Monday, December 19, 2005

Speeding truck drivers put my life at risk

I am not a daily commuter to my home in Northwestern Virginia, only a weekly one. But I drive at off hours – often late a night. My car is a small 1986 Honda Civic hatchback,. Because maintenance is a priority for me, the engine still runs beautifully, but it would offer scant protection in a wreck.

Normally, I drive the speed limit or a few miler over and typically in the far right hand lane. Why drivers of heavy trucks feel privileged to hurtle by at eighty miles per hour or more, or, if they cannot pass for a minute, tailgate within twenty or thirty feet of my rear bumper is difficult for me to understand. Also, I wonder why the State Police officers who patrol the highways are not more rigorous in their enforcement of speed limits.

Certainly, I don’t begrudge these drivers the opportunity to early a living. But why do they feel this gives them license to put my life and the lives of others at risk?

How confidend are me of our Iraq Army allies?

I only heard it once. Perhaps White House spinmasters successfully intervened to delete the item from subsequent reports. It was a description of an event during Vice President Cheney’s brief Baghdad sojourn. Troops of the new Iraq Army were allowed to demonstrate their skills for the Vice President. The reporter noted, in a routine voice, that of course the troops were not permitted to carry arms. Their demonstration was conducted as if they had been carrying arms..

If I were a member of Vice President Cheney’s security detail I would have imposed the same restriction, though I think I might have skipped the demonstration. Iraq citizens are a proud people. They are – now – supposed to be living in a sovereign nation. I wonder how those soldiers felt when their were required to surrender their arms to their American “allies” and then parade before the Vice President.

What came to mind was a scene in the powerful film, The Last Emperor. The Chinese puppet emperor of Manchuoko (Manchuria) had visited Tokyo where he was feted by the Emperor Hirohito, a young man of roughly comparable age. But when he returned, the soldiers of his palace guard had all been disarmed by the Japanese..

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Remembering – and learning from – Senator Gene McCarthy

NPR’s “Weekend Edition” announced this morning this Senator Gene McCarthy had died yesterday at the age of 89. I was living in Minnesota and active politically when Senator McCarthy contested the New Hampshire Primary and, soon afterward, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection. 1968 was a tragic political year marked by the assassination of the candidate I supported, Robert Kennedy, by the Democratic Convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey and by the election of Richard Nixon. I spent election night in the suite of Minneapolis Mayor Art Naftalin at the Leamington Hotel where the democratic faithful gathered watching the returns. We did not learn the Humphrey had lost, when Nixon carried California by a slim margin, until the next morning.

Commentators are drawing parallels between 1968 and today. In both instances a President and his associates dissembled about the reasons for going to war, promised a quick victory and then failed to deliver. A major difference between then and now was the absence of a draft. A draft engaged college students in a way far different then their present level of engagement. Of course even the draft was not for everyone as the experiences of Presidents Clinton and Bush demonstrated.

Personally, however, the parallels between present circumstances and the latter years of President Nixon’s second term seem more compelling. Our President is increasingly isolated – he speaks only at military bases, before other carefully vetted audiences and at Republican fund raisers. Apparently, he is carefully screened from, or screens himself from, information that contradicts his world view. There are even parallels between the Valerie Palme affair and Watergate. In both cases the administration’s damage control strategy was cover up. Now, as in Watergate, the strategy appears to be unraveling.

Senator John McCain appears to be the McCarthyesque figure of our time. My gut reaction – and, apparently, that of many Americans – is that he is candid about his views and a man who can be trusted. He recently completed a book on integrity. I believe he takes integrity seriously. As in the early 1970s integrity appears to be scarce commodity in Washington. Even our Secretary of State, whose integrity I once respected, parses her words when questioned about whether the US does or does not sanction torture.

Democracy functions best when political leaders do not need to put words like “truth,” “torture” and “integrity” in quotation marks. We need more political leaders like Senators McCarthy and McCain. We need to be engaged, politically, and we need to be vigilant.

These are troubling times.

Life in a caring community

Some years ago, my friend, Donella Meadows (who died suddenly in 2002) founded an intentional co-housing community, Cobb Hill, in Vermont. You can check it out on the Internet. One of the current community members continued the practice of writing monthly “Dear Folks” letters which speak both about community life and the work of the Sustainability Institute, which Dana also founded and which is collocated at Cobb Hill. This month’s letter includes a thoughtful reflection on community life, written by a recent member, that I thought was worth sharing.

I used to think that happy people were brimming with joy and ecstatic all the time, my perceived notion of what it meant to live life fully. I wanted to be in that club and was convinced there was something wrong with me that I wasn’t joyful and ecstatic all the time. Then I met Ben who kept hammering away at an opposing view that says happiness is about joyful glimmers and special moments of peace that need to be savored in the context of the daily struggles and drudgery of life.

So I just want to share that on Saturday night, I had one of those amazing special revelations about how lucky I am to be living in this community and it’s stayed with me as this week plugs along…Yes we have a lot of differences to manage …and misunderstanding and incidents where we take turns being prickly. But this is an amazing community of passionate, caring, loving people and I feel so blessed to be among you.

I grew up in a family where no one ever said anything positive and life was all about being criticized for not being perfect. I want you to know how much I appreciate and value what you contribute to Cobb Hill and how much my life has been enriched, already, by being in your presence and a part of this community.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

An educational contrast: Sidwell Friends vs. DC Public Schools

Most mornings, I begin my day by listing to ‘Morning Edition’ on National Public Radio. As many readers know, American University manages the largest and most prosperous NPR outlet, WAMU, in the DC area. This is an efficient way to keep up with the news while doing such mundane things as laundry, ironing, kitchen clearly and my – fairly – regular regimen of weight lifting.

This morning, there were two contrasting stories – I don’t know if the juxtaposition was intentional. One was about Sidwell Friends, an elite private school in Washington D.C.’s ‘first world’ Ward 3, located in the upper northwest part of the city where incomes are high, and houses are too expensive for AU faculty members to afford. Sidwell Friends, it was reported, is building a new environmentally friendly building for its middle school students. The Headmaster and Assistant Headmaster described in glowing terms how this magnificent building would meet every student need. There would even be an ecologically advanced greenhouse where students would learn to grow food that would subsequently be served in the school cafeteria.

The other story was about deferred maintenance in the DC Public School System.. Many school buildings were built 75 years ago and there have been regular maintenance shortfalls. Some are – literally – falling apart. The reporter described how the city government (which is investing in a new baseball stadium) was struggling to set aside funds funds for the most basic maintenance.

It is a paradox. The typical Sidwell Friends student comes to class having already gifted with advantages that would enable them to succeed in almost any school environment. When they go home it will be to a setting with full bookshelves and other resoures and parents who are, if anything, too anxious to have them admitted to an elite university.

The typical DC public student has the same visions of a good life and the same aspirations for success. He are she may be equally intelligent – perhaps even more intelligent – than the Sidwell student. But how different are the opportunities our society is structured to provide for these young men and women. Perhaps our nation’s capital should try an experiment. Let the Sidwell Students attend a Ward 7 middle school for a year and let the Ward 7 students attend Sidwell. Both groups of students, their parents our political leaders would learn from the experience.

Or – better yet – make sure that every student in the District of Colombia enjoys the same privileges that many students of our elite schools - Sidwell, National Cathedral, Landon, Holton Arms, St. Albans and others - take for granted as their birthright.

"Good morning, this is Ron..."

Each morning, between 5:30 and 6:00 AM, I receive a morning ‘wake up’ call from the Assistant Director and morning shift manager of AU’s Audio and Video Systems and Services Group, which is part of the Center for Teaching Excellence. Occasionally, I have left for tennis or am sleeping in (particularly after nights with fire alarm evacuations) but sometimes Ron and I will have a short conversation, after he brief’s me on the days activities. For example this morning there were 181 jobs – classes requiring AV support – plus about fifteen special events, that began at 7:30 in the morning and continued until after 11:00 in the evening (Midnight movies.”

Ron leaves his home at about 4 AM each morning in order to arrive on campus by 5:15. This gives him time to organize the day’s work and to assign staff. If staff members are sick, he can bring in part-timers or fill in the gaps himself. Ron will normally remain on the job until after lunch, and sometimes later if there are meetings to attend or emergencies to be dealt with. He has been fulfilling these responsibilities for 25 years. This dedication makes him – truly – one of AU’s unsung heroes.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Iraq Tours of Duty are Too Short

Some weeks ago, in this blog, I commented on a radio interview of General David Petraus, who was overall responsible for training the Iraqi Army. His tour of duty was only eighteen months, though he did have previous service as a division commander. He has now been succeeded by a Lt. General Dietz (the spelling may be incorrect), who was interviewed about the readiness of Iraq’s army on NPR last week. Now that turning over responsibility to the Iraq security forces has become the centerpiece of President Bush’s victory program, programs to bring the force of a high level of readiness become critically important.

After reflecting on what the general said, I feel compelled to reiterate the point I made after General Pretraus’ interview. My years of experience in Sri Lanka, have sensitized me to how long in takes to even begin understanding a different culture than one’s own. Global South cultures, in particular, function on the basis of multiple personal networks. Because institutional mechanisms are much weaker, knowing whom you can trust, is critical. Your life may depend on it.

Personally, I do not support the precipitous withdrawal of US troops. Having made a commitment to stabilize the country, I believe we should honor that country. Were I to chose a timetable for, essentially, ending our intervention, I would estimate that five years is realistic. Politically infeasible thought this may be, I would mandate five years tours of duty for officers at least. And I would make it clear that a major part of the mission is to observe, to listen and to learn.

Roast Beef and Yorkshire “Pancake” – Fall Semester’s last dinner

We had our last dinner of the fall semester, this evening. There were several ‘regulars’ along with some newcomers. The roast beef was great and even the Yorkshire “pancake” – it failed to rise, tasted good.

Over the fall I have served about 100 meals with five different cuisines - Italian, Sri Lanka, Philippine, Moroccan and English represented.

I would not inflate these meals to the status of “events.” Rather they are very much what I envisioned when I first moved into Anderson – an opportunity for one or two faculty members and students to interact with no overarching agenda. Tonight we discussed problems that students have encountered working with the AU ‘bureaucracy’ and how to deal with; the administration of AU’s study abroad programs. We debated ways of preventing more fire alarm pulls on the South Side and a variety of other topics. A couple advanced students hung out after the rest had gone, while Maeve and I did the dishes and cleaned.

I still remember the outside of class interactions I had with faculty members when I was a Dartmouth undergraduate. My hope is that, in years ahead, dinners at John’s apartment will;. for some of my guests, be among their positive memories of AU.