May 29, 2010

Memorial Day

In much of Appalachia, Memorial Day means family reunions, big meals, and visits to cemeteries. The holiday was originally enacted to celebrate Union soldiers who fell during the Civil War but has since expanded to include all US soldiers, airmen and sailors who died in warfare. In these times, it seems appropriate to think of all who have died in armed conflict--and to hope that there will be much less of it in the future.

While we're at it, here's another kind of memorial, a pastoral letter from Bishop Michael Bransfield of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston on coal mine safety. Titled On My Holy Mountain: Mine Safety in West Virginia, it was written in the wake of Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch disaster.

May 28, 2010

Gender issues

We interrupt Goat Rope's regularly scheduled program to report due to a strange eruption of gender issues on the farm. It seems that our male turkey Diego (above, left) was in a state of confusion after his partner started sitting on eggs.

He responded by doing something that I think is pretty unheard of amongst normal males of his kind: stealing chicken eggs and sitting on them. Like a broody hen, he pretty much sits on them all the time. He's even been caught in the act of egg theft.

(I would go out and take a picture of him in the act but for the fact that a recent attack of sciatica or something makes it too painful for me to take any unnecessary steps.)

This is not normal. But then most of the animals around here would fit right in at the Island of Misfit Toys on the Rudolph Christmas special.

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. As concerns about debt and deficits grow, a bipartisan group of lawmakers are calling for cuts in military spending.

HEALTH CARE REFORM will cost WV much less than the state Department of Health and Human Resources previously estimated.

UPPER BIG BRANCH MINE DISASTER. Here's the most recent NPR coverage.

FEELING YOUR PAIN. New research suggests that racial bias interferes with empathy.


May 27, 2010

Red Prometheus

El Cabrero just finished reading David Priestland's grande book, The Red Flag: A History of Communism. It was very readable and non-polemical and included cultural as well as political matters in a global history of that very diverse movement.

Early on, Priestland invokes the myth of the primordial rebel Prometheus, who was terribly punished by Zeus. The young Marx referred to Prometheus as "the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar."

Viewing the history of the movement through that lens, Priestland's final lines are worth pondering:

The history of Communism should have taught us two things. The first lesson, now drawn by many writers, is how destructive dogmatic utopian thinking can be. The second, rather more neglected today, is the danger of sharp inequalities and perceived injustice--for they can make that utopian politics very appealing. Since 1989 the dominant powers have learnt neither lesson. Reacting sharply against communist utopias, messianic dogmatic liberals have sought to export their system--sometimes by force--across the globe. Perhaps, only now, chastened by the crises of 2008, will we finally learn from the history of Communism. Only if we do so will we be spared another bloody act in the tragedy of Prometheus.

MASSEY MINE DISASTER. Here's NPR's coverage of the congressional hearing held in Beckley earlier this week and here's an interview with WV Senator Jay Rockefeller about the disaster from the Charleston Daily Mail. And, while we're at it, here's a take on Massey CEO Don Blankenship's leadership style from a business social responsibility blog.

WELFARE TO WHAT? Recession-induced cuts to child care may force low income workers out of their jobs.

OF TESTOSTERONE AND TRUST, one may learn something by clicking here.


May 26, 2010

Pain vipassana

Every time I do some serious bookstore browsing I'm struck by the number of books on meditation. There are tons of them. I have a theory about that that goes something like this: reading or writing about it is way more fun than actually doing it. I've tried the sitting thing off and on over the years but seem to do better when in motion with things like karate.

One time a friend and I spent the night in a traditional Theravada Buddhist retreat center in WV's eastern panhandle. The practice there was to do seated meditation for an hour at a various intervals of the day, two being the bare minimum.

I decided to be hardcore so I wrapped up my legs into a full lotus posture, determined to gut it out. The method used there was vipassana or insight meditation and the basic practice was to sit and focus on breathing. If thoughts or feelings arose, one was to note them without judgment and return to the breath. Or something like that.

I spent most of the hour thinking "Jesus Christ, my knees hurt!" After a while though, I tried to just observe the pain rather than get caught up in. And, yes, that is way easier to say than do. But here and there, I managed to do it for a few seconds anyway and after a while I noticed that the pain wasn't constant but seemed to ebb and flow in intensity. Just observing it didn't make it go away but it did seem to create a little space for a moment or two.

I found that practice of "pain vipassana" to be useful at other times, such as endurance events like marathons or triathlons. I really don't enjoy doing those things--it's more like I enjoy having just finished doing them. The event itself is pretty much a total drag. But it did help to just observe the level of pain or discomfort and make the most of the times when the level went down.

I've been thinking about this because since Monday I've been hit with a sudden bout of what appears to be sciatica, which in my case is intense, sometimes agonizing pain in the back and down the legs. Going across the room sometimes seems like an ordeal--and I usually spend a lot of time in serious physical exercise. I'm determined to keep moving as much as I can until it gets under control, which means more pain vipassana.

But I'd SOOO much rather just read about it.

TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN. Here's a classic example of the low road approach to economic development, which usually involves giving away the store and getting ripped off in return. A telemarketing company located in Wheeling in 2006 because it got a three year tax break. Now they're moving to Pennsylvania. And we all know this isn't the first time something like this happened.

CORPORATE CRIMINALS? Here's another take on the Massey Upper Big Branch mine disaster can the various investigations going on related to it.

A GOOD READ. Here's an amusing list of the 10 books aspiring writers shouldn't read.

OVERDOING IT. While physical inactivity is a bigger problem for American children, pushing them too hard in sports can also do damage.


May 24, 2010

"A ticking time bomb"

Yesterday, the US House Committee on Education and Labor held a hearing in Beckley about Massey's Upper Big Branch mine disaster. Here is Ken Ward's coverage in the Charleston Gazette.

And here is an excerpt from an earlier version of the same article:

Miners and families from the Upper Big Branch Mine on Monday described the Massey Energy operation as "a ticking time bomb," where safety problems were ignored and workers feared losing their jobs if they complained.

"I felt like I was working for the Gestapo at times," said continuous miner operator Stanley Stewart, who was on his way into Upper Big Branch when the April 5 explosion occurred.

Stewart said Massey's Performance Coal Co. repeatedly fixed airflow problems at the mine only well enough to get government inspectors to back off, so the operation could resume producing coal. Last year, Stewart said, the company stripped miners of their summer vacation when Upper Big Branch didn't meet production goals.

"I told my wife, Mindi, 'If anything happens to me, get a lawyer and sue the blankety blank out of them. That place is a ticking time bomb,'" Stewart said.

WV Governor Joe Manchin testified at the hearing as well. Here's his statement and here are parts of it that caught my eye:

You can put a price on a ton of coal, and you can put a price on every piece of machinery in a coal mine, but you cannot put a price on the life of a human being; it is priceless. West Virginia expects employers to prioritize safety ahead of everything else. A person who goes to work each morning to provide a living for themselves and their family should expect nothing less than to return home safely...

There are questions we need answered. Why did serious safety violations repeatedly occur at Upper Big Branch? Were the miners concerned about their safety? Were miners threatened or intimidated from speaking out? If state or federal regulators knew the mine was unsafe, why was it allowed to continue to operate?...

Corporate governance is another issue the state or federal government should address. No one within a corporate or business structure, from top to bottom, should be protected or untouchable under the law if the corporation or business fails to make safety a priority or fails to empower workers to make the workplace as safe as possible.


Happy Dylan Day

El Cabrero has been in Baltimore for a few days and while there I attended a concert/fundraiser for several groups, including the American Friends Service Committee. The event was called "The Night of 1000 Dylans" and featured several local musicians covering Dylan songs. It was the first time I ever heard a gospel/sax version of "Blowin' in the Wind"--and it worked.

One of the organizers reminded the audience that Bob would be turning 69 today.

In the extremely unlikely event that my life got turned into a movie (get ready, Johnnie Depp), most of the soundtrack would definitely be Dylan, which is not altogether a good thing. I was too young to be in the first cohort of Dylan fans, but even as a kid his music and lyrics would stop me cold, even before I knew who he was or when his songs were performed by someone else.

When I was around 9 or 10, my older brother returned from college with an acoustic guitar and played "Blowin' in the Wind" and I was struck hard by the power of the words. (Nowadays, however, I prefer the later random and cynical Dylan to the younger idealistic one.)

I was also KO'ed by the revolutionary lyrics "When the Ship Comes In" when I was in junior high, although Arlo does it better than Bob. At various other points growing up, other songs had the same effect, including "Tangled Up in Blue," "Knocking on Heaven's Door," and "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts." And that was way before I actually started listening his stuff in a big way.

The man has the power of the word. The other day I listened to the album "Highway 61 Revisited" and it struck me again that one could write any number of doctoral dissertations on intertextuality in "Desolation Row."

I think one of the things I like best about Dylan is that he never became stuck. He always kept changing, often in ways that infuriated his fans. He always stayed fresh. May we do the same.

So happy birthday, Bob, and keep 'em coming.

WITH ENEMIES LIKE THESE. Here's Krugman's latest on corporate animosity towards President Obama.

COLLATERAL DAMAGE. Also in the Times was this item about how state cutbacks on child care subsidies may cause some low income parents to leave the workforce.

MASSEY MINE DISASTER. Another coal miner who worked for Massey Energy dies last week in an unrelated accident. A lot is going to happen in the Upper Big Branch disaster investigation today and beyond. The best way to keep up is to keep checking Ken Ward's Coal Tattoo blog.