Thursday, July 12, 2018

296. Abandoned again, naturally

Probably the last thing people living in Northeast Ohio want to read is another opinion about LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers again.
There is a glut of sportswriters and talk shows that have been debating this all season, with mostly unoriginal and recycled thoughts. For that I apologize — but I find the range of opinions to be fascinating. Some think LeBron did what he came to Cleveland to do, so there are no hard feelings, while others (maybe not to the jersey-burning extreme like last time) still feel slighted by his decision.
I have mixed feelings. LeBron did come back home and win a championship, ending an agonizing 52-year pursuit for the city. James is a hard-worker, stays out of trouble, and gives back tremendously to the community. At the same time, it is hard not to question his motive: Did he come to Cleveland to win a championship, or to preserve his legacy — one seemingly forever tarnished in “The Decision”? Did he evaluate the roster and know with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love they had a competitive team right away?
What bothers me is his letter to the city when he came back. He made us feel proud. He raised our spirits. I remember just feeling so content that he tried to make things right.
However, some of James’ words now disappoint me.
“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball. I didn’t realize it four years ago. I do now,” he began. And so, four years later, where is that relationship? In Los Angeles?
“I always believed I’d return to Cleveland and finish my career there. I just didn’t know when,” he said. Finish his career in Cleveland? Is he coming back again?
“Of course, I want to win next year, but I am realistic. It will be a long process,” he said. It wasn’t long process, and I don’t think he ever believed that — he was just taking some of the pressure off himself. But obviously he no longer seems committed to the process in Cleveland, even with an owner who will spend freely. He delivered his championship and feels “allowed” to leave.
“I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I want kids in Northeast Ohio… to realize there is no better place to grow up,” he said. LeBron loves it so much, he and his family left again. Now LeBron’s kids will grow up in Los Angeles.
And most famously he wrote, “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned.” Now it seems that he gave himself a new team — giving up on the one in Northeast Ohio.
I am not a fan of the NBA as much as I am a fan of Cleveland. I think the game is nearly impossible to referee consistently, the regular season is meaningless, and the playoffs take too long. And if LeBron didn’t ruin it when he went to Miami with his buddies to win a championship, Kevin Durant ruined it when he joined a Golden State team that went an NBA record 73-9 the prior season. I never say his name without mentioning what a coward he was to join that team.
For those of us who grew up with the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, and Isiah Thomas, who played most of their careers with one team, its hard to understand the modern players. It’s all immediate gratification and not much fun for the fans.
And so everyone is chasing a ridiculous obstacle in Golden State. I don’t understand how the other teams in the league survive when the players have made a concerted effort to put together a few super teams. As I am writing this, DeMarcus Cousins reportedly just signed with Golden State, giving them, if healthy, an all-star at every position.
Meanwhile, LeBron again leaves the team in Cleveland in ruins. He chased off their next best player in Kyrie Irving. His presence created an urgency to win now (since he wouldn’t sign a long-term deal in Cleveland), which initiated many bad contracts the Cavaliers are now left holding. They will, like last time, be terrible for some time.
Cleveland will retire LeBron’s number one day, and they should. As for a statue? For a player who twice left the city to he proclaimed to love and only delivered one championship in 11 seasons, I’d have a hard time warming up to the idea.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

295. Of puffins and inner piece

Sitting on Hog Island overlooking Muscongus Bay off the coast of Bremen, Maine, an American goldfinch sang beautifully as I was rereading Henry David Thoreau’s epic novel, “Walden Pond.” For the soul, the combination was almost unfair.

Thanks to a scholarship from the Black River Audubon Society, I spent a week attending the Audubon Field Ornithology Camp, which is home to the Puffin Project. We rose at dawn, usually around 4:30 a.m., and slept with the sun, just before 9 p.m.

There was no television and no radio, which also meant no politics, not a single mention the entire week (except in reference to the administration’s attack on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act), and no other social nuisances like LeBron James’ free agency. It was bird lovers coming together to share nature — to learn about the evolution and ecology of birds, share conversations about their behaviors, and see them in their natural habitats. It also included difficult looks at the impact of humans on the planet and avian environments, as well as our role in protecting some species over others.

The week included field trips to local parks and reservations, educational workshops, healthy “family style” meals (you know, the kind that includes engaging conversation), and programs presented by acclaimed scientists and writers from across the country on bird ecology. It also included boat trips throughout Muscongus Bay, an area rich with small islands and home to many shorebird habitats.

The highlight of the camp was the trip to Eastern Egg Rock, home of Atlantic puffins. I could barely control my excitement as our boat approached. Not usually fond of boats (and generally terrified of open waters), the three- to five-foot waves and rocking of our boat could not diffuse my enthusiasm. I battled my fear and balance to get a look at the puffins and other birds, such as black guillemots, terns, razorbills, double-crested cormorants, and gulls. I even got a few photos.

The story of puffins in Maine and Eastern Egg Rock is a long and detailed one, but Audubon summarizes it this way: “Project Puffin began with an attempt to restore puffins to Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, about six miles east of Pemaquid Point. Puffins had nested there until about 1885 when hunters took the last survivors of this once-flourishing colony. The restoration of puffins to Eastern Egg Rock is based on the fact that young puffins usually return to breed on the same island where they hatched.”

To do this took ingenuity and patience (puffins only lay one egg per year) but the success not only restored puffin populations to the coast of Maine, it became a model for restoring other bird populations across the world.

“Between 1973 and 1986, 954 young puffins were transplanted from Great Island to Eastern Egg Rock and 914 of these successfully fledged. Transplanted puffins began returning to Eastern Egg Rock in June of 1977. To lure them ashore and encourage the birds to explore nesting habitat, wooden puffin decoys were positioned atop large boulders. These were readily visited by the curious young birds, which often sat with the models and pecked at their stiff wooden beaks. The number of young puffins slowly increased. In 1981, four pairs nested beneath boulders at the edge of the island. The colony has since increased to 150 pairs.”

In 2017, the project reported 172 pairs.

The project has not only been successful for the puffins, it has led to research opportunities for young scientists. Each summer about 15 interns live on the recluse island, spending quiet days in blinds and reporting on puffin and other bird activity.

While I fell in love with the success of the puffin project, we quickly learned that each species has its own story — both successes and challenges. Populations are often fragile and can quickly change due to factors such as predation, environmental changes (warmer water, for example), available food, and availability of habitats. Nature is difficult and many stories are difficult to hear.

Thoreau’s book is based on his time living in a small self-built cabin near Walden Pond, which he committed to live as simply as possible as a way to understand life. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I also reflect that too many people are going to miss “the good stuff” in life. The good stuff, in my opinion, is experiencing life — not only in practice, but also in emotion, thought, and understanding. The “bad stuff” is the restless pursuit of money and the practice of greed and materialism. It is living the “scripted life,” doing that of which is expected, only to wake up one day, old and unfulfilled.

Thoreau wrote, “Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thought … Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul.”

Maybe we need to return to calm and peace of nature. Spend more time enjoying the views of lakes, the soothing motion of waves, the swaying of trees, and the songs of birds. A place of tranquility, alone comfortably alone with our just thoughts and appreciation of the natural world around us.

A place that money can’t buy.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

294. The two-party system is killing us

Individuals have a diversity of religious beliefs, moral values, and cultural traditions.

Beliefs, values, and traditions affect opinions on areas of life such as liberty, justice, government, democracy, social welfare, war, economics, and on and on. These social perspectives are often grouped into political categories such as liberal, conservative, Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, socialist, and moderate. From simple exponential functions, it is easy to consider how many different social and political perspective combinations there may be in this country.

Yet Americans are expected to funnel themselves into the two great parties — Democrats and Republicans. If you are for one, you are against the other. And while there are other parties, such as Libertarian and the Green Party, none have risen to the level that even allows them to get invited to a presidential debate.

I often say that I am a liberal whose values most closely align with the Democratic Party, but it doesn’t mean that all my values, without distinction, line up perfectly with the Democratic platform. I have some conservative values (mostly fiscal), some libertarian leanings on freedoms, and I support many democratic-socialist perspectives. And while I adamantly oppose some Republican values (and our president), it doesn’t mean there are not some gray areas. For example, I am for the death penalty if there is absolutely no uncertainly as to the nature of the crime (such as caught on video). I am for social welfare programs but I don’t think people should abuse the system to get a free ride. Social issues are difficult and form a continuum of issues and situations.

The impression that everyone should have to “pick a side” and turn our democracy into to an “us versus them” ideology has always been concerning to me. This has led to a highly contentious and aggressive political divide that has limited fair and intelligent discussions, incited a winner-take-all mentality, and hindered open-minded compromise.

One founding father warned of this divide. John Adams prophetically said, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.”

George Washington also expressed his concern in his farewell presidential address: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”

Unfortunately, modern times are bringing these concerns to fruition. The animosity of the parties and their constituents and the “alternate domination” of the parties has sharpened the spirit of revenge.

Since so many important congressional votes are cast along party lines and there is the increasing use of executive action, we are experiencing a back-and-forth in which laws are being formed and repealed or reversed as soon as the other party regains control. It’s highly inefficient, sponsors bitterness, and repels progress.

Michael Coblenz of The Hill wrote, “The two-party system is destroying America. Democrats and Republicans are in a death match and the American people are caught in the middle. The nation faces all sorts of serious problems, from growing inequality to spreading international terrorism, but the bitter fight between Democrats and Republicans has largely ground government to a halt. Partisans on both sides are so angry they can barely speak with the other, much less work together.”

Exactly — and lost in this battle are the American people. Politicians are representatives of their constituents and should act in their interest, not the exclusive interest of the party. People are tired of the “party over country” politics.

Of further concern is that of the controlling party changing the rules to increase its power. Coblenz further commented, “Each side is more extreme, and each bases their political agenda on demonizing the other side. Each side engages in political machinations, which include partisan gerrymandering and manipulating the rules of Congress to get their way, stymie their opponents, or deny them office completely.”

The Republican blocking of Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, in early 2016 is the most egregious example.

A multiparty system might infuse new ideas and inspire diversity and compromise. Politicians should be able to vote according to their ideologies and the interest of their constituents without the fear of party retribution. There might be occasions in which, for example, religious conservatives may work with liberals on health care. Or the Tea Party with conservative Democrats on fiscal responsibility. If nothing else, it would help parties alleviate the consistent hypocrisy they exhibit.

In my opinion, and although I won’t live to see it, it’s time for the American two-party system to evolve into a political system that represents the diverse “melting pot” that makes up our country — one that is diverse in not just demographics, but also beliefs, morals, and traditions.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

293. Amazing birds need our protections

One of the most fragile animal classes on the planet are migratory birds.
These amazing birds maintain winter and breeding homes and travel thousands of miles per year, relying on sustainable food, water, and habitats along the way. The remarkable journey and life cycle incorporates more than the normal amount of risk as birds are highly evolved and often very specific in their adaptions.
Some interesting migration facts provided by the Audubon Society:
  • The Arctic tern has the longest migration of any bird, almost 50,000 miles in one year, going from the Arctic to Antarctica.
  • Some migrating birds fly as high as five and half miles above sea level. The record is a Ruppell’s griffon vulture, which traveled seven miles above sea level.
  • The northern wheatear, weighing less than one ounce, travels from the Arctic to Africa — almost 9,000 miles each way.
  • The fastest migratory bird, traveling 60 miles per hour, is the great snipe.
  • The bar-tailed godwit can make the nearly 7,000-mile trip without stopping.
  • Migratory birds enter a physical state called hyperphagia before traveling, bulking up on fat to fuel the trip.

Obviously, any trip of this magnitude is quite dangerous and billions of birds die each year from a variety of causes. Windows, radio and television towers, cars, and windmills all cause the death of these brave migrants. Other human activities threatening bird species are hunting, habitat fragmentation, and domestic cats.
It’s due to the hunting and habitat destruction that birds are among the most protected animals. And, as with any environmental issue, it can be quite contentious, as many people put the interest of industry, sport, trade, and economic development above the needs of birds.
The Migratory Bird Treaty was born, in part, out of the overhunting and annihilation of birds like the passenger pigeon. Once abundant, it was hunted to extinction despite the attempt of activists.
All About Birds provided this account of the failure of an 1857 Ohio Senate committee to protect the passenger pigeon: “The passenger pigeon needs no protection. Wonderfully prolific, having the vast forests of the North as its breeding grounds, traveling hundreds of miles in search of food, it is here today and elsewhere tomorrow, and no ordinary destruction can lessen them, or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”
According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, “The MBTA provides that it is unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, possess, sell, purchase, barter, import, export, or transport any migratory bird, or any part, nest, or egg or any such bird, unless authorized under a permit issued by the Secretary of the Interior. Some regulatory exceptions apply. Take is defined in regulations as: ‘pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or attempt to pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect.’”
This basically means you have to leave birds alone. You can’t kill, hunt, or trap them for fun or because they are a nuisance. You can’t destroy their nests or collect their eggs. You can’t catch them and sell them or their feathers. There is an exhaustive list of migratory birds, including common birds like the Canada goose. They might be messy and abundant but they are protected by federal law.
The MBT has been credited with saving the snowy egret, which was hunted for it delicate feathers, and many other birds such as the wood duck and sandhill crane.
However, in the Trump administration’s continued effort to destroy anything that gets in the way of financial interests, enforcement of the MBT has been changed to accommodate industry that may “incidentally” kill birds. A Washington Post report said the greatest beneficiaries of the change are oil and gas companies, which “were responsible for 90 percent of incidental takes prosecuted under the act, resulting in fines of $6,500 per violation.” Newsweek noted that “environmental disasters still carry legal ramifications, but the MBTA will no longer have the power to prosecute actions that incidentally harm birds.”
Birds provide numerous benefits to our ecosystems. They eat insects, clean up road kill and dead fish, and distribute seeds. They are also a sign of ecological health.
And bird-watching is one of the most popular hobbies. They are fascinating to watch and learn about — they all seem to have different story. They also provide tremendous economic support to places like Magee Marsh, where thousands of birders come from all across the world to see dazzling warblers make their final stop before crossing Lake Erie.
They are worth protecting and with hundreds of bird species on the endangered list — it might be now or never.