Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Theresa's Guide to DC

It's spring here in DC, and the tourists are in bloom. It's ridiculous how quickly they've gone from complete dormancy to full bloom. Not that I wasn't aware of it before, but DC is a hot tourist spot, primarily for school groups, old people tour groups, and families. While I understand the attraction of the city and agree that everyone should visit at least once, I find myself a bit fed up with all the tourists. It's a bit difficult to live and work in a city that most of the country views as a vacation spot. So in the spirit of helpfulness, let me offer a few tips that will make life easier for us all.

1. The metro is not a toy. It's a mode of transportation that millions of local people use everyday to get to work and school. Therefore twirling around the poles or not holding on to see if you can maintain balance as the train stops and starts (which you inevitably cannot do) is not a good idea, especially during rush hour. If you really feel the need to do such, try 2pm. Not toomany are on the metro then. Speaking of rush hour, try to avoid it. The trains are crowded enough as it is, and really there's no need to get to the museums that early because they don't open until ten. And definitely do not bring your group of ten, twenty, thirty, or even more onto the metro at rush hour. There is no way you will all be able to stay together. Also, do not step off of the metro and then stop to get oriented. Walk away from the doors, move out of the way, and then orient yourself for however long you want. On the same note, don't stop right when you step onto the metro. Move down the aisle. The people behind you would also like to get on the train. Finally, yes, I know the metro may be new to you, but surely you have seen an escalator before. Use it the way you would any escalator, meaning please stand to the right, allowing those wishing to walk to pass safely on the left.

2. The sidewalks in DC are generally large. That is so they can hold a large amount of traffic, not so you can spread out across the entire thing and then crawl at a snail's pace. Seriously, when is the last time you walked with your family spread out in one big line? You don't do it at home, so why do it here? Some of us are actually trying to get somewhere. I prefer to have the walk from the metro to work take about five minutes, not fifteen, and yes, as spectacular as it is, I don't need to stop and gaze at the Washington monument every day. And if you do decide to stop suddenly and snap a picture and I'm walking right behind you, it makes it difficult for me to stop without running into you...or your million kids who are spread all the way across the sidewalk.

3. There's a lot to see in DC. It wouldn't hurt to do a little research before you set off. For instance, it might be good to look up some info on the Holocaust Museum and realize that we have a timed-ticket admission procedure and only offer a limited number of tickets each day. This means that if you arrive in the afternoon during tourist season there's a good chance we'll be out of tickets. And despite what you may believe, I, nor anyone else at the museum, can make anymore tickets appear, even if you traveled all the way from the moon just to go to the Holocaust Museum. And seriously, if you'd come all the way to DC just to go the Holocaust Museum, I think you would have done your research and gotten to the museum in time to get tickets.

Okay, I'll go ahead and leave it at that for now. Really, I don't want to have to harm you, and I'd love for you to enjoy your trip, just please don't make my life difficult. Thanks in advance.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

So Much To Do, So Little Time to Do It

I'm apparently living in a different world than our country's leaders are. The world I live in has genocides happening in Africa, has ever increasing terrorism in the Middle East, has millions of people with inadequate health care, has disturbing acts of teen violence, and the list goes on. I don't mean to be completely negative as the world I live in has many positives, but there are a whole lot of issues that I feel our elected officials have a responsibility to address. Strangely enough but the Schiavo case, steroids in baseball, and my right to travel to Cuba aren't anywhere on my list of things Congress should be investing its time and energy in.

How absolutely ridiculous is it that Congress and the President intervened in the Schiavo case? The case has been heard by numerous courts, and while crazy political maneuverings keep upsetting the decision, the standard court response is that her husband has the right to remove her feeding tube. While I find it terrible that the whole thing has been drug through the legal process so much, that is why we have courts. They exist to hear cases and make judgments based on the laws of our country. Laws that aren't meant to be changed at the whim of some politician, especially any politician who sees changing a law or intervening in a case as a way to win support for him and his party instead of protecting the rights of the people he/she represents. I am disgusted by reports in the paper that say Bush and his Republican chronies see their actions as a way of winning over more conservatives. Excuse me, but this is a woman's life we are talking about. An absolutely defenseless woman should not be manipulated in such a way. It is despicable. I hope the appelate court holds up the ruling and lets Mrs. Schiavo finally go in peace and lets the issue dissipate. It's a terrible situation, but after fifteen years and no signs of improvement, I think it's beyond time. It's a shame that it has come to this. If nothing else, maybe this will inspire more of us to look into living wills and to make our wishes known to all of our close relatives, and not just the ones who we believe would have legal authority, since apparently legal authority can be easily tampered with. As for me, I know that I don't consider a life like the one Mrs. Schiavo has to be a life at all. Sometimes tubes and machines are needed to protect a fragile life and allow the body to regenerate, but if the body doesn't recover after a reasonable amount of time, then it's time to let go. Really, shouldn't quality of life be the most important factor? I know it is for me.

Steroids in baseball. I think it stinks. I think it's terrible to think that the astonishing records of men who played pure games are being broken by men who pump their bodies full of drugs which increase strength. I hate to think that truly talented players can't make it if they don't join in the masses of players padding their stats through their use of steroids. I am angry that the men who tons of children hold up as idols are doing things that every parent tries to warn their children against. But I don't think Congress needs to subpoena players and throw a circus. Major League Baseball needs to handle this situation. While they've neglected it for much too long, they are finally addressing it, and with continued pressure from the public and from within, they will be forced to take a stance on steroids much like the NFL and other professional sports leagues. It's might be our national pasttime, but it's just a game. And I wish Congress would see that most of the world doesn't have much time for games.

Cuba. Lind of cigars, communism, and Castro. Yes, Cuba isn't a particularly friendly country as far as the US goes. Neither are North Korea, China, Algeria, Iran, and a slew of other countries with either communist or totalitarian leanings and with strong feelings of dislike for the US. So what's the difference here? Well the difference is that no matter how much you want to, you, as an American citizen, can't travel to Cuba. You can go to any of the others. You might be warned against it, even strongly advised against it, but you won't be stopped. Not true of Cuba. It's the only country in the world that the American government forbids Americans to enter. While always true, lately the penalty has gotten harsh. In the past, the government generally turned its head if you managed to get into Cuba through Mexico or some other gateway. Maybe they'd slap you with a small fine. Now, if they find out you've gone to Cuba, they will hunt you down, prosecute you, and possibly send you to jail for a decade. For what, exactly? Smoking cigars? Seriously, I don't think the United States has any business telling me where I can and cannot travel. I appreciate their warnings. I like being informed of places that might be hostile. But to be outright banned from traveling, especially to a country that while perhaps not friendly to our government isn't really risky for a traveler, disturbs me. Honestly, I have no strong urge to go there at this point, but it bothers me that I can't. It just doesn't make sense. Interestingly, there is one way to be allowed to visit Cuba by the American government: If you go with a religious group, you're allowed to go. Huh? What ever happened to separation of church and state? I had no idea that evangelizing was state-sponsored. Shows how much I know.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Now Where Exactly Is $5.15/hour Enough to Live? (Yes, I do mean in the US)

Thank God I don't make minimum wage. Oh, right, I pretty much do. They just trick me by calling it a stipend and giving it to me in one lump sum without making me report actual hours worked. Okay, well then thank God that I'm not solely dependent on my income to get by, because there is no way that I could do that, and I'm just talking about taking care of me, myself, and I.

The Senate just struck down an initiative to raise minimum wage and made it quite clear that there's not much of a chance of a raise happening during the next two years. It's a shame. The other day I was in a store where they had the federal wage laws posted. I looked over them and realized that it has been over seven years since the minimum wage was raised. In 1996, it was raised to $4.75. In 1997, it was raised to $5.15. It's been that ever since. I remember $5.15, because that was minimum wage the year I first started working. I was lucky...I made more than minimum wage, pulling in a whopping $5.25 an hour. It was fine for me. Back then I was sixteen. I had few expenses. I could put gas in the car for under $1.00 per gallon. But the problem is that while minimum wage has held the same, nothing else has. The cost of gas is approaching $2.15, and may go higher by this summer. It seems like those on minimum wage will now have to work a full day just to fill up their cars. And that's not the only thing that has gone up - rent, groceries, bus fare, just about anything you can think of. Everything is more expensive, so it makes no sense to me that the government thinks people can still get by on a measly salary of $5.15 per hour. That's hardly enough for a sixteen year old to think that working might be worthwhile. But the sad truth is that there are many people well beyond the age of sixteen who are only making minimum wage. These people have to worry about more than gas for their car and money for the weekends. They have to pay rent. They have to pay for health insurance (since most minimum wage jobs don't come it). They have to pay for clothes. They have to make car payments and pay for insurance, maintanence, and gas. They have to buy all their food. And some of them have to pay for all of this not just for themselves, but also for their children. Come on, there's just no way that the minimum wage is a livable wage.

Sure, I know the arguments against raising minimum wage - it will increase inflation or it will cause companies to lay people off - but I don't really believe them. Inflation seems to be increasing just fine on its own and the job market isn't very rosy even with the pathetic minimum wage we currently have. Companies won't lay people off if they actually need those people's help. If they did, they'd just have to pay current employees overtime, and that's way more expensive. Sure, they wouldn't have as many "benefits" to pay for, but most minimum wage jobs don't have any benefits to speak of, and if that was a true concern of the businesses, they'd lay off those people now and save on the benefits.

It's really sad that the men and women who were elected to public office (with the help of many people probably making nothing but minimum wage) and who like to give raises to themselves although they are already making very high salaries and collecting magnificent benefits, don't think that America's lowest income workers deserve a raise. It's not a hand-out. It's a long overdue right for people who work fulltime to earn enough to live. Being paid enough for one's work to maintain a minimum standard of living should not be a privilege, but a right.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Weighted Scales

Just a few days ago I finished reading Shake Hands with the Devil, Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire's account of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. At the beginning of February I had heard him speak at the Holocaust Museum. He's an interesting man. A very high-ranking Canadian general who was chosen to "lead" the UN Peacekeeping Force in Rwanda. Obviously a powerful and skilled man. But also very different from the typical (or maybe more accurately, stereotypical) military man, as he is extremely compassionate, very liberal-minded, and quite forward with his emotions. He doesn't hide the fact that he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, the highest ranking soldier in the world to admit to it. Honestly, I'm not sure how someone who lived through what he lived through could not suffer from it. I put "lead" in quotation marks above, because while he was the on-the-ground commander who was responsible for life and death decisions for both UN soldiers and Rwandan civilians, he was constantly having his strings pulled by the UN and in particular by its security council. Never receiving the men, the supply, or the intelligence to do what he needed to do, he, his troops, and the entire country of Rwanda were at the mercy of a bunch of bureacrats who had little, if any, concern for Rwanda.

While I think we all know that where we choose to use our military might has always been dictated by what that country has to offer us, our lack of concern for the world and humanity has never been so clear as it was in Rwanda. By we/us/our, I mean the United States, and I also mean the other powerful first-world nations - Germany, France, Britain, Belgium, etc. The soldiers who made up the UN peacekeeping team in Rwanda were mainly from countries who were not a whole lot better off than Rwanda - Senegal, Ghana, Bangladesh. The Belgians did send some soldiers, and ten of them died in Rwanda, but as representatives of the former colonial power who had set up the entire Hutu/Tutsi division, they weren't really the best choice for a peacekeeping mission. We didn't send troops, because honestly, we didn't care what happened in Rwanda. They had nothing to offer us. In fact, bureaucrats who were sent to evaluate what was going on during the first days of the genocide were so bold as to put into print: "We will recommend to our government not to intervene as the risks are high and all that is here are humans." Yes, just humans. No oil, no honor in battling communism (as the UN's most powerful nations were doing at the time in Yugoslavia). Nothing but people. Having recently suffered the loss of a handful of American lives in Somalia during the "Blackhawk Down" episode, America wasn't willing to risk any of our lives in order to protect the nearly one million Rwandans whose lives were at risk. Our lives were worth more. In fact, much more than you would ever guess. During the last weeks of Dallaire's stay in Rwanda, he received word from Washington that US calculations had indicated that it would take 85,000 Rwandan lives to justify the risking of the life of one American soldier. Apparently my life is worth 85,000 lives. Incredible. And disgusting. The entire population killed during the Rwandan genocide, 850,000 people, was only equivalent to 10 American lives.

It makes me feel ashamed to think that my country believes that. Yes, I like to think that my life is valuable. In fact, I know it is. But it's no more valuable than the life of someone else. Why should it be otherwise. Because I was born in a wealthy and developed country where I had the opportunity to be educated and to live a rich life, I am automatically a more valuable person? That's absurd. How can we justify this? How can we devalue the Rwandan lives so much? Is it because they are poor, and we are rich? Is it because they are uneducated, and we are educated? Is it because they are black Africa, and we are white America? I just don't understand.

Every person on this earth has value. That is Dallaire's message in this book. Incredibly, despite the absolute lack of humanity that he witnessed (both in watching Rwandans kill Rwandans and in watching as the rest of the world turned its collective head), Dallaire is still hopeful that this world can be a peaceful place. For that to happen, he says that we first must realize that no human is more human than any other human. We are all human. We are all valuable. We all deserve to live a full life. Let that be a lesson to us. In our every day life and in our worldy life. In the way we treat each person we encounter, in the expectations we set for our government and our leaders, in the way we look at the world, let's each remember that every person we meet is a valuable human being. Let's remember that humanity is not reserved for only the educated or the wealthy or the white, but applies to all people in all places. Let's all be human and humane.