Wednesday, March 30, 2005

With the media swarm around Terri Schiavo, we’ve been hearing a lot about one of President Bush’s much-vaunted “core values”: his “Culture of Life.” There is a certain irony, to put it mildly, in a self-proclaimed born-again Christian who, in the years since he was saved, has presided over more executions than any governor in recent history, one of which was that of a severely retarded man. And who, as President, has launched a war based on dubious intelligence that has claimed over 1,500 American lives, and no fewer than 17,000 Iraqis’. And who has actively sought ways to undermine the Geneva Conventions. Whose administration condones and currently outsources the torture of detainees.

But it has a nice ring to it, this political catchphrase “The Culture of Life,” and that’s what matters, isn’t it? Bush and his people don’t inhabit our humdrum “reality-based” world. They live in that rarified faith-based realm, where neocons create reality for the rest of us by fiat. If Bush says it’s a Culture of Life, well then, it must be, right? And while we’re at it, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength, according to this new doubleplus goodthink.

Yes, there are some inconvenient facts to be dealt with, but faith can move mountains, so what’s a fact or two? Still for you reality-based readers, here’s a random few: there’s the racial disparity in health care coverage that, according to a recent study headed by former Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher, accounts for over 80,000 African American deaths per year.

Or take access to condoms in vulnerable populations. AIDS is on the rise again, but forget about the government funding education or prevention measures. Bush’s policy, in a nutshell: poor people should stop having sex, period. Problem solved. If the poor insist on pursuing their own culture of life, they’ll have to go head-to-head with Bush’s. The odds aren’t good. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2002 infant mortality increased in the U.S. for the first time since 1958, and now stands as 42nd highest in the world, behind Cuba and China.

And what about the natural environment necessary to sustain life? The U.S. ranked 45th—behind Russia and Botswana—in the World Economic Forum’s 2005 environmental sustainability index.

What would a real “Culture of Life” look like? For starters, it would recognize that education, affordable healthcare, and a living wage go a long way toward creating an environment where people can make informed choices about medical care and family planning rather than merely react to crises. And it would not abandon children once they were born. A political culture that shells out taxpayer dollars for half-baked propaganda, one that professes love of life while pursuing costly policies at home and abroad that result in death, that exploits the real misfortune of a family for its own gain is not a “Culture of Life”. It is a culture of lies.

Friday, March 25, 2005

It wouldn’t be Spring without the annual Gardener’s Gathering, which took place last Saturday at Northeastern University. Hundreds of hardy urban gardeners were there to usher it in, along with Mayor Menino, and a host of organizations dedicated to the greening of Boston and surrounding towns. One of the many things about Boston that is unique among American cities is the extensive network of community gardens, and the beauty, sustenance, and healthy, active lifestyle they promote.

The Mayor, a garden enthusiast himself, is doing his part with a new grant program called Small Changes (www.cityofboston.gov/parks/), that seeks to distribute $1 million over the next four years for urban beautification projects.

The Gathering, organized by Boston Natural Areas Network(www.bostonnatural.org), is in its thirtieth year, and is a testament to the spirit and tenacity of Boston’s urban gardeners. BNAN is an indispensable resource, and its practical and fun Master Urban Gardener (MUG) program touches on everything from organizing a community garden to dealing with pests, pH, and soil erosion.

The diversity of the urban gardening community was on display at the Gathering. All races, ages and classes were represented, often working side-by-side, sharing knowledge and experience. Too often city dwellers live in isolation from one another. Gardens, parks, and paths provide the infrastructure of a true community, and boost the quality of life immeasurably.

Gardeners are never content to stand around talking. They want to get their hands dirty. And what impresses me no end about these folks is that they really do walk the walk. They are committed to increasing the quality of life and health for everyone in our cities and suburbs, and they’re taking the initiative to make it happen.

Jennifer Hill, executive director of Groundwork Somerville(www.GroundworkSomerville.org), is a prime example. We had a nice, long chat about the Somerville Active Living by Design Partnership, which is working to (among other things) extend the network of bike trails around the city in the hopes that one day you’ll be able to get just about anywhere, including to work and back, safely and surely, by bike. There’s a lot of talk these days about obesity. Here’s a real and practical solution. Active living by design means making it easy for ordinary people to live actively by providing real alternatives to driving. Hill believes that living in the city really can be a walk in the park.

We Americans like to think we’re a hardy, independent lot, the heirs of Thoreau and Emerson. But the truth is we are growing ever more dependent—in terms of foreign debt and energy sources, obviously, but also in pretty much every part of our day-to-day lives. We’ve gone from a nation of small farmers to one of consumers in need of a constant fix. Hey, where’s my grande iced half caff organic triple espresso mocha soy latte? Agriculture, even on the gardening scale, teaches practical self-reliance. It’s spring. Go out and get your hands dirty.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Are boys the new girls? Now that First Lady Laura Bush has declared her interest in them on national television, and her husband has appointed her Gang Czarina, expect a torrent of TV specials and newspaper articles on the topic of boys, as if they’ve just arrived en mass from Mars. Harvard’s Dr. William Pollock has written a book, “Real Boys,” that is to the study of boys what Audubon’s “Birds of America” was to ornithology. The recent MSNBC documentary based on Pollock’s research is sure to be just the first of many in the boy blitzkrieg.

I applaud Mrs. Bush on her new hobby, even if there are shades of “Desperate Housewives” in it. I only hope the first lady’s involvement in the cause won’t turn a very real issue into just another political football. Politicizing it furthers the notion that championing boys is a reactionary stance, a sneaky attempt by social conservatives to undo the progress of the women’s movement. Truth is, both sides are guilty of bad faith when it comes to boys.

We’re not exactly on a sinking ship; we don’t have to choose either boys or girls to toss overboard. But it seems we can’t argue for girls without vilifying boys, and vice-versa. Last year Todd Harris Goldman’s popular book “Boys Are Stupid, Throw Rocks at Them” and merchandise bearing various boy-bashing slogans caused more eye-rolling than outrage (but just enough outrage to sell lots of tee-shirts and pjs). Grrrl Power advocates argued that society has said these things to women for generations, and it was never a problem until boys became the target. Others argued that Goldman’s slogans were just words, as if calling someone stupid was not as shattering in some ways as throwing rocks at them. No matter how you slice it, perpetuating the notion that your own self-worth should come at the expense of someone else’s, whatever their gender, is indefensible. Not to mention antisocial. Regardless of the sins of the father or mother, it’s wrong to visit them on our sons and daughters.

While there will always be those who see gender relations as a never-ending grudge match, the rest of us should focus our attention on creating positive learning and social environments based on mutual respect regardless of gender.

And if Mrs. Bush really wants to help, she should have a little chat with the husband, and bring him on board. He hasn’t been shy about throwing cash at pet causes. 150 billion dollars so far for his war. That amount would pay for over 2.6 million school teachers. It could insure over 93 million kids. We can’t even come up with the paltry funds to keep art, music, and after-school athletics available to all pupils in our public schools. These programs, in conjunction with active adult involvement in young people’s lives, are precisely what we need to channel all that wild energy and rampant teenage libido into positive, life-affirming, esteem-building activities for girls and boys alike.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

We all had favorite teachers who inspired us not only to study harder but to dream big. I had many, but a couple that stand out are Miss Fuller, my sophomore-year English teacher and Mr. Dougan, my high school wrestling coach. To these two I owe a passion for writing and fighting fair. For teenagers, a great teacher is that strangest of animals: an adult worthy of admiration, and emulation. If, as an adult, you’ve spent any time with teens, you know how impossibly exacting their standards are, and how few of us could pass muster. But when a connection is made, it’s deep and enduring. Because however they might pretend otherwise, kids want role-models. They want to believe.

My vote so far for the teacher of the year would have to go to Obain Auttouoman, hands down. Few teachers have inspired so many of their students as he has his, and my guess is that by year’s end the movie version of this whole deportation fiasco will be going into production with Jamie Foxx in the starring role. Mr. Auttouoman himself has star-power to spare. Everything about the man exudes love and intelligence. He has a generosity of spirit that is as undeniable as it is absolutely infectious.

And talk about a positive role model. He has been an inspiration since coming to America in 1992 from the Ivory Coast, where he had been twice jailed for his political views. He came to America, like so many before him, seeking the freedom and justice denied him in his native land. And in his adopted home he has been a model citizen, a dedicated public servant, and an inspiration to countless young people. If there is an ideal American, Mr. Auttouoman is it.

So it should really be no surprise that his threatened deportation due to an administrative cock-up has moved so many people to speak out, ultimately winning him a still-temporary reprieve. Now he’s got until 2007. Sen. John Kerry has submitted a bill intended to grant Mr. Auttouoman citizenship.

It’s that rarest of things in tough times: a happy ending. Well, almost. There is still something you can do not only to lend your voice to an unimpeachable cause, but to show Mr. Auttouoman and, perhaps more vitally, his students, that we as a society still value fighting the good fight. Go to fenway.boston.k12.ma.us, sign their petition, and get information on who to write or call to ensure that Mr. Attouoman will be able to remain in America, where he is doing so much good. Because there are a lot of things at stake here, not least the livelihood of an admirable public servant, and a great would-be and hopefully soon-to-be American citizen. There’s the lesson that when we believe, and dream big, we can make a difference, together.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Last Tuesday, the 22nd of February, my cousin J.’s body was found in a friend’s apartment in Brazil, Indiana. J. Had died from an apparent drug overdose. He was 26.

J. and I had lost touch in recent years. I come from a big family, and the way it usually goes is, you see each other at weddings and funerals. I was overseas for much of the nineties, and J. was struggling through school. He’d always had a tough time of it. He was the runt of the pack, a sensitive kid. In his teens he was a Holden Caulfield type. In families you take a lot for granted, and I always just assumed he would make it through all right. I know now I misjudged the depth of J.’s despair. We all did.

Despair is something everybody lives with, inseparable from our consciousness of mortality. It is part of what makes us human. In it are the seeds of both tragedy and hope. And yet, we seem to have lost the language to speak about it meaningfully. Now when we talk about what the philosopher Kierkagaard called “the sickness unto death”we speak in clinical terms. We isolate symptoms, search for causes, offer up a cure. In our mania for quantification we’ve come up with ways to measure despair, like the Porsolt Forced Swim Test (FST), which involves recording stress levels in drowning rats, or the multiple-choice Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) for drowning humans. Even the human condition falls under the rubric of inconveniences for which the pharmaceutical companies are constantly developing happy pills. But despite their best efforts suicide rates continue to rise, increasing 60% over the past 45 years, according to the Suicide Prevention Action Network (SPAN USA).

Certainly there are cases in which medication makes all the difference, but there is no pharmacological remedy for the sickness unto death, “the awful rowing toward God,” as Anne Sexton so poignantly put it. The human condition is terminal. How to go on living in the face of it? We all have our ways, but occasionally when one of us is lost, we find ourselves wondering how we might have planted that impossible seed of hope that lodges in the hardest of soil and grows in the blackest of nights.

The poet’s prescription? Matthew Arnold, in his poem Dover Beach offers this: “Ah, love, let us be true/To one another for the world which seems/To lie before us like a land of dreams,/So various, so beautiful, so new,/Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain...”

If there is solace at all in any of it, it’s that we’re all in it together. “Let us be true to one another.” The only remedy for this kind of pain, it seems, is the comfort of companionship along the road. Wherever it leads.