Sunday, September 28, 2008

A book about Obama you don't want to miss!

OK, so maybe you are fed up to here with election coverage. Maybe you fell asleep during the debates the other night. Maybe, if you are like me, you cringe at the idea that we have five more weeks to wait before we can walk into the polling place on Tuesday, November 4th, and cast our ballots.

But now comes a book -- short and very well written -- that can rev you up. I found it courtesy of my husband, political activist Richard Kirsch, who happened on it at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Called Obama's Challenge, the book has given me a view "forward." That is, it's helping me to see how, if Obama is elected, we really might have a U.S. President who can transform history.

Kuttner, a journalist and political observer with three decades experience, refers back to three transformational Presidents: Lincoln, FDR and LBJ. He explains how each man arrived in the White House at a momentous time in history, and how each seized the opportunity to make a real difference in governing. By demonstrating true leadership, and by taking courageous stands, each President redefined what was possible politically -- Lincoln in terms of slavery and abolition, FDR in terms of labor, and LBJ in terms of the civil rights movement.

So now comes Obama. Kuttner, founder of the liberal magazine The American Prospect, suggests that the current economic crisis is arguably "the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression." Bad news, for sure. But that also makes this another moment in history when the time is ripe for unequivically bold and decisive action. The crisis at hand demands bold policies that are above and beyond politics, "bolder measures than either the Congress or Obama himself currently thinks necessary or possible."

What Obama needs to do, Kuttner writes, is demonstrate the same style leadership that the other transformative Presidents displayed, "taking huge political risks on behalf of principles that the people came to deeply respect." Principles like justice and tolerance. To do this, Kuttner says, it isn't enough just to act like one more politician, calculating policies only after studying polls, reviewing the DC circuit gab, and testing pundit opinions.

No, a transformative President has vision (which Obama has shown) and wisdom (which Kuttner says Obama displayed in his first book, Dreams From My Father.) Once elected, Obama has to exert both, taking hold of the Presidency with decisiveness and direction, something we haven't seen from a President in a long while (well, actually, Kuttner says we saw it under Reagan, but Reagan used his transformative powers to achieve right-wing ideological gains.) By contrast, the Democratic Presidents of recent times -- Clinton, most notably -- failed to be transformative because they took the safe, centrist road.

One reason Obama wrested the nomination (against all odds) away from front-runner Hillary Clinton was that she was inextricably linked to the kind of "risk-averse mushy" centrist political positioning that voters are just fed up with. The mush of the center isn't going to take us where we need to go as a nation in these very troubled times.

Will Obama do better? Will he actually serve our nation at this critical juncture? Earlier in this election season, there were indications that like so many politicians before him, Obama was shifting into centrist quagmire. He was taking stances -- on government phone tapping, for one -- that deeply troubled progressives.

But Kuttner is willing to give Obama a break. He's willing to say that maybe Obamaa had to shift center slightly to ensure his nomination.

Once the Democratic nominee becomes the man in the White House, the question is clear: will Obama, as President, rise to the challenge, will he "rehabilitate the constructive role of government, both in the minds of the people and in what government delivers."

These are scary times, for sure. But this is an exciting moment in history. And a time when progressive change may be possible in the way government steers the economy, in the way we as a nation deliver health care, in the way we forge energy policy and reform education. Will Obama stick to his audacious visions and take us where we need to go, or close?

Like Obama's own books, this book is inspiring. It lays out the way one man could really make a difference in the history of our nation, and in the lives of millions of Americans. I salute Mr. Kuttner for a job, well done!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

How exactly did it happen?

By Claudia Ricci
img_0880.jpgRegular readers of this blog may recall my post of just a few weeks ago, when I explored the idea of introducing yoga into a college classroom. Early in August, I wrote about a conference I attended at Smith College. A couple dozen university professors had gathered to create new curricula that incorporate mindfulness practices, including meditation and yoga. At the end of that post (August 7th) I said I was exploring the idea of developing a class myself.

Who would have thought that exactly four weeks later, on September 4th, the class would become a reality?

What happened is still a bit of a mystery to me, and to the young woman with whom I am teaching.

The day I went to the Smith conference, I met educators from all across the U.S. and some from around the world, as far away as Thailand.

Curiously, there was one graduate student at the conference. That doctoral student -- Rebecca Ossorio -- happened to sit behind me at the morning lecture. That graduate student, amazingly, was from the very same University where I teach (SUNY Albany.) What are the odds of that coincidence, I asked myself at the time.

Rebecca and I had a nice conversation. We ended up at the same table for lunch. We sat with a professor of history from Vassar College (where Rebecca completed her undergraduate degree ten years ago.) Rebecca and this history professor explained to me how they were planning to team up in the Spring of '09 to teach a class together, one that incorporated yoga. Rebecca, who is a certified Kripalu instructor, would teach the yoga.

Well, so, after lunch, we exchanged phone numbers, and Rebecca and I promised each other that when we got back to SUNY Albany in September (where she is a doctoral student in education) we would get together to talk. She asked me if I'd be open to collaborating on a class together, and I said, "sure," thinking we'd probably get around to THAT class in 2011.

Three weeks later, as we started back to school, I got a call from Rebecca, and a few days later, she came to my office at SUNY. And what happened then is quite mystifying. I mean, if I had TRIED to do it, I'm sure it wouldn't have worked!

Rebecca sat in my office for about 45 minutes, during which time she told me that what she really wanted to do was work with young Latina women (she is herself part Cuban.) I told her that many of my students at SUNY (in the Educational Opportunities Program) are Latina.

And almost by magic, they started appearing at the door of my office. First came Natalie, a wonderfully talented student. Great writer, very bright, and highly stressed. Last year at this time, she was having so much difficulty concentrating on her studies that I gave her some extra "breathing exercises" (i.e. meditation) to do outside of class (she did them and LOVED them and wrote about them with great enthusiasm.)

So there in my office, quite unexpectedly, was Natalie, and Rebecca. The three of us started to talk about the kind of class Rebecca and I envisioned. One that included yoga and readings about mindfulness. And lots of journal writing. And a mid-term paper and final in which the student would explore her reactions to the practices.

Natalie, without blinking an eye, said, "that's the class I want to take THIS semester."

Rebecca and I looked at each other. "Well I suppose we could teach it as an indepedent study," I mused. Rebecca's eyes lit up. Natalie smiled.

Before long, a second student appeared. Betsaida, another A student whose only problem in college is her perfectionism. And her tendency to drive herself way past her limits. We told Betsaida what we were thinking about. And even though Betsaida was already signed up for six classes, she said, "this is the class I need!!! (Of course, it's not clear how she is going to handle a seventh class, and we are still trying to figure that one out.)

Meanwhile, though, I was dumbfounded. We had two students before we even had a class.

A third student, Yineska, arrived. She had gotten an A in my English 121Z a year ago. And she came to college at age 16 because she was so accelerated. She too has the over achieving, perfectionist gene.

To make a long story short, there were, oractically overnight, five or six Latina women wanting to sign up for the class. When I poked my head into the office of my supervisor, Maritza Martinez, to describe the class, I expected to have to sell the idea.

UH, no.

Maritza smiled. "How many students can you take?" she asked. Maritza knows all too well well the kinds of stress our EOP students face. EOP, or Educational Opportunities Program, caters to students who are economically disadvantaged. Often first-generation immigrants, or the daughters of those immigrants, these students come from financially-strapped families in inner city neighborhoods. They struggle to pay the rent and put food on the table. These students have great difficulty balancing academic pressures and their troubles at home.

Within a day or two, Rebecca and I had written a course description, selected our first readings, and set to work finding a space for the class (that's been our biggest challenge!) The first day of class we had no classroom, but the Unvierse delibered us a warm and brilliant morning, and so we gathered behind the Bio building in a beautiful garden space. On the cement steps leading down to the garden, someone had tattooed a beautiful face, a peaceful countenance that to my mind, kind of announced our class!img_0874.jpgimg_0874.jpg

Here we are in class on September 4th. It was a remarkable class. Rebecca is an amazing yoga teacher, and a wonderfully dynamic and thoughtful educator. We are delighted to be teaching this class together, to a group of very special college students, all of whom are highly enthusiastic about practicing yoga and meditation.

Like I said, it's a bit of a mystery -- no, make that a miracle !!!! -- that Rebecca and I are actually teaching this class barely a month after meeting each other. But then, when the Universe is ready for something, it is my experience that all the doors open. The seas part. And poof, the seeming improbable just

comes to be!!!!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A (half) day in court

By Camincha


Department 3. Superior Court. Redwood City, CA

The jury is deliberating a
a criminal trial.


Summer. It goes to your head.
Heat. It intoxicates you.
Women. Resemble flowers:
geraniums, roses, a daffodil over there.

9:15 a.m.

The police woman, she could
she might
out of Bazaar, Elle, Vogue.
Gucci shoes. Italian hand-knitted stockings.
Someone compliments her.
Merrily, she flaps her arms, showing off,
a scarecrow hit by heavy winds.

Genuine smile: Good morning.
You are the interpreter. No?

9:30 a.m.
The bailiff in Department 4,
a serious actor with a stellar role in the stage version
of NUTS, winks:
Beautiful day, isn’t it?

10:00 a.m.
The black defendant, young kid with baby face,
innocent-looking eyes.
Why is he carrying a leather briefcase?
Why is he
designer’s shoes and shirt? Why does he look like
aA washed-down version of the elegant
police woman?
He is accompanied by a relative.

10:30 a.m.
Police woman from Bazaar, Elle, Vogue:
Well, if this fiasco ever goes....
Broadening her smile, at least the victim is safe,
upstairs. My men are babysitting him.

11:00 a.m.
Hallway is empty. Silent. Inside,
a kid’s destiny is


Camincha is a pen name for a California-based writer based in Oakland.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

"Waking Up in New York City"

By Chloe Caldwell

The ominous 6/6/6 fell on a Tuesday, the day my older brother Trev decided to throw a party in its honor.

I arrived after everyone else. I’d been applying for jobs around Williamsburg. Everyone in my apartment but me was a Strand employee. The Strand being the bookstore of course.

Eugene was identifiable from my Mom’s tattoo description. I saw him smoking cigarettes with some guys on the fire escape. He looked approachable in his red plaid shirt and large silver belt buckle that read “ART,” so I climbed out the window to join him.

“Eugene, right? I’m Chloe, Trevor’s sister,” I said. He was straight away warm and kept making noises of affirmation while I spoke about how I’d just moved in from upstate and was looking for a job.

“Mm hm, Mm hm,” he repeated and repeated while I spoke. I thought it was a bit strange that his eyes were twitching and his head continued to nod and bob. This guy is super friendly, I thought to myself.

Trevor and my mom had both neglected to let me know that Eugene had a harsh case of Tourette’s syndrome. Months later I learned that he’d been doing a shit ton of cocaine that night, amplifying his ticks all the more. I was twenty. Just assumed he’d been agreeing with everything I said.

From the fire escape, I peered into the bathroom window and caught a colorful eyeful of Jack sitting on the toilet. He was wearing a psychedelic silk shirt that accented his rich scarlet hair. Freshly dyed. A girl was standing over him and I could tell from their motions they were arguing. When they came out, Jack crawled onto the fire escape in a hyper way.

“Heeeyyyyy Chloeee! When did you get here? Hey, how do you get your hair so curly like that?” he asked, tousling my hair and getting comfortable beside me.

Eugene and Jack broke down to me how The Strand operates. “They put the intellectuals like us in the decrepit basement. It’s like we’re overly smart and below good-looking, so they hide us down there,” Eugene said.

“Yeah, and everyone wants to fuck the Art Floor Girls,” Jack offered bluntly. “Anyone left gets put on the main floor—the generics,” he shrugged. I didn’t bring up that he’d pinned me for an Art Floor Girl, but it was on my mind.

Jack and I sat shoulder to shoulder on the fire escape in the black June night for a while. We passed his Tropicana bottle back and forth, taking turns swigging the vodka and cranberry juice. It was so acidic, each swallow sitting fiery in my stomach.

“I love your dangerous dark eyes.”

“My eyes are light green,” I corrected him.


“They’re dark to me. You’re dark to me,” he countered.

I was flattered.

The three-in-the-morning party peak hit, and then when five a.m neared, the festivities began to die. People started to head for the door, mumbling about work the next day or catching the train. I was fixing myself another drink when I heard Jack say, “Whose shoes are these?” I looked over my shoulder and he was near the shoe rack, fondling one of my black flats.

“Probably Chloe’s?” Trev shrugged.

“Figures. Fucking poser,” Jack snapped.

I froze with my arm halfway in the freezer. Earlier in the night he’d been pleasant. I was uncertain if this was friendly banter, or if he just thought I was a huge fraud. He intimidated the hell out of me.

Eugene, Jack, Trev and I sat on the wooden floor in the unlit living room, still and drinking steadily. Jack sang his notorious song about working at The Strand. He crooned quirky lyrics while strumming dramatic and minor chords on Trevor’s guitar.

Everyone knew all of the words and sang along:

Art Floor Girls, do you wanna discuss art?
We can laugh and sound smart, and fall in love.
Art floor girls, do you wanna discuss Goya?
Or does my greasy hair annoy ya?
Art Floor Girls.
I work in the basement—well what can you do…
But Art Floor Girls, Goddamn I can make it for YOUUUU!

My brother and Eugene had already left for The Strand when I woke up hung over in the morning. Jack had the day off and was asleep on the futon. I was still jobless.

I felt anxious, a bit afraid to be alone with Jack. I toyed around the bright white kitchen, pouring quarter full beer bottles down the drain and wiping the table down with a sponge. I picked up a Marlboro red pack off the table. Shook it. No cigs.

Trashed it.

I got bored after a while and went onto the fire escape to marinate in summer, which seemed to have arrived overnight. The crown of my head ached from last night’s liquor, and the unforgiving sunrays didn’t help, but it was just my fifth morning waking up in New York City—I was still so high on my new environment that everything felt good.

Jack rose a bit later and climbed out next to me while saying, “Morning, Little Sister.” His hard eyes were softer today. He handed me a cigarette and I noticed his nails bitten to the quick. It’s rare for me to see someone else’s nails chewed down as much as mine. His were close.

“Your hands look like mine,” I told him.

“I’m aware,” he said, reaching to light the Marlboro dangling from my mouth. He watched me inhale and exhale for a moment. “You try to make smoking look too broken in. Poser,” he nudged me and cracked a smile. I felt more comfortable with him now, sharing the nail biting neurosis.

The heat eventually pushed us back inside. Jack had misplaced his drugs at the party. He dug around for them for twenty minutes while I watched from the kitchen table.

“That’s like one hundred dollars worth of dope down the drain,” he stated, irritated.

“What do you keep it in?” I finally thought to ask him. I didn’t know his covert drug compartments yet, like I’d known those of my past drug cronies.

“An old Marlboro red cigarette pack.”

“Oh. Oops.”

I walked over to the trashcan and rummaged through to retrieve the Marlboro pack that I didn’t know had been holding a tiny bag of heroin. He smiled, his eyes mischievous. “You’re a con artist,” he smirked at me. I started arguing that I hadn’t done it on purpose and he interrupted: “Just like me,” he said, smug. “Just like me.”

Chloe Caldwell is a writer living in New York City. Her day job is at the Tina Tang Studio as a Customer Service Ambassador. “Waking up in New York City” is part of a longer piece of writing.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

One more medical mystery....

By Claudia Ricci
This is a story about a medical puzzle. It involves a very successful research physician and his father, a dentist who was also a hypnotist. It also involves the research physician’s wife, who is suffering from ovarian cancer.

I am writing this story because I am truly mystified by the doctor, who I will call David. I met him and his wife a few weeks ago at a dinner party. We got talking about medical issues. He did his training at Harvard, and my husband, who was at the table too, mentioned that I had been treated at Dana Farber, a Harvard-affiliated hospital, for Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

David asked me how long I had been healthy, and I told him five or six years and he gave me a big smile and a thumb’s up. As we proceeded to dine on barbecued chicken and string beans and orzo salad, David told one amazing story about his father the dentist.

Somewhere along the line, his father (I will call him Isaac) had learned about the power of hypnosis. Being an open-minded kind of guy, Isaac decided to try using hypnosis – instead of anesthesia – on his dental patients.

David himself experienced the astonishing power of hypnosis. Just before he went off to college, David needed his wisdom teeth removed. His father did the oral surgery, using only hypnosis. A day later, David had to leave for school. Isaac arranged for David to be seen in another city by a different dentist.

When the second dentist peered into David’s mouth, he was puzzled. “When did you say you had your wisdom teeth removed?” he asked David.

“Yesterday,” David answered.

“But that’s impossible,” the dentist said. The four holes in David’s mouth were virtually healed. A day later, David traveled on to another city, and a third dentist inspected his mouth. Same reaction: David’s recovery from oral surgery was absolutely astonishing.

David said he suffered no pain at all, until the third day, when suddenly he felt some twitches of discomfort. He called his father. Isaac told David that he wasn’t surprised that David felt pain after the third day.

“When I hypnotized you, I told you that you would have no pain on days one, two, and three,” Isaac told his son.

I was entranced by David’s story. But there’s more.

At age 75, Isaac needed open heart surgery for a bypass. At that point, his son was a physician. Isaac explained to David how to hypnotize him before he went into surgery. David did the hypnosis. Isaac had the heart surgery – they opened his chest at the breastbone with a long incision. They closed him up with a long row of metal staples.

Isaac sailed through the surgery. A day later, he reported no pain. Two days later, he told his son, and his doctor, that he felt he was healed enough to have the staples removed. Naturally, the doctor was at first reluctant, but when he went to remove the staples, they came out with ease. Indeed, a miracle had occurred.

This 75 year-old man with a mammoth breast incision had virtually healed in two days.
By now our dinner was over. I was completely mesmerized by David’s stories. And his explanation for why hypnosis had led to such rapid healing.

“I believe that the hypnosis gave the subconscious mind an instruction to release some kind of healing substance,” he said. I nodded in agreement, and suggested that it might be interesting to test it further.
But this is where the real mystery ensues.

At this point in the conversation, David’s wife, whom I will call Carla, leaned toward me and whispered that she has ovarian cancer. And that recently it had recurred for the third time.

I am always at a loss for what to say when someone confides information like this in me (it happens because of my health history.) I don’t really like to ask a person about their treatment, or their prognosis, but I did inquire very gently about how she was faring. Carla was vague but suggested that she was getting additional treatment. I nodded.

She turned the conversation back to me. Was I getting follow-up treatment for Hodgkins? No, I said, I had completed my treatment five years ago. But I told her I was trying to live as “meticulously” as I could. She wanted to know what that meant.

I told her that I focus on a good diet, low in sugar and fat, and big on greens and garlic, everything organic. I told her that I take barley powder at least twice daily (with my doctor’s encouragement) and a second fiber blend powder to “detoxify.” I told her that I meditate and do yoga daily, to try to stay positive, and to keep stress levels low.

I didn’t mention the chanting I do. Or the visualization. Or the Reiki I’ve had. Or the jin shin jitsu. Or the classes I take weekly in gnosticism.
I did say, however, that I spend a good deal of time in prayer of one kind or another.

Carla was intrigued. She wanted the internet address for the company from which I buy the barley powder. And she was astonished to learn that sugar was a no-no. She turned to her husband.

“David, did you know that I shouldn’t be eating sugar?” she demanded. He looked confused. “Why didn’t my oncologist tell me that?” she snapped.

I pointed out to her that none of the three oncologists I saw when I was treated for cancer ever said a word to me about avoiding sugar; nor did they ever attempt to offer any nutritional advice. They had no interest whatsoever in what I ate, only in what chemicals they were pumping into my veins.

At that point, with Carla’s prompting, I tried to explain to David why I do what I do to try to stay healthy. I told him that the more I read and learn about medicine, the more firmly I believe that the human body is, at heart, a complex energy system. And that the mind plays a critical role in controlling how the body fares.

This is where the most astonishing part comes in. After spending most of the evening explaining to me in great detail his father’s miraculous use of hypnosis both to stave off pain, AND to heal in miraculous ways, David told me that he didn’t buy into alternative medicine, not one bit. He dismissed it all in one sentence, saying that he was a scientist (he works as a pathologist) and that he is highly suspicious of people who adhere to unscientific notions with a kind of blind faith, or idolatry.

I don’t remember his exact words, but basically he said: “There is no scientific evidence for most of what the alternative practitioners play around with.”

Well, OK, I said, but at least you must agree with the idea that we should try to reduce stress.

Nope, he said. Why should we?

Why? I said. “Because high stress levels leave us more vulnerable to illness.”

“How do we know that for sure?” he asked. “We need stress in order to stimulate our fight or flight response.”

At that point, I just looked at him and thought, this man may be a brilliant Harvard-trained scientist and doctor but he is also….arrogant, and a little nuts. There was no point in trying to convince him that alternative therapies, and herbals, and other non-traditional remedies are worth a consideration.

Dessert was being served. I decided to get up from the table before cake arrived.

I wished his wife well. She seemed vaguely irritated at her husband, as if she had relied completely on his knowing what was best for her, and now, she was hearing that maybe there were other ideas that might also make sense.

I left that party thoroughly puzzled. And I still am. Here is a highly-intelligent doctor with so much first-hand experience showing him that the mind is capable of things way beyond what we currently understand. How, I keep asking, could he be so completely closed to trying to understand that power in the mind and the body?

What a sad thing. Because he is a powerful man. He sits on the admissions committee of a major medical school. He controls a very large research department at a big university. If he wanted to, he could do amazing stuff. He could advocate, among his colleagues, for a double-blind research study on hypnosis.

He could also try something else. Why not try hypnotizing his wife? Her condition is very serious. He could try planting a subconscious message in her mind, one that suggested to her body that it find a way of fighting off this newest round of ovarian cancer. It might not cure her, but considering the severity of her illness, it would be worth a go, no?

There are more and more doctors all the time who express their willingness to embrace alternative remedies. But we’ve still got such a long way to go. After an encounter like this one, I wonder if conventional practitioners and the medical research establishment will ever seriously embrace the many fascinating alternatives that give so many people so much health.