Thursday, January 29, 2015

UFO's and global warming -- it's science, folks

By Bob Gaydos
Gray object appears above Earth's horizon
 in this NASA photo.

Do you believe in UFO’s? I do. Well, to be precise, I believe in the possibility of UFO’s. More precisely, I believe in the possibility of intelligent life somewhere in the universe other than on this tiny planet we inhabit. 

It’s a matter of numbers. They are too overpowering to dismiss. Astronomers’ best estimate (based on science and math, not guess work) is that there are between 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies in the observable universe. That’s galaxies. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains an estimated 100 billion stars. Around the stars are billions of planets. Alone, Earthlings? Only arrogance would argue that.

I’m thinking about this for a couple of reasons:
  • Digital Journal, a website that follows such things, reported recently that the live video feed from the International Space Station was interrupted just as a misty, gray object appeared over the horizon of the Earth. UFO researchers claim that NASA deliberately cut the feed and that this is routine behavior by the space agency whenever unidentified objects appear. NASA claimed it was simply technical difficulties.
  • If I accept the argument that there are no UFOs and that life doesn’t exist anywhere else in the universe, that the people who track unidentified flying objects are just odd folks with too much time on their hands, then I can only conclude that the way we treat what is presumably then the only habitable body in the universe is a shameful display of ignorance.
  Full disclosure: I live in what has sometimes been referred to as the UFO capital of the Northeast -- Pine Bush, N.Y. Although things have been quiet in the local skies of late, UFO sightings at times have seemed as common as snow plow sightings. There is an active UFO support group and a UFO festival every spring that includes a parade down the main street of the hamlet.  

This is obviously good for business and the Chamber of Commerce was smart to capitalize on the area’s reputation. It’s a lot of fun, with kids dressed up as space visitors of one sort or another and purple alien figures adorning the windows of many businesses. But the UFO group is serious and meets regularly to discuss UFO sightings and paranormal-related topics  

I am a skeptic when it comes to conspiracy theories, which abound among UFO believers. I also know it’s tempting for some people to inflict hoaxes on others because they think it’s funny. There’s a lot of that surrounding UFO’s as well. But I do not casually discount the possibility of UFO sightings because, again, look at those numbers.  

The recent NASA video was posted to YouTube and shows a fuzzy grayish object rising over the horizon of Earth. UFO followers say it wasn’t the moon, which they say appears white in videos. I have no idea who’s right in this matter. I do know that a lot of people don’t believe NASA and think the government covers up every possible contact with UFOs. I also know that a lot of people think the UFO believers are not to be believed. I wish that a meeting of the minds could take place of believers, skeptics, scientists and government officials for a serious discussion of the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe and whether or not those life forms may have visited us.  

While I’m waiting for that to happen, I marvel at the colossal short-sightedness, neglect and seemingly willful ignorance with which so many of us treat the planet on which we live. We have polluted our waters, leveled our forests, wiped out species of animals and burned so much fossil fuel that the air in some places is unbreathable and the planet itself is warming up at a rate that alarms scientists.   

There is almost universal agreement among scientists that global warming is going on and that it poses a serious threat to the future of the planet. Simultaneously, one of the dumbest examples of self-sabotaging denial I have heard is the one that goes something like, “Well, I’m not a scientist, but I don’t believe in global warming.” Every Republican politician seems to have uttered this line in the past year.  

Well, I’m not a plumber, but that’s who I call when I can’t get water for a shower.  

President Obama made this point well in his State of the Union address: “I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what -- I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.”  

Yes, we should. And we should stop dismissing theories because we don’t understand the science behind them or discount beliefs because we can’t accept the conclusions they may lead us to. Arrogance combined with ignorance is a recipe for disaster.    

So, yes, the Earth is getting too warm for our own good.  

Do UFO’s exist? Good chance.  

Does our government cover up information about possible UFO’s? Even better chance.  

Is there life elsewhere in the universe? Undoubtedly.  

Is it more intelligent than us? I sure as hell hope so. 

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PS: See you at the Pine Bush Area UFO Festival and Fair this spring.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Has a problem drinker affected your life?

My latest Addiction and Recovery column

By Bob Gaydos

There’s a one-page, two-sided flyer published by Al-Anon Family Groups that poses a question which should give pause to millions of people.

The question: “Did you grow up with a problem drinker?”

The answer is important and shouldn’t be arrived at hastily because the effects of someone else’s drinking -- a parent or other close relative, for example -- can cause numerous problems for the non-drinker. And not all of them are obvious. Furthermore, the problems can be aggravated if their cause goes undetected.

The flyer states, “Many adults question whether they have been affected by alcoholism.” That means someone else’s alcoholism. To help answer that question, Al-Anon offers 20 questions. They are worth serious attention by anyone of any age who thinks the situation may apply to him or her.

The questions:

  1. Do you constantly seek approval and affirmation?
  2. Do you fail to recognize your accomplishments?
  3. Do you fear criticism?
  4. Do you overextend yourself?
  5. Have you had problems with your own compulsive behavior?
  6. Do you have a need for perfection?
  7. Are you uneasy when your life is going smoothly, continually anticipating problems?
  8. Do you feel more alive in the midst of a crisis?
  9. Do you still feel responsible for others, as you did for the problem drinker in your life?
  10. Do you care for others easily, yet find it difficult to care for yourself?
  11. Do you isolate yourself from other people?
  12. Do you respond with anxiety to authority figures and angry people?
  13. Do you feel that individuals and society in general are taking advantage of you?
  14. Do you have trouble with intimate relationships?
  15. Do you confuse pity with love, as you did with the problem drinker?
  16. Do you attract and seek people who tend to be compulsive?
  17. Do you cling to relationships because you are afraid of being alone?
  18. Do you often mistrust your own feelings and the feelings expressed by others?
  19. Do you find it difficult to express your emotions?
  20. Do you think parental drinking may have affected you?
Alcoholism is referred to as a family disease for good reason. The effects of someone’s problem drinking can be felt for generations. Parents who do not have a problem with drinking may have had parents who did. As a result, unhealthy behaviors are learned and passed on, often with no recognition that someone’s alcoholism may have spawned them.

If you answered yes to any of the questions, Al-Anon may be able to help you. That’s because its members have experienced many of the same problems and learned healthier ways of dealing with life. If you are an adult who doesn’t drink and doesn’t have a problem drinker in your life today, yet you answered yes to any of the above questions, it’s worth reviewing: Were there any problem drinkers in your life in the past? Did you grow up with a problem drinker?

Al-Anon’s 12-step program -- adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous -- puts the emphasis on looking at one’s own actions, as opposed to being focused on the drinker’s. This helps develop an awareness of one’s own behavioral and emotional problems, which can persist whether there’s an active alcoholic in one’s life or not. This awareness, in turn, can help start the healing process from those previously unrecognized effects of living with the disease of alcoholism. 

It’s not just about the drinking. Future columns will deal with this issue in more detail.
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More information

Friday, January 23, 2015

On acting my age, whatever that means

By Bob Gaydos
The "new" me

I’m 73 years old. That’s a fact and unless I go to work for Fox News, I am not free to change it to suit my mood. Truth is, I don’t obsess about my age the way some do. Most of the time, I don’t think about it unless someone mentions it.

For example, last summer my partner and I were standing on line at a fix-your-own frozen yogurt establishment called Hoopla! The line of customers extended to the door and it was close to closing time. As I surveyed the offerings, my partner turned to me and said, “Did you notice we’re always the oldest ones in here?” I took a quick look around and told her that, no, I hadn’t and, furthermore, while I thought she certainly didn’t qualify, I was definitely the oldest person in the place.

And I wondered, “How come?” Don’t septuagenarians like frozen yogurt? Look at all the great flavors. And there are all the toppings -- pretty much anything you can think of from fruit to nuts to Gummy Bears to complement the delicious frozen treat.

Maybe it’s the do-it-yourself bit, I thought. Or the standing in line. Maybe a lot of older folks don’t like standing in line. It could be the possibility of some messiness. Or maybe it’s just the whole idea of experiencing something new.

It’s my observation, which is open to challenge, that a lot of people of a certain age are not thrilled with trying something new. It’s as if they feel they have lived long enough and done enough. No need to learn anything else. Fixing your own dessert? Way too much trouble.

So, they have flip phones. They don’t text or Google. They barely e-mail. Kindle, schmindle; give ‘em a real book. And not a Facebook. That’s just too confusing … or something. And it’s not just frozen yogurt that they won’t eat: Kale, quinoa and coconut water will never cross their lips. Change is for the young.

I don’t get it. My feeling is, since I have just a limited time here, why not experience as much as I can for as long as I can? I know how easy it can be to slip into a rut of comfortability, even if things in life aren’t so great, even if I’m not in the best of shape. I’ve been there. It’s easy to say, hey, this is OK. I can handle it. I don’t have to worry about learning something new. School’s over. Time to relax. Ain’t retirement grand?

Actually, yes, retirement has been pretty grand. But it’s also not the end of the line.

I shaved my beard and mustache off a few months ago. In the space of a month, only six people noticed. I counted.

One of them was my son, Max, who had a full beard himself at the time. My other son, Zack, noticed that I had also gotten a haircut, which was a typical observation. Other comments ranged from, “You look really tan, Bob” to “Nice haircut,” to “You look good; are you working out?” to “Did you lose weight?”

To which I replied, varyingly, “Thanks.” “Yes.” And, “Hello, I shaved my beard off.”

The beard is now back, although trimmed fairly neatly, and the hair on top is cut short. Also neat. But more importantly for this whole getting older thing, were the other comments about working out and losing weight. They were correct. People noticed and, to be honest, it was nice to hear. The working out regularly, combined with eating a much more healthful diet, coincided with meeting my partner two-and-a-half years ago. More than ever, I don’t believe in coincidences. The result has been a significant weight loss for me and my feeling and looking better -- healthier at any rate -- at 73 than, dare I say, at 53. So, yeah, retirement is great.

Anyway, as I said, a few people did notice the beard was gone and their comments may be even more telling than the ones I didn’t get:

-- “There’s Bob, looking all neat and reputable.”

-- “You look so neat and clean.”

-- “Now you’re not hiding behind anything.”

Or from anything either. The physical changes have been accompanied by subtle psychological changes, a greater willingness to try new things.

The point of this exercise in vanity, I suppose, is that numerical age doesn’t matter nearly as much as attitude does. That’s nothing new, I know. I just needed to acknowledge it publicly for myself. Just don’t tell me to act my age, because I don’t know what that means.

I am 73. I have a phone that is at least 10 times smarter than I am. I wrote this column on a laptop. I love WiFI. I have a Kindle and have actually read one book on it so far. (Confession: I still prefer the real thing.) I Google and text constantly. I eat yogurt and falafel and sushi and lots of fruits and vegetables. No red meat. I exercise with a growing degree of regularity. All my annual checkup numbers are in the positive range. My doctor says I’m the textbook example of what can happen when you actually follow your doctor’s advice. I kinda liked hearing that, too.

Now, if someone would just explain to me how 3-D printing works … 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Francis: The pope of hope

Pope Francis ... the smiling pope
By Bob Gaydos
Reflecting on the anger, bitterness and violence that punctuated much of the year just past, I resolved to start the new year with acknowledgment of some positive development. Some sign of hope, as it were. I found it in, of all places, the Catholic Church. Or rather, the Vatican.
Actually, to be specific, in the Pope.
         Pope Francis, the people’s pope, has been a revelation and a one-man revolution within an organization
that has been entrenched in dogma and shielded by ceremony for centuries.
Since his surprise election to the papacy nearly two years ago,
the Argentinian prelate has seemed to revel in speaking and acting like a,
well, like a man of God. A least what my definition of such a person would be:
Humble, unassuming, honest, approachable, compassionate, non-
judgmental, empathetic and realistic.
         Francis, the 266th pope, brought a positive note to the end of a brutally
negative 2014 by: (1) Convincing President Obama and Cuban President Raul
Castro to reestablish normal diplomatic relations between the United States and
Cuba, ending more than 50 years of pretending they weren’t neighbors; (2)
announcing that the Catholic Church would be committed to fighting global
warming. Diplomacy and science have not exactly been prominent issues for
popes for some time.
        These actions came at the end of a year in which Francis consistently and
passionately criticized the culture of greed that has claimed much of the planet,
resulting in the very rich getting even richer and much of the rest of the
population struggling to simply exist. “The excluded are still waiting’” he has
said of the false promise of “trickle-down” economics.
To top it off, in case no one was paying attention, Francis, who has shunned
many of the papal trappings, used his Christmas address to the cardinals at the
Vatican to scold them for their personal ambition, pettiness and attitude of
superiority to the people they, in fact, are sworn to serve. In other words, time
to change your focus, fellas.
Along the way, indicating that the Catholic Church is not, as some
have suggested, totally anti-science, he has declared that the theories of evolution

and the Big Bang are, indeed, real, and can co-exist with the Church’s teaching

of Creation. “God is not a magician with a magic wand,” he has said.
          He has also encouraged cardinals to be less-obsessed with birth control
and homosexualty (“Who am I to judge?”) and more committed to helping the
world’s poor. And he has moved decisively to remove more of the stain of sexual
abuse by priests that has been the most dominant issue associated with
the Church for several decades.
All of this has angered conservative Catholics and especially conservative
politicians who have counted on implicit papal endorsement for their views
(especially on social issues) for many years. Suddenly, the pope’s infallibility
on how we should treat each other and the planet we share is open to, not just
question, but outright challenge. Fox News is apoplectic.
So be it. As a leader with no armies, the Roman Catholic pope
can sway millions simply with his words and actions. Yes, the church is wealthy.
Yes, it has political influence. Yes, it has an investment in repairing its soiled
image and attracting new followers to replace those who left it because of the
priest sexual abuse scandal.
        Still, whatever one’s religious views, I believe that sometimes a person comes
along and takes everyone by surprise by doing the unexpected. In Francis’ case,
by acting like a humble servant of his God, rather than like the exalted ruler of
some chosen group of people. Given the symbolic power of the position, this
is huge.
I am sure the former cardinal from Argentina -- a supposedly safe,
compromise choice -- has many cardinals shaking their heads today and
wondering, “Tell me again; why did we vote for him?”
        And that may be the most positive thing of all about Pope Francis. He
has begun a discussion within the Vatican, within the Catholic Church and, by
his involvement in global issues, throughout the world, on what our role is in
relation to each other. It may be a discussion that will reveal the hypocrisy
and greed that permeate today’s society. Perhaps it will even
answer the question of what it means to be thy brother’s keeper.  
That’s pretty hopeful stuff to me.

Monday, January 5, 2015

2 chokehold deaths, decades apart

By Bob Gaydos
Eric Garner, moments before his death.
Eric Garner, moments before his death.

Jimmy Lee Bruce, meet Eric Garner. You’ve got a lot in common. You’re both black men from New York state. Both of you had an encounter with police officers over some comparatively minor matter. Neither of you had any weapon. You both gave the police a hard time and had what is described as a “choke hold” applied to you by an officer. You both died as a result of that use of official force.

Interestingly, those police officers had some things in common as well. They were all white. None of them was trained in the use of the choke hold, which was prohibited by their respective police forces. Also, none of them was indicted on any charges by a grand jury in connection with your deaths.

The only thing separating the two of you is time. A little more than twenty-seven years. …

Jimmy Lee Bruce died in the back of a patrol car near Middletown, N.Y., on Dec. 13, 1986. He was 20 years old. He and a group of friends from Ellenville, N.Y., had gone to a movie theater in a mall outside Middletown. The group became rowdy. There was drinking involved. Off-duty Middletown police officers acting as security guards, escorted the group out of the theater, where a scuffle ensued. An officer applied the choke hold to Bruce and tossed him in the back of a police car, which had brought two on-duty Town of Wallkill police officers to the scene.

The police then drove around for 7 ½ minutes looking for Bruce’s friends. When they returned to the theater, a state trooper, who had also arrived on the scene, shined a flashlight in the back of the patrol car and noticed the young man was not responding to the light. Police rushed him to a nearby hospital, but attempts to revive him failed.

Two months after the incident, an Orange County grand jury began considering whether any of the officers did anything criminally wrong in connection with Bruce’s death. It determined that none of the officers did anything criminally wrong because none of them had received any training in the proper application of what they, more benignly, referred to as the “sleeper hold,” nor in what could result from improper use of the dangerous hold. It was an accident.

Which brings us to Eric Garner, at 43, somewhat older than Bruce and someone known to police in his Staten Island neighborhood as a familiar problem -- mostly for selling loose cigarettes on the street and getting mouthy with police who tell him to stop. On July 17 of this year, Garner, the father of six, got mouthy and maybe more with a police officer who told him to stop selling the cigarettes. The officer applied the choke hold. Garner went down. A witness taped the incident on a cell phone and caught Garner, an asthmatic, exclaiming, “I can’t breathe!” A coroner ruled the death a homicide.

A Richmond County grand jury this month determined -- despite the video -- that there was no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the police officer. This ruling, coming on the heels of a similar case in Ferguson, Mo., and in the wake of a number of deaths of young black males at the hands of white police, has spurred large, public demonstrations across the country and, in fact, around the world. Justice! is the cry.

But what is justice?

For sure, it means eliminating any doubt of conflict of interest in the future by having special prosecutors, not local district attorneys, handle cases involving deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of local police officers. This would protect police, prosecutors and the public.

But that’s not nearly enough.

Shortly after Garner’s death, William Bratton, New York City police commissioner, told the New York City Council that he was calling for a “fundamental shift in the culture of the department” in the wake of the chokehold killing of Garner. That “shift” will include three days of annual training for every police officer who works patrol on:
  • How to talk to the public
  • How to de-escalate tense situations
  • How to use force.
I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Nearly three decades ago, I wrote an editorial for The Times Herald-Record in Middletown about the grand jury ruling on Jimmy Lee Bruce’s death: “Your son’s death resulted because the police didn’t know what they were doing, not because they intended to kill your son. Case closed. The system worked. Do you buy that …?”

Yet today, the head of the largest police force in the country tells us that men and women going through New York City’s Police Academy are not trained on how to talk to the public. Not taught how to de-escalate tense situations. Aren’t instructed on how to properly use force.

How then are they supposed to do their job? Police work can be  dangerous. Many officers handle it daily with sensitivity and professionalism. But justice, it would seem to me, would begin with preparing all officers to deal with what they are likely to encounter on the streets, not simply giving them firearms training. And certainly not arming them with military-grade weaponry that creates an us-versus-them situation. This can lead some police officers to forget that they, indeed, are also us.

To protect and serve is the mission of police. That must begin with a certain mindset. It astounds me that Bratton still has his job after his admission before the City Council. Not only did he say his officers aren’t trained to deal with tense situations and how to properly use force, he actually asked for 1,000 more officers and $25 million for instructors and overtime to cover posts while patrol officers are receiving three days of annual training. If it were up to me, I’d provide the department with the money and the positions and get rid of the commissioner, who all of a sudden realizes he needs to change the “culture” of his department.

The pressures of policing in Ferguson, New York City and Middletown are different, but the answers are the same. Justice for all must begin with an emphasis on diversity in police recruiting, so that minority populations can feel they at least have a voice in their own protection. The diversity of the crowds demonstrating in response to the Garner case give credence to that. Justice also means providing the training Bratton acknowledges his officers need today -- the training the officers in Middletown needed on Dec. 13, 1986.

The outrage expressed by demonstrators over the grand jury decision in the Garner case is magnified for me by having known the story of Jimmy Lee Bruce. Have we learned nothing in all that time? Should Jimmy Lee Bruce have reacted differently when confronted by police? Hindsight would suggest yes. The same goes for Eric Garner. But being rowdy in a movie theater, selling loose cigarettes and being confrontational with police are not capital crimes.