Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween

Seen in Las Cruces, New Mexico on Saturday.

Friday, October 29, 2010

On Dualism and Politics

An aspect of living with the bodhisattva vow while involved in this world is looking for opportunities, in ones own daily life, to promote healing. This is not "promote" in the sense of waving a sign and scolding people, but by practicing faithfully and then walking the walk. Bringing "how can I help you?" into the marketplace and not being stingy with that sentiment. (While also not being a pushover.)

The last two posts have concerned the effort to organize fast food workers at ten Jimmy Johns stores in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and we have addressed the situation of workers in that industry. Hopefully, readers interested in other things, like Zen and meditation, haven't been too disappointed about all this pro-union talk.

Alas, political struggle is part of our reality in this human realm. While we are here, we fight over stuff. Not just toys and luxuries, but over basic necessities and services. Food. Water. Medical attention. A few people live in tremendous privilege while the vast majority of people on this earth struggle to survive; and, much as the way hostages sometimes begin to identify with their captors, human beings rationalize this order of things to make it seem right. The disparity continues to grow in our country and similarly all over the world.

Capitalism is not a neutral economic system. It creates a powerful social order and an ongoing political struggle among human beings, who all want the same basic things: food, water, access to medical care, dignified work, and fun. (Remember, those are just the basics.)

The struggle organizes itself as a class war, consciously or not. On one side, labor is viewed as an expense, something to be kept as cheap as possible. This means keeping wages down and reducing other expenses (like workplace safety features). This means getting more work out of that resource, by extending hours or speedups. Labor is viewed as a column in a spreadsheet, bereft of human identification. On this side of the battlefield, unions are a nuisance, which is why employers go to such lengths to defeat them. In some parts of our world, you can still have your life threatened for organizing a union; in our country, just a century ago, violence against organizing workers was common and open; the state, through its police and even its military, sometimes participated.

The work of Michael D. Yates has taught me much about the history and the workings of unions, and yet here is the single sentence from his Why Unions Matter that has never left me: "A union should view the contract as a temporary truce in a never-ending class war."

A union's vigilance must continue, once the agreement is reached and the contract is ratified. The contract itself must be upheld on both sides and renegotiated later, because contracts expire and conditions change. For example, actors and screenwriters saw their industry change dramatically in a short period of time over the last decade or so, as the internet became a major media resource. When actors and writers asked for fair compensation for internet broadcast of their work, producers balked at sharing those profits. It led to a writers strike a few years ago.

Historically we see an ongoing political struggle of have and have not, organizing itself around those who own and those who work for the owners. The two sides view each other as a problem. Labor is an expense that must be kept under thumb; "the bosses" are an oppressive force, a rock that must be moved uphill before it rolls right over us.

It seems to be an intractable dualism. If the union is an army in a perpetual war, then "solidarity" cannot ever be extended to include the owners. There are employers who view their workers as human beings and take an interest in their welfare, and yet there are societal pressures on them to negotiate against "labor." After all, a corporation is not, by its very charter, in the business of being generous to its employees; by law, it is in the business of maximizing profits for its shareholders. So the walls are built in the structure of the economy itself, in the laws that are concerned more with property than human development.

So, in a sense, the very streets we walk on are built on the division and struggle between human beings.

Small wonder people walk away from this. Seung Sahn's motivation to become a Buddhist monk was the political struggle in Korea during his youth. Just after becoming its own country again, freeing itself from foreign occupation, he suddenly saw Koreans fighting and killing one another, left versus right. "Bullshit," he thought, and shaved his head.

For me, the iron ball is in my throat. My practice is here and there is no fleeing to the mountaintop.

Indeed, my son has just woken up, which means I must leave this ramble for now. I apologize for its lack of revision and clarity.

This news article has some interesting reflections by a social work professor, for your interest. I'll have to come back and finish this up later.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fast Food Unions, Part Two

In most cases, a union is now formed through an election that is conducted through the National Labor Relations Board.

To get the process going, the law requires 30% of the workers at the bargaining unit sign cards authorizing the union to represent them. (The "bargaining unit" for the Jimmy Johns Union consisted of nine or ten locations in Minneapolis, and about 200 workers.) A petition can take the place of cards. It is also highly advisable to exceed the 30% authorization as much as possible, because not everyone who authorizes will necessarily vote that way in the election. The Jimmy Johns workers collected 60%, more than enough to initiate an NLRB election.

Once the NLRB is petitioned for an election, the Board notifies the employer. The employer can, at that point, recognize the union. It is more common for the employer to request a hearing at which the union shows it has the basis for an election. This gives the employer time to start planning a campaign against unionization, and may provide an opportunity to challenge the grounds for an election. Otherwise, the Board sets a date for the union election. And this is where things got very interesting for the Jimmy Johns workers.

There are legal things an employer can do to discourage people from voting for the union. Many will hire very expensive consultants who specialize in anti-union campaigns. Jimmy Johns reportedly paid out $80 grand for the services of the Labor Relations Institute, a for-profit company that spreads anti-union propaganda and helps employers block unions.

Among other things, it is legal to bury your employees in anti-union propaganda and there is no legal requirement that any of the information be truthful. An employer can intimate that bad things will happen if they vote for the union, although direct threats are not allowed.

Supervisors can call you in for private meetings to discuss the union situation and argue against it. (Presumably the time spent doing this, and not working, is your responsibility.) They can also call everyone in for meetings and require attendance. At Jimmy Johns, they reportedly did this after sending home select employees (i.e. persuasive pro-union employees) for dress code infractions that had never existed before.

That's all legal, and there are illegal things that employers frequently add to this arsenal. Transferring workers, suspending them, bribing them, threatening them. Companies have been busted for telling their workers that if they unionize, the company will close the plant and open a new plant somewhere else. The penalties for doing these things come well after the election has been swayed.

The Jimmy Johns ownership is charged with 22 violations of the National Labor Relations Act for the actions it took to defeat the union. Allegations include bribes, pressuring workers to wear anti-union pins, firings of pro-union employers, and threats of mass firings.

The election took place on October 22 and was a near-tie: 85 for, 87 against, and two contested ballots. A tie in such an election goes to the employer. The union lost the election. They may try again, if they wish, after one year passes.

On the other hand, it generated some press attention for the state of workers in the fast food industry. For example, here. The involvement of the historic IWW also generated interest in the effort, as did the endorsement of the Jimmy Johns Union by the AFL-CIO.

Fast food is a tough industry, and Jimmy Johns is tougher than most. Most of us don't think about this when we stop off at Blake's or Burger King or Pizza Hut, and someone in uniform asks us if we would like to include fries or onion rings in our order. Where I live, here in Deming, a great many locals work in fast food restaurants close to the interstate that passes through. Sonic, McDonald's, Wendy's, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Denny's, Ranchers Grill, from west to east, easy on and easy off.

This finishes part two, which is just about the process Jimmy Johns followed. Part three will conclude this brief series with some commentary on work and human relations.


NOTE: This blog is indebted to the work of Michael D. Yates, and highly recommends the latest edition of his book, Why Unions Matter, for further reading.

[Photo: Labor day picket by the Jimmy Johns Union in Minneapolis]

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fast Food Unions, Part One

In recent years, the Industrial Workers of the World -- yes, the wobblies are still around! -- has had some success at organizing baristas and fast food workers. Getting these folks into good unions has not been an easy task, but over the long haul IWW has helped bring a Starbucks union into being and is now struggling to assist the employees of the Jimmy Johns fast food chain.

The Jimmy Johns Workers Union was formulated in Minneapolis this fall, asking their employers for things a lot of workers in other industries have: sick days, consistent scheduling, a chance to earn a wage they can live on. In the fast food industry, an average work week is 24 hours at an average wage of eight bucks an hour. Working at Jimmy Johns is tougher than even this. If you work there, there is a good chance you will work less than 20 hours at the minimum wage ($7.25). There are no benefits. Jimmy Johns has delivery people on bicycles in the snow but no sick days when they catch a cold or get injured. This means, by the way, that people have to handle food and serve it to the public while ill.

In a rather spectacular event that made the news, an employee (also in Minneapolis) arrived at work to discover the freezer had broken down overnight, and all the meat had gone bad. She called her supervisor. Supervisor said, cut the meat and serve it. She said no way. They argued. Supervisor came in himself, and proceeded to prepare the meat to serve to the public. Employees called the Department of Health, which came to the scene and busted the store. That employee nearly lost her lousy job for her heroism.

This is all taking place at a time we all know is very bad for workers. It's not as if they can just go out and find something better. The recession and the terrible job market are forcing more people into food service jobs.

Time to organize. Which is what the Jimmy Johns employees did.

I'm going to write more about the process of forming a union, and how it has fared over at Jimmy Johns, because it is actually of interest and we should all be educated about it. The presence of authentic grassroots labor organizing during these economic times is newsworthy and relevant to how we, as human beings, negotiate our affairs during this time we find ourselves alive. I hope you'll find it educational and invigorating, or something.

[Photo: Jimmy Johns union demonstration in Minneapolis in September]

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Rockefeller, Trucks, and Coal Money

Sharing the freeways with 18-wheelers has always been part of my life as a driver. Long-haul trucks have passed me, I've passed them. My son sees them and exclaims, "Frucks!!" My wife and I smirk and tell him to be careful how he pronounces that. So it goes.

If newly proposed EPA standards for trucks and school buses go into effect, we will see a day when those trucks are smaller -- and perhaps there will be more of them. Indeed, one has to wonder if the greenhouse emissions will simply be spread across a greater number of smaller vehicles. The trucking industry is not up in arms, as it happens.

But Senator Rockefeller sure doesn't like it.

We have a newly empowered EPA, owing to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that recognized its authority to enforce its own rules, because according to the Clean Air Act the EPA must regulate greenhouse emissions.

Given the failure of the legislative branch to act on our very serious ecological problems, this gives the EPA some limited power to hold down emissions while the rest of the state, hopefully, wakes up and begins to plan. That hope may be dwindling, however, given the slate of candidates for the House and Senate in 2010 who still deny climate science, and hold up global warming as some hoax.

But Jay Rockefeller seems like a sensible fellow. Why is he going after the EPA's power to regulate greenhouse emissions? He says it is because such regulations should be left to elected legislators, not to non-elected agencies like the EPA. This argument would make sense if representation in the Congress was actually democratic, rather than plutocratic.

Let's look at Rockefeller's campaign donors, shall we?

#4, Peabody Energy. #8, American Electric Power. And numerous other industrial donors near the top of the list.

This is evidence, if not definitive proof, of a plutocratic position. In this instance, Rockefeller is introducing a "message bill" that likely would not pass in the lame duck session (but it could be taken up in a Republican-dominated Congress). Instead of being D-WV, the Senator may be acting as D-Peabody.

And this suggests an answer to Rockefeller's objection. The people cannot trust these "elected" (read: corporate-sponsored) representatives to legislate in our interest over the interests of capital. The reduction in emissions that the EPA demands would also apply to coal production and require the coal industry to pay out more more cleaner emissions.

West Virginia, Rockefeller's state, is often referred to by the media as a "coal state" as if the whole place were merely a coal field bereft of families, workers, children, retirees, and so on. So perhaps that is why the media accounts of Rockefeller's bill to curb the EPA aren't pointing out that he is acting in the interest of his corporate sponsors. This is not the high-minded wrangling of a democratic process. This is nitty-gritty money politics.

Which might not bother you, but did you know it is killing us?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Boats and Bikes

Good morning.

Our son is two and a half and we live a life of surprise and play.

Last night, my wife and I were at the dining room table when we heard a noise elsewhere in the house. We looked and from the hallway, Gabriel emerged pushing a shower caddy that he had loaded up with things from the bathroom. He pushed it along the floor towards the living room. With a quick look up at us, he explained: "Boat!"

This is pretend play and it usually appears at age three or older. We had already noted symbolic play, in which the stuffed monkey eats and brushes its teeth. Now already we've got the beginning of imaginary stories. We are also witness to long, imaginary phone conversations, which he does to process his day.

When he is not irritable, he is quite a joy to be around. And he has good taste. Lately, the video that has captivated him the most is The Triplets of Belleville (2003). The music, the old dog, trains, bicycles: he watches the whole thing intently. And when the sisters are eating their horrible frog stew, he turns to me and exclaims, "They eat FROGS??"

He has also taken well to going on bike rides with papa, as previously reported here. The bicycle is such a wonderful addition to life here, even with the flat tires. Somehow there is an enhanced sense of liberty in pedaling from one destination to another, so that even in the midst of an awfully busy existence there are these little spaces of freedom. What if I had had a bicycle in Los Angeles? Would my mood there have been different? No way to tell, but I can guess I would have assessed the quality of life there differently, since my worst stressors there were related to cars and traffic.

And it is just about time to get on that bike and go to school, so we close here this morning.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

NPR Gets It Wrong

For a long time now, Juan Williams has had a strange, uncomfortable dual personality in the media.

He was a long-time correspondent-cum-news analyst for National Public Radio for years, a familiar voice in particular to listeners of Morning Edition. Williams was also a frequent guest on the Fox partisan political network. On radio, Williams came off as rather sensible. On Fox he would pop up to play the role of Bill O'Reilly's black friend, or share the couch on "Fox and Friends," and here he would say strange things indeed.

It got to the point where, in 2009, after Williams made a famously weird joke about Michelle Obama being Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress, NPR asked that he not be identified as an NPR correspondent when he appeared on Fox.

Earlier this week, Mr. Williams said something on O'Reilly's program that actually, in context, wasn't all that strange. In fact, he seemed to be trying, perhaps a little too gently, to talk a little sense into the man.

Last night, NPR fired him for allegedly making "bigoted remarks." At least, that is what the news director who made the phone call told him, according to Williams.

Here is the quote that seems to have everyone all in a pother:

Look, Bill, I'm not a bigot. You know the kind of books I've written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.

Here is the context. Bill O'Reilly has made a stir this month with some anti-Islamic comments. On another show where he was a guest, he yelled that "muslims killed us on 9/11." The choice of noun is significant: he did not say terrorists killed us, or Saudis killed us, or insane fanatics killed us. He chose to say that muslims killed us. And here we have the problem of mass guilt by association, the kind of islamophobia regularly served up on the Fox network and entertained even in the supposedly legitimate news media.

So O'Reilly brought Williams on his show and said, "Where did I go wrong?" So Williams started with the comment above. And then, in the midst of O'Reilly's constant interruptions, he also said (and I paraphrase, but the tape is all over the internet) that this kind of thinking is motivated by fear, and in fact it is wrong to tar all muslims with the atrocity of 9/11. He even brought up the terrorism committed by radicalized Christians who have murdered doctors who provide abortions and blown up clinics. Do we blame all Christians for these acts of terrorism? Certainly not.

Williams actually tried to be sensible. He could have done a better job of it, I suppose. But here is the crime: he admitted to feeling uncomfortable around muslims in traditional dress, even when he knows better.

That's the beginning of healing, friends. Feeling uncomfortable around people who are different than us -- especially when we have been trained to be afraid of them -- is understandable. Admitting it to ourselves and holding that feeling in conscious awareness is a vital step. As the saying goes, the truth shall set ye free. Honestly copping to where we are is the beginning of the process of healing the divisions created by fear and demagoguery.

He followed up the confession with reason. Yet he gets no credit for this, and NPR axed him in an abrupt and public way, certain to shame him. This decision was hasty and it plays right into the hands of NPR's critics, who so often present NPR as a biased liberal media source.

Indeed, Williams said in the very interview that got his contract torn up: "Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don't address reality."

NPR's action gives credence to that claim. It also denies justice to what Mr. Williams actually said. And, finally, it discouraged honest and open discussion about the "phobia" in islamophobia.

If we can't discuss the sickness, we cannot heal it.

This is probably NPR's worst decision since firing Bob Edwards.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Teaching a Pollster about Dead Words

Okay, last question. Do you consider yourself a liberal, conservative, or moderate?

These are dead words.

Beg your pardon?

They don't mean anything. They are dead words. Meaningless.

What do you mean 'meaningless?'

Okay, let's say I believe everyone should have a gun if they want one. We should all be able to buy guns and not have the state check us out. That's a very liberal attitude about gun ownership, but we call people who defend gun rights 'conservatives.' It doesn't matter what the word means -- we use them like brand names, like Coke or Pepsi.


Or trade! Some of us think capitalism should not be regulated at all, and corporations should be free to do whatever they think is in the best interests of making a profit even if it pollutes our air and water and enhances global warming. That is not a conservative attitude, if you care what they word means. Economists call that neoliberalism: a desire to extend maximum liberty to capitalist enterprise. But for some reason, anyone who is pro-business is called a conservative. Even when they aren't.

Err, okay. Would you like me to put you down as a moderate?

Moderate compared to what? Dead words!

Well --

Ask my wife. She doesn't consider me moderate about anything.

I can see that.

Making a Dharma Room

It is a small group. For the most part, it's the same couple of fellows twice a week, with other familiar faces we see less often, more intermittent visitors. We light the incense, chant a bit (a brief puja that we perform before sitting), and then sit. It's not interesting to watch.

It is not an "experience." Those seeking a "wonderful experience" are usually disappointed at first. When you want a coke, water isn't interesting. After a while, though, water sure tastes good and takes care of what we need -- and that is plenty interesting.

The dharma room, located in the second floor of the garage building, is very slowly undergoing transformation. There are these old, cheap panels someone nailed to the rafters years ago. No insulation. It's all getting stripped to the rafters so we can run an outlet and some track lighting, insulate, and finish the room. There is quite a bit of dust, recalling jokes about the Sixth Patriarch ("Where can dust alight? Cough. Cough."). I work in brief shifts, frequently moving the provisional altar around so the room can be cleaned up in time for practice.

Can't do it all at once. So the work advances at its own pace. When it's time for puja, sweep up, put on robes, chant the homage. When it's time to sit, plunk down. One thing at a time.

Fixing the world, put it down. Working on one's life, put it down. Spreading the dharma, put it down. Enlightenment, put it down. Om nam, the idea of cleaning the universe, put it down.

If you strip away every last desire, even the bodhisattva ideal of helping all beings, what would we observe in your relations with others?

If you strip away every last wonderful purpose, what will you then find yourself doing?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Gabriel's Words

Our son catches us by surprise. He is not quite two and a half, and some of his speech still sounds a bit like someone pretending to speak French. As he becomes clearer, however, we are hearing complete sentences that hit us over the head.

The other night, after I had spent my time at his bedside and his mama came in to sing and pray with him, she finally said to him, "Okay, Gabriel, I'll see you in the morning."

And the boy said: "Fine. I guess I'll go to sleep then."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Water Rights

It's gone, but we had a right to it.

As Thomas Fuller said, we don't know the worth of water until the well runs dry.

Or until someone locks the pipe and installs a pre-paid meter.

This is not intended as a gloomy, doomy message for your Friday, but hello there, humans, we have a very serious problem on our desk. Consider this a memo to anyone who will stand up, be uncomfortable, and act. Individual pains-in-the-ass like your humble correspondent are all too easily ignored. We need to make a very large collective pain in the system's ass, or else accept some very serious consequences during our lifetimes.

But first, we've got to think through this concept of "rights."

In July of this year, the United Nations General Assembly declared access to water and sanitation as a human right. Yet they do this at a time the world is seeing horrors such as the pre-paid water meters in Africa, and as the World Bank pushes developing countries, the vulnerable countries it is "helping," to privatize more of the basic needs for human life. Similar efforts have been advanced in the United States, with disasterous results for people.

The wars of the future will be over water.

The human population is growing at a drastic rate (tripling during the twentieth century) while, simultaneously, the effects of climate change and deforestation have strained the water supply. The glaciers that feed the rivers of India, China, and southeast Asia, are rapidly melting, which will lead to a surge of water levels followed by drought. (They will be gone before I retire, assuming I ever retire. My son will be an adult in the summer of his life.) The snowpack melt on which New Mexico depends for its annual water supply has been distorted by reactions to global warming.

Among our United States, there are screaming fights behind closed doors over access to the Colorado River and other shared sources. Much of our water is polluted: we have a significant rate of deaths of water-borne diseases.

In the middle east, water shortages are becoming a serious problem. The capital of Yemen is predicted to run out of water by 2017. (I will be 46. My son will 9.) Some of these states are land-locked. Access to water ways for shipping and imports, and water rights for farming, to say nothing of drinking and sanitation, are already causing tensions. As population grows and conditions worsen, what do we expect to happen in the middle east? Remember that some of these states have nuclear weapons or are working on them.

And in the ruthless logic of "free enterprise," all of this makes water the new oil. Even better than oil, because no human being can survive without water. There can be no agriculture (and thus no food) without water. There can be no medicine or health care without water.

For the same reasons the U.N. declares water a "human right," capitalism sees water as a golden opportunity to squeeze profits from captive customers. This is why AIG -- yes, the AIG we bailed out -- has spent a fortune buying local water utilities across the United States.

So let's talk about "rights."

It is not enough to declare water a human right. The corporations seizing their opportunity to profit from water also see it as a right, because that is their point of view: they have a right to use their capital to buy up important resources and sell them to the rest of us. Most of us who grow up in the developed world are conditioned to accept this relationship.

Wars are fought in order to establish rights, even as it destroys the human civilization and the resource both together. It's gone, but we had a right to it.

The corporatization and militarization of water is not likely what the General Assembly had in mind when it spoke of rights.

So what are the implications of this?

Comments are welcome. May take me a while to post them, but check back tonight.

[Photo: the Lake Powell "bathtub ring"]

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Burning Man, Deming Edition

Gabriel and I go on twilight bike rides, cruising around the neighborhood and our tiny downtown. He sits in his bike seat close behind me, peering out from under his excellent-looking helmet, and often tells me about different things he sees. He especially enjoys looking at the sky.

Something else caught our eye last night. Coming down Hemlock Street towards home, we saw Chuck in his yard. Chuck is a lawyer with a beautiful little house that he has been renovating for many months. The yard has no grass, just mounds of dirt and some weeds. It is making a very slow transition from construction site to a home again, and the yard is moving more slowly than the rest of the property.

Across the street from him lives our city council woman. She and Chuck reportedly have some tit-for-tat neighborly feuds going. She calls to complain about something on his property, and he devises ways to get back at her for it. Meanwhile, the neighbors play good natured pranks on him. He has a large mound of dirt on the corner, and various flags have been hoisted there. I will admit, I've been looking for an Iranian flag to post there myself. It's all in good fun.

So last night we rode past and saw a few guys from the neighborhood hanging around and watching as Chuck did something very odd. He had arranged small piles of firewood and weeds all over his yard -- there were maybe ten of them in all. He had gotten his hands on a blowtorch and was setting fire to each of the piles, until he had a ring of fire in a semi circle around his house.

Gabriel enjoys fire and I enjoy weirdness, so we stopped and watched until Chuck had set the last of his fires, put down his torch, and watched them burn with satisfaction. One of the onlookers whispered, "He says he got permission from the fire marshal."

"Got a light?" I asked.

To all of us, Chuck said, "We'll see if she ever reports me for weeds again."

When Gabriel had had enough and I started making for home, I suggested this could become a seasonal event, and Chuck said, "Sure! I'm going to do this every time she calls the police."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Who Is Education For?

You need at this time especially to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder. You need to know that you were not created to work and produce and impoverish yourself to enrich an idle exploiter. You need to know that you have a mind to improve, a soul to develop, and a manhood to sustain.

Eugene Victor Debs. Canton, Ohio. 1918. He was arrested for making the speech in which he said that.

A couple of weeks ago, I was up in Albuquerque for a conference of arts educators. Among the topics we dealt with was, essentially, our defense of the arts: what we teach and how to talk about its value.

What is that value? What are they good for?

It seemed that every point worth discussion was a discussion of how the arts make one "competitive" in the capitalist economy. We exercised familiar rhetoric about how corporations want creative thinkers and highly literate people for their purposes. Jobs. All about jobs. Sadly, we did not even discuss prospects of professional employment, self-employment, or even employment in arts-related industries. No, the discussion centered on making the case that the arts make people good employees.

According to Stanley Fish, writing for the New York Times on Monday, "nobody really buys that argument, not even the university administrators who make it."

Are we even less convinced by the idea that the liberal arts help us to appreciate this passing life? That there are dimensions to life other than economic fitness?

Are we afraid to speak, as Paolo Freire did, of educating young people so they can become the protagonists of their own lives, examine their society and change it?


The only thing that might fly — and I’m hardly optimistic — is politics, by which I mean the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies — legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others — that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.
And when I say “explain,” I should add aggressively explain — taking the bull by the horns, rejecting the demand (always a loser) to economically justify the liberal arts, refusing to allow myths (about lazy, pampered faculty who work two hours a week and undermine religion and the American way) to go unchallenged, and if necessary flagging the pretensions and hypocrisy of men and women who want to exercise control over higher education in the absence of any real knowledge of the matters on which they so confidently pronounce.

How many of us fear too much for our own jobs to make this case? Because these myths are present at the elementary school level as well, and that's where the foundation of liberal arts had best be built.
You need at this time especially to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder. You need to know that you were not created to work and produce and impoverish yourself to enrich an idle exploiter. You need to know that you have a mind to improve, a soul to develop, and a manhood to sustain.

[Photo: Fountain outside La Fonda del Bosque, wherein we contemplated how to convince the businessmen that liberal arts have value.]

Monday, October 11, 2010

Eating The Apple That Fell On His Head

The following piece ran in today's Deming Headlight. I've got to hand it to them, they picked a funnier headline than the one I suggested. Link to the article here.

He eats the apple that fell on head
By Algernon D'Ammassa for the Headlight

Can Luna County afford leaders who treat science as if it were a political opponent?

Steve Pearce, running for his old seat in our district, is on the record dismissing global warming as "crap" and claiming that it "cannot be validated." He made these statements on a campaign stop in Artesia to the multimedia news source Politico.

"Only God knows where our climate is going," said first district candidate Jon Barela during a recent radio interview. While it is probably true we cannot know more than God, there are some things we do know; and what we know must be taken seriously.

The looming challenges that climate change presents to New Mexico's agriculture, a billion-dollar industry, include rising water prices and decreased supply, carbon dioxide fertilization that galvanizes weeds and invasive species, reduced crop yields across the southwest, less forage for cattle - and much more. Extreme storms in the American southwest have doubled, and rapid warming trends have affected snowpack melt in measurable ways, as well as the tropical storms which provide New Mexico with much of its yearly precipitation. In the last decade, intensified droughts in New Mexico saw an explosion of bark beetles that have cleared trees by tens of thousands of acres. If we ignore the trends measured by climatologists, all of this will just be a prelude.

Across the hemisphere, the effects of warming and greenhouse gas concentration are affecting ocean flow and sea levels as ancient glaciers melt so quickly we can watch them change color and shrink.

To be fair, there are aspects of this research that are inconclusive and subject to debate. Sometimes there are errors. Errors, in fact, are an important part of the scientific method, as theories and equations are tested and new data are incorporated into the body of research. This does not impeach the basis of science itself.

Pearce continues to make hay out of some unprofessional conduct by a handful of scientists at a single research facility, suggesting this somehow debunks the entire body of climate science and its implications. Some politicians go as far as to claim that global warming is a left-wing conspiracy to destroy the American economy. These theories apparently require no "validation" or evidence. They are also good for harvesting large campaign donations.

While we bicker and dither, catastrophic reactions are already in motion. If developed nations take no action, or waste time denying reality, there will be drastic consequences over the next century. Indeed, our response is already late.

Here in Luna County, we can count on our farmers and ranchers to respond to conditions and adapt as best they can, bringing together their experience and resources. We can all help them, and ourselves, by sending lawmakers to Washington who are not at war with science.

We are citizens of the United States. We are the farmers and ranchers of the American west. We are the workers in the cities. We are the parents and children who wonder what will become of our land, streams, and air in the years to come. We are people, not corporations. We deserve a reasoned political debate about the facts that will change our way of life. We deserve competition among well-informed policy makers for the best solutions to rising energy prices, pollution, waste products, and the overlapping effects of climate change.

From the private sector, we deserve innovative ideas from our brightest entrepreneurs and well-capitalized corporations. Many of these resources are being spent to confuse the public and impugn science instead. Inevitably, the implications of global warming will affect business as well. We all deserve better than this.

We are speaking of the material conditions that will define our future. Can we stop pretending to be "conservatives" and "liberals" when it comes to our survival? Twisting climate science into a partisan dogfight, when the implications are truly universal, is short-sighted and selfish, even stupid.

We do not need to know more than God. We have been granted the sense to look ahead and take reasonable precautions. Accepting reality and helping our community prepare will not happen until people demand an intelligent conversation repeatedly and consistently, backing it up with our votes and our spending habits.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Goat Heads

Another flat today. I'm flatting out a little more than once a month. This is because I live in goat head country, and even sticking to the paved roads, even with self-sealing tubes, the goat heads are eating me alive -- especially the front tire. Today, after riding around with Gabriel in his bike carrier for the first time (he enjoyed that), I rode back from the wife's church after dropping him off and somewhere on the road I caught a goat head the size of a medieval weapon.

I was going to sit down and write about the goat head for your pleasure. But I came across a page that says exactly what I wanted to say, with photographs. The work has been done for me. Click here and read about the bane of my commute.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Location, Location, Location

Is this really the building where you want to advertise your construction business?

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Pastors Are Human

The incident took place at one of Deming's many churches, an independent church.

They have a small but fervent congregation, and their pastor is intensely energetic, a natural leader. I've heard him preach twice. Both sermons hit the same themes: righteous and unrighteous living, obeying authority figures (because if a person is in authority, you'd better understand God put them there, kid), and gay-bashing.

I know people who go to the church and like the pastor very much. When they talk about pastor's sermons, they rarely tell me much about the content of the sermons -- they talk about the feeling they get from them. (I tend to listen for the content and ignore appeals to my feelings. When someone is going for my buttons, I resist.)

In fact, I am acquainted with the man myself in non-pastoral situations. He is an upright fellow and quite enjoyable to talk to, although it is clear there are subjects we will never be able to discuss. He doesn't like other religions at all, for one thing. And he's convinced gay people are going to hell. So we talk about the weather, the city, and things like that, and get along just dandily.

There are members of his congregation who have a tremendous amount of faith in this pastor. They feel that he has tuned his ear to God's word, lives his life in harmony with the word, and have tremendous faith in his judgment.

That's the dangerous part for anyone in a pastoral position: when people believe in you.

Since I wasn't there, I can't offer a lot of detail about the incident, but by more than one account it went something like this: the pastor was a-preachin', and in mid-stream an inspiration a-came to him, and he a-stopped by one woman who was a-sittin' and a-hearin' the sermon (yes, Jesus) and he did a-stop by her (yes, say it) and he made a digression (a digression, lawd, hear it), and he was said to have intimated to her, in front of everybody who was a-listenin' (yes), that she had been on his heart lately and the word he was a-gettin' from above (hear it) is that the man she was engaged to be a-marryin' soon was no good for her.

Which would be the perfect time for a whistle to blow, and for a pastoral referee to enter the scene and call a foul. "Offsides! Two sabbath penalty!"

Instead, just the tears. Tears, fleeing from the sanctuary (that surely did not feel like a "sanctuary" at that moment), a great megilla. Oy.

Let's go back to this pastor for a moment. The lady in question is doing fine, after that horrible day, so please do not worry, gentle reader. There is someone else in the story worth worrying about somewhat, and that's the fellow with the lavalier microphone and the impeccable suit.

I've worked a lot of behind-the-scenes jobs at Zen Centers and I've seen what Zen teachers go through -- enough that the job has no appeal. Your practice has to be very strong to withstand the distorting power of what people project onto you. When you're the pastor, people turn you into their daddy, their ideal mate, their psychotherapist, their shaman, or even a complex amalgamation of these.

And once people start to believe God is talking to you, it validates any opinion that comes out of your mouth. People forget the pastor is just a dude.

When pastors go to a seminary and are trained, they are ostensibly prepared for this -- one hopes so. At the very least, they have colleagues and peers who can check in with them if something starts to looks weird. Like, say, when they hear the colleague telling people, "God doesn't like your fiancee." There's someone to tap on their shoulder and say, "Let's sit down."

That is one strength in the way the Kwan Um school is set up. People criticize it for its institutional veneer, the college of Zen Masters that has been created, fearing that the teachers are less independent. To some extent that concern is probably valid. On the other hand, the teachers have the support and witness of peers. Sangha is still one of the three jewels, after all.

Who provides that for the "independent" pastors?

Watch your step.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

My Call to Protective Services

The student came to school a few times in recent weeks visibly unwashed and with an odor. Then I saw the cigarette burns on his legs. Some old and faded. Some fresher, red. He didn't want to talk about them, say what they were, anything.

It happens. We teachers are mandated reporters. The homeroom teacher -- for whatever reason -- had not reported this. But the student is in my classroom now for theatre, I saw what I saw, and my job is clear. So I made the call.

The call was not encouraging.

What you do is call Protective Services, report what you saw, and provide whatever information you can. They asked me questions. It seemed to go well. Then they wanted personal information for follow-up. Some of that, I had. Some of it, I didn't -- they wanted answers I did not have and cannot access.

"Can't you get that information from the school office?" I asked.

"Well, yes," she said, sounding put out. "But I have to call them and fax over my state I.D. and it takes more time."

Time is of the essence when a child is in danger. I got that. And yet -- this sounded like something else. I spoke to two people at this office and both of them were spending time with me they could have spent talking to our excellent secretarial staff, trying to get me to fill out their checklist for them even after I had told them I had no more information for them. Then they told me they might have to give up on the report altogether.

Bronze rage began to heat up behind my eyes.

"Considering what this child may be going through, is it really such a big deal for you to do your job and follow up with the school office for the additional information you need?"

God help this poor kid, because it sounds like the State of New Mexico won't do anything until someone does their paperwork for them.

[Photo: the Children, Youth, and Families Department of the State of New Mexico.]

Monday, October 04, 2010

Albuquerque and Fort Collins: Arts and Buddhas

Good morning.

This blog has been quiet for a couple of days because I have been away. It was a rare trip out of town, and quite productive.

Before dawn Friday morning, I pointed my beat up Honda Civic north to Albuquerque. Somebody appointed me to the New Mexico Advisory Council on Arts Education, which advises the state board of education on the arts (which is mandated as core curriculum by federal and state law) and also works with the New Mexico Arts Alliance, the latter being more of an advocacy group.

Our meeting took place at the National Hispanic Cultural Center and by lunch time I had filled my legal pad with useful notes rather than doodles. Arts educators have good reason to feel rather depressed these days, particularly in New Mexico with its projected budget shortfalls. Nonetheless, the 25 people present -- some from public schools, both teachers and administrators; some representing non-profit organizations that support the arts -- brainstormed and began refining positive ways to speak about the value and necessity of keeping the arts in school -- with lawmakers, our candidates for Governor, school officials, and especially parents.

At 3:30, I was back on the highway, north again.

In Fort Collins, there is a dharma brother of mine who ran a Zen Center for three years. With his family moving to another home and other things going on, he decided to close it up and donate much of its equipment to our group here in Deming. The cost of shipping this stuff would have been prohibitive, and some things you just don't ship. So it has waited for an opportunity for one of us to drive to the other.

After stopping to sleep in Trinidad, I reached Fort Collins at lunchtime Saturday. R.B. was playing golf. So I had time to stop and wander around the old town, including a long visit to a lovely book store that is attached to a tea house. R.B. appeared and we had a delicious lunch at this place (I highly recommend the veggie chili).

R.B.'s donation to the Zen Group was immense. We now have a wealth of mats and cushions -- some of which were part of a long-running, now defunct Zen Center in Littleton before going to Fort Collins. This stuff has history.

But more: there is now an iron temple bell (fashioned from an old acetyline tank) with a beautiful sound, chant books, kitchen supplies for overnight retreats, chanting books, altar supplies -- and then there is the new buddha.

In Korean-style temples, the buddha on the altar tends to be large and gold. R.B. presented us with a buddha that had been carried back to the States from Korea, with unblemished gold leaf work, face painting, and a rhinestone third eye.

This distinguished passenger rode in the front seat on the ride back, wearing its seat belt, of course.

Most of this trip consisted of driving. The view from the windshield offered the gorgeous terrain of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, with amazing sunsets and thunderstorms. At the top of this blog entry, you see my best attempt to capture a picture of a double-rainbow that appeared in Mora County. This picture does not do the sight justice. The interior rainbow fell on a spot of ground where the clouds allowed the afternoon sun to shine through, creating the illusion of the rainbow hitting the earth and splashing gold sunshine.