How Do We Talk About Race in America? A Serendipitous Part 3

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Greetings, welcome back, and best wishes to everyone for a very happy and healthy New Year.

I hadn’t planned this additional post on race, but I came across what I feel is a wonderful piece of Op-Art on the topic in The New York Times. Some of you may recall it, but even if you do, I hope you’ll use the link above to revisit it. It’s worth several readings, I believe.

And it’s followed by another serendipitous example that I find enriches the topic.

Writer and illustrator Henry James Garrett has created a wise and amusing morality tail/tale that’s titled “The Kernel of Human (or Rodent) Kindness.” I’m pretty sure the fair use police will prevent me from reprinting the piece in its entirety, as I would love to do, so I’m including a few screen shots (if they work–I’m getting better at this technical stuff, but each new challenge is fraught with the fear of mishap).

Please keep in mind that this is just a sampling, probably unfair to the creator because it doesn’t capture the richness of the artwork and messaging in its entirety. But here we go…

 

 

 

 

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Please do click on the green New York Times link above to see Garrett’s entire work. It will just take you a minute, and I really think you’ll enjoy it.


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Before we leave the topic of race for now, I’d like to add the second serendipitous piece. One of a number of special friends I’ve reconnected with as a result of this blog is a Master Gardener. I was unfamiliar with this term, but I’ve learned that Master Gardeners are volunteers who have undertaken considerable training in the science and art of gardening. They, in turn, share their expertise by educating the public on gardening and horticulture.

My friend had the additional responsibilities involved in serving on the Board of Directors of the Master Gardeners organization in the area in which he lived. He had a lot of experience in organizational work as well, having had a long and successful career as a Manufacturing Manager for a major US corporation, where his responsibilities included diversity training.

But my friend, who is African-American, grew tired of his fellow board members’ failure to listen to his ideas (as well as impatient with their lack of organization).

He was comfortable with what he had to offer but felt his presence on the board was that of a “token”: he was there for show, but not for substance. So he resigned his position–and received a very gracious letter from one of the few board members who clearly recognized that his absence would be felt.

In an email explaining to me what had happened, he wrote of the other board members: “I really don’t think they know the difference between Affirmative Action and Diversity. Gardeners generally practice diversity every time they plant a flower, but they probably wouldn’t make the connection. There are a number of reasons we plant a diverse garden.”

I found his words both poetic and a fine metaphor for why our society is strengthened by our growing diversity.

So from rodents to gardens, I feel we’re surrounded by lessons about how much we have to gain by being empathetic toward one another and celebrating both our differences and our commonality as human beings.

I hope to hear from you about whether my serendipitous finds resonate. As always, I depend upon your thoughts, experiences, and stories…For those of you who are new to this blog, you must go way down the page to find the comment box in which I hope you’ll enter your response. Thank you!

Annie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zen and the Art of Vacuuming: A Near-Fable

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Introductory Note:

I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for quite a while, and I am very serious about it; it’s had a beneficial effect on my life. But in my description of my blog, I speak of “seeking dialogue to inform, enlighten, and/or amuse you and me.” The emphasis here is on “amuse.” I realize things have been pretty heavy in Annie’s blog world, with focus on climate change, the political scene, and race relations, so I thought it was time to lighten up a bit in this holiday season.

What follows is a piece I wrote some years back, which was published in a now-defunct humor magazine. It still amuses me, and I hope it will elicit a smile from you as well. Perhaps it will also evoke feelings in concert with my desire to find common ground…

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Joyce Carol Oates, it seems, is positively nuts about housework. She claims if she were to let someone else do her housework for her, she would feel alienated from her own life. Cleaning one’s house, she says, is like “Zen meditation.”

Because I, too, would like a clean house, inner serenity, and best-selling novels, I decided to apply Ms. Oates’s philosophy to my own life. I first endeavored to wash the kitchen floor while seated in the middle of it meditating in the zazen, or cross-legged, position. As one might imagine, this was a rigorous exercise, requiring great self-discipline and flexibility. I felt myself stretched beyond what I had earlier assumed to be my limits. After fifteen minutes, I had grasped a Higher Truth, which I quite willingly share: Life Must Provide Us With a Longer-Handled Mop.

One of the foci of Zen is the koan, an unsolvable riddle or nonsensical proposition. Surely, housework provides us with the ultimate koan: Why Dust? Why devote time and energy to casting motes into the air, only to watch them reconvene above one’s head tauntingly in anticipation of their certain descent?

Vacuuming, on the other hand, puts one in touch with the Cosmos. It is the practice of piecing together disparate elements of nature in one location as a cohesive whole. However, the vacuum cleaner is an artificial device, separating the true Zen student from the kind of self-reliance necessary to approach enlightenment.

The serious Zen-cleaner uses masking tape wrapped around the fingers to effect the same essential unity. This process, painstaking as it is, leads to contemplation at close range of the complexity inherent in what had appeared to be a superficial layer of carpet debris. William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wildflower. The Zen-cleaner sees contemporary civilization in a piece of sticky tape.

Sorting clothes provides another koan, elegant in its simplicity but profound in its implications. Whither the Other Sock? I leave the reader time now to meditate on this Universal Question…

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 Like Zen, housework poses the kind of paradoxical problems that will shock the student out of dependence upon ordinary logic. No other human accomplishment is apparent only when it is not accomplished. All is process. The devoted Zen-cleaner knows never to seek the sense of satisfaction other mortals derive from their work when the job is done. One operates with constant awareness of an Eternal Verity: The Cleaning of a House Will Lead, With the Passage of Time, to a House That Must Be Cleaned.

The practitioner of Zen incorporates a love of nature into one’s life. It is important, then, that the house be properly aired and smell of the great outdoors. When I had completed my tasks and felt myself approaching Nirvana, I flung open the windows, inviting the world into my home. A small brown sparrow accepted my invitation. It flew across the living room, swept into the kitchen, and lighted briefly in the middle of the freshly waxed floor, almost precisely on the spot where I had meditated not long before. It then departed, leaving behind a tiny organic reminder of our transcendental experience.

With that symbol, I had reached satori, the ultimate insight. I now had a penetrating vision of the value of housework. Thank you, little brown sparrow. Thank you, Joyce Carol Oates.

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Happy holidays, everybody! See you in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, please feel free to browse through the posts you may not have seen yet. Backstage in My Blog World, written immediately after I experienced a frenzy resulting from an early technical snafu, may also make you smile.

I hope 2019 brings us a calmer, more unified, and democratic nation in a more peaceful world. And, in the mindfulness tradition, I offer this message, which I learned from renowned mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield:

May you be filled with lovingkindness;

May you be safe and protected;

Well in body and mind;

Strong and healed;

May you be happy.

Annie

Navigating “The Wild West” Marketplace of Consumer Genetic Testing–and Other Needed Information About Our DNA

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In an article in The New York Times Sunday Review, genetics counselor Laura Hercher described a man named Matthew Fender, who—after searching for heredity data through 23andMe—had placed his genetic test results into Promethease, a DNA search engine that probes such data for variants cited in the medical literature. 

Fender had sought to learn his risk for developing a pulmonary embolism, the condition that had killed his sister, a seemingly healthy young woman of 23. The report didn’t mention that, but it did provide the alarming news that he carried a mutation (PSEN1) strongly associated with early onset Alzheimer’s, as well as two copies of a gene variant (ApoE4) that indicates greatly increased chances of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s.

After getting no satisfactory guidance from his primary care doctor and other professionals, Fender checked out a competing genetics company, Ancestry DNA,  to see what his results there would say about the PSEN1 variant. They said nothing. He then persuaded his doctor to order the test, which proved negative.

End of story for Fender, although he said the experience led him to improve his diet and to consider using his technological skills to develop an app to assist people with dementia through voice-activated devices such as Siri and Alexa.

It’s worth noting that both companies claimed their tests were 99.9% accurate. Yet a 23andMe representative told Hercher that “a 99.9% accuracy can still mean errors.” And apparently, not every variant in their chip is even validated for 99.9% accuracy.

“The direct-to-consumer genetic testing marketplace is a regulatory Wild West,” wrote Hercher, who is the director of research at the Sarah Lawrence College Graduate Program in Human Genetics.

She’s also the host of an informative and entertaining podcast, “The Beagle Has Landed,” (named after Charles Darwin’s ship—not Charles Schulz’s Snoopy), designed for both professionals and “curious patients,” according to its introductory press release. One of her interviewees was Matt Fender.

Hercher explained that FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced in November a new regulatory approach that will allow companies like 23andMe to market some tests to determine health risks without premarket review. That change, Hercher observes, “is expected to usher in a rapid expansion of the consumer genetics industry.”

That means we consumers will need to better prepare ourselves to function in this new ”Wild West” by getting a better education on the important topic of genetics and the role it plays in our health—even as the field itself is changing all the time.

With that backdrop,  I spoke with Hercher to elicit her opinions on how to view all these genetic data at this stage. 

First, to her, the quest for information about one’s heritage, which she calls the “ancestry craze,” is a “mixed bag.” The positives she underscores are that people enjoy and are intrigued by learning about their forebears, and the process brings science and genetics into people’s lives.

But when people ask her if these quests yield legitimate information, she responds: “It’s accurate-ish. People think of this as their genealogy, but once you get past Mom and Dad, there’s a lot of randomness—you could inherit something important, or not.”

“People like to tell a story they can understand, a narrative that can explain why people turned out certain ways. Genetics also tells a story, but the risk we run is that when hearing it, we put aside other stories—involving culture and heritage, for example.  It’s very hard to weave it all together.”

If we’re interested in our predecessors’ story, then their story is ours, she notes, and that’s valuable to us. “Genes are a part of that, but not all of it. Even among siblings: one person could have 34% Southern European heritage, while his brother registered 15%. Would that make sense? No. The tests don’t gather with that level of precision.”

Hercher analogizes a swimming pool, with some blue substance for African ancestry, red for Chinese, etc. “The testers scoop a sampling from a spot of genomes into a net, and they’ll get red, green, yellow,” she says.  “Different tests reach down and get the same mix, but it’s not identical.”

To Hercher, the ancestry tests also tend to encourage a kind of tribal thinking and ignore the overriding message: 99% of our DNA identifies us as human and is genetically shared among us. “The DNA story is our commonality as a people—as well as with other living things. I wish these companies presented the data in a way that made that clear.”

And this commonality has great implications for the subject of race. “No quality geneticist will tell you that the concept of race does a good job of describing our shared genetic ancestry. Race isn’t a scientific grouping; it’s defined culturally. There’s more mixture within groups than between groups.” In a point that is probably obvious to all but the most rabid white supremacists, she says: “Racial purity is a myth.”

Those in the genetics field are disturbed by the current efforts to bring back eugenics, or “scientific racism,” which was once believed even by serious scientists who felt they could, by controlled breeding, create an increase in desirable heritable traits and a decrease in undesirable ones, thereby improving the human race. 

The concept was easily manipulated and became discredited after its use by the Nazis in Germany. “Now all these things are widely talked about,” Hercher laments. “The white nationalist movement has adopted the language of hate ideology and put a scientific gloss on it.”

This is the background for the hot water that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has gotten herself into by taking a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry. With this action, critics say, the possible 2020 Presidential candidate has played into the concept of “racial science”–validating the alleged link between blood and race, which The New York Times calls “a bedrock principle for white supremacists and others who believe in racial hierarchies.”

That’s not, I trust, the way most of us view genetics. We may remember how we were introduced to the subject in school: with Gregor Mendel and the 29,000 pea plants he cultivated that formed the foundation of the field. But even among the experts, “we never knew how complicated heredity is,” Hercher says. Single gene inheritance, such as blood type, is fairly straightforward and rare—as are diseases attributed to a single gene, the so-called “Mendelian diseases,” which include sickle cell disease, as well as cystic fibrosis, Huntington disease, muscular dystrophy, and a few others. 

Most of genetics, Hercher stresses, is more multi-layered. Heredity, and the traits and illnesses that are in our DNA, involve the interaction of genes with both our external environment and the internal environment comprised of our hormones, metabolism, and other factors. So when we find out we have certain genes—and their variants and mutations—there’s no straight line to determining how our bodies will deal with their existence.

One important issue that stirs debates among geneticists involves ApoE4—the gene that denotes a higher risk for Alzheimer’s and carries both individual and societal implications—for care and economics—as our population ages. Approximately 25% of Caucasians carry this gene, but Hercher points out that an individual at somewhat increased risk may not develop the disease; while someone with decreased risk may still get it. 

And currently, without a cure, that raises questions. “There’s a faction in the genetics counseling community that says we have no business giving out that information,” says Hercher. Indeed, when Matt Fender initially sought guidance from his primary care doctor, Hercher reported in her Times article, the doctor responded: “What the heck do we do about it, once we know, other than create high anxiety?” However, says Hercher, “a growing faction says that whether or not to provide the information is not really our call.” In other words, it’s the patient’s decision.

So if we’re deciding to search out our ancestry–or to be tested for a possible disease– the important thing for us, the consumer/patient, is to seek education before we even consider being tested. 

How will we regard the potential results? Do we need the information to inform our choices about health decisions that must be made—before a pregnancy, for example, or to assess our odds of developing certain cancers?

On such matters, Hercher stresses, both factions in the genetics counseling community agree: if the information is to be given, good counseling should be involved to help patients think through the implications—and then to support them once they’ve decided whether or not to act on the findings.

What do you think? Have you had any experiences you’d like to share? Please enter them in the Comment box near the bottom of this post.

Annie

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How Do We Talk About Race in America? Meet Doug Glanville (Part 2 of 2)

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As soon as I determined to address this topic in my blog, I knew the person I should turn to for guidance. Doug Glanville, who’s been a friend of my daughter’s since childhood, is one of those all-around amazing people. It was evident when he was young:  academically gifted, terrifically athletic, warm, funny, and friendly, he was clearly destined to make his mark in the world.

And so he has. After graduating as an engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, he had an illustrious nine-year career as a major league baseball player—a center fielder for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. From there he became a commentator for ESPN. He wrote a book, The Game From Where I Stand, contributes frequently to The New York Times, and has written for The Atlantic.

Recently, he’s added “college professor” to his personal biography. Returning to Penn, he researched, developed, and taught a course on Communication, Sports, and Social Justice. He’s now refining the course to teach it at Yale in a combined political science and African American Studies effort that may also involve Women’s Studies and Yale Law School.

And yet…and yet. In the winter of 2014, shoveling the walk of his home in Hartford, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife Tiffany, an attorney and Hartford Board of Education member, and their four children, Glanville was stunned to be approached by a police officer from the next town. 

A woman had complained that a man who had shoveled her walk had been menacing her for money, and Glanville fit the description: a black man in his 40s with a shovel, wearing a brown coat (though his coat was black). The officer approached Glanville with the words: “So, you trying to make a few extra bucks, shoveling people’s driveways around here?”

Glanville has written about the experience in The Atlantic, (“I Was Racially Profiled in My Own Driveway”), and it’s well worth reading the entire article. Here’s a bit of it: 

Instead of providing the officer with his impressive personal and family background,

“I tried to take his question at face value, explaining that the Old Tudor house behind me was my own. The more I talked, the more senseless it seemed that I was even answering the question…After a few minutes, he headed back to his vehicle. He offered no apology, just an empty encouragement to enjoy my shoveling. And then he was gone.”

That episode eventually led to the passage of a new Connecticut law that prevents local police from crossing into another jurisdiction to pursue what they believe are violations of local ordinances. (A good description of the law’s broad impact appears in The Huffington Post.) At the signing ceremony, the Governor issued Glanville an apology.

Glanville explains his motivation for shepherding the legislation through to passage:

If I hadn’t been careful and deferential—if I’d expressed any kind of justifiable outrage—I couldn’t have been sure of the officer’s next question, or his next move. But the problem went even deeper than that. I found myself thinking of the many times I had hired a man who looked like me to shovel my driveway. Would the officer have been any more justified in questioning that man without offering an explanation? I also couldn’t help projecting into the future and imagining my son as a teenager, shoveling our driveway in my place. How could I be sure he would have responded to the officer in the same conciliatory way?

He has since been appointed by the Governor to the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council, where they deal with accreditation issues, certify and decertify police officers, and develop and adopt “a comprehensive standards program for local law enforcement units.” Glanville says: “I am proud to serve on the curriculum committee.”

And although he never received an apology from the police officer, rather than demonizing him, he saw him as presenting an opportunity—to help build bridges between communities of color and law enforcement through open engagement about the pitfalls of bias in community policing.

“We all have bias,” Glanville says, “but the stakes are exceptionally high in law enforcement. It is critical that we all invest in managing bias in our policing.” 

He attributes his ability to work with police—and his broad social vision—to his upbringing in Teaneck, New Jersey, the first community in the United States to voluntarily integrate its schools. “It was such a validating experience to live in a community where people from all walks of life saw each other in a united camp.” He went to plenty of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, he recalls. “In Teaneck, you had real embedded experiences.”

A white police officer, with whom he became close, was his summer league baseball coach, and his father, a psychiatrist who was well-loved in the community, often treated police in various places for the stresses of their jobs. When his father died, “They paid their respects to him as if he was one of them.”

 A large contingent of police, in uniform, did a walkthrough at his funeral to greet his family, waiting in line to pay their respects. Three police cars accompanied the hearse to the cemetery, where they stopped traffic to allow the procession to enter.

Those experiences enabled Glanville to be “caring and collaborative” in working with the police in Connecticut to formulate the legislation.

As a result of those formative years, as well as his close relationships with his fellow baseball players, he says, “As a black man, I see the power in the “#Me Too” movement,” for example. “We all want to be validated, treated fairly, given opportunities, have our pain recognized—to overcome generation after generation in the land of opportunity.”

But achieving social justice takes effort. “It’s easy to want to take your ball and go home,” he acknowledges. “That’s concerning: how can we grow when we’re in our own echo chambers? We need to be brave and step across the aisle and realize we have common work to do.”

In getting the Connecticut legislation through, “I took lemons and made lemonade. But that requires patience, and where is patience? It goes hand in hand with the way we digest information. There’s not a lot of patience to digest the long form. It’s more like: ‘If I didn’t see it, it isn’t real.’”

He has criticisms of social media for creating more doubt and manipulation, and he wishes there were greater balance in the television commentary programs. Bias is profitable, he notes.

“Where is the show with people who have different suggestions talking with one another? I do think at times the media business is not helpful; it just reinforces opinions.”

Referring to the current political divide, he observes: “For starters, I’m not a fan of the blanket political labels, conservative/liberal. We all can be better.

“In the realm of social justice, conservatives get wholly painted as intolerant, just as we tend to overlook the arrogance in people who consider themselves liberal and believe they are completely right. Guess what? No one gets a hall pass here. Holier than thou is not effective in this climate. When the only counter-argument is ‘I’m right,’ we get nowhere.”

When he teaches his course, he stresses the importance of communication. “How you say things and present things matters. You have to have a message and tell stories to engage the listeners.”

For example, he discusses the impact of newspaper racial bias, citing a Huffington Post article that underscored how “white suspects and killers often get positive media spins, while black victims get more negative spins. Words truly matter,” he emphasizes. He also brings in both conservative and liberal views because he feels we all need more measured perspectives.

Is it ever helpful to call someone a racist? “Probably not,” he says. “Some people may be beyond repair. But there are ways to approach others.” When he hailed a cab in Washington, DC, to go to the Washington Nationals Stadium and the driver said, “I don’t know where that is,” he responded: “It’s 2018; you have a GPS.” But, he acknowledges, you have to assess the threat. “I do dive into things that aren’t comfortable—when I’m in a safe space.“

Glanville speaks of the different types of energy required to make the societal changes we need: marching, organizing, people working on policy—all of which he calls “slow work.”

We need both community development and social action, he stresses—“to understand how the game is played, how the system works, at the same time that we challenge the systemic issues needing bold change.”

And then, “It starts at the ballot box,” finding leadership that help us heal as a people and address hate, “but not with armed guards.” He underscores the importance of legislatively backing up the words on those pieces of paper with action.

Acknowledging the abuses in our history concerning the vote—the disenfranchisement, marginalization, and lack of follow-through in behalf of people of color—he points hopefully to the newly elected class of Congress: “There is something to be said about having people more representative of our country. It matters to get into the room, to be engaged in the process to make the system more fair and representative.”

If there’s one thing Americans agree on, it’s that we’re in challenging times. To Glanville, the challenges provide everyone with “the opportunity to be their better self for the collective good. We must think about the positive things and organize around them. We must find ways to be constructive.”

Please let me know your response to Doug Glanville’s challenging ideas and hopeful message. Can you relate to them? Do they encourage you to act? Do they generate stories or ideas from your own life? I am eager to hear from you.

Annie

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How Do We Talk About Race in America? (Part 1 of 2)

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Photo credit: Circle Hands Teamwork, Pixabay

“Being a human being is a really hard job.”

I heard this comment from the neurologist who treats me for migraines—a prominent researcher and a wonderful, compassionate man. He was quoting an observation that his mother often made when he was growing up.  “I didn’t realize how wise she was when I was young,” he told me, but over the years, his mother’s words have come to resonate. Fortunately for me and his other patients, they appear to form part of the empathy that makes him both an exceptional physician and a lovely person.

“Forget about race; it’s hard enough just to be a human being.” During the same week that my neurologist repeated his mother’s words, I heard a white comedian quoting Richard Pryor, the brilliant African-American comedian and social commentator who died in 2005.

At first I was struck by the similarity of the sentiments. But then I thought: Did Richard Pryor, who was a pioneer in speaking truth to audiences black and white about the burdens of racism, really say “forget about race”? So I did a little research.

I found a clip of “Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip (1982).” Those who don’t mind his customary raw language can watch him on Youtube. Pryor did say, “It’s hard enough being a human being, decent, as a person.” But he preceded that with the words “Racism is a bitch” that screws up everybody but really takes its toll on black people. He then gave an example, and added the plaintive words, “This is a ugly thing and I hope some day they give it up.”

The fact that the white comedian could have recalled Pryor saying “forget about race” when Pryor’s entire point was about race told me a lot about our cultural chasms.

I will acknowledge that I’m probably showing some arrogance and/or naivete in thinking I can address such a vast and important topic in my little blog. But like many of my white friends, I feel there aren’t enough white voices decrying the worsening racial tenor of our times—from the comments and policies being pushed out by the leaders of our government to the documented rise in hate crimes. 

To be sure, we’ve seen rising violence against Jews, Muslims, immigrants, and gay people as well—and all of this must be resoundingly denounced as intolerable and un-American by both public officials and people like us, using many different approaches. 

But the black experience in America is unique from its roots, so I’m using the platform I have to focus on it, believing that some of what we’ll explore will be applicable to others suffering from prejudice as well—as we strive to find common ground. 

I don’t feel equipped to cover the hate-mongers here, but I know we have to talk about them as a society, and I think they’ll find less fertile ground if more of us are “woke” (to use the current jargon) to the ways that racism rears its ugly head in our daily lives. 

My efforts are intended to reinforce our abilities to listen to one another and empathize with each other. “Walking in the other person’s shoes” may be a bit trite, but I find it appropriate. If enough of us can do this, we can make life less tense and more pleasant for us all. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can help the hate-mongers crawl back into the fringes of our society from whence they came.

I’m well aware that as a white woman, I can’t begin to know what it’s like for people of color to simply go about their lives each day, suffering indignities at the very least and fearing for their safety at worst.

But as a human being, I find Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests against police violence in the very finest traditions of our democracy, and I weep with the mothers whose unarmed sons’ lives have been lost due to the actions of those police officers who, due to inadequate training, or temperament, or fear, or prejudices—or a combination thereof—led them to hasty acts with dreadful consequences.  

I have trouble understanding why the phrase “Black Lives Matter” isn’t viewed as an obvious plea for correction of a grave injustice, and instead evokes the defensive response: “All lives matter.” Well, of course, all lives matter, and if the larger society were acting as if they took that expression to heart, there would be no need for “Black Lives Matter.”

If all lives mattered, we wouldn’t have just seen the gerrymandered districts and numerous schemes to prevent people of color from voting, purportedly to rein in a voter fraud epidemic that has been repeatedly found to be essentially nonexistent.

And, if our Founding Fathers had believed that all lives mattered, would our nation have been established with an economic system that depended upon the enslavement of black people? Perhaps there never would have been the original sin of slavery, which continues to haunt our society to this day. 

I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, We Were Eight Years in Power, which is eye-opening. The book is a collection of Coates’s essays in The Atlantic, written during the Obama years, with each original essay preceded by a more recent assessment in which he is at times self-critical, at times reevaluating based on new evidence or new ideas. 

In its entirety, it’s a strong, analytical look–sometimes compassionate, often unforgiving–at our nation’s history and the lingering impact of white supremacy. Introducing the clever history-spanning title, Coates opens with a speech that South Carolina Congressman Thomas Miller made to his state’s constitutional convention in 1895, two decades after the end of Reconstruction.

“We were eight years in power. We had built schoolhouses, established charitable institutions, built and maintained the penitentiary system, provided for the education of the deaf and dumb, rebuilt the ferries. In short, we had reconstructed the State and placed it upon the road to prosperity.”

But Miller’s attempt to show that African-Americans’ citizenship should be protected went unheeded. Their disenfranchisement was well under way, followed by horrific physical violence against them to reinstate white supremacy.

Coates calls the eight years of Obama’s Presidency “a period of Good Negro Government.” He writes:

“Obama was elected amid widespread panic and…emerged as a caretaker and measured architect. He established the framework of a national healthcare system from a conservative model. He prevented an economic collapse…His family—the charming and beautiful wife, the lovely daughters, the dogs—seemed pulled from the Brooks Brothers catalogue…He was deliberate to a fault, saw himself as the keeper of his country’s sacred legacy, and if he was bothered by his country’s sins, he ultimately believed it to be a force for good in the world. 

“In short, Obama, his family, and his administration were a walking advertisement for the case with which black people could be fully integrated into the unthreatening mainstream of American culture, politics, and myth.

“And that was always the problem.”

To Coates, the “old fear of Good Negro Government” was a significant factor in the rise of Donald Trump, who used the symbols of racism in his campaign, and does so today. Coates’s arguments are too complex and layered for me to pursue here, but along the way, he offers a great deal of the history that has shaped our society. 

For example, I hadn’t known that in order to get passage of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt acceded to the demands of Southern senators that African Americans should not be eligible for the benefits of the New Deal. Many such decisions and legislation have had ramifications that continue today.

In discussing President Obama, whose optimism about America he admires but can’t fully share, Coates points out the differences in their upbringing: Coates’s formative years were in a largely segregated area; Obama’s being raised by loving and accepting white grandparents in Kansas and Hawaii made him far more positive about what America could be.

How do we talk about race in America? 

This is a tough subject, and I obviously have far more questions than answers. I do know that I feel a strong need for more knowledge of the relevant history. Books written by contemporary authors, like Coates’s and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which describes the Great Migration, help serve as guides. 

In addition, in Part Two on this topic, I’ll introduce you to a man whose childhood in an integrated community and nurturing by white mentors make his approach to race and the adversities he’s faced more similar to Obama’s than to Coates’s. To me, he embodies the promise of effective racial communication and reconciliation.

Please join me in this dialogue by contributing your own thoughts, suggestions, and stories. And please—if you like what I’m doing here—avail yourself of the stars or “like” button to let me know.

Annie

 

OK. The Dems Won the House. Now What?

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Well, there really was a blue wave—reportedly the greatest turnover since 1974—and a number of races remain too close to call or subject to a recount. These victories are especially impressive because of the gerrymandered districts and increased state restrictions that led to long lines at the very least and disenfranchisement of numbers of voters, mostly people of color. For a detailed look at what voters faced, read What It Takes to Win, published by the Brennan Center for Justice in October. 

As I stated in my last post, I view this not as a partisan issue—but as a critical win for our democracy. Unless/until the Republicans become better stewards of their Constitutional oaths, or are replaced by a new political force more willing to seek compromise for the good of the people, I hope Americans will continue to shun them in large numbers.

However, one of the consequences of this election was the defeat of some of the most moderate Republicans, increasing the likelihood that the party will become even more intransigent. 

And so, although I’m grateful that the Democrats can put the brakes on many of President Trump’s chaotic, sometimes horrific actions, I see reason for concern that to accomplish anything on the substantive issues needed to show voters they are delivering and to hold their majority, the Democrats face an uphill battle. 

Healthcare was the most important topic to voters according to exit polls, and the primary topic for many victorious new Representatives. Will even the hyperpartisan Mitch McConnell, who will face reelection himself in 2020, get the message and be willing to compromise—even if he’s likely to face a primary opponent to his right?

In essence, the Democrats will just have to forge ahead, showing the public where they want to go. Economics must be in the forefront. On the critical issue of income inequality, Michael Tomasky’s Op-Ed, The Democrats’ Next Job, which appeared in The New York Times days before the election, provides a terrific roadmap. 

Tomasky analyzes the void in the Democrats’ overarching message over the past several decades, and his prescription for the path forward is one of the clearest, most cogent, and sensible arguments I’ve read. Here are his opening paragraphs, and I quote him further, but I recommend the entire piece.

“Win, lose or draw on Tuesday, the Democratic Party will almost immediately turn its focus to the next presidential election and the fight between the establishment center and the left wing. But while the Democrats have that argument, they must also undertake the far more important task of thinking about what they agree on, and how they can construct a story about how the economy works and grows and spreads prosperity, a story that competes with—and defeats—the Republicans’ own narrative.

“For 40 years, with a few exceptions, Democrats have utterly failed to do so. Until they fix this, they will lose economic arguments to the Republicans—even though majorities disagree with the Republicans on many questions—because every economic debate will proceed from Republican assumptions that make it all but impossible for Democrats to argue their case forcefully.”

Tomaski eviscerates supply-side economics and then provides “the affirmative case for the Democratic theory of growth.” He stresses “expanding overtime pay, raising wages, even doing something about the enormous and under-discussed problems of wage theft.” And he stresses that the Democrats should say they make these arguments not “out of fairness or compassion or some desire to punish capitalists.

“We want to address them because putting more money in working- and middle-class people’s pockets is a better way to spur on the economy than giving rich people more tax cuts.”

Democrats, he adds, “should defend this argument because it’s what more and more economists argue and because it’s what Democrats believe.”

Importantly, he points out that Democrats who vary politically, such as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, can agree on this issue.

 “They’re both Democrats for a reason, and presumably that reason is they think government can be a force for good in people’s lives. So, if Democrats think it, they should say it. 

He is thereby offering a unifying position that is essential if the Democrats are to avoid defeat due to factionalism.

Tomaski accurately points out that this strong Democratic response to supply-side economics needs a name. I think the name is extremely important in garnering interest and enthusiasm for the effort. However, the one he mentions in passing, “middle-out economics,” leaves me cold. 

It does have the advantage of brevity, and Democrats are always accused of failing the bumper sticker test with their lengthy explanations of positions, but it’s neither intuitively comprehensible nor catchy. A considerable effort should be made, bringing in some of the most talented wordsmiths available, to arrive at a phrase that is concise and inspiring. 

If you have suggestions, please add them to the Comments section, and I will forward them to Tomaski. You can also forward them to your own representatives, explaining the context.

Two more takes on implications of the election results, both hot-button issues.

1. The speaker. I know all the arguments against Nancy Pelosi, and though I understand them, I think this is absolutely the wrong time to replace her. She’s the most powerful woman in the US government—and she has done her job with great success. She’s a prodigious fund-raising and vote-counter whose experience is essential in these wacky times. 

Plus, health care has been the cause of her life. Reports are that she had planned to retire after Hillary Clinton’s election, so I don’t think she’s doing this for her ego. I expect her to be an effective mentor for the newly elected women in her caucus and to seriously broaden the leadership bench of the Democratic Party. 

2. Impeachment. I fully support the Democratic House committees’ investigations into all the matters that the Republicans stonewalled or distorted. But the Democrats have an important balancing act to perform between conducting investigations and trying to enact meaningful legislation. 

As much as I would love to see the President removed from the Oval Office (and VP Pence investigated for his apparent lies), I oppose impeachment efforts at this time. Unless the Mueller probe’s findings or other investigations persuade enough Republican Senators that they must act, at last, ensuring conviction by the Senate, impeachment by the House will simply play into Trump’s hands, allowing him to play the victim, making him act even more erratically, and possibly strengthening his chances of reelection.

Ultimately, these issues demand the continued and enhanced participation of all of us in our democracy by our ongoing engagement with our elected representatives on all levels. 

Please let me know your thoughts on any or all of these issues. And please don’t forget to share, award stars below my name (one awful—five excellent), or like this post (if you’ve signed on via WordPress). Knowing you’re reading and considering these posts is very important to me. Thanks so much.

Annie

The Stakes Couldn’t Be Higher: Vote to Repudiate Violence and Find Common Ground

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Those of you who have been following my blog know that I’ve been searching for common ground among us and/or stressing that we can be agreeable even when we disagree. I’ve also stated that I have strong opinions, and I’ve made no attempt to hide my concerns about climate change and gun safety, while generally avoiding the virulence of the political debates being played out in so many other arenas.

The thing is, I am perplexed that some of the most important issues we face are depicted as partisan, when, in fact, the majority of Americans agree about them. That’s certainly the case with sensible legislation to promote gun safety and with actions to address climate change.

It’s also the case with healthcare: there is now so much support for retaining preexisting conditions that Republicans who have put their names on a federal lawsuit to end this protection are insisting on the campaign trail that they favor it. 

Most people want our politicians to come together to find a reasonable approach to immigration that protects both our borders and the Dreamers. Most of us are not radical: we long for the give-and-take among our elected officials that will result in decent quality of life for ourselves and our families in a country at peace—with drinking water that won’t make our children sick, jobs that pay a living wage, and a safety net of protections when we are at our most vulnerable—unemployed, ill, disabled, or old. 

I have long felt that the Democratic party hews more closely to those views than the Republicans, so I have most often supported Democrats. While this is a midterm election, the President has made it a referendum on him–and indeed, it is. That casts a huge shadow that we dare not minimize or ignore.

The trio of recent horrors—the clearly racist murders of two African Americans in Kentucky, the numerous pipe bombs that could have resulted in the assassination of two former Presidents and multiple other leaders of the Democratic Party, and the horrific murders of eleven Jews at prayer in Pittsburgh—have made me feel that it is incumbent on each of us to do what we can to denounce the violence that threatens our democracy.

President Trump’s alternating appropriate printed statements with crowd-inciting rhetoric at his rallies—behavior that continued on the day of the Pittsburgh murders—must be firmly repudiated. But the leaders of the party he now controls have barely been heard from. 

All this follows the pattern of his refusing to denounce neo-Nazis in Charlottesville after the murder of Heather Heyer; the ripping of babies from their mothers as a deliberate ‘immigration policy;” the continual framing of members of the legitimate press as “enemies of the people” (even after a pipe bomb had been sent to CNN); his false depiction of a stream of desperate people fleeing for their lives on foot from crime- and violence-ridden Honduras as an invading horde endangering us—and the continual stream of lies and bullying. 

In the face of all these un-American expressions and actions, how can the Republican leadership remain silent or offer false equivalence, using Trump’s “fake news” slogan again and again?

I am writing now because I fear that our democracy is at stake in this election. Unless the Democrats gain control of the House (and preferably also the Senate), President Trump will think he has a mandate to continue, even accelerate, his dangerous rhetoric. And, as we have seen, there will be no “Sense of the Senate” or other castigation by the Republicans.

There’s reason to believe the violence he has countenanced, even encouraged, will not only continue but escalate, and his openly stated admiration for dictators offers a frightening portent concerning how he will respond to the ensuing chaos.

So I make a plea that regardless of your political affiliation, you vote for Democrats as a necessary check on this President, a repudiation of the politics of hate, and a clear demonstration to our elected officials that most Americans do not want our country riven by fear and divisiveness. (And if you aren’t thinking of voting, are thinking of voting for a third party candidate, or don’t believe your vote will matter, please think again.)

In urging this action, I join many former Republicans who have denounced President Trump and the current Republican leadership—whom they believe have usurped the Republican Party and led it astray—and are urging a vote for Democrats.

They include Steve Schmidt, former strategist for President George Bush and other Republicans; Max Boot, author of The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right; James Comey, former head of the FBI; George F. Will, conservative columnist; Seth Klarman, a former GOP “mega-donor;” Jennifer Rubin, author of the Washington Post’s “Right Turn” column; and many others.

I encourage you to read Boycott the Republican Party by Benjamin Wittes and Jonathan Rauch, who identify themselves this way: “We have both spent our professional careers strenuously avoiding partisanship in our writing and thinking…We are the kind of voters who political scientists say barely exist: true independents who scour candidates’ records in order to base our votes on individual merit, not party brand.

“This, then is the article we thought we would never write: a frank statement that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Republican Party, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and the integrity of our democracy.”

I write these words with considerable sadness. I believe in the two-party system and the give-and-take of ideas that lead to compromise. But that seems  impossible in the current political environment.

So I have concluded that in my search for common ground, in my reverence for the democratic (small d) form of government, I feel it is essential for us to vote Democratic. Perhaps, then, forces of responsibility and moderation will return to the Republican Party, or another party will form to galvanize those who support what were once considered traditional Republican values, and we can once again legitimately debate issues on their merits–and on the facts.

Please let me know your thoughts. Your comments will be most appreciated, and you can also express your views via a new rating scale below my name that invites you to award stars—from one (awful) to five (excellent). Those who’ve signed on through WordPress still have the “like” option.

Annie

“We Deserve Better”: Two Important Messages About Gun Violence (Updated)

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Update: I had originally posted these two emails, which included solicitations for funds, without comment. But a very thoughtful and consistent follower questioned the appropriateness of my including such solicitations on my blog. He was right, so I’ve deleted that portion of the information below. (His comment and my response remain in their original form.)

I am retaining the rest of the messages because I feel the sentiments expressed are extremely important. As this is the most overtly partisan material I have included in a blog devoted to finding common ground, I plan to explain my position in a subsequent post quite soon.

Annie

FROM GABBY GIFFORDS AND MARK KELLY ON BEHALF OF GIFFORDS PAC

Several months ago, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania posted a message for the congregation on their website.

The title of the post was “We Deserve Better,” and it included the following passages:

“I recall seeing a post not long ago that rather accurately describes the life cycle of news, and I paraphrase to the best of my recollection: Tragic event – Thoughts and Prayers – Call to Action by our Elected Leaders – Hang Wringing – Next News Event.”

“Despite continuous calls for sensible gun control and mental health care, our elected leaders in Washington knew that it would fade away in time. Unless there is a dramatic turnaround in the mid-term elections, I fear that the status quo will remain unchanged, and school shootings will resume. I shouldn’t have to include in my daily morning prayers that God should watch over my wife and daughter, both teachers, and keep them safe. Where are our leaders?”

Yesterday morning, that same Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill was targeted in a hate-fueled act of violence. And once again, our nation is shaken to the core.

Several are dead, many others injured.

Neighborhoods in Pittsburgh are devastated and our Jewish community is heartbroken.

We’d like to say a tragedy like this is unimaginable, but we just cannot.

We have seen them before, and we will see them again.

Sometime, likely soon, we will see more images of police clearing areas around schools, places of worship or places of work, as families rush toward the scene of the crime desperate for information about their loved ones.

But we do not have to.

We can decide that, in the words of Rabbi Myers, “we deserve better.” We can decide that our leaders show up.

Because they know how to solve this problem. And like Senator Chris Murphy says, “I shudder to think about what it says about us as a nation if we fail to even try.”

Every single day, nearly 100 Americans are killed with a gun in our country.

We must not only recognize the realities of hatred in our society but actively work to make it harder for dangerous people fueled by hate-filled intentions to access firearms and commit crimes.

So — once again — our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this shooting, their families, and their friends. But the truth is, for those who have the power to act and to save lives, that’s not enough.

It is long past time for Congress to find the courage to take on the gun lobby — to do it for our families, and to do it for each other.

So far, the current Congress has failed to act. Next week, we must elect a Congress that will.

Thank you for standing with us in this fight.

All our best,

Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly

Giffords PAC works to reduce gun violence and save lives by empowering voters with information and supporting candidates who will fight for safer gun laws.

FROM SENATOR CHRIS MURPHY, IN BEHALF OF GIFFORDS PAC, EVERYTOWN, NEWTOWN ACTION ALLIANCE, AND THE BRADY CAMPAIGN TO PREVENT GUN VIOLENCE

Chris Murphy for Senate

Yesterday morning that familiar knot in our stomachs returned as we found out online, on television or from friends that a gunman walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue, shouted out anti-semitic remarks, and indiscriminately opened fire on the congregation.

Our thoughts are, of course, with yet another community on an ever-growing list of those impacted by this kind of gun violence. But for my colleagues with the power to do something, our thoughts and our prayers are not nearly enough, and our unwillingness to confront this chaos is complicity.

Because the truth is, the evil that we saw yesterday exists in a lot of places. There are people all over the world who are fueled by racism, anti-semitism and rage against women.

Yet among all countries in the developed world, these mass shootings are a uniquely American problem.

My colleagues know how to fix this. It’s not a mystery. Almost every other country has figured it out, and we know how to as well.

But instead, Congress has made an active decision that the increasing levels of gun violence in our communities are an acceptable price to pay to protect the profits of a handful of gun manufacturers.

What they have done is repeatedly looked at solutions that enjoy the approval of 90 percent of the American people, and then they looked over their other shoulder at the gun lobby and decided to do nothing.

So I want to be very clear about something, and I will not be told that there should be some artificial waiting period before I am allowed to say it:

If you want the gun lobby in charge of gun policy in the United States — if you are ok with this kind of carnage in our communities — then keep on voting for Republicans who have pledged loyalty to the gun industry. I wish it weren’t as black and white as that – but it is.

If you want to do something about violence in America, then you have to vote them out.

Because if we actually want to change the gun laws in this country, we are going to have to change Congress next week.

So today, I want to ask you to support some of the gun violence prevention groups working to accomplish that goal. 

The gun lobby’s vision for America and much of the Republican Party’s vision for America is one where people, trained and untrained, are armed to the teeth in nearly every single public place — in every church, in every school, and in every synagogue.

The president said as much yesterday in his callous remarks immediately after the shooting.

But that idea only works in action movies, and it’s the number one priority of the gun companies who would love to sell guns into every public place in our nation.

Banning assault weapons and doing our best to make it harder for potentially dangerous people to buy guns — that’s what works in real life.

Because if more guns led to fewer gun deaths, America would have the lowest gun violence rates in the world.

So, next week we have a chance — an obligation — to do something at the ballot box.

Because there are no doubt a lot of very important reasons to elect a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate, but gun violence is one of them. A big one. Please support some of the groups working on this critical issue.

I’ve long said that when it comes to gun violence in this country, lawmakers cannot remain this out of touch with so many of their constituents for so long.

Next week, let’s make that message clear.

Every best wish,

Chris Murphy


RX for Schoolkids: Open Your Mouth and Say “Ommmmm…”

images-10Decades ago, when Transcendental Meditation (TM) became a hot topic in the US, some New Jersey schools began a pilot program to introduce it to their students. An immediate furor arose from people objecting to what they saw as a religious incursion into the public schools. I wrote a letter to the editor of the newly introduced New Jersey Weekly section of The New York Times, which the Times ran as an Op-Ed titled “A Word in Favor of Meditation in the Schools.” (See About Me.)

I stated that while I agreed with the critics that the public schools aren’t the place for the mystical trappings that TM incorporated, meditation was also effective without them, as Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School had demonstrated.

Concurring with the pilot program’s stated purpose—to help students improve their learning skills, behavior, and levels of aspiration—I said I was also drawn to it because we are a stress-filled society, and the evidence is mounting that stress plays a significant role in ailments ranging from migraine headaches to heart attacks and strokes.

Here I shamelessly quote myself:

If we can educate young people in relaxation techniques that will enable them to handle stress before they are exposed to the eventual stresses created by employment, marriage, child-rearing, and the like (in other words, everyday living), we may well be setting them on the way to longer, healthier, and happier lives.”

Unfortunately, all these years later, school children are being exposed to stressors that didn’t even exist then, and they are showing the impact in terms of anxiety, depression, and attempts at suicide. At the same time, mindfulness meditation and yoga have become all the rage among adults. So I decided to explore the extent to which mindfulness has been incorporated into public education, and how effective it’s been. The topic is vast, so I’m just scratching the surface here.

As a reminder, here’s the definition of mindfulness from Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, who coined the term: “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” The emphasis is on concentrating on the rhythm of your breath to focus your mind.

Two of the largest programs are MindUP, which was initiated by the Goldie Hawn Foundation (yes, that Goldie Hawn), and Mindful Schools, based in California. Both organizations have developed curricula now in schools; taken together, they’ve trained more than 175,000 teachers and reached over 8 million kids. Their websites provide details and scientific papers validating their approaches.

Much of the positive information about mindfulness in schools is anecdotal. One teacher, Becca Wertheim, after a year of practicing what she called Morning Mindfulness and focus on breath awareness with her second graders, made the case for mindfulness training sound so reasonable: “All of my students naturally crave mindfulness practice,” she wrote. “They crave a sense of peace and calm…they also deserve them. In just one school day kids can be completely overwhelmed socially, emotionally and academically,” and the result may be “attention-seeking behaviors. I, like most teachers, have tried a myriad of classroom management strategies. Some stick, some don’t. But I’ve never found anything as powerful as mindfulness practice. I’m going to repeat that because it’s just that important.

I’ve never found anything as powerful as mindfulness practice.”

It took Wertheim just a few weeks to get a bunch of fidgeting, giggling second graders to reach the point that they became better listeners—to her, to their fellow students—and to themselves. She offers “4 Simple Ways to Teach Mindfulness in Schools.”

Significantly, some of the most successful mindfulness efforts have occurred with at-risk kids. In a poignant article in The Atlantic, Lauren Cassani Davis describes the efforts of an English teacher, Argos Gonzalez, in a small satellite school in one of New York City’s poorest districts. Though most of the students want to graduate, their life circumstances make school attendance extremely difficult.

“On the day I visited,” Davis writes, “one of Gonzalez’s students had just been released from jail; one recently had an abortion; one had watched a friend bleed to death from a gunshot wound the previous year. Between finding money to put food on the table and dealing with unstable family members, these students’ minds are often crowded with concerns more pressing than schoolwork.”

Gonzalez was certified in the Mindful Schools curriculum. His training encompassed child development, the specific neuroscience underlying mindfulness, and the workings of the nervous system. He also received guidance in trauma. He’s augmented this with his own mindfulness practice and training in applying what he’s learned to his students. He uses the typical mindfulness techniques in five-minute intervals, Davis notes: “from counting breaths and focusing on the sensations of breathing, to visualizing thoughts and feelings…to help train their attention, quiet their thoughts, and regulate their emotions.”

Davis recounts her conversation with a young woman who had transferred to the school two years previously. She cried during the periods set aside for mindfulness, thinking of her older brother who’d been killed by a car and a friend she’d seen die in the street of a gunshot wound. She’d routinely rip up the worksheets that accompanied the daily mindfulness exercise.

Davis ends with this passage. “But one day when she was in a particularly dark mood, something clicked.” The student told her that when Gonzalez instructed the class to close their eyes and connect to their breath,

“I noticed that I could feel my breath in my chest. And at that moment, I felt so relieved. The only thing I could think in my mind was, ‘I’m Ok.’ And, I don’t know—from that day on, it just didn’t hurt anymore.”

To be sure, mindfulness in schools is no panacea. The concept isn’t always understood well and conveyed properly, and some worry that it’s used to control kids rather than help them. Many critics feel it hasn’t been sufficiently rigorously studied over the long term to draw conclusions about its efficacy.

But there seems fairly solid evidence that it helps in varying school populations, especially the most disadvantaged children—and that seems to be a huge accomplishment. A non-profit called Headstand defines its mission this way: “Empowers at-risk youth in K-12 to combat toxic stress through mindfulness, yoga, and character education.”

According to another Atlantic article, written by Amanda Machado, “Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child defines toxic stress as ‘severe, uncontrollable, chronic adversity’” that can negatively affect the developing brain, frequently resulting in problems with learning and both physical and mental health.

Machado points out that Headstand’s curriculum includes focus on character education, centering on specific traits.

“A unit on ‘responsibility’ is framed around questions like ‘What does it mean to accept personal responsibility?”, “How does being irresponsible affect the people around you?” and “How are responsibility and power related?”

Those strike me as terrific questions—ones that I would like to see asked and answered far beyond the walls of schools for at-risk children. And they lead me to believe that while we should certainly study the application of mindfulness in schools with academic rigor, we should simultaneously look for programs and approaches that merit replication and can benefit our school children—and thus our society. In the adult world, mindfulness has become a multi-billion dollar industry. Surely our school children, who are our future, deserve the best that we can offer.

Do these ideas resonate with you? And if you have teaching experience, how does all of this strike you? Do you think it would work in your situation?

Please also click on “like” and “share” if you feel this post deserves wider circulation. Thanks!

Annie

 

Why You and I Need to Care About Phytoplankton–and What We Can Do About Them

Diatoms

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Despite my optimistic outlook, there’s one area where I need to search especially hard for positive signs: climate change. To me, it is the existential threat to our planet, and I am infuriated and frightened by those who willfully ignore the important lessons that scientists are teaching us.

Recently, I had an exceptional guide into the impact of climate change on phytoplankton, the tiny organisms at the very bottom of the food chain. And I’m now convinced that we really need to pay attention to the fate of these microorganisms—because our future is intertwined with theirs.

My guide: Terence (Terry) Milligan, PhD, a dear friend who taught advanced placement biology to high school students for many years and now serves as a docent in New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Terry recently took our family through a breathtakingly beautiful exhibit of phytoplankton in the museum.

He’s a gifted educator whose supple knowledge and contagious enthusiasm could probably make any subject fascinating, and with the backdrop of the museum’s exhibits, he wowed us with the magnificence and importance of phytoplankton and the implications of the threats they face. “As they go, so goes the ocean,” Terry says.

First, a brief introduction to phytoplankton. From the Greek words “phyto,” meaning plant, and “plankton,” meaning made to wander or drift, they are a highly diverse group of organisms living in water that’s both salty, as in the ocean, and fresh, as in lakes. Despite the “phyto” nomenclature, they aren’t actually plants, Terry explained.

Most are single-celled bacteria that carry out photosynthesis. And that’s the function that makes them so valuable: Using sunlight and nutrients, they release oxygen into the atmosphere and remove carbon from it. (Terry particularly likes to point out the diatoms –featured at top and below–one of the largest phytoplankton groups; these beautiful microorganisms extract silicon from their surroundings, essentially encasing themselves in glass.)

Pennales–a subdivision of Diatoms

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An article by David Biello, Engineering the Ocean, which I’ll return to later (because it offers a bit of hope), captures the essence of these tiny life-factories: “There are more plankton cells in the sea than our current count of stars in the entire universe.”

“Much of the oxygen we breathe comes from just one species of cyanobacteria, Prochlorococcus,” Biello adds. “This species was not even discovered until the 1980s: it is so tiny that millions can fit into a single drop of water and no one had produced a sieve small enough to catch it.” The oxygen they create, Biello says, “dwarfs that produced by the Amazon rainforest and the rest of the world’s woodlands combined.” 

             Prochlorococcus      

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In a phrase I love, Biello says “…these tiny creatures serve as the planet’s lungs, whose steady breathing is limited only by nutrition.” Like plants on land, he notes, “they need nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements to thrive; missing nutrients restrain planktons’ growth.”

Here, somewhat simplified, is Terry’s description of the way that climate change is damaging the phytoplankton and, consequently, the entire ocean’s food chain. The nutrients essential to the phytoplankton’s viability are abundant at the equator in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and other so-called “upwelling zones” where the sea is heated and the water currents, helped by the trade winds, pull up to the surface the nutrients found in the deep water coming from Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean.

The “normal” cycle would consist of the water proceeding to the North Pole, getting denser in the colder regions, and sinking to the bottom, where it refreshes its nutrient supply on the way back to the equator. There the nutrients rise to the top and become vital components of the phytoplankton—sustaining the enormous numbers of these creatures found near the surface of oceans throughout the world.

The dangers of climate change are clearly seen in the ocean around Greenland, where the enormous glaciers are already melting rapidly—an average of 270 billion tons of ice each year. (See Umair Irfan in Vox, “Greenland’s ice is melting much faster than we thought. Here’s why that’s scary,” April 11, 2018.)

That huge loss is fresh water, pouring into the ocean around Greenland and making the ocean less dense. The result: the nutrient conveyor belt for the entire North Atlantic slows down, which, in turn, makes it increasingly difficult to sustain the populations of phytoplankton that now exist. Similar activities are inevitably taking place throughout the world.

Obviously, the impacts on plankton and other sea life will be felt by humans on land, from the disappearance of sardines and other fish to the economic calamity on commercial fishing, to name just a few.

But having alerted you to the bad news, I’d like to offer a few rays of hope—though these rays are admittedly filtered by both the complexity of the issue and the many unknowns, including the “laws of unintended consequences.”

In Engineering the Ocean, David Biello describes what he calls an “ambitious new pursuit” by a marine biologist named Victor Smetacek, who set about to provide plankton with the iron nutrient they need to survive. “Fertilizing the waters could promote blooms that help sea life thrive all the way up the food chain, even to whale populations, which are still recovering from overhunting,” Biello writes.

Biello notes that environmentalists—“the very people who care the most about climate change”—tried to stop this effort because of concerns about possible toxic algae bloom, poisoning of sea life, or the creation of the kind of dead zones that developed in the Gulf of Mexico, “where the fertilizers that support Midwestern cornfields gush out of the Mississippi River’s mouth and into the ocean.” A UN body said in 2008 that iron fertilization should be prohibited “until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities.”

But, Biello says, Smetacek’s research was successful, albeit briefly, and the science on which it was based was vetted in the journal Nature in 2012. Still, there are no current efforts, though Smetacek thinks commercial interests may hold the key.

Terry finds the idea intriguing, though the duration of the iron fertilization has thus far been limited. He foresees the need for a massive international cooperative effort for anything like that to have a chance to succeed, assuming the effort has first been proven to be safe.

He does see positive signs for reversing the negative trends in such efforts as New York Mayor Bill De Blasio’s agreement with London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan to switch New York and London from oil-based energy sources to wind and solar. “It would be very good if more mayors deliberately try to develop non-hydrocarbon energy mechanisms,” he stresses.

And he emphasizes that individuals also have an important role to play. That’s where you and I come in. “I own a car that gets 52 miles per gallon,” Terry says. “More people are turning away from incandescent lighting.” If more of us consciously buy things and do things of that nature, there is reason to be hopeful.

Biello believes the kind of “expansive thinking” that Smetacek showed with his iron fertilization plan is essential. “A land animal [humans] has come to tame the heaving, alien world of the sea,” he writes, “and, though doing so can make us uncomfortable, in the end it might undo a great deal of the damage we have already done.”

And there may be another source of hope. An article in Pacific Standard quotes Oscar Schofield, an oceanography professor at Rutgers University, who points out that at Palmer Station, a US research site located north of the Antarctic Circle, “there’s been a decline in the Adelie penguin population by an order of magnitude. But sub-polar penguins that live in the Falkland Islands…are increasing. Species have a lot of unknown capacities for adaptation. They can evolve and change their characteristics—but it happens slowly.”

Schofield does wonder whether organisms can adapt to climate change in time to survive. Says Sarah Watts, who wrote the article, “For phytoplankton, marine life, and humans alike, that remains to be seen.”

Terry notes that most smaller fish are increasing in numbers. “Is that a good thing?,” he asks. “The ecology of the ocean is actually changing. What’s happening in the Falklands could be a result of the impact of overfishing on the larger predator fish. Time will tell if it’s good or bad.”

Obviously, we don’t know. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if, after we humans have apparently done our damnedest to mess up our environment, we apply our ingenuity a la Smetacek to reverse the damage and save the phytoplankton—and we’re helped by the penguins and other forms of marine life, using their innate “ingenuity” to find their own ways to adapt?

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Note: I added this non-phytoplankton image of a gang from the Falkland Islands because…why not?

Your thoughts?

Annie