Sunday, August 30, 2009

SK Hand Tools Strike

It's tough to be an employer and keep up with your employees' insurance premiums as the costs go up, up, up. Sometimes painful choices have to be made, and making those announcements to your workers is agony for all but the Scrooges.

What you do not do, however, is simply stop paying the premiums, cutting off all health insurance, without telling the employees. This is unbelievable. I mean, really unbelievable.

SK Hand Tools, as recently as Wednesday, seemed to be attempting to blame the insurance company. Imagine that: the insurance company canceling your policy when you don't pay.

You'd better believe those employees are striking.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Speaking of Rationing...

We are a long ways off from rationing energy, but health care? We are warned by partisans that if we pass any kind of health reform, rationing will inevitably result.

We already ration health care. Why do you think we have scenes like this in the United States?

From the Washington Post:

This is not an arguable proposition. It is not a difference of opinion, or a conversation about semantics. We ration. We ration without discussion, remorse or concern. We ration health care the way we ration other goods: We make it too expensive for everyone to afford.

As supported by surveys and data that ought to be front page news on every reputable newspaper. Headline: We Already Ration Health Care.

Doomsday Is Not Necessarily Doomsday

Assuming I live as long as my grandparents have lived, I may live to see some very interesting changes indeed.

Life as it is currently lived, the way we distribute and exchange things now, depends on resources that are running out. I am not willing to bet a dollar we are going to make meaningful changes before there is a crisis. Heck, the crisis is already getting underway. The effect of climate change alone (whatever one argues about its origins) is exerting its effect on the economy -- which of course means only now is it a 'real' issue.

So when the oil is finally scarce enough that its price balloons, and gas prices explode; as coal becomes too costly to produce to be cheap; to the extent we have lagged in backing up these resources with renewable energy technology; things are gonna change drastically.

There is much talk of improving efficiency now, but the notion of reducing use is still verboten. It reminds me a bit of the way Los Angeles deals with traffic congestion by expanding the freeways. The effect is a bit like controlling your obesity by letting out your pants: the tendency is to expand when you open up more room.

So it is with efficiency. There was a very good article about this concept this week by Don Fitz of the Green Party:

Energy efficiency is like putting energy on sale. If you insulate your home, get a fuel efficient car, or buy an appliance that runs on less electricity, then your energy costs go down. This makes it cheaper to use energy. Just as making energy more expensive means people will use less, making energy cheaper (or more efficient) leads to the expectation that people will use more.

The doomsday scenario is that we are reaching the end of our petri dish and, like a culture studied by high school biology students, we will inevitably expand and consume everything until we suffocate in our own excrement.

More likely, methinks, is that we will reach the end of our imagined petri dish. We will have to make choices that previously have been unimaginable to us, to radically change our relations and our arrangements once the choice is no longer ours to make.

Talk about revolution from the grass-roots! That would literally be revolution forced by the grass roots.

The Fitz article, as you will have seen if you clicked the link, is pro-rationing, and examines some theories about equitable ways to do that. Carbon rationing will be a difficult sell in a nation that values consumer liberty -- don't tell us how much energy we can use, just send me the bill and shut up.

The notion that we have already passed a tipping point, or an "oh shit moment," vis a vis our climate is not new. But it isn't really an "oh shit moment" until human beings feel what is happening and conjure the changing of an era by saying, "oh shit!" and doing something. Until then, we are still in a stage of denial. We put funny-looking light bulbs in our lamps and dutifully sort our trash and otherwise carry on as we have. This of course makes the later confrontation more dramatic and difficult.

If it comes to rationing, I hope the system put in place is equitable and fair. That's going to depend on who says, "Oh shit" first, and what they do. It might be a lot easier if we start discussing our options sooner rather than later, and start envisioning what changes we might have to make in the way we get stuff, the way we sell stuff, and the way we share it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Anthony Abeson

The man was always in a blazer, collared shirt, with the tie loosened. And blue jeans. Back then, his hair and beard were not white. It was 1990 when we met. He was one of my first acting teachers. Our acting class was in a big room on the top floor of the Eugene Lang College in Greenwich Village.

Just discovered his web site tonight. God love him. A wonderful, passionate man of theatre and a good acting teacher. All these people on his website look like children to me. I'm so glad they know him.

The web site features some of Tony's writing. I have to share this with my readers. It is right, and reminds me how much he influenced me:

Read Tennessee Williams' wonderful poem, "The Dangerous Painters," which says that they put the masterpieces behind heavy gilt frames and red velvet ropes in museums because, if they were seen where they were painted, in the artists' studios, raw and immediate and accessible, they'd evoke the goat-like cry of "brother." But that's your job, to evoke that cry.
Damned right.

Mandated Reporters For The Furry

Our neighbors were beating their dog. My wife decided to call the police and report the abuse.

As she was on hold, my wife -- a licensed music therapist -- remarked, "I am a mandated reporter, after all. I say that covers animals, too."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Our Hemisphere Is Asking Us A Question

It has not been an ideal time for writing. Our house is small, our son is very young, and there simply is not the space or the time to work on anything but small writing projects. In the last year, I have managed a few outlines, a couple of short plays, a few op-eds for the local paper. Time may loosen up later, but right now it is what it is.

So instead of working on more ambitious writing projects, I've been expanding my awareness of news around the hemisphere. There is much going on in the Americas.

Unfortunately, there are many deeply sad and infuriating things going on, like this horror in Guatemala. There's nothing wrong having a business and making money, but when it comes to driving people off their land because you've dammed up the river and set up checkpoints on public roads to prevent them from moving around, and open fire on peaceful protesters -- where is the human conscience?

On the other hand, there are more positive and interesting things going on. In the United States, Hugo Chavez is often spoken of with deep suspicion or worse. He is spoken of as a dictator, a socialist strongman. It is true that he has worked very hard to establish an alternative to the neoliberal "free trade" model, and regional domination by the U.S. For this reason the corporations that shape our news reporting and political dialogue have to regard him as an enemy.

But give him credit where it is due. His commitment to food sovereignty in Venezuela is sincere and smart. A very interesting and detailed article about what Venezuela is doing can be read here.

What do these stories have in common, other than the coincidence of my having read them both recently and wanting to share them? They both have to do with feeding people. They both have to do with the use of money and power. Events in our hemisphere provide us with good teaching moments and questions here in the United States, where there is so much money, technology, and military might.

For what purposes do we use our power?

Every morning at school, we recite the pledge of allegiance with our kids and I wonder, "What is true patriotism?" So much of American life is influenced by large, immensely wealthy organizations that take no responsibility or care for the kids I teach or their families. To call it class warfare in the United States might be a touch hyperbolic, but it isn't much of an exaggeration. And in other states, most recently in Peru, it does resemble a war.

To observe this in contemplative silence, even with a tear running down our cheek, seems to miss the mark. But what is to be said? What to be done?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Short bits: Food

The President talked about starting a farmers' market on the White House lawn recently. He spoke of opening up a marketplace for local small food producers, and giving the community access to locally grown food at a good price. And on public land!

It is a sweet idea, yet a bit ironic. It comes from a playbook very different than the neoliberal free-trade paradigm that drives our policy on food and farming. A farmers' market would be nice, but how about reform at the USDA, a comprehensive review of the "Green Revolution," and implementing the "food sovereignty" paradigm at home and promoting it abroad?

Our governor is in Cuba this week, trying to open up a new market for exports from New Mexico farms.

The concept of "food sovereignty" as a paradigm for farming policy and land reform might be catching on: news from Jamaica and South Africa, and the struggle continues in Brazil, where a lot of interesting developments are going on.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The House Was Shaking

The little house on the corner has been fixed up and rented out. The characters living there are young, let their dogs run loose to menace the neighbors, and one of them drives a white S.U.V. with one of those mammoth sound systems, all bass, drowning out any conversation or anything you might have been listening to in your own car or home.

As early as 7:00 am, I've heard the stereo pounding the block. There is the width of an entire street and another house between us and their Sport Utility Woofer, and yet our house shakes. The windows rattle in their frames, the ground vibrates, and the tremors make it up into the walls.

There's no delicate way to describe it. The only words that suffice are: TOO FUCKIN' LOUD.

This evening, suppertime, it was so bad I thought it might induce spontaneous bowel movements up and down the street. In the name of hygiene and keeping some peace, I decided a little democracy in action was necessary. Out I went and walked across the street to the vehicle. I put on my least threatening, eyebrows up, smiling face, and waved to the car.

A young woman rolled down the automatic window and looked at me curiously. People are normally supposed to be cowed by oversized vehicles with tinted windows; it's the same reason so many government buildings are made to look like fortresses. The message is, "If I want your opinion, hell will freeze over."

"Hi!" I greeted her in a neighborly tone. "Sorry to bug you, but I wanted to let you know that your stereo is often so loud that my house shakes. It actually shakes, I'm not kidding. We've got a baby and all and I was wondering if you'd help out and bring that volume down a little."

She looked at me as if weighing whether or not to blow my head off, then shrugged and said, "Yeah."

Thanked her profusely, did I, and went back home. Hoping that maybe just this once a polite and friendly request would make a difference.

Thich Nhat Hanh Is Ill

This is not exactly fresh news, but maybe some of us have not heard yet. Thich Nhat Hanh, a repeat nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, an author, poet, and Buddhist monk exiled from his native Viet Nam since 1973, has been hospitalized with a lung infection. He is expected to recover.

Nhat Hanh is known far beyond Zen Buddhist circles as a humanitarian and non-violent peace activist. He is one of the most humane people alive, a figure who can give the cynical person renewed hope for our muddled species.

His open letter to the public about his illness is hand-written and very tender. My thanks to Jane for bringing it to my attention. You can see the letter here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Citizen Letter: Questioning The Green Revolution

[He is known as a shill for Monsanto, but it's worth the effort and gives one practice. A similar letter went to my Congressional delegation. It's an effort.]

[By the way, I am calling a "nerd alert" on myself.]

Tom Vilsack, Secretary

U.S. Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Avenue, S.W.

Washington, DC 20250

Dear Mr. Secretary,

While I applaud your recent trip to Africa and commitment to help African agriculture, there are some concerns I have regarding the “Green Revolution” model, and some of these questions also pertain to the state of agriculture here at home. In particular, I am concerned about AGRA’s emphasis on biotechnology and so-called “agribusiness,” the large corporations such as Monsanto that are seeking to expand their market control over agricultural products.

The main question of this letter is this: why has the United States not accepted the findings of the report on the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development? I assume you know about this report, if you have not read it yourself. The report, entitled Agriculture At A Crossroads, has been accepted by fifty governments but not by us. It is a four-year study commissioned by the World Bank and the United Nations.

The report raises numerous questions based on research data about any global approach that proliferates the industrial farming model. Large-scale industrial farming is not as efficient in producing food, when we examine total yield. Genetically modified seeds appear to require extensive use of fertilizer, requiring more inputs marketed by large corporations at prices that burden small farms – this, Mr. Secretary, is a phenomenon we are also witnessing in the United States, as farms are concentrated into fewer and larger holdings, and families are driven off the farm.

The “Green Revolution” enhanced crop production, but at an unsustainable expense. Its techniques favored the interests of large corporations at the expense of the environment, biodiversity, and traditional knowledge (for instance, classical breeding for resilience rather than engineered crops that require more chemical fertilizer).

What happens as we spread an agriculture that is dependent on foreign inputs, like chemical products and patented seeds? Are we to create a system that favors wealthier farmers (corporate-owned farms, perhaps) and drives smaller traditional producers into debt or out of business? Are we to create a system that ties food prices and distribution even more tightly to petroleum prices?

We would really improve our approach to farming at home and abroad by pushing land reform and education in effective traditional techniques, perhaps some debt forgiveness or land grants, to encourage a diverse and robust culture of small, productive food producers. Monsanto is a strong company that will find ways to make money; we don’t need to help them, we need to help small farmers.

That goes for New Mexico as well as Kenya.

Most Sincerely,

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Misleading Headline

Dear Organic Consumers Association,

Thank you for your efforts to distribute information about food, how it is produced, and how it is politicized.

But the Burning House is going to have to chit you over this misleading headline:

"White House Decries Ads Calling for Healthier School Lunches"

Y'all know very well that that wasn't what the White House was objecting to. What they objected to was the mention of the Obama children in the ad. A bit extra-sensitive, perhaps, since the kids didn't appear and are not mentioned by their first names. Apparently the request to take the ads down was just that, a polite request to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. It all seems rather civil and not at all what the headline suggests.

The headline on the OCA website, which links to the actual story, suggests the Administration had a problem with advertising healthier school lunches. That just isn't the case.

This sort of sly re-framing of a story is not okay when Fox News does it, and it's not okay when the OCA does it, either.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Yes, I Was On Facebook For About Five Minutes (UPDATED)


I caved. I started a Facebook profile.

My parents joined; even my wife signed up. My father and my wife were the last people I thought would ever sign up for Facebook. I figured J.D. Salinger would be on it before them. Boy, did I eat crow on that one.

Although social networking sites aren't my favorite thing, hey, why not? I started entering my profile, put up a little photo, and set about the task of connecting with friends and family in the age of Facebook.

As in years past, with Friendster and MySpace and Tribe, I began to feel cagey about all the questions. An empty box asked me to describe my "political views." Another asked me for my "religious views." Still another invited me to "write something about myself." Many more text boxes awaited.

Not to be a negative nelly or anything -- chalk this up as a matter of taste -- but some things are much more fun being revealed in conversation or a letter, not just laid out on a menu. Relationship status: okay, straight-forward enough. I am married! But then a new text box appears. Who to? I was too scared to name her, for fear the next box would materialize and ask me, Is she hot?

It is astonishing how many people in my email contacts are on Facebook. It felt a bit like Douglas Adams's restaurant at the end of the universe, where everybody who has ever lived is present and looking all dressed up. By now Sarah had entered and was amused as I puttered through inviting people to link to my Facebook account.

It soon became a game of identifying who people were and how I knew them. New York person. Chicago person when I was a drunk. Trinity Rep person. Zen friend. Zen friend. Zen friend. L.A. actor person. And many of the rest: "I have no idea who that is. Who is that??"

This was fun for a few minutes and then something in the tone shifted. An awful lot of these acquaintances were women and say, why had I not posted the name of my wife in that text box anyway?

Why did I want to be on Facebook again? It was something to do with connecting with old friends, saying hello and sharing with them the occasional slice of life that made me think of them recently.

Oh right. Letters. Much more fun than this.

So, with apologies to those of you who "friended" me within minutes of my profile going up -- thank you, truly, for welcoming me to the hot tub -- I deactivated the account. You may think me a horrendous grouch, but you can't say I didn't give it a try.

Just hope I have up to date postal addresses for all of you. Monica, my letter to you came back. Doh.


Also astonishing is the amount of email Facebook sends you! It is apparent that despite clicking on "deactivate account," my homely mug and half-completed profile are still up on Facebook. It will probably be there forever now. When I die, please leave a nice comment.

Ducks and Kinders

The blog is predictably less active as school gets underway. The buses are rolling, the deputies are directing traffic, the boys and girls are wearing bright green wrist bands, and kindergarteners who are still learning numbers have to make sure they are on a bus named "thirty-eight" or something similar. They walk around goggle eyed and so, for the first couple of days, do we teachers.

Deming is gearing up for its annual duck race, as well. This is exactly what it sounds like: a race of ducks. Things kick off tonight with a royal duck pageant at this hospital, where the king or queen of the duck races will be anointed. People make duck costumes. It's quite a scene.

There is also an outhouse race, and that is also pretty much what it sounds like.

I know you just went to look at your map of New Mexico, found Deming, and wondered where the hell ducks live around here.

Keep that mind full of wonder.

The playground is full of little human chicks again, so I don't feel compelled to go watch duck races or grown-ups dressed as ducks. On the other hand, living in a small place, there are always folks wondering where you are. So we'll see.

Maybe I'll bring you a duck feather for your sacred space.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

This Life Form Is Patented

Hard to believe it, but this is an American farmer talking:

Before seed patents, I had a choice between buying seed or using my own. Today I have no choice at all. I simply have to pay what seed companies ask. If I don’t, my friends in St Louis can pick my carcass barer than my planting options.

In other words, Monsanto can sue him for planting seeds he doesn't buy from them. Meanwhile, they are jacking up the price of the seed. Read Richard Oswald's letter here.

Doesn't this rather strain the myth that America is all about free enterprise and competition?

Saturday, August 15, 2009


The Council on Hemispheric Affairs has an interesting report on the status of urban farming in Cuba.

Organoponicos are walled structures containing soil and compost that were originally built on military bases. The government later began building them in urban centers, especially Havana, in response to the collapse of the USSR, which had been a critical trading partner.

By 2005, the organoponicos were producing 4.2 million tons of herbs and vegetables. The farming was organic perforce, as they had no easy access to chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Growers sell the food where its grown, saving expense and pollution. They also solved another civic problem by building these things in vacant lots, alleys, and lots of other locations that would have been eyesores or trash dumps. These centers were notoriously run-down, underdeveloped, and dirty; now they are farms.

What a slam dunk. Beautifying the capitol, averting a food crisis and in fact building food sovereignty, proliferating organic agriculture, getting good food to people cheaply and conveniently.

Moreover, the great socialist boogeyman actually permits some private enterprise among the farmers, and they are doing quite well.

It is, in short, a success story in organic agriculture. As COHA reports, there is a danger this good work could all be undone as Cuba opens up to global trade in the future. If the U.S. embargo is dropped, Monsanto will be eager to convert every last acre to its "roundup-ready" program and larger agribusiness companies will be eager to colonize if and when the government lets go of the land.

From COHA:

Cuba’s successful implementation of urban agriculture should serve as a model for other developing countries, particularly in Latin America. By embracing more modern and effective methods of farming, countries theoretically have the opportunity to transform their local markets, augmenting the labor force and cultivating capital and infrastructure. Introduction to the global market would allow a country like Cuba to become an important economic actor, ultimately expanding its profits through competitive transactions and trade. Considering the increasingly overbearing nature of contemporary power-house economies, as well as the improvements that would address many of the social and economic issues that plague struggling nations, Latin America, as well as other regions, should acknowledge the practicality of a low intensity urban approach to agriculture, if only as a supplement to other major approaches.

Agricultural urbanization is not only inevitable, but also may be the best available option in ensuring food sovereignty and security for increasing populations, and facilitating economic opportunities for the poor. The prospect of growth and development, as well as increased global cooperation and communication, should serve as incentive for industrializing countries to integrate and harmonize urban agriculture into their local communities.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Linking Food, Health, and Education in Brazil

In 1975, Brazilian nutritionist and pediatrician Clara Brandão introduced "multimixture" in the diet of 13 preschools in Santarém, in the northern state of Pará, and noted how the malnourished children gained weight and completed their schooling. Some even went on to university.

A drought multiplied the ranks of the malnourished in Santarém, prompting Brandão to study the local culinary customs and to found the Society for Research and Use of the Amazon. With support from other entities, she set up the preschools, for which she created a unique and varied diet, enriched with her special multimixture.

The mix includes bran, seeds, vegetables and crushed eggshell. It is based on the principle that quality is linked to variety and not just to beef, chicken or fish on the dinner plate, Brandão explained to Tierramérica in a recent interview.

"There are no strong or weak foods, only complementary foods," is the slogan of Clara Terko Takaki Brandão, born 67 years ago in the southern state of São Paulo to a family of Japanese immigrants.

Daily dishes can be enriched with natural products that are abundant according to the season, which reinforces local agriculture, and improves human health and the economy of each community, she says.

Brandão has taken her ideas to towns across Brazil. Her plan to fight malnutrition, which has won her several awards, has been extended to all Brazilian states and to more than 15 countries. This month, she visited Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil, to share these lessons with schools and restaurants in Garopaba, a beach town on the Atlantic coast.

Read the interview here. Add her to my list of people who ought to be global celebrities.

Good Point, Atrios

One weird thing about our press is that lies about personal stuff, and things which are likely just inadvertent slips, can cause Great Outrage among the assembled Villagers, while sustained and repeated lies about policy are just laundered and retransmitted.

Civil Wars

Stepping back from the madness of the health care reform fracas, it is hard to believe anymore that we have a political process capable of making sweeping policy reforms, no matter how necessary the change may be.

We have a health care system that is appallingly expensive and does not provide adequate access to medical care for our people. There are a great many people going to extraordinary lengths to keep it that way. These include professionals in the health care industry, their highly-paid lobbyists, and elected lawmakers.

An organizer of protests at town halls admitted on a recent conference call that killing health reform is necessary in order to deliver a political defeat to the Democratic President: "The goal is not compromise, and ANY bill coming out this year would be a failure for us…"

For a political victory, a great many people are willing to put other Americans to death. Much has been made in the news media of scuffles at town hall meetings, shouting down lawmakers who try to discuss health policy with their constituents. The temperature is rising as the most shameless and unbelievable lies are spread in order to frighten and enrage the ignorant. Guns have been brought to town halls and demonstrations. Congressman David Scott found his office defaced by nazi swastikas. Death threats have been called in to lawmakers. The talking heads on major television networks comparing Democrats to nazis is not slowing down, and yesterday a United States Senator repeated the popular lie that Obama wants to euthanize the elderly, and said to the crowd, "You have every right to be afraid."

At this rate, I think it is likely there will be deadly event. When it comes, will we be astonished? As Labor Day approaches, I have been remembering the staggering number of people who died over a concept so basic as the eight-hour work day. I am remembering major companies, trusted names in American life, who directed private guards to open fire on striking employees, on a number of occasions.

We are a country of numerous unofficial civil wars.

Those who are defending a health scare system that kills people -- to put it more benignly, it causes preventable deaths and denies justice and dignity to those it fails -- are quite literally defending a higher margin of profit over a lower margin of human death.

We need a not-for-profit health care system. We are not going to get it. This is civil war. It is a house divided against itself. Euthanizing the elderly? No. We are euthanizing the poor, the unemployed, the unconnected.

Greatest country in the world.

Buffalo Ceremony

It was interesting to read this story about an ancient buffalo ceremony coming off the reservation and onto a college campus in North Dakota:

“In advanced, technological civilization we have stratification and division and segregation of ages,” he said. “In New York [young adults] are considered cool but when you get older you are discarded. Little children are expected to be little adults and no longer allowed to be kids. What I like here the most is … all the ages living together. Having the children around enlivens everything.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Debunking Ourselves

Having made the case for dispassionate fact-checking and myth-debunking, we can move forward to debunking our own interior myths.

Nathan, who writes a wonderful blog called Dangerous Harvests, has a beautiful post about this today:

...even though I simultaneously laugh and cringe at the stories about Obama's birth, I know better than to think I'm above those kind of thought patterns. This doesn't mean I will stay quiet in the face of ridiculous political stunts, but it does mean that part of my job is to recognize the person behind the ridiculousness.

An Example of Good Reporting

Much of our news media feels compelled to show they are "balanced" by giving equal time to outright misinformation.

Politician A will state that the Politician B is actually a martian disguised as a human, and the news anchor will then turn to Politician B and ask him to comment "on charges that you are a martian." Politician B gets some time to say he is not a martian, and then we go back to Politician A. What's missing from this picture? The news anchor does not weigh in with the fact: Politician B is a human being, not a martian. Fact. Argument over.

As a result, facts never settle an argument in our news media. The truth never concludes a story. In real life, Barack Obama can actually present his birth certificate to the public (complete with the embossed seal certifying its authenticity) and, a year later, the news is still interviewing people who insist he has never shown it. When a network tries to close the argument because the facts settle the matter, they invariably are accused of censorship. (And far be it from me to mention a the commercial incentive to keep controversies going so the viewers keep tuning in! That would be so cynical.)

So Politician A can go on using the news media to assert that Politician B is a martian. The birthers still get air time. The "deathers" -- people who insist that health reform legislation includes "death panels" that will mandate euthanasia for the elderly and the disabled -- still get air time.

A telling moment recently was when Newt Gingrich was a guest on George Stephanopoulos's show over the weekend. Gingrich was repeating the lies about "death panels" and when Stephanopoulos interrupted him to say, "It's not in the bill," Gingrich just kept on talking.

At some point, if you are wrong, you need to lose the argument. At some point, if you are lying, the news media needs to say, "This is a lie" and conclude the story. No more birther segments. No more "death panel" propaganda. It's a conversation ender. Cut the mike.

Here, at least, is a ray of sunshine. No, it's not a Keith Olbermann rant (as entertaining as those can be once in a while) or a really good "gotcha" interview on Meet The Press or anything theatrical like that. It's just a straight fact-checking statement on a major news network. A presentation of facts as distinguished from myths or lies.

More like this, please. Less of the partisan "infotainment" and more of this.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

I'm Too Stressed To Meditate!

[Cross-post from the Deming Zen Group website. That's our dharma room on the right. Click on it for a larger view.]

"Will this help me with my stress?"

Meditation can help you develop ways to manage stress, but are you willing to examine where "stress" and "ease" come from in the first place? The latter is the purpose of Zen meditation. What is stress? What are the feelings and sensations you refer to as "stress?" What are the thoughts that arise when you are feeling stressed?

Can you put your stress in a box and take it to the dumpster? Why not? Where is it?

While we were out of town, a local woman left a series of voice-mail messages, each more exasperated than the last, enquiring about the meditation group. We made some unsuccessful attempts to reach her and it was my wife who spoke to her first. The caller said, "I'm interested in Zen but I know I can't do it!" My wife attempted to talk to her about the group but was continually interrupted with more of this, "I can't do it, I'm too impatient, I can't sit still." Finally, my wife said, "You're probably right," and ended the conversation.

That was good teaching. The caller's mind was already made up -- can't do this, can't do that, I'm hopeless. All the same, I called the woman back myself to learn more about her.

She wanted something to help her deal with stress. I talked about Zen meditation and the practice of being still for a while, aware of our thinking yet leaving it alone, how transformative this practice of simple awareness becomes. She made up her mind to come today and to bring a friend, to try it out. I had to promise more than once she could sit in a chair. It was done.

Anyone can do the physical practice. There is almost nothing to remember. You can stand up if your legs hurt. You can sit in a chair. Physically sitting with us is not a problem. The bigger challenge is a willingness to do it: to sit there attentively for a little while, without getting up and doing things, acting on the impulses that come and go.

It isn't magic. Zen can't make real problems disappear. But doing it for a while might change how you react to those things. If you are willing to do it. That means showing up, taking a seat, and trying it.

One day after my conversation with that woman, she called back to cancel.

"I can't do it," she said.

Food Is For People, Not For Lease

"We used to think that sovereignty was only about territorial authority of the political kind. Now we can see that it also has something to do with the food on our table."

Click on that quote to read the editorial. And for more background, there is this.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Means Is The Meal

Continuing from the previous post, an additional thought on how the way we produce our food changes us. Also, for Pam, an example of a "hidden cost" (see the comments on "Inorganic Lies").

This is an excerpt from a beautiful essay by Wendell Berry, "Renewing Husbandry," which was collected in The Way of Ignorance (2005).

Brought up as a teamster but now driving a tractor, a boy almost suddenly, almost perforce, sees the farm in a different way: as ground to be got over by a means entirely different, at an entirely different cost. The team, like the boy, would grow weary, but that weariness has all at once been subtracted, and the boy is now divided from the ground by the absence of a living connection that enforced sympathy as a practical good. The tractor can work at maximum speed hour after hour without tiring. There is no longer a reason to remember the shady spots where it was good to stop and rest. Tirelessness and speed enforce a second, more perilous change in the way the boy sees the farm: Seeing it as ground to be got over as fast as possible and, ideally, without stopping, he has taken on the psychology of a traveler by interstate highway or by air. The focus of his attention has shifted from the place to the technology.

I now suspect that if we work with machines the world will seem to us to be a machine, but if we work with living creatures the world will appear to us as a living creature. Be that as it may, mechanical farming certainly makes it easy to think mechanically about the land and its creatures. It makes it easy to think mechanically even about oneself, and the tirelessness of tractors brought a new depth of weariness into human experience, at a cost to health and family life that has not been fully accounted.

Once one's farm and one's thoughts have been sufficiently mechanized, industrial agriculture's focus on production, as opposed to maintenance or stewardship, becomes merely logical. And here the trouble completes itself. The almost exclusive emphasis on production permits the way of working to be determined, not by the nature and character of the farm in its ecosystem and in its human community, but rather by the national or the global economy and the available or affordable technology. The farm and all concerns not immediately associated with production have in effect disappeared from sight. The farmer too in effect has vanished. He is no longer working as an independent and loyal agent of his place, his family, and his community, but instead as the agent of an economy that is fundamentally adverse to him and to all that he ought to stand for.

After mechanization it is certainly possible for a farmer to maintain a proper creaturely and stewardly awareness of the lives in her keeping. If you look, you can still find farmers who are farming well on mechanized farms. After mechanization, however, to maintain this kind of awareness requires a distinct effort of will.

Inorganic Lies

Innumerable labors brought us this food; we should know how it comes to us.

So begins a familiar "grace" spoken by some Zen Buddhists before eating. It is a beautiful prayer, beginning with a reminder of our inter-connection with the entire web of life. It is a beautiful thing to thank God for the food, but it also good to remember how God puts it on our plate. Our food is produced in soil and cultivated by the labor of human beings. Consuming our food with mindfulness and appreciation also means consuming the way food is produced with mindfulness and appreciation.

Here in our area, New Mexico State University College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and the New Mexico Organic Commodity Commission are inviting local farmers to a series of tours of successful organic farms. The goal is to promote organic farming. It is not only a matter of teaching techniques to enrich the soil and deal with pests, which many of them know already, but showing the economic feasibility of these techniques. This is especially important for smaller producers, the "family" farms that are being eradicated to make way for more large, corporate-owned industrial farms.

Last month, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a paper concluding: "
From a total of 52,471 articles, we identified 162 studies (137 crops and 25 livestock products); 55 were of satisfactory quality. In an analysis that included only satisfactory quality studies, conventionally produced crops had a significantly higher content of nitrogen, and organically produced crops had a significantly higher content of phosphorus and higher titratable acidity. No evidence of a difference was detected for the remaining 8 of 11 crop nutrient categories analyzed. Analysis of the more limited database on livestock products found no evidence of a difference in nutrient content between organically and conventionally produced livestock products."

In other words, if you look only at nutritional content, organic food does not appear to be significantly more nutritious than food produced by industrial farming. Certain news media seized on this and made up a false conclusion: look! they said, organic food isn't better for us after all!

Um. That's not what this report means. Read it again. To my knowledge, no one ever said an organic tomato was somehow "super food" magically endowed with more nutrition than a strip-mined factory tomato from Texas. If they did, they were not only wrong, they were missing the point of organic food production. [UPDATE: My statement in this paragraph is not correct. There have been studies finding that organic foods have higher nutritional content, which the AJCN report presumably contests. The case for higher nutrition in organics is here.]

What has happened, once again, is that our news media is being used to fulminate lies in order to confuse and deceive American citizens. In this instance, to sew doubts about organic products and reduce enthusiasm for the organic movement.

The tendency of industrial food production is to rely on chemical fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics, and more, which leach their way into our foods. The AJCN report does not deal with issues of contamination because it was addressing a different research topic.

Further: another problem presented by large-scale industrial farming is the depletion of soil. We lose an inch of topsoil every 28 years, directly attributable to our farming practices. The USDA studied the nutritional content of our soil between 1950 and 1999, tracking 13 vital nutrients, and reported dramatic declines in 6 of them. Lack of nutrients in our soil affect the quality and quantity of the foods produced, issues that are addressed with chemicals instead of by enriching our soils. The AJCN report does not deal with this either, as it is outside the scope of this particular research paper.

Organic farming conserves and enriches topsoil, which is key to a sustainable agriculture.

Innumerable labors bring us our food, we must know how it comes to us. Eco-systems work pretty well as designed (praise the Lord, anybody?). If we are what we eat, as the saying goes, we "are" also our soil, we "are" the livelihood of the farmer, and we "are" the unjust distribution of food in a world where billions of human beings feel hunger or have insecure access to food.

Interfering with the natural quality and production of our eco-systems, in the first place, degrades us and all sentient beings; it does not honor what we have received. Interfering with the distribution of quality food, in the second place, is an injustice. How are these terrible mistakes possible?

It is ignorance. Not knowing, deeply, how our food comes to us.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Pink Flamingos

Taken on Block Island, July 2009