Friday, May 26, 2006

Policing our borders with soldiers - Kent State, May 4, 1970, remembered

When I was a Case Western Reserve University faculty member and building computer models of oxygen depletion in Lake Erie, I traveled frequently to Kent State University in central Ohio. Faculty affiliated with Kent State’s Center for Urban Regionalism had done detailed research on the sediment chemistry of a small eutrophic lake and were happy to make data available that could help me estimate the numerical coefficients needed for models.

When taking a break from my research, I could walk to Blanket Hill, where a memorial was erected to commemorate the deaths of four Kent State student demonstrators who were shot and killed when National Guard solidiers opened fire. Most Americans of that era remember the searing photograph of 14 year old Mary Vecchio, kneeling over the body of one dead student. The photograph was circulated widely, became a NEWSWEEK cover and later won a Pulitzer prize.

The events of May 4th are carefully reviewed in an article by Sociologists Jerry M Lewis and Thomas R. Henseley ( ). I will not recapitulate them here. But I was reminded of my solitary walks on the Kent State campus when I heard of President Bush’s proposal to federalize National Guard Troops and assign them border patrol duties.

I am not entirely unfamiliar with military training, having spent three active duty summers as a Naval ROTC Midshipman and five years on active duty, during the early Viet-Nam era. Particularly relevant is our second summer, about a month of which was a mild approximation of US Marine Corps ‘boot’ training, complete with tough love physical training and discipline administered by a Marine Gunnery sergeant. In one exercise, the sergeant would should “are you gonna fight, fight, fight” and we would respond “we’re gonna fight, fight, fight.” He would continue: “are you gonna kill, kill, kill” and we would respond “we’re gonna kill, kill, kill.” My platoon of Dartmouth College undergraduate officer candidates didn’t take this all than seriously (except the few who chose to be Marine officers) but of course marine enlisted men do take hand to hand combat training and other combat exercises very seriously – or they do not survive basic training.

Not great preparation for facing down angry student war protesters – or mounting patrols along the US Mexican border, where dealing with illegal immigrants may require a more nuanced approach than categorizing them as “the enemy.”

I have not experienced National Guard training but I am pretty sure that the training and the discipline accompanying it is far less rigorous than even we “Ivy League” officer candidates experienced. Incidentally, I still remember how our gunnery sergeant introduced himself to us. He said: “I hate Ivy Leaguers.”

So when I hear assurances from President Bush about the constructive role National Guard troops will play in the conduct of border patrol operations, I am not reassured. And I remember the concerns that preoccupied me as I retraced the steps of the student protesters and National Guard troops on the Kent State campus.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

What does a faculty resident do?

What follows is a brief note I wrote last week to AU's Vice President for Campus Life about my work in Anderson Hall. Rarely do I think of this as "work"

In my capacity as Anderson Hall Faculty Resident, I now interact with substantial numbers of undergraduate students. 100 or more have had a meal in my apartment or joined me for late night study breaks, held during the final examination period. I am a prime candidate for ‘interviews’ when those are required for undergraduate term papers or other assignments. Propinquity and availability in late evening hours give me a comparative advantage in offering these services. Occasionally, I also comment on term papers, applications and other student projects.
• In over the course of the fall and spring semesters, I held ten dinners in my faculty resident apartment for faculty members and students. About 15 faculty members participated in the program. Spring semester participation averaged about 10 students per-dinner. Participation in the fall averaged about 15 students per dinner.
• I participated in New Student Orientations in both the fall and winter terms and participated in and spoke at other events organized by the Office of Campus Life and the Student Confederation. In particular, this provided an ‘academic face’ to the orientations for parents of our new students.
• I attended, and actively participated in the weekly staff meetings of the Anderson Hall Resident Director and Resident Assistants. Also, I participated in the interview process for the new Anderson Resident Director.
• During final examination periods in the Fall and Spring Semesters, I opened my apartment from 10:45 to about midnight on the evenings before final exams were scheduled. for coffee, snacks and conversation. More than 200 students dropped in for these events. Some were repeaters, of course.
• With production support from CTE staff members Justin Schauble, Nicole Haddock and Jason Diebler, I scripted, shot and produced a video: From Experiment to Program: Three Years as Anderson Hall’s Faculty Resident which was presented at the meeting of the Board of Trustees, Committee on Campus Life and subsequently distributed to all Board members.
• I held weekly office hours in my apartment from 5:30 PM until 9:30 PM or later each Tuesday evening. On average I saw two or three students each week.
• During “moving in” in the Fall Semester and “moving out” in the Spring, I served snacks, drinks and ice cream on the quad to parents and students, probably interacting with 150 or more parents at each event. .
• I continued to write my blog, and gave presentations on blogging at three on campus events. My blog was featured in an article on blogging in the Washington Post and in AU’s Annual Report.
• I continued to lighten the atmosphere at South Side Fire Alarm evaluations by distributing candy from a bowl decorated with a flashing red light. I not keep count of there events, but there were about ten in each semester. Including two on one memorable late winter night.
• I delivered or participated in floor programs on a variety of topics: “Finding a Great Mentor,” “What to do When you Have a Bad Teacher,” “Getting Help to Solve your Problems at AU” “Planning for Study Abroad”, “Learning about Conflict and Terrorism from Sri Lanka’s Civil Wars” to students in Anderson, Letts, Tenley Campus and McDowell.
• I was particularly pleased to be voted by the members of the Anderson Hall Resident Assistant staff as the “Most Respected Staff Member” and the staff member with the “Most Anderson Spirit" at our end of the year meeting, devoted to acknowledging each other's contributions.
Moving out day activities were, I think, a particular success this year. I began serving orange juice, coffee and donuts to parents in the quad about 8:30 and wrapped up with soft drinks and Klondike Bars about 12:00. At least one mom remembered the routine from the fall asking “where are the fresh strawberries?” when I first appeared. I assured her they were coming shortly. It was fun to chat again with parents whom I had met on their first visit to AU in the fall and with parents of students I have come to know well over two or three years.

A simple solution to the US nursing shortage: pay nurses more and improve their working conditions.

My public radio listening, the other morning, included health care policy analysts prating about the US nursing shortage. Nurses are an aging population, I was told. Retirees are not being replaced, in sufficient numbers, by new graduates.

Discussions like this always puzzle me, given that Americans and especially American political leaders so often extol ‘free market’ principles. That the supply of nurses could be increased by paying nurses more and improving their working conditions seemed not to occur to these analysts as a possible solution to the problem. In fairness, one did mention that nurses were leaving the positions where workloads of six or more patients made they feel they could not function either responsibly or with reasonable job satisfaction.

Recently, I accompanied my father on a day-long visit to a hospital ambulatory care center. The nursing care was excellent. When my father needed assistance, they responded quickly and cheerfully. The experience (At Chester County Hospital in Pennsylvania) was positive in every respect. I asked the nurses about their patient load. “Each of us is only assigned four patients,” one told me. “This means we are able to do the job that we were trained to do."

"Your doctor" - experiencing a false myth

I was called away last weekend, after completing ‘moving out’ activities to help my father with a medical problem. His periodic medical crises (as those of my mother before him) are always bringing new facets of
America’s dysfunctional health care system to my attention as well as some facets that seem to work well.
What struck me on this visit was the degree to which patient care is almost entirely the province of women, nurses and lower caste caregivers, assistant and aides.

To be sure, the aura of ‘your doctor,’ that high caste authority figure who is the ultimate medical arbiter, pervades the system. (“Your doctor has ordered this transfusion…” “your doctor will let us know when you can return home.” “your doctor hasn’t ordered these tests that he promised he would order.’) But this mythic figure – predominantly male, preoccupied and distant – is rarely seen. Indeed the oft repeated phrase "your doctor" (implying that there is a physician with whom the patient has some personal relationship) mostly describes a myth, not what is actually experienced. (Foucault would understand this social construct well).

This is an unacknowledged paradox of US medical care – perhaps of medical care in other systems as well. Virtually all important decisions must be made by “your doctor,” but the reality is that “your doctor” is, by and large, a distant figure who has little contact with you, is inaccessible, and may have been assigned by some random process over which you had no control.

I believe that many – perhaps most – young men and women entered medical school motivated by high ideals and a commitment to be of service. I grieve for many of the physicians I see, whose ideals and fundamental humanity seem to been eroded by the institutions within which they function (professors are not immune from this, incidentally).
‘Your doctor” like his patient is, all too often victimized by a institutional structures where myth and reality bear little reality to one another.

Thank God for nurses. For the most part, they care and they are there.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

How we create the world in our own image

I visited my Dentist’s office Tuesday morning to have a tooth filled. Previously, the office atmosphere had always been warm and welcoming. But Tuesday morning, I was greeted by a new office-manager/receptionist. Except I wasn’t ‘greeted’ – her manner both to me and on telephone conversations I overheard – was formal and abrupt. “Where is Joanne?, I asked.” “She doesn’t work here anymore,” was the brief, sullen response. I felt compelled to say, “That’s sad; I always enjoyed my visits here more because Jo Ann was so warm and welcoming.” No response from behind the desk.

Introspecting my own feelings, I realized that I was both getting angry and thinking up ways to strike back at this hostile intrusion on my life; someone whom I had just met. I did my best not to let one sullen, hostile individual be in control of how I viewed my day.

How is the world viewed from her vantage point? Probably as a place that is mostly populated by angry people who are confrontational, sarcastic or formally uncommunicative in their personal relations. That is what I was becoming, at least when I contemplated further interactions with her. What she fails to realize is that the world she perceives is mostly an artifact of her own creation. The creation process is a debilitating destructive feedback loop (and there is a parallel one that can be evoked by a cheerful manner.) Sullen behavior evokes anger, which evokes sullen behavior, even more.

Some years ago, in San Francisco, I attended a talk by an individual whom I could only describe as “luminous.” He spent a number of years in Mao Tse Tung’s prisons, mostly in solitary confinement. Themes of the talk were how he preserved his own sense of self-worth and transformed the relationship with his guards. He left us with an Edwin Markham verse that has been a favorite of mine, ever since.

He drew a circle and shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle and took him in.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Seasons of the Heart

This morning, I downloaded a three CD set of John Denver recordings from the iTunes store to my Mac, for further downloading to my iPod. The recordings were early, but I had heard most of the originals and also heard John sing the arrangements in concert.

I had not heard these songs recently, but remembered them well. They were my companions in the early 1980s when I was commuting bi-weekly to San Francisco, working on the project that become the book, Ending Hunger: An Idea Whose Time has Come. When in San Francisco, I stayed at the home of one of John and Annie Denver’s friends.

There are a series of songs that seem to chronicle John and Annie’s relationship, beginning with “Follow Me” and “Annie’s Song,” continuing through “I’m sorry” (presumably about one of John’s affairs, an almost inevitable product of being an attractive star on the road) and concluding with “Falling Out of Love” and the particularly poignant “Seasons of the Heart.” For me, “Seasons of the Heart” is the most descriptive song about falling out of love ever written. I decided to divorce my first wife after listening to “Seasons of the Heart” several times, driving home to our (then) farm in Western Maryland.

For many women, men and couples, the decade between 40 and 50 is a particularly intense time of reexamining relationships; often of affairs. My close friends and I – in California and on the East Coast – were living passionate fast paced lives, committed to causes and relationships; writing, speaking and traveling, overseas and from coast to coast in the US.

Unlike Annie Denver, we did not have someone who chronicled our lives, relationships and the seasons of our hearts in song and then presented them in concerts and recordings. I never knew Annie personally. But I should imagine she did not always view that sort of visibility as a blessing.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Death of a giant - John Kenneth Galbraith (age 97)

WAMU noted the death of economist John Kenneth Galbraith this morning at the age of 97. He began his career, after graduating from UC Berkley as head of President Roosevelt’s Office of Price Stabilization. In an interview, he said this was the most power he ever had. Later he was President Kennedy’s Ambassador to India. He was a celebrity economist whose fame was in part attributable to the fact that he wrote about economic issues in language that people could understand. Many of his colleagues in the economics profession were jealous of his celebrity status.

But what I found most compelling was that, in the words of the commentator, he kept writing. His last book was published in 2004, when Galbraith was 95.

Hm… I am 68 and my father is 95. My family seem to have resilient genes, though of course longevity is God’s hands not in ours. I published my first book in 1969, at age 31. Since then, there have only been five more, either edited, co-authored or single authored. I make no claim that my books or career is remotely comparable to Gaibraith’s, of course. But with luck, I could count on at least 20 more productive years, which should add up to at least four more books (or comparable output, depending on the best technologies for disseminating ideas).

For me, however, books – and articles too – are best written one at a time. It is about time to start thinking about the next one, while continuing to make sure that Paradise Poisoned reaches the widest possible audience.

Keeping up with my email - it's hopeless

Here is a – possibly apocryphal – story about the philosopher, John Stuart Mill. At a precocious age, he is said to have committed himself to mastering all of human knowledge by going to a library. He began by reading the books beginning with “A” with the goal of continuing to read until he reached “Z”. But he quickly discovered, to his great frustration, that books were being written faster than he could read them.

My email is like that. One afternoon last week, I blocked out two hours to “catch up on my email.” But at the end of the two hour period, I was further behind than when I had begun. The best I can manage is to scan for essentials. Often, no doubt, I miss things are important among the more than 75 – 100 emails I typically receive each day. But I do assume that my principal role at American University is not to just answer emails, however important they may be.

So if you want to reach me, for sure, pick up the phone, drop by my office, knock at my door in Anderson Hall, or grab me as I am walking across the quad. In the evening this seems, typically to be about 10 PM.

Any suggestions?