Monday, June 29, 2009

Can Someone Please Talk About Joe Jackson?

Okay, I'm sorry. In the words of Michael and Janet Jackson's performance of "Scream"...I just can't take this.

Michael Jackson was tragic. Whatever his personal demons, they were, by his own admission, a part of his stolen childhood. The pint-sized performer and his brothers (and, eventually, his sister) were pushed to become superstars by their father, Joe. Michael said in later years that his father beat him. And now Joe Jackson is being held up as the broken-hearted, bereaved father with no mention of how his behavior contributed to his son's travesty of a life.

Joe Jackson is not the model of black fatherhood. He is not a fine human being who held his family together. This is one father whose absence might well have been the best thing that could have happened to his children.

I've shaken my head, I've wanted to yell back at the TV. And this morning I saw that Michael Jackson's three children are currently in the care of his mother. And his father?

Maybe the Jacksons have split. If so, I have nothing more to say. Kathleen Jackson seems to have done the best she could for her kids short of taking their father out of the picture. I know that is a difficult choice for a mother and I make no judgements.

Joe Jackson is another story. Another stage father pushing his children to achieve what he didn't. Another drill sergeant turning children into performing robots, driven by his own desire for success and fortune. He was, by all accounts, a philandering, abusive father. He shouldn't be within fifty miles of his son's children.

This isn't about Michael Jackson. This isn't about Joe Jackson. This about three children who have undoubtedly had a pretty weird childhood and will have a struggle to achieve any sense of normalcy.

I don't know if there's someone in that family who can step up and try to offer those kids a stable environment. I hope there is. But I'm certain it's not Joe Jackson and I hope he's nowhere near them because I don't believe he deserves to be in their lives.

Second thoughts: I am absolutely horrified to see that I am in complete agreement with cable scream queen Nancy Grace on this. It makes me wonder if perhaps I'm totally wrong.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Peaceable Kingdom Is Coming - Pass It On

Did you see the climate change issue differently after watching Al Gore's
"An Inconvenient Truth"? Then you are the audience for a new film that's about to be released by NY-based filmmakers Tribe of Heart.

It's a movie that will change the way you see farm animals. I saw it as part of their pre-release audience testing. It is called "Peaceable Kingdom, The Journey Home".

Filmmakers Jenny Stein and James LaVeck have made a powerful film on a controversial issue, but they've kept a compassionate touch. Rather than strident demands for change, they've focused the film on livestock farmers whose own lives transformed when they began to question what they were doing. The answers to those questions haven't been easy, and their conclusions have cost them friendships and a great deal of money. But those answers have also created amazing relationships with animals they once considered food. The softening of their hearts is reflected in their faces.

Tribe of Heart goes to farm animal sanctuaries and introduces us to farm animals in a way many of us have never experienced. Once you've gotten to know them, it is impossible to believe they are any less individual, sentient creatures than the pets we love.

There is inescapable evidence that our factory farm, mass produced food system is dangerous. The latest recall involves the most benign food of all - cookie dough. Tribe of Heart goes behind the scenes, showing the creatures at those farms, showing the conditions in which they live and the way they die. These are tough scenes to watch, but open your own heart. Realize that what you eat, what you ate at your last meal, came from those conditions. Be brave enough to see where that food that's presented so neatly wrapped at your cavernous grocery store really comes from. If it raises questions in your own mind - all the better.

Open yourself to the possibility of change. "Peaceable Kingdom - The Journey Home" is a great first step.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

What I'm Reading: Second Chances

I don't ordinarily plug books. I read a lot, mostly non-fiction these days thanks to my job. But I had the good fortune of stumbling across this book and sat down with a cup of coffee and a good pair of reading glasses this morning. And I must spread the word. This is one terrific read.

I have not run across a book with characters I loved so much since "To Kill A Mockingbird". No, this has absolutely nothing to do with that book in any way. But it is full of fully formed, lovable, flawed and quirky characters, all on their own path to healing and second chances.

I love Elizabeth Berg. I love, with more reservations, Anne Tyler and Alice Hoffman. I have no reservations about this book and it's going up there with my favorites.

In it are little gems of insights about marriage, relationships, philosophy and women. Men who are puzzled by women should read it. Women who are frustrated with men should read it. I haven't been moved to tears by a book in a very long time. I choked up as I read a passage where a man with a troubled marriage reflects on what led him to put achievement before feelings.

When did you last read a book where the tango, tap dancing, dogs, treehouses and bagpipes were all paths to enlightenment?

I now have to read the author's other work to see if I love her writing unreservedly. I have absolutely no reservations about this book.

Read it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Stand Up and Speak Out

Doesn't Iran make you a little ashamed? We who live in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave act like a bunch of depressed teenagers. Are we mad at Congress? Sure we are. Are we disappointed in politics as usual? You bet. Would we like to have a system of health care that we can afford? Oh yes. Are we doing anything about it?


We watch CNN and Fox, we yell at the TV, we shake our heads and argue on Facebook and Twitter. But when does outrage and indignation become action?

Try this. Add your name to a list that's going to be televised, a list of people who are demanding Congress act on health care reform.

It's easy. It's painless. You don't even have to get out of your chair.

When you're done, you can go back to watching the latest political follies, from the governor/Argentinian jetsetter to the playground brats who call themselves the NY Senate.

You are in awe of the bravery of the protesters in Iran. Okay, then why don't you do something, too?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Iran Human Rights Advocates: Obama's Doing It Right

I spoke this morning with Hadi Ghaemi. He's the director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, headquartered in NYC. He's currently in Paris with Roxana Saberi, whose insights into Iran's attempts to shut down information coming out of the country are particularly apropos in the wake of the upheaval following last week's election.

My first question was simple - did you, at least, see this coming?

Ghaemi said he didn't. No one did, most importantly, he says, not even the Iranian government. He thinks the protesters have surprised even themselves since the election, and created the beginnings of a movement toward real change in Iran by the strength of their outrage.

Ghaemi says from a human rights point of view, neither of the candidates were a welcome choice - but there was a third candidate, Mehdi Karoubi, who had promised important human rights reform. According to blogs claiming to have official figures leaked by the Interior Ministry, Karoubi came in second to Mir-Hossein Mousavi...with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a distant third.

Ghaemi now describes the people of Iran as waiting to find their way...he believes a movement has been born. He doesn't expect Mousavi to continue as its leader, but he equates what's happening to the creation of the women's movement, the student movement, the labor movement. Now that they've discovered their power, he thinks they'll next start planning how to flex their previously undetected muscle. He says things may grow quiet for a while - but he believes that doesn't mean this is over. Just how bloody the confrontation is depends, he says, on the Iranian government's response.

How about the flack America's president is taking for his response to the bloodshed in Tehran? "America's response so far is absolutely correct," Ghaemi says. He points out that the US has absolutely no relationship with Iran - no trade, no diplomatic relations, political relations - and the US has no leverage. There is nothing the United States can do in a practical way, and inserting itself into the events on any level other than moral grounds is unrealistic and unproductive.

Listen to the full interview here:

Friday, June 19, 2009

Another Year on the Ball

It's my birthday. It's my daughter's birthday, too, which I think is very cool. Not sure if she agrees or just placates me to be a good sport.

It's been another roller coaster year - trips to the ER, recoveries, symptoms of work burnout, awards. I've been here more than half a century now. I still don't have it figured out. But I have noticed one thing - changes, problems, miracles; they all come in groups.

If life is suddenly unbearable, you can be sure that whatever's bothering you is about to be complicated by even more stuff that makes you wonder why you were complaining before.

If you're in flux, just wait. That flux will morph into chaos in a blink and what was a small knot in your life will become a major tangle.

But the universe is even-handed. If something wonderful happens, be prepared for a wave of unbelievable and mind-blowing companion events.

What's that all about, anyway? Is it an example of quantum accumulating and drawing even more similar energy? If you're religious, is it your deity either answering your prayers in abundance or testing your faith? Is it coincidence? That last seems least likely to me. I'm buying the first.

That quantum stuff is tricky - whatever you put energy into, whatever you concentrate on, is what you get. No value, no judgement. You put it out there, the universe makes sure you get it. So when life has you down and you're lying on the floor, just waiting for the anvil to drop from the sky, the universe will oblige. And knowing that doesn't make it any easier to stop expecting that anvil.

When blessings rain down and you're dizzy with gratitude, you're wide open to receive even more. Anything is possible.

But that quantum stuff puts it all directly in our control. We create our reality. I have to admit that I'm sometimes not pleased with what I create.

So I guess I have to figure out how to let go of the value judgements, be a little more Buddhist about it - it just is. It's not good, it's not bad, it'll just IS right now.

I'm dealing with a little of the good and a little of the bad at the moment, probably a good balanced place from which to consider.

Happy birthday to me - another year to work on it.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Letting Go - Not My Strong Suit

It's been a rough emotional week. You don't need the details nor do I need to share them, but suffice to say that I'm getting slapped in the face with the fact that my kids aren't kids anymore. They're young adults. If I even consider forgetting it, I get hit again.

They're good people, my kids. My son's now 22, my daughter will be 20 next week. They're struggling, as almost everyone is right now. They've got the mandatory worries about their future plans that no one except perhaps a zealot ever escapes. They've got talents and they've got interests, but they also worry about choosing the wrong way, putting too much energy into a choice that later proves to be a dead end.

Then they're worried about money. And that worry is compounded by the fact that their parents are worried about money, too. College, something their dad and I managed without much angst, is a loan-heavy monster they both must carry on their backs while I try to find ways to get rich and help them.

They're carrying heavy responsibilities, adult-sized worries that make my heart ache. I want to scoop them up, hold them close and rock them until the burdens fall away. I wish that I still had the super mommy power to make everything alright, to let them rest knowing that they're safe, that someone who loves them dearly is watching over them, someone who would throw herself in front of a freight train to save them. I would still do that.

And there's my conflict. For me, having children was an experience in not just responsibility, but empowerment. I've always been "easy to get along with". I will bend into shapes impossible for a yogi in an attempt to avoid conflict. Unless you mess with my kids.

"You aren't very nice where your children are concerned," my father informed me after I made it clear that teasing his three year old grandson until he cried was unacceptable.
"You're a tiger."

I was. I am. I make no apologies. But my cubs are grown.

So what do I do with this hard-wired imperative to protect them at all costs? They probably, in some ways, wish I could leap in, clear the obstacles, solve the problems, turn them toward a point in the distance and say with confidence, "Go that way. There's your happy future."

In other ways they, quite rightly, don't want me involved at all. These are their lives.

So I am forced to stand by the side, aware of their struggles, longing to fix everything, to save them pain, yet unable to move because I know those struggles are part of what strengthens them for the challenges life inevitably brings.

I am rooted, a coiled spring of potential energy with nowhere to go.

Nobody told me about this part of parenting. Not that it would have helped.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Gentrification In A Recession

We took a recession-style vacation: one night at the beach. It was grand, despite a soggy, cold, blustery second day. The first night, after two trips to the beach, we decided to follow the sound of the waves to another beach and were rewarded with the rising of a blood red moon. Magnificent.

The beach is at Watch Hill, Rhode Island, a place I've been running to for years when my need for waves becomes overpowering. KB had never been there and it was fun to share it with him.

But it has changed.

It's always been wealthy. The yachts docked in the harbor are not your average, "Hey, we got a boat!" models. One of the regulars is the Aphrodite, a yacht with beauty, class and history. That's a pretty good description of Watch Hill, too. Hidden behind hedges of beach roses and boxwoods are mansions only rivaled by the castles of Newport.

But Watch Hill also has a state beach so long and lovely that it draws day visitors from everywhere. There used to be four parking lots where, for under twenty dollars, you could leave the car, grab the plastic pails and peanut butter sandwiches, and watch your children build sandcastles and frantically dig moats to try to protect them from the waves.

I haven't been there in a couple of years - it's a long drive from where I live now.
But when I had some time off and we realized we hadn't seen the ocean in two years, it seemed the right place for a quick trip.

It has changed and is still changing.

Gone are three of the parking lots. They are now private, permit-only lots for residents or guests of the only hotel in town. Gone is the massive, decaying Victorian Ocean House - or rather gone is the original run down dowager as it's being rebuilt into a luxury spa/hotel/condo complex that only the top one percent will be able to afford.

The run down shack that housed the used book store and pizza joint? Remodeled into a lovely building with condos on the second floor.

Two hour parking is the rule on the streets, which means you'll be getting a ticket if you can't find a spot to park in the last remaining lot.

A little town that once had perhaps two real estate offices on the main street now has at least five. Each of them has pictures of multi-million dollar homes and condos for sale or rent plastered on their display windows.

What's it mean?

Watch Hill, already pretty rarefied, is becoming a private enclave. Slowly, quietly and deliberately, the majority of visitors are being closed out by the simple act of leaving them nowhere to park and nowhere to stay.

There is one reasonably priced place to stay left, but even that is being eyed hungrily by a developer who, once the recession is over, hopes to buy it, tear it down and build luxury condos in its place.

Just a few miles down the road is Misquamicut, the state beach that welcomes the common folk. And no doubt the developers who are gentrifying Watch Hill point to that beach as a reasonably priced alternative for those who can't afford sixty thousand dollars for a July rental in Watch Hill.

Misquamicut is great for teenagers - it's a long, bare beach with great waves that boils over with humanity and offers shack after shack of lodging and beach shops.
It depresses me beyond all telling.

What I love about Watch Hill beaches are their comparative emptiness, even when there were more places for visitors to park. I loved that my children could run free even when they were small because it was easy to keep an eye on them there.
I loved that Watch Hill was well kept, a little exclusive, a little beyond my reach. I respected its class and I think there was a certain tone there that demanded more of its visitors. There were undoubtedly drunken beer parties on the beach sometimes - but it sure didn't look like it was a common occurrence. The beaches weren't littered with broken glass, with old condoms, with garbage. Watch Hill's beaches are so lovely that no one could stand seeing them defiled. I didn't get that feeling at Misquamicut.

Soon, unless you're one of the lucky few that can drop five million dollars on a summer place, Watch Hill will be closed. There will be no signs or gates demanding you prove your financial status, but it will happen just the same.

And don't think that because we're in a recession that anything is changed. The mansions of Watch Hill are under construction, under renovation; new mansions are being built on the rocky shore. The summer folk of Watch Hill are just fine, thank you.

I'm a bit jealous, yes. I'd love to be able to claim a piece of that ocean. But I'm angry that I'm going to be locked out. I love it there, too.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Accepting What Is - Being Peace

I just finished a book I highly recommend: At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey From War to Peace. The author is American Buddhist monk and Vietnam vet Claude AnShin Thomas.

I met AnShin more than a year ago. He was speaking at a conference in NYC and I went down to interview him. He is a mendicant monk, meaning he travels, lives on offering's he's given, and accepts no payment for work he does.

He has walked across the United States. He has walked across the scenes of war and war crimes all over Europe and done services at cemeteries, at former prison camps, at former death camps.

We hit it off, this thoughtful man and I. Perhaps it was because I knew enough from a weekend Buddhist retreat to make him comfortable that I understood the basics of what he is doing and why. Or perhaps it was just a case of finding each other sympatico. After a long chat about his workshops with veterans and their families, I found myself telling him about my idea for the Everyday People Project. His enthusiasm for it was surprising and sincere.

AnShin has the look of a Buddhist monk, but there is a sense of coiled energy under careful control that doesn't fit the "still waters" stereotype Hollywood sells. His own story is one of learning to embrace life's suffering, of accepting that pain as a path to finding peace with it and letting it go.

After all this time, and even after speaking with him to help publicize scholarships available for his workshops at the Omega Institute this year, I still hadn't read his book. But I opened it this week and ended up reading for an hour or more as I drank my coffee in the morning.

I like AnShin even better now.

At Hell's Gate is a powerful story, simply told, of one man's attempts to transform his life while discovering who he is and learning to accept what he finds.

AnShin doesn't preach, he doesn't try to get anyone to embrace Buddhism, spirituality or even discuss the politics of war. What he does talk about are the roots of violence, and how each of us must accept the fact that war begins within us. Each of us, he points out, has our own personal Vietnam.

I've been confronted with the anger and fear that people I care about, smart people, display over issues that, to me, seem about nothing more than basic human rights. The right to marry. The right to have access to health care. The right to decent working conditions. And my reaction has been anger, too. Anger at what I consider a Darwinian view of humanity, anger at the conviction that everything on this planet was put here to serve a small, superior group of humans. Anger at the increasingly strident and nasty tone of the debates, both in my own life and on a national level.
I react to anger with hopelessness.

AnShin offers techniques to help deal with anger, with fear and with the emotional scars of violence. He doesn't suggest you chant it away or smoke it out with sandalwood incense. He urges you to breathe - to notice the anger, watch it gather strength, then, observed but unexpressed, watch it dissipate. Note where it comes from. Act on it only from a place of compassion and connection...not a place of superiority. It is a mighty workout - and one that could change the world if we each participated. AnShin writes that we cannot wait for the rest of the world to join in - all we can do is change ourselves.

At Hell's Gate ends with one of the most powerful paragraphs I've ever read - a paragraph urging each of us to find and accept the roots of suffering in our lives, understand them, and embrace life as it is, not as we wish it was or wish it might be.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Thought Trails As a Baby Sleeps

The picture was taken through our front window. Miss Jane Doe, as we called her, was apparently dropped off by her mom very early in the morning and told to stay put while mom ran off to do a few deer-errands.

She can't be more than a week old - her body is just about the same size as our fat cat's, though her legs are impossibly long.

I watched her all day, compulsively checking on her through the window to be sure she was okay. We have coyotes here. In fact, the first week I lived here, before KB got here, I heard a deer being killed under the weeping cherry on the other side of the house. I have never heard anything so horrific, ever. I hope never to hear it again.

So my concern was legitimate, and I was fully prepared to go out and defend her with a baseball bat if necessary.

It wasn't.

She stayed curled up in a ball all day, occasionally waking to look around, once standing up and peeking out from her sheltered spot behind the flowers, then blinking and curling back up to sleep some more.

By ten pm, we were worried. She was still there. It was getting colder. I'd already gone online and saw that the number one rule with "abandoned" fawns is to stay away. But what if mom didn't come back?

It was a rough couple of hours - an attempt to distract myself with television led me to an insultingly simplified yet hope-crushing view of the future on some network. The gist was that climate change would be creating disaster, even with heroic attempts to address it, and things were going to be pretty damned grim even in my own children's lifetime. Thanks. That helps.

I've been fighting a sense of hopelessness for a while, and it's shaking my sense of myself as an optimist and an idealist. The issues are so huge and humans have such basic errors in their assumptions that solutions seem like an incredible longshot.

Take food, for example. Do we really understand the cost of what we eat? No, no, no, I'm not some holier than thou vegan fanatic. I should be vegan. I can't be holier than thou since I know the reasons why and I'm still not doing it.

But Jenny Stein and James LaVeck came over recently to show KB the nearly-final version of Tribe of Heart's new documentary, "Peaceable Kingdom". It tells the story of the transformation of three farm families who suddenly questioned the assumption that everything in the world is here to serve humanity.

What if Man isn't the crown of creation? What if we treat animals like sentient beings? Can we then even bear to think of what we do to them?

But challenging that assumption is massive - it goes against even what many religions have institutionalized: God put Man in charge and everything in it is here to serve his needs.

That's put us where we are. That removes us from the web of interconnectedness that is our ecosystem, and entitles us to exploit all resources for our own comfort and gain. Drill, baby, drill. Suck up all that oil so we can drive. Breed those animals so we can eat. Develop that land so we can shop. Test those toxins on animals so we're safe. Dump that waste someplace and to hell with the consequences because we NEED that nuclear energy, that chemical, that drug, that plastic, that road, that fuel.

And we DO need much of it. That's the problem. We have created an insatiable society and to step back into the environmental web and take our places as equals rather than rulers, we'd have to completely change how we live.

What are the odds of that? We are some of nature's most helpless creatures with a talent for technology and a massive sense of entitlement.

See why I'm discouraged? It feels to me today like society is hurtling toward its inevitable end while most of us are yelling "faster, faster!" It just doesn't make sense, but I guess that's what denial looks like.

So that's where my head's at and it's not pretty. But there is one bit of good news.

Miss Jane Doe, after worrying us for several hours, quietly disappeared sometime around midnight. I'm hoping that means Mom finally got home.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Sayonara, GM - What Now?

Do we, as Michael Moore wrote this morning, now own 60% of General Motors? As shareholders, do we get a vote in its future?

I'm lining up squarely behind Moore - and no, it's no kneejerk reaction but a position I held before he articulated it so well.

We do not need another car company. Cars are the past. We've used and abused something that should have been an alternative to mass transit, not a replacement for it. This country needs to build for the future.

We used to cross the country by rail. Our fixation with the car ended that - now we just ship goods that way. Amtrak barely survived the past couple of decades and it's still far too expensive to be a realistic alternative to cars. That's got to change. Add more options, create competition and that price goes down.

Light rail and bullet trains can be built that are easier on the environment. And now we have the factories to build them.

Mr. President, retool those factories. Use the GM workers, workers whose future is currently so bleak, to build trains. Use unemployed construction workers to lay more track. Create a new infrastructure for the new millenium, a millenium that, so far, has been sucking out the last drop of blood from the prior one.

Instead of throwing money at corporations, invest in research to create the next generation of sustainable transportation. Retrain those workers. Perhaps even, (revolutionary thought) retrain truckers, whose industry was hit in the solar plexus by the fluctuation in gas prices, to maintain and operate those new trains. Reduce truck traffic, offer truckers a reliable new career, reduce pollution.

Propping up corporations which have no intention of retooling or revamping, which should be allowed to fail - which deserve to fail and which will ultimately fail because they are based upon an non-sustainable business model, is a waste of our money.

Spend it on our future.