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“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

The Mindfulness Community Enters the Political Fray!

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I’ve long been aware that the mindfulness community is devoted not only to helping individuals find inner peace, but also to creating a more peaceful world. But I was pleasantly surprised this week when I received the letter below from one of my favorite mindfulness guides, Tara Brach (whose letter was more nicely formatted than what you see here).

Brach describes her role, as part of a group of Buddhist mindfulness leaders, in an interdenominational effort, Faith in Action. Its vital mission is to get out the vote on Election Day, November 6, in order to vastly expand the electorate.

Faith in Action provides a four-step plan: 1) Register (and help others do so) in September; 2) Activate (in October); 3) Engage; and 4) Vote by November 6, 2018. Details and resources are found in this link: Mindful Vote 2018.

And while Faith in Action consists of various religious groups, it also refers people to the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote. And I’m sure that this inclusive coalition would be equally welcoming to atheists and agnostics as well—to everyone who believes that our nation can and must follow a kinder, more humane path in the treatment of its own citizens and people throughout the world.

Tara Brach’s Letter:

Dear Friends,

The November elections are coming soon and there has never been a more important time to make our voices heard.

Recently, I joined nearly 130 Buddhist teachers and leaders in supporting Faith in Action’s Mindful Vote 2018 initiative to ensure that all who are eligible are able to cast their vote.

Now we need your help. Please take a few moments to read the letter below and consider participating in Mindful Vote 2018.

I hope you’ll feel inspired to join us in actively empowering the voice of our larger community!

With prayers for peace, justice and healing in our world,
Tara

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NOTE FROM ANNIE: The link below will take you to the letter to the Buddhist community, which contains the names of all the signators. (It had been part of Tara Brach’s message, but I am including the link here for easy downloading and sharing.)

https://www.mindful-vote.com/letter-to-the-buddhist-community

Please click on the links in this post to see if there’s any action you’re able to take (in addition to voting on November 6, of course!) and share this information as widely as you can!

Annie

Practicing Optimism in a Crappy World

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After my last couple of posts, several people said they appreciate my optimism—a trait that is clearly in short supply these days. As I don’t think I’m either ostrich or Pollyanna, and I’ve done plenty of ranting and yelling at the images on the TV news and on my often too-smart-by-half phone, I’ve been exploring the source of the hopefulness that I’ve been conveying to you.

I think that the mindfulness meditation I’ve been practicing for more than a year now has finally reached fruition, and I’d like to share some of my discoveries and resources.

I’ve been meditating with help from various gurus offering guided imagery through CDs and phone downloads for quite some time, and last Fall I took an 8-week course on Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. I took the course near my home; it’s available in many areas and involves walking, sitting, and standing meditations, gentle yoga, body scans—with your mind, not technology—and the like.

Kabat-Zinn also coined the term “mindfulness,” which stems from early Buddhism, calling it “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.

Kabat-Zinn’s program has actually been associated with positive changes in the brain: an article in Psychiatric Res (2011 Jan 30;191(1):36-43, which for some reason won’t hyperlink) noted “changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective-taking.”

Who wouldn’t want that?  But for the longest time, though I was a diligent student and meditated daily, I felt I wasn’t getting the full benefit. I was “stuck,” allowing the same dopey stories—sometimes annoying, sometimes worrisome—to race around in my brain. And my “inner critic” wouldn’t let me get away for a minute with that non-judgmental stuff Kabat-Zinn talks about. What’s so hard about this? I’d berate myself. I’ve been doing it forever. Why can’t I master it?

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Sharon Salzberg, a well-known and beloved teacher and a founder of the highly acclaimed Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Salzberg suggests dealing with the inner critic by giving it a name or persona.

Hers is Lucy, the Peanuts character who told Charlie Brown: “The problem with you is that you’re you.” When she has negative feelings about herself, she acknowledges them by thinking, “Hi, Lucy,” or “Chill it, Lucy,” in a friendly manner.

I’ve adopted my own Lucy, and finally, finally, I realize I’m spending more time living in the moment. Granted, there are some pretty scary moments all around us these days, but once you don’t dwell on them and continue to replay them, they lose their heft.

The whole point, which I’ve known for some time but only just become able to internalize, is that if you accept these feelings, thoughts, and fears and don’t fight them, knowing they’re transitory, they pass fairly quickly. You simply move on.

I am bolstered by imagery like that of the man standing outside his house, burdened by two heavy suitcases. One contains “regrets”; the other holds “worries.” First he drops one; then the other. His step is considerably lighter as he walks away.

I am also bolstered by the oft-repeated quotation attributed to Mark Twain: “I’ve lived a long and difficult life filled with so many misfortunes—most of which never happened.”

Tara Brach, one of my favorite mindfulness gurus, encourages smiling. In one of her talks, she says, “Smiling affects areas of the brain associated with happiness; it can’t cause happiness, but it can tip you in that direction.” If you want to try it, begin by sensing a smile around your eyes, then your mouth, your heart, and then sense and feel that smile throughout your body.

I find Brach’s talks so helpful that I listen to them repeatedly. One of them, “Meditation: The Radical Acceptance of Pain,” has on occasion freed me from a migraine headache without medication. The talk is less than 12 minutes long, and I recommend that anyone suffering from pain locate it via Google and listen to it—maybe even twice. There’s nothing like relieving one’s pain to open a path to optimism.

Mindfulness recently got a nod from Bill Gates in The New York Times Book Review (September 9). Reviewing the new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Gates says the author insists “that life in the 21st century demands mindfulness—getting to know ourselves better and seeing how we contribute to the suffering in our own lives.”

Acknowledging that this idea is “easy to mock,” Gates writes: “As someone who’s taking a course on mindfulness and meditation, I found it compelling.”

Though mindfulness is helpful to the individual, its proponents see its widespread practice as beneficial to the larger society. Emphasis is placed on the concept of lovingkindness. As Salzberg has said: “Lovingkindness and compassion are the opposites of fear.”

Another favorite guru, Jack Kornfield, speaks of the importance of equanimity, “the ability to meet all experience with a balanced mind.” Acknowledging that sometimes situations demand a strong response, he asserts that even such a response can be done with equanimity.

Equanimity arises from “living with a deep understanding of the passing of all things,” and leads to a peaceful heart. “With a peaceful heart, you can see clearly and respond wisely.”

The best leaders, he says, “combine strength and wisdom with a steady and peaceful heart.”  And so I say, optimistically: If enough of us follow this path–and if we elect leaders who meet that definition–perhaps we can make the world a little less crappy.

It’s been quite a journey for me to reach this point, and I’ll readily acknowledge there are times when reality’s bite makes me feel optimism is kind of nutty. But then I breathe, smile, and the shadow passes. We really don’t have to live in anger and fear.

Perhaps you’ll join me? Have you tried mindfulness? Are you tempted? As always, I’m eager for your thoughts. And even if you don’t care to comment, if you like this or any of my other posts, please feel free to share and/or click on “like.”

I’ll close by echoing Kornfield’s message: May you–may we all–live with a peaceful heart.

Annie

Here’s Why I’ve No Intention of Discussing the Elephant in Our National Room

I am a bit of a political junkie, closely following daily developments about national events—except when I force myself to take mental health breaks and turn to Frank Sinatra’s soothing voice on my car radio and to mindless diversions on my TV.

And I’m not alone in my periodic escapism: I’ve learned that therapists are increasingly advocating such breaks for their clients and that some mental health professionals are, in fact, keeping their own news consumption to a minimum, feeling that they are otherwise hindered in caring for their overwhelmed patients. 

This week, The New York Times carried an article titled “In a Divided Era, Political Anger Is All Each Side Has in Common.” The title is self-explanatory; the article goes on to discuss relationships among friends, spouses, and siblings that have been severely damaged or even broken because of vehement feelings either for or against President Trump. As a follow-up, the Times is asking readers to describe their personal situations and relate any lessons they may have learned.

I think the Times was woefully shortsighted in focusing on these sad divisions because: a) this is not a new story; and b) it fails to take into account the quest for commonality that I believe was evidenced in the APA poll on anxiety and the success of the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which I discussed in my previous post: “Mister Rogers: Where Are You When We Need You?”

Perhaps the Times’ summary of its readers’ reports about what they’ve learned from their tattered relationships will contain some lessons that are broadly applicable. If so, I hope the Times will follow up with stories that demonstrate Americans’ longing to move beyond this internecine warfare.

Despite my own strong political views, I have not, from the outset, intended this blog to be strictly political. So much stuff is readily available that I see no need to repeat what’s often appearing elsewhere—unless I (or we) can somehow come up with a different perspective.

And that’s what I’m hoping you’ll help me with now.

Can our discussion move us forward—with a focus on looking for new (emphasis on the new) ideas and/or examples of how we, as a nation, get through our current morass with our democracy intact? I am eager to hear your thoughts in this regard.

I think it’s worth repeating writer Todd VanDerWerff’s words in Vox, which I quoted in the Mister Rogers post: “Rogers understood that on some level all any of us wants is to know that we’re okay. And because he was so good at seeming to believe everybody was, indeed, okay, he could connect with our need for empathy and hope.”

I believe those political leaders aspiring to office—on any level—who can convincingly convey that message will be welcomed by Americans of varying political views. Do you agree? Do you see such leaders on the horizon—either the “usual suspects” or those outside of the Beltway and possibly not even talked about much? If so, please share your thoughts with us, including what qualities you think this person would bring to healing our national divide.  Please don’t confine your thinking solely to potential presidential candidates.

In addition, exciting things seem to be happening politically outside of Washington. My thoughts have once again turned to Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person to become a state legislator, who won her seat in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2017 by firing up her potential constituents with a promise to improve the traffic congestion on Route 28 in Fairfax County. (!) This year, there are many interesting people running for local and state offices throughout the country.

If you have stories to tell about wellsprings of democracy and compelling candidates in your areas, please do forward them. And please also tell me how you feel about my position of keeping the elephant in our national room off limits in this forum.

Annie

Mister Rogers: Where Are You When We Need You?

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I see a direct line between two recent bits of news. Here’s the first: “America Really Is in the Midst of a Rising Anxiety Epidemic,” headlines a Science Alert published in May. Reporting on the findings of an American Psychiatric Association (APA) Public Opinion Poll, the author writes: “If you’re feeling stressed, uncertain about what the future holds, or even physically unsafe, try not to panic—you’re definitely not alone.” https://www.sciencealert.com/americans-are-in-the-midst-of-an-anxiety-epidemic-stress-increase. Anxiety about health, safety, and personal finances topped the list of those responding to the APA poll—with percentages in the high 60s for each—while 56% cited the impact of politics on their daily lives. Nearly 40% said they felt more anxious now than they did in 2017. https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/apa-public-opinion-poll-annual-meeting-2018.

And here’s the second: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the lovely, gentle film about Fred Rogers, a soft-spoken Presbyterian minister whose Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood series on PBS uplifted and reassured a generation of children and their parents, has raked in more than $20 million since its June 8 opening. That figure makes it the highest grossing biographical documentary—and one of the top 15 nonfiction films—of all time. PBS plans to show it early next year.

In addition, Tom Hanks (who else?) will star in a film titled You Are My Friend, reportedly based on a real-life friendship between Fred Rogers and a tough-minded journalist who, obligated to do a profile of Mister Rogers, found the experience transformative. The extraordinary profile by Tom Junod appeared in Esquire in 1998 and was reprinted last year. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/

I’m not suggesting that Mister Rogers, even in his persona as the benevolent despot King Friday, could perform miracles in these troubled times, serving as a balm for all that ails us. One of the most difficult parts of the film for me was the noisy picketing of his memorial service by anti-gay activists enraged by his tolerance of gay people. And he clearly suffered a sense of inadequacy in trying to explain events such as 9/11 and Bobby Kennedy’s assassination to his young viewers.

But I wonder how he would deal with some of the sources of Americans’ anxiety today. One finding of the APA poll was that 36% of respondents are “extremely anxious” about “keeping myself or my family safe.” Of great interest to me is that when all participants in the poll were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Gun violence, including violence from mass shootings, is a public health threat,” 87% either strongly or somewhat agreed. Similarly, 85% strongly or somewhat agreed that “Congress should do more to address the issue of gun violence, including violence from mass shootings.”

How would Mister Rogers talk to children about school shootings? I’m sure he would have found a way, perhaps including his oft-quoted guidance: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” (In the Esquire profile, Junod does describe Mister Rogers’ reactions following a school shooting in West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997, pre-Columbine, when such a horror was an isolated case.)

And would he have felt compelled to take a public position on the matter? Thinking of the extraordinary moment when, through the force of his quiet personality, he persuaded a skeptical Senator John Pastore of Rhode Island to agree to a $20 million grant to fund public television, I wonder how Mister Rogers might have been received if he’d requested permission to testify before Congress about ways to prevent gun violence.

Would he have been permitted to testify? Would his words have broken through the partisan divide and moved legislators to action? So much of his testimony before Pastore’s Senate subcommittee resonates today that it’s worth viewing and re-viewing. This is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fKy7ljRr0AA.

Here’s where I see the two items I began with converging. It’s true the APA survey was just one poll, a representative sample of 1004 US adults, but 33% identified themselves as either Republican or leans Republican, 41% as Democrat or leans Democrat, and 23% as Independents.

Numerous other sources also attest to both our nation’s heightening anxiety and broad public interest in government’s role in combatting gun violence. So in our highly polarized society, I derive some comfort from seeing that in at least some circumstances, we Americans have more in common than we tend to believe is the case.

That brings me to the remarkable success of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I’m not sure if there’s any way to find out the demographics of those who are flocking to see it, but I do know that its director, Morgan Neville, has been traveling around the world in an effort to discern why his film has affected people so deeply, “and it’s not just the usual liberal arthouse crowd,” writes Anne Thompson in IndieWire. https://indiewire.com/2018/07/wont-you-be-my-neighbor-documentary-fred-rogers-morgan-neville-oscars-1201978654/.

Neville told Thompson that he was prompted to make the film about Mister Rogers when he thought about his childhood and wondered “Where are the grownups in our culture? He was the consummate voice I’d been craving…He was empathetic, he was looking out for our long-term well-being. It was more: ‘How can we have a cultural conversation with his voice in it?’ It was not about the man, but about his ideas.”

When the APA President, Anita Everett, MD, presented her organization’s findings about our anxious nation, she said the poll “highlights the need to help reduce the effects of stress with regular exercise, relaxation, healthy eating, and time with family and friends.” I’m sure that’s sound guidance, but I also think it’s incomplete.

And what’s missing is what makes me feel encouraged by the responses to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and the APA poll’s questions about gun violence. They both show what seems to have been misplaced these days and, I believe, we would do well to emphasize: the commonality of our needs as human beings.

I say this while readily acknowledging that there are, and always have been, some among us who are beyond the reach of this concept. But I believe their voices have been amplified beyond their numbers.

“Rogers understood that on some level all any of us wants is to know that we’re okay,” writes Todd VanDerWerff in “9 times Mister Rogers said exactly the right thing,” published in Vox. “And because he was so good at seeming to believe everybody was, indeed, okay, he could connect with our need for empathy and hope.” https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/23/15681060/mr-rogers-quotes-mister-rogers.

In the IndieWire interview, Morgan Neville says: “I wanted to make a film to remind people about the value of radical kindness…It’s this idea that kindness is not a naive notion like believing in unicorns and rainbows or something. It’s like oxygen: it is vital, and needs to be nurtured.”

Mister Rogers has shown us the way. Without him, I believe, while it’s fine to search for the new “grownups in our culture,” I can imagine Mister Rogers handing out lots and lots of mirrors, so that we can accept, and act upon, the knowledge that the responsibility falls on each of us.

Your thoughts?

Annie

Backstage in My Blog World: An Explanation and an Apology

The title of this post might also be “Blogging While Aging Ain’t for Sissies!” It is directed at those of you who—with astonishing alacrity—sped to my site last evening immediately after receiving the WordPress email announcing the publication of “Should We Get Smarter With Our Smartphones?” and found…nothing—no content. I don’t know who you are, but I know there were many viewers (I’ll tell you how I know shortly), and I regret any annoyance or frustration you may have experienced. So I thought I’d tell you what happened—and what I was doing while you were gazing at the blog equivalence of radio silence.

As I may have/probably have mentioned before, I am not a techie. I knew I was venturing well beyond my comfort zone when my older daughter, who works for a tech firm and has been encouraging me to start a blog for some time, suggested I begin by buying the book Blogging for Dummies. Some may have taken it as a portent that I found that book nearly completely incomprehensible. But I was determined to see this project through—somehow.

So my venture into the blogosphere is taking some effort. I’m not whining here; nor am I suggesting the effort isn’t worthwhile. I’m committed to building a blogging community because a) I love to write; b) The New York Times doesn’t seem to think all the letters I send them are fit to print; c) there are so many issues that I want to learn more about, and this format allows me to delve into them and share what I’ve learned; and d) most importantly, I am deeply committed to the idea that dialogue undertaken with respect for opposing views is an essential component to our democratic process—and its rarity is one of the many serious problems we now face as a nation.

Little by little, the blog has come together—largely with the help of the WordPress “Happiness Engineers,” a group of people who come to my assistance with considerable knowledge and extraordinary patience whenever I’m stuck. I’ll subsequently refer to them as the HEs, which you should regard as a gender-neutral term. They do so via online chats, so if they’re rolling their eyes, I have no way of knowing. But they are invariably polite, and at the end of each of our sessions together, when I’m imagining they’re about to say, “Enough already! Figure it out yourself, dammit!,” they actually say, “Come back and visit any time. We’re here to help!”

Last night was supposed to be a “big reveal” for my developing blog. I’d pulled together a home page using copyright-free images (I really wanted the Dialogue image to picture Dorothy Parker and friends at their Algonquin Hotel roundtable, but that would have been too costly.) This page is still a work in progress, as limitations in the software’s flexibility require some workarounds that I haven’t yet mastered, but I felt it was ready for viewing. I planned to release it in conjunction with the Smartphone posting, which I expect to arouse some controversy but I believe is worth the effort. I pressed “Publish” on my computer and went to my phone to check, and found: no home page, no updated menu, and no Smartphone content. We were just about to sit down to dinner…

So my spouse-who-sometimes-borders-on-saintliness brought the salmon, sweet potato, and salad he’d prepared up the stairs to my desk, while I explained to the HE of the evening what had happened. At the same time, I was watching the metrics of my blog that WordPress provides: a graph showing the number of viewers and the number of views that occur each day. And damn, those numbers were soaring! It was simultaneously lovely to see so much interest—and mortifying to think what the viewers were seeing—rather, not seeing.

The mindfulness relaxation breathing that has become a part of my life wafted away from me, and in its absence I scrunched my shoulders as I tried to follow the HE’s instructions. Even worse, the process of filling my hungry stomach by means of using a fork became too distracting, and I began using my fingers to shovel the food into my mouth between the stages of our chat. Worse still, without a napkin to remove the food from my fingers, I—a normally fastidious person—wiped my sticky fingers on my pants. I remember thinking, fleetingly, “Oh well, I wore these to the gym today anyway.”

Pondering this totally out of character behavior later, I envisioned a clash between my reptilian brain (the part that governs fight/flight/freeze, as well as hunger) and my prefrontal cortex (the part that governs complex thinking and behavior). Last night, the ole lizard ran rampant across my computer.

But step-by-step, the HE led me out of the morass. I’m not sure why, but I had to create a page called BLOG to enable my home page to link to the blogs. OK, Done. But what had happened to the content?

“Annie,” the HE wrote, “you had two files with the same name: one had the text; the other didn’t. You chose the wrong one.” I then deleted the empty file from the menu, clicked on the appropriate choice, clicked on “Publish,” and sighed with relief to see on my phone that the intact version was now available, home page and all. I cleaned off the sticky dinner residue from my keyboard and desk, and so ended this saga.

So, once again, I apologize. I hope that those of you who were frustrated by the nothingness on my blog last night will return at your convenience to read “Should We Get Smarter With Our Smartphones?” And I really, really hope you’ll let me know your thoughts. I’ve added the following words to my profile, which appears in “Published by annieasksyou”: “These postings depend for their enrichment on your participation: your ideas, insights, knowledge, opinions, and personal stories.” I’ll spare you the Tinkerbell analogy, but I am so very eager for this blog to be characterized by meaningful dialogue.

Cheers!

Annie

Should We Get Smarter With Our Smartphones?

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If you’re like me, you’ve come to regard your smartphone as an appendage. My favorite use of my phone is to replace my memory lapses with instant gratification: Who’s the guy who appears with Steve Coogan in those British “trip” movies—the one who created a tiny voice-in-his-throat “man in the box” that sounds like a ventriloquist who’s swallowed his dummy? Google, google: Rob Brydon. Voila! (If you’ve never seen him, I recommend his offbeat humor and his movies with Coogan.) But I’m veering off-topic.

Because I tend to catastrophize, I occasionally worry what all that zapping with radio frequency radiation is doing to my body—and specifically my head. So I took notice in December when the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) issued guidelines on “How to Reduce Exposure to Radio Frequency Energy from Cell Phones.” (Note: there is a link, but it doesn’t seem to work. However, If you Google the title, the article comes right up.)

To be sure, this issue has been around for years, and there’s certainly no consensus among scientists that cellphone use is dangerous, as the CDPH acknowledges. However, a press release on the topic quoted Dr. Karen Smith, the CDPH Director: “Although the science is still evolving, there are concerns among some public health professionals and members of the public regarding long-term, high use exposure to the energy emitted by cell phones.” (Here, too, the link didn’t work. But the press release is titled “CDPH Issues Guidelines on How to Reduce Exposure to Radio Frequency Energy from Cell Phones.” On cdph.ca.gov, it’s dated December 13, 2017.)

If there is a risk, no matter how small, it could affect many people. Roughly 95% of Americans own a cellphone today, and 12% (myself included) use their smartphones daily to access the Internet.

The greatest concern involves children, many of whom start using smartphones by the age of 10 and keep them with them all day long. “Children’s brains develop through the teenage years and may be more affected by cell phone use,” according to Dr. Smith, who encourages parents to consider limits on their kids’ cellphone use and definitely turning them off at night. Continue reading “Should We Get Smarter With Our Smartphones?”

About Cats, Dogs, and Preconceived Notions

 

 

 

Thirteen years ago, a tiny white kitten slipped through our backyard fence and adopted Vick, our male collie/shepherd mix, as his “mom.” He’d trot after Vick wherever the dog went, struggling to keep up with him, and nuzzling him whenever possible. Vick, whose gentle nature belied his large size, was gracious and accepting of this feline interloper.

When torrential rains came, we moved the kitten into our garage while we pondered what to do with him. Keeping him was out of the question: we were unabashed dog lovers, but cats were different. I could tolerate them (and who can resist a kitten?), but my husband was emphatic: “I hate cats,” he said.

That was then. Now, having recently euthanized our beloved, very large cat, who’d become extremely ill and deteriorated quickly from a lymphoma, we are both slowly adjusting to his absence and to the void that absence created. But Monty has also left us with some fresh insights about reexamining preconceived notions, exploring the potential for human/animal communication, and opening our hearts and accepting a new source of wonder.

We had arranged for our dog walker, a veterinary assistant, to find a home for the kitten—if we promised to take him to the vet for his shots. We agreed. The tide changed one evening when we were out to dinner with friends who had two cats. They knew I’d been lobbying for another dog. We had our “main dog,” but I also wanted what the humorist Dave Barry has called “a small, emergency backup dog.” Our friends said, “Why don’t you just keep the kitten? Cats are great.” I assume the idea had been floating in my husband’s mind, because he turned to me and asked, “What’ll we name him?”

We named him “Monty,” after Monty Woolley, an actor who had played the title role in the play “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” Woolley’s character arrived, and stayed, and stayed. So did our Monty.IMG_0674

Fortunately for us, and perhaps because of Vick’s influence, he was a rather doglike cat—sweet, gentle, and affectionate, happy and purring, and in the years before Vick died at age 16-1/2, perfectly content to roll around and wrestle with his 80-pound companion. He was a well-adjusted indoor cat that seemed to lack any predatory instincts: on the few occasions a field mouse scampered across our kitchen floor, he remained uninterested.

And he became my cat-hating spouse’s cat: An early riser, he fed him, and it was he who cut Monty’s nails, stroking him gently between clips as he said, beaming, “I hate cats; I hate cats.” From my bed in the early morning, I could hear them having what sounded like conversations. Monty didn’t just “meow’: he vocalized, and he had a lot to say—often. Unlike with the companion animals that preceded him, Monty and we just seemed to understand each others’ vocalizations on a whole other level.

His ashes are now buried in our backyard, next to those of his buddy Vick. Though we miss our daily conversations with Monty and thought we’d have many more years together, we are grateful for the happy accident that led him, thirteen years ago, to wriggle his tiny body through our fence and awaken in us both a new capacity to love.

Note: I wrote this piece at the close of a course I’d taken in mindfulness: our final assignment was to bring in something we found meaningful. When several of my fellow participants came up to me afterward and said, “My husband also says he’d never have a cat in the house,” I began to wonder how widespread this sentiment is—and whether it’s gender-related. Many people love both cats and dogs, but other animal lovers choose sides, sometimes zealously, and perhaps stereotyping people whose animal choice differs from their own.

Our experience with Monty also led me to wonder whether it might be a little parable about how willing we are to challenge ourselves more broadly—not only about cats, dogs, and other animals, but also about the people we meet. In these woefully polarized times, can we/will we/do we ever reexamine our preconceived notions based on race, religion, gender and sexual orientation, and the very sticky, difficult issue of political attitudes? If so, how do we do that? Your thoughts? Examples? Please leave a reply below. Note: If the “Leave a Reply” box isn’t visible, click on the title of the posting above (“About Cats, Dogs, and Preconceived Notions”), and it will appear–all the way down, below the previously posted comments.

And if you’d like to share stories about your own companion animals–their distinct natures and/or your bond with them–I’d love to hear those as well.

ADDENDUM: Since posting this blog a little over a week ago, I have set to work designing a Home page. (I’ve no idea how long it will take my non-techie self to pull that together.) As I went through Google images seeking appropriate selections, I noticed two very familiar photos: Vick and Monty, just as you see them above, have been reincarnated in the vast universe of cyberspace.

How did they get there? At first I thought it was done by WordPress, but I learned that the photos had, in fact, been swept up by Googlebot, which is using the Google search engine to index my site, with its images, and make it searchable for others. If I didn’t want the photos on Google images, I could either remove them from my blog or bar Google from my site. Neither option appealed to me, so Vick and Monty remain available to anyone who cares to adopt them photographically.

As I love the photos and our memories of our boys, I am actually quite pleased with this turn of events–and amused that while I’m slowly building a community with my blog, Vick and Monty probably now have a fan base in the thousands.