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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Sparking the Mortal Coil: A Look Back at 2017

Saturday, December 9, 2017 
I was thinking today that I really should take stock(1) of the year, before it up and just evaporates on me.  I've had these seemingly good ideas before, namely deeply introspective reviews of the year in passing, all the while looking hopefully into the future.  Most of the time though I don't really end up executing all that well.  Maybe if I start early that will be different.

So, getting this kicked off, what can I say about 2017?

Part of the story is about change.  Big change.  The kind of change that you never want to know about in advance, because such knowledge would likely result in a mental failure of epic proportions.  This is likely why time travel isn't possible by the way:  Forget the technology, it's the actual ability to comprehend what we will all have to do in the future that's beyond our capabilities.

Typing this now on a Saturday evening, I am truly grateful that I couldn't see it...2017...coming.

As I flesh this out over the next week or three maybe just thinking about the year will help to bring some sense to it all, because parts of it simply don't make sense.  Now one of the smartest people I've ever met in my life, bar none, just happens to be my wife...

(one of the best photos I have ever taken)

...who tells me from time to time that I'm not exactly dumb.  I'm not sure I believe her by the way because if I were truly "smart" I would have figured out some of this stuff out already.  At times I feel as ill-prepared for life now as I did in my 20's.

Yes, yes, yes, I get it by the way:  Life is a journey, not a destination.  There is no finish line where you actually do have it all "figured out".  Maybe that sort of thing is reserved for some point after the mortal coil(2) has been completely fried.  Maybe you figure life out just as you no longer have a life to figure out.  That's some heady stuff for 11pm or any time of the day for that matter.  I must be getting tired.

Anyway, today is the preface of sorts.  This posting will get longer, and maybe weirder, before too long. At some point, I may need to break out the (figurative) ether(3).

Big Changes
2017 was a year of big change for me, but I'm not alone in that department.  Two cases in point:

1) The Scranton School District... effectively bankrupt.  That's important for a few reasons, over and above the fact that I'll always consider Scranton to be home.  Decades of mismanagement have finally been caught up to in the books of the district, and with a $19 million dollar shortfall, there aren't many good choices.  The current plan calls for laying off 89 teachers, which would (as noted by a local attorney) result in an $18 million dollar shortfall.  This is not going to end well, and those who should pay the price, namely board directors who repeatedly voted for self-family-friend interests will likely walk away untouched.  A recent report that noted an additional $2 million dollar "donation" on the part of the State isn't anything to write home about; it's like extending credit to someone who can't pay their bills anyway.

2) Our National Moral Compass...
...I didn't think George W. Bush was a great President.  But he is a good man.  Now we have a President who is neither.  In fact, the current White House resident is soiling the office, and our nation, with every vindictive, Jr. High powered tweet.  This is a man with more bankruptcies, fiscal and moral, than every other President combined...and yet was still elected.  History will not be kind to the current resident of the White House.  I feel cheapened just by writing about him, which is one of the reasons why I don't (write about him) on the blog all that often.

It's almost odd that I would spike these two out, by the way.  I don't live in Scranton and quite frankly, since I'm a white, middle-class, heterosexual male, I'm not sure that the current White House resident will not have much of a tangible impact on me or my life.  Sadly, I can't say the same for my children, which is really the point at hand.

In 2017, including this entry, there will have been 82 postings to the blog.  That's my second lowest total ever, surpassed only by 2008 (with 66 postings), but it's worth noting that the first year of the blog was really only October to December.  Maybe on some other day that would be something of a disappointment, but not today.  The good news is that I keep spewing this stuff out, mostly on a regular basis, and I have no intention of quitting.

Speaking of blogs and quitting, so many local ones have come and gone over the years.  I try to read most of what's on my own blog-roll(4), but many aren't updated all that often.  Some, to tell the truth, aren't all that interesting to me.  The worst offense though in local blogging?  Well, make that "second worst" offense, because the first would be not writing at all.  Anyway, the (second) worst offense in local blogging is definitely monetizing(5) one's blog to the point where it 80% of the page seems like it's advertising.  Why bother having the blog in the first place?

I do get requests to place advertising on the blog, by the way, which includes inquiries about hosted articles.  That would be where some person/organization actually write a posting and I'm supposed to post it to the page, all the while selling some trinket, pyramid scheme or other such things.  The practice seems pretty damn shady to me.

Lest I get any hate fan mail on this topic, I'll note that I have nothing against monetized blogs.  It's just not my cup of tea.

Since this is a retrospective kind of blog posting, I'll add for the record that the most viewed posting of mine during 2017 was...

"Most viewed", by the way, equates to about eight times the regular number of posting hits.

My favorite posting?  Well, it's easier for me to point out the postings that I really didn't like all that much, but word for word, the one that sticks out for me...outside of those that were about my late brother...was...

Going through those old photographs really did stir up a ton of feelings on my part, and writing the posting actually did help me process things.  That's this stuff at it's very best.

On the Subject of Loss
Over the course of three months, I lost 51-year old (younger) brother(6) and a job that I thought I'd have for the rest of my life.  It's only been fairly recently that I've actually started to come to terms with both losses.  As a side note, one of the lessons here in the collective sense is as follows:

When it comes to loss, don't confuse the ability to function with the ability to deal.

Now I've functioned comparatively well over the course of the year, but I think that has more to do with this kind of driven nature of my mine(7), well at least at times.  There is more work to do on both fronts, but at this stage, two things are apparent to me.

First, losing my job, over a year out, feels like I went through a sudden divorce.  The emotion is more of feeling hurt than anything else.  That's pretty ironic, given the fact that, in spite of what the United States Supreme Court has said, corporations are not people.  Yet, in my mind, my former employer was kind of like a spouse in a lot of ways, who suddenly one day simply kicked me out of a house that I had been living in for nearly 28 years.  I played by the rules, gave more than I took, obeyed the letter and the spirit and the letter of the law, yet that wasn't good enough.  There is more work here to be done, and I'm told I eventually may get angry over this, but regardless, I walked away with more gifts from that relationship than I could ever count.  I don't think I'll ever be that bitter ex-spouse.

Second, losing my brother, nearly a year out, still feels almost surreal.  When I ponder the feelings I have about it, well, I end up being pretty damn angry.  I'm not good at being angry...never have been.  That's part-and-parcel the result of an upbringing where my Mom was angry enough for everyone else, so there was nothing left for me.  The ironic part?  I think my brother Chris was a very angry guy himself.  As I noted on more than a few occasions, he was a lot like our Mom, a point which I think he strenuously denied but which was never the less very true.  Anyway, when it comes to losing my brother, I'm just not sure where those feelings end up going.  I do know that more work needs to be done.

(from the right:  SGA, our Mom, Joe, and Chris)

Wins and Losses
I don't play table or board games.  It's really a kind of psychological thing to be perfectly honest.  If I took the time to learn the rules of a game and compete, I'd feel compelled to win, and I just don't like that feeling.  The last board game I played was Monopoly, maybe a year ago; after about five minutes I did everything in my power to lose, and lose quickly.  The point here is that I don't particularly try to think about things in the context of "winning" and "losing".  I'll save that kind of crap for the current resident of the White House.

Anyway, thinking back over 2017, somethings went well...

...I have a wife who loves me...for me no less children and step-children are healthy and doing just fine
...I found a new job, complete with a great group of co-workers
...I can pay my bills

That's not to say that there haven't been some setbacks.  See above.  I'll also add that, if I gain any more weight, I'll soon develop my own gravity and random objects will start orbiting me.

Looking Forward
My wish for 2018?  Simply that it be better than 2017.  That's enough for me.

I have some time away coming up, "away" as in more or less unplugged.  I'll have some time for writing though, something that I kind of savor actually.  Between that, hiking and some photography, I'm hoping for a reset as the new year begins.

Thank You
Finally, thank you for reading this stuff.  I'd still be writing even if you didn't read it, but still, the fact that some do actually amazes me.  I don't think that I offer all that much, but perhaps from time to time, I do offer just enough.  When all is said and done, life isn't a quantity game...if it were, the Kardashians would all be in healthy marriages, Michael Jackson would be alive, and the President would be a happy guy.  No, life is a quality's the quality of our lives that matter the very most.  If I get one or two quality posts out in a year, things that may stir, provoke, evoke, well, I think I've done good.

Happy soon to be 2018.

(1) Yes, there will be many irritating footnotes to this posting.  As I noted in a prior blog entry, you can blame David Foster Wallace.
(2) The struggles of daily life; most recently, I heard Bono make reference to it during an interview on the Howard Stern Show.
(3) "Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas...with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether." - Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
(4) Fancy blog terminology for the listing of blogs I keep on
(5) Another fancy blog term, this time meaning selling advertising on the page.  
(6) See THIS posting.
(7) I hate that sentiment, for the record.  "Driven" sounds like Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street, not some kid from the housing project.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Two Assignments

Saturday, December 16, 2017
I've been working on something for a month or two now, something that's relatively important in the larger scheme of things, something that I should have started a while ago.  As part of this work, I have two assignments that are due next Saturday.  I've had over a month to do this work, and yet I'm still not there yet.

It might help to be a bit more specific.

I've been tasked to write two letters related to some of the events that have shaped my life over 2016-2017.  At least two letters are the actual assignment; it could be more if I wanted to.  My initial reaction?  I think it was along the lines of "I could do this in my sleep, standing on my head, in the midst of a Nyquil coma".  As I explained at the time, I like writing and I write a lot.  In fact, about half of what I write actually makes it on this site.  Should be a walk in the park.

My assignment is due next Saturday, and I have one letter written.

Granted, the one letter happens to be four pages and 1,700+ words long.

I think that writing the first letter literally drained was that kind of an experience.  I am not an angry guy by any stretch, but yet the word "rage" is what comes to mind as the feeling I experienced as I pounded away on the key of my newly acquired mechanical keyboard.  I also confess that there is some colorful language used in the letter, something that you will not (make that "hopefully will not") see in my postings on this site.  I'm not proud of the profanity contained in the letter, but yet it stays.  The fact remains though that I still have a minimum of another letter to write yet, on a different but yet related subject, and I have...

...interest in starting it.

What will happen?  I'll start writing letter number two on the different but related topic at some point this week, ready for Saturday's deadline.  I'm also sure that once I start writing it, the words will flow out.  It just works that way, at least for me.

The real story here is that I'm more or less apprehensive about starting letter number two.  I don't know what will be evoked as I write, which I suspect is the point of it all.  I don't especially want to experience those feelings, I don't want that seeming loss of control to occur again as my fingers go about pounding keys.  However, as 2017 comes to a close, it's important to me...make that very important to me...that some chapters be closed.

So why write an admittedly cryptic posting about writing something else?  Two reasons come to mind.  First, by way of process, it's a kind of a jump-start to actually getting my act in gear and honoring my commitment to writing these two letters.  Second, and probably more importantly, provoking and evoking thoughts is kind of why I pay for this domain registration every year.  Maybe if someone reads this and thinks "gee, I know how he feels about having to face some mental baggage", well maybe I will have done someone or something good.

Maybe, just maybe, in the final analysis, this is all about legacies.  We all create legacies by the way.  Social media specifically and the Internet in general help to foster a sense of legacy, and in fact have a wonderful way of democratizing it all.  I hope that part of my legacy...soon to be looking over ten years of this blog by the the picture of someone never ceased from exploring (even if that exploration was mainly confined to the inside of his head).

Friday, December 22, 2017
Letter number two was completed yesterday evening.  I even re-read it today.  How was the process?  Well, once I started writing, I would describe it as being "easy".  There was no real jump-start to get the writing going; rather, I just started pounding at the keys and it came forth.

There are, by the way, rules associated with this assignment.  Chief among them was the "no editing" rule.  What I wrote is what I wrote.

I'm actually glad that this is done, and I do see the wisdom in it, although I do feel a slight sense of disappointment in not getting this done sooner.  Like most things though, well at least for me, this was as much about the process as it was the actual content.  The actual content of the letters, by the way, is pretty good.  Even by my standards.

On that note, assignment completed.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Transparency in the Scranton School District

A lot has been and continues to be written about the most financially unstable school district in Pennsylvania, namely the Scranton School District (SSD).  Two recent entries related to the SSD that are worth reading include...

I'm not going to add anything new to the conversation other than the following:  It's essential that SSD Board is fully transparent in all of its efforts to resolve the financial crisis.

Fully Transparent.

Far too much business has been undertaken by the SSD Board in secrecy.  The cynic in me believes that the secrecy was an important element in successive board members running the SSD for the benefit of themselves, family members and friends.  Regardless of the underlying reasoning, the fact remains now that secrecy is the last thing the region's largest school district needs. 

Sunlight is the best disinfectant.

All of the SSDs current financial challenges and potential solutions should be discussed in public. This doesn't mean hours-long shouting matches with teachers and taxpayers; rather, every item related to the district's finances should be discussed and debated in full view of the public.  Every director must speak up and be held accountable for their actions. 

There should be a PUBLIC effort to recover over-charges from the SSDs no-bid busing contractor, even if that effort ends up failing.  There is value in shame.

There should be a PUBLIC effort to recover the costs of benefits paid to non-eligible individuals.  This will have little impact on the budget, but it's important from an accountability perspective.

There should be a PUBLIC review of all NON-EDUCATION expenses incurred by the SSD, including varsity sports programs.

There should be a PUBLIC review of all administration salaries and benefits.

There should be a PUBLIC review of all SSD facility utilization, including the administration building. 

And lastly, there should be a PUBLIC review of all the SSDs educational programs.  Making the assumption that art, music, and library are somehow (and automatically) of lesser value to the education of children is short-sighted at best, shameful at worst.

Simply throwing up a PowerPoint slide with pre-cooked solutions, as the SSD Board did this past week, is not being fully transparent.  Instead, this is simply another example of business as usual for a group that has failed miserably at its job.  It's time close down the back room for good. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017


The #MeToo in the title doesn't refer to me personally.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the #MeToo movement (background HERE), which isn't all that difficlt a task, given the daily disclosures of sexual misconduct by those in the media, entertainment and politics, all resulting in a wave of quitting that would make Sarah Palin proud(1).  Some of these self-inflicted wounds make me cringe; think Garrison Keillor(2).  Others?  Well, let's just say that Matt Lauer is a special breed of scumbag.

It's worth noting that everyone as a right to due process, and there are always two sides to every story.  However, when several people who don't know each other tell similar stories of abuse, well, there's at least room for discussion.  What's more, no one is entitled to be a media powerbroker, Today Show host, politician, Senate Candidate, etc.  Those are privelidges, not rights.  If you want to make a living in the public eye, well, you have to take both the good and the bad that goes with the gig.

Anyway, here's the central point worth making:  The #MeToo movement, in my mind, isn't about...
...patriarchy's about power.  If you think otherwise, well, I think you're blinded to the real issue at hand.  

Folks engage in this kind of behavior because they can.  They have taken to believe that, by virtue of their awesomeness (as they have been told), they can pretty much do whatever they want.  The power to do whatever one wants is ultimately corruptable.  The fact that more men engage in this kind of behavior is simply a symptom of the fact that more men in our society are in positions of power than women.  

I'm not excusing bad behavior by men, for the record.  As the father of three young professonal women, well, I worry mightly about their well-being.  What I am saying though is that there plenty of men who never engage in this kind of behavior.  Even men in positions of power and authority.   Using #MeToo as a blunt instrument to talk about men in general steers an important debate into an area that will result in nothing productive.   

What's the solution?  Well there isn't one.  This isn't a "do this and it will get fixed" kind of thing.  A big part of this whole mess has to do with American celebrity culture:  We worship the famous and powerful, and thereby give them license to whatever they want.  You see the headlines all the time.  Excusing bad behavior in one area opens the door to the perception of excusable bad behavior in another.  And there's a long way to go:  Roman Polanski (see THIS posting from 2009) is still celebrated by Hollywood and living a good life in France.

While I don't think there is a solution to this problem, I do believe that #MeToo is ultimately a healthy exercise, provided that it isn't too broadly focused.        

(1) Famous Quitters should be a Jeopardy! category.
(2) Mr. Keillor maintains his innocence, as of this writing.  See THIS link for more information and THIS link for a statement from Mr Keillor.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Landfill Expansion and an Imploding School District

What does the construction of a mountain made of New Jersey trash and the pending financial collapse of a school district have in common?

I was pondering the above while commenting on two articles in the Sunday edition of the Scranton Times-Tribune and this is what came to me:  Bread and Circuses(1).  

NEPA is the ultimate land of "Bread and Circuses". People will gladly be disinterested in what will harm their children (and their children's children)(2) just as long as they can get beer at the local quickie mart, nothing interferes with the local high school football game on Friday night, and they have politicians & well-off business people to admire (and name things after).

We see it all around don't need to look too far to see the lunar landscapes of culm banks that can be found all over NEPA.  And in the countless buildings and things named for politicians and those wealthy few who greased politicians for years in exchange for favors that served narrow economic interests.  That's okay though because those in power figured out generations ago that the residents of NEPA can be bought on the cheap.  Just dangle the prospect of some trickle down power, money or influence and just about anything in the area can be overlooked.  

In the department of things overlooked, the Scranton School District (SSD) has been slowly sliding into receivership for years now, all while those who actually voted in the city continued to elect under or non-qualified leaders.  Now that the warning signs of impending doom have nearly made sports score sized fonts in the local newspaper, the leaders of the SSD are considering a few drastic steps, such as the elimination of some under-utilized educational programs.  To the best of my knowledge though, there have been no public discussions about tackling the costs of sports programs.  Pun intended.  Why?  See above: Bread and Circuses.

Speaking of high school sports in general and football in particular, let me clear up two misconceptions about that seem to abound when it comes to the local "gridiron":

(1) High school football does not pay for itself.  In fact, that's a fiscal impossibility.  Game attendance couldn't even cover the cost of maintaining the stadium any school plays in, let alone the costs of insurance, transportation, equipment, manpower, etc.

(2) Very, very few high school football players actually get college scholarships.  How few?  According to THIS ARTICLE, about 2%.  So much for "but football is needed because it's the only way some kids can afford to go to college".  

I have nothing against high school sports as long as they don't impede the actual reason for high schools to exist in the first place, namely the education of every student.

Finally, generations of NEPA residents have down-right admired the powerful and the connected.  It's almost Stockholm Syndrome worthy if you ask me.  I wonder what the local economy would be like if local politicians and other civic interests were as supportive of every private business as they are of those run, for example, by the landfill family?  The economy would be booming, as opposed to perpetually sitting at the bottom of Pennsylvania.  Thank god for Altoona.  I have nothing against that particular family, by the way; I just wish they weren't trying to build a mountain of out-of-state trash.  Yet there are supporters of the landfill expansion.  That particular family has done a lot for the region, don't you know.  

Maybe, just maybe, things might be changing.  Maybe a younger generation will see beyond the parochial interests of immediate gratification and understand that some things come at too high of a cost.  Maybe a few brave souls will step up at the Scranton School Board and make truly difficult...and no doubt unpopular...choices to reduce the costs of non-educational activities.  Maybe I'm dreaming, but hey, there's always hope.

(1) If you're unfamiliar with the concept of "bread and circuses", well, read HERE.

(2) Even worse that culm banks, the proposed mountain of trash will exist forever.