JC’s Confessions #26

In the first few seasons of The Late Show, Stephen Colbert did a recurring skit, then a best-selling book, called Midnight Confessions, in which he “confesses” to his audience with the disclaimer that he isn’t sure these things are really sins but that he does “feel bad about them.” While Stephen and his writers are famously funny, I am not, so my JC’s Confessions will be somewhat more serious reflections, but they will be things that I feel bad about. Stephen’s audience always forgives him at the end of the segment; I’m not expecting that – and these aren’t really sins – but comments are always welcome.

Ugh.

Folks who have been reading my blog regularly (thank you!) know that I have been dealing with a lot of loss and stress in recent years. I’ve been struggling to find energy to accomplish things and often feel like I can’t concentrate.

I’ve taken a lot of steps to cut down on what I’m trying to do in a day/week but there are still days that nothing of import gets started, much less done. I’ve tried to reach out for additional support but there are times when I can’t even manage to gather the energy needed to reach out and arrange to meet. Granted, the pandemic waves aren’t helpful, either.

I recognize from friends who study such things and from my reading that I am still grieving and that my brain is quite literally rewiring itself in line with my new reality.

A few weeks ago, I decided to try to shift my perspective. I decided to set aside some things I had been trying to do/worrying about and to give myself more grace/space to wait out the brain changes.

My doctor warned me it would be difficult and it is.

There have been little glimmers of hope. I’ve been able to arrange for some self-care appointments that I need. I’ve managed to post every day this month so far for Just Jot It January, although I confess I’m looking forward to February when that pressure I’ve put on myself will be off. I’ve made progress on preparing my chapbook manuscript for publication.

Overall, though, I am still struggling and struggling to accept that I’m still struggling, which is a large part of what I was hoping to do.

Maybe that is the way things must be for now.

I just need to accept it.
*****
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learning civics and history

Earlier this week, I was listening to a discussion around Richard Haass’ new book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.

The discussion centered around the dearth of knowledge among many in the United States on the basics of civics and history. The root of this lies seems to lie in our educational system.

Unlike most countries, the United States does not have a national educational system. Schools are controlled by local school boards with a greater or lesser role played by state education boards, depending on the state. This leads to a wide range of what students learn in school and the depth of that learning.

I went to public schools in western Massachusetts in the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Civics and history were an important part of our schooling. I remember in the later grades of grammar school reading the US Constitution and summaries of landmark Supreme Court cases. We were expected to apply what we had learned from history to current events, such as deciding for whom we would vote for president in a mock election. This being small-town New England, we would attend town meeting day with our families, showing democracy in action.

Having already learned the basics of US and world history in our younger years, in high school, our coursework was designed to delve more deeply into particular areas of social studies. One of the best courses I took was one on minorities in America. I learned about such important historical events as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. We studied the Black experience in the US, from enslavement and Jim Crow through the civil rights movement, which was, of course, ongoing. I learned for the first time about the discrimination that had affected my own Italian grandparents and Irish great-grandparents. By the time I turned 18 and could register to vote, I had a good understanding of the complexities of our past and of how to evaluate issues of the present and future.

My daughters went to school in New York, where the State Board of Regents is the main driver of curriculum. The Regents set the required courses and use statewide exams in high school to ensure that the students are fulfilling the goals of the curriculum. While the State is fond of survey courses, they do expect students to do much more than memorize historical facts. A major component of history exams is a document-based essay, where the student is given primary source material, such as political cartoons, government documents, and newspaper articles, and asked to use them to write an essay expressing support or opposition to a given proposition. It demonstrates the kind of decision-making that voters need to do to evaluate candidates or stances on current issues. High school students, usually in their final year, also take a semester course on participation in government, which is considered the capstone of their civics education. This New York State framework, which my daughters used in the 1990s-early 2000s, remains in place today.

Some other states and localities do a poor job of educating their students in history and civics. Some even boast about the limitations they place on what is taught in their schools. A current egregious example of this is the state of Florida, which passed a law last year severely limiting teaching about race and identity. This led Florida to reject a pilot of the new Advanced Placement African American Studies course because it includes materials about current topics such as intersectionality, the reparations movement, and Black feminist literary critique. They also objected to students reading works by such well-known Black scholars and writers as bell hooks, Angela Davis, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Florida officials claimed the course was more indoctrination than education, failing to realize that one needs to learn deeply through the full spectrum of a field of study to be truly educated and able to make judgments. Perhaps, their own education was too limited for them to appreciate the complexities we all now face.

At this point, we have a lot of catching up to do, with adults needing more education in civics, as well as many younger students. Part of this effort must be to emphasize our responsibilities to each other as citizens, or, as Richard Haass calls them, our “obligations.” (I haven’t had the opportunity to read his book, which was just released this week, so the following thoughts are mine and not from his work.)

For example, the First Amendment states that the federal government cannot establish a religion or prevent anyone from practicing their religion. I have the right to practice a religion or not, as I choose. However, I have a responsibility to not impose my religious tenets on anyone else. The First Amendment also says that laws can’t be made to abridge freedom of speech, but I am responsible for what I say and should take care that it is truthful and appropriate.

There is some tendency in the US for people to be hyper-individualistic, crowing about their individual rights, viewpoints, possessions, etc. while ignoring that we all exist in community and relationships, with people who are similar to us and those who are different in some way. Part of the reason that education in civics is so important is to increase the realization that we are responsible to each other as members of the community and the nation.

We are responsible for finding out the facts on an issue, forming a reasoned opinion, and taking action. We need to be respectful of others and set a good example. We need to keep listening and keep learning, as new information and discoveries come to light every day.

We need to be civil.
*****
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One-Liner Wednesday: learning

“It’s up to each individual to make learning fun.”
~~~Trenton Doyle Hancock

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B

implicit bias

Yesterday, I reported for jury duty, although I wasn’t chosen to be a juror.

After some initial paperwork, all the prospective jurors watched two short videos. One was the basics of court cases, which had been digitized from an older film version, making the audio and visual quality mediocre at best. The other was a very good video about implicit bias.

Implicit bias is the phenomenon of having unconscious thoughts or feelings about something or someone. The video pointed out that most of what our brains do every day is unconscious, ingrained from prior experience. For example, we don’t have to consciously reason out that you pour coffee into a cup rather than a shoe. Our unconscious mind knows what we need to do in most of our daily activities and can handle millions of details while our conscious mind can only handle a few dozen. However, our unconscious mind may also be the home of stereotypes of people of a certain race, gender, religion, occupation, socioeconomic group, etc.

The video was a very helpful reminder that we do need to consciously consider the influence our unconscious mind has on our thoughts and decisions, especially when dealing with new people and situations. During a trial, there are bound to be many instances of potential implicit bias. Do you trust a witness of the same race as you more than one of another race? Do you believe or disbelieve every word from a police officer because of the way you unconsciously react to authority figures?

I thought that the video did a good job of pointing out that everyone has implicit biases because everyone has an unconscious mind that is making it possible to function. The thing that is needed, during a trial and in everyday life, is to bring your conscious mind to bear on a situation and to ask yourself if your initial reactions are influenced by unconscious bias. The hope is that the recognition will make your judgments and actions fairer.

While I’m not acting as a juror this week, I will try to be more conscious of my own implicit bias in my daily life.

It will always be a work-in-progress.
*****
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Jury duty

Today, I did my civic duty and reported for jury duty at the county court.

I was there most of the day but was not seated on the jury.

I will post a bit more about the experience later in the week, being careful not to say anything about the case itself, as that would be wrong.
*****
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Monterey Park

I’m sad to say that I woke up this morning to news of another mass shooting, this time in Monterey Park, California, near Los Angeles. Ten people are dead with ten more wounded and hospitalized.

The shooting occurred at a ballroom dance club, after an evening Lunar New Year celebration. Monterey Park is a predominantly Chinese-American suburb which hosts one of the largest Lunar New Year celebrations in the area. Today’s activities have been cancelled in the wake of the shooting.

As I write this, there is no suspect in custody and no idea if this attack was motivated by racial hatred.

It certainly casts a sorrowful shadow over the start of the Year of the Rabbit. May the year bring healing to all who mourn.
*****
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SoCS: count on it

Linda posts the prompt for Stream of Consciousness Saturday on Friday so that people have a chance to mull the prompt before writing the post, which is stream of consciousness so no editing allowed.

Confession: Sometimes, I write the post on Friday and just schedule it to come out on Saturday.

Second Confession: Sometimes, I plan the post in my head more than I probably should to be true stream of consciousness.

I usually do, though, manage to have some thoughts about the prompt or I just don’t participate that week.

Because it’s Just Jot It January and because I already didn’t do Stream of Consciousness one week because I had a post of my own I wanted to get out, I really wanted to do SoCS this week.

The prompt is to use “count on it” in the post.

When I read it Friday morning, I thought that it would be pretty straightforward. Something would pop into my head as the focus for the post.

But that didn’t happen.

A lot of things that I can no longer count on came into my head, but it seemed too unsettling to write about that.

I think the combination of personal losses, the pandemic, the divisiveness of the United States, and the feeling that I’m always waiting for the next shoe to drop – and it does – have left me unsure that there is anything I can count on.

It’s probably more feeling than fact.

It’s cold and grey today.

The sun will rise tomorrow.

I can count on it.

Yes, let’s go with that.
*****
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not cooking with gas

I have never been one to cook with gas.

I grew up in a rural area where there was no methane infrastructure, so I learned to cook on a GE electric range. In adulthood, we have had electric stoves in the two houses we have owned.

I have had occasion to use gas ranges, in rental apartments or homes of family members, but I never liked them. I’m not a fan of flames in the kitchen and it often seemed impossible for there not to be small leaks of methane that I could smell because of the odor that is added to the gas.

When I became involved in the anti-fracking movement, I learned that not only do gas ranges leak methane which is detrimental to the climate but also other gases that are harmful to human health, such as radon and benzene.

I was, therefore, unsurprised at the release of a recent report attributing 12.7% of current cases of childhood asthma in the United States to the use of gas stoves. This is similar to the figure attributable to second-hand smoke exposure.

Nationally, gas stoves are used in 40% of homes, although in some states the percentage of use is much higher. For example, in California, the rate is 70%. That adds up to a lot of emissions of methane, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, benzene, radon, particulates, and other harmful substances.

Proper maintenance of equipment and increasing ventilation can help mitigate some of the health effects, but the best remedy is to switch to cooking with electricity. The faster and most energy-efficient electric cooking today is induction. For those who can’t afford to replace a gas cooktop with an induction one or who are renters, a good alternative is to buy a portable induction burner unit. You will need to use cookware that has iron in it but the nice thing is that the burner itself does not get hot, so there are no worries of burning yourself by touching the unit after you’re done cooking.

In order to make the transition to cooking with electricity, some places in the US have begun to ban gas hook-ups in new construction. In order to promote both human and environmental health, it’s likely that regulation will expand over time to eventually eliminate cooking with gas indoors.

Some people are very upset about it and complaining loudly in the press and on social media.

I invite those people to join the 21st century and give induction a try. Energy technologies and sources evolve over time. We used to use candles or whale oil for lighting our homes. We used to use wood or coal in our kitchens for cooking. We moved on to cleaner, healthier alternatives. It’s time to again move away from burning things in our homes for energy and onto using increasingly clean electricity to power our lives.
*****
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the debt ceiling

Today, the United States reached its debt ceiling, which is the maximum amount of debt that it is allowed to have under current legislation. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen can borrow money from pension funds and such to keep up with debt payments and government obligations until June but the responsible thing would be for Congress to immediately either raise the debt ceiling or suspend it. (The most responsible thing would be to eliminate the debt ceiling but no one is even discussing that.)

Like many other governments and corporations, the United States raises some of the money it uses for its operations through issuing bonds. Perhaps you are familiar with the US Savings Bonds program or with Treasury Bills, often called T-bills. The purchasers of these financial instruments are basically loaning money to the government, which then pays it back with interest on the maturity date. While some of these are held by individuals, the vast majority are held by large financial institutions, like banks and mutual funds, or by foreign governments. The United States dollar is considered the world’s reserve currency because of its stability and the reliability of the US government.

If Congress does not pass an increase in or suspension of the debt limit, the US government would default on its bonds, which could cause a steep downturn in both the stock and bond markets, a severe recession, higher unemployment, rising interest rates on loans, and higher prices. The impact would be global because many US government financial instruments are held in or by other countries. It would also cause some countries to mistrust that the United States will keep its word in other areas.

The US government also would not be able to pay its workers or to fully pay Social Security, veterans’ benefits, nutrition programs, and all the other programs that the federal government provides. This would be a huge hardship to many of their constituents, so why would Congress hesitate to raise the debt ceiling?

Politics.

Apparently, one of the things Kevin McCarthy promised in order to get enough “yes” and “present” votes to win the Speakership was that he would not pass a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling. Instead, McCarthy promised that the debt ceiling increase bill would mandate spending cuts, including to programs that are earned benefits, like Social Security.

This doesn’t make sense. The debt ceiling issue has to do with paying the bills for spending that has already been authorized by Congress. The time for debate about cutting the total amount of government spending is when debating appropriation bills for the next budget year.

Furthermore, the Fourteenth Amendment, Section Four to the US Constitution states, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” It seems that the House Republicans are trying to question the validity of public debt by threatening to default on it.

It’s also telling that Republicans passed debt limit increases without making a fuss three times during Donald Trump’s presidency when the budget deficits were higher than they are now under President Biden. Part of the reason deficits were higher was that the Republicans passed large tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations, thus reducing revenue. At the same time, they cut the budget of the Internal Revenue Service so that it was more difficult to audit and catch high-income tax cheats.

It’s hypocritical for the Republicans to be complaining about the size of the national debt now, because it increased so quickly during the four years of the Trump presidency. 25% of the total national debt is attributable to the Trump years.

If the Republicans were serious about balancing the budget and beginning to pay down the national debt, they would be looking at ensuring the wealthy are paying their fair share in taxes. Current law, with lots of loopholes for the wealthy, often has the very rich paying a lower percentage of their income in taxes than their average employee does. Yet, one of the first pieces of legislation the Republicans in the House passed was to rescind that increased funding to the IRS to upgrade their systems and audit more high-income earners. This bill would result in lower tax revenue as tax cheats would have a lower chance of being discovered and forced to pay what they owe. Fortunately, the Senate will not take up this House bill so it has no chance of becoming law.

I have already written to my member of Congress, Republican Marc Molinaro (NY-19), to ask him to join with Democrats and the reasonable Republicans in the House to pass a clean debt ceiling increase or suspension. If Speaker McCarthy won’t put the bill on the floor, they may need to file a discharge petition to get the bill put up for a vote.

Unfortunately, that process takes several weeks, so they had better start now. Secretary Yellen will enlist whatever shuffling of resources are allowed while they do it, but the clock is ticking and folks – and the financial markets – will be worried.

Of course, it would be faster and easier if McCarthy put the good of the country first and introduced a clean bill today. It would also show that the House Republicans want to cooperate in the governance of the country to “promote the general welfare,” as the Preamble to the Constitution states.

Given that they have thus far not shown this inclination, I won’t hold my breath.
*****
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One-Liner Wednesday: MLK quote

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
~~~Martin Luther King, Jr., who might have turned 94 this year if he hadn’t been assassinated at the age of 39

Join us for Linda’s One-Liner Wednesday and/or Just Jot It January! Find out more here:  https://lindaghill.com/2023/01/18/one-liner-wednesday-jusjojan-the-18th-2023-stained-by-the-sun/

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