Friday, August 29, 2014

Nice Try Puerto Rico. Banks Weren't Born Yesterday.

If you've been following the Doral (NYSE:DRL) versus Puerto Rico saga as closely as I have, you're familiar with all the usual misinformation and disinformation. If you have a Twitter account, you know exactly what I mean. It's the standard confusion cloud perpetuated by bashers and promoters trying to make their buck before the real deal goes down. And that's all well and good. I'm all for making your nut. But it's a bit disconcerting when even the most clean-cut of financial scenarios become subject to the kind of speculation reserved for horse racing. I don't take my hard-earned money to the race track for the same reason I've never hired a dog to do my taxes-I don't trust my finances to animals. That's not smart business.

In the matter of Puerto Rico versus Doral, the burden of responsibility is clear: You pay your debts. Seeking a tax refund of $230 million, which was essentially loaned to the Puerto Rican government years ago, is not a scandalous story by any means-unless of course, for no good reason, the debtor just doesn't want to pay. Now you've got a story, and market-makers love a good story because there's no money in a stalemate. Stable prices brought on by question marks and indecisive investors don't generate profits-volatility does.

Look, let's get one thing straight: Doral is a bank. And if there's one thing banks know best it's credit flow. This is a game of creditors and debtors. That's why when I learned of how Puerto Rico tried to pull the wool over Doral's eyes this week, I couldn't help but think, "Really?"

News came from the online publication, Bloomberg, providing the much-sought-after details of why negotiations broke down just when Puerto Rico and Doral were on the verge of a settlement. By the middle of the article I nearly fell off my chair with laughter. The last time I laughed that hard was in 1996, when a friend of mine sneezed unexpectedly while being yelled at by our teacher. He simultaneously passed gas and the entire class could not stop laughing.

It was revealed by the Bloomberg article that negotiations hit a snag over vouchers as a form of payment, more specifically who was to issue them: Doral or Puerto Rico? Puerto Rico insisted that Doral issue them, while Doral insisted that Puerto Rico issue them.

The Twitter universe exploded with ridiculously exaggerated language like "failure," and even phrases like, "falling apart," and, "on the verge of collapse," all of which were used as a means to suggest that Doral was somehow at a disadvantage. Complete silliness. None of it made any sense, and all of it wreaked of a propaganda campaign aimed at capitalizing on shock language-pretty much business as usual. But when things stop making sense, you've got to start using common sense.

One of the basic sentiments I caught was that Doral was being unreasonable, that they expected too much of Puerto Rico. Well, if expecting PR to take responsibility for paying its own debt is unreasonable, then, yeah, okay. There is, however, good reason for Doral to reject the idea that it should issue the vouchers over Puerto Rico: it's a scam.

Asking Doral to issue the vouchers represents the same kind of underhanded tactics used to convince us that automated telephone menus were created for "customer convenience." If you're a little slow behind the wheel with that one, try navigating an automated telephone menu and let me know just how convenient your experience really was. I'll wait here.

But if you really understand the subtleties well, then you also understand why Doral walked away from such a terrible deal. Asking Doral to issue the vouchers themselves essentially lets Puerto Rico off the hook for a debt it owes by transferring the responsibility of payment to Doral. Think about it.

Rather than Puerto Rico taking the responsibility of paying its own debt by issuing the vouchers, it's asking that Doral raise the money themselves. It's a tricky tactic. That's like if you lent me $5000 and then I told you to go get another job to pay yourself back. I'm not paying back my debt, you are. But I'm the one who should be getting another job.

The message Puerto Rico's offer sends is: "We'll allow you to pay yourself back". That's not true debt repayment because it cancels the initial risk of borrowing the money in the first place. If real life ever worked that way the entire financial system would collapse because the lender would be taking on the responsibility of the borrower in addition to the risk of lending. It's the equivalent of me telling Chase and AT&T, "Hey listen guys, I can't pay you for your services, but if you ever owe me later on in the future, don't worry about it. We're even."

Doral knows that it's more likely to make itself whole if vouchers are issued through the Puerto Rican government, as assets associated with government ties are traditionally attractive-especially when Doral hasn't posted an annual profit since 2005. Yikes! But Puerto Rico knows it's less likely to take a hit if the burden of repayment can be transferred onto Doral's back. It's easier to let go of cash you never had than to give up a chunk of what you already have. But that's Puerto Rico's problem-not Doral's.

It's clear that Doral knew what they were doing all along, as there were only ever two possible outcomes that made any sense:

A.) Puerto Rico settles on an acceptable cash amount.

B.) Through trial, Puerto Rico is ordered to issue vouchers of a greater amount.

Either way, Doral wins.

Read More "Nice Try Puerto Rico. Banks Weren't Born Yesterday."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

5 Hot-Button Topics Americans Don't Understand

1.) A private healthcare system IS the problem. 

Imagine that, tomorrow, women all over the world went insane and decided that they no longer cared for designer bags. What would happen? The lack of demand would crash the price of brands like Prada and Louis Vuitton, and soon, Walmart could afford to bag your groceries with Michael Kors. That's the private marketplace.

What most Americans don't realize is that the result of a privatized healthcare system effectively treats healthcare like Coach products, with the ASSUMPTION that—like fashionable accessories—demand for healthcare is optional. Only, it’s not.

People don't need wallets and hand bags with someone else’s name all over them; they need healthcare. And because getting sick or injured is a matter of "when" and not "if", unlike the demand for handbags and exotic sunglasses, private healthcare services don't have to be competitive in the marketplace. This is especially true when healthcare facilities and hospitals set big price tags with very little differences in cost. Ask yourself why your cable bill is so outrageous. It's probably because your area only has one or two providers. But it's ALSO because those few cable service providers have been known to work in collusion, agreeing not to enter one another's service areas in order to eliminate price competition. It's a pretty awesome thing when your ONLY enemy becomes an ally by refusing to lower their prices, too—good for corporate profits. For customers it means insane price hikes with no help in sight.

But that kind of stuff only happens in nonessential markets, right? People don't NEED cable, so it's okay to put a premium on luxury. Sadly, the situation is even worse when it comes to privatizing the necessities of a civilization—like water. Providing a monopoly service like healthcare and water not only drives up prices like crazy, it also degrades the quality of products and services, and destroys future investment in better technology. I know what you're thinking:

"Private enterprise are more efficient and better at driving research and development for better technology because that leads to making more money". 

It's a popular sound bite from the capitalist dogma of U.S. economics. But big investments cost big money—the kind of money that eats into profits. Private enterprises delivering a monopoly service like water or healthcare won't make such investments so long as it can make money using the same 'ol tricks. And why would private industry want the MOST efficient healthcare? Creating that "wonder pill" or "miracle procedure" that cures everything in one visit would put you out of business the next day.

When I was living in Japan, my healthcare experience was ten times more efficient than in the United States. (Japan's healthcare costs are price controlled by the government.) When I went to have my chest X-rayed, the doctor simply walked me across the hall, only to show me the result on his computer screen a mere five seconds later! I didn't have to take a prescription to a separate imaging company and wait days for the results to be transferred over. Private healthcare in the U.S. actually promotes inefficiency by fragmenting services. There's ALWAYS got to be middle man—or five—because EVERYONE HAS to get their cut of the astronomical profits. When we say "efficiency" in private healthcare markets, we simply mean dedicated services that cut costs for healthcare providers who don't have to invest in imaging technology or labs. In this way, "efficiency" simply means bigger profit margins—not better healthcare.

If you're still skeptical, check out this research on the dangers of privatizing essential services, and then, ask someone from Europe about their water. In 2010, the U.N. declared water and sanitation as a human right. It only took a 25-year rule of private water contracts, astronomical prices, and nearly zero investment in water infrastructure by private industry to sway all of Europe to abolish privatization.

Like water, healthcare is a human necessity. And no privatized human necessity in the history of the world has EVER been the cheaper alternative to public control. PERIOD. Healthcare as a commodity of private enterprise is EXACTLY why healthcare costs are so high. It's also why healthcare outcomes in the U.S. are comparable or WORSE than other developed nations, where medical care is a human right for the public to invest in and not a matter for private markets to manipulate and neglect for the sake of profits.

2.) No. Guns are NOT like cars.

If I have to hear one more person compare deaths by cars to deaths by guns in an attempt to rationalize deaths caused by shootings, I'm going to scream.

The "cars kill just as many people as guns, therefore guns are no greater a danger than cars" argument is one used by pro-gun supporters to flatten data, creating the illusion that because the body counts are similar, death by automobiles and firearms are equal. (They aren't). But, by making the two data groups appear similar, the offensive attack becomes:

"If deaths by cars and guns are the same, why are you discriminating against guns? Should we then also get rid of cars?" 

Complete lunacy. 

This is the same logic that leads NSA anti-terrorist efforts to arrest fiction authors who research "how to make a bomb" or "how to conceal a weapon" on Google—the raw data is there, but there's no protocol for making real-world sense of its relevance.

What the numbers lack are a discussion about intent and purpose—two extremely important factors when considering technology that kills, but requires human operators. As the saying goes: "guns don't kill people, people kill people". Gun laws are meant to govern people—not the guns themselves. But there's another subtle piece of the puzzle.

A pro-go advocate once told me that if gun deaths caused by gang violence and suicide were EXCLUDED from the statistics, the numbers would be negligible. I almost lost my damn mind when I heard this.

Essentially what this argument says is: "Let's only count deaths by firearms which include accidents by responsible, white, gun owners." 

Disregarding gang-related homicide rates deliberately marginalizes racial minorities and reserves the discussion of gun control for whites only. The attitude necessary to exclude gun deaths related to minorities is one that says: "As long as the majority of gun deaths only affects non-whites, there's no need to protect everyone with tougher gun laws." This reasoning also marginalizes the losses families sustain when members take their own lives. By concluding that purposeful acts of homicide and suicide are not "real" firearm deaths we can pretty much exclude addressing the majority of problems concerning mass shootings and depression in men—which is exactly what the whole "Cars = Guns" campaign aims to do.

This marginalization of homicide and suicide by guns also discounts the nature and relationship of gun-related deaths versus their automobile counterparts:

Suggesting that deaths by automobiles and firearms are the same implies that each method has an equal chance of causing an ACCIDENTAL death. However, after examining the INTENT and PURPOSE of owning an automobile versus the INTENT and PURPOSE of owning a firearm, we begin to see a much different picture in which deaths by cars are much MORE LIKLEY to be an accident. It is MORE often the case that deaths by guns are a purposeful act.

I have yet to learn of someone purchasing a pogo-stick for the purpose of opening a can of beans. That's not the most efficient way to use one, nor is it an intended purpose of its creation. But, even if someone had managed to achieve such a task, it most certainly would be an anomaly and not the norm. Cars are not typically obtained for the INTENDED PURPOSE of killing another human being. Cars are made for transportation, but the ONLY purpose for creating or purchasing a gun is to harm or kill. This is a significant point, as it also paints a vivid portrait of the TYPE of person who buys a car verses someone who buys a gun.

Prior to purchasing a firearm, the buyer has already accepted the very grave responsibility that they may harm and possibly kill another person. More importantly, these people are WILLING to take a life, and intend to be ready to do so. These are truths which are necessary and self-evident in the purchasing of a firearm. They are not necessarily the experience of those who purchase cars. It is not the case that someone looking to kill plans to buy a car to carry out that intent; they seek out a gun.

A simple thought experiment can help to elucidate the core issue, as the car buyer and firearm buyer could very well be the same person. It's proof that cars and guns are NOT interchangeable at all.

Imagine someone who owns BOTH a car AND a firearm; which would they likely use to kill themselves or someone else if they had the intent to do so?

Now imagine someone who owns a car but NOT a firearm; should they have the impulse to kill themselves or someone else, do you think they would use their car, instead? In the absence of a gun, how much more likely are they to use their car to kill themselves or someone else? 

Death by cars and death by guns have nothing to do with each other. We need stricter gun laws. Period.

3.) Providing birth control to women is NOT a violation of your religious freedom.

For a country founded on freedom, U.S. citizens sure have a hard time understanding just exactly what freedom means. And in recent times, Americans have seen a great tidal wave of sweeping perversion which has successfully turned our basic liberties into political tools of democratic subversion. Simply put: there are a lot of jerks out there with a lot of money, twisting the words of the constitution so that they can make even MORE money.

Religious freedom: the right which allows PERSONS to practice religious beliefs without fear of persecution. For those of us with a pulse, this means that in the eyes of government, religion is not a detail by which citizens are governed or judged. One cannot be thrown in jail or slighted for worshiping any particular invisible being of their choice. It's a pretty straight forward concept with little room for misinterpretation.

You'd think that the healthcare benefits an employer provides for its workers has little to do with religious freedom—but you'd be wrong. Corporations are now exercising their 1st Amendment right to deny female workers birth control through provided healthcare plans. That's right. Amazingly, private enterprise has found a clever way to save a boatload of cash by becoming self-appointed messengers of powerful unseen deities. In adopting an official religion, sleazy companies like Hobby Lobby can claim that having to provide birth control for women would be a violation of their religious freedom. Nice angle, bro.

How the hell are corporations, people, you ask? 

Well, all of the insanity that eventually led to the perversion of religious freedom began when the political action committee, Citizens United, won a controversial Supreme Court case. The outcome of that victory determined that corporations were, indeed, "people". Take a moment to put that in your bowl and smoke it. Forget everything you know about human beings, folks: Corporations are now people.

Yet, even if you accept that corporations are people, even if you believe that corporations should be allowed to circumvent basic responsibilities to society by invoking the teachings of their chosen gods, there is still a problem with how the ideology of religious freedom is exercised within this context.

For a christian company, the case for preventing female employees from receiving coverage for birth control is that the deliberate aborting/prevention of a life is murder, according to a chosen set of beliefs. We could get into the scientific nuances of how contraception works or even how to define "when life begins", but the folly is much more simple and precludes the need for an MD altogether.

The argument against limiting access to birth control is this:

merely allowing the CHOICE for women to USE birth control is not the same as preventing/aborting pregnancies yourself. (The Bible does, however,  emphasize the importance of free will, as in, the point of following the commandments is that one has the ability to MAKE the CHOICE to obey.) And yet, what corporate America has essentially done in exercising their "religious freedom", is deny females (who may not even identify as Christian), the right to CHOOSE whether or not to use birth control. This means that if a given female employee does not hold the same views as their employer, when it comes to exercising THEIR personal views, they are being discriminated against.

I saw an amazing post the other day that really summed up this dilemma, and I've tailored it to reflect this message:

"Claiming that someone else's choice to use birth control is against YOUR religion is like being angry at someone for eating a doughnut because YOU'RE on a diet."

Corporation or person—you don't get to make MY choices based on YOUR beliefs.

The inherent integrity of religious freedom requires the EQUAL chance for everyone to express their own views. If corporations can effectively create an environment which makes the practice of "unpopular" views more difficult, that my friends, is oppression—the very same religious oppression corporations are claiming to rally against.

4.) Raising the Minimum wage will NOT kill jobs. But it might grow them.

Don't even think about raising the minimum wage—you'll kill jobs. 

This is the exact mantra that spews—uninterrupted—from the mouths of every PR machine representing private enterprise. Whether you're a right-wing political hopeful, or a Harvard professor of economics whose yearly income is partly derived from corporate funded "research", the rhetoric is the same.

Whenever you hear really hardline statements against change, ask yourself:

Who would benefit most if things stayed THE SAME.

In this case, the answer is clear: low wages means more money for big business and the rich elite, and less economic and bargaining power for the middle-class.

Labor costs are among the highest costs incurred by corporate entities; it's also one of the easiest costs to cut. All an employer has to do to cut labor costs and increase profits is demand that MORE work be done by fewer employees (pretty much everything we're experiencing today). That being said, it's no surprise that employee workloads have gone up. But no one gets double the pay for doing double the work.

Minimum wage has been inadequate for about three decades, and the economic recession of 2008 has become the proverbial monkey on everyone's back ever since. So why now has minimum wage become a national spotlight?

For a long time the debate over raising the minimum wage wasn't exactly a center stage event, primarily for two reasons:

A.)  High employment rates and easy credit in the the 90's and early 2000's hid the true impact of declining wages.

B.)  Previous raises in minimum wages were too small and far between for any impacts to be easily noticeable. 

Whatever the origins of America's continued economic malaise, the debate over wage increases as a possible solution requires an enormous filter to clear out all the noise. Propaganda machines of the political right and private persuasions have pumped serious money into campaigns that hammer "wage increases = job cuts" mantras into the minds of average workers.

It's an effective tactic up until the moment wage increases actually spur job growth—then the jig is up. New data has delivered a huge blow to wage suppression rhetoric, as recent job growth since January 2014 has proven strongest in the 13 states that successfully increased their minimum wages. What's more is that nine out of those thirteen have posted growth above the median job growth of ALL states. That means that jobs didn't just grow faster in those states, they grew faster at a rate that was higher than the majority.

What? You mean higher pay to a majority of workers equals more spending, which leads to higher production that requires more workers? 


5.) Vaccination is not REALLY necessary.

Immunization culture in the U.S. is pretty hot right now. But that's because vaccinating is presented more like a mandatory order than a precautionary choice of health. What's more alarming is the reaction to those who choose NOT to vaccinate; the call to vaccinate has taken on a "bully" kind of rhetoric where those who choose not to participate are vilified with charges of being stupid, or paranoid conspiracy theorists, etc. What I find interesting is that even when persons who do not vaccinate offer reasons that aren't related to conspiracy theories, exercising one's individual right to decide what goes inside their body, they are still met with hostility.

The one and ONLY line of defense that has gained traction against personal choice is "Herd Immunization." In fact, herd immunization is THE ONLY logical way to win the argument for vaccination use because when you use Armageddon as a deterrent, it's usually pretty effective. 

Herd immunization is an idea that suggests that at an effective level of 95% immunization, a population can prevent a contagion from spreading. According to its advocates, if persons choose NOT to vaccinate, they put the entire population in jeopardy for an epidemic or pandemic as immunization levels drop below that 95% effective rate. Wow. 

How would YOU like to be the reason the entire human race fell to small pox? 

Better get vaccinated.

This is the general discourse by which anti-vaccinators are vilified, and it's very effective.

Few people understand that Herd Immunization is merely a THEORY—it's not a fact. But that doesn't matter because it's an extremely clever theory. It's clever because it's essentially impossible to disprove, which is exactly what anti-vaccinators would have to do in order to challenge the immense pressure to immunize.

Imagine that you were trying to find a shampoo that made your hair feel healthier, and you go to the store and buy 1,000 bottles from different companies. Then imagine that, in your desperation for beautiful hair you started using multiple brands at once. How would you ever know which brand really made the difference? How could you ever convince yourself that one brand performed worse than any other? Oh well, you'd have to just keep using them all, because at that point, it wouldn't matter which one did the trick so long as you've achieved the results you wanted.

Now apply the shampoo scenario to vaccination. Besides vaccination, there have been countless of other advances in medicine and hygiene which may have contributed to the reduction of communicable diseases.

Think about it:

The only way one could ever really question the truth of Herd Immunization is if there was an all-out epidemic/pandemic while vaccination practices exist. As long as there are no Armageddon-scale outbreaks, vaccination can continue to take credit for the "containment" of horrible disease. And with the profound leaps made in sanitation and hygiene practices, its unlikely that an outbreak would ever occur.

You see?  Genius.

What success herd immunization claims in the battle against infectious disease can easy be explained as serendipitous accolades resulting from improved sanitation and hygiene practices. Hand washing and other sanitation practices which provide protection against bodily fluids, more than anything, have contributed to a decline in some of the most communicable ailments.

Evidence that Herd Immunization doesn't hold water exists in the details. In the 1960's, vaccination was proposed as a "one shot, immunization for life" by leading medical experts. That proposal is at the crux of Herd Immunization, as 95% population MUST be immunized at ALL times. This means that if, at any point, a population falls below that 95% effective immunization rate, there will be rapid outbreaks. Well, there's a problem with that.

In the 1990's, modern medicine revealed that, well actually, no, vaccinations didn't last for a lifetime and that people should be RE-immunized anywhere between 2-10 years (depending on each person's individual immune system response.) Now factor in illegal immigrants, foreign-born citizens, Americans who can't afford healthcare, and Americans who just don't RE-vaccinate. These populations combined with baby boomer numbers easily project vaccination and RE-vaccintation well below the 95% effective rate necessary for Herd Immunization to be valid.

Simply put: if Herd Immunization was a fact, we would be in the midst of a firestorm of epidemics. We aren't. And if you're keen on citing outbreaks in other third world countries, consider a lack of sanitation practices, access to clean water, and access to protective measures such as contraception and latex.

I'll decide what goes in my body, thanks.

Read More "5 Hot-Button Topics Americans Don't Understand"

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Why Going To The Movies Makes Us Depressed

Yes. I went to go see that tear jerking piece of emotional porn, The Fault in Our Stars. The title is as romantically provocative as it is an awkward reference to ninth grade Shakespearean literature you could barely read—the kind that has two spoiled brats dying too young for a conflict easily remedied by growing the pair of balls necessary to tell their parents,
"We're gonna bone whether you like it or not." 

I've always been a sucker for and a fan of romantic strife, though I can't help but wonder if Romeo and Juliet had gotten it wrong in the first place. Maybe there's nothing really all that romantic about a love cut short by death. Maybe there's no good reason that a room full of people should buy a twelve-dollar ticket to frustration and misery. I don't know about you, but when I'm looking to pleasure myself it usually ends with an orgasm—not a popcorn bag full of tears.

Take a moment to step back and examine just how spirit-crushing all of this is: here are two people who finally have this perfect thing, something that everybody spends their entire lives trying to find. But then, no. Fate decides to roll over on them and collect on a bad karma debt, saying, "OH HELL NO". I have serious problems with this because I can't help but understand the universal message here to be a subtle FU to the dreamers within us. It's a serious blow dealt to anyone who imagines that maybe, just maybe, they might get what they really want. Essentially, the Fault In Our Stars makes the age-old claim to a heartbreaking axiom which concludes that, actually, we can't have what we want.

But there's another phenomenon that comes with these kinds of movies that proves to be far more impactful. In a story of love ended by cancer it's hard not to assume that this IS the point of the story. There becomes an intense focus on big dramatic events and the belief that these are the most important things that move us. Big love, big cancer, and big death have emerged as ultimate examples of what it means to REALLY feel. It's gotten so that we've come to demand these outrageous displays of greatness ruined so that we, too, can experience SOMETHING of significance in our lives (even if we're merely spectators). And then, we forget about the small things and how they used to move us. There's a certain degree of tragedy found in the realization that it might take disaster and pure doom to elicit any kind of genuine reaction from our hearts.

But that's where a lot of people miss it. And that's where the meat of this rambling starts to sizzle.

Actually, people don't love these kinds of movies because death is romantic. They don't go home with heartache because their biggest fantasy involves contracting a terminal illness that will one day separate them from loved ones. People go home crying and depressed the moment they realize their lives lack the little things, those everyday experiences which seem impossible to find: a friendly visit, genuine concern, phone calls, kind words, a response when we reach out to others. The real heartache begins with the dissonance felt in witnessing real human connections on screen; it pales in comparison to our everyday experiences. So much of what we long for is simply for the world to RESPOND when we call upon it and our fellow human beings.

So, the whole cancer gig makes for great choke ups and hand holding, but it's not the star of the show. We KNOW that one of these kids is going to die. This is not a new concept to audiences. But, cancer is not the reigning heavyweight champion punching at our hearts while we soak up tears with greasy theatre napkins. The real star of the show, the reason we all go home wanting more in our own lives, is because of the little things. As audience members, throughout the story, we have this very intense feeling that the people we are watching are DEEPLY cared for by others: Augustus actually answers Hazel's texts, he reads a book she cares deeply about and cites it numerous times, friends come over, friends support each other, people say comforting things at just the right time.

Compare these amazing events of everyday connectedness to our own experiences: people don't really text back when you need them, people are too busy to come over, people don't have the time, energy, or extra income to entertain guests or go out with friends often enough. Our everyday experiences of feeling connected are just the opposite. We feel DISconnected. People seem to NOT want to get involved. Our friends and family seem exhausted, with very little room for anything other than just getting by.

Our envy of Hazel and Augustus isn't so much that they loved and lost what (arguably) became this fantastically perfect love affair. What we envy is that they enjoy a reality that seems so much more of what we want in our lives everyday. When it comes to family, friends, and experiences that let us know we are truly cared for by others, fulfillment is rare.

It's also important to note that this phenomenon of depression caused by the cinema doesn't exclusively belong to tragic love stories. Remember James Cameron's AVATAR? If you don't, it's that movie with a planet full of blue people that humanity is destroying for money (pretty much what we're doing to ourselves now, but with way cooler technology)

Anyway. Immediately after the film's release, the Internet exploded with forums of people who had come down with depressive symptoms related to the disappointment of returning to a bland life of being ignored and disconnected. The real event of "Avatar Blues" was a well documented phenomenon whose link to our common feelings of disconnection was not overlooked. Fans immediately understood what was going on. AVATAR featured a race and tribe culture in which EVERYONE was important. Wanting to be a member of the Navi wasn't a desire rooted in schizophrenia; it was a desire reflective of our own innate feelings of wanting to be part of the group. We want to belong and we want to FEEL like we belong.

Feeling disconnected wasn't always such a pervasive experience. There was a time when people sat down at the dinner table, watched TV together, and called each other for a chat. The ideal connectedness portrayed on the silver screen isn't a new idea—it's a throwback projection of what life once resembled before we started working too hard, texting too much, and filling up our schedules with less intimate affairs. Modern art continues to reflect and imitate a life we no longer remember. Where the normalization of human disconnection has occurred, the longing for a simpler life that makes us feel more in touch ensues within our subconscious.

With regard to the kind of emotional reactions evoked by such dramatic movie plots, there's some dark humor here, actually. This is the awkward situation created by manufactured ideology: you get to pay a high premium for an experience that was once better, simpler, and free. That's why we're paying extra to eat organic crops in a food environment dominated by "superior" genetic modification—so science doesn't give us cancer. But it doesn't have to be that way. We don't have to rely on simulated experiences to remember our humanity. We can be better humans. We can advocate for stronger connections. All we have to do is turn off the television, come out of the dark spaces, drift from the blinking lights, and get back to what we're best at: being human.

Read More "Why Going To The Movies Makes Us Depressed"

Saturday, June 21, 2014

When We Fall

Photo, courtesy of Dan Enrico

We all fall down. But we don't all experience falling down in the same way; some are ignorant and some are knowing.

There is an ignorant person who will fall and never know it. They stay pinned to the floor, believing that life can only exist below them. And so, they live close to the ground with their heads down, all the while, forever plagued by a vague sense of wanting more. The wanting is endless. But they never think to stand because they do not know their legs—they've forgotten how to use them. This person does not know peace. 

The other kind of ignorant person falls and immediately gets back up. But they don't understand their injuries. Fear and shame propels them to speed upward and onward without pause. They never think to mend. And so they walk around on broken legs because they refuse to feel pain, they refuse their own humanity and forget compassion for themselves. In failing to acknowledge being broken, they seek to break others, exploiting the pain and injury they find in those around them. This person does not know compassion.  

There is a knowing person who falls but never asks for help. For pride of self and a fear of burdening others, they resign to stay down because they cannot allow themselves to need help. Their pride relies on self-deception, an image of invincibility that rejects the truth of limitation.
Their fear insists that others cannot handle their pain, so they believe in the necessity of loneliness and reject the notion that others can care for them. This person does not know trust. 

Then there is another knowing person who falls. This person understands what the others do not. They do not deny the fall; they embrace it. They fill up with compassion for themselves and others. They replace "sorry" with "thank you"—they do not apologize for needing help. With an open mind and heart, they heal faster, stronger, more completely, and later stand on firmer ground.

Through ultimate acceptance we can know fully the power and benefits of peace, compassion, and trust. In the act of falling down we learn how to better love ourselves and others, how to carry the torch of hope through all of human struggles. Because we know that everyone falls, we also know that all who have fallen are never alone.

For Sufey.
Read More "When We Fall"

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Best Father's Day Gift, Ever

My bungalow sits around the corner from a middle school whose front lawn looks like the cover story of a landscaping magazine. It's THAT gorgeous. The grass is spotless and full, the bricks are redder than red, and during the school year an entire community extravaganza ensues. It's a production that features the very best concerted efforts of parents, teachers, crossing guards, police, and a caravan of black and yellow buses.

But for me, the real show happens in the front of my house. It's the weekday morning rush. The show begins at about 8 A.M. and I grab a front row seat to catch a glimpse: a parade of SUV's and minivans pack themselves into the church lot across the street, vying for a chance to see their children off to school without getting a parking ticket. The sidewalks and streets run with the flood of young minds eager and wanting for knowledge, a mass exodus of hopeful vessels linked to the hands of their parents as they make the hundred-yard journey into an immaculate building of learning.

This is the view from my screened-in porch. It's a little slice of heaven nestled between the green lawns of New York Metro suburbia, and for a cool two-thousand dollars a month, it's a great time spent in your pajamas while sipping a large cup of black coffee.

One morning, while working up the nerve to call in sick, I noticed a young father passing in front of my porch with his daughter. Before reaching the corner, he stopped for a moment and motioned for the girl to open her backpack. Carefully, he returned a small notebook he had been carrying at his side, and as he did, the girl spoke her mind about a recent assignment she had completed.

"Daddy, we had to read ten pages, but the story wasn't good. And then she made us answer the three questions at the end. It took F-O-R-E-V-E-R."

She made sure to emphasize each syllable of the word so that her father might know, firsthand, the intense hardship she had endured. 

But he didn't take the bait. He only smiled.

This girl could read. This girl could write. This girl could comprehend information well enough to tell you that she didn't like what someone else wrote. She and her father are part of the 99% of literate men and women in the United States whose basic education has afforded them the means to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. It's this story of success through education that's become so familiar to the fathers and daughters that stroll past my home every morning. It's familiar to me and my family; my grandfather came from Puerto Rico and worked sixteen-hour days to put his son through medical school. My father is now a successful surgeon.

But that story of education changes drastically over the 7,000 miles between the New York Metro area and Ethiopia—a country whose annual Gross National Income is just one-hundred dollars.

For young women like Mebrhit and her father, Mezgebe, the road to a good education holds a grimmer reality, where the odds of going to school are slim to none. Over three million Ethiopian children will not attend school in their lifetime—a fact which further contributes to a national literacy rate of just thirty-nine percent. The inevitable result is the proverbial space between a rock and a hard place—a VERY hard place.

With mouths to feed and limited resources by which to feed them, Mezgebe's most valuable assets are his children; losing just one of them to the hours and cost required to educate them could mean the difference between survival and complete ruin. It's a fate known all too well by farming families in the town of Guangua, Ethiopia, where tilling the arid landscape to harvest sorghum grain has become an absolute livelihood. Families just like Mezgebe's find themselves caught in a zero-sum game spurred on by an endless feedback loop of poverty, lack of opportunity, and dismal circumstances that leave its victims with little control over outcomes. That lack of control, in turn, puts Ethiopian children behind the eight ball and forces fathers like Mezgebe to face a gambit of tough choices. The human cost that follows is one that not only threatens to jeopardize the personal potential of his own daughter, but also the future prosperity of his family and community at large.

Just four short years ago, the 51-year-old father of seven had committed his then 11-year-old daughter, Mebrhit, to marriage. In light of the union, cultural expectations would have demanded that her future husband help out her family at home. This would help save them, her father thought. It was one of the few cards left to play. Her family was immediately showered with gifts of clothing and shoes from her fiancé, and later, there was to be an exchange of oxen and goats, too. But Merbrhit had different plans: She did not want to be married this way. She wanted to be educated.

Determined to continue her studies, Mebrhit turned to her teachers and principal for help. For one month she did not go home, while her educators supported her studies, and spent weeks trying to convince her parents to reconsider the marriage. The dramatic action paid off, and eventually, Mebrhit's father and mother conceded and the wedding was cancelled.

Today, Mebrhit's path to a brighter future through education is a much different picture than it used to be. Next year, she'll begin her first year of high school with the aid of imagine1day's Graduate Fund program, a high school scholarship fund designed to support high performing students like Mebrhit in completing a full course of high school education. The program also aims to cultivate graduates into strong community leaders that will help shape Ethiopia's future.

His daughter's education is now seen as a blessing to Mezgebe and his family.

“I am glad due for the cancellation of that marriage. Her education isn’t just benefiting her, she is helping her brothers and me also,” he says.

I think about Mezgebe and his daughter Mebrhit every time I walk out onto my porch in the morning, every time I hear fathers and daughters laughing on their way to a future that's easily accessible to them.

Mezgebe's choice to wed his eldest daughter was one rooted in desperation to survive, in the love he has for his family. It was an event that, by western ideals, seems unthinkable; surely, a father who would marry off his daughter at such a young age could not truly love her. But that judgement would be our folly. Moral high ground is the luxury of those sitting at a comfortable distance from tragedy—people like me in my cotton pajamas, sipping some K-cup coffee blend with a name I can't pronounce. Things are different for those outside the bubble of privilege, where even the innocent ignorance of their struggle seems like a lame excuse for going about with our day.

Those thoughts of Mebhrit and her family's struggles, of the many others working hard to advance the prosperity of rural Ethiopia—I don't fight them off. I want them to stop me in my tracks. I want to remember. And as I shuffle my way through sleepy eyes onto my porch this week, waiting impatiently for my coffee to cool, I know I'll struggle terribly to think of a better Father's Day gift than what Mebrhit gave to her dad.

This Father's Day, imagine1day is making an extraordinary effort to make it known that stories just like this happen everyday in rural Ethiopia, and that support from people just like you can make ALL the difference. During this special Father's Day featured event, imagine1day invites you to become part of the global revolution of change that helps bring awareness and support to men and women just like you by donating, sharing this story, or connecting with imagine1day for opportunities to get involved.

Because the greatest thing about change, is making it happen.

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