August 21, 2009

A Civil Civic Discourse - Good Design or Just a Fluke?


                     Relation is the essence of everything. Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

Last week US Representative Joe Sestak held a townhall forum on health care at a faith-based organization, Broad Street Ministry (BSM), in Philadelphia.  The front-page article in The Philadelphia Inquirer the following morning described the event as "overwhelmingly civil".  

The evening went so smoothly in fact that some thought the forum had been in the planning stages for several weeks, or that opponents to the Democratic plan were purposefully kept out of the gathering.  Neither assertion is true.  I work at BSM several days a week.  I was there from the beginning of the planning process until the end of the actual forum (Sestak stayed on afterwards to meet with a small remnant of the more than 1000 people who showed up that evening).  And while there were any number of reasons that the townhall was a civil one, not the least of these was the fact that a very welcoming and grateful tone was set from the outset, and was carried through to the end.

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June 22, 2009

Some Summer Reading Suggestions - Part 1

It's that time again - time for sorting through the pile of books that have been sitting there on the night table waiting patiently for your attention.  Or perhaps finally getting around to actually reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.  Or even a bit of Tolstoy...

Then again it may be time for a non-fiction page-turner.  If that's the case, some of the Whitmanians have a few suggestions to offer.  Hopefully, these suggestions might add to your beach experience. They also may encourage other TWI members to chime in with some gems of their own. 

First up is a new book by Fred Kaplan, columnist for Slate.


Reading through the timeline in the beginning of Kaplan's new book, 1959 The Year Everything Changed, will give you an immediate sense of just why the author has identified this year as so pivotal to the political, cultural and economic future of the United States.

A few highlights: 

January 1   Castro takes power in Cuba.

January 2   Soviets launch the first spacecraft to break free of Earth's gravity.

January 9   Judge orders Atlanta to integrate its buses and trolleys

January 12 Berry Gordy borrows $800 from his family to buy a studio for his new record company, Motown.

And that is just in the first two weeks of January. 

The rest of the year is equally eventful - from Miles Davis breaking into new territory in jazz, the US Air Force coining the term "aerospace" to stake military claim to space as well as the skies, to the introduction of The Pill, the invention of the microchip, to Ginsberg's Howl, Malcolm X's fateful trip to the Middle East, to the dismantling of the obscenity laws, to the opening of the Guggenheim, and Ornette Coleman's debut in Manhattan.  And this is merely a sampling of what occurred during this remarkable year.

Continue reading "Some Summer Reading Suggestions - Part 1" »

April 4, 2009

The New School @ Commonweal

Commonweal, a member of the Whitman Community, has for the past thirty plus years been at the forefront of the environmental health field, describing itself with remarkable understatement as:

a health and environmental research institute where for three decades we have worked at the interface of personal and planetary healing through focused initiatives in the environment, education, and health.

Over the past two years or so co-founder, Michael Lerner, has been hosting conversations/dialogues with thought leaders in these subjects from around the world. Fortunately, Michael has been generous enough to capture these conversations and post them as netcasts (mp3 files) easily accessible through Commonweal's website, or through iTunes.

Over the last several weeks I have been listening to a number of these netcasts.  Michael is in my experience the most effective interviewer on the internet today.  He brings a depth of knowledge to each encounter that is at times astonishing; yet he manages to keep the focus on his guests and their particular (and considerable) expertise.

I invite and encourage everyone associated with TWI to download these netcasts and listen to them at your leisure. (BTW I learned recently from Michael's interview with Peter Kingsley that our English word school comes from the Greek word, schole (σχολή), which means leisure.) 

Check out all that The New School has to offer - including links to its netcasts and iTunes - here.

July 1, 2008

Book Review: The Wise Heart

WiseHeart.jpgThe Wise Heart, A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology, Jack Kornfield's latest work, is well worth a read, even if you have very little interest in the particularities of Buddhist Psychology.  The book combines many lessons learned during the forty odd years he has been a practicing Buddhist with twenty-six principles of Buddhist Psychology that he has studied and help refine over those years. The result is a very practical map into a world that is both extraordinarily complex and profoundly simple.

Kornfield teaches at the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, and the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. Those experiences gave him an enormous amount of anecdotal material to make these principles very clear and available to the average reader, while also making striking parallels to traditional western methodologies.

Interwoven throughout the book are stories from his own family life that are carefully crafted to add to our understanding of this discipline.  At no time did I have the sense that I was reading an Oprahesque tell all - even though these personal stories spoke of some very difficult times in his life.

Also, Kornfield brings a number of his clients into the conversation.  Normally I tend to skip over "case studies" in such books.  They are usually much too long with more context than I want and less relevance than I need.  In this book it is different.  The "cases" are really brief, tightly focused vignettes that capture the essence of the principle being discussed.  I was left with powerful personal sketches that continue to stay with me, and are very helpful in keeping the more abstract principles grounded.

The author does not shy away from difficult, and sometimes arcane, notions within the Buddhist psychological systems.  There are the healthy and unhealthy states of desire, the eight levels of the jhana states "that open the door to illumination".  Not to mention the "alchemy of transformation".  Woven through entire book, though, is how mindfulness, compassion and lovingkindness are some of the essential tools we bring into any transformative relationship that might lead to an end to suffering.

Finally, at the end of each chapter Kornfield gives very clear practice instructions to activate these principles into everyday life.  No doubt these are the same practices he suggests to his meditation students during retreats. 

The eastern psychology systems - in tandem with many centuries of consciousness studies, ethical systems, and spiritual practices - are in many ways far more advanced than our western perspectives on the nature and function of emotions and thought processes. This is especially true when looking at human beings through lenses other than those provided by the DSM.  

As an advanced practitioner in both eastern and western psychological traditions, Kornfield has added important new ways to approach many psychological questions, such as how we construct and make meaning of our world, the interplay of thinking and feeling, individual and social identity, reality and self as social constructs, and so forth.  Questions that are at the forefront of many conversations that members of our community have every day.

October 26, 2007

Innovative Use of Media

20071024_link2_70.jpgA teacher in a suburban Philadelphia elementary school has developed an innovative yearlong program for young people with Asperger's syndrome. The teacher, Randi Rentz, works with her students to produce an Action 7 newscast that is shown to the entire school community at the end of the year. Using the news cast as a focal point, she can help these children practice various social skills that are often such a challenge. Appropriate social space, eye contact, listening postures, all these social and communication skills come together as these kids take on all the various roles on the newsroom.

Another creative use of video and other media similar to the interesting work by the Whitman grantees at

Details about the Action 7 Newsroom here.

March 19, 2007

The Impact of Tortured Logic

Abu Ghraib Torture-715244.jpgJohn Yoo may be a fine law professor. That is for others at Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley's Law School, to determine. What is clear is that his work on the so-called "torture memo" used some equally tortured logic.

In an interview with a British journalist, Yoo said this about war:

Look, death is worse than torture, but everyone except pacifists thinks there are circumstances in which war is justified. War means killing people. If we are entitled to kill people, we must be entitled to injure them. I don't see how it can be reasonable to have an absolute prohibition on torture when you don't have an absolute prohibition on killing.

Here is a very solid explanation of the flaws in Yoo's thinking by Professor Dave Glazier from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles via Marty Lederman at the blog, Balkanization:

One of the most fundamental problems with Yoo's logic is that he is simply ignorant of the law of war. Yoo clearly believes that war is essentially a lawless regime, subject only to a few treaties he knows of. In his view, if you can distinguish your situation from those covered by explicit treaty language, then you get to do what you want. What Yoo fails to recognize is that war is far from a lawless regime.

Emotionally clear, and rigorously logical thinking are never as crucial as when we are faced with such critically important moments in history - moments that can alter a society permanently and irreversibly. Moments like when one is considering the long-term implications of going to war.

Such considerations transcend political affiliations, and/or inclinations.

March 7, 2007

What Makes a Commonwealth?

us_state_abbrev_map.jpgThere are only four commonwealths in the Union. Three - Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Virginia - were part of the original thirteen colonies, and Kentucky was the fifteenth member of the Confederation, as it was called back then.

This bit of historical trivia seems important today in light of what is occurring in one of those commonwealths, notably Pennsylvania, concerning the issue of transportation.

So let's review. A commonwealth is a state governed for the common good, literally for the common weal, or common well-being.

Now let's look at what is occurring in the commonwealth's capital with regard to the transportation issue. In an article in this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer the governor's office has said that there will be no "patch" this time to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). No federal highway funds "diverted" to cover the cost overruns in the southeast corner of the state.

But here is the key paragraph:

Legislators representing rural areas of the state, such as Rep. Fred McIlhattan (R., Clarion), said their constituents were reluctant to contribute more money for mass transit, which they saw as benefiting only metropolitan areas.

And to me this is indicative of much that is happening not just in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but also in the nation as a whole. If the "wifum question" (What's in it for me?) does not have an immediate and concrete answer, many of us Americans just say no. Rural is more and more pitted against urban, with suburbanites squeezed in the middle.

Unless we return to conversations about the common good, the common well being of all our citizens - urban, rural, rich, poor and middle-class, children and seniors - then there is little hope that either our standards of living or the quality of our lives will stay the same let alone improve.

Right now "well-being in common" seems less like a platitude, and more like a good way to live, and perhaps the only way we will survive.

[Originally posted on Edd's higherportal/t4c site.]

February 25, 2007

Impressions After a Reading by Ishmael Beah

ChildSoldierThailand.jpgAt first the topic - child soldiers in Sierra Leone's civil war - seemed eerily out of place in this beautiful, yet simple, Berkeley church with its vaulted ceiling and muted walls. A few moments after Ishmael began to speak about his experiences, though, it seemed like the perfect setting for such a conversation. We would all be trying to make sense of the incomprehensible, and where better than in a setting where the incomprehensible is commonplace?

Ishmael Beah, the author of his recent book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, seemed ill at ease for a moment as he sat down in a rather grand chair on the raised sanctuary to begin the interview with several hundred people sitting quietly in the pews below him. He smiled self-consciously and immediately connected with his audience. This was a young man who is quickly learning how to work a room - a good thing to know if you want to make a difference in the world.

He looks much younger than his twenty-six years with his slight build and boyish smile. Perhaps it was his diet as a boy. Maybe it was the "brown brown", concoction of cocaine and gunpowder that he snorted as a boy soldier. Perhaps he just seems young for his age. All these thoughts and more ran through my mind as I watched him center himself, become more grounded, and begin reading a passage from his memoir.

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February 15, 2007

Facing Violence WORLD FORUM 2007

WORLD Forum 2007 Facing Violence - Justice, Religion and Conflict Resolution
Argent Hotel, San Francisco

Some thoughts on the conference

Thursday afternoon:
This World Forum is the first one presented by the RockRose Institute, a local Bay Area group, and right off the bat I must say that they are working at a very high level. They are thoughtful and have worked hard to set the correct tone for the conference with music from various parts of the world, fabulous multi media and images. It is well organized, and running very tightly - it is even on time!

The first in a series of conversations on the dais was with Elie Wiesel. The interviewer was Stan Unger, a local radio personality in San Francisco. He had one of those seemingly manufactured voices that almost felt disembodied. But I thought (and so did John) that he asked great questions, and that Mr Wiesel, and the other panelists who came up later really didn't address. His questions about facing violence were fairly practical ones - the "how-to questions", that may actually be impossible to address.

Elie Wiesel is such a small and seemingly fragile man. I began to think about how impossible it must be to predict who might survive such deprivation as he did. I imagine there were many who looked stronger, but who could not endure what he had. I was touched by how he spoke if children, and how he still held hope as a possibility. And how he values the time he has because so many of those he knew had so little. It was good to be in the same room with him. Then later he was joined by a young woman who survived the Rwandan genocide, and a Rabbi who does a lot of work in Africa.

On a less happy note one of the things I noticed most strongly was how done I am with taking the hit for "America". There were a number of references to Rwanda, and how Clinton did nothing to stop the genocide. (This is in fact true, and Clinton admitted as much and apologized to the Rwandan people.) But it also belies the historical context - he was reeling from the Somalia "Black Hawk Down" fiasco, and he was dealing with a hostile Congress. The question I was left with was: Where were the Europeans while Rwanda was descending onto hell ?

Then there was a moment when I thought back to many conversations I have had with various people in the Whitman community about the multiplicity of stories we tell ourselves as we make up our worlds, and figure out how to get through the day. The wonderful young woman, named Joy I think, had a marvelous smile that seemed to have guarded the floodgates that are holding back an ocean of suffering. Her story - what little she told of it - was truly horrifying. At one point she attempted to explain how the genocide could happen. Centuries ago Rwanda was a peaceful and prosperous country. Then in her frame some time ago the evil came from Europe. The colonial powers carved up Africa (certainly true enough) and over time the country devolved into chaos and violence.

Like I said, the colonial powers from the last few centuries certainly created a historical context for much of what is happening in Africa, and the Middle East for that matter. Yet, at the same time it is also true that the Europeans are gone, and now Africans were and are killing Africans.

The gift that this young woman gave me in that moment was the realization of how quickly I am given to creating a story of the evil that is "out there". Not a new realization to be sure, but it was more powerful this time. Maybe because hearing her tell her story in that way, I found myself eager to forgive her because there was really nothing to forgive.

More later. Thoughts and impressions about dialogue and beginnings and such when I have had a chance to chew on the events of the day.

[Update: On the evening of the first day of the conference, Elie Wiesel was attacked in the hotel elevator by a man who was evidently stalking him for several weeks. Mr. Wiesel managed to get away from the assailant unharmed. The SF Police took Mr. Wiesel to the airport immediately after the incident. The incident is still under investigation.]

December 28, 2006

Interesting Twist on Public-Private Partnerships

But first some background…

Growing up as I did in Philadelphia, the American painter, Thomas Eakins, held an iconic allure for me. He was a native of the city, and painted with a controversial style (at the time) that conveyed in graphic detail the lives and events of everyday people, as well as such notables as Walt Whitman. His life was no less controversial than his work.

One of his works, The Gross Clinic, was recently sold by the Thomas Jefferson University for $68 million to an heir to the Walton fortune – Sam Walton’s daughter, Alice – for her new museum in Arkansas. The painting was originally purchased by the medical college's alumni for $200 after it was derided in a juried show as being too graphic. The sale was also controversial, coming on the heels of Ms Walton’s purchase of an important painting hanging (or that was hanging) in the New York Public Library.

The terms of this particular sale allowed for the City of Philadelphia to match that sale price in order to keep the masterpiece from being relocated to Arkansas. But the movers and shakers in Philadelphia were given less than two months to come up with those matching funds. A tall order as anyone who has been in the fundraising world certainly knows.

And here is where the interesting partnership comes in. After some major local donors chipped in about $20 million, and another 2,000 or so contributed $10 million more, a Charlottesville, NC bank (Wachovia) offered to guarantee a bridge loan, if needed, to offset any short-fall by the deadline.

So, the city will keep its historically important painting and the medical college will have $68 million to add to its capital campaign. The only apparent loser in this seems to be an Arkansas heiress. The full story is here and here.

I’m wondering how common such loans are in the philanthropic world. Does anyone in our community know of other deals such as this where a financial institution steps in to guarantee the results of a fundraising campaign?

December 23, 2006

The Future of Documentaries…

The future of documentaries may be in some jeopardy due to the potentially restrictive copyright laws currently on the books. Many low budget, indie productions pay an enormous percentage of their budgets to clear music copyrights.

One blogger pointed put that the film series about the civil rights movement, Eye on the Prize, is no longer available because the producers were unable to afford the purchase price for rights in perpetuity. Such pieces of cultural history are vital to the task of sustaining a national narrative, and encouraging dialogue.

In a more recent case here is an interview with Marilyn Agrelo, the producer of the film, Mad Hot Ballroom, about the ballroom dance competition in New York City. In the interview she discusses how astonishingly expensive it was to clear the music rights for the film. She even had to clear a six second ring tone! In all those clearances cost her almost half of her production budget.

Hopefully, the new congress may take up a bill to address (or redress) this situation. It may not rise to the level of troop surges and the future of social security, but it is an important piece of legislation, and an important matter for national dialogue.

December 19, 2006

The Darker Side of Social Construction - The Plight of the Medical Workers in Libya

The assertion that what we call reality is a mental construct held together with brick and mortar comprised of the narratives we tell each other was once a hotly disputed topic among academics. It seems less and less controversial now, especially as the rubrics of this theory continually play themselves out in the very stories we see and hear in the media each day, no less so than the ones we tell each other in our personal lives.

Perhaps most strikingly these days this type of reality-creating enterprise is playing itself out in Iraq, and in Washington, where it is becoming increasingly clear that the “winner” will be the one who can sustain the story. And it is playing itself out in a most bizarre manner in Libya today, where five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor have been yet again sentenced to death after being found guilty of infecting 400 children with the HIV virus.

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