Friday, May 15, 2015

the Amtrak accident



And I'm sitting here going, "Isn't it possible the engineer had a seizure or something and it was something really bad but fundamentally unavoidable?"

Disclaimer: I use Amtrak. I like Amtrak's long-distance service. I wish Amtrak owned its tracks so its on-time performance was better.

I hate flying, and I hate what airport security has become - a big show to make people think they're safe, performed by a group of poorly-trained, low-paid people, some of whom get power-crazy and make the people they're supposed to be serving miserable.

Amtrak is a lot nicer - for now - about security. (Oh, there are occasional screw-ups, and that doesn't mean local or federal LEOs can't hassle someone - there's a story out about some guy allegedly traveling to the west coast with a lot of cash on his person, and at some point DEA agents got on the train and used the asset-forfeiture rules to claim they could take it, because they assumed it was drug money, when it actually appears to be otherwise. But that's a problem that could happen anywhere).

I've never had my bags searched. I've never had to go through a scanner. Once or twice, going through one of the larger cities on the route I take, Homeland Security or someone walked the train, once with police dogs, but they never said anything to me. (Granted, I travel in the sleepers, am a middle-aged white female who looks very non-threatening....)

But I get tired of all sides of the issue using a tragedy to try to make hay.

Also, with the "defunding" thing and some people talking about how deeply and mortally offended they apparently are that some of their tax dollars go to Amtrak: meh. There are a lot of things my tax dollars go to fund that I am really not crazy about. And the comment about "I never take it, why should my tax dollars to to it" makes me want to go, "Childless homeowner here, let me tell you about my property taxes." (And all the sales taxes I pay - here, we have close to a 10% local sales tax. Some of that is to fund new school buses. Some of that is to fund a sports center that was presented as The Best Thing Ever And Will Bring Big Revenues To Town Because Tournaments but really didn't. I've never been out there, but I pay for it.

The problem is, if you're going to have not-privately-run (And I don't think any company would take it on in this era) multi-state trains, it's probably gonna be a Federal thing. And yeah, we can argue the role of Federal dollars and if they should be paying for that - but once the people all get out of the hospital. Same with the "more funding for infrastructure" argument.

I'm traveling myself in less than a week. Yeah, on Amtrak. No, I'm not worried. For one thing, it's western long-distance service and the fastest it is allowed to go is 79 mph (and given the freights Amtrak competes with, it's often slower). My bigger worry is that some Bubba decides he is gonna race the signal and try to get across the tracks ahead of the train - that happens fairly regularly (usually with freights) and nearly every time the car loses.

But yeah. Is this what the news has become now? Two big echo chambers depending on what channel you choose to watch? Ugh. (I try to get my news online but even then it's hard; so many sites are either virtually content-free or else have loud autoplay video. Or they make you watch what they are showing on television, which misses the point: I can read faster than I can watch, and if I'm trying to quick grab some news in 10 minutes I don't want to sit through some talking head)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

An observation on graduation speeches

So it's now the silly season (one of many in our culture). People getting invited to give speeches, people getting DISINVITED (this seems to be a new thing) to give speeches, people being paid way too much to come give a speech, bla bla bla.

You know what? I wouldn't be all that troubled if they did away with the Obligatory Graduation Speech altogether. Or maybe just keep it for high schools, but limit the speakers (as most high schools do anyway) to someone who has done good locally: a doctor that does pro-bono work for the poor, a judge who set up a drug court in the hope of truly rehabilitating first-time offenders, a businessperson who has brought jobs to town....

But the whole mess of getting a high profile speaker for colleges (Where is the President going to speak this year? Where is Big Famous Movie Star going to speak? Where is Beloved Author going to speak) is kind of overdone.

And you know? Being a Big Famous Somebody doesn't mean you give good speeches. I've sat through graduations - now, granted, we mostly only get Locally Famous Somebodies but I can tell you how accomplished or famous someone is is not necessarily a guide to how good their speech will be. I've sat through some TERRIBLE speeches from Locally Famous Somebodies: either they rambled all over the place and were way too long, or they were viewed from the very limited prism of that individual's experience (I think of the businesswoman who defined Success as: "you come in before your boss, you leave after they leave, you don't take vacations"). Or it becomes All About The Person.

Here's a big big hint to would-be graduation speakers: it's not about you. It's not about what you did, or how great you are, or what injustices you personally have suffered in your life. Graduation is about the graduates. Get up, give a short speech that either contains general but helpful advice, or that congratulates them and their parents on their achievement, shut up, sit down, let 'em graduate.

I have to admit, this is something I've considered. Not that I'll ever be asked to, because I'm not a Big Famous Anybody, but I can think of three topics I could expand on for an "advice" type speech:

1. Gratitude is important. (This could also incorporate elements of "Look what you all did! One hundred or more years ago this option would not have been open to many of you. Many of the things you are going to go out and do as careers weren't even invented when your grandparents (or maybe great-grandparents, I'm old) were born)

2. Never stop learning, always have something you care about. Also maybe noting the joy of being able to read a "classic" on your own time schedule and knowing you never have to write an essay on it. I took almost a year to work my way through Middlemarch and  I think I learned more from it and enjoyed it more if I were trying to read it in two or three weeks, like the typical lit-class schedule in college. Also, the fact that I could make my own interpretations and draw what I believed to be important from it, rather than feeling like I had to suss out what my professor's prejudices and hobby-horses were, and write the essay tailored to those. (Sad but true, that's how some humanities courses work, or so I learned)

3. See the other person. By that, I mean, recognize the humanity of others around you. Other people are not merely obstacles to your happiness. They have their own lives - their own fears and hopes and dreams and problems and joys. (When I am at my best, I can tell myself that that person who is doing things that annoy me is doing them NOT to annoy me personally, but because their own personal hang-ups cause them to do those things. And that I probably do things that annoy other people too). I've seen too many people abuse cashiers or bank tellers or waiters/waitresses over stuff that was NOT under the control of the person being abused. I make a point to be polite to customer service people (being polite does NOT preclude being firm or persistent if you are not getting the help you need and they are supposed to give) because I know they get dumped on so much. And I find I often get really excellent service in places other people complain about, and I wonder if it's because I strive to be polite and friendly, and so the people are more willing to help me.

I'd pick one of those and expand on it. Do a short speech, limit it to one topic, and at the end congratulate the graduates and their families.

But I get tired of reading/hearing clips of speeches that seem to be about the person speaking, about what they've "suffered" (when they probably come from a wealthier, happier background than many of the students - and I know this because I teach and I've tried to help students with diverse problems or sadnesses). Or the self-congratulatory speech - my own college commencement speech was a guy who practically broke his arm patting himself on the back for all the good he'd done in the world.

I also tend to feel there should be a moratorium on inviting politicians who may still run for office someday (Well, maybe limit it to Federal office - people who are running for president or Senate or to be a Representative). Too much chance of it turning into a circus and being about the speaker and not about the graduates - I'd feel cheated, after working for four long years, to have the focus of my graduation shift to "Joe Blow is making a stump speech!"

(Also, the increased security with certain politicians would make it a nightmare for families going to see their kids graduate. I know during my advanced-degree graduations, as we were heading in to the arena, they made us unzip and open our gowns. I don't know if that was to be sure we were actually *dressed* under them, or to be sure we weren't carrying some kind of contraband, or what. It was weird and a little unsettling.)

Friday, May 08, 2015

This is why I kind of hate the internet

Some of the people I follow various places live in the UK.

Some of them are also leftward of me politically.


Cripes. We've gone, in a couple decades, from "I disagree with you politically" to "you don't vote like me and that makes you akin to a mass murderer."

I'm kind of dreading election 2016 here for those very reasons. I may wind up deleting all my accounts out of frustration.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

I dunno

Past few weeks have been one of the "world's gone crazy" situations for me.

The latest thing is the (good) cop taking down the would-be terrorists in Garland. I live in the Dallas media market so I've heard a great deal about this. And there's a lot of commentary out there.

I dunno. I wouldn't choose to host an event like that. If my town did, I'd plan on being as far as I could be from the venue where that was happening.

But they still have the right to do it, even as I might think it is something I want to stay away from.

Because if we start telling people, "No, you can't do those kinds of things" then where do we stop? Do we tell Christians to take crosses off their businesses (or off their persons)?

I honestly think between this kind of thing, and between the whole "we want employers to pay for birth control and abortions no matter what their religious position is" and the same-sex marriage issue, we're going to see a lot of challenges to the "freedom of religion" part of the First Amendment in the next 20 years.

And it's gonna get ugly, I anticipate. And the pessimistic side of me says there will be people agitating for either abridging or doing away with some of the Bill of Rights. (Some will argue that that has already happened, in practice if not on paper).

I don't know. (With the same-sex marriage thing, my feeling is: get the government out of marriage. Encourage people to appoint a power-of-attorney and make a legal list of who can visit them in the hospital and have them make a will and all that. And then encourage couples who want to marry to find a religious leader who wants to marry them. In an ideal world - and our world is far from ideal - that means Conservative rabbis or Southern Baptist ministers or conservative priests will not be pressured to marry same-sex couples, whereas the more liberal Reform rabbis, or Unitarian Universalist ministers, or other more-liberal Protestant ministers can decide to. Give people freedom. But I will observe that it seems slightly tacky to me to go to someone that you KNOW is going to feel opposition to what you are going to do, and force them - using the government and the courts - to do it.

I dunno. I can respect the beliefs of those who absolutely don't want same-sex couples to marry but I admit at the same time, I think anything encouraging long-term commitment is probably a net good for the culture. And I say this as a long-term single.)

The whole health care thing? I expect it's going to blow up one of two ways: either it will be found to be unsustainable as it is, and it goes back to some kind of either employer-based or private-paid system, maybe with more Medicaid for those who can't afford it. Or it goes full-blown single-payer, which I admit makes me nervous, because he who pays the piper calls the tune, and already my workplace is being a bit intrusive with the "wellness" reminders they give us (apparently if we are all skinny vegetarian exercise buffs, no one will ever get sick or hurt, and we won't cost our insurer ANY money ever....) The government - well, picture the DMV or the IRS doling out health "advice".....

But as for people saying, "I find the practice of other religions abhorrent and I wish not to be reminded of them" or "The particular strictures of my own faith must be extended to everyone else regardless of their faith" - there's not really a fix for that beyond saying, "No, that's not how we work as a country, and if you don't like it, there are other places you can emigrate to."

I mean, I am all for personally not doing things that would offend others. But there are lines. I would not get up in front of a class that I suspected had Muslim students in it and draw a man on the blackboard and say it was Mohammed. And I don't wear low-cut tops or shorter-than-the-knee skirts in class, just for modesty and propriety reasons.....but I would not comply if an upper administrator told me, "This student in your class, for religious reasons, objects to your teaching with your hair uncovered, could you put this headscarf on for the class?*" (Or, worse: "Could you swap classes with a male colleague, this student doesn't want a woman teaching him")

(*Not necessarily Islam; there are some other conservative religious groups that expect women cover their hair)

I don't know. It seems like being able to live together is becoming increasingly hard, that there are some voices who want to drown out all the other ones. Maybe it has always been so, it just seems that I notice it more now.