Friday, October 28, 2011

On Baby Making.

            I have a novel idea. The Tea Party and the Occupy Movement should turn on a little Barry Manilow, pour some Courvoisier, and proceed to get it on. After a wild and crazy night of jungle love—and nine months, we can all welcome nature’s happy little accident. What exactly would we be welcoming, you ask? The birth of a new political party.
            This idea is not as illegitimate as it first sounds, despite the one night stand. In fact, there might be something to this idea. The Tea Party: “Our government has been fiscally irresponsible and is abusing its authority to levy taxes in the name of special interest.”  The Occupy Movement: “Corporate America is being irresponsible in the markets so a few at the top can benefit.”  Yes, I know each group is a so-called “fringe movement,” on the extremes of the left and the right, but, whether they know it or not, they are arguing basically the same point to the two institutions that make up America—“Stop being so damn irresponsible!”
            The American government and our market is still the envy of much of the world. I say this not out of a vain American pride, but with a humble thankfulness for what my father and his father built. The Tea Party and the Occupy Movement have each lined the curbs of our Main Streets and Wall Street to point out that we are destroying our inheritance little by little.  The simple truth they have stumbled upon is that both our government and our corporations need to be better stewards of the common good. Would the novel thing that most struck de Tocqueville about America still be our “equality of social conditions”?  
            Maybe, like the hope of all parents, this child of the two movements can be the best of each. We could avoid the extremes of libertarian no government or socialist no markets and provide some real concrete policy. Maybe we can form a new political party that does not see taxes as the government’s inalienable right to play one interest against the other.  Maybe this new party can hold the banks accountable for giving every Joe and his dog easy access to credit and playing Russian roulette with the housing market. Maybe we can figure out how to make companies like GE pay a reasonable share of taxes without all the gamesmanship and sleight of hand.
            Maybe this new party can realize American does not really need to define its place in the world by having the most F-22 jets as possible.  Maybe the party will come to see corporations aren’t actually people and don’t need to be allowed unlimited rights to give campaign funds in the name of free speech. Maybe this new party will be able to see past its polling for the next election.
            And maybe, just maybe, this new party will even be so bold as to dream about Americans doing great things again. Maybe Americans could build a base on the moon and be the first to send humans to Mars—Google and Boeing could come along too.  This would be a far more impressive endeavor than building another base in Afghanistan or being the first to bomb Iran.
            Sadly, after reading up to this point in my article, a high school civics student is already planning to write a response to point out the folly of my idea and to bring up the undisputed axiom of American politics: a third vote is a wasted vote. And yet, what the guy in dreadlocks who has not showered for a week, and the guy who dresses up like Benjamin Franklin are each trying to tell you is, you have already wasted your vote.  
            Obama has not turned hope into American peace and prosperity. Boehner has not saved our economy. It is time to brave something new.  Herman Cain has skyrocketed to the top of the GOP primary race not on good looks, but because he has brought a new idea to the table. That freshness has excited the right.  We, as Americans, can think even bigger and try out more than just a new idea and a new face. Why not a new party? It was a new system that elected George Washington; it was a new party that elected Abraham Lincoln. We could use something new about now, even if it is a love child. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

On Namesakes

Names are important. I know this because my name is important. It's not a famous name or a wealthy name. It is not attached to any great invention, and you won't find it listed on any Trivial Pursuit card. My name is important because I was named after my grandfather.

I never knew my grandfather; he died July 24, 1966, in Pleiku, South Vietnam. I missed being born on this date in 1980 by twelve days. I became his namesake. It has influenced my life in incalculable ways--his name was important, my name is important.

I joined the Army in September, 2000 under the legacy and history of my name. A year before 9/11, I joined when it was unpopular and old-fashioned to sign your life away. I was no September baby, as we called the wave of incoming privates. I did it because I wanted to be a soldier; I did it because my grandfather had done it.

I always signed my name with the Roman numeral two. This was partly in fear that the Army's giant paperwork bureaucracy would somehow mix me up with my grandfather and I would not be issued boots or those wonderful brown BVDs. More importantly, I had a high bar with which to measure the conduct of my professional career. I could not be one of the guys under discipline for drinking or fighting without having tarnished the name. I could not dishonor the sacrifice my grandfather made. This higher standard worked in my favor and allowed me to rise quickly in my career. I was chosen for two sniper schools while in the service. This in turn opened the door for me to work with some of the greatest men I have ever known. I became Recon. It was an indirect gift my grandfather gave me, a name that was worth something, a name I could not let down.

In 2004 I went to war with the same patch my grand-father wore in Vietnam. We both served with the Tropic Lightning (or Electric Grapefruit, depending on your view) on our shoulders. In the course of the year I had to make a call home one night on the Colonel's SAT-phone. I had to tell my father, who lost his father "officially" to a mortar round, that I had also been hit by a mortar round. I assured him my wounds were minor; but the truth was, a few seconds slower or a few degrees of angle more, and I would have been the second of my name to die in a foreign war in a city hard for most Americans to pronounce. My father almost lost his son as well as his father, but by the grace of God I did come home.

This November 5, by the same grace, I was granted the privilege of naming my firstborn twin boys. Earlier, whenever I had thought of having a son, I agonized over the responsibility of what name to give him. When I learned that we were having twins, I knew their names right away. I had been given a great gift; there was symmetry. I could name my sons after the two platoon mates, my brothers-in-arms, my two friends, who did not come home from Iraq.

Names are important. My sons' names are the most important. They are named after two of the greatest men you will never know. They are named after men of honor and sacrifice. My boys will have the duty to live a life that is worthy of such sacrifice. They can never replace the men they were named for, but they can live up to them. They must live a life both men gave up so that new life can follow destruction and loss. One day when they are older I will explain all this to them. I will tell them that names are important. I will tell them they are named after: Adam Plumondore KIA 16 Feb 2005, Mosul Iraq, and Benjamin "Rat" Morton KIA 22 May 2005, Mosul Iraq.

David Paul Spears II

Adam Plumondore & Benjamin "Rat" Morton

Adam Luther Spears & Benjamin Oliver Spears


Monday, September 13, 2010

On Persistence

I am constantly surprised by how many things I should not be able to do. Life can feel like a giant obstacle course at times. Not only do you contend with serious obstacles that boggle your mind and test your courage, the course itself seems lined with spectators screaming out reasons why you should fail. It is very hard to face the obstacles while turning a deaf ear to the counselors of doubt. It is easy to listen to reasons why you can’t, why you shouldn’t, and why you will fail.                
                My latest run in with the counselors of doubt has been in the realm of buying a house. The old American dream of land ownership is awash with fears and doubts. Lenders are fearful of lending and buyers are fearful of buying. There are many complex reasons for this and not all of them bad in the least. While it’s not my intention to explain the housing market, I do want to explain the waters I find myself sailing through; they are not calm seas.     
                After reading The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham I have been on the constant look out for value. With fear griping the housing market, I believe I have found value in a $135,000 home. It looks like the home we could live in for the next thirty years and pay off in ten.  An opportunity has presented itself, and so have the obstacles.
                My bank of at least eight years would gladly approve a loan of $100,000 dollars and not a penny more. I was told I simply don’t have enough income to warrant a bigger loan. I could have left it at that and given up on the opportunity I was seeking, but I decided to try my luck elsewhere.  I was given the number of a great mortgage broker who went by the name Bob.  After a few pleasant and informative phone calls, Bob, as helpful as he was, explained he could easily get me more than $135,000, but I needed at least six months at my current job; I had one month. He told me six months was not that long to wait.  Once again I could have walked away saying that I had tried my best. I contacted a third mortgage broker. He was also named Bob. He was slow to return email and phone calls and had nowhere near the charisma of the first Bob. What he did have was an underwriter who was willing to pre-approve me for a loan. After about a month and a half of, “No, it can’t be done,”  I made an offer on the house today.  
 I know there are hundreds of ways for this deal could go south, but there is one way it could go through—persistence. Persistence is a virtue I will teach my sons. It may be out of fashion in our fifteen minutes of fame culture but it is a virtue all the same. I would not have a shot at this opportunity if I were less stubborn.  I would not have any sons to teach if I had been less persistent in the courtship of my wife. I could never have courted my wife if I had not been persistent in my duties as a soldier.  All my life I have heard plenty of reasons why things won’t work out.  In the end most of those reasons are just more obstacles for those of us who like a good challenge.                         

Sunday, August 1, 2010

On Labor

In 1776, Adam Smith wrote the words, “A man must always live by his work, and his wages must at least be sufficient to maintain him.” That simple sentence has been causing me considerable grief. The idea has found no resting place in my mind of late. It keeps tumbling around my mind like three quarters loose in the dryer. It is very unsettling.
I am very good at my work. I don’t write that to boast. It is much more just a statement of my experience. I am very good at my work because I have rare and extensive experience. Ten years of working in a trade is long enough for a man to gain mastery if he applies himself. It’s not just time though; I have been places, I have done things. Some of things I have done become the muse for historians and movie stars; people are impressed with my resume. Everyone always say, “Wow, you were a sniper?”
The rub of all this is simple. What good is it to be an expert in a field that no one values? This week I completed the first week of my new job. I now use my considerable skills and experience to guard a high-end shopping mall. I am no longer using my observation and recon skills to hunt terrorists; I use them to keep juveniles from spitting off the top floor of the parking garage. Is this is a preview of my next ten years? Can I really say I am “living by my work,” and if so what sort of living is it?
I am happy to have a job in these down times, and I really like the people I work with, but something is not right. I can hear loose thoughts clanging around in my mind. With my wages will I be able to provide for two boys that are soon to start their adventures in this life?  I don’t mean provide them with iPods, smart phones, and forty dollars designer t-shirts I buy on credit. I mean provide them with opportunity. Did I, “Study war and politics, so my sons could study mathematics, and philosophy,” or is it more like the Drive-by Truckers song and, “I am trying to hang onto the worst of places, a family can’t live on fast food wages”?
I am a man blessed with many things but professionally I am on the bottom rung. My current wages will not produce much of a future; they may get us by on a wing and prayer, but is that really enough? It is not for me. I hate life as a grind. Living paycheck to paycheck is not much a life. There are always ways a man can better himself, ways he can grab that next rung. I have chosen education. Education might be the key to opening the doors that are currently closed.  Writing might be another. The truth is I am on the lookout for any honorable thing to grasp if it will help provide an opportunity upward.
The true genius of Adam Smith’s work was his ideas for helping the poor. He thought the way to help the poor was to help them work. He also thought such work should provide them with a future. I may be working, but I still look for my future.       

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On Friends

The days of summer have kept me from writing much of late. Who wants to sit and write when daylight lasts so long and it’s dry in the Northwest? A word processor seems a poor friend when compared to evening strolls and ice-cream in the park with my wife. Lately there, miraculously, is always a good excuse to be away from my desk. I love summers.
This last weekend reminded me of how much I love summers. Even more, it reminded me of how much I love friends. It is easy these days to forget the value of friends. I mean there is so much busyness and noise in a man’s life that it is easy to be friendless. It’s easy to look at the forest and miss the trees. It’s easy be distracted by all the responsibilities and worries of life; it’s easy to by distracted by the toys. It’s easy to think friends are what you check on Facebook.
This last weekend was different. A long time friend asked me to go fishing with him. This might not seem much but you lack the back story. I grew up in Alaska and the Northwest. My childhood was formed by rivers and lakes; Zebcos and hip boots. There was the time I almost fell head first into the white water rapids that would have swept me under a log jam to surely drown, and that time when dad almost walked right into a brown bear. I grew up outdoors and I remember landing my first fish while everyone believed it to be a snag; I still think I am right when everyone doubts me.  That fish might have made me the resilient man I am today. Sadly though, I have not fished in many years prior to last weekend. Life got in the way. I had jobs to do, money to worry about, toys to distract. If not for my friend, fishing would still be something that I used to do.  That is the value of a friend. They can remind you of who you are.
They can also remind you of who you want to be. The same friend joined me for a guy’s night out to watch Inception. It was surprising to me how quickly we fell into long debates about the meaning of a good story; of who were the good guys and who were the bad. Sci-fi is a shared passion, not because we are enamored with technology or we like the action. No, we both want to be inspired by a story. A good story can inspire you to be a better soul. A friend can help you be one.
It has been my experience when a person faces hard times or succumbs to the easy path of rebellion, the first thing to go is their dependability. They don’t show up for events and they stop caring about others. They become the centers of their own universe and friends become people they used to hang out with. I know this has been true of me; I am guilty of it. It is easy for me to become a slave to the grind of life. There is always one more paycheck to worry about or one more thing I must do. The simple peace of walking a river out in the middle of nowhere—the peace of silence becomes a luxury and unimportant. Friends become just people I see on the weekends in passing.
This weekend was different though; I was reminded of the true value of a friend by a friend

Saturday, June 5, 2010

On Print

I have learned many valuable lessons in life from watching Monday Night Football. I learned about team, dedication, vanity, and defeat. I rooted for underdogs and hopeless cases; I had to because I was a Seahawks and Bills fan. One lesson has resonated with me stronger than most. One night, game and teams forgotten, I remember an announcer quoting Murray Kempton, “A critic is someone who enters the battlefield after the war is over and shoots the wounded.” After hearing those words I knew I did not want to be a critic. I never wanted to be the man who puffed himself up by lowering those around him. I wanted to be the guy on the battlefield—I have been the guy on the battlefield.

Times change, my battlefield days are at a close and my family days are just beginning. I too must change with the times. I am, with the help of academia and professors, changing my intellect from reaction to critical reasoning. I am learning to be a critical thinker. It is in this light that I write a criticism of the Clackamas Print. Not as someone shooting the wounded for kicks, but as someone who sees that the paper could be much more than it is.

My complaint starts in the year 1791, December 15th to be exact. It is the date the first ten amendments to the US Constitution were ratified. It was the birth date of the Bill of Rights. It is also where any discussion on modern American journalism must start. The famous First Amendment is very unique: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of the speech, or the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The amendment protects only one industry out of the entire vast American economy, the press.

The founding statesmen of our country did not protect the press on a whim, nor did they do it out of a corrupt self interest. No, they did it because of complex philosophical and legal reasoning. Alexis De Tocqueville, a French observer of the American experiment, wrote about his nine month journey across America in 1831. His understanding of the importance of free press is very noteworthy. He wrote, “In a country where the doctrine of the sovereignty of people obviously holds, censorship is not simply a danger; even more it is an enormous absurdity.” The free press, like voting, private property, and market economics is fundamental to a republic; take one away and you are no longer in a free republic. Again Tocqueville explains:

In certain nations who claim to be free, any agents of the government may violate the laws with impunity and the constitution of the country gives no power of judicial redress to the victims. In such a nation the independence of the press must not be considered one of the guarantees but the only guarantee remaining for the freedom and safety of their citizens.

The idea that the press is more than just an industry, that it is in fact a protector of freedom—even more, a protector of the citizen—is at the heart of my complaint and disappointment with the Clackamas Print. The Print has forgotten why it is protected by the US Constitution.

The federal government cannot censor the Print, but the Print, whether intentionally or unintentionally, has in essence censored itself. An example of this is the article “Tuition Increase Predicted to Turn Away Returning Students,” by Brain Baldwin. Again, I write this not as an attack on the work of Mr. Baldwin but as a necessary complaint. The article deals with the raise in tuition voted on by the school board. It is almost fatalistic in its acceptance of the decision to increase tuition. The article reports that the board was forced to raise tuition because of a drop in state funding, propounding a view of the situation as given by members of the school board and members of the ASG. This is classic run-to-authority reporting. You should ask yourself if you are getting the whole story.

The opinion article by Annemarie Schulte entitled “Rising Tuition Costs Continue to Cause Anxiety for Students” takes us one step further down the slippery slope. The article starts nicely by saying that knowledge is power, but then Schulte somehow spends the rest of the article bemoaning the cost of tuition without ever offering any fix or even knowledge of the causes. The article vaguely blames the economy and asks the question why tuition always seems to go up but gives no answers. Schulte even goes so far as to say that fewer students are being admitted, which is factually not true. But the real blunder is this: why doesn’t either article ask the obvious question? How is the school spending all the money and why does it always seem to need more?

I did a quick and simple Google search to find the Schools proposed budget for 2010-2011. It is a treasure trove of financial foolishness and overspending. One graph clearly illustrates how Clackamas has continually overspent the state average for community college to educate students. Another telling section of the budget shows that the school is one hundred and twenty three million dollars in debt. A little investigative journalism on my part and you have a very different picture than the one the school board wants you to see, or consequently, what you find in the Print. I don’t share Schulte’s anxiety from feeling at the mercy of forces I can’t control or understand. It’s all there in black and white and red, mostly red. The current budget crisis has as much to do with a history of fiscal irresponsibility as it does with the current funding shortage. We are only short because we overspend and overgrow. This is the story the Print completely missed.

The tuition debate was the best chance for the Print to stand and defend its readers, to cry out against the tuition increase by promulgating the real facts of the matter; sadly the opportunity was lost. Some might argue that the Print should be objective and not take sides, but this is easily refuted. Objectivity in the face of injustice is no virtue. An objective industry needs no special protection in the Constitution. The press is not privileged without reason; it has a moral responsibility to its readers. It must be the champion of justice and truth for it readers. The Print, unintentionally or intentionally, did end up choosing sides in the debate. It did so by reporting only the words of the board members or others working for the school. It chose the school’s view at the expense of the students. Where was the Print when we needed its voice? It was justifying the tuition raise by censoring out important bits of the truth when it failed to report them. The battle was lost; the tuition went up.

The battle may have been lost but the struggle remains. There are other stories to write, and other injustices to right. If anything needs a good looking over, it is the ASG. Why do the ASG students never take a class on governing and then get a trip to Washington? Why does someone running on a “green” platform plaster every flat surface on campus with posters, thus destroying the natural beauty of the school? Just who gets those scholarships and how? The Print needs to remember why the press is so important to a healthy society. It needs to get its hands dirty and kick over some rocks.

I started this post not wanting to be a critic, and end with the same intention. No one admires the man that sits on the sidelines while there’s work to be done. This fall I plan to add my pen to the Clackamas Print. I want to be protected by the First Amendment as I challenge injustice. They say the pen is mightier than the sword. I have used the sword and found it lacking. It is time I use a pen, not to shoot the wounded, but to help fight for the common good. After all, Murray Kempton—he was a journalist.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On Joy

Joy is timeless. Joy is Freedom. Joy is future proof and starting for around thirty-six thousand dollars and quickly moving north. Bayerische Motoren Werke, or in English, Bavarian Motor Works will sell you joy—it is about time.

In the world around us, blood is dumped out in sand for oil, and oil is dumped out into the sea. Men work for mastery of their labors but never know the masters of their labor. The employer-employee relationship is a broken marriage, but that is no surprise in the land of no-fault divorce. What was once a family is quickly being replaced by “two income providers.” I am very glad someone will sell me joy because it is such a rare commodity in our declining culture.

Let’s take some time to deconstruct the new market campaign by BMW. At its heart is the idea it can sell us joy. But how? To get anywhere it is helpful to know who created the idea to sell joy. It is the brainchild of GSD&M Idea City, an advertisement company based out of Texas. You might recognize some of their other work. They are the creators of the US Air Force’s slick modern recruitment ads. Another client of theirs is good old John Deere. It strikes my curiosity whether a company that sells war can also sell joy and not be in a conflict of interest. I am not a pacifist, so the question is not as simplistic as it seems on the surface. It does give one pause though. Come to think of it, BMW was a company born of war.

Back to joy: the ads themselves are well crafted. I particularly like the “jump for joy” commercial that pokes fun at Audi in a clever way and make one want to jump from Audi to BMW. The ads overall are very positive and upbeat. They appeal to both the young and the young at heart. The cars are a status symbol but also address the concerns of those sensitive about the environment.

Owning a BMW also promises the owner a bright and safe future. One ad claimed Joy is future proof. What an odd statement that joy, or in this case owning a BMW, is future proof. It scared me when I understood the ad’s underlining assumption. It tells us the future is bad and you must guard against it; the future does not have joy. You need a BMW for that. You need a BMW to be future proof.

This seems to be a trend in ads of late. No longer is a product faster, stronger, better. They are spiritual. By buying a widget or gadget you can fill your social and spiritual needs. Spaces once filled by church and family and friends can be replaced by an object or so we are lead to believe. Joy is BMW.

The thing is, I really like BMWs. They are beautifully crafted cars. I also enjoy driving across the American landscape. A country drive is a joyful pastime for me. The ads really do resonate with me as a viewer, but yet I question how healthy is it to call an expensive man made object, Joy? Being media literate means we question meanings and read past the slogans. BMWs are joyful to drive but they are not the driving joy of my life. BMW is not joy the way joy should be understood. This is just another case of false advertisement.