Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The agony of America's guns

Like many of those reading this post, I am very opposed to the current lax regulation of guns, though I come to my gun opposition from a somewhat different route than most of the people I know.  Because my father was afflicted with a number of problems, including the problem of considering himself a "country boy" despite living well within the limits of a major midwestern city, we had quite a few guns in our home.  At the age of 12 I already owned a bb gun, a 22-caliber rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun.  My father, meanwhile, owned a rifle, a shotgun and a pistol along with other weapons I'm forgetting now.  The stock of my father's shotgun was made of a special kind of wood -- tiger tail maple -- that he sought out and fetishized.  My father would clean his guns while watching television... somehow he found this relaxing.  He would take me skeet shooting -- a ridiculous waste of time -- and my performance at shooting skeet was so miserable that my father was (yet again) profoundly embarrassed by me.

Despite my ineptitude at the absurd practice of skeet shooting, I liked guns well enough as a youngster.  After my early triumphs blowing up ant nests with fire crackers and "mating" angry bees with docile slugs, I graduated to shooting pigeons and squirrels in our densely populated neighborhood.  The people living behind us once had their dinner interrupted by several of my shots going through their windows, and the spinster living in the mock Tudor house beside ours once ran hysterically out of her screened porch to stop me from finishing off a pigeon that had fallen into her yard.  I was simply amazed at how many bb shots a pigeon could take to its head without dying.  Not many years before, that same spinster had told me out of the blue that I had beautiful eyes... a compliment that left my young mind aghast with confusion.  What did she think of my eyes as I used them to aim pellet after pellet into the head of that dazed, harmless pigeon she was defending?

Fast forward to the present and my intense loathing for guns.  I would never own a gun, and cannot imagine what goes through the minds of gun advocates on an emotional level to defend gun ownership so fanatically.  My father died many years ago at a comparatively young age, leaving me quite free to develop my loathing of guns and my appetite for so many things he would have disdained or hated.  Where in the world are my father's beloved guns, and where are my own weapons, today?  As for my mother, she does not even recall the plethora of guns we had in our home in the good old days and dared to suggest in a recent conversation that more guns rather than fewer of them might solve our problems in this country.  When my mother said that I knew that she really has given her mind and identity over completely to the conservative media that provides her with the "news" and entertainment she prefers to imbibe.  Like the spinster's intimate compliment so long ago, my mother's state of mind -- her political values and viewpoints -- leave me aghast with confusion.

I believe our country's problem with guns is largely a by product of a toxic culture that promotes passivity, worships overconsumption, adores violence and encourages paranoia together with a host of other pathologies.  The bizarrely tenacious historical legacy of the United States as a "frontier nation" and, worse, as a "Christian nation" provides one emotional underpinning to our country's love of weapons and violence.  The other emotional foundation of our gun culture is an amalgam of primitive ideas, such as the idea that a man with a gun is somehow more of a man... or the idea that "individual rights and individual responsibility" trump our collective responsibility to one another.  I believe our country is sick and guns, more than anything else, are a symptom of that sickness.

And yet, as unshakable as the gun culture seems to be, there is something even more powerful and that is our money culture.  Money culture is the true root of all our problems, but once in a while the golden worm turns ever so slightly and today (18 December 2012) that worm actually turned:  private equity giant Cerberus Capital will sell its huge gun subsidiary, "Freedom Group," which takes in over $1 billion a year marketing exactly the type of weapon used to kill 26 people in Sandy Hook, CT.  Freedom Group...don't you just love how people who make and do vile things give those things a superficially pretty name?

Cerberus, which eagerly assembled a variety of gun and ammunition makers to create "Freedom Group," is only taking this action because a large public pension fund, the California State Teachers Retirement System, said it would be reviewing its investment in Cerberus given the prominence of lethal weaponry in Cerberus's investment portfolio.  So here's the point... if you participate as the beneficiary of a large pension fund then you can insist that your pension fund divest its stake in all weapons manufacturers.  Divesting large sums of money out of weapons manufacturers is far and away the quickest route to taming gun violence in the USA because Americans love money even more than they love guns.

If owning gun companies were to become radioactive to investment companies, then the value of gun companies would plummet, depriving them of capital and of legitimacy.  That, in turn, would hurt the gun merchants quite a lot.  Of course, this would be the financial equivalent of pumping pellets into the head of a wounded pigeon in that it will take quite a few of those financial "pellets" to finish off the gun industry, but if we all pressure our pension funds to divest it should have quite a beneficial impact.

Please bear in mind that the ultra-extremist National Rifle Association derives much of its money from weapons manufacturers.  So divesting weapons manufacturers from pension funds could help to dry up the torrent of blood money being recycled from gun manufacturers into one of the worst organizations ever devised by humankind.

I have just one last point to make on guns -- a statistical exercise.  As reported in the Guardian (see the link below), there are 270 million civilian firearms in the U.S., equating to 89 guns for every 100 people in our country.  This makes the U.S. the scariest place, by far, on the planet, but this awful statistic greatly understates our gun problem.  Here is how I would calculate the actual number of guns per adult in the United States:

     2010 population:  308.8 million... minus
     2010 population under 10 years old:  40.5 million
            equals an "adult" population of 268.3 million
     Of 268.3 million people, assume 50% own at least one gun (based on Gallup Poll -- see link below)
     ...so 134 million people in the USA own guns -- this is the denominator of our ratio

The Guardian's tally of 270 million firearms doesn't capture them all, not by a long shot (no pun intended).  If we conservatively assume 20% of guns are not reported because they are illegal, this raises the number of civilian firearms in the United States from 270 million to 338 million.

And now for the really exciting conclusion:  If we divide 338 million guns by 134 million citizens 10 years old or older we get a ratio of 2.7 guns per adult in the United States, which is triple the rate reported by the Guardian.  This number of 2.7 guns per adult is five times as high as the next worst country, Yemen.  Beating Yemen that badly in terms of guns per capita is a pretty appalling result for the United States and really underscores the deeply pathological nature of our violence-ridden country.

The wonder of it isn't that tragedies like the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School take place.  Rather, when we consider how completely unhinged and well armed our fellow citizens are, we can feel grateful that atrocities like the one at Sandy Hook happen as infrequently as they do.

The Guardian's gun map... very interesting although quite simplistic:

Here is a link to a Gallup poll on guns... also very interesting and quite sad:

Monday, September 17, 2012

One Year of Occupy Wall Street

One Year of Occupy Wall Street

This day marking the one-year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street started quite differently for me than did September 17, 2011.  On this same day a year ago, the Village Zendo held a Zazenkai (a full day of meditation practice) featuring a dharma talk by Ryotan Sensei.  So last year I spent the 17th of September in an outwardly very quiet and law abiding manner in a beautiful loft on Broadway, whereas this year I spent the day in a very noisy, chaotic and supposedly lawless manner one mile south on Broadway.

Today's festivities began early -- though not so very early by Zen standards -- with the members of Occupy Faith convening at Liberty Plaza at 6:45am.  By coincidence, this was the time of day my tyrannical Wall Street boss demanded I report to work as a stock research analyst back in 1996.  But instead of sitting nervously in a cramped office as I did 16 years ago wondering if I might be screamed at by my supervisor, today I was merely an ex-Wall Streeter shuffling sleepily out of the Fulton Street subway station.  I was there to swell the numbers of those incurable malcontents who have a beef with the established order of things.

What is the established order of things?  Gross inequality of social, educational and economic opportunity (from which I have personally benefited); racism (endemic in our culture and especially in our so-called criminal justice system); a love of violence, weapons and war; corporate “personhood” accompanied by endless corporate welfare and corporate-government cronyism; and an unsustainable mode of living based on endless consumption, mountainous debt and a torrent of waste.  America seems entirely divorced from the just, balanced and sustainable society enshrined in its mythology and toward which we collectively seem unable to move so much as an inch.

What responsibility do I bear, personally, for the mess we find ourselves in?  I’ll say that my burden of responsibility for the dreadful state of things is above average, based on the simple calculus that all the privileges enjoyed, all the success derived, from a bad system serves as an indictment of the person who was privileged and successful.   Put another way, those who profit most from dysfunction are most guilty for dysfunction regardless of how innocuous their intentions or behavior might actually be.  Because I have derived a fair amount of privilege and success during my lifetime from our increasingly warped, dysfunctional society I am, in fact, the enemy.  Thus, I went downtown today to march against myself.

Does my protesting today “make up for” my past transgressions against the responsible social order I now advocate?  That is a question I am not competent to answer.  Moreover, whether I am sitting in an office waiting to be abused by a megalomaniacal boss, or meditating, or sculpting a vase, or meekly protesting on the street, what is the ultimate difference?  As the years roll on -- artificial and meaningless demarcations to which we attach so much importance -- I understand less and less how it all fits together.  Better still, I need less and less to find a way that it might all fit together.  I cannot make sense of my life and feel no great urgency to do so.

Returning to the topic of today’s Occupy Wall Street protests, what was the essence of those?  Was it the smaller numbers of protestors on the streets compared with the peak of the movement back in October 2011?  Was it the 125+ people who were arrested today for no reason other than the established order’s reflexive reliance on arbitrary, overwhelming police power to suppress people raising legitimate grievances in the public square?  Was it the barricades surrounding every access point to Wall Street, or the one percenter with outrageously bad posture declaring his sympathy with the 99 percent, or the roving brass band carrying mock tombstones, or the tourists gaping quizzically at crudely drawn signs decrying corporate greed, banksters and crooked politicians?  Or was it the dog with the bandaged leg I saw lazing on a sidewalk hours later in the West Village?  It is no easier to make sense of my impressions of Occupy Wall Street – to make things fit together there – than it is to make sense of my own life.

As usual, the police did not cover themselves with glory today.  They offered a very disproportionate response to the “threat” posed by the protesters and were confused and heavy handed in their tactics.  For example, while walking peacefully north on Broadway, the Occupy Faith crew was suddenly ordered by the police to turn around and head south.  For reasons best known to themselves, New York’s finest had drawn an invisible line in the street and most of our group was not permitted to cross that line.  But a few people in the front of our group had already crossed the invisible line so abruptly drawn by the police, and those few were summarily arrested -- arrested without any warning at all, simply for walking down the sidewalk.  Had I been a mere 15 feet farther north at the time I would have been arrested as well.

Then, those of us who had not been arbitrarily arrested were loudly ordered by the cops to turn south.  We promptly obeyed and had not walked more than 20 feet south when we were loudly ordered by another group of cops to turn north.  So there we were, trapped, with dueling groups of police telling us to walk both north and south.  It seemed there was no way out of this dilemma above ground, so we descended into a subway entrance and convened a meeting underground.  As we debated the best way to deal with the police and avoid more arbitrary arrests, we were ordered by yet another police officer to leave the subway so as to not block pedestrian traffic.

When we emerged above ground, we were allowed to cross to the west side of Broadway and then we regrouped on a small side street.  After we had spent about 10 minutes in this seemingly unobtrusive location, we attracted the attention of an entirely different clutch of police who ordered us to disperse or be arrested for blocking pedestrian traffic.  Thus, in a span of no more than 20 minutes a very small group of clergy and their followers were ordered by police to move four times within a one-block radius.  The basis for all of these orders was the urgent need to keep streets, sidewalks and subways free of extraneous people.

The deep and abiding concern of Mayor Bloomberg and his police about the free movement of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in New York City is truly a wonder for the ages.  If our municipal authorities were half as worried about protecting our petty constitutional rights (such as the equal protection clause, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech) as they are about protecting traffic, New York City would be a beacon of liberty and justice unto the world.  But alas, our plutocratic mayor tears the constitution to shreds on the thinnest of pretexts and with zero accountability.

While our experiences with the authorities today were not at all comforting, it was good to know that our presence downtown was a serious thorn in their sides and a real wake up call to anyone who thinks our current system is fair or acceptable.  It was good to taste the confusion, anger, humor and creativity that the protesters brought to our lively day in the street.  It was good to taste my own confusion and culpability vis-à-vis the system.  Most of all, it was good yet again to Occupy Wall Street.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

[Are We] Creating Evolution?

Scientists recently announced some interesting news concerning Paleolithic paintings inside caves at El Castillo, Spain (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310).  These paintings, which were re-discovered a few years after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s landmark work, “On the Origin of the Species,” are now estimated to have been made up to 40,800 years ago.  This is 15,000 years earlier than the prior estimate, and it exceeds in antiquity the paintings inside the Chauvet cave, which have been dated to between 32,000 and 37,000 years ago.  Meanwhile, the world’s earliest known representational sculpture, found in Hohle Fels cave in Germany in 2008, is thought to have been carved anywhere from 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. (http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/05/oldestsculpture/).

It’s exciting that scientists keep making discoveries that redefine the origins of human aesthetics, human consciousness and life itself, pushing them back farther into the past, but apparently millions of people are willfully blind to these breakthroughs.  Evidence of this mass blindness came on 1 June when the Gallup Organization reported the results of its most recent poll on American attitudes toward the theory of evolution and its alternatives, creationism and “intelligent design.”  Gallup reported that 46% of the 1,012 Americans polled believe that God created people “pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”  An additional 32% of those surveyed believe that humans evolved from less advanced life forms with God guiding the evolutionary process.  Just 15% of respondents opined that humans evolved over millions of years with God taking no part in the process of evolution.  These percentages have not changed meaningfully during Gallup’s 30 years of polling on this particular subject.  The poll’s latest findings and its historical results can be viewed here: http://www.gallup.com/poll/21814/evolution-creationism-intelligent-design.aspx

Can you accept the notion that our earliest ancestors were all created in their present form (homo sapiens) at one fell swoop by a supernatural deity?  If you accept that idea, are you at all perturbed by the fact that scientists have found ancient artifacts that were made by humans millennia before the time at which you say humans were created by God?

To square the circle of a human creation story that took place after the earliest human artifacts were created, you either have to flatly disbelieve the archeological evidence or simply be unaware of it.  Gallup only indirectly addressed the question of why people hold creationist views, and the key explanations seem to be education and religiosity.  Specifically, just 25% of respondents with postgraduate educations are creationists, half the 52% rate of people who have only a high school diploma or less.  Meanwhile, 67% of weekly churchgoers are creationists, compared with 25% of those who seldom or never attend church.  I wish that Gallup had probed more deeply by asking creationists about their knowledge of the historical, archeological and paleontological records.  I suspect that Gallup would have found that, although many creationists are not highly educated, a surprisingly large cohort among them is at least vaguely aware that science has refuted their creationist views.  Surely the 25% of creationists holding postgraduate degrees are knowingly rejecting the scientific basis of evolution, and I would like to know how these highly educated creationists explain their own thinking.  Regardless of the explanation, however, this refusal to acknowledge the scientific basis of evolution may well ripple out to encompass the disavowal of other scientific findings such as the key role of human activity in global warming or the poor efficacy of “abstinence only” sex education.  Put another way, the tendency of a large proportion of the U.S. population to dismiss scientific evidence has huge (and to my mind, ominous) implications for our politics and our future as a country.

How is it that in a supposedly advanced nation like the United States nearly half the population can dismiss the many rigorous scientific experiments documenting natural selection, as well as the excavation and analysis of huge quantities of fossil remains showing the process of evolution as it unfolded?  To me, this is a case of faith trumping all else, just as it has for at least as long as the El Castillo paintings themselves have existed.  What is the “all else” that faith has been trumping for as long as humans have existed, whether we define human existence as having begun 5,000 or 5,000,000 years ago?  Dare we call it “truth” or “reality?”  Or is it simply one viewpoint on life – the scientific viewpoint – which, by definition, can never fully explain phenomena and feelings in the “spiritual” realm?  Matter and spirit, knowledge and belief, seem perpetually in opposition to one another.  Matter calls spirit “backwards” or “superstitious;” spirit calls matter “godless” or “soulless.”  Spirit views knowledge with suspicion and fear; knowledge is condescending and dismissive of spirit.  Are these hollow cliches, or do they actually describe the emotional interplay at work here?  When we see that science and religion approach their search for truth from completely different perspectives, using completely different methods, their mutual antagonism becomes quite understandable.  This antagonism ripples through all of our society and creates (no pun intended) very real political problems.

Don’t we need to be rational as a society to solve problems like mass unemployment, the budget deficit, global warming and what has come to be known as “terrorism?”  In this context, “being rational” equates to looking at facts that have been scientifically tested and confirmed to a high standard of confidence, and using those facts to shape an informed course of action.  Our inability to make progress on any of the biggest issues in our society may well stem from the fact that half of the population simply refuses to operate in this way.  But I would ask the most devout creationist:  Even if you believe wholeheartedly in God, have you noticed that He doesn’t seem too interested in ending teenage pregnancy or preserving the Amazon rain forest?  If God won’t solve those problems, then shouldn't we humans take care of them ourselves?  And to take care of these complex problems, don't we need to rely upon good (read:  scientific) information combined with much more social and political cohesion than we’ve had for a long, long time?

We often see the tension between belief and so-called objective reality play out on a very modest scale in everyday life.  For example, we can experience this tension when we walk into an office building and prepare to take an elevator to a higher floor.  We approach the elevator and see people already waiting for it.  We automatically believe that one of those people pushed the elevator call button before we arrived on the scene.  But our belief has no basis in reality – we weren’t there to see someone push the call button.  We just assume someone acted on our behalf, but occasionally it turns out that no one has pushed the button, or it was pushed carelessly without the elevator actually being called.  In this scenario, a large group of people will stand around for quite a while waiting for an elevator that is not coming because it has, in fact, not been called.  Everyone is trapped by belief, with no one willing to take the apparently risky step of performing an action they firmly believe was already performed.

When the stakes are low like waiting a few extra minutes for an elevator, the conflict between belief and "objective reality" is merely an inconvenience.  But when you’re running a society that seems frozen in place by these two seemingly opposing forces, that conflict becomes a much more serious matter.

I am what William Jennings Bryan derisively called an “evolutionist” during his testimony at the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of July 1925.  I was taught the theory of evolution in my youth, and I believed it to be conclusively proven then as I believe it to be now.  For reasons that I don’t quite understand, it drives me up a wall that huge numbers of people who are permitted to own firearms and vote dismiss evolution as a “hoax” or worse.  And that is precisely where I fall down, really, by getting caught up in my emotional mechanism and raving about what I take to be the lunacy of others.  When I realize that my viewpoint on the lunacy of “others” is merely my own lunacy, then things begin to change a bit.  Rather than merely pointing my finger at creationists who refuse to acknowledge science, I can also look at myself and tend to my own evolution.  I can make sure that that button is pressed or I’ll just stand around like a sheep, stuck in the lobby of my own building.

On the one hand, I stand very much with Clarence Darrow when he says to William Jennings Bryan that creationism “insult[s] every man of science and learning in the world…” and when he further states that “We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States…” It is surprising to me that Darrow ever had to say those words, and even more astonishing that Darrow’s words are as relevant today as they were in Tennessee nearly 90 years ago.  But then I look at my own astonishment and understand quite readily how people can hold on to outmoded attitudes across decades and despite constant social, political and technological change.  I can recognize my intimate connection with nearly half of the United States by connecting my brand of insanity to theirs.  The name I give to this insanity, which creationists and evolutionists share, is the need to be "right."

Insanity is rather like breakfast cereal:  Advertising can point out the virtues of this or that brand but all brands of cereal are kept in the same aisle of the supermarket, and all cereal winds up in exactly the same foul-smelling form when we’re done with it.  Yet cereal companies spend about $375 million each year advertising the leading brands of cereal.  Have you ever seen a cereal commercial that showed a toilet?  If cereal commercials were required by law to show cereal in its ultimate form, and in its ultimate destination, the differences between cereal brands would seem much less important and we would see much less cereal advertising on television.  To extend this unfortunate metaphor a bit further, I see evolution as the toilet that creationism doesn’t want to see.  We might not like the idea of toilets but one thing is certain:  There is nothing phony or trumped up about a toilet.  Why do so many people feel this urgent need to dress up the story of where humankind came from, regardless of the evidence?

The perennial argument about evolution goes back to an inescapable chink in the armor of evolution itself:  We call evolution a theory because none of us were there to directly observe the “rise” of humankind to its present state, a state in which people completely disregard their own scientific discoveries.  The tenacity of creationist dogma perpetuates the so-called “controversy” that President Bush alluded to in August 2005 when he advocated the teaching of intelligent design and/or creationism alongside evolution in public schools.  President Bush argued that the “controversy” should be taught, but science says there is no more a legitimate controversy about the basic origin of humankind than there is a legitimate controversy about people being able to freely choose whether they are gay or straight.

It isn’t by chance that I’m drawing a connection between antipathy to the theory of evolution and antipathy toward gay people.  After all, in May 2012 Tennessee’s state legislature very nearly passed a law forbidding public schools from providing “any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality.”  Apparently the thinking behind the bill was that to discuss something controversial gives the controversial thing (in this case, gayness) legitimacy.  Or perhaps the thinking was that, since being gay is supposedly a choice one can freely make, teaching about homosexuality would lead school-aged children to choose the “homosexual lifestyle.”  Whatever the rationale behind the “don’t say gay” legislation, it reveals quite plainly that in Tennessee “teaching the controversy” about evolution is okay but “teaching the controversy” about human sexuality is not okay.  Why are some controversies more equal than others?

None of us was physically present when an ape-like thing called Australopithecus afarensis became the first hominid to spend the majority of its time walking upright on two legs around 3.2 million years ago. But there is a world of difference between acknowledging that we cannot be absolutely certain about something because we did not witness it ourselves, and denying absolutely that it happened.

If we compare this situation to criminal jurisprudence, a creationist attitude would cause our court system to grind to a halt.  In other words, if ironclad eyewitness testimony were mandatory to obtain a conviction in every criminal case, then our prisons would be largely empty (which might not be as bad as it sounds).  In criminal judicial procedure, we have a standard of reasonable doubt that guides juries in their deliberations.  Why, when the stakes in a trial might be as high as life and death itself, is the burden of proof lower than it apparently is for creationists vis-à-vis the theory of evolution?  Why can someone be sent to the electric chair on the basis of proof insufficient to lay creationism to its long-overdue rest?

On a personal level, I can recognize what is false for me individually without going farther and pretending to define what is true collectively.  At the same time, however, I live in a larger context in which some version of collective truth will determine the practical details of everything from parking rules to industrial regulation to space exploration.  Our future as a society will be intimately shaped by the awkward mingling not just of personal beliefs but beliefs about the role of personal beliefs in public life.  Someone has to be deemed "right" by the majority of voters in order for our government to function effectively.  Yet with so many people prepared to ignore facts they deem personally troublesome no matter the larger cost to society, I’m not especially optimistic about our ability to skillfully navigate the faith versus "objective reality" conundrum.  For empirical evidence to support my personal pessimism, I present without additional comment Exhibit A:  the financial crisis and our government’s response to it.

I believe spiritual and social evolution begin and end with the recognition that each of us knows very little about, or for, ourselves.  It follows quite naturally that each of us knows even less for, or about, other people.  If these simple yet unpopular notions figured prominently in our public life, we might have an easier time solving our collective problems.  Even so, a coherent view has to prevail for public policy to be formulated, for laws to be promulgated and for our educational and criminal justice systems to function properly.  We must act in the public realm, and we must act under a "reasonable doubt" standard -- our government and society cannot be guided by faith that ignores facts, nor can we be paralyzed by an insistence on certain proof when there is nearly nothing that is certain in this world.  But faith without facts is dangerously close to dominating our public life, and that scares the bejeesus out of me.  Which tendency will ultimately prevail, the imperfection of knowledge or the perfection of faith?  While we dither over this critical question, our whole system seems to be going down that metaphorical toilet so many among us refuse to see.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Thoughts on a Singing Foreclosure Auction Blockade in Brooklyn

Recently, there has been a lot of news coverage and discussion concerning singing foreclosure auction blockades in New York City.  These protest actions have been going on since at least the fall of 2011, and their beauty and simplicity make them a uniquely compelling form of civil dissent.  It seems hard to believe that a four-line tune any kindergartner could learn is capable of demolishing the cold machinery of the foreclosure process, but that has happened repeatedly in courthouses around our town.  I had to experience this phenomenon for myself, and participated in one such event that occurred in Brooklyn on April 19, 2012.

For those of you who haven’t heard about them, the intention behind these actions is to use the power of people singing together to bring auctions of foreclosed homes to a screeching halt.  Auction blockades humanize what has been so carefully dehumanized, ripping away the mask of “business as usual” to show what we all try so hard to hide and from which there is no escape.  Whether we’re avidly bidding at an auction, averting our eyes from those of a stranger and staring at the subway car floor, or impatiently pushing our way through throngs crowding a sidewalk, our humanity is always hiding in plain sight.  All it takes is a scrap of song to bring that humanity gushing forth.  There is something uniquely vulnerable about a person singing in public, much less dozens of people, and no institution can stand unmoved for long amidst such vulnerability.

Embodying these ideas, and also embodying no idea at all, around 60 people met in an office in downtown Brooklyn on a Thursday afternoon, well in advance of the auction itself.  We "blockaders" were given an overview of the lengthy screening process to get inside the courtroom, as well as a description of the manner in which our protest would unfold.  We were very quickly sensitized to the critical choice that each individual needed to make:  sing and be arrested, or remain silent and therefore stay “free.”  Those remaining silent had an important role to play in the process, because by swelling the number of people seeking admittance to the auction they could bog down the screening process and delay the start of the auction significantly.  Additionally, those who avoided arrest could offer jail support by awaiting the release of those who had been arrested and processed through “the system” as it is called.

I had already made the decision to not be arrested that day.  Nothing that was said or done by anyone involved in the protest made me feel any less a part of the effort because I was unwilling to go to jail.

Glancing around the room and listening to the many questions asked about the upcoming auction action, I noticed a wide diversity of backgrounds, ages and faith traditions represented among those present.  There was a lot of passion and energy in the crowd, and the sense of commitment in the room was reassuring and inspiring to me.  Even so, I found myself wishing that more people of color had been present in our rather large group – especially since communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the foreclosure and eviction crisis.  The predominance of white people in the various manifestations of the Occupy movement has already been much commented upon in media coverage; as a white person myself I could only take note of the issue while contributing to it both voluntarily and involuntarily.

Those who were determined to sing and face arrest were organized into groups that would sing in sequence in an attempt to maximize the length of the auction blockade.  People were encouraged to take their time getting up when ordered to do so by court officers so as to prolong our intended disruption.  We are also given the message that court officers had been, thus far, reasonably courteous toward and even occasionally supportive of the demonstrators, and so we were counseled not to bring attitudes of hostility and resentment to bear on our interactions with officers.  I thought that message was very healing and necessary since an attitude of “us” versus “them” – of “victims” versus “oppressors” – is all too easy to adopt.

Simple categorizations of people into opposing blocs gets us nowhere near the truth of our society and our lives.  How could anything so complex and unfathomable as our grotesque economic and political system be neatly bisected with a clear, bright line?  When I look carefully, I see a victim in the oppressor and an oppressor in the victim; their interdependence, dysfunctional as it might seem, is obvious.  In the sadomasochism that defines our materialistic culture, it can be rather hard to tell who is the sadist and who is the masochist.  Banks can easily be seen as sadistic and cruel, but they do need a willing borrower to exercise their unsavory function in our commercial system.  The borrower – or one might say the “bottom” in this scenario – actually has a surprising amount of power relative to the lender (or “top”) but often fails to recognize or use that power.  The auction blockade would be an interesting opportunity to turn things around and expose the more nuanced interchange between groups that usually identify themselves as separate from, and opposed to, one another.  The “bottoms” and “tops,” often restrictively categorized in their own minds, would have the opportunity to become more truly “versatile.”

Alas, one very real power held by borrowers that would not be revealed on that day is the power to reduce consumption so as to borrow as little as possible.  When we slowly walked to the Brooklyn Supreme Court building at 360 Adams Street by way of the Fulton Street Mall, this latent form of consumer power was very much on my mind.  The endless parade of stores, some with hawkers outside loudly beckoning passersby, vividly underscored the root of the problem we were about to call attention to in our protest.  Consumption, and the borrowing that enables it, is more often a choice than a necessity for many people.  It is fair to say that our society's enshrinement of bright shiny things creates a lot of consumer indebtedness and, with or without the debt, a lot of personal suffering.

When we arrived at the limestone-clad courthouse building, there was a long line at the main entrance.  The sun was shining brightly and a sea of lavender tulips at their peak lent charm to the scene.  Some of our compatriots unfurled a large banner in front of the courthouse, with their children lending a hand in holding the banner aloft.  The rest of us shuffled into the building where we passed through a metal detector and had our bags searched.  My two harmonicas attracted the officers’ curiosity but were left alone; however, my reusable metal silverware set was considered problematic and had to be checked before I could get on line to enter the courtroom where the auction would take place.

During this initial screening process, I admittedly went a little overboard in the level of courtesy and appreciation I showed the court officers but felt it was critical to connect with them and demonstrate that I understood their role and responsibilities.  From the moment I stepped into the courthouse, I focused my attention keenly on not turning the authorities there into an “other.”

After we got past the initial checkpoint we joined a second screening line to access the courtroom itself.  We were repeatedly informed as we waited that any electronic devices would have to be checked prior to our entering the courtroom.  The authorities did not want us videotaping the disruption and arrests to come, as had occurred in some prior instances.  Someone behind me wistfully noted that electronic devices were freely permitted at the auctions prior to the advent of these blockades, and that there formerly had been no lengthy additional screening after one entered the courthouse building.

But the additional screening that had been put in place after the protests began and the long waiting time it occasioned was all to our advantage in our effort to disrupt the auction.  The long delay caused by protesters in the screening line provoked muffled complaints from two men who were waiting on line to bid on the properties to be auctioned.  They were clearly frustrated by their inability to get inside the courtroom, but they carefully avoided making inflammatory criticisms of the Occupy folks that surrounded them.  The numerous protesters and scattered “investors” mingled peaceably together in that single line, filing past the courthouse candy shop and news stand run by Carmine Cataldo III.  Candy, like debt, is bad for us but helps to make our lives somewhat more bearable.  This connection eluded those present; no one on line protested the candy and sugary beverages sold with inspiring humility by the blind man who had made his living in that manner, and in that place, for over 16 years.

I was among the last people admitted to the courtroom just before the auction began.  The starting time had been scheduled for 2:30pm but it had been substantially delayed while the many people seeking access checked their phones and were scanned yet again with a hand-held metal detector.  I took my seat at 3:05pm and the auction process began about two minutes later.  Security was heavy; only the center section of the large courtroom was opened for visitors and, consequently, the pew-like benches were crowded with people.  Ten court officers with an abundance of white plastic handcuffs at the ready restlessly paced to and fro along the aisles; meanwhile, a stern announcement was made that any attempt to disrupt the auction would lead to arrest with a charge of disorderly conduct.  It was perfectly obvious to nearly everyone present that this was a warning that would go unheeded at the earliest possible moment.

That moment was not long in coming.  Almost immediately after we had all been instructed to be quiet and obedient so as to grease the wheels of foreclosure commerce, Judson Memorial Church Community Minister C.B. Stewart stood up and boldly spoke out against the unjust nature of the seizure of homes.  She was promptly hustled outside the courtroom, and then the singing itself began.  For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the tune that is sung at foreclosure auction blockades, it goes a little something like this:

Listen auctioneer….
All the people here
Are asking you to hold all the sales right now;
We’re going to survive but we don’t know how….
[repeat loudly until arrested]

I neglected to ask those in charge of our protest the origin of this song, and cannot now find the answer to this question online.  It may be a folk song with no known origin, a fact that would make it even more appropriate for our shared purpose than a song with known authorship.  Or it may have been written by Organizing for Occupation (http://www.o4onyc.org/about_o4o/) especially for these actions.

Group by group, singers raised their voices loudly in song as had been planned; they were quickly ordered to stand up, were swiftly handcuffed with white plastic ties, and then were escorted out by court officers.  As this distressing and heartwarming scene unfolded, an officer carefully videotaped the goings on, a privilege we members of the public were being denied.

I was surprised by how quickly the whole thing unfolded.  The arrests seemed to happen with dizzying speed – it was so rapid I couldn’t even count the number of people who were being led away.  The closing of white plastic handcuffs around the protesters’ wrists made a menacing sound – it was reminiscent of the buzzing from a swarm of angry cicadas on a hot summer afternoon.  The court officers were brusque and impatient, but with few exceptions they appeared to conduct themselves professionally enough under the circumstances.

As I later learned, a total of 38 people were arrested in just nine minutes.  For a short interval afterwards, all of those who had been detained were held together in the small antechamber just outside the courtroom.  Each time the doors to the courtroom opened their singing became markedly louder, making things harder for the officials who were attempting to recommence the auction proceedings that had been disrupted.  The singing, alternately clear and muffled as the doors opened and closed, was stronger and more beautiful than it had been inside the courtroom itself.

By 3:16pm the auction had resumed despite the continued singing of those waiting to be taken away.  The first property was sold at 3:19pm while court officers continually scanned the much smaller crowd for anyone who might have an inclination to be disruptive.  A few more people raised their voices in song and they were hauled out of court to join the others; the videotaping of the courtroom by one of the court officers continued.  By 3:23pm the singing outside the courtroom had ceased, presumably because all of the protestors had been taken elsewhere in the building for booking.  Even so, five officers remained on high alert and the atmosphere in court was tense to say the least.

During the arrests I sat quietly, watching the goings on and taking notes.  I was highly conscious of the fact that I would be immediately arrested if I made the slightest move to disrupt the auction.  Perched uneasily on the hard bench in my red tee shirt advertising Pat Barrett’s Transmissions, Inc., I was a glaring security risk; the court officers kept a wary eye on my every move.  It was an eerie feeling to reflect on how very little it would have taken for me to fall into the clutches of law enforcement, and my sympathy for the officers was severely taxed by the paranoia their vigilance triggered deep inside me.  The choice I had made to not sing, to not be arrested, felt very burdensome because it took a lot of self control to maintain my freedom.  Freedom maintained in such a way does not feel very free at all; that was a very palpable lesson I took away from my experience on that afternoon.  In fact, I would have felt much more free if I had pulled out my harmonica and begun to play “Listen Auctioneer” as I had taught myself to do while waiting on line in front of the courthouse.

After the singing outside the courtroom had ceased, I wondered how long I should remain at the auction.  There seemed little point to lingering, but quite spontaneously the strange thought arose in my mind that I might actually bid on a property.  What an outrageously transgressive move that would be… and yet how very seductive!  For better or worse, however, the auction itself seemed highly mysterious to me and raised a host of questions in my mind.  What were these properties actually like?  Who had owned them previously, and what was their current condition?  Were these buyers getting bargains or not?  What were the economics of the transactions, and had the investors conducted scenario analyses to stress test their baseline assumptions against a worst-case scenario?

As these rather bizarre thoughts from a former existence flitted through my head, my eyes at last focused on the far wall of the courtroom, behind where a judge would normally sit.  There, engraved in the beige wood paneling were the words “The place of Justice is a Hallowed Place.”  How poignant and tender, the collision of that ideal with the messy reality unfolding in my own mind and in the room around me.  I held back tears as I finally left the courtroom.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On American addiction...

The United States prides itself on being a capitalist country – the bastion of capitalism, actually. The U.S. also loudly declares that it is the land of liberty. And notwithstanding the horrendous recession it imposed on the world and that continues to wreak global havoc, the U.S. remains very wealthy compared to other industrialized countries. In 2007, for example, the U.S. GDP per person was nearly $44K, compared with around $38K for mineral-rich Australia and Canada and $36K for the U.K. and $33K for France. Only Norway, with its tiny population and huge oil reserves, appears to rank meaningfully higher ($53.5K):


In this wealthy, capitalistic country where people are supposedly free to do as they choose, shopping occupies a special place in the pantheon of national pastimes. Time not spent working, after all, must be passed somehow, and shopping as an activity complements the public’s voracious consumption of media. Television, movies, magazines and websites abound with images of products and the “lifestyles” they supposedly embody or facilitate. A seemingly endless stream of new and improved objects is constantly being touted with the goal of stimulating consumption and capturing market share. Ideally, a company’s product will become one that consumers cannot readily imagine living without. This despite the fact that thousands of years of human history offers abundant evidence that people can live without that newest new, new thing.

Those of us not completely on the band wagon of the headlong consumption that holds most of the U.S. population in its thrall wonder what drives all that consumption in the first place. Why do Americans so adore shopping and, in many cases, spend well beyond their incomes? If you google the phrase “why consumer culture” you will get 453 million links, so there is no end of theorizing about this social and commercial phenomenon. It is hardly a given that such theorizing serves any purpose more useful than shopping itself, but I’ll dip a toe in this topic with my eyes very much open to that paradox.

My personal (and highly unscientific) explanation of rampant consumer culture is that people simply need something to do with themselves in their non-working hours, and consumption is the path of least resistance. Shopping – both the activity itself and debates among families about where to shop, what merchandise should be bought and what merchandise should be returned to the store because it wasn’t satisfactory – burns up a lot of unstructured time and requires little to no reflection on so-called deeper subjects. It can be distinguished from creativity, which does require the expenditure of mental energy and, when done with passion, also entails delving into psychic areas that can be quite uncomfortable. Shopping is also readily combined with eating (at shopping mall food courts, for instance), an unhealthy symbiosis that is driving U.S. obesity statistics into the stratosphere (two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, with 34% in the obese category).

In addition to burning up lots of time in an undemanding fashion, shopping also closely aligns the shopper with mainstream American society. Put another way, shopping is an expression of conformism on the one hand and of insecurity on the other. The insecurity stems from worry about social position and respectability – the image-conscious consumer worries that worn-out trousers or an old, dented car make him look poor, clueless or otherwise socially undesirable. The subtext pitched by all marketing is that buying new products can inoculate the shopper from the pain of social ostracism. The more expensive the product, the more complete the shopper’s immunity from embarrassment and pain and the greater the prestige acquired by the shopper.

Insecurity about appearances and the social position they imply is nothing new – a poem by Wang Fan-chih (590-660) explores the theme of poverty compared to wealth in a humorous way:

When the rich pass proudly by

on big, smooth horses,

I feel foolish

riding my scrawny donkey.

I feel much better

when we overtake

a bundle of sticks

riding a bony man.

Consumer culture peaks during the so-called holiday season, and in that season of consumption there is no day more closely tied to shopping frenzy than “Black Friday.” This day, immediately following on the often highly dysfunctional Thanksgiving holiday, traditionally sets the pace for the peak shopping weeks of the year when retailers make most of their annual profits.

In the early morning hours of Black Friday 2008, a temporary worker named Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death by shoppers at the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, New York. It’s worth noting that Mr. Damour was not a frail man – he stood 6 foot 5 inches tall and weighed 270 pounds, measurements that testify to the degree of frenzy among the roughly 2,000 people stampeding into Wal-Mart when it opened at 5am that morning. You can read an article about this event at the following link; I recommend browsing the reader comments that appear below this article:


In a very real sense, Mr. Damour was sacrificed at the altar of American insecurity – he died because people worried that they wouldn’t be able to obtain the objects they needed to evidence their social position or aspirations, to display their wealth and to assuage their guilt at not being able to give even more lavish presents to their loved ones. In the war to protect the self at the expense of others and to push away introspection and difficult feelings, Mr. Damour made the ultimate sacrifice. As such, he should be buried at Arlington National Cemetary. Unfortunately, public attention moved on quickly after the initial reports of his death, and no press coverage that I could find relates the location of Jdimytai Damour’s grave.

I did not see any reports of fatalities associated with Black Friday 2009, though there was a report of fighting at a Wal-Mart in California. The fighting forced the store to close so that civil order could be restored at the discount emporium. As with the article cited above about Black Friday 2008, the reader comments are more interesting than the press accounts to which they relate:


Aside from costing people their very lives, this mania for shopping is bankrupting the American population. Many people simply cannot control themselves and have run up large debts that, until recently, fueled fat profits at financial institutions. Now many of those debts have gone bad, in parallel with the home mortgage debacle, leading to huge losses on bank credit card portfolios (over 10% of credit card debt outstanding is now believed to be a total loss). It turns out that loan portfolios inflated by the banks’ wondrous financial “innovations” have had consequences every bit as disastrous as the shopping for “innovative new products” facilitated by those loans. And much of that shopping furnished homes that people could not afford and never should have been given the financing to buy. Recklessly easy credit fueled the home mortgage debacle and a tidal wave destructive shopping, blowing up our economy. The economic dislocation has exposed the interdependency of media, credit and consumption. Large social dislocations and political problems have ensued.

Despite the problems caused by the credit bubble's collapse, progress in the political realm to induce change has been almost nonexistent. This is because real change – not the faux change that makes for glib political sloganeering the world over – would be incredibly difficult for our society. The Obama administration is working diligently to revive the economy by encouraging banks to extend ever more loans to consumers and businesses, and by engaging in deficit spending with complete abandon. The irony that this economic “cure” is worse than the “disease” of recession itself seems lost on Timothy Geithner, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. These two are being hailed in the financial press for their “bold, unorthodox” response to the financial crisis, despite the fact that it was their lack of regulatory vigilance that permitted the crisis in the first place. A court-mandated restraining order should be passed forbidding this hapless duo from stepping within 100 yards of any government office building, financial institution or school.

Congress also bears plenty of blame for the financial crisis. Predictably, though, there have been displays of outrage from these elected officials decrying the excesses over which they blithely presided. Legislation is being debated in the House and Senate to reform the financial system, but the likelihood that real reform will be passed before the 2010 midterm elections is increasingly slim. You can be sure that financial institutions will donate unusually large sums to the congressional campaign funds in this midterm election cycle, hoping to buy the compliance of legislators and stave off any real reform. Even before the election bonanza, the banks have been remarkably effective at squelching government efforts to correct their excesses and protect our economy from their predations. As Bloomberg News wrote in a recent article, “Two years after the start of the deepest recession since the 1930s, no U.S. or European authority has put in force a single measure that would transform the financial system, based on data compiled by Bloomberg. No rule- or law-making body is actively considering the automatic dismantling of banks that Volcker told Congress are sheltered by access to an implicit safety net.” You can read more on the lack of financial reform progress in this Bloomberg article:


Meanwhile, one year after the apex of the financial panic that followed the bursting of the credit bubble, we are said to be in a recovery. Of course, the term “recovery” is not being used as it would in the context of addiction treatment, in which addicts stop the addictive behavior and remain on permanent guard against its return. Instead, “recovery” is being promoted as a frank return to the practices that drove our economy over a cliff to begin with: more liberal credit combined with low private savings and unsustainably high consumption. Rather than crafting policies that will put America on a more secure economic footing by curbing the longstanding excesses in credit and consumption, the Federal Reserve and the Obama Administration (very much like the Bush Administration) are doing everything possible to restore the old status quo. Their desperate attempts have led to a frightening increase in the federal debt load ($7.5 trillion at 3Q09, up 30% year over year), debasing our currency and speeding America’s commercial and strategic decline.

So, is there a solution to this nightmare? With government, the media, the financial industry and the retailers fiercely resisting any meaningful change to the system, the only potential source of change would be consumers themselves. Fearful of job losses and staring into the abyss of bank accounts woefully inadequate to meet long-range commitments like retirement funding, are consumers borrowing and spending less? Here, the data are more mixed than one would expect given the gravity of the crisis. In November 2009, retail sales rose 1.9% from the prior year – the first year-over-year rise since August 2008. This is surprising since the unemployment rate was 10%+ in November 2009, far above the 6.8% unemployment rate in November 2008. Household debt fell a bit (-1.8% yoy in 3Q09), but most of this decline may well stem from bankruptcies, foreclosures and defaults rather than actual debt repayments by consumers. Personal savings rose by $490 billion, but dollars saved were down $100 billion from 2Q09. See tables F.8 and F.100:


The picture of American consumer behavior that emerges from these numbers is one of mild retrenchment in the face of dire conditions. Despite a scarcity of jobs, sharp losses in home equity and depleted savings accounts, Americans continue to shop religiously. This is the face of addiction, writ large across the 308 million people living in this country.

Is this shopping addiction a “high class problem” compared to the plight of the very poor in American society? I’ve written in an earlier blog entry about the very poor and their marginalization in the U.S., as well as their relative inability to participate in our intensely commercial economy. I’ve characterized their lack of choice as painful because of cultural conditioning and the social ostracism noted above. And extreme material deprivation – the lack of access to a safe, private space in which to eat, bathe and rest – causes tremendous suffering among homeless people. However, I’ve also alluded in a prior post to one positive aspect of severe poverty: the very poor aren’t stuck on the treadmill of endless, empty consumption that holds the rest of the country in its thrall. No scrawny donkeys for them, let alone sleek horses...they carry a bundle of sticks on their bony frames, making the rest of us look “good” as we pass by with our heads full of schemes and plans to deck out our bodies, houses and cars with the latest and greatest, whether we can afford it or not.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect most homeless people don’t opt out of consumer society because they want to, but rather because their material circumstances dictate that they must. It seems probable that, given the means to do so, many homeless people would behave as their wealthier counterparts by consuming briskly and saving little to nothing of what they earn. But without access to income or credit, and without a safe private space to store personal possessions, the homeless are forced to do what the rest of our society could, but can’t, do: go cold turkey on shopping and borrowing. In an addictive society, the neediest cannot get their “fix” and in this crucial respect they are healthier than the rest of us.

With the holidays in full swing, I feel tempted to wish for an end to poverty and the America's rampant consumerism. It does sound appealing... no more haggard faces beseeching indifferent passersby to throw a coin in their cups, or at least to acknowledge their existence. No more “doorbuster” stampedes or fisticuffs, no more giants like Jdimytai Damour slain by stampeding swarms of product-addled ants. No more “experts” telling us where the stock market will go tomorrow and what we must buy if we want to be happy, secure and socially proud, no more Ben Bernanke or Tim Geithner or Wal-Mart.

But the problem with my wish would be that it’s a wish... something to cling to, something that excludes aspects of reality I find inconvenient or offensive. Like the heedless consumption my wish would abolish, it is a denial of reality, an attempt to parse good from bad and to perfect a world that, despite its obvious flaws, contains everything we need. The world is perfect, just as it is; we merely need to see clearly, to pay attention, and to drop our ideas and preconceptions about how things ought to be in order to recognize that perfection. Wanting to change reality to suit our individual tastes is just an addiction – in fact, it is the mother of all other addictions. And the mother of all battles is to drop the need to discriminate between superficially separate phenomena – good and bad, expensive and cheap, homebound and homeless – these and myriad other dualisms are the addictions to which we are all subject. Go cold turkey on this addiction, and everything will fall into place. As Seng T’san, the third Zen patriarch wrote in his “Verses on the Faith Mind”:


The Great Way is not difficult

for those who have no preferences.

When love and hate are both absent

everything becomes clear and undisguised.

Make the smallest distinction, however,

and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

If you wish to see the truth

then hold no opinions for or against anything.

To set up what you like against what you dislike

is the disease of the mind.

When the deep meaning of things is not understood,

the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.

So, was this blog posting a waste of my time and yours? Yes! No! Maybe!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

On being him...

I don’t know his name, where he’s from or what makes him tick. He’s a man who sometimes intersects with me amidst this web of routine and necessity that ties us all together without our necessarily knowing much about one another, or about ourselves.

What is our appetite to know each other, which is a way to know ourselves?

He’s a man I see from time to time, knowing very little about him. I know I like him, though. We always have a brief, pleasant interaction while he bags my soup and the roll that comes with it at a shoebox-sized cafe on the far west side of Greenwich Village. The place has good food but it’s quite out of my way; I rarely get there, especially during these last weeks when I was sidelined by surgery. Recuperating at home meant a few sacrifices, including a long period during which I contented myself with inferior versions of my favorite treats.

But those treats beckoned the other night when it was cold and windy... one of those quintessential late fall nights when good soup seems particularly welcome. So I made a special effort to walk way west and try my luck at the shoebox after a long hiatus.

When I entered the shop shortly before closing time, he was busy behind the counter, as usual. He had the same pleasant, gentle, easy-going manner as he picked and packaged orders for customers ahead of me in line. Except there was a difference: He looked painfully thin compared with how I remembered him from a month earlier. The smooth texture of his pale brown skin was stretched tightly over his handsome face. Those high cheekbones were sharply visible, and his arms were like spindles. It seemed like special effort was required for him to do the simple things he was long accustomed to doing.

While he busied himself, a woman suddenly appeared from the shop’s nether regions – a worker there, or perhaps the owner. “You’re looking better,” she said to him sympathetically as we customers eavesdropped. “You think so?” he asked quietly as he continued putting orders together. “Yeah,” she said, adding gently “but you could gain a little more weight.” He said something in agreement with her assessment, but I unconsciously tuned out their conversation because I couldn’t handle the feelings this situation was conjuring up inside me.

Who was this man, really, and what had happened to him? He had obviously been through a severe illness, and I could relate to that, having only recently emerged from my own recuperative cocoon with a deficit of five pounds shed from my frame. I had felt great vulnerability for the past several weeks and was just starting to feel “like myself” again. How interesting that feeling less vulnerable was the more normal feeling to which the compass in my head was pointing. How ironic that I had conceived of my visit to this cafe as a happy step on my way back to normalcy, only to have the visit feel anything but normal or upbeat.

We all know that “normal” is a dangerous word, a grotesque pretense, but most of us operate most of the time as if there were such a thing. This is certainly true for me – I adore routines, predictability. My little habits, my assumptions and prejudices, foster the illusion that I can expect order and stability from my days and nights. Though I might complain about it at times, yearning to be more daring, predictability is a lot more comfortable for me than confronting the uncertainty that rules all our lives. But that uncertainty can’t be denied for very long....reading in the newspapers about people who have lost their jobs and their homes, I feel uneasy because it reminds me of what I’ve lost or could lose. Walking into a little cafe where all I had expected to do was buy some soup I was suddenly uneasy seeing someone skeletal, even more skeletal than I was.

So I was caught up in the mystery of my own reflection in the face and body of another person. I was confronting my shock at the connection and my inability to do anything with or about it.

There are many layers to this elephantine uncertainty that is always there: What will become of me? What will other people think of whatever happens to me, and how much of what “happens” will actually, in my mind, be other people’s perceptions of the bare facts of my life? Do I look good, and is that being noticed by the right people? Do I look like I have things under control? Am I being properly valued by others, do they recognize what I have to offer? If they don’t recognize my offering, whose fault is that and what do I do with that feeling? Etcetera...

This is a common way of being in the world: insecurity expressed through self-torment about the way others see us. This insecurity is big business: It propels up to 50% of consumer spending (http://www.bls.gov/opub/uscs/report991.pdf), which in turn accounts for 70% of U.S. economic activity. But surely it is possible to look at something (or someone) without having, or feeling the need to have, an opinion about it (them). Or in the context of this cafe encounter, surely it is possible to bear witness to something painful without implicating ourselves in it or trying to “fix” it. And if we see these possibilities, then we also see the potential to live securely without worrying about the shadowy judgments we imagine are continually made and re-made by others...about us.

On that chilly night, my intellectual grasp of these notions was completely useless to me. It was upsetting to see this pleasant man looking so frail. He was so publicly frail... did I look so obviously “not myself” to the people around me? Had my illness left its mark on my face and bearing, however temporarily, arousing pity in others? Would pity be a proper valuation of what I have to offer, or was I “better” than that? Why would pity felt on my behalf be so terrible that I would shun it like a newly minted leper shuns a leper colony? Why was it so painful to feel – and witness pity felt – for this other man? This man, much younger but about my size and a million miles away behind a deli counter in that bright, well worn space.

And then it hit me... I was feeling my innate helplessness yet again. I was experiencing my reality, a reality that normally gets papered over by the clutter of routine sleepwalking. Witnessing the suffering of someone else without having a way to ease that suffering was just a kissing cousin of my three days on the streets of Manhattan or my two weeks recovering from surgery. It was the mirror image of what I had been experiencing – it was my image. In that little cafe, the helplessness of others and their utter dependence on me was fully on display right next to the crab meat sandwiches and the beet salad. Unfortunately, I didn’t seem to have any better tools to work with the suffering of others than I had had to cope with my own suffering. And I couldn’t just bear witness to what was going on – I felt the need to react. The result: more suffering!

As the man behind the counter talked with his co-worker, as the customers ahead of me in line shifted restlessly on their feet, I was feeling the pain of my inescapable connection to sickness and uncertainty. Not knowing what to do with that pain, I bided my time until it was my turn to order. When my turn came, I stepped up to the counter, said hello to the man as cheerfully as I could and told him what I wanted. We chatted pleasantly while he got my soup, behaving as if nothing unusual had happened to either of us. And then I took my paper bag and left the shop, walking slowly eastward.

Monday, November 2, 2009

On being at home...

What is it like to be helpless... to beg... to be homeless? If we look honestly at our lives, we recognize that the answer to this question is always right in front of us, no matter how much we’d prefer to think otherwise. I think that we are all helpless, all the time. We are all begging, all the time. We are all homeless, all the time. Put another way, there are very few things that truly matter in life... and we don’t control any of those things. Instead, we live at the mercy of forces larger than ourselves, completely exposed even as we pretend to have it all neatly contained, under control.

The inescapable reality of my own helplessness is rolling around in my head in the wake of two very different episodes of exposure, of deprivation. The first episode was my three days and nights living on the streets of New York, closely followed by two weeks during which I was confined to an apartment while recovering from surgery. These very different experiences, far from existing separately in parallel universes, overlapped and echoed one another in unexpected ways.

Life on the streets without money or a dwelling to go to means utter dependency. You depend on the missions and soup kitchens for meals... on the rare bits of change or the rarer glances given by strangers for little comforts...on the cops to have better things to do than hassle you... on the weather to be warm and dry and the garbage trucks to be quick about their work so you can sleep a little. Life on the streets also means freedom because most of the time you have no illusion that there’s anything to be gained or lost. You just exist.

Being bedridden without the ability to go out means utter dependency. You depend on others to ask how you’re doing and to inquire if you need anything... to buy your food and, sometimes, to cook it for you. You depend on a body that seems out of control, wracked with pain and weakness, to somehow claw its way back to the surface and liberate you from isolation and incapacity. You depend on your mind to grow along the surface of your pain like a vine splashing color on a building in the autumn sun. You just exist.

Just existing has never been my specialty. I find direct experience scary and hard to process, preferring instead to dress up my experience in big, shiny words. I use words to create concepts and abstractions that dull the pain of reality and that also tend to impress other people, keeping them at a safe and manageable distance. It naturally follows, then, that being dependent on other people has never been my specialty either. I’m very attached to the idea that I can do everything for myself, never relying on anyone for anything if I can help it. Relying on others is difficult for me because of the uncertainty that goes along with that reliance. This uncertainty comes out of my expectations of others, and the painful probability that my expectations will be unfulfilled. By dropping my expectations I don’t have to rely on others... I can simply be dependent upon them. This is a critical distinction: I am dependent upon others, but I do not rely upon them. In this completely dependent and perpetually uncertain state, any outcome is possible and any outcome is the right outcome.

When I just existed, either on the streets or after surgery, I depended completely on others. Could depending completely on others while they depend completely on me be one way – the way – to define life itself?

There was something intoxicating about standing on a sidewalk, shaking a cup in one hand and playing a harmonica with the other, asking passersby for spare change. Begging openly, instead of covertly like I usually do, felt exhilarating. Then, too, there was the perverse pleasure of inviting perfect strangers to confront their imperfect feelings of guilt, embarrassment, disdain and, occasionally, pity. These dark sentiments, so unwelcome and yet so necessary, help to explain why the homeless are such outcasts in our society: They force all of us to feel something, in public. When I begged, I wasn’t embarrassed in the least: I felt unbound, exultant, even a little superior, making snide comments as people tried to slink by without a glance of acknowledgement.

Dependency after surgery was much harder for me than dependency on the streets. It was harder to admit to my friends and acquaintances that I needed help than it was to shake a begging bowl anonymously on Houston Street. The truth of my powerlessness hit closer to home after surgery because it wasn’t so easily contained or managed as my brush with homelessness had been. Retreating to bed, barely able to move, I wasn’t playing a role or chasing the essence of someone else’s daily experience. I was wrestling with the very real limits of my body and the constant pain of my wounds.

It was easier for me to beg when the choice to beg was mine alone and, perversely, when the chances of success were slim to none. I chose to be homeless, for a predetermined time frame and under controlled conditions. But I didn’t choose to be a sick person, and asking for the help I really needed after surgery – and had reason to expect might be forthcoming – was of an entirely different order. Begging on the streets felt empowering; begging in private felt weak and pathetic, even. The difference was that the veneer of choice offered me a comforting illusion of control, but when I didn’t have a choice even that illusion was gone. And that was frightening.

Convalescing from surgery, I often wondered what would have become of me if I didn’t have an apartment to stay in after leaving the hospital. What happens to the homeless person who gets an operation that requires a long, painful recovery? In several notorious cases uncovered recently in Los Angeles, hospitals stuck homeless people in vans and dumped them on downtown streets near rescue missions without any concern for their welfare. I doubt that those tactics are confined to Los Angeles, and if I didn’t have a place to stay after my operation it might very well have happened to me. In this narrow sense I am not homeless – I do have a private space that I can access on demand. But when I start to think of that space as anything more than a door to close and a bed to lie upon, when I imbue it with an emotional resonance beyond its practical (and very temporary) function, I know I’m deluding myself.

What is a home? It is a delusion that helps people imagine that they have control over their lives. It is a place where people imagine they have a separate world, their most private world, where they can avoid the things and people they want to avoid. By definition, these imaginings are accompanied by the idea that people can separate themselves from one another, and especially from untouchables like the homeless. Homeless people do not have any such imaginary place to which they can go. They are exposed – all the time – to the real world and its most insistent phenomena. No experience is off limits in the broad, exhausting space they inhabit.

What is a home? Trees and animals don’t have homes... they just live somewhere, they just exist. The world is their home, though they usually inhabit a definable range or part of the world where conditions favor their survival and reproduction. Humans are the only creatures that can control their environment to such an extent that their range covers the globe, and beyond. Humans are also the only creatures that own things and maintain a notion of property. We are told that what makes us human is that we have self-awareness and can think and act out of that self-awareness. But with so much of the thinking and acting done by people directed toward the acquisition and protection of property, it often seems like property is what truly makes us human. And if property makes a human what he or she is, what does that say about someone who has little to no property, or little to no interest in obtaining it?

In the United States, we seem to live in a world of ever-proliferating choice and specificity. We ponder, make and “outgrow” our various choices, and this is how we supposedly express our identities and maintain control of our lives. Everything is a product, and products form the basis of what marketers and the media incessantly tell us we must have... a lifestyle. We cannot simply live, or live simply. Instead we must style ourselves as unique individuals endowed with attractive and differentiated characteristics that we express by purchasing and displaying products. In this consumption-centric culture, people also tend to view one another as products that are chosen or rejected based on their perceived utility.

By this warped standard the homeless and the very sick would seem to be nobodies, because buying products isn’t on their radar screen. In a society burdened by too many choices, the very poor and the very sick have few choices, which is the key to their inherent freedom and also why they frighten other people. Homelessness and sickness could never be called lifestyles or marketed as such. Instead, they give rise to deeply human states of need, longing, isolation, anger and sadness tinged with the warmth of human connections, sought and unsought. Pain is not, and never will be, a product; rather, it is the antidote to all products, the remedy for and the end of all illusory choices.

Let me spice these abstractions by now being honest enough to admit the obvious: that I’ve made, and will make, plenty of illusory choices. Let me confess that I am highly attached to my apartment and the things it contains, things I have carefully purchased, found or made and that I display with fastidious care. Let me say clearly that I am complicit in this hugely dysfunctional system that I also criticize. In this sense I am very impure, which is a perfect expression of my humanity, analogous to my pretending to be independent despite my obvious helplessness and need. My impurity perfects my criticism of myself, and this criticism may well be my only hope.

When I lived with my dependency both on and off the streets, when I fully experienced it, the physical sensation was one of exhaustion. Pain and need are exhausting, whether they arise from an endless night huddled on cardboard in a piss-perfumed alley or an endless night spent in a narcotic haze, unable even to writhe properly. On the streets I rarely slept, and never rested; recovering from surgery, sleeping was about all I could look forward to. In both cases I felt completely wrung out from the cumulative weight of my suffering. And that suffering included the keen awareness that there were many people suffering far more than I was at the time. My mind couldn’t simply hold my feelings – it needed context to process my experience safely through ideas, concepts and abstractions. This text is a perfect example of that same need, and yet another manifestation of my own suffering.

My recent experiences have reminded me that I don’t control anything important and that I really am quite helpless, whether I choose to acknowledge it or not. Superficially examined, such thoughts might seem horribly negative and self-defeating. But reality is neither positive nor negative, while the denial of reality that is practiced on such a massive scale by our society is far more self-defeating than a cold, hard look at the facts. Embracing my reality, I see that I am always vulnerable and recognize this vulnerability as a great asset. It is an asset because to be truly vulnerable is to extinguish all fear. By embracing our own vulnerability instead of denying it, by being who and what we really are, we actually become fear and, as Krishnamurti says, fear comes totally to an end. What could be more liberating than the end of all fear? What could be more wonderful than always being at home?