Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day

In recent days I finished reading “War” by Sebastian Junger and coincidently watched “The Pacific,” the TV miniseries about our war against Japan. And I’m in the middle of re-watching “The Jewel in the Crown,” which is set in India during WW II. To top it off, yesterday I saw a story on TV about a soldier who had lost both arms and legs in an IED explosion in Iraq.

I did not consciously decide to focus on war-related media as a run-up to Memorial Day, but it happened – and now it is Memorial Day.

So instead of enjoying this day as an excuse to celebrate the start of summer, this year I am reminded that Memorial Day is about honoring those who have died in the service of their country. I invite you to join me and spend at least a few moments today to acknowledge and thank the men and women who have given their lives on our behalf.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Only in California!

In November we California voters will have a chance to approve a proposition that will legalize recreational marijuana use by adults. I don’t know what the odds are that the measure will pass, but certainly it’ll have my vote.

But that’s not my ‘Only in California’ moment for today. The distinction belongs to a news item I read this morning telling me that a major labor union is organizing medical cannabis workers in Oakland. This move is an obvious precursor to a statewide organizing effort that will occur if we pro-pot voters prevail.

The union in the forefront of this creative initiative is the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 in San Jose. They already have 26,000 members and are eager to embrace thousands more that may soon be working in the legal dope sector.

Full disclosure: Long ago when the world and I were young I was a member of the Retail Food Clerks Union in Alameda County. I worked for Lucky Stores as a checker. But that’s a tale for another day. Here the relevance is that grocery store employees dominate the grass organizers membership. So marijuana aside, I have an affinity for these toilers at the checkstand.

In this case, though, the possibilities go beyond the check out line. There is talk of unionizing the new cannabis-processing jobs that will come into existence. And what about the agriculture growing part of the business? And security guards where the goods are dispensed? And they are considering a job classification called ‘bud tender,’ a kind of pot sommelier who can cater to your particular needs and tastes. I love it!

So remember – if you live in California vote ‘yes’ on the Control and Tax Cannabis Initiative in November.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

John Lewis

The NY Times reports today that John Lewis has died. Not John Lewis the Congressman and civil rights leader – John Lewis the economist.

John headed up the US AID program in India in the 1960’s. I met and came to know John when I was Ambassador Chester Bowles’ assistant during those years. Before coming to India he had been a professor at Indiana U. and a member of the Council of Economic Advisors.

John Lewis was a very decent and good man. He argued that aid was a necessary component of foreign policy and that the rich had a moral responsibility to assist the poor. In that regard he was the perfect economic complement to Bowles’ view of the world.

In 1969, with the change of administration in Washington, we both headed home. John had been named dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs at Princeton. I was looking for a job. He asked me to accompany him to Princeton and be his assistant. I was honored and tempted by his offer, but chose to decline in favor of going to New York to join Ed Logue at the Urban Development Corporation. I felt I didn’t have the academic merit badges (specifically a PhD) to rise to the top in academia.

Even though I haven’t been in touch with John for many years, from time to time he’d come to mind. When that happened I always remembered him with fondness and respect. The world is a better place because John Lewis was here.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Message #5 - Get Out Of The Stands!

This is the fifth in a series of monthly messages.

It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and criticize people on the field playing the game. The only problem is that life is happening on the field, not in the stands.

Get Out of the Stands! Get in the game. Stop talking about what should be happening. Make something happen.

Are those squeals of outrage I hear from you? I can’t be talking about you, you say. I’m a doer not a talker, you say. I was captain of my pee-wee baseball team, you say. I know how to win the game.

OK, fine. We’ll do a little research and find out where you stand on the talk-versus-action continuum. Just answer the following questions honestly. Remember, no cheating allowed.

1. When a politician does something with which you totally disagree, you usually:

a. Tell your spouse about it

b. Get pissed off

c. Talk to people you know who feel the same way you do

d. Write/call the politicians’ office to voice your displeasure

2. When you see somebody toss a used candy wrapper on the sidewalk, you usually:

a. Tell him to pick it up

b. Pick it up

c. Mutter about it to yourself

d. Do none of the above

3. You hear about a new computer program that interests you, but to use it may challenge your technical ability. You’ll probably:

a. Go online and download it immediately

b. Say you’ll think about it

c. Decide it isn’t worth the trouble

d. Do more research on the subject

4. It’s your first time at a Karaoke bar. You:

a. Encourage your friends to get up and sing

b. Sink into your chair and hope no one notices you

c. Are one of the first in your group to get up and sing

d. Hate the whole scene

5. You’re in a traffic jam and are sure to be late for an important appointment. You:

a. Get angrier with each passing minute

b. Catch up on your text messages

c. Use your GPS to find a way around the problem

d. Sit back and let the process unfold

I could go on, but I think you get the message. Be careful, though. Don’t get the wrong message. The best way is not always the ‘take immediate action’ way. Think again about the traffic jam question. It’s possible that you can take a different route and get to your appointment on time. It’s also possible that this response will delay you even more.

Am I saying to sit back and do nothing? Maybe. The point is to confront whatever the issue is. Getting out of the stands and onto the field may be exactly what to do. Or – staying in the stands and from there finding a way to make something happen may be exactly what to do. As your kids would say, you’re the boss of you, so you decide.

Am I sending conflicting messages? No. I want you want to be in charge of your life. Being in charge has many different looks. Being passive and submissive is not one of them. Deciding to accept the reality of your traffic jam is not a passive act. You have taken a look at the facts and made a decision. You’ve taken charge.

If your thing is to criticize, being in the stands suits you. It’s easy to see what’s wrong from up there. “Jerk, ya shoulda passed the ball.” “Why’d ya swing at that pitch?” “You call yourself an actor?” “Vote for you? No way. I suggest you hold on to your day job.”

If you have nothing at stake, you get a free ride. You can criticize to your hearts content. You are not at risk. You are not being judged. You don’t have to be responsible.

Now ask yourself a question. When did your criticism make any difference? When did your complaining change anything? Did everything turn right because you said it was wrong? How much real satisfaction did you get being a critic or a complainer? Did it leave you with a sense of fulfillment? I don’t think so.

To be sure, in and of itself there’s nothing wrong with being in the stands. If you’re there as a fan, love the atmosphere, enjoy the beer and hot dogs and cheer for your team, no problem. You can come away satisfied and fulfilled, especially if your team wins. You’re the boss of you being in the stands.

Since San Francisco’s new ballpark opened in 2000, I’ve made sure I see about one game a month, usually six in a season. It’s a wonderful experience – every time. A beautiful setting, a friendly environment, and once in a while a team that wins more than it loses. Even when we lose, I leave feeling happy that I went.

I’m in the stands to enjoy the game. That’s why I go. There are always some vocal people whose purpose seems to be to express loud displeasure about what they don’t like. That doesn’t bother me. It’s part of the game. The loud ones aren’t under any illusion that the umpires or players down on the field will pay any attention to their caustic advice or comments. If they thought they could change anything by yelling I’d say go put on a uniform and walk your talk.

I don’t want you to think this is an abstract, theoretical conversation. Somebody, someplace, wastes her time deluding herself into thinking that her opinion about something will have an impact on it. That’s a fantasy. It’s your life we want to get at here. It’s about you being in the stands in your own game, when you should be captain of the team on the field.

You should be the author and star of your drama, not a bit player. If you don’t make it happen it’s not going to happen.

Get Out of the Stands!

Friday, May 21, 2010


In these years since I stopped working I’ve had the luxury of extra time to do what I choose. I’ve long been curious about a variety of things, so I’ve had a chance to satisfy (or at least begin satisfying) my curiosity. At the same time there are resources now available that were unheard of in earlier days.

Specifically, The Teaching Company and online websites are portals through which anyone can pass. A while ago I wrote about watching “Big History,” a course that covers pretty much everything from the Big Bang to the present. It was created and is delivered in 48 half-hour lectures by Prof. David Christian of San Diego State University.

Since then I’ve finished 36 lectures on the Classical Archaeology of Ancient Greece & Rome. The teacher was Prof. John Hale from the University of Louisville. We chose to do this course as prep for our upcoming trip to Greece. I liked it a lot, learned a lot, and Prof. Hale was an excellent teacher. So much so that we’ve started another course with him, the Greek and Persian Wars. Turns out we are familiar with some of the Persian side of the story as a result of our trip to Iran last year. And it’s more prep for Greece.

Already purchased from The Teaching Company and waiting in the wings are:

Art Across the Ages – 48 lectures delivered by Prof. Ori Soltes of Georgetown University

Museum Masterpieces – 24 lectures about the Metropolitan Museum collection, taught by Prof. Richard Brettell from the U. of Texas at Dallas

Exploring the Roots of Religion, another course taught by Prof. Hale.

I’ve also found a goldmine of online learning resources. Many universities, such as Yale, offer free education. There is iTunesU, YouTube Education, Academic Earth, and lots more. I intend to take advantage of them in the near future.

What interests you? I’m sure that whatever it is, you too can satisfy your curiosity if you’d like to.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Birth of Impressionism

Today I went to the deYoung Museum for a preview of Birth of Impressionism, an extraordinary exhibition that opens this week. It was, as advertised, a collection of masterpieces.

The Musee d’Orsay in Paris is being renovated. In a stroke of creative genius, rather than put the d’Orsay’s Impressionist collection in storage they decided to mount two shows, Birth of Impressionism and Van Gogh, Gaugin, Cezanne and Beyond, and make them available to a few select museums in different parts of the world. Madrid, Nashville, Canberra, and Tokyo will each have one of the shows. San Francisco is the only city that will host both shows.

This exhibition begins with a number of Salon paintings, the ‘in’ style favored by the art establishment before the upstart impressionists burst on the scene. I was simply underwhelmed by these baroque-ish, mystical, romantic classics. Is this all there is, I wondered. It wasn’t.

I came to another room and entered the world of Manet. And from there it was on to dozens of paintings by Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Degas, Cezanne. Simply wonderful. I have a preference for post-Impressionism over Impressionism and will likely be even more wowed by the second exhibition that will open in the fall, but without question what I saw today is more than worth a detour.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On My Mind Today


Th The news pundits are obsessing about elections in Kentucky, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania. Relax, people. Extrapolating these results into conclusions about the future of this great land of ours is a waste of time. The people are upset. They want to take it out on somebody. Any convenient target will do. That’s not all bad.

2. Violence and bombs are everywhere. Thailand. Somalia. Afghanistan. Russia. India. And in multiple locations in the U.S. of A. OK, right, I got it. Now tell me something I didn’t know.

3. The Rigpa Glance of the Day caught my eye this morning:

“If we have lived before,” I’m often asked, “why don’t we remember it?” But why should the fact that we cannot remember our past lives mean that we have never lived before? After all, experiences—of our childhood, or of yesterday, or even of what we were thinking an hour ago—were vivid as they occurred, but the memory of them has almost totally eroded, as though they had never taken place. If we cannot remember what we were doing or thinking last Monday, how on earth do we imagine it would be easy, or normal, to remember what we were doing in a previous lifetime. Voltaire: After all, it is no more surprising to be born twice than it is to be born once.

The Giants have lost seven in a row to the Padres. Geez!

The Supreme Court rules that minors can’t be sentenced to life without parole for a crime that is not homicide. How enlightened of them

It’s cold and snowing in Yosemite Valley this week. Very unusual for late May. I’ll be there next week. Please pray/meditate/light a candle/hope for warmer weather.

I’ve been reading “War” by Sebastian Junger. An unbelievably brutal story of the year he spent with a group of American soldiers near the Afghan/Pak border.

Noam Chomsky wasn’t allowed to enter the West Bank from Jordan yesterday. I expect the Israelis to act like assholes when they shouldn’t. But sometimes they outdo themselves.

What’s going on with all these knife and cleaver attacks in China? It’s too easy to say they are copycat crimes. Even the Chinese are saying they have to look more deeply into the phenomenon. I hope they fill us in if they come up with something. We usually do it with guns, but the result is the same.

The Champion’s League final is Saturday. Inter vs Bayern Munich. I want Inter to win, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Bayern has been awesome in recent weeks.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Silver Lining

Unintended consequences can be useful:

The oil spill in the Gulf has encouraged some otherwise timid politicians to oppose offshore drilling.

British election results have led to a coalition government that might have the courage to actually do something about the serious problems that confront Britain. We, of course, face some of the same problems. Is there a lesson here?

The outrage over sexual abuse of children by priests has finally forced the Pope to acknowledge what’s been going on and to admit publicly that it’s a bad thing. Too little too late, but better than nothing.

With the Cavs humiliated by the Celtics LeBron James will finally move to a better team. With all the attention on LeBron, no one has noticed that the story is more than the Cavs lost. The Celtics, after all, did the winning. I’m not a Celtics fan, but give ‘em their props, people.

The Euro is falling. The Euro is falling. Oh my, what will happen now? Well, for one thing our trip to Greece and Sicily this fall will cost less.

The low esteem in which government, politicians and congress are held will result in some incumbents losing their seats this year. What a shame!

Two obituaries:

After 85 years, the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” is being laid to rest. I haven’t read it in many decades, but I have a warm spot in my childhood heart for Annie, Daddy Warbucks and her dog Sandy. The silver lining is the memory.

TV’s “Law and Order” has been cancelled after a 20-year run. To be sure it was a formula show, but its key ingredient was good writing, a rare asset on television. No silver lining in this one. I would have preferred that it continue.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I frequently rant about religious doctrine and institutions. Why then am I soft on Buddhism?

A few days ago I spent two (enjoyable) hours watching a new movie called “The Buddha.” Every day I receive and read a “Glimpse of the Day” email from Rigpa, a Buddhist website. Three feet away from me is a framed leaf I plucked from the bodhi tree under which Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment. (Bodh Gaya, where I went in 1963, was a quiet out-of-the-way village in those days. Now it is overflowing with pilgrims and tourists.) Buddhist statues and artifacts are welcome guests in my house.

I’ve visited Sarnath where Buddha did his first teaching. I’ve had wonderful experiences in predominantly Buddhist countries – Bhutan, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka. So what is it about the way of the Buddhists that tempers my disdain?

It’s not Buddhist mythology. Their supernatural narrative is fun to read, but I don’t believe a word of it. The life demanded of Buddhist monks and nuns – chastity and poverty – has no appeal. Their formal practices – chanting, meditating, pilgrimages, offerings – aren’t for me. And yet, there is something that strikes a chord.

Here are a few candidates for my consideration:

Buddhism is not about a relationship with a supreme being, some deity who created it all and demands that we behave in certain ways. It’s about self-improvement. The Buddha offers teaching and a path, but it’s up to us to follow or not. As they say, we all are (or can be) Buddha.

There is not the formal hierarchy common in other religions. To be sure there are leaders – the Dalai Lama is the most obvious – but they don’t serve as a conduit to or a barrier between the average person and some divine being. And it’s not my way or the highway. There seems to be much more tolerance of other points of view.

Buddhists aren’t trying to organize or change the world as it is. They accept that we are all living in this reality, that we are all human and thus subject to human strength and weakness.

When I look beyond the surface and into the details of Buddhist philosophy and doctrine, it is overwhelming. There are countless texts, schools, disciples, teachers, ordinations, stages, practices, disciplines, paths, powers, deeds, precepts, truths, and finally Three Jewels. But even with all this stuff I am left with a gentle feeling that at the core of it all is basic humanity. That’s enough to keep me in the conversation.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

National Prayer Day

It won’t surprise you to read that I am happy a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. Judge Barbara Crabb said: “It goes beyond mere ‘acknowledgment’ of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function.”

My favorite charity, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and other atheists and agnostics brought a lawsuit that led to the ruling. Not surprisingly the religion lobby, led by Barack Obama, is going to appeal the decision.

I wish I were confident that Judge Crabb’s decision will not be overturned. It’s even possible that this thing will end up in the Supreme Court, which will give the conservative majority on the court a chance to reverse a 1971 decision that declared unconstitutional any government endorsement of religion. That would be really bad news.

While there are indicators that more and more Americans are moving into the anti- or non-religious minority, a majority feels otherwise. And recent rulings that keep “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on coins and currency are not hopeful harbingers of what’s to come from our enlightened judiciary.

So the prayer day victory may be short lived. Do you think I should say a prayer and ask for help?

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Cinco de Mayo

I was thinking this morning that Wednesday will be Cinco de Mayo. Then I thought, "OK, good. But what is Cinco de Mayo?"

A quick trip to Wikipedia gave me the answer, which I am charmed to share with you.

Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for "fifth of May") is a holiday celebrated in the United States and primarily limited to the state of Puebla in Mexico.[1][2] The holiday commemorates the Mexican army's unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, under the leadership of Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín.[3][4]

You’re welcome.