Friday, July 19, 2013

Bill and Lois ... nothing more need be said


(My latest Addiction and Recovery column.)

By Bob Gaydos
Stepping Stones, the home of Bill and Lois Wilson,
 in Katonah. IR Photography.

Bill and Lois. Mention those names to members of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-. Anon and nothing more need be said. They are the founders, the driving forces behind the 12-step programs that have helped so many people to recover from alcoholism.
Wilson is their last name, but he is best known as Bill W. and she as just Lois, perhaps the only woman in the world who could have lived with him during years of alcoholic behavior and stuck with him through the ensuing years of the creation and growth of AA into a worldwide program of recovery. At Bill’s urging, Lois later organized what was a loose collection of groups of people struggling with the effects of  others’ alcoholism into what today is the worldwide Al-Anon Family Groups.
As partnerships go, theirs succeeded beyond what any conventional wisdom might have predicted. And while it’s true that there are no gurus in the AA model of recovery, make no mistake about it, Bill and Lois are special people to those who seek help from the two programs. Together, they lived through the pain of alcoholism and created the mold millions have adopted for escaping its grip.
One of the ways in which that special regard is demonstrated is the thousands of visitors yearly to Stepping Stones, the Wilsons’ home in Katonah, in Westchester County. The large, comfortable home and well-kept gardens that occupy eight acres exude the peace and serenity to which members of AA and Al-Anon aspire.
Not that it was always so. When Bill and Lois first moved to Katonah from 182 Clinton St. in Brooklyn, their new home (they moved 51 times) became the destination of choice for people desperate for an answer to their drinking problem. There was seemingly always someone (or more than one) being 12-stepped by Bill in the living room (Bill kept alcohol on hand for those who needed detoxing), or just having impromptu AA meetings. The coffee pot in the small kitchen was meant for large gatherings. As Joe D., a 29-years-sober guide at Stepping Stones, puts it, “We think of Clinton Street and Stepping Stones as the first rehabs.”
The house also had the feel of a hotel, since AA friends were always on hand, helping to produce literature to spread the word on the recovery program or to sit and listen to Lois play the piano while Bill played the fiddle. On occasion, friends would join them in the “ghost room” where the ouija board was located.
It got so busy in Katonah that Bill eventually had a writing studio built up the hill from the bustling house so he could get some quiet to write “Alcoholics Anonymous,” better known as “the Big Book,” and other books detailing the AA path to sobriety.
The home and studio are part of a 90-minute tour given Monday to Saturday at 1 p.m. The tour is informative, but can’t possibly encompass the magnitude of the writings, photos, letters, books, art work, gifts, newspaper articles and personal mementos that Lois kept and organized. “Lois saved everything but Bill’s clothes,” Joe says. The Stepping Stones Foundation has archived all of this and now presents it at the national historic site as a history of the lives of Bill, Lois, AA and Al-Anon. Visitors are free to peruse the collection as it suits their curiosity. Return visits are not uncommon.
On a recent week day, a couple from Brooklyn took the tour. Kate, three years sober, said, “It’s amazing to be up here,“ She was impressed with how “selfless’’ Bill and Lois were and “how much of their lives they dedicated to helping others get sober.”
Her companion, Tim, 28 months sober, said there were a couple of things they could have done that day, but he was glad they chose to visit Stepping Stones, among other reasons because he learned that “Lois was a major person” in the history of AA as well as Al-Anon.
Another visitor, M., from Sullivan County, with four-plus years in Al-Anon, said, “I came to see Lois’ legacy because she’s basically my hero. Notwithstanding the fullness and complexity of her own life, it was enlightening to discover how much of herself was consumed by standing in the way of Bill and his next drink.” Of  Stepping Stones, M. said, “It’s nothing short of magnificent the way it has been preserved.”
That’s true. And it’s more than just a home that has been preserved. It’s an idea, a legacy, a way of life, a unique pairing that brought hope to millions of people and, indeed, changed history in the process. All of that is what keeps people coming to Stepping Stones.

If you go …
A Bill and Lois commemorative coin, available in the gift shop.
                                                                            IR Photography
Stepping Stones is located at 62 Oak Road, Katonah. It is open Monday through Saturday, from noon to 3 p.m. Tours lasting roughly 90 minutes start shortly after 1 p.m. and it is suggested that you call ahead or e-mail to reserve a spot.
 The buildings are air-conditioned. There is a small gift shop. A donation of at least $10 per person is suggested.
 The phone number is (914) 234-4822; e-mail: info@steppingstones.org. For more information on the site, including directions, the web site is www.steppingstones.org.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Warning: This column may be bugged

By Bob Gaydos

Hi there. Thanks for clicking on this article. I feel obliged to warn you right off that you and I are probably not alone in this seemingly intimate connection. Odds are this interchange is being monitored by some government or private computer for the purpose of, well, maybe for the sole purpose of demonstrating that it can be done.
And it is done, routinely, to anyone and everyone who uses a computer, lap top, tablet or cell phone. Privacy has become a quaint concept, an anachronism, in the computer era. The very tool that has freed us to a world of instant information and communication has also stripped us of something we cherish, our privacy.
Let me amend that. The tool is not to blame. It’s the people using it. They have entered our lives -- admittedly often at our initial invitation -- to such an extent that savvy technicians can put together accurate profiles of us in short order. Mostly, these people work for private companies that want to sell us something based on our computer behavior. Of course, those with malice in their heart can and do use their skills and the gathered data for  purposes such as identity theft or simply installing a computer virus for no apparent reason.
This is not news to you, I’m sure. What’s perhaps new and most troubling to me is the extent to which our own government is involved in spying on us. Recent revelations by Edward Snowden of a massive cell phone data collection program run by the National Security Agency targeting average American citizens has been followed up with revelations of the extent to which the NSA also has used popular Internet service providers such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, Bing, AOL, Apple, Facebook and YouTube, to compile information on private citizens.
Why?
Why national security, of course. There could very well be potential terrorists lurking out there among those cute cat photos and it is part of our eternal war on terrorism to try to find them among the billions of clicks per day on computers.
That’s the company line and there is a small element of truth in it. But we can’t assess how valuable the snooping has been because the government (the White House and Congress) won’t tell us anything that can be verified by uninvolved parties. (And the head of the CIA lies to Congress without getting fired.)
Mostly, though, I have come to believe (and this is why I warn you this column may be bugged) that our government snoops do this kind of thing because they can and they really don’t see it is an invasion of privacy and most certainly do not consider the massive potential for abuse it presents. This is scary. When the computer spies forget that they, too, are American citizens and also suffer from any erosion of individual privacy along with the rest of us, the slippery slope to total control of the citizenry has begun. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness lose their meaning.
Too alarmist?
Well, consider the reaction of President Obama when Snowden  subsequently revealed that the United States was snooping on countries in the European Union and elsewhere. These are our friends, mind, our allies. The EU folks erupted with indignant surprise. They were outraged, etc. Obama said, in effect, what’s the big deal? Everybody does it.
Which is in large part true. The EU huffing and puffing was largely for show. They knew they were bugged and some of them also bugged official United States locations for the purpose of … what?
The nonchalant nature of the practice on an international scale bespeaks an inability and/or unwillingness to trust friends at their word or to get some kind of edge on them in international diplomacy. So I ask, why would this attitude not translate into domestic spying? It’s no big deal. Everybody does it. National security, you know? Trust us, we mean you no harm.
Really? Well then, why is the entire process sealed in secrecy, with a special court granting rubber stamp warrants for the government bugging private citizens? Why is the court answerable to no one in the public? Why are its rulings free from challenge? Why are private contractors (Snowden was one), not actual government employees, given access to such highly classified information? What happens to the data collected on U.S. citizens who turn out to be really just “average” Americans connecting with friends or venting frustration on Facebook? Why are most of our political leaders focusing on Snowden’s release of “classified” data rather than on the enormity of the spying effort on private citizens?
And why should we not be concerned that instructions are available on line on how to turn computer cameras (yes, Skype, too) and cell phone cameras into devices that can spy on their owners, a weapon that obviously could be used by serious government computer spies? And probably is. (Put tape over the lens without actually touching it. Shut it off in the bedroom.)
We “average citizens” have definitely been complicit in creating this situation, but most of were also a bit na├»ve: I have nothing to hide, so why should I worry about putting personal information on line? That may have been a valid view at one time, but it ignored the reality that those with a certain amount of power inevitably seek to expand their power and control.
Our government is supposed to protect us from this. When it is the offending party, we need to challenge it. We have no choice. We must do this peaceably, but vigorously, through public demonstrations (as the Occupy movement tried), petitions, messages to elected officials, support for candidates who want to shine light on such programs and eliminate abuses, rejection of candidates who support the spying, protests to and boycotts of companies that cooperate with spying efforts, And by voicing opinions of protest on line.
Which is where I came in. Thanks for reading this. Don’t bother deleting; Big Brother already knows you were here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The game is rigged; it's time to revolt

By Bob Gaydos
Edward Snowden, currently on the run and accused of being a spy, did more than reveal how much snooping our government does on its own citizens. For me, he provided a smack upside the head and a wakeup call to something I’ve believed for a long time but, being a bit lazy and self-absorbed, had dispatched to a dusty, unexercised corner of my brain.
Edward Snowden
         To wit: The game is rigged. Put another way: “Dysfunction” has a function.
Consider this: With Congress’ approval rating at historic lows, with Republicans rejecting out of hand every proposal put forth by Democratic President Barack Obama, with a Democrat-controlled Senate unable to pass meaningful legislation because of archaic filibuster rules used by Republicans, with both major political parties staking out rigid positions on opposite sides of every issue, what is the one thing on which Republicans and Democrats suddenly agree? That Edward Snowden is a traitor.
That is the Edward Snowden who blew the whistle on the most sweeping, secret domestic spying operation ever conducted by an American government on its people. It is an invasion of privacy condoned -- and now vigorously defended -- by both political parties as necessary for the security of the people being spied upon. Yes, the politicians also read George Orwell. But they’ve been caught with their “bad-is-good” pants down and have demonstrated that, when their power is in jeopardy, they can find true harmony. All together now: Snowden is a traitor.
The threat to the power brokers, of course, is that a lot of Americans will awaken from their self-absorbed delusion that their elected representatives are actually trying to do something positive for their constituents, as opposed to the reality they are doing whatever is necessary to maintain their membership in the power elite. That’s the 1 percent who reap the fruits of the manufactured dysfunction.
Look at it this way: Democrats talk about jobs, immigration, education, the minimum wage, etc. Republicans talk about abortion, guns, rape, gay marriage, etc. The parties bicker and banter and do next to nothing  about any of those issues. Dysfunction. Or so it seems.
But they also ignore issues that would actually fix much of the apparent dysfunction -- campaign finance reform and revising the filibuster rules, for two.
It’s planned dysfunction.  You keep your talking points; we’ll keep ours. We’ll all get re-elected anyway or, if not, move on to even more-lucrative lobbying jobs, book tours, top corporate positions or TV punditry. Rigged.
And it’s not just Congress. Having plunged the world into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, American banks and investment firms (which used to be separate entities) are now reaping the profits of their plundering of other people’s wealth, thanks to a government bailout and the failure of the political powers that be -- who reap substantial campaign contributions from these financial institutions -- to send any of the bankers to jail.
In the sequel to “Wall Street,” arch-villain Gordon Gekko says he was convicted of a “victimless crime,” as if no lives are negatively affected when companies go under because of shady, immoral behavior by financial companies.
At least Gekko went to prison for his misdeeds. But then, that was in the movies and even his creator, Oliver Stone, tries to find some redeeming traits in his main character in the sequel. Meanwhile, in real life, no one can make any money today putting money in banks and, as Gekko also points out in the sequel, the task of investing money in the stock markets, where profits may be made, has been made so complex, only “about 75 people in the world understand it.”
That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Most of us need to trust the very people who have proven to be untrustworthy with our money to make investments.
There are other dots to connect, but for now I’ll limit it to major corporations that move top executives to influential government positions and back again, getting laws written to their liking (often by their own former employees), usually without a whimper from members of Congress. Think Monsanto and Halliburton.
Corporations pour tens of millions of dollars into political campaigns hoping to elect candidates who will then return the favor by promoting legislation that will improve corporate profits or opposing proposals placing restrictions on corporate power. The latter would include the public’s right to sue and to obtain information on corporate practices. This is serving the private, not the public, good. It’s part of the system.
Now, this rigging did not occur in a vacuum. There had to be at least an implicit acknowledgement from the rest of us that what the people to whom we had entrusted power and position was doing was right and proper for all of us. That may have simply come in the form of apathy or blissful ignorance. Don’t bother to vote. Don’t try to understand the issues. Hey, life is already too busy and complicated without such things.
But not for those whose motivation is accumulating more wealth and power. For them, an important part of the rigged system is making it seem so complicated and out of our control that it is impossible to change. That’s not necessarily true. There are people, even politicians, who recognize that things have been rigged for a powerful elite and who speak out regularly about it. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Jim Moran are three of the most outspoken. They need allies and support, vocal and financial.
So do the Internet activists campaigning for campaign finance reform and greater transparency in government and Wall Street. These are not obscure issues that don’t impact us. Indeed, they are crucial to ending the grip of the 1 percent on our national wealth and positions of power.
There are some simple steps that can be taken by individuals, groups, towns to begin to reclaim some control over our lives. Registering to vote and actually voting is a start. Getting informed on the issues that matter and working to raise awareness (think the Occupy movement and social media) is another. The movement to sustainability and buying locally grown food, as opposed to that offered by corporate growers, are not just “feel-good” green ideas. Like using alternative energy, they challenge the influence of large corporations (and they don’t come more influential than oil companies) and give people some control over their lives. People have even started turning their lawns into vegetable gardens. Seattle is planning the nation’s first public food garden. Take a walk, pick an apple. Eat it.
Some of this may sound simplistic and even ineffectual in the face of such entrenched power and wealth, but all revolutions have to start somehow. And make no mistake, nothing less than an all-out revolution will serve to unrig the system and dislodge those who thrive within it. Some noise must be made. The alternative is to do what many of us have been doing for a long time -- complain that “they’re all crooked, so what’s the use?”
Some people are comparing Edward Snowden to Paul Revere. I won’t go that far yet. There’s too much information still unknown (and yes, the mainstream media stands suspect as being part of the system). But I’m not ready to call Snowden a traitor either, not when Republicans and Democrats somehow manage to agree that he is. That smells too much like the fix is in.

bobgaydos.blogspot.com