s only by forgiving that we’re able to move forward from past transgressions, as difficult as it may be.)

I acknowledged that I could never understand how they must have felt, but that it seemed more prudent to “forgive, but never forget.”  It had been almost two generations earlier when the atrocities in question had been committed.  The students replied that this was impossible.  Their reasoning was simple; the crimes the Japanese perpetrated were just too horrendous, and therefore they could never be forgiven.

I then reminded them of a conversation we’d had in class not a week earlier regarding the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.  The general consensus of the group in that discussion was that the Israelis and Palestinians needed to just let it go.  They have been killing one another for centuries, each generation seeking revenge for the “crimes” committed to their ancestors, and until they let bygones be bygones, it would never stop.

Their response to this comparison was classic: “well, that’s different.”

When are those damn purple aliens going to figure it out?

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Man, the Logical Beast

26 11 2012

We humans pride ourselves on our logic.  Although there’s no consensus on what exactly distinguishes us from other species in regards to our cognitive capabilities, we recognize that we are in a class by ourselves, and part of what makes us unique is our ability to logically contemplate the world around us.  This enables us, individually and collectively, to make the wise decisions in our daily lives that keep us alive, and healthy, while our species progresses into the future.

If we’re so logical, how can there be so much contradicting diversity in human thought?

This presumption of astute intellect frequently often leads to much frustration and disappointment for me, when people, whether family, close friends, or John Q. P., fall short of my expectations.  I’m confronted, time and again, by the seeming inability of so many to see the fallacious nature of their thinking, and it’s tempting to assume that I’m surrounded by idiots.  (I even had a “surrounded by idiots” t-shirt once upon a time!)  How can it be that, even with all of our modern day access to knowledge, we still aren’t that smart?

I realize that much of my disillusionment comes from unrealistic expectations.  The state of being old enough to vote does not, in and of itself, imply the endowment of the facilities in logic which one might assume accompanies said age.

source: wikipedia

Way back in the recesses of my ancient past, I recall discussing Blooms Taxonomy in an educational psychology class. This model divides our intellectual development  into six levels, beginning with the basic ability to remember facts & figures, evolving through actually understanding and being able to apply those ideas, and finally reaching the pinnacle of human thought; evaluating and creating.  The key point of the discussion, for the sake of this post, was a statistic that has ever since burned in my brain: it’s estimated that 80% of the human population never gets much past the fourth level!

People retain information with varying degrees of success, and we each develop varying degrees of analytical prowess.  As if that weren’t bad enough, it turns out we selectively choose which information to heed, and which to deny, regardless of it’s validity. (see my previous post re: confirmation bias) It’s no wonder we “can’t all just get along.”

It may be hard to accept, but I’m coming to grips with the fact that I am just as susceptible as the next person to these forces that warp our ability to reason.

But wait, there’s more!

Our confirmation bias works in cahoots with another major player in warping our logic – our emotions.  I’ve spent years trying to develop better self control, because I recognized long ago that I don’t think clearly nor quickly when I’m pissed off.  Now I’ve got to keep an eye on the tendency to read or listen to only those sources that reinforce my beliefs? Man, this Constant and Never-ending Improvement stuff is a pain in the ass.

The emotional drama of Junior High – and to think I believed we would eventually grow up!

A fact I learned while running a martial art school: people buy on emotion, and then justify their purchase through logic.  This is why that car salesman wants to get you in the driver’s seat of that shiny, new BMW.  After you feel that leather interior, with that new-car smell, you can just picture yourself flying down the highway.  Once you want the car (emotion) you’ll come up with an entire list of reasons why you need the car (logic).

“Ooohhh, it’s so SHINEY!

It’s no different with martial arts lessons or fitness.  People sign up for both with images of grandeur (emotional).  They see their child as a confident, strong, wise martial arts master, or they picture themselves with the svelte body of an olympic athlete.  Then, with some impetus from an emotional trigger, (enrollments in the fitness industry peak annually during the first of the year) they sign up, and with the enthusiasm of a kid with a new toy, come up with a whole bunch of reasons why it’s the greatest thing ever. (logical)

Roller coaster rides should be reserved for amusement parks

This whole “cart-before-the -horse” works in reverse, too.  Those same people, after a few weeks or even months, will begin to lose their motivation.  The time commitment and effort involved begin to lose their new luster, fading into mundane routine.  Then, all it takes is one “bad” day during this lull in emotional high to flip the switch.  Now they start looking for every reason possible to reinforce the emotional desire to quit, and low and behold, they come up with a list of negatives as extensive as the list of positives from just weeks before!

The bottom line is this: we make most of our decisions based on our emotions – not logical conclusions based on evaluation of the facts, but knee-jerk emotional response to whatever stirs our heart.  Then our confirmation bias kicks in, looking only for proof to support our decision.  This silly emotional roller coaster isn’t reserved just for our decisions in consumption either.

Just take a look at the political scene of our most recent elections.  It sure seems that our political forum has been extremely vitriolic since the election cycle and subsequent election of our first African-American President in 2008. Perhaps it’s due to the “perfect storm” of our time.  The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by the global economic collapse, and finally the election of a black man to the “most powerful position in the world” have all culminated in pretty extraordinary circumstances.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget the Mayan calendar… and the fiscal cliff…

It’s like a bad movie script, and the media is playing it to the hilt.  The Tea Partiers are yelling, “Obama’s a muslim socialist and he’s setting up Death Panels!”  while the Occupy movement is chanting, “capitalism sucks and you rich people better pay up!”  I, for one, find myself stuck somewhere in the middle, watching the freak show, while the media cashes in, and our society pays the price for such polarized, and emotional debate.  But don’t forget: emotion sells!

It amazes me how many people are once again caught up in the emotional silliness of the moment.  The number of ridiculous posts on Facebook regarding our impending doom with President Obama’s reelection is mind-numbing.  Just like the predictable rise in health club enrollments at the turn of the new year, people start looking into moving to Canada when their candidate loses an election!

http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/07/politics/us-election-bluster/index.html?iref=allsearch

 Although not as common, another completely immature emotional response is occurring in places like the fine state of Texas.  The same people who have put creationism right next to evolution in their school curricula have a petition to secede!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-20301477

You all need to push back from the t.v., and go for a walk.








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