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ON THE GROUND IN IOWA: MY CHAT WITH TWO EXPERIENCED CAUCUS PARTICIPANTS

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Image courtesy of flickr.com

I’ll acknowledge at the outset: I know, understand, and accept all of the criticisms of the Iowa caucus.

But I still have a romantic fascination with this singular demonstration of grassroots participation in the electoral process. It seems to me the closest we get to ancient Athens, where the polis, or people, practiced unfettered democracy. 

And the fact that Iowans take their role so seriously inspires me, as so many Americans either fail to vote or cast their ballots with indifference or cynicism—even spite. (“If my guy isn’t the nominee, I don’t care what happens; I’ll just vote for some third party candidate who can’t win but can sure gum up the works.”) 

Spite—as in voting for Jill Stein in 2016—helped deliver Donald Trump to the White House.  I fervently hope those inclined can forgo that negativity this year. (There will be a Republican caucus in Iowa, but the results are preordained.)

Iowans listen, read, think, examine, and weigh carefully before making their decision. Their experiences have made them unlike any other Americans.

One reporter said nowhere else can you go up to an ordinary citizen on the street, ask her a political question, and be told: “Well, speaking off the record…”

Polling in Iowa is all over the place because many Iowans still haven’t made up their minds.

They’re not being wishy-washy; they’re demonstrating their understanding of how high the stakes are in this election and how important the Iowa caucus winners  may be in the 2020 election results. (I’ll explain that plural “winners” shortly.)

Because opposition to Iowa’s position as first on the calendar has been growing over the years, there may not be too many more election cycles in which the state plays such a pivotal role. 

So I decided to interview (via email) two highly intelligent, involved Democratic caucus attendees.

I had the good fortune of meeting one of them, R., years ago, through my daughter’s excellent choice of a marriage partner—R. is his mother. R. was gracious enough to enlist her friend, J.

Both women were so efficient in responding to my questions that I’ve been able to write this post earlier than intended.

FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND

How did a small rural state achieve such prominence? Although Iowa had always had caucuses (except for one primary), they were held mid-season and controlled by the state party leaders, attracting little attention. 

Significant changes began following the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which was marked by fighting about the Vietnam War both inside and outside the Convention hall.

Furious delegates and others throughout the country demanded that the party adopt national reforms so that voters, rather than party leaders, determined the winning candidate. 

By 1972, Iowa had reforms in place: “Winner-take-all” had been changed to proportional representation. As an Iowa PBS program noted:

“That may have been more fair. Equally important, it gave the press the kind of numbers it needs to call a horse race.”

The new process took time, as the results were transferred from precinct to county to congressional district to state. That meant moving the caucuses further and further back—first to March, then to February. Chris Larsen, then party chairman, observed: 

“We knew that we were going to be first or one of the first after we thought about it. As I always say, we had a slow mimeograph machine, but we weren’t stupid. We thought [being early in the process] was all right, but when…the national press showed up, we were totally amazed.”

Gary Hart, who managed George McGovern’s Presidential campaign, observed recently that caucuses reward little-known candidates at the grassroots, while primaries reward those who are well known.

Caucuses also give “real people a chance to get close up and personal.” (Hart was interviewed in the five-part Pod Save America podcast on the Iowa caucuses.)

In 1976, someone pointed out, the result was that “Jimmy Who?” became President Jimmy Carter.

New Rules With Uncertain Implications

This year, new rules will make it possible for multiple candidates to “win,” according to the Des Moines Register. Previously, Iowa never released its total popular support numbers.

But in 2016, the close vote between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders led to demands for greater transparency.

The new methodology is complicated and confusing. If you want a preview about how and why several candidates may claim victory by emphasizing how well they did according to one or more of the three different metrics that will be reported, I recommend this article.

Adding to the confusion, there will now be 99 satellite caucuses held throughout the world, thereby complicating the vote tally.

The process had once been referred to as “like trying to plan a wedding reception at 86 locations.” It’s more like 1,678 locations; that’s how many precincts there are.

So the momentum, press coverage, and dollars that normally flow to the winner are going to be part of a considerably more complex picture in 2020.

THE LONG-TIME CAUCUS PARTICIPANTS SHARE THEIR VIEWS

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Image courtesy of flickr.com

This is a condensed, lightly edited version of my exchanges with R. and J., covering what I felt were the most important points. Both women have been caucusing since 2008.

What is your primary motivation? Is this year any different?

R.: A sense of responsibility to engage in the political process. With all the attention focused on the first-in-the-nation caucuses, it would feel unpatriotic not to take advantage of the opportunity to have an impact.  

There is a sense that this is a particularly critical year to caucus and to choose a nominee that can defeat Trump.

J.: I feel that as an Iowan, it’s my responsibility to attend the caucus–it’s a part of the democratic process, it matters, and we make history.

This year I am motivated by finding the right candidate who can beat Trump–we must get him out of the White House before he causes even more damage.

Is it fun? Exciting? If so, in what way(s)?

R.: It can be fun, especially after the first vote when people from various camps are trying to woo people from the camps of the unviable candidates (those that didn’t get 15% of the total number in attendance).

Also, it can sometimes be long and boring as well as pretty chaotic. You are usually packed in a school gym with a lot of people milling around not quite knowing what to do. 

There are multiple votes to make sure of an accurate count. You can be there for hours.

J.: It is fun! I see many of my friends and neighbors, and although we may be supporting different candidates, there is good discussion of why we support our candidate.

And in the end, we are all looking for the Democrat who can win.

How many candidates have you met one-on-one? Under what circumstances?

R.: I can’t say that I have met any of them one-on-one. I think that happens more in smaller communities. I have seen Klobuchar, Warren, and Buttigieg at rallies here… 

I could have stayed around last week when Warren was doing her “selfies” but the line was so long and I had already been standing two and a half hours.

The rallies can be exhausting. It makes you wonder how the candidates do it.

J.: I have never met a candidate one-on-one.

How do you respond to those who say it isn’t fair for a small state like Iowa to have so much political clout?

R.: They are right.  I think the process would be better if the order in which the states caucus/vote were rotated among the states. Just because it has been this way for 50 years doesn’t mean it always has to be this way. 

There needs to be discussion of a better way to start the candidate selection process. The tradition of Iowa going first evolved accidentally, and I don’t see that there is any good rationale for it.

J.: I’ve been doing some reading about the Iowa caucus and its place as first. I’m inclined to agree that it might be time to change things.

Do you think the up-close, retail nature of Iowa’s caucuses contributes something that would be missing if you switched to a traditional primary?

R.: Seeing the candidates up close and personal is definitely an advantage.  You can gauge their level of enthusiasm as well as have the opportunity to ask them questions. 

Somehow seeing them in person gives you a connection you don’t get watching them on a debate stage.

Certainly, we Iowans would miss our opportunity to get a close-up look at the candidates. But we would then be in the same situation as most of the rest of the nation!

The undue influence of the Iowa caucuses frankly makes me uncomfortable. A primary would be a fairer and more straightforward process.

J.: I think I get the chance to see many candidates in person because they understand the importance of the Iowa caucus and spend a lot of time in Iowa.

It’s always good to see them in person–they can’t edit their remarks or photo shop their looks.

So many Iowans are still undecided, and they come to the caucus partly to get help making up their minds! The conversations are important, and the caucus is great for that.

Are you concerned about a potential split between the “moderate” and “left” wings of the party—or do you think people will rally around whoever becomes the nominee?

R.: In the end I think most people will rally around whoever is the eventual nominee. Iowa Democrats are as determined to get rid of Trump as the rest of the nation. 

I’m not sure about the Independents. Will Independents and moderate Republicans vote for a more “progressive” candidate?  I think that is a real concern.  

J.: People will rally around the nominee. As I knock on doors and have conversations with people, everyone has said they will support whoever is the nominee, whether it’s who they are supporting now or not.

Do you have any revealing anecdotes/stories about any particular candidate(s)?

R.: No, nothing revealing as I have not met with any of the candidates one-on-one.

I was amazed at how much Elizabeth Warren seemed to relish campaigning when I saw her last weekend. She was so passionate and engaged with what she was saying and looked like she was having great fun.

She was very respectful of the people asking questions, called them by name, and didn’t fudge her answers but got directly to the point.

Amy Klobuchar’s warmth really came through when I saw her in person.  She talked a lot about her family and her midwestern roots.

Her emphasis on health care and climate change got big reactions from the crowd.

J.: Just the one [anecdote] that everyone knows, that Elizabeth Warren really will stick around and take a selfie with everyone in line, and she is just so nice and gracious.

To what extent does the President’s handling of the Iranian crisis—and national security issues generally—figure in your thinking re: candidate selection? In your neighbors’ thinking?

R.: The incoherent rationale for the assassination of Suleimani is frightening.  It makes it even more evident that we need someone who has some experience at the national level. And someone we can trust to tell the truth and be open and honest with the American people. I’ve ruled out Buttigieg because of his lack of experience even though I find him very bright and like many of his policies.

J.: I want a candidate who will be more level-headed and think about consequences, so I have been following candidates’ responses to the Iranian crisis and what the US is doing in the world. It’s not something I have talked to my neighbors about.

Have you made up your mind whom you’ll vote for? What about most of the people you know?

R.: I plan to caucus for Klobuchar.  If she does not get 15% of the vote in my precinct, I don’t know for sure who I will move to.

My heart says Warren but my head says Biden.  I hope it doesn’t come to that. I say Biden because I view him as the most electable of the other candidates.

Many of my friends and people I have talked with at candidate events are still mulling over their decision.  Everyone agrees it is a talented field and it is difficult to settle on a final choice.

Caucus night could bring some surprises as I don’t think the polls are really telling us everything. Like many people, I have my cell phone set to “do-not-disturb” and never pick up the seven or eight calls from random numbers I get every day.  I am in no one’s poll!

People are so undecided I think some of them will pick a candidate that night after listening to pitches from their friends and neighbors.

I was encouraged that one of my book club friends, who I had assumed would caucus for Warren, says she will go with Klobuchar.

Two of [my husband’s] golfing buddies from Iowa City also said they plan to caucus for Klobuchar.  A small sampling but encouraging!

J.: Yes, I’ll be caucusing for Elizabeth Warren. Many people that I know are still undecided, but I do have some friends who are solidly for Pete, and a few who are liking Amy.

How would you, personally, sum up the pros and cons of the Iowa caucus?

R.: Pros:

We in Iowa love getting up close and personal with the candidates, so it is good for us!

It probably helps the candidates hone their message and become better on the stump, so that is an advantage for them.

Cons:

As has been discussed everywhere, Iowa is a small, predominantly white state that is not representative of the nation as a whole.

The candidates spend a ton of money here.  Could that be put to better use elsewhere?

The caucuses are chaotic.  They are led by local volunteers who may or may not know what they are doing.

It is difficult to get that final count correct, especially with a large crowd, and I think the numbers this year will be huge.  A primary would be more straightforward and democratic.

J.: Pros:

As first in the nation, it can be sort of a measure of what people are thinking and feeling. It’s an interesting process, and there’s no anonymous vote–your neighbors know where you stand.

Cons:

Iowa is such a white state; that lack of diversity is not representative of the US.

————————————-

Like both my interviewees, I think the end of the Iowa caucuses’ outsized role in our election cycle is appropriate and inevitable.

But I wish there were some way that our political process could capture the grass roots enthusiasm and up-close-and-personal nature of the caucuses—allowing voters to see the candidates when, as J. said, “they can’t edit their remarks or photoshop their looks.”

More frequent, widely televised town meetings throughout the country may help. Does anyone have any other ideas? Uses of technology?

How about if we request that every Iowa caucus participant serve as a roving ambassador throughout the US—to show us how and why we must carefully focus on our Presidential candidates—no, make that all our candidates—and must take our roles as informed voters very, very seriously?

Annie

The Gremlins Are Really After Me…

 

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Esper: US Continues to deploy. Image courtesy of centcom.mil.

Earlier, you received a post from me titled “An Update on My Lost R-A-N-T, Plus Some Positive Stuff.” But all that was shown was the photo above.  (Two of you even liked it; that was very generous!)

Here’s what happened: After losing my post last week, I followed the instructions from the WP Happiness Engineer (HE, for short, which is gender-neutral).

I saved the post that was supposed to appear this morning under the above title in my Administrator, so there would be a history, HE said. I then moved it to Publish and scheduled the publication for 10:45 AM today.

But I decided to add the photo you saw there–and above–in the morning. Once I’d done that, all my text and images disappeared, just as they had last week.

They’re not in the Administrator file either. I sent out another SOS to the HEs and cancelled the publication altogether–to save myself the embarrassment of an empty post appearing.

But the Gremlins are apparently merciless. Or perhaps the subject of my rant has reached into the inner recesses of WP? Nah, I won’t allow myself to dwell on a conspiracy theory. So I went back to work. I hope this post reaches you intact.

MY UPDATED R-A-N-T

My initial R-A-N-T was in response to the President’s actions. You’ve now probably read about those particulars in so many places that I see no need to repeat them.

I have a continuing struggle between my pursuit of lovingkindness and my reactions to current events. So I’m going to keep this R-A-N-T as brief as I can. (For me, this is brief…)

When Trump foolishly pulled the US out of the carefully crafted Iran nuclear deal—which by all accounts was working and during which no Americans were attacked—he set in motion events that now make us and many others much less safe. 

At this moment, the disastrous war that came close to erupting seems to have been averted because the Iranians—never known for their moderation—made it possible for the President to back away, at least temporarily.

But here are the things that trouble me the most:

*Iran is now a little more than two years away from making an atomic bomb, whereas we had a fifteen-year window under the peace accords.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who was instrumental in securing that treaty, said in an Op-Ed:

“The tragedy of our current plight is that diplomacy was succeeding before it was abandoned.”

I don’t see how we get Iran back to the table. 

*We will be forced out of Iraq under terms not our own, giving Iran free rein in the area and providing ISIS with an uncontested field in which to regroup.

*The President’s threats to destroy cultural sites in Iran, if carried out, would have been a war crime; even raising the issue makes us appear to the world on this point as comparable to the Taliban, ISIS, and al Qaeda, which have committed such acts in Afghanistan and Syria.

*The President’s claim during his press conference that the Iranian attack was paid for by money former President Obama “gave” them is a blatant lie.

The truth is that as part of the agreement to get Iran to sign onto the nuclear control pact, the US released Iranian assets we had been holding. It was Iran’s money—not ours.

*Most poignantly, there have long been signs that many of the Iranian people, who include a substantial educated middle class, are actually pro-American.

They have been suffering under Iran’s weak economy and harsh leadership, and there have been growing protests in the streets very recently.

But Trump’s actions have united the Iranians in a way that nothing else could. “Death to America” has replaced those hopeful signs.

And now we must demand that these questions be answered:

–Why was the decision to kill Qasem Suleimani made? Where is the proof of the claims of a plot that had to be disrupted with this assassination?

The Administration’s Congressional briefing was met with bipartisan outrage due to the confusion, lack of details, and unwillingness to answer questions.

–Who were the deciders?

There have been reports that both Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence had the President’s ear. (See John Cassidy’s New Yorker article.)

And both men have described their opposition to Iran with apparent religious zealotry, as this New Republic article describes.

–What does that tell us about the possible rationale for this decision?

If US foreign policy is being guided by people enacting their over-the-top religious convictions, is our fragile democracy even further endangered than it’s been by Trump’s disregard for law and belief that Article 2 of the Constitution allows him to do whatever he pleases?

— Why should we believe that Americans are safer as a result—as both the President and Secretary Pompeo have claimed?

–And how can our increasingly isolated country counter all the trouble spots that are sure to sprout up worldwide? 

*     *      *   *    *

Having finished my R-A-N-T,  I’m switching gears here because I’m determined to try to remain positive as the new year and new decade dawn, even as our surroundings have turned darker. So please accompany me as I discuss some really valuable forces for good that I’m involving myself in during this year.

WORLD WAR ZERO  (to combat Climate Change)

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Image courtesy of Conference of the Parties 2009-2017.stat.gov.

This is an ambitious effort by a bipartisan coalition of notables to bring the urgency of climate change to the fore and seek consensus and meaningful solutions as the clock keeps ticking.

Former Secretary of State/US Senator John Kerry has brought together more than 60 founding members, who include former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter (bless his heart—the man keeps going), former Republican Governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Kasich, and from the “glitterati”: Leonardo diCaprio, Ashton Kutcher, and Sting, among others.

According to The New York Times,

“The name, World War Zero, is supposed to evoke both the national security threat posed by the earth’s warming and the type of wartime mobilization that Mr. Kerry argued would be needed to stop the rise in carbon emissions before 2050.”

The hope is that this diverse group will succeed in bringing along skeptics.

In the US, they plan to hold town meetings—including in the battleground states that are central to the 2020 election.

They’ll also go to military bases, where climate change isn’t often discussed, “and to economically depressed areas that members say could benefit from clean energy jobs.”

To draw people with diverse viewpoints, the group has declined to state a position about the various approaches that might be used.

Katie Elder, who founded The Future Coalition, a network for organizations led by young people that organized climate strikes in September, supports the Green New Deal. But, she says,

“While I may be disagreeing with some of the things that other folks involved in World War Zero believe, that doesn’t mean we can’t work together. Collaboration is our key to survival.”

ALL ON THE LINE (to end gerrymandering and ensure fair elections)

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Former Attorney General Eric Holder, former President Barack Obama, image courtesy of obamawhitehouse.archives.gov.

Former President Barack Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder formed this group with a sense of urgency to make our electoral map align with our electorate. One person; one vote. Not too radical, right?

Here’s how they describe their efforts:

“We’re on a mission to end gerrymandering because it contributes to the polarization and dysfunction in our political system. It’s time to end map manipulation and finally have fair districts.”

“Whether you care about providing access to affordable health care, reducing the gun violence that plagues our schools and communities, protecting voting rights, achieving equal pay, or solving the urgent threat of climate change, there is a fundamental structural barrier that prevents progress: rigged electoral maps drawn with surgical precision by politicians to preserve their party’s political power and silence the will of the people.

The efforts are focused on key states where they feel they can make a difference: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Although the organization may sound partisan, it is devoted to ending gerrymandering wherever it exists.

And with the Census in 2020 leading to redistricting in 2021, when Census data is used to draw new congressional and state legislative district maps, they issue this clarion call: 

“The time to act is now. The next decade of our nation’s politics and progress is on the line and we need you on the front lines.”

APOPO (to save lives and limbs worldwide)

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HeroRAT rewarded. Commons.wikimedia.org

This organization is new to me, but it’s become dear to my heart. I’ve written about my late friend Peter, who expanded my vision in a number of ways. One of them was to appreciate the intelligence and value of rats.

Before Peter died in November, he had asked that donations be made in his memory to Apopo.org. I was very pleased to do so, especially after perusing their website.

Apopos are African giant pouched rats that are trained to detect buried landmines. These potential killer detritus of wars exist in 60 countries.

Landmines not only kill or maim civilians—47% of them children in 2017—they also interfere with the development of fertile land in vulnerable communities.

It takes nine months to train a rat, which wears a little harness as it goes sniffing into the fields. The rats are too light to set off the landmines, but they are able to discern what is a land mine and what is nonexplosive metal—and they can do so faster than metal detectors.

These rats are also trained to detect tuberculosis that has gone undiagnosed, thereby facilitating treatment and saving lives in yet another way. That’s why they’re called HeroRATS.

The website is inspiring and poignant. I had to stop myself from spending so much time gazing at the photos and reading the stories.

These three organizations are new ways to help me feel empowered to do a little good amid the gloom of our political scene and heightened international tensions. (They are in addition to political involvement and other organizations I’ve long supported.)

What are your views about any of the above? Anything you’d like to note about how you are navigating this new decade, with its dangers and possibilities?

Annie

A Substitute Rant–

The WordPress Happiness Engineers are cheery;
They respond as best they can.

But a SNAFU is making me weary;
What you’re reading is not what I’d planned…

The stats say Saturday, 11 AM
Is when most of you visit my site;

So I worked my little tail off, man oh man
And completed my post last night.

But the morning brought a fearsome view:
The text and images were gone–

First from computer they said adieu,
Then vanished from my phone.

The Happiness Engineers are on my case;
I should hear in the days ahead.

So please keep an eye out as they retrace
A post that I hope ain’t dead.

The title from the original piece
Is all that remains from it now.

A part of it applies to this ditty, at least:
Am I on a rant? And how!

Annie

PS: As the saying goes: “Watch this space!”…please.

 

Don’t You Think the World Could Use a Little Anger Management? Here’s a Way That Just May Help…

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Singer T & Klimecki, OM Image courtesy of commons wikimedia.org

Well, sure: the holiday season is, ironically, a time of stress. But we know there are high levels of anxiety that have preceded this supposedly joyous time and will surely follow us into the New Year/decade. 

I don’t have to itemize the list: it’s as close as your newspaper or electronic device. All sorts of problems and calamities—natural and manmade—have been occurring just about everywhere.

We can’t change the world, but we do have some control over how we view the world and our place in it. And if enough of us exercise that control, we can make a difference.

How Can We Do That?

By learning from the fortunate fusion of Buddhist practice—validated and adapted by Western scientists. Science writer Daniel Goleman, who was interviewed in an article titled “Can Compassion Change the World?,”  collaborated with the Dalai Lama on a book called A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World.

Long a collaborator with scientists, the Dalai Lama set forth his views on how to improve the world with the help of science. When the interviewer asked Goleman why compassion is so important, he said the Dalai Lama wasn’t speaking from “a Buddhist perspective; he’s actually speaking from a scientific perspective. He’s using scientific evidence…which shows that people have the ability to cultivate compassion.” [emphases mine throughout]

Goleman observed:

“This research is very encouraging, because scientists are not only using brain imagery to identify the specific brain circuitry that controls compassion, but also showing that the circuitry becomes strengthened, and people become more altruistic and willing to help out other people, if they learn to cultivate compassion—for example, by doing traditional meditation practices of lovingkindness. This is so encouraging, because it’s a fundamental imperative that we need compassion as our moral rudder.”

Goleman speaks of “muscular compassion,” and he explained that the term is necessary to demonstrate that

“compassion is not just some Sunday school niceness; it’s important for taking social issues—things like corruption and collusion in business and government, and throughout the public sphere…for looking at economics, to see if there is a way to make it more caring and not just about greed, or to create economic policies that decrease the gap between the rich and the poor. These are moral issues that require compassion.”

The Buddhist term for practicing compassion is Metta—and mindfulness meditators call it lovingkindness meditation. Sometimes lovingkindness appears as one word; sometimes two; sometimes it’s hyphenated. In the scientific literature, it’s abbreviated as LKM. My personal preference is lovingkindness, so for consistency, that’s what I’m using throughout this post.

A Quick Look at Mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation per se, scientific studies have found, regulates attention to create a calm mind, and varied areas of the brain have been identified as showing changes (including increases in gray matter) among those who are regular practitioners—experts—as compared to novices. 

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who coined the term mindfulness and developed an eight-week course on Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction that is widely used, defines it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Practitioners, of whom I’m one, use a focus on the breath to calm the mind. Sometimes people get discouraged meditating and give up too soon because their minds wander, but expert meditators will tell you that every time the mind wanders, you’re becoming aware that it’s happening, and that’s a good thing. You simply return to breathing in and out.

There are many techniques to help you stay on track. That’s a quick look at a complex process that has been scientifically validated to reap benefits as you explore your internal self–mind and body–and your place in the world.

And Now, Lovingkindness…

Lovingkindness is an associated practice to mindfulness. Specific studies have also shown that practicing lovingkindness reduces stress, helps those in the helping professions prevent burnout, aids veterans with PTSD, and possibly even extends life.

One study found that the telomeres—the ends of the chromosomes that prevent deterioration and whose length is associated with longevity—were longer in women who routinely practiced lovingkindness than in those who didn’t.

The Goleman article led me to the work of Tania Singer, formerly the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science in Germany. (There’s an irony here that I’ll detail shortly.) Her professional life has been devoted to studying empathy and compassion.  

I learned from her that the empathy I’ve always valued isn’t always such a good thing. Empathy, the ability to feel another’s pain, is clearly important for interacting with other humans.

But it can have a stressful side—empathic distress—that leads to potential burnout and a lessened desire/ability to help. The high rates of physician burnout and suicides are examples. 

Compassion, on the other hand, doesn’t involve sharing another’s suffering, Singer has observed.

“Rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s wellbeing. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”

In fact, Singer and her group have found that the apparently similar traits of empathy and compassion involve different, and not overlapping, structures in the brain.

What’s more, because of the brain’s neuroplasticity (ability to change based on training), compassion training can lead to positive results.

As they’ve written:

“Compassion may, therefore, represent a very potent strategy for preventing burnout. In light of high prevalence rates of burnout and stress-related diseases in Western societies, we anticipate that the present findings will inform other intervention studies on the plasticity of adaptive social emotions….[and] hopefully help to design new training programs aimed at increasing resilience and coping strategies in many domains, including health care, educational settings, and high stress environments in general.”

I watched two videos of Singer, a prominent neuroscientist. describing her work, which includes programs with economists to try to draw up models that more closely adhere to the compassion that Goleman described. She was a compelling and delightful speaker. 

However, In 2018, this woman whose life’s work has focused on empathy and compassion resigned as director of the Max Planck Institute after eight colleagues accused her of bullying them and some said she’d reduced them to tears.

Alas! She practiceth not what she preacheth! Hard to fathom, but her poor behavior doesn’t detract from the validity of her research findings.

And it certainly doesn’t seem indicative of what I’ve heard and read about leaders in the field of lovingkindness.

I consider Sharon Salzburg, one of the most respected and beloved teachers and authors on the topic, a personal guru on the journey into lovingkindness that I’ve been taking for a couple of years now.

I believe she’s a reliable guide into how the practice can help us all, physically and mentally, improve our relationships—and even help us enrich the lives of strangers.

Want to Try It?

Though Singer’s neuroscientific experiments took practitioners nine months, it doesn’t take that long to get the hang of it. For those who’d like to try it, here’s what you do.

Briefly, lovingkindness consists of repeating some simple phrases, silently, expressing good wishes. You can say whatever you choose, but Salzburg suggests some variation of  “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease.” 

Because so many of us are our most severe critics, traditionally, we begin by offering these unconditional good wishes to ourselves: “May I be happy, healthy, live with ease.”

We then draw an ever widening circle, extending these sentiments to those we love, to friends and acquaintances, to problematic people whom we wish we could more readily accept, to strangers, and finally, to the entire world.

And the practice of lovingkindness is portable: traditionally, you sit on a cushion, but you can just as easily be walking on a crowded street.

Jack Kornfield, another leading educator, has written that some people find it difficult to begin with themselves:

“We may feel that we are unworthy, or that it’s egotistical, or that we shouldn’t be happy when other people are suffering.” 

If that’s how you feel, Kornfield says,

“Rather than start lovingkindness practice with ourselves, I find it more helpful to start with those we most naturally love and care about.” [Start where it’s easiest, he suggests.] “We open our heart in the most natural way, then direct our lovingkindness little by little to the areas where it’s more difficult.”

If you choose that sequence, you might then circle back to yourself after that. Or move on to people whom you find difficult. Eventually, you open your heart to strangers and to all living beings.

Real-World Examples

How can this approach affect our everyday behavior? Salzburg has a short series of videos depicting various scenarios. In “Street Lovingkindness,” she hones in on Grand Central Station in New York City, a hectic place, during Rush Hour.

But, says Salzburg, “Don’t rush. Take in the world. Look at the people,” and silently send your good wishes to strangers, possibly adding “May you be joyful, peaceful, contented.”

She has also noted: If you’re stuck in traffic because an emergency vehicle is snaking through, you might say to yourself “I hope whoever needs that vehicle is OK.”  

Standing in line, she acknowledges, can be frustrating. You want to move faster, to get somewhere. Instead of fuming,

“take a breath, savor the moment. Feel your feet on the ground. Notice those in front and behind you. Fully acknowledge each person [mentally]: ‘May you be joyful, peaceful, contented.’ Just as we seek happiness for ourselves, may all beings be at peace.”

Suppose you’re sitting in your car,  in a traffic jam.

“It’s stop-and-go, you’re making no progress. You’re frustrated, annoyed, stressed out, tired of being stuck. Pause, take a breath, feel your body being seated, your hands on the wheel. Look at the others, all moving together. ‘May we be safe, healthy, happy, be at ease.’”

Salzburg speaks of compassion to self as being restorative, rather than allowing ourselves to be overcome by events. She explores our thought processes: “I’m a terrible person.” 

How is my holding onto negative thoughts healing me?, she asks. Detaching and running doesn’t work.

We can’t automatically make our pain—physical or emotional—go away, but holding on to our fear and projecting into the future adds to our suffering.

(There’s an oft-repeated phrase among mindfulness folks: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”)

Compassion, she says, is a unifying experience. It sparks the impulse to help someone else: we’re all vulnerable in some way.

“When a person says, ‘I’m overwhelmed,’ having a sense of community is a tremendous asset. Doing it all alone is hard. That’s the context for this practice.”

If you’d like to listen to a delightful interview with Salzburg, click on this link. Sarah Jones is a gifted actor who creates believable, very diverse characters with her voice and motions. She interviewed her friend Salzburg, asking questions as several different personae.

It’s great fun to listen to. In something many of us can relate to, one of the points she made was “Most days I can barely stand to read the news. But when I do lovingkindness, there’s a shift.”

Salzburg stresses that practicing lovingkindness doesn’t always mean saying “yes.” If you see a street person asking for money,

“whether or not you feel giving the cash would be useful is one thing, but whether you look at that person as a human being is another.”

It’s not new that we feel good about ourselves when we show kindness to others. But it’s something to relearn. In the supermarket where I shop, a tall, thin man is responsible for herding all the shopping carts.

I assume his job is simply to bring order to the carts that shoppers leave wherever they choose (usually not where the sign says “Return carts here”).

But he goes well beyond that job description. He is unfailingly gracious, smiling pleasantly and offering everyone a cart who approaches the store, or relieving us of the need to return them to the intended area. 

Last week, as I was walking to my car, I had a sudden impulse. I turned around and walked toward him. He thought I needed a cart and was about to give me one. “I’m done shopping,” I said. “But you’re so good at your work, and so gracious and helpful, that I wanted to give you this.”

I won’t miss the money, and I’ll long remember the look on his face as he thanked me profusely and blessed me. It was a small act in the scheme of things, but it made both of us feel pretty darn good.

Salzburg has heard it all, and she says there’s a common idea that lovingkindness is stupid, or gooey, or yucky. I like Daniel Goleman’s term: Muscular compassion. And that should lead to action, Goleman said:

“The Dalai Lama often talks to people with great aspirations, and, after he’s gotten them all roused up, he says, ‘Don’t just talk about it, do something.’ That’s part of the message in my book: Everyone has something they can do. Whatever means you have to make the world a better place, you need to do it. Even if we won’t see the fruits of this in our lifetime, start now.”

My Wish for Each of You–and for Us All

As the new decade dawns, I repeat, as I did at the end of 2018, the words I’ve learned from Jack Kornfield and other mindful meditators:

May you be filled with lovingkindness;
May you be safe and protected;
May you be well in body and mind;
Strong and healed;
May you be happy.

And may 2020 find us in a country and world of greater unity, peace, greenness, and kindness. We can make small gestures to move us in that direction.

Annie

Reading My Friend Peter’s SNAFU Letter at Christmas Time

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Training Rats to Save Lives Apopo.org

I’m not terribly fond of Christmas letters, which sometimes resemble those Facebook entries in which people tell you all the details of their day, including every morsel they ingested.

But there was one letter I always looked forward to receiving. It was from my friend Peter, my colleague at the continuing medical education company that was my last job before retirement.

Technically, I was Peter’s “boss,” a word I loathed, as I really believed in a collaborative work environment. But with Peter, it was irrelevant: he needed no bossing. 

Though his position was medical editor, he possessed two masters degrees and a PhD. It was our/my great good fortune that he wound up in that office. He was brilliant.

In terms of his work, that meant not simply meticulousness about spelling, grammar, punctuation, organization—even style. He would find errors in physicians’ manuscripts and illogical conclusions in published journal articles.

And he would rewrite passages of the manuscripts we were preparing that wouldn’t otherwise pass muster. Oh, how he could write!

He also had a very offbeat, sardonic, often hilarious wit with an eye for life’s absurdities that others might miss.

And his restless intellect encompassed such varied interests—many different types of music, especially opera (the more obscure, the better), good films, politics, travel, and on and on—that his Christmas letters were a joy to read.

The absurdities parts were often featured prominently. I loved them.

At some point a number of years ago, Peter developed a dry cough. His doctors treated his symptoms, but they lingered.

After several weeks, he told me he was having night sweats. That set up a warning light for me, and I asked him if I could check with a physician friend. She led him to the oncologist who diagnosed a rare T-cell lymphoma. The prognosis wasn’t great.

But Peter had a strong will to live, and he beat those odds. We celebrated his five-year survival.

In his Christmas letters, he wrote about all the medical indignities and horrors he’d been subjected to with an astonishing degree of humor and objectivity—and not an ounce of self-pity.

A few years later, the company we worked for was failing, and I was required to lay off Peter and several other terrific people. I wept; Peter was visibly upset, and I worried that he’d never forgive me.

But he did, and my husband and I attended several of his delightful home musicales/dessert parties, where he and some friends, accompanied on the piano by his very charming and talented music teacher wife, regaled us with songs. He had a fine tenor voice.

Then came a SNAFU Christmas letter, explaining in a matter-of-fact tone that the lymphoma had returned, and treatment had once again commenced.

This was 11 years after his first occurrence. We had all been so sure it was a horror that he’d never again have to face.

After that, Peter’s SNAFU letters weren’t just at Christmas. He began regularly describing his strange new journey—always with humor, always with a sense of the absurd, and—once again—always without self-pity.

He went through hell, but he never dwelled on all that.

His last missive was dated October 20. It was longer than usual because the process to prepare him for stem cell transplantation had begun.

He knew the odds were not in his favor, and he knew what he was facing, but his incredibly strong desire for life overrode all else. 

He titled the email “SNAFU Sequel: A Million.” The million referred to the first count of his harvested cells. But “a million cells is not like a million dollars,” he wrote.

“Ideally, a transplant for T-cell lymphoma requires 6 to 10 million stem cells.”

The last amount he documented was a harvest of 2.8 million cells, and it was increasing.

Despite his situation, he found silliness everywhere. Told in the hospital to go to room 318 for an MRI, he walked through a long dark corridor where there were no rooms.  Suddenly the hall ended and became room 318,

“and there we entered a new dimension…The room and atmosphere reminded me of the creepy opening hotel lobby scene from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The MRI was uneventful.”

He continued:

“As with Stalin’s 5-Year Plans, the pace of my medical procedures accelerated as I got closer to a transplant date.

“On Monday (the 14th), we had to be in at 6:30 AM for a procedure to insert a central venous catheter with 3 lumens (the proprietary name is Trifusion, but I call it King Ghidorah, after the ludicrous 3-headed Japanese movie monster that appears to shoot arcs from Tesla coils) to facilitate the harvesting of stem cells…

“At 10:30, I was instructed to have blood work, and then we had to wait until 6 PM to get an injection of Mozobil, which is designed to promote the creation of stem cells (it is very expensive, so the pharmacy only makes it at 6, and only if the patient is present).

“That left 7 hours to sit in the hospital to get a single injection. I decided to play a literature game, inspired by Woody Allen’s film Love and Death, in which 2 characters converse using Dostoevsky novel titles (e.g., ‘They say he was Possessed.’ ‘No, he was an Idiot.’).

“As a patient and medical editor, I have dealt with absurd drug titles that lend themselves to bad literature. With apologies to Sophocles, here is my one and only Greek tragedy (those not in medical education may want to skip this section).”

[Note from Annie: All the names below refer to medications or medical procedures; I’m assuming Peter had endured each one.]

“In the city-state of Amlodipine, known for its high level of education and culture, King Azacitidine and Queen Romidepsin rejoiced at the birth of their son, Granix. According to custom, they brought the child to the Temple of Invokana. 

“They were alarmed when the high priestess Apheresis prophesied that Granix was destined by the gods to be the worst playwright in history. 

“They tried to avoid the prophecy (not recommended in these plays) by sheltering their son and home-schooling him. 

“When they died, he was unaware of the prophecy until the soothsayer Carmustine revealed the curse. Terrified, Granix changed his name to Zarxio and fled into exile.

“He decided to avoid his fate by settling in the city of Thiazolidinedione, whose ruler, King Actos, forbade all education and culture. 

“Soon, however, the city was besieged by the dreaded monster Mozobil, who tormented the population with riddles such as ‘How do you spell your city’s name?’ ‘Is the word ‘data’ singular or plural?’ ‘Is ‘health care’ one word or two?’ In desperation, King Actos issued a proclamation for anyone to rid the city of the monster. 

“Displaying his hubris, Zarxio stepped forward and answered all the riddles, and then drove Mozobil away by challenging him to explain why ‘nonadherent’ did not have a hyphen. Instead of gratitude, King Actos wondered why Zarxio knew so much, in a city where being educated was a crime. 

“Eventually, Etoposide of Amlodipine, who had been searching for Granix, heard about Zarxio’s exploits. Etoposide explained that Zarxio is an alternate form of Granix, unmasking the criminal. 

“For defying the will of the gods, Granix was banished to the realm of Polypharmacy, where, in a drug-induced stupor, he churned out the worst plays of all time.

“The moral: It is better to play with your cell phone than to try to write a Greek drama.“ 

Peter provided considerably more detail about what he was experiencing, and then wrote:

“Now for the reason this is such a long SNAFU. The current plan is for me to enter the hospital next Tuesday or Wednesday… In order to ensure the complete response, for 6 days I will receive a very strong chemotherapy called BEAM…, which is associated with serious adverse effects.

“ If nothing else, my multiple regimens (Hyper-CVAD, CHOP, ICE, clinical trial, and soon BEAM) will make me a connoisseur of chemotherapy.

“After 1 day off, I will have the transplant and continue to stay in the hospital for about a month. The SNAFU Sequel will be on hiatus.

“I am sure that when I return there will be numerous hilarious episodes to recount. With a recovery period that may last a year, the SNAFU Sequel will inevitably become a tome.”

He then observed:

“The hospital neighborhood, which I have noted is a nightmare of construction vehicles, iron plates, and gridlock, has a few surprising areas of calm as well.

“Across the street is an armory where I ran track while in high school, providing me with an unintentional foundation for surviving lymphoma. 

“One block west, the traffic noise cannot be heard.

“Instead, you see a veritable United Nations of medical students with their youthful exuberance, quizzing each other and giving one some confidence in the future, as opposed to our political situation. 

[Here he expressed his profound gratitude and love for his wife and appreciation for his friends—and then became philosophical]

“The Tao Te Ching, perhaps by Lao Tzu (Laozi), contains an often misquoted statement, with the true meaning close to ‘The journey of a thousand begins beneath one’s feet’ (obviously, they did not measure distance in miles 2,500 years ago). 

“However, my own path has comprised many paths. A better way to sum up my treatment journey is a quote from the Pirkei Avot, compiled about 2,000 years ago:

“‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’

“So off I go to the big city, with Kander and Ebb’s ‘New York, New York’ ringing in my ears.”

……………………….

At his wife’s suggestion, I had planned a phone call with Peter shortly and a visit once he was out of isolation. Peter died on November 19 at age 65. He left his body to science.

His wife referred to him as her “brave warrior.” Though he was a peace and social justice advocate, her words seem apt in terms of how valiantly he fought to remain on this earth.

I learned many things from Peter, and one of them was the extraordinary intelligence of rats. Yes, rats.

Peter requested that anyone who wanted to make a contribution in his memory send it to Apopo, a non-profit organization that trains African giant pouched rats to save the lives and limbs of children and others by detecting landmines that are buried in more than 60 countries that had been at war. The rats can also detect tuberculosis, which is often otherwise undiagnosed and therefore deadly. Thus, they are called HeroRATS.

I’ll end this post by borrowing Peter’s typically Peter closing. I find its generosity of spirit, in view of his own circumstances when he uttered these words, nothing short of remarkable.

“I hope you all have wonderful times and holidays ahead. Remember to laugh!”

Annie

OBFUS-GATE: An Exploration of Our National Crisis (Even Worse: It’s In Verse!)

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US Constitution image courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org
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American flag image courtesy of needpix.com

In April I cited Barr’s antics
The AG was quietly frantic
The Mueller Report
Was a strong retort
To the “Trump did no wrong” semantics.

But Bill-Barr knew why he’d been hired
And sensing the public was tired:
“There’s nothing,” said he—
“No conspiracy”
So the Truth into muck became mired.

Yet ONE DAY after Mueller appeared
The President moved into high gear
With an unbowed head
To Ukraine’s Prez said:
If you want all that aid to be cleared…

…There’s a favor I’d like you to do
Some people you gotta look into
You’ll investigate
And all will be great—
Maybe a White House visit for you.

Zelensky had quite the dilemma
With Putin evoking some tremors
He’d sought to be straight
’Twas his winning mandate
But U.S. demands were bad karma.

So why should Ukraine cause our fussin’?
Our ally’s a bulwark v. Russians
We gave them our word
Worldwide it was heard
It’s their safety and ours we’re discussin’.

Just in time someone blows a whistle
And justice’s wheels start to sizzle
The hearings begin
The experts weigh in
And Light shone on lies makes them fizzle.

But here come the intractable foes
Who back Trump from his head to his toes
They can’t argue facts
So they take a worse tack
And pretend that the Emperor has clothes.

Now we’ve entered the land of impeach
With the Dems set to not overreach
Two articles cite
The President’s blight
And his large Constitutional breach.

The facts tell a quite simple story:
Abused power for his own glory
For Congress contempt
No defense will attempt
To challenge except with lies hoary…

…Or red herring complaints like this call:
“Why the rush when we’ve not heard from all?”
With subpoenas defied,
Delays far and wide,
These “bad processes” tales are quite tall.

There is reason to move with dispatch
The President’s acts must be watched
His lawyer’s abroad
To promote more fraud,
Our election’s integrity they’ll snatch.

But the country’s sadly divided
With false stories, hard truth’s derided
We’ve so much at stake
We must stay awake
And try to engage those misguided.

I shall now add a Bill-Barr return
He’s in mischief I can’t quite discern
He’ll make a report
Next spring—of some sort
That is likely to cause great concern.

Keep your eyes and ears peeled for this move
‘Cause its purpose will clearly behoove
Us to promptly react
And to counter with facts
So the falsities don’t gain a groove.

It’s a time our decisions must fit
With the words of Ben Franklin—to wit:
When asked what we’ve got
Republic or Monarchy, he shot:
“A Republic—if you can keep it!”

Note: I leave my rhyme to turn to the prescient words of Alexander Hamilton, which my blogging colleague Brookingslib used to conclude a terrific post on the topic:

“When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits—despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the nonsense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”’

Finally, as stated by Acting Ambassador to Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. in his testimony before Congress, by Constitutional law experts Michael Gerhardt and Lawrence Tribe, and by others:

“If this [the Ukraine scandal] isn’t impeachable, nothing is.”

Annie

 

Have You Heard of Mrinalini Mukherjee?

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Jamuni (Purple Flower) 2000

I recently had the privilege of attending a large exhibit of the sculptures of this extraordinary woman (1949-2015). Although her work is probably not to everyone’s taste, I believe you can appreciate the imagination, sheer artistry, and dexterity she demonstrated.

I regret that my photos—taken on site and from the book I purchased—do not adequately capture her genius.

In a career spanning 40 years, Mukherjee focused on creating large, elaborate fiber structures and later turned to ceramic and then bronze pieces. I found her fiber works awe-inspiring in their beauty—or deliberate ugliness—and size. 

Mukherjee’s fiber was a type of rope called San or Shani, which she said was “something close to hemp…I don’t know whether it is flax, but it is not jute. Maybe it is something in between.”

She had to stop generating these fiber pieces, according to the exhibit’s program guide, because “working with fiber was physically demanding, the rope Mukherjee used was now being combined with synthetic fibers, and a ban was imposed on the dyeing units needed to achieve her preferred colors.”

Mukherjee was the daughter of artists. She spent her childhood in part in the Himalayan foothills and in West Bengal, India. Those were the areas that nurtured her love of the natural world.

She was encouraged by parents who were drawn to nature; her father developed an ecological philosophy studying at a school founded by Tagore, the poet who has also been called a polymath, or Renaissance man.

After earning a diploma in painting, she studied mural design with one of her father’s former students, who encouraged his own students to explore widely among varying styles of Indian arts and crafts, and to move beyond the traditional materials and approaches. She certainly internalized those messages.

Her signature style was the knotting visible in all the fiber structures, accomplished using not a loom, but “makeshift frames and armatures.”

In the 1970s, she drew from Indian mythology, using Sanskrit titles of divine entities, but applying them to figures that weren’t identifiable as plants or creatures.

The program guide suggests: “These now-biomorphic objects signified states of metamorphosis and transfiguration.”

Unlike most artists, she never made sketches first, and her works since the 1980s rarely hung from a wall; I felt their placement on a floor or hanging from a ceiling, drawing on the available space and light, enhanced their exceptionalism.

 In freeing them from the wall, she said, she wanted to capture

“the feeling of awe [you get] when you went into the small sanctum of a temple and look up to be held by an iconic presence.”

She elaborated:

“My idea of the sacred is not rooted in any specific culture..my work is not…the iconic representation of any particular religious belief, rather it is the metamorphosed expression of varied sensory perceptions.” 

The “anthropomorphic deities,” she stressed,

“have no relationship to gods and goddesses in the traditional iconographic sense, but are parallel invocations in the realm of art.”

When she moved on to ceramics, she was hindered by her inability to access kilns large enough for the work she envisioned, as well as an absence of the glazes she sought.

According to the book Mrinalini Mukherjee, edited by Shanay Jhaveri, she was told at the European Ceramic Work Centre that “You are always extending the material a little bit beyond what it should be. But that’s because you have not been trained, and nobody has taught you a way.”

Undaunted by the criticism, Mukherjee viewed her lack of specific training and her possible overreaching as advantages. 

Jhaveri observed:

“It was through the sheer force of will that Mukherjee, by her own hand and the simple, direct manipulation of a series of materials, managed to invoke ‘awe.’” 

In the early years of this century, she began working with bronze, apparently inspired by her mother’s small bronze figures. She sculpted in the lost-wax process: a mold is made of wax, into which molten metal is poured. The wax model is then melted away.

This technique, once again so different from the fiber she’d been accustomed to, required some adaptation.

One intriguing story is that she finished her cast bronze works using tools she’d obtained from the laboratory of a neighborhood orthodontist.

I can imagine her teacher’s delight if he’d learned how well she adapted his guidance to use unusual methods and approaches.

Her work has been praised for its “bewitching otherness.” Some of it was actually

“nature cast in art…the leaves and stalks she chanced upon and found arresting for their shapes were moulded in wax or plaster.”

I could go on and on about her works, but it seems best at this point to show you a sampling.

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Vanshri (Woman and Tree) 1994
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Vriksh Nata (Arboreal Enactment) 1991-1992
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Rudra (Deity of Terror) 1982
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Woman on Peacock 1991
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Van Raja II (King of the Forest) 1991-1994
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Night Bloom III 1991-2000 Ceramic
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Left to right: Palmscape II, 2013; Mound III, 2009; Palmscape IV, 2013. All in bronze. Image by Ben Davis.

After spending several hours wandering among these highly diverse pieces, I emphatically agreed with the program guide’s conclusion: 

“Mukherjee’s sculptures challenge the imagination to go beyond logic and reason and enter into a world that is teeming and full of potential.”

What are your impressions of Mukherjee’s work?

Annie

UpdateIn response to a query, I came across a terrific review of the exhibit, with additional photos, from The New York Times. For some reason, the article won’t hyperlink, but you can Google “Sculpture, Both Botanical and Bestial, Awe at the Met Breuer, July 11, 2019.” Here’s the reviewer’s conclusion:

“But my immediate question after seeing the Breuer show was simply: when did this artist ever rest? The sheer amount of energy generated by her formal inventiveness, self-developed virtuosity, pre-postmodern thinking, and un-Modern emotion makes for one of the most arresting museum experiences of the season. It is an astonishment.”

A Thanksgiving-ish Story

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City Landscape in the Night Courtesy of Publicdomainvectors.org

Three women, strangers, seats 23D (aisle), 23E (center), 23F (window).
One soybean farmer, one blogger, one psychotherapist.
Flight delayed by weather at destination.
10,000 feet above ground, swiftly nearing landing.

23D and E heading for home.
23F preparing for romantic rendezvous with second husband.
Twenty years married, only one previous holiday sans kids—hers/his.
He’d joined his kids for one lap of their year sailing ‘round the world.

I have to pass through Portugal on my way home, he’d said.
Why don’t you meet me there? She was thrilled.
Meet in Lisbon, tour the countryside.

But…

Time was 7:40 PM. Connecting flight gates to close at 8:15.
Why don’t we change seats now? suggested 23D.
The change was made. Traveler-in-motion now seated on the aisle. Precious minutes saved.
Maybe tell the flight staff to call ahead? offered 23E.
The call was made. Anxiety easing.

I can’t find my boarding pass, lamented the traveler-in-motion.
Here it is, her companion said, picking it up from the floor.
A spontaneous warm hug from the traveler-in-motion.

Shared moments, caring among strangers. Empathy in action.
A week before Thanksgiving, but appropriate for the season.
Any season…

Annie

 

My Watching the Impeachment Hearing Blues…

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If this is the “Deep State” that President Trump has been warning us about, I’d say we need more of ‘em!

After viewing much of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings, I’m left feeling proud, sad, and frightened. 

The proud part is easy. 

Of the 12 witnesses who testified—all Trump administration appointees—10 were career foreign service officials. I think The New York TimesMark Leibovich described them well:

“They are, in a sense,  the permanent beating, bipartisan heart of the government of the United States.They are deeply credentialed,  polyglot, workaholic, and respectful before Congress.

“They are graduates of Harvard and West Point, and veterans of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They take meticulous notes, are on key phone calls and give ‘readouts.’”

And so, when they uniformly and without rancor gave their pieces of the story concerning what President Trump has actually publicly acknowledged, they were believable.

They were also so very measured—even when attacked, as they were by some of the Republican committee members—so careful with their words, and so highly professional that they made this American proud of her country and hopeful that they will help lead us out of our current divisive, dangerous lawlessness.

Not one of them was there to attack the President; they saw their role solely as fact witnesses. But the facts they detailed showed overwhelmingly that President Trump had tried multiple times via multiple people to use Ukraine for his own political purposes. The fact that he was stopped does not make him innocent.

And the witnesses explained why these actions were dangerous not only to Ukraine’s national security, but to America’s as well.

They also made the case for why we should all care about Ukraine’s fate. It is a strong American ally and a bulwark against Russian aggression. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, it gained its independence in 1991.

Ukraine is currently engaged in a hot war against the Russians, who occupied Crimea in 2014 and want to subsume the entire country. More than 14,000 Ukrainians have died in that war.

Further Russian expansion will jeopardize peace in Europe and inevitably involve the US. Like it or not, we live in an interdependent world.

Ukraine’s new, democratically elected president, Vlodymyr Zelensky, won overwhelmingly after promising to try to end the war and rid Ukraine of the corruption that has been rampant there for so long. 

Zelensky immediately began making symbolically important changes. Independence Day, on August 24, had in the past been celebrated by what The New Yorker described as “the traditional Soviet-style military parade of soldiers and tanks and missile launchers, which he called ‘pompous and expensive.’” 

This year, in a tribute to the “second revolution” in 2013 in which snipers killed more than 100 protesters, Zelensky organized a “March of Dignity” in which over 1000 children lined the way to the site where the demonstrators had been killed.

“The children, dressed in white, clutched yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags and bouquets of daisies.”

The marchers were “schoolteachers, doctors, social workers, and athletes.”

But Zelensky knows symbols aren’t enough. He is dependent on the US, and specifically, its President. He needs the weaponry that Congress overwhelmingly approved on a bipartisan basis but was mysteriously held up until Congress began its investigations. 

And he has been seeking a meeting with President Trump in the White House to demonstrate to both the Ukrainian people and Russia’s Putin that he has a reliable ally in the US.

Thus, the importance of the President’s words “I would like you to do us a favor, though…” in the phone call transcript that the President has described as “perfect” and his Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, publicly told the press that yeah, sure, it was a “quid pro quo,” but “get over it.”

In the hearings, piece by piece, the witnesses’ testimonies demonstrated that the President had no interest in Ukraine, its value as an ally, its status as a young democracy looking toward the US as its model, or its importance to US security. 

Rather, he sought to use the promise of aid and a visit to the White House as leverage to get Ukraine to open an investigation into alleged and debunked corruption by Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who’d been on the board of a Ukrainian company, Burisma.

(Let me state here that I believe Hunter Biden’s involvement in a Ukrainian company was not smart and looks terrible, although there’s been no indication of wrongdoing.)

The other favor was to validate the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered with our 2016 election.

Importantly, American intelligence officials have recently informed Senators and their aides “that Russia has engaged in a yearlong campaign to essentially frame Ukraine as responsible for Moscow’s own hacking of the 2016 election,” reported The New York Times.

Once again, the President is promoting a conspiracy theory that accepts Putin’s word against the findings of US intelligence. 

As Zelensky seeks to fight corruption in his own country, the President and his allies have sought to pull him into corruption in our country.

And the President might have succeeded were it not for the whistle blower whose report began the Congressional proceedings. The irony is extraordinary—as well as heartbreaking.

My sadness arose from the hyperpartisan, often brutal, nature of the opposition.

Here’s a sampling of those who testified and what they said.

Marie Yovanovitch spent 33 years in the Foreign Service and was widely respected by both Americans and Ukrainians. But she made a crucial career-ending error: with her legitimate anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, she apparently stood in the way of the plans that the President, Rudy Giuliani, and others had for getting what they wanted from Ukraine’s president. 

She was recalled as ambassador, suddenly, amid what she called “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives” and even though her boss told her she’d done nothing wrong.

As a result of her treatment, she said, “Bad actors” and not only in Ukraine, will “see how easy it is to use fiction and innuendo to manipulate our system. The only interests that will be served are those of our strategic adversaries, like Russia.” (All emphases mine.)

No one has questioned the right of the President to recall an ambassador, but many wonder why he did so, in these circumstances, and why he and others have vilified her and sought to destroy her reputation.

In her opening statement to the House committee, she said it was crucial for our embassy in Kiev (now also spelled Kyiv) “to understand and act upon the difference between those who sought to serve their people and those who sought to serve only themselves. 

Still a State Department employee, she was the first to defy the orders not to cooperate and accepted the subpoena to testify. Others soon followed.

As a result of her bravery, former US ambassador Swanee Hunt wrote for CNN,

“In a dismaying but no-longer unusual parallel, she faced the kind of bullying at home that she was fighting abroad.”

Yovanovitch acknowledges fearing for her personal safety based on threats she’s received.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whose father brought him and his brothers to the US from Ukraine when he was 3 years old, has a purple heart and other medals for his combat service in Iraq and carries shrapnel in his body from his injuries there. 

As Director for European Affairs for the US National Security Council (NSC), Vindman felt it was his “duty” to report his concerns about the call between the President and President Zelensky, which he found improper (he used the word “shocked” in response to questions) to John Eisenberg, the NSC’s legal adviser.

“It is improper for the President of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a US citizen and political opponent.

“It was also clear that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma, it would be interpreted as a partisan play. This would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing bipartisan [US Congressional] support, undermine US national security, and advance Russia’s strategic objectives in the region.”

Vindman has been subjected to vile attacks on his patriotism, character, motivations, and judgment—accused of dual loyalties and even espionage. In his testimony, he addressed his father, who was worried about the risks his son was taking in speaking out publicly. 

“Dad, my sitting here today..is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.” 

When asked if he is a “Never Trumper,” he said “I’m a ‘never partisan.’” He concluded his appearance by saying:

“This is America…here, right matters.” 

Yet according to Reuters,  the Army is prepared to protect him and his family, possibly by moving them to an Army base, if necessary.

The final witness on Thursday was Fiona Hill. Like Vindman, Hill is a proud immigrant (from England, where she was the daughter of a coal miner). Like him, she stressed how grateful she is to be a US citizen and to have been able to serve this country she loves. 

After graduating from college in Scotland, Hill received a PhD in Russian history from Harvard. She coauthored a book titled Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, published in 2013, which has been called the most useful book about Putin for policymakers.

She’s worked in the Brookings Institution, as the senior expert on Russia and Asia at an internal think tank for US intelligence agencies, and—since 2017, as the senior director for European and Russian affairs at the NSC—first as a deputy to H.R. McMaster, and then to John Bolton.

In other words, her expertise and nonpartisanship are unassailable.  She even said she understood that President Trump had been offended by some things written about him in the Ukrainian press prior to his election. But she pulled no punches. Here’s her opening statement:

“Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did.

“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.”

“President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a super pac. They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives.

“When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each other, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.” 

She reaffirmed the warning about Russian intervention in our elections that Robert Mueller had delivered during his testimony to Congress, in July, adding her own warning about those whom another The New Yorker  article called “the useful idiots inside the United States who, deliberately or not, serve to further Russia’s goals.” 

“Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”

Her words evoked self-righteous indignation from some Republican committee members who had been doing just that, including Devin Nunes, the ranking member, who stated that falsity in his opening remarks.

Others then rushed to affirm how concerned they’ve been about Russian intervention (though not enough to tell their President that he should stop denying what the entire intelligence community had found indisputable).

The most incriminating part of her testimony came when she responded to the Republican staff counsel’s questioning about her dispute with Gordon Sondland, who’d been appointed ambassador to the European Union after donating $1 million to the Trump inaugural committee.

She said she had become “testy” with Sondland because he wasn’t coordinating with the other agencies involved.

While other witnesses had said there were two channels operating in Ukraine—one traditional, the other “irregular,” led by Rudy Giuliani (who has ongoing financial interests in Ukraine that are barely being discussed) and designed to get Ukraine to do President Trump’s bidding—Sondland had said there was only one channel: he reported to President Trump and worked with the others who were following the President’s orders.

He had added that Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo, and Chief of Staff Mulvaney were all involved. 

After watching Sondland’s testimony, Hill said that Sondland “was absolutely right because he was being involved in a domestic political errand and we were being involved in national-security foreign policy, and those two things had just diverged.”

She added:

“And I did say to him, ‘Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is also going to blow up.’ And here we are.”

 

And here’s why I’m frightened…

Just one day after Robert Mueller’s unfortunately lackluster Congressional testimony, which was far more condemnatory to Trump than the public understood—in part due to the phony spin that Attorney General Barr had put on the findings—the President had that “Do us a favor, though” phone call.

We now have incontrovertible evidence that President Trump withheld both a sought-after White House meeting and much-needed security aid that Congress had approved in order to get the President of Ukraine to open an investigation into Joe Biden and the alleged Ukrainian—not Russian—involvement in our 2016 election.

In other words, this President feels he’s above the law. Yet Republican legislators continue to follow him, to lie for him, to fail miserably in upholding the oaths they took when they were sworn into office.

And what will public reaction be to all this? Who cares about Ukraine? Who cares about foreign intervention in our elections? Who cares that the President of the United States invariably sides with Russia and Putin against US interests?

A recent poll showed independents becoming less supportive of impeachment and more approving of the President. Why?

Have we reached such a hyperpartisan state that Americans don’t care that our President is not only corrupt, but is willing to enlist foreign countries to ensure his reelection—our national security and the US Constitution be damned?

Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for The New York Times, wrote that he hadn’t initially been in favor of impeachment.

But the hearings convinced him that President Trump must be impeached and removed from office because “his highest crime isn’t what he tried to do to, or with, Ukraine. It’s that he’s attempting to turn the United States into Ukraine.” 

He cited several “themes” to illustrate his premise. For more specifics on the comparisons, his column is here.

*”The criminalization of political differences.” (“Lock her up!”)

*”The use of political office as a shield against criminal prosecution and as a vehicle for personal and familial enrichment”

*”The netherworldization of political life, in which conspiracy theories abound, off-stage figures yield outsized influence, and channels of formal authority are disconnected from the real centers of power; [and] the person who is both the principal consumer and purveyor of those falsehoods is the president of the United States…even now, this should astound us.”

*”Covert Russian interference, usually facilitated by local actors.”

Stephens concluded:

“It’s to the immense credit of ordinary Ukrainians that, in fighting Russian aggression in the field and fighting for better governance in Kyiv, they have shown themselves worthy of the world’s support. 

“And it’s to the enduring shame of the Republican Party that they have been willing to debase our political standards to the old Ukrainian level just when Ukrainians are trying to rise to our former level.”

“The only way to stop this is to make every effort to remove Trump from office. It shouldn’t have to wait a year.”

Are we up to this effort? Or are we seeing the end of democracy and the rule of law in the United States of America?

Annie

And Now a Word From Our…

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Courtesy of BlueDiamondGallery.com

Sponsor? I have no sponsor, and my accountant says that’s a problem because it also means I have no blogging income. Thus, after a year of blogging and accurately filling out the appropriate Schedule C form itemizing the costs I incur in this endeavor, I am in serious danger of slipping to the wrong side of the law.

According to my accountant, I will no longer be able to take those vast deductions, which could possibly reach all the way into the stratosphere of triple digits. 

I find it offensive to tell the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that I’m retired; it’s also not true. So I am seeking suggestions and guidance from my virtual friends in the blogging community who do monetize your blogs—or from anyone else with good, non-larcenous ideas. How do I make some money from this effort and allay my CPA’s concerns? 

It needn’t be a fortune, obviously. I love what I’m doing and will continue even if I don’t resolve this dilemma.

Blogging provides the ideal format for fulfilling my strong writer’s itch. As I’ve noted before, I am one happy blogger. But it would be quite nice to be able to cover my costs and then have a bit more to add to the retirement nutshell.

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I certainly do not intend to deny the IRS folks any monies due to the government. Still, my accountant is a straight arrow, a cautious soul, and she wants to make sure that if we’re audited, everything is copacetic. Apparently, she sees Annie’s Schedule C as a red flag. 

I’m not sure why she thinks the IRS would zero in on me, as they are no longer auditing billionaires—or nearly anyone else (except, of course, the President, which is the reason he can’t possibly show us his tax returns, even though the entire accounting world has said that’s a bogus excuse). Anyway, this post isn’t about income inequality, which I’ve addressed before and will again.

I find this IRS concern a bit annoying. I am a bona fide blogger with the statistics to prove it. I spend a good deal of time on my posts. I do a fair amount of research, and I like to print out articles so I can underline the points I want to include.

And the toner—wow, my printer eats through that stuff as if it were cotton candy. (Bad simile: cotton candy is definitely not something one wants anywhere near a printer!) 

And then there are the WordPress and domain fees, the fee for the relatively new special address that I use as my contact email but have been afraid to switch to elsewhere for fear of generating a techie snafu that would lose you all, and the occasional book I buy to further my research. 

Here’s where I need your help. I’ve read a number of articles about monetizing blogs, and the most prevalent way appears to be via WordPress AdWords. It seems that’s what many of the bloggers whose sites I frequent use. 

As I see it, one problem is that once you sign on with them, you are at the mercy of the bidders who buy their space.

Most of the time that wouldn’t be a problem for me; I wouldn’t mind a single discreet ad following the statement: “This post is ad-supported.” I’m not bothered by ads for Motley Fool, Wayfair, or AARP, which have all proliferated from time to time. 

But for a while, there was a gastroenterologist whose photo of a piece of intestine, cilia upright, was everywhere, and I found that picture odious.

Oops: I just got some key and slightly creepy information from a very smart techie relative who knows about such things.

Apparently, the ads you and I see are different: these ads are targeted to what the advertisers know about us.

So those of you who have never searched for anything gastro-related have probably been spared the intestinal cilia ads that inundated me for weeks.

Sometimes there are several ads breaking up the text; I would prefer that not be the case with my pearly prose.

If you use AdWords, what do you think? I’m not asking for your finances, of course–simply whether based on your experience, would you recommend this method to me?

Or do any of you use other approaches? I’ve rejected ideas that will require me to seek money from my readers; why would you want to pay for stuff you’ve been getting for free? (If I ever collect my posts into a volume or two, I may reexamine that conclusion.)

I eagerly await your responses. The end of the year approaches, as I have been procrastinating about this matter for months.

It seems appropriate (I’m not sure why) to end my request with a haiku:

Incandescent goal
Blogging fuels both head and heart
Bureaucracy bites

Annie

PLEASE NOTE: I had a tech snafu that whisked away my Comments box. It’s now back, so I hope if you’re revisiting, you’ll respond to my query–or say anything else you care to about this post. Thanks–and sorry for the inconvenience.