Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Dream Week In Amsterdam

I'm not sure exactly when the bug got up my butt.  I would say it was about 3 or 4 years ago.  I may even have to partially credit reading The Fault in Our Stars.  I can only say at some point Amsterdam became a city that was a major item on the Bucket List.  It seemed like a city that contained a little of everything I love as a tourist: beautiful scenery and architecture, friendly people, and plenty of museums and culture.

I put it off for a few years.  I never seemed to be able to get the money together.  Twice my father made me offers I couldn't refuse for other vacations like Prague and the cruise to the Mediterranean.  Amsterdam was put on the back burner again and again.

I had no major plans for the back half of 2017, so I considered taking a trip in the fall.  I got Kevin tentatively on board with the idea.  We were planning our usual Chincoteague trip in July and wanted to escape winter in March by going to Hawaii.  I thought it would be pleasant to take a trip in October when I have a long stretch of time with no days off between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.  I penciled Amsterdam in for the week of our anniversary.

Then Kevin was cast in the recent Harrison Players production of Inherit the Wind and our Hawaii trip would have cut into his rehearsal schedule.  He suggested we postpone the trip until October and celebrate our anniversary in Hawaii.  I was sick of winter and reluctant to ruin my chance to get away from it for a week, but I'm a theater person too, and I know how important it is to be loyal to your production.  With much grumbling and whining and fuming, I reluctantly agreed to wait out the end of winter and not go to Hawaii.

That left me with three months between Presidents' Day and Memorial Day with no time off.  I needed a vacation in the spring.  I had to get away.

Now was my time to go to Amsterdam.  This was the universe giving me an opening.  The time had come to move on this and  stop wishing for the right time to go.  I did my research on hotels and flights.  It was February and booking Amsterdam in April isn't easy, but I managed to find a recommended hotel and flights that had plenty of seats.

So what happened?

Day 1 - Sometimes a flight can be so easy it seems too good to be true.  I was able to book Economy Comfort seats so I had priority boarding (well, I could board immediately after business class anyway), legroom, free wine, and unlimited entertainment.  The flight was on time and smooth.  We touched down in Amsterdam in mid morning, quickly cleared passport control, claimed our bags, and met our pre-arranged ride in good time.

We arrived late morning at our charming hotel, The Hoxton.  I wasn't sure what to expect from this hotel.  The top rated hotels on Trip Advisor were mostly all booked.  I preferred a small boutique hotel in a central location and the good ones fill up fast.  As a fallback I could have stayed at a large Doubletree and used my Hilton Honors discount, but it wasn't in my ideal location.

Once we arrived at the Hoxton we knew we had made the right choice.  It is a bit modern and hipster, but it's still cozy and warm.  The staff was friendly and spoke perfect English.  It was still too early to check in, so we sat in the cozy lobby and ordered mimosas (they were serving brunch in the restaurant after all) and planned our next few hours.  We decided to go on a canal cruise to get the lay of the land and just walk the neighborhood a bit.

The cruise was interesting some of the time and boring other times.  There were some fascinating lectures on local history and it gave me some idea of the layout of the canals (although in the end I got by knowing the four canals around my hotel: Herengracht, Singel, Kizergracht, and Prisengracht). It is hard to understand the layout of the streets when you're viewing the city from the water though.  I have to admit jet lag was getting the better of me and I nodded off for part of the cruise.  I didn't feel bad as I also saw Kevin and the woman sitting across from us nod off.

We did a bit more exploring on foot and ate a late lunch before returning to our hotel to finally check in and take a nap.   It was a small room, but it had a beautiful view of the Singel canal.  The trees were budding and I always had a beautiful spring day to view on the other side of my window.  The room was tiny, but pretty.  I was frustrated when I began unpacking because I had no closet (just a rack with some hangers in one corner) and no dresser.  I grumbled for a while about how I would have to live out of a suitcase for a week.  Wednesday I discovered there were two large drawers under the bed.  Oops!

We had dinner at our hotel and attempted to take an evening walk.  The sun sets much later in Amsterdam than it does in NY this time of year, so I wanted to enjoy the scenery at sunset and maybe take some good photos.

Day 2 -  What do you do when you only have a few days to spend in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and so much to see?  If you're traveling with me, you hop out of bed and hit the ground running.  We ate an early breakfast and headed for our first stop of the day, the Anne Frank House.

Before we booked this trip we learned no one should ever try to purchase tickets at the door.  The lines build up and go around the block and you're better off buying tickets online for a particular time slot.  I bought tickets ahead of time for 9:30 giving us enough time to have a leisurely morning and still have time to enjoy the rest of the day.

We started out in the main rooms of the museum where we saw displays and videos about the history  of the Jews in WWII and the history of the Frank family.  Eventually we were led into the rooms where the Franks and the Van Pels hid.

I think what struck me the most about the area was how small it was.  When you watch TV shows or movies or plays about Anne Frank, it is impossible to stage or shoot in a space that small, so the Secret Annex looks much bigger on screen than it was in reality.  You're never really prepared for seeing those small, close rooms.  They feel so dark and claustrophobic.  It's almost impossible to imagine everyone in the house gathered in the kitchen when you know the Van Pels also had to sleep there.  I was surprised the rooms could have stayed hidden for so long.  The warehouse building is fairly large.  Wouldn't the Nazis have noticed the public rooms were smaller on the inside than the building was on the outside? (I suppose someone did eventually figure it out since the family met a tragic end.)

Everyone needs to see places like this as well as the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague.  It's the closest one can ever come to truly seeing the human side of the Holocaust and how important it is to never let something like this happen again.

Once we left the museum, we quickly moved on to happier events.  We met up with our friend Miriam for lunch.  We met Miriam on our trip to Italy in 2011.  At the time she was newly pregnant with her daughter Lisa, so we also go to meet Lisa "on the outside" along with her younger sister Ada.  Kevin and I rarely have opportunities to meet up with people we know when we travel, so it was great to cross the ocean and be able to see a familiar face.  We had a delicious lunch and caught up with Miriam and were amused by the girls (although they don't speak English yet, so we couldn't really talk to them).

After lunch we pushed on for some more exploring.  We went to the Westerkerk, a Protestant church next to the Anne Frank House.  The weather wasn't great for pictures, so we didn't bother climbing the tower.  There was live organ music playing when we walked in, and that enhanced our experience.  Unfortunately, we couldn't find Rembrandt's grave.  There are tombs under the floor everywhere, but we couldn't find Rembrandt's.  The church does nothing to mark it.

I wanted to explore the Jordaan district, but it was raining by then and we thought we should head to some of our more sheltered destinations first.  We walked through the Red Light District on our way to the Oude Kerk.  At first we didn't see any of the area's most infamous residents.  We did see a lot of sex shops though, and also many coffee shops.  There is one chain of coffee shops called Bulldog that seems to have a monopoly in that area.  Bulldog even has it's own gift shop.  (Kevin wondered if the t-shirts they sold were made of hemp.)

Eventually we approached the area where there is a high concentration of the infamous glass doors with the women behind them.  Most of the doorways were empty, but I noticed one woman hanging out expectantly behind one of them.  Kevin and I were walking a little apart from each other (one could say we were doing a Donald and Melania impersonation) and as Kevin approached her, I saw her start to open her door and look out.  Then she quickly closed it again.  I joke she was trying to proposition Kevin, but then saw me and realized he wasn't alone.

I did my best not to gawk too much at the women before we made our way into the church.

Oude Kerk is a unique experience.  The map they give you when you enter looks like an illustration from a children's book.  There is something almost playful about the place.  There is strange, conceptual art throughout (the most prominent one being a bunch of shattered mirrors at various spots on the floor).  If you want a view of the sanctuary from above, they have someone taking you up on an open elevator.  I would have done that if there wasn't such a long line (only one person can go up at a time).  I would say it shattered many of my expectations about what I would find in a centuries-old church.

Later in the day when the rain seemed to hold off for a while, we headed into the Jordaan.  We did linger in one interesting gallery, but many of the stores and galleries were closed that day, so we didn't see as much as we had hoped.

Sadly, the rain came down harder and steadier at dinner.  We hoped for a better day for our outing in the countryside.

Day 3- Today we took a bus tour to the towns of Zaanse Schaans, Volendam, and Markem.  We met with our tour group in the morning and headed out of the city.

Our first stop was Zaanse Schaans where the Dutch tradition of windmills is meticulously preserved.  It is a charming town, although definitely set up for tourists with shops meant to lure you in at every turn.  We didn't linger much.  Our tour brought us to a windmill that grinds linseed oil.  We went inside and had a demonstration on mill operation and we even went to the second floor to enjoy the view from the top.  We took plenty of windmill photos, but never explored more than that because we were herded back on the bus pretty quickly. 

Although our guide Velika gave us some talks and guidance on our tour, we mostly listened to recorded lectures on the bus.  The most fascinating ones were about how the Dutch farmland was created.  It was such a brilliant feat of engineering to create the polders and to keep pumping and channeling out the water.  Equally astounding is how the canals have to be at different elevations in order to channel water below sea level back out to sea.  Although windmills are no longer needed for industry, you can still see them scattered throughout the countryside pumping the water out of the polders.

I learned this week the Dutch have no fear of climate change because of their advanced water management systems.  They are confident they will always be able to pump the encroaching sea back out where it belongs.

Our next stop was the lakeside village of Volendam.  This is a traditional fishing village where many locals still try to preserve the old culture and dress in traditional clothing.  IJsselmeer lake itself is another engineering wonder.  The old harbor could not hold back the southern sea and keep it from flooding the farmlands.  The lake was created with a dike and more of those wondrous Dutch water management systems.  It is now the largest freshwater lake in western Europe.

Once again, we didn't explore the more interesting or historical parts of town.  We went to a major cheese shop and walked down one of the main streets.  It's a resort community and I thought of it as the Dutch Jersey Shore.

The weather grew steadily worse at Voledam.  The rain became more frequent and there was even some sleet mixed in. I didn't have an adequate coat for this kind of day. 

After lunch we took a boat ride to the village of Markem on the other side of the lake.  It a much quieter and more rural village.  All we did there was visit a wooden shoe factory where we did get a carving demo.  I suppose it's part of the experience, but it wasn't really necessary.

We returned to Amsterdam in the mid-afternoon.  We had some time before dinner, so we took a walk to the Rembrandt House museum.  Although he moved out of the house after several years (he was in debt and couldn't pay for it), it has been preserved and restored to look the way it would have looked when he lived there.  Many paintings were on display as well.  What impressed me the most was learning how Rembrandt worked.  He was devoted to realism and accuracy.  We visited his cabinet room that was an example of how he amassed a collection of curiosities and antiquities to use as models in his paintings.  If he was going to do a painting about Greek mythology, he wanted to work with real Greek statues as models.  Maintaining this collection wasn't cheap, so I can see how he would have been unable to afford the payments on the house.  In a sense he was bankrupted by his own devotion to his art and its process.

Day 4 - We stayed in the city today and made it our Museum Day.  We started off on foot to the Van Gogh Museum.  We made one major mistake with our visit.  We bought city passes that gave us free admission to most of the city's major museums and attractions.  We didn't realize the Van Gogh museum is small and only lets a certain number of people in at one time.  If you buy tickets online ahead of time, you bypass the line.  If you don't, you have to wait in line for an hour until they let the next wave of people in.  We must have waited in line for an hour.  At least we didn't have to pay admission.

Photos were not allowed, so I can't share anything, but I will say it is a well-run museum and well laid out.  Each of the five floors covers a different period of his life and work.  The audio tours are not your standard recorded messages.  We received multimedia devices that provided us with photos (so we were always sure we we looking at the correct paintings) and other interactive features.

I enjoyed contrasting the works of van Gogh and Rembrandt.  At the Rembrandt House I learned how Rembrandt would go out of his way to buy unusual objects to use as models for his paintings and how his work often represented stories that were not of his time.  Despite the fact that his work did not represent real, present life, his style was solidly realist.  On the other hand van Gogh believed in painting the real world.  His models were objects right in front of him.  Despite his belief in painting reality, his paintings were decidedly not realist.  His style was whimsical and impressionistic.  He painted objects as he saw them and not how they were.  Great art runs such a grand spectrum, doesn't it?

After lunch we headed for the beautiful Rijksmuseum.  After waiting so long to enter the Van Gogh Museum, we decided not to take any chances.  Even though we had free admission to the Rijksmueum, we didn't want to wait in line again.  Kevin bought advanced tickets on his phone.  Of course the museum is huge and anyone can walk in at any time, so we didn't need those advance tickets.  Life is ironic.

The museum is such a beautiful building.  It is an attraction by itself.  I wondered if had ever been a palace like the Louvre, but it was built in the 19th century and built to be a museum.  Once again the audio tours were on interactive devices.  The devices offered several options for touring the museum focusing on different areas for differing amounts of time.  They also provided explicit navigation where you followed a little shadow man on your screen.  We did a 90 minute highlights tour that covered the major collections and most famous pieces.  I wish we could have seen more, but the museum is huge and we were exhausted.  You really need a few visits to truly see all this place has to offer. 

We had been moving nonstop from breakfast until dinner that night.  It was a good day, but an exhausting one.  We were so tired by the end of the day we spent a ridiculous amount of money just to take the hop on-hop off boat one stop so we wouldn't have to walk back to our hotel or figure out which tram to take.

Day 5 - This was the weakest day of the trip. It was King's Day, a national holiday where the country shuts down and everyone parties.  It didn't seem like the best day to be hanging out in Amsterdam, so  I booked a bus tour to Antwerp and Brussels.  Although Amsterdam was the focus of the dream trip, I was interested in seeing as much of BeNeLux as I could.  This tour seemed like a good option.  We met with our guide in the morning and took the long ride to Antwerp.  We hit a lot of traffic and the ride was torturous (no bathroom breaks). 

Antwerp is a depressing city.  It is just dingy and dark.  It didn't look economically depressed.  I didn't see any outright signs of extreme poverty.  There were high-end stores everywhere and the people were well dressed.  The city just looks in bad need of an update.  There were few historic buildings in the area and they just looked old and worn.  The newer buildings looked as if they hadn't had a face lift since the 70s.  At best I would call the city visually boring.

The tour only stopped in once place.  We went to the Jewish quarter and stopped at a large jewelry store called Diamond Land (I kid you not).  This might have been interesting if our guide or the staff at Diamond Land gave us any sort of talk about the history of the area and the history of the diamond trade.  All they did was give us a lecture on the 4 Cs, which anyone who has ever been engaged via diamond ring would know.  We did see the diamond cutters working behind a glass wall, but we had no narration as to what they were doing.

Antwerp is home to a cathedral with one of the tallest towers in Europe.  It is also home to Rubens' house and museum.  We saw none of that.  We had time to grab lunch before heading to Brussels.  More traffic ensued.

We made it to Brussels and stopped by a few highlights with some lame narration.  Our guide was phoning it in.  We passed the royal palace and stopped for a photo of the giant statue of a magnified iron molecule before boarding the bus again.

We ended up in the central square of Brussels.  It's a pretty city and I'm sure there is a lot to see there, but we had maybe two hours to enjoy it.  We saw the old guild halls and the main cathedral. Our guide also took us to the famous Mannekin Pis statue.  I know it's a tourist trap, but I felt I might as well see it if I was going to be in Brussels.   Kevin and I opted to spend most of our free time in a bakery where we could eat some Belgian liege waffles.  We managed to spend about 5 minutes in the cathedral before it closed for the day and we had to board the bus again.

We came back to Amsterdam late that night. The King's Day celebrations were winding down, but we had to fight heavy crowds of drunk and stoned people to return to our hotel. 

Day 6 - I booked another bus trip for today.  This time we went to Bruges.  I had heard many stories in the past about how beautiful this city is, so I had high hopes of this being a better day than Antwerp and Brussels.  Fortunately we had a much better guide this time and she kept us entertained and informed during the entire 3-hour drive.

Our tour was well organized.  We drove to the south end of the city and our guide Maryann gave us a narrated walk north to the main square where we viewed City Hall, the belfry, and the Palace of Justice.  Then we had three hours to explore the city on our own and make our way back down to the bus.

Bruges has three churches.  At one end of the city is the Basilica of the Holy Blood.  There is a vial here containing a cloth stained with Jesus's blood obtained during the Crusades.  I don't know how authentic it is, so we skipped this one.

In the center of the city is the main cathedral St. Salvator.

A little south of that is St. John's hospital and the Church of Our Lady.  That church contains the tombs of the king and queen and a Madonna statue carved by Michelangelo.  It is one of the few Michelangelo statues existing outside of Italy. 

If we had more time we would have visited the Dali Museum in the main square and the old hospital.  I would have liked a boat tour of the canals too.  Climbing the bell tower for a view of this charming city would also have been fun.

In order to enter and leave the city we had to pass the Minnewater Lake, said to be a lover's spot.  The legend of the lake is that it is made of the tears of a man who could not marry the woman he loved.

We also had to pass through the Beguinage.  This was once a place where the city's working single women could have refuge from lusty men.  It is now a convent.  We took a peek inside the small affiliated church and saw the nuns engaged in vespers.  It was interesting to watch and listen to them sing.  Kevin thought it felt intrusive, but the church prints up a schedule of all masses and activities happening at the church.  I assume they expect spectators.

Before we left I managed to snap a few last photos of the tulips in the local park and eat one last waffle.

We had another late night as we had to both eat dinner and pack.  Our vacation was ending.

Day 7 - Remember what I said about our easy flight being too good to be true?  It was.  I received a notification from the airline our flight had been cancelled due to a faulty plane.  They were able to schedule a new flight at the same time with a different plane, but it was also a smaller plane.  I had a comfort seat on the way to Amsterdam, but the couldn't give me one on the way back, even though I had paid for it.  After being spoiled by nicer seats, we were back to being squished with no free wine to lubricate the experience.  At least we had enough movies to keep me occupied.

If I had one consolation about returning to New York it was the weather.  After a week of continual rain and temperatures that were in the low 50s at the warmest, I returned to a sunny, 80-degree day.  I miss Amsterdam terribly, but at least I have warm and sunny weather now.  I am so glad we did this trip.  Amsterdam is a beautiful city.  It is as if Prague and Venice had a beautiful baby together.  The people are warm and friendly.  The sites are plentiful.  If you are considering a trip here, I recommend you book it.  If you're not considering a trip here, I suggest you start considering it.
You won't be disappointed.

Monday, May 1, 2017

What Nobody Wants To Talk About Regarding Immigration

It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, And what the LORD doth require of thee: Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God. - Micah 6:8

One of the strongest arguments against massive border walls and a gestapo-like mass roundup and deportation of undocumented workers is it will have a negative effect on the industries that depend on immigrant labor.  Those industries are crucial to the daily lives of all Americans.  Immigrants provide the labor for the food, beverage (including wine) and meatpacking industries.  It is likely that any food you didn't grow yourself was handled by an immigrant worker at some point. 

Thanks to stricter immigration rules, even without 2,000-mile border walls, farmers are having a more difficult time finding laborers in recent years.  Despite the stereotypes of immigrants "stealing" jobs from native-born Americans, the jobs are certainly open to Americans.  The problem is Americans don't want them.  

Why don't Americans want these jobs?

Back in high school, when I was spending a week at Bible camp every summer, I spent one of those weeks discussing issues of justice and what can be done to alleviate suffering.  For one project, we met with a missionary to local migrant farm camps.  He was a child of migrant laborers himself and managed to escape that life in a blue collar job.   The entire camp spent a day with him and his wife distributing gently used clothing to local migrant camps.  Before the excursion he showed us a video regarding the plight of migrant farm workers in the United States.  For the first time I saw just how marginalized the people behind my daily food consumption were.  I saw so much poverty and suffering and was devastated this was flying under the radar of most Americans. 

A few years later I read The Grapes of Wrath.  The Joad family are American citizens, but they have lost everything.  The American Dream is dead to them when the books begins.  The book showed how farms exploited their plight and the plight of so many others like them.  For example, they distributed many more flyers requesting farm help than the number of workers they needed.  This drove the cost of labor down to poverty wages for those who find work.

In college I had the privilege of hearing Danish author Jacob Holdt give a multimedia presentation supporting his book American Pictures.  He spent years among the farm labor camps and came to intimately know the lives and stories of his subjects.  I saw situations even worse than what I had seen at camp.  Holdt rightly called the labor camps, "Slave Camps."  

American workers currently have a minimum wage.  Their work environments are regulated by OSHA.  If they are injured on the job, they can sue for Worker's Compensation.  It is possible for them to unionize if they feel they are being treated unfairly (at least they are for now).

Would working for meager compensation, no job safety, and no chance of recompense if that lack of safety results in injury appeal to any American-born worker?  

It would appear they don't.  

So liberals argue that immigrants need these jobs, so they can live a better life.  Their labor is needed.  Americans don't want to do it.  This is supposed to be a win/win situation right?  After all, immigrants will have children who are citizens and these children will have a better shot at the American Dream?

But do they?

At the beginning of Holdt's presentation, he shows photos of an eager little girl working on a corporate farm (I believe it was the Coca Cola-owned orange groves in Florida).  He mentioned how she rushed home every day to have her homework finished before it grew too dark to complete it.  Her family's shack had no electricity.

That was the kind of story that warms the heart.  This was a girl who was earnest and eager to learn.  She was dedicated.  She would make something of herself.  Her effort to be educated made viewers believed there was a way out if one just tried hard enough.

At the end of the presentation, Holdt followed up with some "Where Are They Now" slides.  He mentioned this girl, who was 16 years old when his journey ended.  She was working in the fields alongside her parents making a few dollars a day.  She couldn't break the cycle.  Even though she worked hard, she didn't leave the farm.

Liberals want to welcome immigrants into this country under the belief they are going to escape poverty and repressive governments.  We smugly march to the farmers' markets to buy our local and seasonal produce and never give a thought to who picked it.  

I don't even comprehend what conservatives are thinking.  Do they see the plight of migrant workers and figure they deserve it?  Maybe they think if the government continues to stagnate or repeal minimum wages, American workers will eventually accept hard labor jobs in squalid conditions (and they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they don't like it,  just like that little girl on the Coca Cola farm - oh wait...).  They have no issues hiring people of questionable immigrant status mowing their lawns or mucking their stalls, but if those laborer aren't being paid enough to feed their legal US citizen children, conservatives will criticize and hate them mercilessly for being "takers" even though they're working harder than any corporate CEO.  

The rallying cry of conservatives is to say these people just need to immigrate legally.  Most conservatives have no idea how to immigrate legally.  At minimum it requires a work visa and work visas cost money.  Well-established companies will often refuse to sponsor visas.  I worked for a company that was willing to let go of talented, educated, employees due to work visa issues.  Do you think farmers can afford all of those visa sponsorships?  Farmers struggle enough as it is. The best they can do is hire undocumented workers because it can be off the books and out of the reach of labor laws.

If we allow immigrants to come into this country illegally, we are taking jobs away from citizens.  If we allow them in, we commit human rights abuses and perpetuate slavery,. Both sides say immigrants deserve the American dream, but neither wants to admit they are going to be denied it unless they are lucky enough to have visa sponsorship or close family members already living in the country.

So liberals, how badly do you want open borders?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

I Am Learning To Be At Peace, But How About The Other Side?

If there is anything out there that has lifted my spirits this weekend it was seeing and hearing about all of the protest marches nationwide and globally.  Who says Americans haven't "come together and united"?  We have united indeed.  Millions of Americans are united to fight to be on the right side of history.

We stand strong together and we can get through this.  If we keep this momentum up, we will become a stronger and more united nation.

I have come to pity Trump supporters.  Today I asked myself, why they love him so much.  What has he done that makes him such a hero in their eyes?  Let's look at the facts.

By all accounts Donald Trump is a textbook narcissist.  People who have met him in person have given accounts of his self-serving, grandiose behavior.  He has made some outrageously sexist and racist statements.  He truly seems to revel in unkindness and cruelty.  Despite all of this, his supporters seem to think he is kind and classy.

Donald Trump has had multiple business failures and four bankruptcies.  He has committed outright fraud. He has stiffed his employees and contractors.  He has made more money from lawsuits, branding, and reality TV appearances than from doing any actual business.  No matter how many times someone points this out,  his followers insist he is a brilliant businessman.

He doesn't go to church. He hasn't shown any real evidence of being a religious man. He treats women terribly.  He mocks the disabled.  He tossed aside two wives after cheating on them.  He has five children with three different women.   It doesn't matter to his followers, who think he is the most morally upstanding Christian politician in decades.

He lies constantly.  Fact checkers can barely keep up with his lies. He will look right into the camera and deny the statements he previously made on camera. He went back on his campaign promises before he even took office.  His followers still believe he is the only truthful politician.

Today I asked Kevin why anyone would still want to believe in Donald Trump when all of the evidence is out there that he is a sociopath who is unfit for office?  How can these people not see what is right in front of them?

Kevin replied it's because they have a narrative.  Donald Trump fits their narrative of what a candidate should be and they are willing to ignore his many shortcomings if it suits their narrative.  They don't want to be wrong about him.  They have placed so much faith in him already.

That's when it hit me.  That's why his supporters won't see the man for who he is.

Scientific studies have shown that facts don't really matter to people who have deeply held beliefs.  What's worse is the more facts you present someone that are contrary to what he believes, he is more likely to dig in his heels and cling more tightly to them.  I can tell a Trump supporter every fact check ever done on Trump and present eyewitness accounts of everyone who has been wronged by him, and that supporter will still say Trump is a good man and an ideal President.  He may even believe it even more strongly after hearing the facts presented.

The online behavior of Trump supporters has now confirmed for me just how uncomfortable they are.  I see them digging in their heels.  They desperately cling to any little positive thing they can find.  Most importantly, I see it in how they attack the opposition.

Take note of the behavior of a Trump supporter versus a Trump opponent.  Those of us who did not vote for Trump are vocal about the election results, but we don't take it out on others.  We grieve.  We worry.  We attack Trump himself saying he is incompetent and unfit for office.

Trump voters are making vicious outright attacks on the opposition.  They keep telling us to stop pointing out the facts, to stop making comparisons to totalitarian regimes, to accept the election results, and to unite with the rest of the country.  They can't defend Trump.  They are acting on the offense, but I realize it is now a defense.  Their language is harsh and insulting.  They are dealing with their uncomfortable feelings by lashing out.

Let me tell you something.  If you're going to call me an "idiot" or a "whiny little bitch", then it says way more about you than it does about me.  You tell me America has to come together? You are the ones who are dividing this country with your disgusting, graceless, classless rhetoric.   If this is the kind of person you are, then I don't want to come together with you.  I want you as far away from me as possible.  I'll go stand over with the millions of people who took to the streets today.

Trump supporters aren't at peace with these election results.  I see that now.  You know this election carries a huge risk and you don't want to admit you're scared.  If you give up your deeply held beliefs now, you worry you have no place to go.

I suggest you come over here and stand with us on the other side.  We will welcome you and not call you names.   We understand the future is uncertain, but we plan to face it together.  Come join us. 

Yes He Is My President (and he had better remember that)!

It's very easy to say, "Not my president," when a candidate you loathe wins the general election.  Many of you even hashtag it.  You can say it as much as you want, but it won't be true.  If you are a citizen of the United States of America, Donald Trump is your president.  No hashtag will change that.

Let me reiterate that.  You are a citizen of the United States of America.

Donald Trump is President of all citizens of the United States of America.

So we accept it, because we understand that's how the democracy works (however imperfectly).  My question for Donald Trump is if he understands it.

Being president of the United States means being President of the  United States.

It does not mean President of white people. It does not mean President of Christians.  It does not mean President of the wealthy.  It does not mean President of Republicans.  It does not mean President of cisgendered and straight people. It means you are President of every single person born in this country - no exceptions.

So once again, Mr. President, do you understand that?

Years ago a friend on Facebook frustrated with the government as only people on Facebook can be asked, "Why don't our leaders lead?"

I countered that with a better question.  "Why don't our public servants serve?"

We refer to the government as "public servants".  We say that politicians "serve" their terms.   Our government isn't meant to lead us.  I know I'm not a follower.  I don't want to be led.  Our government is meant to serve us.  We, the people, are the employers and the government is the employee.  It is the job of the government to work for us, to keep our best interests at heart, and to see our needs our met (although different political affiliations have different definitions of what those needs should be and that's okay).  To work in government is to work for the common good and not personal enrichment.

This is what is so wrong about Donald Trump.  He has spent his life dedicated to personal enrichment and personal glory.  His track record on seeing to the needs of others is abysmal as he has repeatedly committed fraud and stiffed his employees and contractors.  How can this man possibly work to "Promote the General Welfare" (before you get twitchy that I used the word "welfare", please note I am quoting the Constitution he just swore to uphold).

So please. Mr. President, as you enter your four-year journey through government, I hope you remember that this liberal, feminist, secularist is paying for your cozy little stay in the White House (or the security needed for your stay in Trump Tower) with my tax dollars.  So is my Jewish liberal husband.  So is my gay best friend.  So is my Latina (and veteran) sister-in-law along with her veteran son and daughter-in-law.  So are my black coworkers.  You are President of us too.

Don't try to lead me.  I won't follow. You work for me and I expect a stellar job performance.  I'm going to be the most demanding employer you ever had.  If you can't meet my demands, in four years I will take great pleasure in telling you, "You're fired!"

Friday, December 30, 2016

Moving My Body Forward 2017: Resolutions and Reclaiming the Ninja Goddess

Aren't you glad this isn't a political post?

2016 was the year to try to rebuild my strength to pre-surgery levels and try to find a way back to a healthy weight and bodyfat level.

I succeeded at the former, but failed at the latter.  Nonetheless, I celebrate my success.  Over the course of the year I sometimes looked at the routines in my various workout programs and thought, "That's too hard.  I can't do that."  Then I went ahead and did it.  I continue to amaze myself every day.

I swore that I needed to accept my body and just deal with the fact that I'm not willing to make the changes needed  to radically make over my body.  I got my level of fitness back and that's all that matters.

Or is it?

Unfortunately in recent months my pony has become impossible for me to ride.  She is unresponsive and even combative when I ask her for simple tasks.  My trainer has asked me to consider if I might be too heavy for her.  I think she may be right.  I owe it to Riddle to make her more comfortable.  We are a team.  We have worked together for the past 10 years working to riding goals.  I can't move forward figuratively if I'm making moving forward literally uncomfortable for her.

So I need to find a new way to work on these eating habits.  My attempts to share regular habits wasn't working out too well.  I wasn't sticking to it.  I need new goals and new strategies.

I came up with these strategies for both exercise and nutrition.

Nutrition Goals

Stay with a fixed meal plan:  I have been writing and refining a list of meals to carry me over for the next six weeks.   Each week I eat the same breakfast and lunch and three different dinners (each dinner is eaten over two nights).  This allows me one night out per week.  The meals are vegetable heavy and often vegetarian (even vegan) although I make sure each day has adequate protein.

The No-Dessert Challenge:  I am challenging myself to not eat sweets for as long as possible.  I will save desserts for special occasions like holidays and other family gatherings.  Each interval I go without sweets will come with a reward such as new perfume from Sephora, an off-season pedicure, a massage, and a styling session with one of the high-end box services. 

No alcohol at home:  If I want to drink, I do it when I'm out.  I have only one dinner scheduled out per week so that doesn't leave much room for drinking.

Exercise Goals

I  have only one goal and, believe it or not, it is to scale back.  I have spent years following the rule of three strength sessions a week.  I have had multiple injuries and I'm getting stiff.  New body parts are hurting all the time.

Instead of 3 strength, 2 cardio, 1 dance, and 2 horseback riding, I am swapping out a strength session for yoga.  I need to start doing more flexibility work, not just to keep the stiffness at bay, but to be more relaxed and centered.

Many fitness experts say two times a week is minimum and three times a week is optimal.  I'm guessing most of these experts don't work their muscles trying to control an animals that weighs several times more than they do.  I think I get enough muscle work from riding.

My winter schedule will look something like this:

Sunday: AM strength training, PM riding
Monday: Dance class
Tuesday: AM strength training
Wednesday: Cardio (30 minutes steady state on bike or elliptical, 10 minutes of intervals) or Zumba
Thursday: Yoga class
Friday:  Cardio (see Wednesday)
Saturday: Riding

Thursday is yoga day because it's the day my gym has a class at a time I can be there.  I want to go to a class because I know I am less likely to do anything if I decide to simply stretch or do a DVD at home.

I think I can liberate myself from the expensive weight programs and the books.  I believe I  have the knowledge to design my own workouts now.

This will change when dance class is out for the summer.  I think by that time, I will have another check in.  Can I hold out with only monthly (if that much) dessert and weekly wine?  How will that affect my body if I can?

I want to feel like a Ninja Goddess again.  Ninja Goddess may not be quite what she was in 2013, but I can redefine who she is and what she does and what she can accomplish.  She needs to banish the Dumpy Stumpy Troll (granted, she should have been doing that all along and I haven't been letting her).

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Wee Bit of Schadenfreude

The word from the armchair political analysts and the corporate media pundits is  that Donald Trump won the election because he suckered the white working class into believing he will bring manufacturing jobs into the United States.  Under Trump everyone will be working well-paid jobs again.

This will never happen of course.  Manufacturing companies have nothing to gain by having their factories in the US where minimum wage laws and OSHA rules apply.  American corporations want to treat their workers in a standard most Americans would never accept.  Due to union busting over the past three decades, even if companies did bring their factories back to the US, manufacturing wages and benefits would not be any better than working at WalMart or McDonalds.

Trump has stocked his cabinet with billionaires like him (or actually I should say true billionaires who are far more successful than he is and even more ruthless).  They aren't going to care about the working class.  It will be business as usual with crony capitalism and concentration of wealth at the top.  Anyone who believes otherwise is kidding himself.

What about those of us who aren't working class?  What about us "Coastal Elites" who just happen to be liberal?  Will we suffer?

The fossil fuel industry is salivating over the Trump presidency.  He picked the CEO of ExxonMobil as Secretary of State.   He will open up the country to all the drilling and fracking the companies' hearts desire.  The oil industry is set to thrive.

You know what?  I happen to work in the energy industry.

Oil companies will be making money by the tankload.  They will have more money to invest in my company's services.  My company will do well.  My job is quite secure (unless I screw up personally). Yes, this liberal "nasty woman" will be able to maintain her middle class lifestyle quite nicely.

Lucky me.  I'm going to thrive under Donald Trump and I didn't even vote for him.

It will be business as usual for red state "Real America".  They thought they were getting their well-paying jobs back.  They are going to suffer just as much, while this liberal does just fine. 

Yes, I do feel a bit of schadenfreude about that. 

Schadenfreude is defined as a temporary feeling of pleasure at someone's misfortune.  I can take temporary pleasure in misfortune, but as a liberal I have too much empathy for others' misfortune to be happy for long.

I am filled with sadness for the Walmart greeters and burger flippers who are struggling to pay the bills on minimum wage and no benefits. I feel especially sorry for them when they find themselves relying on SNAP or Medicaid to care for their families, then hearing their fellow Republicans calling them "takers" and too lazy to work.  I wish they would understand that they are merely being Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin when they vote Republican and then wait for the money to trickle down to them.

The white upper classes - liberal and regressive - will continue to do well.  That is a given.  If we have any drop of humanity left in us, we will consider those who haven't done well without Trump and will continue to do worse in the next four years.  What about those Americans who don't fall into the privileged boxes?

The working class and poor will continue to suffer poor wages and no benefits.  They only benefits they can have - those provided by the government - will be cut or even eliminated.  How many people will go hungry?  What about the people who will no longer have healthcare?  How many Americans will die or go into deep debt?  Will more black Americans die under our ever-increasingly brutal police state?  Will gay Americans lose their basic rights over something as trivial as what they do in their own bedrooms?  (This article here says it better than I can.)

I had my moment of schadenfreude.  Now it's time for me to stop celebrating the benefits of my white, upper-class, privilege.  I leave that to the Republicans.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Liberals Don't Need to Understand Real America. Real America Needs to Get Real.

After this election, I have been reading nonstop about all the poor assumptions liberals made about this country and its voting habits, and how their biggest mistake was not understanding "Real America".

What is "Real America"?  Real America is geographically the central states of the US, often referred to as "flyover territory" in a derogatory fashion.  The people who live there are characterized as white, working class (or poor), Christian, and conservative.  Their education levels rarely go beyond high school.  They are seen as clinging desperately to a world that never really existed.  They fear change.  They fear being left behind by an ever-increasing multicultural population and the globalization of the economy.

It doesn't matter if these stereotypes are true or not.  Every election we have ever had panders to them.  The assumption is every politician is eager to grab votes from minorities, educated and professional women, and big cities with large populations, so this group is left behind.  That means more time and attention is put on campaigning for the needs of this group and framing the message that Real America still exists and still has a voice.

Working class and poor people have real fears and real problems that affect the entire country.  Unskilled workers can no longer be guaranteed employment in a well-paying manufacturing job.  There are jobs out there, but they are low-paying service industry jobs and do not cover the cost of food and housing.  They also don't provide healthcare benefits or the healthcare benefits they do receive cover as little as possible.  The need to find a way to pay for the basic cost of living has caused an endless cycle of debt.  Education used to be the one way out, but schools are failing and the cost of college makes higher education impossible for many Americans.

Liberals understand this.  We know many Americans struggle with basic needs.  We know children go to bed hungry.  We know adults are deep in debt.  We want to solve these problems first.  Liberals see the only way to solve problems is to move forward and not try to go back to some other time.  We need to work with the system as it is and not try to make it into what we wish it would be.

How do liberals want to do this? you ask.  We have several key initiatives to grow the economy into the future.

Manufacturing jobs that have already moved overseas are not likely to come back.  There is little incentive for companies to do that.  Besides, automation has made many manufacturing jobs obsolete.  Producers simply don't need the workforce they needed 50 years ago.

Rather than make jobs that don't exist, we need to make existing jobs more profitable for the worker.  We need higher wages, better working conditions, and strong benefits.  The government needs to stand with the unions instead of with the union busters.  If you truly want to return to the "Golden Age" of the 1950s, you need to do exactly what they did in the 1950s.  That means high minimum wage and strong unions (and yes, a high top tax rate, which was not proven to diminish the wealth or lifestyle of the super-rich).

We encourage rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure.  This is one of the best ways to create jobs.  This will not just benefit the working class.  Everyone will benefit from safe roads and bridges and safe and reliable public transportation.

We want to invest money into education at all levels.  Education is the one way all Americans have to improve their quality of life.  Equal access to the best education is another benefit to society as a whole.   This is particularly true in the age of automation.  If we gave Americans the technical training to program and service the automated systems in place, more of them would have jobs in the manufacturing industries and would wouldn't have to keep hiring educated technicians from other countries.

We see the need to start investing in renewable energy instead of trying to rebuild the dying fossil fuel industries. Coal is dirty and inefficient and automation has replaced a vast number of coal mining jobs. Investment in alternatives will encourage innovation and entrepreneurship s.  This investment will create more jobs.  The added benefit to Americans as a whole is our air and water will be cleaner.  Win/win!

Unfortunately this message has been either buried or distorted by the right wing media (the "liberal media" is one of the biggest lies currently perpetuated by our culture as a whole) and the massive corporations who own them.   Every attempt at improving the lives of all Americans is framed as impractical, elitist, and even communistic.  While the internet has provided a voice for liberals to state their case without corporate dollars interfering, we have a long way to go to make our message heard.

The problem isn't just the media though.  It's the people themselves.  For too long poor and working class white people have swallowed the Republican message even when it has ceased to make any sense whatsoever.  How can anyone stand up and say we need to get rid of establishment elitists and then elect a billionaire who is infamous for underpaying - or not paying at all -  his employees, and even commits outright fraud?  Why would anyone believe our President cares anything about the people he has stomped on his entire career?  There are powerful interests at work saying if we just let billionaires make as much money as they want, they will begin spreading that money around.  There will be more jobs and higher wages.  This has never proven to be true.  No matter how many Republicans are in Congress or the White House, the Trickle-Down Fairy has yet to sprinkle her magic dust over the US population.  (I wrote more about that here.)

The real issue here is not whether or not Americans are willing to accept practical fixes for the economy.  It's that they are looking for something else.  As I said above, white working class people aren't looking for practical solutions.  They are looking for some version of America that doesn't exist.  They don't want the world to change.  They don't want equal rights for all races and religions.  That would mean a risk that their own power will further diminish.  They don't want better education.  They want jobs for the uneducated.  They don't want multiculturalism.  They want their world to exist exactly as it is forever and ever.

This mentality needs to stop.  It needs to change.  I'm tired of living in a country that is trying to preserve a way of life for a certain group of people.  I'm tired of hearing how elections are lost because white, Christian, working class people "Want their country back."  I'm tired of being told I don't understand working class people and that I'm an elitist.

It's time for Real America to get real.

I am not the only one who believes this.  I am writing this post after seeing these pockets of dissension regarding the reason Trump won the election.  There are many new voices coming out and saying the same thing I'm saying and saying it better.

Real America needs to face a few truths if we are ever going to move this country in the right direction.

Let's start with the fact that Christianity is not the only religion in this country.  Accept the fact that Christianity can not, and does not, dominate the public square.  This does not mean you can't be a Christian.  You are welcome to attend church, proselytize on the street corner (as local ordinances permit), pray, and practice ritual as long as you don't cause harm to others.  This is your right as an American.  However, it is time to understand you can't force everyone to live under your religion.  Others do not have to pray with you if they don't want to.  No one is required to celebrate your holidays or celebrate them exactly as you celebrate it.  The Constitution is not derived from your ancient holy texts and the country is not required to live by those rules.  It's time to coexist with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Wiccans, Scientologists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and yes, Atheists.  We need to start talking about creating an ethical society that does the least harm and provides the most benefit instead of trying to turn everyone Christian.

Next it's time to stop fearing multiculturalism.  There is fear among white people that European culture will be lost.  What is European culture?  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, native-born Americans (but not Native Americans) feared the masses of immigration from European countries such as Italy and Ireland.  I'm sure they felt these immigrants would destroy their way of life.  Now the entire country celebrates St. Patrick's Day and eats more pizza than they do in Italy.  That's what the "Melting Pot" is all about.  Our country always has been, and always will be, absorbing aspects of other cultures int our own.  Do you really think only white or European culture is the only one we should allow in this country?  Do you love jazz, blues, rock, or hip hop?  Do you enjoy salsa dancing or eating street tacos?  Do you practice yoga?  Elements of immigrant and non-white American culture are probably already part of your daily life.  It hasn't harmed you.  In fact, it has probably made your life more enjoyable.

If you think it's possible to keep every single undocumented immigrant from crossing the border, you had better think twice about the advantages.  There are industries who - rightly or wrongly - rely on undocumented immigrant labor.  This includes industries that affect your daily life like agriculture and meatpacking.   If an impenetrable wall is built from edge to edge of the Mexican border, food prices will soar. Will you just say that's Obama's fault?

We need to learn to accept that you can't force gay people back in the closet.  You are allowed believe it's a choice.  You are allowed to believe it's wrong.  You are not allowed to legislate those beliefs.  Gays do not have to be married in your church, however two loving, committed, consenting adults are allowed to obtain a legal marriage certificate with no interference from you or your pastors.  You don't have to like it, but it has nothing to do with you.  It's none of your business.

It's time to start recognizing blacks, Latinos,  Semitic people, and Asians as human beings with equal value to you.  They are not out to get you.  They are not stealing your jobs.  They are not taking your tax money in welfare dollars.  They are US citizens with the same rights and responsibilities as you have.  They have families and loved ones to care for.  They worry about jobs and money as much as you do.  Maybe it's time to get to know someone who doesn't look like you.  Also, remember that your ancestors were immigrants too.  The "real" Americans were killed off in order for you to be here and call yourself a native.

Intellectualism is not the enemy.  Education is important.  In order to get anywhere in life, you need a good education.  This doesn't just mean learning the 3Rs.  A good education includes critical thinking and at least a basic understanding of how the world works.  Turn off the TV and read a book.  Go out and explore.  Try to create something just for the joy of creation.  You may find you go farther in life if you are curious and open-minded.

You must understand Roe V. Wade is the law of the land.  You don't have to like it and you also don't have to get an abortion if you don't want one.  You do need to accept the vast majority of the US population supports it.  Don't expect your elected officials to overturn it.  They use it as a wedge issue to get you to the polls, but they have no intention of following through.  If they came close to overturning Roe V. Wade, more proponents of the law would start flooding the polls and your representatives would lose their seats and they know it.  If you love children, it's time to support measures that help children currently walking this earth. 

Remember that "coastal elites" are just as "real" as rural whites.  I know I am privileged to have grown up in a place that had good schools and that I had a family that could send me to college.  It was purely an accident of birth.  I understand that.  I also have many of the same struggles you do.  I still worry about money and sometimes struggle to have all the bills paid.  I have family members who need extra care.  I had to finance my education and was in debt for many years over it.  I go to work, watch TV, eat dinner, and do many of the same things you do.  I am a human being, and I am real.

I am real.  You are real.  Let's work together to solve real problems with real solutions.   I can reach out to you, but will you reach out to me?