The Salt Marsh in Early Autumn

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Gladness of this Rhythm

Is it beyond thee to be glad with the gladness of this rhythm?
to be tossed and lost and broken in the whirl of this fearful joy?
     All things rush on, they stop not, they look not behind, no
power can hold them back, they rush on.
     Keeping steps with that restless, rapid music, seasons
come dancing and pass away -- colours, tunes, and perfumes
pour in endless cascades in the abounding joy that scatters
and gives up and dies every moment.

- Rabindranath Tagore

It's been an abounding joy, as Tagore says, to write this blog. I began it to experience writing only what interested me, after retiring from a career writing to spec. I was also interested in the discipline of writing every day, and in sparking conversations with some of the blog's patient and generous readers.

I'm ending the blog today so I can explore writing in a less critical and analytical voice. And I'm eagerly anticipating the resumption of individual email and in-person conversations with many of the people who have been watching the blog.

I want to express special thanks to my neighbor Jan, who supplied hundreds of marvelous photos to brighten up this blog. In addition to being a photographer, Jan is a healer, a teacher, an adventurer and a quiet, solid friend.

Finally, I'm filled with gratitude for you readers who have shared comments and ideas. I have learned a great deal, thanks to you.

Me, 1960

Friday, March 23, 2012


Is it so small a thing
To have enjoy’d the sun,
To have lived light in the spring,
To have loved, to have thought, to have done;
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes?

This wonderful piece of a longer poem by Matthew Arnold is perfect for a day that started up with a salmon-colored sky streaked over the marsh. Last night, the spring peepers started their chorus, today a fine friend is coming by to help me shovel up the winter's road sand from my front yard. The dark brown marsh feels neat, quiet, ready for what comes next.

This is post 199 on the blog, double what I had thought to produce. Over the weekend I'll be thinking about where to go from here with High Tide in the Salt Marsh. I'll let you know in post #200.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Apple's Taint

The trouble with tainted money is there 'taint enough.

- A favorite saying of fundraisers

There's been a lot of news in the past week about Apple's problem unloading its cash - country-sized sums earning the same minute interest I get in my credit union. And the media have been warm in their praise for Apple's putting some of the cash hoard into dividends and stock buybacks.

I kept waiting for someone to suggest that Apple drop a fraction, how about a billion to start, into its philanthropy. To be charitable, Apple's philanthropy over the years has barely reached mediocre. A company that would put obsessive care and thought into the design of a click wheel or a computer tone or an icon hasn't been ashamed of slapdash and barely thought out corporate giving.

Company head Steve Jobs reportedly had scant interest in giving money away. He was typical of many in his generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. I met with a room full of them in the 1980s to pitch their support of a group looking to protect free expression on the burgeoning Internet. They were a marvelous group of eccentrics and weirdos, I felt right at home. Many of them were fascinated by the idea of giving money to other people to do good. Philanthropy was as alien to them as program code was to me. They were uniformly good-natured, they listened politely, even asked some good questions. And not one of them gave a dime. They just couldn't imagine why they should.

There are plenty of exceptions to the lack of computer money in philanthropy, look at the Hewlett and Packard Foundations, and what about the incredible job Bill and Melinda Gates have done. Plenty of other corporations have long and honorable histories of giving money away: Levi Strauss, Patagonia, Dayton-Hudson, Tiffany - and the list goes on. I want to share three points with you about corporations giving away a tiny fraction of their profits in exchange for a tax break.

1. Does Intent Matter?

Many folks struggle with the problem of tainted money. There's an ancient debate about this - Hebrew law for example is explicit that it's wrong to use another's ill-gotten gains. But some people say, if the check doesn't bounce, I'm happy. They point out that much of the money we spend ourselves comes from sources that could be deconstructed from some point of view.

Quite a few people try to discern the intentions of donors. Companies like Patagonia have an emphasis on putting money back into the communities they serve. Others like Tiffany have well-thought out philanthropy to address issues raised by their business - in their case the extraction of minerals.

I'm not sure how well the double standard of individuals versus companies holds up if we're considering intent. With the exception of the odd lottery winner, it's safe to say that individual wealthy people are spending gains from corporations they or a family member founded. I've witnessed wonderful generosity and open hearts from individual philanthropists - as well as cynical, selfish and mean-spirited grant making. Since some corporations have more transparency than most private funders, one could argue for a better chance of glossing intent with company philanthropy.

Some seeking money from companies assume the company is using philanthropy to burnish its image and may be hoping people will ignore its faults. Supporting this impression, some corporate philanthropies are part of the company's public relations department, and they make no bones about the business justification of their giving. But the same is true of individual donors - some people give money to look important, impress their wealthy friends, or even counteract scandals.

For me, after decades in the funding business, I'd advise giving up trying to cut your moral cloth using the shears of intent. There's plenty of PR talent to fuzz or obscure intent. We have enough trouble seeing into our own hearts - how can we know what others really intend?

This brings us to a more empirical standard: what corporations actually do.

2. Do Actions Matter?

Now we're on firmer ground. I used to know some of the people who worked on the philanthropy of food giant Con Agra. It's quite possible the company doesn't make a single food product I eat or would serve. And they publicize their philanthropy in their public relations and advertising efforts. But for many years, Con Agra has spent millions of dollars feeding many thousands of poor kids around the US.

Does a well-fed guy like me have a right to say, this company doesn't make products I like, so those kids should go without that extra food in their bellies? I can't see it taking that position. Instead I wish Con Agra made healthier food. And I applaud their consistent and well-executed program providing tractor trailers of food to kids who need to eat.

The Gates foundation takes some positions I regret, but their philanthropy is literally world class - well-thought out and executed - and backed by enough financial wallop to change whole countries. As with Con Agra, who am I to stipulate that poor people in distant places shouldn't benefit from Gates' help, even if the Marty Foundation would have made some different choices?

As with so many ethical questions, each of us has to figure out where we draw the line. What about the Monsanto Foundation, would you take their money? Walmart has done some interesting granting - would you have them on your donor list? Just as some corporate givers use grants as public relations tools, so do grantees - thus seeking support from a company may rest partly on how their name will look in the non-profit's annual report.

3. Cold Turkey

The other day a friend sent me an email about a new group she wanted to start. A feature of her informal proposal was that it wouldn't be a tax-exempt non-profit. So often people starting up a public benefit organization reflexively seek tax exempt status so they can receive tax-deductible grants. There is a real price paid by organizations that do this - the cost of obtaining and maintaining tax-exempt status, the huge expense of dealing with the foundation world, and I think most important, the substantive alteration of the group's activities to fit within IRS requirements for tax exemption. Organizations that take tax empt funds just isn't allowed to do certain things, period.

And finally, most non-profits are owned by their funders. If your funders are two corporations and six foundations and a handful of wealthy people, you'll dance to their tune if you want to keep your doors open. And the donors will most likely represent a broad set of values emanating from a certain social class - imprinted upon your activities by the funding.

If a group is predominantly funded by a large number of small donors, individual quirks are less likely to register, and the group will have to reflect the concerns of its community, and make itself transparent and accountable.

Most people who give $25 a year the way I do to several do-good groups couldn't care less about a tax emption. I think there are many organizations that tie themselves into knots, hoping for the big score from a foundation or wealthy donor when they could cut their overhead, operate more democratically, and only have to interact with the government superstructure through the more modest requirements of corporate and charity registration.

Let's return to the Apple Corporation for a moment. Apple can continue on as an inconsequential donor, thumbing its nose at ideas of corporate responsibility, putting back into the community that supports it, or burnishing its image. Alternatively, it could go the way of Google's narcissistic philanthropy, "philanthropy" that's really a form of corporate R&D - what appears to be a cynical misuse of our traditions of charity for selfish gain.

Or, Apple could listen to its own hyperbolic rhetoric and do something amazing, transformative - even magic. It's very soon after the passing of Steve Jobs; we can still hope that Apple's corporate culture will evolve to permit a descent from Mount Olympus. The company could save its soul with an authentic and mutually-enriching partnership with the mere mortals grubbing in the dirt at the mountain's base, surfing the web on their iPads.....

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Political Beginner's Mind

Spring Photo by Jan

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

In 1978 I was invited to come by the Zen Center in San Francisco to meet the Roshi (Abbot), Richard Baker, known as Baker Roshi. I was met at the door by a young woman who met all my East Coast expectations of what a California Zen Buddhist looks like – serious, serene, long robe, gliding instead of walking. She silently guided me to the middle of an empty dim hall to await the holy man.

After a California minute (a half hour here in Maine), Baker Roshi blew into the room, all hearty and loud and extremely energetic – maybe like someone you’d meet at King Eider’s Pub on a Friday night over in Damariscotta. He gave a wave of his wrist behind his waist to dismiss the entourage at his heels, and without saying hello or asking how (or who) I was, he grabbed my arm and said, “Come on! Have a look at something incredible!

The Roshi propelled me into the basement and swept his hand like a circus impresario towards an alcove sheltering…….a huge Xerox machine.

Those big Xeroxes had a stack of bins down one side to collate, and looked like they could eat up an entire forest in minutes. 34 years ago, that machine was cutting edge. Anyway I don’t know what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t a major Zen priest brimming over at length about a copying machine. If the Roshi was playing the trickster to shake up my stereotypes, he succeeded. But as I got to know him, I think not. Anyway, after going on about his new copier, Baker went to storage in a different part of the basement and handed me a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, written by his teacher Suzuki Roshi, with a preface by the redoubtable Houston Smith, and a foreward by Baker himself.

Baker said, “This is what you need. I’ll have someone show you out.”

So I read the book. Many people like this book, because it’s understandable - it makes sense across varying beliefs. At intervals since that day, I’ve revisited parts of the book to gain a beginner’s mind about beginner’s mind: to try to see what I’m not seeing, to see the ordinary in my life as if for the first time.

Spring Photo by Jan

Always go with the workers.

- My Grandmother Rose’s last words to me

Leaving the rarified ether of Zen Buddhism aside for a moment, let’s think about the mud and pink slime of politics. As my grandmother's quote may tell you, I was raised by some people for whom solidarity was the first through fifth commandment. This went way further than labor ideology: for my mother’s side of the family, it came from a La Brea tar pit of fear about “them,” the dominant culture lying in wait, just biding its time for the fatal blow.

I was taught that the best if not only defense was to never ever betray your own. In a way, my mom and her kin hewed to the standard practice of people who are militant followers: find out what the party line is, and adhere to it entirely and exclusively; learn who are the proper people to support, and then work your liver and spleen out for them.

These days, our mainstream two-party governing has moved from nonfunctional to destructive and maybe hopeless. After years of arguing with third party advocates from the Socialists or the New Party, or with supporters of Nader or Perot or Anderson (remember him?), I’ve started all over again.

I’m not opposing the Democratic Party I’ve voted for in every election. I’m not looking for a different party or a third party or a maverick. With Suzuki’s help, after trying to have a clear-eyed look at my political self, I’m dropping the tactic of solidarity itself.

In organizing school – broadly defined – we learn about how to achieve social change through building movements. Structures of power arranged in hierarchies promote this model. Marxism, fascism – hey, maybe Zen Buddhism - use variants of movement building to achieve and deploy communal power.

So as I try to apply fresh eyes to my politics, I’m not jumping ship from Democrats to Independents; that would be like a guy with a drinking problem switching from bourbon to scotch. Instead, how about decreasing expectations of solidarity, walking away from traditional movement building, finding a different arrangement of power?

And so we come to Occupy Wall Street. An expert mind can learn a lot from novices, even youngsters who think solidarity is a band and ILGWU a text message. I’ve been watching the Occupy movement as it breaks the rules of solidarity and many of the laws of effective organizing, while shattering the “effective messaging” sound barrier. They’re doing some great things, and they’re really screwing up big time here and there. The one reliable constant is that they’re feverishly evolving.

The unruly Occupy multitude is100% ahead of me. With their crowd sourcing and flash mobs and radical, sometimes maddening experiments in democracy, they may offer the best hope for a path out of the mess that discipline, rules and solidarity have helped create.

The more I spin my mind back to the basics of power and politics, the less I know, and therefore the more happy I am to sit back on my heels and watch. Listen. Learn.

Baker Roshi would smile, knowing that by paying attention to his lesson of 34 years, I’m even starting to feel hope.

(My 10-Day-Old Future Pickles)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Honky Tonk Show

It was a week of turning the head in shame; of the horror of seeing politicians make the honorable institution of Congress into a honky tonk show; of listening to craven men lie and tattle, pushing each other in their efforts to lick the boots of their vilifiers; publicly trying to wreck the lives, not of strangers, mind you, but of men with whom they have worked and eaten and played, and made millions....

- Lillian Hellman, December, 1947

Hellman was writing about the House Un-American Activities Committee, but her words are contemporary. Hellman's outrage at cynical Congressional attacks on individual citizens connects with emerging issues 50 years later.

Tanzania Photos Courtesy of Gordon
(Either he has a great telephoto lens or he's really brave)

I had a tweet from @modernbioethics yesterday about a controversy in Australia advocating extension of their euthanasia laws. The case made in the Aussie article - meaning no offense - was pretty standard. It said we need euthanasia laws based on the suffering of people at the end of their life and also because of the ethical distinction between killing someone and helping them to take their own life when they're unable to do so alone. As usual, the Canberra piece cites Swiss assisted suicide laws (dating from the same era as Hellman's resistance of the witch hunt), and more recent euthanasia laws in other countries and US states as evidence of respectability. 

I learn things about my country when I see it portrayed by others. I so enjoy looking in the mirror held up by the Brit TV hit "Midsomer Murders." In that show, Americans always drive with the radio on too loud, they say ghastly things at just the wrong time, and they consistently dress inappropriately. That pretty much describes me, how about you?

In Australia, our country is seen as so conservative socially that the Canberra euthanasia article essentially says, sheesh - if two American states can pass euthanasia laws, we more sensible and progressive Aussies ought to. Since I recall a less enlightened era when Australia's laws banned the immigration of black people, I'm less convinced of intrinsic Aussie moral high ground.

I view myself as politically progressive, but a number of times I've been alone among political friends in opposing state-sanctioned euthanasia. Last year I wrote here about Not Dead Yet and others who oppose liberalizing assisted death laws. I don't take this position to join rightist religious zealots, nor those who like to demonize government for having power, nor the spoiled whiny white boys of libertarianism who don't want any rules (except the ones that they personally approve).

Courtesy of Gordon

Instead of fearing extremists, I'm worried about the rest of the cast members of the honky tonk show. The majority of Republicans and some Democrats - including Maine's Second District Rep. Mike Michaud and Sen. Collins - voted to roll back the gains women have made over the past 40 years resisting domination of their bodies and health by rich male politicians and their pals with extreme religious and social opinions. Challenging contraception or abortion rights all over again is more than a fad, it's a public flaunting of unaccountable unreasonable power. If women are worried, they're meant to be, and they should be.

This clicks like a key in a lock to demonstrate why we can't turn over the lives of people who may be least able to defend themselves to the political winds.

I accept the argument that anyone has a right to start another life - or end their own. But everything we do occurs in a social and political context, few decisions are really fully under our sole control. I went through about 6 years of helping Mary in her inescapable deterioration from ALS. Friends, family, medical people, government and private agencies and church people all tried to help and give support. As Mary became more helpless, assertions about "quality of life" from others picked up pace. Mild opinions became contentions, help from some became pressure. During this time Mary had a pit bull husband who was glad to be occasionally let off the leash. So Mary was protected, but not everyone has someone.

Law and custom use the statements a person has made about continuing their life as the basis for deciding if and when to withdraw life support. This is as it should be. I've made sure that my health care wishes are in writing at local hospitals and doctors, and that my kids know what I want. The system we have is a good one, and it works most of the time.

Courtesy of Gordon

What about when it doesn't? What about when a person has some money and relatives are greedy or impatient? What about changes of heart, revenge, jealousy, or procedural mistakes? I have a friend who works on wrongful convictions. I've learned form him that a complex system designed to provide justice sometimes doesn't - whether by accident or by design.

There are some issues that can't be left to the majority. Our country's laws try with mixed success to protect minorities. That's why President Kennedy sent troops to defend our country's civil rights laws, and why it was wrong to put marriage equality up to a vote in this state two years ago. Some people are by definition a minority, so putting anything concerning them up to a vote risks their rights. 

In the allocation of certain resources, society sometimes has to make choices. This is a hot topic now in health care. I'd like to suggest that when a possibly helpless person's life is involved, we need the most stringent standards possible to protect them from social excess or political theater by reckless politicians. Coming up with a system that permits all people to be helped at the end of their lives to the furthest extent of their personal belief is really hard to do.

Just as I'm impatient with the simplistic generalities of the reactionary right, I'm just as unhappy with the coalition of liberals and libertarians who advocate for sweeping euthanasia laws that would put small numbers of people in jeopardy. 

The reminder from Santorum and Limbaugh and others of the smug right is that even health and human rights we think we've protected can be put back into play. And the willingness of President Obama to sign the December 2011 Defense Appropriations bill that abrogated protections of Americans from arbitrary imprisonment by the US military shows that we can't be positive about our security even when our preferred politicians are in charge.

Most of the time, officials I meet are decent people trying to do a good job, and most of the time I feel trusting of the social and legal mechanisms they employ to protect me in matters like end of life care. But in deciding to end another person's life, even one innocent death would betray the euthanasia system, and if such laws became widespread here, we'd inevitably see the number of unmerited deaths rise. If that Australian article suggested that we have a conservative and unreliable social system in our country - well, they may have been right after all.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Palate Cleanser

I am grateful for the emails from people reading this blog. Some like what they read, some don't, others want to point out errors. By far what people talk about most is my pets. Especially Jimmy.

Tomorrow's blog starts out with Lillian Hellman and goes into a tricky human rights question. Today I'm sharing some photos I took yesterday trying to get a dog portrait after Jimmy's bath. I wanted to catch him in a rare moment of cleanliness. Maybe these photos will make the chorus of dog lovers happy.

Baths are necessary for Jimmy's health as well as his appearance. Being washed tires him out since he is trapped in the kitchen sink, torn between wanting to please and wanting to escape. He typically follows his bath with a nap, guarded by Francie - whose life's work is looking out for whoever lives here. The picture above is how it looked as I picked up my camera.

First Jimmy refused to wake up for his photo session.

Finally he opened his eyes, sort of:

And showed his gratitude to Francie by jumping on her:

Then the geese started a ruckus under the window:

Finally I got my picture of the pair before Jimmy could explore the dirt in the back yard:

Jimmy trotted off to in search of dust, leaving Francie to supervise:

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Pretty Good Politics

The marsh was bright pink and very still this morning, except for a fast-moving speckle of birds. It feels like a shift change at a big factory - a new group of birds and animals moving in as the old ones pick up their lunch pails and head north.

(Photo by Jan)
Being in this middle state - not yet warm, no longer cold - has me thinking about political strategies. Like many of my generation, I adopted the dialectic as a core strategy in politics. I thought my job was to discern the "most correct" position on a given issue and work ceaselessly, some might have said obnoxiously, for its adoption.

The reason to be on the far edge of politics, in this view, is to occupy the best expression of ideals. I didn't expect my actual views to prevail.

I learned the politics of polarization in high school, when we demonstrated and sat in and had other types of fun, to ban the bomb and promote civil rights. In 11th grade American History, Mr Huntoon skipped the textbook's chapter on Roosevelt and the New Deal, because he said it was an era of shame when communists ran the US. I was also made to stand in the hall a lot, for expressing certain views. That poor teacher had no idea how much I loved his punishment.

(Photo by Jan)

Like many hormone-laden 16 year olds, I thrived on confrontation and searched constantly for extremes. Since I was accustomed to occupying the left-most space, I had a comeuppance in August of 1963 during the March on Washington. I could see that as a suburban white boy I was far distant from the cutting edge of that movement. I became a full time peace activist. And like many people, I gradually shifted my political goals from "total revolution" to mainstream adoption of some policies I care about.

In electoral politics, you sometimes pull harder than is really necessary, like a couple in bed fighting over a blanket, in anticipation of the other person's yank. I always vote for the Democrat, because I am always confronted with the need to counterweight the Republican. A two-party system is really difficult to dislodge for this reason - when you vote for a third party candidate, be it Nader or Perot, you run the risk of handing over the result to people whose views are furthest from your own.

(Photo by Jan)
In other words, many of us learned that voting for the candidate who most closely reflects our values may insure that those who least reflect our values come into power. You could see that here in Maine in the 2010 governors race, when I  voted for the Democrat instead of the Independent because I thought she was genuinely a better candidate. Because many people made the same mistake of promoting ideology over function, our current Tea Party embarrassment of a governor was elected - with only 39% of the vote.

Angus King, the former non-partisan governor running for Senate here, is proposing a different political strategy than the blanket tugging we're used to. King sees the middle as the best and maybe only place for creating change. The idea is to occupy a position between the two poles and force them towards the equator. I grew up thinking the exact opposite. And look where that kind of thinking got us.

King's independence is different from our two phony moderate Senators, Snowe and Collins. They are members of one extreme, but flirt with the language of moderation to pull voters towards them. The sham moderation of our Senators is what led to Olympia Snowe's departure from politics, because these days the person trying to look like she's in the middle only makes people at both ends of the spectrum mad at her. This is also Mitt's problem - trying to be on the right and in the middle at the same time.

Angus King

Angus King is not entirely free from the language of coy pandering, but overall, he's behaving like an independent, not a moderate. Third party candidates who yip and nip at the cuffs of the functioning politicos are excluded from power by their allegiance to purity. Moderates try to please everyone and please no one.

An authentic independent like King pays voters the compliment of assuming that we are all grown ups. He doesn't seem to be trying to convince me that he perfectly represents what I care about. Instead, I think he's likely to create actual change instead of frothy rhetoric, and what he'll do will be pretty good.

Perhaps Angus King is not an anomaly, but the start of a trend. I agree with my Democratic Congresswoman about 98% of the time. I think I'll agree with Senator King about 50 or 60% of the time. In exchange for dismounting from my political high horse, I am being offered a strategy for change in government by a guy standing on the center of the blanket, pulling the Democrats and Republicans at the edges towards him. Maybe enough of us have lived with the desolation of political deadlock to rise to King's challenge and vote for someone that few of us love but all of us like.