Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Lousy Time to Make a Point

It’s graduation season.

All across our fair land, speakers ranging from Nobel laureates to ninth grade history teachers will advise begowned and mortarboarded grads on how to negotiate the road ahead.

Their speeches will be delivered earnestly and all will be meant to inspire and challenge. There will be a poignant metaphor here, a poetic turn of phrase there, an exhortation to seize the moment, to make the world a better place.

Left unsaid will be the fact that previous generations, challenged to do the same things, somehow dribbled the ball out of bounds.

Most of the words will be forgotten soon after they are spoken, lost in the euphoria of the moment. Someone once remarked that the life expectancy of graduation speech is about 15 minutes.

Graduation day, it seems, is a lousy time to make a point. It’s a time for celebrating, not navel gazing.

And that’s a shame. There are inspiring words being spoken at graduation ceremonies that are worth hearing.

For those whose attention mechanism may have been in sleep mode while a speaker tried mightily to motivate you, we offer snippets of some really smart speeches we have read over the years.  Next time you run into your local journalist, thank him or her for being there to jot them down:

 “The unfortunate, yet truly exciting thing about your life, is that there is no core curriculum. The entire place is an elective.” ---Jon Stewart.

“Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.                 ---Will Rogers.

“Try putting your iPhones down every once in a while and look at people’s faces.”       ---Amy Poehler.

“… our challenge is to live the final stanza of a song you have heard or sung hundreds of times … land of the free and the home of the brave!”  ---Anita L. Defrantz.

“Truth eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on its pursuit.”                ---Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

“You men here are Adam. You women are Eve. Who hasn't thought a lot about Adam and Eve? This is Eden, and you're about to be kicked out. Why? You ate the knowledge apple. It's in your tummies now.” --- Kurt Vonnegut.

“So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.” ---Bill Watterson.

“Now I usually try not to give advice. Information, yes, advice, no. But, what has worked for me may not work for you. Well, take for instance what has worked for me. Wigs. Tight clothes. Push-up bras.” ---Dolly Parton.

“...and fear is the opposite of love... Fear is what blinds us. Fear is corrosive. Fear makes us hold back. It whispers to us, tells us that we'll fail. It tells us that our differences are too much to overcome. Fear locks us in place. It starts fights. It causes wars. And fear keeps us from loving.” --- John Legend.

“Graduation day is tough for adults. They go to the ceremony as parents. They come home as contemporaries. After twenty-two years of child-raising, they are unemployed.” --- Erma Bomback.

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” ---Sir Edmund Hillary.

“I want to congratulate you all upon your graduation from the University of Maryland College of Journalism, and wish you luck as you prepare to embark on exciting careers in telemarketing or large-appliance repair." ---Gene Weingarten.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” --- Maya Angelou.

“To those of you who are graduating this afternoon with high honors, awards and distinctions, I say, 'well done.'  And as I like to tell the 'C' students:  You, too, can be president.” --- Former President George Bush.

“The fireworks begin today. Each diploma is a lighted match. Each one of you is a fuse.”  --- Edward Koch.

“A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.” --- Theodore Roosevelt.

“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t. Respect their knowledge and learn from them.” --- Bill Nye.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day.  It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. ... And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.” --- Rear Admiral William H. McRaven.

“Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”--- Yoda, from a galaxy far, far away.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Baubles for Billionaires

I came up a little short in bidding for a Picasso painting the other day.

About $180 million short.

Picasso’s 1955 painting “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” sold for $179.4 million including fees at a sale in New York, where people have been known to spend that kind of money on a condo.

It’s probably just as well. My wife frowns on cubist portrayals of topless Algerian courtesans hanging above the fireplace.

As eyebrow raising as the selling price is, the Picasso falls short of the record. Another rendering of topless females, in this case a portrait of two Tahitian women painted by Paul Gauguin in 1892, sold privately for almost $300 million earlier this year, according to the New York Times. 

Outrageous? Perhaps. But as one observer remarked, "If you're rich and you've got a lovely house, you need to have nice things to hang on the wall.” 

All of this got me to thinking: If nice things for your walls isn't your cup of tea and you had $180 million burning a hole in your pocket, what else could you buy?

How about your own newspaper? The San Diego Union-Tribune was recently sold to the Los Angeles Times for $80 million. That would leave you $100 million to try to keep the place afloat for a couple of years.

Maybe a hotel is more to your liking. The 600-room Hotel Carter, just off New York's Times Square on West 43rd Street, and a three-time "winner" of Tripadvisor's dirtiest hotel in America survey, is going for $180 million. Think location, location, location.

The legendary and refurbished Ace Hotel in Los Angeles recently sold for $103 million. It was built by film luminaries Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith in 1927. 

How about a nice home?  Alas, you just missed out on a beauty.

Copper Beach Farm in Greenwich, Conn. just sold for $120 million. Since it was originally listed at $190,000,000 someone got a bargain. And what do you get for that kind of money?

Fifty private acres in Greenwich, featuring 4,000 feet of private frontage on Long Island Sound, a pair of offshore islands, and a 15,000-square-foot mansion built in 1896 with Victorian and French Renaissance influences.

Of note: the property was saddled with more than $120 million in debt, making it one of the most heavily mortgaged homes in American history, according to the New York Times.

Closer to home, there’s a 258-acre parcel up for sale in Bel-Air. Asking price: $125 million. And it’s not exactly shovel ready.

Want something in move-in condition?  Try La Villa Contenta, built on eight acres in Malibu and featuring 13 bedrooms and 14 bathrooms. The conversation starts at $60 million.

And a yacht is always good fun. The Aquarius, described as a beach club on the water, is just the thing for you and 16 of your guests.  If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it. But if you must know, it’s $70,608,000.

If you want to get there faster, a F-35 Joint Strike Fighter military aircraft checks in at $180 million. Top speed: 1200 mph. Sidewinder missiles are extra.

These are mere baubles, of course. And ostentatious at that. If you really want to join the elite of the super wealthy, you give your money away.

A couple of well-known billionaires, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, started a campaign called the Giving Pledge to encourage the wealthiest people in the world to make a commitment to give most of their wealth to philanthropic causes.

The campaign specifically focuses on billionaires.  It was reported in 2012 that “81 billionaires committed to giving at least half of their fortunes to charity.” As of January 2015, 128 billionaire or former billionaire individuals and couples have signed the pledge.

As Buffet famously remarked,I want to give my kids just enough so that they would feel that they could do anything, but not so much that they would feel like doing nothing."

What’s that you say? You’re not in the Buffet/Gates league but you have a considerable chunk of change to spend?

Try these suggestions culled from the Internet:

---Malaria protection for millions. At a cost of $3 per net – which protect, on average, two people for 3-4 years – you could spend that Picasso money saving as many as 120 million people from this mosquito-borne, sometimes deadly infectious disease.

 ---Feed every hungry schoolchild in the United States for two days. The U.S. Department of Agriculture spends $2.93 to fully reimburse the cost of a free lunch through the National School Lunch Program, which helped about 31.6 million children every day in 2012. For $180 million, you could feed every one of those children a nourishing meal twice over.

---Immunize 9 million children. It only costs $20-$40 to immunize a child against the major preventable childhood diseases, according to UNICEF. With the cost of one Picasso, you could inoculate 9 million kids against deadly diseases like measles, diphtheria, and polio.

---Reduce the risk of HIV infection for 60 million people. It only costs $3 for antiretroviral drugs that can be administered at childbirth, reducing the risk of mother-to-child HIV transmission by 70%-80%.

In the grand scheme of things, the joy of generosity offers a lot more long-term satisfaction than standing at the bridge of your yacht.

As Nelson Henderson wrote, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Paranoia on the Pecos

“Being slightly paranoid is like being slightly pregnant - it tends to get worse.
---- Molly Ivans

When it comes to extremes, you can’t beat Texas.

Weather? Everything from oppressive heat and humidity to ice storms. Throw in tornadoes and hurricanes and it’s got it all.

Distances? Driving the width of Texas is like a mission to Mars. It feels like it may take a decade or more to make the trip.

Food? I’m sure there are pockets of fine dining somewhere but the dietary staple is barbecue and Tex-Mex. You can find either or both in every town and hamlet in the state.

But if you want to take it to the limit, try the Texas State Fair where you can ingest such culinary delights as Biscuit Fries with Chocolate Gravy, Fried Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich, Deep Fried Salsa and Fried Banana Pudding. Or a personal favorite: Chicken Fried Bacon.

Sports? In Allen, Texas, they built a $60 million football stadium for a high school. The Dallas Cowboys play their games in a facility that cost north of $1 billion.

Spreads? The King Ranch encompasses 825,000 acres extending into six counties.
It’s the land of Big Ideas, Big Egos, Big Oil, Big Hats and Big Hair.  Not to mention Tall Tales and Wide Open Spaces.

But there is something else that looms large in the Texas psyche: Paranoia.

In a state that likes to think of itself as the land of God, guns and guts, any real or imagined attempt to mess with the right to bear arms results in spasms of conspiratorial insanity served up a large dose of hostility.

Take Jade Helm 15, for example. While it may sound like the name of a European rock band, it is in fact a multi-state exercise involving members of our armed forces.

The Army Special Operations Command explains it this way:

“USASOC periodically conducts training exercises such as these to practice core special warfare tasks, which help protect the nation against foreign enemies. It is imperative that Special Operations Soldiers receive the best training, equipment and resources possible.

“While multi-state training exercises such as these are not unique to the military, the size and scope of Jade Helm sets this one apart. To stay ahead of the environmental challenges faced overseas, Jade Helm will take place across seven states…The diverse terrain in these states replicates areas Special Operations Soldiers regularly find themselves operating in overseas. 
“The training exercise will be conducted on private and public land with the permission of the private landowners, and from state and local authorities.”

Military officials go on to say that “the public can expect nothing much different from their day-to-day activities since much of exercise will be conducted in remote areas. The most noticeable effect the exercise may have on the local communities is an increase in vehicle and military air traffic and its associated noise.”

That seems like a plausible explanation. But not for a lot of Texans.

At a recent information session, command spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria fielded questions about whether Jade Helm 15 will involve bringing foreign fighters from the Islamic State to Texas, whether U.S. troops will confiscate Texans’ guns and whether the Army intends to implement martial law, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

“It’s the same thing that happened in Nazi Germany: You get the people used to the troops on the street, the appearance of uniformed troops and the militarization of the police,” one resident told the Statesman after the meeting. “They’re gathering intelligence. That’s what they’re doing. And they’re moving logistics in place for martial law.”

Another version is offered by a website called the All News Pipeline. They  connected the dots between Jade Helm and the closure of several Texas Walmarts to ask, "Will these massive stores soon be used as 'food distribution centers' and to house the  headquarters of invading troops from China, here to disarm Americans one by one as promised by Michelle Obama to the Chinese prior to Obama leaving the White House?"

Yet another source says “the Operational Plan for the exercise clearly shows that this drill is about the implementation of martial law and the subsequent pacification and subjugation of the American people by their government.”

The hue and cry has become so serious that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent an open letter to the Texas State Guard asking it to keep a tight watch on the exercise. "During the training operation," Abbott wrote, "it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights, and civil liberties will not be infringed."

Mistrust of government is as American as apple pie and as old as the nation itself. It thrives in places like Texas which maintains a frontier mentality despite the fact that the state is being increasingly urbanized.

The problem begins when it spins out of control. Distrust turns to hatred. Hatred begets violence. 

Timothy McVeigh hoped to inspire a revolt against what he considered to be a tyrannical federal government. So he blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 and injuring 600 innocent people.

Much of this vitriol is directed at President Barack Obama who has been demonized by the Right as evil, ruthless, calculating, even murderous.

But party affiliation or political philosophy doesn't seem to matter. Even President Bush, a favorite son of Texas, was accused of nefarious deeds. He was accused of advancing a plan to build a huge Super Highway, four football-fields-wide, through the heart of the U.S. along Interstate 35, from the Mexican border at Laredo, Tex., to the Canadian border north of Duluth, Minn.

Why?  Because it was whispered that Bush is pursuing a globalist agenda to create a North American Union, effectively erasing our borders with both Mexico and Canada. 

It appears tin foil hats are replacing Stetsons in Texas.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Inhuman Relations

It’s not often that I am moved to present the less-than coveted Inhuman Relations Award to companies who establish a new low in employee abuse.

I understand that there’s a never-ending tug-of-war between employees who feel overworked and under appreciated and management which views those same employees as a temporary nuisance, to be replaced much as you would change the oil in your car.

So acrimony abounds. Therefore, the winner of the IR Award has to register a big jolt on the Outrage Scale to gain consideration.

Indeed, the last company to be so honored was Northwest Airlines which offered some helpful suggestions to its employees who were being laid off.

Entitled "101 Ways to Save Money," the good folks at Northwest, motivated no doubt by pure paternalistic instincts, advised their soon-to-be-unemployed workers to buy jewelry at pawnshops, auto parts at junkyards and to take shorter showers.

Wait, there's more. The list included asking doctors for prescription drug samples, borrowing a dress "for a big night out" and giving children hand-me-down toys and clothes. Also suggested: "take a date for a walk along the beach or in the woods," "write letters instead of calling" and "never grocery shop hungry" which seems like odd advice to give the newly poor.

And the capper: "Don't be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash." Or as it’s more commonly referred to: dumpster diving.

American Airlines was also a winner when it gave huge bonuses to its top executives shortly after flight attendants, mechanics and pilots had agreed to give back hundreds of millions in salary and benefits to keep the company from bankruptcy.

The latest contender is Walmart, no stranger to employee abuse.

If you’ll recall, the giant retailer recently closed five of its stores, including one in Pico Rivera for “ongoing plumbing issues that will require extensive repairs.” It is estimated the stores with be closed for six months or longer.

The human cost: More than 500 employees lost their jobs in Pico Rivera and 2200 nationwide. In keeping with Walmart’s warm and fuzzy relationship with its “associates,” workers received no advance warning.

A Walmart spokesman said that workers were told once the Pico Rivera store reopened, they would have to reapply for jobs. You can bet that regardless of their job level and pay, it might be at minimum wage. Accrued vacation and benefits?  Forget it.

It was ham fisted and brutal, even by Walmart standards.

According to one report, the Pico Rivera store underwent a $500,000 refurbishment over the last year, during which it didn't have to be closed--a refurbishment that included the restrooms and the grocery department.

In the meantime, this paper reported that the company has not yet asked for any building permits, which may be required for major work.

So while the mystery deepens, rumors surrounding the closure range from the plausible to the preposterous.

Plausible: The closures were a form of "union-busting" activity intended to get rid workers who were publicly critical of Walmart's labor practices, such as employees of the Pico Rivera store who went on strike in 2012 over "issues of scheduling, pay, benefits, part-time work, unfair treatment and discrimination throughout the country."

Preposterous: The closed Walmart stores will be used as "food distribution centers" and housing for "invading troops from China, here to disarm Americans."

However you want to slice it, a lot of people are out of a job. And as they were being ushered out the back door, Walmart handed them a publication giving them advice on how to deal with the living hell their lives are about to become.

“Care for yourself by eating well, exercising and resting when needed. Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, chocolate and nicotine and depressants such as alcohol.” Advising someone who had just been blindsided by a job loss to eat well and rest raises callousness to unseen levels.

“Give yourself time to recover. Difficulties with concentration, memory or decision-making are common but short-term reactions.” So are anger,frustration and disillusionment which unfortunately are more often long-term.

“Remember, that difficulty sleeping, nightmares, flashbacks, and feelings of being hyper-alert are common and will diminish in time.” Time is a luxury a laid-off worker with a family to feed can’t afford. Those pesky mental health issues will just have to wait.

Now, take that advice and apply it to Jenny Mills, a nine-year employee of the Pico Rivera store before it shut down. As Mills explained it in an interview with Gawker:

I already couldn’t pay my rent or feed myself and my husband on the pay I was getting. So I’d already lost my apartment and was living in my car in their parking lot, and now I don’t know if I even have a job to go back to. It’s just gotten so ridiculous, and they didn’t give me any real help.

“[The managers] told me to go find somewhere to live, and that there would be a possibility for funding from corporate if I did. But no apartment is willing to take you before you can actually pay. I told Walmart I’d need the money for an apartment ahead of time, but they said no, they don’t do it that way.”

Walmart has not only won the Inhuman Relations Award. They may have retired it.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com.