Sunday, March 30, 2014

Diverse Values


Every once in a while I get whapped again with the realization that people are so very different from one another. I know this to be true, but the evidence of it never ceases to astonish me, often stopping me in my tracks. A few weeks ago, my realtor came to the house and did a walk-through to give us pointers on what to do to prepare to put it on the market. She told us to clear out as much of our stuff as possible. “Pack up your things for your move and store them in your garage,” she said. “Take down all your pictures and put away personal items.” I asked her why and she explained that people need to see a blank slate so they can picture the empty house they would move into and think about what they would do to decorate.

I was floored. When I look at a house that I might want to buy, my imagination goes wild. I imagine all the things I might do with the space, whether or not it is already occupied. It makes absolutely no difference what is already in the house. Although, I sometimes get great ideas for decorating and use of space from seeing other people’s houses. But my realtor’s words reminded me that not everyone has an imagination. Other people can’t look at a space already inhabited and imagine what they would do with it instead. They need it empty to be creative. As someone with a wildly active imagination, I often forget that other people are not as lucky in that department as I.

In another direction on this topic, I love to see how the things I have used up, outgrown, moved past, and no longer need become treasures for other people. My cast-offs become someone else’s gem. Last week, with Sudi’s permission, I donated his full set of Cirque de Freak books to the middle school library, almost all of them in hard cover and in excellent condition. This was one of Sudi’s favorite series of creepy stories when he was in sixth grade. The librarian was ecstatic. Her set of the books is worn to shreds and she can’t keep it on the shelves. The students love it. She could not believe her good fortune to receive Sudi’s once-beloved books. Similarly, Sudi and I found a home for a giant box of his old skateboarding magazines at the local skateboard shop. The owner was happy to take them and said the teenagers who hang out in the shop after school every day would go crazy over them. There were many such moments during our yard sale a few weeks ago, when friends and strangers got excited over acquiring things I should have parted with long ago and had dis-attached myself from.

The fact that different families have such vastly different family values has crossed my mind several times today. It started when Tina posted a photograph of a super fire in the fireplace in their cabin at Big Bear Lake where she and Akili are enjoying the weekend getaway that Ron and I gave them as their Christmas present this year. I knew immediately that Akili had built the fire. He knows how to do it because he grew up in a house heated with a woodstove. I doubt that many mothers would cherish the thought that their sons know how to build a good fire. But I do. That’s a family value. I also love the fact that my children like to cook healthy and delicious homemade meals. Not everyone likes to cook. But I love it. And in my family cooking good food to share with others is a family value. Like myself, my children never cease to be amazed by people who don’t know how to cook. I don’t get why people would want to go out to eat all the time.

Today also found me reflecting on some of the events of the past week when Sudi and his girlfriend Leah came to stay with us while Leah was on spring break from college. One night while they were here they pulled a jigsaw puzzle down from the shelf and spent hours working on it together. I worked on it with them for a while before going to bed. When I woke up in the morning, it was completed. They had stayed up until the wee hours to finish it. I love that they did that, that they had fun doing a big jigsaw puzzle. Challenging our minds and being problem-solvers:  family values in our family.

On the last night that Sudi and Leah spent with us, the four of us played Harry Potter Clue, a new version of the traditional Clue Board Game. Maybe we seem like a bunch of geeks to you, but we had a blast playing Harry Potter Clue. Our family has fun playing board games and card games. Fortunately, both of my boys have fallen in love with women who also like to play games and do puzzles. Sudi and Leah went camping at the ocean one night while they were here and they spent many happy hours playing Uno by lamplight in a little tent while listening to the rain tapping on the tent-top. I am reminded of all the hours I spent playing the mind-puzzle card game Set with my children. Yael spends many an evening playing Scrabble on her phone with Ron, who has phone-app Scrabble games going with Akili and Tina too.

And oh how our family loves the ocean. None of us can live far from the beach. My daughter posts sweeping photos on Facebook from walks she takes in the L.A. area that afford her a view of the ocean. These are family values, and are different for different families. Some families have never even been to the ocean. For our family it was the special summer vacation we took together every year. I love it that my children go to the ocean for renewal and inspiration and pure delight. Akili proposed to Tina on the beach at the Pacific.

Once, many years ago, I was talking with a friend when something she said made it dawn on me that it was a very important value for her for her children to be smart. Really, really smart. And for them to demonstrate how smart they are by what they do in the world. Contemplating that idea, I realized that I wanted my children to be smart but more than that I wanted them to be creative, that I hold creativity above intelligence. I am proud that my children are smart, but I’m even prouder when they show how creative they are. Their creative pursuits delight me beyond measure. I have many other values, other priorities for what I want to see in my children, such as compassion and kindness, generosity and helpfulness, ingenuity and resourcefulness. Oh so many things. But creativity is a very high value in my pantheon of values. Now that my children are grown, and I am aging, it means a lot to me to see my values and my passions reflected back to me in the values and actions of my children.

What are your family values?

 Sudi and Leah with their finished puzzle.

 The lovely fire Akili built in the fireplace at the cabin at Big Bear Lake.

Yael on a Sunday walk in SoCal with the ocean in the distance.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Granted


It seems that I rarely talk about what I do for a living, what takes so many hours of my labor every week. People rarely ask me about my work and I think grant writing remains a bit mysterious to those outside the profession. I could say I spend my time begging for money, but it’s really not like that. I almost exclusively write large federal grants. So I write descriptions of initiatives that the federal government should be funding automatically, without the need to petition the government for this money. Communities are entitled to this money, these programs, so why must they beg? I never feel this more acutely than when I write grants for Native tribes. Seriously, why do Natives have to beg the U.S. government for money to buy uniforms and bulletproof vests for their tribal police officers? What is wrong with this picture?

Although it often makes me totally crazy, most of the time I love writing grants. The people with whom I work are doing exceptional and often heroic things in their communities. I feel privileged to work with them. My oldest and dearest “client” is the Camden City Schools in NJ. The women I work with in Camden are unsung heroines if ever there were any. That community is so distressed, so impoverished, so traumatized; and these women I know at the school district provide supportive services and programs to some of the most needy children and teens in the country. Seriously, what on earth could I be doing with my time that would be more useful than securing money for these women to provide support to pregnant and parenting teens in Camden so they stay in school, stay off drugs, and raise healthy children? The best part of my job is working with such inspiring people.

I enjoy helping my colleagues come up with exciting program designs by making suggestions for things they can do in their programming based on what I have seen other people doing in other communities. Because I have been writing grants for so many years, and because I have worked with people all over the country (in more than 25 states, I believe), I have learned about a wide range of strategies to address a lot of different community problems and issues. This gives me the knowledge to make a real contribution to the planning and framework of programs people build for their grant proposals. We sometimes get so excited coming up with a sensational program, my clients and I. The greatest reward is when the program actually gets funded.

Once, when I was an undergraduate in college, I wrote a script for a TV pilot. It sort of blew me away when I visited the set and saw them shooting. There was the red wagon I had written, sitting on the stage; something from out of my head made concrete and real. I wonder how J.K. Rowling feels when she sees the Harry Potter films. It’s wild to see something that came from out of your own imagination turn into something real that you can touch. That’s how I feel when one of my grants gets funded. I know that police officers will get real uniforms and bulletproof vests. Children will eat real nutritional food. Gardens will be planted. Traumatized women in jail will receive mental health services and perhaps recover, perhaps kick a years-long addiction to drugs, maybe even get their children back and raise them to be healthy and happy and well-versed in their own culture (rather than the culture of a foster family). Tribal youth will be flown to Portland to attend a Gathering of Nations youth leadership training. Maybe it will be one of the most important experiences of their life. Perhaps a turning point for them, a moment when they find themselves and decide what they will do when they grow up. I never actually see these results happen from my solitary work here in my tiny office, tapping away at my computer keys. But I know these results are out there. I have the satisfaction of knowing that I contributed to putting that in the world.

On Friday I wrapped up work on nearly a dozen grants for Northern Cali tribes. Some will support tribal police departments. Some will support tribal justice systems, including provision of probation officers (so people can be supervised in community service instead of imprisoned) and paying for more contractual judicial hours from a super-remarkable Yurok tribal member who is a judge. Some will create exciting programming for tribal youth who have limited access to culturally-specific activities to engage them and inspire them. One of the grants really will send tribal youth to Portland for leadership training. One will buy bulletproof vests for three tribal police officers who are presently unprotected.

I write and write, and then I keep my fingers crossed. And if all goes well, if luck is with us and if I did my job, then a few times a year I have those moments when I receive the phone call or the email and find out that one of the grants I wrote was funded. And I know that red wagon will appear on the stage. Someone’s life will change because of 25 pages that I wrote while sitting here in my fluffy slippers listening to my cats snoring on the couch. 


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Moving Experience


Maybe it would be good if people had to move every five years. Well, OK, not if they are living on ancestral land or something. Then they could have a reprieve. But moving is a valuable experience. Assessing our possessions, our sense of place, our attachment to things, what we retain, what we slough off, what gives us solace and comfort and lifts our spirits. What we need to see every day to keep us remembering. What we need to hold before us, focus on, keep in consciousness. These trappings of everyday life. Trappings, now there’s an apt word for this stuff.

During my college years, I moved every year, often more than once in a year. I could fit everything I owned into my car. I used to say that when my stove got dirty then I moved. Perhaps the only reason I have stayed put longer than a year since I met Ron is because he cleans the stove. The only place that I have ever really settled into was the Ranch. It was home. All the other places were just houses. And now I’m getting ready to abandon another one. This weekend I have started packing boxes in earnest and stashing them in the garage to get our house ready to “show.”

Over the past few months, we have gotten rid of a lot of our things. A couple of weeks ago we had a yard sale. This week I sold the children’s bunk beds to a young couple with a heap of small children. They didn’t mind the stickers my children had put all over the bunk bed rails. They said their children would love them. I was surprised at how sad it made me to see those bunk beds disappear. But I keep telling myself that I’m getting rid of objects and not the experiences they connote.

Before the yard sale, Ron and I went through a back corner of the garage, where he had haphazardly tossed a bunch of his stuff when we moved to this house, nearly six years ago. He had never looked at the stuff in these boxes or figured out whether or not to keep it, just threw it on the moving van at the Ranch and never looked back. He decided to part with a lot of junk, which I applaud, since he’s a hoarder. We had a good laugh when we discovered an unopened box labeled Dad’s Old Clothes – Garage Crap in Akili’s handwriting. When we opened the box we found Ron’s underwear that he had looked all over for on the first day in this house and never found. He had to run out to Penney’s and buy himself some more at the time. That Akili. Gotta love him.

Leaving the Ranch was a heart-wrenching move for me. So different from the move I am now preparing to make. I anticipate leaving this enormous house and look forward to finding a modest house that is more my style. Although I am keeping too many things, I am also divesting, and that’s a relief. (The Hospice Thrift Shop loves me.) But I recently read an article about things that creative people do and one of them is that we surround ourselves with objects of beauty, objects that inspire us. It’s almost as if the truth and beauty in these objects, these pieces of art and books and music and photographs and fabrics and natural found items, as if this rubs off on us by proximity. Becomes an extension of ourselves. Each one with a message or narrative that informs our being and our creative work.

Moving is also a nourishing creative activity since that upheaval, that change, provokes us to rethink and enter into transformation. Old things cycle out and new ones cycle in. Good for the soul. Even so, I confess that I don’t wish to move again anytime soon. It’s such an effort and I’m getting too old for this. Besides, I like to plant trees, and they don’t move from place to place. When I leave this house, the thing I will miss the most is my yellow peach tree. I planted it the year I moved here and it has grown spectacularly. Right now it’s in blossom with brilliant pink blooms. I will truly enjoy my last season of eating the fruit of it. And then, I’ll move.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Science and Religion


After I mentioned a grant writing project I started this week that explores the relationship between science and religion, I had an interesting conversation with Dad. Dad is a mathematician and an atheist. One of his best friends is a Quaker minister. Together Dad and his friend teach a class on science and religion in the senior community where they live. Actually, it’s probably more like they moderate a discussion on the topic since so many of the folks who live in this community are heavyweight thinkers (a lot of retired Princeton profs). Dad and his friend have read a great deal on the topic. Dad sent me to a Wikipedia page about science and religion. Today’s blog includes a lot of the information provided on that page. (If you want to read the whole Wikipediaentry, with bibliography, click here.)

Theologian, Anglican Priest, and Physicist John Polkinghome categorized the interactions between the disciplines of science and religion into the following:  1) conflict between the disciplines, 2) independence of the disciplines, 3) dialogue between the disciplines where they overlap, and 4) integration of both into one field.

Conflict

Neil deGrasse Tyson asserts that the central difference between the nature of science and religion is that the claims of science rely on experimental verification, while the claims of religions rely on faith, and these are irreconcilable approaches to knowing. Thus science and religion are incompatible as currently practiced and the debate of compatibility or incompatibility will never end. Philosopher/Physicist Victor J. Stenger states that science and religion are incompatible due to conflicts between approaches to knowing and the limited alternative plausible natural explanations for many phenomena, which are usually explained via religion. Other thinkers on the subject disagree and say there is no conflict, that religion explains things that are above the strict reason of science. And then there is the argument that science reveals opportunities to seek and find God in nature.

Independence

A more modern view, put forth by Stephen Jay Gould, who calls his view the "Non-Overlapping Magisteria" (great name, huh?), is that science and religion deal with fundamentally separate aspects of human experience and so, when each stays within its own domain, they can coexist peacefully. The National Academy of Science (NAS) also supports the notion that science and religion are independent of one another. The NAS says:   Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. Science and religion address aspects of human understanding in different ways.

This puts me in mind of a conversation I had with my cousin on Friday night. He told a story about his visit to sacred site in Hungary. While in a small room there, he heard a woman sobbing. The sobbing sounded like it was coming from inside the same room with him. But he was alone and there were no windows in the room, no closets. He was baffled. He asked a docent about it and she took him to the office and asked him to write a description of his experience in a big book. She said the room he had been in was haunted and that visitors sometimes heard the “spirit” sobbing. He read through the book and discovered many other similar stories from tourists who had visited the site. I suppose science could try to debunk the experience. Explain it. Expose a hoax. On the other hand, we must accept the possibility that there is no hoax. No “scientific” explanation. Then we are in the realm of spiritual explanations for phenomena in the world and the cosmos; for forces that surround us and permeate our beings, our lives.

Dialogue

There is apparently something called the “religion and science community,” which includes people who do not wholly identify with either the scientific or the religious community, but continue to talk about it. It is considered a third overlapping community of interested and involved scientists, priests, clergymen, theologians, and engaged nonprofessionals who take a point of view on the subject. The modern dialogue between religion and science is generally considered to be rooted in Ian Barbour’s 1966 book Issues in Science and Religion.

Integration

In the integrated view, scientific and theological perspectives coexist peacefully. Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, who spends a lot of time conversing with scientists, wrote in his book The Universe in a Single Atom:  My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation. If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims. From a Hindu perspective, modern science is a legitimate, but incomplete, step toward knowing and understanding reality. Hindus say that science only offers a limited view of reality, but all that it offers is correct (well, at least until science revises reality). Muslims consider the pursuit of scientific knowledge as a sacred task and believe that nature is depicted in the Qur'an as a compilation of signs pointing to the divine.

There you have Polkinghome’s four categories of relationship between science and religion. Buddhists would say that even if contradictory, both the scientific explanation and the religious explanation are true at the same time, but our limited human consciousness cannot comprehend how this can be. That is much in keeping with my belief that both a patterned universe, with a meaningful sequence of events, and a chaotic and fundamentally random collection of events in the universe exist at the same time, and that my human mind is incapable of understanding how this works. I believe there is a reason for things, an order to things, while at the same time many things just happen for no reason and with no purpose. I also believe that human consciousness can impact the course of the events in the universe in powerful and mysterious ways, and that this is proven by physics. This probably makes me a Buddhist, when all these years I have thought I was a Jew. Well, both at once, I suppose. A Buddhist priest once told me that being a good Jew made me a good Buddhist. (“Good” has a lot of connotations. More to ponder.)

I think Dad summed things up quite well, quite succinctly, when he said to me on the phone:  Science asks how and Religion asks why. Yup. That’s about the size of it.

Education, 1890, by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Tiffany Studios commissioned by Yale University (depicts Art, Science, Religion, and Music as angels)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Deconstruction of Thoughtless Remark about Ron’s Weird Lunch


The other day Ron made himself a strange combination of foods for lunch. His choice made me laugh and I outed him on Facebook with a description of the food combo and I asked, “Should I be worried?” The switchboard lit up. Friends and family from all over jumped in the fun, Ron responded, and we had a hilarious string going on FB in no time.

Hours after the initial post, while goofy posts continued to trickle in and make us laugh, an acquaintance of mine, who does not know Ron at all, posted this comment, “Because he’s diabetic, yes, you should be very worried. I want to loan you a video about health.” I was shocked by the inappropriateness, condescension, ignorance, and insult inherent in this comment. It made me so angry that I not only deleted the comment but unfriended the person who made it; I will hereafter refer to that person as X.

The comment pissed Ron off and he told me about it, which prompted me to find it and delete it. (I actually don’t spend much time on FB.) “Who is this person?” Ron asked. Exactly. How can someone so removed from the situation, who doesn’t even know Ron, make a judgment about his eating habits, body chemistry, and knowledge of a disease he has had for over 20 years? I am certain that Ron and I know much more about diabetes than X. Ron has other health issues as well that contribute to the total picture and X has no knowledge of these.

X also does not know that I am halfway through a college program to gain my certification as a holistic nutrition consultant. Although there is always much to learn about how our bodies work, I have learned a great deal already. I believe I know more about nutrition than X or that video. One thing that I have been taught in my program is the importance of recognizing the bio-individuality of body chemistry. Each person is different so there is no cookie-cutter approach to eating. This is why I am skeptical of proscribed “diets.” People who want to improve their health first need to pay attention to their own body and how it responds to different foods, medications, supplements, and activities. Trained health professionals of the highest caliber work in collaboration with people to figure out what will work best for that individual person.

Although the foods that Ron ate for lunch that day seemed like an odd combination to me, none of them were unhealthy. He ate organic chicken, an organic low-sodium mushroom soup made with a mineral-dense vegetable broth (that I made from scratch), an organic orange, and a peanut butter and jam sandwich on gluten-free bread with jam made from organic fruit and no sugar in it. X probably took exception to the chicken because X is a vegan who eats little more than fresh juiced fruits and vegetables. X is as skinny as a twig, in my opinion verging on anorexic. Although a raw food diet, juice fasting, and cleansing fruit/vegetable-dense diets are beneficial for short periods of time, I don’t believe they are adequate to sustain health over the long-term. They simply lack enough nutrients. And someone like Ron, who has thyroid issues, should not be eating raw cruciferous vegetables because they would negatively impact his thyroid. Translated, that means he needs to cook his broccoli, not juice it raw.

I am not opposed to a vegan diet; however, the vegan must learn a lot about nutrition to make it work because certain important vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients are frequently missing, and care must be taken to consciously consume them. Whatever food choices people make, the most important thing is to eat high quality food, meaning organic, unprocessed, unadulterated by toxins, preferably in season. Basically, eat nutritional food. A plant-based diet is best, but even though I prefer vegetarianism, I recognize that a good plant-based diet does not necessarily exclude high-quality meat or animal products.

I know why X posted that comment and why X is so eager to jump in and send that video. X has a home business selling a juicing system and a nutrient powder to put in smoothies. X is always on the lookout for opportunities to market these products and make a buck. I cannot think of a single conversation I have ever had with X when X did not manage to bring talk around to the topic of the juicing and the products X sells. This has been going on for years and I am not interested in what X sells or the juicing system. I have made this clear. But still X turns the conversation to try to sell me something whenever we meet. I’m burned out on the advertising.

The comment on FB and X’s whole modus operandi smacks of proselytizing. As a Jew, I am particularly averse to proselytizing. In the religious realm, it has gotten a lot of Jews tortured, murdered, thrown out of countries, and generally traumatized. It gets my hackles up when a self-righteous person is convinced that they have seen the one-and-only light and they know the one-and-only truth and every other path is dead wrong. There you have the sum total of religious persecution, racism, and complete cultural incompetence. It is the attitude of the privileged, which infuriates and repulses me. 

It surprises me that X’s FB comment got under my skin. Perhaps I should have just shrugged it off. Writing about it has helped me sort out why I found it so disturbing. The incident reminds me to think before I speak and cautions me to pay more attention to my own assumptions.