Some Words on Wood and Wings

 ~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

I can’t remember not working with wood. My father was an amateur woodworker. He built some really nice furniture for our house – a hallway entry table, a coffee table, and end tables in the “early American” style – with little more than a radial-arm saw and some hand tools. It was an antidote to his high-stress small-salary white-collar working-class job as an insurance adjuster. He was known as the top adjuster in the Los Angeles area; that, of course, did not get him a particularly high salary. But, as a confirmed “company man,” he took his job very seriously and was ultimately damaged from the chronic stress. He didn’t get much of a retirement; the lung cancer, aneurisms, and vascular disease made sure of that. But along the way, woodworking provided a creative outlet.

My first year in high school he got me a summer job as a construction laborer with a contractor friend; that was an education in itself about the use of wood and other materials in building construction. It also gave me an initial understanding of the ways of the working man’s world. The contractor specialized in demolition of fire-damaged buildings and their reconstruction – he called himself a “building surgeon.” The experience of tearing down old houses taught me how they used to be built decades before. Even in 1954, I could see that they didn’t build them like they used to. But I digress.

Gruman F6F-3 Hellcats in tri-color camouflage_May_1943

F6F Hellcat

When I was about 9, I built a model of a World War II fighter plane. It was a Grumman F6F Hellcat carrier-based fighter, which had dominated Japan’s infamous Zeros in the Western Pacific in 1942 and ’43. The real Hellcat was mostly metal, including armor plating for the pilot and engine-oil cooler – two “mission critical” on-board systems. I made mine mostly out of balsa wood for the structural parts such as ribs and bulkheads, tissue paper for the skin, and “airplane dope.”

Just like the older airplanes, you paint the tissue paper (linen on a real 1920s biplanes) with airplane dope, a quite volatile organic compound no doubt illegal in California today. The dope soaks in and dries like a lacquer, transforming the paper into a strong light ‘skin’ for the airplane.  That model had balsa wood bulkheads and ribs just like the airplanes of the 1920s and early 1930s; the real ones, of course, had used mostly spruce.  That Hellcat model I made must have been almost 2 feet long – but I was smaller then, maybe it was 18 inches…or less…  Along with numerous other airplane models, I also built some model boats, including the classic Chris-Craft speedboat, that one with a skin of thin mahogany veneer. Only about 7 inches long, it had a little electric motor, a brass drive shaft through the keel, and a little brass propeller. I ran it in a local pond.

Well, as life would have it, from college and graduate school and through most of my working life I did little woodworking, except for building two houses – but that is a story for another day. All that time, I never lost my attraction for wood nor the desire to work with it again. But, ah ha, jubilación! (That’s retirement, en español.) Once settled in Santa Fe, I began to take classes in the Fine Woodworking Department at Santa Fe Community College, which has a national reputation for its high quality instructors, program, and well-equipped shop. At the onset, I decided that I would take my time with whatever project I undertook, learn everything possible and enjoy the process. So much to do, but I had all the time in the world, as a Mad Jubilado.

“Time is money,” the saying goes. But that is just a way our overheated over-production over-consumption predatory economy keeps us focused on serving it instead of serving our lives. Time is actually Life itself. That is why, when I am in the woodshop fully engaged in a project, seeking elusive perfection in wood, time dissolves into life. To live is to ‘take’ the time needed to live. Life is a craft; live it.

Choices and Freedom, Decisions and Destiny

Choices multiply with time, or maybe not. Potential decisions proliferate as knowledge grows, but we may not necessarily make them as obligations set in. With good health, the Jubilado [retiree, en español], if modestly financed with a decent pension, has many choices, not all costly. Unfortunately, many Jubilados either never had a pension or it was stolen by the corporation that was supposed to manage it in trust for its workers.

Never trust a corporation. It has no soul, and no, it is not a person. Some say that disproportionate numbers of corporate executives and politicians are psychopaths or sociopaths, two terms for the same affliction. The sociopath’s amoral drive to power can often lead to economic or political success. Either way, sociopaths have no empathy, though they learn to fake it. That is why they are not averse to doing whatever they can get away with to attain that next level of power.

Theft is in the eye of the victim if not of the corrupt official. As with the bribery from which politicians benefit, we rarely observe the punishment of corporate criminality. With the decline of labor’s power versus that of capital, pensions have become rare; many of the few remaining fall victim to management plunder. The politicians have “borrowed” most of the Social Security Trust Fund, then argued it is going broke. They claim that we can’t afford such “entitlement” programs, even though Social Security is funded by workers ourselves, through the payroll tax.

With a modest retirement income, this Mad Jubilado sees many choices. Too many ‘retirees’ sit stupefied and disengaged from the world while staring at the flat-panel screen of a degraded culture. Their time is now their own if they know it, an unusual if somewhat theoretical circumstance. We are, after all, trained in school not to think but to remember ‘facts’ that are unimportant to us, and to do what we are told. Choice becomes an echo of obedience. That way we are more likely to become unthinking obedient workers, tolerating a dull routine, rather than citizens engaged in critical thinking about the world around us, ready to decide.

Engaging in the world is not a spectator sport. Look around. There is so much to see and so much to do. There are endless ways to satisfy your curiosity, if your career left you with any. That is part of what makes the thinking Jubilado Mad.

Engaging with the world can range from terrifying to transcendent, sometimes both simultaneously. The old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times,” seems fully realized today. We do live in the most interesting times imaginable. If you think about it, how could our times be more interesting? Well, maybe soon…

The more I research climate disruption, ecosystem collapse, and the political-economic dysfunction behind them, the more interesting – and terrifying – they become. It is about the survival of the world as we know it. Politicians do so little about it because of the simple power of short-term corporate interests corrupting public policy. They call corporate bribery “campaign contributions.” Politicians easily suffer paralysis when confronted by an overwhelming challenge, especially if the price is right. Besides, the challenge of figuring out what to do about such a monumental planetary problem is nothing short of daunting.

I used to tell my students to “follow your bliss.” Huh? [The phrase depicts a bit of wisdom borrowed from Joseph Campbell] It was all too common for students to come for academic advising with some notion in their head about choosing a major that was simply wrong for them. I didn’t even have to know much about them to tell that they had grabbed an idea from somewhere that superficially sounded good. But that good thing they thought they perceived at the moment of their choice, was momentarily “hot” and jobs in that field had good starting pay. So what?

Is that how to choose one’s life work? I told them that they should find out what really interests them, because by the time they graduated some other field would be the “hot” one and they would spend an entire career doing something they really did not like. Some got it; others did not. But I’ll bet the ones who did get it will have lots of choices in retirement.

Craftsmanship, Flying and Boredom

Craftsmanship is the opposite of boredom.  One does not usually think of digging a ditch as a matter of craftsmanship. But when I dug that ditch at age 15 as precisely as possible to avoid boredom, I had no idea that I was becoming ‘craftsman-like,’ but I was. If you do anything with craftsmanship, striving to do it well is a positive experience. Doing something well is not the same as being a “perfectionist,” which is simply taking precision beyond reason, into compulsion. We all know from high school geometry that a perfect circle does not exist outside the mind of Euclid, or a perfectionist. But in engineering drawing or architectural drawing we need to convey technical-spatial matters without ambiguity.  Achieving a circle that appears to be perfect to the user’s eye is rather enough.

I was quite proud of myself when I landed my little Piper PA-28 at San Luis Obispo airport after an instrument approach “to minimums” – about 220 feet above ground I think it was. That “Minimum Descent Altitude” is a “decision point,” the split second when you have to either have made visual contact with the runway or immediately execute a “missed approach.” At that point a pilot must decide whether to try again or to divert to an alternate airport with better weather.

That night the sky was crowded; several planes were trying to get into SBP. The controller put me in a holding pattern for probably 20 minutes. It seemed like an hour. piper_warrior2_panelAs each aircraft attempts the approach, those waiting fly the holding pattern, a rectangle with rounded corners, each at a different assigned altitude. When one aircraft lands, the next begins the approach and the rest descend to the next lower altitude, waiting their turn at the approach. It is tedious, very stressful, and definitely not boring. Lucky for me, I had just finished my instrument training and my flying skills were probably at their peak. I landed after spotting the runway just seconds from having to call a missed approach.

It was 1980, and in a way it was the culmination of a dream I’d had since early childhood. There are many challenges in flying. But an instrument approach, at night, in clouds when the airport is only visible the very last second – or not –is probably the epitome of flying challenges, except, I suppose, for aerial combat. I had been accepted into the Air Force Aviation Cadet officer training program after a year of college. But then they decided that they had too many pilots and cancelled further classes. That was not long before the Vietnam war ramped up. Maybe that was just not my time to fly. Anyway, I never got around to learning to fly until several years after grad school.

Some skills, like flying, require constant practice.  Some are “mission critical,” like an instrument approach to an airport runway, when choosing to land or execute a “missed approach” involves a split-second survival decision that requires polished skills. Others, IMG_1112like fitting a part so that it will look just right in a piece of custom furniture you are making, can be much more leisurely in execution.  Neither is boring.  Craftsmanship is never boring. I don’t do instrument approaches anymore. It takes so much practice and I do not have to be there before the storm clears – I’m retired. Now, I practice woodworking at a more leisurely pace, and fly mostly for fun, without the pressures of having to get there “on time.” Besides, I have so much to do and all the time I want to take. None of it is boring.

Diary of a Mad Jubilado: (first in a series)

Jubilado Jubilee

“So much to do, so little time.”  That cliché never meant much to me.  The “so little time” part had no meaning.  I was busy with my life and there was always tomorrow.  It seemed as if I had all the time in the world. Careers go fast if you are busy and engaged. University teaching, for example, is not as simple or easy as most imagine if you take it seriously. In my case, like many professors, I was constantly challenged by students who were either ill-prepared or thought they already knew everything there was to know.  Many felt they merely had to get through this class in order to get that “piece of paper.” Any class was just another obstacle to getting the college degree.

Many unprepared students lack not only information about the world and about diverse fields of study; they also lack the critical thinking skills needed to excel in any field. That seems to be no deterrent to the ability of humans to be certain about whatever they happen to believe. Many just do not reflect on how they came to believe what they believe. It is very difficult to teach adults or even post-adolescent college students how to think clearly when most of the forces affecting their lives push them to believe one thing or another regardless of the evidence. Too much education is about accepting knowledge because of the authority behind it, rather than the evidence for it. Yet, many of my students retained their underlying curiosity despite the appallingly poor elementary and high school education that failed to prepare them for “higher learning.”

So here I am, more than a decade into ‘retirement’ now, with so much to do and so little time, it seems, to do all the things I want to do.  The term “retiree” always struck me as an odd word with a rather ominous tone, like “Senior Citizen.”  In some cultures, for example in the few “Blue Zones” around the world, where an inordinate number of elders live beyond 100 years, the local language has no word for “retirement.”

I have always liked the sounds of Spanish.  “Jubilado” is the Spanish equivalent of “retiree” in English.  “Jubilación” is “retirement” in Spanish.  Interestingly, the biblical meaning of “Jubilee” is “a yearlong period observed by Jews once every 50 years, during which Jewish slaves were to be freed, alienated lands were to be restored to the original owner or an heir, the fields were to be left untilled, and all agricultural labors were to be suspended. Lev. 25.” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/jubilee?s=t).  It seems that the underlying theme was not unlike our notion of a “vacation,” a distinct break with the ordinary oppressiveness of everyday life. Yet, those long-living denizens of the Blue Zones don’t take vacations, they just live consistent happy lives uncomplicated by industrial modernity.

Jubilee can also refer to the cancellation of all debts by the sovereign in ancient times when the accumulation of debt had become too burdensome and the concentration of wealth to extreme for the economy to function well. Wait, does that sound familiar? We may very well need a jubilee today. (For a fascinating account of debt and money in history, read David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years.)

It all seems a matter of how human groups have defined their relations to material objects in relation to one another. Most folks today look at money and debt as absolutes. They are not.

Nobody has cancelled my debts; thus, I remain the “Mad Jubilado.”

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NOTE: An earlier version of this post first appeared in http://www.aparallelworld.com, a site that brought environmentally conscious consumers together with like minded vendors in their area, until trolls and Russian bots took it down by so disrupting it that it could not continue on its small budget… a sign of the times…

Why Is Social Security So Insecure?

We all know that politics is rife with deceit of the public and deception of the self.  Claims as to the reasons a senator or congressman supports or opposes a bill or a policy are often merely “cover stories” hiding the widespread real reason the politicians vote the way they do – money.  The conflation of the financial status of Social Security with the problems of the national debt and the annual fiscal deficit of the U.S. is a case in point.  Much money is at stake, but rarely is the real issue directly faced.

Social Security is not part of the federal budget.  It is a self-funding program that provides very modest old-age and other benefits to those who have contributed to it during their working lives, and to certain dependants.  As they try to cut back benefits and destroy Social Security, politicians make disingenuous claims that they want to “protect the integrity” of Social Security.  They know that most Americans like the program and want it to survive.  In an economic environment where almost all private pension systems have been plundered by the corporations that administered them for the employees who contributed to them over entire careers only to lose it all at retirement, Social Security has become the de facto fall-back retirement system, despite it’s poverty level “benefits.”

Powerful forces, such as the national financial elite and extreme anti-government political ideologues, bent on destroying Social Security (and Medicare/Medicaid too, of course) don’t always have the same motivations.  The financial elite wants Social Security funds diverted into “private retirement savings accounts” to be managed by, you guessed it, their very own stock market brokerage firms.  What a windfall of commissions and fees that would be for the most powerful economic class!  And what a high-risk future for retirees!

But the growing insecurity of Social Security is a serious political problem simply because the corporate and financial elites and their congressional agents want it to be.  There is just too much money to be made for them to leave it alone.  Several simple changes in the system designed to compensate for both class injustices in the contributions of wealthy high-income employees versus average workers, and for generational changes in the demographics of employment and aging could easily be made without major problems of implementation.  However, those who would profit – either politically or financially – by the privatization/destruction of Social Security, carefully avoid the easy solutions to any long-term cash flow problems because they either want to take over the huge money flow involved or because they are politically opposed to any government social program that assists those in need.  The first group could be called the “Jackals of Wall Street” while the second group consists of extreme right-wing ideologues who oppose government no matter what.

But what’s the real issue?  Simply put, Social Security was originally conceived as an insurance program, meant to help those elders whose employment failed to afford them an adequate pension or life savings, to see them through after they could no longer work.  But with the corporate plunder of pension systems, Social Security became the default retirement system for most American workers.  Now, with the reduction of the vast majority of the middle class to near-poverty or poverty status, with personal life-savings virtually impossible for many to accumulate, and pension systems no more, Social Security is very often the last defense against homelessness and destitution.  If the Social Security payroll tax were applied to all personal income, including the millions of dollars in “executive compensation” in its many forms such as salaries, stock options, “incentive pay,” and bonuses of top CEOs, the fund would be sufficient to support the small “benefits” far into the foreseeable future for those who need it.

So, the real issue is whether the American people will tolerate the plunder of the Social Security system as they did corporate pensions, or whether they will demand that what was intended as a social insurance scheme actually be implemented as such.  That’s where the tricky language often applied to the Social Security debate needs to be overcome.  Insurance works on the basis of every “insured” person contributing and those who suffer losses collecting the benefits.  Simply put, if Social Security were actually implemented as a social insurance program rather than as a last-ditch inadequate retirement system –  and certainly not as a privatized “retirement savings account”  subject to the whims of the stock market – several principles would have to be invoked in order to make it work quite effectively.  They are:

  •  All personal income must be subject to the Social Security Payroll Tax.  Who has ever gotten fire insurance without paying the premium?  Why should high income earners not pay the premium on all their income?
  • Social Security benefits would be dispensed on the basis of need.  Who has ever collected on her/his fire insurance when there was no fire?   Why should wealthy retirees collect benefits from an insurance scheme designed to protect against the lack of income or loss of wealth in old age?
  • If one were so lucky as to have benefited from a prosperous pension system, then any Social Security benefit would be adjusted down on that basis.  And a formerly wealthy man who lost his fortune (stocks, bonds, dividends, buyouts, bonuses, “incentive pay”), would also draw the maximum Social Security benefit.  What’s wrong with that?
  • The net effect of the system should be that everyone could retire with assurance that they can live in at least modest comfort in their final years without fear of economic and social deprivation.

In an economic and social environment where so much income and wealth has been redistributed from the middle and lower classes of workers to the very top 0.1% of privileged Americans, only some form of re-redistribution can at this point re-establish a semblance of balance to the economy and stability to the society.  A real social security system would still be little more than a small compensation to those who have lost the most over their working lives to the insatiable greed of the financial elite.